It’s no secret that 2020 was a weird year, particularly in the world of film. However, I think it has allowed for more attention to be given to smaller films and a greater variety in terms of who is telling these stories. For one, I saw more films outside my comfort zone or even films that, in a different year, I probably would not have seen and ended up really enjoying them. I was also fortunate enough at the beginning of 2020 to be able to attend Sundance, where I saw several films that had an impact on my best-of list. It might seem a bit late to be making a top film of 2020 list, but I typically hold off on making mine until the end of January the following year anyways to devote that whole month to catch-up. There were a lot of films that I loved this year and it was nice to be able to see more as well as revisit and reevaluate the films I had seen throughout the year.
Narrowing it down to a top ten was quite difficult, so I have some honorable mentions that I would like to shout out: “And Then We Danced,” “Crip Camp,” “Da 5 Bloods,” “First Cow,” “Kajillionaire,” “Let Them All Talk,” “Mangrove,” “Mank,” “Soul” and “Sound of Metal.”
10. Bad Education
Yes, this is technically an HBO TV movie, but it initially premiered at TIFF intending to be a ‘theatrical’ film before being bought by HBO and if it had come out a few months later, it probably would’ve been an HBO Max title and we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. Anyway, “Bad Education” is a great film that I liked a lot during my initial viewing but was really a film that stuck with me and a second viewing only confirmed my love for it. It is impeccably paced, with its runtime flying by and has a wonderful sense of humor in addition to its more dramatic or shocking moments. I think Hugh Jackman gives one of his best performances by enveloping his seedy character with nuanced empathy and mystery. Allison Janney is also terrific in a supporting role with pitch-perfect line readings. Everything I love about this film can be found in the montage towards the end of the film cut to Moby’s “In This World,” intercutting the various arrests with the club scene as Jackman’s Frank holds on to one last moment of joy before his inevitable demise.
9. I’m Thinking Of Ending Things
One of the year’s strangest films and yet one that I thoroughly enjoy and am compelled by. The world that Charlie Kaufman creates (or I should say adapts) in “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” feels exactly like it is at the crossroads of being a dream or a nightmare, but it does not feel like a film too difficult to figure out. Sure, I went into it already being well-aware of the various artistic references within the film, but I do think its various twists and turns are not impossible to comprehend after the first viewing and that Kaufman actually trusts his audience, all of which I find weirdly comforting. The film looks beautiful; you’ll be hard-pressed to find many films from 2020 as well-shot or edited as this one. However, the thing that makes the film work are its performances from Jessie Buckley, Jesse Plemons, Toni Collette, and David Thewlis. They completely give themselves over to the material with no fear, leaving you with no choice but follow them blindly into the strange and snowy darkness.
8. Another Round
One of my biggest surprises of the year was how much I loved “Another Round.” Beyond being a unique look at drinking culture and masculinity, it is also a film with a healthy balance of humor and genuine heart. I was incredibly won over by this film and deeply invested in these characters and their lives. Mads Mikkelsen gives a tremendous performance, but the rest of the ensemble is also fantastic. And not to spoil it too much, but the ending of this film is a cathartic banger.
7. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
I got to see “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” at Sundance last year and later reviewed it, professing everything I love about it. Even now, many months later, I still think it’s great. Whether the film is truly a documentary or partially fiction, there is no denying that it is still honest and real. Every patron or employee of this bar gets their moment to speak their truth, becoming people you feel like you genuinely know. It also has some of the most underrated cinematography of the year, utilizing the bar’s red neon glow to beautiful effect.
6. Lovers Rock
Once again, the TV or movie debate, but like “Bad Education,” this is my list and I consider all of the “Small Axe” anthology to be individual films! Honestly, I consider “Small Axe” to be the filmmaking achievement of the year. Steve McQueen embeds each of the films with a sense of community and directs the hell out of all of them, with “Lovers Rock” being my favorite. It is so much more than just the house party in real-time people claim it to be. I love the evolution of the dance floor, from the girls having joyful, carefree fun to the forming of couples and it becoming more romantic and sexual to the men taking over, making it aggressive and chaotic. The ‘Silly Games’ sequence, with the sweat-dripping walls, is, of course, a highlight but seeing the unabashed excitement of the girls as the DJ puts on “Kung Fu Fighting” honestly brought tears to my eyes.
5. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Another film that I saw at Sundance and had the privilege to review. I only saw “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” one time and can still tell you every little detail since it is so powerfully etched in my memory. It is such a difficult but worthwhile watch; it is not an experience I have gone through, but I feel like I am living through it through the filmmaking. Knowing that there was almost no improvisation and that every nuanced detail of the film can be found in Eliza Hittman’s screenplay not only makes me appreciate the screenplay more, but it also makes me admire the film as a whole even more. Sidney Flanigan leads the film with one of the finest performances of last year or any year.
