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The Best Movies of 2020

Almost everyone watched new movies from home, so we’ve got a set of double features that defined a strange but still vibrant year in film

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Getting two writers to agree on a year-end list of the 10 best movies is hard, especially when one of them insists on including Tenet. In a way, Christopher Nolan’s long-awaited, long-delayed epic was the signature movie of a year in which time sometimes felt like it had lost its meaning—not to mention all of those masks. Nolan’s recent comments have made the filmmaker even more of a poster boy for an old-fashioned reverence for the theatrical experience, as the Earth—or at least Hollywood—dies streaming. His movie looks like the canary in the coal mine for an industry deciding whether certain long-standing doctrines (or tenets) of production, distribution, and exhibition are a thing of the past—and how to forge the way of the future.

So: What else came out this year? The answer, of course, is a healthy number of good movies, many of which were undermined by circumstance but still deserve a year-end reckoning. Even though the pandemic meant more home viewing than usual, it’s easy to miss said good movies given the state of, well, [gestures wildly at everything]. In the spirit of trying to cast a wide net, we’ve not only come up with a mutual top 10 list, but also 10 thematically resonant double billings that pair some of our picks with titles that were close but didn’t quite make the final group. —Adam Nayman

Mangrove and Time

Dir. by Steve McQueen (Amazon) (Stream on Amazon)
Dir. by Garrett Bradley (Amazon) (Stream on Amazon)

Remanded to a holding cell following an angry outburst at his own trial, West Indian restaurateur Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) rails angrily against his captors. Shot at a low angle and surrounded by a halo of blinding backlight, he looks more like a religious icon than a statistic. The goal of Steve McQueen’s Mangrove is not just to dramatize the trial—and trials—of the nine Black activists and community leaders arrested and accused of inciting a riot in Notting Hill in 1970, but to excoriate a legal system where judiciary and jury prejudice can make defendants seem interchangeable on the basis of race. Working smartly and effectively within the format of a courtroom drama—and drawing strength from conventions instead of leaning on them as a crutch like Aaron Sorkin in The Trial of the Chicago 7—McQueen juxtaposes different notions of entrapment and freedom, setting up the themes of his remarkable Small Axe suite of features and following the powerful indictment of prison logic that powered his great 2008 debut Hunger.

The politics of racialized incarceration are also front and center in Garrett Bradley’s luminous and moving documentary Time, which profiles inmate turned abolitionist Fox Rich as she lobbies for the release of her husband from a 60-year sentence. Bradley’s decision to integrate her subject’s own home movies of her children into the flow of images pays off beautifully. It allows us to see Fox and her family through their own eyes while giving the film the scope of an epic—one made up of fragments and focused, like all epics, on the promise of catharsis in a homecoming. —Nayman

Mank and Tenet

Dir. by David Fincher (Netflix) (Stream on Netflix)
Dir. by Christopher Nolan (Warner Bros.)

Two moonshots. In Mank, we have daring technician and accomplished obsessive David Fincher cashing out a decade’s worth of capital to make a film written by his late father, Jack, that was funded by a streaming service and features stylistic flourishes that recall 1940s Hollywood cinema while resisting commercial impulses. In Tenet, we have auteur and culture-conquering maximalist Christopher Nolan applying his big-tent creative urges to a dense action thriller bereft of intellectual property and baseline coherence.

Fincher and Nolan have an equal reputation for elevating low material—serial killers, pop fiction, Batman, dream logic—so it was fascinating to watch them scale their ambition in opposite directions. For Fincher, it meant a fussy, fulsome look at the lonely journey of a stymied creative—in this case Herman Mankiewicz, the critic, wit, and screenwriter credited with half of Citizen Kane—for Netflix, the powerhouse streamer he’s called home since 2013. It’s his most modest yet ambitious work in years—not so much an ode to classic moviemakers as it is a lye burn on its black-and-white majesty, and a political screed to boot. For Nolan, it meant the gargantuan, breathtaking, and frequently confusing heist film made for his longtime studio, Warner Bros. Nolan battled anxiety amid a pandemic by insisting his film screen in theaters around the country in an effort to preserve the moviegoing tradition that he considers holy. Both films, perhaps ironically, demand at least two viewings to really grasp. Mank asks for some level of awareness of Orson Welles and Kane, and maybe even Pauline Kael, Peter Bogdanovich, and Robert L. Carringer, if one is inclined toward context. Tenet asks for patience as it winds forward and backward through its narrative accordion structure. Neither movie seems interested in being fully perceptible the first time through. I loved both because they seem to be manifestations of dogged persuasion—Hollywood isn’t as interested in brazen creators and their “dream” projects these days. When all this shit is over, movies will return to theaters, and some might even tell original stories. But the era in which movies like these—massive, risky, almost delusional in their existence—find audiences is coming to a close. Savor them, even their flaws. —Sean Fennessey

