The Daily Californian’s Arts Awards: Film of 2020

Netflix/Courtesy

Best Motion Picture

Winner: “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”

Courtesy: Netflix

A young woman (Jessie Buckley) rides in the passenger’s seat, journeying through snowy, winding roads to meet her new boyfriend Jake’s (Jesse Plemons) parents; throughout their trip, the enigmatic, loaded phrase “I’m thinking of ending things” sloshes around in her mind.

In his newest movie, filmmaker Charlie Kaufman reimagines Iain Reid’s suspenseful novel “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” by leveraging his own penchant for the uncanny, which has characterized much of his famed repertoire — including “Being John Malkovich” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”

“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is the type of movie that melts the mind. When stripped to its narrative bare bones, the film resembles a meet-the-parents drama. Kaufman uses his unique artistic drive, however, to expand on this simple premise, crafting an engrossing surrealist meditation on loneliness, decay and the prison of being perceived.

 Through breadcrumbs in the dialogue and editing, Kaufman conjures recurrent motifs that unspool in an atmospheric whirlwind. The anchors of this captivating commotion are found in the leading performances from Buckley and Plemons. Buckley, in particular, adapts to her fluctuating character with remarkable control.

“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” dazzles and dizzies even its most attentive viewer; the film is a psychological feast boasting richly clever construction and riveting performances.

Maya Thompson

Runner-up: “Palm Springs”

In a year crowded by ensemble dramas and celebrated auteur outings, “Palm Springs” is a dark horse if there ever was one. But while it has all the hallmarks of a safe and forgettable summer rom-com, it isn’t long before the film ingeniously turns the time-loop premise on its head.

Gone are the meet-cutes and trial-by-error one-day romances of “Groundhog Day” et al. This ever-repeating wedding is a hangover- and consequence-free bender for Nyles (Andy Samberg) — that is, until he accidentally pulls maid of honor Sarah (Cristin Milioti) into the time loop with him.

Timey wimey antics ensue, and watching this irreverent love story unfold is a summery good time. But gorgeous pastel visuals, effortless pacing and surprisingly deep character study mark “Palm Springs” as one of the best films — and easily the best comedy — of 2020.

Olive Grimes

Best Animated Feature

Winner: “Phineas and Ferb the Movie: Candace Against the Universe”

Courtesy: Disney

Phineas and Ferb the Movie: Candace Against the Universe,” a Disney+ original film, perfectly captures the ingenuity of the original “Phineas and Ferb” series even years after it ended, bringing back its most beloved characters back for a Candace-centered adventure. The film feels like a lost episode from the show’s run — as Candace laments never being able to bust her brothers for their antics, she finds sympathy in the aliens that accidentally sweep her and Vanessa away from Earth. In the chaos that ensues as her brothers, their friends and Dr. Doofenshmirtz all try to rescue her, Candace learns that after all, her brothers really do care about her, even if they cause her endless frustrations. 

There is no shortage of creativity throughout every aspect of “Candace Against the Universe.” The zany animation and witty humor keep kids and adults alike entertained with their sheer whimsicality, and — as is the case with the original series — this film features several incredibly danceable songs that delightfully accompany the characters on their adventures. All in all, “Phineas and Ferb the Movie: Candace Against the Universe” smartly revisits the best aspect of the original series, resulting in a movie that will entice younger audiences and also work as a nostalgic hit for those who grew up with the original characters.

Caitlin Keller

Runner-up: “Onward” 

Onward” is a movie that illustrates what Pixar does best: It is relatable, heartwarming and incredibly emotional. Though its theatrical run was cut short by the pandemic, the quick turnaround from the big screen to streaming on Disney+ allowed viewers to invite its magical world straight into their homes. Despite complications with its release and its poor box office returns, the film’s depiction of two brothers, Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt), resonates with audiences because of its sheer charm and surprising depth. 

