In March 2020, like all of us, the movies stopped.
The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic ensured that movie theaters, like all walks of life, came to a halt. For the first time in over a century, you couldn't go to your local theater on Friday night and see something new. What would have been unthinkable just a year ago has become the norm in 2020. But like all of us surviving in isolated circumstances, the artform of movies endured throughout 2020. In fact, considering how many great movies there were this year, the medium thrived in the face of adversity. Who knows where the artform is headed between an ongoing pandemic and the actions of greedy corporations. But if 2020 is any indicator, movies can and will go on even in the face of the most trying times.
Considering all of that, here are my own top 25 movies of 2020. As in years past, they're all arranged alphabetically save for one movie I've chosen as the best of the year. But first, a handful of honorable mentions because, really, this year was packed with great stuff.
Pure joy. Those are the two words that leaped to my mind the moment
finished. There's so much energy and creativity flowing throughout this David Byrne show, which is comprised of a variety of musical performances brought to life through musicians from all over the world. Even in a filmed format, it proves so infectiously delightful (Lord knows what this must have been like to experience live). Spike Lee's direction allows the audience to appreciate all the finer visual details of this production while maintaining the program's energy, artistry, and uncompromised vibrancy. Decades after his first concert film,
sees Byrne as bold of an artist as ever. He's the kind of visionary who can conjure up entertainment that can only be properly described as pure joy.
American Utopia is now streaming on HBO.
Under the direction of Kitty Green, The Assistant never fails to fully immerse viewers into the life of Jane (Julia Green), a woman working as an assistant at a movie studio run by a Harvey Weinstein-like figure. The power of Green's filmmaking is solidified by how The Assistant never shows us that Harvey Weinstein stand-in yet makes that grotesque figure's influence unmistakable. The impeccable soundwork (who knew the sound of a tissue box being pushed across a table would make me squirm?) and a quietly gripping lead performance from Julia Garner further make this everyday Hell palpable. The Assistant is appropriately difficult to let go, a realistic reflection of how real-life traumatic experiences tend to linger forever.
The Assistant is now available on home video and is streaming on Hulu.
Bacurau dares you plant it neatly into a singular genre. Is it a character-diven exercise about the bonds formed between members of a small village? Is it a revenge action movie? A grim thriller? Bacurau is all these things and more, a film as richly complex as the residents of its titular location. The film constantly keeps you on the edge of your site while you're watching it. Meanwhile, its searing sociopolitical commentary on political corruption and America's impact n South America will keep the whole film on your mind long after the credits rolls. Bacurau doesn't fit into one genre and it's all the better for it!
Bacurau is now streaming on The Criterion Channel.
Birds of Prey
Throw a stone in the modern American film scene and you'll hit a comic book adaptation. Cathy Yan's Birds of Prey isn't a perfect entry in the subgenre but that's also what makes it something special. The whole movie actually takes big bold artistic swings rather than adhere to safe formulas designed to appeal to everyone. A non-linear story, bravura lead performances (Margot Robbie continues to be a perfect Harley Quinn), unforgettable costume designs and a tone that zig-zags between the violence of Eli Roth and candy-colored zaniness. Of course not every beat lands in a film this ambitious. But enough of it does and what does managed to land results in some of the most memorable & deviously fun scenes in all of 2020 cinema.
Birds of Prey is now available on home video and for streaming on HBO.
You know how some movies solidify themselves as classics by just one scene? The documentary Crip Camp does just that with a late-scene depicting an assortment of disabled activists engaging in a sit-in protest. Though widely ignored by the very politicians they're protesting against, these activists had some unexpected allies. As protestors explain in interview segments, they were lent support in the form of food and showers by a nearby Lesbian bar and a local Black Panther charter. When asked why they were helping them, the head of the Black Panther charter explained that they were all fighting for equality and they had to help each other out. Crip Camp is a documentary about the importance of uniting with others and it constantly finds touching ways to reflect this. But nowhere is this concept better exemplified by this unforgettable anecdote that really sounds like something straight out of a fictional movie!
