The 30 Best Films of 2020
What were the best movies of 2020? Everyone’s asking the question since so many people were left in the dark after movie theatres around the world were forced to close due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Luckily for us, our staff covers every major film festival around the world, and along with having access to dozens of online press screenings each week, we were able to watch more movies than the average movie buff. What follows is the second half of our list of the best movies of 2020.
Onward is a moving ode to brotherhood that is sure to hit audiences right in the jugular. Is it manipulative? Of course. It is Pixar after all, yet the manipulation serves the emotion of the story rather than its mere plot machinations. You may need to bring some tissues though. OK, bring the whole box just to be sure.
While the world created by Onward — part the cute trolls in Frozen, part How To Train Your Dragon —isn’t the most unique Pixar have created (it pales in comparison to the dystopia of Wall-E or Brad Bird’s Paris in Ratatouille), the emotional core of the story is as solid as the best of them. Fans will not be dismayed, and neither will more casual audiences. This is a fantastic movie. (Redmond Bacon)
In his 2012 debut feature Antiviral, director Brandon Cronenberg (son of David) brutally satirized a culture’s obsession with celebrity, and the lengths we go to get close to them. Now, in this year’s Possessor, he once again aims to deride one of today’s topics – drone warfare – by hitting a little closer to home.
It may be far too surreal for some, and much too gory for others, but Possessor raises questions surrounding modern warfare, control, and the blurring grey area of responsibility that few others are asking if a little undercooked. (Veronica Cooper)
Promising Young Woman
Promising Young Woman is a film that’s been setting off arguments between critics ever since it debuted at Sundance back in January, arguments that have grown in intensity throughout the fall, leading up to the film’s VOD release on Christmas Day.
Those on the positive side of the film praise Carey Mulligan’s performance, the film’s candy-flavored color palette, and the audacity of its screenplay. Those who dislike it call it disjointed, an unfair piggybacking on the #MeToo movement, and especially the ending.
Count me on the positive side: Promising Young Woman is a brave, audacious film that takes a new angle in the rape-revenge genre and lays out its story in a unique and original way.
Promising Young Woman was written and directed by Emerald Fennell, in her directorial debut. Fennell is mostly known as an actress, who was on The Crown and was also the showrunner for the second season of Killing Eve. But with Promising Young Woman, Fennell shows that she’s a rising filmmaker worth watching.
The film lays out its plot deliberately, parceling out information only when necessary. Cassie (Mulligan) is a woman in her early 30s, who lives with her parents and works in a coffee shop. Years earlier, she had been a medical student but dropped out following an incident that happened to her best friend. Now, she goes out to nightclubs, pretends to be blackout drunk, and attempts to teach a lesson to these “nice guys” who bring her home.
Eventually, Cassie learns about life events involving some of the people involved in the medical school debacle and also starts dating another ex-classmate (Bo Burnham.) It all leads to an ending that’s genuinely shocking.
Promising Young Woman has set off arguments, in an age when, due to the pandemic and the closing of movie theaters, is something that few films in 2020 have done. Yes, some of the plot twists are a bit dodgy, and yes, the film makes medical school look a lot more like college undergraduate life. But it’s still one of the most entertaining and provocative films of the year. (Stephen Silver)
Of all the longstanding horror tropes, few are as resilient as that of the horrifying elderly person. Of course, there shouldn’t be anything scary about old people (most of us will be there soon enough), but we sense the decay that has overtaken them and know that it will eventually come for us, too. Seniors have also had far more experiences than young people, and their depths of knowledge are imposing. They know more of the horrors of the world then younger generations have been able to experience, and sometimes they turn those evils against them. It would have been easy for Natalie Erika James to make Relic, her debut feature, something that played on that well-worn territory for some cheap scares. Instead, she has crafted a subtle and terrifying film graced with a welcome strain of tenderness.
