Posted January 14, 2021 | Updated January 25, 2021

Even though I already went into great detail in my previously posted TEN WORST FILMS of 2020 blog, I'll once again emphasize that 2020 was the worst year for the movies and the industry as a whole.  The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally altered the way many (including myself) have consumed entertainment in the year that was.   

Just consider a few facts: 

- I've only screened two films in a cinema since last March (before that, I averaged 2-4 cinema screenings per week over the last 16 years).   

- Only one film in my Top 10 was screened in a cinema.

- One two films in my Top 25 were screened in cinemas. 

- Six of my Top 25 were Amazon Prime streaming exclusives, with one of them appearing on my Top 10. 

- Four of my Top 25 films were Netflix original films, with two appearing on my Top 10. 

So, yeah, this was unlike any previous year for me in terms of seeking out, watching, and reviewing films. 

It gives me no pleasure whatsoever to have been largely away from theaters for so long (I've placed personal and family health and safety above anything else...including my love affair with film), but I endeavored to persevere through and actively sought out as many films that I possibly could via whatever means necessary in the last twelve months (and, yes, a majority of them were watched via various streaming methods).  Cinemas were all but dead in the water, but movies continued to thrive and survive, and my TOP 10 FILMS of 2020 - at least in my humble estimation - is proof positive of that.  All in all, I screened just nine less films in 2020 than in the previous year, which allowed for me to post a blog like this as I've done every year for over a decade and a half.  And one of the positive side effects of the pandemic was that it forced me to dig deeper into the world of independent cinema, and there were some joyous discoveries to be had. 

As I do for every one of these yearly compilations, variety is key, and I think the ten films listed below are indicative of that.  There's a superb 2D animated film; a horror-thriller remake; a Vietnam War themed drama; a Vietnam War themed courtroom drama; an ultra black fact based high school comedy; two vastly different alien invasion sci-fi thrillers; a drama about sobriety, and a drama that sheds new light on people with hearing loss.  And as I also have done in past years, I have expanded my TOP 10 into a greater TOP 25 to pay homage to 15 other efforts that I thought were all worthy of inclusion in a greater discussion of the year's best, but simply couldn't make the Top 10. 

So, read on...enjoy...and let's hope we all have cinemas to go to and discovery movies all over again in 2021.

 

 
 

1.   SOUND OF METAL

 

SOUND OF METAL was one of the last films that I saw in 2020...but I was firmly convinced post-screening that it was the best offering of the year. 

This marks the feature film directorial debut of Darius Marder - who previously co-wrote THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES with its director, Derek Cianfrance (still one of the best least-seen films of the last decade) - and contained a lead performance of staggering power by Riz Ahmed.  SOUND OF METAL had a premise that was as simple as it was endlessly compelling: A heavy metal drummer begins to tragically lose his hearing as is forced to learn to accept and healthily live with it.  There have been so very few films in the past, in my mind, that have thoroughly captured deaf people and the larger deaf community as thoughtfully and accurately as this one does.  With Marder's handling, we get a broader portrait of deaf people as those that are not suffering from a disability, but rather as individuals that have learned to cope with deafness and lead fully actualized lives.  Beyond that, SOUND OF METAL was a thoroughly involving portrait of the inherent difficulties of recovering from personal trauma and having the wherewithal to move forward with a sense of hope.  And Ahmed - so quietly potent in past performances (see NIGHTCRAWLER) - gives a career defining turn as his deaf musician without making one inauthentic choice.  Best of all, SOUND OF METAL never succumbed to the more shamefully overused clichés of inspirational dramas of troubled souls overcoming odds, which made it hit all the more profoundly for me. 

2.  THE INVISIBLE MAN

THE INVISIBLE MAN - one of the last films I screened in a cinema before they were closed down for months in my home province back in March - is a horror thriller remake that had no business being as masterfully executed as it was.  Considering that this was yet another iteration of the Universal horror film series monster of the Golden Age - which, in turn, was adapted from the H.G. Welles novel of the same name - it's a minor miracle how superbly this new film spun this mythology. 

