The Top Films of 2020

At least the movies were good.

graphic design is my passion

The stock preamble here would be 2020 bad, movies in trouble, streaming changing game, the movies still good. It seems equally silly to write it as it is to ignore it. Really getting Hamlet’d here. What I will say is that 2020 in film was kind to people like me who can’t afford to see everything in the theater and have grown up accustomed to watching “everything” at home. I miss seeing things a couple months late at the charming budget theater, and when this is over I’m going to do that a lot more, but experiencing the year in film at home was something I was perfectly comfortable with. And there was plenty to enjoy. Selecting a top ten was not easy, and not for lack of options.

I’m calling this “top” because it’s not quite “best” and not quite “favorite.” I sometimes have a difficult time parsing those, especially without rewatching films. I’m also cheating a little, and counting films that may be 2019 films, depending on who you ask, but debuted in the U.S. in 2020. I think that’s fair, especially considering that films like Nomadland, Minari, and Soul will probably be considered among the top films from this year, but I (like most people) won’t be able to get to them until 2021.

If there’s a through theme – there isn’t really, and I didn’t select according to one – it’s something like human connection in a difficult world. Most of these films center around the human struggle to find shelter from the (sometimes literal) storms with the people they care about, and reckoning with life when that connection is broken. And if that’s not 2020, I mean…

Below are my top ten films of the year, followed by a list of my favorite performances of the year, and then a consideration of what is “the film of 2020.”

Top 10 Films of the Year

10. The Assistant – I promise I won’t do too much narrating of how I decided on this list, but I will on this selection because while the top 9 was easy there were a handful of films that were all close to being number 10. I’m going with The Assistant because it does the most with the least, and that’s something I greatly admire in films. The Assistant is the definitive #MeToo film, following one day in the life of Jane, an office assistant for a production company. After the style of Jaws, the shark – the Weinsteinesque executive – remains off screen, the threat building as Jane comes to suspect what insidious things might be happening in his office and in fancy hotels. But, unlike Jaws, we never see the shark, perhaps because, again like Jaws, it might look fake and unthreatening. After all, if he really was so scary, the HR office would take Jane seriously. The other producers wouldn’t make jokes about what happens on the couch. The complicity couldn’t continue. After all, this shark makes careers in a competitive industry. The Assistant is a devastating look into how wicked men can have their way, a compassionate glimpse into the exhausting life of an office cog, and a star-making turn for Julia Garner.

9. Time – This documentary takes the cruelty of the U.S. carceral system and focuses in on its effect on one family, using a mixture of family archival footage and vérité  filmmaking to weave together 20 years of family history. Sibil Richardson’s husband, Rob, is serving a 60-year sentence for armed robbery, leaving her to raise their family and continue to fight for his release. The disordered chronology releases the audience from time’s oppressive forward march, but only just. It always comes back to time. Time given, time spent, time lost. Boys grow into young men without their father, a woman moves into middle age apart from her husband, a man waits for another chance. As the minutes on a call from prison and the days of a sentence both tick away, we are left with the constant hope for more time, and the fear that we might waste what time we have. Time is beautiful and heartrending and delivers humanity to the viewer in searing reality.

8. The Vast of Night – I wasn’t expecting to find (let alone enjoy) a 1950s period piece about UFOs, but I’m not complaining. The Vast of Night is a slick, pacey, rat-a-tat feature that instantly drops the viewer into small town New Mexico, drawing us along via nifty oners and Gilmore Girls style repartee. Even as it transitions into long sequences of phone calls on the switchboard and the radio, the film remains propulsive as it develops its central mystery. We remain just one step ahead of the two main characters, for, as they of course remain skeptical of mysterious sights and sounds in the sky, we suspect there might just be something to it – after all, this is the movies. This is a masterclass in low budget original filmmaking.

7. Never Rarely Sometimes AlwaysBreaking Bad was addictive television in part because it continued to put its characters into seemingly impossible situations and left us to white-knuckle it through their escape. Never Rarely Sometimes Always does something similar, only there are no hitmen, no cops, no suspicious wives – just a culture and system that can make a medical procedure a harrowing ordeal. Autumn’s situation becomes more complex and difficult with each development; sometimes we learn things at the same time as she does, such as her being 18 weeks pregnant rather than 10; sometimes we learn things late as she reveals them, such as the nature of her abusive sexual relationship. This is an affecting film and just about essential viewing for our time. I know that pro-life viewers will be on guard from the beginning, but I still urge them to watch it and challenge themselves to see the situation so many women find themselves in. This is not the time on this blog for this discussion, but to understand where I’m coming from when encountering a film like this, on an individual level I’m pro-life (meaning I think it is the wrong thing for a woman to do in almost every case and we should put more resources into supporting pregnant women and mothers to make abortion not seem like the best option) but on a system level I’m pro-choice (meaning I think it should be legal, accessible, and safe, and women should be free to make that choice for themselves without shame). Which is to say, I don’t think Autumn does the right thing, and the termination of that pregnancy is sad to me, but I also hurt for Autumn and what she goes through and I’m angered by a system that makes it so.

