We conclude this recap of last year’s movies with a traditional top 10 list of my favorite films of 2020, only a month and a half (or so) late! This marks the fifteenth year in a row that I’ve posted a top 10, a full decade and a half. For reference, previous top 10s are here: [2019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006]
At this point, I usually try to suss out some themes for the year. This is a fool’s errand even in the best of times, but probably even moreso in 2020. A year marked by pandemic, lockdowns, social unrest, protests, riots, a particularly contentious election, and just all-around anxiety, 2020 might also be the death knell for movie theaters. Many of the movies this year complemented these events eerily well (considering that they were made before the events in question happened), but thankfully there were at least some that contrasted the year’s nasty tone. Last year’s “Eat the rich!” theme seems almost equally prevalent this year, with numerous films tackling capitalism and income inequality (amongst other inequality). The continued growth of streaming services accelerated markedly this year, for what I assume are obvious reasons. I feel like there were a bunch of movies this year that were inspired by The Most Dangerous Game, and good ones too (you’ll see a couple below).
On a more personal level, my general tendencies to indulge in genre exercises continues, with the bulk of my top 10 being comprised of such efforts. The word “elevated” has been overused and thus overanalyzed, but then, I wouldn’t be recognizing these films if they weren’t elevated by something. I recently read William Goldman’s collection of essays The Big Picture, and he had this tidbit about top 10 lists:
… When movie critics give their ten-best lists, they may cite historical precedent, they may pretend erudition – all b.s. They just liked one movie better than another.
I wish more critics would take this sort of attitude to heart (either that, or critics are a far too homogenous population). As I’ve said before, the world would be a boring place indeed if we all liked precisely the same things.
So many movies were delayed or quietly relegated to streaming that I wasn’t sure the annual awards and top 10 could happen at all. But after a couple months of playing catch-up I did manage to cobble something together. As of this writing, I’ve seen 91 movies that could be considered a 2020 release. This is slightly down from last year, probably more than your average movie-watcher, but less than your average critic. On the other hand, in 2020, who the hell knows? Standard disclaimers apply, and it’s especially worth noting that due to regional release strategies, some of these would be considered a 2019 movie, but not available until 2020. Alrighty then, I think that’s enough caveats, let’s get to it:
Top Ten Movies of 2020
* In roughly reverse order
The Hunt – This riff on The Most Dangerous Game was pilloried by extremists of all colors, perhaps because it’s a bitter condemnation of such politicization. Moderate, politically tribeless people beset on all sides by partisan maniacs bent on isolation and destruction will enjoy this story of bizarre political vendettas quite a bit.
Tenet – Christopher Nolan’s latest fits squarely within his traditional oeuvre of cinematic puzzles, combining byzantine plotting with stunning action setpieces. It’s perhaps not for everyone and there are some rough edges, but it’s bold, adventurous, and so large in scale that any weaknesses were overcome by its fulfilled ambitions. In a year where most blockbusters were delayed, it stands out even further.
Soul – Pixar may have peaked a while ago, but if they are still capable of putting out bangers like this, they’re doing something right. I’m always fascinated by the way in which Pixar can approach deep existential themes like this in a funny and endearing way that is almost universally applicable. It’s perhaps reminiscent of previous Pixar gems like Ratatouille and Inside Out, but those are two of their best, so this hybrid is most welcome.
Palm Springs – A modern day spin on Groundhog Day that might lose points on originality, but there are enough new elements that it still feels fresh and exciting. Plus, it’s very funny and endearing, and it came right smack in the middle of the bleakest parts of 2020, so it was a truly welcome salve. Also, comedies don’t get enough love in this sort of year-end activity, especially romcoms.
Extra Ordinary – Speaking of comedies, this Belgian/Irish gem went mostly unnoticed, but it’s such a good-natured, fun little film. In a year where optimism and hope were in short supply, sweet, delightful movies like this feel almost radical. You’d be much better served seeking this out than watching whatever reboot of Ghostbusters is on its way.
