2020 was an astonishingly terrible, stressful year for reasons far more serious and consequential than what happened to cinema. But this isn’t a public policy website, and even if far, far more globally important things went on in the world, it’s still pretty important to me as an individual what happened to the medium around which I have built my entire professional identity, and surely too much of my personal identity. Because what happened was fucking bleak; bleak enough that it took me until the end of April 2021 to even want to to write this post looking back over the catastrophic months of 2020 (at which point I should not that my top 10 and all the other things in this post follow calendar year eligibility, not the cumbersome “January 2020-February 2021” eligibility period arbitrarily defined by the Oscars and several other awards-granting bodies. But my eligibility rules do include the bullshit “one-week qualifying run in L.A.” trick that really didn’t even make sense this year, though at least a couple films still trotted it out. Basically, if the Online Film Critics Society, of which I am a member, said that a film came out between 1 January and 31 December and was thus a 2020 film, that’s what I ran with).
We’re still in 2020, really. Movie theaters are still barely functioning and audiences are still warily coming back, though it seems possible to start speculating on when we’ll be back to 50%, 75%, 100% across the course of 2021 (adjust as necessary depending on your own country – it’s worse in Europe, better in China, for a start). All the really major releases that fled last year are still waiting to come out, and at least some of them feel pretty indecisive about when that might be, or how they want to go about doing that. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I have grown to really despise watching movies on my television: it’s one thing for old classics that had their theatrical runs 50 years ago and are now simply part of the archive, but trying to watch brand new movies in such reduced circumstances just makes them feel… illegitimate, somehow. The great rush to streaming has already reduced much of cinema to mere Content, something to be briefly plucked out of the endless churn and forgotten by the time the “watch next!” buttons pop up with unseemly haste at the start of the end credits scroll. As somebody with a deep investment in the idea of movies as a meaningful art, it’s an exhausting bummer, and for everything to end up in that deep hungry maw of Content has made it, honestly, pretty fucking hard to care about any of it. Movies just don’t feel special right now, and at times it’s hard to wonder if they ever will again.
Best to leave the jeremiads for another day, though. A simply way to look at it is that 2018 and 2019 were both world-class years for movies, in my opinion, and we were due to spring back. For I do really think that the films of 2020 were a pretty sorry bunch – how sorry is tough to say, though on a grumpy day you’ll hear me call it the worst year in the history of the medium, and even on a relatively happy day I couldn’t do better than to call it the worst since the weaker years of the 1980s. Still, as in any year, excellent films were there if you were willing to look for them, and out of the 177 features, documentaries, and short films that I watched from last year, what follows are my favorites.
The Ten Best Films of 2020
2. The Twentieth Century
3. Genius Loci
4. First Cow
5. World of Tomorrow, Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime
6. The Wolf House
7. Ride Your Wave
8. Martin Eden
9. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
10. The Wild Goose Lake
1. Wolfwalkers (Tomm Moore & Ross Stewart, Ireland/UK/Luxembourg/France)
A perfect fairy tale: it seems on the one hand to just present a nice little adventure for us, but that adventure is full of psychological depths that seem much truer for only being present on the edges where we have to work for them. And it also starts to reveal itself as a metaphor for how society itself is structured, as much in its astonishing use of minimally different animation techniques to distinguish social groups as in how it flags those groups in dialogue and story. Mostly, it’s the latest and best example of Cartoon Saloon filtering Irish folk art through the unbearably rich, stable colors of digital 2-D animation techniques to create a sumptuous natural world that contrasts powerfully with the stark lines and flatness of human civilisation, finding beauty and terror in each environment. Everything from the color palette to the thickness of lines to the character layout contribute to creating a resonant story that grapples with the moral complexity of life around us and offers no easy answers, while still functioning as a talking animal cartoon for children.
2. The Twentieth Century (Matthew Rankin, Canada)
Rankin’s career in short films has made him something of a darker, more political, more sexual Guy Maddin, with a vision of the universe in which all of the world = Canada = Manitoba and Québec. And his first feature basically continues in that path, to extraordinarily brilliant ends. It’s a tale of the early career of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King that recasts that man as a sexually morbid youngish man, obsessed with and disgusted by his own kinks, and driven to morally neutral politics of aggressively empty centrist signifying in an attempt to bury these things beneath the impersonal acquisition of power in the absence of any meaning to that power. And to this already heady broth, Rankin adds a visual aesthetic ripped from silent German Expressionism, in which the world is comprised out of impossible geometry that serves to define emptiness as “place” rather than fill it up. It’s a kind of sci-fi comic pastiche of cheesy silent melodrama that’s eager to be as disturbingly horny as it can manage while being resolutely sexless, hilarious and terrifying and merciless in its assault on the psychologically broken people who think they deserve to be political leaders, no matter what the era.