Crip Camp is now streaming on Netflix.
Da 5 Bloods
War never ends, as Spike Lee's Da 5 Bloods astutely reflects. Even when the battlefield is empty, the lingering after-effects of those conflicts keep on ringing in the minds of soldiers. Following four Vietnam War veterans returning to Vietnam to find some gold, Da 5 Bloods makes good use of Lee's naturally expansive storytelling skills to examines how the Vietnam War hasn't just impacted this quartet of veterans but also the son of one of these veterans (played by Johnathan Majors) and various Vietnam citizens. Da 5 Bloods an incisive affair that also turns in plenty of suspenseful set pieces that would have made William Friedkin's Sorcerer proud and a commanding lead performance from Delroy Lindo.
We've all been confined to our homes the entire year. In that timespan, I've certainly found myself finding joy in unexpected ways. Driveways is a movie all about how important it is to find fulfillment in the unexpected. Who would have thought a bingo hall could be the perfect backdrop for a child's birthday party? Who could have imagined that an elderly neighbor would turn out to be a vital friend for a single mother and her son? Most of all, could anyone have comprehended Brian Dennehy getting a more fittingly perfect final performance than the one he gives in Driveways? 2020 has forced us all to slow down and take in the here and now. Driveways is a movie all about appreciating those present-day circumstances because, as Dennehy's final heartbreaking monologue observes, they can go by in the blink of an eye.
Driveways is now available on digital home media as well as Kanopy and Hoopla.
Farewell Amor isn't just one movie, it's practically three films at once! A chronicling of the experiences of a woman and her daughter being reunited with her husband in New York City, Farewll Amor is split into three sections, each focused on one member of the family. Through this structure, we fully understand the interior lives of these human beings who are so subdued around each other. Unique details about in the thoughtful rendering of, say, the father struggling to return to his old life after having established new roots in NYC. So many pieces of Ekwa Msangi's feature-length directorial debut stand out, but perhaps most noteworthy of all is Jayme Lawson's captivating turn as the families daughter.
Farewell Amor is now available on digital media platforms.
One of the many impressive features in the works of Kelly Reichardt is how well she frames warm friendships in the middle of outright bleak movies. Across Wendy & Lucy, Old Joy and now First Cow, Reichardt depicts friendships that are far from perfect but do convey a believable bond between two living beings. Her depiction of such vibrant humanity in the middle of starkly harsh circumstances has always made her works fascinating and it proves especially compelling here. Here is a tale simply of two dudes bonding over pasties they can make thanks to the milk of a local cow. Reichardt's melancholy filmmaking creates a poignant ode to the kind of intimate friendships that can never survive in a capitalist society built on serving the rich. It's a story that touches your heart as often it makes it ache.
First Cow is now available on physical and digital home video as well as streaming on Showtime.
The Forty-Year Old Version
Radha Blank emerged on the filmmaking scene with The Forty-Year Old Version. After delivering such a sharp directorial debut, let's hope she's only getting started as a filmmaker. Blank's screenplay impresses alone just on a comedy level. I rarely laughed harder this year than I did at hearing two theater students in The Forty-Year Old Version breathlessly describe their pitch for an action/adventure play about a sperm warrior. But it's also such an insightful story about the warped ways society defines something as "successful" and the boxes mainstream art traps Black artists in. The Forty-Year Old Version carries a script as thoughtfully-realized as its monochromatic cinematography. A bold new filmmaking voice has emerged with The Forty-Year Old Version that everyone needs to listen to.
The Forty-Year Old Version is now streaming on Netflix.
One of the years very first movies is also one of its very best. An autobiographical work, Numa Perrier's Jezebel chronicles a young woman, Tiffany (Tiffany Tennille), who turns to working as a cam girl to make ends meet. In one of the many thought subversion of typical cinematic portrayals of sex work, Jezebel does not derive conflict from Tiffany's decision to embrace this career path. Instead, more unique approaches to turmoil manifest through widely under-explored territory like dismissive attitudes towards racism against sex workers. It's one of many thoughtful touches throughout Jezebel which also includes Perrier's intimate approach behind the camera that lends such a soft and empathetic touch to how she frames her central characters. How can you not become engrossed in their stories with such camerawork?
