A lot. A mood. Too much too bear. This year put us to the brink in more ways than we are ready to fathom, and created a depressing “new normal” that may last for years. What is surprising, even heartening, is that how the movies found a way to thrive. Parasite won Best Picture. Fans stuck at home had easy access to film festivals. Major filmmakers in the United States and abroad released everything from action films, to documentaries, to comedies, and even gross-out comedies. Our movie theater industry may be dying, but our desire for movies and storytelling is alive and well.
Earlier this week at Verge, someone wrote, “A year without Marvel movies left a pop culture void.” I could not disagree more – if anything, pop culture thrived in the MCU’s absence – but the author’s larger point is about the loss of communing in a theater with like-minded fans. Unless you were lucky enough to catch Bad Boys for Life or The Invisible Man, it is unlikely you had a 2020 theater-going experience that serves as a death rattle of the Before Times. Absent a big screen, none of the films on this list can quite replace that excitement or energy, but they still serve an essential purpose. They help us see the world in a new way, and put us in the perspective we might never see otherwise. In its own stubborn ways, the movies have been there for us. Some have captured my imagination more than others, and in that spirit, here is BYT’s list of 2020’s best films.
20. Nate: A One Man Show
Conceived and performed by Natalie Palamides, this “one man show” creates tension – both comic and dramatic – most of us did not experience at all this year. Palamides storms the stage as her alter ego “Nate,” a tattooed bro who swills seltzer and performs silly stunts. All these theatrics are meant to establish the Nate persona, but Palamides’ true subject is the limits of consent. Sometimes she achieves this in funny ways: the opening bit features Nate walking up to audience members, asking if he can touch their bathing suit area, and proceeding accordingly. Sometimes they are more dramatic or uncomfortable, like when Nate surveys the audience about whether a simulated sex act was consensual (what compounds the work is how Palamides, as Nate, is half naked for most of the show). This is crowd work at its most daring, and the special was filmed in such a way that we feel more like active participants, not observers. So much of 2020’s movie discourse is about the comfort and irreplaceable nature of the communal experience. Few artists use that shared feeling to explore uncomfortable topics in intriguing new ways. Even fewer do it through transgressive sex comedy.
19. The Hottest August
Midway through The Hottest August, someone says into the camera, “We’ve had fake stability [in this country] for so long.” This documentary filmed a couple years ago and toured the festival circuit in 2019, and after a sleepy 2020 debut, it is a carefully observed time capsule of a city and planet on the brink. Maybe you have watched How to with John Wilson, a bizarre HBO comedy series where camera John Wilson films New York City in a way that captures the city’s ugliest, strangest, and most sublime. The Hottest August is like that: filmmaker Brett Story shoots all around New York, occasionally interviewing people that interest her, except the conversation is slightly more existential. The subtext to everything is climate change, and how precarious the city is without some disaster befalling it. That may be too close to home nowadays, except Story’s poetic narration, intuitive editing, and eye for the off-kilter create a film that more serene and resolute than you might expect. Histrionics and calls to action do not interest her. Instead, she realizes that any story about climate must also be about people first, so she synthesizes the personal and political until she forces you to share her conclusions.
In Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology, Mangrove has a streak of righteous anger. McQueen and co-screenwriter Alastair Siddons crafted a film that starts as a depiction of racist police tactics, only to become a stirring courtroom drama. It is hard not to see parallels between this film and the social upheaval that happened this summer, but McQueen grounds the story through distinct personalities. The Mangrove was a restaurant in the Notting Hill neighborhood of London, and police kept harassing the owners and customers simply because they were predominantly black. After a violent scuffle with police, the restaurant owner and a few activists were put on trial on trumped up charges. What involves us in this story is how Mangrove turns the tables on the accusers: the defendants shifted the point of view until the police were on trial, not them. Along the way, there are intense arguments about impasses that still plague left-leaning activist communities, most notably the clash between ideals and compromise. The whole world was NOT watching this trial, unlike another courtroom drama that came out this year, which is another of saying The Mangrove Nine had to fight that much harder. As a drama, the film is stirring; as a slice of social justice, it is inspiring.
