Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Rosalie's Top 10 of 2020

 by Rosalie Lewis

According to my Letterboxd stats, I watched 367 movies in 2020. Of those, only 54 came out in 2020 and fully half of those I saw in the second half of December. I guess I was living in the past a lot last year—anything to avoid thinking about the present awfulness of the world. I still have movies from 2020 that I need to see, including critical faves Promising Young Woman, Nomadland, Minari, Da Five Bloods, Tenet, Ammonite, and His House. Don’t judge!

10. The Half of It (directed by Alice Wu, on Netflix)
Romantic comedies are in short supply these days, especially those with LGBTQ protagonists. And while Happiest Season is an honorable mention for me, this is the one that stole my heart when I least expected it. The script, written by director Alice Wu, is a YA adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac (also the basis for perhaps my fave romantic comedy of all time, Roxanne). Leah Lewis stars as high school senior Ellie Chu, who makes money writing English papers for her classmates and spends her free time reading Kazuo Ishiguor and watching movies like Wings of Desire and Philadelphia with her dad. The epitome of cool to me, but probably not so much to kids her age. An inarticulate but good-natured jock named Paul (Daniel Diemer) hires her to write a love letter from him to his crush, the popular Aster (Alexxis Lemire). She begrudgingly accepts the challenge, and we quickly realize that Aster is Ellie’s crush too.

Is this movie full of plot twists and surprises? Not really—but it’s not that kind of movie. Instead, it’s a movie that wears its heart on its sleeve and loves its characters and steeps itself in clever pop culture references. If you need some serotonin in your life, give it a watch.

9. Lovers Rock (directed by Steve McQueen, on Amazon Prime)
I usually hate parties (damn you, social anxiety!), but this is a party I enjoyed! Instead of being plot driven, we simply observe various characters over the course of one night as they attend a gathering to dance, sing, flirt, and socialize in 1980s London. The music is the best part of this whole thing, and gives the movie its title: It’s a subgenre of reggae and rocksteady, characterized by romantic lyrics and danceable tunes. Each song carries us through a different scene of the film, and watching you can’t help but be swept up in it. Aside from a few brief moments, this movie is pure joy and we needed that more than ever in 2020.

8. The Wild Goose Lake (directed by Diao Yinan, on Tubi)
You knew I had to throw a noir on here, right? This one comes from the director that brought us Chinese thriller Black Coal, Thin Ice and he returns with another crime film, this one set in Wuhan. From the first few seconds, I was hooked on the moody color scheme and dark, rainy setting with characters who shared a cigarette but didn’t trust each other for a second. The movie unfolds out of sequence, so it takes a second to get your bearings, but it definitely rewards you. Motorcycle chases? Check. Umbrellas as weapons? Check. Neon dance scenes in a flea market? Check. This movie doesn’t shy away from violence and gore, but still manages to end on a note that I found hopeful. A must-see for noir lovers.

7. Blow the Man Down (directed by Danielle Krudy and Bridget Savage Cole, on Amazon Prime)
Sisters find themselves at the center of a crime with few places to turn. Will the town madam (Margo Martindale) be a trustworthy ally, or a powerful foe? This movie is made by women, in a story populated by women—of varying morality and desperation. It’s set in a small town on the coast of Maine, and feels a little bit Coens-y minus the quirk. The story builds up the suspense and gives its talented cast (including June Squibb, Annette O’5Toole, Morgan Saylor, and Sophie Lowe) plenty to do. I can’t wait to see what these filmmakers do next.

6. Run (directed by Aneesh Chiganty, on Hulu)
If you saw Chiganty’s previous film, Searching, you know he’s a master of suspense and character resourcefulness. This movie breaks out of the “all takes place on screens” concept, but still presents a character with certain limitations and then creates a premise where the character has to get inventive to solve a problem.

I’m hesitant to reveal more because this is one best watched with very little information. But if you’re not sold yet, I’ll give you a little more. First, Sarah Paulson stars as the mom of teenage Chloe (Kiera Allen), a homeschooler with numerous health issues who uses a wheelchair and hopes to go to college next year to study engineering. Something happens that makes Chloe wonder if she can fully trust her mom’s judgment, and the movie takes off from there. Pat Healy pops up in this movie too, which for me is always a selling point. I practically hyperventilated at certain points in this film, which is a good thing I swear, and wished I could see this with an audience to hear the collective gasps that would no doubt occur. Don’t miss it!

5. Wolfwalkers (directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, on Apple TV+)
Some of my favorite animated features of the 2000s were made by Cartoon Saloon, so I got very excited to see they had a new movie in 2020. The animation in this film is so beautiful every frame belongs in a museum. The story delighted me as an animal lover and as a lady who hates being told what to do!

Our heroine is Robyn, who likes to sneak out of the house with her pet falcon and explore the woods while her dad is out hunting all day. She’s supposed to be doing chores like cleaning and cooking and sewing, but those are boring! There’s a whole world outside the city to explore, even if that world is rumored to be filled with dangerous creatures. When Robyn encounters a wolf that shape shifts into a young girl, she sets her fears aside and determines to befriend the mysterious Mebh. This friendship might have unforeseen consequences, though, if her father and the Lord Protector get wind of it.

4. She Dies Tomorrow (directed by Amy Seimetz, on Hulu)
Most reviews mentioned feeling anxious while watching this movie, about a woman (Kate Lyn Sheil) who becomes convinced death is imminent and then spreads that conviction to everyone she meets. I found it strangely comforting. That might be a sign of my own mental collapse, but in a year when so many people actually were dying and mortality loomed in our consciousness 100% of the time, it was nice to experience a world where death’s approach seemed like a delusion rather than a boulder rolling downhill towards us with gathering speed.

