The 15 best films of a bizarre (and probably historic) year for film
December 19, 2020
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Clear your year end vacation schedule, there's streaming to do.
Enlarge / Clear your year end vacation schedule, there’s streaming to do.

Nathan Mattise / ESPN / Orion Pictures / Ingrid Haas / Warner Bros. / Joshua Tsui / Fantasia Fest

“2020 has been a weird year for film” feels like a massive understatement even in the moment. The pandemic has ransacked reliable sources of new films like theaters and film festivals. And any number of major titles we may have looked forward to on January 1, 2020 (from Dune to Top Gun) have instead chosen to push back by at least 12 months.

In just a few years, however, it feels more likely we’ll look back at 2020 not as “weird,” but as an industry inflection point. Warner Bros. is the first major studio to push an entire year’s worth of film releases to streaming services simultaneously with whatever theaters are open, a trend that has loomed over the film landscape ever since streaming-first companies like Netflix and Amazon have become major production powers. And just a year after an independent foreign film took home the Oscars top prize, the uncertainty of the box office moving forward may all but ensure the only stuff that makes it to most theaters (whatever that landscape may look like heading into 2022 and beyond) will be heavily reliant on familiar IP, whether that means superheroes, space, or some other established film franchise behemoth.

Today, we’re not here to hypothesize or fret about film’s future, though. As grim as things seem, right now there’s still an ample amount of diverse new films worth getting excited about. From the streaming services churning out new work with heavyweights (from Mank to Da Five Bloods), to unorthodox productions pleasing massive audiences (American Utopia, Hamilton), to however you want to classify a new 2020 Borat film, 2020 may have been harrowing for films at large but it gave film fans just as many exciting new titles to enjoy as almost any other year.

We’ve whittled down the cache of new films we’ve seen across screeners, drive-ins, streaming services, and VOD film festivals into a list of the 15 best things we’ve seen these last 12 bizarre months. So with apologies to some supposedly great films we just haven’t caught (the pandemic horror classic, Host; RZA’s post Katrina action film, Cut Throat City; one of many excellent COVID-19 docs, Totally Under Control) and to the promising titles that just rolled out to late for us to consider (Wonder Woman 1984, Soul, or promising documentary, The Last Blockbuster), these are the best films of 2020. In alphabetical order…

Be Water

We are living in a golden age for documentary, with more platforms than ever willing to invest in a filmmaking genre that traditionally wouldn’t deliver massive numbers at the box office. (On top of that, there’s perhaps a premium on facts and truth for a majority of the country.) Perhaps our favorite for 2020 comes from one of the modern documentary scene’s stalwarts: ESPN. Be Water provides an in depth look at the life and impact of Bruce Lee, leveraging Lee’s own unearthed writings, interviews with friends and family, and oodles upon oodles of great footage. The Last Dance (rightfully) sucked up a lot of the (attention) oxygen for ESPN’s 2020 output, but Be Water is the more apt film for the times, especially in a year where COVID-19 fears bred anti-Asian sentiment and thousands continue to take to the streets in support of Black Americans. In between all the action brilliance and details showcasing Lee’s immense cultural significance, director Bao Nguyen never lets audiences forget the actor rose to prominence in the United States during the 1960s civil rights era. More than a platform for some cool Lee facts and face-offs, Be Water again and again shows him as a man of his time pushing for equality across many aspects of his life.

—Nathan Mattise || Stream the film on ESPN+.

Bill & Ted: Face The Music

If you would call yourself a Bill & Ted series diehard—the kind who suffered through the uneven cartoon adaptation and has written lengthy online analyses of their Bogus Journey—this blurb isn’t for you. You have already seen (and adored) Bill & Ted Face The Music, the series’ third feature-length film from this August, and you got everything you wanted: A tasteful transition from George Carlin’s character Rufus, a healthy dump of amusing references from the original films, and a whole lot of Keanu.

For the rest of us, B&T3 isn’t necessarily essential viewing. But it sure is an ideal film for this year: one that is perhaps too polished and amusing for “straight to video” designation, yet whose cheesy ending and occasional momentum stumbles are all the easier to swallow as high-quality living-room viewing. The sequel’s absolute highlight is its toying with Bill S. Preston Esq. and Ted Theodore Logan’s multiple selves colliding via near-term time travel. The filmmakers apply deft green-screen editing to slam the characters into each other, thus mining this gimmick to incredible comic effect while standing out from other takes. (For my money, I enjoyed it more here than as an Avengers Endgame macguffin, as much as I liked that film.)

Plus, this year is an ideal one to see old, comfortable characters slot into ridiculously happy, stars-aligned endings. All of us at Ars were able to put our critical glasses down and beamed with misty eyes to see Bill, Ted, and their families get their wicked licks together just in time to save the world (spoiler alert, whatever, you’ll see it coming). We urge you to get your own kids together to do the same.

—Sam Machkovech, Esq. || Stream the film on almost every VOD/Rental platform on the Internet.

Trailer for Feels Good Man.

Feels Good Man

Making a good film about the Internet is hard (see modern film history from The Net onward); making a compelling and true film about the Internet might be Cuphead-level hard. And while anyone who’s seen Feels Good Man will inevitably refer to it as “the Pepe film” (yep, the same animated frog co-opted by the alt right), this documentary earned a place in our hearts for how thoroughly it understands and explains the way information spreads and evolves in the most unvisited corners of the Internet. Illustrator Matt Furie is an extremely willing participant for director Arthur Jones throughout, but it’s Feels Good Man’s diversity of interviews that ensures this film paints a fuller and more robust picture of modern online media. From 4chan users to scholars studying meme spread, major television illustrators to a digital director for the Trump 2016 campaign, the array of perspectives encompassed in Feels Good Man might make Ken Burns blush. It’ll definitely give viewers at all levels of Internet savvy something new to think about.

—Nathan Mattise || Stream this film on most major VOD platforms (Amazon Prime, Microsoft Store, Google Play, Vimeo on Demand, et al.)

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