It’s absolutely impossible to talk about the year in film without talking about what’s been happening in the world.
Much of what you see listed here was not seen in a traditional movie theater setting; in fact, by my count, only one of these films was seen before the Covid-19 pandemic in a theater and only one additional film was seen at the Mission Tiki drive-in in Montclair, CA. This is not ideal. But then again, what else happening in the world is?
Most of these films were made in a far different world than the one we live in now, but there’s some strange synchronicity between the messages in a lot of them and what we’re collectively experiencing in the world. The running theme in a lot of these films is ACCEPTANCE. Acceptance of a new home, acceptance of a new lifestyle, acceptance of a new world. With acceptance comes hope, and with hope comes an eventual change.
It isn’t going to be this way forever. There’s a passage from a film on this list that I’ll leave you with before I present the best films of 2020. It’s the quote that resonated most strongly with me in what has been a great year for films, a bad year for films, and an astonishingly bad year for… well, everything else.
“The world does keep moving and it can be a damn cruel place. But for me those moments of stillness, that place, that’s the Kingdom of God. And that place will never abandon you.”
Notable Films I Did Not See In 2020
(due to a lack of accessibility):
One Night in Miami
Promising Young Woman
10 Films That Just Barely Missed The List:
Bacurau (Criterion Channel)
Bill & Ted Face the Music (rental)
Color Out Of Space (Shudder)
Mangrove (Amazon Prime)
Swallow (Amazon Prime)
Synchronic (rental out 2021)
Time to Hunt (Netflix)
The Vast of Night (Amazon Prime)
BEST FILMS OF 2020:
20. You Cannot Kill David Arquette
Directed by David Darg and Price James
“I’m just kinda sick of being a joke.”
It is really unfair to try and judge this as a “documentary,” but much like the medium of wrestling that it represents, this is a really engaging piece of entertainment. David Arquette is so cool, man. Genuinely love that he managed to get his own I’m Still Here type film but for something you can tell he genuinely loves.
It’s tough because this is positioned as an underdog story, and yet Arquette will always arrive from a place of privilege as he arrives in any new avenue. It’s something that has to be kept in mind when watching him occupy spaces that people really had to build themselves up from nothing to create.
So instead of viewing this as any kind of underdog story, you have to look at it as his attempt to honor the real underdogs. Everywhere from an actual sparsely attended backyard match to the world of lucha gets its time to shine here, and the reason this film works so well, even if the filmmakers are focused more on Arquette, is that Arquette himself never lets you forget that he is an outsider who wants to bring honor to this medium.
And that’s why this fun, silly documentary has a lot more heart to it than many other “rich man reinvents himself from the ground up” stories. This was good! Watch it!
(Watch on Hulu)
Directed by Rob Savage
“Have you ever done this before?” “I’ve never done this over Zoom.”
There is perhaps no better onscreen depiction of the perseverance of the human soul in 2020 than Shudder’s brief and vicious Host. Made mere MONTHS after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, Host is the definition of making lemonade out of (really sickly) lemons. It’s a very simple haunted house story, and even the setting (all in one continuous Zoom screen capture) has been seen before in other works like Unfriended and Searching.
And yet it’s just so much fun. Not a single minute is wasted here, creating a short and panic inducing horror, and even the effects (which had to have been DIY) hold up super well. I can’t wait to see what this team does with a real budget and crew.
(Watch on Shudder)
18. Palm Springs
Directed by Max Barbakow
“In order to really know a person, you have to see the entire package. The good and the bad.”
Groundhog Day is apparently now a genre, and that’s okay. It would take me the entirety of this review to list the films that have recycled this premise, so I’d rather focus on what makes Palm Springs a welcome addition to this canon. Specifically, the idea of multiple people experiencing the same closed time loop. There’s so much potential in this concept that Palm Springs frankly could never explore the entirety of, but it manages to juggle a number of arcs with ease while still managing to explore some deeper concepts like “what do you do if you just want to live your life but your partner is content living the same day”?
Very relatable for any couple that hasn’t quite agreed on the reality we live in now!
(Watch on Hulu)
17. Birds of Prey
Directed by Cathy Yan
“You know what they say: behind every successful man is a badass broad.”
This is the direction superhero movies need to go in to survive. Low stakes, personal, and personalized, Birds of Prey is the platonic ideal for how comic book adaptations can stay fresh moving forward. There isn’t a global threat here that the team needs to stop; in fact, there’s barely even a team for most of this film. A huge emotional plot point is the death of Harley Quinn’s breakfast sandwich, the type of low stakes silliness seen mostly in films like Deadpool but really expanded upon here.
