For all the time spent lamenting the end of cinema post-March, there were still plenty of great movies to see in 2020. This year marked the largest number of new movies I’ve seen in a calendar year as a critic since started MovieBabble in 2016, and to be honest, I didn’t miss the many mega-blockbusters that were pushed to 2021. If there’s one thing I’ll remember 2020 for (you know, other than COVID), it’s the time spent discussing projects that would have most likely been footnotes in a crowded marketplace. Remember when we talked about Palm Springs for a week straight? What a time.
Although, I doubt 2020 will go down as the year of the indie for many. Instead, it may be the year of streaming content. Or, the year streaming matured. Netflix continues to dominate, and carried much of the film discourse this year with its original content; Disney+ is now over a year in and humming along; HBO Max and Peacock launched; Quibi launch…and folded (RIP to a King); The Criterion Channel continues to be a godsend; Hulu now has Disney ties; Boutique services like Shudder are getting better and better at curating content to their specific audiences. Also, what the hell were we supposed to do all year besides sitting on our couches and stream?
Whatever ultimately becomes 2020’s defining trait, below is a very, very long list of my favorite films of the year, starting with three separate groups of honorable mentions. (I continue to be indecisive.) And as with last year and every year moving forward, there are three guarantees: death, taxes, and changes to my end-of-the-year lists. All lists of this kind are very in-the-moment, so now would be the time to prepare your grains of salt.
Let’s get to the list:
The “Very Solid Movies That Deserve Some Type of Recognition for Their Craft” Group
The Dark and the Wicked
A Secret Love
A Thousand Cuts
Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution
The “I Really, Really Like These Movies But There’s a Few Slightly Better Movies Out There” Group
Red, White and Blue
The “Impossibly Tough Omissions that Might be in My Top 10 if You Asked Me Tomorrow” Group
Sound of Metal — Much of the praise is going to Riz Ahmed for his astonishing performance (and for good reason; it’s one of the best performances of the year), but let’s not forget Paul Raci’s profound work in his supporting role.
Residue — I’m a little peeved at Netflix for not marketing this film harder. For all of the movies to tackle gentrification in recent years, Residue is one of the most distinct and meticulously crafted. And as someone who lived in D.C. for a short time, its ideas about the city pack a major punch.
She Dies Tomorrow — This may be the most 2020 movie out there. Amy Seimetz’s passion project is overflowing with existential fear, and she knows that there’s something oddly funny about that too.
Yes, God, Yes — Wonderfully goofy and insightful thanks to Karen Maine’s assured direction and writing. Somehow, it manages to tackle blind faith and get plenty of mileage out of a salad tossing joke.
Nomadland — Bruh I still can’t get over how Chloé Zhao is going from directing this beautifully understated docudrama to The Eternals. Regardless, this movie marks Zhao as one of the most important humanist directors working today.
Another Round — I love me some dancin’ Mads Mikkelsen.
Welcome to Chechnya — The most horrifying movie of the year.
On the Record — A necessary document of the #MeToo movement that expertly explores the power dynamics involved in the workplace.
Dick Johnson is Dead — Between Cameraperson and Dick Johnson is Dead, Kirsten Johnson continues to find fascinatingly offbeat ways to explore life and death. If you don’t tear up during Dick Johnson, we can’t be friends.
Wolfwalkers — Gorgeous animation, and it also has maybe one of the best group hugs ever put to screen???
And now, let’s get to the top 10:
So I guess I have to prepare myself for a big cry whenever a Pixar movie directed by Pete Docter comes out? To this day, I’m still a little woozy after what Docter and the rest of the Pixar team did to Bing Bong in Inside Out, and let’s not forget the iconic opening montage in Up. But in this case, the climactic emotional moment of Soul serves a slightly different purpose: rather than absolutely destroying you, it’s wholly life-affirming and beautiful.
It’s definitely Pixar’s most existential film to date, so much so that you could even confuse it for a Don Hertzfeldt movie at times. What is my purpose? What makes me, me? How can we even start to comprehend our relationships with each other, and even the cosmos? Who knows if many children will be able to keep up with its themes, but it’s an emotional ode to life itself nonetheless.
The worst thing about Soul is this tweet from yours truly, which hasn’t aged terribly well given where I’ve placed Soul on this list:
People calling Soul the best animated movie of 2020 clearly haven’t seen Wolfwalkers
— Nick Kush (@nkush42) January 6, 2021
Like I said, there are three guarantees in life.
