Top 10 Movies of 2020

2020 was not a normal year. However, I’m still going to publish my list of favorite movies of the year. This is far and away the longest stretch I’ve gone without stepping foot in a movie theater since I was 5-years-old. My last in-theater movie for 2020 was the first week of March, so it’s surely to eclipse a full year by the time it happens again. Of course, like many of you, being stuck at home meant watching more movies, not fewer. My 2020 total was 279 movies, and that’s despite film festivals going virtual, or being canceled outright.

So yes, even the 2020 movie year was strange. The vast majority of blockbuster and big-budget films were pushed to 2021, since movie theaters either limited the number of attendees, or closed down completely. This meant an inordinate number of independent films and documentaries filled the void. Since those are my two favorite categories, I was thrilled to watch dozens of films that likely would have slipped through unseen. You should know this means even more quirky and unusual films made this year’s list.

Exceptions: I thoroughly enjoyed the movie version of Hamilton, but have not considered it for the list since it was a filmed version of a stage performance, and not truly adapted for the silver screen. There are a few 2020 movies that I still need to catch, most notably Tenet (which I need to see in a theater) and Nomadland.

Annual reminder: As always, this has nothing to do with predictions for the Academy Awards, or any other awards. It’s simply my list of favorite movies of the year.

1. Mank
Cerebral director David Fincher has crafted a complex and intricate film that deserves much better than the label of “based on Citizen Kane” that so many have lazily applied. Sure, it will appeal on one level to hardcore cinephiles, yet it also excels as a psychological study of power and creativity. It’s a beautiful-looking film set in the 1930s, and likely to surprise those who give it a shot.

2. The Vast of Night
A nostalgic, Hollywood throwback to the simpler times of alien invasions! Director Andrew Patterson serves up a thrilling low-budget film with smart, witty, and quick dialogue delivered by young actors we immediately believe in.

3. Soul
Pixar has always been able to touch our hearts with their films, and this time they go straight to our “soul.” In the past, they’ve balanced the work for adults and kids, but this one is strictly for grown-ups…those who have had time to question their purpose. It’s a brilliant, thought-provoking film and the perfect complement to Inside Out.

4. Collective
How can a documentary based on the aftermath of a Bucharest nightclub fire that killed 64 be one of the best films of the year? Because director Alexander Nanau takes us behind the scenes for a jaw-dropping expose’ of Romania’s politically corrupt healthcare system.

5. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
The year’s most effective gut punch is delivered by director Eliza Hittman, who takes on the controversial topic of teenage abortion without leaning on any Hollywood star power.

6. Saint Frances
A smart script from lead actress Kelly O’Sullivan focuses on a thirty-something searching for her path. It’s a grounded story told from a feminine perspective, and reminds us that anyone can affect our outlook on life – even a whip-smart 6-year-old.

7. First Cow
The unforgiving nature of the 19th-century American frontier is featured in a most unique manner. Director Kelly Reichardt tells the story slowly and quietly, but the message comes through loudly.

8. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
The latest screen adaptation of an August Wilson play features next-level performances from both Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman (his final on-screen appearance). The demand for respect by Viola’s character, Ma, and the urgency to get on with life by Chadwick’s character, Levee, are quite something to behold.

9. Sound of Metal
We are along for the heart-wrenching journey as a drummer loses his hearing, along with the world he knows, in a tremendous performance from Riz Ahmed. Director Darius Marder’s film excels in its use of Sound Design to keep us embedded with the character.

10. (tie) I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Most writers can only dream of being as creative and unique as Charlie Kaufman, while I simply wish I were talented enough to entice more people to check out his work. This may be his most ambitious and strange film to date.

10. (tie) Kajillionaire
There is little doubt that Evan Rachel Wood could have been a major movie star by now if that had been her goal. Instead, she tends to choose offbeat and interesting projects, and then deliver performances that elevate the work and leave us mesmerized. This may be her best and oddest performance to date, in yet another creative gem from director Miranda July.

Just missed: The Booksellers (doc), Promising Young Woman, Blow the Man Down, Bull, The Painted Bird (Czech Republic), Les Misérables (France), The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao (Brazil), One Night in Miami, and Emma.