The 30 Best Films of 2020
It seems every year it becomes increasingly harder for our staff to whip up a list of the best movies. With so many films released every year, it is now impossible to catch up with everything worth seeing. And this year, it has been tougher than ever before no thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic which has had a substantial impact on the film industry. Across the world and to varying degrees, cinemas and movie theaters have been closed, festivals have been cancelled or postponed, and film releases have been moved to future dates or delayed indefinitely. The good news is that since our staff covers every major film festival in the world, from Sundance to Cannes to TIFF— our coverage gives us the advantage of watching more movies than the average movie buff. What follows is a list of what we consider 30 of the best movies of 2020.
Editor’s Note: In order to qualify for this list, a movie must have been released either theatrically or online here in North America in 2020.
One of the most vital music movies of the year, is the filmed version of a Broadway show, featuring a nearly 70-year-old rock star alternately singing and monologuing. And it’s directed by… Spike Lee?
David Byrne’s American Utopia began life in 2018 as a studio album by the Talking Heads frontman, his first in 16 years. The following year, American Utopia was adapted to the Broadway stage, with Bryne and other musicians performing songs from that album as well as some Talking Heads classics, like “Once in a Lifetime” and “Burning Down the House.” The show then went out on tour and is scheduled to return to Broadway, whenever Broadway opens again.
Now, David Byrne’s American Utopia has been adapted into a concert film, which drew rapturous notices at the New York Film Festival, before debuted on HBO and HBO Max.
It isn’t quite up to the level of Netflix’s production two years ago of Bruce Springsteen’s Springsteen on Broadway, which managed a small masterpiece out of The Boss’ stories-and-songs Broadway engagement from earlier that year. But American Utopia is still quite an achievement, one that very much gets across the unique stage charisma of David Byrne.
It would be easy to call The Assistant a story ready-made for the #metoo era, but Kitty Green’s sobering day in the life story of a low-level worker to a powerful Hollywood executive operates on its own formal terms. Its power is in what is not said, what is not seen, and what is held back. A single earring lost in a conference room. A casting couch needing to be sanitized. An email being a few meticulously chosen words away from a lawsuit. All the while there is our protagonist, a literal and literally named plain Jane (Julia Garner), who is the first in and last out to a system of boys club backroom dealings and make your dreams come true agreements with a Hollywood devil. Garner registers as that mousy office newbie who keeps her head down and her mouth shut, but underneath is silent screaming, caught between whatever notions of Tinseltown power she hoped of acquiring and the realization of her complicity. In the center of the film is a heart-sinking scene with an HR rep (new king of slime, Matthew McFayden) who puts on the concerned face of a friend so he can lull Jane into playing ball for the company. It’s a reminder of all the Janes chewed up, spit out, stepped on and kept quiet for bottom lines big and small. In its quiet resistance to toxic norms, ‘The Assistant’ is incendiary. (Shane Ramirez)
Bacurau is an angry movie, one filled with an urgency that belies its relatively sedate pace. With an atmosphere reminiscent of some Westerns, it takes its time in setting up the players. It also doesn’t really feel as though it really ratchets up the pace or tempo even when bullets begin flying. This last point may put some people off, especially if they’re anticipating a much more fiery climax than the film ultimately has. Things get bloody, no doubt about it, but this never quite turns into Assault on Precinct 13. No, this is more like the ending of a particularly bleak and unglamorized Western — with brief, brutal violence punctuated by long silences. This, of course, makes that violence hit all the harder.
Bacurau is the kind of bold, no-holds-barred movie we need more of. It’s ruthless and angry and uncompromised, the kind of film born out of frustration with the state of the world. And hey, in 2019 we might need more of those. (Thomas O’Connor)
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
Working in a bar isn’t for everyone. There are those who, when sober, find themselves amused and charmed by the antics of the inebriated; equally, some find the spectacle deeply unsettling. That’s the divide documentary Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets straddles in its depiction of a dive bar on the verge of closing.