4. David Byrne’s American Utopia
It’s no secret that I adore Talking Heads and, by extension, David Byrne, and this film felt like everything I needed and could ever want. Spike Lee and David Byrne’s genius pairing elevates this from being a standard concert film and into a cohesive piece of art. The way Lee moves the camera throughout the stage, highlighting the bold lighting and choreography, feels like how every performance should be filmed. The song choices all go together beautifully, creating this vision of an “American Utopia” through themes of communication and connection. The combination of all these things proves that it is more than just my love for this music and the men behind this film that allows it to move me so much, that it is about the messages and feelings it is trying to evoke and that maybe, just maybe, we’ll all be okay.
Being among the first people to see this film at Sundance last year was one of the highlights of the festival for me and to see so many people discover and fall in love with it since has warmed my heart. “Minari” is an excellent case of a film being so specific that it, in turn, becomes universal. It is a beautiful story of family and it is an unconventional but honestly true American story. The ensemble from oldest to youngest is spectacular, allowing every member of this family to go on their own journey. The film also looks beautiful, not just in its glowing cinematography but also in its detailed production design. Every aspect of their home feels tangible and real. The film does a beautiful job of incorporating lightness and humor while also exploring difficult and complicated situations but never veering into melodrama. It is a film that is impossible to love, with a profoundly moving climax that brings me to tears.
2. Promising Young Woman
If there was a film considered the one I enjoyed the most this year, it would probably be “Promising Young Woman.” Even if this film is not perfect, I cannot deny how much I enjoy it and the further I get from it, the more I love it. The candy-coated love child of “Gone Girl” and “Jennifer’s Body,” the film at its core is really about inconsolable grief and anger. Emerald Fennell has such a singular vision; everything feels purposeful and unique, from the color palette to the song choices. Carey Mulligan is a powerhouse consumed by this aforementioned grief and anger but never not strong, bold, or cunning. The whole ensemble is really fantastic, subverting expectations of typical “nice guys” or well-known performers with a standout performance from Bo Burnham, who consistently surprised me. I do consider this film to be a dark comedy. Very dark at times, but it always has a sick sense of humor that totally fits my tastes. Music is very important to me in cinema and the way that music is used (or even the song choices themselves) can really enhance my experience and my love for a film and I’m starting to wear this soundtrack out. This film is almost wall-to-wall music, all of it creating such a specific tone that completely won me over and could perhaps be my favorite aspect of this film.
When I saw “Nomadland” at the drive-in with my mom for the Philadelphia Film Festival, it could not have come at a better time or been a more perfect setting. I roll my eyes when critics hyperbolically refer to a film as “the movie we need right now,” but I truly believe that this is the most important film of the year and one that I very much needed and connected to. Like many people in this country, I have been unemployed throughout the pandemic, unclear and unsure of my future, and painfully isolated and lost. This film speaks to this experience completely without it even being about the pandemic. It is about an attempt at connection, of figuring life out and where you’re going, of living life to its fullest however you see fit. These themes of self-discovery resonated deeply with me, allowing me to emotionally and cathartically let go of the feelings I’ve been holding in for many months. On top of these obvious emotional resonances, it is a perfectly made movie. The cinematography utilizes these already gorgeous landscapes in a simplistic and non-flashy way, in turn creating something incredible. Chloé Zhao’s vision and, above all else, her empathy towards this story and these characters can be found in every frame. What she chooses to show, what she doesn’t, everything feels purposeful. All of this is anchored by Frances McDormand in a role no one but her could play, portraying her usual wit and charm while also showing a quietness and vulnerability that she does not normally get to show. The real-life people of this film (Linda May, Swankie & Bob Wells) feel like lightning in a bottle, completely comfortable and honest in front of the camera. The piano compositions that were chosen to accompany the film evoke a mood of both melancholy and curiosity, pairing perfectly with the sprawling scenery and allowing you to take it all in. I genuinely love this film, and even beyond my emotional attachments to it, I think it is the best of the year.
What do you think of my list? Let me know what you think in the comments section below or on our Twitter account. Be on the lookout for more of our Top 10’s for 2020 and check out our Editor In Chief Matt Neglia’s Top 10 list here along with Daniel Howat’s & Josh Parham’s. Our annual NBP Film Community Award Nomination ballots are currently live and can be voted on until February 26th.
You can follow Casey and hear more of her thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @CaseyLeeClark