Considering the uncertainty that 2020 started with – and the uncertainty of the theatrical model that’s carrying over into 2021 – this has still managed to be a strong year for cinema. The movies of 2020 varied between creative escapism, simple reminders of kindness and humanity and visually striking depictions of revenge, corruption, and anger. It was also a surprisingly big year for feature debuts, with several promising talents announcing themselves over the course of the last 12 months. Here are a few standouts from this year, as well as a consideration of the most promising first features.
Abby’s Top 10 Films of 2020:
- Dick Johnson is Dead
Through this documentary memoir, Kirsten Johnson captures the emotional complexity of preparing for a loved one’s death. Rather than dark and mournful, however, Johnson’s depiction of her relationship with her father at the end of his life is celebratory and subversively playful. Johnson’s love for her dad is obvious, and his influence on how she sees the world is even more so. (full review)
Alexander Nanau’s harrowing documentary Collective gives us a story every bit as compelling as Spotlight or Dark Water, without any softened edges or beautiful people. He shows us every frown line, wrinkle and stained shirt of the hardworking journalists and public servants trying to clean up Romania’s rotten healthcare system. Spotlight was based on a true story. Collective is the real deal. (full review)
- The Nest
The Nest is Sean Durkin’s domestic-drama-as-horror-movie. Carrie Coon and Jude Law’s lead performances are impressively deep, and sell the story of a family transplanted from 80s New York to England, living a life they can’t afford. Durkin’s storytelling efficiency and command of tone are also stunning, communicating volumes about the characters with the barest hint of exposition. (full review)
- Sound of Metal
Sound of Metal is a triumph both from a technical and performance standpoint. Director Darius Marder makes brilliant use of sound design to take us inside the experience of Riz Ahmed’s Ruben as he loses his hearing. Marder also creates gracious room for his actors to live in their characters, making their journeys and reactions feel natural. Ahmed is incredible as Ruben, but even more revelatory is Paul Raci’s gentle, heartbreaking work as Joe, the deaf Vietnam vet who leads the addiction recovery community where Ruben ends up.
Chloe Zhao’s latest is another lovely entry in the director’s growing filmography of odes to overlooked corners of American life. Nomadland is a gorgeous road movie, with open landscapes that make you want to pack up everything you own and hit the highway. It’s also a tender portrait of one woman’s struggle to keep her independence and overcome her grief, with an understated performance from Frances McDormand that feels unlike anything she’s given us before.
- Another Round
Affirming, vulnerable depictions of male friendship are all too rare in movies. Another Round provides a realistic look at the bond between a group of middle aged high school teachers, and their attempt to recapture their enjoyment for life by maintaining a low-grade drunken buzz. Thomas Vinterberg’s lightly comic drama brings the men moments of triumph and defeat, but suggests those highs have more to do with their support of each other than their drinking. It also features a top-tier performance from Mads Mikkelsen, whose journey from ennui to joyful energy powers the narrative. (full review)
- Promising Young Woman
Emerald Fennell knows exactly what she’s doing with her blistering exploration of revenge, toxic masculinity and the difference between forgiveness and moving on from trauma. Fennell’s candy-colored aesthetics add a defiantly feminine feeling to her tale of the sardonic Cassie’s (Carey Mulligan) quest to avenge her best friend. The casting is a major coup as well, weaponizing nearly every recognizable “nice guy” actor under 45 in roles that challenge our perception of them.
- The Mole Agent
A gentle, heartwarming surprise of a documentary. Maite Alberdi’s subject Sergio, an 83-year-old widower sent by a PI to go undercover at a nursing home, finds ways to love everyone he meets, and brings joy to every situation. Alberdi observes his simple-yet-profound acts of kindness to others, and creates a meditation on the value of selflessness. The Mole Agent shows us how easy it is to practice kindness, during a time when we need that reminder more than ever.
- The Mortuary Collection
2020 was an outstanding year for horror films, which feels like a sick coincidence. Against all odds, however, it was also a good year for new directors making distinctive debuts. Ryan Spindell’s The Mortuary Collection is both, a modestly-budgeted horror anthology in the Tales from the Crypt vein that looks like a million bucks. Spindell displays deep genre knowledge and a strong creative eye that proves he’s someone to watch.