3. Genius Loci (Adrien Mérigeau, France)
A story about losing and finding yourself in the teeming mass of humanity that is a 21st Century multicultural city, carried off using some of the most unpredictable animation I have seen in ages and ages. The world around our protagonist Reine is made up almost entirely out of negative space, sometimes rendered as a field of abstract water colors, sometimes given spare definition by the minimal application of lines and geometric objects. Against this diffuse, inchoate backdrop, Reine herself is an unstable figure of shading and color, of shape, and of coherence, sometimes appearing to float apart into other figures, sometimes decoalescing and recoalescing as a collection of individual parts. It’s a beautiful, almost abstract visual approach to exploring the film’s thesis about how we exist in relation to the people around us, strangers and families and lovers alike, and it leaves the film feeling indescribably full of ideas in only 16 minutes.
4. First Cow (Kelly Reichardt, USA)
Reichardt has slowly and steadily been establishing herself as one of the most crucial American filmmakers for some 15 years now, and it somehow feels like this was the one, the one where she shifted from “a great indie director” to “a generationally-significant film artist”. It doesn’t hurt that this is in some ways the culmination of everything she’s been doing in every one of her films, telling a nuanced and gloriously subtle story about the silent growth of friendship against the backdrop of ugly capitalist oppression asserting itself and thereby entrenching power hierarchies, while the whole thing gawks with restrained wonder at the incredible beauty of the Oregon wilderness, seen as both the only hope for human redemption and a primitive space that humans cannot and should not have any access to. It’s a tightly-controlled sprawling historical epic, a masterpiece of form and craft, and one of the most spiritually gentle movies to have come out in a long time; one rarely gets the sense, in the moment of watching a film, that it’s already an all-time masterpiece, but I didn’t doubt that for a moment here.
5. World of Tomorrow, Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime (Don Hertzfeldt, USA)
It speaks to the high bar Hertzfeldt has set for himself in this ongoing series of sci-fi philosophical essays that Episode Three both disappointed me and also made me feel like I was watching the redefinition of animation as a medium in real time, as well as getting an unbearably dense story of longing for human connection in a time when we’re all having such painfully mediated digital lives that human connection has never felt farther away. The combination of sublime painterly three-dimensional worlds with the emotionally warm scrawls of Hertzfeldt’s line-drawing characters creates a contrast that’s as troubling as it is gorgeous, with world-building that’s sad and hilarious and scary all at once. In any context other than following up two of the best films of the 2010s, this would feel so extraordinarily dense as a story, a character study, a social satire, and a formal object that it would surely be #1 on this list.
6. The Wolf House (Joaquín Cociña & Cristóbal León, Chile)
A punishing vision of human cruelty pressed into one of the most stylistically brash animated features I have ever seen; while to a certain extent this makes it a little easier to deal with the darkness of the scenario, it’s just as true that the form makes this all feel a bit more like a nightmare spinning around us with no way out. It’s a grandly excessive display of stop motion papier-mâché animation in which bodies collapse, spread out, and distort in hideous ways, with the physicality of the animation adding a horrible tangibility to all of the dysfunction; it’s all done in the simulation of a single endless take, so the world seems to be falling apart all around us all the time. And this aesthetic is a terrific match for the film’s attempt to pull us into an exceptionally bleak footnote in Chilean history, using the story of one woman suffering to explore everything about the dark, destructive nature of cults and totalitarianism.
7. Ride Your Wave (Yuasa Masaaki, Japan)
Simultaneously Yuasa’s most pedestrian film and also an extraordinary animated masterpiece that takes the very familiar matter of adolescents in love bumping into a curious paranormal fairy tale, and does it basically as well as it has yet been done. Devoid of irony – it’s a poppy melodrama that doesn’t apologise for its narrative contrivances and finds pop music genuinely ecstatic – it could easily just rely on the appealing emotions of its leads and their magical romance, but instead it finds a soft, rounded visual style that does everything possible to make the story feel richer and fuller than it feels like it has any right to. It’s a luxurious film in every way, aesthetically and tonally, and while it’s the first Yuasa film that doesn’t push the medium in any significant way, that just means that it gets to demonstrate how great he still is when he’s not trying too hard.