I’ll gladly watch every superhero tentpole if they can manage to push the envelope half as well as this film did.
(Watch on HBO MAX)
16. Let Them All Talk
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
“Here’s to picking up the conversation where we left off, and here’s to the gang of three we used to be.”
Casual lesser Soderbergh is still interesting enough to warrant inclusion on a year end list, especially armed with the knowledge that next to no dialogue was written for this film. That’s right: Gemma Chan’s reaction to that thing Lucas Hedges asks her? Fully improvised.
This is a fun and casual movie in which giants of the screen, new and old, get to really show why they’re some of the best actors around. Meryl Streep is the straight man here, and had the least to do! How crazy is that? We need to give Dianne Wiest an Oscar, maybe even in a category called “Best Wiestism,” just for her fond recollection of a threesome.
(Watch on HBO Max)
15. A Sun
Directed by Chung Mong-hong
“The fairest thing in the world is the sun. Regardless of latitude, every place on Earth, throughout the year, receives equal span of day and night.”
Usually, films about generational trauma manifesting itself deal with higher stakes, or the sins of the father coming back to haunt the legacy of the child. What makes A Sun so captivating is that the trauma here is individual, with each point of this family’s star affecting the other. We are given hints about how things end up the way they did for A-Ho in his upbringing, but what we see are how the son’s actions eventually lead to the family repeating his own sins to protect him.
There’s something about this that really hit me on a fundamental level. We’re not beaten over the head with the father’s guilt over the path his son went down; instead, we see everybody grieving, adapting, moving on in their own way.
Much of the storytelling here would die on the vine without the true mastery at work here behind the camera, as well. I’m not familiar with Nagao Nakashima’s work, but if even one other thing he’s shot manages to convey emotion the way it did here, then he is a hidden master of cinema.
However: if you read the reviews on Letterboxd and elsewhere, you’ll notice that a common complaint about this movie is the score. The haunting piece one can hear in the trailer made me believe a lot of this was overblown, but. No. The rest of the score of this film is… not bad? But really weird? The issue is that it relies a lot on twangy guitar, giving off the impression that this film is much folksier than it really is, almost as if it were a lower key piece of Americana. This creates some massive dissonance between what we see and what we hear, especially considering there is nothing American about this film. Really incredible the difference a score can actually make on a film.
Still: this is a story that feels as epic in scope as The Godfather while maintaining a more intimate, personal vibe ala something like Shoplifters, and it’s such a uniquely framed story that I have no choice but to love it, flaws and all.
(Watch on Netflix)
14. I’m No Longer Here
Directed by Fernando Frías de la Parra
“Make the star, man.”
A story about communication and the slippery slope miscommunication and misunderstanding can put us on. Reminded me a lot of Sound of Metal (more on that later), even if the worlds are vastly different. Many films this year are about how personal catastrophe completely upends our concepts of “identity” and “home.” This one even manages (this isn’t a spoiler) to tackle the idea of what happens if you get a chance to see what “home” is like when you’re gone.
Come for the amazing (and apparently accurate) depiction of cumbia culture; stay for the existential crisis you’ll be in after this film’s truly excellent final shot.
(Watch on Netflix)
13. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Directed by Jason Woliner
“My name John Chevrolet. I want you to make hotsie out of this notsie.”
I’m not going to spend too much time on this, because it’s a freaking BORAT movie, but I don’t really like Sacha Baron Cohen’s comedy. More often than not, he has to play with incredibly unfunny stereotypes just to pull some truly shocking behavior from his subjects. That’s no different here, but for once, the biggest two differences are that he has an equal in the remarkable Maria Bakalova and that he has a very specific target in mind this time. Thankfully, he manages to hit the bullseye, improving on the BORAT formula in every way.
(Watch on Amazon Prime)
12. Feels Good Man
Directed by Arthur Jones
“Creating memes gave people who had never been involved in politics a way in.”
Many documentarians have tried their best to capture what it’s been like to live in the age of Trump and failed. Whether it’s too much doom and gloom or too partisan a spin, nothing has managed to fully grasp just how surreal this has all been.
Feels Good Man is not technically about Trump. It’s a documentary about Pepe the Frog, a “little brother” character born in Matt Furie’s innocuous and freewheeling Boy’s Club comic who inexplicably became an icon for white supremacy on the internet to the point that the ACLU has officially acknowledged Pepe as a hate symbol. The journey to get there is unbelievable, a real life Frankenstein’s Monster scenario in which an artist’s creation becomes larger than life and out of control in a way nobody could have anticipated. If you stop for a second and turn on your brain at any point watching this, you might find yourself laughing over just how insane all of this is.
