Film

2020 in Review: Best Narrative Films of the Year

Call me old fashioned, but I’m a firm believer in not posting a Best of the Year list until the year is actually over. I’m often able to squeeze in about a dozen or more films in the last couple weeks of December—mostly titles that others have told me are worth checking out, that I either missed when they came out in Chicago or movies that were never released here at all. I also tend to do a great deal of re-watching in those last two weeks, primarily to solidify my top 10.

According to my count, I saw 416 films in 2020, either in a theater or via screening link—from The Grudge remake at the beginning of the year to the new horror offering Hunter Hunter at the end. This tally does include a few vintage titles, but only if I saw them in a theater (often as restored prints or 70mm presentations, but not always). If I simply watched an older film at home, that doesn’t make the list—so my actual count of movies watching in 2020 is much higher.

Image courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

As I do every year, I’ve separated my Best Documentaries list from narratives because I want an excuse to call extra attention to a whole other group of worthy films (20 this year) that might go unnoticed on a combined list. Plus, it’s always seemed strange to me to mix docs and narratives, the same way you don’t usually see fiction and nonfiction books shelved together in a book store. I value them equally, however.

In previous years, my Narrative Features list has reach 40 or 50 titles, but this year, these were the 30 movies that stood out to me, despite this still being a fairly solid year for new releases. I certainly missed going to actual movie theaters a great deal in 2020, but to be honest, most of the blockbusters I saw on the big screen or at home were so-so at best, leaving a great deal of room for smaller-budget works, foreign films, and streaming movies to make the list. I was never big on crowding my year-end list with tentpole titles, but a couple usually found their way in.

In terms of trends, I know a lot of people were seeking out and recommending films that made them feel more upbeat about life; I was not one of those people. Looking over my Top 10, I’d say my tendencies ran about as dark and darkly funny as they do every year. I guess some of us reflect the times we’d rather live in and some reflect the times we actually live in. For me, however, a great movie—no matter the tone—is always cause of celebration and joy.

And 2020 was a genuinely excellent year for movies. As with previous years, I often feel that after the first ten titles, the numbers don’t mean as much, and that’s certainly true this year. As always if you think a list of 30 films is annoyingly excessive, feel free to stop reading at 20, or 10. I have faith you’ll find ways of coping with my self-indulgence.

I’ve included excerpts of my original reviews of my Top 10 films, if I wrote one; otherwise, I scribbled down some thoughts. Hope you dig the list and that it gives you some ideas for future viewings on some platform. Most, if not all, of these titles should be available somewhere in some format right now.

10: The Nest (Dir: Sean Durkin)

With his first feature, Martha Marcy May Marlene, writer/director Sean Durkin told a harrowing story about sisterhood—both blood relations and the kind you choose. With his latest, The Nest, familial bonds are still the order of the day, but this time, the key relationships are mother-daughter, and how we often fight hard to be different than the people who raised us and frequently run headfirst into turning out remarkably similar. The Nest is sometimes an uncomfortable watch and certain observations might hit a bit too close to home for some, but it’s an immensely accomplished work with some of the finest performances you’ll see all year. Read my full review.

9. Da 5 Bloods (Dir: Spike Lee)

Timing is everything. Then again, great filmmaking is great filmmaking no matter the surroundings. But in the case of director Spike Lee’s latest, Da 5 Bloods, the film feels so of-the-moment that you could almost swear he made it yesterday—a quality it shares with his previous feature, the Oscar-winning BlacKkKlansman. The film opens with a quick recap of Black American history in the late 1960s, especially as it applies to the Vietnam War. But it also incorporates major events like the moon landing and various speeches by notable Black leaders, many of whom were assassinated or otherwise silenced in that period or shortly thereafter. And then there are the protests—so much footage of protests that it almost seems deliberate; wouldn’t that be amazing? The commentary on history is not only rampant but it seems strangely, disappointingly timeless, as the criticism of Nixon fits comfortably next to statements about our current leadership. Da 5 Bloods makes it crystal clear that the horrors of war aren’t just about dying; those who are dead don’t have to remember the way the living do. It’s difficult to imagine a film better suited for this very day than this one. Read my full review.

