A somewhat shorter list this year because I didn't see as many newer movies as usual, partly because cinemas were closed for a lot of the year (and even when they reopened I felt like I might as well wait until I get vaccinated before seeing movies in theatres again) and partly because I didn't watch as many movies this year in general. It was just very stressful all round, and if I wanted to relax at the end of a day fretting about how bad the pandemic could get, video games ended up being my go-to entertainment option for much of 2020.
As such I find it pretty hard to gauge what kind of year it was for cinema. There were certainly some really good films released this year, in whatever form that ended up taking, but everything felt so disjointed and scattered. Everything felt impermanent and ephemeral, with nothing to moor all the movies that got out into the ether of VOD and streaming. Was 2020 a good movie year? Was it even a year? Who can say.
Anyway, these were the films that made a mark on me this year, and all but one of them could probably have the addendum "I wish I'd seen this in a movie theatre" attached.
Before we get to the good stuff, let's indulge in a bit of negativity. Easily my least favourite film of the year was David Fincher's Mank, which I found to be a terribly dreary and affected bit of filmmaking about filmmaking that was hamstrung by a terrible Gary Oldman performance and a tin-eared, obvious script. It's not a bad film, but it was a terrible disappointment and I can't think of any film this year that had more going for it that so categorically failed to delivery on its promise.
25. Minari (dir. Lee Isaac Chung)This probably would be higher were it not for the final act, which I think is fine, but feels out of balance with the rest of the movie as it injects sudden disaster into the story in a way that feels a little too neat. Regardless, the rest of it is so strong that it can weather it. A plaintive, sweet, funny story of a Korean family moving to Arkansas in the '80s to take up farming, Chung's film is one of small moments and details. There's so much richness to the relationships between the family members, how they fit in with the broader community, and the toll that trying to start from almost nothing takes on everyone.
24. Kajillionaire (dir. Miranda July)
Fitting for a movie about con artists, there's a nice emotional subterfuge to Kajillionaire. It starts out fairly wry and deadpan as it shows a family of scammers (Evan Rachael Wood, Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger) working various schemes to get enough money together to pay rent, and by the end it delivers a genuinely moving romance between Wood and Gina Rodriguez, as a newcomer who joins the group because she's taken with their low-stakes outlaw ways. A piercing look at the ways in which someone can become completely shut down from the world, and what it takes to reach out and move on.
23. Tesla (dir. Michael Almereyda)
It runs right up to the edge of "Today, we call them computers" towards the end, but it earns that moment of obviousness by preceding it with a real big musical swing, and for also spending so much of the running time puncturing the usual pomposity of the biopic. Through its use of direct address and deliberate artificiality, Tesla forgoes the pedestrian need to recreate every detail, and instead can focus on the meat of Nikolai Tesla's life; his inventions, his rivalries, and the people who were able to take advantage of him. Ethan Hawke is fantastic, giving the sort of nuanced, textured performance that in a less playful and arch film would probably get a lot of awards buzz. Could have used more invented (and inventive) scenes of him squaring off with Kyle MacLachlan as Edison, but what few there are were pretty great.
22. She Dies Tomorrow (dir. Amy Seimetz)
A film which generates a tremendous vibe of doom and ecstasy in the face of annihilation. Reminded me of Inland Empire and Melancholia in the best ways. Seimetz has a great eye and command of tone, particularly when directing scenes of people becoming consumed by the knowledge of their imminent deaths, and their acceptance of it. One of the best films at capturing the feeling of all our concurrent existential anxieties, and the way in which the death-sense (for lack of a better term) is transferred to other people really makes it eerily perfect at capturing the specific fear of the pandemic.
21. Da 5 Bloods (dir. Spike Lee)
The first ninety minutes or so of Lee's latest, in which four Black Vietnam war veterans return to Vietnam under the guise of looking for the grave of their leader who died in combat, is some of his most electrifying. It's a potent alternate vision of a war that has been covered so many times, almost always from the perspective of white characters, which gets at the thorny, complicated feelings its characters have over having gone to war for a country which so often mistreated and abused them. The final hour feels pretty aimless and loses a lot of that energy, but Delroy Lindo remains a captivating central figure throughout.
