The 50 Best Movies of 2020

Movies Lists Best of the Year
Share Tweet Submit Pin
The 50 Best Movies of 2020

2020 was, basically, a year without movie theaters. Sure, Birds of Prey and Dolittle played at the beginning of the year and if you don’t happen to live in the U.S., the chance that you could go down to the multiplex without contracting a deadly virus was, if not high, then at least higher than if you were stateside. But everyone knows it: The coronavirus completely changed how we watched movies this year. And, as shown by Warner Bros.’ HBO Max gamble, it’s already affecting the future of the cinematic experience. But the year that left box offices thirsty for a little Marvel libation, gave Christopher Nolan his heel turn and dropped a Wonder Woman sequel on streaming for everyone to hate-watch over the holiday had its bright spots.

For one, being stuck at home meant people got to see a lot more—and what they saw was a lot more diverse. Documentaries, international films, little indies—if it would otherwise be overrun by blockbusters and big IP during a normal year, 2020 gave it its own little spotlight simply because it was something new. The playing field didn’t exactly become egalitarian, but the likelihood that you’d take a gamble on something out of your comfort zone only went up when that comfort zone was mostly inaccessible.

Paste’s best movies list reflects this, to an extent. We always tend to favor scrappy indies and underappreciated gems, and 2020 gave us a bounty. That doesn’t mean the odd AAA feature didn’t find its way into our top 50—Tenet and Soul are still impressive achievements—but like the rest of the world, we were watching smaller movies this year. While movies will only bounce back as the world recovers, here’s hoping that this increased sense of curiosity and spirit of charity towards independent venues and filmmakers continues on even when we’re all crunched back into a theater, elbow to elbow, spilling Raisinets and sharing popcorn. Until then, we can always debate 2020 movie rankings.

Here are our picks for the 50 best movies of the year:


50. Banana Split

49-Banana-split-best-2020.jpg

Watch on Netflix

Working off of a script written by Hannah Marks and Joey Power, director Benjamin Kasulke finds a delicate balance between sweet and sour in Banana Split, a teen rom-com with less emphasis on the “rom,” enough on the “com,” and greater emphasis on complicated friendships between its leads, April (Marks) and Clara (Liana Liberato). They come together not over common interests but a common boy.

Watching Marks and Liberato together on screen is a genuine joy to behold; they’re apparently close off screen, which helps, but even with the camera presiding over their chemistry, they’re unfailingly natural. Nothing they do feels forced, or artificial. Whoever Marks and Liberato are when they’re not on a movie set is irrelevant. What matters is how they engage with each other before Kasulke’s lens (manned by Darin Moran). April’s cool in her way. Clara’s cool in hers. Making this a story of the popular girl getting chummy with the outsider wouldn’t suit Banana Split’s purpose, so Marks and Power have made it a story about two young women looking for how they’re alike, not how they’re different, and discovering the ways they complement each other. —Andy Crump


49. Zombi Child

48-Zombi-child-best-2020.jpg

Watch on Amazon Prime

What does and doesn’t constitute cultural appropriation? Tracking down your classmate’s mambo aunt and begging her, in between offering her wads of money, to cast a voodoo spell on your pretty boy ex? French filmmaker Bertrand Bonello’s latest picture, Zombi Child, is half historical account, half racial reckoning—entirely ambitious, and equally as ambiguous. Bonello is white, just like Fanny (Louise Labeque), his bratty, lovesick protagonist, a student at the Légion d’honneur boarding school, which Napoleon established for the purposes of educating the daughters of men awarded the, well, the Légion d’honneur, and where entry remains a hereditary right. To her, voodoo is a means to an end, that end being that Pablo (Sayyid El Alami), her beau, has his soul bound to hers. To Katy (Katiana Milfort), a Haitian voodoo priestess, and to Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat), Katy’s niece and Fanny’s literary sorority sister, it’s a spiritual discipline, an aesthetic and a way of life, rich with beauty but carefully marked by caution signs to keep practitioners from making decisions they’ll regret. Zombi Child treats voodoo as a character in its own right, a living organism to be revered and not screwed around with. Naturally, Fanny’s first instinct upon hearing of Mélissa’s ancestry and her connection to voodoo is to try and screw around with it, as if voodoo is a class of magic in D&D rather than a set of syncretic religions practiced in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Louisiana and Brazil. Mélissa tries educating Fanny and her friends on what voodoo means to her as the granddaughter of Clairvius Narcisse, on whose life Zombi Child is based: In 1962, Narcisse (played here by Mackenson Bijou), died, was buried, then returned to life as a zombie, meaning he was actually mickeyed with a melange that made him seem dead, buried alive, then dug up by plantation owners who forced him to harvest sugar cane as their stupefied thrall. Zombi Child isn’t a horror movie. It does, however, take notes from horror grammar, and the audacity of Bonello’s filmmaking is enough to inspire madness. But the heart that drives Zombi Child forward beats in the pursuit of cultural justice. The film wrestles with identity, and with whiteness especially, and with France’s reputation as an icon of revolution alongside its unflattering reputation as a colonial power guilty of inhuman atrocities. The conclusions Bonello draws are inevitably vague, but the most important message is obvious: That’s cultural appropriation. —Andy Crump


48. On the Rocks

47-On-the-Rocks-best-2020.jpg

Watch on Apple TV+

Sofia Coppola’s new movie On the Rocks starts out as a story of possessive fatherhood, with Felix (Bill Murray) narrating to his teenage daughter, Laura: “And remember, don’t give your heart to any boys. You are mine until you get married. Then you’re still mine.” The girl laughs off the declaration as a jape, which turns out to be a catastrophic tactical mistake. In her womanhood, Laura (Rashida Jones), does indeed get married to a man, Dean (Marlon Wayans), and they have two beautiful daughters of their own, eldest Maya (Liyanna Muscat) and youngest Theo (Alexandra Mary Reimer). Dean is spearheading his own startup, a company that provides vaguely sketched-out services but which keeps him not only busy but in constant motion. Laura stays at home with the girls and, when she’s afforded rare moments of peaceful alone time, attempts to write a book the way Sisyphus attempts to push a boulder up a hill. She’s in a rut. Dean’s on the rise. He’s so often cross-country that the yawning gap between them is visible from the stratosphere, and then along comes Felix to sweep Laura up and indulge her fear that Dean in fact might be plowing his assistant, Fiona (Jessica Henwick), a knockout at least 10 years her junior. So begins a caper as Felix, protective by way of outmoded patriarchal charm, endeavors to prove Dean’s infidelity to prop Laura back up using all of his cunning and a not insignificant chunk of his wealth and social capital.

On the Rocks suggests that men grown old are really just babies with an insatiable need for the world to love them, their kids—their daughters—in particular. Their childishness is revealed by the volume of their charisma: the taller the tales, the costlier the tab, the more blatant the flirt, the more extravagant the lifestyle, the more a man’s insecurity is revealed. Laura is at once drawn to and repelled by Felix. In light of Felix’s screed to young Laura, this is the inevitable crest of their bond, but Coppola’s gentle, yearning filmmaking generates sympathy for the father and empathy for the daughter. —Andy Crump


47. News of the World

46-News-world-best-2020.jpg

In theaters now and available on PVOD starting January 15, 2021.

Paul Greengrass and screenwriting partner Luke Davies may have adapted Paulette Jiles’ 2016 Western novel News of the World at least in partial consideration of how far the United States hasn’t come as a nation—around the time of the book’s publication, such cursed phrases as “fake news” and “alternative facts” were inducted into popular language by fascists and crooks attempting to pull a fast one on the American people. Neither of these terms, nor their equally grotesque cousins, make their way into Greengrass’ film, but the spirit that conjured them into being four years ago is alive and well in his recreation of the American frontier. His hero is Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks), a Confederate Civil War veteran who, having stood on the losing side of history, moseys across the Lone Star State and reads out-of-town papers to the locals at each stop on his journeys. The movie doesn’t exactly ask the viewer to overlook which side of the war Kidd stood on: In fact, the truth of his old allegiances becomes more unavoidable the less directly they’re spoken of. This is Texas. An erstwhile soldier in Texas could only have fought on one side of the aisle. News of the World damns Kidd without having to say a word. But as soon as the film judges him, it presents him with a chance at redemption in the form of a girl, Johanna (Helena Zengel). Zengel is a fresh spark in an otherwise old-fashioned production, but old-fashioned here is a compliment. News of the World has no interest in subverting or updating classic Western formulas: It is content with its function as a handsomely-made studio picture, built ostensibly around Hanks but with plenty of room for its young star to make her mark. What modernizes the movie has more to do with context than content. Anyone trapped in indentured servitude to social media—Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or worse, other people’s Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts—should appreciate this calming two-hour reprieve from the unavoidable din publishers and platforms make in our lives today. There’s such a thing as too much news, whether for better or worse, and News of the World only tries to give us the best. —Andy Crump


46. Beanpole

45-Beanpole-best-2020.jpg

Watch on Mubi

Russian filmmaker Kantemir Balagov’s Cannes hit Beanpole is as harrowing and moving as its title is disarming. The Leningrad-set story of two women ravaged by World War II is disturbingly intimate, rife with personal failure and grief. There is a lack of nutrition, housing, jobs, clothing, heat—you name it, they lack it. But the absence of these physical necessities (elegantly shown through production design) only masks the greater gaping wound lurking higher atop Maslow’s hierarchy: The dearth of fulfillment, even the illusion of such, is deadly. The towering Iya AKA Beanpole (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) and her anti-aircraft crewmate/friend Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina) throb like toothaches in every colorful frame. Perelygina is particularly good as a woman who loses, then seeks, a child. Pain plays around the corners of her tight, always-smiling lips as the tension therein threatens to shatter her whole facade…eventually doing just that. The build-up and breakdowns in Beanpole turn what could’ve simply been lush misery porn into lyrical studies of exhaustion and despondency derived from PTSD and other side effects of full-scale war. It’s all in the performances. Compassion lurks beneath the surface, particularly in lovely scenes featuring a quadriplegic soldier (Konstantin Balakirev), but Beanpole is quick to remind you that the trauma persists and everything—and everyone—is wartorn, even if they don’t quite look it.—Jacob Oller


45. La Llorona

44-llorona-best-2020.jpg

Watch on Shudder

Beyond colorful figures and fantastical tales, folklore often serves to transmit sage advice or words of caution from generation to generation. But what happens when there is a widespread, organized attempt to snuff out the intergenerational structure that allows for these stories and cultural traditions to thrive? In La Llorona, Guatemalan director Jayro Bustamente posits that when the national narrative refuses to recognize the atrocities its own country committed against an entire ethnic group, weaponizing popular legends in order to convey horrifying reality is perhaps the most effective rallying cry—alongside the anguished wails of a tortured mother. La Llorona centers on the family of General Enrique Monteverde (Julio Diaz), who stands trial for decades-old war crimes perpetrated against indigenous villages in Guatemala. Though found guilty, much like Efraín Ríos Montt, Monteverde’s conviction is ultimately overturned, causing mass demonstrations that are eventually localized outside of Monteverde’s lavish estate.

