This is the latest that I’ve released my year end list in a long while, but 2020 was a weird year so it is what it is. Even taking an extra 2 (closer to 3 now that I’m actually finishing) weeks to put together my list, between the closure of theaters and rampant depression I still watched fewer new releases than I normally do by the end of the year. That said, while I may be pulling from a smaller pool, I stand by every film on this list. Maybe they wouldn’t all make this list it on a more normal year, but I full heartedly recommend each and every one of them.
25. Emma (Autumn de Wilde)
To be clear, Clueless (1995, Dir. Amy Heckerling) is still the all-time best rendition of the Jane Austen classic, but Autumn de Wilde’s more direct telling is excellent in its own way. Anya Taylor-Joy had an impressive year, and that started with her wonderful depiction of the titular character. Taylor-Joy manages to perfectly balance the character’s manipulative nature with her naivety. Her lovely performance combines with the colorful set design and costuming to create a memorable first entry to my list.
24. Wolfwalkers (Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart)
The best animated feature that I saw in 2020 wasn’t either of Pixar’s offerings, but instead Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart’s Wolfwalkers. Like their previous two pictures, The Secret of Kells (2009) and Song of the Sea (2014), the film evokes more of the classical Disney style than the mega-studio has had in its own films for years. They manage to create wonderfully kid-first animation that still appeals to adults without forcing the voice of comedians or awkwardly inserting adult jokes. Instead Wolfwalkers appeals to adults the same way it appeals to children, with drop dead gorgeous animation and a lovely story.
23. The Lodge (Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala)
Normally when a film has its release date pushed from November to February that is a sign of a train wreck. This is especially concerning when the film debuted at Sundance the January prior, so the delay wasn’t a matter of an unfinished film. And yet, The Lodge is a wonderfully executed, twisted horror film. The heavy usage of religious imagery works well as the film toys with the difference between culturally acceptable piousness and cult fanaticism. Even the blinding white snow which the film uses to create a completely isolated location acts as a religious purity symbol. The Lodge was a film that should not be forgotten from the pre-lockdown era of 2020.
22. Driveways (Andrew Ahn)
While I don’t personally subscribe to the notion that melodrama is inherently a negative in filmmaking, there is a lot to be said for a film that can tackle heavy topics while remaining grounded. Andrew Ahn’s Driveways accomplishes this well in its telling of a single mom and her son’s ability to cope with hardships. The scenario the two are put in is more than should be asked of people in their situation, but not more than frequently is put upon people. By keeping the film so realistic, the overall message is elevated. We could see ourselves in Kathy’s (Hong Chau) predicament, and the way that she and her son Cody (Lucas Jaye) thrive through everything inspires us to believe we could do the same. The limited movie magic makes the impact all the stronger.
21. Saint Frances (Alex Thompson)
In contrast to the subtle Driveways, Saint Frances is more brash with its message, and at times it almost comes across as a bit manipulative, but I love it all the same. Much of my love for the film stems from how connected I feel to Kelly O’Sullivan’s character Bridget. Years after the spike in movies about young 20 somethings many of us who resonated with those characters still feel as lost now in our 30s left behind by the capitalist system that served our parents. Saint Frances perfectly delivers on that still present niche, and the young Ramona Edith Williams as Frances is wonderful as the unexpected directional beacon for Bridget. Is this film one that I think is destined to be taught in film school for years to come? No, but I love it just all same.
20. Swallow (Carlo Mirabella-Davis)
I wrote a lot about this one in one of my daily posts, and in that I talked a on end about how it is a representation of repressive patriarchal hierarchies. What I don’t think I delved into nearly enough then was how perfect Haley Bennett is as Hunter. She puts on a timid front when interacting with her husband’s affluent family, clearly uncomfortable with the position she has been thrust into. However, when she decides to take her first “selfish” action her eyes light up and the timid exterior becomes one of self-fulfillment. As an actress she manages to ever so slightly change her performance to allow the audience in on her joy while still being convincing that those around her wouldn’t notice.
19. Undine (Christian Petzold)
I missed the film Christian Petzold made between Phoenix (2015) and Undine; I don’t know if Transit (2019) would have prepared me for the tonal shift between the films, but I was not expecting the twists Undine took me down. Paula Beer is wonderful as the unhinged title character who is driven by love and vengeful to any man who dare scorn her. Her elevated performance combined with the oversaturated colors helps to create the fairytale imagery which allow the film to transition from love triangle melodrama to a unique twist on a Hans Christian Andersen classic.
