Cinephilia

2020 [in films]

For reasons that are probably obvious, I watched more films in 2020 than in any year since I’ve been keeping track (which is nearly a decade now!). I typically barely break 200 films in twelve months (if that), what with things like work and a social life keeping me from spending days on end with movie after movie. With no such obstacles this year, I’ve logged a whopping 267* films, and what a year it’s been. This year I was much more active on Letterboxd (follow me!), even signing up for the pro account to get some more insights into my own movie-watching data.

Looking back on this very strange year, anyone who says it wasn’t a good year for movies wasn’t paying attention. Sure, most of the big blockbusters were pushed back by months or more (while others simply dropped directly on streaming services), but that still left plenty of wonderful films to discover through new and creative platforms like “virtual cinema” and all-online film festivals (I attended several right from my living room!).

As always, it’s fun (at least for me!) to dig into the data of all that media consumption, and this year’s findings include:

  • 66 of the films I watched were documentaries, and many of them have found their way onto my overall best films of the year list. Many of them, also perhaps unsurprisingly, had to do with politics, the pandemic or both.
  • Thanks to the wonders of the Criterion Channel, I watched more older films than ever; all told, 68 films were released in 2014 or earlier. Highlights include both a Rita Hayworth and Joan Crawford series featuring several of their best works, and even checking out the Shirley Temple films a distant uncle recorded sound on.
  • Before life came to a screeching halt, I’d only seen seven films in February; in September, when I “attended” the Toronto Int’l Film Festival and kept up on my own viewing, I watched 45 films.
  • I will always cherish my memories of actually seeing films in theaters in 2020; just before the lockdown, I saw several during Music Box Theatre’s annual 70mm Film Festival (Hello, Dolly! was a particular treat); I was able to safely attend a press screening to rewatch Inception, and I took myself to the drive-in to see a wonderfully festive presentation of White Christmas.

But enough about the data. Let’s get to the good stuff: the movies I loved this year. From deeply felt dramas to piercing commentaries on the post-#metoo world; from endearing documentaries about an undercover grandpa and a filmmakers elderly father facing death to animated features about courage and purpose; with twenty films populating this eclectic list, there’s lots to appreciate in a great year of films.

Narrative Films

After reviewing and refining my top films for the year, the clear selection for the top of the list is Chloe Zhao’s beautifully visualized and genuinely moving Nomadland starring Frances McDormand as Fern, a woman who’s lost everything and shifts her life to one on the move, living out of her van and taking seasonal jobs where she can find them. It’s as heartbreaking as it is touching, and McDormand’s performance, like most of her work, is remarkable. Based on a non-fiction book about vanishing economies and the people left to forge lives from the remnants, Zhao brings us into a world of inescapable solitude even as communities and connections are formed; it’s all fleeting, and Fern’s struggle to find her place in this new normal is especially poignant during this year of isolation.

The remaining narrative films on my “best of” list are below, though this year I haven’t ordered them in any particular way; they’re all wonderful in their own right, and all worthy of your attention.

Promising Young Woman is the debut feature from Emerald Fennell, who is currently starring in Netflix’s The Crown as a young Camilla Parker-Bowles. She’s a fine actress, and she’s an even better writer and director. This is a film only possible in this moment, as women not only get more bold about telling their stories but people finally start believing them. Carey Mulligan is unforgettable as a woman struggling through trauma thinking revenge will save her, and the rest of the ensemble cast is equally as impressive. Read my full review.

One Night in Miami… is the film adaptation of Kemp Powers’s stage play of the same name, imagining the night Malcolm X, Muhammed Ali, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown spent together after one of Ali’s fights in 1964. I’m a sucker for a great story told in an enclosed space, and between Regina King’s thoughtful direction and unforgettable performances by the four main actors (particularly Leslie Odom Jr. as Cooke) it’s a must-see.

The Father won’t be released until early 2021, but with the weird Academy Awards calendar this year, it’s still considered a 2020 release and it easily earns its spot on this list. Anthony Hopkins, still in top form at 82 years old, stars as a man (also named Anthony) struggling with dementia and the grown daughter (Olivia Colman) caring for him. The way the film (written and directed by Florian Zeller) visualizes Anthony’s unreliable memory is exceptional, playing with casting and timelines just enough to put us on edge as well.

Da 5 Bloods sees filmmaker Spike Lee at the top of his game as he delivers an original story about five Vietnam War veterans who return to the country fifty years after their deployments in search of gold they’d buried in the jungle. As each man faces his own demons—what haunts them from their time in war as well as more recent shortcomings—they process through the grief, anger and traumas they’ve held onto for far too long. Featuring captivating performances (namely from Delroy Lindo and Chadwick Boseman) and intense storytelling, Da 5 Bloods hits hard and makes no apologies while doing so.

Emma. was one of the last films I saw in an actual movie theater, and I’m so glad I did. A sheer delight of a film, all cotton candy colors and every frame ready for an Instagram post, Autumn deWilde brings her bold, fun style to Jane Austen in the story of a well-meaning matchmaker who…meets her match. Anya Taylor-Joy and Johnny Flynn are delicious the leads in this version that I love only slightly less than the iconic 2009 miniseries version. Read my full review.

Spring Blossom has no right to be as good as it is, seeing how it’s written and directed by a teenager (she says with just a hint of jealousy in her voice). Suzanne Lindon also stars (as Suzanne) in this sweet and surprisingly insightful coming-of-age story of a teen ready to be a woman and the older man she falls for in the process. With a bit of whimsy and lightness, the film eschews the predictability of similar stories to become something quite endearing instead.