Bustamante’s La Llorona is less concerned with eliciting genre conventions than it is ensuring that the visceral terror felt by those who were persecuted is given a global platform. There is no need for gratuitous jump-scares or bone-chilling monsters when flesh-and-blood boogeymen walk among us, their sadism justified by the country’s highest order and international courts. In fact, the struggle for indigenous liberation is so ingrained in the film that Rigoberta Menchú, whose advocacy regarding the oppression of her native K’iche’ people in Guatemala (and indigenous struggles globally) earned her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992, was involved in the film’s trajectory and even has a brief cameo.—Natalia Keogan


44. Shaun the Sheep: Farmageddon

43-Shaun-sheep-best-2020.jpg

Watch on Netflix

The second Aardman film featuring the smirking, chuckling lil’ scamp Shaun the Sheep, A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon takes all the painstakingly lovely claymation of the studio’s previous film and its Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run-filled filmography (which see cameos over the course of the media-stuffed movie) and gives it a broad coat of sci-fi paint. The resulting slapstick, which sees cute baby alien Lu-La stumble onto Mossy Bottom Farm, traverses territory familiar to any fan of the genre while making it accessible to everyone—think of it like a hilarious silent comedy giving young kids a piggyback ride through the likes of E.T., Close Encounters, and The X-Files. Helmers Richard Phelan and Will Becher keep things lively and sharp, with a rollicking pace and diverse antics that are as timeless, hilarious, and age-agnostic as the work of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd. Just fluffier.

Farmageddon even taps a bit into a Pixar-esque message system (albeit a simpler theme targeted towards a younger set) about kindness and empathy regardless of differences. It’s a soft and simple movie, with much more in common with the easygoing vibe of kid’s animated TV rather than the sharpest of British comedy, but it’s one that’s completely enjoyable—and that’s a rarity for any film, let alone one basically guaranteed to put at least one livestock-driven smile on your face. —Jacob Oller


43. Mangrove

42-Mangrove-best-2020.jpg

Watch on Amazon Prime

Mangrove is one of filmmaker Steve McQueen’s greatest films not only because it is an exceptional piece of filmmaking, but because it shows off virtually every one of McQueen’s strengths. The first half looks at the state-sponsored terrorizing of the Mangrove restaurant, a Notting Hill restaurant opened by Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) in 1968 that became a hub for the West Indian community and British Black Panthers. After a demonstration protesting the Mangrove’s treatment is swarmed by the racist police force, nine of the participants (including Crichlow himself) are framed for inciting a riot. The second half of the film follows their trial and the toll it takes on them. From start to finish, McQueen fires on all cylinders, shining a light on a largely forgotten piece of history and drawing exceptional performances out of the entire cast (but in particular Parkes and Malachi Kirby). Many of Mangrove’s most beautiful moments, including its climax, hold tight on Parkes’ face and let us experience intense pain, rage, fear, joy and relief through the bottomless wells of his soulful brown eyes. And it is thrilling: The earlier scenes of police, skulking down streets like apex predators, both disturb and terrify. But McQueen is able to accomplish seamless tonal shifts, with those same police officers’ interrogation in a later courtroom scene proving absurd and hilarious. Particular praise must also be given to cinematographer Shabier Kirchner. The use of camera in this film is as unpredictable as it is beautiful, making every moment visceral and riveting. McQueen picks out unusual shots and angles to give every scene the thoughtful composition of a Vermeer. There is a pure poetry to Mangrove, and an implicit footnote: The bravery of these activists will eventually be captured by a Black filmmaker and turned into one of his greatest works (so far) and one of the best British film of the decade.—Leila Latif


42. Freaky

41-Freaky-best-2020.jpg

Available on PVOD

On its face, the prospect of resurrecting two franchise IPs which have been endlessly re-made decade after decade teeters on the banal and unimaginative. Yet director Christopher Landon’s Freaky effortlessly weaves together the conventions of Freaky Friday and Friday the 13th, eschewing the confines of “remake,” instead creating a unique genre hybrid that’s slick and endlessly entertaining—all the while maintaining a clever self-awareness which enlivens the film’s jump-scares and punchlines without descending into the horror-comedy pitfall of self-referential metaness.

What follows is a binary-bending comic exercise in sexual fluidity and gender expression which juxtaposes Vince Vaughn’s hefty stature with Kathryn Newton’s petite frame in order to prod at the horror genre’s previously held notion of who is perceived as weak, both in attitude and appearance. Vaughn and Newton give stellar performances, channeling the other’s mannerisms while poking fun at their own corporeal limitations and their immediate (dis)comfort within their new vessels. It’s heartening to see that the horror genre—still undeniably male-dominated—persists in its commitment to pushing boundaries. Whether those boundaries demarcate what we are able to stomach in terms of violence or what we are able to unpack within our own internal concepts of gender and sexuality, Freaky joins these tenets in order to craft a horror story rife with unexpected, imaginative kills all while subverting societal expectations of who we should really be afraid of—and why.—Natalia Keogan


41. City Hall

city-hall-inline.jpg

Available for rent

The complex and often paradoxical nature of institutions is the definitive interest of prolific documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, and at age 90 he’s released his 46th film, a four-hour-and-32-minute epic examining Boston’s City Hall. Whether in board rooms, on garbage routes or inside Boston apartments, Wiseman reveals the broad scale and impact of city government in all of its glory—when this well-oiled machine works seamlessly, that is—but also highlights the lack of essential services and resources for Boston’s most vulnerable communities and citizens. Wiseman paints intimate portraits of parts of society that on the surface might seem banal and unextraordinary, but are in fact exhilarating in their hidden details. The filmmaker’s verité style of filming allows the viewer to not only be a spectator, but a student of the mechanics of these systems. There are no interviews, narration or text to guide us; instead, we’re completely absorbed in the spaces and interactions Wiseman films, eventually becoming embedded in the institutions he unpacks.

While City Hall is certainly drenched in Wiseman’s trademark style, it is also distinct among the filmmaker’s massive catalogue due to his personal relationship with Boston: He was born and raised in the city and taught at Boston University before his film career. His first film, the 1967 documentary Titicut Follies, depicts the squalid living conditions of the Bridgewater State Hospital at the time, located only 25 miles outside of the city. The filmmaker also took to Boston for the similarly-lengthy 1989 film Near Death, which follows patients and medical personnel in the ICU at Beth Israel Hospital. City Hall feels like a homecoming film for Wiseman in many ways—returning to a city that served as both residence and inspiration for the filmmaker throughout his career. —Natalia Keogan


40. Premature

39-Premature-best-2020.jpg

Watch on Hulu

There’s young love, and then there’s love that blooms too young. Rashaad Ernesto Green’s sophomore feature focuses on the latter, one that shapes futures and strains hearts. Premature is about love happening to two people before either is ready, about the euphoric high of their first kiss descending over the course of 90 minutes into the nearly cataclysmic low of decisions made on impulse and under duress. It’s a gorgeous, shattering film, unapologetically real about a number of very real subjects, plot-agnostic but driven by character, consequence and compassion. Green co-wrote Premature with his lead, Zora Howard. Her performance isn’t effortless, it’s effort-conscious: playing Ayanna, a 17-year-old woman balancing her college aspirations and an unexpected summer romance with 20-something NYC transplant Isaiah (Joshua Boone), demands soul-searching. Howard agonizes quietly and internally with the opportunities left for Ayanna to take or leave. But as much as Howard and Boone project maturity, and Green’s filmmaking constructs an illusion of experience around them, they’re still functionally kids. Ayanna recites her poetry in voiceover at intervals throughout the film, each monologue demonstrating her gradual, painful growth. In turn, Green and cinematographer Laura Valladao emphasize an aesthetic that tends toward the palliative. Premature’s naturalism has the effect of sanding its edges; the film doesn’t keep reality’s creeping dread out of the picture entirely, but instead pushes it to the margins, where a shifting landscape in Harlem and Black American anxieties hover patiently. High stakes to put on first love, but first love doesn’t happen in a vacuum. —Andy Crump


39. Sorry We Missed You

38-Sorry-we-missed-you-best-2020.jpg

Available for rent.