18. The Nest (Sean Durkin)
Sean Durkin may have only made two films to date, but both Marth Marcy May Marlene (2011) and The Nest prove that he is a director who can build extreme tension through the banal. On its surface, The Nest is a drama about marital struggles: tragic but not thrilling. Jude Law aptly captures Rory a man increasingly detached from reality, but it’s Carrie Coon as his wife Allison who really shines. As the desperation of their predicament becomes apparent to her, she refuses to put on airs like her husband. A brilliant depiction of upper-class desperation.
17. Run (Aneesh Chaganty)
It almost saddens me that Aneesh Chaganty would follow up his groundbreaking feature debut Searching (2018) with a film as conventional as Run, but while it may lack the technical gimmick of his first film, Run lacks none of the impact. First time actress Kiera Allen is the standout performance in the horror film. She allows Chloe to be a teenage first, horror film participant second. This means balancing the naivety of one who doesn’t know much about the outside world (especially given her mom’s homeschooling and overprotection) with the craftiness of teens who have little respect for anyone older than them. Her performance is perfectly complimented by Sarah Paulson’s descent into madness as her mother Diane. I look forward to what Chaganty does next now that he has proven his versatility.
16. World of Tomorrow Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime (Don Hertzfeldt)
I was very specific when talking about Wolfwalkers above to call it the best animated FEATURE of the year, because for the third time straight time, Don Hertzfeldt has struck gold with his World of Tomorrow shorts. Missing from this entry is the delightful ramblings of Hertzfeldt’s niece Winona Mae, but as she would now be 9 years old it’s understandable. Instead, the film focuses on the later clones of Emily and the search for her love from the man she first met as a clone in an art exhibit. Each of the shorts have gotten longer, and denser, but Don Hertzfeldt still manages to touch on the deeply personal with each entry.
15. Kajillionaire (Miranda July)
Kajillionaire is a movie that feels both like a natural fit with Miranda July’s prior work and like a movie completely separate from her first two outings. Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005) and The Future (2011) are my go to examples for what the term twee means in popular media. Kajillionaire trades that saccharine demeanor for a relatively darker pessimistic one. The way that Kajillionaire feels in kind with the other films is that they all exist in a world parallel to ours. Excluding the talking cat in The Future, all her films theoretically could take place in our universe, there’s no explicitly fantastical elements to them, but the people in her films don’t act like people do in reality. The three family members Robert (Richard Jenkins), Theresa (Debra Winger), and Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) are parodies of scammers, but that doesn’t make the commentary any less prescient. I think I’ve always wanted this film from July, something with her quirky outlook, but one that doesn’t rot your teeth out.
14. Small Axe: Mangrove (Steve McQueen)
Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology was one of the more intriguing items to come out in 2020. All in all, I’ve been on the record of being a little mixed on the project. By essentially putting out 5 feature films in 1 year, he ended up spreading himself a little thin. Not all of the entries hold up to what I expect from a Steve McQueen film. Still, in the best of the entries, McQueen continues to be one of the best filmmakers working today. Mangrove is McQueen’s take on the courtroom drama, and it delivers on every aspect of the genre. The righteous Mangrove Nine, headlined by a standout performance from Letitia Wright, fight against the injustice of the inherently racist London police department. Every argument resonates as the Nine fight for their freedom.
13. Minari (Lee Isaac Chung)
When casing child actors, unobtrusive is normally a best-case scenario, yet Alan S. Kim in Minari gives one of those rare child performances that holds an entire film together. Kim plays David a young Korean boy with a heart condition caught in the middle of his dad blindly following the American dream and his mother holding onto as much of Korea as she can. David doesn’t really understand what’s going on but knows that he’s been forced into a position where he’s different and he resents it. Kim balances the joy he receives pranking his character’s grandma (played marvelously by Youn Yuh-jung) with the genuine terror when she is sick. A great film that is elevated by the performance of a child.
