2020 was unquestionably the most difficult year for us as a collective whole. Through the unimaginable hardships some of us have had to endure, to the newfound outlook of being hunkered away at home for quarantine, most of us have had to rely on the many artforms just to bring a sense of normalcy to our lives. If there is a bright spot for the godforsaken year of 2020, I have to say, it’s been a sublime year for cinema. Despite a year where movie theaters were largely shuttered and most tentpole releases delayed, 2020 has brought a near endless supply of worthy films that have either given us comfort, thrilled us, made us think, made us laugh, cry or just simply take your mind away from reality for a couple of hours.
Personally, I’ve found no shortage of films that fit alongside the previously mentioned descriptions, making this list exceptionally difficult to put together, but alas.
1. Nomadland (d. Chloe Zhao)
A spiritual odyssey of self-discovery, a potent examination of the rediscovery of life; Chloe Zhao’s breathtaking depiction of a woman embarking on a newfound journey of living the lifestyle of a nomad is exactly what we — or at least this writer — look for in a piece of cinema. Roger Ebert once wrote in his review of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life about how no other film had quite connected with his own personal experience, often to an uncanny degree. After my initial viewing of Nomadland, I thought about Ebert’s words and the evocation he described when viewing that films many sequences of adolescence and how it brought him back to his own memories of such time and place. Although I’ve never lived in a van along the American West, that same dueling sense of hope and melancholy Zhao evokes here is verbatim the same feeling I’ve wrestled with all year.
Nomadland is quite literally the closest thing to a religious experience I’ve had watching a film in my recent adult life. Frances McDormand beautifully captures the soul of a woman looking to find new meaning in the next chapter of her life after the death of her husband and the collapse of their society after the Great Recession. Zhao, who has proven perhaps the most successful of any modern filmmaker who wears Malick’s inspiration on their sleeve, captures the exquisite beauty in the basic treasures that exist within the natural world. The narrative absorbs you like the all encompassing wind of the American Frontier. This is truly a one-of-a-kind masterpiece that inspires hope in a time where it’s needed most. A profound emotional catharsis and a masterpiece destined to be remembered among the most essential pieces of art.
(In theaters January 29th, streaming exclusively on Hulu, February 19th)
2. Sound of Metal (d. Darius Marder)
When you have a gift that defines who you are, how do you adjust to a new reality without the ability to continue forward with said gift. That’s just one of the many core ideas raised in Darius Marder’s exceptionally profound Sound of Metal. Riz Ahmed shines as Ruben, a drummer learning to cope with sudden hearing loss. Sound of Metal is a raw and intimate character study made even more singular by its distinct use of sound — or lack thereof. The film often shifts to Ruben’s perspective and what he hears and how he hears it. A landmark for accessibility in film, with a supporting cast largely made up of deaf actors, this is an extraordinary film bursting with humility. Sound of Metal is a cinematic achievement that gives a glimpse inside a story not often seen. yet universally relatable. There’s never been a film quite like it.
(Streaming on Prime Video)
3. Possessor (d. Brandon Cronenberg)
The inability to assign a proper label to Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor is one of its many strengths. A lo-fi genre film with the ambition of Blade Runner and Inception with the grisliness of an X-rated midnight movie. A cerebral body-horror freakout about the battle of the soul between the incomparable Andrea Riseborough and Christopher Abbott. A rich character study about the loss of humanity. Director Brandon Cronenberg furthers the Cronenberg name with subtle, intricate visual storytelling that benefits from multiple viewings, if you can stomach the extreme violence. You simply can’t understand the power of Possessor until you witness it. This is a true mind-blowing experience.
(Available on Blu-Ray and on VOD)
4. Promising Young Woman (d. Emerald Fennell)
The cinematic equivalent to a Molotov cocktail pointed right at rape culture and institutionalized misogyny, Promising Young Woman is a consistently thrilling and fierce filmmaking debut from writer/director Emerald Fennell. Starring Carey Mulligan in the performance of her career, this is an effortlessly entertaining yet haunting vision that furthers the necessary conversations in our society post #MeToo. Promising Young Woman has laughs and shocks; it invokes anger and cheers, it’s sometimes hard to watch, but impossible to look away from. This is a sure-fire classic in the works and besides, it’s about time someone does justice by Paris Hilton’s “Stars are Blind”.