20. The Invisible Man (dir. Leigh Whannell)
The last film I was able to see in a theatre before everything started shutting down, and an extremely memorable one it was. A terrific reinvention of an old story, filled with moments of quiet dread. Elisabeth Moss is brilliant as a woman trying to convince everyone around her that she’s not crazy and that her ex is seemingly stalking her from beyond the grave, while Whannell ratchets up the tension magnificently every time someone disbelieves her. It was also fun seeing Whannell bring some of the same kineticism that marked his previous film, the exuberant sci-fi thriller Upgrade, but in a much more measured way so that when he let his camera get a little wild it really stood out.
19. The Half of It (dir. Alice Wu)
The extremely rare good Netflix movie. A romantic comedy that has all the elements to be too precious by half - it's a retelling of Cyrano de Bergerac, it's central character (Leah Lewis) is a budding cinephile - but avoids pretty much all the pitfalls thanks to an incredible young cast (the central love triangle being rounded out (assume for the sake of argument that you can round out a triangle) by Daniel Diemer and Alexxis Lemire) and a script which feels intensely authentic while being really, really funny. It's also a really beautifully shot movie, which makes for such a relief from the indifferently-shot comedies that the streamer tends to churn out.
18. Wolfwalkers (dirs. Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart)
As with Tomm Moore's previous films, The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, Wolfwalkers is a gorgeous animation that draws on Irish folk tales to dazzling effect. The central friendship between an English girl whose father works to enforce English rule and a young Irish girl who can transform into a wolf is incredibly sweet and well played by the young voice actors, while the broader story of tension between the ruled and their rulers lends an epic sweep that contrasts plaintively with a much more intimate central story of identity.
17. City Hall (dir. Frederick Wiseman)
They say you can't fight it, but Frederick Wiseman sure can film it. Over the course of five and a half hours, Wiseman tracks the various facets of Boston's local government, with particular emphasis on then Mayor, now Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh, in excruciating detail, offering a glimpse into the inner workings of a major city that feels both broad and specific. The end result is gently inspirational in how it shows the slow, thankless work that goes into trying to make peoples' lives even modestly better.
16. The Painter and the Thief (dir. Benjamin Ree)
One of those "too good to be true" stories - an artist approaches the man who stole one of her paintings and asks him to model for her - that too often make for lazy documentaries that are content to coast on how interesting the hook is, at the expense of actual filmmaking. Fortunately, Ree displays an indelible eye for composition fitting the subject matter, which ensures that even the talking heads scenes remain arresting, and has such intense empathy for both of his subjects. As the story moves past the initial crime and contact to focus more on the life of the thief, Karl-Bertil Nordland, and tracks his struggles with addiction and sobriety, it becomes a really moving account of one man trying to become better and surpass his surroundings, in ways that never feel trite or easy.
15. Emma. (dir. Autumn De Wilde)
A sprightly adaptation of Jane Austen's farce of misunderstanding and misfiring romances that looks lovely, eschewing the sort of drab earth tones or grays that are so often the bane of British period adaptations, and boasts an immaculate cast of ringers like Bill Nighy, Miranda Hart and Mia Goth in supporting roles. The real highlights are Anya Taylor-Joy in the title role, book-ending a fantastic year for her with The Queen's Gambit, and Josh O'Connor giving one of the year's funniest performances as the buffoonish Mr. Elton. Reminded me very much of Whit Stillman's hilarious Love & Friendship, the only other recent Austen adaptation that really gets the tone of her writing and makes it work for contemporary audiences.
14. The Way Back (dir. Gavin O'Connor)
Given his transformation into a living meme of sadness and desperation, casting Ben Affleck as an alcoholic former high school basketball star who is brought in to coach his old team could not be more perfect. There is an authenticity to his performance that is enhanced tremendously by the extreme highs and deep valleys of his public persona, and he really convinces as an athlete gone to seed even before the story itself really kicks in. Beyond that masterstroke of casting, the film is a really solid example of how to tell a conventional sports story in a way which feels real and heartfelt without being corny. The minimalist score and O'Connor's decision not to show much of the games (most are briefly glimpsed before the final scores flash on screen) remove the usual crutches for this kind of movie, and places the emphasis on Affleck's struggles with alcohol, his gradual investment in the lives of his players, and his strained familial relations. It's the closest anything has come to the quiet euphoria of Friday Night Lights since that show went off the air, and there is no more glowing point of comparison for any story that deals with high school sports.