8. Martin Eden (Pietro Marcello, Italy/France/Germany)
A story about the great American frontier promise of bootstrapping your way to success, only to find that it makes you a cynical husk of humanity, transferred flawlessly to Italy in a foggy moment of history that seems to be all of the second half of the Twentieth Century all at once. It’s a great place for Jack London’s tale to find itself: Italian cinema has a long history of transforming outraged political screeds into gorgeously-appointed human stories full of life in the acting and production alike, and this is a superb way to continue that tradition: Luca Marinelli’s Martin might be the focal point for the film’s leftist ranting, but he’s also a fully-realised human in a wholly organic world, one that’s full of history and textures and complicated relationships between people and groups. The film’s splashy multimedia cinematography adds a level of intellectual detachment that the film thrives on, but what’s astonishing is that something this unapologetically theoretical would also be this fun and engaging.
9. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (Bill Ross IV & Turner Ross, USA)
Too much energy has been spent on the “so, what is it?” question; call it a documentary if you have to, or devised theater on film, or an experiment in getting nonprofessionals drunk and then putting them on camera. What matters is what it tells us about the exquisite sloppiness of human life, as a cluster of individuals congregate to tell their stories and celebrate the space that allows them to gather in one place for the fellowship that comes from people who’ve been left behind by the world recognising each other and drawing strength from that recognition. It obviously makes more of an impact coming during a year when public gatherings, particularly the ones that take place inside bars, have been outlawed, but in any circumstances I have to imagine that this portrait of the great human joy of connecting with people you’ve always known within five minutes of meeting them would feel as rich and rewarding.
10. The Wild Goose Lake (Diao Yi’nan, China/France)
The scenario is the best kind of film noir: a man knows that he’s doomed and no matter what happens, his life will be functionally or perhaps literally over by the morning, so he decides to conscript a femme fatale to help him perform the one solitary action he’s ever done for his wife before that morning comes. It’s hauntingly acted, and the narrative structure – diffuse without being necessarily confusing or even all that complicated – gives it even more of a feeling of a hazy dream than the sheer glut of atmosphere already would. For it’s a hell of an atmospheric film, drenched in the corrosive beauty of a city at night, damp and foggy and cool; it’s as much about the state of Chinese cities as about the soul of a single Chinese man, and excellent on both counts. Fans of doomy romanticism and hopeless lost souls trying to find one instant of grace owe to themselves to dig up this disappointingly undersung crime drama and morality play.
10. Capone (Josh Trank, Canada/USA)
Tom Hardy’s collection of ludicrous accents gets a new superstar in the form of the gravely puking snarl he adopts to play the legendary gangster Al Capone in the final months of his battle with syphilis. A tale of a moral reckoning that isn’t moral and fails to include a reckoning, this is inexplicably, unbelievably free of even ironic entertainment value, for something in which literally every solitary individual element feels like the campiest bad-movie silliness you could imagine. A sodden anti-drama about watching a man die, during which time nobody changes or learns anything – fun stuff.
9. The Rhythm Section (Reed Morano, UK)
It feels like this came out so long ago, not least because even in the pre-pandemic months of 2020, this felt like a tired spy movie throwback. Weirdly joyless for something that offers so many opportunities for winking camp, or at least not being ashamed of its own kitschiness: the idea of getting a serious movie out of a project that puts Blake Lively in the single worst collection of wigs in cinema history was clearly a mistake. But for some reason, they doubled-down on it, even going to so far as to play moments and dialogue obviously written as jokes deadly straight.
8. Stardust (Gabriel Range, UK)
A David Bowie biopic legally prevented from actually including anything about David Bowie in it might have seemed like a losing prospect. And indeed, it is a losing prospect. But that didn’t stop the filmmakers from bravely soldiering on, attempting their god-damnedest to at least find a worthwhile story about defining oneself against the ugly flatness of a world filmed with all the drabness that a low-budget British film about the 1970s could scrounge up. This largely consists of watching Johnny Flynn petulantly ruin newspaper interviews. Literally can’t even do the boilerplate right.