For all that it might fail to grab the attention, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets does a wonderful job of capturing a place and a time in (sometimes excruciating) detail. It’s a documentary that’s pretending to be one thing while hiding something else, but it’s not lacking in authenticity. Besides, in 2020, there’s something beautifully melancholy about watching strangers being able to hug and dance and drink together without fear. (Ellie Burridge)
The Color Out of Space
Even before a meteor streaks out of the sky, Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space firmly establishes an atmosphere of alien, otherworldly dread. Opening on a fog-shrouded forest dripping with foreboding atmosphere, Stanley evokes the spirit of the controversial author in a way few filmmakers have, and the use of direct quotes from the short story further cements this as a love-letter to Lovecraft and his work. But Color isn’t just a slavish ode to the influential writer and his cosmic horror creations; the South African director also injects just enough of himself into the film to create something that builds upon the core of Lovecraft’s story, maintaining that kernel of pulp horror while introducing elements that feel wholly personal to the filmmaker. For this and many other reasons, Color Out of Space stands out as one the best direct adaptations of Lovecraft’s work, and one of the most engrossing genre movies this year. (Thomas O’Connor)
Da 5 Bloods
With Da 5 Bloods, Spike Lee takes his turn making an ultra-ambitious, two-and-a-half-hour epic about the Vietnam War, in the tradition of Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter and Platoon. Spike being Spike, of course, has a lot more on his mind, much of it having to do with the racial legacy of the war, and of American history itself.
The film’s many ambitions are a lot to juggle, and the lack of a clear throughline is what ultimately makes the film fall just short of greatness. It won’t go down as one of Spike Lee’s major works, of which I consider the “big three” to be Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X and 25th Hour. But this is a film that’s going to start conversations, that I look forward to being a part of. (Stephen Silver)
It can take a while to get into Kelly Reichardt’s measured rhythms. Her films gently ease into their plot-lines, starting with atmosphere and character first. Once you are acquainted the effect is entrancing. First Cow is no exception, a simple tale that is just utterly. Whimsical with shades of deeply earned melancholy, First Cow is another coup for distribution studio A24.
First Cow is like a cake. It first appears like nothing is going on, just a mixture of different liquids swirling together. But left to bake over 2 hours, what you get is a scrumptious concoction that is sure to leave a smile on your face. What a lovely, lovely movie. (Redmond Bacon)
His House is a socially relevant horror film that announces the arrival of a major new voice, in first-time writer/director Remi Weekes. The film, which debuted at Sundance in January to little fanfare, but has gotten excellent notices since it landed on Netflix at the end of October. His House is one of those horror movies that would be horrific enough even without the horror elements.
It’s a refugee story, an immigration story, and a grief story, before we even get to the haunted house stuff. Don’t Look Now would appear to be a major influence, as have various haunted house movies of the past. But Weekes comes at things from a very different angle than most.
Sure, there are some jump scares, and extremely creepy special effects, and even a scary-looking monster, played by Javier Botet. But the horror here goes much deeper, especially once late revelations come into play, and we learn a bit more about the actual circumstances that led them to leave South Sudan.
It’s not only that the film treats the stories of refugees as something other than an abstraction, and that it doesn’t give the characters halos. (Stephen Silver)
I’m Thinking of Ending Things
After the release of every Charlie Kaufman film, I feel a bit of anxiety while wondering how long it’ll be before the next one arrives. That’s partly because of the economics of the independent film industry, where Kaufman might find he’s simply unable to secure funding on a new project one day. But it’s also because each film he writes and/or directs feels like a transformation of his style and voice. Someone who saw Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) likely couldn’t guess how Kaufman would shape his directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York (2008), and anyone who saw that film probably wouldn’t have guessed that something like Anomalisa (2015) would be his next step. It’s the same with Kaufman’s newest, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, based on the acclaimed novel by Iain Reid. It’s undeniably the work of the same auteur, but he’s again trying out new modes and new moods. The film, which turns up the menace that usually lurks below the surface of his works, is darker and more puzzling than any of his films to date, but it’s also his most captivating. (Brian Marks)
The Invisible Man
Somehow fitting in perfectly with the #MeToo movement and the way many coming forward are victim shamed or utterly ignored, Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man is not just a really great adaptation of the HG Wells novel of the same name – it’s a timely meditation on the way we react to other people’s trauma. Elisabeth Moss leads the film with a powerhouse performance. Meanwhile, Whannell expertly blends horror, science fiction, and action with current social issues to create one of the most suspenseful horror films in recent years. The Invisible Man delivers on virtually all fronts.
The Invisible Man is an impressive adaptation of a novel that was already cemented in cinematic history with James Whale’s 1933 version, this is the kind of modern take that feels right at home with today’s horror landscape. (Christopher Cross)
Miranda July is a polarizing director, one whose detractors label her the “epitome of trendy indulgence,” and whose boosters find her doses of magic realism moving and refreshing. I’ve been in the latter category, particularly when it came to July’s second feature, The Future, one of my top films of the past decade. With her third feature, Kajillionaire, she expands her potential as a comic director, while still finding resonant, bittersweet notes.