From Australian director Leigh Whannell (helmer of the terribly little seen and solid sci-fi thriller UPGRADE from a few years ago), THE INVISIBLE MAN understood why the very concept of this titular character is so endlessly unnerving: There have been countless films over the years dealing with unstoppable monsters that stalk their unsuspecting and vulnerable prey, but Whannell wisely acknowledged how unspeakably creepy it is for someone to defend themselves from a silent and unseen enemy...and one that no one around you believes exists.  The filmmaker took this all to the next frightening level in making THE INVISIBLE MAN not just a genuinely terrifying psychological horror thriller, but also a compellingly layered commentary on male toxicity and domestic abuse (the titular monster here is a mad scientist that finds maliciously manipulative ways to torment his ex-girlfriend, played in one of the year's most thanklessly committed performances by Elizabeth Moss).  Best of all, THE INVISIBLE MAN wasn't wall-to-wall with action, mayhem, and visual effects (although it certainly contained elements of all three in modest dosages), but instead created an undulating sensation of fear and anxiety in what we couldn't see on screen, making the experience of watching this film in a packed cinema almost excruciating to endure compared to viewing it alone at home via streaming and with the power to pause or stop it.  

THE INVISIBLE MAN represented a supremely confident and expertly executed high concept David versus Goliath #MeToo nightmare scenario, and it was all the more truly terrifying as an end result. 

3.  WOLFWALKERS

WOLFWALKERS was easily the most uniquely gorgeous animated film of 2020, coming from from the pioneering directing tandem of Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, both of whom founded the studio Cartoon Saloon (maker of 2009's Oscar nominated THE SECRET OF THE KELLS and 2014's SONG OF THE SEA).  It rounded off the pair's self anointed "Irish Folklore Trilogy" in thrilling and beautiful fashion, crafting a rousing tale set in 17th Century Kilkenny and one that blended history with the fantastical in equal measure.  

One of the things that really stood out for me in WOLFWALKERS was how uncommonly intelligent and sensitive it was regarding its themes and ideas, that of the mutual relationship between mankind and nature and how both need to live in harmony with one another.  That, and it told a story of werewolves that's done so fundamentally and refreshingly different than most other previous cinematic iterations of the creatures.  Lastly, it was a decidedly rare breed of animated film that honored and respected its young female characters and without portraying as weak victims.  Oh, and before I forget, the sheer exquisiteness of the visual palette of this film (animated to have the look and feel of an improvisationally loose 2D/hand drawn affair) is this film's real artistic coup de grace, and it represented such a welcome antidote for the meticulously pristine nature of modern CG animated films.  Cartoon Saloon crafted not only an unqualified animated triumph here, but they also lovingly made one of the year's best films...period.

4.  NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS

There are some films that I've discovered by complete accident, and after watching them you just want to preach their virtues to the filmgoing world.  

Eliza Hitmman's NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS is just one of those types of special films.   

While I was searching for content to watch and review when cinemas began closing down I came across this gem, which some would simplistically label as an abortion drama.  To do that would be highly misleading, as it was more on an unflinchingly raw, honest, and sensationally acted coming of age piece that managed to do one thing with its highly polarizing subject matter absolutely correctly: It never politicized it, nor took a stance on one side or the other, nor became aggressively preachy minded.  Yes, NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS has a narrative that deals with a young woman (played in one of the most authentically rendered teenage performances ever by Sidney Flanigan) that has to take an arduous journey across borders to find a place that will allow her to legally terminate her pregnancy without parental consent, but the film was about so much more than the hot button abortion issue.  It became an inspiring chronicle of the unending power of sisterhood and how young women find inner strength to battle any of life's roadblocks.  In worse hands, NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS could have come off as a horribly mismanaged and pandering TV movie of the week melodrama, but on Hitmann's watch it came together as something more powerful, intimate and resonant.  And how wonderful is it to see a film about real teenagers with real stressful problems that's done in such a non-judgmental manner?

5.  DA 5 BLOODS

Spike Lee's Netflix's produced DA 5 BLOODS served as a wonderful historical companion piece to his Academy Award winning BLACKKKLANSMAN, which not only was my top pick for the best film of 2018, but also finally netted the acclaimed filmmaker his first Best Director Oscar trophy of his career.  Both of these films delved into the past to tell potent stories of racial strife that still managed to reverberate with timeliness today, and did so from the prerogatives of those largely unseen in mainstream genre efforts. 

