Aaron’s Top 10 Films of 2021

2021 – we got back into the theater, y’all! For me, this year was a strong rebound from the roller coaster ride that was 2020. There were still some film delays to endure, but also a return of blockbusters to the big screen, and several studios experimented with a same day theater plus streaming release strategy which was fascinating to see play out. As was the case last year, Netflix, Disney Plus, Apple TV Plus, HBO Max, Amazon Prime Video, and more continue to battle for our subscription, and also like last year, something from each of them can be found in my list of favorites.

This year I watched more TV content than I have in a long time, including all of “Yellowstone” through Season 4 (a new all-time favorite show for me), five seasons (!?) of Marvel content, and a handful of limited or miniseries (the best of which in 2021 was probably “Midnight Mass” and my favorite overall was “Looking For Alaska”). As of this writing, I’ve still managed to see 200 new releases in this SFCS awards cycle (February-December), 24 of which are documentaries and 27 that are animated. I’ve seen so many amazing films and since it is always difficult for me to settle on a top ten, twenty, etc., I’ve decided to go against the norm and do things a little differently.

For this year, I am going to list my Top 12 because that is the group of films I feel strongest about. I am not going to rank them, but I will share which is my #1 film of the year. They instead will be presented in alphabetical order, as will my additional picks in the honorable mention section. Where possible, the film titles will all be linked to a corresponding Letterboxd entry and I will note where a film can be viewed if available on a streaming service. Honestly, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with the struggle of ranking and making lists for years now. It can be fun to do and argue about, but the reality is that picking just ten movies to highlight gives me anxiety sometimes and comes down to nitpicking and debating minor flaws in pieces of art that I absolutely love. I think all lists are about personal resonance, and in keeping it on brand, mine is a group of movies that made me feel the most and debating what is “better or worse” than something else on the list doesn’t bring me joy. This collection reflects my taste, what I appreciate in filmmaking for any number of reasons, and is full of movies that I think are worth seeing and probably enjoying yourself.

Oh, and I’ve also decided not to separate documentaries and feature films as I have in past years. So let’s get to it, shall we?


HONORABLE MENTIONS

(Film titles linked to Letterboxd entry where one exists)


THE TOP 12

CODA (Apple TV Plus) – The big winner at 2021’s Sundance Film Festival, the grand jury and audience got this right. I’m admittedly a mark for a great family-focused heartwarming high school coming-of-age story. Throw in a little romance, music, and a very genuinely depicted and unique conflict due to deafness – I WAS HOOKED. The film’s relationships are beautiful and every performance feels authentic. It may follow a predictable formula but that doesn’t detract one bit from how powerful and special its message is. And the final 10 minutes, where I’m just overwhelmed with emotion and happy tears, comes as a result of incredible storytelling and character work up to that point. It’s my favorite single part of a film in 2021. You’re either moved by it, or dead inside. No in-between.  ❤️ (Hear our discussion about “CODA” in Episode 290 here.)

 

DEAR EVAN HANSEN – This musical means a lot to me. The stage production has long been a favorite of mine and this adaptation does it justice. The casting of Ben Platt, who is clearly older than his character now, doesn’t bother me at all. Evan is Ben, and Ben is Evan. He understands this character in such a deep way that no one else really ever could. I’ve seen much criticism over the way his social anxiety and depression are depicted, yet multiple HS teacher friends have expressed just how realistic this portrayal is. Kids do act this way and things become stereotypes because they are common. Platt may look awkward when mumbling and fidgeting his way throughout the perfromance, but it perfectly captures the way so many people just don’t feel comfortable with themselves, especially around others. When it comes to emoting and singing, he absolutely cannot be beat and delivers the exceptional vocals as only he can.

I adore the fact that this story tackles teenage anxiety, depression, the need to be seen and feel like your voice matters. Is it a morally challenging tale? Absolutely! Evan’s actions aren’t something to be endorsed, but how the film handles this is beautiful. There are consequences for his actions and his positive impact on others cannot be denied and should not be dismissed. The film differs a bit from the musical and shows us that Evan, who made some huge mistakes, is worthy of forgiveness, redemption, happiness, and love. Most people in this world don’t live life in only black or white, and for an extremely sad and struggling character like Evan to go through this and come out on the other side better for it is a triumph. The additions to the end of the story and Connor’s beautiful new song are perfect.

The film also treats suicide realistically, with not everyone instantly being torn to pieces but sometimes wondering why they should be sad about losing someone who was terrible to them. We usually only see overwhelming sadness, but the tragedy of suicide can evoke a lot more varied reactions from people close to a lost one. And then there’s Evan’s relationship with his Mom and the underlying effects of his absent Dad that weigh heavy on his decision-making, too. All of these things are presented together so well, in my opinion, to make an entertaining yet touching movie that isn’t so morose it loses the audience completely and ruins its opportunity to provoke empathy (for everyone).

The music is simply amazing and a big part of why the original production is so beloved. Pasek and Paul write simple lyrics that are so relatable and their melodies are either poppy and catchy or just incredibly soulful and beautiful. With an excellent supporting cast and wonderful direction, I was swept away by Stephen Chbosky’s lovely adaptation that is every bit as good as I’d hoped for. (Hear our discussion about “Dear Evan Hansen” in Episode 293 here.)

 

DUNE – “The mystery of life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” Every bit the epic feeling and faithful adaptation that I was hoping for from this. “Dune” is a story that may have its focus mostly hitched onto the character of Paul but it is universal in nature. Its scope is so large, dealing with politics and religion and mysticism and economics all within a fascinating futuristic setting. Denis Villeneuve understands this and tells the story the only way that can work in such a short runtime, with incredible visual design and a perfectly accenting Zimmer score helping to drive the emotion and support a lack of character exposition. The film only adapts half of the book but still has to cover a whole lot of ground and it does this with expertly refined character development and a quickened pace. The awe-inducing nature of the production was awesome as we moved from one major event to another, with just the right amount of detail given to always provide context, depth, and hints at what may be to come. The cast is made up of A-listers and it absolutely shows. Even smaller parts are elevated by considerable talent and I loved every single performance so much. There’s action, heart, intrigue, and a whole lot of mystery. I was breathless when it ended and dying to see the culminating part two immediately! This is the kind of science fiction that I deeply love and an example of why we go to the movies, to be transported and fully immersed into worlds that are not our own. “Dune” went above my already lofty expectations and is one of the most satisfying blockbusters of the past few years. (Hear our discussion about “Dune” in Episode 296 here.)

