In the world of movies, every year follows a similar pattern. Halfway through the calendar, those critics inclined to pessimism start ringing the warning bell over a lack of quality film. Outlandish fear over the death of cinema persists through the splashy summer season, but as Oscar season winds down the same conclusion is nearly always reached: a great year for film. Now, 2020 has broken just about every mold we understand, up to and including the way we perceive time. One thing this pandemic decimated year hasn’t changed? It has still been a great year for film.
Stick with me here. Try to forget about the blockbusters that were pushed off the release schedule. Rarely are the biggest films the best anyway. Instead think about all the wonderful films that have not been drowned out by the MCU. This year has given us new films by Pete Docter, Charlie Kaufman, Sofia Coppola, Spike Lee, David Fincher, and 5 (!!!) by Steve McQueen, just to name a few. A haul like that would be lauded in any other year.
It isn’t just the big name auteurs either. The broader spotlight of 2020 gave larger platforms to first time directors too. Cooper Raiff (Shithouse), Max Barbakow (Palm Springs), Darius Marder (Sound of Metal) and Shannon Murphy (Babyteeth) all received high praise for their narrative debuts.
No doubt 2020 was a departure from our baseline understanding of a year in film, but the last 12 months have still managed to deliver surprising, heartening, exciting cinema. Here are the very best movies this year had to offer:
10. Nomadland - Chloe Zhao
Over the last few years, Chloe Zhao has emerged as one of the most brilliantly idiosyncratic directors of American cinema. Her 2018 breakout The Rider, basked in the golden hour glow of the Dakotas, used real folks to tell a narrative story about masculinity in rural America. With Nomadland, Zhao takes those same elements — real people playing factionalized versions of themselves, gorgeously authentic settings — and adds in Oscar winner Frances McDormand to deliver another piece of essential Americana. What Nomadland reaffirms is Zhao’s unique ability to make real people feel like cinematic characters and, conversely, her talent for making fictional folks feel undeniably genuine.
Nomadland tracks Fern (McDormand) on her annual migration across the the west in a never ending search for work. It’s a film about rugged independence, yet still movingly about community and found family. As Fern jumps from Amazon warehouses to national parks, hauling her whole life in a compact RV, we’re left with an enduring image of the resiliency of the American spirit. Zhao doesn’t shy away from the struggles faced by the houseless communities she’s documenting, while taking great care not to pity them. Ultimately, the film is a stunning ode to the hardscrabble migrants on the periphery of US society.
Nomadland will receive a wide theatrical release in January 2021.
9. Boys State - Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine
Politics was inescapable in 2020, a year defined by perverse incentives, government inaction and a tumultuous election to cap it off. Of the myriad documentaries to touch on the US political system this year, none shed so much light on that system’s inefficiencies as Boys State.
Boys State documents the journey of a handful of Texas teens as they navigate a week long recreation of the US political process. Viewers watch in horror as once idealist staters slowly morph into craven political actors, abandoning their beliefs in a desperate attempt to win made up elections.
Offering up moments of hope, as well as gutting doses of reality, Boys State plays out like a narrative drama, often making you forget that you’re watching a documentary. It exposes just how much of a game the US political system is. If a bunch of teens can figure it out, it’s no wonder the state of our politics is where it is today.
Boys State is available to stream on Apple TV+. My full review from August.
8. Corpus Christi - Jan Komasa
Many films are rooted deeply in faith, but a relative few understand it as wholly as Corpus Christi. Nominated for Best International Feature at the last Academy Awards ceremony, the film follows ex-convict Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia) as he imitates a man of the cloth and ingrains himself as a priest in a rural town.
Belief in something greater than oneself can be powerfully healing. It’s a lesson Daniel and his new home learn rather quickly upon his arrival. But the flip side of that coin is the faithlessness inherent to modern organized religion. These two contradictory forces intertwine in Corpus Christi in ways comical, brutal and touching.
In a year as lonesome and bleak as this, Corpus Christi made the case for forgiveness and community. Lifting one another up in our lowest moment is perhaps the most noble form of faith.
Corpus Christi is available to rent or purchase on most platforms.
7. Steve McQueen’s Small Axe Anthology
Picking all of the Small Axe films may be a bit of a cop-out, but it was the only seemed right to honor these 5 amazing movies as they’re presented: together. And if the LA Film Critics Association can do it, why cant I. Mangrove and Lovers Rock, the first and most impressive installments, each earned a place in my top 10 individually (5 and 8 respectively), but part of their genius is the way they interact with the 3 films they preceded.
Illuminating the West Indian communities across Great Britain in the 60s and 70s, each Small Axe film paints a lovely portrait of a vibrant community and tells an intimate story about protesting racism. Mangrove is protest through protest, Lovers Rock is protest through joy, Red, White and Blue is protest through assimilation, Alex Wheatle is protest through music and finally, Education is protest through community and pride. To single one out would feel like removing it from the context of a beautiful tapestry.
These films all speak to one another in a way that makes them really feel like a series, but they do so in stand alone stories that truly are films. In that way, Steve McQueen is bending form like nobody else in 2020. Each is a worthwhile watch and individually could make a case as one of the best films of the year.
The Small Axe film series is currently available on Amazon Prime.
6. Da 5 Bloods - Spike Lee
It’s a tribute to Spike Lee that Da 5 Bloods was so immediately relevant to the aching moment of racial reckoning it released into. Like much of Lee’s work, Da 5 Bloods was immediately timeless. Following the quest of 4 Black Vietnam veterans to repatriate their fallen comrade’s remains (as well as some gold they’d hidden in the Vietnamese jungles,) the film unfolds with a repressed rage toward a country that sent them off to war without ever truly viewing them as equals.