But after the laughter, let it sink in for a moment just how truly powerful an icon can be. Pepe might be more recognizable to a certain age group than the heroes of yore or even Mickey Mouse. What’s even more remarkable is how the film also depicts the way in which Pepe has been appropriated by unrelated movements as well; drawing to mind Black Mirror’s strangely prophetic “The Waldo Moment,” this means that Pepe is ultimately a symbol for the red pilled, the black pilled, the blue pilled, the normies, and the brain poisoned.
Who knew the end times would be so green?
(Available for rent on all digital platforms)
11. Nobody Knows I’m Here
Directed by Gaspar Antillo
“Here I lie and watch the stars… Feel I’m dreaming, all my life… Here is the love I forgot… My heart’s dancing glow… Something is wrong, I don’t belong, oh, no… Nobody knows I’m here.”
Who knew that Jorge Garcia (Lost, the cover of Weezer’s Hurley) could sing? This is a nice little film about a former child singer who’s resigned to living in obscurity, rediscovered when a video of him singing goes viral on the internet. This is shown through creative visual choices that sometimes lend themselves to moments of surrealism that may catch the viewer off guard but never feel unearned.
The premise might sound like something Will Ferrell would mine for comedy, but this is actually a pretty haunting character study that asks the question, “what does life look like when you were so close to living your wildest dreams and somebody steals them away from you?” Strangely, this almost makes it the non-comedic counterpoint to the Farrelly Brothers’ comedy Kingpin (which would be a wonderful double feature with this admittedly non-comedic film).
One of the most underseen gems of the year. Get on top of it and check it out now.
(Watch on Netflix)
10. Bad Education
Directed by Cory Finley
“My problem? My problem is you. It’s the people who trot their poor children out like race horses at Belmont; who derive some perverse joy out of treating us like low-level service reps. Do you remember the teachers who sat with you, who held you by the hand, who taught you to add and subtract, or showed you Gatsby and Salinger, for the first time? Mockingbird even? Do their names escape you? Are their faces a blur? You might forget, but we don’t. We never forget. Ever.”
Election seemed to promise a much different sort of filmmaker than Alexander Payne ended up becoming, ensuring that that particular film would remain a very singular kind of experience about the politics of middle America education. I love Election, which is why I connected so much with Bad Education, Cory Finley’s spiritual sister to that film.
You have a crime pulled straight from a Coen Brothers film, perpetrated by smart yet astonishingly incompetent criminals, one of whom even puts the student journalist that unravels the central scandal ON THE TRAIL. Hugh Jackman is unbelievable here, really taking advantage of his natural charm to play someone so incredibly likable on the surface that it makes swallowing his magnificent yet bastardly deceptions so much harder.
A shame this is considered “TV” by film voting blocs because it remains one of the best films of 2020 by a mile.
(Watch on HBO Max)
Directed by Garrett Bradley
“Listen, my story is the story of over two million people in the United States of America that are falling prey to the incarceration of poor people and people of color.”
Even weeks after finishing this film, I find myself struggling to find a way to write about it in a way that honors it. This is one of the most intensely personal films I have ever seen, to the point that it felt invasive watching any of it. It’s a story of adversity, love, and the decay of our justice system, and everything in it is better seen than described. Legitimately the best documentary of the year, and a necessity for anybody that’s been paying attention this year to any stories centering Black lives and the criminal justice system.
(Watch on Amazon Prime)
08. The Assistant
Directed by Kitty Green
“What can we do?” “…do about what?”
The inverted Jeanne Dielman. There is no catharsis to be found in this story, just a plain-as-day depiction of how rape culture is upheld by enablers pushing back against those unable to challenge power.
Not usually a fan of these slow burning and quiet indies, but this one is a huge step above the rest in that it’s increasingly clear that most of the drama offscreen is able to happen and be ignored because of the forces keeping it going. Rather haunting, and fully necessary to absorb as men to maybe better understand the kind of culture we often foster.
And if nothing else, the Human Resources scene is one of the most troublingly accurate depictions of feeling powerless in the workplace when any kind of incident occurs.
(Watch on Hulu)
07. Lovers Rock
Directed by Steve McQueen
“I’ve been watching you for so long it’s a shame.”
Steve McQueen has a proven track record making art I love that makes me intensely miserable. So if you told me earlier this year that “McQueen does Dazed & Confused” was gonna be a thing, I’d have expected something more like Dazed & Confused but with a CRIPPLING HEROIN ADDICTION TWIST.