Ken Loach’s movies typically force viewers to acknowledge the toll a job can take on both body and spirit. Without fuss or forced moralizing, Sorry We Missed You performs this service for the folks who thanklessly zip about town dropping off parcels ordered yesterday by people who actually needed them a week before. The movie demystifies the browser sorcery of one-click purchases by humanizing, for better and for worse, the mechanics behind this modern-day ministration: Loach starts with Ricky (Kris Hitchen), head of the Turner family, who is first met interviewing Maloney (Ross Brewster), his boss-to-be, for a post as an owner-driver for a third-party delivery outfit nestled in North England. Maloney seems reasonable enough. He hears Ricky’s story, at least, his history as a blue-collar man whose years of hard labor have left him craving for freedom from micromanaging bosses. Ricky wants to be his own boss now, and Maloney’s spiel about choice and self-agency appeals to his wants. It’s all an illusion, of course, and the economy of Laverty’s writing succinctly lays out the tension between Ricky’s ambitions and the crushing realities of the position he’s sought out. The gift of personal determination Maloney offers him is a Trojan horse containing seeds of poverty. The way this job works, every package Ricky hands off is another row sown in his inevitable destitution. It’s sick. It’s barbaric. It’s just one problem among several the Turners deal with as a direct consequence of Ricky’s enterprise. He has to sell off, for instance, the family car, which his wife, Abbie (Debbie Honeywood), uses for her own career as a home care nurse, which means she has to use public transportation, which is another stress added to an already stressful job made more stressful by her boss, who like Maloney doesn’t really give a damn about Abbie as a person—only as a hireling. Sorry We Missed You operates on a micro-level with contrastingly astronomical stakes. It’s a movie about one small family—including, apart from Kris and Debbie, their mulish teen son, Seb (Rhys Stone), and younger, sweethearted daughter, Liza Jane (Katie Proctor)—doomed to the streets if either Dad or Mom missteps. They have no safety net. They have no contingency plan. Worst of all, Kris and Debbie both have jobs designed to wring the most out of them with the least compensation or compassion in exchange. The perils of parenthood are enough without having to answer the question of how the lights stay on every day. —Andy Crump


38. Koko-di Koko-da

37-Koko-di-koka-da-best-2020.jpg

Available for rent.

Johannes Nyholm’s Koko-di Koko-da roots through the stack of anxieties felt under COVID-19’s stresses, picks out a single thread and sings a wicked nursery rhyme about it: The film isn’t about disease, but about living the same day on repeat while you’re grieving. Nyholm unwittingly considers the consequences of an outbreak without building a narrative around one at all, a happy accident made happier by the fact of the film’s long road to commercial release. Koko-di Koko-da premiered at Sundance 2019, secured a distribution deal for November of that year, got pushed back to March 2020, got taken off the calendar by COVID-19, and now, roughly a year after its original intended release, is finally here to give viewers a mirror for examining their dread. At least none of the characters catch a deadly virus!

Someday, one intrepid horror journalist will sit down at their desk, fire off a salvo of emails, make a few dozen calls, do the legwork, and tell the story of how 2020 became the year of pre-pandemic pandemic horror. In the meantime, Koko-di Koko-da deserves appreciation for exceptional craftsmanship and command of tone. Nyholm’s horror explores a side of bereavement where nihilism collides with unexpected hope: The way through collective mourning is horrible, but that means there is indeed a way through. —Andy Crump


37. She Dies Tomorrow

36-She-dies-tomorrow-2020.jpg

Watch on Hulu

Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil), for inexplicable reasons, is infernally convinced that tomorrow’s the day she’s going to meet her maker. Making a bad situation worse, her confidence is catching: Through an eerie, fatalist game of telephone, her friends and family, and even total strangers with whom they interact, come to believe they’re going to die tomorrow, too. It’s almost like they’ve been gaslit, except they’re the ones soaking themselves with lighter fluid, sparking off a chain reaction of macabre determinism in which each person afflicted by the curse of languages sees the end coming for them in 24 hours or less. Whatever force has Amy so assured of her impending doom, whatever entity has lodged in her mind pictures of her passing, director Amy Seimetz keeps its presence minimal. She’s focused on outcomes and not on confrontations. There’s no resisting death, after all. Everybody has to go sometime. Jason (Chris Messina), brother to Jane (Jane Adams), Amy’s bestie, even says as much while washing the dishes with his wife, Susan (Katie Aselton), both of them having caught Amy’s bummer pathogens from Jane when she crashes her sister-in-law’s birthday dinner party. He glances at the window over the kitchen sink and sees the same sight as Amy just 20 minutes prior: vivid flashing lights, red and blue at first, then yellow, green, violet, each color interspersed with split second jolts of images that to the naked eye are best described as “uterine.” Jason’s going to die tomorrow. Susan’s going to die tomorrow. Seimetz and editor Kate Brokaw cut to Tilly (Jennifer Kim) and Brian (Tunde Adebimpe), Jason and Susan’s dinner guests, smiling and crying as they, too, see the lights. Viewers will gravitate toward their own characters with whom they can identify, whether they’re pissed or petrified. Mercifully, She Dies Tomorrow’s exploration of inevitable human fate expresses more about death than angst and ennui. We’re inclined to put off tomorrow because tomorrow guarantees a new round of soul-crushing devastation. Thinking about tomorrow, however, prepares us to resist the crush. Counting days inflicts only as much anguish as we allow. Maybe we’ll die tomorrow. —Andy Crump


36. The History of the Seattle Mariners

35-History-seattle-mariners-best-2020.jpg

Watch on YouTube

“There is nothing on this planet that makes less sense than baseball.” This, a conclusion stated cursorily deep into the 220 minutes of Jon Bois and Alex Rubenstein’s marvelous The History of the Seattle Mariners. Presented through SBNation (where the duo publishes under their “Dorktown” banner) and originally released as a six-part opus—now on YouTube in one long, glorious supercut omnibus—this is their century-spanning quest to determine why the Mariners, a notoriously and epochally “bad” team, counts as one of their favorite franchises, and what “bad” even means in the context of a sport so surreal, so indefatigably weird, that there exists the urge in any human to launch such an exhaustive effort in the first place. What ostensibly appears to be esoterica dressed in lazy graphic design quickly reveals an astounding dramatic depth told with clarity and foresight: The History of the Seattle Mariners exists solely within a navy blue calendar, each square representing a season, every single stat and news clipping and graph and graphic buried strategically within its welcoming symmetry. The friendly voice over, exchanged between our two directors, is infectious, relaying one anecdote after another, introducing characters with satisfying arcs and believable motivations, explaining the significance of mind-boggling numbers and mind-numbing minutiae to grasp at the human undercurrent beneath all that boredom. One need not know anything about baseball to appreciate a line as sterling as “Jay Buhner had just executed a triple blurp in the middle of a baseball game,” and one need not even know the rules of the game to become emotionally invested in a line, and only a line, as it creeps along yet another bar graph. It’s hard to imagine more storytelling more miraculous than this to come out of 2020. —Dom Sinacola


35. Driveways

34-Driveways-best-2020.jpg

Watch on Showtime

Loneliness looks different for the lonely depending on their circumstances, and Andrew Ahn’s sophomore feature, Driveways, captures that spectrum through character. For single mom Kathy (Hong Chau), loneliness means sitting amongst the clutter of her dead sister’s house, dwarfed by junk crammed into every corner and piled to the ceiling. For widower Del (Brian Dennehy), loneliness is literal: He lives alone in the house he shared with his wife for decades before her death, their only daughter having relocated to Seattle years prior. For Kathy’s son Cody (Lucas Jaye), loneliness is a weird blessing: Social anxiety makes him hurl; he’s happier reading or playing video games. Still, Cody wants to play with other kids, or at least he wants to want to, and Kathy, being a concerned mom, knows that even pleasant self-imposed isolation has adverse effects on children. Fortunately for both of them, Del is eager for company, though, as a man of a certain disposition, he’s not exactly the type to appear eager. Regardless, while Kathy cleans out her sister’s place, Del and Cody slowly bond, though their chummy and charming friendship has an expiration date: Kathy and Cody are out of towners staying in the unnamed New York hamlet where Del dwells only for as long as it takes to get the house settled and up for sale. As their time is short, so too is Driveways, a brisk, breezy 80 minutes where conflict is minimal and compassion prevails. Driveways is a simple picture about simple acts of human kindness; Ahn shot Driveways several years ago, and he premiered the film a hundred years ago at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2019, so neither he nor writers Hannah Bos nor Paul Thureen mean to make any comment on what gets airplay on the daily news, but American antipathy is a real thing and Driveways is the accidental salve the rest of us need for our current era of callous stupidity. —Andy Crump


34. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

33-Ma-rainey-best-2020.jpg

Watch on Netflix

Fittingly, Chadwick Boseman’s final role is all about the blues. The late actor’s appearance in Netflix’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the August Wilson adaptation from director George C. Wolfe and writer Ruben Santiago-Hudson, is equal parts actorly showcase, angry eulogy and comprehensive lament—boiled together in the sweaty kitchen of a ‘20s Chicago recording session. A story of ambition’s multiple facets and eventual endpoints, Ma Rainey revolves around those orbiting its title character (Viola Davis). She’s a blues legend at the top of her game, finally appreciated (at least in some parts of the country) and ripe for exploitation by white men in suits. As if she’d let them. She’s comfortably late to record an album, leaving everyone else to kick up their heels and shoot the shit in true Wilson style—with Santiago-Hudson finding the essence of Wilson’s work. Davis’ brutal performance, made all the more potent by her avalanche of makeup and glistening sweat, perfectly sets the scene. She, alongside loosened neckties and whirring fans, gives the film its intended temperature and gravity so that Boseman and the rest of her band members can zip around like fireflies ambling in the summer heat.

