Though 2020 has been a year of unprecedented struggle – and partly, I think, because of it – it was somewhat of a contradiction when it comes to the movies, an enigma worthy of our most deceptive storytellers.
Theaters remain largely devoid of the crowds that have filled them; the year’s most anticipated blockbusters were largely punted to 2021; the industry finds itself at a turning point with implications of a magnitude that are still too hazy to make out as of this writing; and the virtues and values of an entire medium are up for debate. We all feel primed for the next domino to fall on the cracked glass floor of traditional moviegoing that every “Avengers” adventure seemed to assure us was bulletproof, but even Marvel’s box office champions have bolted for the future—whatever that may look like.
And yet, cinema experienced a spectacularly strong start to the new decade. The best documentaries provided a guiding light and stretched a guiding hand. The best dramas helped us make sense of strange times while the best thrillers provided escape by estranging our senses. Spike Lee and Steve McQueen channeled the tensions of our time into works that may very well stand the test of time. And a slew of young filmmakers created stories justifying excitement for the future when reasons for such optimism seemed scarce.
What’s more, the churning gears of innovation made access a wider portal than it’s ever been. Staying home became an easier burden to bear for the good of our communities when that portal offered a seemingly infinite amount of possibilities because, despite what the constant news of delays and pushbacks and stalled productions may suggest, the truth is this year’s film crop was bountiful, and filling, and substantial. We have all learned a thing or two about patience this year, and perhaps one or two more things about our tendency to take things for granted. I, for one, might overlook the stranger peeking at his phone several aisles away when theaters inevitably open once more, because visiting new stories in the comfort of the dark and in the presence of community will feel that much more luxurious. At the same time, months of watching movies exclusively at home has adjusted some internal dial to suggest that profundity can perhaps slip its way into the most familiar of physical spaces.
Folks may lump the movies released over the past 12 months – and since the world upside down in the spring, especially – as some silly undefinable collective of ostensibly minor impact. That’s as far away from the truth as we now seem to be from last March. You’ll find no asterisk on this list. Look closely – a scroll through your favorite streaming platform will most likely suffice – and you’ll discover a new triumph of a movie in a year when the parameters of what constitutes triumph were redefined.
In that spirit, in lieu of a traditional 10 best movies of the year, here are the 20 best films 2020 had to offer, as well as where you can currently watch them.
Honorable mentions: “An Easy Girl,” “And Then We Danced,” “Another Round,” “Bad Education,” “Mank,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Minari,” “On The Record,” “Possessor,” “Palm Springs,” “Shithouse,” “Sorry We Missed You,” “The Assistant,” “The Forty-Year-Old Version,” “The Half of It" and “Wolfwalkers."
20. “House of Hummingbird” (dir. Bora Kim)
2020 was a remarkably rich period for young filmmakers and feature debuts, and while many of them opted for stylistic bravado or propulsive pacing, Bora Kim’s Korean coming-of-age drama “House of Hummingbird” succeeds on the strength of patient storytelling. The idea behind that approach is a bit dastardly—”House of Hummingbird” is a movie brimming with cruelty, most of it targeted at young Eun-hee, and its reserves of quietude only magnify the eventual explosions of rage, sadness and catharsis that punctuate an emotionally lonely existence. It may be patient, but it’s decidedly not gentle.
The screenplay is so steeped in detail that “House of Hummingbird” feels autobiographical but so intelligent about life as a mountain to summit that it feels like it’s speaking directly to the audience, and Guk-hyun Kang’s gorgeous cinematography creates a parallel track of urban modernity and claustrophobic endeavor that enhances the tension. It’s a beautiful film, made all the more harrowing for how restrained it is. But by the end, there’s no debating that Kim has compassion for his protagonist—Eun-hee adapts without compromising to the tragedy that unfolds around her, and it’s to Kim’s credit that we sense the protagonist’s journey extending far beyond the credits.
Available to rent on various digital platforms.
19. “Dick Johnson is Dead” (dir. Kirsten Johnson)
One of the best Netflix movies of the year is an experimental documentary in which the experiment isn’t one of stylistic innovation so much as exploring how the medium may inform the evolving relationship between a sickened father and his daughter—and effectively immortalize it. The daughter in question is acclaimed cinematographer Kirsten Johnson, who introduces us to her chocolate cake-loving dad as the duo endeavors to lift the haze around discussions of death. Their methods range from the candid to the surreal, and the doc’s colorfully inviting embrace – the Johnsons are as endearing and grounded as any fictional creation – actively repudiates the ways we’ve pigeonholed ourselves into talking about (or avoided talking about) and approaching the end of a life. It’d be near-impossible to find a more personal display of filmmaking from the past 12 months, and it feels like a gift that Johnson has supplied, encouraged and emboldened us with “Dick Johnson is Dead.” Have tissues at the ready.
