While movie industry box office numbers understandably flopped because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, at year's end there remained hope that, no matter the scourges afflicting our world, filmmakers can respond with artistry and inspiration.
Of relatively recent vintage on various streaming services, here are this movie lover's five favorite 2020 films, with both a caveat of "so far" and an admission there are many films that, for accessibility reasons, remain unseen. Hence, an official list this is not.
And a Top 10 isn't quite possible, but these five movies, consisting of two documentaries ("My Octopus Teacher" and "Fireball: Visitors from Other Worlds") and three fictional feature films, show movie magic remains. If you've missed them, seek them out.
Two of the movies have roots in other sources, one a real-life Hollywood saga ("Mank," based on Herman J. Mankiewicz's role as a "Citizen Kane" screenwriter), the other a standout play ("Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," based on the August Wilson play).
"Soul" — Out now on Disney+, "Soul" is such a breath of thoughtful goodness at a time when that is sorely needed. Metaphysically adventurous, poignant and fun, this film is perfect for our moment in time as it explores how to revel in life in the face of death. What happens when a down-on-his-luck band teacher but aspiring jazz musician is sent to the afterlife at the very moment he seemingly realizes his life's dream? This animated movie, starring Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey, explores just that.
"Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" — Though it's fairly stage-bound visually, the dynamic performances of Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman more than make up for it in this Netflix flick, along with the greatness of the source material in an August Wilson play of the same name. The issues it explores, about being a Black artist in a racially abusive America, remain relevant. Davis breathes fierce life into her portrayal of the title character, a blues singer recording an album, while Boseman flashes a brilliance that will be missed in years to come.
"Mank" — Another Netflix newcomer for the year's end, this exquisitely photographed David Fincher-directed film explores the days when booze hound scribe Herman J. Mankiewicz, holed up with a bum leg and a secretary, strives to complete the screenplay for what would eventually be considered one of the greatest films of all time: "Citizen Kane." From first frame to last, this film is delicious — a writer's movie, a Hollywood lore lover's movie.
"My Octopus Teacher" — One of those unassuming Netflix documentaries that's all too easy to miss, "My Octopus Teacher" is not your typical year-in-the-life chronicle. It explores the fascination and obsession filmmaker Craig Foster develops with an octopus he discovers in a kelp forest near his South African home. The film, directed by Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed, is both transcendent and intensely personal as it explores the relationship these two disparate creatures, a human and an octopus, seem to foster. Beautifully shot, it's a powerful tale of inter-species communication.
"Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds" — Werner Herzog's sense of wonder and appreciation for the world around us remains one of the great, abiding salvations in cinema, albeit with his unmistakable sense of drama and philosophical speculation. Here, Herzog joins forces with British volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer to investigate meteorites and other deep space visitors in this Apple TV+ film, which also has a knack to find both the marvelously specific and the universal. It's pretty darn cosmic cinematic fare.