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2020 Year End Wrap Up

Top 10 Films of 2020

What follows are Nathan’s picks of the best films of 2020.

1. The Assistant

Directed by: Kitty Green

Premise: A young woman (Julia Garner) works as an assistant to a film producer. As she arranges lunches, travel, and meetings, the assistant suspects that the producer is abusing would-be actresses.

Why It Made the List: One of cinema’s most powerful abilities is its capacity to place us in another person’s experience. The Assistant places viewers within a hostile workplace in a way that makes us see and understand the explicit and implicit aggressions as well as the ethical compromises that people make in order to survive. This is sleek and sparse filmmaking that also contains pockets of substance in the margins. The narrative is simple and straightforward and the filmmakers never stop to explain what’s happening. They don’t have to because of the masterful use of blocking and framing; we understand the meaning of what’s happening because of the way characters are spaced and framed on the screen. Without ever overtly saying it, we understand how this woman is alienated from her coworkers and we share her anxiety. Sound is used in a similarly effective way, often eschewing traditional dramatic dialogue so that we pay attention to the subtleties of the performances where the real meanings of scenes are found. The Assistant also makes us understand the moral and ethical corruption of this workplace and the way it seeps into everything else. This is one of several movies about sexual harassment to come out of 2020 but The Assistant is distinguished from the others by its complexity. The Assistant never stoops to simple solutions or easy moralizing. Instead, the filmmakers offer a sobering take on the realities of abuse and the way it is enabled by personal choices and institutional structures. This makes The Assistant not just about workplace hostility or sexual harassment but also about the nature of power.

2. Sound of Metal

Directed by: Darius Marder

Premise: A drummer in a heavy metal band (Riz Ahmed) suddenly loses his hearing. He attends a retreat for the deaf while raising money for an operation that will hopefully restore his hearing.

Why It Made the List: At its essence, cinema is the pairing of sound and moving images to create meaning. The filmmakers of Sound of Metal manipulate those elements in unusual ways that demonstrate the possibilities of cinema. The audio design of Sound of Metal elegantly shifts between objective and subjective audio, presenting the scene as a hearing, in-person observer might perceive it and then switching to the way a hearing impaired character experiences the sound. Long stretches of Sound of Metal lack spoken dialogue and yet it is clear what is going on because the action is staged and photographed with care. The effect puts viewers in the headspace of a newly deaf character and makes his experience viscerally real. But beyond the experiments with form, Sound of Metal is also a film about people with disabilities with an emphasis on their humanity. The filmmakers confront the way in which newly disabled individuals and society at large tend to view their conditions: as a problem that needs to be fixed. Sound of Metal challenges that assumption. However, the transition from hearing to deafness isn’t without challenges or costs and the filmmakers are brutally honest. The struggle is vividly dramatized in Riz Ahmed’s performance as the newly deaf drummer as well as Paul Raci’s supporting role as the leader of the deaf retreat. Ahmed is vulnerable but subtle and never plays the part for pity. Sound of Metal ultimately links our sensory perception to our identity and the filmmakers explore that connection in a smart and moving story that is executed with great craftsmanship.

3. Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Directed by: Eliza Hittman

Premise: A teenage girl (Sidney Flanigan) living in a small Pennsylvania community discovers that she is pregnant. Accompanied by her cousin (Talia Ryder), she travels to New York City to get an abortion.

Why It Made the List: Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a quietly hard-hitting picture. While it may be accurately described as an abortion drama, Never Rarely Sometimes Always is actually broader and more nuanced than that. This is a film about young women making their way in a hostile society. Nearly every scene is framed to draw attention to how these women cope with male harassment or appease male egos or otherwise jump through hoops imposed upon them by a patriarchal social structure. What is supposed to be a simple day trip turns into an overnight odyssey of clinic hopping and bureaucratic regulations. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is also a portrait of a society bereft of support for people, and especially women, who need it the most. These women are on their own and the key to Never Rarely Sometimes Always is the central relationship between Autumn and Skylar, played by Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder. These young women have a sisterly bond and their friendship is the warm center in an otherwise cold film. Flanigan and Ryder’s performances are subtle but there is no missing what’s going on in their heads. That quality is reflected in the whole picture. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a broadly political film but with a personal focus and the movie is neither preachy nor didactic. Yet, the filmmakers lead viewers exactly where they want us to go. This is not an easy or even a pleasant movie to watch but Never Rarely Sometimes Always is an extraordinary piece of cinema.

4. Soul

Directed by: Pete Docter and Kemp Powers

Premise: An animated film. A musician (voice of Jamie Foxx) has a serious accident and his soul leaves his body. He tries to get back to the physical world and reunite with his body with the help of a soul (voice of Tina Fey) who hasn’t experienced life yet.

