The Best Films of 2020

“The history of cinema is in part an anthology of premature obituaries. Sound, color, television, the suburbs, the VCR, the internet — they were all going to kill off moviegoing, and none succeeded. Cultural forms, and the social and private rituals that sustain them, have a way of outlasting their funerals. How many times have we heard about the death of the novel? Of poetry? Painting? Broadway theater? Rock ’n’ roll? The arts in modern times can resemble a parade of exquisite corpses. The dead don’t die.” – A.O. Scott

There’s definitely an attachment to irony and pessimism in our world, which I get, but I don’t believe it’s very courageous. I think if you really have ever experienced tragedy or ever experienced love, they’re neither of those things.” – Patty Jenkins

“No apologies. You can tell it to the people who are losing their f***ing homes because our industry is shut down. It’s not gonna put food on their table, or pay for their college education. That’s what I sleep with every night. The FUTURE of this F***ING INDUSTRY! So, I’m sorry, but I am beyond your apologies. I have told you and now I want it and if you don’t do it, you’re out!”Tom Cruise reacting to crew members not wearing masks

“Your switch is either on or off. People becomes episodic. Someone is present until their little rectangle winks off and they disappear. Show’s over.”James Poniewozik

Remember back when Julian Assange was trapped in the Ecuadorian embassy? Occasionally I’d catch a picture of him, looking moony and sallow, waving to the cameras. I always wondered what he did all day? Cook? Whittle? Contemplate his crimes? Of course, I didn’t realize at the time that those photos were a glimpse into the future, a portal into the present. We now live in a world where everyone is (or at least should be) partially confined. And the question, after 10ish months of lockdown, remains: When you’re stuck inside, what do you do all day? There’s work of course, for those lucky enough to still have jobs. There’s exercise, and baking, maybe a little backgammon. And then there are movies. Lots and lots of movies.

It’s been almost a year since I’ve been to an actual movie theater. It’ll probably be more than a year until I return. It’s the longest stretch of time I’ve been away since I began going to the movies at age 6. Some people measure their lives in coffee spoons or Super Bowls. I’ve always measured mine in movies — where I saw them, and when, and with whom. So it’s been strange, to say the least, to give up something that’s always felt like a given. And I’m not alone, we’re all grappling with that. If your thing is clubs, or bars, or synchronized swimming — it’s all been put on hold. Not gone-gone, but just out of reach. 

So is it too self-indulgent to mourn a lost year at the movies? Too out of touch in a world that’s seen unfathomable human loss? A loss so massive, so devastating, so preventable, so deeply deeply deeply cruel. This pandemic has taken a lot of very important things. And to be clear, “going to the movies” isn’t a life, or a wedding, or a funeral, or a graduation, or a friendship. But it took “going to the movies”, also. I don’t know if they’ll come back. Or how? Or when? And the question that haunts every high school movie, if they’ll ever be the same?! I hope, of course. I hope this lament looks dated in a few months (maybe it already does?).

Meanwhile….we all still watched a lot of movies in 2020. They still got made. They still streamed. They still exist. And like I said earlier, what else was there to do this year?

Fittingly, isolation came up again and again in this year’s best films. Isolation in the English countryside (The Nest). Isolation in a remote castle (Portrait of a Lady on Fire). Isolation in an overgrown house on the edge of a rural Vermont town (Shirley). The best films of 2020 found their characters cut off from the world, diving ever deeper inward, often with one other companion (real or imagined) to share in their loneliness. This isolation forced characters to reckon with their real selves, forcing hard questions about self-actualization (The King of Staten Island), self-hate (Palm Springs), or self-fulfillment (Soul). If you thought 10 months of taking long walks and skipping brunch required soul searching – imagine years of being alone in an uncharted frontier (First Cow). The impactful films of 2020 were in sharp contrast to last year. If 2019 asked us to reconcile our relationship to the group, 2020 asked to reconcile our relationship to ourselves. Group-think was gone, inner-life was in.

