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My Take on the Best Dramas and Best Docs of 2020

15 March 2021

The Oscar nominations were announced this morning and streaming services are heavily represented with Netflix’s Mank scoring a leading 10 nominations. Check out the full list here: https://variety.com/2021/film/news/2021-oscars-nominations-list-nominees-1234928711/.  Winners will not be known until April 25.

What follows are my choices for the best dramas and docs of 2020 (with the caveat that I have yet to be able to see several potential contenders, notably: News of the World, Minari, The Father, and Promising Young Woman among others). With theatres mostly closed, almost all of these were seen via streaming services.  You will note that all of my top dramas are also American productions. 2020 was anything but a normal year for movie releases. But here’s hoping that the big screen experience will return in force later this year.

 

Best Dramas

1.      Nomadland (U.S.)

 

The best by far, this is only the third feature by director Chloé Zhao who, although she grew up in China, shows a remarkable eye for evocative American landscapes and characters who inhabit them.  This road movie, inspired by Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book, also has an unforgettable performance by Frances McDormand as an older woman who becomes a modern-day nomad in the wake of life-altering hardships shared by many on society’s margins.  After a limited theatrical release, the movie will be able to stream on Disney+ as of April 9. [For more comment see: https://www.vulture.com/article/chloe-zhao-nomadland.html and https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2021/02/chloe-zhao-nomadland-interview/618061/ ]

 

2.      Judas and the Black Messiah (U.S.)

 

Director and co-writer Shaka King effectively recreates the radical atmosphere of the Black Panther movement in late 1960s Chicago leading up to the FBI-ordered assassination of its leader Fred Hampton. Great performances by Daniel Kayuuga as Hampton and Lakeith Stanfield as FBI informant Bill O’Neal who infiltrated Hampton’s inner circle.

 

3.      Soul  (U.S.)

This Pixar production is the year’s most wondrous piece of animation.  The story centres on an African-American jazz pianist Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx) who takes a soulful journey into the afterlife.   

4.      Da Five Bloods (U.S.)

Director Spike Lee’s searing drama follows four African-American Vietnam vets who return to Vietnam in search of the remains of their fallen troop leader (“Stormin’ Norman” played by Chadwick Boseman) and a supposed fortune in gold.

5.      Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom  (U.S.)

This historical drama about a recording session among African-American musicians may become best known as the last performance of Chadwick Boseman who died of cancer at age 43 in August 2020. Released posthumously, he plays Levee, an upstart trumpet player who tangles with “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey (Viola Davis). Boseman (best known for the role of “Black Panther” in the 2018 Marvel movie) is a favorite to win a posthumous Oscar.

6.      First Cow (U.S.)

 

Among American indie filmmakers, Kelly Reichardt stands out. This story, set during the settlement of the Pacific Northwest, concerns stolen not spilled milk as the hapless cook to a group of trappers and a Chinese immigrant concoct a profitable scheme under the noses of the powerful.

 

7.      The Trial of the Chicago 7 (U.S.)

From writer-director Aaron Sorkin, this powerfully recreates the prosecution of those charged following the demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.  Excellent performances include Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden and Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman.

8.      Mank  (U.S.)

Gary Oldman gives another great performance as the alcoholic screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz who, bedridden following an accident, famously collaborated on the screenplay for Orson Welles’ classic Citizen Kane. David Fincher directs and the picture is lensed in luminous back and white.

9.      One Night in Miami (U.S.)

Black Female director Regina King gets terrific performances from an African-American male cast in this fictionalized account of the night when a group that included Malcom X gathered on the occasion of the boxing match as Cassius Clay, soon to be Muhammad Ali,  became the world heavyweight champion.

10.  Sound of Metal (U.S.)

Riz Ahmed gives an extraordinary performance as Ruben, a heavy metal drummer who loses his hearing and must learn to cope with the world of the deaf.

Best Documentary Features

First I must mention two outstanding documentary series.  The first, from 2018, is Mark Cousins’ 14-episode Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema which was broadcast on the TCM channel during 2020.  For content check out the series website: https://www.womenmakefilm.net/.  The second extraordinary series is the latest from David Attenborough, A Perfect Planet, the five episodes of which are on BBC earth which can be streamed as an extra channel through Amazon Prime Video.  Now on to the best features.

1.      Boys State (U.S.)

For years the American Legion has been bringing young people to state legislatures to participate in annual exercises in representative government.  This is a highly revealing observation of one such exercise when a thousand 17-year old boys assembled in Austin, Texas.  Winner of a Sundance grand jury prize and many other awards.  Listen here to a conversation among Michael Moore, the directing duo of Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, and Steven Garza, a Mexican-American participant: https://boysstateevent.com/.  

2.      Time (U.S.)

Garrett Bradley directs this extraordinary story of a wife, Fox Rich, fighting tirelessly for the release of her incarcerated husband Rob who received a grossly unfair 60-year prison sentence.  A deeply human look at the inhumanity and racism of the prison-industrial complex.

3.      Collective (Romania/Luxembourg/Germany)

A searing investigation of the corruption exposed in the aftermath of a deadly 2015 nightclub fire in Bucharest. Seldom have a society’s ills been laid so bare through the prism of tragedy.

4.      76 Days (China/U.S.)

There will surely be more films made about the Covi-19 pandemic.  Although mostly shot in one hospital in the first outbreak city of Wuhan, this intensive frontline look at the initial period of lockdown and medial response will continue to stand out as essential viewing.

5.      Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds (U.S.)

Master filmmaker Werner Herzog again teams up with geographer and volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer to explore the phenomenon of meteors and comets and their earthly impacts, including on human cultures.

6.      Crip Camp (U.S.)

Not far from the site of Woodstock in New York state a summer camp was established for persons with disabilities that played a seminal role in the recognition of their rights in American law. The film uses archival images to capture how this camp inspired a movement.

7.      John Lewis: Good Trouble  (U.S.)

Director Dawn Porter’s biopic is a fitting tribute to the remarkable courageous career of the late John Lewis, one of the leaders of the 1960s civil rights movement, who went on to represent an Atlanta district for 17 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.

8.      All In: The Fight for Democracy (U.S.)

This film also relates to politics in Georgia as it follows the efforts of Stacy Abrams who ran for governor in 2018.  Through that democratic contest it explores the wider issues of voter suppression tactics across America.

9.      Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President (U.S. https://www.jimmycartermovie.com/)

Even in his 90s, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter continues to set an example of service to others. This is a fond look back at the relationships he forged with many popular musicians during his time in office, and the human touch and charm he brought to the role. 

10.  Dolly Parton: Here I Am (UK)

Dolly Parton is more than just a much-loved country singer.  She is a songwriting genius and something of a force of nature.  Director Francis Whately’s absorbing film does full justice to her remarkable life and career that spans decades and is still going strong.

 

 

 

 

 

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