The Best Films of 2020

Top 10 of the Year

1. I’m Thinking of Ending ThingsCharlie Kaufman
2. NomadlandChloé Zhao
3. MankDavid Fincher
4. Small AxeSteve McQueen
5. Promising Young WomanEmerald Fennell
6. Pieces of a WomanKornél Mundruczó
7. The FatherFlorian Zeller
8. MinariLee Isaac Chung
9. TenetChristopher Nolan
10. WolfwalkersTomm Moore, Ross Stewart
Nomadland (Chloé Zhao)

Best Film

I’m Thinking of Ending Things. There are not many years in movie history that lack a clear masterpiece (as defined by being top 1-3 of the year quality). The last one before 2020 was 1987 (topped by Full Metal Jacket), and before that 1935 (Bride of Frankenstein wins the year there). Fortunately, this is not a result of untalented contemporary filmmakers, but rather of many movies originally slated for 2020 being pushed to 2021 due to the pandemic. None of this should undercut Charlie Kaufman’s achievement in I’m Thinking of Ending Things though. It is his most visually audacious work yet and a formally experimental play on traditional horror conventions, eroding all sense of time and character identities. All of this builds towards a surreal psychological drama meditating on ageing, isolation, and lost potential. Cryptic, elusive, and intensely moving in unexpected ways – not many screenwriters-turned-directors explore the cinematic potential of their intelligent scripts as well as Kaufman does here.

Most Underrated

Pieces of a Woman. The Father is another one that is currently missing from the TSPDT 21st Century list, but Pieces of a Woman also has a disappointing 66 Metacritic score and thus deserves the slot here. The camerawork belongs among the best of the year, and not just in that astounding 22-minute long take of the heartbreaking home birth near the start of the film. The script is driven by powerfully emotional melodrama, but it is also so formally sound in the abundance of metaphors (the bridge, the apple seeds) and grounded in an incredibly strong performance from Vanessa Kirby.

Most Overrated

Never Rarely Sometimes Always. This is a film that winds up at #3 of 2020 on TSPDT, but doesn’t find a spot in my top 10 here. It is a fantastic piece of social realist cinema about a pregnant teenager travelling to New York to find a Planned Parenthood clinic, and the struggles around that. There is also a scene in it that displays the talents of young actress Sidney Flanagan, whose facial expressions tell an entire story that words alone could never express. Eliza Hittman makes the smart decision to hang on her face for five whole minutes here, but besides this the film’s artistic achievement is relatively modest compared to the films ahead of it on my list.

Best Directorial Debut

Promising Young Woman. Emerald Fennell comes out firing with this captivating and acerbic revenge thriller. It took me a couple of viewings to put it in my top 10, but I’m there now – it is a complex balance of conflicting tones possessing a powerful narrative drive, and her use of pastel colours and symmetrical compositions reveals a director with an already developed style.

Promising Young Woman (Emerald Fennell)

Gem to Spotlight

Small Axe. Many arguments have been had all across the internet on whether to classify this as a miniseries or several distinct films. There isn’t much arguing against its cinematic power as a whole though, and with a director like Steve McQueen at the helm it easily transcends every other piece of television from 2020. The strength of this anthology is the gorgeous Lover’s Rock instalment, but even in the weakest there is plenty to appreciate. Small Axe is McQueen’s ode to the West Indian communities living in London in the 1960s to 80s, making small acts of revolution, reform, and celebration that each build on each other to reveal the slow, spinning wheel of progress across decades.

Small Axe: Lover’s Rock (Steve McQueen)

Best Male Performance

Gary Oldman comes out on top with one of the best performances of his career in Mank. It isn’t easy handling such a wordy script of double entendres and witticisms, but he takes charge of this character study, delivering allegorical monologues with drunken confidence and theatricality. Behind him, Anthony Hopkins earns a spot in becoming a vessel for our heartbreaking, disorientating journey into the mind of a dementia patient in The Father. John Boyega also commands another character study in Red, White and Blue, an instalment of Small Axe about Leroy Logan, a founding member of the Black Police Association in the UK who attempted to reform the police from within its own ranks.

Best Female Performance

As mentioned above, Vanessa Kirby’s performance in Pieces of a Woman is simply gut-wrenching, and she exerts such fine control over both the subtler moments of depression and the passionate outbursts of a distraught mother. Frances McDormand’s understated work in Nomadland is masterfully subtle, as is Jessie Buckley in the ever-shifting persona of the “Young Woman” in I’m Thinking of Ending Things. This list isn’t complete without mentioning Carey Mulligan either. She is wry, intelligent, funny, and heartbreaking in Promising Young Woman – a mess of emotions she sorts through effortlessly.

Vanessa Kirby from Pieces of a Woman (Kornél Mundruczó)

A disappointing down year for cinema, for reasons already mentioned. No masterpieces, and disappointing depth in quality. Fortunately, I was able to round out my top 10 without dipping into those films worth a simple ‘Recommend’. The upside of Hollywood’s postponing of many blockbuster films is the increased spotlight on smaller arthouse films, including one gorgeous indie animation in Wolfwalkers.

In terms of great established auteurs, we have new films from David Fincher, Steve McQueen, Spike Lee, Sofia Coppola, Charlie Kaufman, and Christopher Nolan to carry us over. Five of these were distributed on streaming services, and praise must be given to Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Apple TV+ for picking up such bold auteurs, as well providing a viewing alternative while cinemas were closed.

Nolan is the outlier here. His decision to stick by releasing Tenet in cinemas during the COVID pandemic was disastrous in terms of box office, and its divisiveness certainly didn’t help. It is no doubt a flawed film with a lot of heavy exposition, though its artistic ambition in its action choreography and reverse photography is admirable.

Nomadland is the well-deserved Best Picture Winner at the Oscars this year, and Soul marks one of Pixar’s greatest achievements in animation as well. In spite of the state of the industry, there is clearly still plenty of great cinema to appreciate in 2020.

Tenet (Christopher Nolan)

2020 Archives

TitleDirectorGrade
Another RoundThomas VinterbergR
AntebellumGerard Bush, Christopher Renz R
CutiesMaïmouna DoucouréR
Da 5 BloodsSpike LeeR
Emma.Autumn de WildeR
I’m Thinking of Ending ThingsCharlie KaufmanMS
KajillionaireMiranda JulyR
MankDavid FincherMS
MinariLee Isaac ChungHR
Never Rarely Sometimes AlwaysEliza HittmanR
NomadlandChloé ZhaoMS
On the RocksSofia CoppolaR
Palm SpringsMax BarbakowR
Pieces of a WomanKornél MundruczóHR
Promising Young WomanEmerald FennellHR
RelicNatalie Erika JamesR
Shiva BabyEmma SeligmanR/HR
Small AxeSteve McQueenHR/MS
SoulPete DocterR
TenetChristopher NolanHR
The Devil All the TimeAntonio CamposR
The FatherFlorian ZellerHR
The Invisible ManLeigh WhannellR
The NestSean DurkinR
The Queen’s GambitScott FrankR
UndineChristian PetzoldR
UnorthodoxMaria SchraderR
We Are Who We AreLuca GuadagninoR
WolfwalkersTomm Moore, Ross StewartR/HR

Documentaries

Dick Johnson is DeadKirsten Johnson

Short Films

If Anything Happens I Love YouWill McCormack, Michael Govier
Wolfwalkers (Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart)

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