As far as the world of “Hollywood” was concerned, well like everything else, it was another year of massive upheaval. Quibi burned bright and then crashed just as quickly. Warner Brothers went from savior to villain in less than a quarter. Netflix continued to burn cash to the tune of 14 billion in debt. The pandemic couldn’t stop us from spying on BenAna, but it did stop the release of countless blockbusters. Olivia De Hallinde vanished into memory while Leta Powell Drake resurfaced. And then there were the theaters. Oyyy, the theaters. Few cultural institutions have been more maligned, more underestimated, more mismanaged than our theaters. It started with legal victory allowing vertical integration (more on that later) and ended with the line between TV and the theatrical experience all but erased. (I challenge anyone to read this list of upcoming releases from Disney and tell me which is going to Disney+ vs. theatrical and why? There’s no difference in budget, no difference in star power. Movies used to denote a higher quality, but now episodic TV and most movies are almost one and the same.)

Which brings me to the final question before jumping into the rundown. How do you make a list of the ten or twelve best films when you can’t go to the theater to see them? How do you separate the art from its medium? Could you give a 10 best paintings of the year by looking at JPEGs? Could you rank the best novels by listening to the audiobooks? Could you rate the best restaurants by ordering for pickup? The massive screen, the communal experience, the windowless, hyper-focused nature of a movie theater is integral to our appreciation of the film, right? Not to say home viewing can’t be great, or even that it necessarily diminishes a film’s effect. But it does change it. Your TV, phone, your Ipad, these are different. So that has to be taken into account. Some of these films probably wouldn’t hold up in the theater. Some would probably be even better. In a stopgap year, this is a stopgap list. Bring on 2021.

[Caveat: I haven’t seen everything of course. Time, Mangrove, Minari, News of The World, The Rental. And like every year, this list was determined not only by my subjectivity, but also release schedules, the streaming services I subscribe to, and whether or not I was able to convince my wife to watch it.]

The List:

11) Tenet: Full disclosure: I haven’t seen Tenet. I wanted to. I almost drove to Connecticut when theaters opened there to catch it (they never opened in NYC)…but alas. So why is it on the list? Because Tenet took one for the team (“the team” being theater chains). Tenet sacrificed itself so theaters could have at least one new release in early fall. It was our canary in the Covid mine. Whether or not the movie is any good is secondary to Tenet’s belief in the importance of the theatrical experience. Yes, it was a questionable ethical decision to release it. Yes, it could’ve made more money in the U.S. next year. But damn if it didn’t give theaters a smaller glimmer of hope against a raging sea of terrible, no good, very bad days. You can hate Nolan all day long if you want (you’re not alone). But you can’t deny that the dude puts his studio’s money where his mouth is.

10) The King of Staten Island: A shaggy, 90s comedy released in 2020. King of Staten Island felt perfectly out of time — Marissa Tomei, karaoke to The Wallflowers, noogies at the firehouse. Not sure why I had such a soft spot for this movie….but I appreciate that it was the least rich, least showbizzy group of characters Judd Apatow has followed in a long time. Gone are the acre-wide kitchens and Kay Jewelers-lighting of a film like Funny People. Instead, we get a basement dweller living in what looks like an honest-to-God basement. Pete Davidson delivers in the role he was born to play (himself). And in a normal year, Bel Powley would’ve been everywhere. She steals every line reading.

9) Bad Education: A teenage reporter uncovers the greatest fraud in public school history! Hugh Jackman in a two-sided role as both dedicated public servant and nefarious money launderer! How is this movie not on everyone’s year-end list?? Despite some glowing reviews and a “true story”-plot tailor-made for the moment, Bad Education remains vastly underrated. Like all the smartest high school films (looking at you Election), Bad Education plays up the black humor without ever falling into full-on caricature.

8) Palm Springs: Talk about ending up on the right side of prescient. What could be more 2020 than reliving the same day over and over again, eventually resigning to it all? The chemistry between Andy Samberg and Christin Millioti crackles. Conor O’Malley nails all his scenes (“One time in Air Force reserves I ate three whole pizzas!”). But let me ask everyone this: Has any depressed person, or even just a glum person, spent all day floating in a pool? After The Graduate the cinematic signifier for “not doing great” is lazily floating on a raft in a pool. Does anyone actually do this? Do enough people own pools for this to be a thing? Should we retire this trope? Or are y’all still buying it? Anyway, great film.

8) The Invisible Man: Everything you want from a modernized monster movie. Just enough science behind the villain. A go-for-broke performance from Elizabeth Moss (she’ll be back later in the list too). Deeper subtext about a real problem (the gaslighting of trauma victims). And perhaps the greatest single image/surprise/moment of the year: when Moss tosses a can of paint down her attic ladder to reveal that her invisible stalker is right in front of her! Can’t get that scene out of my head. Forget toilet paper, stock up on semi-gloss.