Minari has stumbled into some controversy recently as the Hollywood Foreign Press determined it’s not “American” enough to compete for the Golden Globes as a mainstream title, which is, frankly, bullshit. The story of Korean immigrants building a life for themselves in 1980s Arkansas couldn’t be more quintessentially American, and filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung’s gentle approach to a multigenerational story makes their journey all the more meaningful.

Another Round is the only foreign film on my Best Of list, not because there aren’t a lot of great international films this year but because this one is still with me weeks after seeing it. Finding his life uninspiring and losing connections to his family and his passions, Martin (Mads Mikkelsen) and his fellow teachers decide to try loosening up with a bit of a tipple every day. Things don’t exactly go according to plan…until maybe they do.

Mangrove and Lovers Rock are the first two films in Steve McQueen’s impressive new five-film anthology Small Axe (all five films are streaming on Amazon Prime). Though two distinctly different films, they make for a gorgeous—and thought-provoking—double feature if you’re up for a bit of a movie marathon. The former centers around an African community in London who push back against abusive local police; the latter is one mesmerizing night at a house party, complete with colorful characters and music to get you on the dance floor.

Soul sees Pixar triumphing again, this time with the story of Joe (Jamie Foxx), a jazz musician about to realize his dreams when his life is unexpectedly cut short. As he discovers the “great beyond” and tries to find his way back, he (and we) ultimately learns that life is not about the big swings but the moments that pass us by seemingly unnoticed. Read my full review.

Wolfwalkers is the second animated feature on this list, and in many ways it couldn’t be more different from Soul. Where Pixar has polished their computer animation to a sheen, the Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon embraces a much more organic style that makes the film, set in 1650, all the more enjoyable. A fable about a mythical pack of wolves and the adventurous young girl who discovers them, it’s a film that could easily become a family favorite.

Sorry We Missed You was released earlier this year, but it remains a personal favorite, in no small part because I typically love anything Ken Loach gifts us. In this exploration of a working class family trying to stay afloat in jobs that don’t pay enough while expenses keep piling up, Loach manages to hone in on all that makes the day-to-day struggles both seemingly insurmountable and entirely worth every moment. Read my full review.

Documentaries

Though many great documentaries were released in 2020 about a wide variety of subject matters, the ones I found most compelling this year—for good reason, perhaps—were ones that attempted to make sense of the exceptional events of our time, including the pandemic itself and a presidential election for the history books. For its gripping on-the-ground access to the unfolding pandemic as it started in Wuhan, China earlier this year, 76 Days is the best documentary of 2020. The filmmakers take us inside the hospitals quite literally on the frontlines of the emerging disease, following the caretakers and their patients as a community grapples with the fear of the unknown. It’s an exceptional production and one that undeniably humanizes this virus that’s wreaked havoc across the globe.

Like above, the rest of my favorite documentaries of the year are listed in no particular order below:

Dick Johnson is Dead wins the award for most curious film title, as surely a film about death must be something laborious and dreadful. Not so in Kirsten Johnson’s sophomore feature in which she deals with her father’s eventual death by…imagining her father’s eventual death. That he takes an active role in the imagining his demise makes the whole affair a riot and a half, as father and daughter bond over both their shared history and what lies ahead of them. Read my full review.

The Painter and The Thief is, it’s safe to say, not the film you think it is. What starts as the story of an art heist where the perpetrators are quickly apprehended becomes something much more as the artist whose work was stolen decides she wants to connect with the criminals. As documentarian Benjamin Ree watches, the two form an unlikely bond that extends far beyond even a simple friendship. It’s the rare case of a documentary truly discovering something surprising as it happens. Read my full review.

Collective may take place in Romania, but its exploration of journalism, government and both’s obligation to the people they serve is universal. After a tragic loss of life at a nightclub, a local reporter uncovers a scandal in local hospital care, one that goes up to the top of government. By also weaving into the film the victims’ stories after that fateful night, Collective becomes something quite special. Read my full review.

The Fight serves as a welcome reminder in this fraught political year that good work is still being done, that warriors on the right side of history (and human rights) are still suiting up for battle every day and doing the important work we need them to do. The film follows four lawyers with the ACLU arguing landmark cases and though a bit frenetic at times, it’s nevertheless an inspiring chronicle of those called to face injustice wherever it crops up. Read my full review.

Boys State shouldn’t be as moving as it is, and yet this documentary about a thousand high school seniors who descend on Austin for a week-long experiment in representational government somehow manages to convince us that our democracy might not crumble after all. A microcosm of partisanship, identity politics and wheeling and dealing at its best (worst?), the film by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss follows a handful of young men as they discover just what it takes to get elected. Read my full review.

The Mole Agent will, at the very least, make you miss your grandpa. It certainly had that affect on me, as what’s supposed to be the story of a man going undercover in a nursing home for a private investigator instead becomes the story of this dear soul’s influence on those around him, from the women in the home with him to his own family who are reminded that just because he’s aging doesn’t mean he’s done yet. Read my full review.

The Viewing Booth hasn’t been released widely yet, but when I screened several films at home through DOCNYC last month, this one was at the top of my list. In a bit of a non-scientific experiment, a filmmaker invites college students to watch potentially triggering videos (mainly political in nature) while he records their responses to them. It’s a fascinating glimpse into personal bias and how easily we can be influenced by media, and very much worth seeking out when it finds wider release.

Other films I heartily enjoyed this year but didn’t quite make the top of my list: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom; David Byrne’s American Utopia; The Nest; 537 Votes; Yes, God, Yes; News of the World; Swallow; Never Rarely Sometimes Always; Assassins; Finding Yingying; Sylvie’s Love; Time; Apples; Miss Juneteenth…and many, many more!

What movies were you watching this year? What did you love?

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