With the 93rd Academy Awards in the books, it’s time once again for my annual list of the best movies of the previous year! I know it’s a little odd to be doing a Best Films of 2020 list with May just around the corner, but you don’t need me to tell you that it’s been a pretty odd couple of years, especially in the realm of cinema. With theatres mostly closed and tons of movies delays, it was an unusual year for the Oscars (airing nearly two months later than usual) and for the industry in general, but there were still plenty of movies I loved both from this crop of nominees and all the way back to the beginning of 2020 when we could still, you know, leave our homes. Hopefully we’ll be able to do that again soon and head back to the theatre!
With that to look forward to, here’s looking back at my favourite movies of the past year (and a bit).
- Tenet: Chris Nolan may have finally gone too far but this was basically the only blockbuster of 2020.
- The Assistant: Ozark’s Julia Garner should have been up at the Oscars for this one.
- First Cow: An odd yet mesmerizing little movie about two buddies making pastries from stolen milk on the frontier.
- Da 5 Bloods: Maybe not Spike Lee’s best but entertaining as hell. Delroy Lindo was robbed!
- The Mole Agent: A charming Chilean documentary about an old man who infiltrates an old folks home looking for abuse, but instead finding friendship and the value of family.
- Soul: Slim pickins for animated fair last year, but Soul was easily the best of the bunch.
10. Sound of Metal: “Pompous guys coming to terms with hardship and/or disability as if they’re the first to experience it” may seem like a worn-out film trope, but Sound of Metal overcomes it thanks to the quality of its production, the respect it clearly has for the deaf community, and Riz Ahmed’s tremendous performance in the lead.
9. Collective: If a documentary makes you wonder aloud how the hell it was even made without somebody getting arrested (either the people making it or the subjects), then it’s likely a very good documentary. Probably an enraging one too. And those are exactly the feelings you’ll get watching this important and ultimately prescient documentary about the corruption of the Romanian healthcare system in the wake of a fire that cost a tragic and needless amount of life. Particularly relevant in the midst of a global pandemic that we’ll likely learn absolutely nothing from.
8. Boys State: The best documentary of the year was unfortunately not up for an Oscar this year (likely due to the fact it’s on Apple TV+). Even so, it’s worth seeking out, as this look inside a weeklong camp where teen boys in Texas create and elect their own government provides a sometimes hopeful, often unnerving and potentially frightening look at what the next generation of politicians to come out of that state might look like.
7. The Father: Don’t let the wake of the Chadwick Boseman/Sir Anthony Hopkins blunder from the Oscars mar what is very likely a career-defining performance for Hopkins. However embarrassing that might have been for all parties involved, Hopkins deserved to come away with the Best Actor trophy. That much is undeniable when the credits roll on The Father. But while this film doesn’t work without it, it’s so much more than just one performance. It’s a meticulously designed film where every cut, every shot, every line of dialog is important, as Florian Zeller adapts his own play about an old man suffering dementia. Not exactly the most uplifting film, but an important film, and an expertly crafted one nonetheless.
6. Palm Springs: If Bill Maher is to be believed, a lot of prestige movies are too drab and serious. I’m not really making a case against that with this some of the films we’ve already talked about, so if you’re looking for something lighter, check out the best and one of the only rewatchable comedies from this past year. Palm Springs is the modernized take on Groundhog Day which perfectly deploys the comedic talents of Andy Samberg and everyone else involved in the film, and shines an overdue spotlight on Cristin Milioti. In a just world, this should have been a contended for best Original Screenplay.
5. Another Round: There were lots of movies about (mostly white) dudes going through (mostly mid-to-late life) crises this past year, but before you jump ahead to the next entry, know that Another Round is likely the best of the bunch. It’s the least drab, it’s often funny and heartwarming, and despite some serious turns its ultimate message is about joix de vivre and living life to the fullest. The premise is also really interesting, as it taps (no pun intended) the real-life theory of a Danish psychologists who posits that humans are at their best creatively, emotionally, even professionally when maintaining a blood-alcohol level of 0.05. Of course, it’s a movie, so things possibly get taken to an extreme that leads to revelations and hardship, but it’s executed really well, and led by a performance from Mads Mikkelsen that should have been up there at the Oscars along with the Hopkinses and the Bosemans.
4. Small Axe: Technically an anthology series, but really a collective of similarly themed films, Small Axe blurs the lines between mediums as it explores, through its muse, Steve McQueen, social justice and race issues in 70s and 80s London. I personally think the first of the five films, Mangrove is the one I’d choose for this list if I absolutely had to pick. The film explores a riot and landmark court case that puts The Trial of the Chicago Seven, a film I honestly really enjoyed, completely to shame. Where Sorkin goes for boisterous grandstanding as he is wont to do McQueen has a much more nuanced and mindful take. But I encourage everyone to check out the entire series, as everyone has their favourites. Lover’s Rock and Red, White and Blue are also really, really good.
3. Hamilton: Much like with Small Axe, the film release of Hamilton helped subvert the very concept of what a film could be in a year where it frankly needed to be. This wasn’t eligible for any Oscars, but why couldn’t it be? They actually filmed a special version of the play, they put effort and money into transforming it for the big screen without simply planting a camera in the rafters during a performance, and ultimately it reintroduced us to the phenomenon that so many didn’t get to experience back when it first hit broadway. Hamilton in this form is as much a movie as anything else that came out this year, and I’d be remiss not to rank it at least this high considering how much time in 2020 I wound up spending on it.
2. Minari: In a few years, it will likely be a toss up between this and the number one film on my list in terms of which was the most quintessential American film of 2020. It is for me now, as I enjoyed both films. Nomadland gets the edge because it’s maybe a little more contemporary and prescient in what it’s trying to put across, and that’s something I always value highly in critiquing movies, but that’s not to say Minari isn’t just about as relevant. The story about an immigrant family doing everything they can to achieve their dream through immigration and hard work never stops being relevant. Especially this story, in this era, in the midst of record anti-Asian hate. But between the great performances from Steven Yeun, Han Ye-ri, Alan Kim, Noel Kate Cho and the Oscar-winning and delightful Youn Yuh-jung, and the uplifting message of perseverance, there shouldn’t be anything other than love in your heart for this incredible film.
1. Nomadland: No film in 2020 was more relevant, more important than Nomadland. By now you know the story; the film adapts the non-fiction book about the reemerging nomadic way of life a lot of older folks in the US are adopting in the wake of financial crisis after financial crisis. Through the eyes of its main character Fern, almost indescribably portrayed by Frances McDormand (who took home her third Oscar for this performance), we see what this generation of hard workers has had to give up in order to simply make ends meet. Chloe Zhao deservedly took home multiple Oscars for her work on this film, and she portrays this semi-fictional world as almost post-apocalyptic. The film stops short of being too much of a downer, as it ultimately winds up being about emotional loss rather than hitting you over the head with an anti-capitalistic message, and that likely stops this from being the perfect film. But those messages are still there, those warning signs about what’s awaiting the next generation is there, you just have to ignore the narrative that this is some sort of pro-Amazon propaganda and pay close enough attention to what the film isn’t saying out loud.