Instead, he managed to out-Linklater Linklater and create the ultimate, mostly plot-free hangout movie as part of his short film collection SMALL AXE. So much of this movie is just DANCING. And singing. And joy! There’s some drama, but there’s always drama at the party. The way McQueen even correctly captures the vibe-shift when that one jerk ruins the night? That’s really high quality filmmaking.
I love McQueen’s miserable masterpieces, but I want more of this from him.
(Watch on Amazon Prime)
06. The Devil All The Time
Directed by Antonio Campos
“Some people were born just so they could be buried.”
Imagine Scorsese-esque ultraviolence with a Douglas Sirk flair for melodrama in a generational Place Beyond The Pines type story and you’ve got an idea what the highly divisive The Devil All The Time is like. Throughout it all are some career best performances from some of the world’s most recognizable actors, such as half of the Avengers and segments of seemingly every other popular IP.
Special mention needs to go out to Robert Pattinson and Harry “Dudley Dursley” Melling as a pair of creepy pastors in different time periods whose insanity mirrors each other in an interesting way.
This was such a complicated, novel-like film with so many threads to keep track of that eventually wither away into just one character’s arc. It was so bloody. So melodramatic. So VERY MUCH MY THING, and something I watched multiple times this year, which I can’t say for many films.
I figured out why I loved this so much, while I was thinking about Vox Lux.
Both are divisive films by directors, whose previous work was critically beloved but under seen by audiences, featuring a lead performance by somebody who doesn’t appear for about an hour of the running time. Both juxtapose hyper violent acts with lighter imagery; Vox Lux with popstar gravitas, this film with folksy small town religion. Both have intense narration guiding us along, hinting at the work of devils interfering in the lives of our protagonists. Both even have people dealing in cagey yet charming accent work! You can’t mock Natalie Portman’s NOO YAWK accent and praise Pattinson’s “well NOW Y’ALL” croon (though most will probably hate both).
Ultimately, both films deal with generational sin that ties the gravity of trauma together with real life events in a melodramatic yet incredibly bombastic and enticing way, with Vox Lux’s Columbine and 9/11 plot points, this one with WW2 and Vietnam. Both films happen to be works I love dearly but will respond cheerfully with “Yeah, I can see that” at any criticism sent their way.
Still: it’s such a singular work that I can’t help but recommend everybody set some time aside to at least experience it.
(Watch on Netflix)
05. Da 5 Bloods
Directed by Spike Lee
“War is about money. Money is about war. Every time I walk out my front door, I see cops patrolling my neighborhood like it’s some kind of police state. I can feel just how much I ain’t worth.”
“It’s like writing history with lightning.” -an apocryphal Woodrow Wilson quote, allegedly stated after viewing DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation.
An idiosyncratic ode to both film history and the history of Black folks’ relationship with America. The desire for the American dream versus the desire to seek revenge against the oppressive white ruling class. Far from a one-sided depiction claiming to have the answers, making this one of Spike Lee’s broadest “message films” since Do the Right Thing.
The biggest difference between Spike then and now though? Spike wants to understand more than he already does. This is a work empathetic not to white America, but to folks that stand on “the wrong side of history” in honor of their beliefs. Spike posits that maybe there is empathy to be found here, which is a much more complicated message than expected, especially with Delroy Lindo’s truly remarkable performance as a Trump supporting veteran.
Deeply human in spite of the inhumanities these men faced, and a far cry from the empty messaging in his prior Blackkklansman, this is Lee again creating art out of hand grenades, some of his most urgent in years, his own personal attempt to write history with lightning.
(Watch on Netflix)
Directed by Lee Isaac Chung
“I’m not pretty! I’m good looking!”
Another film about the American dream, Minari is the story of Korean transplants moving to 1980s Arkansas to build a farm. This is not, despite what the Golden Globes will tell you, a “foreign” film. This is a deeply moving story about family, faith, friendship, and trying to succeed to give everyone you care about a better life. What can be more American than that?
A far cry from similar films about the American dream, Minari is a very fun movie at times and gets something right so many of these films get wrong: it wants you to see every single character as a PERSON and not a concept. People will not always act predictably, and happy endings are not always guaranteed. Families will fall apart and fall together for reasons as mundane as “location.” Friendships will develop based solely on circumstance, but relationships can thrive based on the same.
There is no film more American (in a positive way) in 2020 than Minari. Perhaps one of the only times this entire decade that I’ve reconsidered the idea of what it even means to be “proud to be American.”
(Watched at Mission Tiki Drive-In; goes wide in theaters in 2021)
03. I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Directed by Charlie Kaufman
“…Once this thought arrives, it stays. It sticks, lingers, dominates.”