Why It Made the List: Pixar has made its share of merchandise machines but the studio’s most interesting works have been films that take risks and swing for the fences. Soul is one of Pixar’s greatest achievements and it demonstrates the potential of animation. The themes of the story could hardly be bigger; Soul grapples with the meaning of life and does so without becoming trite or sentimental. The filmmakers don’t settle for easy explanations but rather push their characters and the audience to think about their lives and legacies at a higher level. Complicated ideas are made accessible with a vividly imagined story world. Taking place in both the physical and the spiritual realms, Soul renders each setting with imagination and detail. The people and locations of the physical world possess great detail and a vivid visual texture and the spiritual realm fits hand-in-glove with the physical plane while retaining a distinctly ethereal feel. Flexing between the physical and the spiritual, Soul ultimately melds the two in the story of a man’s search for purpose; creating and playing music in the real world taps into the great mystery but doesn’t necessarily guarantee happiness. The filmmakers visualize the spiritual quality found in exercising our passions but also the way the daily slog can grind down that passion even for those lucky enough to do the thing they love. Soul presents all of this with good humor and likable characters, and Soul possesses the intellectual and cinematic ambition of an arthouse picture as well as the appeals of a commercial film.

5. Sorry We Missed You

Directed by: Ken Loach

Premise: A British family struggles to make ends meet. The father (Kris Hitchen) begins work as a franchised parcel delivery driver believing that it will be a great business opportunity. As they scrape by, the family’s teenage son (Rhys Stone) gets into trouble at school.

Why It Made the List: Ken Loach is a British filmmaker whose movies are unambiguously political and Loach’s most recent work has shined a light on capitalism and poverty. Sorry We Missed You is among Loach’s most savage critiques and one of his most wrenching dramas. The movie is observational in its style. Much of Sorry We Missed You is photographed in medium and wide shots and music is held to a minimum. The cinema verite approach keeps the film’s political intentions in check; there’s no missing what Loach is trying to say but the filmmaking style maintains an even tone. The observational distance is infuriating in the right way. Reworking the Hitchcockian bomb-under-the-table principle, we can see this family heading toward an economic cliff. As they get caught in a spiral of debt the movie becomes gripping and heartbreaking. There’s little violence in Sorry We Missed You but the film is nevertheless brutal. The picture is saturated in anxiety and it captures the exhaustion of living at the poverty line. That fatigue frays the family bonds, leading the son to act out in ways that escalate his family’s financial strains. By framing this economic critique around a family, Sorry We Missed You forces the issue to be reckoned in human terms. That is the film’s power as a drama and a political statement. Capitalism has been assumed to be synonymous with freedom—and it certainly can be—but Sorry We Missed You’s gut punch of an ending requires us to reconsider the cost of the gig economy.

6. The Forty-Year-Old Version

Directed by: Radha Blank

Premise: An African American playwright (Radha Blank) on the verge of her fortieth birthday struggles to get her work produced. She takes a writing job she detests while experimenting with hip-hop music.  

Why It Made the List: Stories about struggling artists are nothing new but The Forty-Year-Old Version dramatizes the struggle to make art with an awareness of both the internal and external pressures that afflict creators. Radha Blank’s character struggles to keep herself afloat economically while endeavoring to create work that is relevant to her audience and satisfies her own artistic integrity. Those priorities aren’t easily reconciled and The Forty-Year-Old Version dramatizes the tensions and compromises that creative people put themselves through in the pursuit of creating something meaningful and personal. But this film goes a step further. The Forty Year-Old Version was released at a time of widespread concern about representation at all levels of society, especially on-screen, but many films about people of color constitute what Blank’s character refers to as “poverty porn.”  The Forty-Year-Old Version is at its most interesting and provocative as a depiction of a black writer navigating an industry dominated by white financiers and directors. In an effort to be topical and socially woke, the white characters dwell on black suffering but they contort the content to assuage white audiences. This film makes us look harder at what representation actually means and The Forty-Year-Old Version asks the audience to consider the kinds of stories we say we want and the stories we actually finance. The contrast between the compromised stage production and the narratives of this woman’s hip hop lyrics illustrates that point and The Forty-Year-Old Version is both a drama of artistic creation and an exposé of the way financial incentives and racial perspectives shape artistic expression.

7. La Llorona

Directed by: Jayro Bustamante

Premise: A Guatemalan general is accused of genocide. The general and his family barricade themselves inside their home due to protesters outside. A mysterious woman joins the housekeeping staff and supernatural phenomena begin occurring. 

