Top ten movies of a not-top-ten year
Pixar’s Soul tops our reviewer's list of best films of 2020.
January 6, 2021
Every columnist summing up the past 12 months will note how challenging it was for us collectively and individually, but I still feel the need to acknowledge and echo the sentiment.
Even though theaters were closed, the movies were still open for business. Thankfully, there was no shortage of superb entertainment to consume at home.
I watched just over 170 films that were released in 2020. Here are my 10 favorites:
10. Dick Johnson Is Dead
Streaming exclusively on Netflix
Documentarian Kirsten Johnson’s idiosyncratic musing on the meaning of life and its inevitable end via her ailing father is the year’s most original vision.
Transcendent and grounded in equal measure, it’s a rewarding doc that’s warmer and more drolly humorous than its morbid title may suggest.
9. First Cow
Streaming on Showtime and available to rent digitally
Indie filmmaker Kelly Reichardt makes her most approachable and affecting movie yet about a pair of unlikely friends who turn into even more unlikely entrepreneurs in 19th century Oregon. Filled with well-considered artistic touches and a softhearted story at its center, this is a small treasure worth discovering.
8. Boys State
Streaming exclusively on Apple TV+
Released in the middle of the most contentious election year in modern American history, this entrancing and supremely entertaining political documentary examines how we got here and embraces how we move forward together.
No matter which side of the aisle you find yourself on, this look at Texas teens creating their own government from scratch will fascinate and surprise at every turn.
7. American Utopia
Streaming exclusively on HBO Max
Spike Lee released 2 great films in 2020 and while his Da 5 Bloods is likely to scoop up more awards, his filmed version of David Byrne’s Broadway concert is a joyous experience and proper companion to 1984’s Stop Making Sense.
From both creative and technical perspectives, it’s an unbridled triumph of conviction, imagination, and world-class wireless audio performance. The rousing rendition of Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout” is a clear highlight.
6. Sound of Metal
Streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime
This debut by director Darius Marder about a heavy metal drummer battling permanent hearing loss starts off rough around the edges but transitions into something more sensitive and soulful than what it appears to be at first. Riz Ahmed turns in his best work yet as the hearing-impaired protagonist and the sound design flawlessly immerses us into the changing inner world of the main character.
5. Small Axe: Lovers Rock
Streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime
Amid the towering achievement that is Small Axe, Steve McQueen’s five-film anthology series, his depiction of two lovers who meet at a West London reggae house party is a high point.
The partygoers spontaneously belting out Janet Kay’s “Silly Games” in unison is cinema’s defining music moment in 2020, a year that took away our ability to sing joyously and off-key with other people in public spaces.
4. The Nest
Available to rent digitally
Writer/director Sean Durkin emerges from a nine-year hiatus and delivers another excellent slow-burn of a not-quite horror movie. His agonizing depiction of an affluent family on the verge of financial tumult is dreadfully transfixing and brilliantly rendered.
Carrie Coon and Jude Law both do career-best work as the feuding husband and wife dancing dangerously around a divorce.
3. Palm Springs
Streaming exclusively on Hulu
In a year where the concept of time became fuzzy and days blurred together, this hilarious Groundhog Day variant benefited from the unexpectedly apt context of world events.
Andy Siara’s remarkably clever script and Max Barbakow’s assured first-time direction are in perfect harmony with one another. Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti sport world-class chemistry and J. K. Simmons is a hoot in his supporting role.
2. The Assistant
Streaming on Hulu and available to rent digitally
It’s not exactly an easy watch, but Kitty Green’s day-in-the-life tale of a young assistant at a film production company where dark secrets lurk is chillingly compelling and exceedingly well-observed.
Ozark’s Julia Garner is a revelation as the morally conflicted young professional at the story’s center. Aside from the scene that gives Never Rarely Sometimes Always its title, Garner’s visit to the HR director’s office may be 2020’s best stretch of film.
Streaming exclusively on Disney+
Pixar delivers yet another life-affirming masterpiece about the passions that drive us and the preciousness of every moment of life that lies before us.
Director Pete Docter and the entire crew behind him craft an existential fantasy that bursts at the seams with beauty and humor. The heartfelt jazz compositions by Jon Batiste and heady musical score from Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor compliment each other exquisitely.
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