Jezebel is now streaming on Netflix.
Throughout the runtime of Lingua Franca, writer/director/star Isabel Sandoval demonstrates a lot of homages to great filmmakers of the past. Chantal Akerman, Martin Scorsese, Hiroshi Teshigahara, they're all evoked in different parts of the production. But as a whole, Lingua Franca is not just remnants of classic filmmaking. Plenty of unique qualities emerge in this production, including the starting concept of making an American movie where a trans character gets to be the protagonist. The way Sandoval reinforces the importance of people being seen as valid humans across three different storylines is also utterly unique. And the up-close-and-personal camerawork vividly conveys how much Sandoval loves the characters of Lingua Franca. With this film, Sandoval delivers a perfect blend of homages to movies of the past and starkly modern-day filmmaking sensibilities.
How do you pick the very best movie from Steve McQueen's Small Axe collection? A grouping of five original films, McQueen not only reaffirmed his filmmaking chops with these projects but explored brand-new tonal terrain for himself as an artist. For me, though, the first Small Axe installment, Mangrove, may just be the best of the bunch. Not only are the performances uniformly strong (Shaun Parkes as Frank Crichlow is a wonder, particularly in depicting his character's reaction to a courtroom verdict), but I was also left thoroughly impressed by the way McQueen upends norms of the courtroom drama. Mangrove doesn't just break the mold here, by providing a more intimate approach to this genre, it redefines what a courtroom drama can be.
Mangrove, as well as Steve McQueen's four other Small Axe movies, can be streamed now on Amazon Prime.
Under the beating Arkansas sun, the Yi family is trying to make ends meet in a small isolated home. So is the set-up for Minari, a movie rife with unique details in its depiction of the Yi's struggles. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the grandmother character Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung), a wonderfully singular character who loves Mountain Dew and watching boxing matches on TV. She starts out the movie making you laugh, but by the end, her story is guaranteed to gets your teaducts flowing. It's just one of many engrossing touches throughout Minari, with Emile Mosseri's ethereal score and some quietly immersive filmmaking from director Lee Isaac Chung also helping to make this a story that's impossible to turn away from.
Minari premieres in theaters in February.
There's a lot of truly remarkable things about Miss Juneteenth. For one thing, as a Texan, I love how authentically Texan this movie feels. I've walked down neighborhoods like the ones seen in this film, eaten at restaurants like the ones the characters eat at. This isn't a phony postcard version of Texas, Miss Juneenth's authentic storytelling tendencies extend to its central locale. I also appreciate how poverty factors into the lives of the two lead characters but that writer/director Channing Godfrey Peoples never lets it solely define these characters nor does she use it to code them as "lazy". Most of all, though, I love its tenderly-rendered mother/daughter relationship and how well lead actress Nicole Beharie handles that complex dynamic. With these traits at its back, it's no wonder that Miss Juneteenth creates engaging cinema out of everyday life.
Miss Juneteenth is now available to watch through digital video retailers.
One of the years best documentaries (or films of any genre, really) was also directly into the world of television. Mr. SOUL! chronicles the publicly broadcast TV show SOUL! This show was one of the few areas where Black artists could highlight their talents on a widely-seen stage. Mr. SOUL! reflects on how this program opened up new doors of recognition for so many major artists as well as the mindset of the shows unique host, Ellis Haizlip. Mr. SOUL! already captures one's attention through archival footage of the classic SOUL! program. However, the way writer/director Melissa Haizlip connects this program of the past to the world of today is truly special. No art exists in a vacuum, the ripple effects of any piece of art goes on and on. Mr. SOUL! deftly shows that SOUL! was no exception, all while delivering mesmerizing poetry and musical performances.