Why It Made the List: The horror genre continued to turn out impressive new titles throughout 2020, among them the Guatemalan film La Llorona. The movie repurposes the Latin American folktale of a woman who committed infanticide and whose spirit roams the land, weeping and preying on children. Filmmaker Jayro Bustamante gives the folktale a fresh twist, reimagining the La Llorona legend and connecting it to the 1980s genocide committed against the Maya people by the Guatemalan government. This could become pretentious or tacky but the filmmakers manage the tone and strike effectively. La Llorona is primarily a family drama but the political implications creep in around the edges and La Llorona turns the haunted house tale inside out. In many uncanny horror tales, disembodied sounds portend a supernatural threat but in La Llorona the faint echo of screams and chants are calls for justice. The atrocities committed in faraway places come home in effective sequences that push into surrealism. Haunted house pictures are generally about families besieged by supernatural evil but in La Llorona the evil plaguing this family is already inside the home in the form of an apparently nonthreatening grandfather. In place of an exorcism that drives out the evil spirt, the family must acknowledge who their patriarch is and what he did. This makes the horror of La Llorona simultaneously personal and political. Weaving together domestic and national trauma, La Llorona allows viewers to face the realities of evil and the film enjoys a level of complexity beyond what we usually expect from a haunted house picture.

8. A Thousand Cuts

Directed by: Ramona S. Diaz

Premise: A documentary film about journalist Maria Ressa and the Filipino news website Rappler. The documentary examines Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s use of extrajudicial assassination against accused narcotics dealers and his attacks on the press through social media.

Why It Made the List: There were quite a few politically conscious documentaries released in 2020 and several films examined the effects of social media. Among the best of these—and one of the most alarming—was A Thousand Cuts. The picture documents Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign to end drug trafficking by enabling the country’s law enforcement to kill suspected dealers with impunity. This is nonfiction but the documentary has the feel of a thriller. A Thousand Cuts is an examination of how a democracy becomes a police state and as the title implies this happens through incremental expansions of state power. But what is especially disturbing about A Thousand Cuts are the mechanisms through which a contemporary autocracy takes hold. As depicted in the film, Duterte responds to negative press by threatening reporters and calling them liars and traitors. He’s backed by a network of social media sites that spread disinformation and erode public confidence in the fourth estate. That opens up a space for the government to take legal action against the press. Much has been said in recent years about the post-truth world we live in. A Thousand Cuts visualizes it and documents the slide into authoritarianism not by a sudden military coup but by a combination of bread and circuses and a media climate that obfuscates the truth. The stakes of A Thousand Cuts go beyond the plight of a single news website. This story of legal force backed by weaponized social media is a portrait of democracy slipping into authoritarianism in real time.

9. Wolfwalkers

Directed by: Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart

Premise: An animated film. Set in medieval Ireland, a town is besieged by a pack of wolves as it expands into the nearby forest. A girl (voice of Honor Kneafsey) discovers that the pack is led by a magical wolfwalker, a human girl who shifts into the body of a wolf at night.

Why It Made the List: Part of the appeal of fantasy films is the way they liberate our imagination from the confines of reality but also their ability to tap into storytelling traditions. Wolfwalkers does both. The movie is stylistically rooted in an older aesthetic. The filmmakers employ traditional hand drawn animation and the film takes on the look of a storybook. That stylistic approach suits this Irish folktale. But Wolfwalkers is also decidedly contemporary; an independent young girl with an urge for adventure journeys into the woods to kill wolves only to discover that the authorities of her town are the real threat. Instead of clashing, the traditional and contemporary elements of Wolfwalkers complement one another. The modern sensibilities adapt the folklore for a contemporary audience while the classic look satisfies the appeals of fantasy stories. Wolfwalkers is a tale of magical transformation and the animation captures the sense of wonder and transcendence that is so often at the center of fantasy. The look of the movie is key to its success and Wolfwalkers demonstrates how classic hand drawn animation is often a superior format for the fantasy genre because it frees the filmmakers and the audience from the limitations of realism. The figurative imagery of Wolfwalkers eases our suspension of disbelief and allows us to focus on the narrative and the characters. And the story of Wolfwalkers is remarkably affecting. It reaches a level of characterization and emotional resonance that many live action movies struggle to achieve. Wolfwalkers is a family movie but it’s not kid stuff.

10. Emma.

Directed by: Autumn de Wilde

Premise: An adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel. Set in England in the early 1800s, a young woman (Anya Taylor-Joy) plays matchmaker among her friends and associates. Her schemes backfire when she misunderstands several men’s affections.