*To read the site’s full review of Soul, please click here.
You don’t need me to remind you of the flaws that still exist within the justice system, you can watch Garrett Bradley’s Time instead. In a moment of desperation, Fox Rich and her husband Rob attempted to rob a Louisiana bank. Both were arrested and convicted for their crime, except Fox was released after three and a half years, whereas Rob had to serve 60 years.
Time follows the ensuing 20-year fight for justice, which Fox documented over the years with various cameras. It’s a portrayal of the life Rob was never able to live, and also a stark reminder of the piece that was always missing for Fox and her kids, even as they grew up and became successful individuals. They’ll never get it back, but as the emotional final sequence shows, with enough courage, we can make up for some of it.
#8: Promising Young Woman
Rarely do you see a movie as angry as Promising Young Woman. Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut is bubbling over with fury and frustration, unafraid to make a statement. It’s a cotton candy nightmare, fueled by the exasperation so many women feel from the double standards present in litigating cases of sexual violence. Not since Boots Reily’s Sorry to Bother You have I seen a movie so wildly entertaining and yet so incisive. Even as the movie shifts gears from a tense thriller to a glitzy comedy to a raunchy rom-com, Fennell has a tight handle on the wheel. Especially when it comes to how the film uses (or doesn’t use) violence, which culminates in a stunning and disturbing final act.
At the center of the fiery rage is Carey Mulligan, who once shows why she’s one of the best actresses working right now. She’s the reason the jumps in tone work; she’s totally committed, fearless, and powerful.
*To read the site’s review of Promising Young Woman, please click here.
My contempt for Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 continues to grow. It’s a movie seemingly designed by Bradley Whitford’s character from Get Out with its self-congratulatory tone and a driving ethos of, “hey, injustice is BAD!” I could go on about its giddiness to use Black pain for the sake of the white characters’ morality, or its spotty acting, but nothing does a better job showing where The Trial of Chicago 7 faltered than Steve McQueen’s Mangrove, the first part of his Small Axe anthology series.
McQueen’s direction is so precise, but as always, it’s his constant call for empathy and the camera’s focus on his actors’ faces that roped me into Mangrove. Normally, when a movie is cut into essentially two parts — in this case, the police prejudice against the Mangrove restaurant and the resulting riot followed by a courtroom drama — it’s easy to point out where one half succeeds and the other falters, or where the two are incongruous. But with Mangrove, each half complements the other, perfectly detailing rampant institutionalize racism, the utter bewilderment of why the Man would choose to step on the little guy so often, and the outrageous hypocrisy involved in it all.
*To read the site’s review of Mangrove, please click here.
#6: The Wolf House
The Wolf House narrowly outpaces Bryan Bertino’s The Dark and the Wicked as the most depressing movie of the year. Even after writing about The Wolf House on two separate occasions (here and here), I still find it hard to truly express how upsetting it is to experience this multimedia stop-motion exploration of Colonia Dignidad, a colony created by Germans and Chileans which became a perverse haven for Nazis. I’m consistently revolted by it, but it’s impossible to look away. From the very start, The Wolf House has you in its clutches, trapping you in your own confined space of existential, creeping dread.
The amount of work Joaquín Cociña and Cristóbal León put into this David Lynch-esque take on “The Three Little Pigs” is evident in every frame as each piece slithers, wrinkles, or slides to change one horrifying image into another. I’ll never be able to get some of these images out of my head.
*To read the site’s review of The Wolf House, please click here.
As I get older, I’ve become less moved by the sweeping, over-the-top gestures of generosity that mainstream Hollywood tends to valorize. Maybe I’m just a curmudgeon, but it doesn’t work the same way anymore. Instead, what truly makes me sob are the quiet, understated displays of kindness. Driveways is 85 minutes of just that. There are no screaming matches or melodramatic subplots, just people trying to get by. It’s Driveways’ simplicity that makes it so special. Whether it’s helping someone clean up a house or simply being good company, director Andrew Ahn powerfully displays what common decency can do for an individual.
Hong Chau and Lucas Jaye have a wonderful mother-son relationship. They react honestly and warmly to each other. They have their struggles and disagreements, but their love for each other is always present. And then there’s Brian Dennehy, who sadly passed away a few weeks before the film was released. I love everything about him in this movie. He’s thoughtful, kind, and entirely good-natured. His final monologue is a beautiful sendoff to not only the movie, but his life onscreen.
