As my colleagues have mentioned, it’s been a weird, weird year – for movie-going, and for living a life in general. It’s part of the gig, but every December, it seems premature to proclaim the year’s best films (often before the end of said year, even!) and be done with it. Aside from the fact that I’m always playing catch-up well into the following months, it’s always apparent to me that such a list is simply a snapshot, both of the circumstances under which the works are first seen and the mindset at the year’s conclusion; my ten best list of 2019, for example, would probably look quite different today than it did at this time last year.
The extremities of 2020 amp that fluidity up considerably. The majority of these movies were seen under less-than-ideal circumstances; even attempting to focus and work in a home theater setting for the films I saw as part of this year’s virtual TIFF or NYFF, for example, there were unavoidable interruptions and distractions that didn’t happen at Sundance (my last in-person fest). And then, on top of all that, the sheer need for escape and/or release adds baggage and power to films that may or may not deserve them; maybe next year I won’t feel the same about, say, Nomadland or News of the World, but this year, in these circumstances, the emotional releases of their concluding passages offered a much-needed dose of catharsis.
So these are my top 10 films of 2020. My mileage may vary.
Jason’s Top 10 Films of 2020:
10. Another Round
I’ve rarely seen a motion picture tackle the topic of the mid-life crisis – the feeling of looking at yourself one day and saying “I don’t know how I ended up like this” – with as much delicacy, wit, and sensitivity as Thomas Vinterberg’s thoughtful, melancholy comedy, featuring career-best work by Mads Mikkelsen. (Abby Olcese’s review)
9. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
“These folks done messed with the wrong person this day.” (Craig Lindsay’s review)
8. First Cow
What’s remarkable about Kelly Reichardt’s period-dress stories of American frontier history is how she demystifies these primitive, grizzled men, glowering and growling at each other, then scrapping messily at the drop of a hat. She sees things they don’t, and after sitting with her for a while, so do we. (Kristy Puchko’s review)
7. One Night in Miami…
Regina King’s directorial debut, based on Kemp Powers’s play, puts four key figures of contemporary Black history – Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown – in a hotel room, and lets them talk. It doesn’t sound “cinematic,” but the results are intimate and honest in a way that only movies can be. (Monica Castillo’s TIFF diary)
6. Dick Johnson is Dead
A funny and thoughtful rumination on life, death and the afterlife, complete with hilariously macabre death scenes and imagined reunions in heaven. One of those occasional documentaries that expands our idea of what the form can be – and does it so sneakily you don’t even notice. (Abby Olcese’s review)
5. Da 5 Bloods
The longer Delroy Lindo walks and talks and unravels in real time, direct to camera, the more it feels like you’re watching one of those moments that redefines screen acting for good. (Craig Lindsay’s review)
4. The Assistant
In one cold, cavalier line of dialogue – “So… that’s it? That’s why you came in?” – there’s an entire doorstop book about sexual harassment and power. (Peg Aloi’s review)
3. News of the World
You might not think that Paul Greengrass has a classically styled, calmly composed, nuanced take on the American Western in him. You would be wrong. (My review)
As with her earlier The Rider and Songs My Brothers Taught Me, Zhao is fascinated by scenes and subcultures, embedding herself and her camera into these worlds, and casting real people as slightly fictionalized versions of themselves. It’s a generous way to make a movie, and she’s a generous filmmaker; she knows exactly how much (or, more precisely, how little) we need of each scene, and McDormand and co-star David Straithairn are such natural, grounded presences that they blend beautifully with the rest of the cast. And its closing passages are absolutely breathtaking. (Kimber Myers’s review)
1. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Eliza Hittman’s first two films, It Felt Like Love and Beach Rats, never left their Brooklyn neighborhoods; her latest ventures into Manhattan for the first time, but does so through the eyes of a small-town visitor, and one of Hittman’s gifts is how adroitly she captures the way the city can just overwhelm you. Her protagonist is Autumn (Sidney Flanigan, in a stunning debut), coming in on the Greyhound with her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder, also very good) – but they’re not tourists. They’re there so Autumn can get an abortion, and the clarity with which Hittman approaches this process, and its many complications, is eye-opening. But it’s also not a polemic. This is an up-close character study, and there are long stretches, entire series of scenes where I felt like I shouldn’t even be there – like I was eavesdropping on something indescribably private, that I was never meant to see or hear, but that affected me profoundly nonetheless. The best movies are like that. (Kimber Myers’s review)
Honorable mentions: City Hall, Sound of Metal, His House, Small Axe, Babyteeth, The Vast of Night, David Byrne’s American Utopia, The Forty-Year-Old Version, Time, The Nest, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Bacurau, Belushi, Gunda, Rewind, Shirley, Possessor, and Minari.
That said – this was also a year in which many of us, stuck at home for an unprecedented amount of time, reached back into cinema history, watching older movies that had always eluded us, or taking chances on obscurities because, well, why not? I took the opportunity to fill quite a few blind spots; these are the best of those.
Jason’s Top 10(ish) First Viewings of 2020:
I didn’t consciously choose to key in on Hong Kong action and martial arts cinema this year – it’s just that a lot of it was placed in front of me, from Criterion’s Bruce Lee box set to their streaming channel’s program of early Jackie Chan films. All were great, but none of them blew me out of my shoes like Chan’s 1992 third installment of the Police Story franchise, which you can see in its original, pre-vandalized-by-Miramax iteration thanks to the fine folks at Hong Kong Rescue. And it’s a beaut – fast, funny, thrilling, dangerous, a full-on four-alarm fire.