12. David Byrne’s American Utopia (Spike Lee)
Is this really a movie? Does it matter? Hannah Gadsby: Nanette (Jon Olb) was on my list in 2018 and Lemonade (Beyoncé Knowles) was on 2016’s, so if those counted for me then, I see no reason why David Byrne’s American Utopia can’t make it onto my list this year. Musical documentaries are undeniably more difficult to distinguish from their music than other films are from performances. I’m perfectly capable of liking a movie starring an actor I don’t like, but I don’t think I could say the same about a concert film. Even still, my love for David Byrne’s and the Talking Heads’s music is not what stands out in this film; It’s the performance. Filled to the brim with rudimentary yet striking choreography and use of camera angles that offer a completely unique view of the show, Spike Lee helps deliver the second masterpiece of a concert film to David Byrne’s credit.
11. Time (Garrett Bradley)
Created primarily from home video footage, Time feels like the most pertinent documentary for the age we live in. While not explicitly a Black Lives Matter film, the movement has everything to do with the film’s premise. Rob Rich may be in jail for a valid reason, few people would consider armed robbery acceptable, but he would not have had to make that decision if society didn’t constantly push Black people down and leave the family desperate. Time focuses on Fox’s, the wife of Rob, attempts to get him out of jail while juggling the raising of their six boys. The composition from Fox’s own hand camera creates a familiarity with the subject matter and induce empathy from the viewer. Eras in the film pass in a blur on screen much how it must feel for the Rich family living without their patriarch. No film captured the Black struggle as eloquently this year.
10. Shirley (Josephine Decker)
I said the same thing last year with respect to her performance in Her Smell (Alex Ross Perry), but Elisabeth Moss is a genuine movie star and really needs to be recognized for more than just her television work. In her most recent film, she plays the acclaimed horror writer, the titular Shirley Jackson who is at an apparent low point in her life. Co-star Odessa Young plays Rose, Shirley’s temporary caretaker and is also outstanding in the film. The two play off each other exploring the power dynamics between the haves and have nots. Even when Shirley is bedridden and Rose should be in complete control, Moss’s acting clearly identifies that this is never the case. No matter how mentally unstable Shirley is, she is always manipulating the situation until she has complete control over Rose’s mind.
9. Another Round (Thomas Vinterberg)
Mads Mikkelsen drunkenly dancing at the end of this film is the most fun 3 minutes I had in 2020 movies and succinctly encapsulates the themes of Another Round. Mikkelsen’s Martin and his friends have been playing a dangerous game where they attempted to live life at constant state of inebriation. As one would expect, this has some negative consequences for the group, but it also leads them to some of the highest highs they’ve had in their middle life. Mikkelsen’s jubilant dancing at the end reflects the urge to return to the bottle and chase those highs once more. Vinterberg refuses to deny the enjoyment his characters receive through their self-destructive habit.
8. The Assistant (Kitty Green)
The Assistant was the last film that I saw in theaters before the lockdown, and it was also the first great film I saw this year. Kitty Green managed to create an impressively tense drama for those with the patience to watch it. Rocking the impressive 92% to 25% critic to audience score on Rotten tomatoes, The Assistant is a perfect encapsulation of where my tastes differ from the average movie going public. I’m not looking for spectacle (not that there is anything wrong with looking for it in your entertainment); instead, I’m looking for subtle nuances that provoke a more genuine emotional response from me. Actor Julia Garner as Jane portrays the helplessness of a young woman attempting to navigate a workplace predisposed to cover for her boss’s indiscretions. Every moment of the film is poignant in its ability to express awfulness without explicitly showing anything.
7. Beanpole (Kantemir Balagov)
More than the story or the acting performance, what stands out to me the most about Beanpole is how the visuals blend the grotesque with the beautiful. Taking place in post war Leningrad the surroundings for Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) and Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina) are bleak. They are stuck sharing a bed in a communal building with dilapidated walls. Their clothing is mostly in tatters, and the only new dress they are ever able to wear is merely on loan and even that they stain. Yet through all the grime the two live though, the colors absolutely pop. Almost everything in the film is a shade of green or red, and the color tinting of the film make them all painfully vibrant. This dichotomy of the visuals mirror that of the film. Everything is awful, but there remains enough vibrance to get the two women through.
6. Dick Johnson is Dead (Kirsten Johnson)
Dick Johnson is Dead does something that many of my favorite documentaries of the past 10 years have done: use fiction as a mechanism to process fact. Spoiler warning, but Dick Johnson is not in fact dead, but like all of us he will be some day. Kirsten Johnson the director and daughter of Dick understands that one day he will be no more and prepares for that eventuality by filming increasingly extravagant ways for her father to die. These staged performances are really just excuses for she and her father to spend quality time together, time that has been hard to come by while she’s spent the better part of two decades traveling the globe making films. By allowing her and her father’s intimate conversations to be captured on camera through the making of the film, we as viewers learn not just a lot about their relationship, but also on how one prepares for the inevitability of when the ones we love pass away.
