2020 may have changed how we consume movies (as well as how we interact with the people around us) but, unsurprisingly, that didn’t impact the quality of what was released. As is the case every year, it was a great year for film and, in a small way, it offered a greater spotlight to independent cinema that may have been drowned out by tentpole films in any other year. Looking at our list of the Top 15 Films of 2020 alone, it’s easy to see the more expansive slate of female voices that were highlighted and celebrated.
We may have “missed” out on blockbuster season (though if Wonder Woman 1984 is any indication, we may be better for it), but cinema was rich in storytelling in 2020. In a year where so many of us yearned for a level of escape, movies delivered and transported us, offering us moments to feel joy, experience loss and outrage and to ultimately feel seen. Cinema builds upon a viewer’s empathy, something we’ve all needed this year.
Spike Lee had a VERY good 2020 (you’ll see further proof of that later) and one of his gifts to the world this year was capturing one of art rock’s most singular creators at his most accessible. He did that by being a passenger in the mind of one David Byrne, the former Talking Heads frontman who has spent the last two years recontextualizing his back catalogue into a performance of curiosity and hope. Filmed at the Hudson Theatre on Broadway just before the pandemic, David Byrne’s American Utopia shows the once-paranoid and cynical musician not only see the progress made by the people he once separated himself from, but also want to join in. Lee captures Byrne’s incredibly-synchronized touring band bouncing effortlessly between the intricate rhythms of “Lazy” and “Slippery People” to the mechanical structures of “I Should Watch TV” and “I Dance Like This.” While Byrne still has his sardonic sense of humor, he’s turned the observation of humor behavior that made him famous from criticism to fascination. The snobby art school kid has aged like fine wine into the Mr. Rogers of alt rock. —Jon Winkler
Charlie Kaufman’s newest project is both metaphorically and literally in-house. Or at least it is for a third of I’m Thinking of Ending Things, with the rest of the movie stuck in a freezing car with its quiet protagonist (Jessie Buckley) driven through a blizzard and repeated awkward conversations with her doting boyfriend (Jesse Plemons). Of course, that’s just the story at face value. Kaufman is all about setting up layers of metaphors and double-meanings and stories-within-stories to make movies about the scariest parts of humans passing through time. Taken as a whole, I’m Thinking of Ending Things might confound a lot of people, but it’s hard to deny the craftsmanship and detail Kaufman brings to the screen. Not to mention the dedicated performances from Buckley and Plemons along with startling supporting performances from Toni Collette and David Thewlis. —Jon Winkler
13. Small Axe: Lovers Rock & Mangrove (tie)
Small Axe is so good that we couldn’t just pick one. Steve McQueen’s collection of films is immeasurably moving and visceral in its portrayals of London’s West Indian community during the 60s through 80s. The first two of the five-film collection couldn’t be any more different, but they both effectively capture the people, the environment, and the mood of its settings. Mangrove tells the story of the 1971 trial of the Mangrove Nine, a group of British black activists who were wrongfully accused of inciting a riot. The longest film of the collection, clocking at a little over 2 hours, Mangrove is a searing indictment against racism and police brutality, supported by strong performances from Shaun Parkes and Malachi Kirby. And then there is Lovers Rock, a breathless, in-the-moment romance. It is one of the most intimate cinematic experiences of the year. McQueen expressively captures all the small moments leading up to and during a 1980 house party where two lovers, Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and Franklyn (Micheal Ward) meet. Lovers Rock pulses with energy and showcases the beauty and vibrancy in its depiction of this Black community. —Gabrielle Bondi
Christopher Nolan’s obsession with time and temporal logic leads to an experience that is beyond anything we’ve ever seen from the director. Even by Nolan’s standards, Tenet is an ambitious project that might leave you with a myriad of questions, but is nonetheless exhilarating and intense. With this being the 10 year anniversary of Inception, it’s no surprise that Nolan pays homage to it so frequently. Whether that be through story structure or character motivations, Tenet feels like the quintessential Nolan movie.
