We find ourselves at the end of 2020, and…well, let’s not dwell on it.
I may not have set foot in a movie theater since March, but that didn’t stop quality cinema from finding its way in front of my eyeballs. I can (and will) list at least 20 films from 2020 worth watching. As with any year, there are films I’ve missed based on lack of availability and/or time, so I cannot call this list exhaustive. Still, this should give a good idea of my favorite films of the year. And this includes some honorable mentions: The Wolf House, The Nest, Da 5 Bloods, Wolfwalkers, Ema, Palm Springs, Swallow, Blow the Man Down, Promising Young Woman.
20. Bad Education
Cory Finley’s Bad Education didn’t leave as strong of an impression on me as his debut Thoroughbreds, but it nevertheless stands out as an acerbic black comedy about the lengths people go to convince themselves they aren’t culpable for their actions. It is a sharply-written film with an ensemble of great performances. Allison Janney and Hugh Jackman give two of the stronger performances of the year.
19. The Painter and the Thief
2020 was a great year for documentaries, and none had a more unique subject than The Painter and the Thief. Benjamin Ree’s exploration of an unlikely relationship begins with the theft of two paintings from an art museum. The artist, Barbora Kysilkova, confronts one of the thieves at a criminal hearing, and the two become friends. The Painter and the Thief is a film with a strong hook and a stronger emotional backbone. It offers moments of introspection for these two subjects that are raw and revealing, making this one of the top docs of the year.
Not to be confused with Pablo Lorrain’s entrancing yet emotionally cavernous Ema, Autumn de Wilde’s feature debut is a caustic and stylish adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel. Eleanor Catton’s adapted screenplay is as clever as Wilde’s mannered production design. And Anya Taylor-Joy is perfectly cast in the lead role (The New Mutants aside, Taylor-Joy is having quite a year). Alas, Emma. was one of the last truly pleasant moviegoing experiences I had before theaters in the U.S. closed their doors.
17. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
I don’t know just what to call Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets. Staged in the tradition of a direct cinema documentary, but written with the rustic humor and raw poeticism of a Sam Shephard play (but perhaps O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh shares the closest kinship), the film is a strange mix of realism and play-acting. Taking place over the last 24 hours of operation of a small Las Vegas dive bar, directors Turner and Bill Ross depict the homely humanity of the shared camaraderie–and the shared sorrows–found at the bottom of whiskey tumblers. Staged though it may be, the Rosses find depths of genuine melancholy and soulfulness in the bittersweet celebrants’ faces. Reality seeps through the fiction.
If Bacurau does one thing right, it is wielding a distinct voice. The film dances around genres—its hybrid genre identity is tied to the narrative itself—weaving an allegory with political overtones into its bloody surface plot. It feels like a Western with a sci-fi twist, molding later into a more surreal “Most Dangerous Game” type of thriller. All the while, it feels distinctly of its own making, a grab-bag of generic antecedents re-conceptualized to pave its own path. It’s a wild ride.
Brandon Cronenberg, you had me at “efficient covert assassin who takes control of people’s bodies in order to get close to targets and whose job is slowly stripping away her ethical faculties to the point where not only is her physical identity blurred by her entry into other bodies but the emotional signposts of her past identity are fading, as well.” Good stuff. Visually surreal and narratively tragic, Possessor is a fascinating trip of a science fiction horror film. And Andrea Riseborough is superb.
Shirley has dropped down this list since my first viewing of it over the summer, yet it has remained in the back of my mind. Josephine Decker’s adaptation of a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell is a claustrophobic drama about quiet defiance. Filmed with a hazy sheen and performed like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?, Shirley is a sinister mood piece with staying power. It is certainly a film I will be returning to in the future.
13. Small Axe: Mangrove / Lovers Rock
Steve McQueen’s Small Axe defies easy categorization. Technically listed as a television series on Amazon Prime (in the U.S.), the five episodes are feature length offerings from the award-winning director. Given that I rarely write about television, that this is a list about movies, and most importantly that I want to champion at least two of these pieces, I am just going to call them films for the sake of this list.
