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Highlights From a Most Unusual Year in Film


THE YOUNG AND THE MERCILESS Mulligan is on a mission of vengeance in Fennell's disturbing satire Promising Young Woman. - COURTESY OF FOCUS FEATURES
  • Courtesy Of Focus Features
  • THE YOUNG AND THE MERCILESS Mulligan is on a mission of vengeance in Fennell's disturbing satire Promising Young Woman.

Most years, it's tough to wrap up the year in film for Seven Days because so many award-worthy movies don't reach Vermont until well into January. In 2020, however, release dates were weird all over. For purposes of Oscar eligibility, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has stretched its official "year" through the end of February. Hence some of the likely Best Picture front-runners can't currently be seen anywhere, such as the wonderful Nomadland. Others, such as Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (Netflix), await you in your living room right now.

Meanwhile, Warner Bros. has announced plans to release all of its 2021 films — including the likely blockbuster Wonder Woman 1984 — simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max, dealing another blow to ailing theater chains. AMC Theatres warned the Securities Exchange Commission this month that it is nearly out of cash.

The year 2020 hasn't been good for theaters (except drive-ins). But has it been a good year for movies? Here are some of my high and low points.

Most creative use of a low budget

The hypnotic shoestring sci-fi period piece The Vast of Night (Amazon Prime Video) has a four-minute tracking shot that blew viewers' socks off. Major Arcana, a Vermont-made film that saw its local release in 2020, did wonderful things with just actors and the landscape. Homemade (Netflix), a collection of shorts made in quarantine around the world, is a celebration of creativity under pressure.

Most impressive woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown

Without Elisabeth Moss in the role of a woman convinced that her "dead" boyfriend is stalking her, The Invisible Man (HBO Max) might be just another horror flick. Moss (who's also great in Shirley [Hulu, rentable]) makes it a rousing survival tale. Another actress who flipped victimhood on its head in 2020 was Carey Mulligan, whose combination of dry wit, flat affect and lust for vengeance is mesmerizing in Promising Young Woman (theatrical release December 25).

Best midlife-crisis comedy (possibly ever?)

Radha Blank's The Forty-Year-Old Version (Netflix) is a universally relatable movie about the pains of aging that pulls no punches in showing how racism manifests in supposedly liberal spheres such as the arts. And it's hilarious.

Best isolation/cabin fever movie

While Homemade has its creepy moments, none of them can match Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala's arty horror flick The Lodge (Hulu, rentable), in which a remote holiday getaway becomes a route straight to hell. Also deeply claustrophobic is His House (Netflix), which explores traditional haunted-house motifs from a refugee couple's point of view.

Best cinematic escape from your home

In Nomadland (theatrical release February 19), Frances McDormand plays one of a new breed of Americans: Laid off by factory closings, they crisscross the nation's highways in vans or RVs seeking seasonal work. While Chloé Zhao's film doesn't sugarcoat the poverty of McDormand's character, it does convey the grandeur of the landscape and the wanderlust that makes her way of life more than a grim necessity.

Most riveting monologues

In Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (Netflix), based on the August Wilson play about the blues legend, Viola Davis is riveting every second she's on-screen, but especially when Ma talks about what the blues mean to her. As the fractious trumpeter Levee, the late lamented Chadwick Boseman has an equally electrifying monologue about the brutal history that shaped the character.

Movie likely to start the most Twitter threads

Part old-fashioned revenge drama, part rom-com parody, part up-to-the-moment #MeToo statement, Emerald Fennell's Promising Young Woman redefines "chick flick." It has its flaws, but people will be talking about it for a while.

Favorite movie I hesitate to recommend widely

Talky relationship drama. Road-trip noir. Semi-surrealist take on how it feels to live with depression. I'm not sure what to call Charlie Kaufman's I'm Thinking of Ending Things (Netflix). It's undeniably self-indulgent, but it was one of my favorite films of 2020.

Most pointless remake

Director Ben Wheatley has made wickedly offbeat thrillers, but his Rebecca (Netflix) is neither as gripping as Alfred Hitchcock's 1940 version nor as odd and creepy as Daphne du Maurier's source novel. Transforming the story into an age-appropriate romance with an "empowered" heroine just makes it painfully generic.

Movie I can't believe I watched to the end

Free Lunch Express (rentable on various platforms), a Vermont-produced satire in which Bernie Sanders is a fun-loving buffoon who pledges his soul to Joseph Stalin and gets his political guidance from Ben and Jerry.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Highlights From a Most Unusual Year"