The Best of Cinema in 2020: The Best Films from a Very Bad Year

So, 2020 may not have been the best year in recent memory. A global pandemic. Businesses shutting down. So many people sick and dying. A president who didn't care one iota about any of it - or any of us. Nearly half the country blinded by the very same grifter-in-chief. Police brutality telling 2019 to hold it's beer. Protests and counter protests and counter counter protests. Quarantining. A jobless rate through the figurative roof. Overworked first responders. Overstuffed hospitals. Record amounts of deaths. People refusing to do the right thing. Did I mention the president? Yeah, I did.

With all this turmoil, most movie theatres were closed for a good portion of the year. Most potential blockbustery movies (most of the big superhero franchises, the new Dune, all the so-called tentpole films) were postponed until sometime in mid to late 2021. Even the Oscars & their brethren, were delayed until the end of April, and eligibility deadlines were pushed from December 31st to February 28th. All this said, 2020, for as godawful as it was as a year in history, was a pretty darn good year in cinema. With so many of the big superhero films pushed back (perhaps they should have sent the new Wonder Woman with the rest of her super heroic ilk) that left so much room for smaller films to shine. Films that in another year, would have been buried beneath the box office boffo of Disney's output alone.

Another big and important deal this past year was the output of films by women directors. Granted, it is still a rather low percentage of films, at just 18% of US films (up from 13% in 2019 and just 8% in 2018). Given more of chance to direct films than ever before, and proving the Hollywood patriarchy as wrong-headed, women could, and maybe should, be taking over the old Hollywood guard. So much so that six of my top ten films this year, were directed by women. What a delightful outcome. Great smaller films and by great women directors too.

These smaller films, female and male directed both, got the time to show they're stuff. Granted, for the most part, their collective shining moments were not on the big screens of the nation's movie theatres, but instead on the smaller (but some still quite large) screens of our living rooms and bedrooms and family rooms. These films that finally got their moment in the sun, so to speak, were helped even more by the unadulterated accessibility to themselves. I know the last film I actually saw in an actual brick & mortar movie house was Birds of Prey, and that was more than eleven whole months ago. But that didn't stop me from binging, even more than in a so-called normal year, everything I could find on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Disney+, HBO Max, Apple TV, and all the other platforms I've forgotten.

With all this in mind, I am now able to reveal my Best of Cinema in 2020 list. So here are my choices for the 10 best films, and another 10 to extend to a top twenty, and maybe a few more runners-up while I'm at it. So, to reiterate, here are my choices for the 40 best films of 2020. And awaaaay we go....

1. I'm Thinking of Ending Things
When you sit down to watch a film by Charlie Kaufman, whether it was written by him (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) or written AND directed by him (Synechdoche, New York), you know you are going to get something more than mere frivolous entertainment. You are going to get a multi-faceted cinematic creature with a hundred arms and a thousand heads and make yo say what the...?! And it is sure to be a batshitcrazy work of brilliance. Well, his latest is just that, to the nth degree. All the principals, Jessie Buckley, Jesse Plemons, David Thewlis, and a madcap brilliant turn from Toni Collette, are equally brilliant in their performances. This may, as they say, not be everyone's cup of tea, but for those who love cinema and like to have more than superficial entertainment, or perhaps for those who are equally as batshitcrazy as Kaufman himself, this is a cup of tea you will want to drink down with great fervor.

2. Mank
The story of the writing of the first draft of Citizen Kane, considered by many (including this critic) to be one of the greatest films ever made, is the latest film from David Fincher. This tale of Oscar winning screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, set mostly in the mid to late 1930's Hollywood studio system era, plays out less like a film about that time period, and more like a film actually made in that time period. Fincher, along with cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, used deep focus and low angles and ornate backgrounds to make this look like a film Orson Welles would have made back in the day. In other words, a beautiful and succulent cinematic experience. Combine that with the performances of Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, and Charles Dance, and you get the second best film of 2020.

