This is where I write the obligatory opening paragraph about how weird and terrible 2020 was. Well, it’s true. It was a long, stressful, and bizarre year without the release of seeing movies in theaters (for the most part). And yet, this year was still full of phenomenal films, even without those that were postponed. Watching so many films exclusively at home has its pros and cons, but there was still a great hole in my heart for the theatrical experience. I only went to the movie theater 12 times this year and none of those films made it into my top ten. So many movies this year took on new meaning, perhaps even unintended, as they released into a year so full of chaos, injustice, and unrest. This was a landmark year for the film industry and myself personally in many ways, and I think this list of my ten favorite films of 2020 reflects that. For the record, I’ll be using the Academy’s eligibility rules, accepting films from January 1st, 2020 to March 31st, 2021.
10. The White Tiger
“The White Tiger” has brilliant energy to it that pulls the viewer along. It’s a wild ride as we follow Balram’s explosive journey. Ramin Bahrani’s script and direction are the shining stars of the movie. He’s crafted such a watchable, exciting film that you can’t take your eyes away. I never really knew where the story was going to take us, but it’s an engrossing film with a surprisingly epic scope that never lets you go. Adarsh Gourav is pitch-perfect as Balram, capturing the knowing wisdom he needs to be an effective narrator, but has all the innocence and desire for his growth to be effective. This film was a true surprise, but one that I couldn’t get enough of.
9. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
I love “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” for so many of the same reasons I love “I Carry You With Me.” They’re both films that depict such specific experiences that you have no choice but to empathize with the characters. Writer/director Eliza Hittman keeps every moment in this film raw and real from beginning to end. It never feels over-dramatized, overly traumatizing, or exaggerated to draw out the emotions of the audience. Instead, we’re forced to confront the reality of Autumn’s situation. Newcomer Sidney Flanigan gives one of the most authentic performances of the year. My heart broke in so many ways watching the film but hear me carefully: it is not a grueling watch. It’s crafted with honesty and grace and impossible to ignore.
8. Boys State
Few other films this year have put me on the edge of my seat like the documentary “Boys State.” I surprisingly knew nothing about the Boys State program that the film follows, which created an engrossing experience. It’s all at once inspiring, terrifying, hilarious, and above all, compelling. A spectacular stroke of luck that the directors were allowed to follow a few specific boys who both had an enormous impact on the event and were phenomenal subjects to watch. Most impressively, I think that people of any political persuasion can enjoy this film, as it is more about coming together than about specific political policies. Though there’s plenty to be concerned about with many of these young men, “Boys State” actually made me hopeful for the future. It made the horrific political realities of 2020 (and 2021) somehow more palatable.
7. One Night In Miami…
Regina King’s directorial debut is a fiery gathering of icons. Sharp and poignant, “One Night in Miami…” features one of the best screenplays of the year from Kemp Powers, adapting his own play. It’s full of life and urgency, with the four leads bringing subtlety to the engaging conversations. Kingsley Ben-Adir’s Malcolm X was the standout performance for me, with so much charisma, depth, and righteous anger. “One Night in Miami…” is an important, passionate film, but it’s so well balanced with humor and lightness. It’s a quiet movie that lets their conversations drive the show, but it’s never afraid to pack a punch.
Chloe Zháo’s masterful “Nomadland” is a glimpse into the harsh realities of too many older Americans. This unvarnished film blends reality and fiction, though in very different ways than “I Carry You With Me.” This is the fictional story yet, it’s populated with real-life individuals like Swankie and Bob Wells playing themselves. It’s a beautiful adaptation of Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction work while adding a character study to the book’s valuable exploration of the new American nomads. Frances McDormand is brilliant, as expected, bringing so much humanity to a world that could be easily misunderstood. “Nomadland” has an eye on the oft-forgotten, capturing an intimate, emotional portrait that takes on greater importance when many have lost so much in this pandemic.
6. Judas And The Black Messiah
Anchored by two brilliant performances from Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield, “Judas and the Black Messiah” pulls no punches. Fiery and urgent, Shaka King’s film is an American tragedy framed through the eyes of betrayal. Seeing this story largely through Bill O’Neal’s eyes makes for a challenging tale, highlighting how the American government itself is built on opposition to black people. Kaluuya gives one of the most explosive and transformative performances I’ve seen in ages. Stanfield likewise has never been better. This film is a vital glimpse into the Black Panters that, for white Americans like myself, should challenge our perception of the civil rights movement.
4. The Trial Of The Chicago 7
Why do I love Aaron Sorkin’s writing? It’s not because it’s realistic. Certainly, we don’t speak the way that Sorkin characters speak. No, I love it because it’s how I wish we spoke. It’s not necessarily subtle, but “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is chock full of brilliant Sorkinisms creating an electrifying, compelling courtroom drama. I didn’t know the true story prior to watching the film, and it’s enraging. The film doesn’t shy away from the failures of America at that time or how the same failures still affect us. The ensemble is pitch-perfect, nearly all getting a chance to shine. This is yet another movie with accidental perfect timing. After the unrest in our nation throughout 2020, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is the perfect balance of urgent yet crowd-pleasing that we needed.
Pixar has a long reputation for making films that kids can enjoy, but adults can also connect to. “Soul” is the first time that feels like Pixar made a film primarily for adults. They reach new emotional depths in “Soul,” embracing a truly existential story. Why am I here? What am I meant to do? What makes me who I am? Joe is on a journey to answer these big questions. Personally, this film landed at exactly the right time as I explored similar questions. “Soul” has all the elements we know and love from Pixar: the incredible animation, a great story, something for both kids and adults, etc. Yet, there’s something that feels different about this one. “Soul” is one of Pixar’s quietest, most contemplative, and gentle films. The filmmakers had no idea what sort of year 2020 would turn out to be, but this is perfectly placed to help so many of us cope with the disappointments or lack of fulfillment the year has brought. More importantly, it could help us connect to what truly gave us our spark, the things that have made life worth living.
2. Sound Of Metal
Riz Ahmed gives the performance of the year as Ruben, a drummer who must cope with his sudden hearing loss. It’s a poignant portrait of addiction, co-dependency, and moving forward. Anchoring this exploration of hearing loss is a brilliant sound mix that places us inside Ruben’s head. It’s not a gimmick and creates a painfully real and immersive experience. “Sound of Metal” is an impressive debut from writer/director Darius Marder who shows complete control of tone and pacing, allowing us to sit in quiet moments for the exact right amount of time. This is the sort of character study that speaks to me deeply: a broken man searching for wholeness. It’s just so honest. Ahmed’s performance will stay with me for quite some time.
1. Promising Young Woman
“Promising Young Woman” is a bold and scathing thriller. This film takes no prisoners with an original, ferocious, and darkly funny takedown of toxic masculinity. It’s hard to believe this is a writing and directing debut from Emerald Fennell. “Promising Young Woman” is confident and stylish. Carey Mulligan gives a masterful performance full of pent-up rage. The movie asks hard questions, especially in its third act, and doesn’t give any easy answers. “Promising Young Woman” is a dark revenge story, but it’s deeply entertaining. I truly didn’t know where it was going, but it’s so satisfying all around. For decades we’ve lavished praise on films about male rage. “Promising Young Woman” doesn’t simply put a female twist on those films; it brings modern female rage to the screen with its own provocative style. This is a definitive film for 2020 and easily the most entertaining of the year.
What do you think of my list? Let us 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. Our annual NBP Film Awards and the NBP Film Community Awards will come in a few weeks to allow you all some time to see those final 2020 awards season contenders.
You can follow Daniel and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @howatdk