 

FLEE – “Flee” is a staggering, harrowing, one-of-a-kind work. When you break it down, it’s a rather simple retelling of one man’s life as an Afghan refugee fleeing his war-torn country while simultaneously coming to terms with his own homosexuality, all relayed through personal interviews. But the unique presentation of this material is unlike anything I’ve seen before. Using a blend of powerful archival footage and absolutely beautiful mixture of animation styles which visualize Amin’s life events and feelings, this documentary is able to emotionally convey his terrifying, tragic, and oh so difficult experiences as he fully opens himself up for the first time and comes to terms with his own history and present. It never feels sensationalized either and yet really hammers home the horrors that so many people must endure simply because of where and/or how they’re born. I couldn’t help but immediately begin to reflect on my own blessings, something I think myself and many others do not think of nearly enough. I’m so grateful for the incredible filmmaking team who used their gifts to shine a light on this story in such a respectful, tender, and masterfully cinematic way. And I’m especially thankful to Amin, for bearing his soul and sharing himself with all of us, so that we may better understand and perhaps even influence the world for the better because of it.

 

THE MAP OF TINY PERFECT THINGS (Amazon Prime Video) – Time loops and young adult romance. It’s basically “you had me at hello”. This is full of intelligent, witty, snappy dialogue, tropes I love, and extremely enjoyable and authentic chemistry between two leads who aren’t quite stars yet and thus can disappear into these roles easily. I had a blast watching the characters try to figure out what makes the perfect day, explore the math and science of their situation, and then make the best of it by forming a connection with another person that helps break them out of a feeling of isolation. The filmmaking doesn’t get in its own way, keeping it simple with no special effects to speak of and strong focus on Mark and Margaret instead of trying to introduce side characters and subplots. The titular map ends up being sickly sweet, and I am 100% moved by emotional gestures like it and love the reminder message for us to enjoy the little things and moments of our lives that we tend to pass over without giving a thought. This is the kind of rom-com that I’m always hoping to find and I’ll be championing it for years to come so that people don’t let it slip under the radar and miss out.

 

THE MITCHELLS VS. THE MACHINES (Netflix) – This movie is the passion project of first-time director Mike Rianda and it shows. The film, following in the footsteps of producers Lord & Miller’s own previous animated work, is a visual blast and has grown on me with each subsequent viewing throughout the year. It’s a joyful watch full of action and hilarity. I fell for its short film within a film sections, the lively, vibrant, colorful animation and art style, and most importantly how the emotional core of the story (the family’s relationship and how they fix what’s broken) affected me. Having my own daughter who has just left the home for college as Katie is doing in the movie definitely made this hit a little bit harder, too. The story isn’t overly complicated, features some fun pop culture references, and serves as a commentary on our culture’s obsession with technology and gadgets. This one is fun for the entire family and my favorite Western animated film of the year, beating out numerous strong competitors from Disney and Pixar. (Hear our discussion about “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” in Episode 299 here.)

 

NINE DAYS – This is the kind of movie that leaves you at a loss for words. There is something so transcendent about this high-concept fantasy drama that is very much like the live-action companion piece to Pixar’s “Soul” (my #1 film from 2020). I was moved in a way that I have not often felt and challenged to appreciate the awe-inspiring reality of life more deeply on a moment to moment basis than most of us ever do. Slow down. Stop aiming for perfection. Let go of a need to have all the answers. Find the value in everyone and every point of view. Life isn’t this or that. Life is everything.

Edson Oda has crafted such a profound and imaginative debut feature film full of detail that begs exploration of during future viewings. It announces his talent to the world and instantly cements any future projects he does with “must-watch” status. Winston Duke gives a magical, mysterious, spiritual, and utterly transformative performance as a “formerly alive person” who now tests young souls and decides which will have the opportunity to be born and which will not. He is extraordinary and an immaculate recital of a Walt Whitman poem near the end of the film is a career-defining moment for him. The entire cast – Zazie Beetz, Benedict Wong, Tony Hale, and more are every bit his equal, all of them capturing the important essence of their character personalities perfectly. And all of this is presented to us in gorgeous minimalistic nature backed by a beautiful, emotional score by composer Antonio Pinto. Stunning is an understatement for the kind of experience that “Nine Days” is. It’s truly the type of film that I watch hundreds of new movies every year just hoping to discover. The kind that leaves you with nothing to do but just shake your head in wonder and admiration and say “Wow”.

 

THE RESCUE (Disney Plus) – It’s truly incredible what the human race can do when people come together with optimism and relentless determination to put the well-being of others above their own. “The Rescue” tells a story that is every bit as thrilling as the most suspenseful natural disaster movie, but is in fact one that is ripped straight from the 2018 headlines. I certainly thought that I knew what happened going into this completely enthralling doc, but it turns out that I had no idea at all.

The amount of obstacles faced by a collection of Thai Navy SEALS, their government, American military advisors, deep cave divers, medical specialists, thousands of volunteers, and more is staggering. But once again, filmmaking duo Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin capture the events that unfolded in gripping fashion, while never losing touch of the humanity of it all and the poignant nature of the mental and emotional struggles faced along the way in addition to the physical and environmental ones. This doc is a mix of archival cave diving footage brilliantly merged with recreations to the point that you often don’t even know the difference, plenty of on-location planning footage, and interviews with divers and others involved in the rescue. Make no mistake about it, though, this is a “popcorn documentary” that is more about evoking a sense of wonder at the accomplishment than anything else. The film lacks interviews from the boys or their parents and is fully approached from the perspective of the rescue diving team. That didn’t bother me one bit because the rescue itself is just so cinematic and unbelievable. I was all in on this intense journey from start to finish and a complete wreck throughout. Despite knowing the eventual outcome, I found myself near tears, gnawing my fingernails, and even yelling “Are you effing kidding me!?” at various times. Real life heroism will always have my full attention and seeing such a captivating story shared, complete with the positive outcome and heartwarming sacrifices made to achieve it, was a special experience.