8. Sound of Metal (Dir: Darius Marder)

In what might be one of the coolest opening sequences of the year, the beginning of Sound of Metal sees Riz Ahmed’s Ruben drum as if his life depends on it, backing up Olivia Cooke’s Lou on guitar and vocals in their punk-metal band. It all feels like a full-on assault on the senses—but especially on the ears. The two also happen to be a couple, so when Ruben wakes up the next morning in their RV, it’s next to Lou; that’s the first time he has the great displeasure of his hearing going intermittently in and out on him. Sound of Metal is unique in the way it treats the reality of living with a hearing impairment. His sponsor finds him a place in a sober house for deaf addicts. The residents at the house don’t think they are special; they see themselves as normal, functioning human beings, whose only issue in need of conquering is substance abuse. It’s a righteously superb work, powered by Ahmed’s fearless performance and commitment to playing an often misguided man, forced to shift the direction of his life in ways he’d never anticipated. He rolls with the punches but he also makes many a misstep. It hurts to watch him sometimes, but it’s also inspiring. Read my full review.

7. Promising Young Woman (Dir: Emerald Fennell)

A film that both embraces and busts up genres and tones, Promising Young Woman follows a young woman (Carey Mulligan), who several years earlier was traumatized in med school by a tragic event that happens to her best friend—an event that was systematically discredited by the faculty and students at the school. In the years since, Cassie has been playing dangerous games with men, pretending to be drunk and helpless in clubs and bars, and then seeing how they treat her when they say they want to make sure she gets home safe. That’s the starting-off point, but the film turns into a romantic comedy, and eventually a story of the ultimate revenge play against those who hurt her friend. Packed with a cast of mostly comedic actors (including great turns by Bo Burnham and Allison Brie), the film is as visually striking as it is shocking in its subject matter. Not for the weak of heart or mind, this is a genuine shock to the system that also embraces its darkly humorous core.

6. One Night in Miami… (Dir: Regina King)

The part that we know is fact is that in February 1964, shortly after underdog Cassius Clay defeated heavyweight champion Sonny Liston in Miami, Clay called together three of his closest and most famous friends—singer Sam Cooke, football legend Jim Brown and spiritual leader Malcolm X for a meeting at a hotel to celebrate. What isn’t exactly known is the content of their conversation, but playwright Kemp Powers did some educated speculation about the topics that may have been covered in his stage play One Night in Miami, which he also adapted as the feature directing debut of actress Regina King. Despite its limited location, the film feels beautifully cinematic, and King makes the hotel suite feel warm, colorful and conducive to both friendly and abrasive conversation. The movie celebrates conversation, debate and friendship, and its capacity for inspiration and as a call for social justice and equality should not be overlooked. This is a fantastic movie, easily one of the best of the year, with some of the strongest acting of 2020 as well. Read my full review.

5. The Assistant (Dir: Kitty Green)

One of the most effective and disturbing films to come out of last year’s Sundance Film Festival was one that very few people had even heard of before its premiere, writer-director Kitty Green’s narrative debut, The Assistant. The movie follows one work day in the life of Jane (Julia Garner), a recent college graduate and aspiring film producer who has recently landed her dream job as a junior assistant to a powerful entertainment mogul who is never named and never seen (but it is understood that he is of Weinstein-level importance, power, and grossness). In addition to her usual tasks of making coffee, changing the paper in the copy machine, ordering lunch, arranging travel, taking phone messages and bringing a new hire up to speed, Jane is also a silent but aware party in a series of insidious behaviors that clearly define abuse of power and degradations (of the staff and an assembly line of pretty, would-be actresses who go in and out of the office that Jane guards). On this particular day, Jane decides to take a stand, only to discover the true depth of the system into which she has entered. The film feels deliberately staged and carried out, mapping out exactly why it is so difficult for anyone—women in particular—to speak out against such cases of workplace abuse and harassment. And the sequence between Jane and her company’s HR representative (played beautifully by Matthew Macfadyen) is one of the more devastating sequences you’re likely to see on screen this year. A near-perfect take on such a combustible subject matter. Read my interview with filmmaker Kitty Green.

4. Small Axe (Dir: Steve McQueen; five-part anthology)

Based on the real-life experiences of London’s West Indian community and set between 1969 and 1982, the Amazon-produced anthology Small Axe finds director Steve McQueen telling five separate stories about an array of prejudicial behaviors, including police harassment, substandard education, railroading suspects into long-term prison sentences, and old-fashioned racism, even within London’s own police force. While some of the best episodes feature familiar faces like John Boyega, Letitia Wright, and Shaun Parkes, installments featuring largely unknown actors—especially the much celebrated, rhythm-infused dance party chapter Lovers Rock—are perhaps the most joyful and easy to embrace. Aside from the great performances and gripping writing, the Small Axe films are gorgeously shot and bring across the sights, sounds and attitudes of the times so clearly, it’s impossible not to be moved.

