Much like the year itself, it’s hard to look back on film in 2020 without a great deal of complicated emotions. Every aspect of our society was upended by the coronavirus pandemic, including the film industry. Movie theaters across the United States closed their doors in mid-March because of the virus, and while many of them were able to reopen later in the year, a large amount remain closed to this day. The act of watching films, even new releases, at home became the norm in 2020. This led to anxious conversations in the film world about whether or not the theatrical experience would ever return to prominence after this pandemic is over. We may not know the answer to that question for a while as it is impossible to tell what the future holds. The one thing we know for sure is that film, and the ways in which people interact with the art form, are going to feel the effects of 2020 for a long time.
For many of us, 2020 forced us to ponder what even makes a film, a film. This is because streaming services—which had been infiltrating the world of film for years now—really seemed to take over in 2020, for obvious reasons. In fact, some of the movies on my list were supposed to be released theatrically but then ended up being viewed by myself, and others, on a streaming service. The fact of the matter is, when your primary method of viewing a film for an entire year is at home on your couch, you’re going to inevitably start to question the form a little more. Don’t get me wrong, the lines between television and film have been getting blurry for years now, but 2020 seemed to escalate things to the point that we were really able to wonder why we refer to things like The Queen’s Gambit as a series, when we could just as easily consider it to be a seven part film. Does that mean the future of entertainment is going to be some hybrid of film and television that we all watch in our living rooms? I don’t have the answer to that question. What I do know, however, is that I treasure those few theater experiences I was able to have during the first couple months of 2020, and even though the future of a lot things in the entertainment industry feels uncertain at the moment, I truly hope experiences like that are not gone forever. For now though, let’s move away from the future and take a look towards the past. Here are my top ten favorite films from this unprecedented year.
(Honorable Mentions: Soul, The Nest, Lovers Rock, Blow The Man Down, Kajillionaire, Bacurau, The Assistant, Sound of Metal, Time, and Tenet)
10. Another Round
Thomas Vinterberg’s film—which tells the story of four high school teachers who try to break out of their individual ruts by testing the theory that maintaining a constant level of alcohol in their blood will improve their lives—is one of the most unusual, beautiful, and heartbreaking movies of the year. At the center of this Danish film is an absolutely brilliant performance by Mads Mikkelsen. While Mikkelsen rose to prominence in American entertainment by primarily portraying villains, he shows a much more vulnerable side in this film as a middle-aged teacher, dad, and husband named Martin. The journey that Martin and his friends go on as they test out this theory is wildly engaging. In many ways, the first half of this film feels like a drunken night out, while the second half feels like the brutal hangover that inevitably comes the next morning. It is that ever-changing tone that makes Another Round so captivating. There are both moments of true levity in this film as well as some brutally upsetting scenes. It is not easy for a film to contain both of those things and still be successful, but Vinterbeg pulls it off almost flawlessly. Lastly, the final scene of this film is one of the most affecting endings to a movie I have seen in some time. Some American film lovers may be unfamiliar with Another Round, and if that is the case they should familiarize themselves as soon as possible.
9. Palm Springs
There is a real case to be made that Palm Springs was the most important movie of 2020. That may seem like a ludicrous statement to some, but consider the facts. This film—which portrays characters who are forced to live the same day over and over again—came out on Hulu at a time where many of us were still trapped inside our houses doing the same things over and over on a daily basis. Moreover, this film—that was originally supposed to be released in theaters—came to audiences during a summer without blockbuster films or movie theaters to see them in. Palm Springs not only gave film fans something to discuss, gush over, and analyze—it reminded us of just how fun movies can be. I could go into greater detail about the plot of this film, the humor, or the great performances by Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti, but truthfully, the most important reason Palm Springs landed on my list is because it came to the movie world at a time when we desperately needed it, and I will be forever grateful to it for that.
8. First Cow
Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow is a film that landed on a lot of people’s best of the year lists towards the start of 2020 and never moved off of them. The story of a skilled cook and a Chinese immigrant forming a friendship and a successful business in the early 19th century made for one of the most simple, yet touching stories of the year. Reichardt had one of the best directing performances of the year with this film and a great deal of its success is due to her. Much like a lot of Reichardt’s films, First Cow is deliberately paced, and the subtle way in which she tells her story makes for a gripping and moving experience for the viewer. At first glance, First Cow may just seem like an intimate story of friendship, but if you look closer you will find that it is actually a masterclass in subtle filmmaking.
7. Da 5 Bloods
Similar to Palm Springs, Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods seemed to come to us at a time when we needed it. Lee’s film tells the story of four African-American veterans who return to Vietnam seeking a fortune they lost in the jungle years ago. This movie came to audiences at a very uneasy time in the United States. George Floyd’s murder had sparked protests all over the country and, at the time, I didn’t think there was a filmmaker more appropriate to hear from during that moment than Lee. And Da 5 Bloods, perhaps his most ambitious film to date, did not disappoint. It may not have been a movie directly about the moment we were living through, but it certainly felt like a movie of the moment. The themes in Da 5 Bloods may have felt obvious, as they do in a lot of Lee’s work, but that did not make them any less effective or powerful. And when you accompany those themes with brilliant lead performances and a stunning visual style, you get one of the most memorable films of the year. There are a lot of subtle and small films on my list this year, but Da 5 Bloods was without question one of the most grand experiences of the year, and it deserves to be recognized and rewarded.