3. Kajillionaire
Miranda July has a history of making films about quirky lovable women who seem to have no idea what the world is all about, but make it work for them anyway. The auteur's latest is no different. It stars Evan Rachel Wood, in one of her finest performances yet, as young woman who "works' as a con artist with her seemingly unloving parents (Richard Jenkins and a nearly unrecognizable Debra Winger). Not exactly the most stable family atmosphere, Wood's Old Dolio (she was named after a homeless man after he helped them con someone) has no idea how to interact with real people in the real world, which is the crux of the story once these three intrepid grifters come in contact with Melanie, played with a bubbly sexuality by Gina Rodriguez. With its twists and turns, Kajillionaire goes to some really intriguing places. A fun film indeed.

4. Promising Young Woman
The story of a woman, played brilliantly by Carey Mulligan, who goes to bars and pretends to be drunk in order to draw out self-proclaimed "good guys" who invariably try to take advantage of her. A sort of vigilante on the prowl for sexual predators. Directed by actress turned director Emerald Fennell, in her directorial debut, the film takes an already dark subject and turns darker and darker as the film goes on, all the while with Mulligan handing in the greatest performance of her career. This is one of several films from 2020 that take on the patriarchy with a vengeance. It's a good trend to see coming from a usually quite misogynistic Hollywood.

5. Nomadland
Director Chloe Zhao, the presumptive Best Director Oscar winner this year, uses three things to make this film as hauntingly beautiful as it is. The first is the landscape of America, photographing gorgeous western vistas as the background of her tale. The second are the so-called nomads of America, a subsect of Americans who have turned away from the normal American dream and have hit the road to live a freer life than the corporate capitalist world allows - many of whom are in the film, portraying semi-fictionalized versions of themselves. The third thing is the face of two time Academy Award winning actress Frances McDormand. That ever so expressive face of Frances McDormand. Without words, Frances's face tells us everything we need to know about the life of her newly nomadic Fern. A face that could win the actress a third Best Actress Oscar.

6. Lovers Rock
In 2020, Steve McQueen, the Oscar winning director of 12 Years a Slave, gave us not one or two, but five new films. Now technically these film films were made for Amazon Prime as a sort of anthology series, collectively titles Small Axe, and taking a look at the lives of West African immigrants living in London from the 1960's through the 1980's, and thus are not technically cinematic fare. Of course, this would have only been the case in pre-Covid days. This year, even the technical cinematic fare was shown on what we call television these days, so I'm counting McQueen's five films as cinema, and thus here is the best of these, Lovers Rock. Set in 1980, the film takes place almost entirely at a house party in London. The music, the camera, the actors, swirling in and out and all about, making it seem like we are actually in attendance at said house party. It is a swirling party all on its own.

7. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
This quiet yet harrowing film by Eliza Hittman tells the story of a seventeen year old girl who, accompanied by her best friend, must travel from her small backwards midwestern town to New York City to get an abortion, where she can have the procedure done without parental permission. The film is not very dialogue heavy, but the emotions come through extremely loudly. Sidney Flanigan, in her first acting role ever, plays Autumn, the young woman who must take this emotional journey, gives one of the finest and deepest performances of anyone this year. There is one scene, from whence the title comes, that may very well be the most devastating scene in any movie this past year. Such a beautifully haunting , and quite important film, that shows how the ugliness of misogyny permeates every aspect of life for women. 

8. First Cow
Kelly Reichardt, the indie queen director of the harrowing Pacific Northwest drama (Old Joy, Wendy & Lucy, Meek's Cutoff) does it again in this quiet, passionate film about two loners trying to make it in the Oregon Territory of 1820. With danger seeming to loom around every tree (one assumes this place and time was not the easiest of livelihoods), these two hapless travelers, one a meek cook, the other a Chinese immigrant on the run, start a baking business in the budding young town being erected on this virgin land. The only problem is, they need milk, and the only cow within miles belongs to the town's richest and most powerful person. A beautifully shot film from one of my favourite directors working today.

