The Best Films of 2020
For the past two years, I’ve led this article by saying how crummy the year has been. Well, 2020 doesn’t even deserve to be joked about as it was such a terrible year that I’m glad has passed, even though I don’t have much hope for 2021. Even with the pandemic shutting down theatres and several tentpole films being delayed indefinitely, there were still quite a few movies worth celebrating. In an effort to give praise to those that deserve it, here is my list of the ten best films of 2020.
Honorable Mentions: Possessor, Tenet, The Truth, On the Rocks, Let Them All Talk
What can be considered dull to some is romantic to others. Set in 1840s England, writer/director Francis Lee tells the story of a forbidden lesbian romance between a lonely fossil hunter and a young woman burdened by a loveless marriage. Ammonite has all the tropes of the romantic drama genre, but none of its clichés. Lee avoids these traps by trusting his leads in Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan, who are a winning combination as they give amazing performances with little dialogue. Everything comes from just a look or a glance, enough to describe a whole scene and carry a film.
9. One Night in Miami
After many successful years in front of the camera, Regina King proves she’s just as skilled in the director’s chair. What could have been an overly stagey experience is turned into a fiery character drama featuring some of the most influential figures in history in Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke. Screenwriter Kemp Powers takes these four larger-than-life figures and brings them down to Earth and connects their lives to the present day African-American experience. Special praise goes to the performances by British-born Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X and Hamilton star Leslie Odom Jr. as Cooke, as well as his contribution to the song “Speak Up”.
8. The Prom
The cinematic equivalent of a sugar rush, director Ryan Murphy assembled an all-star cast for his Netflix adaptation of the hit Broadway musical. The story of a lesbian teen who is denied the ability to tale her girlfriend to her conservative town’s prom is told exuberantly through flashy song & dance numbers. While it does have its cake and eat it too, the guilty pleasure that this film brings is in the wonderfully campy performances from its main troupe and its earworm-inducing tunes.
Hailing from Ireland, this fantasy adventure beat Pixar’s Soul to be the best animated film of the year. Aspiring adventurer Robyn stars as our hero as she befriends a free-spirited “wolf walker” named Mebh, who has the power to become a wolf at night and defends the ever-shrinking forest. Beautifully animated in various styles and boasting a great lyrical soundtrack, “Wolfwalkers” also touches our minds with its authentic philosophical message about deforestation and the bridging of cultural differences.
6. The Nest
Similar to the calculated and observational style of Stanley Kubrick and Yorgos Lanthimos, Sean Durkin’s newest feature is a drama/horror tale about the dangers of greed and ambition. Jude Law and Carrie Coon each give career-best performances as a couple that is forced to come to terms with their increasingly meaningless lives. With the gap between the haves and the have nots becoming wider every day, this social critique is timely in the present and I suspect it will continue to be in the future.
5. First Cow
First Cow is the most gentle “bro movie” out there. Writer/director Kelly Reichardt calmly guides us through this frontier-set story of friendship and opportunity. As unpredictable as it is gorgeous, Reichardt balances various genres as the film eventually spins itself into a heist-film with high tension and stakes. Even with all these changing elements, Reichardt never loses the emotional connection with her characters. I’m still hoping Evie the cow can get an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
4. The Trial of the Chicago 7
The words “the whole world is watching!” still ring in my head even after six months since seeing Aaron Sorkin’s newest Netflix film. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a nostalgic old-school courtroom drama bolstered by strong modern filmmaking and terrific performances from its cast. The timeliness and importance of its message make it a must-see as our nation faces a turbulent path of healing after a disastrous year.
With Nomadland, writer/director/editor Chloé Zhao has crafted something special, something that pulls you in and never lets you go. Many times you catch yourself just basking in the imagery. The plains, the mountains, the natural landscapes. It doesn't feel like a movie, but a feeling that just carries you all the way through. With a lead terrific performance from the legendary Frances McDormand and a supporting turn from the reliable David Strathairn, Zhao combines so many complex things to create a true piece of art.
2. The Vast of Night
Amazon’s The Vast of Night is a director's showcase for Andrew Patterson. With long takes and tracking shots that are near Cuarón level, Patterson fully immerses us in this 1950s set small-town alien invasion mystery. Spookier than any conventional horror movie and brimming with an abundance of talent from its cast and crew, The Vast of Night is a startlingly well-made debut that will surely lead to fruitful careers for all those involved.
1. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Written and directed by indie-darling Eliza Hittman, Never Rarely Sometimes Always is an authentic and upsetting coming of age story. Taking place over a trip to New York City to abort an unwanted pregnancy, Hittman did an impeccable job of exuding sympathy and connecting me to a process I am biologically unable to relate to. The title of the film comes full circle near the end in a scene that left me with no dry eyes. Newcomer Sydney Flanigan is a star in the making with her lead performance. Her career will be one to watch.