A common refrain over the past few months has been that 2020, in addition to being a rough year for everyone overall, was also a rough year for movies. But while the pandemic’s impact on the entertainment industry cannot be overstated (and may not truly be known for several more years), and several big-budget movies were bumped further down the release calendar, I’m not ready to relegate the films of 2020 to the same scrap heap that the rest of the year deserved. There were plenty of great films that made their way to audiences – you just had to do a bit more digging to find some of them.
Looking back at a year we’d all rather forget, I’ll happily remember these films as buoys which helped keep me afloat during some scary, discouraging times. These are my ten favorite movies of 2020.
While Eliza Hittman’s fantastic Never Rarely Sometimes Always is rightfully earning placement on many critics’ best of the year lists, I want to take this opportunity to shine a light on a lesser-seen movie which tackles the same topic with a much more comedic lens. Rachel Lee Goldenberg‘s Unpregnant, which also focuses on this country’s frustratingly difficult access to abortion for teenagers, is one of the best comedies of the year – but it was buried on HBO Max. A hidden gem just waiting to be discovered, this film features a central relationship between two girls (Haley Lu Richardson and Barbie Ferriera, both wonderful) that feels just as genuine as the one between the protagonists in Hittman’s drama, albeit in a bit more of a pop-friendly way. Why not check out both in a double feature?
9. I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Charlie Kaufman movies are generally very hit-or-miss for me, but his latest enigmatic exploration of relationships and interiority worked like a charm. I’m Thinking of Ending Things may be a bit too impenetrable for some, but I found it to be a funny and unexpected piece of work that was always engaging, even when I wasn’t 100% sure exactly what was happening. It’s more of a mood piece than anything else on this list, but thanks to its thought-provoking script and outstanding performances from Jessie Buckley, Jesse Plemons, David Thewlis, and Toni Collette, it kept me riveted and intellectually stimulated long after the credits rolled.
8. Palm Springs
This rollicking Andy Samberg/Cristin Milioti time loop comedy ended up becoming even more relevant when the pandemic hit and we were all stuck in quarantine, but I was lucky enough to see it at Sundance in January and loved it even without that extra meta touch. It’s clever about the way it explores big ideas within its familiar framework, funny when it needs to be, occasionally nihilistic, and sometimes cheesily romantic. Samberg and Milioti are note perfect all the way through, bringing a level of charm and dramatic heft to these parts that makes the movie more than just a breezy watch.
7. The Painter and the Thief
This one has a killer premise: a painter confronts the man who stole her artwork. But the real magic of this documentary starts after that initial meeting, as the painter and the thief slowly begin to form a unique bond based on this unlikely experience. It’s a movie about perspective, forgiveness, and obsession, and it had my jaw on the floor multiple times, which is all I ever really want from a great documentary. Its final shot left me reeling, but I practically didn’t blink throughout the entire film because I was searching so intently for clues on these human faces about how these people were feeling in a given scene. Huge props to director Benjamin Ree and his editorial team for capturing and presenting this central relationship in such a dynamic, fascinating way.
6. Promising Young Woman
Emerald Fennell‘s fiery, take-no-prisoners screed against toxic “nice guys” is one hell of a feature directorial debut, and I’m glad it put Carey Mulligan back in the center of the frame since it had been a while since I’d seen her lead a movie. Promising Young Woman is seemingly designed to provoke and make viewers a bit uneasy, but never in a way that felt obnoxious. You can tell Fennell is channeling years of depressing real-world stories into this ultra-modern revenge tale, but there’s also a genuinely sad sense of loyalty and grief hidden behind the flashing eyes of the main character. Instead of giving audiences a clean-cut, rah-rah, “girl power” conclusion, Fennell complicates the final moments with a bold decision that may not work for everyone, but won me over with its sheer audacity.
5. Da 5 Bloods
Leave it to Spike Lee to make a Vietnam War movie like no other. Lee’s modern-set adventure drama is part Treasure of the Sierra Madre, part Apocalypse Now, with a group of aging American veterans returning to their old battlegrounds. The trip is ostensibly so they can unearth a treasure that they buried there during the war, but the film itself is actually about these guys finally coming to grips with what happened there and the powerful effect it had on their lives. It’s a masterfully crafted movie with killer tension and solid action (there’s a landmine sequence that’s unbelievably good), but the most radical thing about it is that it chooses to focus on perspectives that aren’t regularly explored in Vietnam movies – including a couple of Vietnamese characters, who are often minimized or outright ignored in American cinema about that conflict.
Steve McQueen‘s Mangrove, the first entry in his Small Axe anthology, is set in the late 1960s, but was very much a “movie of the moment” in the way it spoke directly to the mass protests about police brutality which helped to define 2020. It’s a magnificent courtroom drama, but before it gets there, it’s an empathetic look at the community of Black West Indian immigrants living in London who simply wanted to peacefully exist in their own space, but were constantly harassed and threatened by the racist arm of the law. It’s a movie full of righteous anger, one that shows that even though people shouldn’t have to make massive personal sacrifices to achieve basic equality, those sacrifices are ultimately what moves the needle toward a more just world.
3. Sound of Metal
Bow down before Riz Ahmed, who runs the gamut of emotions in Sound of Metal and cements himself as one of the great performers of his generation. As a heavy metal drummer who suddenly loses his hearing, Ahmed takes us through the denial, frustration, isolation, and sheer terror of that experience, as his entire life becomes totally unraveled. Watching him put the pieces back together, under the wing of the perfectly-cast Paul Raci, is deeply moving, and shout-out to Olivia Cooke for doing excellent work as Riz’s bandmate and girlfriend who makes the difficult decision to step aside so he can get the type of help she knows she can’t provide.
2. The Vast of Night
The Vast of Night is a small movie that didn’t get much of a publicity push when it debuted on Amazon Prime Video earlier this year, but this low-budget drama directed and co-written by Andrew Patterson hypnotized me from the moment it began and didn’t let up. Set in the 1950s, it’s about a radio DJ and a switchboard operator who live in a small New Mexico town and slowly realize that an extra-terrestrial presence may be appearing in the skies nearby. The film’s extremely long takes and creative camera moves all serve to pull the audience in as its mystery slowly unfurls, and watching actors Sierra McCormick and Jake Horowitz, who have an impressive command over this script, fall deeper down the rabbit hole was an absolute pleasure. No other movie made me feel like this one did in 2020.
1. Sylvie’s Love
Eugene Ashe’s beautiful throwback made a big impression on me at the Sundance Film Festival in January – so big, in fact, that the film stayed in my top spot for the whole year. Tessa Thompson and former NFL star Nnamdi Asomugha have unbelievable chemistry in this story of an aspiring TV producer and an aspiring jazz saxophonist who strike up a forbidden romance, and Ashe imbues the swooning story with a sweetness and an occasional sense of melancholy. A cross between La La Land and If Beale Street Could Talk (but more hopeful than both), this is the type of movie that makes you think about and long for all of the movies with Black leads that Hollywood never made throughout its 100-plus-year-old history, and wonder how much richer our culture would be if the playing field was leveled.
Honorable Mentions: Another Round, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, Nomadland, Possessor, His House, The Invisible Man, Tenet, The Nest, First Cow, Hunter Hunter, Soul, Wolfwalkers, One Night in Miami