It’s an amalgamation of the mind-bending, time-winding narratives of Inception and Memento and the scale of Dunkirk, The Dark Knight, or Interstellar. The concept of inversion is delightfully obtuse but executed in a way that begs to be explored further. No doubt that film critics and casual viewers will be lauding over Tenet for some time in an attempt to fully mine all of Nolan’s finer details. In its current state, Tenet stands as one of 2020’s best films, even if it may take you three or four consecutive viewings to fully understand it. —Mark Wesley
11. The Assistant
The tension of Kitty Green’s immaculately paced The Assistant threatens to boil over with each new hurdle our protagonist faces. A scorching look at toxic masculinity and systemic abuses of power in the workplace, The Assistant is bruising in its timeliness. Julia Garner anchors the film with her understated performance that suggests leagues of frustration beneath purposefully muted expressions as she wrestles with her role in the company she’s found herself in. Shot within the gray walls of the offices she inhabits, The Assistant is deliberately claustrophobic, forcing us face-to-face with each new obstacle. —Allyson Johnson
Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’s Bacurau is an enigma. What starts off as a quiet character study in the rural part of Brazil turns into a genre-bending western with so many twists and turns that somehow all work in the context of the film. Teresa returns to her childhood village, Bacurau, a small fictional town set in the rural areas of Brazil, to attend her grandmother’s funeral. The townspeople are very much a family unit and work together to keep Bacurau afloat. However, Teresa starts to notice sinister events such as flying-saucer shaped drones flying overhead and the village disappearing entirely from online maps.
You think you know where this is going, but Mendonça Filho and Dornelles prove you wrong by turning the narrative into a bloody critique about corruption. Bacurau draws inspiration from Seven Samurai, but instead of waiting for a gang of heroes to save the day, the village takes on the “aliens” by themselves. It’s a stunning and darkly comedic tale of resistance against colonialism. —Yasmin Kleinbart
As far as psychological thrillers go, The Invisible Man is one of the best ones in recent years. After she is finally able to escape an abusive relationship, Cecilia (played by Elisabeth Moss) is told that her ex has taken his own life and has left her everything in his will. While this felt suspicious to Cecilia to begin with, she begins to experience unexplained events whenever she’s alone and begins to believe that he may not be dead and is in fact somehow invisible and tormenting her once again. The rollercoaster of events that happen throughout this film are truly nail-biting and unsettling in a unique and intense way. Just when you begin to think that everything might be ok and Cecilia can finally be free, you’re immediately pushed back in your seat and the tension builds again. This was by far the most suspenseful film of this year and it’s hard to not get invested in it. —Tyler Carlsen
Chloé Zhao’s latest hybrid of documentary and fiction, Nomadland, uses the particular presence of Frances McDormand to explore modern-day nomads. McDormand’s Fern is a fictional creation, fiercely independent, widowed, and without children, who finds that she prefers working temporary or seasonal jobs throughout the country as she lives out of her van and spends time alternately alone or with a rotating group of fellow itinerant workers. The people Fern meets are very much real: older Americans who lost a job, a home, or a purpose and hit the road looking for any or all of the above. As we follow Fern across the Western United States, Zhao lets us listen to these travelers as they tell their own stories, each one different, while capturing the stunning beauty of relatively untouched American landscapes. Nomadland is a slice of the American experience, straightforwardly told with curiosity, empathy, and no easy answers. —Beth Winchester
DC Comics’ Harley Quinn shined in her first big-screen blockbuster since 2016’s Suicide Squad. Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) injected some much-needed fun into the DCEU thanks to Margot Robbie’s electric performance. Harley Quinn took center stage in a powerhouse vehicle that added new layers to the movie character outside of being Joker’s on-again-off-again girlfriend. Birds of Prey also packed a strong cast that included Mary Elizabeth Winstead as The Huntress, Jurnee Smollett-Bell as reluctant superhero Black Canary, and Ewan McGregor as the crime lord, Black Mask. Adding to the fun, Birds of Prey embraced a lighter approach to suit Quinn’s larger-than-life personality. Instead of moodier cinematography akin to Batman, the film utilized bright colors, graphics, and comic book elements to draw in the eye. Birds of Prey wanted to have fun and the film succeeded by taking us for a spin in this edgy joyride. —Justin Carreiro
6. Palm Springs
When I think about how 2020 started for me, personally, I’m privileged to reflect on one of the few genuine, cinematic surprises to come my way in recent years. And that’s the Lonely Island’s prescient, pop-culture-defying hit, Palm Springs, directed by Max Barbakow and starring Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti. It’s a nihilistic, yet somehow endlessly optimistic romantic comedy brimming with a level of heart and screwball humor we just don’t see enough of on the big screen. Especially these days.
