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Jesse’s Top 5 movies of 2020

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2020 was not a very good year for movies. As a matter of fact, it was probably one of the worst years for film in modern memory. Sure, you can chalk up most of the blame to Covid-19 delaying nearly all of the major releases out of 2020 that we were all so keen to watch, but even then the few movies that did release in 2020 felt… underwhelming. Maybe it was from the year just beating us down relentlessly that even the films that I was looking forward to just constantly disappointed me.

I bring this up because while I personally have seen fewer movies than I normally do in a year (I saw approximately 45 new releases this year), 2020 was also a year that gave me some truly memorable and remarkable experiences. Sure, in any other year they may not crack my Top 5, but to deny that any good movie came out in 2020 would be a lie. Good films did come out and when they did they always surprised me at going beyond my expectations. With the exception of one film, I only saw these movies on a whim, not really caring one way or the other, just watching them because I had nothing else to do. And when that happened, man oh man it was liking finding a diamond in the rough and let my spirits soar.

There are a handful of movies that I really did enjoy that couldn’t make my list. I’m mortified that I had to keep the cosmic insanity that is Color Out of Spaceoff of this list, but that’s usually how these lists roll. Five films to commemorate a year that we all want to forget, but I definitely won’t be forgetting these films any time soon.

Jesse Best of 2020

5) Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn

Superhero movies are on life support. All of the faults within these mega-blockbuster franchises have been laid bare thanks to the pandemic, with many of these releases being pushed back years because they can’t get the mega crowds that they need to survive. It’s unhealthy that a film needs to make half a billion dollars to be profitable now and 2020 showed that since barely any superhero action movies came out. The ones that did flopped because they just couldn’t make all of the money in the world. But box office performance isn’t always indicative of quality. While Wonder Woman 1984 was certainly an okay experience, as the year went on, I couldn’t get my mind off of the fun I had watching BoPatFEoOHQ, despite it underperforming at the box office. And yes I am still calling it that. I am indeed that petty.

I will be the first to admit that the film has a lot of rough edges. A LOT of rough edges. Yet despite all of its flaws, I still remember having a ton of fun watching it over the course of the year. This is a film that isn’t trying to be anything grand or epic, but just a manic action movie that isn’t afraid to be goofy and have a sense of humor. In a world of super-serious superhero movies, I’m all for watching Harley Quinn bemoan a run-over BEC of the plot literally centering around waiting for someone to crap out a diamond.

What I’m trying to say is that the film over time grew on me. There were hardly any action movies that came out, but even then the hand-to-hand combat scenes were all well executed, suitably violent, and rarely resorted to using CGI. It’s nothing that will redefine your world, but that should hardly matter in a year where joy and excitement were at an all-time low. And BoPatFEoOHQ provided that joy and excitement.

Jesse Best of 2020

4) Soul

Pixar has had a rough couple of years in my opinion. With the exception of Coco in 2017, most, if not all of their films, have been mediocre and safe at best and cynical and unnecessary at worst. Sequels to preexisting franchises that don’t add anything and are blatant attempts at maximizing profits rather than exciting new properties with enticing new ideas. I was hesitant about Soul since it was shuffled onto Disney+ and it still continued to trot out the same Pixar tropes (if I have to see one more “road trip” adventure…), but I thankfully had nothing to worry about.

Soul is a poignant movie that hit me in a way that I haven’t felt in a while from a film, animated or otherwise. Not from the ethereal designs of most of the characters. Not from the soundtrack. Not from the relationship between Joe and 22, played wonderfully by Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey respectively. And for the record, I love everything I just said above about the film, but those aren’t the single reason I love it. No, it hit me because it reminded me just how beautiful life could really be.

If you want to pinpoint the exact moment, it would be a little after the halfway point of the movie. In it, Joe is playing the piano and reminiscing about the day he had and everything that happened. It’s the first time that he ever just stopped and thought about life and the music he plays reflects that, soft and somber, almost gentle. As he plays, it cuts to various shots of New York City, immaculately animated and breathing, almost bursting with life despite hardly anyone out of the streets. Just a quiet night in the city, one that anyone who has ever been can relate to. It’s a moment that just makes me reflect on the beauty and importance of life and how even the simplest things can be magical.

