Honestly, what does one even begin to say about the year 2020? If you had an even marginally good time, chances are, you’re a monster. Absolutely nothing was left unscathed by the wildfire that was last year, including moviegoing. Our entire concept of moviegoing has been warped. I’m desperate to return to a theater but also terrified of whether or not it’ll still be the same. Regardless of what happens in the future, what got us through the past was movies, and it’ll always be movies for me. All of the best films of a year in some way capture the mood or running throughline of that time, but it felt weirdly specific this year. There were a lot of films that boldly, outright felt like responses to what was happening in the moment, and some that felt more subtle in their approach. Either way, here’s the best of the best from the worst of the worst years. I’m upping my list to twenty-five this year because unlike previous years there are movies that were cut off from the top fifteen that I couldn’t even begin to imagine not covering. Maybe I’ll regret that decision halfway through the list, but there’s no turning back now.
25. Bacurau (dir. Kleber Mendonca Filho & Juliano Dornelles)
One could conduct an amusing experiment with Bacurau by showing it to someone cold, without any idea of what the movie was about, pausing it at certain points, and asking the viewer what they think will happen next. I guarantee that ten times out of ten, the viewer will have absolutely no idea what’s going to follow any of the events that take place in the film. As wild as its story is, it’s genre elements are fully rooted in the rules of the Acid Western. Brazil made a better cowboy movie than America has in decades. Bacura is indebted to John Carpetner in more ways than one, but most prominently in its boiling working-class rage at broken trickle-down economics.
24. Anything For Jackson (Justin G. Dyck)
Speaking of movies in which it’s almost impossible to predict where they’ll go, say hello to feature film debut, Anything For Jackson, a Canadian supernatural horror film about an elderly couple with hidden motives behind a kidnapping attempt. It feels equally influenced by both James Wan and Ari Aster, the former in some wonderfully genius nightmare-inducing setpieces, and the latter in its empathetic, yet raw and ruthless approach to grief and its myriad effects on the human psyche.
23. Happiest Season (Clea DuVall)
It’s just really hard to get a great new Christmas movie these days. In fact, it’s outright weird how little interest studios seem to have in making new Christmas-themed comedies while networks like Lifetime or Netflix churn out drivel by the truckload. Enough about that, though. There’s no need to complain anymore, because thanks to Clea DuVall, we got both a great new romantic comedy (Another genre getting left behind in the dust) and a great Christmas comedy. It’s deftly crafted, well written, lighthearted, warm, humanist, and sweet, while still challenging itself and its audience a little further past what one would typically expect from either genre.
22. Extra Ordinary (Mike Ahern & Enda Loughman)
No matter what, this film will always have a special place in my heart for the sole reason that it was the last film I watched in a movie theater, so it helps that it’s also a delightful comedy as well. An Irish comedy-horror about a woman with the ability to see ghosts, doing everything she can to ignore it, has every opportunity to take the easy quirky comedy way, which would have made it perfectly fine, but it’s got so much heart and wears its love for its characters on its sleeve, something concerningly lacking from a lot of independent comedy. It also helps that on top of its characters, the film creates a horror-comedy universe that may be lighter on the horror aspect but still knows what it's doing.
21. The Devil All The Time (Antonio Campos)
The majority complaint I heard about The Devil All The Time upon its release seemed to mostly focus on how nihilistic and bleak the entire movie was, to which my response is “That’s Southern Gothic, baby!” The Devil All The Time is a Nick Cave murder ballad come to life. But although it’s incredibly dark, miserable, and bleak, I’ll fight tooth and nail against the idea that it’s all for naught. Like the best kinds of stories like these, The Devil All The Time has a hopefulness buried deep inside it, pumping through its bloodstream.
20. Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee)
Spike Lee fluctuates between two kinds of movies. The expertly crafted, clockwork-like, tight-as-a-drum movies like Do The Right Thing and Malcolm X, and his messier, wilder, all-over-the-place movies like School Daze or Chi-Raq. Both kinds of movies are fantastic and equally important, but they share a common thread, an anger at the way things are, and a look at the way things should be. After his clockwork masterpiece, BlackKklansman, Lee returns to his messy anger format for another masterpiece, Da 5 Bloods. What makes Da 5 Bloods so fascinating is that it was originally written as The Last Tour, and was meant for Oliver Stone. To see the way Lee reworks the script with Kevin Willmott into something specifically their own speaks to the inimitable voice that is Lee’s cinematic view of the world.
19. Another Round (Thomas Vinterberg)
Honestly, this movie is already a masterpiece because it includes a dance sequence centered around its star, the glorious Mads Mikkelsen. That’s enough to get on any top list of the year but other than that, Mikkelsen and Vinterberg have reunited after 2012’s haunting The Hunt for another deep dive into character, although this time, it’s wrapped inside a comedy about a group of middle-aged men looking for something to make their lives feel more exciting and discovering the “experiment” to see if it’s possible to live out their daily lives while maintaining a specific level of inebriation. Spoiler alert, things do not go as planned. In a year where it’s been quite easy to dull the pain of existence with alcohol, this film’s examination of depression and the effect alcohol can play on it, both positive and negative, is a startling revelation.