Relic is more than just a great haunted house movie, though. As Kay and Sam are driven closer together by their fears for Edna, the audience is able to confront its fears: of death, of old age, of losing our memories, of dying alone with no loved ones to care for us in our final moments. The movie takes some bizarre turns as it hurtles toward its climax, but Relic ends on an unexpectedly moving note (if still chilling). After your nerves have settled, you might just want to give your parent or grandparent a call. (Brian Marks)
The horror genre and religion pretty much go hand-in-hand; either the Devil orders a lost soul to do something monstrous, or a noble person is possessed, and audiences eat it up when the demon inside them is finally exorcised. In Saint Maud, the Devil is only a mere component in a film where religion and devotion to God is taken to extremes. As Rose Glass’s directorial debut slowly explores its main character’s relationship to God, it eventually burns to an intensity — one that will have horror fans smiling in utter delight.
A psychological horror-thriller, Saint Maud is more frightening than it initially lets on. The decision to pace itself slowly and deliberately pays off in dividends by the end, as the characters are fully fleshed out to service the climax — one where the final shot will stick with audiences for a very long time after. Chilling in its depiction of religious fanaticism and the lengths one will go to for redemption, Saint Maud is one of the most assured horror debuts in recent memory. (Christopher Cross)
It’s been a banner year for unsettling Elisabeth Moss performances. One of the last films we were all allowed to watch in cinemas was The Invisible Man, in which she took the role of the ‘victim’ and transformed it into something disconcerting, complicating the often clear good/evil dichotomies of mainstream horror. In Shirley, a biopic based on horror writer Shirley Jackson, Moss finds new ways to catch her audience off-guard.
The film dramatizes the period of Jackson’s life during which she was writing her second novel, and it depicts her as a manic depressive agoraphobe – often confined to her bed, almost always confined to her house – and under the thumb of a domineering yet affable husband (Michael Stuhlbarg). This dynamic is further complicated by the arrival of a young (entirely fictional) couple: Fred and Rose Nemser (Logan Lerman and Odessa Young).
The industry could use more biopics like this and the incomparable The Hours (which focused on another famously unstable female writer, Virginia Woolf, back in 2002). For all its narrative failings, Shirley is a bold, intriguing take on an unknowable figure. It’s more impressionistic than the by-the-numbers biopics we’re used to seeing, and it’s all the better for it. (Ellie Burridge)
It can be difficult to get on with a film that seems like it was made exclusively for an audience of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud. Fortunately, Siberia has enough to recommend it to those of us without a lifelong dream psychology obsession, thanks in large part to stunning cinematography (courtesy of Stefano Falivene) and a strong lead performance.
The thing about dreams is that although they have a lot in common with films – most of us are able to see and hear in them without being able to truly touch taste or smell – it’s almost impossible to capture how dreaming feels on screen. Never mind that it’s different for everybody, there’s something about dreams that’s impossible to distill and adapt. Abel Ferrara’s attempt is one of many that comes close but falls short. It’s okay, though: at the end of Siberia there’s a talking fish, and for one brief moment you might just think: Yeah, that’s what it’s like in a dream. (Ellie Burridge)
A starship in the depths of the universe haunted by an unstoppable alien killing machine. A world beset by the walking dead. An isolated cabin occupied by a family of insane cannibals. The absolute depths of the ocean. Horror cinema has brought audiences to some of the most brutal, terrifying places over the years. But still, none of them are worse than working retail. Elza Kephart’s Slaxx has the entire garment industry in its sights, though, from the retail frontliners, to the uncaring managers, the social media influencers, and all the way up to the execs. It’s an absolute shoe-in for cult horror status; fun, witty, blisteringly satirical, and gloriously blood-soaked.
You could just as easily say that Slaxx mixes in enough social commentary to give the horror fun some extra punch. It’s that balance that makes Kephart’s film work, that sense that the film’s deeper commentary and gory mayhem work in tandem rather than favoring one over the other. It’s a perfect mix of genre indulgence and social commentary, and one that horror fans should all seek out. (Thomas O’Conner)
Sound of Metal
The cinema has a long, storied history of introducing us to experiences we might never otherwise understand. Sound of Metal, a film about the experience of losing your sense of sound, is a brilliant, immaculate addition to this history.