Da 5 Bloods rural Vietnamese setting is just a further reminder of the suffering perpetuated by the US both at home and abroad. Pain of that past brutality is just as visible on the face of Paul —played with an erratic and deeply felt vigor by Delroy Lindo — as it is on the Vietnamese countryside, littered as it still is with deadly explosives.
In a year in which Americans rose up and spoke out against the injustices of their home country, the new Spike Lee joint resonated in a way that few other films could.
Da 5 Bloods is available to stream on Netflix.
5. Wolfwalkers - Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart
Over the first couple decades of the 21st century, animation feels as though it has transitioned from a pure art form into a more commoditized medium. Gone are the hand drawn Disney tent poles, in their place are a slew of 3D, computer generated movies made from the same base models and lacking any sort of visual flare.
Enter Cartoon Saloon and Wolfwalkers, a film that combines inventive storytelling and lush hand drawn imagery in a way that few studios are currently capable of. Rooted in Irish mythology and centered on a young English girl adjusting to her new home in Kilkenny Ireland, the film sets about telling a touching story about belonging.
More than just finding your place as an outsider in a hostile world, Wolfwalkers aspires to something deeper as well. Those who want to dig into the film will find a poignant allegory for the brutality of colonialism. For those who simply want to enjoy a beautiful animated fantasy, Wolfwalkers offers that as well. It truly is a film for everyone.
Wolfwalkers is available to stream on Apple TV+. My review from November.
4. Palm Springs - Max Barbakow
Comedy is easy to overlook when picking out the best films of any year, but especially in a year like 2020 we could all use a good laugh. Palm Springs packs plenty into a heartfelt riff on Groundhog Day that finds a way to also be deeply human.
Nyles (Andy Samberg) and Sarah (Cristin Milioti) spending an eternity alone in their same routines might sound familiar to anyone who has spent the last 10 months in quarantine. Their journey is as much about embracing the joys of a monotonous life together as it is about escaping that monotony.
When talking about Palm Springs, it’s impossible to ignore how it provided movie viewers an event to collectively discuss right as we were reaching the realization that this pandemic could keep us held up for the long haul. That alone is worthy of praise as the film really did bring folks together in spirit while we couldn’t be together in person.
Palm Springs is available to stream on Hulu. My review from August.
3. Minari - Lee Isaac Chung
The mythos of the American dream has been a staple of cinema for as long as the medium has existed. It’s taken different shape over the years, but each film taking it on either lifts up or tears down the idea that you can chart your own path in the US so long as you just put in enough hard work. Minari, the story of a Korean-American moving to Arkansas to start a farm, is less interested in the payoff of that dream than it is the work itself.
Whether the family at the center of Minari, actually succeeds isn’t the point, so long as they believe that their work will be worthwhile. Patriarch Jacob’s quest to tame this plot of rural America is more about proving to his family that he can. It’s been a hard year, and the difficulties aren’t going away anytime soon. We all need to have faith that better things lie ahead, that our travails will be rewarded in the end.
Minari will get a wide theatrical release in January 2021. My spoiler free review from earlier this month.
2. The Father - Florian Zellner
In a year that has been mentally taxing to so many people, I found myself especially drawn to films that explored strange complexities of the human mind. Very much a pair with my favorite film of the year, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, The Father investigates the slow and often frustrating mental deterioration of dementia from the perspective of a man batting it.
Anthony Hopkins portrays this man whose spirit for life and charisma shine through, even as he gradually loses touch with the reality that surrounds him. The Father is difficult, often vexing and ultimately quite tragic. Few films in any year can elicit the sort of visceral response that Florian Zellner draws out with this, his film debut. Perhaps the idea of creating something beautiful out of such painful and dark material can serve as a guide for how we can contextualize 2020 in the years that follow.
The Father will receive a theatrical release in February 2021.
1. I’m Thinking of Ending Things - Charlie Kaufman
Truly nobody is doing it like Charlie Kaufman. Every film he writes is a tangled mess of ideas that slowly unravels into something profoundly knowing. I’m Thinking of Ending Things brutally interrogates toxicity, regret, loneliness and the way those things melt together into aching humanity.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is weird, it’s upsetting, it’s bleak, but all the while it’s genuine. Jake and The Young Woman are caricatures, each representing a distorted fragment of a life lived in retrospect. I fully understand that a film so strange may alienate some folks, but for me, no film this year came close to providing the level of invigoration and excitement for cinema as I’m Thinking of Ending Things. That something so bizarre, bleak, confounding could actually get made and still deliver on its premise gives me hope for a future of film that exists beyond formulaic superhero movies and cinematic universes.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is available to stream on Netflix. My full review from September.
So that’s it, the sort-of ten best films of a year unlike any I’ve ever experienced. To boil down a year in film to just 10 movies is a bit regressive and forced me to omit some really great movies. Some that just missed the cut: Soul (Pete Docter), David Byrne’s American Utopia (Spike Lee), System Crasher (Nora Fingscheidt) First Cow (Kelly Reichardt), Shithouse (Cooper Raiff) and so many more. All of those films are fantastic and available to rent or stream, so check them out if you can!
Finally, I just want to close by saying thanks to anyone who has been reading the blog or listening to the podcast this year. It’s something Cody and I have really enjoyed putting together and expanding over the last year and change. Over the last 12 month’s we’ve recorded nearly 50 episodes of STR and written 15 long form pieces for the site. It’s been a lot of fun and something that will continue to evolve in the years to come. We really appreciate you and all the support Spinning the Reel has received this year.
Agree or disagree with this list? Did I leave out your favorite film of 2020? Leave a comment below with you best of the year.