I go with “satisfying.”
For me, that feels more personal — and more accurate — than “best.”
A satisfying film is one that feels complete. One where I feel like I was in the good hands of filmmakers who knew their craft and cared about their audience.
It’s one where the credits role and I am, well, satisfied. Exhale.
In contrast, unsatisfying films are ones where there’s something missing or too much of an ingredient. It could be a total train wreck (see the George Clooney clunker “The Midnight Sky”) or it could be an otherwise good film with an element that just doesn’t fit (man oh man do I wish “The Vast of Night” had an ending as strong as the rest of the film).
Also, FYI, I’m not great at ranking. I juggled this list a few times and decided that, rather than simply rank a top 10, I’ll group them.
So what satisfied me?
Pixar’s masterpiece is a wonder in part because it has so many odd, joyful, surprising details. In a cinematic world where familiarity is usually a marketing must, “Soul” dares to tell a fresh story. Yes, there’s a cute cat character, but it isn’t otherwise populated with easily plush-able personae.
The laughs come frequently — honest, sitting-in-front-of-the-TV laughs. The tears earned. The ending, beautiful. And then there are the voices — in addition to Jamie Foxx in the lead, “Soul” has Angela Bassett, Questlove, Phylicia Rashad… I could just close my eyes and listen. But that would mean missing out on the rich visuals. Is it odd to praise the lighting in an animated film?
I love love loved this film and it’s the one on the list I expect to revisit more than once.
Oh, and let’s pause for a second in praise of co-director/screenwriter Kemp Powers, who also penned “One Night in Miami” (stay tuned).
2-3 Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, One Night in Miami
It’s been a strong year for stage-to-screen projects. A bumper crop of shot-from-the-stage work, including the high-profile “Hamilton,” “What the Constitution Means to Me,” and “American Utopia,” shared home screens with archived offerings from the Stratford Festival, the National Theatre, and more.
Should these be called films? I’m still not sure, but I’ll defer to my colleagues in the Indiana Film Journalists Association who said no (although I’m not totally convinced).
Anyway, removed from their stage roots, two play adaptations that are undisputedly movies did rise to the top for me.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” makes it two-for-two for cinematic August Wilson projects (“Fences” being the other). A flawless cast, led by Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis, make magic and music out of Wilson’s unique, gritty poetry in a character-rich story that still resonates.
“One Night in Miami,” Regina King’s film of Kemp Powers’ play (told you I’d get back to him), brings Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown together for a meeting of minds that never feels stage bound and always feels urgent and important. In addition to an outstanding ensemble cast and smart direction, “One Night” crackles with the pleasure of hearing four high-profile men with very different life experiences and perspectives try to find common ground as they navigate fame in a society that doesn’t see them as full human beings.
There were more: See my “also” list, below for “The Boys in the Band,” a worthy film adaption which had a bonus of featuring its Broadway revival cast. I only wish I could have equal praise for the musical adaptation, “The Prom” which, alas, lessened its impact through overselling and a decided lack of trust in the audience leading to extraneous additions. (See my reviews of “Ma Rainey” “The Boys in the Band” and “The Prom” over at Midwest Film Journal.
4-5 Never Rarely Sometimes Always, The Assistant
Aristotle would likely glow at the way that these two films pack their plots into tight timeframes. In the former, a teen and her cousin set out from Pennsylvania to New York in order to have an abortion. In the latter, an office assistant for a film producer faces the quiet unfairness of her sexist workplace. The two films display a remarkable trust in their audiences and a confidence in our ability to care about these seemingly unexceptional women. Most of the drama is in the faces of the lead actresses (Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder in the former, Julia Garner in the latter) and the results are haunting.
6-8 A Personal History of David Copperfield, The Trial of the Chicago 7, Small Axe: Mangrove
A great ensemble cast, for me, means that there’s no anxiety about jumping from a scene with one set of characters to another scene with others because I’ve been trained by the film to care about all of them. That’s true with “Ma Rainey” and “One Night in Miami,” above, and it’s true with these three. The sparkling Dickens adaptation upped its smile quotient with the introduction of every new supporting character. It’s a textbook example of giving a new coat of paint to an existing property without violating the original. Meanwhile, “Chicago 7” bristled with sharply drawn real-life folks, with familiar actors mixing with relative unknowns to the benefit of all. It demonstrates how challenging it can be when strong personalities have similar goals but believe differently about the path needed to get there. “Mangrove” takes another trial from the same period but one likely less known to Americans. And while the cops are one-note brutes here, the defendants are all richly nuanced, giving the film a unique sense of community.
9-10. Nomadland, Minari
Frances McDormand is a national treasure. In yet another quietly strong performance, she mostly listens and watches and problem solves. It’s the kind of role we don’t see much of on film — a woman dealing with a difficult life but not someone in search of what we traditionally see as societal comforts. Also trying to carve a place in a not-always-hospitable land is the family in “Minari.” Unlike the accomplished-but-predictable “The Nest” (another 2020 offering dealing with a transplanted family where father and mother have conflicting goals), this one’s plot points never feel like a foregone conclusions. “Minari” has got humor, sadness, and a very real concern about safety vs. risk in trying to make a life for a family of individuals. And, sorry/not sorry but contrary to the clowns at the Golden Globes, this is an American story
Beyond those top ten, I took pleasure in “Another Round,” was thinking throughout “i’m thinking of ending things,” haven’t quite figure out the film but still marveled in Aubrey Plaza’s performance in “Black Bear,” found repeated joys in “Palm Springs,” was moved by “Uncle Frank,” gained a new appreciation for “The Boys in the Band,” listened closely to “Song Without a Name,” and smiled at the silliness of “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” (even though it sags a bit in the middle).
Once you check all of the bigger-name films off your to-watch list, consider digging out the crime comedy “Buffaloed,” the unappreciated relationship comedy “Banana Split” and the not-to-be-confused-with-another-film-with-a-similar-name “Sometimes Always Never.”
And good news: I recently watched two films I would have found spots for in my top- or honorable-mention lists. But I realized after the fact that they are 2021 releases. So you have some good stuff to look forward to. (I’d name names but they are embargoed.)
Among them, the lackluster Tom Hanks western “News of the World,” the who-cares “Tenet,” the letdown “Wonder Woman 1984,” the train wreck Drew Barrymore alleged comedy “The Stand In,” the tiresome “The Invisible Man,” the we’re-driving-we’re-driving-we’re-driving-some-more action film “Greenland,” the I-don’t-see-the-charm “Emma.,” and the chilly George Clooney clunker “The Midnight Sun.”