9. Mona Lisa / The Long Good Friday
Anyone with a multi-region Blu-ray player can tell you that the multiple quarantine sales at Arrow Video were both a blessing and a curse – I, for one, spent a fortune, but I got my hands on a whole new library of genre gems. And with proper Blu-ray presentations, I finally made my way to this double-header of ace, ‘80s-era British gangster pictures, which combined to confirm that a) Guy Ritchie is a poseur at best, and b) Bob Hoskins was an absolute treasure.
8. That Obscure Object of Desire
This was Luis Buñuel’s final film, and you have to give him this much: he was experimenting until the very end; he would never lose his taste for challenging the ideas and expectations of what cinema was and could be. In the case of Obscure Object, he made the bold decision – partially out of desperation, when he had to start production over to recast his leading lady – to cast two different actresses in the female lead. This device is not called for by the story (not directly, anyway), nor is it explained in dialogue; instead, it’s a wild and risky method of conveying the frustration of the man who attempts to possess her. She’s too slippery for that, and no sooner has he figured her out then she’s literally another person. (My review)
7. Come and See
Throughout Elem Klimov’s 1985 war drama, the presence of death is barely more upsetting than the abruptness of it; violence just breaks out, over no sooner than it’s begun, emanating from anywhere, and not a single voice objects. This is perhaps what’s most unnerving about watching the film now, as new strains of fascism arise all but unabated. In perhaps the film’s most horrifying sequences, the Nazi soldiers board up a church with villagers (including women and children) locked inside; the church is torched, killing them all. As the building lights up, the observing crowd of soldiers breaks into cheers and applause. Mass murder and domestic terror are, for these monsters, a spectator sport. And that aspect of the film hasn’t dated one bit. (My review)
Sidney Lumet’s 1982 adaptation of Ira Levin’s play is a deliriously enjoyable wind-up toy of a movie, both sending up the conventions of the theatrical whodunit and gleefully embracing them – plot twists, character turns, betrayals, and lies abound. Michael Caine is expectedly magnificent, as this is exactly the kind of charming enigma he’s always played well. But Christopher Reeve is an absolute revelation, leaning in to the gee-whiz naiveté that he perfected as Clark Kent, and then twisting it like a knife.
5. La Strada / Nights of Cabiria
Another door opened by a Criterion box, as their holiday-timed “Essential Fellini” allowed this viewer to move past the “essentials” I’d seen (La Dolce Vita, 8 ½, etc) and into the earlier, earthier works in which he collaborated so memorably and so magnificently with the great Giulietta Masina, a towering talent with a gift for pantomime and pathos that, yes, recalls Chaplin. They’re beautiful films, graceful and sad and funny, blowing wide open the easy, lazy assumptions that have taken over our conversations about Fellini and his art.
4. Love in the Afternoon / My Night at Maud’s
All of the films of Eric Rohmer’s “Six Moral Tales,” but these two in particular, are striking in their modesty, rooted in the idea that the kind of storytelling that can reach us most, that can speak most clearly to the human condition, is that in which “nothing happens” – or, at the very least, the version of that phrase bandied about in screenwriting textbooks and notes sessions. Rohmer’s characters don’t act like people in other movies – they act like actual people, and throughout these films, it’s informative to envision how conventional movies would play out these scenarios. And then, it’s thrilling to watch Rohmer not only run counter to those expectations, but ground his outcomes in recognizable human behavior; that’s what reaches an audience, because that’s the kind of thing we all do, all the time. (My review)
3. Cleo from 5 to 7
Agnés Varda also got the box set treatment from Criterion last year, and thank God for that – I’m working my way through that one slowly, but broke it in properly with this 1962 masterpiece. Cléo’s story is never just Cléo’s story; when she’s out in public, Varda layers in snippets of nearby, overheard conversations, a gentle suggestion that this is just one of many lives playing out every day in every space, each submerged in its own drama. But her subject is Cléo, and by the conclusion of this extraordinary film, we’ve seen this woman experience fear, pain, joy, anger, and least likely of all, hope. She’s allowed that complexity. (My review)
2. The Hired Hand
Peter Fonda only directed three movies, none of them overwhelming critical or commercial successes. That’s a shame, because had he been allowed to keep working, he might have become one of the great directors of his time. This 1971 revisionist Western is certainly one of the finest directorial debuts of that decade, a moody, introspective picture that augments the psychosexual complexities of its screenplay with a haunting vision of the Old West – supplied by the great Vilmos Zsigmond, whose cinematography is up to the heights of his work on McCabe and Mrs. Miller. And so is the film itself.
John Frankenheimer’s 1966 thriller is a lot of things – science fiction, body horror, paranoid thriller. But most of all it’s social commentary, a pointed snapshot of this exact moment, this hinge of the 1960s, and the ennui that led so many (especially older) people to embrace the counter-culture. They’re capturing a tangible undercurrent in the American psyche, of feverish uncertainty and vague dissatisfaction. It hasn’t gone away. If anything, in this year, it hit harder. (My review)
Honorable Mentions: Hud, The Parallax View, The Big Combo, Ninotchka, Eyes Without a Face, Criss Cross, Days of Heaven, Mephisto, Videodrome, Thirst, The Fly, Season of the Witch, The Velvet Vampire, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, Patterns, Shivers, The Stepford Wives, Terror in a Texas Town, The Barefoot Contessa, and Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants.
And that is a wrap on Crooked Marquee of 2020 – we’re taking the week between the holidays off, so feel free to peruse our other looks back at the year in movies, or our reviews of recent (mostly stream-able) releases. Next year, the film industry may return to normal; it may also move into something entirely new, and redefine “normal” forever. Whatever the case, we’ll be here, and we hope you will too.