A year after the quasi-documentary Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese became the first nonfiction film to top one of my annual Best Of lists, Pete Docter’s latest stunner breaks ground as the pioneering animated film to earn that position. From the respectful Black-centric story (Pixar’s first!) to the gorgeous visuals to the profound existential questions and the best original score yet from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, it’s an all-around delight.
Once you come to terms with the fact that the new David Fincher film doesn’t look or feel like a David Fincher film, its distinct brilliance shines brighter than the digital cigarette burns inserted at the would-be reel changes. As Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, Gary Oldman delivers his fullest and most impressive performance to date, thanks in large part to the lively screenplay by Fincher’s late father, Jack, and a phenomenal female supporting cast led by Amanda Seyfried.
3. The Trial of the Chicago 7
Speaking of talented ensembles, there was none better in 2020 than the one writer/director Aaron Sorkin compiled for his thrilling and timely dramatization of the titular legal battle. Everyone brings his or her (mostly his) A-game, to the extent that picking a standout performance is next to impossible — a rare treat in these star vehicle times.
4. Da 5 Bloods
Spike Lee has his masterpieces (Malcolm X; Do the Right Thing; 25th Hour), but for the rest of his filmography, I find his ambitious, didactic, rambling features (e.g. He Got Game; Bamboozled) far more interesting than his buttoned-up but still very good works (e.g. Inside Man and BlacKkKlansman, the latter of which naturally won the filmmaker his first Oscar in 2019). Making excellent use Netflix’s deep pockets, Lee pays homage to the handful of great Vietnam War films and joins their ranks with this shaggy, entertaining and insightful look at the Black veteran experience and finally gives Delroy Lindo the kind of meaty central role he’s long deserved.
5. David Byrne’s American Utopia
Coup 53 is the year’s best, most imaginative and most important documentary, but Spike Lee’s concert film is such a blast of pure joy that its power cannot be denied. Watching the former Talking Heads frontman and his gifted musical collaborators command the Hudson Theatre stage with creative takes on songs from throughout his career makes one both momentarily forget about the troubles of 2020 and more actively engage with the critical issues that defined the tumultuous year that was.
Honorable mention: Coup 53, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Promising Young Woman, Mangrove, Bad Education.