*To read the site’s review of Driveways, please click here.
#4: Lovers Rock
Since watching Lovers Rock, I can’t stop listening to “Silly Games”. I’m not mad about it.
Like the song, Lovers Rock, the second installment in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe, is such a vibe, encapsulating just about every feeling in going out with your friends and making memories at a party, from the joyful feeling of singing along to a tune and feeling totally free to the dangers of overeager men on the prowl.
Lovers Rock is mostly formless. There are a few narrative threads here and there, but McQueen is more focused on capturing the moment and the overwhelming sensation of liberation. It’s one giant house party, full of a ton of bangers and showstopping dance sequences. The needle drop of “Kung Fu Fighting” is amazing; the multi-minute singalong to “Silly Games” is pure bliss.
The best part? It’s 68 minutes long!!!
#3: First Cow
We should all strive to have the friendship Cookie and King Lu have in First Cow. I personally believe modern films have ruined the male friendship: there’s rarely any room for tenderness. Male leads are either fighting alongside their fellow superhero in the name of an ill-defined sense of brotherhood, or they’re bro-hugging it out and drinking a Corona with Vin Diesel. Those are the only two options. But First Cow speaks to the loving yet totally platonic friendships men can have with each other, and the kind of male relationship that should be far more present on the big screen.
We have Kelly Reichardt to thank for her tremendous work as the writer and director, who despite having a no-frill directing style, creates a few indelible images. Some of the best of the year, in fact. Overtop the lovely bromance, First Cow is the story of how impossible it can be for people to rise in class, and how it’s almost always a losing battle in the end. Also, those honey cakes look really good.
*To read the site’s review of First Cow, please click here.
Minari runs the gamut of emotions: you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll feel broken, and you’ll feel hopeful. As Emile Mosseri’s beautiful score plays underneath the opening moments, you know you’re in for a special one. Truthfully, one of the biggest travesties of the COVID-era in film is most of the general public not being able to see Minari in theaters.
In my mind, Minari should immediately be mentioned among the best modern family dramas. Centering around the Yi family hoping to build a farm in Arkansas, we see the highs and lows of an immigrant family trying to live the American Dream while sticking to their roots. Much like Driveways, there isn’t some outside force keeping the Yi family down, at least not a tangible one. Minari looks at each of the family dynamics at play: some of them are devastating, others are utterly hilarious. Leading the way are two iconic performances from a stoic Steven Yeun and the adorable Alan S. Kim who, along with the rest of the talented, display the importance of a strong family foundation.
It wouldn’t surprise me to see Minari top best of the decade lists at the end of the 2020s.
*To read the site’s review of Minari, please click here.
#1: World of Tomorrow Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime
Can a movie truly be about everything? Probably not, but World of Tomorrow Three gets pretty damn close. Don Hertzfeldt’s third entry in his (hopefully) continuing World of Tomorrow series is just as good as the last two shorts (which is to say it’s among the best shorts ever made) and somehow, it makes the last two even better. If World of Tomorrow Two didn’t already do so, World of Tomorrow Three cements this group of films as one of the best science fiction series of the 21st century. Marvel could learn a thing or two (or twelve) about how to fold stories together in the same universe.
This time, we move away from Emily Prime and follow stick figure David, who receives a message from an Emily clone embedded in his subconscious with instructions to retrieve a piece of important information on a far-off planet. But there’s one catch: the file message size is too big for the computer that runs his brain, so David has to continually delete various motor functions to retrieve this information he knows nothing about. It’s hilarious watching David crawl across one of Hertzfeldt’s gorgeous backdrops after losing the ability to walk, but it’s also horrifying to think that he’s literally destroying himself in search of a chance of something better than his current existence. World of Tomorrow Three is full of meditations on existence, our ties to the present, and what it means to truly live, with deeply profound lines such as, “time is a prison of all living things.”
Shoosh. That hits hard.
And on top of that, the story mechanics themselves become even more complex and entertaining. So get whisked away in the existential fears of a dystopian future full of stick people, absorbing poetry, and also clones of said stick people. It doesn’t get much better.
Thank you for reading! What are your thoughts on my top 10 movies of 2020? Comment down below!
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