The notion of Lee making a Vietnam War film is intriguing.  However, DA 5 BLOODS was less a period war thriller, per se, than it was about the Vietnam War's large and nagging psychological impact on the lives of veterans in the present, more specifically African Americans (a group that has been largely disproportionately represented in these types of genre films).  Lee conceived a story that's, yes, a Vietnam War drama and a men-on-a-mission thriller in showcasing a squad of black vets in the present that decide to journey back to Vietnam to locate the missing remains of one of their fallen comrades, who died in action in the war decades earlier.  While there, the men also obsessively seek out - in pure TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE fashion - a secret stash of government gold that may or may not have been left behind during the war.  Not only was Lee's film masterful in exploring what the war meant for black soldiers and race relations in America, but it also accurately displayed the hearts of darkness of some of its characters, who were irreparably damaged by the war and can't ever seem to escape its large shadow.  

That, and Lee's film was an absolute embarrassment of performance riches and featured one of the best supporting turns of the year by the great Delroy Lindo, who chillingly played one of these damaged goods ex-soldiers with a fiery passion.  He should be Oscar nomination bound, as should this film; Lee once again has made a racially charged historically themed drama that pushes buttons, mixes fact and fiction, and managed to educate and entertain in equal dosages.  That's no easy feat to pull off.  

6.  THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7

Netlfix's THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 takes its title from the group of Vietnam War protesters from various walks of life (the so-called "Chicago 7") that were charged and subsequently tried for conspiracy and crossing state lines with an accused intention of inciting riots at the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention.   

Even though this Aaron Sorkin written and directed period drama honed in on the American legal and protest world of yesterday, it somehow managed to resonate with an incredible amount of relevance today, especially for how we've been baring witness to socially and politically trying times of mass protest and social upheaval in the U.S. over the last year.  In many ways, this film's release could not have been done at a more perfect time than last year.  And, to be fair, there have been many documentaries about the events surrounding the polarizing and controversial trial in question, and THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 highlights all of the arduous in-court battles and road blocks that these defendants had to wade through.  But Sorkin's drama dug far deeper than that and became a damning expose on the abuses of civic and political power that existed in the 60s, which created one hell of a powder keg of a situation for all.  Featuring one of the finest ensemble casts of any year (sinking their respective teeth into Sorkin's reliably colorful and rapid dire dialogue) and ambitious scripting that makes well established and known history somewhat come alive and feel fresh to modern eyes, THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 was easily one of Netflix's best and most compulsively watchable offerings of 2020.

7.  BAD EDUCATION

BAD EDUCATION - which I screened via HBO back in the spring - was director Cory Finley's follow-up effort to his terribly underrated THOROUGHBREDS and it told a fact-based story so preposterous, yet anger-inducing that, if not based on an actual incident, I would have had a hard time swallowing.    

But based on reality it was in telling a twisted tale of the largest educational theft in American history perpetrated by greedy scumbag education administrators...and exposed, ironically enough, by a high school newspaper reporter that smelled a rotten financial rat when no one else did.  Like ELECTION before it, BAD EDUCATION was a stupendously scathing high school satire that reveled in showing deplorable acts of extortion being perpetrated by people that are supposed to be the nurturers of our children's future.  As a tale of shocking hubris and ego run terribly afoul, Finley's film was equal parts darkly amusing and tragic, and as a satire that constantly went for the jugular, BAD EDUCATION made for a deeply compelling, yet infuriating watch.  And it also proudly represented star Hugh Jackman - a solid performer that doesn't get the type of credit he deserves thus far in his career - in routinely fine form in arguably his best role as a school superintendent that committed the heinous acts in question; he played the role with a sly charm and a facade of false trustworthiness that nevertheless masked this man's criminal impulses.  Once BAD EDUCATION had me within its hypnotic vortex it was awfully hard to shake off. 

8.  SPUTNIK

Here's a Russian made sci-fi frightfest that most definitely got away from most critics and audiences in the year that was...but not from me. 

