2020 has been a year like no other. While good movies were harder to find than usual due to the fact that many get buried on streaming services, they were there if you looked for them. This list is comprised only of films released in the United States during 2020, even for a one-week run, so great films like THE FATHER, I CARRY YOU WITH ME, and others are ineligible. The below list is alphabetical, as no one film stood out as the absolute best of year. The works listed are all equally worthy and don't deserve to be ranked against each other. My honorable mentions are as follows in no particular order - any of these films might make the list below on another given day: AMERICAN UTOPIA, CORPUS CHRISTI, COUP 53, DRIVEWAYS, FIRST COW, THE FORTY-YEAR-OLD VERSION, HOWARD, MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM, MANK, NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS, 76 DAYS, TOTALLY UNDER CONTROL.
Beanpole (Dir. Kantemir Balagov, available for rental or purchase everywhere) - A devastating and masterfully-directed drama about the effects of WWII on women that survived, BEANPOLE's subtle performances and intense, unflinching sense of storytelling made it one of the year's early highlights.
Boys State (Dirs. Amanda McBaine, Jesse Moss, exclusively available to stream on Apple TV+) - Winner of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival's Grand Jury Prize, BOYS STATE, about a yearly event in which a little over one thousand high school-age boys are tasked with building a government, is a fascinating look at human psychology and its relation to politics. McBaine and Moss' greatest coup, though, is their choice of subjects who are as lively and diverse as possible, making for a provocative, suspenseful, and entertaining experience.
Collective (Dir. Alexander Nanau, available for rental everywhere) - After a nightclub fire in Bucharest kills numerous people and many others die in the hospital, a group of journalists begin to investigate in Alexander Nanau's riveting documentary, COLLECTIVE. Shocking and chilling in equal measure, Nanau's sober and sobering film is both a testament to the power of journalism as well as a disturbing social commentary on the world we live in today. While COLLECTIVE is a Romanian film, the story it tells transcends borders, as what is depicted can, and does, happen everywhere.
Crip Camp (Dirs. James Lebrecht, Nicole Newnham, exclusively available to stream on Netflix) - The Civil Rights and the LGBT Rights Movements have been well-documented on film, so it's especially surprising to view CRIP CAMP, about how one summer camp birthed the modern Disability Rights Movement, and learn how little many of us know about this brave, important group of activists who fought to make the country better. With new interviews (all of them refreshingly frank and humble) and a treasure trove of archival footage, Lebrecht (also one of the film's subjects) and Newnham pay warm homage to a movement that has long been left by the wayside, despite the fact that their work affects the daily lives of countless people.
Dear Comrades! (Dir. Andrei Konchalovsky, opening 2021 after a one-week virtual cinema release in December 2020) - DEAR COMRADES!, about a Communist Party worker's gradual disillusionment with the party after the 1962 Novocherkassk massacre in which striking workers were fired upon by government snipers, is a rightfully bitter and meticulously-crafted film shot in luminous black and white. A ground-level view of the pervasiveness of the psychological and physical traumas the Soviet government inflicted upon its citizens, DEAR COMRADES! finds director Konchalovsky in peak form, working with surgical precision in his takedown of Khrushchev's USSR. The film is further elevated by Konchalovsky's wife and frequent collaborator, Julia Vysotskaya, whose ferocious lead performance as Lyuda portrays this character as both a human encapsulation of the Soviet Communist Party and as an everyday citizen.
Dick Johnson is Dead (Dir. Kirsten Johnson, exclusively available to stream on Netflix) - Possibly the most bizarre and loving gift any child can give to their father, DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD is another formally daring, unpredictable, and wildly original film from Kirsten Johnson (her previous film, CAMERAPERSON, is also a must-see). When Kirsten's father, Dick, begins to show signs of dementia, Kirsten decides to make a film about him, with his permission and gleeful participation, that shows a number of staged scenes in which he dies in ghastly yet amusing ways while also charting his decline in real life. Outrageous and courageous, DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD may focus on death but it is, more than anything, a wondrous and moving celebration of a life well-lived.
Gunda (Dir. Viktor Kossakovsky, opening 2021 after a one-week virtual cinema release in December 2020) - Eschewing all of the usual anthropomorphizing usually found in documentaries about animals, Viktor Kossakovsky's wordless and score-less GUNDA, primarily centered around a sow and her piglets on a Norwegian farm, is a film that smartly allows its audiences to draw their own conclusions, though its not hard to take it as a humane and impassioned call for veganism. Of all of 2020's films, few have affected me personally as much as GUNDA. It's a film every human being should see, as it allows us to experience animal life on their level, not ours.