Available to stream on Netflix.
18. “Martin Eden” (dir. Pietro Marcello)
A throwback to the classical motivations of movies that is by no means short of contemporary energy (largely because there’s no pinning down its epoch), “Martin Eden” is a work of self-contradiction, which also indicates its central tragedy. The titular figure is boundlessly buoyant, and the charismatic actor Luca Marinelli, a presence akin to ancient Roman sculpture given the breath of life, makes it impossible not to root for his ascendance on the ladder of knowledge. Daring to disbelieve the legitimacy of his attempt would be even more futile, though this trickster of a movie may eventually damn us for rooting him on.
This European-set Jack London adaptation revels in visceral pleasures – handsome men and beautiful women, swooning infatuation and obsessive ambitions – while wading into complicated political considerations, and director Pietro Marcello orchestrates the story’s developments in such a way that we don’t realize we’ve been trapped in the character’s deteriorating headspace until the walls are closing in on all sides. It’s a deceptively simple film, one that the New York Times’s A.O. Scott said boasts “everything I love in movies.” Is another recommendation really needed?
Available to watch via Kino Lorber virtual cinemas.
17. “Boys State” (dirs. Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss)
A thrilling documentary stitched together with intelligence and verve, “Boys State” transposes the nature vs. nurture debate against the backdrop of a mock government exercise in Austin, Texas. There (as in elsewhere across the country) hundreds of high school boys gather to replicate a scaled-down version of American politics—with all its horrific, perverse, very occasionally uplifting characteristics. In other words, this Boys State is a most accurate model of governmental wheeling-and-dealing. There’s a bit of luck involved with how transfixing it all is: The directors focus on four endlessly interesting subjects who run the gamut of politically inclined ambition, and of the various ways they attempt to turn ambition into reality. You might remember these youngsters’ names for the future, but the cunning calculus of their strategies feel all too rooted in the present.
Available to watch via Apple TV+.
16. “Mangrove” (dir. Steve McQueen)
Over the course of 2020’s final weeks, Amazon Prime released a quintet of films – ranging from right around an hour in length to more than two – from one of our foremost cinematic translators of the human condition. Collectively titled Small Axe, the Steve McQueen collection (another entry of which will come later) begins with its longest and most narratively astute installment, “Mangrove,” depicting the real-life 1970 trial of Black activists charged with turning a protest violent when it clashed with racist London police. The fact they were protesting the orderlies’ random, continuous targeting of a local Caribbean restaurant in the first place isn’t a complication so much as unfortunate expectation, and that truth would ring true even if 2020 wasn’t partially defined by weeks of summer Black Lives Matter protests.
McQueen’s visceral direction is only emboldened by historical foundations, and prejudicial fires practically leave burn marks on the screen as police repeatedly invade the spaces of Black community to impose their will. Then, as “Mangrove” transitions to absorbing courtroom drama in its second half, those burn marks remain hot to the touch as blatant bias mars the pursuit of justice. Entrenched systems of disenfranchisement are further exposed as the defendants – Letitia Wright’s Altheia Jones and Shaun Parkes’s Frank Crichlow among them – formulate their strategy while also debating whether victory is still victory when individual freedom has been won but hateful infrastructures remain firmly in place. It’s required viewing.
Available to watch on Amazon Prime.
15. “Vitalina Varela” (dir. Pedro Costa)
While watching this masterful Portuguese drama – one of subtle supernatural flourishes and undeniably elegiac ones – I actively lamented that I was sitting in my living room and not in the welcoming darkness of the movie theater. Though I wouldn’t say the infinite shadows and piercing blacks of Pedro Costa’s newest film are welcoming as well, they’re nonetheless hypnotic in their heaviness and in what they represent in this modern fable about a woman delivering several years’ worth of reflections to an emptiness delivered by the recent death of her husband.
“Vitalina Varela” delivers its plot (if you could call it that—a compliment) in cryptic hushed monologues and its pathos via extravagantly lit visual tableaus that make it feel like the most 3-D non-3-D movie ever made. And individual shots are resided in for so long that it’s like we’re watching a planet spin on its orbit. It can feel just as cosmically grand, too. This is a movie that must be seen to be believed—a cinematic endurance test whose rewards I wouldn’t dare attempt to convey with mere words.
Available to watch on The Criterion Channel.