3. First Cow (Dir: Kelly Reichardt)

Some are better than others, but I don’t think director Kelly Reichardt has made a bad movie, and her latest is about the bond of male friendship (as opposed to the female-centric relationships of her previous films) set in the Pacific Northwest some time during the region’s Gold Rush in the early 1800s. It begins in the present, with the discovery of two skeletons—side by side, hardly buried in what barely qualifies as a shallow grave—by a woman walking her dog, so we know at least one thing for the entirety of the film: things are not going to end well for at least two of the characters. The center of the movie features this wonderful friendship that is tested but resilient, with an ending that is stark, uncompromising and beyond touching. Reichardt’s greatest gift will always be her ability to give her characters full and meaningful lives, to make us care about their fates and struggle alongside them. First Cow is built on such a foundation, and the result is completely satisfying and utterly unique in today’s cinematic landscape. Read my full review.

2. Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Dir: Eliza Hittman)

Inseparable best friends and cousins Autumn and Skylar (breathtaking performances from newcomers Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder, respectively) precariously navigate the vulnerability of female adolescence in rural Pennsylvania, made all the more tenuous when Autumn mysteriously falls pregnant. She’s confronted by conservative legislation without mercy for blue-collar women seeking an abortion, so with Skylar’s unfailing support and bold resourcefulness, money to fund the procedure is secured and the duo board a bus bound for New York City to find the help Autumn needs, which only grows as the trip goes on and extends long beyond what they’d hope would be a one-day ordeal. At times infuriating and inspiring, the film is a testament to the resilience of the young, but it’s also a heartbreaking account of scenarios and issues that young women face on a daily basis in this country. Powerful and unforgettable stuff.

1. Nomadland (Dir: Chloé Zhao)

In may ways, Nomadland, the latest for writer/director Chloé Zhao (The Rider, my favorite film of 2017) is two perfect movies blended seamlessly into a single statement about a growing segment of the U.S. population that has probably only grown larger over the last nine months. The film puts us in the company of Fern (a haunting performance by Frances McDormand), a woman in her 60s who lived in the thriving community of Empire, Nevada, with her husband, who worked at a processing plant. When the plant was shut down during the Great Recession and her husband died, the town effectively died as well. Being one of the last to leave Empire, Fern customizes a van—which she names Vanguard—with shelving, storage, a hot plate, curtains and room for a mattress, and makes it her permanent residence as she drives across the Southwest. Zhao and McDormand have created a character and an existence for someone that I’d like to revisit periodically in the coming years. I want to know how Fern and her fellow travelers are holding up. Clearly, this is a life people drift in and out of as they get older, and it’s one in which a person can be as isolated as they want—or they can choose to be part of a much larger community. Nomadland is a remarkable character study, a film that captures a lifestyle perfectly, and the result is one of the finest and most heartfelt films of the year. Read my full review.

All the Rest:

11. Minari (Dir: Lee Isaac Chung); 12. Beanpole (Dir: Kantemir Balagov); 13. I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Dir: Charlie Kaufman); 14. The Climb (Dir: Michael Angelo Covino); 15. Soul (Dir: Pete Docter); 16. Possessor (Dir: Brandon Cronenberg); 17. Another Round (Dir: Thomas Vinterberg); 18. The Invisible Man (Dir: Leigh Wannell); 19. She Dies Tomorrow (Dir: Amy Seimetz); 20. The Dark and the Wicked (Dir: Bryan Bertino)

21. On the Rocks (Dir: Sofia Coppola); 22. Martin Eden (Dir: Pietro Marcello); 23. Mank (Dir: David Fincher); 24. Swallow (Dir: Carlo Mirabella-Davis); 25. Emma. (Dir: Autumn de Wilde); 26. The Vast of Night (Dir: Andrew Patterson); 27. Palm Springs (Dir: Max Barbakow); 28. Bad Education (Dir: Cory Finley); 29. The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Dir: Aaron Sorkin); 30. Bacurau (Dirs: Juliano Dornelles & Kleber Mendonça Filho)

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