Before we begin, the answer to the question surely on your minds: Why is this year-end list arriving … in February? Utter laziness on the part of your local film critics is a solid guess, but the real answer is: the DFW Film Critics Association (of which I’m a voting member) delayed this year’s ballot to include films released through the end of February. That lines up with the crop of films eligible for this year’s Academy Awards.
Topping the association’s list this year is “Nomad,” which will be released on Hulu and theaters Feb. 19. Chadwick Boseman (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”) and Carey Mulligan (“Promising Young Woman”) earned the lead acting honors with Daniel Kaluuya (“Judas and the Black Messiah”) and Amanda Seyfried (“Mank”) winning in the supporting categories. Chloe Zhao earned best director for “Nomadland” and Emerald Fennell was awarded best screenplay for “Promising Young Woman.”
Check out the full list of winners on the association’s website.
As with most years, I agreed with some of the choices, disagreed with others. Here are my highlights of the year in film:
- Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – Director George C. Wolfe’s film adaptation of August Wilson’s 1982 play for the most part feels like … we’re watching a play. All the action takes place in a recording studio and a downstairs locker room with an occasional walk outside onto the sweltering Chicago streets. Many directors feel the need to have their fingerprints all over their films, but Wolfe’s largely hands-off approach clears the way for the real stars of the show: Wilson’s words about racial power structures spoken through the mouths of the excellent Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman. (Streaming on Netflix)
- Lovers Rock – Remember when people used to get together to drink and dance and have a good time? I was having a hard time conjuring those memories before watching this entry in Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” anthology. There’s very little in the way of exposition or even plot as we watch members of London’s West Indian community spend all day prepping for a throbbing house party. And once that party gets going, the sense of community and ability to finally relax becomes palatable. Easily the best soundtrack for a movie this year. (Streaming on Amazon Prime)
- One Night in Miami … — What would happen if Jim Brown, Sam Cooke, Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X got together behind closed doors and got to talking? The four icons really did all find themselves in the title city on the same night in 1964. And imagining what they might’ve talked about turns out to be a multilayered, fascinating thought experiment. Oscar-winning actress Regina King makes a strong case for her talents behind the camera in bringing Kemp Powers’ 2013 play to the screen. (Streaming on Amazon Prime)
- Nomadland – If all those Instagram feeds about van life make itinerancy seem glamorous, this film is probably a more realistic depiction. In her last Oscar-winning performance (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”), Frances McDormand was the embodiment of righteous anger. Here she’s much, much quieter though equally communicative. Might need to clear another spot on her mantle. (Streaming Feb. 19 on Hulu)
- Sound of Metal – A rock drummer abruptly loses his hearing and is forced to figure out his new identity. Riz Ahmed is rightly earning raves for his raw emotion and intensity, and Paul Raci also deserves kudos as the man trying to delicately guide Ahmed’s Ruben into the world of the hearing impaired. (Streaming on Amazon Prime)
- Crip Camp – Easily the most inspiring film I saw all year, this documentary visits a camp run by hippies in the early 1970s that for part of the summer allowed teenagers with disabilities to just let their hair down and relax. Some of those teens went on to became major advocates for people with disabilities and ultimately pushed through the Americans With Disabilities Act, which celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2020. (Streaming on Netflix)
- My Octopus Teacher – A man living on the coast of South Africa jumps in the water each day for a year to visit his octopus friend. And make no mistake – it’s clear from the footage that the friendship goes both ways. The luminous underwater vistas are worth the time on their own. (Streaming on Netflix)
- Mank – David Fincher tells the story of how Herman Mankiewicz came to write “Citizen Kane” using a script written by Fincher’s late father, Jack. All the 1930s talk about the fear of socialism and the land being taken over by outsiders is surely coincidental. (Streaming on Netflix)
- The Trial of the Chicago 7 – Writer and director Aaron Sorkin knows how to tell stories of high-minded people (“West Wing”) and certainly knows his way around a courtroom drama (“A Few Good Men”). Those strengths come together here in an expertly paced story of the uprising at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. If you’ve never seen Sacha Baron Cohen in a serious role, this is a good place to start. (Streaming on Netflix)
- The Father – What must it be like to suffer from dementia – so sure of the world as you see it through your own eyes, and yet so detached from the reality experienced by those around you? Anthony Hopkins captures that blend of confusion and clarity as the title character, who spars with his daughter (Olivia Coleman) over his new living arrangement in this adaptation of Florian Zeller’s play.
Honorable mentions: “Boy’s State,” “Minari,” “Da 5 Bloods,” “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” “Palm Springs”