With tragic serendipity, Boseman leaves us a gift: he is on fire. Lean, with the camera placements and props emphasizing his gangly limbs (there’s a reason he wields a squashed and squat flugelhorn, a jazz staple that happens to work better visually), Levee is a highly physical role despite the chatty source material: It’s all about capturing attention, sometimes literally tap-dancing for it, with any ounce of shame overrun by an anxious energy. High-strung, twitchy and tense during a nearly five-minute monologue, Levee seems to sense the window to his dream is closing: Time is running out. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is more than Boseman’s performance, sure, with Davis and Colman Domingo going on some delicious tears of their own and Wilson’s words continuing to sear and soar in equal measure. But Boseman’s ownership of the film, an Oscar-worthy snapshot of potential and desire, gives an otherwise lovely and broad tragedy something specific to sing about.—Jacob Oller


33. The Whistlers

32-Whistlers-best-2020.jpg

Watch on Hulu

Director Corneliu Porumboiu is no stranger to procedures or regulations, nor insensitive to the ways in which the strictures we impose on ourselves and others end up wrapping us up from within. His previous film, the documentary Infinite Football, allows his friend Laurentiu Ginghina time and cinematic space to explain the many modifications and new rules to enact in order to, he believes, completely revitalize the sport of football—all while exorcising the trauma of post-Communist Romania. The crime drama, then, is a genre particularly suited to Porumboiu’s concerns, and his latest, The Whistlers, appears as much a pulp exercise as a stylish deconstruction of social order in all its forms, from the institutions of justice to the basic tenets of language. In it, laconic, mild-mannered cop Cristi (Vlad Ivanov) navigates an elaborate schema of criminal enterprise and double-crossing police to walk away with a life-changing amount of stolen drug money. The key to much of the film’s convolution can be found on La Gomera, in the Canary Islands, where Cristi learns a native whistling language called El Silbo in order to clandestinely communicate with archetypal folks like Gilda (Catrinel Marlon), the girlfriend of Zsolt (Sabin Tambrea) who owns a mattress warehouse through which he’ll abscond with money stolen from mob boss Paco (Augusti Villaronga), all while avoiding Police Chief Magda (Rodica Lazar), Cristi’s boss and another remnant of Communist Romania left to her own self-serving motivations. Though Porumboiu recalibrates a typical neo-noir plot by playing with chronologies and perspectives, adding a dose of pitch-black humor to leaven the film’s ostensible bleakness—and cinematographer Tudor Mircea’s shots of the Spanish coast are something to behold—rather than amounting to placeholders lost in a twisty plot twisted for the sake of it, Porumboiu’s many players survive the chaos. They are defined by it. We understand who these people are through the ways in which they struggle to escape the system. And by the time we’ve untangled the film’s plot, we’re offered a final moment of catharsis, a sense—after 90 minutes of state-sanctioned violence and depravity—of what freedom feels like. —Dom Sinacola


32. The Wild Goose Lake

31-Wild-goose-best-2020.jpg

Watch on Tubi

We know where this is going: A neo-noir shot through with romantic fatalism and impressionist hints of ultra-violence—think Nicolas Winding Refn’s Gosling duology without the primordial fear of sex—Chinese director Diao Yinan’s fourth feature may feel only surface-deep, but oh the inevitability that thrives beneath its rain-soaked neon and pouty protagonist. Noir tropes abound (wreaths of cigarette smoke pumping from the lungs of hopelessly beautiful riff-raff; rain; double- and triple-crosses; helplessly saturated colors obscuring post-industrial collapse) as the fate of gangster Zhao Zhenong (Hu Ge), linked inextricably to sex worker Liu Aiai (Gwei Lun-mei), avoids both a happy conclusion and, somehow, Chinese censors. We know where this is going, but we’re seduced regardless by the director and cinematographer Dong Jinsong’s oneiric mise-en-scene. A brawl among bikers in a dingy cellar plays out like a forgotten memory, images hewed down to their bones and lit with second sense; a chase through a zoo feels like a prelapsarian hallucination, animals appearing to stare blinklessly on the follies of man. Another man loses his head quite brutally, a punchline too grisly to find funny. In The Wild Goose Lake’s starkest moments, silliness shakes hands with tragedy, betraying the desperation at its heart. We know where this is going; we’re unable to turn back. —Dom Sinacola


31. Tenet

30-Tenet-best-2020.jpg

Available for rent.

A classic Christopher Nolan puzzle box, at first glance Tenet is a lot like Inception. The central conceit that powers it is both cerebral and requires copious on-screen exposition. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. Nolan’s films always have at least one person trying to get their head around what exactly is going on, and it makes sense the audience would be as confused as the Protagonist (John David Washington), especially early on. Also, as with Inception, Tenet is basically a series of heists—smaller puzzle boxes within the larger one—which means while the viewer may not understand exactly what’s going on big picture, they will find the immediate action briskly paced and compellingly presented. Still, despite a compelling performance from Kenneth Branagh as antagonist Andrei Sator, the cerebral underpinnings and and even as the exact mechanics of this particular puzzle may demand more from the filmmaker than the audience, no amount of painstakingly crafted “time-inverted” action sequences nor Ludwig Göransson’s sweeping score can fill that hole occupied by a sympathetic main character, which Tenet lacks. None of this rests on Washington. Past Nolan protagonists like McConaughey (Interstellar), Pearce (Memento) and DiCaprio (Inception) not only had actual names, they had relatable motives and discernible emotional arcs. And though personal growth and emotional depth are hardly necessary ingredients in a spy thriller—just look at Bond, classic Bond—with so much else about Nolan’s script a mental exercise made real, some emotional stakes would be helpful to bring it alive. That might keep Tenet from the #1 slot on this year’s Best Sci-Fi list, but it shouldn’t keep lovers of the genre from seeing the only big budget science fiction to debut in theaters in 2020. —Michael Burgin


30. Family Romance, LLC

family-romance-llc-inline.jpg

Watch on Mubi

Shooting narrative fiction like he would anything else he makes hardly does Werner Herzog any favors—the worst of this recent output being Salt and Fire, wherein Gael Garcia Bernal has diarrhea so bad he leaves the movie entirely. Which is meant to be a joke, but given Herzog’s inability to convey contrived scenarios in any way but a-narratively, circumstance and shades of verite style making his every movie seem like some sort of experimental documentary, it doesn’t read like a joke. It’s a weird, uncomfortable extension of a context we as an audience aren’t partial to. We’re concerned more than amused, repulsed more than compelled. Did he really have diarrhea? We’re not sure what’s going on.

In Family Romance, LLC, filmed two years ago in Tokyo with non-professional actors, Herzog toys with the jarring nature of his docu-drama exigencies, able to plumb the depths of his self-awareness—perhaps his most lovable attribute as a filmmaker—in ways more heartbreaking and humanistic than anything he’s made in over a decade. Following small business owner Yuichi Ishii (playing himself) as he spends a day in the park with his estranged daughter (Mahiro), then meets with Mahiro’s mother (Miki Fujimaki), then accepts payment for services rendered pretending quite successfully to be Mahiro’s dad, then attends a meeting with a new client, who asks that one of Yuichi’s employees take the place of her sick husband during their daughter’s wedding, we move through the strangeness of this apparently real business, Family Romance, LLC, which rents out actors to play family members. How could anyone do this to their loved one? How could these actors keep from growing closer to the people they’re pretending to love? How come no one figures this out? Is this really a thing? Herzog provides lilting space for us to question the lovely artificiality of Yuichi’s encounters with faux family members—samurai LARPing and robot hotels and proper hedgehog maintenance find moments for reverie—then climbs nimbly out of the uncanny valley. Everyone knows the actor isn’t the bride’s real dad; her real dad is a drunk who will embarrass her on her wedding day, guaranteed, and all she really needs is a supportive father figure by her side. Despite the contrivance surrounding it, real or concocted, it’s a moment that rings achingly correct—a moment of quiet sublimity in our noisy world, found in a time when the world seems tapped out. Like all of Herzog’s best films, Family Romance, LLC reveals itself slowly, its greatness stumbled upon like a half-remembered dream of fake samurais committing fake seppuku, but filled with very real regret. —Dom Sinacola


29. Minari

Minari had a one-week virtual release and will hit theaters on February 12, 2021.

It’s a peculiar film to emerge as the hot pick out of Sundance—in Lee Isaac Chung’s magnificent Minari, a Korean-American couple with two young children moves to rural Arkansas to try their hand at starting a farm. Eventually the kids’ grandmother comes to live with them as well. Oh, and there’s a prayer-yelling local who helps them. That doesn’t exactly scream “hot Sundance pick,” does it? But Chung’s direction, award-worthy performances from Steven Yuen and Will Patton, and the best kid performance in years from young Alan Kim produce a true masterpiece that will reverberate far beyond Park City. Each line, each movement, each shot contains worlds of meaning. Minari is a wonder, a crucial step forward in Chung’s red-hot career, and a richly deserving recipient of this year’s Audience and Grand Jury awards, both of which it did indeed win. Sometimes everybody gets it right. This was clearly the best film of Sundance 2020, and I doubt I’ll see a better film all year. —Michael Dunaway


28. One Night in Miami

50-One-night-miami-best-2020.jpg

Available in theaters, hitting Amazon on January 15.

A barebones summary of One Night in Miami sounds like a dude’s delight movie: Four men out on the town, no attachments to keep them in line, and a limit to their evening revelry that extends skyward. But the four men are Sam Cooke, Cassius Clay, Jim Brown, and most of all Malcolm X; the town is actually the Magic City; and the specific evening is February 25, 1964, when heavyweight boxing champion Sonny Liston crossed gloves with Clay and lost his title in an upset. Subjects crossing the characters’ lips include, of course, boxing, and women, and rowdiness, but they’re joined by other, more important subjects like Black American identity, American identity, and how the two interact with one another.

But that doesn’t rob One Night in Miami of the “delight” clause, thanks in no small part to crackling performances by a cast comprising a cadre of exceptional young actors (Eli Goree, Leslie Odom Jr., Aldis Hodge, Kingsley Ben-Adir), and directed with cool confidence by Regina King in her feature debut. Her adaptation of Kemp Powers’ stage play is a historical document written to presuppose what conversations these fellows might’ve had in private and away from prying ears, a compelling fiction rooted in reality. It’s also thoroughly entertaining, witty, and exuberant. This isn’t a film about meaningless carousing. It’s about conversations that actually matter. —Andy Crump


27. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets

27-Bloody-nose-empty-pocket-best-2020.jpg

Available to rent.

Songs of the soul flow from the drunken mouths of the jukebox-loving inebriates in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets. The Ross brothers have created a prototype barroom experience: It is closing night for the fictionalized Roaring 20’s in Las Vegas, a real bar actually operating in their home base of New Orleans, and the regulars, led by local professional actor Michael Martin and otherwise populated with true bar-frequenting non-actors, have come together to kiss their favorite watering hole goodbye. Its much-discussed fictional framework is merely that—a framework—beneath which legitimate human interactions play out, with characters representing themselves and actually drinking the night away. There is authentic war vet commiseration and romantic longing, bartender-led singalongs and, inevitably, one guy trying to fight another “with eyes tattooed on his eyelids.” The holy trinity of dive bar life—despondency, frivolity and pugnacity—is present and spiritually enriching.