Unlike The Future, which departed the bounds of time and space to dramatize the heartbreak of a separation, Kajillionaire hews closer to the world as we know it, even if its characters are absurd outliers. Jenkins effortlessly switches from charming curmudgeon mode to lecherous old man, and Winger’s detached mother reveals chilling, if hilarious, depths. But the film belongs to Woods and Rodriguez, who find a wonderful repartee when they’re forced to work together. As in most of July’s work, there’s a moment where it might seem a bit too precious, but there’s a deeper sense of longing hidden beneath. Wood, in particular, seems a bit one-note at first, but Rodriguez eventually breaches her defenses to find what makes her tick. It’s a stunning cinematic transformation to cap off one of the most delightful films of the year. (Brian Marks)
Director Steve McQueen’s Small Axe, a series of five films about the Black experience in 20th century Britain, is rolling out on Amazon Prime throughout November and December. Many of the films in the series, starting with last week’s Mangrove, are about weighty, fraught, political, and weighty subjects.
The second film in the series, Lovers Rock, is mostly about a dance party.
And what a party it is. The film, which runs at just 68 minutes, is set almost entirely within a gathering at an apartment in London’s Soho neighborhood, in 1980. It’s got romance, music, dance and, most of all, joy. And it may just be the best film of 2020. (Stephen Silver)
Director Steve McQueen didn’t direct a movie for five years, between 2013’s Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave and 2018’s Widows. Now, in one year, he’s made five movies.
That is if you consider McQueen’s Small Axe cycle to be movies at all. The five films— all of which tell stories of people of color living in England between the 1960s and 1980s— are showing one week at a time on the BBC and now on Amazon Prime, which will likely lead to arguments over whether or not they should be categorized as movies or TV episodes.
The first of the movies, Mangrove, arrived on Amazon, and it gets the series off to a thrilling, exhilarating start.
McQueen is clearly telling a story that’s very important in twentieth-century British history, much as the Chicago 7 is often talked about by Americans who were at the frontlines of politics in the late ’60s. But for those unfamiliar with the events, Mangrove tells the story in a way that’s powerful, if often infuriating.
Mangrove nevertheless gets the Small Axe series off to a fantastic start, with a compelling examination of an important moment in history. (Stephen Silver)
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
The early buzz out of Sundance was largely positive about Eliza Hittman’s third film, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, but some critics misjudged the work as a mostly political examination of hot button social issues. They’re not totally off the mark, as Hittman’s viewpoint is clear and undisguised, but her film is a sensitive and moving look at the experiences of young women in need of an abortion in the United States rather than a form of propaganda.
Hittman could easily have made Never Rarely Sometimes Always as a documentary, but her lead actress are so good that they help make the story even more personal for viewers. Not everyone needs a way in, and plenty of women will have gone through exactly what Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) does here, but it’s impossible not to be moved by her plight and the way she transcends it. (Brian Marks)
The thing that strikes me most about Nomadland is the gorgeous, vast landscapes. They stretch out endlessly, constantly dwarfing Fern (Frances McDormand) as she traverses across the American midwest. It’s the best performance of her career as it’s also her humblest, diminishing the stature of her character by allowing herself to be subsumed by the landscape.
It shows there is a price to living on the road — from the insecure labour to the long working hours to the intense isolation to the pokiness in living conditions — but there are also rewards; capturing the sunset as it rises over the salt flats of Utah or the snowy plains of Nevada; meeting a variety of diverse and fascinating people; and being able to travel across the vastness of the American West without any true personal or professional obligations.
In showing us the variety of this life, Nomadland invites us to consider it for ourselves; asking if we would give up the safety of a salaried job and a mortgaged home in order to live freely on the road. Yet, at the same time, many of these characters aren’t on the road because they want to; they’re on the road as they feel like they have no other choice. They’re old too; seasoned with experience and rich in character, giving the film an authenticity unrivalled in high-profile American cinema.
Zhao follows up the documentary hybrid The Rider with an expanded tone and a surfeit of generosity. Created before she started on The Inhumans — a Marvel project sure to dampen down her strong poetic vision — they shot on the fly, living out of RVs themselves and gathering nomads on the way. Alternately hopeful and realistic, it draws its power from both an unwillingness to compromise into a tidy narrative and a sheer love of a non-traditional life. Here’s hoping Zhao’s Marvel film is merely a one-time gig. (Redmond Bacon)