Earlier this year I decided not to make this list.
The theaters shut down, the Oscars expanded their eligibility window, and I came to the conclusion that I would not be able to watch enough 2020 releases to warrant a list. Instead I’d write a “top films of the 2010s” list, and catching up on those could be my quarantine project.
I still think that’s a good idea, and if I hadn’t lost my whole summer to a depressive episode it probably would have happened. Maybe the quarantine hit me harder than I expected.
Come October, every theatrical release was either pushed a year or headed direct to streaming, zero other awards had followed the Oscars’ lead, and I hadn’t worked on my 2010s catch-up list at all. Luckily there was still time to change my mind and keep up this tradition instead. I had one goal:
Watch enough films so that Hamilton doesn’t make my top 10.
I’m happy to report I’ve succeeded.
Here are my favorite films that I saw this year, as well as their current streaming locations (in the United States as of December 2020).
15. Feels Good Man
12. First Cow
11. Sound of Metal
Whatever your decision is is totally fine, as long as it’s yours.
10. NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS
dir. Eliza Hittman
Streaming on HBO Max
Of the multiple slow-burn women’s issues movies emotionally centered on a single extended scene that towers over the others, this one is the year’s best. Sorry, The Assistant.
Quiet, powerful, and maybe a little didactic, this story of a teenage girl crossing state lines to receive an abortion is a stern reminder that access to women’s health resources can vary dramatically even in the same country. And it’s also a very welcome reminder that if you need help, and if you look for it, it is there to be found.
You just have to embrace the fact that nothing matters.
9. PALM SPRINGS
dir. Max Barbakow
Streaming on Hulu
Not since Casablanca has a film gotten so lucky with its release date.
As we were adjusting to daily quarantine life and inevitably comparing it to Groundhog Day, out comes one of the smarter takes on the concept in recent memory. I don’t want to say much more about the plot, so I’ll defer to the delightfully vague TMDB blurb:
When carefree Nyles and reluctant maid of honor Sarah have a chance encounter at a Palm Springs wedding, things get complicated as they are unable to escape the venue, themselves, or each other.
Cristin Milioti and Andy Samberg’s chemistry overcome any plot issues I have and carry it across the finish line. It’s simply a fun movie with enough on its mind intellectually to meet the moment.
We are here to defend our lives. So we are going to be loud and we are going to be decisive.
dir. Steve McQueen
Streaming on Amazon Prime Video (as Small Axe, Episode 1)
On September 25, Netflix released The Trial of the Chicago 7, Aaron Sorkin’s second feature as director. After watching it, I had a natural question I assume many others did too: What if this movie was good? Eight weeks later, Steve McQueen answered that question.
As the first entry in McQueen’s Small Axe anthology series, five films about the lives of Caribbean immigrants in London through the decades, it sets high expectations that McQueen naturally has no problem meeting. And as a starting point for the anthology, it is well selected. The trial of the Mangrove Nine is the story of the London police essentially being forced, and nevertheless still refusing, to acknowledge their own racism. It’s the 1960s* allegorical setting for 2020 that was out of Sorkin’s reach but well within McQueen’s.
*August 1970 but who’s counting
After you’ve been in a war, you understand it never really ends.
7. DA 5 BLOODS
dir. Spike Lee
Streaming on Netflix
Maybe some find it crude or cheap, but Spike Lee’s penchant for shock value has always worked for me. The ending montage of BlacKkKlansman propelled it to #1 on my 2018 list. This time the montage comes at the beginning, and it’s a hell of a table setting.
Lee makes bluntness an art form. Da 5 Bloods could never be confused for a movie just about Vietnam veterans, or loyalty between soldiers, or Trump supporters. It’s about black Vietnam veterans, loyalty between black soldiers, black Trump supporters. Delroy Lindo’s compelling portrayal of that last one steals the show.
Spike Lee is very good at his job, and it’s probably not a spoiler to say he’s coming up on this list again. In fact, he’s coming up on this list again right now.
Unfortunately, I am what I am.
6. DAVID BYRNE’S AMERICAN UTOPIA
dir. Spike Lee
Streaming on HBO Max
It’s not like David Byrne hasn’t been singing about human connection and lack thereof for four decades. Maybe it just hits differently this year. It helps when you have Spike Lee behind the camera infusing your stage show with a cinematic touch, including a couple moments when he really makes his presence known.
I’ve been a fan of Byrne and Talking Heads ever since I first saw Stop Making Sense. This feels like a suitable sequel, or maybe the nostalgia-bait reboot we needed. Even when the songs are nearly twice my age, they become something completely new in the context of this specific show and this specific band.
This is the part where I shoehorn in films I enjoyed that didn’t make the list.
Most Pleasant Surprise
Bill & Ted Face the Music (dir. Dean Parisot)
As I said on my Letterboxd (plug!), “It’s really sad to see Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter reprising their characters from 1989” is not a criticism or even an opinion. It is the premise of the film. If you’re gonna insist on rebooting Bill & Ted, that’s the exact right place to start.
Runner-up: The Invisible Man
Tenet (dir. Christopher Nolan)
Here are the rules of this world. Don’t try to understand them. It’s somewhat uncharacteristic for Nolan but also undeniably his style, and it’s definitely the largest quantity of Movie stuffed in a single title this year.