 

SCHUMACHER (Netflix) – I was floored by this stunning documentary about one of the greatest racing drivers of all-time. Being a newer fan of F1, I sadly missed the Michael Shumacher era of dominance and only knew about him in context of all the records he holds and how Lewis Hamilton has been breaking them.The filmmakers who are telling Michael’s story here truly love and respect him, as clearly everyone that ever came into his life does, and it makes walking through his career a true joy. Packed with the best thing any sports documentary can have, archival footage, we get to see Michael racing as a child, a ton of F1 racing content, old interviews, and even a wealth of family photos and videos that show a fuller picture of Michael. He wasn’t just a great F1 driver, he was a great son, brother, husband, father, and friend, too.

I’d always just assumed that Michael won his 7 championships all in a row and with one team, but learning about how he burst onto the scene with Benetton, won twice, and then willingly stepped into a worse car and situation because he desired the challenge of bringing Ferrari back to glory made my respect for him grow immensely. This was a man who grew up doing everything the hard way and who was never afraid. He also was hard-headed sometimes to a fault and found it impossible to see and admit any wrongdoing for much of his career (I see so many shades of Max Verstappen in young Schumi). But most of the athletic greats have similar traits. They are driven and focused in a way their peers often are not, and it’s what makes them special, or to use a modern term “built different”. What Michael accomplished in the sport is simply amazing and thanks to this thorough documentary I now can say that having seen how with my own eyes.

 

SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME – Tom Holland is back as Spider-Man to wrap-up his (first?) trilogy and this time Marvel really swings for the fences in how it introduces the multiverse into the MCU while telling a personal story with big stakes and emotional outcomes. The integration of Spidey’s old villains from previous universes was handled brilliantly, with most of them being given the opportunity for character growth, and even redemption There is a lot to balance in this film but I was so impressed by the way it handled exciting action, the humor we expect and love from the MCU, painfully serious tragedy, and inspiring heroic actions and heart. Seeing this in a crowded theater full of fans on opening night was one of the best experiences I have had… ever. The room was electric and full of oohs and ahs and squealing at the film’s many surprises. Peter’s journey in this film is deeply affecting and memorable, anchored by Holland’s best performance as the character yet. And I loved how this end of MCU Spider-Man’s arc sets up the future of Peter Parker in this universe. Sure, it’s packed with nostalgia, but nothing here was done without careful thought and it is so much more than just fan service. Spidey finally has another film worthy of his superhero status as a fan favorite and I imagine this will be one the films I re-watch the most from 2021. (Hear our discussion about “Spider-Man: No Way Home” in Episode 303 here.)

 

THE SUMMIT OF THE GODS (Netflix) – “The Summit of the Gods” is a French anime style adaptation of a Japanese manga that itself is an adaptation of Baku Yumemakura’s 1998 historical adventure novel. The plot is fictitious, following a reporter/photojournalist named Fukamachi Makoto who comes in contact with a mysterious climber named Habu Jôji who claims to have the lost camera of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, a real pair of climbers who actually perished on Mount Everest in the 1920’s. Sir Edmund Hillary is famous for being the first to officially summit Everest in 1953, but there have always been questions as to whether Mallory and Irvine maybe did it first. In this tale, the camera in question may have proof that this is the case, and after losing his trace early on Fukamachi spends much of the film trying to piece together Habu’s past and gain access to the camera.

Fukamachi reminds me a lot of Jon Krakauer in that he’s clearly interested in understanding what drives people to risk everything trying to achieve these great heights. His story is partially like solving a mystery but includes loss and personal growth along the way. It was very moving. Ultimately, he ends up going on an ascent of Everest himself and it is one of the most non-stop breathtakingly spectacular pieces of animation I’ve ever seen. The filmmakers took great care to make this very realistic and capture the detail, danger, and beauty in alpine mountaineering. This is also a fairly patient and quiet film. I appreciated how poetic it feels and how focused it is on only a few characters. The score is marvelous, too, setting a melancholy or thrilling tone at different times in the story.

I personally can’t get enough of climbing documentaries and though this is a work of fiction, its ties to reality make it almost feel like a documentary at times. It is full of splendor and depicts views we rarely will ever see in such a magnificent way. Sometimes a movie just feels made for you. This is one of those times I get to experience that, and I wish so badly that I could have seen this in a movie theater.

 

#1 THE GREEN KNIGHT“Why greatness? Why is goodness not enough?” David Lowery has already proven himself to be one of the best working directors, but this wholly personal interpretation of the famous Arthurian poem is his most incredible film yet. This captivating journey of medieval not-a-knight Gawain plays out like a slow-burning dark fantasy video game, complete with side quests to test the mettle of the flawed character, teaching lessons along the way before putting in his path an end boss of immeasurable challenge that will require a life-altering choice. The story is told differently than you may know, but like the poem itself this adaptation revels in ambiguity, leaning into visually delightful mystical symbolism to get its point across enough that the tale can be followed while also encouraging its audience to question the very nature (heh) of the chivalric code that its character claims to value so dearly.

Understanding all of the film’s references may take several viewings and a healthy dose of director commentary, but I was beguiled by every frame and after a pulse-raising knockout of an ending, I was left wanting nothing more than to read/watch others interpretations, think deeply on it, and quickly go as fast I could to see it again. This is genuinely the work of a master craftsman, each and every technical element and performances working flawlessly to create a story that begs to live inside your head. I often don’t connect with surreal storytelling methods but something about this (as with “A Ghost Story”) proves Lowery is able to weave that dreamlike quality into a mostly grounded overall structure to a stunning result. (Hear our discussion about “The Green Knight” in Episode 304 here.)



Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He reviews with a focus on the emotional experience he has with a film. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted, and follow along with his daily film thoughts on Letterboxd. 

