John’s top 10 movies of 2020

T

he Oscars are expanding the 2020 movie year by two months in order for more films to get released and compete for statuettes. That’s a smart move, but on Dec. 31, I’m happy to make my year-end list and say good riddance to this year of the pandemic and all it wrought – including the push-back of many films to 2021 and the beginning of the end of cinemas. But we’re not tossing out the movies with the year itself, because enough good ones took the financial risk of coming straight to our home theaters. These were my 10 favorites:

10. “All the Bright Places” – This adaptation of Jennifer Niven’s YA romance novel does for mental illness what “The Fault in Our Stars” did for physical illness. Elle Fanning adds another notch to her robust resume while Justice Smith shows range by doing a 180 from his nerdy “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” character. Although set in the nondescript Midwest, “All the Bright Places” asks us to find beauty in the world around us. It does indeed feature a gorgeous variety of urban and rural scenery even as Smith’s Finch struggles against brain chemistry that sometimes restrains his joy. (Full review.)

9. “Happiest Season” – Like “Love, Simon” did for basic rom-coms, “Happiest Season” does for “home for Christmas” rom-coms: It normalizes the presence of gay people in these stories. While formulaic, Clea DuVall’s film benefits from being funny and having its jokes delivered by an all-star cast. But even as it breaks ground, it’s almost beside the point that Mackenzie Davis’ Harper and Kristen Stewart’s Abby are a gay couple, because “Happiest Season” taps into the awkwardness of being the odd-person-out amid a group that has decades of their own traditions and quirks in place. (Full review.)

8. “Becky” – Kevin James, known for comedies, and Lulu Wilson, a strong young supporting actress in many projects, both break through in a woodsy riff on “Home Alone” that features enough violence and gross-outs to fit tidily in Fangoria magazine. In addition to good ole home-invasion tension, we also get an unusually sympathetic henchman who begins to doubt his boss’ plan, and we see how the experience brings out certain traits in Becky. Suffice it to say things go further and get darker than in “Home Alone.” (Full review.)

7. “Class Action Park” – This documentary brings us back to the 1980s and a New Jersey amusement park you wouldn’t believe existed unless you had been there as a kid – and even some of those people marvel over the fact that this collection of dangerous water and cart rides was real. The filmmakers intersperse Action Park archival footage with animated re-creations and interviews, resulting in an awkward mix of happy nostalgia and horror. But that’s actually the appropriate blend for a park where six guests died over the course of its run. (Full review.)

6. “Underwater” – This Stewart vehicle is a simple-but-slick monster movie that harkens back two decades to when studios would reliably dump off such fare in January. It’s intense throughout as a diverse group of survivors of the explosion of an ocean-floor habitat must get to an escape-pod launching bay. We also get a good sense of the architecture of a structure the likes of which we’ll likely never visit. Creepier still, something strange lurks out there in the depths, and the payoff is unusually satisfying for this type of flick. (Full review.)

5. “The Way Back” – Ben Affleck is tired of playing Batman, but lucky for us he’s happy to play an alcoholic former prep basketball star who begrudgingly takes a coaching gig at his alma mater. The actor gives an earthy turn as a man at rock bottom – for reasons to be revealed later in the film – who gradually climbs back to normalcy by shaping a hodgepodge of unfocused young men into a legitimate team. The film has an excellent sense for details of the game, particularly how players, coaches, administrators and fans approach it in a small town. (Full review.)

4. “The Vast of Night” – This delicious mood piece from director Andrew Patterson increasingly gets under your skin as he paints a luscious, grainy picture of 1950s small-town America. The aptly-titled film gives us long, unbroken shots of a radio DJ and a phone operator working their booths and gradually gathering information about what seems like an alien invasion. Somehow, it’s not boring, and even the alien cliché becomes fresh again because we’re transported back to the mind-space of living with the technology and scientific knowledge of that time. (Full review.)

3. “The King of Staten Island” – It’s refreshing to see a good ole Judd Apatow riff again. Pete Davidson makes an impressive debut as the titular young man with psychological challenges who struggles to find his fit in the adult world before hitting it off with the local fire department. Bill Burr – like Davidson, a comedian by trade – is also great, as is Steve Buscemi as a fireman. This is easily the best movie of the year about funny-looking dudes. (Full review.)

2. “The Trial of the Chicago 7” – Aaron Sorkin delivers another thoroughly engrossing talkie as he digs into the politically charged trial of a group of scapegoats for the Chicago protests of the Vietnam War. He lets the present-day parallels, such as police officers removing their badges before beating suspects, speak for themselves. Sacha Baron Cohen disappears into his role as Abbie Hoffman among a loaded cast. One thing that plays as historic now is the idea of the USA shipping off non-volunteers to be killed in a foreign land (under threat of imprisonment), something that is unlikely to happen again soon but still holds a powerful pallor of wrongness. (Full review.)

1. “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” – It’s awesome that a comedy is the best movie of 2020, because we needed a good laugh. Baron Cohen provides a steady supply, this time disappearing into roles twice over as he plays Borat disguising himself as various people (including Donald Trump, at a Trump rally!). Amazingly, little-known Maria Bakalova steals scenes from her veteran co-star as Borat’s teenage daughter, whose relationship with her old-fashioned father becomes genuinely sweet. As this sequel to the 2006 film skewers America’s ignorant views of foreigners, it adds spice with bizarre non sequiturs and makes us wonder who among the supporting cast is acting and who is being punked. Regardless of the behind-the-scenes secrets, this moviefilm is hilarious. (Full review.)

What were your 10 favorite movies of 2020? Share your lists in the comment threads.