Yes, 2020 will forever be known as the year with an asterisk etched next to it. This strange 12-month span saw a pandemic grip the world, cinemas shuttered, tentpoles delayed, and the advent of new, potentially devastating streaming models. Even so, there were numerous masterful films and dynamic performances––as well as more VOD dreck than ever before.
On a personal level, the move to virtual festivals gave me the opportunity to cover a number of festivals from home: Toronto, New York, AFI, and Chicago. Several of the entries on my top 10 (and five honorable mentions) list were festival selections, and the memory of watching them on my sofa next to my snoring terrier is rather surreal, and also rather wonderful.
Two additional notes: My initial hope was to have all five Small Axe films at number one, but given Steve McQueen’s preference for the five entries to be seen as individual films, I decided instead to go with my two favorites in spots No. 1 and 2. (Mangrove and Red, White and Blue are certainly in my top 20, with Alex Wheatle someplace in the top 30.)
I would also like to mention my favorite first-time-for-me of 2020, Dennis Hopper’s explosive and shattering 1980 drama Out of the Blue (which I watched through AFI Fest). In addition, my pick as finest re-edited film is Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone. I’ve long felt that The Godfather Part III, while flawed (the absence of Robert Duvall still seems, to me, an almost insurmountable obstacle), is deeply underrated. Coda goes a long way toward restoring its reputation. That’s a beautiful and rather unexpected 2020 development.
Now, on to my list––and then on to a better 2021.
Honorable Mentions: 76 Days, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, The Assistant, Time, Minari
10 Emma. (Autumn de Wilde)
Full disclosure: For me, rewatching Autumn de Wilde’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma stirs some sentimental feelings, as I vividly recall watching it with my wife — IN AN ACTUAL MOVIE THEATER — just days before COVID necessitated a lockdown. We had little idea of what was to come, and emerged from the cinema with smiles plastered on our faces. For Emma. is a genuine delight, a film of wit and warmth that is lovingly directed by de Wilde and performed with brilliance by Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, and Bill Nighy, among others. This is not “just another” Austen adaptation. Do not sleep on 2020’s sweetest romantic comedy.
9. The Twentieth Century (Matthew Rankin)
Can a film become a cult classic after its festival premiere, and a year before its actual release? In the case of Matthew Rankin’s The Twentieth Century, the answer is a resounding yes. The absurdist historical comedy won the Best Canadian First Feature Film prize at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, and it is easy to see why. Playfully artificial, dramatically dubious, and hilariously anarchic, Rankin’s feature debut is unlike any other film in memory. And while it can safely be classified as a comedy, it is limiting to think of The Twentieth Century as simply a joke. We become genuinely invested in Mackenzie King’s quest to become Prime Minister of Canada, even as the film reaches new heights of absurdity.
8. Another Round (Thomas Vinterberg)
I caught the latest collaboration between director Thomas Vinterberg and star Mads Mikkelsen near the end of September’s Toronto International Film Festival, and by that point I was a little movie’d out. Still, I enjoyed it, and hoped for a re-watch. That opportunity came a couple months later, and this time Another Round absolutely knocked me out. This very sharp, very funny look at maturity, marriage, and heavy drinking is a daring and wise look at the disconnect between age and behavior. (As someone who turned 40 in 2020, let’s just say it seemed especially resonant.) Round is anchored by Mikkelsen at the peak of his powers, never more so than at film’s end. The final (dance) sequence is both joyous and profound — just like Another Round.
7. Promising Young Woman (Emerald Fennell)
Thank goodness the calendar year included the release of Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman, a provocative, startlingly resonant revenge drama. And while the twisty script and smart direction from Killing Eve writer Fennell is noteworthy, Carey Mulligan is just as crucial to the film’s success. Strong one minute, wounded the next, but always fiercely in control, Mulligan’s performance is the finest of 2020. From jaw-droppingly fresh musical cues (if you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about) to an ending that is both laugh-out-loud funny and breathtakingly sad, Promising Young Woman is the emotional grenade this year desperately needed.
