While it’s annoying to hear people declare that there were “no great films this year” under any circumstances, it’s even more outrageous in 2020 when put into context. Why? Because what we lost during this pandemic wasn’t what’s indelible to the cinematic artform. Seeing theaters close (some permanently) is a horrible tragedy that may reshape how we consume our favorite medium moving forward, but it didn’t destroy the content, creativity, or genius of the product itself. It may have conversely worked to expand our access (via virtual cinemas in support of local theaters and online film festivals moving beyond geographical borders) and prove what it is film fans truly crave: quality over quantity.
What then are those people talking about? What titles did we lose? There are a few that exist on the edge of critical acclaim and box office profits (see A24 holding back three hotly anticipated indies), but it was mostly blockbuster tentpoles—event cinema rather than introspective art. The latter was still here. Smaller shingles mobilized by loosening the reins on digital platforms and letting the work sing for itself. Those films are what advance storytelling, form, and aesthetics. They’re the ones that launch new and diverse voices. And I was able to see them at the same time as New York City and Los Angeles because my home television can’t be monopolized by big Hollywood studios with month-long guarantees that create empty theaters and a dearth of variety. I was able to spend money on titles I wanted to see rather than be stuck with those I could.
The shift to a true balance between theatrical and streaming isn’t going to happen overnight and some toes will inevitably get stepped on, but we need it to happen. We need it to increase accessibility for creators and audiences alike. The line between film and TV will continue to blur (right or wrong, I postponed watching Small Axe to catch-up on more traditional releases since that blur is still in-progress) and the profit margins will skew, but the art will remain.
As such, the following fifteen films are but the tip of the iceberg where it comes to great 2020 films. You simply needed to escape the imperfect, gatekeeping system Hollywood built to insulate itself and dupe you into believing they are in control. But they’re nothing without their filmmakers, casts, and crews. Don’t be late to the party like them. The men and women they hire tomorrow are making films today. And despite all the tragedies this year wrought, watching them grab the spotlight and fill the void left by countless sequels and remakes wasn’t one.
Honorable Mentions: Minari, The Other Lamb, Dick Johnson is Dead, Driveways, The Rest of Us
10. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (George C. Wolfe)
Playwright August Wilson wrote Ma Rainey as a woman singing to survive and director George C. Wolfe lets his words shine by never shying from Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’s theatrical origins. She wields her music as a weapon against her oppressors—something her trumpeter Levee hasn’t yet grasped. Her cold nature is thus a necessary defense mechanism born from experience that protects her from the betrayal Levee’s naivete guarantees. They’re told their art is a “gift from God.” Levee smiles. Ma scowls. She knows whose God they mean: White America’s. He too lives to turn profits just like the men hatching plans to exploit their “gift” (Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman are unforgettable as two sides of the same coin at differing stages of their careers) by any means necessary.
9. Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman)
Beyond its literal in-film usage, the title to Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always possesses potential responses to every interaction her characters endure opposite a man. The resulting question is simple: How often do men treat you like an object? The unchecked entitlement on-screen proves absolutes like “always” aren’t an exaggeration. The fear, futility, and desperation behind Autumn and Skylar’s (Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder are revelations) movements to combat Christian patriarchal rule aren’t embellished. Hittman centers the emotional ramifications of surviving to expose how the tense uncertainty and horror of their effect is no less potent than physical abuse. She packages it all into an intimate collection of close-ups wherein her actors’ unspoken glances say more than words ever could.
8. She Dies Tomorrow (Amy Seimetz)
Do you feel that? The despair in and anxiety for a future as uncertain as ever with civil unrest, genocide, climate disasters, global pandemics, and the ability to inject every horror into our veins via technological progress that’s systematically hijacked by propagandists, charlatans, and malicious operators with no ambition other than sowing animosity and confusion? Welcome to humanity in an age of 24-hour news cycles transforming editorials into truth and fact into opinion en route to rendering discourse and debate extinct. Dread binds, fear rules, and Amy Seimetz‘s bold thriller She Dies Tomorrow posits that death comforts: a gift silencing the anguish that suffocates us from the inside out. And yet despite its disorienting genre underpinnings and gorgeously uneasy visual style, it somehow holds an inspiring sense of hope. Knowledge does hurt, but its pain can also liberate.