Emphasizing the importance of familial bonds in coping with the overwhelming distress of grief, “Onward” exemplifies Pixar’s strength in tackling mature themes with whimsical settings and lighthearted humor. Full of heart and authenticity, “Onward” certainly stands out as one of the best animated features of 2020 — something Pixar continues to accomplish year after year. 

Sarah Runyan

Best Documentary

Winner: “The Social Dilemma”

Courtesy: Netflix

Calling “The Social Dilemma” essential 2020 cinema is no understatement, and perhaps all that needs saying about the film. The Netflix release is a shocking realization of social media’s sway, and while it may not work its way into classic documentary in the same way “Collective” might, it surely does what any fine documentary sets out to do: tell a story and make people care. 

Children of the internet might wonder, after making it through the film, “Why wasn’t I taught this,” probably with an “uh-oh” mixed in if anything in the vast realm of addiction and social media stuck. Just as quickly, it becomes clear that social media design and abuse are a subject of their own. The scope of the issue is never lost on the viewer — the interviewees sprinkle a shimmering covering of hyperbole over what is an uncomfortable blind spot to nearly everyone who grew up in the internet age. 

Yet, the greatest takeaway is that this blind spot, social media, infiltrates everyone’s thoughts, from the sultry middle schooler to their Facebook-happy aunt. There’s no wiggle room for frivolity, for boring excess. The film’s assemblage of social media experts all understand the same principle: What’s quick sticks. No different, “The Social Dilemma” adheres to the guiding rule of what it disdains. It’s bite-sized, snippety and will make you ask yourself why you just opened Instagram. 

Dominic Marziali

Runner-up: “Dick Johnson Is Dead” 

Dick Johnson Is Dead” may be one of the weirdest studies in grief ever caught on camera, but luckily for director Kirsten Johnson, it works. Johnson conceived the project in light of her father’s dementia, anticipating his passing with a series of elaborate, cartoonish death scenes. The beauty of cinema, however, is such that each time Dick falls down a flight of stairs or has a heavy object dropped on his head, he can simply get back up. 

Part love letter and part dark comedy, the documentary thus becomes a way for Johnson and her father to confront the idea of death while also ruthlessly picking it apart; it feels at once like a satire of mortality and an embrace of it. Johnson walks a delicate tightrope of sentimentality and dark humor, of devotion and irreverence, but never once does she fall.

— Lauren Sheehan-Clark

Best Actor 

Winner: Delroy Lindo, “Da 5 Bloods” 

Courtesy: Netflix

68-year-old British actor Delroy Lindo holds a decadeslong career in film with more than 70 screen credits — experience that he’s clearly brought onto the table in his starring role as Vietnam War veteran Paul in Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods.” Lindo previously worked with Lee on “Malcolm X,” “Crooklyn” and “Clockers,” fostering a creative relationship that has borne many fruits. In “Da 5 Bloods,” Lindo’s character grapples with post-traumatic stress disorder as he travels back to Vietnam, the very place at the root of his suffering. Lindo tackles this tough material exceptionally, including having to consciously deal with the fact that Paul is a Trump supporter — a character trait Lindo had to learn to empathize with and explore extensively. 

That’s what makes his performance so raw and untethered: Lindo’s own conscience conflicts with the character’s, which results in a human connection that successfully explores the way someone’s self-frustration and trauma could lead them to be a Trumpite. The perfect gateway into the psyche of the heavily conflicted Paul, Lindo rises into the mold of this role with vigorous zeal and soul. Lindo isn’t retiring anytime soon, and hopefully greater recognition for his outstanding work will soon come his way. 

— Cameron Opartkiettikul

Runner-up: Sacha Baron Cohen, “The Trial of the Chicago 7”

Donning a masterful American accent, Sacha Baron Cohen runs miles with his performance as defendant Abbie Hoffman in “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” Baron Cohen gives remarkable life to Hoffman, the progressive activist who founded the Youth International Party, or Yippies. Emulating the gravity of the 1960s’ Civil Rights Movement, Baron Cohen’s performance leaves viewers captivated, wholly channeling Hoffman’s courageous political determination.