This lean, mean, and exemplarily made genre exercise deserved very worthy comparisons to last year's (and fellow BEST OF THE YEAR inductee) THE INVISIBLE MAN for how well it took overly familiar genre elements (in its case, a creature feature and alien invasion thriller) and imbued in it a considerable amount of stylistic flair, fiendish imagination, and a sensation of chilling atmosphere throughout.  Yes, SPUTNIK does take its name from the very famous Soviet Union launched satellite in the mid-1950s, but it also translates (in English) as "companion," which makes far more sense as the film progresses into its 1980s Cold War era story of a Russian astronaut that brings something back with him (or in him) to Earth, which sparks a government intervention and cover up.  SPUTNIK favored - as all great sci-fi films do - ideas and characters first and visual effects and visceral mayhem a distant second, but it also fostered a never-ending sensation dread in its dark and ominous cinematography and production design, which made its military base settings so hauntingly claustrophobic.  This Egor Abramenko directed affair felt like the love child hybrid of Ridley Scott, Denis Villeneuve, and John Carpenter, but it so thoroughly and successful emerged as something far better and more memorably sinister than a simplistically described ALIEN clone.  

9.  ANOTHER ROUND

ANOTHER ROUND was a triumphant re-teaming of Danish director Thomas Vinterberg and star Mads Mikkelsen (who last partnered up on 2012's THE HUNT) and it featured arguably the most deliriously - ahem! - intoxicating premise of any movie from last year.   

The HANNIBAL and CASINO ROYALE star played a down-on-his luck and in midlife crisis teacher that decides to hatch a devious plan with his other fellow sad sack colleagues: Using the actual theory proposed by psychiatrist Finn Skarderud - who believed that having a fairly consistent blood alcohol level of 0.05 makes one more comfortable and confident in all walks of life - the men decide to take this to the test in an incredibly risky, but audacious experiment of being sloshed through the day, but with rules (like, for example, no drinking past 8pm).  It would be so easy to see how a wacky concept like this could have been reduced to some Will Ferrell-ian pratfall-heavy ludicrousness, but under Vinterberg's ever vigilant hands ANOTHER ROUND managed to walk this remarkably delicate balance between comedy and tragedy, and it showed how heavy drinking can become both a quick cure and a prolonged curse for these characters' woes.  Shrewdly written, impeccably acted (especially by the terribly underrated Mikkelsen, who casts such a large presence in any film he occupies), and brimming with relatable themes about the dangers of using certain coping mechanisms to numb pain, Vinterberg's film was an unquestionable crowd pleasing winner that still managed to say something legitimate about middle aged male discontentment.  

10.  THE VAST OF NIGHT

I've frankly lost track over the years how many science-fiction films have tackled close encounters with extraterrestrial visitors (and/or invasions of our planet by said aliens), but so very few are done with a startling level of filmmaking economy and haunting atmosphere like Andrew Patterson's THE VAST OF NIGHT, which premiered back in the spring on Amazon Prime and has stayed with me since I first watched it. 

Shot by the novice Oklahoma based filmmaker in just four weeks on a budget that wouldn't have covered the catering on INDEPENDENCE DAY even 25 years ago (just $700,000), THE VAST OF NIGHT represented a much needed injection of bold and intrepid creativity in a highly packed genre, one that's overcome with far too many visual effects and action heavy spectacles of mindlessness for my tastes over the years.  Set in 1950s New Mexico and featuring a young disc jockey and switchboard operator that try to discover the origins of a mysterious and eerie audio frequency of unknown alien origin, Patterson made a sci-fi drama of uncommon intelligence and moodiness.  It was also an atypical alien invasion film that generated nail biting suspense and scary intrigue through character dynamics and dialogue exchanges; it was proof positive that less is sometimes more when it comes to storytelling.  And even though THE VAST OF NIGHT was unexpectedly void of major action set pieces, it contained, for my money, some of the most dazzling camera work that I've seen in a feature film, expensive or not.  Much like 2019's STARFISH, THE VAST OF NIGHT was another avant garde sci-fi thriller helmed by a rookie director that managed to brilliantly utilize an unorthodox approach to dive into well worn material...and made with significantly more vision than other similar efforts costing twenty times as much.  
  ...and now to round off my TEN BEST FILMS OF 2020 with my selections from 11-25:  
 

11. BLOW THE MAN DOWN:  An ingeniously plotted Amazon Prime released maritime noir thriller was one to get lost in.   

12. COLOR OUT OF SPACE:  Richard Stanley's first feature film in nearly 25 years was a harrowingly offbeat and hauntingly grotesque adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft...and it also showcased a pure gonzo performance by Nicolas Cage.

13. MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM:  This Netflix fact-based period drama focused on music and racial politics of the Roaring Twenties in Chicago and featured Chadwick Boseman (in his last screen performance) in peak form. 

14. THE ASSISTANT: An utterly absorbing drama about the nightmarish work environments, male toxicity, and the distressing struggles that young up and coming women face while trying to climb the corporate ladder.  

15. THE WOLF OF SNOW HOLLOW:  Criminally little seen horror/comedy/thriller that played like a weird and infectious hybrid of FARGO and THE WOLFMAN.   

16. PRIOMISING YOUNG WOMAN:   Carey Mulligan gave the performance of her career in this ultra dark comedy crossed morphed with a MeToo themed revenge thriller.    

17. A SHAUN THE SHEEP MOVIE: FARMAGEDDON:   Yet another stop motion masterpiece from the superlative folks at Aardman, who consistently churn out one high pedigree product after another.  

18. LET HIM GO:  A thoroughly involving and sometimes disturbing period thriller that featured routinely committed performances by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane. 

19. EMMA:. This seemingly umpteenth adaptation of Jane Austen's 1815 romance novel offered up a few nifty tricks up its sleeves to stand well apart from other past versions.  

20. GET DUKED:  This utterly hysterical outdoor survival horror comedy deserved worthy comparisons to films like SHAUN OF THE DEAD in terms of tone and execution.

21THE WAY BACK:  Ben Affleck gave an Oscar caliber performance in this inspirational sports drama that managed to transcend the genre's more overused conventions. 

22. THE GLORIAS:  Julia Taymor's compelling and richly acted biopic of famed feminist activist Gloria Steinem found highly unique ways to explore her life. 

23. BORAT SUBSEQUENT MOVIEFILM:  This moviefilm sequel was...very nice.

24. 7500::A surprisingly tense and genuinely nerve-wracking effort from first-time filmmaker Patrick Vollrath was directed with supreme, go-for-broke confidence and featured a welcome return to the silver screen for actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt. 

25. ORDINARY LOVE: Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville were sublime in this exquisitely made cancer drama that found ways to not fall victim to genre troupes.

 
  Beyond my TOP 25, here's a further selection of films that are definitely worth seeing, but just not quite great enough to make the final cut:  

BILL AND TED FACE THE MUSIC:  A most excellent sequel that was worth the very heinous wait.

INTERNATIONAL FALLS:   Amber McGinnis's feature film debut was a real cinematic curveball in terms of starting as a quirky small town comedy that then morphed into something unexpectedly moving and profound. 

UNDERWATER: A beyond obvious oceanic ALIEN wannabe from earlier this year, but one done with remarkable technical polish and an undulating sense of moody tension. 

THE GENTLEMEN:  Director Guy Ritchie went back to his roots with this been-there, done-that bit of pulp fiction that was nevertheless a modestly entertaining ride 

BIRDS OF PREY (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn): A boisterous sensory explosion that managed to find a way of harnessing the unbridled madness of its titular character.  

SONIC THE HEDGEHOG:  A thanklessly decent and infectiously likeable video game adaptation, and one that featured the welcome return of Jim Carrey to screwball comedic roles.   

HORSE GIRL: Alison Brie's gutsy and superlative performance in this Netflix original helped overcome its scripting issues.

LOST GIRLS: Amy Ryan's haunting performance in this Netflix thriller helped shed light on one the most overlooked fact-based murder mysteries. 

VIVARIUM:  A wonderfully wicked Twilight Zone-esque premise was given its due in the moody and tension filled indie sci-fi thriller. 

BANNANA SPLIT: A charmer of a high school romcom that successfully found ways of transcending the genre's most overused conventions. 