(Now playing in theaters and on VOD)
5. Minari (d. Lee Isaac Chung)
Lee Isaac Chung’s wonderous film about a Korean family living in rural Arkansas amid the 1980’s is pure cinematic beauty. Lead by terrific performances by Steven Yeun (The Walking Dead & Burning), Yuh-jung Youn and one of the most compelling young actors in 7-year-old Alan Kim, this is an absorbing and graceful ode to family bonds and the pursuit of the American dream. Every frame is overflowing with love and warmth, backed by a lovely score by Emile Mosseri (The Last Black Man in San Francisco). This is a film that treats each character with such compassion, it’s impossible not to get swept up by it. Equal parts funny, moving and blissfully human, Minari represents the best of what cinema can offer.
(Opening in theaters, February 12th)
6. One Night in Miami (d. Regina King)
Oscar-winning actress, Regina King’s directorial debut about a fictional evening between Malcom X (Kinglsey Ben-Adir), Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree) — then Cassius Clay — Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) is based off a stage play by Kemp Powers, but this highly engaging, joyful and profound dramedy feels more in line with Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood than Fences in terms of cinematic scale. King brings the vibrancy — and the ugliness — of 1964 to roaring life without ever feeling confined to its stagy roots. What’s staggering about One Night in Miami is how King infuses different subgenres to create a wholly original viewing experience. This is a necessary tale about 4 icons and the struggles they faced. An entertaining period piece that doubles as a fun hangout movie, a poignant examination of identity and of how far (and little) we’ve come as a country in the 56 years since. The outstanding ensemble cast infuses these titans with an endless stream of heart and nuance, truly transporting you to their world. One of the most important films of 2020 also happens to be one of the most entertaining.
(Streaming on Prime Video)
7. Da 5 Bloods (d. Spike Lee)
Spike Lee has given us classic upon classic, which is why it’s all the more satisfying that over 30 years after the man gave us Do The Right Thing, he’s still delivering work this profound. Da 5 Bloods is the kind of film that plants itself deep inside your mind and does not leave easily. That sense of urgency Lee is able to replicate is on full display here, with numerous sequences that shook me to my very core. Lee’s multi-layered story of how tightly the war of Vietnam and the civil rights movement are intertwined and how, for these particular characters, those wars haven’t yet ended. Star Delroy Lindo absolutely stuns here, giving the most fearless performance of 2020 and the rest of the ensemble is excellent as well, featuring one of the final performances of the late, Chadwick Boseman. Spike Lee is the type of filmmaker that throws any and all ideas he has for a project at the screen and while not every single piece of Da 5 Bloods works, it’s miraculous the amount that does. This is some of Spike Lee’s best filmmaking and like his best work, Da 5 Bloods doesn’t give easy answers; it’s uncomfortable, messy, thrilling and always profound.
(Streaming on Netflix)
8. Bacurau (d. Kleber Mendonca Filho & Juliano Dornelles)
What a breathtaking film in a year full of them. Bacurau is a superbly crafted mix of postmodern Brazilian social drama and cutting satire that later explodes into a full tilt spaghetti western and I loved every gorgeous minute of it. Taking cues from Sergio Leone, John Carpenter and Akira Kurosawa, Bacurau takes some extremely bizarre twists and turns, but filmmakers Kleber Mendonca Filho & Juliano Dornelles orchestrate each twist with such expertise. The international cast including the likes of Sonia Braga and Udo Kier bring charisma to the screen, grounding you within the surreal Brazillian landscape. If you like your movies to take you on a rollercoaster of emotions, than Bacurau is what its all about.
(Streaming on The Criterion Channel and available on Blu-Ray & on VOD)
9. Another Round (d. Thomas Vinterberg)
An exhilarating and life-affirming journey of breaking out of the monotony that is middle-age, Another Round is the kind of comedy we don’t get enough of these days. Portraying the literal highs and lows of alcoholism, director Thomas Vinterberg takes an idea that simply shouldn’t work within a dramatic narrative; a group of bored middle-aged teachers decide to test a theory that suggests their lives will improve by maintaining a consistent blood alcohol level, and pulls it off with precision. Straddling the tricky line between uproarious comedy — some drunken moments between the characters are absolutely hysterical — and quiet melancholy is a task Vinterberg accomplishes with seeming ease. The film is deeply rooted in its rich characters, allowing the drama to unfold naturally. Mads Mikkelsen gives one of his very best performances, always finding the emotional truths within the role. The extravagant and ultra-satisfying ending leaves you on a high that is hard come down from, which is perhaps the best compliment I can give to Another Round.
