We weren’t able to go into movie theatres for most of 2020, but there were still many quality films released this year. So many in fact that this ranking is incomplete. Yes, despite being stuck at home, it was still quite impossible to see every deserving film this year—and to fit them all on one list. What follows will have to suffice: my top ten films from 2020.
10. Let Him Go
There’s just something so stable and confident about Thomas Bezucha’s western throwback. In my earlier review, I compared it to the classics and added construction metaphors to really nail down this point. None of it is a mystery, yet when Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, and Lesley Manville finally have their climactic standoff, it’s easy to be blown away. A simple pleasure, perhaps, but rewarding all the same.
Setting aside (if I may) the recent controversy regarding director Michelle Latimer, her film is a singular force. Inconvenient Indian uses the dominant and droll presence of author Thomas King to explain how Indigenous people have been failed in North America—while also showing how they continue to succeed in spite of this harm. In this, the film is educational and incendiary, the mere fact of its existence confirming there is still much work to be done.
The structuring absence at the heart of Kitty Green’s film is what makes it so unsettling and unique. We know what it’s about even though it never says what it’s about. In the overwhelming accumulation of its subtle minutia—with only one scene for star Julie Garner to do anything out in the open—we learn how a specific world works. We also intuit much more: this is how the entire world works too.
7. First Cow
No one is making films like Kelly Reichardt. That’s been true for decades now, especially in the annals of modern American filmmaking. First Cow is another chapter in her storied career, confronting again the central myths of U.S. history, yet somehow keeping the story on an exacting human scale. That Reichardt is helped by some great acting from John Magaro and Orion Lee is no surprise; her film is also about how we’re better when we work together.
6. The Way Back
The basketball details of The Way Back are what sell it for me. The Ben Affleck comeback story is one part of the film, a bit of art mirroring life or whatever; but really, it’s how director Gavin O’Connor captures the specific stress and terror of high school basketball that takes this film into rarified air for me. By the end, I was rooting for this team—and, sure, Affleck too.
5. Palm Springs
As a marriage between concept and comedy, Palm Springs clicks together in an immensely satisfying way. We can enjoy it for Andy Samberg’s charms, or the righteous fury of J.K. Simmons, or the underrated presence of Cristin Milioti. Or we can just smile at how director Max Barbakow and writer Andy Siara snap them and their clever plot together. This is a new generation’s Groundhog Day, but it’s not just a mere repeat.
Arthur Jones’ documentary should be extremely depressing. It tells the story of our awful moment, shaped as it has been by the vicious force of the Internet. And yet, while watching cartoonist Matt Furie in his quixotic mission to reclaim his creation Pepe the Frog from some truly awful people, something even stranger happens: we see how, just maybe, there’s a happy ending to be had here in the future.
Kristen Johnson’s tribute to her elderly father is moving and wonderful. Despite an obvious preoccupation with death, her film is instead filled to the brim with surprising life. And while it documents the particulars of just one man, its specifics get us thinking about our own loved ones over time. Johnson knows her father will eventually die, but by making this film, she (and we) have him forever. What else could we ask for out of life?
There’s something mesmerizing about the linear construction of Hlynur Palmason’s film, with its sudden expansions and contractions of time, its fixed unblinking camera, and its compelling main subject. I went into it not knowing what to expect and then quietly white-knuckled along with actor Ingvar Sigurdsson as his character tries to know the unknowable. Rare is a film that arrives at a definitive answer while raising many more worthwhile questions.
Director Andrew Ahn’s film did a festival run in 2019 before its very modest release in 2020 — thanks to the pandemic, but also the nature of the film business — which is a shame. As a swansong for Brian Dennehy, Driveways is a wonderful vehicle for the actor. More than that though, as written by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, it gently speaks volumes about growing up, family, community, and life. No film made me feel more in 2020 than Driveways, and for that: it gets my nod as the top film of the year.