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. TenetChristopher Nolan
9. WolfwalkersTomm Moore, Ross Stewart
10. Shiva BabyEmma Seligman

Best Film

I’m Thinking of Ending Things. There are not many years in movie history that lack a clear masterpiece. 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, which is his most visually audacious work yet. It is formally experimental in its ironic play on horror conventions, eroding all sense of time and character identities, and it all 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.

As one would expect from Charlie Kaufman, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is incredibly formally complex and rewards multiple viewings, letting us piece together the truth of its absurd, illogical world bit by bit.

Most Underrated

Pieces of a Woman. This is missing from the TSPDT 21st Century list, which is ridiculous for any film with camerawork as audacious as this. Its value isn’t all just in that astounding 22-minute long take of the heartbreaking home birth near the start of the film either. The script is driven by grief, anger, and heartbreak, and it is also so formally grounded in the abundance of metaphors (the bridge, the apple seeds).

Impeccable camerawork, acting, and writing in Pieces of a Woman, driven by a complicated jumble of hard-hitting emotions.

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 realism 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 she just doesn’t have as developed an artistic voice as other directors with films ahead of her on my list.

Gritty, ugly emotion pairs well with the social realism of Never Rarely Sometimes Always, isolating us in the hostile environment of New York City.

Best Directorial Debut

Promising Young Woman. Emerald Fennell comes out firing with this revenge thriller. 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. It is also endlessly rewatchable – a sure sign of a film with a long shelf life.

Emerald Fennell conducts a fine balance of conflicting tones in Promising Young Women, but she also crafts these indelible, candy-coloured compositions, framing Mulligan with a halo behind her head like an avenging angel.

Gem to Spotlight

Small Axe. Many arguments have been had 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 Lover’s Rock instalment, but even in the weakest there is plenty to appreciate. This 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.

Steve McQueen has been on a flawless run ever since his debut in 2008 with Hunger, and his venture into television continues that winning streak.

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, John Boyega 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.

Jesse Plemmons gets the final mention for his part in I’m Thinking of Ending Things. He has been on the rise for about a decade by this point, and he finally gets a part large enough in Kaufman’s film to earn him a mention. This film is basically a window in his depressed, unstable, ageing mind, though it takes a while for us to realise this.

This could very well be Gary Oldman’s crowning achievement – Herman J. Mankiewicz is loud, verbose, and a master of double entendre.

Best Female Performance

Jessie Buckley’s ever-shifting persona in I’m Thinking of Ending Things turns on us in an eerie way. She is our protagonist, offering a voiceover which we immediately attach to as a source of stability, and with Buckley’s deep voice and confident presence, we have no reason to question it. Then bit by bit she undermines that and we are left stranded, grasping for answers.

After Buckley, Vanessa Kirby claims a mention for her gut-wrenching performance in Pieces of a Woman, exerting such fine control over both the subtler moments of depression and the passionate outbursts of a grieving mother. Frances McDormand also astounds with her understated work in Nomadland, naturally sliding into this piece of realism with a hardened sincerity that she is virtually synonymous with as an actress.

This list isn’t complete without mentioning Carey Mulligan either. She is broken, dry, intelligent, funny, and heartbreaking in Promising Young Woman – a mess of emotions she sorts through with great precision.

Jessie Buckley confidently becomes our grounded, leading woman in I’m Thinking of Ending Things, and then very slyly starts pulling out the rug from beneath us.

Best Cinematography: Nomadland

1. NomadlandJoshua James Richard
2. Pieces of a WomanBenjamin Leob
3. I’m Thinking of Ending ThingsŁukasz Żal
4. MankErik Messerschmidt
5. Small AxeShabier Kirchner
6. Promising Young WomanBenjamin Kracun
With Nomadland, Chloé Zhao delivers on the promise she showed in The Rider. She comes from the school of Terrence Malick – that is, a director who can capture magic hour lighting at its most jaw-dropping.

Best Editing: I’m Thinking of Ending Things

1. I’m Thinking of Ending ThingsRobert Frazen
2. TenetJennifer Lame
3. MankKirk Baxter
4. Promising Young WomanFrederic Thoraval
5. Small AxeChris Dickens, Steve McQueen
6. The FatherYorgos Lamprinos
When we aren’t trapped in the seemingly timeless void of Jake’s family home or the perspective-shifting school, Kaufman lands us in these long car rides where the editing keeps moving forward at a deliberate pace, putting a distance between both characters.