7. One Night in Miami … (Regina King)
The power behind Regina King‘s directorial debut One Night in Miami … is epitomized by an exchange about halfway through that ultimately lands on the topic of personal duty within the civil rights movement. Malcolm X saw his friends as leaders armed with the voices and platforms to shift its tide—a fact emboldening playwright Kemp Powers to hypothesize the breadth of socially- and politically-charged conversations Malcolm and friends Jim Brown, Cassius Clay, and Sam Cooke may have shared. With four impeccable performances bringing these men to life with boldness both in their ability to impersonate physically and embody spiritually, King lets her cast carry the drama by providing them the room to scream when necessary and cry when there’s nothing left to give.
6. Shadow of Violence [Calm with Horses] (Nick Rowland)
The matter-of-fact violence introducing the bleak world of Nick Rowland’s Calm with Horses (Shadow of Violence in the US) proves its viciousness isn’t personal. It’s business. That the two doling out punishment are young almost puts the victims at ease since the alternative is truly fearsome. It might therefore be that the man throwing punches gets hurt most. “Arm” is a sensitive ex-boxer dealt a rough fate—the sort of role easily ruined by angst-fueled frustration devoid of heart. Cosmo Jarvis (in one of the year’s best performances) instead excels at exemplifying his never-ending struggle to be good despite how the monsters using him as their weapon seek to also steal his soul. The on-screen complexity balances optimism and despair to show happy endings are possible, but rarely without a cost.
5. New Order (Michel Franco)
Controversy has surrounded Michel Franco’s New Order since its Mexican release and I have zero reasons to dispute it. When I watched via TIFF, however, I viewed it through the lens of America sending federal agents into cities at the behest of the government being protested in their streets. Franco presents a keenly observed glimpse at what happens when allegiances turn from country to cash and the growing economic divide makes it so the military wielded by the rich against the poor becomes a class unto itself. It’s a nihilistic look at a dystopian future (present?) that never lets off the gas after its unflinchingly tense first act. Whether callously opportunistic or compassionately altruistic, no character is immune to the unapologetically brutal bloodshed that results.
4. Collective (Alexander Nanau)
Since many Americans refuse to acknowledge that they weren’t spared from money’s global erosion of honesty and empathy, a film like Alexander Nanau’s Collective becomes a crucially important mirror for them to finally confront it. This documentary forces us to see the victims of two tragedies (a nightclub fire and the unethical institutions tasked to help them) as more than statistics to become a damningly candid treatise on the ills of society and the damage wrought when bad people ascend to power with little interest in the public that put them there. It’s a must-see journey of integrity amidst corruption in pursuit of necessary change with the harsh realization that we may already be too late.
3. I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman)
Death is assured and thus a reason to look back and remember a life worth preserving. As we witness during the course of Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, however, its characters’ parallel journey through identity, fantasy, and fear could also ignite a reimagining of a forgettable life. Photographs might be exacting in their depictions of reality, but painted interpretations often prove more personal—perhaps more beautiful too. The result isn’t exactly hopeful, but it’s not damning either. It’s nostalgic. Melancholic. Honest. Lucy and Jake’s rapid descent through time and space isn’t a nightmare. It’s life. And dreams. And regret. These characters (real and not) are victims only to the certainty of uncertainty. Sometimes that in itself is too much to bear.
2. Babyteeth (Shannon Murphy)
No matter how prepared we think we are to confront our own mortality, we aren’t even close. Babyteeth will press some buttons as a result because death doesn’t leave time for taboo or decorum. Anyone who says its characters (Ben Mendelsohn, Essie Davis, and Eliza Scanlen are phenomenal) are wrong in their decision-making, however, is only exposing the privilege of never having gone through a tragic undertaking similar to watching a teenaged family member slowly die before their eyes. Rules don’t apply to the scenario’s heartbreakingly intrinsic feedback loop as written with authentic nuance by Rita Kalnejais and filmed beyond convention by director Shannon Murphy. Just its immovable yet redemptive truth: we remember our loved ones’ lives, not their deaths.
1. Sound of Metal (Darius Marder)
Sound of Metal writer/director Darius Marder rips the rug out from under his lead via an incessant ring as his intimate, handheld style presents Ruben’s (Riz Ahmed has never been better) struggle with hearing loss alongside a desire to reclaim it. As Joe (Paul Raci in a heartbreaking, breakthrough performance) says, however, that thinking is destructive. A lost soul drowning in self-pity and fear must relinquish the past to be reborn—a tall order since what’s immediately gone (music) recently saved his life. But saviors aren’t beholden to their saved or vice versa. Love is transformative. What we needed to survive then isn’t always what’s necessary to continue surviving now. The film’s end may therefore be as painful as its beginning, but the addition of hope transcends.