17. Bad Education
Since so many movies did not have theatrical runs, including the majority of those on this list, then the HBO Original Bad Education absolutely deserves to be part of any “Best Of” discussion. Anchored Hugh Jackman at a career-best, this drama follows the superintendent of Long Island school system. He seems well-liked by everyone, a credit to the entire community, at least until his world starts to unravel. Thanks to some dedicated student journalists, we see an entire scheme of kickbacks and venality (all at the taxpayer’s cost, of course). Aside from Jackman, who starts as a charmer and ends as monster, there is Allison Janney as his prickly assistant and Ray Romano as a more helpless underling. Director Cory Finley mixes two sensibilities – the New American Cinema of the 1970s, followed by studio/indie flirtation of the 1990s – to create a film that is a perfect answer to the “don’t make them like they used to” cliché. It used to be that a well-written, well-acted drama was enough to ensure an audience. That is not the case anymore, to the point we must celebrate the films that do, but at least there are directors and actors who see value in modest, albeit damning exposures of American corruption.
The immediate aftermath of postwar Europe is fertile dramatic ground. Society has not rebuilt yet, at least not to its prewar state, which means that individuals are left to fend themselves. Beanpole is such a story, a postwar drama set in Leningrad where two women form a fragile, disturbing relationship. Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) and Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina) both attempt normalcy now that the war has concluded, except their wartime compromises have made that impossible. What further complicates matter is an infant, one that has deep connections to both women. Despite not even being thirty years old, director Kantemir Balagov has intuitive empathy for these moral complications. Through aching performances and sudden cruelty, he suggests that human decency may not be a match for failed institutions. There is a hopeful note at end of Beanpole, albeit after a wringer of wrenching personal sacrifice, so it is hardly a solace. Like many other postwar films, acknowledgment has to be enough.
15. Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
It is such a good match, I cannot help but wonder why it took this long. Will Ferrell’s sensibilities align nicely with the pop cheese of the annual Eurovision Song Contest. The Story of Fire Saga follows an Icelandic pop group who have a couple decent songs, but dream of winning the contest like ABBA, their musical idols. David Dobkin captures the feel of the contest, to the point where American audiences might count themselves as new fans, but like many other great comedies, the true inspiration are in the supporting performances. Dan Stevens is hilarious Lemtov, an over-the-top Russian musician who hides his identity, while Pierce Brosnan plays Will Ferrell’s father at his flinty best. But between this film and Game Night, Rachel McAdams firmly established herself as a brilliant comic actor. She does not rely on broad caricature, and plays a character more complex than she needs to be. That means each line reading and reaction has comic grace notes, to the point where you can almost see why she could pine for like someone like Will Ferrell. On top of all that, in a year chock full of great musical moments, nothing quite approaches the sublime joy of “Ja Ja Ding Dong.”
14. She Dies Tomorrow
The year’s scariest film is about a different kind of virus. It is psychological, not biological, but still just as dangerous. Director and writer Amy Seimeitz has a seemingly simple premise in She Dies Tomorrow: what happens if a woman becomes convinced of her immediate mortality, and that unwavering idea also happens to be contagious. The result is something between a thought experiment and a disturbing psychological study. Instead of always inviting the question of how you might behave, Seimeitz zeros in on peculiar people who veer between behavior that is destructive, neurotic, obsessive, and sometimes darkly funny. This particular widespread pandemic is abstract enough so that it does not land with the immediate sting of our plague year. It instead shows us how frayed and fragile we ultimately find our mental states. Pervasive isolation is common to our year, as well as the characters in this film, and there is some comfort in knowing our loneliness is not unique.