Hamilton (Dir. Thomas Kail, exclusively available to stream on Disney+) - Most filmed works of theatre cannot capture the energy of the original creation because the film production team doesn't seem to put as much creative energy behind them as the theatrical team did. That is not the case with HAMILTON. On stage, HAMILTON is a sensation, but on film, it's almost as galvanizing and electrifying due to the fact that Kail and his team treat it as a cinematic experience, utilizing Declan Quinn's inventive cinematography and Jonah Moran's sharp editing to create an immersive and thrilling film that pops off the stage. Nearly six years on, HAMILTON has lost none of its excitement and impact, and viewed with its inimitable original cast (this is the rare Broadway cast with no weak link), it is thankfully preserved as it was originally conceived for all to enjoy.
Mangrove (Dir. Steve McQueen, exclusively available to stream on Amazon Prime) - While Steve McQueen's SMALL AXE anthology is technically "television", each of its five parts is a film, and though all are more than worthy of viewing, it's the first, MANGROVE, that stands out. Fiery and ruthlessly intelligent, MANGROVE functions both as a love letter to London's vibrant West Indies community as well as a potent treatise on systemic racism. Under McQueen's typically strong direction, every performer in the preternaturally talented ensemble gives a powerful performance that works in harmony with the others, and the film's courtroom scenes thankfully have none of the histrionics that have defined the courtroom drama genre for years.
Minari (Dir. Lee Isaac Chung, opening February 2021 after a one-week virtual cinema release in December 2020) - We've all seen an array of films about immigrants moving to find a better life, only to face hardship and pain. MINARI, about a Korean family who moves from California to Arkansas in the 1980s, certainly sounds like the aforementioned kind of films on paper but completely transcends the clichés of the subgenre through the cultural specificity and sense of empathy writer/director Lee Isaac Chung's brings to the film. Chung knows these characters inside and out, and through the naturalistic performances of Steven Yeun, Han Ye-ri, Alan S. Kim, and Youn Yuh-jung, tells a story that's personal yet emotionally universal. Living with the Yi family and enjoying the small moments with them makes viewing MINARI a uniquely enriching and rewarding film.
Nomadland (Dir. Chloé Zhao, opening February 2021 after a one-week virtual cinema release in December 2020) - A film that feels lived-in and that respects and empathizes with its weary characters, NOMADLAND deftly mixes seasoned veterans like Frances McDormand and David Strathairn with non-pros who play versions of themselves. Completely unsentimental with a bone-deep and vanity-free performance by McDormand who gives the best performance of her career as a woman who decides to live as a modern-day nomad after the Great Recessions leaves her with nothing, NOMADLAND lingers for quite a while after its conclusion and marks another major step forward for writer/director Chloé Zhao.
Soul (Dir. Pete Docter, exclusively available to stream on Disney+) - Pixar is the rare studio that respects its younger audiences just as much as their adult ones, with films such as INSIDE OUT, UP, COCO, and others taking on subject matter that speaks to both adults and children in different ways. With SOUL, about a jazz musician who has an existential crisis, Pixar has made their first film that will appeal more to adults than to young audience members, which makes the film feel different than their others, while stylistically keeping in line with work like INSIDE OUT. Genuinely thought-provoking, SOUL is the perfect film to close 2020, as it asks us to reconsider our lives and appreciate the beauty in the everyday.
A Sun (Dir. Chung Mong-hong, exclusively available to stream on Netflix) - Had Variety's Peter Debruge not named A SUN as the best film of the year, myself and many others would never have known of its existence despite the fact that it has been sitting on Netflix all year with some stellar reviews. Following four members of a family torn apart by a horrific crime and years of undiscussed issues, A SUN is a film so haunting, dramatically rich, and exceptionally performed that it has the weight of a Shakespearean drama with the effortlessly light touch of a master filmmaker. Dramatically efficient yet emotionally complex, A SUN already feels like a modern-day classic of world cinema.
The Vast of Night (Dir. Andrew Patterson, exclusively available to stream on Amazon Prime) - Like listening to a slow-burning and engrossing campfire story, Andrew Patterson's economical and addictive TWILIGHT ZONE throwback, THE VAST OF NIGHT, is yet another example of an enormously talented filmmaker who spins a spellbinding tale with very little resources. Led by two strong performances from Sierra McCormick and Jake Horowitz and powered by the obvious passion Patterson has for his material, THE VAST OF NIGHT is a hugely enjoyable and smart piece of filmmaking that recalls the work of an early Spielberg.
Wolfwalkers (Dirs. Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart, available in select theaters and exclusively streaming on Apple TV+) - The Irish animation studio, Cartoon Saloon, has quickly established itself as one of the best of its kind, and their latest, WOLFWALKERS, a 17th Century-set fable about an Irish town's conflict with the wolves that live in the woods outside of the town walls, is no exception. Transcendently gorgeous and emotional with a genuine sense of the magic and wonder contained in the natural world, WOLFWALKERS is an astonishing work of art that ranks as one of the finest animated achievements in years.