Baron Cohen’s background in improvisational character comedy radiates into his interpretation of Hoffman, adding a natural, comforting touch to the film. As the climax of the federal court case climbs and culminates, Baron Cohen balances wit with worry, smiles with sensibility and irony with inspiration, keeping audiences on the edge of their seats in anticipation of the final verdict.

Ashley Tsai

Best Actress

Winner: Cristin Milioti, “Palm Springs”

Courtesy: Hulu

“Palm Springs” was the most refreshing romantic comedy of the year, and while many have praised the film’s clever subversions of familiar “Groundhog Day” tropes, its greatest highlight is Cristin Milioti’s excellent, emotionally grounded performance.

When Milioti’s character Sarah encounters Nyles (Andy Samberg) at her sister’s wedding, there is instantly a clear and undeniable chemistry between the two co-stars. Though they’re trapped together in the same time loop, Sarah stands out as the more compelling of the two main characters. Milioti imbues Sarah with equal amounts of comedic charm, intelligence and emotional complexity — her triumphs, as the film’s proactive protagonist, are just as exciting to witness as the emotional journey she undergoes in her romantic relationship with Nyles. Milioti’s performance lends great authenticity to Sarah as she struggles and eventually learns to accept the worst parts of herself. In fact, it’s not until Sarah confronts her own personal betrayals and embraces her past that the movie has its biggest moment of catharsis. 

Milioti was one of the best surprises to come out of “How I Met Your Mother” and with “Palm Springs,” she adds to her career another outstanding performance — one that is as subtly nuanced as it is hilarious. 

Vincent Tran

Runner-up: Jessie Buckley, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”

Jessie Buckley delivers a grounded performance as the star of Charlie Kaufman’s “I’m Thinking of Ending Things.” While her character spirals through a vortex of names and personalities, Buckley always retains control — she is never distracted or overwhelmed by the film’s crafted chaos.

From the furrow of her brow to the melancholic pout of her mouth, Buckley’s every movement is rich with meaning and eagerly captivating. Her character’s melancholic disposition never veers into boredom — even when Kaufman confines her to uncomfortable circumstances, such as an awkward car ride that has clearly overstayed its welcome, or an anxious walk through a seemingly time-warped house.

Buckley’s performance compliments those of her co-stars, especially Jesse Plemons, who plays her character’s awkward boyfriend. Buckley is convincing and compelling in her performance, delivering nuanced reactions that encourage viewers to become immersed and invested in the movie.

Maya Thompson

Best Supporting Actor

Winner: J.K. Simmons, “Palm Springs” 

Courtesy: Hulu

Best known for his Academy Award-winning performance as a disciplinary music conductor in “Whiplash,” J.K. Simmons continues to be an electrifying presence on screen, capturing audiences’ attention regardless of whether he has a major or minor role. 

Though many may watch “Palm Springs” for the chemistry between the film’s leads, Nyles (Andy Samberg) and Sarah (Cristin Milioti), J.K. Simmons’ performance as Roy largely illustrates the core of the film’s existential themes. On a mission to torment Nyles after he is dragged into a time loop, Roy’s initial violence and intimidation make up the majority of the film’s rather dark humor. But, as Roy’s pre-loop life is revealed, viewers are invited to sympathize with him. 

Simmons showcases both his comedic and dramatic talent, perfectly executing the film’s most hilarious moments along with its more poignant ones. Roy brings much depth to the cyclical nature of the loop because, distinct from the film’s two leads, his bright future as a husband and father is halted by the consequences of living the same day over and over again. 

Though Simmons’ performance may only make up a small piece of “Palm Springs,” his commanding presence is nevertheless of great significance, transforming the character from a vengeful, yet humorous menace into one that helps bring new perspective to the monotony of an altered universe. 

