These are my top 30(ish) movies of 2020. I was going to do an honorable mention portion of the list, but it was going, like, 30 deep, and that felt redundant. I might write a decent amount on some of these; I might just write a few lines on others. Look, I did some ties; it’s been a long year; you try making a top 30 list in a pandemic; I’m not perfect. Without further ado…
30. I’m Your Woman (dir. Julia Hart)
This was the last movie that I watched for consideration of my list, and it secured a spot instantly. It’s a slow burn leading up to a dynamite factory, a film where the paranoia and patience of random, unfair circumstance collides with resolve and empathy. This is the film The Kitchen wanted to be. It never slows down, and it’s genuinely impossible to predict. Julia Hart kind of laps the boys here on making a legitimate fresh spin on the gangster format. All Martin Scorsese copycats take note.
29. Onward (dir. Dan Scanlon)
There were two Pixar films this year, and I was very thankful for that. I’m still bummed Soul didn’t get a theatrical release here, but I caught Onward twice right before the pandemic closed theaters. I’m so glad I did. It’s a great concept which is typical for the studio, but Scanlon’s personal touch makes this severely underrated. Film is best when it’s cathartic, and I never thought I’d ever watch a beautiful movie moment with a character who is basically a pair of pants. Pixar’s getting its mojo back and it’s exciting. The scene at the Manticore’s tavern made me laugh as loudly as anything this year.
28. Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (dir. David Dobkin)
I really didn’t come in to the year expecting to enjoy a Will Ferrell movie, since all the recent Will Ferrell movies haven’t been very good. I got to enjoy a very good Will Ferrell movie this year, and it doubled as a very good Rachel McAdams movie, too. The comedy is an endangered species, and for all I chafe about Netflix, they’re keeping the genre alive. Respect. “Husavik” is a heck of a payoff.
27. Small Axe: Education (dir. Steve McQueen), Sound of Metal (dir. Darius Marder)
The hardest part about life is learning. These two films made me think about all the unfair things people have to learn in life. In one installment of McQueen’s superb Small Axe anthology, a young boy has to learn about impropriety in the educational system, driven by systemic racial bias. In Marder’s breakout Sound of Metal, a stunning Riz Ahmed, playing a metal drummer, has to learn about his descent into deafness after already conquering addiction. Both show that learning can be hard, but there’s grace and growth when you find communities that will care for you. Both are sincerely great films, too.
26. Feels Good Man (dir. Arthur Jones), White Noise (dir. Daniel Lombroso)
If I had to recommend two movies for someone to watch to explain how the U.S. Capitol insurrection happened last week, these are the two I’d say to watch. On one end, we see how the darkest reaches of the internet co-opted a silly frog cartoon character and turned him into the symbol for the alt-right that stormed the Capitol. In the other, it’s the ringleaders to white supremacy, revealed to be nothing more than contradictory, immature, scared, confused. It’s not fun to stare into the sun, but truth is a bitter pill. We may question why we need to shed light on these people and stories, but after the other day, I’m not sure there’s enough we can do. Supreme documentary filmmaking.
25. Wolfwalkers (dir. Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart)
Hand-drawn animation for the win. Cartoon Saloon is keeping it alive, and they’re telling some special stories to boot. I can’t get over how gorgeous this film is, how sweeping. Also, the “Running with the Wolves” sequence is one for the record books. Again, hand-drawn animation for the win.
24. Uncorked (dir. Prentice Penny)
The beauty of finding your passion is often bridled with the expectation those before us have to follow what’s practical. Penny’s debut is focused and open-minded, and rather unpredictable. Mamoudou Athie is one of my favorite actors right now, and Courtney B. Vance and Nicey Nash don’t miss. I’ve got a very soft spot for well-made movies where adults just figure things out without a lot of pomp and circumstance. I love movies that just embrace life for what it is and keep a positive spin on everyday goals. I loved this one.
23. Mank (dir. David Fincher)
Review. Long live Hollywood…maybe!
22. The Invisible Man (dir. Leigh Whannell)
Long live Blumhouse! They’re still the best in the game for economic horror/thriller that makes a ton of money and energizes fresh genre filmmaking. A fierce study in deadly gaslighting, anchored by Elisabeth Moss’ best performance yet. Whannell is a rising great. Long live Blumhouse!
21. Collective (dir. Alexander Nanau)
I mean this with all sincerity: the best movie about journalism since Spotlight. Incendiary, maddening, urgent, about as close to perfect as you can get.