- The Twentieth Century
The word “visionary” is grossly overused when describing filmmakers, but with The Twentieth Century, Matthew Rankin more than earns the title. Rankin’s heavily impressionistic take on Canadian history is one part Guy Maddin, two parts Monty Python and a gloriously baffling dash of Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. It’s an unforgettable piece of cult art that announces a unique directing talent.
Abby’s Top 10 Directing Debuts of 2020
- Ryan Spindell – The Mortuary Collection
I already discussed Spindell’s work earlier in my Top 10 list, but it deserves to be noted again that his first feature film displays a strong, well-executed style and commitment to quality that reflect the director’s influences while feeling unique to his own aesthetic interests. It’s clear Spindell’s creativity and a love for storytelling carry a ton of potential.
- Andrew Patterson – The Vast of Night
Similarly to Spindell, Andrew Patterson’s The Vast of Night also announces its director as an ambitious talent who’s able to make impressive use of modest resources. Some of the tracking shots in The Vast of Night rival movies with five times the budget. Patterson’s film has Amblin-like aesthetics, but also a liminal, spare feeling that sets it apart from the films that inspired it (full review).
- Darius Marder – Sound of Metal
Darius Marder cut his teeth in documentary filmmaking, and worked alongside Derek Cianfrance (he co-wrote the screenplay for Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines) before making his first dramatic feature with Sound of Metal. Both of these influences run throughout Marder’s film, in both its commitment to authenticity and its thoughtful, lived-in performances. Sound of Metal displays a fully-realized directorial vision and unexpected performances; we can only hope Marder has even more of this to give us down the road.
- Radha Blank – The 40-Year-Old Version
The 40-Year-Old Version is a charming, laid-back comedy rooted in writer, director and star Radha Blank’s own professional experience as a playwright. Blank’s love for her community brings to mind Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman in its ease and comfort. Blank’s honesty about herself at this point in her life, her dreams, urges and relationships recall Nora Ephron in their wit and humor. Her perspective, however, is all her own, and it’s delightful.
- Matthew Rankin – The Twentieth Century
As previously mentioned, Matthew Rankin’s The Twentieth Century displays a fascinating bizarro sensibility. His influences are apparent, but their application never ceases to surprise. Contemporary cinema needs more out-and-out weirdos, and it looks like Rankin might just have the goods.
- Josh Ruben – Scare Me
Scare Me is yet another 2020 indie horror movie that made outstanding use of a limited budget. Ruben’s log cabin-bound storytelling competition has style and humor, and displays the writer, director and star’s facility for developing strong comedic ensemble performances alongside his cast.
- Remi Weekes – His House
Remi Weekes’ refugee ghost story His House displays a clarity of vision that’s comparable to Jordan Peele’s Get Out. Weekes’ tale of African refugees desperately trying to shake off the terrors of their past is both timely and thoughtful, presenting us with a story that we’ve never really seen before, with an ingeniously simple concept powering it. His House is horror at its socially-conscious best.
- Regina King – One Night in Miami…
As if Regina King wasn’t already one of the coolest people alive, she had to top herself with a confident feature directing debut. With One Night in Miami, King retains the staginess of Kemp Powers’ play while applying her own style and impressive precision. She pulls outstanding performances from her ensemble, giving us detailed portraits of four Black icons at a turning point in America’s Civil Rights movement. It’s obvious King knows her stuff, and hopefully this is the beginning of another exciting new era in her career.
- Emerald Fennell – Promising Young Woman
Emerald Fennell’s film directing debut fits right in with her background writing and directing episodes of Killing Eve—Promising Young Woman has the same transgressive, empowered female sensibility and surprising turns. With full command of her own realm, Fennell gets extra room to play with her own aesthetic in addition to showing off her existing strengths. Promising Young Woman’s acidic bubble gum pop art look combines soft femininity with hard-edged anger. It’s girl world with razor blades.
- Natalie Erika James – Relic
With Relic, Natalie Erika James presents yet another entry into 2020’s list of great horror movies. James’ film uses its supernatural elements as an effective metaphor for Alzheimer’s disease and inherited mental illness. Her scares involve both atmospheric creeps and realistic emotionally frightening moments as Robyn Nevin’s matriarch, Kay, displays increasingly erratic behavior. The film takes a surreal turn in its final act that’s both moving and genuinely freaky. If nothing else, it proves James could probably make a great adaptation of House of Leaves, should the interest strike her.