2020 was an unprecedented year and its effect on the entertainment industry was felt deep and wide. Studios postponed their big releases as movie theaters across the world closed, save for a few stubborn examples. However it did represent an opportunity. Smaller, more independent, films were given the space to shine in place of big blockbusters. This has led to one of the most eclectic and interesting collection of films I’ve ever reviewed. The past year also represented a sea change in how we view entertainment. The lines blurred between movies and television, and since episodic storytelling has become so ingrained in how we consume media, it made sense to also highlight the best series the year also had to offer. Also release dates have become a bit skewed, so a movie needs to have some kind of release in 2020 to be considered, which means a movie like Judas and the Black Messiah will have to wait until next year. So without further ado, a quick rundown in what I considered the best in…
And now onto the Movies of 2020, with an expanded list of Honorable Mentions…
Best Performance: Anthony Hopkins, The Father
Biggest Surprise: Palm Springs
Visual Achievement Award: The Vast of Night
Best Scene: Running with the Wolves, Wolfwalkers
Biggest OMG Moment: The Restaurant Scene, The Invisible Man
10. Minari | A24
A breakout hit from the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, where it won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award, is set in the 1980’s rural south as an immigrant family from South Korea tries to build their own farm. Minari is a movie that surprises you at every turn, with both its sweetness and its humor. It’s a touching and beautifully realized coming of age tale that features standout performances from Youn Yuh-jung as the family’s quirky grandmother and Steven Yeun (“The Walking Dead”) as the father struggling to realize his dream. Minari feels like the type of formless family drama we’d seen more of in the 80’s and 90’s, and worms its way inside your heart as this family overcomes struggle after struggle in pursuit of the American dream. While most of the dialogue is spoken in Korean, movies don’t get more American than this in what is one of the great representations of childhood in recent memory.
9. Promising Young Woman | Focus Features
Another hit from the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, actress-writer-director Emerald Fennell (of both “The Crown” and “Killing Eve” fame) delivers an audacious and scathing dark comedy-thriller featuring a knockout performance from star Carey Mulligan as a woman hellbent on delivering justice to predatory men. It’s often referred to as the “#MeToo Revenge Movie” but that oversimplification is an injustice to what both Fennell and Mulligan have accomplished. This is not only a damning portrait of modern sex culture and all the dirty secrets and excuses that come with it, but a complex representation of trauma and how we process past transgressions. What makes the movie truly standout though is its unflinching final act that will leave you breathless and stick in your mind long after, likely sparking many difficult conversations. Promising Young Woman is simply unforgettable.
8. The Father | Sony Pictures Classics
There have been a number of high profile stage adaptations this past year, but writer-director Florian Zeller’s The Father (based off his own play) is the only one that transcends its origins to become a truly unique cinematic experience. Anthony Hopkins plays a man dealing with dementia while Olivia Colman is his dutiful daughter struggling to care for him. Both Hopkins and Colman are superb, delivering two of the best performances of the year. It is difficult to overstate just how good Anthony Hopkins is, giving his best performance since his iconic and Oscar-winning role in Silence of the Lambs. I may even go so far as to say it’s one of the finest pieces of acting I’ve ever seen. The Father is an absolutely devastating movie to watch but the way its narrative is constructed, putting the viewer inside the perspective of Hopkins’ character, is utterly jaw-dropping and breathtaking. The film’s techniques sneak up on you and then emotionally destroy you. I struggle to think of any film that comes close to so painfully and accurately depicting what it must be like to live with mental illness. Zeller’s direction has strokes of Ingmar Bergman, Stanley Kubrick, Darren Aronofsky, and David Lynch, and matched with incredible performances, is an absolutely essential piece of cinematic viewing — as difficult as it may be.
7. Sound of Metal | Amazon Prime
Darius Marder’s narrative directorial debut premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival but didn’t make its way to audiences until the fall of 2020 after being sold to Amazon. Following the story of a heavy metal drummer who begins to lose his earing and must cope with these new life-altering circumstances features rising star Riz Ahmed giving one of the year’s best performances. The opening minutes of the film are some of the most captivating you’ll see in any movie all year as Marder relies heavily on expertly-deployed sound design to draw you into the film’s world. The film also features heartbreaking performances from Oliva Cooke and Paul Raci, the latter of whom runs a rural community for the deaf that Riz’s character visits. Sound of Metal is not only a deeply emotional look at one man’s journey to cope with and regain what he’s lost, but also a fascinating and poignant depiction of an underrepresented community. The movie grips you from minute one and never lets go as it breaks your heart into a hundred pieces and then finds a way to put them back together again.
6. Nomadland | Searchlight
Chloe Zaoh, who burst onto the scene with her critically accalimed 2017 film The Rider, follows up that noteworthy effort with the exceptional Nomadland. A ground-breaking blend of narrative and documentary filmmaking, Zaoh’s film finds Frances McDormand roaming across the country as she lives out of her van, works odd jobs to get by, and occasionally settling amongst communities of similarly nomadic Americans. Frances McDormand is astounding in the film, giving what could become her most iconic performance (though never bet against her). What is so impressive is that she does so much of her work through simply listening to the stories of the people she comes across in her travels, just about all of whom are non-actors. Zaoh fills her film with so many moments of profound emotional beauty, breathtaking vistas, and deeply moving storytelling that I considered putting it at the top of my list. It is a seminal film about the American spirit that seems destined to deservedly sweep Awards season.