Why It Made the List: Jane Austen’s novels lampooned the social rules of British society and critiqued the social limitations put upon women in the nineteenth century but some Austen adaptations miss the social critique in favor of the costumes and the romance. The 2020 version of Emma. brought a fresh and irreverent sensibility to the British costume drama. Director Autumn de Wilde and screenwriter Eleanor Catton are clearly amused by Austen’s novel and by the costume drama genre and their movie accentuates the ridiculousness of these stories. The arch tone of 2020’s Emma. is evident in the production design. The costumes and sets are bright and highly stylized and the visuals pop with color. The score is also amusing and effective, occasionally sounding like a cartoon. Actress Anya Taylor-Joy captures Emma’s mean girl and busybody qualities. Taylor-Joy and the filmmakers recognize that Emma is not very nice and Taylor-Joy plays up Emma’s manipulations while keeping her empathetic and even likable. The rest of the cast is also in sync with the film’s tone, especially Mia Goth as Harriet Smith, Bill Nighy as Emma’s father, and Myra McFadyen as Mrs. Bates. But for all the film’s style and self-awareness, 2020’s Emma. is also earnest. The filmmakers accurately judge when to be silly and when to play it straight and the love story provides drama and heartache.  The end result is a costume drama that is self-aware and pokes some fun at itself while also fulfilling what fans expect from the genre.

Honorable Mentions

What follows are films that were either runners up to the Top 10 list or other pictures that came out in 2020 that are worth mentioning.  

Athlete A – This documentary about sexual abuse in the United States’ Olympic gymnastics team was a devastating critique of Team USA that leaves us with serious questions about the value placed on athletic excellence and Olympic gold. 

Bad Education – This drama about an embezzlement scandal that rocked a high profile school district was a complex piece of work about moral and institutional failure.

Becky – An efficient and brutal piece of work that manipulates the viewer’s sympathies in ways that lead to some subversive conclusions.

Bill & Ted Face the Music – An impressive threequel and one of the most satisfying nostalgia sequels, Bill & Ted Face the Music does nearly everything right.

Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm – The Borat sequel equaled and in some ways surpassed its predecessor.

Boys State – This documentary about teenage boys attending a week-long political camp was a revealing look at young men learning about politics and about themselves.

Charm City Kings – This street drama about three boys growing up on the streets of Baltimore had some great performances, especially from the young cast members, and the street racing scenes were great.

The Climb – This buddy comedy transcended its genre with smart performances, melancholy wit, and exceptional camera work.

Color Out of Space – One of the better adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft’s story.

Crip Camp – This documentary about a summer camp for physically disabled young people was a feel-good picture but Crip Camp was also honest about the challenges faced by people with disabilities and it makes the audience reconsider how we’ve thought about them.

Da Five Bloods – Spike Lee’s latest film presented a unique angle on the Vietnam War genre.

Dick Johnson is DeadKirsten Johnson’s playful exploration of death is really a celebration of life that ought to leave viewers with some new perspectives about loss. 

The Dissident – Bryan Fogel’s true crime documentary was a riveting story about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi as well as an alarming portrait of Saudi Arabia’s leadership.  

Father Soldier Son – A documentary about a father and son and their relationship to the United States’ military. Father Soldier Son assembles a decade worth of material into a single story while also allowing for moments of depth and reflection.

First Cow – This story of two men scratching for a place in the world is a likable and affecting story of friendship and unfulfilled dreams.

Greyhound – An intense World War II naval film about Allied warships escorting a convoy across the Atlantic.

The Hater – A startling portrait of corruption and political machinations in the age of social media.

His House – This frightening ghost story used the trauma of the immigrant experience to examine identity and grief.

Hope Gap – A complex domestic drama with a set of nuanced performances by Annette Bening and Bill Nighy that requires the viewer to think about happiness and relationships beyond the way we’re accustomed to in mainstream films.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things – Charlie Kaufman’s latest cinematic puzzle was among his best and most ambitious films.

The Invisible Man An effective reinterpretation of the H.G. Wells story, adapting the classic concept for the contemporary audience.

Love and Monsters – A fun monster movie romp.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – Adapted from the stage play by August Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was a vivid period piece.

Mosul – This tale of a rogue Iraqi SWAT team fighting ISIS was brutal but also featured nuanced characters and was one of the most interesting feature films about the War on Terror.

Nomadland – A beautifully made road film that reimagined the western while also providing subtle commentary about economics and culture.

One Night in Miami – This adaptation of Kemp Powers’ stage play was a skillfully made and terrifically acted picture and an impressive feature film directorial debut by Regina King.

The Outpost – One of the best feature films about the Afghanistan War.

The Photograph – One of the best love stories of 2020. 