20. Small Axe: Red, White & Blue (dir. Steve McQueen)
I list four of the five Small Axe films on this list — I think it’s that important of an achievement this year. This one sets ablaze the idea of that showy progress is what fixes all of our problems. It’s not; to rid a system of its issues, you must be willing to do it from the ground up. John Boyega’s never been better as a dutiful police officer caught in a terrible situation. By film’s end, we’ve found some resolution, but there are no happy endings. At first, it felt incomplete. As time went on, I began to feel the weight more about McQueen’s mastery to refuse us what’s been refused for so long. This is one of McQueen’s best — there are two more on this list.
19. Da 5 Bloods (dir. Spike Lee)
This is the film I most wanted to see on the big screen this year that I didn’t. I’m hoping the Academy doesn’t drop the ball and not nominate this for Best Picture so I’ll have a chance in April (when I assume I’ll be able to go to some movies unless something happens which I’m sure it will). I think Delroy Lindo has the performance of the year in this. It’s Marlon Brando-level acting.
18. Small Axe: Lovers Rock (dir. Steve McQueen)
SILLLYYYY GAAAAAAAAAAAAMES! This movie is way too cool for me. Shabier Kirchner crashes the party with the best cinematography of the year. The camera literally floats; the move does more in an hour than some do in 3.
17. The King of Staten Island (dir. Judd Apatow)
I love Pete Davidson, bumps and all, and I love these chatty, long James L. Brooks homages Apatow has made a career out of. Davidson does plenty of great stuff here, as does Marisa Tomei, but Bill Burr taps into a second gear I wasn’t aware he was capable of. He’s Oscar good. It’s an oddly hopeful journey into growing up and moving on, and a testament to the power of the brainey adult dramedy. I’d let Davidson give me a tattoo…maybe.
16. Blow the Man Down (dir. Bridget Savage Cole, Danielle Krudy), News of the World (Paul Greengrass)
Cole and Krudy make the best Coens riff I’ve seen in years. They did it way better than George Clooney did, and Clooney, amazing as he is, has worked with the Coens multiple times. With shanty songs going viral on TikTok for some reason (I don’t TikTok, but I am aware of the TikToking), this New England crime caper couldn’t be more relevant. Greengrass is an amazing director, of course, and he’s out here doing his best John Ford/Howard Hawkes. Cowboy journalist Tom Hanks forever. Review on the latter.
15. Soul (dir. Pete Docter, co-dir. Kemp Powers)
Review. Long live jazz!
14. Time (dir. Garrett Bradley)
The rare movie that literally left me speechless. So I’ll leave it at that.
13. David Byrne’s American Utopia (dir. Spike Lee)
Time isn’t holding up; time isn’t after us. A sonic beam of joy and relief. If I can muster even a fraction of the awe and optimism Byrne has for the future, a future he seemed to really hint he was pretty wigged out about in literally everything he’s done to this point, I’ll be A-OK. Same as it ever was.
12. One Night in Miami (dir. Regina King)
A truly great example of stage-to-film, bristling with life and running out of time all the same. History written with lightning. It’s an unbelievable four-top of performances, at its soul led by Kingsley Bel-Adir’s career breakthrough, a read on Malcolm X as a man bound by history and a stubborn unwillingness to relent for goodness sake. Leslie Odom, Jr., might be better in this than he was in Hamilton? King directed the heck out of this, and what a year for playwright and screenwriter Kemp Powers?
11. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (dir. Bill Ross IV, Turner Ross)
No film made me miss people more than this. A revolutionary way of subverting the documentary to tell the truth; a flickering light about to go dark, sparking joy and hubbub as memories, epiphanies and homilies spill onto the floor of a dying watering hole. As gentrification lurches in and turns a dusty haunt into a posh juice bar and the pandemic comes for the local more than the national, this film is a reminder by way of a flare to the face that we’re losing the places and people that tie us together everytime we lose civic institutions and the bonds we forge there. Again, why I want to get back to the movies on a regular basis as soon as I can.
10. Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado (dir. Cristina Costantini, Kareem Tabsch)
Walter Mercado was a saint. I didn’t know who he was until I turned this documentary on, and I now feel like he was a close friend. This was an lovely documentary about a man some might’ve written off as a grifter who was, plain as day, sparking a positivity revolution in route of astrology and horoscopes. While life wasn’t always easy for Mercado, the film hits one of the most powerful crescendos I’ve seen in a long time, as a man once so prominent in Latin American culture finally gets to reap what he sewed. I watched this toward the top of quarantine, and it was enough to make, at the least, that one day tolerable. Few movies did that for me this year like this one did. Long live Walter Mercado!