Best Screenplay: I’m Thinking of Ending Things

1. I’m Thinking of Ending ThingsCharlie Kaufman
2. MankJack Fincher
3. Promising Young WomanEmerald Fennell
4. Pieces of a WomanKata Wéber
5. Small AxeSteve McQueen, Courttia Newland, Alastair Siddons
6. The FatherFlorian Zeller, Christopher Hampton
You can feel the Franz Kafka influence in Charlie Kaufman’s writing, trapping his characters in worlds that are simultaneously whimsical and oppressive.

Best Original Music Score: I’m Thinking of Ending Things

1. I’m Thinking of Ending ThingsJay Wadley
2. TenetLudwig Göransson
3. MankTrent Reznor, Atticus Ross
4. Pieces of a WomanHoward Shore
5. NomadlandLudovico Einaudi
The flutes, piano, and guitar of Jay Wadley’s score in I’m Thinking of Ending Things keeps the discomfort at bay for a while, before giving way to more eerie sounds – and then finally erupting in this gorgeous ballet which captures the poignancy of it all.

2020 was a disappointing down year for cinema, and it is plain to see why – the COVID-19 pandemic hit hard, pushing many films forward to 2021, and entirely halting production on others. There are no masterpieces to be found, and there is disappointing depth in the overall quality, with a couple of fringy top 10 films making its way onto the final list. The upside of postponing many blockbuster films though means the increased spotlight on smaller arthouse films, including the gorgeous indie animation, 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 them had their films 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.

There is a beautiful formal contrast drawn in the court and country of Wolfwalkers – rigid boxes and lines within the castle, and free-flowing curves all through the forest.

Nolan is the outlier among the flock. His decision to stick by releasing Tenet in cinemas during the 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.

Unfortunately, none of the above-mentioned directors are doing their best work this year, with one major exception – Charlie Kaufman might have actually outdone Synecdoche, New York with his darkly absurdist, psychological thriller I’m Think of Ending Things. There are a lot of writers-turned-directors who struggle with the transition and can’t quite find the visual language to match their screenplays, but it is safe to say by now that he has pulled it off with flair.

Nomadland is the well-deserved Best Picture Winner at the Oscars this year, seeing Chloé Zhao ascend to new heights in Hollywood, while for the first time since 1968, there is no Palme d’Or awarded due to Cannes Film Festival being cancelled. It isn’t even worth looking at the highest grossing films of the year as an indicator of where the culture was at – with cinemas shutting down in March and streaming services taking over from there, 2020’s top earners are a bizarre collection of forgettable movies. Overall, this is just a weird void of a year for cinema.

Tenet is not without its flaws, and may very well be one of Christopher Nolan’s weaker efforts, but at the same time there is no one else who could have directed a film as daringly inventive as this.

Film Archives

Another RoundThomas VinterbergR
AntebellumGerard Bush, Christopher Renz R/HR
Da 5 BloodsSpike LeeR
Emma.Autumn de WildeR
ExtractionSam HargraveR
I Know This Much Is TrueDerek CianfranceR
I’m Thinking of Ending ThingsCharlie KaufmanMS
KajillionaireMiranda JulyR
MankDavid FincherMS
MinariLee Isaac ChungR/HR
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


Dick Johnson is DeadKirsten Johnson
Using cinema as a medium to wrestle with the inevitability of death while loved ones are still alive – this is inspired documentary filmmaking from Kirsten Johnston, blending artifice and reality.

Short Films

If Anything Happens I Love YouWill McCormack, Michael Govier
Minimalism and austerity in If Anything Happens I Love You detailing a silent, heartbreaking story.

5 thoughts on “The Best Films of 2020”

    1. I can’t imagine many other actresses nailing this as well as Carey Mulligan to be honest – it’s something about her deep voice, composed anger, and the way her line deliveries can cut people down so effortlessly. Kirsten Dunst is only three years older than Mulligan but I’m not sure she would have been a convincing thirty year old in 2020. She’s great at romantic innocence (Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette, Power of the Dog) and still even maintains a bit of that wonder in Melancholia where all innocence is stripped away. I’m not sure I’ve seen her be as purely savage as Mulligan though. Maybe in Interview with the Vampire, but that was ages ago and I would need another look. What do you think of the casting?


      1. Mulligan NAILED it!!!!!! Never wanna change her. What a performance and interpretation. Percent casting. Even casting rom com good guys all across.
        But just a curious thought.
        What about Scarlett Johansson?


      2. Mulligan NAILED it!!!! Don’t wanna change the casting. It’s just a curious thought that popped in my head.
        What about Scarlett Johansson? She could be a pretty convincing Cassandra. Do you agree?


  1. @DizzyDay That sounds like it could have worked – still not sure I’d want to take it away from Mulligan given what she accomplishes, but the two actresses do share a few of the same qualities


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s