7. A Fall from Grace (Tyler Perry, USA)
The chilly digital flatness of Netflix meets the work of a morally hectoring melodramatist who somehow keeps getting worse and worse at making movies. This has to at least be in the conversation to identify Perry’s very worst movie, not least because it finds him abandoning the smug domestic drama he knows in favor of becoming a catastrophic legal thriller that apparently learned all it knows about the American court system from Lifetime movies.
6. Godmothered (Sharon Maguire, USA)
A heavy, high-effort attempt by Disney to copy its own Enchanted, eleven years after it last made any sense to do so. The comedy huffs and puffs with unseemly desperation, the world-building is just detailed enough for the holes to feel unusually destructive, and it rides its central gimmick all the way into the dirt without ever having thought about whether “fairy godmother” is nearly as flexible or universal a concept as the plot requires. Jillian Bell and Isla Fisher are doing what they can, but it’s an ugly fight and they’re losing.
5. Cats & Dogs 3: Paws Unite (Sean McNamara, USA)
Clearly, Cats & Dogs 3 was never going to be a “good” movie; maybe this is even closer to a best-case scenario than otherwise. Still, this is awfully stupid, and when it starts leaning into bizarre moral hectoring, it becomes completely impossible to tell who this was for or why. And it also has the single most jarring masturbation joke I have encountered in all my years of watching supposedly all-ages entertainment. If your children want to watch this multiple times – or really, all the way through a single time – it might be worth seeing if they can be replaced.
4. The Turning (Floria Sigismondi, USA)
You might think you’ve seen movies that end badly, but I guarantee you won’t be ready for the bumblefuckery of this movie’s final 30 seconds. Hell, I was spoiled for exactly what happened, and I still wasn’t ready. It’s a symptom of just how obviously this film was lost in post-production, leaving behind a film that changes its identity with every scene and never one starts to build momentum. And on top of being a dimwitted modernisation of The Turn of the Screw that can’t support its own concept, that’s all just deadly.
3. Fantasy Island (Jeff Wadlow, USA)
It started production – and ended it – and got to final cut – without ever fully deciding what it wanted to be: a horror movie version of the cheesy ’70s show? A satire? A big-budget remake? A Michael Peña comedy? A (God help us) Michael Peña thriller? The decision seems to have been “ah well, just do all of them all at once”, which is presumably part of the reason this has such a heart-stopping running time for something this deeply insubstantial and dumb. Too polished to be “unwatchable”, but too viciously dull and arrhythmic to actually watch.
2. Assassin 33 A.D. (Jim Carroll, USA)
An almost indescribably wrong-headed idea – extremist Muslims finance the creation of time travel so the can kill Jesus before he’s crucified and thus screw up the resurrection – carried off with almost indescribably poor execution. On the secular side, we have impenetrably complicated plotting plus time travel mechanics that never make sense, despite be explained to us multiple times; on the religious side, Jesus is aware that movies will eventually be made about his life and death, and idiot scientists with glow-sticks accidentally pretend to be the angels announcing the resurrection. Jaw-dropping in every way, and the only reason it’s not #1 is that the next film on this list wasted way more resources.
1. Dolittle (Stephen Gaghan, USA)
Almost enough to give you hope for cinema, in a negative sense: if the big problem is that movies are too safe and too constrained by executive meddling to sand off the edges, well, that’s clearly not at issue here. A catastrophic failure on every level, setting fire to untold tens of millions of dollars in service to a movie that feels like it was edited by drawing lines of dialogue out of a hat, while Robert Downey, Jr. chases Tony Stark by adopting an instant candidate for the Bad Movie Accent Hall of Fame.
On paper, The Father looks like the blandest, most cynical sort of Oscarbait, a miserable old time watching an old man decay and fail right in front of us. In practice, it’s a startling dive into subjectivity at every level of form (give or take its weak cinematography), all packed around and Anthony Hopkins performance that is, if not necessarily his best performance ever, certainly in the conversation for that honor. It gave me a nice boost of “oh thank good, middlebrow movies can be really damn good” right when I needed it most.