7) Tragic Jungle: Yulene Olaizola’s film tells the story of a young woman on the run who winds up prisoner to a group of gum harvesters on the border of Mexico and Belize. What follows is a sweaty, enrapturing fever dream. Incredible sound design throughout. The squelching of gum being cooked. The menace of sharpening knives. The painful laughter when one of the men tells a horror story about the last group to run away from their boss. Olaizola is the real deal. Whatever she does next, go.

6) Soul: There’s a scene in Pixar’s Soul when Joe is flashing back through his entire life, recalling the moments that made all his years on earth worth living — playing piano with his father, teaching music to his students, and then the coup d’etat (can I still say coup??): eating a piece of pie alone in a diner. The inclusion of that pie moment sums up everything that makes Soul a masterpiece. Films tend to define their characters by big moments — the divorce, the shoot-out, the game-winner. What Pixar does better than almost all is blend the high-concept with human details. Aside from the gorgeous animation, poignant questions, and a killer joke at the expense of hedge funds — Soul reaffirms an essential truth: enlightenment can be achieved in the everyday as much as anywhere else.

5) Shirley: Josephine Decker does it again. Shirley is a smothering, beautiful film. The camera moves and darts, in and out of focus, catching faces and curves with this hazy mix of sex and sheer terror. Some of the shots are so telling that you wish the camera would linger forever. A black cat tiptoeing on a desk. Olivia going against the flow of hurrying students. A car parked and lording over a trailhead. Michael Stulhberg inhabits his role as a twirling, bearded dumpling of creepiness. And no one goes to the very edge like Elizabeth Moss. She can do more with a half-full glass of wine than most actors can do with a monologue.

4) Lovers Rock: If the best scene of 2019 was Blakklansman’s dance sequence, well, Steve McQueen saw Spike and raised him. Lovers Rock is the aching, vibrant dance party this year desperately needed. Image after image rolls your eyes back in wonder. Hands rapping against walls. Lighters flickering over and over. Two lovers on a bike ride gliding down the street, dwarfed by the free space in front of them. There’s an extended acapella moment that could be its own short film. Lovers Rock is the kind of film that you could pour over shot by shot, or throw up in the background while you cook dinner. It doesn’t tell you what to think, or guide you from A to B, it’s all glances and movement and feeling. Specific and universal in the same breath. Bliss and reality rubbing shoulders like it’s the first time.

3) The Nest: The Nest could be a second cousin to Phantom Thread or A Most Violent Year. It has all the hallmarks of a heavy drama — big house, horse metaphors, parental arguments with the kids listening over the banister. But somehow the film never feels airless. Jude Law and Carrie Coons, as well as the kids, mostly avoid the muted, one-note dialog of so many self-serious indie movies. Instead, they imbue their characters with wit and humor and pain. They give the audience enough of the nonessential to make it feel real.

Enough can’t be said about the cinematography. The rich greens and dark creaking floors. Immaculate light all the way through. Gah, and those dissolves! Throughout the film you feel like you’re sitting passenger side to someone’s specific vision – directed but never manipulated, aware but never removed. The depth of field too! Doors open onto hallways onto doors. A tractor carries a horse to the grave. Carrie Coons’s neck as she cranes back on the dance floor. Have I convinced you yet??

Alas, The Nest isn’t perfect, an almost 10 out of 10 can’t quite stick the landing. So many questions asked, not enough answers given. Perhaps that’s the point, but the final moments are where we finally see the filmmaking seams. The meticulous tone is betrayed by a soft ending (basically another take of the much-lauded final shot of The Descendents). My only wish is that I’d seen the film on a big screen. The faces. The slow surveilling zooms. The colors. The flick of an eye. The release of a shoulder. Pray they release this again in theaters. I’ll be first in line.