Mr. SOUL! is now playing in virtual theatrical engagements and airs on PBS in February.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
An abortion is the impetus for Never Rarely Sometimes Always, but it's not really the defining trait of the whole movie. Instead, what really drives the whole movie the challenging hoops the two teenage leads (Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder) have to jump through to get an abortion. Traveling to New York City alone, struggles to get money, that's where Never Rarely Sometimes Always derives its conflict. Writer/director Eliza Hittman really comes alive in her filmmaking in depicting this turmoil, particularly in her inspired choice to keep antagonistic individuals like harassing managers and cops as mostly off-screen figures. Instead, our focus remains on the two leads and the quiet friendship they form on a journey to reaffirm a teen girls autonomy.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is now available on physical & digital home media as well as streaming on HBO.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Getting to see Portrait of a Lady on Fire as one of my last theatrical experiences to date was an absolute honor. In retrospect, there's really no place better to truly appreciate Celina Sciamma's magnificent filmmaking in Portrait. A director previously known for films rooted in reality, an extravagant visual quality permeates Portrait in how every frame looks like it should be framed in a museum and even its depiction of otherworldly spirits. Beneath all the jaw-dropping imagery, though, is a beating heart in the form of both an intimate love story and friendships formed between women. It's all as emotionally satisfying to the soul as it is visually stunning to the eyes. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the kind of top-shelf cinema I can't wait to experience on the big screen again someday.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is now available on physical and digital home media and is streaming on Hulu.
Promising Young Woman
Much like a rattlesnake in the grass, you never know when Promising Young Woman is going to pounce. That's what makes it such an unpredictable firecracker of a movie that has you constantly catching your breath. Writer/director Emerald Fennell has created something that constantly upends expectations, from the bold casting (Clancy Brown as a soft-spoken father is great) to the tone that never stays in one lane for long. It's all so great at keeping you on your toes right up until the ending, which effortlessly packages a grim conclusion in the guise of a happy ending. Oh, and Carey Mulligan turns in outstanding work in the lead role. Her performance, like Promising Young Woman as a whole, challenges, discomforts and thoroughly rivets.
Promising Young Woman debuts in theaters on Dec. 25 and on digital retailers in January.
Some movies excel based on great cinematography. Others earn their acclaim through particularly exceptional editing. For Saint Frances, its status as something special is cemented by piss and blood. The movie's emphasis on women bonding over their vulnerabilities, like uncontrollable bursts of bleeding or urinating, is one of the most unexpectedly heartwarming sights of the year. It's also one of the many ways Saint Frances makes its primary character, Bridget (Kelly O'Sullivan), so compellingly realistic. Sullivan's script and Alex Thompson's direction never flinch away from the hardships the characters of Saint Frances face. However, neither does it miss opportunities for unique bits of heartfelt bonding between these engrossing characters. A totally unique and richly detailed take on the age-old story of a jaded adult being improved by the presence of a precocious youngster, Saint Frances is full of charms...and also piss and blood.
Saint Frances is now available on home video and for streaming on Starz.
What a year for Elisabeth Moss at the movies. Alongside the rightfully acclaimed Invisible Man remake, Moss also headlined Shirley, the newest movie from Madeline's Madeline director Josephine Decker. A profile of author Shirley Jackson as she reacts to a young couple staying over at her house, Decker crafts a magnificently terse atmosphere through bold imagery (like eggs falling to the floor) that places the viewer right into the tormented headspace of the titular author. Tamar-kali's beautifully sparse and eerie score accentuates that mood wonderfully. Shirley is a work that puts you on edge and through such creative character-driven means to boot. Huzzah for Moss movies!
Shirley is now available on digital home media and streaming on Hulu.
Sound of Metal
Sound of Metal already starts with a tantalizing concept for a movie. A hard-rock drummer begins to lose his hearing. What a fascinating concept. Then you get a gifted actor like Riz Ahmed to play the drummer? That already sounds like a recipe for something special. But writer/director Darius Marder (who also wrote the screenplay with Abraham Marder) goes one step further in making our lead character a recovering addict. The way this drummer''s post-recovery determination to fix everything in sight intertwines with his coping with is lost hearing proves endlessly fascinating. To boot, Sound of Metal's sound work is incredibly thoughtful right down to the tiniest detail. Combine all of that with Ahmed absolutely nailing his lead performance Sound of Metal has no trouble placing viewers directly into the headspace of this captivating protagonist.
