As January 1st approaches, it’s customary for critics to publish a list of their top films of the year— even if, like me, you don’t get screeners or attend festivals and haven’t seen everything on offer yet. I did manage to catch 80-odd movies that released wide in 2020, but it’s still worth mentioning that I haven’t had a chance to see some you might see on other lists, like Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland, or Regina King’s One Night in Miami (yes, female filmmakers killed it this year). My ranking come Oscars-time (now April 2021, thanks COVID) might look a little different than it does now.
That said, I can make this list with greater confidence now than I could in any previous year, so here goes: my top 10 films of 2020, ranked according to a deeply scientific mixture of preference and assessment of quality (in other words, subjectively).
- First Cow, dir. Kelly Reichardt (5 Stars)
Masterfully composed and poignantly tender, First Cow is a quiet masterpiece that sits comfortably atop my list. Reichardt reworks traditional depictions of the American frontier by focusing on men in tune with nature, not at war with it, and the resulting story of friendship and enterprise is as touching as the storyworld is immersive. I loved this movie so much that even my review from back in July has become a personal favorite.
- I’m Thinking of Ending Things, dir. Charlie Kaufman (5 Stars)
Kaufman’s latest is no easy ride the first time around, but rarely has a movie festered in my mind the way that I’m Thinking of Ending Things did. A puzzle film without the conventional climactic ‘reveal,’ the story’s governing logic only clicks into place when the viewer puts the pieces together themselves, resulting in a challenging work that offers new rewards each time you come back to it. As cerebral a filmmaker as he is, I have never seen it as coming at the expense of emotion, and the movingly beautiful final sequence is as powerful an expression of deep sadness as any I have seen.
- Da 5 Bloods, dir. Spike Lee (4.5 Stars)
In many ways, Da 5 Bloods is the definitive film of 2020, a rousing exploration of the Black American experience in the Vietnam War that dropped just as the country was reexamining its troubled race relations. Lee’s Brechtian storytelling couples social commentary with a thrilling adventure narrative, drawing on John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and both strands are held together by powerhouse performances from Delroy Lindo and Chadwick Boseman.
- Small Axe, dir. Steve McQueen (Varied)
The quality of British director Steve McQueen’s five-film anthology left me with a rankings conundrum: consider each installment separately, or place them in one spot together? Considering at least three of the five were threatening to crowd this list of 10, I went with the latter, and Small Axe as a whole earns this fourth spot. Whichever film you consider the standout (my pick is for Mangrove), the full anthology’s portrait of Britain’s African-Caribbean population makes it one of the year’s most thoughtful, important, and well-crafted cinematic projects.
- Dick Johnson Is Dead, dir. Kirsten Johnson (4.5 Stars)
I admit to a general preference for fiction over documentary, but Johnson’s Dick Johnson Is Dead is no ordinary doc. She transcends the already creative premise of staging her father in various death scenes as a way for them both to process his dementia diagnosis and creates a moving study of grief and what it means to document. The ability of this film to throw the viewer into conflicting emotions they aren’t prepared to feel is not only remarkable, but also thematically perfect, and it deserves to round-out my top 5.
- Wolfwalkers, dirs. Tomm Moore & Ross Stewart (4.5 Stars)
My pick for the year’s best animated film is Wolfwalkers, a hand-drawn wonder from Irish studio Cartoon Saloon. Based on Celtic mythology, the female-led story is both thrilling and empowering, but you might be too preoccupied with the geometric, expressionistic approach to its telling to notice. The endless stream of creative visual choices (all of which serve the narrative) is worth the cost of getting Apple TV+ for a month.
- Emma., dir. Autumn de Wilde (4.5 Stars)
I hold de Wilde’s Emma. in higher esteem than most because what some write off as a bit of light costume comedy I see as a clever, nimble act of adaptation. Whether you experience it on that level or not, the film is deeply enjoyable, with a splendid aesthetic and an excellent performance from the ever-rising Anya Taylor-Joy at its center. I wholeheartedly recommend revisiting this overlooked gem, my favorite directorial debut of 2020.
- Soul, dirs. Pete Docter & Kemp Powers (4.5 Stars)
Spearheaded by one of Pixar’s most accomplished creatives (Docter also directed Monsters, Inc., Up, and Inside Out) and the playwright behind One Night in Miami, Soul is an animated family film with as much to say about the nature of existence as Kaufman. I’m a sucker for creative depictions of the metaphysical, and Soul’s Great Before is as creative as they come, offering a compelling interrogation of what it takes to live a happy, fulfilling life. The beautiful animation deserves to be seen on the biggest screen you can find— which, in 2020, is probably your TV.
- Sound of Metal, dir. Darius Marder (4 Stars)
The lion’s share of praise for Sound of Metal will rightly go to its star, Riz Ahmed, but the film itself deserves some love too. An affecting portrayal of hearing loss and what it means to become part of the deaf community, Marder’s use of sound design truly allows the audience to follow the arc of the protagonist, and that journey is a significant one. If you haven’t caught this on Amazon Prime yet, I recommend moving it up your watchlist.
- Mank, dir. David Fincher (4 Stars)
Whether or not you feel Mank lived up to the lofty expectations set by Fincher’s previous body of work, it remains a thematically well-realized exploration of what it means to be a writer, with an audio-visual approach sure to delight any cinephile. The strong performances from Gary Oldman and Amanda Seyfried, along with a few party scenes that really shine, keep this film near the top of a crowded group of 4-star films.
As far as honorable mentions go, this horror fan would be remiss not to shout out Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man and Remi Weekes’ His House for their well-crafted scares, as well as Miranda July’s delightful comedy-drama Kajillionaire, which currently sits at #11. As much as this year has wreaked havoc on the film industry and kept us out of theaters for far too long, plenty of great movies still released in 2020, and I am grateful to all the filmmakers listed above for making lockdowns more bearable.