Sarah Runyan

Runner-up: Jesse Plemons, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”

One of the reasons Jesse Plemons’ performance as Jake in “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is so enthralling is the way Plemons makes simple glances or posture adjustments unsettling. Plemons nails the subtext of Kaufman’s complicated script by portraying Jake as sympathetic at first. He’s pathetic, yet somewhat charming — audiences assume his girlfriend wants to “end things” because Jake’s just kind of an awkward bore. Once Jake reaches his childhood home, however, Plemons skillfully allows a latent sense of foreboding to creep into his mannerisms. 

Plemons conveys Jake’s increasingly sullen and passive-aggressive mood through eccentric dialogue delivery and subtle nervous tics that feel truly subconscious. Though Kaufman’s story sharply changes narrative direction at various points, Plemons skillfully adapts to enhance each scene’s distinct, bizarre tone. And yet, the decisions that inform Jake’s behavior are never arbitrary — Plemons grounds the paradoxical semi-Kaufman-surrogate character in reality, allowing Jake to be flawed and frustrating, but also relatable.

Neil Haeems

Best Supporting Actress

Winner: Toni Collette, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”

Courtesy: Netflix

Veteran character actor Toni Collette has hit her stride in the past five years through an eclectic mix of high-impact characters. It’s her depiction of the fragile and crumbling Mother in “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” however, that elevates her to a must-watch for years to come. There is much to be said about Collette’s performance — the way her face contorts from pained laughter to urgent sobbing in a moment, her elicitation of the uncanny just through an uncomfortable long stare – but it’s the way she can transform the quiet moments into the most heart-rending that separates from the rest. 

Collette embraces with grace and rigor the unique challenge of playing the same character through multiple periods of her life. Minor adjustments to her walking pattern and posture go a long way to elevate the rest of the material. Collette nurtures the Mother character — who could have become an insensitive, sideshow device meant to generate superficial creepiness — into a fully fleshed-out person struggling to put her best foot forward. When the Mother catches her tiny slip-ups, Collette makes it easy to understand the sheer embarrassment she is feeling, so much so that she quickly becomes one of the most empathetic characters in the film. 

Jake S. Lilian

Runner-up: Jeanise Jones, “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”

Jeanise Jones is a rare feature for a Borat film. After all, Sacha Baron Cohen’s titular character serves to expose racist, sexist and generally bigoted Americans who are unaware they are appearing in a movie. Jones is a 62-year-old Oklahoma woman who Baron Cohen recruits to babysit his character’s daughter, Tutar, who arrives preaching a slew of alarmingly sexist practices. Instead of perpetuating these ideals, Jones is a beacon of positivity and feminism for Tutar. Jones stays true to her morals in guiding Tutar, taking leaps far beyond prescribed babysitting practices. Most importantly, she is not an actress — she is herself. Jones provides a relief from the white supremacist, anti-Semitic narrative parroted by the many Texans and Oklahomans who Borat exposes throughout the film. In many ways, she is the epitome of an audience surrogate, who alters viewers’ engagement through a refreshing point of view — one not found in the first film.

Ethan Waters

Best Ensemble Cast

Winner: “The Trial of the Chicago 7” 

Courtesy: Netflix

At this point in his career, Aaron Sorkin’s knack for writing eccentric boys-wonder and white-collar antiheroes is a known variable. It takes quite an actor to keep up, but there isn’t a single weak link among the ensemble cast of “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” Make no mistake: While Sorkin orchestrates the chaos with a deft hand, this legal drama is an acting exhibition through and through.

Sacha Baron Cohen may have won runner-up for his lead performance as Abbie Hoffman, but he shares the screen with some of his stiffest competition. Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) is the straight-laced, electoral leftist to match Abbie’s bombastic Yippie showmanship. There’s a palpable, yet unspoken enmity each time they butt heads over tactical disagreements, a thread that becomes a compelling dramatic center to the seven’s internal tensions. 

