Best of 2020

Last year The Last Black Man in San Francisco took home the #1 spot on our annual Top Ten list, and we still stand by placement of that elemental experience over Bong Joon-ho’s architectural Parasite. Given the choice between a) pole position on a Motion State list and b) an Academy Award for Best Picture, well, hopefully Bong Joon-ho’s not too crushed.

Of course, as is nearly always the case, another 2019 release arose on our radar shortly after publication that would have upset the rankings significantly: Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a stunning film that sort of existed as both a messy humanist experience and a meticulously-crafted work of precision. Portrait would’ve bumped Parasite to #3, sending Bong Joon-ho into utter desperation, banging on my door at 2am, pleading for another chance.

2020 was weird because…well, we won’t get into all of that. But let’s get out ahead of it this year: through lockdowns, release delays and cinema closures both temporary and tragically permanent, the moviegoing experience was different enough that the following list should be considered with a few grains of salt. I only got to about half the number of films I watched in 2019, and many of the films appearing on other Top Ten lists — notably Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland, Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman, Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor, Kantemir Balagov’s Beanpole, Pablo Larrain’s Ema, Sean Durkin’s The Nest, Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela, and a dozen others — simply weren’t available in my area.

Nonetheless! Before we get to the good stuff, please remember to visit our new Support Film Art page, aimed at encouraging relief to local arthouse theaters; we’ll be expanding this section of the site throughout 2021 in an effort to give back to these strongholds of cinema art.

10. The Invisible Man

The Invisible Man (2020)

Certainly the closest thing on this list to popcorn fare, Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man was always going to feature jump scares involving the titular ghostly villain. But by forcing us to adopt much of Cecilia’s (Elizabeth Moss) point of view, the real menace of Whannell’s film becomes the questioning of every empty doorframe, every corner, every moment of alleged privacy. Tie in a strong thematic thread about gaslighting and believing women, and The Invisible Man materializes as the year’s best horror film.

Where to watch: streaming on HBO.

9. Dick Johnson is Dead

Dick Johnson Is Dead (2020)

Long live Dick Johnson.

Where to watch: streaming on Netflix.

8. Martin Eden

Martin Eden (2020)

Martin Eden is visually arresting, a tenderly-shot Super 16mm venture that pops vibrantly off the screen, evoking Rossellini’s directness and — dare we say it — Kubrick’s color usage in Barry Lyndon. The hyper-romantic presentation befits Martin, whose journey takes him from likable rogue to pretentious braggart perhaps a little too quickly. Still, with an absolute powerhouse performance from Luca Marinelli and an intriguingly nebulous period setting, Eden is a pure escapist dream until it comes crashing back to earth.

Where to watch: available to rent through Kino Lorber.

7. Mank

Mank (2020)

Mank is not one of David Fincher’s best films, but the director’s command of the medium remains unparalleled. While the fluidity of his earlier films seems to have given way to a colder sensibility post-Zodiac, Mank is somehow the best of both Finchers: a strict tale told without a hint of frivolity, yet still a zippy adventure clearly borne of a love of the movies. And Mank himself might be the year’s most fascinating character, brought to life in another legendary performance by Gary Oldman, one that reveals new depths upon second viewing.

Where to watch: streaming on Netflix.

6. First Cow

First Cow (2020)

The Wild (North)west, the bare frontier of the 1820s — surely populated by gritty cowboys, bandits, broncobusters and John Wayne types, right? The “heroes” of First Cow are a real rarity in cinema, and downright inconceivable for a traditional Western: gentle, quiet souls, softer than the time into which they’re born. As with Kelly Reichardt’s previous Western Meek’s Cutoff, there’s a lot less dramatic machinery at play here than you probably expect. But like its characters, First Cow taps into a calmer frequency, taking its time, inviting you along for the journey.

Where to watch: available to rent through A24.

5. Another Round

Another Round (2020)

Four middle-aged friends undertake an experiment that requires them to be slightly drunk at all times. There are about a million and one directions to take this premise, and frankly one can easily picture the American version of this picture, a loud and gratuitous affair probably starring Will Ferrell. But Another Round shows Thomas Vinterberg’s mastery mostly in its restraint, with a brilliant anchoring performance from Mads Mikkelson. The film’s final minutes, when that restraint finally gives way to full-blown emotion, makes for the most cathartic release of any single sequence this year.

Where to watch: available to rent through a variety of theaters.

4. Time

Time (2020)

“Lots of definitions of “time” are vocalized by the Richardson family throughout Garrett Bradley’s documentary. Time is looking at old photos of your toddlers, then looking up to see they have beards. Time is what you make of it, time is lost, time can be affected by your actions, your emotions. The prison has an orchard that was mere saplings when Rob Richardson first arrived. But Bradley’s engagement with her subject matter is more than mere observance. Certain flourishes define time in and of themselves: a lengthy, static shot of Fox Richardson on hold with the local court that feels like an eternity; resisting the urge to cut over to the prison to interview Rob, emphasizing his absence for Fox and their boys; and a beautiful, time-reversing series of final moments.”

Read the full review.

Where to watch: streaming on Amazon Prime.