5. The Vast of Night | Amazon Prime
Director and co-writer Andrew Patterson’s debut film premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival in 2019 where it won the Narrative Feature Audience Award before being acquired by Amazon and making its way to Prime and drive-in cinemas in May of 2020. Along with Bad Education, this was another highlight from early in the pandemic after the summer movie season had effectively been canceled. Set on a fateful night in 1950’s New Mexico, it finds two high school students who run the local radio and telephone switchboard picking up a mysterious signal and following a trail of wild stories about possible alien abductions. Self-financed on a shoe-string budget, Patterson being able to recreate his period setting so evocatively is impressive, as his direction which has hints of early-Spielberg. The Vast of Night is one of the most compelling sci-fi mystery films to come out in quite some time. That so much of it is centered around long stretches of dialogue is a testament to the effective writing, but the film also boasts a signature single-take shot that traverses the entire town which ends up being one of the most impressive technical achievements of the year.
4. Palm Springs | Hulu
While we’ve highlighted films from early in quarantine, Palm Springs is the movie of the pandemic. Another hit from the Sundance Film Festival, this Lonely Island production was acquired for a record-breaking $17.5M and 69 cents, breaking the previous Sundance record by those 69 cents. Released in July, its Groundhog Day-style plot where Nyles (Andy Samberg) and Sarah (Cristin Milioti) find themselves trapped at a wedding in the titular desert town where everyday repeats itself and there is no escape hit very close to home for a nation that had spent the past 4-plus months trapped inside their houses. Palm Springs was the perfect movie for the moment, and it helps that it’s also one of the funniest, cleverest, most entertaining movies of the year that flips the romantic comedy genre on its head. Milioti deserves a large amount of credit as her Sarah acts as the antithesis to your usual romantic lead and Milioti gives a wide-ranging comedic performance that lands every beat and punchline. Palm Springs is the most enjoyable 90 minutes of entertainment you’ll find from the past year, and ironically enough, is a movie you’ll want to watch again and again.
3. The Trial of the Chicago 7 | Netflix
Writer-director Aaron Sorkin’s courtroom drama had a long journey to the screen. It was originally intended to be a Steven Spielberg project back in 2007 but the Writer’s Strike stalled those plans. After his 2017 directorial debut, the very strong Molly’s Game, Sorkin decided to direct it himself. What had originally been set up to be a big theatrical release for Paramount, became a giant Netflix acquisition due to the pandemic. After being almost completely bereft of big studio movies for the majority of the year, Chicago 7 felt like one of the few conventional studio releases that didn’t flee from its release. It felt great to have a big Hollywood movie back in our lives and it’s also a movie that delivers in more ways than one. Sorkin’s trademarks are on full display in his film about the riots during the 1968 Democratic Convention and subsequent media-frenzied trial. After having spent the summer watching protests sweep across the nation in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, this story of protestors exercising their first amendment rights against oppressive legal authorities couldn’t have felt more poignant or timely. It also boasts one of the most impressive ensemble casts assembled in quite some time that includes Sacha Baron Cohen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance, Frank Langella, Jeremy Strong, and Michael Keaton. It is a wonderfully entertaining and powerfully inspiring depiction of issues we still reckon with and shows that Mr. Sorkin is just as talented a director as he is a screenwriter.
2. Wolfwalkers | Apple TV+
Produced by the Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon, the same company behind 2009’s The Secret of the Kells, tells the story of a young girl whose father is tasked with ridding her town’s nearby village of dangerous wolves only to discover the truth behind an old legend of humans who turn themselves into wolves at night. Wolfwakers, drawing heavily on Irish folklore, follows familiar themes of forbidden friendships and worlds struggling to understand one another but its storytelling is so strong and so deeply emotional that it’s impossible not to be completely swept away by its world and characters. Cartoon Saloon’s unique animation style reaches dazzling heights as Wolfwalkers is by far the most eye-popping and visually lush movie of the year. Subsequent viewings are required to fully absorb the visual onslaught on display. You’ll find something new and wondrous with each viewing. Wolfwalkers is pure magic with a powerful story about friendship, clashing cultures, and familial bonds. It will capture your imagination, steal your heart, and stands as one of the most impressive animated works seen in years.
1. Boys State | Apple TV+
If you sat down to watch the exceptional Boys State, you’d easily be forgiven for thinking you were watching a high-budget coming-of-age teen movie. Directors Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine’s documentary is so well shot, edited, and presented it feels like a narrative feature that is both moving, powerful, and wildly entertaining. I’ve never had anything against documentaries, my tastes just generally trend towards narratives, and no documentary has ever cracked my annual Top 10 let alone the #1 spot (though 2014’s Citizenfour was my lone Honorable Mention that year). This is a movie that I didn’t want to end and immediately wanted to watch again and again. I’ve never had this kind of experience watching a documentary. It helps that I also attended South Dakota’s annual Boys State when I was a teenager and deeply identified with its subjects, particularly the more liberal-minded trying to breakthrough in a bubble of conservatism. Those unfamiliar with these types of events might view them as outlandish bordering on horrifying, but Moss and McBaine perfectly capture the experience and it’s fascinating to see how little has changed except for how absorbed its become by social media. I’m immensely thankful my own keynote speech to the Nationalist party state convention wasn’t covered on Intagram or TikTok. As you can see, 2020 was filled with films that whether intentionally or unintentionally addressed the times our culture faced: political polarization, police brutality, pandemic, and economic crisis. No film captures all of it so seamlessly or entertainingly as Boys State, my favorite film of the year.