6. Weathering with You – Makoto Shinkai bash me in the feels with an adamantium cricket bat you sentimental genius. This animated feature operates in much the same way as Shinkai’s previous Your Name (the highest-grossing anime film of all time) – give us two star-crossed teens, steadily falling in love under strange circumstances, sprinkle in some magical/mystical/spiritual elements, let RADWIMPS put together a banging soundtrack, and, you know, bring it all to life in some of the most gorgeous animation you’ve ever seen. It’s a winning formula. But despite it’s exuberant, teen romance bent, Weathering with You also contains complex themes and characters (it should also contain a trigger warning for people who have just lost a friendly tuxedo cat). The questions of love in Weathering with You are not all bound up in the hormonal fury of teen sex drive, but rather they evoke deeper questions of connection and companionship in this scary, unpredictable world. If it rained every day, would it matter if you were with the right person? (FWIW I lived where it rained every day and I loved it but I digress).

5. Vitalina Varela – The most recent film from Portuguese visionary Pedro Costa is the story of a woman from Cape Verde who travels to an immigrant community in Lisbon only to arrive just days after her husband has died. The film watches as she processes the loss of a man she hadn’t seen in two decades. Was I thrilled watching Vitalina Varela? No. I wasn’t on the edge of my seat, or laughing, or crying. About half the time I didn’t know what the fuck was going on. But Costa’s style – darkness, heavy shadows, sharp contrasts, whispered, often ambiguous dialogue and monologue – is so compelling. On the surface level, it means this is one of those films that you could take any given still from and frame it and put it on your wall. But thematically, the aesthetic drives at the underlying themes of the work. It’s a subtle meditation that makes us more aware of the crumbling ruins all around us. Costa has vaulted over Andre Gomes (Everton’s very frustrating but very handsome midfielder) into second on my Portuguese rankings, trailing only Doña Amelia, my high school Spanish teacher.

4. Mank – This is where film’s place in the popular imagination confuses and perplexes me. I understand why most people haven’t heard of – let alone seen – a film like Vitalina Varela. It’s a slow, arty, plotless foreign language film from Portugal that isn’t on any streaming service. Mank is not that. It’s a new film from one of the most acclaimed auteurs of his generation. It came straight to Netflix. It’s got snappy dialogue and brilliant performances. It’s a well-told tale of the creation of arguably the greatest film ever made. And yet, I’m quite certain that both my parents are totally unaware of its existence. It’s lit up the discourse in film world, but I just don’t get the sense it’s made it into the popular conversation. Why? Mank is the type of film that anyone and everyone who likes movies should see. That’s not to say everyone has to like it, but if movies really matter, a movie like this should demand a popular audience. It’s ironic that a film that is so much about controlling narratives is itself unable to control a conversation outside of film Twitter. I can guarantee it’s going to be one of those films that gets a ton of Oscar nominations, and then during the telecast there will be plenty of viewers who keep saying “WTF what was this black and white old-timey looking movie and is that Gary Oldman oh I like him but this is weird,” when in fact they might be surprised to find it to be an accessible, enjoyable film.

3. Mangrove – Everything about Mangrove is fresh. We’ve seen films about racism, unfair justice systems, immigrants, protests, and controversial restaurants before (heck, I could be talking about Do the Right Thing). But nothing in Mangrove feels like a retread. The impromptu steel drum dancing and the annual island life celebration are incandescent with communal joy. The police abuse is shocking in its cruelty. The protests boil with righteous rage and collective endeavor. And the trial feels like the only courtroom drama I’d ever need to see, just a few weeks after watching The Trial of the Chicago 7 and rewatching My Cousin Vinny like two and a half times on AMC. Mangrove is absorbing from start to finish, a stunning work of direction from Steve McQueen featuring astonishing performances.