3. Small Axe

Small Axe (2020) — Amazon Prime

Is this cheating? Small Axe is a collection of five individual films about racism in the UK, but even taken piecemeal, we’d put Mangrove or Lovers Rock high up on this list. As a whole, though, Steve McQueen’s anthology is a transcendent, kaleidoscopic look at life under someone else’s rules. This axe has the sharp edge you’d expect, cutting into harrowing racial strife in Mangrove and Red, White and Blue. But it also reflects the bright spots in Lovers Rock, the joy of these close communities, the happiness, such that they’re not defined by tragedy alone.

Read the full review of Mangrove.

Where to watch: streaming on Amazon Prime.

2. Sound of Metal

Sound of Metal (2020)

At first, the juxtaposition in Sound of Metal between sound and silence is scary, because it forces us into the experience of Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a drummer who’s just lost his hearing. But eventually those scary moments of quietude become moments of peace. Moments with sound soon seem overwhelming, and the film miraculously makes you yearn for a return to that peace. Darius Marder’s achievement here is to mimic Ruben’s journey in the very construction of Sound of Metal. We’re never a step ahead of Ruben (sequences in American Sign Language are not captioned at first, not until Ruben learns ASL), and so our dependency on the sound design and editing is not unlike that co-dependency characteristic of many deaf communities.

Read the full review.

Where to watch: streaming on Amazon Prime.

1. Minari

Minari (2020)

Like this year’s Driveways — another film with an uprooted young Asian boy finding friendship in an elderly companion in middle America — there’s a gentleness to Lee Isaac Chung’s film that at first presents itself as a simple slice-of-life drama. Minari proves to be more than that, effortlessly navigating shifting family dynamics, feeling both restless and hyperfocused at the same time. Growth is not only a theme and an explicit metaphor throughout Minari, but it’s an idea with real follow-through. The relationships are the core strength of Chung’s film, requiring care and maintenance like Grandma’s minari herb, a plant that can grow anywhere.

Read the full review.

Where to watch: in theaters February 12th.

Honorable Mentions:

Selah and the Spades, Soul, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Swallow, His House, Blow the Man Down, The Painter and the Thief, Da 5 Bloods, A Hidden Life, Bad Education, Driveways, Palm Springs, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, Let Them All Talk

Worst of 2020:

The Devil All The Time, Dolittle, Capone, Eurovision, The Last Thing He Wanted, Artemis Fowl, Spenser Confidential, Mulan

Best TV:

While we may now have caught as many films as usual, the Golden Age of Television was still in full swing in 2020. Which is not to say there wasn’t a lot of really bad TV (like Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, Hunters, Helstrom, Brave New World, Space Force, and perhaps most disappointingly Season 3 of Westworld). But let’s look at the bright side, shall we?

5. Devs

Devs (2020)
Devs (2020)

If Alex Garland isn’t the best sci-fi writer out there (and I think he might be), then he’s certainly the most ambitious. Not everything works in Devs, but the heady, hard-science ideas of Ex Machina and Annihilation are just as provocative here. You might even decide to rewatch it just to wrap your head around it — or, maybe that decision has already been preordained for you, whether you like it or not.

Where to watch: streaming on Hulu.

4. I Know This Much Is True

I Know This Much Is True (2020)

Not for the faint of heart, I Know This Much Is True kicks off in truly harrowing fashion. But the real intensity of this miniseries comes not from blood or gore, but from an emotional current that’s as heartfelt as it is in-your-face. Not since The Leftovers has a TV show felt so raw. And due respect to the emotional depths of the Hulk (ahem), but Mark Ruffalo’s stunning pair of performances are by far his best to date.

Where to watch: streaming on HBO.

3. The Last Dance

The Last Dance (2020)

Game of Thrones on the basketball court. Even for someone not very sports-minded, like myself, this was must-watch event TV. Plus, we got some awesome meme templates out of the deal.

Where to watch: streaming on Netflix.

2. The Good Lord Bird

The Good Lord Bird (2020)

Conceptually, The Good Lord Bird just sounds like a bad idea. A slavery…comedy? But damn if it doesn’t land perfectly — which is to say it lands in your stomach, both the belly laughs and the dark, queasy realities of the story at hand. Ethan Hawke is unforgettable as the ballistic abolitionist John Brown, but Onion (Joshua Caleb Johnson) is nothing less than the best TV character of 2020.

Where to watch: streaming on Showtime.

1. The Plot Against America

The Plot Against America (2020)

No show this year tapped the national political zeitgeist like The Plot Against America. Relevance to “the zeitgeist” is sort of an overused critique, I’d always thought, because it suggests that there’s a single prevailing national mood at a given point in time. But Plot, written in 2004, set in an alternate 1940, somehow understands that truth about 2020: America has no single idea or belief. Certain national engagements (like, say, a presidential election) might even support the notion there is no single America. Tough a pill as it is to swallow, The Plot Against America manages to use fictional history to reveal complex national dynamics that sometimes reside under the same roof.

Where to watch: streaming on HBO.

Honorable Mentions:

The Boys, The Queen’s Gambit, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Normal People, Fargo

What were your 2020 favorites? Hit the comments!

Get all of our full-length film and television reviews here.

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