The Vast of Night – This alien abduction throwback features lots of other familiar tropes and nostalgia, but the rat-a-tat cadence and filmmaking wizardry keep things feeling fresh and exciting. The film has lots of stylistic energy and is visually impressive, but it also knows when to slow down and leverage a more minimalist approach too.
Sound of Metal – The story of a musician who is losing his hearing, this is a moving depiction of the human tendency to resist change, especially change that has been thrust upon us by external forces. The desire to return to normality at any cost is surely a natural one, but this film does an excellent job portraying the path towards acceptance. This perhaps takes on added resonance in 2020’s pandemic-infused change… without feeling like a lecture.
Arkansas – Fascinating country noir about a pair of low-level drug dealers trying to navigate a deal gone horribly wrong. Perhaps another throwback to 90s crime flicks, but the non-linear structure is well played and adventurous, even by those standards. Some found this a bit slow, but I thought it was riveting.
Tread – Documentary about a man with deeply dysfunctional relationship with his town. Driven by paranoia and rage at perceived wrongs perpetrated by certain families and political structures, he buys a bulldozer, fortifies it, and goes on a rampage in the town. I should repeat that this is a documentary, and it presents us with a microcosm of 2020’s tendency towards fractious relationships and political strife, albeit a rather extreme example. A fascinating story, well documented.
The Wolf of Snow Hollow – Too dark to be a comedy, but too funny to be scary, and too wacky to be dramatic. And yet! It’s all of those things and more. Not everyone will be able to get on writer/director Jim Cummings’ wavelength, but if you can get there, this is a real treasure.
* In an order I dare you to discern
Another Round – A few teachers test the hypothesis that keeping a low-level of intoxication all the time will improve performance. Fascinating study of humankind’s relationship with alcohol, it manages to walk a fine line between the benefits and deficiencies of booze. As someone who partakes, I found it particularly relevant (even if I think the “experiment” proposed by the film is ludicrous and just asking for trouble). A definite candidate for the top 10 that, on a different day, may have displaced something from the above list.
Fatman – Mel Gibson plays a grizzled, down-on-his luck Santa Claus who works for the government and is targeted by an assassin hired by a spoiled brat on the naughty list who got coal for Christmas. It’s not quite the batshit romp that the premise promises, but it has a perfectly calibrated melancholic tone that works well. Very nearly made the top 10.
The Invisible Man – Leigh Whannell continues to churn out well crafted horror flicks, this time reprising a hallowed Universal monster in fine fashion. This movie makes exceptional use of negative space and other visual strategies while also telling a story with exciting twists and turns and even some satisfying ambiguity in the end.
Freaky – Christopher Landon has emerged as a reliably fun genre director, delivering fresh takes on derivative tropes. In this case, he takes body-swap comedies and injects a serial killer into the mix, with amusing results. This isn’t the sort of movie that will blow your mind or change your life, but it’s heartily entertaining and a lot of fun. It’s the sort of thing that perhaps plays better in a year like 2020, but it could be appreciated in any year.
My Octopus Teacher – This tale of a burnt-out editor who moves to an oceanside retreat and, while snorkeling every day, befriends and becomes fascinated by an octopus living in the area. It’s perhaps a bit melodramatic and relies too much on anthropomorphism, but it’s still effective and fascinating.
Possessor – With this story of an assassin who uses brain implants to take control of other people’s bodies, Brandon Cronenberg has inherited his father’s ability to unsettle viewers with graphic tales of newly invented avenues of strange science and body horror. Lots of genuinely disturbing subject matter here, both in a literal and visceral way (as in scenes of violence and gore) and in more abstract, thematic ways.
Bill & Ted Face the Music – Long gap sequels like this are difficult to pull off and I don’t know that anyone was really clamoring for another Bill & Ted movie, but I have to admit that they managed to pull it off. Another antidote to the year’s downer tendencies, I had a lot of fun with this.