6. Boys State
Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss’ Boys State managed to be my favorite documentary in a year which included some truly great nonfiction films (Time and Dick Johnson is Dead were in a close 2nd and 3rd). When I was making this list though, I realized that there may not have been a movie in 2020 that flat out entertained me as much as Boys State did. If you’re unfamiliar with what a “Boys State” is—which I was before I saw this film—it is a summer camp of sorts that each state has where hundreds of teen boys go to build a representative government from the ground up. McBaine and Moss’ film chronicles the events that took place at the Texas Boys State, and the Lord of the Flies–esque story that this film tells is undeniably fascinating. The conclusions that this film ultimately makes are both revealing and frightening when looked at through the lens of how our actual political system works in America. I know a film interested in the desires that drive our politicians may not seem like the most fun watch in 2020, but there is an incredible amount to love about this film. It’s hard for a movie to be this entertaining, while also leaving you with as much to think about as Boys State does. It is a must watch.
5. The Vast of Night
Speaking of movies that know how to flat out entertain, the number five film on my list is The Vast of Night directed by Andrew Patterson. This is a film that made scenes of people engaging in small talk and operating a switchboard feel like some of the most riveting movie moments of the year. While the performances in this film are incredible and the script is utterly magnificent, the crowning achievement of The Vast of Night is Patterson’s directing. It’s difficult for a filmmaker to draw Spielberg comparisons from his debut, and it’s even more difficult for those comparisons to actually feel valid—but that is exactly what Patterson did with The Vast of Night. In his first film, he showed he had the technical abilities of a far more experienced filmmaker. Not only does this movie contain some of the most mesmerizing shots of the year, it knows how to keep its viewer’s attention from start to finish. Although this movie can feel subtle at moments, I don’t think Patterson wasted any single moment when making and editing it. I cannot wait to see what he does next, and I absolutely implore everyone to check out The Vast of Night on Amazon Prime if they missed it this year.
Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series was one of the greatest achievements of 2020, and Mangrove was the crown jewel of that collection. Even though some prefer Lovers Rock, which landed in my honorable mentions, I find Mangrove to be the superior work. This film centers on Frank Crichlow, and tells the true story of The Mangrove Nine whose clashes with police over race discrimination led to a highly publicized trial in 1970. Much like Da 5 Bloods, this is a movie that feels of the moment, and a story that feels as relevant today as it did back in 1970. This is also a film that does not pull any punches. It brutally depicts the flaws that were, and are, present in the law enforcement and judicial systems around the world. As much as I don’t want to compare this film to another 2020 movie because it is more than worthy of being discussed on its own, it is hard for me to write about Mangrove without thinking of Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7. Even though I am a huge fan of Sorkin and I liked his film, Mangrove really overshadowed it. McQueen’s film is the far superior courtroom drama of 2020 and its success actually reveals some of the flaws that are present in The Trial of the Chicago 7.
What is there left to say about one of the most discussed films of 2020? Mank was more than a film this year, it was a moment unto itself. Obviously, it came from legendary filmmaker David Fincher and tells the story 1930’s Hollywood through the eyes of troubled screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz as he works on finishing the screenplay to Citizen Kane. Due to the hype around this film, as well as its subject matter, it would have been nearly impossible for Fincher to create a product that everyone was satisfied with. That being said, I happen to believe he made a truly incredible film, which includes some of the best scenes of the year as well as Oscar worthy performances from both Gary Oldman and Amanda Seyfried. Interestingly, Fincher’s trademark cynicism isn’t as prevalent in Mank as it is in some of his other films. There is something more grand and majestic about this film than any other he has made. It’s an expansive journey with real sincerity in the wonderful script that was penned by Fincher’s late father. But despite it being somewhat of a departure from Fincher’s usual style, it is a tremendous achievement nonetheless, and truly one of the year’s best.
I fell in love with Shithouse more than any other film I saw this year. Cooper Raiff’s debut movie, which seemed to be inspired by many independent films from the ’90s, was one of the year’s most delightful surprises. The story follows a struggling, homesick college freshman who has his outlook on the college experience changed after he meets a sophomore RA at a party one night. It is very rare for a film to be able to accurately capture the feelings and emotions of a generation, but that is exactly what Shithouse does. Raiff’s innocent, yet mature take on this crucial time in people’s lives is made even more impressive when you consider the fact that he was only 22 years old when he wrote, directed, and starred in this film. He also approaches this story with a great deal of sincerity that somehow never veered into cheesy or melodrama territory. Honestly, there is probably not a film this year that had as much empathy and love for its characters as Shithouse does. I’m always amazed when young filmmakers are able to tell their stories in ways that are not only successful, but actually connect with audiences. Raiff is a true talent to watch, and Shithouse is undoubtably one of the best films of 2020.
1. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
I briefly wrote about my “top five movies of the year so far” back in May, I then revisited that conversation at the halfway point of the year in July. On both of those lists, Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always took the top spot, and as I write this list in early January, absolutely nothing has changed. Throughout all of 2020, I never saw a film that impacted me as much as this one did back in early April. Hittman’s story about a teenage girl traveling from rural Pennsylvania to New York City with her cousin in order to get an abortion is the most carefully rendered and touching film of the year. Hittman’s ability to use plain and brutal reality to show what this journey is actually like for people, while keeping the audience completely enthralled throughout, is simply awe-inspiring. Similar to Shithouse, this is an intimate, sincere, and personal story that never becomes melodramatic. It also contains quite possibly the most gripping, heartbreaking, and flat out best scene of the year. It is clear from scenes like the one I am referring to that Hittman wanted to take an honest and real approach to telling this story, and when you watch this film, you see that she absolutely achieved her goal. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is my number one film of 2020.