Most people have a sarcastic reaction to top ten lists for the films of 2020, what with theaters mostly shutting down, and the whole state of the world. For me, my movie-watching didn’t change all that much actually. I got to see The invisible Man early in the year, and that was pretty much it. Having two small children and working a shift job made trips to the theater very rare. That written, I love going to the movies, and I certainly hope I get to do so again sometime this year.
As for movies in general, there were still a ton of films released in multiple ways. A few went to theaters, a lot were made and released by the streaming heavies (Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, etc.), and plenty of others were released on home video earlier than planned. Yes, a lot of very anticipated films were pushed into 2021 (Dune was the release I was most looking forward to, and I expected it to be one of my favorite films of the year), so it may seem like few films were released. I get it, and I felt that way, too, before all the screening links started showing up in my e-mail inbox.
I got burned out by the end of it, but during late November through December I was able to watch over fifty films (to go along with the releases I already watched throughout the year). Before this year's screeners showed up, I was struggling to come up with a top five, much less a top ten. But now I have more than enough favorites for the year.
As always, this is my list of my ten favorite movies, not the ten best movies. For reasons I’ll get into with each choice, these films worked for me, and, most importantly this year, distracted me from the real world. So here goes, and please, for those of you who found my number one pick incomprehensible, emotionless, and/or boring, just read my explanation and check out the rest of my list.
Lastly, all but two (Nomadland and The Father) of these films are currently available on different platforms (I’ll make a note of where each one is available). My point is that it may seem like nothing new or good came out in 2020, but a lot did; you just have to look for it.
Christopher Nolan has become more and more polarizing over the years, with many complaining about his overly complicated plots, his underdeveloped characters, and his sound editing that favors the score over the dialogue. Tenet seems to be his middle finger to every one with those critiques as he heartily embraces all three of them. Tenet is very hard to follow, both because of its time-travel plot and loud score that drowns out the dialogue at times, and many won’t care to figure it out because the characters aren’t worth caring about (the main character, for instance, is literally just called the Protagonist).
I understand and agree with this criticism, and I don’t care. For whatever reason, Nolan’s films work for me, and Tenet is no different. My best access to this film has been through a screener app that allows me to download it (when I tried casting it to my TV there was always lag), so I’ve had to watch this on my phone, and I hate watching movies on my phone. I’ve watched it four times...so far (but I do plan on buying it soon, so my experience is moving up a bit). That’s how much this film drew me into its confusing world. During my first viewing, I was so lost that I considered turning the movie off. But by the end, I wanted to immediately watch it again, so i could try to completely understand what was happening during the pivotal scenes. This was my Zapruder film of 2020.
In a typical year, Tenet would make my top ten, but probably wouldn’t be my number one. But this year required extra distraction. Typically, I have to see a movie in the theater to become completely engulfed in it, but Tenet did it through my phone. Maybe Nolan didn’t need to make the movie so hard to follow, but for me, it was exactly what I needed this year.
(Tenet is available to rent or own on most streaming services.)
2. Another Round
The premise for this Danish film won me over before I even started watching it: four high school teachers test a theory that humans are meant to be at a constant blood alcohol level of .05 to reach their full potential. What made this one of my favorite movies of the year is how writer/director Thomas Vinterberg handled the material. It could have easily and predictably turned into a depressing slog. Yes, bad things happen (how could they not with such a premise?), but overall, Another Round addresses alcohol in society in a realistic and fresh way. Yes, alcohol is bad for you and will likely lead to bad things, but as a species we tend to embrace its uses. Mads Mikkelsen’s great performance (my favorite of the year) elevates it even further.
(Another Round is available to rent or own on most streaming services, but it is a little pricier than most movies at the moment.)
3. Da 5 Bloods
Spike Lee has been a groundbreaking filmmaker from the beginning, but it’s his last two films that have really worked for me. He does whatever he wants, which makes his film’s unpredictable and entertaining. It also helps that he’s tackling an issue that has rarely been the focus of an entire film (African Americans in the Vietnam War). And an amazing cast (including standout Delroy Lindo, who has a very good shot at an Oscar this year) puts it over the top.
(Da 5 Bloods is on Netflix.)
4. Palm Springs
It’s like Groundhog Day but funnier. I know that’s sacrilegious to the Murray fans out there, but I can’t help it. This movie, about a cuckolded boyfriend (Andy Samberg) who keeps reliving a miserable day as a wedding date, rises above the inevitable comparisons to the Bill Murray movie to be one of the funniest films of the year.
(Palm Springs is on Hulu.)