As always, the Ross bros depict those before their camera with the deepest care and respect. Pangs of regret and anguish sound between moments of hilarious drunken crosstalk, with Martin’s character pulling in close his younger, rambunctious four-eyed friend and imploring him not to likewise spend his life in a bar. The film runs the gamut of drunken night emotions, from wistful dancing to maudlin bouts of self-loathing, but the mood is never pinned to any specific emotion; it is less about one peak or one valley than it is about creating the shape of a waveform in itself. Yet each crest and trough is tinged with the fleeting feeling of the other: To be low is to be touched by the immense depth of drunken feelings, and to be high is to ride forth in embarrassing obliviousness. But somehow the images never whiff exploitation; they radiate a sense of humanity and an understanding of these American outcasts, who will surely flit from one closing bar to the next. What awaits them thereafter is a mystery, and perhaps a sad story we do not need to know. —Daniel Christian


26. Yes, God, Yes

26-Yes-god-best-2020.jpg

Watch on Netflix

A Christian’s hypocrisy is accurately measured by their piety: The louder they caterwaul about other people’s sins, the more likely they are to have a closet packed with their own perversions. Karen Maine gets it. Her debut feature, Yes, God, Yes, adapted from her debut short of the same name, is glazed around a big, moist cake of sexual sanctimony. Fart-sniffing Christian holier-than-thou gossipmongers fall on the perceived weakling of their flock, young Alice (Natalia Dyer), accused of tossing salad even though she doesn’t even know what the blue hell that means.

Alice actually is innocent, unlike her peers. Her only wrongdoing isn’t wrong at all: She stumbles onto an AOL chat room, catches a glimpse of some hardcore porn sans context, and then decides to start discovering her own body just before she’s sent off on a retreat run by Father Murphy (Timothy Simons), a man with a necessarily wide smile, stretched so far that his face is primed to split but in danger of collapsing should he stop. Yes, God, Yes stitches Alice’s coming of age to a culture where talking about coming is verboten; Maine looks for humor in her experiential screenplay and finds it, but it’s a bleak kind of humor punctuated by hopelessness. If the authority figures in a society break the rules they set out for everyone else to follow, then navigating that society as a reasonable person is impossible. But Dyer’s spirited work as Alice gives the film a plucky heart. Maybe she can’t affect actual change here, but she can, at least, do right by herself. Dyer’s star has risen in the last half decade or so, and Yes, God, Yes further validates her gifts as an actress. Maine lets the camera linger on Dyer’s face when she’s confronted with obscenity, and Dyer lets her eyes and mouth and cheeks perform hilarious, expressive gymnastics. At the same time, she conveys fear—the fear of realizing that the adults of Alice’s life are all bullshit artists, the fear of having no one to confide in about her natural curiosities and urges—with wounded brilliance. She’s the perfect actress to realize Maine’s deft critique of religious sexual duplicity. —Andy Crump


25. Da 5 Bloods

25-Da-5-bloods-best-2020.jpg

Watch on Netflix

The hunt for buried gold neither ends well nor goes off without a hitch. The long road to reconciliation, whether with one’s trauma, family or national identity, is never without bumps. Glue these truths together with the weathering effects of institutional racism, add myriad references to history—American history, music history, film history—and you get Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, a classically styled Vietnam action picture made in his cinematic vision. As in 2018’s BlacKkKlansman, Lee connects the dots between past and present, linking the struggle for civil rights couched in conscientious objection and protest to contemporary America’s own struggle against state-sanctioned fascism. After opening with a montage of events comprising and figures speaking out against the Vietnam War, referred to predominantly as the American War throughout the rest of the movie, Lee introduces four of the five bloods: Otis (Clarke Peters), Paul (Delroy Lindo), Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), bonded Vietnam vets returned to Ho Chi Minh City ostensibly to find and recover the bones of their fallen squad leader, Norman (Chadwick Boseman). There’s more, of course, “more” being around $17 million in gold bars planted in Vietnamese soil, property of the CIA but reappropriated by the Bloods as reparations for their personal suffering as men fighting a war for a country governed by people who don’t care about their rights. Lee’s at the height of his powers when bluntly making the case that for as much time as has passed since the Vietnam War’s conclusion, America’s still stubbornly waging the same wars on its own people and, for that matter, the rest of the world. And Lee is still angry at and discontent with the status quo, being the continued oppression of Black Americans through police brutality, voter suppression and medical neglect. In this context, Da 5 Bloods’ breadth is almost necessary. As Paul would say: Right on. —Andy Crump


24. The Nest

24-Nest-best-2020.jpg

Available to rent.

Like Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Nest is about family turmoil. Unlike Martha Marcy May Marlene, it isn’t about cults, at least not directly: The Manson vibes of that film are replaced by “greed is good” vibes in The Nest, a movie about the uniquely American dream of wealth at any cost and every risk. Sean Durkin sketches reckless individualism with shades of U.S. exceptionalism, presenting the dual ideas that money is an end unto itself rather than a means and the almighty dollar is a deity to worship for worship’s sake. It’s a cutting irony that the character who embodies this aesthetic is a British expat, Rory (Jude Law), who lives in New York with his American wife, Alison (Carrie Coon), their son Benjamin (Charlie Shotwell), and Alison’s daughter from another marriage, Sam (Oona Roche).

Money and the never-ending pursuit of even more money is no foundation to rest a home on, and the family’s new world begins to crumble almost immediately after they settle into it. The Nest stages that slow decay with equally slow filmmaking: Durkin uses static shots and slow zooms, contrasting steadier camera techniques applied by his cinematographer, Mátyás Erdély, against his characters’ restlessness. Even when the picture holds still, there remains a sensation of furious, frantic motion, which Durkin marries to a muted palette and oppressive lighting to form a suffocating dramatic atmosphere. As played by Law, Rory buzzes under his own skin while relentlessly climbing the social ladder two rungs at a time. He isn’t even earning money. He’s earning the potential for making money, a notion Alison either finds infuriating or pathetic depending on the scene. Once their marriage begins disintegrating, everything else follows, right down to that first horse and the barn left unfinished on their property. The Nest concentrates itself not on cult of personality but on the America cult of monetary gain, and between the two, the latter is arguably more frightening. When Durkin makes movies, he makes movies about the things that scare him, and the greed bubbling at The Nest’s core should scare everyone. —Andy Crump


23. The Wolf House

23-The-wolf-house-best-2020.jpg

Available for rent.

Joaquín Cociña and Cristóbal León’s Spanish-German language film The Wolf House is equal parts surreal, tragic and disturbing, due to both its uncanny stop-motion animation style and the real-world inspiration from which it draws. The film follows the perilous journey of María (Amalia Kassai), a young German woman who has narrowly escaped the jaws of a Nazi cult but must now outrun a hungry wolf hot on her trail. The cult María flees is based in Southern Chile, making it an evident parallel to Colonia Dignidad, a German sect established in Chile in the early ’60s by a man named Paul Schaefer, who was about to go on trial for child molestation in West Germany before he was granted sanction to enter Chile. As the wolf draws nearer, María stumbles upon a small house in the middle of the woods. She quickly makes herself at home. The house is ostensibly abandoned, save for two small pigs living in squalor in one of the bathrooms. María vows to raise the pigs as her own children, naming them Pedro and Ana. She clothes them, feeds them the little unspoiled food remaining in the house and excitedly tells them that she will teach them “everything that she knows.” But María finds it difficult to navigate what the cult has imparted on her, and complicated feelings surrounding pleasure, punishment and eugenic aesthetic ideals begin to find themselves seeping into her lectures to Pedro and Ana.

Accordingly, The Wolf House can feel sickening at points, mostly due to the ever-morphing vessels that serve as avatars for María, Pedro and Ana. Their corporeal forms emerge crudely shaped from clay, ooze onto the walls and windows as painted figures, grow bloated and disjointed as paper-mache, stitched together and dressed with felt and plush. The titular lycanthropic abode was a real house that the filmmakers utilized to create the film’s uncanny, human-scale dioramas, the diligent craftwork of the years-long undertaking captured in the finished product’s every frame. By confronting the state-sanctioned violence in Chile’s recent past, Cociña and León construct a physical space to reflect the emotional space one must inhabit to process these traumas and to confront the evil figures that may still live within them. —Natalia Keogan


22. American Utopia

22-American-utopia-best-2020.jpg

Watch on HBO

Three and a half decades since Jonathan Demme empowered Talking Heads to reach the upper echelons of the concert film in Stop Making Sense, Spike Lee drills down into David Byrne’s musical and ideological evolution for the sublime spectacle of American Utopia’s stage show. Byrne is overtly invested here in the journey, exploring a narrative of movement and instrumentation and letting the music flow casually—perhaps because he’s got so much more music under his belt since the last time his voice helped a rock doc soar to the ceiling. He and his barefoot ensemble sing cerebral hymns celebrating synapses and social bonds rather than gods or miracles. Its a humanist spirituality made all the more affecting by Lee’s impeccable camera placements and moves—not to mention some signature Spike stylings none of his joints are complete without. It’s a thematically dense show made all the denser by Byrne’s wry appeals to the audience, at first vague and then searingly specific (you all better be registered to vote now, concert attendees), and the endlessly interpretable nature of the songs. Like its central performer, American Utopia is seemingly indefatigable in its hope and optimism, not only for the future but for those who must shape it. In the face of racist violence, police brutality, an increasingly isolated and polarized society, and more hardships, American Utopia emphasizes empathy. For many, it’ll be one of the best shows they’ve ever been to and for almost all, it’ll be the best of their year.—Jacob Oller