The first two films of Small Axe are compelling for different reasons. Mangrove is a potboiler legal drama that takes its time developing a rich cast of characters who are abused and wrongfully accused by police. It is, I think, a better version of what Aaron Sorkin tries to do in The Trial of the Chicago 7. As for Lovers Rock, I wrote on it recently and won’t belabor the point. But it is a beautiful experience.
12. Another Round
Thomas Vinterberg is adept at balancing tone, and that is made abundantly clear in Another Round, a dark comedy about schoolteachers who drink before work under the hypothesis that a person’s natural state holds a BAC .05 less than what is intended. The film is slyly humorous while not sacrificing the darker reality of these characters’ alcohol consumption. Additionally, the film avoids the obvious pitfalls of addiction narratives, instead focusing on what allures the drinker to the drink and the ups and downs which accompany the yield to that temptation. It is a unique experience, particularly as it moves towards an oddly ambiguous yet exhilarating ending.
11. The Vast of Night
I fell hard for The Vast of Night when I first saw it at Fantastic Fest 2019, but at the time I was not anticipating it sticking with me long enough to appear on a 2020 best-of list. A mid-year rewatch confirmed that this movie holds up. It is a simple genre exercise with crisp direction and great lead performances. And I am continually fascinated by writer-director Andrew Patterson’s utilization of period technology to tell his extraterrestrial story which feels as though it were pulled straight out of the 1950s.
10. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Never Rarely Sometimes Always works best for me as a movie about moments. Quiet, loaded moments which linger on the screen and in my mind. It is not surprising, then, that Eliza Hittman’s film has what might be my favorite scene of the year. It is a devastating scene that gives the film its title, where Sidney Flanigan’s truly astonishing lead performance reaches its zenith. But the film does not lose its intensity from there; instead, it deals emotional body blows to the audience. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is an unrelentingly raw yet deeply empathetic film.
One of the best docs of the year (although, as this list will bear out, not the best), Collective is a compelling watch. The political story it presents is a thread that the more you pull the nastier the corruption is revealed to be. Carefully placed revelations and a clever switch in perspective keep the narrative fresh. As such, Collective does its subject justice, entertaining while also shedding light on an important series of events in Romanian politics.
8. Boys State
Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine’s Boys State feels like lightning in a bottle. But its presentation also suggests that one could film any year of Boys State, an annual summer camp taking place in each U.S. state in which high school boys replicate government bodies, and it would turn out about the same. Boys State is a civics lesson by way of Lord of the Flies which has been attended by numerous individuals who would go on to be actual public officials (e.g., Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, Cory Booker).
Boys State illustrates political posturing and the populist arms race that is the American election system from the perspectives of young adults. Some of them play-act what they think politicians do; some of them attempt to situate their real-life politics into the game in a meaningful way. This confluence of approaches results in a microcosm of political ugliness presented in a vacuum. It is a lively experience, but perhaps not one for those exhausted by the U.S. election system.
7. The Assistant
Perhaps the most shocking movie-related thing for me in 2020 was reading numerous user reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, Letterboxd, IMDb, etc. calling this movie boring and plotless. One would have to miss the point entirely to not recognize the unseen plot elements that give The Assistant a harrowing, weight-on-the-chest edge to it. And it is hard to miss the point. Kitty Green’s film may be understated to a fault, and I acknowledge that such an approach is not for everyone.
However, it is exactly the approach for me, and given the subject matter I think Green’s restraint makes this thinly-veiled take on the Harvey Weinstein scandal all the more unsettling. The film depicts passive enabling, an office environment in which employees are tacitly taught to put blinders on to their boss’s behavior. And Julia Garner’s performance as the newest member in this environment is undeniably effective (I’d say Oscar-worthy, but the Academy historically cares little for understated performances).