5. The Nest
Mood is always a major factor when it comes to choosing my favorite films of the year, which is why The Nest made the list. The film has the feeling of a haunted house movie (and it kind of is), but it never commits to it. Instead, it takes that mood and focuses on the destruction of a family. This is one of the movies on my list that I know a lot of people will hate or just find boring, but it worked for me. And Carrie Coon is great as always.
(The Nest is available to rent or own on most streaming services.)
6. The Vast of Night
This was the biggest surprise of the year for me. It just kind of showed up on Amazon in the middle of the pandemic. I wasn’t excited about many movies at this point in the year, and I decided to check this out one afternoon. It hooked me immediately. I loved the 1950s Twilight Zone style but with sharp dialogue. It’s mysterious, funny, and criminally underseen.
(The Vast of Night is on Amazon Prime.)
7. First Cow
This is another movie I’m sure many will find boring, but I loved. I understand. It’s about a friendship formed at a fur trading outpost that forms because they start making cakes using stolen milk from the area’s first cow. I know, I know. But films about friendship work for me, especially when they take place in the American West in the 1800s. It is definitely a niche genre, but this is why I liked The Sisters Brothers so much back in 2018.
(First Cow is on Showtime and can also be rented or owned on most streaming services.)
This is the front runner for awards season (it took top prize from the critics group I belong to, the Indiana Film Journalists Association), and rightfully so. Writer/director Chloé Zhao continues to impress (after her previous film, The Rider) with this look at a lifestyle I didn’t even know existed (van life). Using real people of that world and a handful of actors, Zhao captures the lifestyle in an extremely realistic fashion. Frances McDormand’s performance is perfect, as well. If not for the few famous faces involved, Nomadland could pass as a documentary, which is definitely a compliment.
(Nomadland will be released on February 19 in theaters and on Hulu in support of a ton of expected Oscar nominations.)
9. Athlete A
Speaking of documentaries, it seems like I have to include one each year now on my top ten list (last year was the first time I included one: For Sama). Perhaps I just feel the need to include documentaries that bring me to tears. Athlete A certainly affected me in that regard. It tells the story of the years of abuse by a doctor in the USA gymnastics program. I had read about it when the story first broke, but seeing and hearing the victims and others involved makes the horrible abuse even more real. This is a story that needs to be remembered beyond its few weeks in the news cycle. Thanks to Athlete A, it will be.
(Athlete A is on Netflix.)
David Fincher’s film about the writing of Citizen Kane was a disappointment for many, and I understand any criticism that claims the film is boring. But I found the world it created to be fascinating. Since it’s on Netflix, I find myself rewatching it when I can’t find something new to watch because I just enjoy disappearing into the world of old Hollywood for a little bit. In any other year, that alone might not have allowed Mank into my top ten, but as I stated earlier, escapism was most important to me in 2020, so Mank makes the list.
(Mank is on Netflix.)
Soul - Pixar movies just work for me. This one might not go down as one of the greats, but I enjoyed it quite a bit.
(Soul is on Disney+.)
Song Without a Name - This is the film I wish Roma had been.
(Song Without a Name is available to rent or own on Vudu and Amazon.)
The Devil All the Time - Worth watching for the performances alone.
(The Devil All the Time is on Netflix.)
Sound of Metal - Riz Ahmed is great in this, and the film does a great job of conveying what it would be like to lose your hearing.
(Sound of Metal is on Amazon Prime.)
Uncle Frank - Watch this instead of Hillbilly Elegy.
(Uncle Frank is on Amazon Prime.)
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom - This film has so many great performances. Also, I just like August Wilson’s play. This and Fences could just be called That Escalated Quickly. Every conversation just gets so amped up that it gives me anxiety...in a good way.
(Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is on Netflix.)
The Father - This is one of those films I would never recommend. It’s about a man (Anthony Hopkins) succumbing to dementia. It’s a tough watch, but it makes my list because Hopkins is amazing in it.
(The Father will be released on February 26.)
I’m Thinking of Ending Things - Writer/director Charlie Kaufman delivers another completely original film. It’s a little mind-bendy, but it’s not nearly as confusing as the first responses to it made it seem.
(I’m Thinking of Ending Things is on Netflix.)
The Trial of the Chicago 7 - An informative and entertaining look at a time in this country that is unfortunately not much different than the present. It also has one of the best ensemble casts of the year.
(The Trial of the Chicago 7 is on Netflix.)
Alone - Straightforward and effective thriller from the director of the last two amazing Universal Soldier movies. Seriously.
(Alone is available to rent or own on most streaming services.)
On the Rocks - I could watch Rashida Jones and Bill Murray hang out for the entire movie. Their strained father/daughter relationship makes the movie.
(On the Rocks is on Apple TV+.)
Okay, that’s it. There are plenty of other movies, particularly documentaries, that I could list here, but enough’s enough.