I reviewed the film for Sundance in January, and one thing certainly remains true as ever for this instant gem I haven’t stopped thinking about. And that’s the fact that Palm Springs is the rare comedy that works just as hard making you laugh as it does making you care about the characters involved. In a year such as this one, I can think of fewer cinematic balms to better lighten what was otherwise the most disruptive year in modern times. —Jon Negroni
It’s a little weird revisiting Emma. after The Queen’s Gambit catapulted its star Anya Taylor-Joy into stardom. Like the dour chess drama, Emma. is equally as visceral, through its use of color and aesthetics that match the energy of its heroine. There have been so many Jane Austen adaptations, and this isn’t the first time Emma has been adapted to film. What makes this iteration stand out is how director Autumn de Wilde completely establishes its world and its characters. While the romantic comedy is centered on Emma, and Taylor-Joy plays her terrifically, the cast of characters performed by Johnny Flynn, Mia Goth, Bill Nighy, and Josh O’Connor, turn this film into a delightful ensemble effort. Flynn, in particular, brings a different type of charm as the love interest, one that changes up and improves upon the conventional dynamics associated with Austen. Emma. is a fresh take on the classic, and a film that helped make such a hard year a little brighter. —Gabrielle Bondi
Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a quiet exploration of friendship, forgiveness, and bravery. A surprise pregnancy leaves 17-year-old Autumn and her cousin Skylar navigating the waters of conservative medical advice, prompting them to hop on a bus to New York so that Autumn can get an abortion. The journey takes up most of the film’s run time as the two friends keep having to extend their stay in New York. Though light in dialogue, the scene in which we get our title is a great example of the film’s ability to do so much with very little. In doing so, it finds its compassion in the presence of someone to lean on, the strength it takes to admit your closest kept secrets, and the forgiveness offered freely by those who love us. —Katey Stoetzel
Written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, Minari follows a Korean-American family as they move from California to a farm in Arkansas in the 1980s. The film, which is based on Chung’s own upbringing in the midwest, captures the immigrant experience in vivid, exquisite detail. There is a push-pull that happens between Steven Yeun’s Jacob and Yeri Han’s Monica — Jacob desperately wants something of his own in a country that still sees them as “other,” while Monica is frustrated by his selfish desires that puts his own needs above that of his family. Yeun has been delivering phenomenal performances for years now and Minari is no different (though the entire cast is fantastic). Chung deftly directs a story that is as beautifully poignant as it is captivating, all while seamlessly exploring the duality and resilience of first-generation families, the emotional turmoil of a house divided, and the complexities of the film’s characters as they adapt to a myriad of internal and external struggles. —Mae Abdulbaki
Sound of Metal subverts all expectations. The film, directed by Darius Marder, and co-written by him and Abraham Marder, follows Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a heavy-metal drummer and former addict who loses the majority of his hearing. He’s initially in denial and stubborn about the next steps, but eventually settles in a deaf community where he learns American Sign Language and how to be independent without his hearing. What’s phenomenal about Sound of Metal is that it doesn’t lean into the idea that losing one’s hearing makes one less whole. While Ruben struggles with his newfound deafness at first, the film doesn’t treat his hearing loss like a punishment. Nor does it allow Ruben to stew in his own self pity for very long. Sound of Metal is very cognizant of the fact that Ruben doesn’t consider himself a deaf person despite the fact that he can no longer hear. That push-pull with the anger of his circumstances and acceptance is thoughtful. Ahmed’s portrayal is magnificent, offering up a multilayered exploration of Ruben’s interiority. He conveys so much through a lingering and longing gaze, a shift of his jaw and his eyes — frustration, loneliness, happiness, peace. There is so much personal conflict and it’s presented in a compelling way that allows the audience to see inside Ruben’s heart and mind as he goes through these changes and it’s that attention to detail and the careful exploration of his character that makes Sound of Metal such an exceptional film. —Mae Abdulbaki
1. Da 5 Bloods
Spike Lee’s politically-charged drama about four Black veterans who return to Vietnam to unearth buried treasure and the remains of their squad leader is one of his most unforgettable films. Action-packed and engrossing throughout its two and half hours running time, Da 5 Bloods explores and challenges our perceptions, particularly those of Americans, of war and what it means to serve a country that has not and still doesn’t place the same value and level of honor to Black vets as it does to its white vets. As Mark Wesley, one of our critics, aptly noted in our mid-year top films list, “Da 5 Bloods stands toe-to-toe with not only the films in Spike Lee’s filmography, but other war films that prop up the white soldier as some sort of deity.”
Da 5 Bloods premiered on Netflix in June, a little over two months before Chadwick Boseman’s death. Boseman’s performance as the men’s late squad leader “Stormin’” Norman was praised then, but I imagine it will hit differently now. The film resurrects Norman in the form of flashbacks and as the invisible guide still leading the men on their present journey. They are not only dealing with the physical obstacles in their way but also PTSD, paranoia, and other long-lasting effects from their time served in the military. The film envelops their trauma into their journey, which is amplified by riveting performances from Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., and notably Delroy Lindo.
After a year like 2020, when a pandemic changed our way of living and the Black Lives Matter movement rose to help us fight racial injustice, films like Da 5 Bloods are still the ones we need—stories that are brutally honest in its message and portrayals of humanity. —Gabrielle Bondi