Like his first film, Sound of Metal shows that director Darian Marder is a curious and careful filmmaker and, along with his brother/co-writer, Abraham, will be someone worth watching closely as his future projects develop. Daniël Bouquet’s cinematography work is also aces here, leaning into the actor’s emotive expressions for long lingering shots, and occasionally mixing in some real scenic beauty as well.
All in all, Sound of Metal is one of the year’s finest films and a striking indie effort. With fantastic performances, a unique perspective, and the type of journey that has rarely been depicted on screen, this is a must-see for anyone who’s ever wondered what it might be like to lose their hearing or to be forced to adapt to a new way of life. Don’t miss this one, it’ll change the way you see (and hear) the world. (Mike Worby)
With Time, documentarian Garrett Bradley focuses on a stretch of twenty years in the lives of one family impacted by the American carceral system. Her subject is Fox Rich, the wife of a man facing sixty years in prison for armed robbery. Over the course of the twenty years covered by the documentary, she fights for his release and to right the injustice wrought by the ‘justice’ system. “I am an abolitionist,” she says, comparing incarceration to slavery.
Documentaries like Ava DuVernay’s 13th have very successfully invoked outrage at injustice through the use of expert talking heads and a few case studies, but Time does away with the framework, emphasizing one family’s humanity above all else. It won’t win over the ‘facts don’t care about your feelings’ crowd, but it does encourage its viewer to re-discover the value of empathy.
In a nutshell, Time is a powerful rumination on the impact of incarceration on a family. It is a cry for reform, more than worth listening to. (Ellie Burridge)
To the Ends of the Earth
It’s de rigeur at this point to mention in a review whenever the Japanese filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa is working in a genre other than horror, but it’s a strange trend. Kurosawa certainly made a name for himself with his chilling and elegant horror films, most famously Cure (1997) and Pulse (2001), but he didn’t make any horror films between 2006’s Retribution and 2016’s Creepy, and he hasn’t made any since then. Perhaps hardcore horror fans are fickle enough to simply pass over the half of his output that isn’t explicitly scary, but it would be an utter shame to do so, especially when he’s still working at the top of his game. His newest, To the Ends of the Earth, finds him working in a quieter mode than usual, but it’s one of his most heartfelt and engaging movies.
The Japanese pop singer Atsuko Maeda stars in To the Ends of the Earth as Yoko, a news-magazine reporter who is visiting Uzbekistan to film an episode for a travel series. (Kurosawa was approached in 2016 about making a film to commemorate the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Japan and Uzbekistan, though there’s nothing celebratory about this film.) Instead, Maeda movingly conveys the disappointment of being undervalued by all the men around her, but she also shows off her ability to display overwhelming dread when she fears something terrible may have happened to a loved one back in Tokyo. Kurosawa uses a more static camera here than usual, but it helps to not distract from Maeda’s performance. Those looking for more plot and drama like some of Kurosawa’s older thrillers may be disappointed by To the Ends of the Earth, but it stands among his best and most moving works. (Brian Marks)
The Vast of Night
Andrew Patterson’s The Vast of Night is an homage to science fiction and horror classics of that era, and like them it benefits from withholding information, allowing the audience to create their own thrills.
The Vast of Night features interludes shown on an old black-and-white television, with a pitch-perfect Rod Serling impression for a fake anthology series called Paradox Theater. The film doesn’t have much of The Twilight Zone’s social politics or irony, but the framing further underscores its connection to Cold War-era America. The best science fiction from that period captured a nation simultaneously enthralled and terrified by the future it might unlock, and The Vast of Night effectively replicates those conflicting emotions. (Brian Marks)
I become an obsessive note scribbler when I review a film. I try to write down everything that pops into my head, whether it’s a profound insight or, more commonly, a banal observation. At the end of Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela, I had written only two words: “Her face!” (with double underlines). Costa’s slow yet engrossing metafictional work is filled with sumptuous textures and overwhelming emotions, but the film’s star, Vitalina Varela, is its most fascinating component. She has a face that cries out to be painted, one that makes her emotions seem almost Olympian, and Costa is perhaps the only filmmaker who could do her justice.
