10. One Night in Miami
Non-genre films set (all or mostly) in a single location can be fascinating affairs as conversation and interactions take priority over set-pieces. Regina King‘s feature directorial debut, adapted by Kemp Powers from his own play, brings together four Black icons from disparate corners for a night of honest observations, soul searching, and friendship. Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), and Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) meet in 1964 for a gathering that sees each of them reckon with their role in America, and the four share moments of humor, love, and tense criticism for each other. It’s never less than engaging, and while fictional, it’s easy to see these conversations as real turning points for the men, the movement, and for the country itself. Let the soundtrack, including some of Cooke’s finest, and sharp production design transport you back to a night that never was for truths that need to be.
9. The Half of It
You might stick your nose in the air and ask me why a Netflix Original YA rom-com riffing on Cyrano de Bergerac has landed on a best of the year list, and I would reply simply — because it’s one the year’s best films, ya jerk. Okay, fine, maybe that pejorative is unnecessary, but the bias against these characteristics is real. YA films can be great, as can romantic comedies, and writer/director Alice Wu‘s latest is one of the finest that both groups have to offer. Leah Lewis kills it as the only Asian student in her small American school, and she quickly finds herself embroiled in subterfuge as a jock enlists her help in wooing the girl he’s crushing on — the same girl Ellie (Lewis) has fallen for too. The third act seems preordained, but Wu has more original, honest, and unforgettable turns in mind here. It’s funny, endlessly sweet, romantic, and smarter than most movies manage, and it has love to spare for its characters and for anyone who’s ever wanted something seemingly out of reach.
8. Another Round (Denmark)
Co-writer/director Thomas Vinterberg reunites with Mads Mikkelsen (The Hunt, 2012) for another look at the way we treat ourselves and the way we treat others, but this time around it’s a bit less tense. Well, at times anyway, as four middle aged friends decide to jumpstart their lives by testing a theory about maintaining a certain blood alcohol level to achieve an optimum daily existence. It seems silly on its face, but the four find new highs and lows along the way that bring them closer even as it threatens to tear others apart. Mikkelsen commands the screen, and your heart can’t help but break as he fights to save himself while finding himself. This is no alcoholism drama, though, and while it’s clear with its consequences the film is refreshingly void of judgement on the topic.
7. His House (UK)
Some say genre films belong on their own best of the year lists, but that’s moronic. Horror can be every bit as brilliant, powerful, and meaningful as drama, and you need look no further than writer/director Remi Weekes‘ His House. Like another film below, it’s ostensibly a haunted house film on its surface, but look behind the walls and beneath the floorboards and you’ll find one hell of a gut punch. The film follows newly arrived immigrants from Sudan looking to make a new start in England, but the struggle is as much with disapproving neighbors as it is with their own inherent desire to make a home. Guilt is a trauma that keeps on giving, and sometimes it takes a terrifying wake up call to recognize it.
6. The Assistant
Stories about sexual harassment and worse in the film industry have taken something of a back seat over the past year — 2020 has been busy — but the topic remains no less relevant. Writer/director Kitty Green‘s The Assistant looks at one day in the life of a new assistant to a bigwig film executive. Julia Garner’s Jane is the first to arrive and the last to leave, and while we never see her boss — think the Harvey Weinstein type — his heavy presence is felt throughout. We watch as she learns the ropes and the truths unfolding behind closed doors, and it’s her struggle with that awareness that drives the film. The predators are criminals, but far too many people around them are accomplices who act or fail to act out of equal parts indifference and fear for their own livelihood. This isn’t an issue solely in the world of film, but this film about the issue is necessary viewing.