2. First Cow – Though simple, First Cow is still one of those “on the other hand” films. It’s about friendship, but it’s also about unjust economics. It’s slow and unhurried, but has a few hold-your-breath tense scenes. The plot is uncomplicated, but what happens depends upon difficult choices the characters must make. There is a lot to recommend about First Cow, like the chemistry between John Magaro and Orion Lee, the soothing score, the relevant themes, and the fact that Kelly Reichardt is an absolute master of shooting outdoors. I mean, damn nature is beautiful. I’ve been trying to tell you guys about Oregon. First Cow also has a perfect ending that will either make you shout or go mute for about five minutes. I’m glad people are making movies like this.

1. Portrait of a Lady on Fire – The order of this list is somewhat fluid, but this is the clear number one. It is a supreme exhibition in so many regards; romance; critique of patriarchal constraints; a picture of lesbian desire; absorbing period drama; delicate French cuisine. Its exploration of lust, love, and companionship, of art, beauty, and vision, of class, the female gaze, and gender, is as nuanced as it is poignant. It’s beautifully shot and impeccably-acted, featuring two of the best performances of the year. The last things I wrote about First Cow apply in much the same way here; the ending is stunning, an affecting and provocative finale expressive of the deepest human emotions. And I’m glad people are making movies like this.

Top Performances of the Year

I love all aspects of film, but I think the two I find myself most drawn to, most affected by, and thinking about most are writing and acting. Great performances move me, and I appreciate them for both their individual craft and their impact on the larger work.

In no particular order, grouped by film…

Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) – Two electric performances. This film is largely about the female gaze, and the way Haenel and Merlant quite literally gaze at each other is the sort of acting that stirs your heart, your head, and your loins. This is as watchable as two people can be on screen. The now-famous final shot of Haenel is the kind of thing that stays with you.

Shaun Parkes, Letitia Wright, and Malachi Kirby (Mangrove) – After Black Panther, it was obvious Wright had the makings of a star, and after Mangrove it’s clear that if she isn’t an A-List actress in the next ten years something will have gone terribly wrong. It’s potentially problematic to compare her to Lupita Nyong’o, but I don’t understand why Nyong’o – one of the best, most beautiful, most charismatic actresses – hasn’t become a bigger star. I don’t want to have to ask the same questions about Wright, who demonstrates Shuri’s same exuberance and kindness, but also levels of ferocity, tenacity, and zeal. Kirby introduced himself to a larger audience playing Kunta Kinte in the History Channel remake of Roots, and he reintroduces himself in a big way here, demanding attention in every scene with elegance and fervor. But the real star is Parkes, who expresses such a range of emotions in this film; joy in the carefree celebrations of West Indian culture; the depth of hurt and loss as his persecution continues; rage – blind rage – as that persecution becomes too much to bear.

Amanda Seyfried (Mank) – There are a number of great performances in Mank, but Seyfried’s stands out. It’s the type of expressive performance that would seem melodramatic or cartoonish in the wrong hands, but Seyfried remains believable through all of it, conveying the tension between the childlike innocence of a young woman who has it all and the shrewd guile of a woman who knows just where it is she stands.

Vitalina Varela (Vitalina Varela) – Not a typo; Varela is playing herself in what is essentially her own life story. There’s a great degree of difficulty in what she’s doing, given sparse, whispered lines, and having to carry long shots of her sitting, staring, and doing mundane tasks. In some roles, painful emotions make themselves known in roiling, volatile facial expression, but Varela conveys her loss, her hurt, and her anxieties through a stony exterior forged through long years of experience.

Sidney Flanigan (Never Rarely Sometimes Always) – A debut performance, and what a convincing, winning performance it is. Flanigan exhibits Autumn’s fear, pain, exhaustion, and loneliness through the awkwardness and vulnerability of the teenage years. The “Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always” scene with the social worker (Kelly Chapman, who is spot-on) belongs right there with the best-acted scenes of the year, but the less-showy moments of anxiety make it a nuanced, complete performance.

Julia Garner (The Assistant) – Some of my favorite performances are the ones that tell a lot while the character is doing mostly mundane tasks. Jane’s day consists of ordinary office tasks, and most of her conversations are brief and unremarkable. But from her early morning prep of the office, still trying to wake up, to her stress-induced afternoon cigarette, to her exhausted after-work phone call, it’s clear the entire time what kind of person she is and how this situation is wearing her down. This performance also features some of the best almost-but-not-quite-crying I’ve ever seen.

Caleb Landry Jones (The Outpost) – Jones is really going for it here, and he delivers a riveting performance. It was tough to leave The Outpost off my Top 10, as I admire the film, and Jones’ character and performance are two of the highlights. Ty Carter is a slight variation on the military epic protagonist – we’re not sure if we can trust him in a foxhole, not because he’s cowardly or incompetent but because he’s a hothead. No one seems to like him, but it’s because he doesn’t seem to like anybody else. And we’re not quite sure we like him, either. But that isn’t the point – The Outpost doesn’t bother trying to make us particularly “like” the men fighting for their lives at COP Keating. Instead, it puts these regular frat bros into an impossible situation that they never should have been made to face, and it shows us what they did in response. What Carter does, and how the experience affects him, is harrowing – as is Jones’ portrayal.

Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong (The Trial of the Chicago 7) – I don’t totally understand my thoughts about this film – I certainly recommend it, but I can’t say whether it’s great or if it’s particularly useful as a reminder of the anti-progressive establishment in this country. It does certainly showcase a number of memorable performances, my favorites being Cohen and Strong as Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. Cohen’s Hoffman is charismatic and defiant, sparring with enemies and allies alike with a disarming smile and a quick wit, while Strong plays the even-more-stoned sidekick, a loyal, kind man who’s in it for more than just good vibes. Honorable mention to Michael Keaton, who comes in for two scorching scenes like a middle reliever throwing 99.

Sônia Braga (Bacurau) – Braga plays a minor role in the genre-bending thriller from Brazil, but the little woman commands a presence as the doctor in a remote Brazilian village. She is equal parts scathing and caring. Her “I’m too old for this shit” energy as she explains to the village why they shouldn’t take the hallucinatory pills given to them by their local politician is perfect. So too is her tense encounter with a cold-blooded killer before the climactic sequence; to this point, Michael has been the most intimidating, threatening presence, but as he threatens Domingas, there’s no question who the real force is.

Juliette Binoche and Manon Clavel (The Truth)The Truth is in the lower tier of Kore-eda’s filmography, but as usual his casting and directing of actors is superb. Some of the most fascinating parts of Binoche’s performance are her back-and-forths with her mother, played by Catherine Deneuve (who, it should be noted, is also quite good (duh)). Deneuve’s character has the upper hand most of the time, but not because she’s acting Binoche off the screen – Binoche settles right into the role of a daughter who can’t quite dismiss the fact that her mother is, indeed, her mother. As for relative newcomer Clavel, one of my main takeaways from this film was “Oh, okay, so she’s going to be a star.” What an absolutely charming, charismatic performer, right at home in scenes with two icons of French cinema. I’m buying all the Manon Clavel stock I can.

Kiera Allen (Run.) – I spent the entire second half of this film with my hands folded over the back of my neck in anxious fear of what was going to happen next, thanks in no small part to Allen’s work in what is her film debut. She expresses a nuanced range of types of fear and uncertainty as she discovers what her mother has been hiding from her. The physical performance as someone paralyzed from the waist down is also impressive. It stands to reason a wheelchair-using actress would be convincing as a wheelchair-using character, but then again there are perfectly mobile actors who haven’t figured out how to walk across the screen effectively. An excellent first performance in what I hope is a meaningful career.

So, what was the Film of the Year?

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is both the best film of 2020 and my favorite film of 2020, but ever since I read this piece from Thrillist last year, I’ve enjoyed thinking about “the film of the year” as a film that is both excellent but also evinces the cultural moment.

I think the film of 2020 is Mank. Selecting a very white film about old Hollywood directed by a white male feels regressive, and spotlighting a movie about making a movie might sound insular, but Mank exemplifies American film and culture in 2020. We are in a time where control of narratives has had an outsized impact on our lives and consciousness. Political leaders have spawned and facilitated misinformation about a global pandemic and about a national election, and that has poisoned the minds of millions of people into believing things that run counter to science, democracy, and basic human kindness. Mank depicts the impact of media on politics using the 1934 California gubernatorial election and the fight for the storytelling credit of one of the most important films of all-time, all in the shadow of history’s most powerful newspaper mogul who took a turn towards demagoguery. Mank is, in part, the story of rapacious men ready to use their power to control rather than uplift others.

Mank is also, as a film about film, something that could only be made with hindsight. The still new medium of film has existed long enough to allow for a film made to look like an old film that is an homage to and examination of one of the most unassailable films of all time. It is also a straight-to-Netflix Oscar contender, something that could not have existed even five years ago, and something that is extra appropriate in a year where streaming continues to change the way we watch movies as we do the majority of our movie-watching at home.

And, while interspersed with flashbacks, the “present” timeline in Mank depicts Herman Mankiewicz writing the script for Citizen Kane while convalescing (read: quarantining) with two assistants.

Mank is the film of 2020.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

-Peter

2 thoughts on “The Top Films of 2020

  1. Peter
    Just finished reading your book. I’m not sure why I feel this way but it’s one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read. Thank you for writing it. I look forward to future stories you might tell

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