14. “Sound of Metal” (dir. Darius Marder)
In Darius Marder’s expertly crafted “Sound of Metal,” a spectacular Riz Ahmed gives desperation a heart-wrenching depth in his role as Ruben, a punk-rock drummer who slowly begins to lose his hearing. Ruben ripples his muscles and flails his arms about in a movie-opening scene of onstage wildness and the physicality is echoed later—only without the control he deploys behind the drums. Even amid the chaos of a life at a dead end, “Sound of Metal” hums with a subtle pitch that allows it to take on lightly spiritual textures as Ruben humbles himself while living with a deaf community; in these scenes, you’ll notice the film’s soundscape intermittently dropping to a low drone in order to place us as fully as the movies can into Ruben’s new perspective. But this story is too smart to pity its deaf characters (most of them without their sense of hearing in real life), and that’s something Ruben will be tasked with realizing as the movie hurtles toward one of the most shatteringly moving final scenes of the year.
Available to watch on Amazon Prime.
13. “Epicentro” (dir. Hubert Sauper)
Clocking in at just under two hours, “Epicentro” has enough material to build a college syllabus. In that runtime we tag along with European tourists; consider cinema’s historical use as propaganda; observe as a descendant of Charlie Chaplin discusses the merits of performance with a young Cuban girl; wonder about political hypocrisies of past and present; and also, just because there’s time for it, steal away with two young representatives of Cuba’s future to a luxurious hotel’s rooftop pool in a Sean Baker-esque sojourn. Interrogation is this documentary’s lingua franca, and there’s no shortage of concepts, cultures or attitudes that “Epicentro” does not.
Yet there’s also a sense of deep respect at the heart of “Epicentro” for Cuba, and an astoundingly all-encompassing attempt to decipher the state of a nation in stasis that feels overdue. What the various tangents Hubert Sauper’s movie lack in pinpoint focus they make up for in precious rawness of material; the effect is one of those richly realized explorations that feels like it’s building on itself in real time, with a perception-bending urgency that rivals the most intricate of blockbuster fiction. It’s a grandiose work of documentary.
Available to watch via Kino Lorber virtual cinemas.
12. “Lovers Rock” (dir. Steve McQueen)
The most transcendent entry in the year’s standout moviemaking accomplishment, Steve McQueen’s “Lovers Rock” has been described as pure cinema, and it earns the distinction. A reverberating, pulsing, flowing, vibing, swaying cinematic dance about a house party with Black attendants, the movie – more a 70-minute maelstrom of swirling feeling, really – becomes an act of protest in itself, evoking brief liberation of one’s own making. This is the second chapter of McQueen’s five-part Small Axe anthology delving into the experiences of Black Carribean immigrants in late-1900s Britain, and it functions as tonal counterweight to the project’s more harrowing installments while emphasizing a uniting theme of community. Between its needle drops, transfixing camerawork and utterly euphoric final moments, McQueen locates the humanity amid the struggle, fixates on the spark of catharsis floating, briefly, above racist fires.
Available to watch on Amazon Prime.
11. “I’m No Longer Here” (dir. Fernando Frias)
The cumbia dance sequences that unfold on Mexican streets in “I’m No Longer Here” are captured and choreographed so stunningly that you’d think the style is rooted in melancholy. That isn’t entirely wrong in the case of Ulises Sampiero, whose attention-magnetizing hair style and passion for the slow rhythms of cumbia become a shelter when he’s forced to flee Monterrey for the United States. Fernando Frias’s film slices up the chronology of the narrative to keep us guessing about what exactly happened, but the pathos pulses to the reserved beat of a lonely Ulises navigating an overwhelming New York City when he would rather return south of the border. Through him, “I’m No Longer Here” subverts the typical immigrant story; here, the U.S. isn’t a place where ties to home are severed, but reinforced with desperate longing.
Available to watch on Netflix.
10. “Da 5 Bloods” (dir. Spike Lee)
Spike Lee still has things to say, and he’ll be damned if we don’t hear him out. For his exhilarating action-drama about a group of Black veterans returning to Vietnam decades after the war, the legendary director borrows from different genres as well as acting generations, turning aesthetic inconsistency into a formal vehicle for the incongruous realities of the African American experience. It’s constantly shifting direction and inclination, and constantly demanding that we consider what separates exploitation from representation. It’s also an excellent showcase for rising star Jonathan Majors and an affirmation of the late Chadwick Boseman’s talents, but Delroy Lindo’s MAGA hat-wearing Paul explodes with the same lit-fuse contradiction of a country that only acknowledges its Black citizens when it suits its questionable agendas. It’s an undeniable film from an undeniable filmmaker who continues to assert himself.
Available to watch on Netflix.