9. First Cow (dir. Kelly Reichardt)
A masterwork for the western genre, and a full charge ahead for empathy in our capitalistic system. This moo-ved me. John Magaro broke my heart.
8. I’m Thinking of Ending Things (dir. Charlie Kaufman)
Just watch it if you haven’t, and then, after you do, click this link and you’ll instantly know why this is one of my favorite films of the year.
7. Small Axe: Mangrove (dir. Steve McQueen)
Folks might disagree on which is the best Small Axe film, though I think it’s an embarrassment of riches. Alex Wheatle, the one film I did not rank, is still one of the better films I’ve seen this year. Mangrove, though, to me is the crown jewel. It’s the perfect combination of the celebration and struggle McQueen captures of London’s West Indies community, embodied none better by Shaun Parkes in a whirlwind of a performance. I really liked The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Sacha Baron Cohen is amazing), but let’s not kid ourselves. This is the premiere legal drama of 2020.
6. Bad Education (dir. Cory Finley)
A deeply American tale about the drip-drop nature of morality in positions of power, and how easy it can be to excuse the wrong thing when it feels so right. Hugh Jackman’s finest hour (outside of Logan, of course). This was the first movie I watched in 2020 I felt like would end up in my top 10, and here we are. There’s just not a lot you can say about how nice it is to have a film like this show up after spending, at that time, nearly two months without anything like it as the pandemic set in. Finley is going to have an amazing career.
5. Tenet (dir. Christopher Nolan)
My relationship with Tenet is very complicated. It’s the only film I saw in a theater during the pandemic, of course, and it will always mean a lot to me for that alone. The movie? 10,000 words later, and I still wouldn’t know where to begin. It’s one of the most genuinely thrilling films I’ve ever seen, and easily the most incomprehensible for such a grand production. Everything about it is good, even the stuff that doesn’t work. I saw this a few years before my birthday in a really tough year. It’ll be close to me for a long time.
4. Nomadland (dir. Chloé Zhao)
The film of 2020 if we’re going for “movies that made you feel this calendar year in your bones.” A perfect road trip into the heart of what makes America tick and the loss that we all can’t run from. Zhao is a supreme observer; the way she looks at things we often miss. Frances McDormand is willing to give herself to Zhao’s vision and lets this character carry the pain and wayward hope of millions. I think watching this made the pandemic more palatable. If this wins Best Picture, it’s a Parasite-level victory for the Academy in terms of actually getting it right.
3. Dick Johnson is Dead (dir. Kirsten Johnson)
One of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen, and such a piercing reminder that life is finite and that we should cherish and celebrate the ones we have while they’re here however we can. A revolutionary charge of remembrance, and such an affirming call for what we’ve got. Johnson is a documentary filmmaker of the highest order, and good on her for being so willing to be so revealing with her father’s story, sparked by unparalleled creativity and boldness. Long live Dick Johnson!
2. Driveways (dir. Andrew Ahn)
I really didn’t expect this movie to hit me so hard, but I watched this about two months after Brian Dennehy died. I was always an admirer of Dennehy as an actor, if not an outright fan, but he’s got one of the most tender performances I’ve ever seen, culminating in what I’d imagine is the best scene of his career hitting right before the closing credits. In such a year as this, few films have been so relevant in the full-throated call to love your neighbor as yourself. This is independent filmmaking at its finest. I’m not sure I saw a film more drenched in empathy last year. I loved it. Long live Brian Dennehy!
- Spontaneous (dir. Brian Duffield)
I heard about this film getting stellar reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and waited until the Redbox rental came out since it was, like, $20 to rent. I’ve since purchased the DVD. I’m not really sure why Paramount chose to bury this film, since it was the best film I saw last year. The best way I can describe Spontaneous is as a bloody, socially-relevant John Hughes-inspired pandemic body horror comedy romance. Katherine Langford stunned me as a young woman trying to navigate her hellscape of a sickness-plastered world filled with incompetent leadership that seems to have no interest in fixing itself. Sound familiar? The kids will be alright if we let them be. This level of tonal balance is almost dangerous for any caliber of filmmaker, but what Duffield does here is nothing short of a miracle. Charlie Plummer makes for such a perfect foil. There is a moment in this film that I think about every day. This one ripped out my heart and punted it like a football through the goalposts. I didn’t even know much about it before I popped it into my Blu-Ray player one evening, and it’s turned into my favorite film of the year. I can’t think of a more COVID-19 way to stumble upon the film that will eventually top a list.