2) Portrait of a Lady on Fire: While it technically came out in 2019, Sciamma’s gorgeous love story didn’t hit our theaters until early 2020. In fact, it was one of the last “new” movies I saw out before lockdown started. And recalling it now, I’m getting a little teary. There was a literal gasp from the audience when Marianne notices the page number in Heloise’s portrait. There was a collective shudder from the audience when the disheveled man appears at the kitchen table. All those seaside cliffs and crashing waves and long looks from beneath shawls (like the iconic scene from French Lieutenant’s Woman). Aside from the thematic resonance of two people marooned in almost total isolation (there it is again!), Portrait of a Lady on Fire should be a reminder that in the best films a group of strangers can completely lose themselves, together. All awareness of the outside world slips away and a group of randos becomes one big bundle. As we filed out of the theater, the crowd was in a daze. Remember sharing things? Try not to forget.

1) First Cow: First Cow presents a version of the West where the isolation (!) runs so deep men pick fights just to have a little contact. A version of the West where instead of courageous pioneers searching for a new life, most of the people don’t really want to be there. John Magaro perfectly embodies a gentle soul keeping his head down in an unforgiving landscape, as does Orion Lee as a mischievous newcomer uncomfortable with his station. Not to mention, one of the best performances from an animal (the cow) since that cat from Inside Llewyn Davis.

And while on its face, Kelly Reichardt’s deceptively simple film about the friendship between two outsiders on the edge of the American frontier doesn’t seem like the perfect film for 2020 — what with the collapse of democracy, a global pandemic, protests in the streets, etc. — dig a little deeper and First Cow is really a film about our ability to bond over small beautiful things despite the surrounding straits. Less concerned about the mechanics of “survival”, and more concerned with the meals and friendships and pieces of fried dough that make life worth surviving in the first place.

With the year we’ve all had, I’ll take it.

Superlatives:

Past Is Past Award: Drive-In Theaters. They always say don’t leave your pets in a hot car because they could get fried. How about your audience? Drive-Ins made a major comeback this year and I gotta say….not great. Mediocre audio. Glare on the screen. Headlights. Running engines. Random honking. People walking around. Kinda like trying to watch a movie while stalled on a highway of people fleeing the city during an apocalypse. There’s a reason we remember drive-ins less for the actual movies, and more for the “necking”.

Best Scene Of The Year: Let Them All Talk. Soderbergh’s improvised, cruise-com isn’t for everyone. It’s meandering, tangential, loose, basically any word you want to use for “get great actors on a boat and let them cook”. But you know I loved it. There’s nothing like a regret-tinged hangout movie. Much less one with the holy trinity of Streep, Weist, and Bergen. And yet, the scene that steals the show? The scene by which all other scenes this year paled? When Lucas Hedges confesses his misplaced affection for Gemma Chan in the cocktail lounge. A perfectly stilted, colossally heartbreaking crossing of wires. It was uncomfortable. It was hilarious. It hit very close to home.

Vacation House DVD Collection Award: The High Note. Next time you rent a vacation home, along with the board games and cheap kitchenware, there will be a collection of DVDs. Among these DVDs will be My House In Umbria, Return of the King (Fullscreen Edition), and The High Note.

Bear & Bull Award: Da Five Bloods: Like the stock market on a random Thursday in April, Da Five Bloods fluctuates from incredible highs to stupefying lows and back again in a matter of minutes. Spike Lee has always been unafraid of wearing his themes on his sleeve (and I love him for it), but in Da Five Bloods it can sometimes feel like you’re watching two different filmmakers fight for control of the finished product. There are the highs, like an extended sequence on a boat where Delroy Lindo is triggered by a man selling a chicken, to a painfully wooden scene where Clarke Peters meets his long-lost daughter. One minute you’re reveling in the effortless camaraderie between the five leads, the next you’re stuck in another endless gun battle. It’s frustrating and rewarding, powerful and cringey all at once.

Algorithm Stuffer Of The Year: Project Power. Does Project Power actually exist? Or is it just a thumbnail that you scroll by to get to something else?

Best Distributor of The Year: Neon. A24 gets a lot of praise as the cool indie film company keeping cinema alive. Some of it has to do with their incredible slate (Moonlight, Uncut Gems, First Cow) and some of it has to do with their marketing department (Supreme-style limited drops, a sardonic Twitter account). Meanwhile, there’s Neon. Co-founded by the same guy who built Alamo Drafthouse, the company has been on a tear: Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Shirley, Palm Springs in 2020 alone — not to mention 2019’s Best Picture winner, Parasite. You won’t see their gym shorts around, but you will see their films. Good enough for me.