Vitalina Varela and The Assistant

Dir. by Pedro Costa (Grasshopper) (Rent on Virtual Cinema)
Dir. by Kitty Green (Bleecker Street) (Stream on Hulu)

Two very different one-woman shows. In Pedro Costa’s phantasmagorical drama, a Cape Verdean widow descends on an eerily depopulated section of Lisbon to collect her late husband’s effects; in Kitty Green’s quietly nightmarish workplace horror movie, the assistant to a Harvey Weinstein–esque abuser takes lonely, reflective measurements of her own complicity. Costa’s exquisite form of slow-motion portraiture is a known commodity, and I could have probably predicted that Vitalina Varela would be one of the best films of the year before seeing a single frame. The Assistant, though, was a surprise, and it holds up on a second viewing, especially the ending, which struck me the first time as merely bleak and the second time as extremely moving. In a movie defined by different kinds of silence—the quiet of an empty office; the choice not to speak out—Julia Garner’s pauses on the telephone with her father sound the loudest.

I admire the ending of Vitalina Varela too, but for different reasons. Some movies hold you so tightly that you’re grateful to be released, and Costa—who is one of the great image makers—visualizes that sense of relief and renewal beautifully. It’s amazing how powerful the sight of blue skies can be after being plunged into endless night. —Nayman

Boys State and City Hall

Dir. by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine (A24) (Stream on Apple TV+)
Dir. by Frederick Wiseman (Zipporah) (Rent on Virtual Cinema)

The birth, life, and death of democracy at the movies. No 2020 film was more interested in the insidious and inspiring impulses that power our politicians than Moss and McBaine’s zippy, terrifically entertaining portrait of four young men at the center of the American Legion summer program that grooms would-be politico teens. Their casting is remarkable, editing energizing, and conclusions authentically scary. I was mostly unfamiliar with Boys State, which was founded in 1935 and operates in virtually every U.S. state, and discovered a Lord of the Flies–esque portrait of shattered integrity, industrious cruelty, and persistent commitment to decency. A vexing paradox. It’s an absolutely vital document of the self-regenerating toll of political theater.

By contrast, Wiseman’s patient epic (run time: 272 minutes) of local government shows nearly every nook and cranny of the Boston political machine—including the dullest and most mundane aspects in all of their banality. Where Moss and McBaine see vérité filmmaking as a means to crafting character and narrative, the 90-year-old Wiseman—himself an implacable institution of documentary—sees a slow drip of information, all deliberate detail and numbing bureaucracy. Until it isn’t. Every once in a while, the power of governmental work—an eviction protection task force saving someone’s home or Mayor Marty Walsh carefully listening to and connecting with veterans at a local VFW—emerges from the morass and we see something authentic. Presidential politics defined 2020, for better and worse, but it always starts smaller. —Fennessey

Lovers Rock and His House

Dir. by Steve McQueen (Amazon) (Stream on Amazon)
Dir. by Remi Weekes (Netflix) (Stream on Netflix)

The common denominator between Mangrove and Lovers Rock is a yearning for community, whether in the form of a cozy neighborhood restaurant or a raucous, pay-at-the-door house party. The second Small Axe standout is an intimate, largely real-time study of a living-room reggae rager awash in anxious, exuberant sensations, drenched in sweat, and pheromones (at one point, the wallpaper seems to be perspiring). This is genuinely immersive filmmaking, mapping its location with floating, mobile camerawork that feels like a mix of documentary and daydream. More than any CGI effect, McQueen’s carefully choreographed tracking shots make you wonder exactly how he created them. Emerging onto the street in between DJ set lists—and trying to decide whether to chase after her flustered friend or stay behind to dance with a handsome stranger—Jamaican-born Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) gets catcalled by a group of white hooligans and rushes back inside: isolated vulnerability versus security in numbers.