Ema, the Chilean drama from Pablo Larraín, did not have much fanfare this year (it is available on the streaming platform MUBI). What a shame, since this is an unusually beguiling drama – with a touch of noir in it – and you are never quite sure where it is going. Mariana Di Girolamo plays Ema, a dancer in a Chilean dance company, whose adopted son is taken from her. She desperately wants her son back, effectively becoming a scheming femme fatale to do it, while she tries to repair her relationship with her lover Gaston (Gael García Bernal). Ema does not the seedy atmosphere of wan pools of light that is typical of noir. In fact, is a vibrant film, full of beautifully-choreographed dance sequences that serve as a commentary on Ema’s increasingly unhinged journey. There is a deeper meaning to the mother/child reunion plot, as Ema has European features while the child has indigenous features, and Larraín wisely keeps that as subtext. No one character is especially redeemable and some choices are downright monstrous, yet Ema evokes freedom and liveliness by suggesting that anything could happen. It often does.
Our lives are an echo of what parents and guardians passed onto us. Watch anyone interact with their parents long enough, and you will have some sense of how they might react to any given situation. Kajillionare takes this idea to an extreme, following parents so unusually obsessive that their daughter may not fully integrate into normal society. Evan Rachel Wood plays Old Dolio, a sullen young woman who follows her bizarre parents (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger) on a path for low-stakes crime. They eventually find an accomplice in Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), an effusive woman who is happy to go on for the ride, at least until she sees the pain in Old Dolio’s eyes that her parents cannot. Miranda July, who wrote and directed the film, continues her eye for idiosyncratic detail and affecting human stories. The final scenes are stunning: we watch these broken characters strain for something that can make each other happy, all while preserving some sense of who they are. Their sacrifices are staggering the more you thank about it, but so is their capacity for forgiveness, even hope.
11. The Painted Bird
There was so much strained positivity in culture this year. Remember “Some Good News,” when John Krasinki made a lo-fi news show to make everyone happy, then sold it for a pretty penny? What about all the cast reunions, charity zoom calls, and applauding essential workers? There is something to be said about a film that represents the opposite. If The Painted Bird could have a subtitle, it would be, “It could always get worse.” The adaptation of the Jerzy Kosiński’s novel takes place during World War 2, following a Jewish boy as he endures one calamity after another. He bears witness to unspeakable cruelty, and slowly develops the instincts to defend himself. Director Václav Marhoul uses two techniques to make this material watchable: harshly beautiful black and white photography, and an occasional strain of pitch black humor. At the end of this film, the boy reunites with his father, who he immediately resents. How that conflict resolves tells us there are some things you can never undo, and that there is a high price to hardened resilience. A year of Zoom calls is nothing compared to The Painted Bird, but parts of it sure felt that way.
10. The Climb
Kyle and Mike are biking up a hill. They are chatting, sort of, since the hill is kind of a challenge. Mike casually drops bomb on Kyle’s personal life: he’s been sleeping with Kyle’s fiancée. This the strange, unique comic set-up for The Climb, a film about the toxic friendship between these men. Kyle and Mike are played by two actors – also named Kyle and Mike – and there is a sense they made this film because they had no opportunities elsewhere. It is a true outsider comedy, the sort of thing that strikes singular tone, and sticks to it. Mike also serves as the director, and his instinct is for long takes where it is unclear how the comic relief will appear (the gliding, omniscient camera defines Kyle’s extended family in a matter of minutes). There is palpable anxiety to this film, in so small part because the Mike character always manages to do the worst thing possible. But as Mike continues to be a human tornado and Kyle picks up the shards in his wake, the deeper truth to The Climb is how we are a little bit like both of these idiots. We can only hope we are more like one than another.
