The Best Films of 2020

There's no doubt that 2020 will be a year that people remember for many reasons. While a global pandemic, racial protests, and the American presidential election earned spots on the front page news, many movie lovers experienced the deepest wound from being kept away from movie theaters. For film critics and cinephiles, the movie theater is often a second home and a place of refuge. But theaters closed and stay-at-home orders made the prospects of seeing new and worthy pictures seem unlikely. 

Lo and behold, movies found a way. In addition to the multitude of streaming services with high-quality content available from which people can choose, many movie studios hosted virtual screenings (often with live Q & A's), granting front row access. Film festivals adapted, as well, creating online experiences which allowed people to attend without traveling. While the theatrical experience cannot be replicated at home, no matter how sweet the sound system, movies continued to be made and released, albeit in unusual ways and on delayed schedules.

Below are my picks for the best 20 of 2020. I have red ribbons and blue ribbons. Other than my top two films (Farewell Amor and Vast of Night), the other films are in no particular order within each color. Some may surprise you or not be any other list. That's okay. Film criticism is all about opinions. These are the films that made me feel deeply, impressed me with their storytelling, or reminded me of the joy that movies can bring. Links to my more in-depth reviews included if relevant. See you at the movies in 2021!

Honorable Mentions – Red Ribbons

Movie still from Boys State
Rene Otero looks on as his party makes decisions in BOYS STATE. Image: A24/AppleTV

Boys State
, directed by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine (A24)

I can't imagine a more riveting documentary. One thousand 17-year-old boys from Texas come together to set up a mock government. Part Lord of the Flies; part 1776 -- this documentary captures young teenage males grappling with the same decisions that plague all politicians: when to compromise, when to lie, when to smear, when to call a truce, and when to resign. The only difference is these teens are willing to fess up and admit to their misdeeds. Votes for Stephen Garza. Watch on Apple TV+ 

Kyle and Gayla at the wedding altar
[L-R] Kyle Marvin as Kyle, Gayle Rankin as Marissa in THE CLIMB. Photo by Zach Kuperstein. Courtesy Sony Pictures Classic. 

The Climb
, directed by Michael Angelo Covino (Sony Classics)

There's no shortage of movies about male friendship. Usually such stories double as action flicks, capers, or buddy comedies, with less focus on the relationship and more on the wacky adventures the pair survives together. Michael Angelo Covino fills a much-needed gap and dares to make The Climb, a movie about male friendship that feels more like a romance. Despite all obstacles, two men choose to stay friends through thick and thin. And while there's humor to be found, the results are heartwarming and sweet, minus the sap.

Read full review here

Max and Duke talk at the bar in The Comeback Trail
Tommy Lee Jones and Robert De Niro in THE COMEBACK TRAIL

The Comeback Trail
, directed by George Gallo (Cloudburst Entertainment)

In this joyful love letter to movies and moviemaking, movie producer Max Barber owes money to the mob and has no prospects for paying it back before he is killed. But after a freak accident on set earns a rival producer settlement money, Max gets an idea: pretend to make a movie starring a washed-out and suicidal actor. Max plans to stage an "accidental death" and collect the check, but things don't go as he planned. It's part farce, part black comedy, part caper, and 100% genius. Even though the ending is telegraphed a mile away, it was a mighty enjoyable mile anyway. 

Bol and Rial in His House
[L-R] Wunmi Mosaku as Rial and Sope Dirisu as Bol in HIS HOUSE. Photo: Netflix

His House
, directed by Remi Weekes (New Regency/BBC Films)

A husband and wife from South Sudan arrive in the UK at a refugee center. When they are selected for cultural acclimation, they are assigned a dilapidated house that they must live in during their trial period. The couple does their best to make the best out of a bad situation, but as the haunted presence that lives in the house begins to interact with the couple, they become divided on their next logical step. With truly terrifying imagery, as well as a window into the PTSD most refugees have to live with as they try to adjust to a new home, His House is a well-crafted addition to the subgenre known as social horror and bound to provoke discussion. Watch on Netflix.

Maria in her living room
Grazyna Misiorowska as Maria in Dari Woszek's MARYGOROUND

(Maryjki), directed by Daria Woszek (Media Luna)

On the brink of menopause, Maria, still a virgin, begins to take hormone therapy patches. But when she takes the wrong dose, her sexual libido goes out of whack, sending her on an estrogen-fueled journey full of color, sound, and feelings she's always repressed. In a world where women often feel overlooked or relegated to certain roles in society, the story of Maria feels fresh and needed. Maria takes charge of her story and her sexuality in an unforgettable way.