6. I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman)
A few minutes into Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, I was thinking of ending things. Specifically, the film itself. It seemed dull and off-putting––and had barely begun. A few minutes later, during one of the many long stretches of roadway dialogue between Jesse Plemmons’ Jake and Jessie Buckley’s Lucy (sometimes?), I was mesmerized. This feeling of wide-eyed interest subsisted through the end of Kaufman’s adaptation of Iain Reid’s novel, and long after. Yes, it is a tense, even stressful view. But it is also a deliriously engaging puzzle. Things is certainly Kaufman’s finest work as a director to date.
5. Ema (Pablo Larraín)
It is a shame that Pablo Larrain’s wild, ambitious story of a dancer, her on-again, off-again significant other, and the child they adopted but gave up seems to be flying under the end-of-year radar. Admittedly, many critics caught the film long ago, during its fall 2019 festival run. (Home viewers had an opportunity when MUBI premiered it for free, one day only, in May.) For me, its impact has lingered. Larrain’s latest effort is often deliberately shapeless. Yet this feeling of messiness creates a hypnotic hold on our minds and emotions. Mariana Di Girolamo gives a performance that deserves to be considered iconic as Ema, an enigmatic character whose passion, flaws, and fire are ever-intriguing. Ema is a beautifully dizzying concoction that will be ripe for re-discovery in the years to come.
4. Sound of Metal (Darius Marder)
I had been hearing about this one ever since the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, and my goodness, the buzz was warranted. Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal is, quite simply, unforgettable. Riz Ahmed is note-perfect as Ruben, a drummer rapidly losing his hearing, and he is almost matched by Olivia Cooke as his bandmate and girlfriend, Lou. Just as strong is Paul Raci as Joe, a warm but straight-talking Vietnam vet running a community for deaf recovering addicts. There is a conversation late in the film between Ruben and Joe in which the former is asking for help — help that we know Joe will not provide, and that Ruben is ashamed to ask for. It is a riveting and utterly devastating scene. And in typical Sound of Metal fashion, we feel sympathy for both parties. The film culminates in an ending that is one of the smartest and most audacious of the year, and the type of morally complex conclusion most films avoid. All told, Sound of Metal is a harrowing, heartbreaking, immersive experience.
3. David Byrne’s American Utopia (Spike Lee)
There is a palpable sense of joy in every second of David Byrne’s American Utopia. Spike Lee directs this document of the former Talking Heads’ frontman’s Broadway show with vivid energy and ingenious physicality. Utopia might be the greatest concert film since Stop Making Sense — electrifying, funny, and genuinely moving — but it is also a thematically apt exploration of who we are now. Or, who we were, pre-pandemic. While 2020 was in many ways the year of no-celebration, Utopia brought to the (small) screen a feeling of true jubilation. That is no small feat.
2. Lovers Rock (Steve McQueen) & 1. Education (Steve McQueen)
Each of the five full-length films in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe is, in its own way, extraordinary. Each felt like its own self-contained piece. And yet all three shared common traits and feelings. Above all else, Small Axe is driven by empathy for its heroes and heroines — and appropriate outrage at the world they inhabit. All told, Small Axe is 2020’s finest artistic achievement — and Lovers Rock and Education are its standouts. While Lovers Rock, a captivating dive into an all-night house party (and what comes before and after), is the most joyful, it is Education that hits hardest. It is startling to see a film about a young person that is so believable, so harrowing, and so true. Perhaps not since Truffaut has a filmmaker exhibited such a deft understanding of youth. Education is a triumph, as is Lovers Rock. All five entries in Small Axe demonstrate the pungent, lingering effects of institutional racism. Lovers Rock and Education, especially, are films about the way forward. This is radical, fearless filmmaking — and more than deserving of classification as the finest of 2020.