18. David Byrne’s American Utopia (Spike Lee)
Oops, I forgot the other kind of movie Spike Lee makes: wonderfully personal and detailed documentaries. Like his colleagues Scorsese and Demme, it’s easy to forget that Lee not only makes unforgettable fiction films but also fascinating portraits of everyday people in documentary format. This time, it’s in the form of a concert film, capturing David Byrne’s Broadway run of his American Utopia tour. It feels like the perfect sequel to Stop Making Sense, both upping the visual ambition, but still remaining simple at heart. David Byrne’s idea of a Utopia is something I’d very much like to live in.
17. Bad Education (Cory Finley)
Call me crazy, but I think with Bad Education, Cory Finley has put forth the possibility of becoming the next David Fincher. The way this film presents its story through an analytical lens that slowly reveals more and more humanity in its criminal characters is reminiscent of the best of the perfectionist that is Fincher. Finley’s debut, Thoroughbreds, was a scathing, pitch-black comedy about privilege and wealth, that didn’t necessarily empathize with its leads, but also didn’t have to. Finley’s real challenge and his success in Bad Education, is he and screenwriter Mike Makowsky’s examination of what makes a character like Hugh Jackman’s turn to gaming the system while still believing with wide-eyed optimism that he’s doing the right thing. Jackman is a treasure, and this is his finest performance outside of wearing shiny adamantium claws.
16. First Cow (Kelly Reichardt)
With the bombast of a year like 2020, quiet, meditative, and thoughtful films like First Cow are a godsend. In previous years, we sought out loud blockbusters filled with spectacle, but while those films still serve their place, the true escapism is found in the soothing sounds of nature in Reichardt’s peaceful humanist western focused on the bond struck between two strangers and a cow that doesn’t belong to them. If there were Oscars for animals (and there should be), then this year would belong to Evie the Cow and her big black eyes, full of wisdom and wonder.
15. His House (Remi Weekes)
Remi Weeke’s debut feature film may not have set the world on fire this year, but the horror community certainly took note on its arrival. Quietly premiering on Netflix, His House is a startling tale of guilt and the impossibility of living with it. Sope Dirisu and Wunmui Mosaku are a powerhouse as the central couple, two refugees stranded in the middle of a hostile London. Matt Smith’s turn as their caseworker is another fantastic portrait, this one of a broken man who hates what he’s doing but continues to do so because there are no other options left.
14. Feels Good Man (Arthur Jones)
It feels hyperbolic to say, but I feel like the majority of the shit show that has been these last four years in America, all make sense when boiled down to the idea that it all started with a cartoon that was hijacked by hate groups. Obviously, that’s not the case, there are too many factors that got us here, but the story of Pepe the Frog is one of the most fascinating arcs of 2016–2020. The documentary takes us through the lifespan of one comic character, created on a whim by illustrator, Matt Furie, as nothing more than a silly cartoon, and then watching in horror as every creator’s worst nightmare takes place, it is kidnapped by the Alt-Right and slowly becomes a symbol for the dangerous hate group, and Furie’s attempts to win him back. Feels Good Man is a reminder that nothing is as it seems on the surface and also that it’s important to fight for what we hold dear, even if it’s a cartoon frog.
13. Gretel & Hansel (Oz Perkins)
Oz Perkins is Horror Cinema’s best-kept secret. His dreamy nightmare-logic films get the quietest releases, either dumped on Netflix (I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House) or snuck in and out of theaters then straight to VOD by A24 (The Blackcoat’s Daughter). This was his biggest release, and it still barely made an impression on audiences. I have a feeling time will be much kinder to the films of Perkins than the present has been. If IATPTTLITH was his Malickian approach to horror, and The Blackcoat’s Daughter was his Lynchian homage, then Gretel & Hansel is his love letter to Alejandro Jodorowsky. Most of my arguments against “This movie makes no sense” would be “Yeah sure but remember that part that looked like a horror movie version of The Holy Mountain!?”
12. Bill & Ted Face The Music (Dean Parisot)
A movie like this has no right to be as good as it is, and yet, here we are in my top fifteen movies of the year. Although each film in this trilogy has had a different director, the true auteurs behind them are the writers, Ed Solomon, and Chris Matheson. Thank God they came back. If writers-for-hire were brought in to make a years-later third installment in the Bill & Ted universe, I have no doubt in my mind it would have been a letdown. Alongside Solomon and Matheson, Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves refuse to phone it in. Their characters still have heart, and their optimistic approach to life in which they remind us all to Be Excellent to One Another, this is one of the most powerful movies of the last year.