Caless’ Top 10 Films of 2020

The end of the year is usually a time for reflection, looking back at achievements and milestones, and setting up the new goals to be achieved for the new year. Any other year would be a normal process, but 2020 was not a regular year. A global pandemic, conspiracy theories, a strongly divisive political election, and the loss of notable heroes and figures in the entertainment industry cast a dark cloud akin to the alien ship’s hovering presence in “Independence Day”. This is not me being a Debbie Downer and throwing a pity party because even with the numerous negatives, there is a good bit of happiness and great moments that salvaged some of my sanity and usual positive demeanor. Cinema is always my place to escape the world’s problems and more than ever this year it felt like a personal version of Superman’s “Fortress Of Solitude”.

The pandemic sidelined most of the theaters in the country leading to my bedroom being the stage where new films debuted. It took some time getting used to the usual stranger sitting beside me in a dark theater being exchanged for my two cats and a loving girlfriend who shares my same passion for filmmaking. The experience of watching a film at home is greatly convenient and beats having to pay for a ticket and popcorn; on the other hand, the big screen, trailers, and the grand sound system is sorely missed and I hope that I can see the inside of a theater very soon. For now, these 20 films that made the cut for my best of the year each get a strong “must watch” recommendation for the memorable moments each of them provided me during the storm of this tumultuous year. Welcome to Black Nerd Magic’s Top 20 of 2020!!!!!!


20. SMALL AXE: LOVERS ROCK

19. SMALL AXE: RED, WHITE, AND BLUE

18. SMALL AXE: EDUCATION

17. TOTALLY UNDER CONTROL

16. MANK

15. ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI

14. CODED BIAS

13. ONWARD

12. THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7

11. THE INVISIBLE MAN


10. WOLFWALKERS – A 17th century Irish tale splashed with gorgeous animation, a story that is part coming of age, part action adventure, and part advocate against the debilitating effects of deforestation. Heartwarming for the soul and a delight for the ears due to the stellar voice acting cast/ear-worm musical soundtrack featuring the best of Irish culture staples. The Apple TV Plus streaming service gets a boost in being an option for cord-cutters based off this film as a whole.

 

9. TENET“Don’t try to understand it, just feel it” has become the meme associated with this high-concept action film but the phrase acts as a guide to becoming open to the risks and outside-of-the-box thinking required by Christopher Nolan’s new mind-bending roller coaster. The kind of film that requires more than just one sit down to understand all of the mechanics employed to pay tribute to the spy films of the 1960s and a reconstruction of what audiences are used to looking for in a summer blockbuster. “Challenging” is an apt term for the narrative and concepts but it is a test that I love to undergo to push myself past outdated conventions of what to gather from a piece of entertainment. My hope is that this film will eventually undergo the same legacy face-lift that “Inception” and “Interstellar” now currently enjoy.

 

8. CHARM CITY KINGS – The African-American coming of age story in the same vein of a “Lady Bird” that I have long been praying will become the norm. Thanks to director Angel Manuel Soto, that dream is close enough to realize, especially with the new focus of Hollywood advocating for more diversity. Meek Mill made his name off a successful rap career and looks to transfer that talent and grind into acting with a hell of a supporting performance. Remember this name: Jahi Di’Allo Winston. A young gifted actor whose name is going to receive more spotlight and praise as his career continues to grow in the near future.

 

7. DA 5 BLOODS – Spike Lee is a director who has never minced his message or employed a sugarcoating approach to stories of the African-American condition. A group of Vietnam War veterans travel back through the traumatic battlefield of war to uncover a reserve of gold that is rightfully theirs given the atrocities of their ancestors and the treatment they faced in the country they fought for in the name of honor. Delroy Lindo is a front-runner for Best Actor in a career best performance that has me still floored. This film is Netflix’s knight in shining armor of original content.

 

6. SOUND OF METAL – The journey of one man learning how to live life without his passion of music is sadness personified but the hope of change and the attention displayed on his growing understanding that life doesn’t have to be defined by a disability is a cinematic treasure. The awards season is going to be in love with Riz Amhed and it will be righteous and deserved. Pay attention to the subtle details hidden in the use of sound throughout this film which is able to excel in noise but also the power of comforting silence.

5. SOUL – No surprises when it comes to passing on exemplary praise to the work of Pete Docter as his new film is more of the same representing the best of what Pixar has to offer. This is animation focusing on the existential questions of life with a degree of craftsmanship and goodwill in its message of choosing right now to live life to the best it can be. The depiction of African-American characters and the markings of its unique culture, hairstyles, and musical fortitude that defines them bought nothing but tears and smiles to my face. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score is another trophy on the mantle for their celebrated career and I recommend heading straight to your Spotify and giving it a serious listen.

 

4. SMALL AXE: MANGROVE – A courtroom drama that feels tailor-made for the current social justice movement in America. A story that epitomizes the slogan “Black Lives Matter” and gives a lens to the contained disease that is prejudice and discrimination against minorities looking to make a better life than just being second class citizens. Steve McQueen’s tribute to the experiences of West Indian people of color fighting for their civil rights in the late 60s-early 70s in England represents the pinnacle of the wildly acclaimed Small Axe series.

 

3. PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN – A stunning fireball of dark comedy that is compelling and represents a big middle finger to rape culture, mansplaining, and the continued physical and mental harassment that are faced by women in a patriarchal society. Carey Mulligan dazzles in an enjoyable performance that ranks among the most entertaining to be seen in recent years. Confident writing and direction from newcomer Emerald Fennell cruises down the lane for a cinematic strike without using bumpers or cheap tropes to relay a powerful message of “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH”.

 

2. NOMADLAND – Nothing can beat the feeling of seeing humankind in their best element helping others and being compassionate to understand whats it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes. Frances McDormand proves again to be a treasure, further cementing her name as legendary in the acting profession. Chloé Zhao’s meditative drama centering on a woman traveling from place to place looking for a sense of self after the economic downturn of the late 2000s is lighting in a bottle. Rich screenplay full of memorable lines and a score that soars on cloud nine; there is nothing that this film does on an average level, every piece of the puzzle shines.