EXTRACTION: Chris Hemsworth was in his physical element in this technically proficient Netflix action thriller.

MY SPY: This unexpectedly funny spy comedy got solid mileage out of the odd couple chemistry of stars Dave Bautista and Chloe Coleman.

SPACESHIP EARTH: A sometimes unwieldy, but thoroughly interesting documentary about the infamous Biosphere 2 project. 

THE TRIP TO GREECE:  The fourth film in Michael Winterbottom's mockumentary series of travelogue comedies fully harnessed - once again - the appeal and hilarity of its stars.

IRRESISTIBLE: This Jon Stewart written and directed satire did a solid job of capturing the darker underbelly of the American political landscape.  

THE OLD GUARD:  This Netflix action thriller - adapted from the comic book series of the same name - had a slick premise and utilized star Charlize Theron in all of her action goddess glory.  

GREYHOUND:  A Tom Hanks directed and starring World War II nautical thriller boasted superlative technical merits and a fine ensemble cast. 

ARCHIVE:  Gavin Rothery's criminally overlooked sci-fi thriller made old themes feel refreshingly alive.

THE OUTPOST:  Rod Lurie's remarkably intense fact based war thriller was a visceral powerhouse, especially in its harrowing final half.

MADE IN ITALY:  Liam Neeson and real life son Michael Richardson shined as a father and son tandem that try to navigate through their wife/mother's untimely death. 

AN AMERICAN PICKLE: One of the most purely strange comedies of 2020 showcased a dexterous dual performance by Seth Rogen.

PROJECT POWER: Another super hero themed Netflix original film featured a very novel premise and a willingness to do something very different in a very overcrowded genre.  

CHEMICAL HEARTS: Stars Lili Reinhart and Austin Abrams brought authentic warmth and layers to their characters in this romance drama that thanklessly twisted genre troupes. 

TENET: Christopher Nolan's long gestating and well publicized big budget time shifting thriller was an unparalleled technical masterpiece that was somewhat marred by confusing plotting and a lack of emotional resonance.   

I'M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS:  Charlie Kaufman's twisted mind screw job of an impossible to label Netflix film was one to bask in all of its twisty conundrums.  

THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME: One of the better ensemble casts of the year typified this ultra bleak Netflix period crime thriller.

ENOLA HOLMES: Millie Bobby Brown showed why she is a bona fide movie star with great appeal in this delightful take on the Sherlock Holmes mythos. 

ANTEBELLUM:  A genuinely absorbing and psychologically scary horror thriller that - like GET OUT before it - used the genre well to explore themes of racial injustice. 

VAMPIRES VS. THE BRONX:  Echoes of classic 80s fright fests like THE MONSTER SQUAD reverberated all the way through this delightfully entertaining horror comedy. 

SPONTANEOUS: One of the strangest and most macabre high school romcoms that I've ever seen showed commendable audacity it fully exploring its out there premise.  

THE SECRET GARDEN: A finely tailored and well acted remake of the classic children's novel.  

I USED TO GO HERE: Proof positive that the inventing presence of a lead actress can sometimes overcome an extremely well worn premise; star Gillian Jacobs was so winning here. 

MANK:  David Fincher's lushly produced period drama about one of the key figures behind CITIZEN KANE's creation lacked a bit of a soul, but still made for an enthralling watch.

PALM SPRINGS:  Another GROUNDHOG DAY inspired comedy that didn't do much to embellish the well worn premise, but still featured some sly writing and well oiled performances by Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti.

THE MIDNIGHT SKY:  Director George Clooney helmed his first sci-fi thriller of his career (made for Netflix), and even though it suffered from scripting issues and frustrating plot twist, the film was as handsomely produced as anything he has attempted.

WONDER WOMAN 1984:  Although it was afflicted by the same aliments of many other super hero sequels (bloated running time, too many villains, and an overall sensibility or more is better), this follow-up to the stellar introductory installment still did justice to one of DC's biggest icons.  

NEWS OF THE WORLD:  The re-teaming of director Paul Greengrass and star Tom Hanks (after working together on CAPTAIN PHILLIPS) proved to be modestly successful with this fairly traditional, but enjoyable western.   

 
 

 

 

   

 

 
 
 

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