The irony does not escape me that people are probably going to feel about this movie the way I felt about the book, which I thought was one of the most frustrating, derivative works I’ve ever consumed.
So much of this film really hinges on if you care about what Charlie Kaufman has to say, has to feel, and even has to say about how he feels about what you have to say about what he feels. This is not an easy film to love.
And yet. This might be the natural outcome of Kaufman crawling so far up his own ass that he finds his own regret in doing so. This is why I loved this movie: it is the ultimate exercise in thinking too much about what it is you WANT to do that you end up wasting every chance you could have taken to actually DO something. Of course entire passages of dialogue and sequences are taken from Pauline Kael essays or A Beautiful Mind; how many times have we put off that project we want to finish because we want to watch a YouTube video of some old commercial we saw as a kid? Some old movie we never got around to? How much of our lives is spent in service of putting off our own lives? And that’s why I find this frustrating and incredibly abstract film so remarkable: there is absolutely nowhere else to go down Kaufman’s rabbit hole of self awareness. There is absolutely nowhere else we can go within ourselves when we realize how easily it is to waste time. And thus, I find his work hopeful.
It’s not too late to realize we have a life to live outside of our obsessions.
And with all this, Kaufman fully captures what would happen if David Lynch did a mash-up of Eternal Sunshine and the penultimate episodes of every season of Bojack Horseman; I love all of these things. And I can’t believe somebody gave Charlie Kaufman money to make this.
(Watch on Netflix)
Directed by Pete Docter
“The zone is enjoyable. But when that joy becomes an obsession, one becomes disconnected from life.”
Style can be substance just like existence itself can just be living. A beautiful and at times abstract representation of the feeling you get staring at the rain beading on a window after a storm, or the way you just stare into someone else’s eyes and know exactly what they’re thinking.
Just a pleasant little magic trick, like Inside Out meets Ratatouille, something I would have died to see on a bigger screen.
This marks a continuation of my thoughts surrounding I’m Thinking of Ending Things, incidentally. Whereas that film acts as the cautionary tale of a life less lived, this film reminds you that the life less lived has still been lived. It still has value. It still CAN have value. And importantly, much like Kaufman’s film, it reminds us that our interests do not define us.
Nick Hornby once wrote in High Fidelity that the most important things aren’t what a person is LIKE, but what THEY LIKE. It’s often forgotten whenever that work reenters the discourse, but these are the words of selfish, vapid characters who do not yet know they are selfish or vapid. Because you see, what we like is what makes life’s flavor so worth tasting. But what we are like? Especially to those around us? That’s what matters most. And that’s something Soul understands in spades, making it one of the most mature, enjoyable pieces of entertainment put out by a major studio this year.
(Watch on Disney Plus)
01. Sound of Metal
Directed by Darius Marder
“Everybody here shares in the belief that being deaf is not a handicap. Not something to fix. It’s pretty important around here. All these kids… all of us, need to be reminded of it every day.”
I don’t really know what to say about this. It never went quite where I expected it to, and a huge portion of this film is dominated by a world I used to be a part of myself. Any time I’ve found myself returning to that world since I stopped touring, I’ve found that a lot of what used to feel magical about performing is just… gone. A lot of empty white noise, alien sounds in a world that looks familiar but no longer feels like home.
I can’t relate to the central premise here of a DIY punk drummer going deaf on tour, or even relapsing into addiction. That’s okay. It hit close to home in a lot of other ways for me, it seems, and I think the ending here in particular is going to end up resonating in different ways for everybody. An ending that, without spoiling too much, is just a straight minute of actual silence. No natural sound. No score. Just silence.
For me, it’s peace. Acceptance. The beginning of an understanding that sometimes when you leave your home, when you leave your happy place, even when you had to leave against your free will, you have to understand that it will never be the same. The experiences that shape you will change you. They will change your perception. They will change your priorities. And now matter how much you lie to yourself that everything will go back to normal, they never will.
And that’s okay. That’s okay. But you have to recognize it. And you have to adapt.
This movie lost a bit of steam in the latter half in my first viewing, but sitting here stewing on it, I’m not quite so sure that’s the case. Maybe it’s just a reluctance on my end to accept that change isn’t comfortable. In any case, this movie had a pretty profound effect on me, and I’m going to be thinking out it for quite awhile.
It’s that kind of reflection that has led me to believe that even with any kind of “flaw” I initially perceived structurally, this is the absolute best film of 2020. It’s the film I needed, the film I deserved, and a film I will think about every day for the rest of my life.
(Watch on Amazon Prime)