Ever since cinema became a study of mine (25 years ago), I have eagerly awaited each year’s top films. For a while my interest was casual—that is, as a film enthusiast only. When I became a film critic in 2011, I felt more urgency to be aware of the best emerging from Cannes, Sundance, and the Academy Awards—even if I didn’t write reviews of many.
This year, however, was different, for I was no longer a bystander to the process of what gets classified as “the best.” No, I have not joined the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences…yet. I went a little more local, being admitted, this year, to the Boston Online Film Critics Association (BOFCA).
As a member of BOFCA, I was asked to take part in the group’s annual voting for best films and top choices in other key, filmmaking categories.
I once had an argument with a professional screenwriter who claimed “no one cares what critics think.” As a screenwriter myself, I understood his frustration with movie reviewers, who swoop in to judge something a writer (and many others) have worked hard on for years. I was only a fledgling critic at the time and did not have much of a response.
All these years later, I do. If we were to have the same conversation, I would reply, “If no one cares what critics think, why did I just receive over 100 screeners –digital and hard copy—from studios, production companies and publicity firms?” Clearly, someone wants to know my opinion, good or bad, so people will see and talk about their movies.
And it was more than just screeners I received. In some cases, I was sent numerous press materials, including two, large coffee table books that were sweeter than Kosmo Kramer’s coffee table book about coffee tables.
I always understood studios mounted campaigns to get nominations and awards, but I had never been the object of one. The amount of material was dizzying, and to be honest sometimes the flash caught my eye more than it should have. Perhaps I passed on more worthy films because an aggressive campaign succeeded in cutting through the noise to get my attention. Like politics, it’s a lousy system, but it’s the system we have.
Beginning in mid-November, even before throats were cleared for seasons greetings and yuletide songs, the links and the DVDs started to arrive. I attempted to watch one film per day. I didn’t always meet this goal, but I came pretty close, and I can confidently say I was ahead of the award season curve. In years past, I would mostly see award-winning films after the fact, but this year I saw a number well in advance of general release.
Because one has limited time there is temptation to vote for what one has seen. It’s a form of inertia. If I had viewed more, perhaps I would not have included The King of Staten Island in my top ten. Perhaps I should have left it out if my feelings about it were neutral.
There are numerous tales of Academy members voting for films they did not see. I could never go that far, but I understand more about the sausage making process than I had previously, and there are distinct challenges that come with the privilege of voting.
Musings aside, below are quick thoughts on my top ten choices. And here is a link to BOFCA’s top ten films of 2020 and all other category choices, which clearly include some gems I missed in the hurly burly of awards season.
- First Cow. A muted tale of frontier life in Oregon. Not the saga of violence and nature The Revenant gave us, but a powerful story of friendship and survival.
- I’m Your Woman. Opposite in every way from First Cow but just as compelling. A gun moll to a gangster seizes the gun and gets dragged into the demi monde—while desperately trying to escape it.
- Minari. A Korean family moves to Arkansas in the 1980s to become farmers. Not a story of racism you might expect but still one of tragedy and triumph.
- Nomadland. Is there anything Frances McDormand can’t do? The answer: in cinema, no. She succeeds again with this slice of life story many Americans are unaware of.
- One Night in Miami. This year, racism was impossible to avoid discussing, and there were a slew of films that tackled the subject. This movie worked best, balancing four unforgettable characters whose names I won’t give away. Hint: you’ll know them all instantly!
- Palm Springs. Comedy is often overlooked during awards season, but I couldn’t—at least when it came to this Andy Samberg riot. The plot is familiar but the attitude will win anyone over.
- Promising Young Woman. Another film in which a woman turns the tables on men who wrongfully hold power. A #MeToo film if there ever was one.
- Boys State. A documentary about a yearly gathering of young men who engage in a civics camp. Are politicians and behind the scenes operatives born or made? This chronicle seeks to answer the question.
- News of the World. Like Frances McDormand, it seems Tom Hanks always comes up roses. In his long career, I don’t believe he’s ever been in a western, but he shows no inexperience in this role and the powerful story he carries.
- The King of Staten Island. I reviewed this movie for Blast, which was one of the first to be released during the pandemic and gave everyone a chuckle betwixt and between the bad news of 2020. On those merits alone –even though it’s very funny—it deserves inclusion on this list.