(Available on VOD)
10. Never Rarely Sometimes Always (d. Eliza Hittman)
An authentic and shattering little film, Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always is able to say so much, while conveying it all with great subtlety. The sociopolitical message at the forefront — the film is about two teenage girls who travel to NYC for an abortion — is told through immaculate detail and tenderness, creating one of the more empathetic film experiences all year. The raw, highly naturalistic performances from stars Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder are beautifully inhabited, with one sequence, set solely on a tight close-up of Flanigan, that will leave you devastated. The singular vision of Eliza Hittman is so genuine and personal, resisting its truths is practically impossible.
(Streaming on HBO Max & available on VOD)
Tenet (d. Christopher Nolan)
Look, I’m not going to lie to you, Tenet is not an easy movie to follow. I don’t believe I had ever heard the term “temporal pincer” until this film. Yet by my 4th viewing — another one coming very soon — I can’t say I really care. Christopher Nolan’s primary concern is to make a grandiose action thriller in the vein of 70’s & 80’s James Bond films and he certainly succeeds. With insane, dazzling set-pieces that have really never been attempted before and a wildly imaginative puzzle-box narrative that DOES prove satisfying with more and more viewings, Tenet is the work of a next-level auteur who is trying to show you something you’ve never seen before, all while exhilarating you into oblivion.
(Available on Blu-Ray and on VOD)
The Invisible Man (d. Leigh Whannell)
Doing what some of the best genre films are capable of, Leigh Whannell’s re-imagining of The Invisible Man understands that monsters come in all forms and so should monster movies. Whannell’s masterful direction and Elisabeth Moss’s show-stopping performance further cement The Invisible Man as a turning point for modern studio horror films. Plus, that dinner scene is truly an all-timer.
(Streaming on HBO Max & available on Blu-Ray and on VOD)
Mank (d. David Fincher)
David Fincher’s luscious ode to classic Hollywood is a magical piece of work. A meticulously constructed period film with outstanding turns from Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried and an ensemble cast to die for. While die-hard cinefiles and those well-versed in the lore of Citizen Kane might get the most mileage, this is still an accomplishment in storytelling and a technical marvel to boot. Mank serves as a reminder to why we love the movies and the folks that make them.
(Streaming on Netflix)
Hunter Hunter (d. Shawn Linden)
Utilizing the rich, mountainous atmosphere that calls to mind The Revenant or It Comes at Night, but with the sadistic edge of Rob Zombie, first-time filmmaker Shawn Linden’s grisly fable of mankind pushed to its most primal state and the line between righteous and wicked is a taut and nasty slice of genre cinema. Linden does justice by his inspirations — Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs is another clear influence – but exists within its own unique lane. This is a tense and bleak film that crescendos to a gnarly climax guaranteed to rattle even the most seasoned genre vets. Strong work from Devon Sawa, Nick Stahl and Summer Howell, but breakout star Camille Sullivan gives a fiercely committed performance that deserves greater recognition. This is the type of film that’ll leave you wanting a long shower, but totally worth it in the end.
(Available on VOD)
Feels Good Man (d. Arthur Jones)
You wouldn’t expect a documentary about an internet meme to be anything worthwhile, but the story of artist Matt Furie and his creation, Pepe the Frog, is much more important and engrossing than you’d think. Chronicling the saga of Furie’s cartoon character, Pepe, from its inception as a goofy comics character that is then hijacked by the alt-right as a hate symbol is truly a story you have to see to believe. Through elegant storytelling and the use of some trippy animation, this is a film even those with little knowledge of meme culture should seek out.
(Available on Blu-Ray and on VOD)
Honorable Mentions (Other Strong Titles of 2020 – In Alphabetical Order)
The Assistant (d. Kitty Green)
Athlete A (d. Bonni Cohen & Jon Shenk)
Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (d. Cathy Yan)
Collective (d. Alexander Nanau)
His House (d. Remi Weekes)
Small Axe: Lover’s Rock (d. Steve McQueen)
Relic (d. Natalie Erika James)
Shirley (d. Josephine Decker)
Soul (d. Pete Docter & Kemp Powers)
The Way Back (d. Gavin O’Connor)