You know it and I know it: 2020 was a year full of challenges. I am not the first person to make this observation, and I guarantee I will not be the last. With such hardships felt throughout all these long months, the great escape is often fleeing into the diverse world of cinema. Of course, that presented its own difficulties when a majority of theaters closed due to safety concerns. It seemed hopeless for some time as release dates got pushed back and highly anticipated titles vanished. However, that was never an invitation to stop seeking out great storytelling being presented, and while this year may have looked very different, there was no shortage of great works to enjoy. You’ve already seen others give their top ten lists of 2020, and now I’d like to present you mine.
Here are a few honorable mentions: “Black Bear,” “Miss Juneteenth,” “Promising Young Woman,” “Soul” and “The Lodge.”
10. The Assistant
One of the very few movies on this list I actually caught in theaters before the national shutdowns, “The Assistant” is a film that has not left my mind since the first time I saw it in February. I can also clearly recall the utter revulsion from my audience that thought the film was too dull and boring. For me, this slow crawl was a feature of the meticulous storytelling and not a bug. Director Kitty Green sets a deliberate pace to expose an insidious world in which horrible actions are treated with such banality. The fact that a character writing checks to cover up an assault is treated with such mundanity as picking up a lunch order is incredibly chilling. The film not only confronts that reality but also explores the systems put in place to prevent any change. Anchored by a grounded performance from Julia Garner, this is a haunting film that exposes the toxicity of workplace harassment better than any glitzy exposé ever could.
There’s been much discourse lately about what truly fulfills the definition of an American film. There is no doubt in my mind that “Minari” beautifully renders the struggles of a family searching for their own sense of place in the United States to absolute perfection. What’s so amazing here is how Lee Isaac Chung’s screenplay creates dynamic characters that are realized in an authentic way and never act quite like any convention would have defined them previously. His direction warmly crafts an inviting world to observe, greatly helped by terrific performances from one of the year’s best ensembles. The fascinating element to the storytelling here is the perspective of both inhabiting tones that are specific yet universal. The tenderness that is rendered here fills the heart and is wonderfully captured.
8. Sound Of Metal
Sometimes, nothing hits harder than a well-crafted character study. These stories have the ability to focus on a particular subject and explore it with a great depth of intrigue. That is precisely what “Sound of Metal” accomplishes so well. It’s quite easy to imagine the more conventional approach a film like this would take, and it’s such a blessing that director Daris Marder understands how to create an intimate portrait that doesn’t conform to stale traditions. He sets his gaze upon a community that takes charge of their own agency, showcasing the complex and nuanced discussions deaf people have every day of their lives. This space is treated with such a sense of authenticity, masterfully communicated in the impressive sound design. Riz Ahmed’s towering performance anchors this piece as he articulates a character full of frustrations, tragedy and aspiration. He is matched equally by a devastatingly sincere Paul Raci and enchanting Olivia Cooke. Every element of the filmmaking and performances come together to create a truly unforgettable experience that leaves you shaken to the core in its final moments.
People often talk about magical qualities films can bestow upon an audience when watching them, and “Wolfwalkers” ended up delivering that feeling all through its runtime. There is an obvious appreciation for the animation here, which is not only gorgeously rendered but detailed in a way that emphasizes character and emotion that few other animated films convey. What is also appreciated in a story so strongly rooted in identity and familial bonds that its poignant messages are sincerely felt. With charming voice performances and a mesmerizing score, the film is an absolute treasure in the way it casts a spell on you to completely fall in love with it. This is, without a doubt, the best animated feature of the year and one that captures the heart in such an uplifting and captivating way.
6. One Night In Miami
I know that for many, the simple act of gathering four men in one room together as “One Night in Miami” does leave them at a distance in terms of appreciating this film for its cinematic value. It’s true that not much is done to elevate this material away from its theatrical trappings, but that’s not really where the power of this piece lies. Regina King understands that these conversations are the driving force behind the narrative. Her direction helps to nurture these performances and create that intimate space to become completely riveted by these discussions. The explorations of topics that confront the complexity of Black identity, artistry and liberation feel as relevant today as they did decades ago. Every moment really does grips you with a deep reverence for such profound commentary. Each member of the quartet is astounding, with a particular nod to MVP Kingsley Ben-Adir as a fiercely captivating Malcolm X who shows an engaging passion colliding with an internal struggle that makes his performance especially moving. One could argue it’s not the most stylized work, but the themes mined in the material are completely worth investing the time and listening in on these fascinating conversations.