Sound of Metal is now streaming on Amazon.
The world of movies is not short on troublesome children. But rarely have they felt as realistically rendered as Benni (Helena Zengler). She's a child who is always mere minutes away from violently lashing out at everyone within an arm's reach away. Writer/director Nora Fingscheidt unflinchingly depicts the vicious ways Benni copes with the trauma of her past. But there's also such apparent empathy for Benni. Fingscheidt never reduces her to just a misery-covered spectacle. Combine that approach with an utterly fearless lead performance from Helena Zengler and you have one of the year's most proactive and unforgettable titles.
System Crasher is now streaming on Netflix.
Few movies were as simultaneously grueling and essential as the documentary Time. The film is an extended chronicle of the Richardson family's struggles to get Rob Richardson out of a lengthy prison sentence. In the American prison sentence, Rob has become a number. But in the eyes of his family and director Garrett Bradley, Rob's humanity is reinforced as is the humanity of the people that love him. Nowhere is the latter element more apparently realized than in a scene where Rob's wife, Sibil, in a moment of frustration over trying to get her husband released, repeats the phrase "Success is the best revenge" while undergoing an avalanche of emotions. It's a stirring scene, one of many found in the excellently-crafted feature Time.
Time is now streaming on Amazon Prime.
In an age where computer-animation constantly works overtime to emulate reality, Wolfwalkers is here to serve as a reminder of what incomparable sights can only be achieved through animation. This story of a friendship forming between two girls who turn into wolves at night could only be told through this medium of expression and that's a compliment. As if all the visual imagination wasn't enough, this Irish fairy tale is also a kids' movie that doesn't dumb down storylines dealing with prejudice or theological corruption. Wolfwalkers rightfully believes adolescent audiences deserve compelling storytelling and animation as much as any other demographic.
Wolfwalkers is now streaming on Apple TV+.
And now, the best movie of 2020...
Dick Johnson is Dead
How do you cope with impending tragedy? For director Kirsten Johnson, the tragedy in question is the slow mental deterioration of her father, Dick Johnson, and his impending demise. The way to cope with that? Film his death. Utilizing makeup artists and her camera, Kirsten Johnson films the various ways Dick Johnson could die as well as his experiences in heaven. This is the footage that provides the bedrock for Dick Johnson is Dead, a documentary that also heavily features intimate interviews between Kirsten and her dad as well as home video footage of Kirsten and her family in earlier times.
What really sticks out to me about Dick Johnson is Dead is how it's such a vulnerable movie. I mean, how could it not be? It's a movie that recognizes the inevitability of death, even for the ones we love. Dick Johnson is Dead offers no solution to rid ourselves of the terrifying nature of that inevitability. But what can make it manageable is the bonds we form with others. Dick Johnson is Dead reflects that essential father/daughter bond between Kirsten and Dick Johnson so beautifully, like a heartbreaking scene where Dick refers to himself as Kirsten's "little brother".
Dick Johnson is Dead an openly vulnerable and deeply personal movie. Those qualities are so directly tied into Kirsten Johnson's own experiences, yet it was so easy for me to my own struggles with losing loved ones here. Johnson has made a film that, among its many other achievements, feels so singularly her own yet so universal. We're all scared of losing loved ones. We're all scared of the inevitable nature of death. Dick Johnson is Dead normalizes those fears while reassuring every viewer that they're not alone in those concerns. All the while, Johnson executes filmmaking that fascinatingly blurs the lines between reality and artificial filmmaking.
Really, the beauty of Dick Johnson is Dead can best be summed up by this line from Kirsten Johnson herself:
"It would be so easy if loving only gave us the beautiful. But what loving demands is that we face the fear of losing each other. Then, when it gets messy, we hold each other close. And when we can, we defiantly celebrate our brief moments of joy."
Dick Johnson is Dead is now streaming on Netflix.