21. Never Rarely Sometimes Always

21-Never-rarely-best-2020.jpg

Watch on HBO Max

I keep thinking about the suitcase: Skylar (Talia Ryder) packs sweaters and a pair of jeans into an oversized travel bag (oversized, at least, for what is supposed to be a day-long trip). The next morning, Skylar and her cousin Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) board a bus from their hometown in rural Pennsylvania to New York City. When they get to Manhattan, the cousins take turns carrying the large bag, guarding it, rolling it on the sidewalk, lugging it up and down steep subway stairs. The pair has carefully planned a trip to New York so that Autumn can get an abortion without her mom (Sharon Van Etten) and stepdad (Ryan Eggold) knowing, since Pennsylvania requires parental consent for the procedure. The bag is the burden they carry; Never Rarely Sometimes Always—in emotive close ups, creating intimacy as if the viewer gets a chance to see the world through Autumn’s often solemn, stoic gaze—chronicles Autumn’s tortuous and convoluted path just to take agency over her body, studying the patience and perseverance that women often need to navigate the world. It’s a film punctuated by waiting, for one appointment or the other, or for the promise of safety. There are, however, brief moments that remind audiences that Autumn and Skylar are just kids—playing arcade games, or enjoying the thrill of an unfamiliar city—and these scenes, provide, at least, glimmers of respite or perhaps windows into what life could be if like if they didn’t have to work so hard for bodily autonomy. —Isabella Bridie DeLeo


20. The Assistant

20-Assistant-best-2020.jpg

Watch on Hulu

The nameless, faceless boss hiding behind closed doors in Kitty Green’s exceptional The Assistant can be easily read as a Harvey Weinstein stand-in. The truth is that Harvey Weinstein isn’t or, now that he’s in prison, wasn’t the only man in the film industry with a habit of abusing his position and privilege by preying on women in his office, either through coercion or through brute force, he is, or was, the most notorious of them. So yes, The Assistant can be thought of as “the Harvey Weinstein movie,” but it really should be thought of as the best contemporary movie to act out patriarchal rape culture dynamics on screen.

Regardless, take Weinstein out of your interpretation of The Assistant and the film will still throttle you slowly, packing suffocating pressure into each of its 87 minutes. Green’s primary tool here is stillness: Static shots dominate the production, stifled frame after stifled frame, with the camera, manned by Michael Latham, often left hovering above Green’s star, Julia Garner, as if he means to leave space for her unanswered silent prayers to hang over her head. She plays the title’s long-suffering assistant, silent witness to her boss’s bullying and wanton lasciviousness, helpless to stop it. She spends the film unraveling over the course of a day, confronting her complicity in his sexual predation with no tangible hope of ending the cycle. Because there is no hope in The Assistant, no chance the film’s central evil will meet his punishment, or that the system built to facilitate his evil will collapse. What Green has done here is brutal and unsparing, but it’s also flawlessly made and necessary. —Andy Crump


19. I’m Thinking of Ending Things

19-Thinking-ending-things-best-2020.jpg

Watch on Netflix

Many viewers will think of ending I’m Thinking of Ending Things not long after it’s started. A cross-dissolve cascade of crude shots details the interior of a farmhouse or an apartment, or the interior of an interior. A woman we have not yet seen is practically mid-narration, telling us something for which we have no context. It feels wrong, off-putting. Something is not right. This is not how movies are supposed to work. Finally we see the woman, played brilliantly by Jessie Buckley. She is standing on the street as puffy snowflakes start to fall, like we’re within a 3-D snow globe with her. She looks up at a window a couple stories up. We see an old man looking down out of a window. We see Jesse Plemons looking down out of a window. We see Jesse Plemmons in the next shot picking up Jessie Buckley in his worn car. The movie music twinkles and swirls. Jessie Buckley’s Lucy or Lucia or Amy is thinking of ending things with Jesse’s Jake. Things aren’t going to go anywhere good, seems to be the reasoning. Jake drives the car and sometimes talks; his behaviors seem fairly consistent until they’re not, until some gesture boils up like a foreign object from another self. Louisa or Lucy is forthcoming, a fountain of personality and knowledge and interests. But sometimes she slows to a trickle, or is quiet, and suddenly she is someone else who is the same person but perhaps with different memories, different interests. Sometimes she is a painter, sometimes a physicist, sometimes neither. Jessie and Jesse are great. Their performances and their characters are hard to describe. The best movie of 2020 is terrible at being a “movie.” It does not subscribe to common patterns, rhythms, or tropes. It doesn’t even try to be a great movie, really, it simply tries to dissect the life of the mind of the other, and to do that by any cinematic means possible. The self-awareness of the film could have been unbearable, except awareness (and our fragmentary experience of it) is so entirely the point of everything that the film is wrapped up within and that is wrapped up within it. To say the film accepts both the beauty and ugliness of life would be a platitude that the film itself rejects. To say that “love conquers all,” even moreso. But these false truths flit in and about the film’s peripheral vision: illusions or ghosts, but welcome ones. —Chad Betz


18. Another Round

18-Another-round-best-2020.jpg

Available for rent.

In Thomas Vinterberg’s new film Another Round, camaraderie starts out as emotional support before dissolving into male foolishness cleverly disguised as scientific study: A drinking contest where nobody competes and everybody wins until they lose. Martin (Mads Mikkelsen), a teacher in Copenhagen, bobs lazily through his professional and personal lives: When he’s at school he’s indifferent and when he’s at home he’s practically alone. Martin’s closest connections are with his friends and fellow teachers, Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen), Nikolaj (Magnus Millang) and Peter (Lars Ranthe), who like many dudes of a certain age share his glum sentiments. To cure their malaise, Nikolaj proposes putting Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skårderud’s blood alcohol content theory to the test: Skårderud maintains that hovering at a cool 0.05% BAC helps people stay relaxed and loose, thus increasing their faculty for living to the fullest.

As one of the day’s preeminent screen actors, Mikkelsen finds the sweet spot between regret and rejoicing, where his revelries are honest and true while still serving as covers for deeper misgivings and emotional rifts. Sorrow hangs around the edges of his eyes as surely as bliss spreads across his face with each occasion for drinking. That balancing act culminates in an explosive burst of anger and, ultimately, mourning. Good times are had and good times always end. What Another Round demonstrates right up to its ecstatic final moments, where Mikkelsen’s sudden and dazzling acrobatics remind the audience that before he was an actor he was a dancer and gymnast, is that good times are all part of our life cycle: They come and go, then come back again, and that’s better than living in the good times all the time. Without a pause we lose perspective on all else life has to offer, especially self-reflection. —Andy Crump


17. Vitalina Varela

17-Vitalina-varela-header.jpg

Available for rent.

If black defines the visual tone in Vitalina Varela, stillness provides the picture’s structure. Portuguese master Pedro Costa shot Vitalina Varela using an aspect ratio close to the Academy ratio (1.33:1 instead of 1.37:1); the result is a movie almost squarely framed, and from that comes the feeling of being hemmed in. There’s very little room to breathe, much less move around; the images do move, but so slowly and so haltingly that they practically read as still anyways.

Life in Lisbon’s utterly devastated Fontaínhas shantytown is a parade of smothered humanity. Residents march, shamble and occasionally lie prone on the ground, faith depleted, energy drained. Why anyone would return here after spending decades away is a question Costa answers within its first 10 minutes, when the title character, named for the actress who plays her, touches down on the tarmac and is immediately met with bad news. “Vitalina, you arrived too late,” one of the airport workers serving as the welcome wagon tells her. “Your husband was buried days ago. There is nothing in Portugal for you.” Vitalina’s angry. She’s heartbroken. For 40 years, she lived alone in Cape Verde, her husband, Joaquim, having abandoned her. Now, at long last able to reunite with him, she finds that she’s inherited the mess—worldly and spiritual—he left with his passing: the house he built for them, but also the demons he collected over the course of their separation. Each person who comes to Vitalina’s door has demons of their own, too, and no one the audience meets is free from grief, the emotion for which the movie’s pervading darkness functions as an avatar: There’s nothing here for Vitalina other than the task of reconciliation. Withstanding the procession of Vitalina Varela’s suffering requires patience and endurance, but maybe the way Costa and Varela explore grief’s every nook and cranny will yield unexpected relief from our own. —Andy Crump


16. Dick Johnson Is Dead

16-dick-johnson-dead-best-2020.jpg

Watch on Netflix

If every great documentary is about the responsibility of observation, then Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson is also about the fragility of that observation. With her follow-up, Dick Johnson Is Dead, Johnson continues to interrogate that fragility, crafting a deeply personal ode to that over which she has no control: her father’s death. It helps that Dick Johnson is a mellifluous soul, an incessantly warm and beaming man surrounded by friends and colleagues and acquaintances who all uniformly, genuinely love him, but from its opening shots, Johnson makes it clear that her father’s wonderful nature will only make saying goodbye to him that much more difficult. And the time when she must do so looms closer and closer.

Her impetus, she reluctantly acknowledges, is partly selfish as she decides to help acquaint her father with the end of his life, reenacting in lavish cinematic vignettes the many ways in which he could go out, from falling air conditioner unit, to nail-festooned 2×4 to the face, to your run-of-the-mill tumble down the stairs, replete with broken neck. The more Johnson loses herself in the project, spending more effort consulting stunt people and art directors and assorted crew members than her own dad (sitting peacefully on set, usually napping, never being much of a bother), the more she realizes she may be exploiting someone she loves—someone who is beginning to show the alarming signs of dementia and can no longer fully grasp the high concept to which he once agreed—to assuage her own anxiety. As her dad’s memory dissipates along with his ability to take care of himself, Dick Johnson Is Dead caters less to Dick’s need to preserve some sense of immortality than to his daughter’s need, all of our need, to let go. —Dom Sinacola


15. Possessor

15-Possessor-best-2020.jpg

Available for rent.

The barren, lonely, modest urban landscapes of Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor reflect a familiar perspective. Brandon is, as you either already know or have surely guessed, David’s son; he shares his father’s interest in corporeal grotesquery, physical transformation representing mental transformation, and an unnerving, topical preoccupation with viruses. Brandon cuts deeper than daddy, though, if not (yet) with the same incisiveness, then with a clinical precision that only intensifies the oneiric oddness coursing intractably through Possessor.