9. Martin Eden
There is something old-fashioned and strangely modern about Martin Eden, a loose adaptation of a Jack London novel by director Pietro Marcello. Many of its details are anachronistic, mixing materials from different twentieth century eras that ultimately give it a timeless quality. While the source novel was written in the early 1900s, Marcello sees the hero as a way to understand Italian fascism. Martin starts the film as a laborer, one who believes greatness calls to him. He wants to be a writer, except he lacks any formal education, and this continual rejection is the basis for his iconoclastic political views. Marcello jumps ahead years, and Luca Marinelli – who you may recognize from The Old Guard – is convincing as both a hapless idealist and a fading intellectual. Although the final images are of blackshirts terrorizing civilians, the echoes of Martin Eden can be found in extremist movements throughout the world. There is some of Martin in every Ben Shapiro, Alex Jones, and shitposting asshole on Parler. Platform notwithstanding, they all harbor the delusion that their seething hatred must also mean they are correct.
8. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
When the pandemic was still in its infancy, I got takeout from one of my favorite bars. I walked over with a mask on and told the bartender my name, and he half-annoyed told me, “I know who you are, Alan.” I was shocked by how much I found that simple statement moving: I had forgotten the comfort and community of being a regular. That is what Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is like: a boozy hang with people who are somewhere between strangers and friends. The film pushes the limit of the documentary form. It follows a bunch of regulars at The Roaring Twenties, a dive bar in Las Vegas, on the last night it is open. But The Roaring Twenties is not a real bar, and some of the regulars are actors who were hired to play a role. Does that mean it is fiction? That is a tough question to answer, but I can tell there is real truth when you watch these flawed, unhappy people stumble into one insight after another. It is no fun to be a genre purist, just like it’s no fun to point out “plot holes” when you’re already able to suspend your disbelief. It is an absolute blast, however, to get pissed with barflies who are not so quick to judge you.
7. David Byrne’s American Utopia
In David Byrne’s American Utopia, Spike Lee has big shoes to fill. David Byrne may no longer perform with Talking Heads, but any concert film fith him invites immediate comparisons to Stop Making Sense, Jonathon Demme’s reinvention of the genre. Lee is content to follow Byrne and his band of musicians, all of whom can create a dense sonic tapestry while freely moving about the stage. There is an ebullient feeling to the music: all the musicians are enthusiastic and committed, and their charm is infectious. Filmed before the lockdowns, there is a “before time” sense of American Utopia, particularly when Byrne riffs on political topics in between songs. Still, the songs are timeless because they are uniquely his, outside whatever was going on in pop music when he wrote them. And while he is an aging white male, his cover of Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout” is a bracing reminder that some conversations we will be having long after it is safe to experience live theater again.
6. First Cow
Disney recently held a big event where they unveiled their plans for tent pole franchises like Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Their stock price soared, and hours later The Washington Post reported on a former Disney World waitress who has been on unemployment for months. This split between haves and have nots capitalism at cruelest, the latest example of a system that screws the little guy. First Cow, a historical drama from Kelly Reichardt, shows us the inequities of our economic structure have been around for a long, long time. It follows two unlikely friends – one Asian-American, the other Jewish-American – as they form a business selling cakes to the Pacific Northwest settlement where they live. It is a good gig, at least until the powerful try and seize it. Reichardt is known for her deliberate, low-key style, and while that is on display here, there is a strain of anger throughout the film. The final image – haunting, definitive – shows how people like this will always be chewed up, and First Cow is a rich cry about how they deserve so much better.
5. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Many of the best films this year are about the communities and relationships that form when our governments and institutions fail us. This is especially acute in Never Rarely Sometimes Always, a harrowing drama about a teenage girl who travels across state lines to get an abortion. Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) barely has any opportunity to tell anyone how she really feels, so she has a true friend in Skylar (Talia Ryder), who accompanies her for the journey. Eliza Hittman films all this at the ground level, mostly from Autumn’s point of view, so it is harrowing when we can see the danger she cannot, either due to youth or inexperience. Some scenes are outrageous, like a pitiless visit to a Crisis Pregnancy Center, but the film is finds its heart in the bond between these two young women. What they do in the final scenes, and how they sense each other’s needs without any dialogue, points to a system where quiet intuition is the most potent tool most people ever hope to have.
