Thursday, December 31, 2020

Best of 2020: The Top 10 Movies of the Year

Early this year, I was looking ahead to some of 2020's most-anticipated movies when I remembered The Many Saints of Newark, a prequel to The Sopranos. This presented a problem since I was more than likely going to be reviewing the film ... and I had never watched The Sopranos. Well, I had watched the pilot several times -- weirdly, it was something I'd often turn to as comfort viewing on airplanes -- but I had never gone beyond that. Frankly, the show just seemed like this intimidating commitment -- it was how many episodes? -- and so I hadn't bothered, content with the fact that maybe, some day long in the future, I'd finally get around to it. Well, the future was now.

So I started doing the math: If the movie was set to open in September, it might premiere in Venice or Toronto, so I had to get The Sopranos done by mid-August. There are 86 episodes -- each one about an hour -- and with other festivals like Cannes in the interim, I'd have to be strategic about how much of the show I needed to watch each week in order to get it done in time. (After all, I had screenings just about every night, not to mention the usual unknowables of a writer's life.) Susan hadn't seen The Sopranos either, so we decided we'd watch it together. The trick was figuring out how to schedule our lives to make room for such a sizable undertaking. 

We'd gotten through a few episodes of The Sopranos when the world changed in March. Everybody has his own story about the shutdown that occurred that month -- how we all went from life as usual to the slow, scary realization that everything was stopping -- and mine involves some major markers. First it was the announcement that South by Southwest -- which I was going to be attending for the first time -- was being canceled. Then it was the NBA pulling the plug on the season. When major pillars of the film and sports industries waved the white flag, it was clear where we were headed. My life as I knew it was put on hold. No more places to go, no more bags to pack, a calendar that was suddenly a lot less full. 

Instead of the usual runaround of my hectic schedule, I had The Sopranos ... and a lot more free time than either Susan and I had anticipated. There was now no need to figure out how to carve out part of the day to sneak in an episode. Suddenly, it was the highlight of the day. Whereas pre-pandemic I almost never was able to see Susan on a weeknight -- I'd be off to a screening, and then doing some writing when I came home -- now, we had the sort of 9-to-5 life that so many others enjoyed. I got to have dinner with my wife, and then we'd watch The Sopranos. It was so cozy and pleasant you could almost forget that a terrifying virus was infecting and killing so many people.

The truth is, I needed the structure -- I still was working, but my whole life had been upended -- and The Sopranos gave me a focus early on in the pandemic. Also, the show was simply terrific, and the fact that Susan and I got to share it gave us something to talk about that didn't involve COVID or the election or anything else. What was funny was that, as we got deeper into the show, I suddenly became aware of all the Sopranos spoilers out there in the world that had never meant anything to me before. When a show has been out for two decades, it's absorbed into the culture and spit back out as memes and quotable dialogue. All of that used to be a foreign language that I couldn't decipher -- in the midst of our binge, though, I quickly became aware that I was going to have to shield myself from social media so that I wouldn't get plot points ruined. (Although, to be fair, I sorta guessed that Ralph Cifaretto was doomed before a random tweet clued me into that fact.)

But for the most part, though, I was amazed just how little had been spoiled for me. I had done a remarkable job since the early 2000s of simply staying away from the Sopranos discourse. And so the show was like this perfect, untouched thing that came into my life, providing my wife and me with twists and surprises and things that deeply disturbed us. (You've been upset about Christopher Moltisanti's death for a long time. It's still fresh for me.)

Of course, The Sopranos doesn't play in 2020 the way it did back then: For one thing, we knew that James Gandolfini was dead, which gave the show an inevitable sense of melancholy. Also, it's fascinating to watch technology evolve over the course of the series' run. (Among other things, David Chase's show is a time capsule for the golden age of the DVD player.) There are the episodes before 9/11 -- neither the characters nor the audience has any idea what's coming -- and then the ones after the terrorist attacks, but even those felt slightly naive now simply because they all took place before COVID. Watching The Sopranos this year, I kept being reminded of all the everyday activities I took for granted that were now gone. Tony and his family got to eat in restaurants! He and his cohorts would have meetings! A show about family -- a word that had several meanings -- was also about people having to intersect in each other's lives in intimate ways. You almost envied these guys -- they didn't know how good they had it.

