The 10 Best Movies of 2020
Despite the theater closures and delays, it’s been a fine year in film. These are the best of the best.
It’s been a surreal—and truly awful—year. One in which a deadly, highly contagious virus claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans and left millions out of work, as the government barely raised a finger. With most movie theaters closed (and high-risk for infection), we were forced to watch movies at home, stripped of the wonder that is feeling alone in a crowd as you experience a film together. And many big movie studios saw the forest for the trees, moving their tentpole releases to 2021. (No Dune, sad.)
With that said, there were many excellent films that came out in 2020—most of them on streaming services or on-demand, and several in the documentary genre, which experienced one of its finest years in recent memory.
Here are the best films of 2020.
10. THE OLD GUARD
During a summer movie season largely devoid of superhero blockbusters, The Old Guard quenched our knights-in-shining-armor thirst. Merging the talents of filmmaker Gina Prince-Blythewood (Beyond the Lights) and Charlize Theron, one of our greatest living action stars, this elite squad of globe-trotting, centuries-spanning immortal mercenaries breathed new life into a tired, Disney-dominated genre, with its gifted novitiate in KiKi Layne, male eye candy (Matthias Schoenaerts), and—at last—a gay superhero couple (Luca Marinelli, Marwan Kenzari). But the film is, more than anything, a total blast. The sequence where Theron rips a battle axe off her back before laying waste to a roomful of baddies induced the loudest OH SHIT! of the year.
The Old Guard is now streaming on Netflix
9. BLACK BEAR
Aubrey Plaza deserves her flowers. In the otherwise hollow Happiest Season, her chemistry with Kristen Stewart was so dynamic it threw the entire film off its axis, and had the whole damn internet wishing they’d star in their own separate love story. But Black Bear sees Plaza stretch herself like never before, portraying both the scheming interloper and the gaslit target in Lawrence Michael Levine’s meditation on directorial control, duplicity, and power. To see her toggle effortlessly between the two extremes, chaos agent and unraveling victim, is to watch an actress at the height of her powers. Plaza deserves to be squarely in the middle of the Best Actress conversation, and she’s given solid foils in the oft-underrated Sarah Gadon and Christopher Abbott.
Black Bear is available to rent on Prime Video
8. LET THEM ALL TALK
Imagine the jaunty, cooler-than-cool vibe of Ocean’s Eleven only you’re on a trans-Atlantic cruise ship, your crew’s comprised of three life-long friends (Meryl Streep, Candice Bergen, Dianne Wiest) and a gentle nephew (Lucas Hedges), and the bounty is freeing yourself of lingering resentments, and you have this absolute delight of a film from the great Steven Soderbergh. The scenes between Streep and Hedges, a bestselling author and the nephew that worships the ground she walks on, are so effortlessly natural—the dialogue in the film was largely improvised—you feel as though you’re eavesdropping, while the ones between Streep and Bergen, a department-store worker who harbors ill will toward her far-more-successful pal, will tickle and then shatter you. Soderbergh told The Daily Beast that he set out to make a film wherein three older women were “given their dignity,” and he’s achieved that here with this jaunty yet weighty outing.
Let Them All Talk is now streaming on HBO Max
If you haven’t seen Brazilian filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho and veteran actress Sonia Braga’s previous collaboration, 2016’s Aquarius, an indelible portrait of an elderly working-class woman standing up to the cruel developers pulling every shady trick in the book to force her out of her apartment, remedy this immediately. Their reunion is a horse—or rather, flying saucer—of a different color, as the tiny (fictional) town of Bacurau in rural Brazil is plagued by curious, even otherworldly happenings. There’s a corrupt, woman-snatching mayor diverting the water supply in tankers that are then shot up by a murderous couple on motorbikes that are then shot up by a group of upper-crust white-supremacist foreigners hunting locals for sport and armed with a UFO drone. It’s part anti-colonialist satire, part gonzo Western, and one crazy ride.