Read full review here

The new Roman tells stories at MACA prison
Bakary Kone as The Roman in NIGHT OF THE KINGS

Night of the Kings (La Nuit Des Rois), directed by Philippe LacĂ´te (Neon)

An inmate, newly arrived at the MACA prison in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, is appointed as the prison's Roman, a court-appointed storyteller, who must tell stories on the rising of the red moon to survive the night. Meanwhile, the reigning boss of the prison must secede his power as his body begins to shut down. This immersive and sensory film speaks to the power of stories, especially for the voiceless and marginalized in society. Here, in this prison, where the damned live shut off from the rest of the world, stories are survival -- stories are life. The themes are timeless, but the cultural context is decidedly West African. 

Cassandra in a playboy type nurse uniform
Carey Mulligan as Cassandra in PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN

Promising Young Woman, directed by Emerald Fennell (Focus Features)

Surprising, dark, twisted, challenging, and operatic. Cassandra spends her nights setting traps for "nice guys" who want to help a drunk girl get home – by way of detour to his place for drinks first. Even if you go in knowing the concept, strap in and prepare for the unexpected. Cassandra has planned for every contingency, even past the point of reason. Watch in theaters now and on VOD soon.

Shirley stares ahead at something unseen
Elisabeth Moss as Shirley Jackson in SHIRLEY

, directed by Josephine Decker (Neon)

A dreamy biographical fiction film about the impact a visiting couple has on the household of Shirley Jackson and spouse while Jackson is trying to complete a novel. Academics can be a wild bunch, and clearly, nothing is more exhilarating for this crew than playing mind games of the highest order on matters of power and interpersonal dynamics. This plays very much like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf with more attention paid to the women. Solid performances all around. Elisabeth Moss earned enthusiastic praise for her Invisible Man role, but I felt more drawn to her portrayal of Jackson. Watch on Hulu.

Hunter looks outside the window
Haley Bennett in SWALLOW. Image: Courtesy of IFC Films; An IFC Films Release.

Swallow, directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis (IFC Films)

Hunter, a newly married housewife, finds relief from suburban malaise in swallowing non-digestible household objects, such as marbles and thumbtacks. Far from being the body horror I expected, viewers are invited into Hunter's story, giving us an inside view into the mind of someone with pica, a psychological disorder that compels a person to eat non-food objects. Spare, but powerful, dialogue is used effectively, but much of the story is told through images alone. Watch on Hulu.

Read full review here  

Benni gets a punishment from Micha
Helena Zengel as Benni in SYSTEM CRASHER

System Crasher (Systemsprenger), directed by Nora Fingscheidt

Nothing quite prepared me for the story of Benni, a girl so traumatized by a childhood incident that she can't stand the feel of anyone touching her face. Prone to such violent outbursts that it takes three grown men to restrain her, Benni seems doomed to never find a home or a stable place to live. Enter Micha: her school escort, who thinks he can help Benni by taking her to a rustic cabin for a sabbatical. Benni's fearful-avoidant attachment style keeps her from finding a safe place to fall yet it's what she so desperately needs. Prepare to be gutted by this story of childhood trauma with an unforgettable performance by newcomer Helena Zengel. Watch on Netflix.

Top Ten – Blue Ribbons

Priscilla and Mary Beth Connolly
[L-R] Morgan Saylor as Mary Beth; Sophie Lowe as Priscilla in BLOW THE MAN DOWN

Blow the Man Down, directed by Danielle Krudy and Bridget Savage Cole

Your fantasies of seeing what it's like to be a scruffy fisherman in small town Maine where big-haired ladies try to pretend a thick layer of underbelly criminal activity doesn't exist can be realized for 90 minutes by engrossing yourself in this movie. It has a Coen Brothers vibe, but the women clearly control this town. All Hail the Matriarchy! This atmospheric movie had the same vibes as Winter's Bone but with added humor. I thoroughly enjoyed this trip to Maine. Watch on Amazon Prime Video.

Kingsley and his mom
Kenyah Sandy as Kingsley in EDUCATION [Small Axe series]

, directed by Steve McQueen

While most of the public love for the Small Axe film series has gone to Lovers Rock, I felt more invested in the quieter, character-driven tale of Kingsley, a young boy who loves all things outer space. Kingsley shows great intelligence yet has never learned to read due to an inept educational system and the systemic racism of his society. Seeing Kingsley finally able to reveal his pain to his mother and sister is one of the most emotionally raw moments I have witnessed on screen all year. Watch on Amazon Prime Video. 

The reunited family meets at the airport
Walter, Esther, and Sylvia meet at the airport in Ekwa Msangi's FAREWELL AMOR

Farewell Amor, directed by Ekwa Msangi (IFC)

By far my top movie of this year, Farewell Amor tells the story of an Angolan family, separated for 17 years due to immigration restrictions, now reunited in America. Told in three parallel narratives, the three try to become a family again, despite the ways their lives have diverged. Each story begins at the airport, and as the different perspectives unspool, we learn different pieces of the puzzle. A love of dance and the way it can bridge communication obstacles is a big theme of this story. 

