Whatever the future holds both for theatrical distribution and for at-home streaming, 2020 will no doubt mark the pivot point in which the destinies of both would forever change. But where and how one sees films will inevitably be less important than the films themselves, and even in this year of turmoil, there was always something to recommend, wherever it was available to be seen.
Notable Runners-Up: “The 40-Year-Old Version,” “Ammonite,” “Another Round,” “And Then We Danced,” “The August Virgin,” “Birds of Prey,” “Da 5 Bloods,” “Emma.,” “The Half of It,” “Happiest Season,” “House of Hummingbird,” “I’m No Longer Here,” “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” “The Invisible Man,” “Kajillionaire,” “Let Them All Talk,” “Lingua Franca,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Madre,” “Miss Juneteenth,” “The Nest,” “Nomadland,” “One Night in Miami,” “The Photograph,” “The Secret Garden,” “She Dies Tomorrow,” “A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon,” “Shirley,” “Sorry We Missed You,” “Tigertail,” “The Truth,” “The Whistlers,” “A White White Day,” “Wolfwalkers”
Special Commendations: “Small Axe” and “The Human Voice”: The latest works from Steve McQueen and Pedro Almodóvar are undeniably among the year’s most vital and important creations. But a five-part anthology series (which I am treating collectively as one title) and a half-hour short film don’t nestle easily with feature films, so I’m giving each their due without making them compete with works of different length.
10. “On the Rocks”: Sofia Coppola shows her sprightliest side yet as a filmmaker in this knowing and deeply felt father-daughter comedy, starring Bill Murray as a womanizing charmer and Rashida Jones as his adult child who realizes she has to come to terms with her dad and his ways before she can make sense of her own marriage.
9. “I’m Your Woman”: On the heels of “Miss Stevens” and “Fast Color,” director Julia Hart is now three for three, and this examination of a mob wife (Rachel Brosnahan, on a distinct plane of existence from “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”) on the run calls up the spirit and the aesthetic of the 1970s New Hollywood more successfully than any number of pretenders to that throne.
8. “Bacurau”: Post-apocalyptic movies landed with a special kind of sting in 2020, and this brutally brilliant satire from Kleber Mendonça Filho depicts a world of people struggling for resources and against an exploitative ruling class, which all felt exceedingly familiar this year.
7. “New Order”: A gut-punch of a fable — one that depicts how economic inequality imperils even a society’s wealthiest class — this Mexican import from Michel Franco (“Chronic”) has the direct impact of a fight that’s taking place right outside your door.
6. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”: Eliza Hittman’s gift for telling achingly intimate and empathetic stories of young people in crisis is on full display in this Berlin and Sundance award-winner about two girls who make the trek from rural Pennsylvania to New York City to get access to a Planned Parenthood. The film never sacrifices the honesty and the immediacy of its characters on the altar of devastating social commentary, but that commentary remains there all the same.
5. “Crip Camp”: Like Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe,” this inspirational portrait of a historical moment celebrates the power of people united to overcome oppression. Nicole Newnham and James Lebrecht’s documentary traces a political movement from its origins at a New York state summer camp for the disabled to a sit-in in the late 1970s that forced changes in laws governing access and opportunities.
4. “City Hall”: Legendary documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman explores the inner workings of the city of Boston (and the apparent omnipresence of the city’s charismatic mayor Marty Walsh) as a way to celebrate the efficacy and usefulness of government and of community interaction, be that on a neighborhood level or a national one.
3. “First Cow”: What New York City is to Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese, the Pacific Northwest is for Kelly Reichardt, and her tale of a cook (John Magaro) and an immigrant (Orion Lee) looking to carve out their piece of the American dream in the 19th century is a subtle and gorgeous tale of male friendship, exploitation of resources, and the earth-shaking power of fried dough.
2. “Driveways”: There are a million ways to get the crusty-old-man-befriends-bright-eyed-child story wrong, and director Andrew Ahn falls prey to none of them in this life-affirming story about a boy and his mother adrift in the world, and the connections they make when they least expect it. Hong Chau, Lucas Jaye, and the late Brian Dennehy give some of the year’s best performances in the year’s best narrative film.
1. “Collective”: Alexander Nanau’s blistering look at a corrupt health-care system, and at the power of media to expose hypocrisy or to hide it with propaganda, may take place in Romania (it’s that country’s Oscar entry), but this documentary speaks to broken systems around the world, with a combination of Frederick Wiseman-esque detatchment and white-knuckle editing.
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