5. Promising Young Woman (Emerald Fennell)
Promising Young Woman is not a subtle film, but it’s not trying to be. Emerald Fennell had a vision for a brash, angry film about the injustices young women are forced to endure so as not to inconvenience young men, and with the help of her star and executive producer Carey Mulligan she delivered a film which will likely be remembered for years. Mulligan plays Cassandra, a woman whose life was permanently changed by the actions of young men. Mulligan is what makes this film as great as it is. She manages to perfectly capture the trauma of her character allowing the audience to sympathize with her, even as she does some unsavory things. She understands that everything her character does is a coping mechanism for the trauma she may never get over, and never revels in the revenge she exacts. There is no joy to be had, but each conquest at least dulls the pain for a little bit.
4. Small Axe: Lovers Rock (Steve McQueen)
The other of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series to make my list, and while Mangrove was a great courtroom drama, Lovers Rock is a great Steve McQueen film. When I think about McQueen’s film, I instinctively think of long scenes. I think of the 17-minute scene of Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) talking to the priest (Rory Mullen) in Hunger (2008) and of Chiwetel Ejiofor tiptoeing to avoid asphyxiation in 12 Years a Slave (2013). Rather than those two though, Lovers Rock long scene instead harkens back to a scene from my personal favorite McQueen film Shame (2012) where Carey Mulligan extends the 3-minute Frank Sinatra Classic to nearly 5. This extended cut of the song is almost painful in it’s beauty, and the same can be said with the Janet Kay’s ‘Silly Games’ scene in Lovers Rock. The 3 ½-minute song is looped and extended to 10 full minutes which is likely not something that would have ever happened in the reggae party depicted. It’s in that fantasy space, however, that the film transports us into the room. We feel the sublime joy of the party goers as they find a momentary escape from the prejudiced world on the other side of the sweltering walls housing the party.
3. First Cow (Kelly Reichardt)
First Cow is actually one of my least favorite Kelly Reichardt films, but even a middling Reichardt film is easily one of the best films of the year. Cookie played wonderfully by John Magaro is one of the most sympathetic characters to ever be brought to screen. He’s just a young man with domestic sensibilities trapped on the frontier. Magaro captures the kindhearted Cookie by portraying him as extremely soft-spoken and caring. Even when he and his friend King-Lu (Orion Lee) start stealing milk to bake cakes for profit, it’s clear that King-Lu is doing so for the freedom the capital will bring the pair while Cookie just loves cooking for his fellow man. He wants nothing more than to be in the service industry. Even if the two men have slightly different goals, Reichardt manages to recapture the spark from one of her first films Old Joy (2006) by delivering a tranquil tale of male friendship devoid of machismo posturing.
2. Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman)
A trick to making it near the top of one of my year end list is to make me sob uncontrollably, yet not feel exploitative when doing so. Never Rarely Sometimes Always accomplished that multiple times in its runtime. The most obvious instance of this happening is during the scene from which the film takes its name. Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is sitting in a planned parenthood office to get an abortion. We know that she is pregnant, but we don’t know much in the way of the details about how it happened. When the nurse asks the standard questionnaire for which Autumn is to answer with one of the words in the film’s title, we learn that the circumstances of the teenager’s sex life are more insidious than careless. As the questions become more personal and cut deeper Flanigan’s performance turns tragic. Instead of answering all she can do is cry, all the viewer can do is cry, all I can do simply remembering this scene is cry.
1. Nomadland (Chloé Zhao)
Sometimes picking my number one film of the year is difficult. There have even been years where I’ve changed my order while writing the list as some film touches me in a certain way. This year was not one of those years. Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland was number one with a bullet this year. Her 2018 film The Rider would have been extremely high on my list that year had I seen it before writing, and Nomadland matches Zhao’s perfect direction with a stellar performance from Frances McDormand. McDormand’s Fern is a fully actualized character. She lives her nomad life partially because of trauma but also partially out of love for the lifestyle. The movie passes no judgment on the nomads she encounters, many of whom are non-actors essentially playing themselves. Instead Nomadland does what most great films do, explore an aspect of the human condition.