Just as this rivalry colors every interaction among the defendants, the antagonism between the seven’s attorney (Mark Rylance) and the presiding judge (Frank Langella) smolders underneath every moment of legal proceeding. The tension eventually explodes into outright animosity, inflicting collateral damage upon the innocent Black Panther Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Also there to stoke the flames is the reluctant prosecutor, portrayed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who masterfully juggles the character’s conflicting moral and professional obligations.

Each of these performances deserve their praises sung individually. But on screen together, they transform “The Trial of the Chicago 7” into a sensational and frenzied legal drama that’s more than deserving of this award.

Olive Grimes

Runner-up: “Da 5 Bloods” 

Spike Lee’s latest film “Da 5 Bloods” impressed with a cast that was able to capture the trauma of war and its lasting impact on the lives of four Black Vietnam War veterans. Paul (Delroy Lindo), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), Otis (Clarke Peters) and Eddie (Norm Lewis) return to Vietnam to find the remains of an old friend as well as treasure, reconnecting with the land that has been the setting of much pain for both the Vietnamese and American people. 

The veterans have all matured in the shadow of their horrific experiences, but they haven’t all coped with it in the same way. Each actor presents his character’s trauma in a way that feels distinct, yet also in conversation with the rest of the cast. In their individual scenes, the actors’ unique talents shine — but when working together, they’re practically unstoppable.

Cameron Opartkiettikul

Best Director

Winner: Charlie Kaufman, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”

Courtesy: Netflix

Though Charlie Kaufman has amassed a long list of writing credits, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is only his third directorial feature film. And yet, Kaufman crafts this head-spinning, surreal experience with such proficiency that “Ending Things” sits perfectly alongside some of his best collaborations with brilliant directors such as Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) and Spike Jonze (“Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation”).

From the moment “Ending Things” begins right up until its final credits fade away, Kaufman’s complex atmosphere transfixes viewers. And perplexing though the journey may be, each scene is rich with subtext and infinitely interpretable. Oscillating between expressions of vulnerability, ironic self-deprecation and deep-seated frustration, Kaufman uses the basic narrative conceit of the breakup drama to reflect on the concepts of love, hope, loneliness, uncertainty and the fear of growing old. Offbeat pacing and jarring editing accentuate Kaufman’s phantasmagoric vision, and the various intertextual references situate “Ending Things” in conversation with a larger framework of pop culture as Kaufman explores the deeper impacts of fiction on reality.

Every frame is carefully composed; Kaufman’s staging is minimalistic, but consistently brings out new constructions of the script’s simple settings. Under a less skilled director, a film that opens with a 20-minute conversation in a car would have hemorrhaged bored audience members, but Kaufman plays with camera placement and uses elements as subtle as the windshield wipers to build tension. “Ending Things” is one of the most meticulously crafted films of the year, and Kaufman’s distinctive direction makes every shot memorable.

Neil Haeems

Runner-up: David Fincher, “Mank”

For decades, David Fincher has proven himself a filmmaking maverick — and in “Mank,” his unorthodox style yields spectacular results yet again. With this passion project, Fincher delves into the psyche of alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, showing great nuance in his depiction of the struggles Mankiewicz faced while crafting his iconic script for “Citizen Kane.” In “Mank,” Fincher wrestles with his own status as a film auteur by exploring the complex, deeply personal relationship between artists and their work, resulting in some of his most resonant dramatic work ever.

Though seeped in Hollywood history, “Mank” eschews simple nostalgia. Fincher instead pays due respect to the subversive figures who were reduced to historical footnotes for rebelling against the machinery of the corrupt studio system. Fincher’s films are always technically splendid, and “Mank” is no exception: Replete with beautiful cinematography, evocative score and a masterfully directed ensemble cast, “Mank” is Fincher’s best film since “The Social Network.”

Neil Haeems

Best Screenplay

Winner: Charlie Kaufman, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”

Courtesy: Netflix

Charlie Kaufman’s cavernous, eternally fracturing screenplay for “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” proves that there is room for story structure innovation without metastasizing into a self-aggrandizing puzzle only decipherable by its author. Kaufman’s tightwire act rapidly changes entire characters with the drop of a hat, shifting viewer perceptions an innumerable amount of times by toying with elements of the surreal and fantastic. The boat rocks, but never sinks, and it’s the thrilling unknown of “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” that shakes free the loneliness and regret Kaufman has made a career of dissecting. 

