2020 was always going to have a tough task ahead of it… cinematically speaking.
I count myself among the many film fans who consider 2019 one of the best movie years in recent memory and following up that year’s outstanding output would have been nearly impossible before the novel coronavirus upended moviegoing, as it did so many aspects of life.
That’s why this list is out so late. So many movies were pushed back that it has been difficult to see many of the major releases from last year. There are still three 2020 films I have yet to see – including the frontrunner for many of the top awards, “Nomadland.”
Still, hundreds of films were released last year, and of the 116 I’ve seen, these are my favorites. I particularly love the top seven movies on the list, but the fact this many great movies came out in a year when far fewer few came out in theaters makes 2020 a good year for movies.
Like many people born in the last 30 or so years, many of my favorite movies growing up came from Pixar. I have not watched many of those films in over a decade, nor have I kept up with the animation studio’s recent output, but this 2020 effort makes me think I should examine Pixar’s effort from an adult perspective.
“Soul” follows Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a middle school music teacher who is about to get his big break as a professional jazz musician before he falls into a manhole and dies in the film’s opening minutes. After being transported to a beautifully rendered afterlife, Joe devises a plan to help a soul named 22 (Tina Fey) discover her “spark” so he can get back to earth.
Co-directed by Pete Docter, who made my favorite Pixar film “Up” and the beloved “Inside Out,” “Soul” is a funny, gorgeous, deep and affecting movie about living life to the fullest. It’s a little formulaic at times, but it still offers plenty of rewards and is easy to access on Disney+.
For many serious film fans, the anthology film series from British director Steve McQueen “Small Axe” was the movie event of the year.
My favorite of those five movies, which you can find on Amazon Prime, is “Education.” This coming-of-age story about a 12-year-old black child (Kenyah Sandy) in England in the 1960s chronicles the failings of that country’s education system.
McQueen garnered fame in the United States for directing “12 Years a Slave,” and his anthology series tackles racism in his home country with the same expertise as that 2013 Oscar-winner. All the “Small Axe” films are worth watching, but “Education” stood out to me because of its performances (Sharlene Whyte’s in particular) and a final 30 minutes that have astounding power.
8. “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”
Arguably no media company had a better 2020 than “Netflix,” and this is the first of three titles from that streaming service on this list.
The latest from writer-director Charlie Kaufman, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is the surreal, elusive story of a woman (Jessie Buckley, giving the best female leading performance of the year) who goes to meet her boyfriend’s parents for the first time.
The film is not for everyone, and you must be in the right mood to watch it, as Kaufman’s style is hyper-intellectual and weird. For those who can get on the movie’s wavelength, however, its complexity and specificity makes for a rich and absorbing viewing experience.
7. “One Night in Miami”
One of the best casts of the year works wonders with one of the best scripts of the year in the restrained directorial debut of actress Regina King.
Written by Kemp Powers (who also co-directed “Soul”) and based on his play, this Amazon Studios movie tells the fictional story of a real gathering. It follows the conversation of Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) as the men celebrate Clay’s defeat of Sonny Liston in 1964.
The writing in “One Night in Miami” is electrifying, bristling with an energy that makes you forget it’s just four people talking. The film also has weighty ideas on its mind that are especially salient following the protests of last summer and the continued debate on the role of celebrities in politics, giving viewers plenty to chew on and no easy answers.
6. “Boys State”
The first of two documentaries on this list, this Apple TV+ feature from Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine chronicles the titular experiment run by the American Legion – in this case in Texas.
At Boys State, roughly a thousand 17- and 18-year-old boys spend a week at a camp where they form and run a mock government. The results the filmmakers find are incredible.
“Boys State” is filled with tension and moving moments, but it ranks among the best films of 2020 for how provocative and incisive it is about the state of American politics without ever being preachy.
This profane title is one of the worst of the year, not because of its vulgarity but because it does not capture the movie at all.
Written and directed by 24-year-old Cooper Raiff, who also stars, this little film is a disarmingly sweet and sensitive portrayal of the struggles Raiff’s character has with adapting to life in college as a freshman.
It is a remarkably assured feature debut from Raiff, with a tone and emotional vulnerability rarely seen in movies, and a tremendous leading performance from Dylan Gelula as a girl Raiff’s character meets one night. There are few better ways to spend the few dollars it takes to digitally rent this movie.
“Minari” is a thoroughly American story about a Korean family led by patriarch Jacob (a magnificent Steven Yeun) that moves to rural Arkansas in the 1980s. That may sound like a trite story about racism, but “Minari” is actually a poetic movie about the American Dream, families, being an immigrant in America, marriage and other themes.
The cast is sensational, with the standout being a delightful supporting turn from Yuh-jung Youn, and Lee Isaac Chung shoots the movie beautifully and writes it with staggering perception and authenticity. The last 15 minutes of this movie reveal the cumulative power this slowly-paced work has.
“Minari” is now in theaters and will be available to stream soon. I saw it in December through a limited virtual screening, and I’m glad I did so this movie could enter my life as soon as possible.
3. “Another Round”
The only international movie on my list this year, this Danish film from Thomas Vinterberg portrays the fictional story of four high school teachers who test a theory that humans are born with a blood alcohol level that is .05 percent too low.
“Another Round” stars Mads Mikkelsen, probably best known to most people as the villain of 2006’s “Casino Royale,” and Mikkelsen gives my favorite performance of the year because of its subtle emotion and relatability.
The movie also offers an amazingly complex view of alcohol that is far from a screed about the evils of drink, as the film captures the infectious highs and sobering lows of imbibing.
“Mank” is among the most mainstream films on this list, but some may still find it difficult to watch because director David Fincher and his team mimic the style of the movies from when this picture is set, namely the 1930s and 1940s, complete with black-and-white cinematography and an old-fashioned but beautiful score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.
Written by David’s late father, Jack Fincher, this Netflix original tells the story of Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), the writer only a select few remember for co-writing “Citizen Kane.” It is more a character study than a behind-the-scenes tale, showing how Mank got to where he is when the film begins through an ingenious flashback that imitates the aforementioned classic.
If you can navigate your way through the period affectations (or enjoy them like I did), you will find a movie with terrific performances (Amanda Seyfried is magical in a supporting role), a hilarious and enjoyably rapid-fire script and a moving story of a man who grows a conscience. “Mank” is the most entertaining movie of its year.
1. “Dick Johnson is Dead”
An unconventional documentary that blends fiction and non-fiction at every turn, Kirsten Johnson’s second film can sound intimidating. If you roll with the movie, however, it quickly reveals itself to be both a lighthearted comedy and the most emotionally devastating film I saw in 2020.
In “Dick Johnson is Dead,” Kirsten creates a love letter to the man of the title, her father, who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. With Dick’s cooperation and blessing, Kirsten stages darkly comic ways for Dick to die, like by an air conditioner falling on him from a tall building, along with artifice-free, intimate examinations of what the family is really facing.
A poignant, unpredictable, warm, hysterical tribute, “Dick Johnson is Dead” is my favorite film of last year.