The Sudanese protagonists of Remi Weekes’s His House also seek solace in their London digs, but find only horrors: people under the stairs and monsters in the wall. As in all the best ghost stories, it’s not the place that’s haunted but the characters, and at its best, Weekes’s feature-length debut evokes the blunt-force jump scares and subcultural specificity of Candyman. The twist, when it comes, feels simultaneously inevitable and devastating, while the coda accesses a hard-earned ambivalence about what it means to make a house a home. —Nayman

Palm Springs and David Byrne’s American Utopia

Dir. by Max Barbakow (Neon) (Stream on Hulu)
Dir. by Spike Lee (HBO) (Stream on HBO Max)

I’ve never been more sedentary than in 2020, shut in and powered down by COVID-19. These two movies—one a time-loopy rom-com, the other a euphoric theater piece captured on film—triggered my endorphins and got me on my feet. What Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti’s Groundhog Day–ish romance—in which the two are trapped in the same 24-hour cycle of a misbegotten destination wedding—most closely resembled was my marriage, where every day was the same and we had to do our best to get creative. We have not been quite as adventurous in my household, but the spirit of “Let’s try it” was inspiring during a time when not much was.

Likewise for Byrne and director Spike Lee’s wondrous translation of the Broadway musical, which acts as a kind of emotional sequel to Jonathan Demme’s iconic Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense. Byrne is an ultralight beam of creativity, one of the consistently inspiring creative figures of the past 40 years, and this deeply earnest rendition of connectivity really strained the limits of my own hard-won cynicism. Lee captures Byrne and his team of musicians, dancers, and vocalists as they bend, wobble, and declaim collectively. Watch both when you’re down and need to climb back up. —Fennessey

I’m Thinking of Ending Things and Possessor (and An Evening With Tim Heidecker)

Dir. by Charlie Kaufman (Netflix) (Stream on Netflix)
Dir. by Brandon Cronenberg (Neon) (Rent)
Dir. by Ben Berman (YouTube) (Stream on YouTube)

The main characters in I’m Thinking of Ending Things and Possessor contain multitudes, and if the scenes of physical and psychological decay in Charlie Kaufman’s film evoke the body horror tropes pioneered by Brandon Cronenberg’s father, it’s equally true that Possessor plays as a bleak riff on Being John Malkovich. The question in both movies is the same: What would it feel like to share somebody else’s consciousness? I’m Thinking of Ending Things doesn’t just dramatize this condition but embodies it through Kaufman’s daringly divergent interpretation of Iain Reid’s source novel—the most idiosyncratic literary adaptation since Adaptation, featuring a tour-de-force performance by Jessie Buckley in a role that would have defeated a lesser actress. Possessor is more of a neo-B-movie with NSFW-bordering-on-NC-17 aspirations, but its fleshy melodrama is similarly held together by its female lead: As a freelance assassin who uses technology to commit murder by proxy, Andrea Riseborough is so vivid that we can recognize her mannerisms even when they’re being pantomimed by Christopher Abbott as her latest host. If I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a pure auteur work—addictive catnip for Kaufman devotees and inaccessible for anybody else—Possessor’s genuinely horrific, stroboscopic imagery suggests a filmmaker wrestling with a family legacy but also coming into his own.

But I also want to cite a third movie that plays brilliantly with identity crisis: the indispensable YouTube special An Evening With Tim Heidecker, whose star spends an hour inhabiting the worst possible version of himself—a narcissistic, no-talent hack attempting bitter truth-telling in the Bill Hicks mold only to expose his own reactionary stupidity. The only thing harder than crafting a genuinely great stand-up special is executing one that’s terrible on purpose and using that cognitive dissonance as a source of comedy. If I had a Best Actor ballot, Heidecker would be on it. —Nayman

Never Rarely Sometimes Always and Shithouse

Dir. by Eliza Hittman (Focus) (Stream on HBO Max)
Dir. by Cooper Raiff (IFC) (Rent)

Two portraits of youthful confusion and fear. Eliza Hittman, who specializes in an intimate, almost procedural approach to emotional disorientation, made a road movie about a young Pennsylvania woman (Sidney Flanigan in an astounding debut performance) and her cousin (Talia Ryder) on a journey to have an abortion. Along the way, we see the step-by-step difficulties—from parental negligence to local medical intolerance to financial and emotional terror. It’s a carefully rendered story that never makes its circumstances melodramatic but doesn’t undersell its profundity.