Planet of the HumansPlanet of the Humans challenged the suppositions and leadership of the green energy movement. There are too many questions about the accuracy of this film to include it on the Top 10 list but if Planet of the Humans’ claims about green technology are correct then this is the most significant environmental documentary since An Inconvenient Truth.

Residue – A provocative and skillfully produced feature that manages to visualize the transitive nature of identity.

Shirley – A potent mix of thoughtful character study and an intense domestic drama that possesses tumultuous energy, fierce intelligence, and terrific performances.

Swallow – Every element of the picture—the performances, the writing, the design and the cinematography–are in sync and produce a movie that offers a lot to digest once it’s over.

The True History of the Kelly Gang – This story of outlaws in the Australian bush was a grim western.

The Vast of Night – A masterfully crafted piece of cinema that is unlike any recent sci-fi movie.

Good Buzz List

These are films that were released in 2020 and have strong word of mouth, and in some cases award nominations, but Nathan was unable to see them in time for the year end summary.

Another Round – This Danish film about high school instructors who teach while intoxicated has been recognized by critics groups and was named best film at the Danish Film Awards.

City Hall – Frederick Wiseman’s latest film was a four-and-a-half hour documentary about Boston’s city government. It was named the best film of 2020 by Cahiers du cinema.

Minari – Written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, Minari is the story of a Korean family living in Arkansas. The film has been praised for its performances and was named one of the best films of 2020 by the American Film Institute.

Miss Juneteenth – This drama about a mother preparing her teenage daughter to participate in the “Miss Juneteenth” pageant was nominated for awards from several festivals and critics groups.

News of the World – The latest film from director Paul Greengrass starred Tom Hanks as a man escorting a teenage girl across the plains in post-Civil War Texas. Helena Zengel has been praised for her performance as has James Newton Howard for his score and Dariusz Wolski for his cinematography.

Our Time Machine – A documentary about a father and son who collaborate on an art project and face dementia and mortality. The film was well reviewed and was nominated for awards at several film festivals.

The Personal History of David Copperfield – Armando Iannuci’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novel was well reviewed and was nominated for several British Independent Film Awards.

Small Axe – An anthology of five films directed by Steve McQueen dramatizing the lives of West Indian immigrants living in London between the 1960s and the 1980s. Small Axe was praised by critics groups and Shabier Kirchner’s cinematography and John Boyega’s performance were nominated for awards. 

Yellow Rose – A musical drama about a Filipina teen in a small Texas town who chases a dream of country music stardom. The film was well reviewed and was named the best narrative feature at several film festivals.

Great Performances

This is a list of some of the great performances in 2019, although not all of them were in great movies. 

An American Pickle – Seth Rogan performed double duty in two roles: an early twentieth century Jewish immigrant and his great-grandson.

The Assistant – Julia Garner’s performance as an executive assistant bullied by her employer is carefully nuanced.

Bad Education – The whole cast of Bad Education is outstanding including Hugh Jackman, Allison Janey, Ray Romano, and Geraldine Viswanathan.

Banana Split – The core cast of this coming-of-age story was quite good especially Hannah Marks, Liana Liberato, and Dylan Sprouse.

Becky – Lulu Wilson was terrific in the title role as a teen who goes to war with a band of white supremacists and Kevin James was revelatory as the gang leader.

Big Time Adolescence – Pete Davidson was the standout performance in Big Time Adolescence but young actors Griffin Gluck and Emily Arlook were also impressive as high school students.

Bill & Ted Face the Music – Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves stepped back into their familiar roles as the now middle aged rockers and Samara Weaving and Brigette Lundy-Paine were equally impressive as their daughters.

Black Bear – Aubrey Plaza pushed herself to emotional extremes in this self-reflexive story about moviemaking and storytelling.

Blackbird – The entire cast was brilliant although Susan Sarandon and Kate Winslet and Mia Wasikowska stand out.

Birds of Prey And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn – Margot Robbie reprised her Suicide Squad role and once again she was the best thing in it.

Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm – Maria Bakalova stole the show from Sacha Baron Cohen.

The Boys in the Band – This adaptation of Mart Crowley’s play had a stellar cast including Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer, Andrew Rannells, Charlie Carver, Robin de Jesús, Brian Hutchison, Michael Benjamin Washington, and Tuc Watkins.

The Broken Hearts Gallery – Geraldine Viswanathan carried the movie with her charming and charismatic performance.

Buffaloed – Not a great movie but Zoey Deutch was fierce and watchable as a young hustler who gets into the debt collection business.

Capone – Tom Hardy gave a bonkers performance as the infamous gangster in a movie that didn’t quite work. 