This disturbing horror/thriller follows Tasya (Andrea Riseborough), an assassin working for a shady organization that carries out its hits via remote cerebral link between assassin and unwitting host—in this case Colin (Christopher Abbott). Cronenberg charts a horrific journey from mind to mind, plotted along neural pathways but predictably expressed along physical routes. It veers off into an arterial journey, the narrow vessels containing the stuff of life—and death—in a larger body. The film has the feel of a grand sci-fi spectacle shrunk down to a dark, dingy miniature; its crude efficiency belies the potency of Cronenberg’s ruminations on the theme of a foreign invader corrupting a wayward soul in a poisonous society.—Paddy Mulholland


14. The Painter and the Thief

14-Painter-thief-best-2020.jpg

Watch on Hulu

Career criminal and addict Karl-Bertil Nordland lays his eyes on the oil canvas portrait painted by his most recent victim, artist Barbora Kysilkova, 15 minutes into Benjamin Ree’s The Painter and the Thief, and then experiences a character arc’s worth of emotions in about as many seconds: shock, confusion, bewilderment, horror, awe, then finally gratitude communicated through tears. For the first time in his adult life, maybe in all his life, Nordland feels seen. It’s a stunning portrait, so vivid and detailed that Nordland looks like he’s about to saunter off the frame from his still life loll. Even a subject lacking his baggage would be just as gobsmacked as he is to look on Kysilkova’s work. In another movie, this one of a kind moment of vulnerability might’ve been the end. In The Painter and the Thief, it’s only the beginning of a moving odyssey through friendship, human connection and ultimate expressions of empathy. Ree’s filmmaking is a trust fall from a highrise. Trust is necessary for any documentary, but for Ree, it’s fundamental. The Painter and the Thief isn’t exactly “about” Nordland and Kysilkova the way most documentaries are “about” their subjects, in the sense that the film’s most dramatic reveals come as surprises to the viewer as much as to Nordland and Kysilkova themselves. The sentiment reads as cliché at a glance, but The Painter and the Thief argues that clichés exist for a reason. Think better of art’s power, Ree’s filmmaking tells us, but especially think better of each other, too. —Andy Crump


13. Emma.

13-Emma-best-2020.jpg

Watch on HBO Max

Shot as though each frame were a frothy realist painting, scored as though it were a Chaplin-esque silent film and pulled together by a cast of comedically impeccable performances, Autumn de Wilde’s feature-length debut, Emma., is made up almost entirely of thrillingly executed moments. More comedy of manners than straight romance, both Jane Austen’s novel and de Wilde’s film take as their subject a happily single Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy), the “handsome, clever, and rich” mistress of an English country estate, as she fills her days as by mounting a series of ego-driven (if well-intentioned) matchmaking schemes. Signaled by the film’s opening in the soft dawn hours of the village’s latest Emma-orchestrated wedding day, these schemes have a history of being remarkably successful—successful enough, at least, that on one side, Emma has her co-dependent, doom-and-gloom father (a charming, if anxious, Bill Nighy) cautioning her not to start any schemes that might take her away from him, while on the other, she has the Woodhouses’ handsome family friend, Mr. Knightley (a refreshingly fiery Johnny Flynn), cautioning her against riding so high on her previous matchmaking coups that she starts an audacious scheme even she can’t pull it off. Beyond creating what would be a solid moviegoing experience in any context, the warm, boisterous sense of community this deep attention to detail works to build is, as Paste’s Andy Crump highlights in his thoughtful interview with de Wilde and Taylor-Joy, exactly what any 2020 take on a 205-year-old comedy of manners needed to cultivate. With our current cultural moment so defined by protracted digital isolation—and its cousin, anonymity-enabled cruelty—the best thing de Wilde’s Emma. could do was lean so hard into the sublimity of Austen’s original that, for the entirety of its gloriously phone-free two-hour runtime, its audience might feel, collectively, transported. —Alexis Gunderson


12. Bacurau

12-Bacurau-best-2020.jpg

Available for rent.

Brazilian directors Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelle’s Bacurau begins with a woman named Teresa (Bárbara Colen) being driven down a winding mountain road with sweeping swathes of lush greenery below. Suddenly, a splintered wooden casket appears in the middle of the asphalt. After the driver swerves to avoid it, there is another one. And another. Soon, broken caskets litter the entire road. The cause of the coffin calamity is revealed when Teresa sees that an open-back truck transporting caskets has collided into the mountainside, killing its passengers. The scene is oddly pleasant, though, as opportunists have quickly begun selling off the least damaged goods to a line of passersby, both seeming giddy about the exchange. Death is pervasive in the film, but it is often funny, and coincidentally Teresa is on her way to a funeral. Her grandmother—the beloved matriarch of Bacurau, a small Brazilian village where she grew up—has died. The entire town mourns her death, oblivious to the fact that their little village is slowly, literally, being erased from the face of the earth. Here, what has seemed like a horror film morphs into a weird Western that incorporates psychoactive flora, a seemingly benign history museum, and even an apparition or two. That’s not even counting the UFO. Bacurau is wildly creative, and its hilarious, Dadaist aura provides an uncanny comfort despite ample bloodshed. This is not to say that it’s without heart-wrenching loss and tearful contemplation of a world on fire. It’s clear that there is no space for moral ambiguity in this film. In reality, the Amazon is ablaze, rampant inequality festers and indigenous populations are displaced all for the net benefit of the ruling class. Bacurau is a long overdue neo-colonial revenge fantasy. —Natalia Keogan


11. Palm Springs

11-Palm-springs-2020.jpg

Watch on Hulu

Imagine living the same day of your life over and over, stuck within an hour and a half of Los Angeles but so closely nestled in paradise’s bosom that the drive isn’t worth the fuel. Now imagine that “over and over” extends beyond a number the human mind is capable of appreciating. Paradise becomes a sun-soaked Hell, a place endured and never escaped, where pizza pool floats are enervating torture devices and crippling alcoholism is a boon instead of a disease. So goes Max Barbakow’s Palm Springs.

The film never stops being funny, even when the mood takes a downturn from zany good times to dejection. This is key. Even when the party ends and the reality of the scenario sinks in for its characters, Palm Springs continues to fire jokes at a steady clip, only now they are weighted with appropriate gravity for a movie about two people doomed to maintain a holding pattern on somebody else’s happiest day. Nothing like a good ol’ fashioned time loop to force folks trapped in neutral to get retrospective on their personal statuses.—Andy Crump


10. Time

10-Time-best-2020.jpg

Watch on Amazon Prime

Hope and despair constitute the vacillating emotions of Garrett Bradley’s Time, a lyrical look at Sibil “Fox” Rich’s efforts to free her husband from the Louisiana prison where he serves 60 years for a botched bank robbery, as his sons grow up without a father in the home (Fox herself served a few years for aiding in the crime). Her dogged attempts to break through to an uncaring bureaucracy are crushing in and of themselves, but the mannered composure with which she takes denial after denial builds a remarkable portrait of strength and resolution. One could ask how much Time grapples with the legitimate wrongdoing of the Rich parents, but Bradley does not give much credence to the question, because to do so would legitimize the system that, in doling out sentences so severe, ignores the humanity of the perpetrators in the first place.

Sibil’s understanding of the morality of her and her husband’s situation is obvious, but also somewhat outside of the purview of Time, which is, for the better, much more concerned with the personal dynamic of the central relationship: how one sustains love and life when divided by an uncompromising and punishing system. The answer, in the case of the Riches, is Sibil’s home-made video diaries from a miniDV camera over the years, patched together with a score that gives the entire film the feel of a swelling epic—the intensely personal elevated to mythical proportions. Time truly builds to an ultimate moment of catharsis, an already deeply human moment filled with the additional powers of cinematic grace. —Daniel Christian


9. His House

9-His-house-best-2020.jpg

Watch on Netflix

Nothing sucks the energy out of horror than movies that withhold on horror. Movies can scare audiences in a variety of ways, of course, but the very least a horror movie can be is scary instead of screwing around. Remi Weekes’ His House doesn’t screw around. The film begins with a tragedy, and within 10 minutes of that opening handily out-grudges The Grudge by leaving ghosts strewn on the floor and across the stairs where his protagonists can trip over them. Ultimately, this is a movie about the inescapable innate grief of immigrant stories, a companion piece to contemporary independent cinema like Jonas Carpignano’s Mediterranea, which captures the dangers facing immigrants on the road and at their destinations with brutal neorealist clarity. Weekes is deeply invested in Bol and Rial as people, in where they come from, what led them to leave, and most of all what they did to leave. But Weeks is equally invested in making his viewers leap out of their skins. —Andy Crump


8. Lovers Rock

8-Lovers-rock-best-2020.jpg

Watch on Amazon Prime

In Lovers Rock, filmmaker Steve McQueen untethers himself from a conventional narrative and leans into style, movement and feeling set over the course of a single house party in Notting Hill—an area of London that (in 1980) was largely populated by the West Indian community, but has since become one of the most expensive neighborhoods on the planet. This film is based generally on the parties the Black community held for themselves, as they were not welcome in London’s bars and nightclubs at the time. At the center of this film are Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn), a middle-class British Christian with Jamaican roots and the dreamy code-switching mechanic Franklyn (Micheal Ward). Released in a time of quarantines and social distances, the film had a rapturous reception, bringing a warmth into our homes and a longing to return to an evening of such possibilities. A single scene where the dance floor sings along to “Silly Games” by Janet Kay is McQueen at his greatest and most joyful, transporting the audience into a giddy hypnotic ecstasy. In many ways Lovers Rock is McQueen’s smallest film, but may end up being his most beloved.—Leila Latif