The latest drama from Chloé Zhao is the new great American Western. There are no cowboys or shootouts, and yet its themes – the price of freedom on the frontier – would not be out of place in a John Wayne movie. Frances McDormand plays Fern, a widow who lived in a Nevada mining town until the Great Recession. Left with no resources, she moves into her van and lives as a nomad, exploring the Southwest and Big Sky country. Like The Rider, Zhao’s last film, she uses non-actors who are playing versions of themselves. McDormand fits in this milieu beautifully, playing a woman who finds something spiritual when she communes with nature. A lot of her performance is wordless, particularly when she finds herself in someone else’s home. Why does a roof and a bed make her so uncomfortable? Why does she prefer the open road over the stability of a regular job and an apartment? Zhao takes her time to answer this question, depicting the proverbial Other Half along with rugged individualists who were perhaps born in the wrong era. Throughout all this is McDormand, frequently shown in a trucking shot, walking alone at magic hour. Fern’s line between desperation and deliberate living is razor thin, so it is moving when she finally comes out on top.
3. Lovers Rock
The Small Axe anthology is a major cinematic achievement from Steve McQueen. Over the course of five films, he redefines mid-century life for a vibrant community in London. Unlike television, each film varies in size and scope, and the centerpiece is the romantic, low-key musical Lovers Rock. The title is also a subgenre of music, one that mixes reggae with the romance of pop radio. The film is like that, too. McQueen follows his young characters who attend a house party. We follow some of the attendees – the camera bends around the revelers like a fellow guest – except attention is ultimately drawn two young people who notice each other, then take a risk by being vulnerable. All this movement and tension culminates in the year’s best movie scene: a version of Janet Kay’s “Silly Games” that depicts the inimitable joy of dancing as a group. Now that we have spent months apart, this is a bittersweet suggestion that, someday soon, parties will vibe this hard again.
The Romanian documentary Collective gets many comparisons to the journalism films All the President’s Men and Spotlight. There is some truth to that: the film follows a group of dedicated journalists – who write for a sports paper, no less – as they expose systemic corruption within Romania’s healthcare system. That’s only half the story, since the film also observes dedicated young bureaucrats who actually enact some basic reforms. This is where Collective shifts from a good movie into a great one: intentionally or not, director Alexander Nanau unearths a painful, deep conversation about Romania’s post-revolution identity. There are few answers in this film, to the point where the most dedicated figure is told he should abandon his country entirely. It is through this specificity that Collective speaks to macro problems that befall every complex system in all countries. When the rot goes everywhere, you cannot simply eliminate the worst branches.
1. Da 5 Bloods
In an essay about the superhero movie Logan, critic Matt Zoller Seitz observes that so much of what passes for movies nowadays is really, “a movie-flavored product.” It is a well-taken point, and the opposite of said product is something I like to call a real-ass movie. It’s like the Supreme Court definition of pornography: hard to define, but you know it when you see it. Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods is a real-ass movie: a stirring, unwieldy jungle adventure that made me yearn for the big-screen experience. The premise instantly recalls classic Hollywood adventures: set in the present day, a group of black veterans return to Vietnam to find some gold they hid in the jungle. Since this is Spike Lee, the film is about so much more, whether it’s American/Vietnam relationships, the limits of friendship, post-traumatic stress, and the modern black identity. Rarely is a film so thematically rich and so conventionally entertaining. Every scene here is standalone riot of tension, anchored by terrific performances from Delroy Lindo and Chadwick Boseman, so the action-packed climax has real power informing it. Part of the reason I watch movies over and over is because I’m a junkie for a particular experience. I want a real-ass movie to knock me on my ass. More than any other movie this year, Da 5 Bloods accomplished just that, but through the unique sensibility of a true American original.