9. One Night in Miami
No big deal. It's just one night in the life of four friends. It just so happens the friends on this night are Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown, and Cassius Clay, the latter of whom on the very verge of being reborn as Muhammad Ali. The film, the directorial debut of Oscar winning actress Regina King, and based on a\the debut stage play by Kemp Powers (who also wrote the screenplay), takes place the night when Clay beat Sonny Liston and became the Heavyweight Champion of the World. The back and forth between these four actors playing these four iconic figures, talking about the plight of people of color is not only an important film (of course it is!) but is also a smartly written and brilliantly acted film. Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm and Tony Award winning Hamilton star, Leslie Odom Jr, as Cooke, shine bright in this film, and should, if there is any justice, receive Oscar nominations for their performances.

10. The Vast of Night
One of many directorial debuts on this list, this swirling sci-fi film was directed by Andrew Patterson, and tells the story of a small New Mexico town in the 1950's that may (or may not) be getting a visit from aliens. Shot with a slew of weaving gorgeous tracking shots, the film plays out like a B sci-fi film from the time period. And please remember, if you are into big loud sci fi epics like Independence Day or Transformers, this is not the film for you. This is a quiet story about a quiet town that may or may not be being invaded from outer space. More along the lines of The Arrival, but even smaller and more intimate, all the while looking like a never standing still blast from the past.

And, since it was such a good year (in cinema, not in health or money), let's extend this to a Top 20: Chadwick Boseman's final performance alone, would make Ma Rainey's Black Bottom deserve recognition here, but the rest of the film is pretty damn good too. The Danish film Another Round is a tragi-comedic look at alcoholism amongst a group of four middle aged white guys, including the always spectacular Mads Mikkelsen. Sofia Coppola's 7th feature film, On The Rocks, takes a look at a 39 year old woman, played by Rashida Jones, struggling in her marriage, and her philandering father, played by Bill Murray, who is helping her the best way he knows how - which isn't very well. I guess all you really needed to hear was Bill Murray. Tenet, the latest blockbuster from Christopher Nolan (and one of the few "blockbuster" films of 2020) is a pulse-pounding take on time travel - or is it? Hmmmm. Spike Lee returns this year with his war film, Da 5 Bloods, that has a stand-out bravura performance from Delroy Lindo, as well as some pretty harrowing war scenes. It also has a supporting turn from the late Mr. Boseman. Nicolas Cage has always been at his best when he is allowed to go batshitcrazy in the role, and the weird Cronenbergian sci-fi horror film, Color Out of Space, allows the actor to do just that. A Civil War era set horror film that takes a look at the ugliness of systemic racism sounds like a perfect film for these times of change. Unfortunately Antebellum did not ride as high as it should have (inherent racism in the average American perhaps) but the film is quite good, and quite empowering. Babyteeth, a small Australian film starring Eliza Scanlan, is how a dying teen romance should be made, which is the complete opposite of the often cloying way the genre is done in the States. With some of the films on this list, it is a pretty high honour to claim Little Joe as probably the weirdest film here. A buzzing little slice of Lynchian life indeed. A gorgeous yet brutal Russian film, Beanpole is devastating in it's beauty and is highlighted by the brilliant performances of Viktoria Miroshnichenko & Vasilisa Perelygina.

And, let's double it up with twenty runners-up (in no particular order): Pieces of a Woman; The Invisible Man; Palm Springs; Soul; Minari; Birds of Prey; Wolfwalkers; The Twentieth Century; The Assistant; Swallow; She Dies Tomorrow, The Wolf House; Sound of Metal; Hamilton; The Hunt; The 40 Year Old Version; The Prom; Mangrove; The Trial of The Chicago 7; and Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.

That's it gang! See ya 'round the Web! (and see ya with the 37th Annual Kevy Awards coming in March too!!)