Charm City Kings – The film included impressive performances by its cast of young actors including Jahi Di’Allo Winston, Donielle Tremaine Hansley, and Kezii Curtis.

The Climb – Michael Angelo Covino and Kyle Marvin were well paired in this bromance.

Da Five Bloods – The core cast of Da Five Bloods were terrific individually and as a group although Delroy Lindo stands out. 

Emma. – Anya Taylor Joy and Bill Nighy and Mia Goth and Myra McFadyen were game for this fun and stylized take on Jane Austen’s novel.

Enola Holmes – Millie Bobby Brown brought a combination of physicality, intelligence, and vulnerability to the title role.

The Forty-Year-Old Version – Radha Blank was a triple threat, writing and directing this film as well as starring in the lead role. The supporting cast brought a lot of reality to the picture as well.

Rebecca – Kristin Scott Thomas excelled in the supporting role as the villainous Mrs. Danvers.

Fatman – This goofy premise worked because of the performances of its cast, namely Mel Gibson as Santa Claus and Walton Goggins as the hitman contracted to kill him.

Hillbilly Elegy –Glenn Close’s performance as J.D. Vance’s grandmother was so much better than the film she was in.

Hope Gap – Annette Bening and Bill Nighy were terrific as an elder couple separating after decades of marriage.

How to Build a Girl – Beanie Feldstein’s performance elevated a familiar show business story. 

The Hunt – Betty Gilpin made an outlandish concept work.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things – Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons were the relatable human center of Charlie Kaufman’s cinematic puzzle.

The Invisible Man – Elisabeth Moss made the trauma of domestic abuse an ever-present reality for her character.

Kajillionaire – Evan Rachel Wood full immersed herself in the role of a socially stunted woman.

The King of Staten Island – Pete Davidson proved himself competent with both comedic and dramatic material and the film includes impressive supporting roles by Marisa Tomei and Bill Burr.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – The whole cast was outstanding but Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman made the biggest impression as a savvy vocalist and an ambitious trumpet player, respectively.

Mank – Gary Oldman captured the charm and self-destructive stubbornness of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz but also impressive were Amanda Seyfried as would-be actress Marion Davies and Lilly Collins as Mankiewicz’s secretary Rita Alexander.

Midnight Sky – George Clooney gave one of his best performances although the film itself was only mediocre.

Military Wives – This military drama succeeded in large part because of the performances of Kristin Scott Thomas and Sharon Horgan.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always – Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder played small town friends navigating the big city and their performances were charged with subtle desperation. 

Nomadland – Frances McDormand gives another great performance in the lead role. The supporting cast of non-actors brought a lot of reality to the film as well.

One Night in Miami – One of the best overall casts of 2020 with Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X, Eli Goree as Muhammad Ali,  Aldis Hodge as Jim Brown, and Leslie Odom Jr. as Sam Cooke.

Ordinary Love – Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville vividly captured the life of a longtime married couple working through cancer.

Palm Springs – Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti were a likable romantic couple and they injected humor and depth into the familiar story elements.

The Photograph – LaKeith Stanfield and Issa Rae were well paired in one of the best movie romances of 2020.

Pieces of a Woman – The picture featured a roster of impressive performances, headlined by Vanessa Kirby alongside Shia LaBeouf and Ellen Burstyn.

The Prom – Young actress Jo Ellen Pellman held her own against a cast a famous movie stars. Keegan-Michael Key also impressed as a school administrator.

Promising Young Woman – Carey Mulligan’s performance nailed the offbeat tone and pulled the various parts of this movie together.

Saint Francis – Kelly O’Sullivan and Ramona Edith Williams were a likable pair as a nanny and her six year old charge.

Shirley – Elisabeth Moss’ other great performance of 2020 as writer Shirley Jackson. Michael Stuhlbarg was also impressively creepy as Jackson’s husband.

Sometimes Always Never – Bill Nighy’s other great performance of 2020 was as a Scrabble enthusiast searching for his long lost son.

Sorry We Missed You – The core cast of this movie was exceptional and the supporting players also brought a great deal of reality to this movie.

Sound of Metal – Riz Ahmed provided an empathetic and nuanced performance as a drummer who has lost his hearing. Paul Raci was also impressive as the leader of a retreat for the deaf.

Swallow – Haley Bennett conveyed the interior struggle as well as the pain and physical trauma of her character’s compulsion. Laith Nakli also made an impression as a live-in nurse.

To the Stars – Kara Hayward and Liana Liberato were well cast as teenage friends in this coming of age story.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 – Not a great movie but it did have some great performances by Eddie Redmayne, Jeremy Strong, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Frank Langella.