Shithouse similarly mines the discombobulation of a new experience with no playbook, albeit with lower stakes. First-time filmmaker Cooper Raiff’s story is about a kid (played by Raiff, unaffected and amusing) who simply can’t find a social foothold in college. When he stumbles into a magical night with his mercurial R.A. (Dylan Gelula), he thinks his prayers are answered. What happens next is a charming new riff on an old-fashioned subgenre of generational despair that more than a few Old Millennial/Gen X friends have connected to. In Hittman and Raiff we have two emotional radicals, working in different shades but with the same goal—finding what’s real, what’s honest. We can never get enough of this sort of work. —Fennessey

First Cow and The Vast of Night

Dir. by Kelly Reichardt (A24)
Dir. by Andrew Patterson (Amazon) (Stream on Amazon)

Kelly Reichardt makes movies about characters who refuse to buy into the American Dream—that doesn’t stop the self-styled entrepreneur heroes of First Cow from trying. Sheltering together in Oregon in the early 19th century—a time and place where “history hasn’t gotten here yet”—John Magaro’s meek cook and Orion Lee’s immigrant dreamer don’t mind stealing bread from the mouths of decadence. Their ingenuity and their insurgency go hand in hand, and so do they, right to the end, as noble a pair of outlaws as we’ve seen since Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. While nobody would confuse Andrew Patterson’s gee-whiz debut The Vast of Night for a Reichardt homage (it’s too busy genuflecting at the altar of Steven Spielberg), it’s a similarly sweet and fatalistic portrait of outsiders in a remote outpost—specifically, New Mexico in the 1950s, a dateline that both spoils and deepens the story’s sci-fi surprises. The swift, bantering rapport between high school disc jockey Everett (Jake Horowitz) and his switchboard operator pal Fay (Sierra McCormick) suggests characters on the same screwball wavelength, but it’s only after they start investigating more mysterious frequencies that The Vast of Night reveals them as soulmates—not lovers but true believers following each other to the vanishing point. The technical proficiency of Patterson’s debut is off the charts, and it’ll be interesting to see if and how this gifted filmmaker manages to maintain his independence and resourcefulness given the Hollywood offers that have probably already started rolling in. —Nayman

Nomadland and Soul

Dir. by Chloe Zhao (Searchlight)
Dir. by Pete Docter (Disney)

Two films that are still largely unseen but most acutely captured the perversity, despair, and (maybe?) hope of 2020. Both zero in on loneliness as a virtue, and collective experience as a privilege. Chloe Zhao teams up with Frances McDormand to loosely adapt Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction saga of a transient American experience through the eyes of Fern, a widow who, after losing her husband and her savings in the Great Recession, begins a life on the road in a camper van and discovers a subculture of survivors roving the West on wheels. McDormand is one of the great anchors in modern movies, a presence who raises the quality of anything she graces with a simple flash of that Don’t bullshit me visage. Here, she dominates a story that is less interested in narrative momentum than immersion, from menial seasonal gig economy work to delicate friendships forged in the fire of need. In Nomadland, we meet Chloe Zhao as a filmmaker bridging the phases of a modern directing career, recently removed from small independent films like The Rider, but on the precipice of a massive Marvel movie in 2021 with Eternals. Nomadland, with its nods to Terrence Malick, transcendental masters, and the overwhelming splendor of the natural world, feels like a movie out of time and right on time.

Soul’s experience, meanwhile, transcends more than your run-of-the-mill discarded human life—it wants to explore the origins of creativity, emotional composition, and the natural order. Did I mention it’s a Pixar movie? Inside Out director Pete Docter, along with a major contribution from co-director and co-writer Kemp Powers, delivers the story of Joe, a middle school music teacher and would-be Herbie Hancock who falls down a manhole and onto a cosmic conveyor belt of the human psyche. As per the Pixar mandate, there are laughs and plucked heartstrings, but Soul is after something deeper—an unusually curious examination of why we are the way we are, as melancholy about our fate as it is entertaining. I don’t know if a movie made me wonder about myself and everything I care about more. —Fennessey

The 10 Best Movies of 2020

10. Soul

9. Vitalina Varela

8. Nomadland

7. Time

6. The Vast of Night

5. I’m Thinking of Ending Things

4. Boys State

3. First Cow

2. Mank

1. Mangrove / Lovers Rock

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