9. “Collective” (dir. Alexander Nanau)
To watch the Romanian documentary “Collective” is to be spellbound by some of the most simplistic and simplistically astounding filmmaking of the year—first by what the movie suggests about the depths of bureaucratic corruptibility, and then by its plunging the audience into it firsthand. Alexander Nanau’s thrilling and maddening movie follows several parties in the aftermath of a deadly 2015 night club fire in which the rising death toll was exacerbated by government forces that are inept at best and culpable at worst, leading to an unnecessary loss of life. The respective journeys of journalists, victims and health officials are tracked with extraordinary intimacy, which only makes the scale of corruption more unbelievable to behold; we find ourselves widening our eyes, sighing in exasperation and yelling with disbelief at the same time as these very real people are. It’s a stunning achievement, and one that will affirm anyone’s most pessimistic opinions about the state of the world.
Available to rent on digital platforms.
8. “Babyteeth” (dir. Shannon Murphy)
In a feature debut that defies easy compartmentalization, Shannon Murphy gifts a movie that is equal parts delightfully peculiar romance, sharp-edged ode to the inexplicability of sudden connection and refreshing annihilation of familial hierarchy. It’s become a running in-joke that Hollywood has bottle-necked Eliza Scanlen into the role of sickly teen, but “Babyteeth” proves the archetype has potential for range—here she dispenses with Beth March’s sweetness for the frenzied unpredictability of 16-year-old Milla, who becomes infatuated with Toby Wallace’s Moses, a sorta-older fellow who raises red flags. Her parents (played by Essie Davis and Ben Mendelsohn; the movie spoils us with acting riches) don’t know what to make of the relationship, mostly because they’re in the middle of making sense of their own. What unfolds is an unruly, beguiling, kinetic tangling of interpersonal dynamics, and a movie in which characters are always tight-lipped about inherent dangers of bonding because artifice feels just a bit more soothing...at least in the moment. The irony is that Murphy’s confidently fanged inclinations lift “Babyteeth” beyond artifice. It’s a status quo-destroying debut.
Available to watch on Hulu.
7. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” (dir. Eliza Hittman)
Try as one might, there’s no pretending “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is something other than what it presents. And what it presents – a straightforward narrative about one teenager’s efforts to get an abortion – is so raw in its pathos and subject matter that it actually pinpoints the worldly truths that provide its contextual power. Sidney Flanigan is never less than astounding in her first feature role as Autumn; as she stares endlessly into uncertain immediate futures, Hittman sketches out crushing truths of contemporary life and the ease with which it’s navigated by men. Comparatively, for Autumn and the cousin accompanying her, taking two steps in any direction means potentially being taken advantage of. There’s a devastation in the bluntness, and the movie manages to be a statement without ever hoisting itself onto a pedestal and leaving Autumn behind.
Available to watch on HBO Max.
6. “Beanpole” (dir. Kantemir Balagov)
In his post-war-set “Beanpole,” the young Russian filmmaker Kantemir Balagov posits that resurrection is as necessary a human need as food and water. Seeking it – through different ways and means – are two woman soldiers scarred from the just-ended war whose relationship is complicated by tragedy and a warped sense of loyalty. This is life-affirming cinema in the most devastating sense; we observe from an uncomfortable closeness as Balagov draws us into his characters’ dislocated identities with flexible filmmaking that accentuates the internal rubble they’re working to exhume themselves from. The drama is both astoundingly taut and unbearably unyielding, and first-time actresses Viktoria Miroshnichenko and Vasilisa Perelygina give what are simply two of the most superbly absorbing performances of the year—no matter what Oscar says in a few months’ time.
Available to watch on Kanopy and Mubi, or to rent via digital platforms.
5. “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” (dir. Charlie Kaufman)
Some may see movies as escape. Charlie Kaufman does not. The filmmaker’s idiosyncratic contraptions (especially as of late) are antithetical to the idea of cinema as catharsis, instead fashioning themselves as lobotomies examining the temporal lobes of life’s strangest, gooiest, unapproachable-iest quandaries. His latest, the shapeshifting “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” probes even deeper than “Synecdoche, New York” or “Anomalisa”—it’s a movie in which starting points are as difficult to decipher as destinations. And the journey itself? Long stretches of it may take place inside a car navigating a blinding snowstorm, but the (in)sights feel infinite.
Jessie Buckley expands on what makes her such an exciting young actress at the same time as Kaufman expands the parameters of what the hell might be going on, and at a pace that dares us to keep up. Jesse Plemmons is just as great as the newest Kaufman avatar for despairing regret and the ickiness of expectation. In a year where the only thing that was to be expected was the unexpected, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” makes for an appropriate artifact—abstractions, animated pigs, artifice and all.
