Good movies kept coming in 2020, even when everything else stopped. In a year that often felt like its own kind of cataclysmic Hollywood production, the movies — even if relegated to smaller screens — were as necessary as ever. It was the year of the drive-in, the backyard-bedsheet screening and the streaming service. But wherever they played, the best films of the year offered some escape and connection: the possibility of grace, a spark of fury — and something the rest of the world couldn’t offer: the assurance of an ending. Here are our picks for the best movies of 2020:
1. “First Cow”: Any sweetness in life in Kelly Reichardt’s radiant frontier fable is both fleeting and eternal. Set in the Oregon Territory of the 1820s, it’s a portrait of a friendship forged, as it ought to be, on kindness and baked goods. The movie’s harsh Western landscape, where two poor travelers (played by John Magaro and Orion Lee) suggests a critique of capitalism as much as Ken Loach’s also excellent modern-day gig economy drama “Sorry We Missed You.” But the tenderness between them, despite it all, could hardly have felt more suited to the times.
2. “Small Axe”: It’s five films not one, but I’d have as hard a time splitting up Steve McQueen’s anthology as I would “The Decalogue.” It functions best a whole, as a cycle of racism and resistance stretched over two decades of London history. The second chapter, “Lovers Rock,” is a bass-thumping standout, and may be the best house-party movie ever made.
3. “Mank”: It’s so delightfully full of contradictions. A clear-eyed ode to Old Hollywood, made for a streaming service. An anti-auteur theory drama about the many minds that go into making a movie, crafted by maybe America’s most skillful and obsessive director. Leaving aside its much-debated history, it’s simply a head-spinning, gorgeously atmospheric and wonderfully acted character study about a guy who finally gave something his all — and out came one of the greatest movies ever made.
4. “Dick Johnson Is Dead”: Kirsten Johnson has made two films as a director, both masterpieces of human connection. Following her collage documentary “Cameraperson,” her father, Dick, began slipping away to dementia. Johnson resolved to make a film with him, rehearsing elaborate death scenes and reminiscing in between as a way to spend time together and preserve something of him on film. Both of Johnson’s films urge you to open your eyes to the world around you, and pick up a camera.
5. “Minari”: Lee Isaac Chung’s richly detailed, autobiographical film is a classic immigrant tale and a compassionate family drama about his Korean immigrant parents (Steven Yeun, Yeri Han) after they moved to rural Arkansas. Its warmth and gentleness slowly but steadily bowls you over.
6. “David Byrne’s American Utopia”: Spike Lee’s fiction films make more noise but he’s quietly one of the best documentary filmmakers we have. He may have made the best film of the year in his short film “New York, New York,” a tribute to an undefeatable pandemic-stricken city. But aside from his impassioned Vietnam War drama “Da 5 Bloods,” Lee’s concert film of Byrne’s Broadway show — an exuberant, dancing celebration of togetherness — encapsulated so much of what was off limits in 2020.
7. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”: Eliza Hittman’s film, about a 17-year-old Pennsylvania young woman (newcomer Sidney Flanigan) having to travel to New York for an abortion, is a delicately restrained, heartbreaking neo-realistic drama. It’s about the hurdles to abortion in much of the U.S., but it’s also paints a vivid picture, through countless fraught interactions, of what its like growing up a teenage girl.
8. “Soul”: A legitimate double-feature to pair with his “Inside Out,” Pete Docter’s latest Pixar marvel spins deep existential troubles into a wonderous and wise family film. It’s also, with a glorious rendering of Harlem, one of the best New York movies in years.
9. “Collective”: This piercing Romanian documentary, about corruption in the country’s health care system, is one of the most powerful journalism dramas you’ll see this side of “All the President’s Men.” And unlike any film I can recall, it shifts midway to examine — after an unlikely team of reporters exposes rot within the system — change within the system, following an idealistic insider’s attempts to respond to the journalists’ work.