The Painter and the Thief – Surprising documentary about an artist who befriends a thief who had stolen her paintings. He was high at the time and doesn’t remember what became of the paintings, but he agrees to sit as a subject for her. Along the way we gain a lot of perspective on both thief and artist, and the story takes some unexpected twists and turns. Well worth seeking out.
Bacurau – What starts as a sorta day-in-the-life profile of a small, out-of-the-way town in Brazil slowly morphs into something far more strange. I won’t spoil it, but it becomes almost cartoonishly violent and features an interesting third act twist that was certainly eye opening. As social commentary, it’s perhaps overly blunt, but I also have to admire the brazenness of the approach.
The Quantum Jury Prize
Awarded to films that exist only in a quantum superposition of two or more states. If you’re not sure what that means, that’s kinda the point. To confuse matters even further, the “two or more states” tends to also change from year to year. Last year, this was awarded to four movies that could have been #10 on the top 10. Previous years have been about movies that I go back and forth on and can decide whether I like them or not, even if I recognized the skill and craft on display.
This year, I’m awarding this prize to two efforts that straddle the line between television and movie. As we grow into the streaming revolution and the strict definition of “movie” gets broken down little by little, more examples of works that are hard to categorize are appearing. Like Shcrodinger’s Cat, the answer exists in a superposition that will only experience a waveform collapse once we observe it. But every time I observe it, I get a different answer. Hence the need for the Quantum Jury Prize. This year’s winners are strangely related, almost reflections of one another, adding another interesting wrinkle.
The Last Dance – This ten part documentary covering the life and career of Michael Jordan was surprisingly riveting, especially given my general distaste for the the sport of basketball. The episodes move effortlessly between Jordan and his teammates, and they intercut it all with a non-linear exploration of his career that works well. This was another one of those key pieces of early quarantine viewing that was very welcome at the time. Hard to categorize this 10 hour series as a film, but worthy of recognition anyway.
The History of the Seattle Mariners – This six-part documentary on MLB’s most embattled franchise is pretty well done for a film centered on a big graph of wins/losses, and the perfect double feature with The Last Dance. Also it’s almost the complete opposite experience: low budget, no access, and covering a terrible team. But they’re a lovable team! As the narrator intones, “The Seattle Mariners are not competitors. They’re protagonists.”
The Speed Cubers – Radically nice documentary about a pair of speed cubers (i.e. people who can solve Rubik’s cubes really quickly). Surprisingly touching stuff and a great antidote to the relentless pessimism of 2020. Clocking in at 39 minutes, it has the opposite problem of the previous two flicks, but again, worthy of recognition.
I suppose I could also include Small Axe, Steve McQueen’s self-described “anthology series” of five stories about the people in London’s West Indian community, but I did not watch all of them and to be honest, the individual entries in this series feel overrepresented in the general critical community, so I’ll just leave this mention here and move on…
Just Missed the Cut
But still worthwhile, in their own way. Presented without comment and in no particular order:
- The Gentlemen
- Guns Akimbo
- Satanic Panic
- Spaceship Earth
- Da 5 Bloods
- The Old Guard
- An American Pickle
- Class Action Park
- Dick Johnson Is Dead
- The Trial of the Chicago 7
- The Call
- Bad Education
Should Have Seen
Despite having seen around 90 of this year’s releases (and listing out 30+ of my favorites in this post), there are a few that got away. Or never made themselves available here. Or that I probably need to watch, but don’t wanna because reasons. Regardless, there are several movies here that I probably should have caught up with:
- First Cow
- Boys State
- Promising Young Woman
- Gretel & Hansel
- The Rental
- I’m Thinking of Ending Things
- Saint Maud
- Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway
Normally, at this point of the year, I’d be talking about the Oscars, but they’ve been delayed. I’m genuinely curious to see how they go this year though, because it’s such a strange set of circumstances we find ourselves in…