13. The Assistant (dir. Kitty Greene)
There's lots to admire in The Assistant, from its painfully clear-eyed depiction of the toxic atmosphere that surrounds the unseen, Harvey Weinstein-esque film producer whose office provides the setting, to Julia Garner's great lead performance as Jane, the eponymous assistant who finds herself suffocating under the realisation that she is complicit in abuse, even if she doesn't actually see anything going on. What really stands out, though, is the centrepiece scene in which June goes to lodge a complaint with H.R., embodied with seeming obliviousness by Matthew Macfadyen. As the scene progresses, and as Garner and Macfadyen talk past each other and around the subject, the way that the actors handle the shifting power dynamics at play is some of the best command of tone I've seen in any film all year. It's a bruising scene at the heart of a blistering film, that really gets to the truth of how systems protect themselves.
12. Sound of Metal (dir. Darius Marder)
It's hard to overstate how crucial the sound design in Sound of Metal is, and how intrinsic it is to the story being told. The film is about Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a heavy metal drummer who loses his hearing, and much of the story depends on sound being muffled, distorted, or entirely absent to convey his sudden dislocation from the world, and the film is at its most thrilling and unsettling during the scenes in which Ruben has to adjust to his new reality. Even past the disorientating first act, the film keeps placing Ruben and the audience in a state of discomfort by having him live in a community of deaf people as a way of acclimating, resulting in numerous scenes of him sitting with groups of people communicating in sign language, which he initially cannot understand, and so therefore is not translated for the audience. There's a holistic commitment to representing what that kind of sudden change would feel like that makes the film much more enveloping than the premise alone would suggest.
11. The Father (dir. Florian Zeller)
Probably the film this year that had the greatest gulf between my expectations going in and my eventual reaction. When The Father started getting awards attention at the start of 2021, I assumed based on the generic title and the sun-dappled promotional materials that it would be bland awards season pablum, the sort of movie that no one seems to have seen, yet somehow gets five Oscar nominations before evaporating from the collective memory. Instead, it offers a stark look at the painful process of getting older and losing connection with reality. In telling the story of a man (Anthony Hopkins) suffering from dementia, Zeller plays with the boundaries of objectivity and subjectivity, having multiple actors play the people in Hopkins' life and giving him different dynamics with them depending on the scene, creating a constant uncertainty in both the character and the audience about who or what is real. It's incredibly effective, and (for fear of offering faint praise) one of the more compelling of this year's Best Picture nominees.
10. Let Them All Talk (dir. Steven Soderbergh)
It's been incredibly fun watching Soderbergh, having un-retired from directing features, navigate the chaotic, shifting landscape of modern moviemaking by making some of the oddest and most compelling movies of his career. Hopping from Netflix to HBOMax, he delivered one of his warmest, funniest movies in this semi-improvised story of a novelist (Meryl Streep) taking a cruise to England to receive an award, and insisting that two of her best friends (Candice Bergen and Dianne Wiest) and her nephew (Lucas Hedges) come with her. It's an incredibly deft piece of comedic filmmaking, with Soderbergh's sharp editing making for some of the film's funniest moments, that draws out the pasts of its characters without being overly declarative. It's probably the closest any American filmmaker has come to making a Hong Sang-soo movie in its shaggy delicacy.
9. David Byrne's American Utopia (dir. Spike Lee)
Jonathan Demme's Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense is one of my favourite films of all time, and since this filmed version of David Byrne's Broadway show functions as something of a spiritual sequel to that film, it had a lot to live up to. While it can't match the earlier film's sheer coked-up energy, it is still a great showcase for the distinctive vision of Byrne, which is at once naive and piercing. Hearing songs from across Byrne's long career and having him talk about the songs between performances really offers a comprehensive worldview, one in which being around people is both the scariest thing you can do and the only thing that makes life worth living. It's an uproarious look at how messed up the world is and a plea for how much better things could be, all delivered brilliantly by Byrne and his supporting cast of dancers, singers and instrumentalists. Exhausting, nervy, and thrilling.