 

1. BOYS STATE – Spellbinding documentary that examines the woody swamp of political discourse through the eyes of young men on the precipice of obtaining a position in keeping democracy. No matter the side that anyone chooses on the government level, this is a must watch for educational purposes and for the human moments that transcend past anything conceived in imagination. There is a sense of understanding that won’t be found on the spaces of social media and internet messages boards; hearing clear and mature discussion between kids leaning towards Democrat or Republican is a breath of fresh air and something that should become more the norm in the United States. Another piece of fantastic filmmaking that can been seen on Apple TV Plus.


Caless Davis is a Seattle-based film critic and co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He loves any discussion of film and meeting new people to engage in film discussions on any subject. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram, and follow along with his daily film thoughts on Letterboxd. 

Aaron’s Top 10 Films of 2020

What. A. Year.

2020 will be remembered as much for the way in which we watched movies as for the movies themselves. In a world shutdown by the COVID-19 virus, theaters closed and kept us indoors more often than not, watching streaming films at an increased rate while seeing major studio tent-pole releases constantly delayed. Netflix, Disney Plus, Apple TV Plus, HBO Max, Amazon Prime Video, and more are locked in a battle to secure our subscriptions, and almost all of my Top 10 can be found on one of these services.

Along with the change in release dates came a change in the awards season. With the Academy Awards pushing back until late April 2021, some films that will be eligible won’t even release until January or February 2021. I’ve made the decision to go ahead and finalize my end of year list without seeing a few of those, though they will be a part of my annual voting as a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. This year, our award timeline was delayed as well, and so I do not have a list of my nominations and our winners to share. Hopefully I can remember to come back and edit links to those in after they are complete.

This year I saw a resurgence in gaming, partially due to the launch of a new seasonal podcast about video games called The Games We Love, partially due to some extra free time while working from home for several months, and partially due to the excitement of welcoming the next generation of consoles into my home. I also watched more series content than in recent years, going through all of “Friday Night Lights” with my best friend and watching a season here and there of countless other shows. As of this writing, I’ve still managed to see 166 new films this year, a whopping 29 of which are documentaries. Finding room in my Top 20 (much less my Top 10) for every film that I want to sing the praises of is usually incredibly difficult and this year is no different. There were less films that blew me away this year but the overall quality of what I watched is strong and encompasses a wide range of genres. Since it’s impossible for me to ever just settle on ten best films, you will see some of my favorites of the year in the #11-20 special mention spots, as well as couple of extra highlights. While there are no specific thoughts accompanying the #11-20 films, you can always find my thoughts on what I’m watching at my Letterboxd account, so be sure to follow me there.

With regards to my criteria, when it comes to ranking films critically, I do that as part of my membership in the Seattle Film Critics Society. But on Feelin’ Film we focus more on matters of the heart, so my Top 10 films are often ones that I found the most affecting in 2020 – those movies that provided me an incredibly emotional or memorable experience of some sort. Another thing that factors strongly into my ranking is rewatchability, so think of this list as my favorites, which to me are the best.

In order to make this a tad easier on myself, and also because they truly are a unique medium unto themselves, I always list my Top 5 Documentaries separately. It feels like every year is a great one for non-fiction filmmaking and 2020 was no different. I still have quite a few highly-acclaimed ones to see and may even come back and edit this accordingly when I do. Regardless, I’ve expended this genre’s list to a Top 10 this year due to there being so many great documentaries that I want to bring attention to.

This has been a relatively long intro and I appreciate you taking the time to read it when you could have just scrolled down to the lists. With that said, I won’t take up any more of your time.


BEST NON-FILM

TED LASSO (Apple TV+) – “Ted Lasso” is simply one of the best pieces of entertainment media (film, series, game) that I have enjoyed in year. This ten episode series is based on an old NBC Sports commercial and follows a college football championship winning coach to England where he takes over a floundering Premiere League soccer team, despite knowing next to nothing about the sport. It’s a recipe that could so easily have led to stupidity but instead this show, which can be binged in less than 5 hours, is utterly hopeful and positive at all times. As Ted navigates learning the sport, dealing with the eccentric and egotistical personalities of the adult players he coaches, and struggles with his own quietly hidden relationship issues, this show manages to always keep you smiling and leave you feeling inspired. Response was so great that before season one had even finished airing, Apple TV ordered seasons two and three, so now is a great time to discover it and experience the uplifting ability this show will have on your life.


THE DOCUMENTARIES

10. THE SOCIAL DILEMMA (Netflix)

9. THE DISSIDENT – Oscar-winning director Bryan Fogel (“Icarus”) returns with “The Dissident”, another strong contender that could win him a second statue, about the disappearance of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and villainy of Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. It is a gripping, immersive, and well-told piece of investigative journalism about the suppression of speech. The film covers a lot of information but its thriller style makes it go down easy. It features a fantastic score, too, and is incredibly urgent as the world becomes more and more fractured into sides who refuse to accept opposing viewpoints.

8. TIME (Amazon Prime Video) – “Success is the best revenge.” repeats Sunil Fox Richardson over and over angrily as she tries to convince herself to stay calm during yet another inhuman and unnecessary delay in the journey toward her husband’s release from prison. The resilience of this family on display is incredible and the way their story is told is both artistically compelling and emotionally evocative. This is an urgently needed piece that looks closely at the toll of injustice in America’s prison system, not from a broad statistics viewpoint but from a ground-level human one. The Richardson’s never once complain about having been arrested. They take full responsibility for their crimes but fight for fairness and changes to a system that, tragically, once it has its claws in you just never will let go. Their determination to make their family whole again and desire to see all justice system wrongs righted is hard to watch because you hate the pain and loss of time they’ve lived with, but ultimately an inspirational reminder that we (all of us) cannot allow this to continue in our world.

7. CONSOLE WARS (CBS All-Access) – Can’t really ask for much more from a 1.5 hour adaptation of a 576-page book. The original is definitely more in-depth and focuses even more heavily on SEGA’s perspective, but this visual version does it justice and is enhanced by the ability to show things such as the commercials and events of the console war era, which at times is much more effective than just imagining or trying to remember them when reading. This is a fantastic overview of this critical period of gaming history.

6. DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD (Netflix) – A filmmaker daughter and her aging father stage his death to help prepare for his eventual passing. I cried gobs and gobs because of course I was thinking about my own mom who passed away in 2014 and also remembering the struggles my grandfather had with Alzheimer’s before his death. But there is such joy in what Kirsten Johnson is doing that it far outweighs the sadness; the humorous stunt work, fantastical Heaven sequences, and enjoyment I had from seeing Seattle on screen helped to never let me wallow in the inevitability of what we’re seeing play out for too long at one time. Pictures and videos immortalize our loved ones in ways that fading memory never can quite match. This is beautiful. This is special. I almost feel guilty for peeking into someone’s intimate life story in this way, but I know that the purpose of these two sharing their passions together before Dick is gone forever and putting it on film for us to see in this intelligent, clever, and poignant manner is very much for themselves first and an inspiration for us second.

5. MISS AMERICANA (Netflix) – Taylor gets very raw and real in this documentary where she comes clean about just how hard celebrity life has been for her, in a way that we can never really understand, and puts into perspective how that can negatively affect someone’s emotional and mental well-being. I loved seeing the songwriting process, too. One of my favorite things about Taylor is her storytelling ability. That’s what makes her special, and it was a joy to watch some of these hits developing in their infancy. I also definitely appreciated her vulnerability about eating disorders, the Kanye stuff (that whole incident just makes me even madder now), disagreements with her parents, the awful experience of going through being sexually assaulted, and her struggle with trying to be the picture of who fans wanted instead of the person she actually is inside. Taylor has come a long way and deserves the right to grow and change and voice her opinions just like any of the rest of us do. I laughed, I smiled, I cried, I was brought back to many memories related to her music, and I came away from this feeling like I respect her and love her as an artist even more, but most importantly as a person who has feelings and thoughts and opinions. We so often think celebrities just exist for our entertainment. That may be their job, but there’s so much more to their lives.

4. BOYS STATE (Apple TV+) – A documentary that follows an annual event in Texas where a thousand 17-year-old boys join together to build a representative government from the ground up. It is cinematic, incredibly entertaining, super insightful, and a huge crowd-pleaser. It’s also eerie how much this serves as a microcosm of big-time American politics, but luckily manages to remind us that there is still some hope, as well.

3. TAYLOR SWIFT – FOLKLORE: THE LONG POND STUDIO SESSIONS (Disney+) – I adored this intimate and personal film that doesn’t just have Taylor playing her incredible songs from the Folklore album but provides a much bigger opportunity for her to discuss the stories behind their meaning and how they came to be written, as well as ruminate on her collaborative efforts with The National and Bon Iver. This is such a perfect companion piece to her Resolution Tour film, one that is full of her energy and showmanship. This shows a very different side of her and that is what makes her so special, the ability to be real in both ways and both places. It is an absolutely perfect music documentary on one of the greatest American singer-songwriters ever.

1b. THE LAST DANCE (Netflix/ESPN+) – What really needs to be said? This incredible 10-part documentary captured the attention of every major sports fa  every Sunday night over a month in 2020 as we watched behind the scenes coverage of and relived the Chicago Bulls 1997-98 championship season. Centered around that particular year and the end of a dynasty, the documentary simultaneously serves as a portrait of the career of NBA legend Michael Jordan. It is a riveting piece of work and one of 2020’s best overall cultural moments.

1a. THE HISTORY OF THE SEATTLE MARINERS (YouTube) – Since there are two sports documentaries essentially tied for my favorite of the year, I’m going with the more unique one in this top spot. This film (which you can view in chunks or as one 3.5 hour long supercut at the link above) immediately goes on my Mount Rushmore of sports documentaries. It is an incredible, engaging piece of storytelling and statistics that relives the franchise’s history from its highest highs and “what ifs” to the many, many years that have left fans feeling like the team is cursed. It is an ode to a city, a team, its icons and its villains, that manages to be both entertaining and supremely informational while never once losing my attention. Yes, I may be slightly biased because I’m also a fan of the team being covered, but the format is undeniably mesmerizing regardless, and this is a truly complete history of the team we Mariner fans sometimes hate to love. SoDo Mojo!


HONORABLE MENTION

HAMILTON (Disney+) – Hamilton the stage musical is a perfect piece of groundbreaking theater, one of the greatest shows of all-time, from the mind of absolute genius Lin-Manuel Miranda. And while this filmed version is missing that special energy that makes a live viewing so special, that is more than made up for here with the careful camerawork providing close-ups, unique angles, and tracking shots that allow for a more intimate and detailed experience than the vast majority of viewers would ever be able to have. The show is a masterpiece plain and simple, and I’m glad that they went this route instead of adapting (and lessening) it into a different media form. “Hamilton” the “movie” immediately becomes one of the things I will re-watch the most for the rest of my life. It is simply extraordinary.


THE FEATURE FILMS

20. SOUND OF METAL

19. GREENLAND

18. MONSTER HUNTER

17. ON THE ROCKS

16. GREYHOUND

15. WENDY

14. TENET

13. ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI

12. FIRST COW

11. ONWARD


10. THE INVISIBLE MAN (HBO Max) –  “The Invisible Man” put a new spin on a classic horror property with a sci-fi twist, plenty of surprises, and an all-too-real story from the perspective of someone who is tormented by her long-time domestic abuser. It is not always easy to watch and trigger warnings definitely apply, but for those who can stomach it, the painful brilliance of Moss’ exceptional traumatic performance, catharsis and a genuinely unnerving but entertaining experience is to be had. Universal has finally figured out what a new line of monster movies can look like, with truly evil and unredeemable villainous fiends and social metaphors delivering a contemporary vision all their own. Let’s hope this is the start of a great franchise and not just a splendid flash in the pan. (Hear our discussion about “The Invisible Man” in Episode 219 here.)