The Way Back – Ben Affleck gave one of his best performances as an alcoholic basketball coach.

Yes, God, Yes – Natalia Dyer conveyed the conflict between conservative morality and sexual desire in this coming of age tale.

Bottom 10 Films of 2020

What follows are the very bottom of the cinematic heap for 2020.

1. 365 Days

Directed by: Barbara Bialowas and Tomasz Mandes

Premise: Laura (Anna Maria Sieklucka) is kidnapped by a gangster (Michele Morrone). He claims to be in love with her and intends to keep Laura captive for a year during which time he will make this woman fall in love with him.

Why It Made the List: Cinema’s recent love affair with bad boys and the noxious fantasy of women rehabilitating them reached its apotheosis with 365 Days. The film is ostensibly aimed at couples and especially female viewers but like the picture’s misogynistic leading man, the makers of 365 Days have no respect for women. That’s the only explanation for a movie as dumb and as poisonous as this. Going well beyond the silliness and immaturity of Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey, the filmmakers of 365 Days try to find the romance in human trafficking. The male love interest is a psychopath but he’s framed as a “good” psychopath all while working through a checklist of abusive behavior: physically and verbally threatening the heroine, controlling every aspect of her life, acting violently jealous, and isolating this woman from her family and friends. What’s worse, the filmmakers seem to really believe this is all romantic. 365 Days tries to convince us of love and passion through repeated and awkward musical montages but the female captive is ultimately swept off her feet by a combination of sexual prowess and ostentatious displays of wealth. The sexual escapades and dramatic pretensions fail to disguise the ugliness at the core of 365 Days, the worst film of 2020.

2. The Night Clerk

Directed by: Michael Cristofer

Premise: An overnight front desk employee (Tye Sheridan) observes hotel guests through secret cameras. When he records a murder, the desk worker tries to keep the cameras a secret and clear his name.

Why It Made the List: The Night Clerk is bizarre for all the wrong reasons. Actor Tye Sheridan plays a character on the spectrum but he comes across as someone pantomiming autism. The movie looks cheap and the artificiality of the makeup and sets is obvious. The story is nonsense that tries to concoct suspense while ignoring the actual creepy elements of the premise. Nothing in the film makes sense and The Night Clerk plays as though its makers had never seen a movie or met another human being before.

3. The Witches

Directed by: Robert Zemeckis

Premise: Based on the book by Roald Dahl. A boy and his grandmother stay at a hotel where unbeknownst to them an organization of witches is holding a convention. The witches plan to destroy all the world’s children by turning them into mice.

Why It Made the List: Roald Dahl’s The Witches was previously adapted into a 1990 motion picture that, while not perfect, had more craft and imagination in any one scene than the entirety of the 2020 remake. This film is astonishingly bad. As the Grand High Witch, Anne Hathaway comes across like a villain from Rocky and Bullwinkle. The Witches has no frights, is bereft of style, and the digital effects look like CGI from the 1990s. This film is a bland industrial product that was only greenlit to exploit a familiar title. 

4. The Binge

Directed by: Jeremy Garelick

Premise: In the near future, all drugs are illegal in the United States except for one night known as The Binge, when all inebriants are legalized. A trio of high school friends tries to get to a party that evening.

Why It Made the Lists: The Binge sends up the premise of the horror series The Purge, applying the same lawless concept to recreational drug use. This sounds cleverer than it actually is. The Binge imagines a world where prohibition has somehow worked but only to reiterate an insipid one-crazy-night-in-high-school comedy. The humor is lame and the gags are mean spirited. This film is also remarkably tone deaf. The Binge extolls the virtues of getting smashed in the midst of a national epidemic of opioid and alcohol abuse.

5. Artemis Fowl

Directed by: Kenneth Branagh

Premise: An adaptation of the young adult fantasy novel by Eoin Colfer. Artemis Fowl (Ferdia Shaw), the gifted son of an antiquities collector, uncovers a magical world of fairies and dwarves. Artemis must rescue his father (Colin Farrell) from a mysterious villain.

Why It Made the List: Artemis Fowl is one of the worst young adult film adaptations in some time, and that is saying something. Nearly the whole movie is filler. The plot jerks us around the fantasy world and Artemis does everything except the one thing that will save his father. Most of Artemis Fowl is a cacophony of meaningless action set pieces. The costuming and special effects are terrible as are the performances. Artemis is a spoiled brat who no one would follow into the next room much less through a whole franchise.

6. Fantasy Island

Directed by: Jeff Wadlow

Premise: An adaptation of the television series. A group of strangers are invited to a resort on a mysterious island. The resort’s proprietor (Michael Peña) promises to bring each guest’s ultimate fantasy to life but things don’t quite work out as expected.