There are incredibly weird moments, such as the anxiety-inducing parents, mysterious ice cream shop or even the perils of a simple basement, which build the disquieting tone perfectly. But it’s Kaufman’s experiments with time and continuity that transform the plot into a tapestry pointing to a larger human experience based on personal failures. It’s an impressive confluence of storytelling and emotional payoff where each thread is given proper attention; the distinct plotlines are individually rewarding, but they come together to create an enjoyable plot that guides the premise to its furthest extremes. It’s delicate and daring, intelligent and chaotic and all things “Kaufmaneseque,” which gladly reminds the audience that his creative output shows no signs of slowing down, not even for a moment.

Jake S. Lilian

Runner-up: Andy Siara, “Palm Springs”

Writer Andy Siara takes viewers on an often funny, sometimes moody and commonly philosophical sojourn from reality in “Palm Springs.” The film initially comes across as a traditional rom-com, set at a wedding and aimed at bringing together “pretentious sad guy,” Nyles and Sarah, the abrasive sister of the bride. In a violent twist, however, Sarah joins Nyles in a revamped “Groundhog Day” time loop that reflects the chronological ambiguity of the pandemic world, ridden by spurts of freedom and laziness. Tomorrow is the same day as today, as yesterday, and there’s nothing for the free-wheeling duo to do but confront their reality with the touching pain, affection and heartbreak that Siara weaves into an already complex narrative.

Dominic Marziali

Best Cinematography

Winner: Łukasz Żal, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”

Courtesy: Netflix

Plain and simple, the “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” that has garnered so much critical acclaim would not exist without Łukasz Żal’s indelible cinematography. Where Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay may divide viewers, there can be no doubt the film’s cinematography — which harmoniously complements the devolution of Lucy and Jake’s relationship and, increasingly, viewers’ sanity — remains above the fray. 

There’s no shortage of cinematographic nuance. In one scene, Żal leads the viewer’s gaze far away from the car the couple is stuck in, following Lucy’s wandering gaze across a snow-covered field, over trees and out to windmills silhouetted by snow and fog. In the next second Jake interrupts Lucy’s aside, asking the question the camera was just answering — “are you ok?” The falling snow’s transition from a light dusted beginning to a howling blizzard draws the shift from quaint love in winter to the chaotic tension that builds to the film’s close. The lighting is orchestrated for far more than just aesthetic pleasure, conveying the emotions that course through the ruminations on memory that compose the movie’s backbone. 

The cinematographic artistry, combined with writer-director Kaufman’s head spinning touches, creates an otherworldly mood. It’s as if “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” was shot from the perspective of someone in the throes of late-stage Alzheimer’s, wrapped in the discomfort of their slipping mortality, fading quicker and quicker — building to a conclusion rife with release and the surrender to inevitability. 

Dominic Marziali

Runner-up: Christopher Blauvelt, “First Cow”

In order to capture a renegade vision of the Old West best suited to her quirky anti-capitalist themes, director Kelly Reichardt once again teamed up with cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt for “First Cow.” Their fourth film together, the pair previously collaborated on Reichardt’s first Revisionist Western, “Meek’s Cutoff,” which prefigures much of the visual storytelling seen here. 

It’s evident with “First Cow” that the synergy between narrative and visuals is stronger than in any of their previous works. The film’s boxy 4-3 aspect ratio upsets the Western genre’s traditional, more cinematic widescreen format, forcing scenes to be staged more intimately and allowing actors greater physical and emotional proximity to one another. From his extensive use of stationary long takes to his magnificent natural and practical lighting, Blauvelt crafts an aesthetic in “First Cow” that is as untraditional as Reichardt’s direction.

— Neil Haeems

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