 

9. WOLFWALKERS (Apple TV+) – “Wolfwalkers” has so much symmetry that you’d think Wes Anderson directed it. This technique, and accompanying use of varying geometric shapes to display its 2D art style, result in some of the most visually striking, memorable, and sublime animation I’ve seen in years. The story hits emotional beats aplenty with its fable-like tale of friendship between two girls from different worlds and its single-parent relationship struggles. There’s also the historical setting to take in for those who want to learn about this traumatic period of English control in Ireland’s past. And there are some environmental messages here akin to what Miyazaki tackles in his wonderful film “Princess Mononoke”. The musical score is an absolute delight, too, with its traditional Irish folk sounds perfectly matching the wondrous colorful images. Cartoon Saloon puts out nothing but hits and this is simply next in line.

 

8. THE FATHER – With all due respect to the other leading men of the 2020 awards cycle, Sir Anthony Hopkins has entered the room. In a memorable (ironically) performance that absolutely floored me, he brilliantly transports us into the mind of an elderly man suffering from dementia. He navigates a range of emotions from lovable and harmless to infuriating and heartbreaking with delicate expertise. Combined with focused first-time direction from award-winning playwright Florian Zeller and an expertly adapted script of his own work, the story plays out (pun intended) at times almost like a psychological thriller instead of a straight drama. As his daughter (played lovingly committed yet on the cusp of a breakdown at all times by the wonderful Olivia Colman), and others, enter and exit his world, nothing is certain for character or audience, allowing us to feel the suffocating struggle that loss of memory must have on those who suffer from it, and provoking a level of empathy for them that I’ve previously not experienced.

 

7. PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN – Stylish, twisted, bitingly mean, deviously funny, and yet confidently firm in what it has to say about rape culture and those who protect it. Like its title, writer/director Emerald Fennell is a promising young woman, too, crafting a multi-tonal thriller that puts a new spin on a familiar revenge story in a way that definitely leaves a mark. It helps that the film is led by Carey Mulligan, in what is at least equal to the best work of her career, and features an expertly curated soundtrack. This is an ambitious and fascinating confrontation of a toxic masculinity culture that needs to disappear and the grief and trauma victims of it face.

 

6. CHARM CITY KINGS (HBO Max) – It’s not often that a film is as fresh to me as “Charm City Kings”. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen anything quite like the perspective of this coming-of-age story before and I was blown away by the feelings it left me with and the strong character development throughout. It follows a group of young teenagers navigating life in Baltimore while admiring a local biker gang, learning about masculinity and loyalty along the way. Ángel Manuel Soto has created something special and rapper Meek Mill is a revelation in a powerfully emotional supporting role.

 

5. SMALL AXE: LOVERS ROCK (Amazon Prime Video) – This movie is a vibe. Steve McQueen offers a prime example of not padding a story just to hit some arbitrary runtime. This is one night, one party in a West London neighborhood in the 1980s, and the narrative doesn’t need more than that to completely immerse us in the experience of these would-be lovers and others just wanting to dance the night away in carefree bliss. There is no overarching conflict or problem to solve, just a few instances of natural interpersonal drama between party-goers throughout the evening. The aesthetic is incredible with a hazy cinematography as if the camera was shooting through the clouds of marijuana smoke that fill the house, and the music is flat-out incredible, provoking an involuntary response for the viewer’s body to move to the sweet rhythms and lyrical sexiness of Mercury Sound’s reggae jams. In the film’s final moments it captures the hope and feelings of newfound love beautifully and realistically, and leaves us with a smile that will go down as one of 2020’s best film moments for me.

 

4. NOMADLAND – “Nomadland” is a tremendous portrait of the American vagabond uprooted by recession, constantly moving as a means of survival, while simultaneously experiencing the world around her in a way that so few of us ever really do. Chloé Zhao’s use of non-actors again elevates her film, giving it a sort of slightly dramatized documentary feel. Hearing the real-life stories of nomads that Fern meets on the road and watching her learn about their ways was enlightening and humbling, showcasing a segment of humanity that is far less reliant on luxuries than I will likely ever be. Joshua James Richard’s sweeping, majestic Midwestern cinematography captures beautiful landscapes in wide glory but Zhao knows when to have him come in close to show us the incredible emotional tolls on Fern, thanks to what I believe is a career-best performance by the great Frances McDormand. And Ludovico Einaudi’s melancholic and moving score triggered tearful eyes nearly every time it sparingly appeared.

Above all else, “Nomadland” is an inspiration, much in the way that something like “Into the Wild” has always been for me. It offers an awakening to the very real struggles some face in the 21st century, and reminds us that home truly is where the heart is, while no doubt leaving a lingering mark on your soul. Zhao’s storytelling approach is truly something special and combined with her unique cinematic eye and gift in editing this film proves that “The Rider” was no fluke and she is one of the most important voices in American filmmaking right now.

 

3. RIDE YOUR WAVE (Hoopla) – “Ride Your Wave” walloped me emotionally and is my new favorite film from Masaaki Yuasa. It’s a romantic dramedy anime with relatively restrained use of fantasy elements (for Yuasa, at least) and a reoccurring musical theme that gives me strong “La La Land” vibes. It also teaches how to make great coffee, which is a huge bonus! The film is gorgeously animated with a softer style that perfectly fits the tone of its story and has nuanced emotional depth as it deals with love, loss, and what it means to move on. It’s also an extremely accessible anime for mainstream animation fans and nice to see something in the genre that focuses on adults and not teens. Year after year, I continually find myself drawn to romantic stories in anime and while that has mostly been Makoto Shinkai pictures, I’m thrilled to find other directors hitting those same chords that resonate with my heart.

 

2. THE WAY BACK (HBO Max) – “The Way Back” is not without its typical sports cliches in the personalities and stories of the basketball team players, but it is also a film that completely subverts them when it comes to its overall primary character arc and ending. It’s an addiction drama about how we cannot change the past, but how we can affect the future, one step at a time, and of the impactful part relationships and passions play in that process. It is a feel-good basketball story with a dose of exciting in-game action, some hearty laughs, and plenty of sincere feels, made even more special when you consider the cathartic personal role it played in Ben Affleck’s own recovery. Director Gavin O’Connor has cemented himself as the king of this genre and is now 3 for 3 with sports drama masterworks. (Hear our discussion about “The Way Back” in Episode 260 here.)