Worst Follow Of The Year: Catrinel Marlon. She was incredible in The Whistlers. Smoking cigarettes and glaring like the platonic ideal of a femme fatale. So following her on Instagram, I had high hopes. Maybe I’ll get the scoop on cool Romanian projects? Maybe I’ll get a glimpse behind the scenes of a Romanian production? Long story short, her feed is mostly photos of her posing at the gym and plugging various nutritional smoothies.

Blandroid Of The Year: On the Rocks. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where Sofia Coppola’s low low-key, father-daughter fable lost me. Or maybe it wasn’t one moment, but rather a general fading away. Bill Murray is slightly charming I guess? And sure, the film fits neatly into Coppola’s oeuvre of hermetically-sealed, well-to-do women whose bubbles are suddenly broken by a male outsider. But despite its pedigree, there’s the plain fact: this film is super dull. Like a dream….just one that isn’t exciting enough to tell anyone about when you wake up.

Biggest Head Of The Year: Chris Pine. Guy’s got a melon.

The King’s Speech Award For Oscar Bait: Mank. Raise your hand if you still think about The King’s Speech? No one? Me either. Bald-faced Oscar bait tends to go that way. Hyped in the moment, forgotten in a year. Anyway, at this point it’s an annual tradition for Netflix to release a late-year, Oscar-baity, “prestige picture” (The Irishman, Roma) to balance out the previous 11 other months of schlock. Enter, Mank. Black and White? Check. Gestating for over a decade? Check. A self-examination of an artist’s own career? Check. A movie about Hollywood for Hollywood? Big ol’ check. Don’t get me wrong, I still liked Mank. I’m just not sure Netflix cares unless the Academy does too.

Ridley Scott’s Monopoly Award: U.S. District Court Judge Analisa Torres. In August, the justice department repealed an antitrust law and made it legal for studios to own theater chains. On the one hand, sure, if Apple can produce the content and sell you the space to watch it (your phone) — why can’t Disney do the same? It’s just a bigger screen. But on the other hand, studios just lost another reason to negotiate with companies like Regal and AMC. My cynical theory? Thanks for asking. Studios will take this chance to release straight to streaming, actively killing the major movie chains so they can swoop in at a low price and buy them out. Goodbye, Regal Cinemas. Hello, NBC/Universal: A Comcast Corporation Theaters! Mark my words: one day every HBO Max subscription will come with access to an HBO Theater.

Pad Out Your Darlings Award: The Queen’s Gambit. A long time mantra when writing is to “kill your darlings”. Basically for the sake of the story, sometimes you have to cut scenes or characters that you love. In the past few years, Netflix and its everlasting money fountain have reversed this idea. The platform incentivizes artists to turn what could’ve been a great movie, into a heavily-padded miniseries. If their idea is to keep you sitting for longer, they’d rather have 12 hours than 2. The Queen’s Gambit is exhibit A in this new time-sucking world. Your standard, underdog sports story was elevated by performances (Marielle Heller!), and it had the bones to be a brilliant, lean, infinitely rewatchable 2-hour film. Instead, it’s a full workday. Imagine just your favorite scenes from The Queen’s Gambit. That should’ve been it.

Arm Wrestling Your Nephew Award For The Least Challenging Doc Of The Year: The Way I See It. Basically an infomercial for the Obama administration. Pete Souza is great, but even I was embarrassed by the non-confrontational style of The Way I See It. No probing questions, no revelations, just a big scoop of gooey pre-Trump treacle. 

Worst Casting: Trial of The Chicago Seven. Thanks to Bill Simmons and Wesley Morris for putting their finger on exactly why this movie felt off. I’m always down for a movie where big problems are resolved through sheer chatter. But for a movie about the youth movement, why was every actor middle-aged?? Abbie Hoffman was 34 during the infamous trial. The actor playing him, Sasha Baron Cohen, is 49. I repeat, 49. Jerry Rubin was 32 at the time of the real trial — Jeremy Strong is 42. Tom Hayden was 31 — Eddie Redmayne is 39. Was Sir. Ian Mckellan not available?? Piece of advice, if your film is about the generational divide and young people protesting a draft…it might help to cast actors that aren’t still using an AOL account.

Well, there you have it. The best films from a terrible year. Thanks as always for reading (or at least skimming). Stay safe in 2021. Maybe by September, I’ll see you at the movies.

Later,
Will

One comment

  1. Such good recs love it!

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