11. TENET (Christopher Nolan)
Yes, I agree, this movie’s release strategy was an absolute disaster and a blueprint for “What Not To Do When Releasing Your Blockbuster During A Pandemic,” but that’s beside the point of TENET. This is Christopher Nolan pushing himself to the most abstract he’s ever been. Although it’s a jolting and bumpy ride, nowhere near as smooth as his crowd-pleasers like Inception or The Dark Knight, Nolan is still playing with the same things that fascinate him, and regardless of how easy it is to get on board this time, it’s still well worth the trip because at the end of the day, no one makes movies like Christopher Nolan, and that’s a big deal when it comes to blockbusters.
10. Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman)
As a white male, I will absolutely never truly understand the plight that women or people of color have to go through just to survive in this country, and so movies like Never Rarely Sometimes Always cannot be overstated in just how important they are for everyone to watch. I wish I could take this movie back in time to my younger much more religious self and make him watch it. I was an idiot and my only argument against abortion was “God doesn’t like it.” This film would have shut me up real quick.
9. Wolfwalkers (Tomm Moore & Ross Stewart)
A gorgeous, painterly movie that calls to mind the days of the Disney Rennaisance films. Soaked in Scottish mythology, filled to the brim with eye-popping hand-drawn images, this is the kind of movie that would get any kid into movies, and it would be an honor to be the first movie for any child.
8. Mank (David Fincher)
Personal on more levels than one, David Fincher’s direction of his father’s screenplay, years in production hell, finally gets made. It’s a delightful movie history lover’s catnip, filled with tidbits and cameos, but more than that, it’s the story of pushing back against a political status quo, regardless of any consequences. It’s enrapturing from start to finish.
7. Relic (Natalie Erika James)
Death comes for us all and there’s no stopping it. We can either embrace that fact or just run from it in futile defiance until it finally catches up to us. The horror genre understands this better than most other genres, and it’s one reason why horror can be so therapeutic. Not only is Relic a fascinating ode to death, and a successful tightrope walk between the terrifying and the heartbreaking, but it’s also a horror film that defies the logic of physical disease as the other, as something to be feared, a monster. It’s something more. It’s us.
6. Possessor (Brandon Cronenberg)
Brandon Cronenberg has made two films, this and his debut, Antiviral. Both have obvious comparisons to his father, David, but with each new film, Brandon strikes out to define his own aesthetic apart from his father’s shadow. Possessor is peak horror sci-fi, both mind-melting and jaw-dropping in its approach. Think if Christopher Nolan and David Cronenberg had a movie baby and then you’re still just scratching the surface of a movie like this.
5. Soul (Pete Docter)
Before singing its praises, I do want to bring up the one big issue with Soul, which is that Tina Fey was the absolute worst choice to voice the role of 22, considering the fact that this means she ends up voicing Jamie Foxx’s character for the majority of the movie. It’s a sticky mess that was easily avoidable. But outside of that metatextual snafu, Soul is a gorgeous, heartwarming, sob-inducing emotional rollercoaster that we’ve come to expect from Pixar now. And in a lot of ways, it’s way more successful than Inside Out in its exploration of what makes us human.
4. Promising Young Woman (Emerald Fennell)
It’s kind of impossible to talk about all the reasons why I adore Promising Young Woman without getting into “spoiler” territory, so I’ll just say this: on the surface, Promising Young Woman is presented as a revenge thriller and a black comedy, and yes, there are elements of both, but the further into the revenge plot it goes, the deeper and more complicated its examination of revenge and violence against women gets. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it’s absolutely worth it if you feel ready for it. Carey Mulligan is my favorite performance of the year, no question.
3. Palm Springs (Max Barbakow)
Palm Springs is the movie that defined quarantine for me, but not just quarantine, but what my entire 20s post-college have felt like in a weird way. Waking up each day in the same place, doing your best to make small changes, and still ending up in the same place the next morning, and finding the small joys and the important relationships along the way.
2. I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman)
Same as Christopher Nolan, regardless of whether you hate him or love him, nobody makes movies like Charlie Kaufman. Before the marketing campaign began, the whispered rumors of this film were that it was Kaufman’s foray into Horror, and while the book is more horror-oriented, I consider this film more of a tragedy than horror. There are the typical horrors of a Kaufman universe, the existential horror of not understanding your place in the world, but I’m Thinking Of Ending Things is more of an elegiac love letter to life, and the first time anyone has ever tried to visually present on screen the concept of what it's like to have fifteen million separate thoughts running through your head at the same time.
1. Sound of Metal (Darius Marder)
This is the film that defined all of my thoughts and feelings about everything that was crammed into this incredibly wrenching year. Sound of Metal is a story of change, uncomfortable, unwanted change for its lead character played by Riz Ahmed, in what should win him an Oscar. It’s also a story of addiction, of healing, and of finding purpose in the circumstances given to us that we have no control over. Quite frankly, it’s a masterpiece, and I’m onboard for whatever movie Darius Marder makes next.