7. The Vast of Night

7-Vast-night-best-2020.jpg

Watch on Amazon Prime

The Vast of Night is the kind of sci-fi film that seeps into your deep memory and feels like something you heard on the news, observed in a dream, or were told in a bar. Director Andrew Patterson’s small-town hymn to analog and aliens is built from long, talky takes and quick-cut sequences of manipulating technology. Effectively a ‘50s two-hander between audio enthusiasts (Sierra McCormick and Jake Horowitz playing a switchboard operator and disc jockey, respectively) the film is a quilted fable of story layers, anecdotes and conversations stacking and interweaving warmth before yanking off the covers. The effectiveness of the dusty locale and its inhabitants, forged from a high school basketball game and one-sided phone conversations (the latter of which are perfect examples of McCormick’s confident performance and writers James Montague and Craig W. Sanger’s sharp script), only makes its inevitable UFO-in-the-desert destination even better. Comfort and friendship drop in with an easy swagger and a torrent of words, which makes the sensory silence (quieting down to focus on a frequency or dropping out the visuals to focus on a single, mysterious radio caller) almost holy. It’s mythology at its finest, an origin story that makes extraterrestrial obsession seem as natural and as part of our curious lives as its many social snapshots. The beautiful ode to all things that go [UNINTELLIGIBLE BUZZING] in the night is an indie inspiration to future Fox Mulders everywhere. —Jacob Oller


6. Wolfwalkers

6-Wolfwalkers-best-2020.jpg

Watch on Apple TV+

Wolfwalkers is filmmaker and animator Tomm Moore’s latest project out of Cartoon Saloon, the animation studio he co-founded in 1999 with Paul Young, and the capper to his loosely bound Irish folklore trilogy (begun with 2009’s The Secret of Kells and continued with 2014’s Song of the Sea). At first blush, the film appears burdened with too much in mind—chiefly thoughts on everything from English colonialism to earnest portraiture of Irish myths, the keystones of Moore’s storytelling for the last decade. Linking these poles are a story of friendship across borders and social boundaries, a dirge for a world pressed beneath the heels of men, a family drama between a willful girl and her loving but overprotective father, and a promise of what life could be if strangers reached across those borders and boundaries to find, if not love, then at least common ground. How Moore and his collaborators Ross Stewart and Will Collins created such a robust screenwriting economy that each of these threads not only fit into Wolfwalkers’ 103 minutes, but feel entirely essential to its vibrance, is likely a whole narrative unto itself. Their collective achievement speaks for itself, of course: Wolfwalkers is a stunning effort, the best of Moore’s career and the best Cartoon Saloon has produced to date. Every detail here, every flourish, has a purpose, whether splashes of red on flower petals, soft edges around dusk-lit trees, or three-panel split screen sequences that read like the pages of illuminated manuscripts brought to life. The effect is magic, and that magic is profound and breathtaking. —Andy Crump


5. Martin Eden

5-Martin-eden-best-2020.jpg

Available for rent.

Martin Eden, Jack London’s 1909 novel, finally got an adaptation worthy of its author from Italian filmmaker Pietro Marcello. The wide-ranging, painterly and dense evolution of a sailor-turned-author (here played in alluring, heart-wrenching, ultra-charismatic form by Luca Marinelli) from his blue collar roots to the upper echelons of the in-vogue is a stunning drama with a lot on its mind. Eden’s infatuation with learning is linked to his equal infatuation with the upper-class Elena (Jessica Cressy), and the combination of the two stop his primal ways (signified by one-night stands and humorously nonchalant fistfights) in their tracks. Marinelli’s earthy confidence and swaggering sex appeal are ogled by everyone—he’s a burly, good-natured sailor after all—but it’s his ideas that shout out London’s railing commentary on class inequality. As the film’s complex politics (made more resonant through the setting change to Italy) debate messily imperfect socialism and the mercenary bootstrapping tactics of individualism, Eden embodies this ideological journey through an impressive physical transformation, turning waxen, weak and washed-up as his literary ambitions find the exact wrong kind of success. Marcello’s Martin Eden is akin to Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon in its majestic beauty and society-spanning saga of a story, but with a meaner humor and rawer sense of criticism. The ex-documentarian’s penchant for slipping back and forth between old home movie-esque footage and his high art compositions make the dueling philosophies of the film even clearer. Somehow most impressive of all is Martin Eden’s success at making an exciting, engrossing film about a writer in which the writing process is actually fun (and beautiful) to watch. Marcello and co-writer Maurizio Braucci work London’s words into wonders.—Jacob Oller


4. Soul

4-Soul-best-2020.jpg

Watch on Disney+

Pixar’s best in years, Soul matches its musical deftness with character and locations designs that are true love letters to New York City and its inhabitants. That’s the way it should be for a movie all about learning to look up once in a while and enjoy the life that’s happening all around you. Less heady than Inside Out, thanks to its grounded roots in barbershops and tailor back rooms, Soul is still one of Pixar’s most existential. A focus on jazz is a natural fit. Jamie Foxx’s obsessed music teacher/jazz pianist wannabe Joe flirts back and forth with death, getting a little It’s a Wonderful Life lesson while an unborn soul (Tina Fey) learns about all life has to offer alongside him. With plenty of jokes and impressive visual creations to plaster over some unwieldy plot decisions (Why are Black people always being pushed out of their bodies in animations?), Soul still sings. It’s got some of the most impressive lighting I’ve ever seen in an animated film, with skin, hair and metallic instruments glistening with a complex, near-photorealism that invites you to reach out and touch them. As Pixar’s premium offering in 2020, its tears flow early and often as crushing montages and inspiring instrumental performances prove over and over again how much joy there is to appreciate in this world—and how much joy Pixar films have the potential to capture. Soul is one of the closest yet to fully achieving that potential on an intimate, human scale.—Jacob Oller


3. First Cow

first-cow-inline.jpg

Watch on Showtime

Kelly Reichardt’s Oregonian ode to the human desire for comfort and friendship takes us back to the territory during the mid-19th century, when the economy of beaver pelts and gold rush hopefuls brought waves of migration to the area. A baker from Maryland, Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro), finds himself amid a hostile group of fur trappers on the way to Oregon when he runs into King Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant fresh on the run from scorned Russians. A fraternal bond between the two quickly materializes, and when a coveted dairy cow is brought to the territory by an English nobleman known as Chief Factor (Toby Jones), King Lu immediately recognizes that fresh milk combined with Cookie’s baking expertise could give the duo a unique trade in an area where the predominant sweet is a bland concoction of water and flour crackers. And so, in the dead of night, King Lu and Cookie leave the small shack they share with a metal pail in hand, sneaking through the pasture until they reach the dairy cow. Reichardt makes no moral judgement on them for stealing; the irony is that Cookie and King Lu’s act of theft is so small compared to the pillaging and exploitation that propelled America into an economic superpower in the first place. First Cow takes place when slavery was the main economic drive of the country, when Native Americans were facing genocide, when women were second-class citizens. First Cow will win most viewers over; it is funny in the most earnest way, with the beauty of friendship presented as the foundation of the film. Yet if the film wants to implore us to understand the essence of our species, its portrayal of burgeoning American capitalism is undoubtedly, jarringly, at odds with the nature of mankind. —Natalia Keogan


2. Sound of Metal

sound-of-metal-inline.jpg

Watch on Amazon Prime

Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed) is challenged by his rehab sponsor: Sit in a room completely silent. If you’re unable to do that, write about what’s going through your mind. As a recovering addict and blossoming rockstar, this is difficult to do by itself. But with Ruben’s rapidly deteriorating hearing, he fears the silence like no other. The Darius Marder-directed Sound of Metal explores a musician’s struggle with identity due to his new disability. An experiment of sound design paired with a stellar lead performance makes for a captivating film. Along with his girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke), Ruben co-leads the metal band Blackgammon. They travel to gigs in their Winnebago and bond over the open road. Ruben loses his hearing in a sudden way, causing concern. Afraid, he goes to an audiologist to discover his hearing loss is pretty advanced. Concerned about his sobriety being in jeopardy from the shocking news, Lou convinces Ruben to go to a community retreat for the deaf. While there, he balances the warring feelings of learning to live and love himself as a deaf person and wishing for his old life. Boasting a solid story about profound loss (or is it simply profound change?), knockout performances by Ahmed and Paul Raci in a supporting role, and award-worthy sound design, Sound of Metal cuts through the clutter. But most importantly, it does so by prioritizing the deaf/hard-of-hearing community through its hiring of deaf talent, its use of deaf consultants and captions throughout the film. Marder’s film is the kind of movie that could’ve easily gone in the wrong direction (for all the right reasons). Instead, it sticks the landing.—Joi Childs


1. Nomadland

1-Nomadland-best-2020.jpg

Nomadland had a one-week virtual release and will hit theaters on February 19, 2021.

A devastating and profound look at the underside of the American Dream, Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland turns Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century (and some of its subjects) into a complex folk song about survival, pride and the beauty of getting by on the open road. Focusing on older Americans who’ve somehow either abandoned or been forced from stationary traditional homes into vans and RVs, the film contemplates all that brought them to this point (an ugly, crammed Amazon warehouse looms large over the movie’s otherwise natural landscapes and sweeping vistas) and all that waits for them now that they’re here.

Some of Bruder’s sources make appearances in the film, threatening to steal the show from the fictional Fern (Frances McDormand) at every turn—and McDormand turns in one of the best performances of the year. That’s just how honest and compelling Linda May and Swankie are. As the migrating community scatters to the wind and reconvenes wherever the seasonal jobs pop up, Zhao creates a complicated mosaic of barebones freedom. It’s the vast American landscape—a “marvelous backdrop of canyons, open deserts and purple-hued skies” as our critic put it—and that mythological American promise that you can fend for yourself out in it. But you can’t, not really. The bonds between the nomads is a stiff refutation of that individualistic idea, just as Amazon’s financial grip over them is a damnation of the corporation’s dominance. Things are rough—as Fern’s fellow travelers tell campfire tales of suicide, cancer and other woes—but they’re making the best of it. At least they have a little more control out here. The optimism gained from a reclaimed sense of autonomy is lovely to behold (and crushing when it comes into conflict with those angling for a return to the way things were), even if its impermanence is inherent. Nomadland’s majestic portrait puts a country’s ultimate failings, its corrupting poisons and those making the best of their position by blazing their own trail together on full display.—Jacob Oller

Also in Movies