Available to watch on Netflix.
4. “Time” (dir. Garrett Bradley)
Factual truth doesn’t seem to have been adequate in the madness of 2020; we were, and we remain, in need of emotional truth as well. “Time” realizes this, and “Time” provides it. It’s a searing documentary that magnifies the effects of mass incarceration on one family from opposite ends of a 20-year window.
The movie stretches between grainy home video of the past and sleeker cinematography of the present, presenting its truths not in the form of statistics and talking heads but in the daily anguish of lives being lived while a father and husband grows older behind bars, serving an extraordinarily long sentence for a petty crime in which no one was hurt. As a result of some of the most organic filmmaking I’ve seen all year, we come to be swept along into memories and frustrations of enduring love, watching as precious time is lost for good and Black infants become young men dedicated to creating a more equitable future. “Time” spends nearly its entire running time emphasizing the irreversibility of life, and so what happens in its final moments is something of a miracle—a breaking of the rules that only the movies can provide, in order to find a path toward fixing what’s been fragmented. “Time” defies convention, and it’s all the more resonant for it.
Available to watch on Amazon Prime.
3. “Fourteen” (dir. Dan Sallitt)
In “Fourteen,” Mara and Jo have been pals for so long that life has begun to erode whatever contours may have defined the landscape of their relationship in the first place. Writer-director Dan Sallitt doesn’t inform us of how or why early on, but we can glean as much from the movie’s sensationally good co-leads, Tallie Medel and Norma Kuhling; their relative obscurity to the other A-list actors peppering this list provides them leeway to access a caliber of performance that justifies the sense of realism that’s so potent to “Fourteen,” and to its truths. Indeed, performance becomes a central conceit of the film itself. It’s much too easy to corner yourself into thinking you’re ahead of Sallitt’s movie in the first observations of this diorama-as-film about the effects of time, adulthood and perpendicular priorities on two young womens’ cracked and cracking relationship. That’s a feature, not a bug: Disarming ourselves while watching “Fourteen” only primes us to be struck – and struck hard – by its chiseled pathos, the kind of emotion that its seeming mundanity tricks us into thinking the film isn’t at all capable of. Little do we know.
Available to rent via Apple TV.
2. “Nomadland” (dir. Chloé Zhao)
Chinese-American filmmaker Chloé Zhao is keenly invested in sanding down the bedrock of American reality to find what sits underneath. In Zhao’s third feature, an exquisitely constructed work that borders on soulful improvisation, independence sparks from grinding together necessity and agency in a vast American west traversed by real-life nomads who live out of vans and a prerogative to keep outrunning that which broken economic systems have destined for them. Comingling among them is Frances McDormand’s contemplative Fern, who isn’t quite sure of anything but her staunch thirst for mobility. Zhao returns the trademark whiffs of spirituality that blow through the vistas and characters of her stories, which is just one reason why “Nomadland” becomes what feels like a new timeless work about the passage of time as much as one’s passage over stoic deserts and wind-swept mountain ranges.
"Nomadland" will release on Feb. 19, 2021, following a one-week awards-qualifying run earlier this month.
1. “First Cow” (dir. Kelly Reichardt)
In its broad strokes, the first-rate “First Cow” may suggest a smallness—it unfolds in the rugged early days of the Oregon Territory, at a minor settlement, and along the gentle emotional ripples of a budding friendship between a talented baker and a Chinese immigrant. Don't discard of it. Kelly Reichardt’s newest triumph is anything but small. The film – which manages to imbue magnificent attention to detail with a pensive matter-of-factness – compresses the largest of ideas without distilling their complexity. The story centers on two friends-turned-business partners selling obsessively sought-after doughnuts (“oily cakes,” is the perfect name given to them), but the film interlaces intimacy with history, necessity with philosophy, drama with doctrine.
As Cookie and King-Lu’s reputation blossoms, so do their ambitions. To realize them – to fulfill the potential of a land that’s ripe with it – means engaging with increasingly reckless means of securing what they need to strive for what they want. Enter Eve the cow, whose precious milk may as well be gold. “First Cow” isn’t the only 2020 film that functioned as a sociopolitical lens, but this magnificent cinematic bake is the one whose ideas have taken root in my mind the deepest. Reichardt’s perspectives about the systems that power American continue to yield immense value; the fact that they’re here shepherded in what is her most bittersweetly melancholy work to date makes for a watch that moves from mysterious to intriguing to transcendent with the ostensible ease of history being written in front of our eyes.
Available to rent on digital platforms.