5. Dick Johnson Is Dead
During my first viewing of “Dick Johnson is Dead,” I distinctly remember having to pause the film multiple times because I was crying so profusely. Anything that has such a significant emotional impact on me must be considered one of the great achievements of the year. It’s truly something special that Kirsten Johnson has created here: a unique experiment that aims to examine what a life truly means as it slowly slips away. The premise is the foundation for such interesting commentary that looks to show how impactful the events in one’s life mean not only to the individual but also to everyone in their circle. Adding up moments of tremendous joy and great sorrow helps in efforts to process grief, guilt and ultimate acceptance of death. It’s such a meditative discussion that’s explored in such interesting ways. However, the film doesn’t completely wallow in melancholy as the subject himself is filled with such charm and warmth that the lighter comedic touches are appreciated and justified. Not only is this the best documentary of the year, but one of the most singular visions of any film I’ve seen.
This is one of those situations in which certain rules are bent ever so slightly. “Beanpole” was Russia’s submission for the Best International Feature Oscar in 2019, making it to the final shortlist but missing out on a nomination. Its theatrical release didn’t happen until January of last year, which may not make it eligible for that particular category but it does count as a genuine 2020 release. Even after first seeing it nearly a year ago, the power of this film has not left me. Kantemir Balagov crafts a vibrant story about lost souls searching for the slightest slivers of redemption and happiness wherever it can be found, and that journey is fascinating to watch unfold. The striking color palette gives a warmth that perfectly collides with the dark tone, only further empathizing these characters’ internal struggle. With engaging performances from Viktoria Miroshnichenko and Vasilisa Parelygina, this is a haunting work that examines the corrupting influence trauma can bring as well as the complicated friendships forged to battle the ensuing emptiness.
3. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
One of the most earnest and poignant character studies I have seen in quite some time, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is a brilliant depiction of a perilous voyage that is sincerely felt along every step. Eliza Hittman takes a natural approach that peers into a moment in time for this collection of people and reveals heartbreaking truths as well as an innate appreciation for the simple joys that add so much meaning to one’s experiences. All of this rests on the shoulders of Sidney Flannigan’s sublime performance, one that captures a charming warmth in addition to some truly devastatingly emotional sequences, mainly the scene that provides the film’s namesake. This is an example of a work that is finely textured and feels like a living portrait, one that has such an intimate and personal perspective that you feel privileged to observe and grateful that such a powerful piece of art exists.
2. The Father
Here’s another tricky situation. For many people, “The Father” was not a film that was extensively available for people to see in 2020, and its wide theatrical release isn’t happening for another month. However, given its prominent festival presence, dominance within the current award season conversation and the release date move essentially happening in the eleventh hour only to fulfill the Academy’s extended window, I am willing to call this a 2020 release. It’s a weird year with massaged formalities, but none of that takes away from one of the absolute towering cinematic achievements I’ve seen. It’s truly astonishing that not only is Florian Zeller’s directorial debut such an assured accomplishment, but nothing on display ever feels trapped by stiff theatrical conventions that someone of his background would indulge in. This film is alive with vibrancy, conveying the absolute horror that afflicts a mind stricken with dementia. That vision is executed in brilliant and inventive ways that keeps one wholly enthralled. Obviously, one must also appreciate the career-best work from Anthony Hopkins in a role that will make you laugh and cry with equal intensity, particularly in an incredibly powerful final scene. The same accolades could also be said for Olivia Colman’s effective supporting turn in a truly haunting film that is expertly crafted.
I strangely feel the urge to apologize for what might come across as such a predictable choice at the top. I can’t deny that “Nomadland” has enjoyed such an early surge right now from critics’ circles, especially in recently announced precursors. However, this is one occasion I feel compelled to join the consensus on what is a most certainly a masterful work. Chloé Zhao is a filmmaker who indulges in so many aspects in cinema I intensely respond to: a small-scale yet deeply personal exploration of a character’s emotional journey that is captured through a natural and quiet intensity. Building off of what she achieved in “The Rider,” this is another fine example of looking into the lives of ordinary citizens. We see how their experiences create nuanced portraits of not only their own emotional makeup but how their roles fit into the larger world around them. She crafts an earnest tale of battling grief on the road to eventual solace, and it is realized through the breathtakingly beautiful cinematography. Frances McDormand’s reserved performance echoes the tone perfectly, and the host of non-professional actors only add to the authenticity of this story. It may have been slightly expected on my part, but I must recognize what a moving and soulful work this is and declare it the best film of the year.
This year may not have given us the flashy tentpoles and major contenders we were initially anticipating, but it was obviously not lacking in quality films that spoke so earnestly through their stories and characters. There is so much to appreciate in this complicated landscape, and one still is so happy to have the opportunity to experience these magnificent works.
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 along with Daniel Howat’s. 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 Josh and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @JRParham