8. On the Rocks (dir. Sofia Coppola)
One of the most intensely lovely films of the year, Coppola's latest follows a writer (Rashida Jones) who starts to worry that her husband (Marlon Wayans) might be cheating on her, and whose incorrigible father (Bill Murray) offers to help her investigate. The milieu is very familiar, and will do little to allay criticisms that Coppola focuses too much on stories of the idle rich, but her skill at crafting complicated, fun and engaging characters within that world remains extremely sharp. The relationship between Jones and Murray is complicated and messy, with admiration and love being mixed in with distance and disappointment such that it is readily apparent why Jones would be both moved and annoyed by her father deciding to meddle in her life. It's also got plenty of great jokes dotted throughout, a well-crafted sense of slow-motion farce, and is such a gorgeous New York movie.
7. Possessor (dir. Brandon Cronenberg)
There was a point early on in Possessor, as the camera lingered on a knife entering the flesh of a man being brutally stabbed by a woman being controlled by a shadowy organization, when I couldn't help but imagine David Cronenberg watching and thinking "A chip off the old block!" Considering the long shadow his father casts over horror cinema in general, and particularly the sub-genre of clinical, cerebral yet bloody body horror that he helped define and popularise in the '70s and '80s, it's all the more impressive that Brandon Cronenberg manages to do something exciting within the genre. Starring Andrea Riseborough as an agent who takes over the bodies of innocent people in order to commit assassinations, Possessor is an unsettling, antiseptic journey of shifting identities, depersonalisation, and disassociation that also plays like a compelling crime movie. At times it feels like watching someone play Hitman (a connection that is only furthered by casting Sean Bean, who appeared as an elusive target in Hitman 2, as Riseborough's next victim) if Agent 47 started fighting back. It really understands the unique voyeurism of an age in which so many experiences are mediated or observed, and the deadening endpoint of that process. It is also distressingly violent in places, with one moment involving teeth guaranteed to stick with me for a very long time.
6. Lovers Rock (dir. Steve McQueen)
Every installment of Steve McQueen's Small Axe anthology was among the best films I saw this year. Each film tells stories about the West Indian community in London during the '70s and '80s with an energy and clarity that really illuminated parts of Britain's history that are generally ignored by mainstream British culture, without ever feeling like a dry lecture or like it was pandering to a white audience. Of the five films, this depiction of one house party shone brightest. The story is fairly minimal, but it's full of details and texture; it really captures the excitement of being at a great, not-entirely-legal party, and it's a thrilling depiction of the rhythms of a night full of possibilities. Did this hit especially hard because stories of connection and frisson resonated more in a year that was so isolating? Of course, but the fun and intimacy and tension (sexual and otherwise) that underpins this movie would set it apart in any year, even if it happened to feel more potent in 2020.
5. Tenet (dir. Christopher Nolan)
Perhaps fittingly, given the sheer number of times that "inversion" and its derivatives are said in Christopher Nolan's time-bending Bond movie, Tenet plays like an inverted version of his 2010 blockbuster Inception. Where that movie was visually impressive and had a lot of cool ideas, it was also bogged down by a constant need to explain its dream logic to the audience, and there was a constant sense that it was not as fun as it could have been because it kept stopping to explain. Tenet, by contrast, spends very little time explaining what is happening to the audience, and even when it does, it tends to do so using in-world jargon like "it's a temporal pincer movement" that give a sense of what is happening without getting derailed by the details. That can make it a frustrating experience for anyone who wants to track the logic of its backwards-forwards, palindromic approach to time-travel, but that misses the point that Nolan makes in one of the very first scenes when he has Clémence Poésy say, "Don't try to understand it. Feel it." Tenet is, above everything else, a roller coaster. An always moving rush of action that has some immensely cool and inventive sequences, most notably a highway chase involving cars going forwards and backwards in time simultaneously, that make good on its enjoyably fuzzy central concept. It's a wild ride and one of the most purely enjoyable blockbusters since Mad Max: Fury Road.