I had extremely high hopes Freaky based on its close proximity to the Happy Death Day pictures, and maybe it is just as simple as that: if I’d walked with no expectations, I’d have been delighted by its light snarky tone. But since I was ready for the snark, not one thing about it ever surprised me, and the inordinately unlikable characters (the ones we’re meant to like, anyway) and joke-writing-by-social-media cadence to the humor both worked to ruin my third and final post-pandemic trip to movie theaters in 2020.
Best Popcorn Movie
There wasn’t much competition, to be sure. But in the hands of Paul W.S. Anderson, one of our finest living trashy carnival barkers, Monster Hunter gave me absolutely everything I wanted and more in its shameless video game logic, its underfilled but overambitious world building and monster design, and its awareness that having Milla Jovovich strike dramatic poses with ridiculous prop weapons is pretty much all you need to have some top-level capital-C Cinema. Pissed as hell I couldn’t see this on a huge screen in 3-D while eating stale hot dogs and drinking flat soda.
I don’t even know if 50% of the running time of Greenland counts as “good”, but that <50% is terrific as hell, a smarter-than-it needs to be parade of disaster movie tropes given unusual depth and emphasis. It even manages to smuggle a relatively rich and layered performance out of Gerard Butler. Clearly junk food, and eventually pretty lousy junk food, but I was certainly happy to gobble it down.
Near the end of Sorry We Missed You, materfamilias Abbie, played with unfathomable sensitivity by Debbie Honeywood, is so entirely worn out from just everything conspiring to destroy her and her family, snaps and swears. And then, in a moment that broke my heart into ten million fragments, gets really embarrassed and apologises for swearing, because she genuinely believes that she’s the problem, somehow.
When a tarp is ripped away in Dolittle, and the cast is astonished and we’re amused to see Jeff hiding there. Who’s Jeff? Doesn’t matter, he’s never appeared before, and he’ll never appear again, but there he fucking is.
“Y’all got Fireball? The white trash, fuckin’ garbage person that I am, that’s what I fuckin’ want. You think I’m better than Fireball? I am not.”
-An unidentified woman who is very eager for some Fireball, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
“Good morning Motherland! It’s almost the weekend, and you know what that means. Grab a pumpkin – raise your wands – break out the glass slippers – it’s time to party like it’s 1699!”
-Agnes (June Squibb), Godmothered, written by Kari Granlund and Melissa Stack
“Oh, Barry’s berries.”
-Barry the tiger (Ralph Fiennes), Dolittle, written by who the hell knows
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
Designed by the director-writer brothers themselves, this sprawling mass of humanity gets right at the heart of everything that makes the movie fantastic: the love of humans faces in all their craggy, weathered textures; the busy, overstuffed feeling of a dozen conversations are flashing past each other; even the feeling of something that was perfected in the 1970s and has been softly rotting away from the light of the world ever since. And those two solitary flashes of color, drawing our attention to the film’s title and the name of the bar itself, privileging it about everything else in the composition, are impeccably chosen.
Best Teaser Poster
The key to any great teaser poster is to tell us the most with the fewest element, and minimalism doesn’t get much sleeker than this: just five license plates, quietly telling us that this is a film about travel across the American West, unrooted from any single place. The great gulfs of white, perfectly set off by the three almost invisible blocks of text giving us the barest information about the film’s production, add in a sense of loneliness and isolation. Just desperately sad and beautiful simultaneously.
Sometimes, you can tell that two actors were not standing in the same room when the photos for the poster were taken. In this case, you can tell that the left half of Anthony Hopkins’s face was not in the same room as the right half.
Also, I get that it happens all the time, but this is an especially egregious case of “the wrong name over the wrong head” layout. And I find the kerning on the pull quote “One of Hopkins’ great screen performances” an insult to the concept of graphic design.
The Ten Best Classic Films I Saw for the First Time in 2020
Diary of a Country Priest (Robert Bresson, France, 1951)
Summer Interlude (Ingmar Bergman, Sweden, 1951)
Forty Guns (Samuel Fuller, USA, 1957)
Tales from the Crypt (Freddie Francis, UK 1952)
The Falls (Peter Greenaway, UK, 1980)
Rumble Fish (Francis Ford Coppola, USA, 1983)
Angel’s Egg (Oshii Mamoru, Japan, 1985)
A Brighter Summer Day (Edward Yang, Taiwan, 1991)
Tekkonkinkreet (Michael Arias, 2006, Japan)
Redline (Koike Takeshi, Japan, 2009)