Why It Made the List: Fantasy Island was originally a 1970s television show and the feature film looks that way with its cheap and flat style. For a movie about people experiencing their innermost desires, Fantasy Island is remarkably bland. Even the unrated cut is tame and generic. The story plays like the filmmakers made it up as they went along. Characters randomly enter and exit the film and the plot is a patchwork of illogical surprises. Fantasy Island ends with a big twist that just punches new logical holes into an already stupid mess.  

7. The Last Days of American Crime

Directed by: Olivier Megaton

Premise: In the near future, the United States government responds to swelling violent crime with a nation-wide broadcast signal that will cause paralysis in citizens who are knowingly engaged in illegal activity. A group of criminals plan one last heist before the system goes live.

Why It Made the List: The Last Days of American Crime is a stupid person’s idea of a smart movie. It entertains ideas about freedom, capitalism, and authoritarianism but in a way that is pretentious and halfhearted. The filmmakers’ disinterest in the intellectual themes of their story might be excusable if The Last Days of American Crime was a rip roaring good time. It’s not. This overlong action movie is insufferably boring and it is populated by interchangeable greasy haired bad boys with one-and-a-half facial expressions.

8. The Grudge

Directed by: Nicolas Pesce

Premise: A reboot of the horror series based on the 2003 film Ju-On. A recently widowed detective (Andrea Riseborough) investigates the circumstances of an apparent accident victim and discovers a supernatural curse.

Why It Made the List: If you’ve seen one J-horror remake you’ve basically seen them all and there’s nothing new to 2020’s The Grudge. This reboot slogs through scenarios from the other films and does them poorly. The film is lit with a sepia tone that just looks ugly instead of scary, the frights are clumsy, and the movie lacks any atmosphere of dread. The story cuts together past and present but it comes across as a confusing jumble of random scenes that plays fast and loose with the rules of the franchise.

9. Wild Mountain Thyme

Directed by: John Patrick Shanley

Premise: Set in rural Ireland, an elderly farmer (Christopher Walken) threatens to sell his land to an American relative instead of his own son (Jamie Dornan) who fancies the neighbor (Emily Blunt).

Why It Made the List: Everything about Wild Mountain Thyme is artificial and unbelievable, starting with the cast. The movie takes place in Ireland but the non-Irish actors aren’t fooling anybody, least of all Christopher Walken. The attempts at quirkiness just come off obnoxious. Especially odious is the regard for rural people. This is the kind of Hollywood film that thinks country folk are cute simpletons and the movie stinks of condescension. Wild Mountain Thyme concludes with a bonkers last minute reveal that would be funny if it wasn’t intended to taken seriously.

10. The Last Thing He Wanted

Directed by: Dee Rees

Premise: Based on the book by Joan Didion. Set in the early 1980s, a journalist (Anne Hathaway) steeped in reporting on the civil war in El Salvador gets mixed up in an arms deal and finds herself stranded in Latin America.

Why It Made the List: In The Last Thing He Wanted Anne Hathaway plays an experienced war correspondent who behaves like she’s never been out of the country before. She continually makes stupid choices, walking into obvious traps and trusting people who she knows are untrustworthy. The Last Thing He Wanted is clearly intended to comment on the United States’ military interventions in Latin America but the movie has nothing to say about that. It’s a political period piece with no grasp of history or insight into politics. 

Trends of 2020

Great Horror Films

2020 continued the horror genre’s recent streak of great and innovative new movies.

Women Filmmakers

One of the underappreciated trends of 2020 was the number of high profile movies directed by women filmmakers.

Pandemic Cinema

Although the full implications of COVID-19 weren’t evident until late spring, filmmakers managed to put together documentaries and a few dramas about life in a pandemic.

  • 76 Days
  • Coastal Elites
  • Coronation
  • Host
  • Songbird
  • Totally Under Control

Young Women in Love

Romance made a comeback at the movies in 2020, largely on streaming services, and the year offered several love stories about teenage characters, usually focusing on young women.

Disappointing Spectacles

Most of 2020’s major tent pole releases got delayed and what did open was less than inspiring and often downright terrible.

Good Belated Sequels

A lot of sequels planed for release in 2020 were delayed until the following year but several of the sequels that did open in 2020 were follow ups to long dormant franchises and were surprisingly good.

Political Films

Politics was at the forefront of many people’s minds in 2020 and the year saw the release of many politically themed dramas and documentaries.

The Perils of Social Media

As part of the surge of politically-themed movies in 2020, many films expressed concern about the role of social media.

War Films

Several impressive war films were released in 2020 and ranged in their subject and style.