And that was when Soul became one of my favorite movies of the year.

Jesse Best of 2020

3) Wolfwalkers

I almost hate the fact that I referred to this movie as being a Ghibli knock-off in my original review. I still stand by everything that I said in that review, but I think that phrase painted Wolfwalkers in a negative light. Regardless of how much Wolfwalkers tries to aspire to be Princess Mononoke, the end result is still a magical and immaculately animated fantasy about two young girls and their heart-warming friendship.

Animation fans need to do themselves a favor and watch Wolfwalkers for the visuals alone. Yes, there’s an intimate and enjoyable story here too, but no, this is a treat for the eyes first and foremost. Every frame of this film is drop-dead gorgeous and that is not an exaggeration. The very fact that this movie is held hostage on Apple TV+ is ridiculous to me since it needs to be seen by a wider audience. Most people have completely overlooked the film solely due to its streaming exclusivity and that is a crying shame. I would go so far as to say get yourself a free trial to see this movie alone it’s that good.

Any and all animation fans will find something to love and fans of good family films will be in love with what they find, I guarantee it. Animation thrived during the pandemic and I can easily see a new animation renaissance in a few years because of this. Even then, if we want to specifically talk about the various genres in relation to best of 2020 lists, Wolfwalkers is the best-animated film of the year. Here’s hoping others notice that too.

Jesse Best of 2020

2) Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Chadwick Boseman was taken from us too soon.

In a film already filled with wonderful performances based on a marvelous play, it’s poetic irony that Boseman’s final film also just so happens to have his best performance. Yes, Viola Davis also rocks the house as the real-life mother of Blues Ma Rainey, but Boseman is the reason to see this. He’s all but a shoo-in to take home any and all Best Actor awards in my book, which is both wonderful and tragic. And no, my appreciation of the film does not begin and end with Boseman. I would have loved this film regardless of whether or not he was alive or dead.

Upon watching the film, it’s immediately evident that this is based on a play thanks to most of the action primarily taking place in one location over the span of a single day. Because of this, the film knows exactly how to frame its shots, when and where to focus its attention, and smartly provides social commentary not only on race relations but with a laser focus on the complicated dynamics of it within the music industry. It’s made all the more complex when you view it from the perspective of a performer versus their manager, or the power of art against the desire to turn it into a commodity.

Could that be reading too deep into the film? I really don’t think so since Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom doesn’t shy away from addressing even more complicated issues, like shining an ever too brief spotlight on Ma’s bisexuality. It’s been two weeks since I’ve seen the film and my mind has been racing ever since, just floored by the performances and the craftsmanship on display. Most people reading this having Netflix. You have no excuse to not see it.

Jesse Best of 2020

1) Spontaneous

Spontaneous is my favorite movie of 2020 by a mile. It’s messy, it’s depressing, it’s life-affirming, it’s a movie that made me feel a myriad of emotions, both positive and negative. From a brief blurb that told me this was a movie about teenagers blowing up and that Brian Duffield was going to make this into a horror-romantic-dramedy was enough to sell me on this. But even then, by the time the credits rolled, all I can say was “wow.”

Romances and me do not go well together, but Katherine Langford and Charlie Plummer just click and deliver a romance that I actually believe. I believe that these are high schoolers dealing with a gargantuan amount of stress as their life changes around them on an almost daily basis from their friends constantly blowing up into millions of bloody bits. This movie captures 2020 almost perfectly, showing social unrest, trying to make the best of a bad situation, giving in to the bleakness of it all, and somehow still comes out as a life-affirming message to live your life to the fullest.

Don’t get me wrong, that embodiment of one of the worst years in modern history didn’t score any extra points for me. Why would I want to remember such a year? But it helped put Spontaneous into perspective. This is the kind of film that we needed this year, a movie that looks at all of the awful in the world and stands defiant to it. It’s a footnote that probably would have gone unnoticed in any other year but stood tall in a void made by delays. I love this film from the bottom of my heart and can easily say that Spontaneous was the best film I saw all year.

Jesse Lab
The strange one. The one born and raised in New Jersey. The one who raves about anime. The one who will go to bat for DC Comics, animation, and every kind of dog. The one who is more than a tad bit odd. The Features Editor.