So many things about this movie felt prescient for 2020. The most obvious is a contagious spread from person to person, which immediately brings the dreaded Covid-19 to mind. But on a deeper level, this movie is about the spread of an idea that seems ludicrous but still somehow takes hold of even the most seemingly stable, “normal” people. And on that level, I couldn’t help but think of the way conspiracy theories and fake news seemed to take root in our culture in unprecedented ways last year. There are, even now, members of my extended family and people I grew up respecting who believe all kinds of things that make no sense whatsoever. People who buy into QAnon, crisis actors, and Bill Gates tracking us through vaccines. It’s like a large swath of the population got brainwashed and joined a cult of misinformation, and it’s legitimately terrifying. This movie is unsettling, too, but it has some funny moments as well, including a monologue about the sex lives of certain sea mammals. The story doesn’t give us a lot of answers to our existential dread, but it burrowed into my psyche and I found myself thinking of it often in quiet moments.

3. Buffaloed (directed by Tanya Wexler, on Hulu)
This movie is SO fun and also extremely relevant to my interests as a person with credit card debt. Weird combo, I know. But trust me. If you enjoyed the likes of The Wolf of Wall Street, Thank You For Smoking, The Big Short, Glengarry Glen Ross, American Hustle, or I, Tonya, you should check this movie out. If you did not like any of those movies I still think you should watch this because frankly it’s better than almost all of them.

Zoey Deutch plays the charismatic capitalist of a main character, Peg Dahl. The phrase “every day I’m hustlin’” doesn’t even begin to sum up this character. She’s been very adept at eliciting profit from unsuspecting people through devious means from a young age. When she gets a call from a collection agency one day, instead of being annoyed or blocking the call she realizes that she may have a future as a debt collector herself. Other reasons to watch this movie: Judy Greer plays Peg’s mom, Noah Reid of Schitt’s Creek plays her brother, and Jermaine Fowler plays a character whose role in Peg’s life is a little bit complicated and best discovered in the context of the story. This movie sheds light on the shadiness of the credit collection business, a seedy underbelly of the American economy that deserves to be exposed for all its exploitive practices. Ken Loach would’ve probably told this story in a much more dramatic way, but Tanya Wexler’s approach is entertaining instead of depressing. I watched this movie yesterday and yet I’m still tempted to stop writing and watch it again right now.

2. The Old Guard (directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, on Netflix)
Patrick and I devoted a whole podcast to this movie over the summer so you probably already know all the reasons I love it if you listened to that episode. But to recap! Charlize Theron is a badass who leads a group of immortal warriors that have been alive for centuries and intervene when humans are on the brink of royally fucking themselves. KiKi Layne is a Marine who survives a near death experience against all odds, and begins to wonder how. As you might guess, she has something in common with the immortal folks. There’s a ton of great action sequences, expertly directed by Prince-Bythewood, and a surprise romance between two members of the team that I found incredibly moving. I hope there’s a sequel, and judging by the numbers it did for Netflix, that seems distinctly possible. There’s also something significant to a movie about immortality being so close to the top of my list this year, not to get all philosophical on you.

1. Dick Johnson Is Dead (directed by Kirsten Johnson, on Netflix)
A documentary filmmaker convinces her aging father to fake his death in various ways on camera as a way for both of them to mentally deal with his inevitable real death. This sounds so depressing and weird, I know. I promise the experience of watching is actually wonderful. For starters, Kirsten’s dad is just a delightful human being. He’s a retired psychiatrist, thoughtful and funny, with a laugh that warms up the proceedings considerably. Kirsten’s mom passed away prior to the filming of this doc, and suffered dementia and memory loss. Kirsten and her dad talk about that even as dad is beginning to forget things, too. Getting to make a movie together is a gift to both of them, a way to make the most of whatever time they do have left.

Calling this a documentary feels inadequate, because there are many transcendent moments and striking visuals that go well beyond cinema verite. It does document a relationship a state of mind, though, in a way that feels intimate and sublime. You will cry when you watch it, but it will feel cathartic and necessary and when it’s over you’re going to breathe in the air of being alive and feel grateful, just like we all felt when the clock struck midnight and 2021 dawned.

Honorable Mentions:
Lots of movies almost made my list, including Palm Springs, Class Action Park, David Byrne’s American Utopia, Invisible Man, The Trial of the Chicago 7, Birds of Prey, Soul, Jasper Mall, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, I’m Your Woman, Sound of Metal, The Photograph, Underwater, Yes God Yes, and The Painter and the Thief. I look forward to seeing everyone else’s lists so I can fill in the gaps of my own viewing. Happy 2021!


  1. you're killing me... so many movies I hadn't heard of and now have to find. I liked nearly all of Blow the Man Down...and felt if it had made one more pass through the typerwriter at the hands of a better writer, it would have become an instant classic in the manner of Brick. And Buffaloed made me pee laugh.

    1. I'm always happy to encounter another fan of Buffaloed! :)

      Any favorites from 2020 for you? I'm still in the discovery process myself!

  2. I’m so happy to see Wolfwalkers on your list! And now I so many more movies to watch.

    1. Yay! I hope you discover some new faves. ;)

  3. Just caught "Buffaloued" on Hulu. As good and as highly placed as Rosalie advertised. This is the first movie I've seen Jai Courtney in where he disappears into a likable character... who happens to be a scumbag. And if the world could bottle the energy and charisma from Zoey Deutch we could power the sun for a thousand years. Thanks for the tip, this one is going high (Top 30?) on my year-end list. :-)