Costa film’s Vitalina’s acclimation to Fontainhas in achingly slow scenes which will test the patience of many viewers. But those who get on his wavelength (and have a coffee beforehand) will be absorbed in his painterly compositions. He and his cinematographer Leonardo Simões photograph the slum interiors (none of which seem to have electrical lighting) in bursts of faux sunlight and moonlight almost exclusively, giving the events a ghostly character. It’s only in the last few scenes that we see Vitalina outside in the daylight, and the camera is allowed to expand beyond the claustrophobic confines of her building. The stunning lighting also directs our attention squarely on her face, which shimmers with loss and regret. Like Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), she has a face that conveys everything we would ever need to know of her story. Luckily, Costa understands that and lets it do the talking. (Brian Marks)
The Wild Goose Lake
Just as he accomplished in his outstanding 2014 breakout hit Black Coal, Thin Ice, Diao Yinan uses neo-noir tropes to explore the socio-economic conditions of modern China in The Wild Goose Lake. In a year filled with movies that superficially adopt the appearance of genre filmmaking while simultaneously positioning themselves far above the thrills of the ‘low-culture’ material they’re drawing from (Too Old to Die Young, Little Joe, The Dead Don’t Die), what a pleasure it was to watch an action movie of such classical virtuosity. Yinan’s style doesn’t call attention to itself, and his absolute mastery of composition, pacing, editing, and lighting is put in the service of carefully modulating suspense and rhythm for maximum kinetic impact. Although Parasite has been widely dubbed as the Hitchcockian thriller of Cannes 2019, I’d argue that it is the classical professionalism of The Wild Goose Lake which in fact skews closer to the spirit of the old genre masters.
The Wild Goose Lake isn’t style for style’s sake, however; Yinan uses his rigorous craft to communicate an intricate portrait of the failure of modern law enforcement systems, the life of crime that poverty forces citizens into, the relativity of morality, and the all-encompassing strategies of surveillance enforced by the state. The Wild Goose Lake is a film which rejects easy characterization, positioning both the cops and criminals as neutral individuals caught up in larger, labyrinthine organizations whose inner workings remain a fundamental mystery. (James Slaymaker)
Wolfwalkers makes an immediate impact with Cartoon Saloon’s trademark animation style (as seen previously in The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea) and then rips its claws into you with an emotional journey for two daughters – hungry for adventure and fiercely protective of their respective families. Though its beats are predictable, it’s the incredible voice acting from the entire cast, steadfast pacing, and rich art style that transcends a familiar tale of civilization versus nature into something far more poignant and gripping than other animated films in recent memory.
Set in 17th century Ireland as England sets forth to colonize it, Wolfwalkers delivers a brief history lesson from the perspective of a child not yet fully aware of the evils of the world. The animation style is frequently awe-inspiring as it juxtaposes hard, rigid lines against the softer, elegant strokes that lay outside the castle walls. Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) and her father Bill (Sean Bean) are dutiful English citizens brought to Ireland to help deal with the wolf problem just outside the gates of Kilkenny. This is where the art design really makes its mark as characters like Bill do not feel like they belong in the woods outside. The way his clothing is drawn is well-defined and rigid. Whereas once they enter the forest and Robyn meets a wolfwalker (a person who can heal wounds and turns into a wolf while sleeping) named Mebh (Eva Whittaker), everything is lighter and more whimsical in design. Rounded edges and soft strokes make the world outside of the city much more inviting but lacks the order and structure of within the city’s walls.
Mebh and Robyn are also a lot of fun together. The two bicker and argue with each other over the differences between city life and nature, eventually forming a bond over their love for adventure. Once the film starts moving and brings the two narrative threads of Mebh’s search for her mother and Bill and Robyn’s hunt for the wolves closer together, Wolfwalkers moves at a brisk pace. As a family movie, it can be a bit harrowing at times, but it’s an extremely well-crafted film and one that feels infinitely rewatchable as one of the best animated films of the year. (Christopher Cross)