10. “Sound of Metal”: Riz Ahmed’s potent performance as a punk-metal drummer with a heroin habit who loses much of his hearing paces this sometimes uneven, always unpredictable drama of recovery and self-realization. In a year of social distancing, intense and raw performances like Ahmed’s (and Carrie Coon’s in “The Nest”) telescoped the space between.
Honorable mentions: “The Nest,” “Nomadland,” “The Forty-Year-Old Version,” “Promising Young Woman,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Let Them All Talk,” “The Dissident,” “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution,” “Palm Springs,” “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”
1. “Nomadland”: There is an unfortunate, inevitable hurdle when you come to something that already has scores of accolades, but Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland” is that rare creation that not only lives up to the hype but also makes you forget about it. This is a gentle, humane and dizzyingly poetic ode to the people on the fringes of American society, the ones who choose to wander and drift across the great Western landscape. Frances McDormand gives a performance that is so alive and unguarded that it feels like non-fiction. Many want to be the next Terrence Malick, but “Nomadland” proves Zhao is it.
2. “Kajillionaire”: Miranda July’s “Kajillionaire” is also about people on the fringe, but her protagonists aren’t highway exiles. The Dynes, Robert (Richard Jenkins), Theresa (Debra Winger) and Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood), are lousy small time con artists hiding in plain sight in sunbeaten, concrete Los Angeles. Original and dazzlingly surreal, you may be surprised at the emotional punch this odd and lovely story packs and you’ll never look at a pancake the same way.
3. “Lovers Rock”: All you really need to know is that “Lover’s Rock” is a pulsating, 68-minute dance party directed by one of our living greats, Steve McQueen. It is sweaty, glittery, heady and, like a great guest, doesn’t overstay its welcome.
4. “Collective”: It’s hard to recommend something that is likely to enrage, this year especially, but “Collective,” a searing Romanian documentary about the aftermath of a deadly Bucharest nightclub fire is just too good and eye opening to deny.
5. “Mank”: Movies about the movies are an easy target for anyone wanting to criticize Hollywood’s naval-gazing tendencies, but “Mank,” about the man who almost didn’t get credit for writing “Citizen Kane” does something different. Directed by David Fincher and written by his late father Jack, this film is nostalgic but not mawkish, reverent but not blind. It is a stylish and wry look at a man who came to Hollywood to sell out and ended up creating something he was proud of. Gary Oldman as the titular character and Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies are splendid.
6. “On the Rocks”: Sofia Coppola’s latest goes down so easy, it might seem a little insubstantial. But although its surface pleasures are many — I’ll tour ritzy Manhattan haunts with Bill Murray and Rashida Jones in a convertible with caviar and champagne any day — it’s also a work of subtle power. It’s an accessible, thoughtful and wonderfully adult treatise on men and women in the most unlikely of packages — a father/daughter comedy.
7. “Tenet”: “Tenet” was one of the only films this year that I saw on the big screen, having spent the first few months of the year on maternity leave and the rest in pandemic lockdown. Although it’s hard to separate from the experience of simply being in a theater, there was no more thrilling, glamorous and purely cinematic film this year.
8. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”: One of the year’s quietest but most devastating films looks at the decidedly unempowering experience of existing in a female teenage body, especially for a teenage girl living in rural Pennsylvania who needs an abortion. From director Eliza Hittman, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is a tremendous exercise in mood and a beautiful showcase for some up and coming talents.
9. “Promising Young Woman”: A messy, bold movie about a messy, bold woman (Carey Mulligan) who has given up on her own life to become a kind of #MeToo vigilante, scaring strangers and enemies into seeing that there are no gray areas when it comes to sexual misconduct. The bubblegum pink brainchild of writer-director Emerald Fennell (who also plays Camilla Parker-Bowles on “The Crown”) is garish, beguiling and unapologetically itself. Mulligan is terrific, as is Bo Burnham.
10. “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga”: No film made me laugh more this year than “Eurovision,” a knowingly silly lark about an Icelandic pop duo (Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams). Its songs and one-liners still echo in my head nearly six months later (in a good way).