Bacurau is available to rent on Prime Video
6. LOVERS ROCK
The crown jewel of filmmaker Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology is, on its surface, a meet-cute capturing two sexy young thrill-seekers (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn, Micheal Ward) falling for one another over the course of a reggae house party in 1980 West London. But really, it’s so much more. As Shabier Kirchner’s camera glides up and down writhing, sweaty bodies in various states of ecstasy, you feel their excitement, their wonder, their cathartic release. With most of us sequestered at home, craving energy and intimacy, Lovers Rock let us know just what we were missing.
Lover’s Rock is now streaming on Prime Video
In 2015, a fire broke out during a metal concert at Colectiv, a nightclub in Bucharest, Romania. Hundreds of people stampeded toward the only exit, with many being trampled. Twenty-six people died in the melee—and, in the following weeks and months, an additional 38 passed away in hospitals. When Romanian journalist Catalin Tolontan began digging around into why so many people were dying in hospitals, he uncovered a deep web of corruption that went all the way to the top of the Romanian government. With incredible access, filmmaker Alexander Nanau’s documentary traces every step of Tolontan’s intrepid investigation, taking us along for photographer-stakeouts and inside high-level government meetings. It’s a terrifying look at what happens when a government values profits over people—mirroring the actions of certain U.S. politicians during the COVID pandemic.
Collective is available to rent on Prime Video
4. BORAT SUBSEQUENT MOVIEFILM
No movie experience captured the unbridled insanity that was 2020 quite like Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, the sequel to 2006’s Borat. That director Jason Woliner and star Sacha Baron Cohen were able to breathe life into—and somehow prank people with—such a tired, overexposed character is something of a miracle. The other wonder was finding Maria Bakalova, a little-known Bulgarian actress, to play Borat’s daughter, Tutar. Her commitment was so fierce that she managed to expose Trump consigliere Rudy Giuliani for the horny, shameless cretin that he is. Great success!
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is now streaming on Prime Video
No one is able to evince the beauty of America’s heartland, and the decency, grit, and grace of its people, quite like Chloe Zhao. If you haven’t seen her 2018 film The Rider, about a brain-damaged rodeo star who’s aching to ride again, do so immediately. Here, she follows a different group of American mavericks—those who’ve chosen to live a nomadic life, living out of vans and campers and doing odd jobs in order to feed their want to explore. And Zhao has found the perfect vessel in Frances McDormand, paragon of decency, grit, and grace. Her Fern sets out on the road after her husband dies and the Nevada plant she toiled away at shuts down, in search of meaning and a higher purpose. It’s a tribute to those who refuse to be chewed up and spit out by America’s iniquitous system. Those who chase different dreams. The mad ones.
Nomadland will be released in virtual cinemas on Feb. 19
I must first confess that as someone who is half-Korean, I had a special affinity for Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical film about a Korean-immigrant family scraping and clawing their way toward the American Dream, only to have it remain just out of reach. It’s equal parts fish-out-of-water tale, as the Yi clan adapts to their white surroundings in rural Arkansas; exploration of intergenerational strife, as their young infirm son (Alan Kim, superb) clashes with his eccentric grandmother (Youn Yuh-jung, revelatory); and a celebration of the immigrant experience, as father Jacob (Steven Yeun, Oscar-worthy) and his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri, his equal) fight like hell to create a happy home and healthy farm. Minari is a film that shows how nobody believes in the promise of America quite like immigrants.
Minari will be released in virtual cinemas on Feb. 12
1. DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD
Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson weaved leftover footage from her 25 years of work as a cinematographer on films like Darfur Now, The Oath, and Citizenfour into a stunning tapestry celebrating the intimacy, fear, and excitement of the documentary-filmmaking process. For her follow-up, Dick Johnson Is Dead, she turned her camera on her father, an 86-year-old battling the onset of dementia. Johnson decides—with her father’s enthusiastic permission, of course—to stage a number of darkly funny scenarios wherein he dies by accident, e.g. an air conditioner falling on his head, or tumbling down the stairs. In the process, she exhibits their abiding love for one another whilst crafting a monument to a gentle, one-of-a-kind guy. In a year when nobody could so much as hug their family members, it served as a balm for the soul.
Dick Johnson Is Dead is now streaming on Netflix
HONORABLE MENTION: Time, The Assistant, Color Out of Space, Shirley, First Cow