 

1. SOUL (Disney+) – At first, you might not think “Soul” is Pixar’s most perfectly entertaining film from start to finish. It definitely feels like some of their heaviest existential drama to date and is less accessible for younger kids, but it all comes together to pay off brilliantly in an absolutely triumphant and moving final act reached through a screenplay that deftly navigates complicated concepts. What personality traits are we born with and how do we choose our passions are among the big questions asked by Pete Docter and crew this time around, and it will certainly get you thinking about your own life, how you got here, and where you’ll go next. The score by Reznor and Ross is my favorite of the year and the film’s vibrant visuals (which look incredibly different when in New York or in the spirit world) are stunningly gorgeous, unsurprisingly making me very sad that I wasn’t able to see this in a theater. Thankfully, for viewers who do find it a bit abstract, the talking cat helps keep it light despite the big ideas and characters dealing with death. Ultimately, “Soul” is a tender film and one that is refreshingly all about hope and realizing just how incredible every day of life is whether we have attained our dreams or not.


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He reviews with a focus on the emotional experience he has with a film. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted, and follow along with his daily film thoughts on Letterboxd. 

What We Learned This Week: December 2019

END OF THE YEAR AND END OF THE DECADE EDITION

Forgive the awards season hiatus! I missed you all and I couldn’t let you go without a quick toast to the end of 2019 and the end of the 2010s!

LESSON #1: IT’S ALL CINEMA— Boy, did I miss one dismissive and hand-wringing soapbox after another with Martin Scorsese, one of the greatest directors of film history.  Rant after rant, click after click, retweet after retweet, boy did ole Marty start a fight.  I don’t mean to sound regressive like #AllLivesMatter versus the true need of something like #BlackLivesMatterbut someone needs to tell Mr. Scorsese that it’s all cinema, from every cheesy and trashy film to every astute and austere film.  That’s from Cats to The Irishman and everything in between. They are made by creators aiming for storytelling, entertainment, and expression.  They just do so to different degrees and for different audiences.  So, respectfully, Marty, STFU.  Because you do great work, I won’t sentence you to Lesson #2 like one of your peers.

LESSON #2: CLINT EASTWOOD CAN RETIRE NOW— Look, I adore Clint Eastwood’s work.  He is essential American cinema (there I go…) and has the legacy and hardware to prove forever.  But, gosh, is he slipping.  With each can he kicks down the road since American Sniper, he’s loosing a grip on the truthful side of his filmmaking to match the purposeful part. Honoring little notes of history is one thing with dramatic license.  Revising and degrading is another.  You crossed a line with Richard Jewell and the treatment of the late Kathy Scruggs, played by Olivia Wilde.  Go back to that sunset and porch rocker, Clint.

LESSON #3: PLEASE LET ADAM SANDLER TURN A NEW LEAF— Before Uncut Gems, I legitimately and truthfully had not watched an Adam Sandler movie in nine years.  I didn’t need Jack and Jill to give up on him and the repetitive manchild garbage he was making.  I had no regrets abstaining from his career.  Hot damn, though, did he supernova with Uncut Gems.  Please let this career resurgence be a true new trajectory and not a one time thing.  Don’t let him dangle a role of two like Eddie Murphy and go back to the low-hanging fruit garden.  He’s back and I want more.

LESSON #4: IT’S EARLY, BUT GRETA GERWIG REMAINS UNDEFEATED— That women knows how to make good films, period. After blazing bright with Lady Bird and all its crassness, she comes back with a PG-rated and spirited adaptation of Little Women that is an absolute delight.  It’s better than just a nod at girl power.  It’s rich and multi-layered art.  She has earned automatic watch status for whatever comes next for her.  And while we’re talking about Greta Gerwig, Dear Academy, don’t make the mistake the Golden Globes did and nominate more women like her for the excellence in their fields.

LESSON #5: ADAM DRIVER AND FLORENCE PUGH WILL BE THE STARS OF THE 2020s— Even with a big second half and huge 2019, I won’t call Adam Driver the star of this decade, but I have a good feeling he will be the star of the next one.  I’ll give this past decade to Leonardo DiCaprio, Bradley Cooper, Ryan Gosling, and Christian Bale before Driver, but few actors have his crossover appeal and towering potential right now.  Need proof?  Pick anything from this year, but especially Marriage Story.  Watch him win the Oscar to kick off his 2020.  As they say, the sky (and for him, the galaxy), is the limit.  His white-hot female equivalent is Florence Pugh who carried a tremendous 2019 with Fighting With My Family, Midsommar, and Little Women. She is a dual Oscar contender for those latter two roles and has Black Widow to start 2020.  We see many ingenues come and go, but, like Driver, her range across genres is formidable and will keep her around and successful for a very long time.

LESSON #6: THIS NEXT DECADE HAS UNKNOWN CHALLENGES AHEAD— The 2010s brought a swell of nostalgia regurgitation like we’ve never seen with peaks and valleys across James Bond, Star Wars, Star TrekMission: Impossible, Jason Bourne, the MCU, the DCEU, TransformersPiratesGhostbustersPlanet of the Apes, Rocky, Rambo, Despicable Me, Men in Black, The Terminator, Toy Story, Ocean’s 8, and every possible Disney re-imagining.  Try as the greedy studios may, surely the noise of all that cannot continue another decade.  Creative bankruptcy has a limit and it’s going to run out and crash hard.  The 2020s have the challenge of creating new properties and experiences because the old stuff won’t last forever.  With the close of a Star Wars saga and a massive MCU phase to finish 2019, we stand at the edge wondering what’s next and what can top what’s been done.  It can’t all be new Avatar movies.  Your decade, your move, Hollywood.  Give us something good.  In the meantime, we’ll be on the couching binging your streaming services.

 


DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based and Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing on his website Every Movie Has a Lesson. His movie review work is also published on 25YL (25 Years Later) and also on Medium.com for the MovieTime Guru publication.  As an educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle and a member of the nationally-recognized Online Film Critics Society.  As a contributor here on Feelin’ Film now for over two years, he’s going to expand those lessons to current movie news and trends while chipping in with guest spots and co-hosting duties, including the previous “Connecting with Classics” podcasts.  Find “Every Movie Has a Lesson” on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium to follow his work.  (#120)