The only thing I knew about The Sopranos going into our binge was its ending, which had proved so controversial at the time that even I was engaged in the debate. (Despite not having seen the show, I was nonetheless firmly on the side of those who thought Chase's pointed non-ending was wonderfully audacious.) As we reached those final episodes, I got tense partly because I knew we were quickly arriving at the conclusion. But I also knew that this exercise, which had been started because I needed to be ready for The Many Saints of Newark, was drawing to a close. I was going to have to learn to live without The Sopranos and face the global crisis at hand. (Ironically, like so many other movies that were supposed to come out this year, The Many Saints of Newark was ultimately pushed back to 2021.)

Once the show was over, life started getting a little back to normal. I was lucky: I was busy with work, and my family (for the most part) avoided the virus. I could tell you the same story that a lot of people could tell about 2020 -- that it was awful and challenging. I could tell you about how the Black Lives Matter movement that rose up after the killing of George Floyd fundamentally changed the way I saw America -- and that it inspired me (and Susan) to take stock of all the small ways that we contribute to white supremacy and consider what we could do better. But the larger contours of 2020 aren't very interesting to hear from my perspective -- many, many people had it much worse than me. Other people's voices were more important than mine.

Lately, I've been thinking that 2020 isn't over when the calendar switches to 2021. This year feels larger than just a year. It will soon be January, but the virus will still be here, and the societal ills the pandemic revealed will still be here. Trump will be gone (fingers crossed), but Trumpism won't be. Racial inequality isn't going away. Economic hardship isn't going away. There are difficult fights ahead. This was a year of grieving, but the grieving won't end in 2020. A lot will be awful and challenging in 2021, too. I hope we have the strength to handle it.

* * * * *

You are probably wondering when I'm going to list my Top 10 movies of 2020. Here you go...

1. Nomadland
2. David Byrne's American Utopia
3. First Cow
4. The Nest
5. Collective
6. Driveways
7. I'm Thinking of Ending Things
8. Sound of Metal
9. She Dies Tomorrow
10. The Father

If you see my Screen International list, you'll notice it's very different. Here are the reasons why: For Screen, we only include releases that are 2020 premieres -- meaning, they first played somewhere, including a festival, for the first time in 2020 -- and documentaries weren't included in the Best Film list. My Screen list will give you a hint of two 2021 releases I'm looking forward to revisiting in the new year.

Going back to the above list, allow me to also show some love to the movies that ended up 11-15, which are Fourteen, Vitalina Varela, City Hall, Lovers Rock and The Surrogate. All are terrific and also worth checking out.

The best animated film of the year, outside of the short World of Tomorrow Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime, was The Wolf House (No. 18 on my list), and I also want to mention how great Relic (No. 16) is. In between was Hamilton (No. 17). The idea that there were "no good movies" this year is preposterous.

* * * * *

I was grateful to the outlets that remain so good to me, including Screen International (where I've now been writing for 15 years) and MEL (which had its best year yet in 2020). And my thanks to my editors at Vulture, Rolling Stone, Popular Mechanics and SyFy, who handled a tough year with a lot of finesse. It was very fun to moderate Q&As, even if it was over Zoom, because it brought a small sliver of normalcy. (Speaking of normalcy, I'd be lost without doing the Grierson & Leitch podcast on a weekly basis.) Also, I'm happy to announce that my seventh book will be coming out in March: This Is How You Make a Movie is, admittedly, an immodest title, but I'm hoping readers will enjoy the conceit as much as I enjoyed exploring it.

And, as always, thank you -- today and everyday. I was asked by college students recently who I write for -- in other words, who do I imagine my audience is? I told them that I picture my dad, but I also think of all the people out there who I will never meet who get something out of my work. So maybe that's you. Well, I just want you to know that I appreciate it. And I hope you have a good new year.