Anne and Anthony in an elevator
Olivia Colman as Anne and Anthony Hopkins as Anthony in THE FATHER.
Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.

The Father
, directed by Florian Zeller (Sony Pictures Classics)

I didn't want to watch another movie about a person getting older and losing their agency and ability to make decisions for self. Zeller subverts expectations, though, and tells the story from the perspective of the cared for, rather than the caretaker. Filmed like a horror movie, Anthony tries to make sense of the changes happening to him and around him. The results play with viewers' minds along with Anthony. Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman deserve all praise for their performances, as well as the rest of the cast.

Jacob shows his son, David, the land
[L-R] Alan S. Kim as David and Steven Yeun as Jacob in MINARI

Minari, directed by Lee Isaac Chung (A24)

Like Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, Minari is a heartland tale of family, finding a home, and growing up, with an immigration twist. A Korean American family tries to find their own version of the American dream. It boasts unforgettable performances from main and supporting characters alike. We all need a grandma that swears while she plays cards and teaches us the joys of wrestling. What could have been an unbearably heavy story manages to seep sweetness and charm with slice-of-life images of the family cooking and eating together and discovering Mountain Dew.

Nyles and Sarah lounge at the pool
Cristin Milioti as Sarah; Andy Samberg as Nyles in PALM SPRINGS

Palm Springs
, directed by Max Barbakow (Neon)

When you are feeling blue, watch a time loop movie and SNAP!, life doesn't seem so bad after all. This quirky and sometimes raunchy rom-com revisits a classic plot for a new generation. It's movie fluff, but really well-made movie fluff. Barbakow changes the time loop formula by throwing two people into that hell together. Watch on Hulu.

Ruben in bed with Lou
Riz Ahmed as Ruben; Olivia Cooke as Lou in SOUND OF METAL. Photo: Courtesy Amazon Studios.

Sound of Metal
, directed by Darius Marder

Portrayals of characters learning to live with disabilities can be troubling, even when they are acclaimed and enjoyable to watch. Often such characters are seen as something to be pitied, victimized, or ripe for use as inspiration porn by able-bodied people. Sound of Metal avoids that route in its depiction of a heavy metal drummer and former addict who experiences hearing loss. The sound design allows viewers to experience the various states of hearing Ruben goes through, from fully hearing to partial loss to supplemented by implants and total silence. An electric performance by Riz Ahmed ties this all together. Watch on Amazon Prime Video. 

The Protagonist looks at the bullet holes
[L-R] Robert Pattinson as Neil and John David Washington as the Protagonist in TENET.

, directed by Christopher Nolan (Warner Bros.)

Sure, it's messy, difficult to understand, and poorly acted (save Pattinson), but Tenet is a film that gave me incredibly joy. After my first viewing, I complained of all its inadequacies, yet the next morn, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Nolan created a Chinese finger trap on screen, stopping everyone in their tracks as they struggled to make sense of temporal pincers, inversion, and Sator squares. Plan on watching Tenet multiple times and, if you're brave or bored, enter the gauntlet of YouTube videos of everyone who claims to understand the plot (Spoiler alert: they don't). Bonus: Ludwig Goransson's film score deserves a top shelf placement on every film lover's movie soundtrack collection.

Read full review here 

Ned Kelly in front of Australian flag
George MacKay as Ned Kelly in TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG.
Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.

True History of the Kelly Gang
, directed by Justin Kurzel (IFC)

Using unabashedly fictional source material and taking inspiration from Australian countercultural larrikin bands of the 1960s-1980s, this latest rendering of Ned Kelly and his gang pulses with punk-rock energy and a timeless feel. While this isn’t the Ned Kelly of the history books, it’s a fun ride worth taking. This biographical fiction film captivates with its performances, music, and cinematography, and if they don’t already know about this “favorite son” of Oz, viewers will certainly find themselves hitting the internet search box to learn more about Ned Kelly.

Read full review here 

Everett and Fay in the radio station
Jake Horowitz as Everett and Sierra McCormick as Fay in THE VAST OF NIGHT

The Vast of Night
, directed by Andrew Patterson

For anyone who gravitates toward Atomic Age Americana, Andrew Patterson's The Vast of Night offers a heady cocktail which may have viewers asking for a double. With storytelling techniques adopted from radio dramas and classic speculative television series, intentional and skillful use of the camera, era-appropriate, wise-cracking dialogue, and the chemistry of its two main characters, this low-budget film festival darling has my undying love and earns the title of my most watched film of 2020. The Vast of Night is a celebration of storytelling and artistry, demonstrating what is possible even on a shoestring budget. Watch on Amazon Prime Video.

Read full review here 

That's all folks; See you at the movies!