In any recap of 2020, what can one say that hasn’t already been said? The ongoing global dissection of the year’s internal stresses, external vitriol, and painful events put escapism at a premium — the kind of mental getaway that movies often provide.
But with theaters closed, or almost universally avoided, where does that attempt at escapism go? To our homes, where we’ve been spending more of our waking (and sleeping) hours than ever before. The shift affects the very way we look at film, an art form designed for big screens, massive sound, and carefully darkened theaters.
It’s tough to assume how this change in venue altered how our brains and hearts parse movies we planned to watch in their intended forums — preferably with others. I remember being impressed with the 2006 remake Poseidon, only to realize that the IMAX presentation is what sucked me in. It got me reveling in a film that’s just okay. This year reinforced that the medium is indeed the message. I don’t need to wait in line for a movie with Marshall McLuhan to know he was right about that.
I would have devoured the ridiculously intricate setpieces of Tenet in a theater. And the superb aural design of Sound of Metal. And the vistas of Nomadland. But for now, based on viewings via a 42” plasma screen and an old-school home theater sound system, here are the 10 films of 2020 that stand out as the finest. They make for an exciting, sometimes timely, transition into 2021, as the full cinematic experience awaits.
10. His House
This sharp Netflix thriller places the hardships of immigration inside the construct of a haunted house tale. An asylum-seeking couple from South Sudan arrives in London to encounter government red tape, rampant racism, and the ghost of their little girl, who presumably drowned during their escape. Just the pains of assimilation in Remi Weekes’ debut feature would make a great film. The scares and powerful expressions of loss put His House at another level. Would make a fantastic double feature with the Iranian chiller Under the Shadow.
9. The Nest
In our era of the rich getting richer, we may as well watch them suffer. Sean Durkin’s first film in nearly 10 years takes us back to the 1980s, where a well-to-do couple (teeth-baring performances by Carrie Coon and Jude Law) moves from the U.S. to the U.K. He’s desperate to climb the corporate ladder to wealth. But he’s been using only his immense charm and hubris to glide by, and finds those upper rungs elusive. Coon and Law are excellent in keeping up appearances, stiff upper lip and such, and then letting the fur fly.
8. Another Round
It’s not often a film about alcoholism is so damned charming and easygoing but, hey, this is Denmark. In an “experiment” of sorts, four school teachers decide to act on a theory that our bodies are juuuust short of the ideal blood alcohol content. Let the drinking and unexpected consequences begin. Mads Mikkelsen sets the laid-back pace for this wonderful and sometimes difficult character study. Writer-director Thomas Vinterberg seamlessly counters the nasty effects of alcoholism with the celebratory release a few drinks can elicit. Even the film’s ending carefully combines the horrible and the happy, in a near-dreamlike coda that reinforces that the culture of ritualistic drinking isn’t going anywhere.
One of the most aggressively violent movies of the year, Brandon Cronenberg’s second feature plays like a greatest hits collection of his dad’s films. A clandestine tech company has the ability to send a person’s inner being into another body, which they use as a vessel to commit murder for hire. The expert possessor here is Andrea Riseborough, as reliable and chilling as ever. Christopher Abbott, in one of the best performances of 2020, gets mixed up in the melee, showing off his intensity and versatility (as he does in this year’s frustrating Black Bear.) Cronenberg’s visual style is opulent, flashy, bloody, and a little daring. His writing style is tight enough to satisfy demanding genre fans.
6. Lovers Rock
The most beloved feature in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series (I favor Mangrove) puts a decade’s worth of energy and commentary into one dance party. In dealing with racism in 1970s London, West Indies immigrants and descendants would turn their homes into temporary clubs. McQueen shares one night in one particular house: the women cooking, the DJs setting up, the party, the music, the interactions, the rhythms. McQueen and cinematographer Shabier Kirchner use the dance floor as a microcosm of the community’s activity. As the night goes on, first, the women dance and sing along; then the couples sway; and finally, the men chant and jump in unison, shaking the house in both celebration and anger. It’s a hell of a journey in just 70 minutes.
With her exceptional film The Rider, writer-director-editor Chloé Zhao cast non-trained actors from the rodeo world. She follow format in Nomadland, but with the instantly recognizable Frances McDormand playing a part among real-life van-dwelling nomads. Luckily, McDormand has the skills to blend into the transient world of these independent trailblazers of a certain sort. Zhao doesn’t judge or favor their stories, though she does create instant empathy. The nomads’ reliance on national parks, for spiritual care and available work, give cinematographer Joshua James Richards plenty of beautiful scenery to inhabit. Zhao’s touches of cinema vérité and her quiet editing rhythm are absolutely lovely. In a nation of far too much struggle and anger, Nomadland succeeds most with kindness.
4. Sound of Metal
Impeccably acted and flat-out fascinating, this debut from The Place Beyond the Pines co-writer Darius Marder tells the story of a drummer in a two-person avant garde thrash band who suddenly loses his hearing. Riz Ahmed is the lead actor of the year as the drummer, Ruben, all fierce rage and misguided determination. His performing equal is Paul Raci, playing the head of a rehab center for the deaf, a tough-love kind of guy who tries his damndest to create a healing path for Ruben. (Both Ahmed and Raci got my votes for acting awards on my Boston Online Film Critics Association ballot.) Sound of Metal is a relatively simple story about how change can have a profound effect on one’s self-worth and identity. The extraordinary sound design often puts us inside Ruben’s head, an experience both revealing and terrifying.
3. Saint Frances
On the surface, this may look like a nanny-in-training comedy with lead character Bridget (Kelly O’Sullivan, the film’s screenwriter) caring for the kindergarten-age kid of the title. But Saint Frances succeeds by being much more, focusing on Bridget’s emotional growth during one significant summer, sharing the complexity of her character’s thoughts and interactions. Directed by Alex Thompson, this winning indie covers abortion, parenthood, stunted adulthood, and relationship expectations as parts of life, not high drama. O’Sullivan’s unapologetic dialogue often flows into some unexpected and satisfying places. One of the loveliest and most honest surprises of the year.
2. First Cow
The quiet that surrounds Kelly Reichardt’s lyrical little films has never been more powerful and pleasing than in this period piece set in fur-trapper times, as two men plan for their piece of American commerce and comfort. John Magaro and Orion Lee are superb, raising barely a whisper in the wilds of Oregon. They find the secret to selling irresistible biscuits in town; unfortunately, it requires repeated theft of milk from the area’s only cow. Amid some incredibly evocative cinematography, pacing, and ambient sound, Reichardt’s subdued heroes encounter the perils of others’ wealth, a difficult foreshadowing of the next century-and-a-half in the U.S.
The first of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe films is a thrilling telling of West Indies immigrants fighting against harassment by the London police in the late 1960s. After the locals hit the streets in 1970 to protest persistent, unprovoked raids, they face criminal charges designed to keep them oppressed or in jail. In a wicked legal strategy, a select few defend themselves in court — it’s a tense story construct that practically turns the courtroom drama genre on its ear. McQueen gets triumphant performances from Shaun Parkes and Letitia Wright (Black Panther) as the vocal leaders of what became known as The Mangrove Nine. In one sequence, McQueen frames Parkes’ Frank Crichlow under a clock and a courtroom gallery of local black people as he addresses the court. It’s as if both time and community are pressing down on his shoulders — one visual choice among many throughout the film and series that show Steve McQueen to be an impeccable storyteller of few equals.