6. I’m Thinking of Ending Things
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is hermetic and trapped in its own solipsistic, pedantic head, as all Charlie Kaufman scripts are. It gets lost in its self-centered intellectualism, bending toward the surreal so that Kaufman may indulge in his art-interpreting-art approach. This may sound insufferable, but it is right up my alley. Also, the irony that Jessie Buckley’s character has so much life and relatable human concerns worked wonders on me. Her performance is pitch perfect. And all of this was effective for me despite my lukewarm reception to the source material. The film is a fairly faithful adaptation, yet Kaufman elevates the material. Some will hate the film’s intentional ambiguity and drifting narration, but fans of Kaufman will delight in it.
5. First Cow
First Cow is about many interrelated concepts, but it rarely makes such connections obvious or broad. Kelly Reichardt’s film is beautifully austere with a story delicately told. This story is about how history gets written, how man encroaches on nature, the entrepreneurial spirit on which idealists define America, the oppressive force of imperialism, and sweet sweet oily cakes. At the heart of the film is the relationship between John Magaro and Orion Lee’s characters, and the two actors make a sublime pair. First Cow requires some patience, but I think it is well worth it to commit to Reichardt’s wavelength.
4. Sound of Metal
Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal is a film about adjusting to unforeseen circumstances and the crushing feeling of isolation that can come with that adjustment. Not unlike the struggles many faced in 2020. Perhaps that could account for this film’s popularity right now, but I want to give it more credit than that. Sound of Metal is an earnest film that puts its heart on its sleeve yet never reads saccharine or maudlin. It only feels genuine. Riz Ahmed is a powerful force in this film with many equally great performances surrounding him on all sides. Paul Raci, in particular, gets an honorable mention from me. He is a Best Supporting Actor front-runner in my book.
3. Dick Johnson is Dead
Kirsten Johnson’s Dick Johnson is Dead is my true favorite doc of the year, because it feels so distant from what a documentary normally is. A personal portrait of her own father, Johnson’s film stages the fears she has over her father’s death by literally staging his death, over and over again. The process of making the film itself allows for the relationship between father and daughter to be documented in real time.
Some have commented on the ethics of Johnson using her father, whose mind is succumbing to dementia, as a subject, but I think that question is addressed within the film. Her career, like his, has affected both of their lives, and the film interrogates its own ethical dimensions at the same time that this meta-textual element reflexively becomes part of a broader examination of how the human condition confronts the problem of memory. There are no clear-cut solutions to these concerns, which makes the very construction of Dick Johnson is Dead an existential struggle. I find this struggle fascinating, to say the least.
Chloe Zhao’s The Rider was my favorite film of 2018. Its raw, quiet humanity floored me. Zhao’s Nomadland goes for a similar salt-of-the-earth humanism in its examination of tramping Americana. With the seemingly effortless magnetism of Frances McDormand at Zhao’s disposal, one would expect this to stand shoulders above The Rider. Unfortunately, I find Nomadland slightly less enrapturing.
Nevertheless, it is without question one of the best films of the year. As with Dick Johnson is Dead, it is a film about the totems we use to memorialize people. And as with Never Rarely Sometimes Always, it is a film comprised of moments. It lacks a conventional linear narrative, because its subject does not subscribe to linearity. Instead, McDormand’s van-dwelling protagonist finds an almost self-actualized level of serenity in interactions with the land and those who walk upon it. Zhao’s film depicts, with an uncompromising empathy, the preciousness of life’s moments. The result is a fairly astounding piece of slow cinema.
For some time, I did not think a movie would eclipse Nomadland for the top spot on this list. Then I saw Minari. Lee Isaac Chung’s film is the film everyone will talk up to death, to the point where by the time it becomes widely available some will consider it “over-hyped.” However, if Minari is the type of film for you (do you like movies with heart and humanity, with wonderfully drawn characters dense with personal conflict, that is beautifully shot and edited, containing a gorgeously delicate score, and that has the best ensemble cast of a film this year?), then I don’t believe it can be over-hyped. Merely enjoyed.
As always, thanks for reading!