4. Never Rarely Sometimes Always (dir. Eliza Hittman)
As with The Assistant, Never Rarely Sometimes Always is an all-round great film that pivots around one particularly incredible scene. The sequence in which pregnant Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), having traveled to New York from rural Pennsylvania in order to get an abortion, has to answer a series of questions about her sexual health, delivered in a single take, is one of the best scenes of the year in terms of performance, writing, framing and pacing. Autumn's halting answers, half-answers and refusals reveal things about her situation, often without actually verbalising them, and display tremendous nuance and empathy for someone in a very difficult situation. The film around that scene is also great, though. Hittman's story is filled with moments of pain, humour and vivacity, and provides a clear-eyed view of the difficult realities of abortion in America, even in parts of the country where it is safe and available, for working class or poor people.
3. Dick Johnson is Dead (dir. Kirsten Johnson)
Considering how high-concept the premise of Dick Johnson is Dead is - a director tries to come to terms with the declining mental and physical health of her aging father by staging his death repeatedly, often in comically violent or shocking ways - it could easily have come across as glib and ironic on one hand, or mawkish and exploitative on the other. That it is neither, and is instead a playful yet wrenching exploration of aging that highlights the warmth and humour of the man at its centre, and never ever comes close to reducing him to a prop, is a testament to Kirsten Johnson's command of the documentary form. She knows exactly how to play with and push the limits of reality, while also bringing the audience closer to her father, and giving us a glimpse of what she is so afraid of losing.
2. First Cow (dir. Kelly Reichardt)
This would warrant inclusion if only because it provided multiple opportunities for Toby Jones to say "Clafoutis," something that all other films have been too cowardly to allow. But beyond that, this is yet another quiet, intimate story from Kelly Reichardt, probably the best American filmmaker currently working when it comes to telling quiet, intimate stories. Set in the Oregon territory in 1820, it follows two men (John Magaro and Orion Lee) who try to build a life for themselves by stealing milk from the first cow to arrive in the territory and using it for baking. A low-key crime film and a really sweet story of male companionship, it's one of the most oddly entertaining and beautiful films of the year.
1. The History of the Seattle Mariners (dirs. Jon Bois and Alex Rubenstein)
While The Bob Emergency remains Jon Bois' crowning achievement as a work of wonky, soulful and strange sports nerd filmmaking, the sheer scope of The History of the Seattle Mariners rivals it. Over nearly four hours, Bois and his Dorktown compatriot Alex Rubenstein sketch out the entire lifespan of the Mariners from their early years as easily one of the worst teams in professional baseball in the '70s and '80s, through their resurgence in the '90s and '00s thanks to superstars like Ken Griffey, Jr. and Ichiro Susuki, to their modern-day status as one of the few MLB teams to have never won a World Series. What makes their film great, instead of merely large, is Bois and Rubenstein's clear, unabashed affection for the weird contours of the Mariners' story. They delight in drawing out details like how pitcher Rick Honeycutt put a tack on his finger to cut the ball, and was caught in this small act of cheating because he forgot it was there and cut his forehead when he ran his hand absentmindedly across it. Or in the giddy excitement that announcer Dave Niehaus brought to even the most moribund Seattle home game. Or Jay Buhner's love of throwing up on cue, to the disgust of absolutely everyone.
It's a collection of small, indelible stories that fill in the gaps of a much grander one. The middle section of the film, which deals with Griffey's ascendance, also encompasses the period in the '90s when the team faced the very real possibility of being sold and moved to another city. Few things in movies this year were as thrilling as three competing lines on a graph; one showing how the Mariners were doing, one showing how the Angels were doing, and one showing how Seattlites voted on a measure to raise taxes to pay for a new stadium. As the three converge, Bois and Rubenstein sculpt a story that could not be more operatic if it tried, and which would be considered ridiculous and impossible if it hadn't actually happened; a team playing for its very existence, and beating all expectations.
It's a grand story, and one that Bois and Rubenstein tell with tremendous interest and humour. They clearly love turning potentially dry data into rich, human stories, and that palpable sense of being interested in other people and the world is what made The History of the Seattle Mariners stay with me.