Big ideas, small screens - Dann Gire's Top 10 movies of 2020

As the old saying goes, hindsight is 2020.

And movie fans are among the throngs of people who want to see 2020 in hindsight.

It was a year in which COVID-19 brought movie theaters to the brink of extinction, causing many of Hollywood's expensive tentpole pictures to flee from their 2020 release dates to the presumed economic safety of 2021.

It was a year in which the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences scrapped its longtime rule that films must have a theatrical release to qualify for the Oscars.

It was a year in which film critics had to forgo their customary press viewings of major motion pictures at state-of-the-art screening rooms and settle for watching them on computers or big-screen TVs.

If there can be a ray of cinematic sunshine during these gloomy times, it might be that many lesser-known movies that would otherwise fall under the radar of critics and the public now have a shot at being seen and appreciated.

With Steven Spielberg's "West Side Story," James Bond's "No Time to Die" and other prestige productions out of the running, film critics have a lot more room this year on their annual Top 10 lists.

Here's mine:

1. "Nomadland"

Few films possess the power to alter your world view, to rewire how you think and prioritize, and to increase your awareness of the tiny, miraculous details that surround you on the planet. Chloe Zhao's film does that and more by following a "houseless" woman (impeccably created by Francis McDormand) on a nomadic journey through the American West after losing everything during the recession. A cliché-free movie experience. (Not yet available for streaming.)

A band teacher (voiced by Jamie Foxx), left, longs for a shot at performing in the animated film "Soul." Courtesy of Disney-Pixar

2. "Soul"

Pixar's Pete Docter directs a smart, boldly imaginative, jubilant musical animated fantasy that places highly stylized human characters against a backdrop of eye-popping photo realistic settings - with stunning results. Plus, it's my favorite body-switch comedy of all time. After an affable middle-school band director named Joe (Jamie Foxx) takes a fatal plunge into a manhole, his spiritual essence is assigned to mentor a rebellious, thousands-of-years-old soul called 22. (On Disney+.)

3. "The Trial of the Chicago 7"

I covered a case before the infamous judge Julius Hoffman when I was a court reporter for the Daily Herald, and I can attest to how well Frank Langella nailed his narcissistic and unpredictable behavior on the bench. Aaron Sorkin writes and directs this highly dramatized work based on the insane political trial of seven men protesting during the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. (On Netflix.)

Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) presides over "The Trial of the Chicago 7." Courtesy of Netflix

4. "Minari"

The title refers to an all-purpose edible plant that grows like a weed and can be planted just about anywhere, a suitable metaphor in this delightfully comic and endearing domestic drama about a South Korean family that moves to a rural farm in Arkansas in hopes of starting a new life. Directed with incredible empathy and detail by Lee Isaac Chung with a stellar performance by actress Yuh-Jung Youn as the world's least grandmotherly grandmother. (Not yet available for streaming.)

Cassie (Carey Mulligan) plays a dangerous game in "Promising Young Woman." Courtesy of Focus Features

5. "Promising Young Woman"

Call it a feminist "Death Wish" set against the dark backdrop of America's rape culture. Emerald Fennell directs a disturbing, unapologetic character study of Cassie (played by Carey Mulligan), a young woman who pretends to be blind drunk at bars, just to see if her bait can attract any rats willing to take advantage of her. (Not yet available for streaming.)

6. "Da 5 Bloods"

Stellar performances by the great Delroy Lindo and the late Chadwick Boseman highlight Spike Lee's pensive action drama that follows four African American Vietnam War vets who return to Vietnam to find and reclaim the remains of their fallen squad leader. While there, they also look for hidden gold. The film is slightly marred by the actors appearing way too old and hefty as their younger selves. (On Netflix.)

A trumpet player (Chadwick Boseman) joins other musicians at a Chicago recording studio in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." Courtesy of Netflix

7. "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom"

George C. Wolfe's spare direction coupled with crisp editing and superbly composed camerawork make this a cinematic treat, even though it looks too much like a talky stage play adapted to the movies - which it is. Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman provide searing performances as members of a black band trying to cut a jazz record for a white-owned Chicago recording company in 1927. I predict an Oscar win for Boseman and at least a nomination for Davis. At least. (On Netflix.)

Stolen milk propels the story of "First Cow," starring John Magaro. Courtesy of A24 Films

8. "First Cow"

The illegal act of stealing fresh milk from someone else's cow - a crime punishable by death in the Old West - serves as an unusual plot device in Kelly Reichardt's quiet, languorously detailed account of life during the 1820s on the Oregon Trail. Two girls in the 1980s discover twin skeletons near a river, setting in motion a fascinating, minimally plotted story to explain how they got there. Starring John Magaro and Orion Lee. (On Showtime and on demand.)

9. "Borat Subsequent Movie Film: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan"

The parts that fall flat and flaccid are greatly outnumbered by moments of hilariously outrageous and cringeworthy stunts for which the overused term "jaw-dropping" was originally created. Borat (played again by an unshameable Sacha Baron Cohen) tries to win favor with the American government by offering his 15-year-old daughter (Maria Bakalova) as a child bride for whoever will take her. Mike Pence and Rudy Giuliani are among the nonactors duped by Jason Woliner's canny blend of "Candid Camera" and staged shtick in a take-no-prisoners satirical mockumentary. (On Amazon Prime.)

10. "The Invisible Man"

I try to reserve the 10th slot on my annual list for a quirky, offbeat genre film that might not normally get much top-10 love. This year, Lee Whannell's horror remake takes the honor. It's a slick, unpredictable suspense thriller with excellent, organic visual effects that make the titular character totally believable. Add Elisabeth Moss' galvanizing performance as a victim who won't take it anymore and you have a mini-classic on hand. (On HBO and available for purchase.)

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