Runner-up: I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Best Horror Movie and/or Documentary
Boys State (dirs. Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine)
I made this joke last year because I thought it was funny to call Apollo 11 a horror movie. I didn’t expect to bring it out again, but I have no other way to describe this documentary about 1000 teenage boys in Texas playing politics.
Runner-up: Feels Good Man
Ping’s Top Films of 2019 of 2020
5. Honeyland (dirs. Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska)
4. Weathering With You (dir. Makoto Shinkai)
3. 1917 (dir. Sam Mendes)
2. John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch (dir. Rhys Thomas)
1. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (dir. Céline Sciamma)
You don’t need me to tell you how good Portrait of a Lady on 🔥 is.
Mercury Sound bring the vibes each and every time.
5. LOVERS ROCK
dir. Steve McQueen
Streaming on Amazon Prime Video (as Small Axe, Episode 2)
The second Small Axe entry is more of a slow-moving mood piece, inviting you to spend 70 minutes in a house party by and for those who would likely be denied entry to a more dedicated space in the early 1980s. There’s a hypnotic quality to watching the night play out, the family drama, the way the party changes as dawn approaches. More importantly, there’s an infectious expression of joy from the party-goers. I’ll tell you the exact moment this film completely won me over: the “Kung-Fu Fighting” needle drop, to which the reaction from the dance floor is unironic delight. Unbeatable.
I confess that I sometimes look forward to drowning together when I turn out the light.
4. WORLD OF TOMORROW EPISODE THREE: THE ABSENT DESTINATIONS OF DAVID PRIME
dir. Don Hertzfeldt
Available for rent on Vimeo
After the first two installments focused on Emily and her interactions with her future selves, the third shifts the focus to David, or at least a David. I don’t know how else to describe the plot if you haven’t seen Episodes 1 and 2. I would instead implore you to correct that mistake immediately.
The beauty of the World of Tomorrow series is that each installment is both completely self-contained and satisfactorily concludes the series. This is true for Episode Three, but Hertzfeldt has tipped his hand with this one. There is no way he will allow the series to end, not now that we know what a rich playground it is.
If this series ever reaches a conclusion, it may be one of the most bizarre and tragic love stories ever told. If it stopped here, it might still qualify. To quote the film, “Perhaps there is still hope somewhere in the ocean of time for David and Emily.”
They gonna treat me the way I wanna be treated, no matter how much it hurt them.
3. MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM
dir. George C. Wolfe
Streaming on Netflix
I still, at least once a week, come to the sudden re-realization that Chadwick Boseman is dead. He was ascendant, and despite at least one culturally iconic role being behind him, it felt like his best was yet to come. This feels more true seeing the performance he left us on. Boseman, as an aspirational musician, and Viola Davis, as the titular Mother of the Blues, lead an exquisite ensemble cast in this August Wilson adaptation. Like the 2016 adaptation of Wilson’s Fences, it is visibly working in the language of live theater, but here there’s a tightness to the storytelling that, combined with the stellar performances, make it a more effective stage to screen adaptation. Of course, I’m also not of the opinion that theatrical trappings are a problem films must solve.
Is it fair to call an Oscar winner underrated? Because I feel like Viola Davis is doing something on another level, something that would make her a perennial contender in another category. I hope she gets recognition. And I hope Da 5 Bloods doesn’t totally overshadow this film in the push for Chadwick Boseman’s posthumous Oscar.
I left to quell rebellion and returned to more. This wild land must be civilized.
dirs. Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart
Streaming on Apple TV+
Cartoon Saloon does what Disneydon’t. Disdon’t. Don’tney.
The third of Moore’s informal trilogy of films based on Irish folklore, Wolfwalkers stands out as Cartoon Saloon’s best work yet. Every single frame drips with the pure joy and expressive style that can only come from hand-drawn animation. On every rewatch I discover new details: a mouse emerging from an unexpected place, a character making a hand gesture to another, or even a particular line delivery from the actors. In an industry where every major animation studio, from Illumination to Pixar to potentially even Ghibli, has settled on extremely similar 3D styles, Cartoon Saloon refuses to cave to comfort. It is invigorating.
Frankly, if you don’t enjoy this movie, I don’t think we can be friends anymore.
We were so happy with ourselves that day. We thought that maybe we could stop what was coming.
1. DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD
dir. Kirsten Johnson
Streaming on Netflix
“Just the idea that I might ever lose this man is too much to bear,” says documentarian Kirsten Johnson about her father in the film’s opening. In order to brace for the inevitable and document his life, she pitches him a movie about his own death, where stuntmen and make-up artists will kill Dick Johnson over and over. He agrees to it.
Kirsten Johnson’s documentary challenges the word “dead” itself. How much of the film Dick Johnson spends dead or not dead depends on your definition. In a way, it even challenges the word “documentary,” F for Fake style. It’s an emotional and personal experience that works as well as it does not just because of Kirsten Johnson’s creativity but also because Dick Johnson himself is just so incredibly charismatic. As a viewer, I was content to simply spend more time with the man. But the movie must end. Luckily, it is a movie, and those don’t die. Not unless Warner Bros. gets its way.
There was a while this year where I wondered “Do I even like movies anymore?” Now I’m counting down the days until I’ll be able to see Nomadland and Minari. I’m stuck in a love-hate relationship with my own brain. My 2021 resolution is to get back on good terms with it.
Thank you for reading my list. If you’ll excuse me, my dad is doing nothing of importance right now, and I want to capture it on camera.