Top 10 of the Year
|1. I’m Thinking of Ending Things||Charlie Kaufman|
|2. Nomadland||Chloé Zhao|
|3. Mank||David Fincher|
|4. Small Axe||Steve McQueen|
|5. Promising Young Woman||Emerald Fennell|
|6. Pieces of a Woman||Kornél Mundruczó|
|7. The Father||Florian Zeller|
|8. Tenet||Christopher Nolan|
|9. Wolfwalkers||Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart|
|10. Shiva Baby||Emma Seligman|
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Best Cinematography: Nomadland
|1. Nomadland||Joshua James Richard|
|2. Pieces of a Woman||Benjamin Leob|
|3. I’m Thinking of Ending Things||Łukasz Żal|
|4. Mank||Erik Messerschmidt|
|5. Small Axe||Shabier Kirchner|
|6. Promising Young Woman||Benjamin Kracun|
Best Editing: I’m Thinking of Ending Things
|1. I’m Thinking of Ending Things||Robert Frazen|
|2. Tenet||Jennifer Lame|
|3. Mank||Kirk Baxter|
|4. Promising Young Woman||Frederic Thoraval|
|5. Small Axe||Chris Dickens, Steve McQueen|
|6. The Father||Yorgos Lamprinos|
Best Screenplay: I’m Thinking of Ending Things
|1. I’m Thinking of Ending Things||Charlie Kaufman|
|2. Mank||Jack Fincher|
|3. Promising Young Woman||Emerald Fennell|
|4. Pieces of a Woman||Kata Wéber|
|5. Small Axe||Steve McQueen, Courttia Newland, Alastair Siddons|
|6. The Father||Florian Zeller, Christopher Hampton|
Best Original Music Score: I’m Thinking of Ending Things
|1. I’m Thinking of Ending Things||Jay Wadley|
|2. Tenet||Ludwig Göransson|
|3. Mank||Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross|
|4. Pieces of a Woman||Howard Shore|
|5. Nomadland||Ludovico Einaudi|
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.
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.
|Another Round||Thomas Vinterberg||R|
|Antebellum||Gerard Bush, Christopher Renz||R/HR|
|Da 5 Bloods||Spike Lee||R|
|Emma.||Autumn de Wilde||R|
|I Know This Much Is True||Derek Cianfrance||R|
|I’m Thinking of Ending Things||Charlie Kaufman||MS|
|Minari||Lee Isaac Chung||R/HR|
|Never Rarely Sometimes Always||Eliza Hittman||R|
|On the Rocks||Sofia Coppola||R|
|Palm Springs||Max Barbakow||R|
|Pieces of a Woman||Kornél Mundruczó||HR|
|Promising Young Woman||Emerald Fennell||HR|
|Relic||Natalie Erika James||R|
|Shiva Baby||Emma Seligman||R/HR|
|Small Axe||Steve McQueen||HR/MS|
|The Devil All the Time||Antonio Campos||R|
|The Father||Florian Zeller||HR|
|The Invisible Man||Leigh Whannell||R|
|The Nest||Sean Durkin||R|
|The Queen’s Gambit||Scott Frank||R|
|We Are Who We Are||Luca Guadagnino||R|
|Wolfwalkers||Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart||R/HR|
|Dick Johnson is Dead||Kirsten Johnson|
|If Anything Happens I Love You||Will McCormack, Michael Govier|
5 thoughts on “The Best Films of 2020”
Can you picture Kirsten Dunst as Cassandra in Promising Young Woman?
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?
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?
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?
@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