The Silver Linings of a Dark Year
This Best Of list observes the Academy’s eligibility deadline for 2020 movies, February 28, 2021.
You don’t need a list of reasons 2020 was strange and unpredictable, and you don’t need a recap of all the delayed releases and tragic losses that defined much of the year for the film industry. So instead of a recap of the year’s bummers, I present to you its silver linings:
Silver Lining #1: We had more time for movies than ever before.
Watching movies at home was a zero-risk pandemic activity, so I watched more in a calendar year than ever. Not including rewatches, I squeezed in just over 700 titles, and I finally found time for classics I’d missed like 2001: A Space Odyssey, All the President’s Men, Bonnie and Clyde, City Lights, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Moonstruck, Psycho, The Rules of the Game, The Searchers, The Silence of the Lambs, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. (I also watched every single Fast and Furious installment, but we’re only focusing on the best here.) I made a lengthy watchlist, maxed out free trials, scheduled Turner Classic Movies recordings, and have never made more trips to the library. In a year when almost everything felt out of control, what I watched felt like the only thing I could control.
Silver Lining #2: In most cases, it was easier than ever to watch new releases.
My subscriptions to Disney+, Hulu, Netflix, and Prime pre-paid for many of the best movies of the year, and watching a $19.99 rental with my family meant a lower average price per person than at the theater. I’m sure Tenet was more arresting on the big screen during its well-meaning but poorly executed theatrical run, but I have no regrets about waiting to watch it at home so we could turn on the subtitles.
Silver Lining #3: 2020 was not an asterisk* year for movies.
We may not have seen James Bond, the Avengers, the Top Gun sequel, the West Side Story remake, new Wes Anderson, or an Edgar Wright thriller, but 2020 was full of films that would be top-notch in any year. If anything, the thinner slate gave more attention to films that might have been overlooked otherwise. For all the talk of how cinema lags behind culture, we still got Boys State, Da 5 Bloods, News of the World, One Night in Miami…, The Trial of the Chicago 7, and Wonder Woman 1984, which all felt tailored to this moment. Even with many delays, we still saw work from modern greats like Sofia Coppola, David Fincher, Paul Greengrass, Spike Lee, Christopher Nolan, Steven Soderbergh, and Aaron Sorkin. And we watched breakthroughs and first-time features from Lee Isaac Chung, Autumn de Wilde, Emerald Fennell, Regina King, Shaka King, Darius Marder, Florian Zeller, and Chloé Zhao, a bunch signaling the next wave of Hollywood.
Silver Lining #4: The films of 2020 encouraged our empathy.
Every piece of art is a form of empathy, but one of art’s highest callings is to help us see the world in ways we can’t on our own. In a year when compassion, cooperation, and understanding felt nonexistent, what we watched challenged us in a new direction. In EMMA., our heroine learns to look beyond her own social status. In Nomadland, we feel the loss of a spouse, career, and community. Film after film helped us identify with with immigrants, victims of trauma and disease, political opponents, strong personalities, different abilities, and other generations. And in Judas and the Black Messiah, we see the tragic consequences of when we fail to empathize.
The following films were some of my brightest silver linings of my year, so much so the order of this Best Of list feels as arbitrary as ever. They—along with prayer, the people I care about, puzzles, podcasts, and my Instant Pot—encouraged and eased me through the exhaustion of a year dominated by bad news. If you haven’t made time for all of them, I’d recommend making them silver linings to your 2021.
A stylish reimagining of a period romantic comedy? My catnip! Autumn de Wilde’s feature directorial debut is an aesthetic dream approaching the heights of all-time avant-garde favorites Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, Baz Luhrmann’s canon, and Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina. The style and the strong cast (led by a pitch-perfect Anya Taylor-Joy) capture both Jane Austen’s romantic and snarky sides.
Frances McDormand does so much with so little in a story filled with more meditation than plot. Chloé Zhao made a feature that blends its style with documentary motifs, and in a year in which we’ve all felt hurt and isolated, this is the encouragement we need to reach out and takes chances again.
I could watch Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield read the phone book. Along with Dominique Fishback, they find the simplest moments of humanity in a complex, larger-than-life moment in history. And boy, is this movie beautiful to look at.
7. The Father
I sobbed through the last 20 minutes, and I sobbed another 20 afterward. I’ve lost both of my grandmothers to dementia before they lost their lives, and in maybe the most extraordinary performance of the year, Anthony Hopkins recreates many moments I’ve lived with my family. This film restores personhood to the victims of the disease, convicted me of my impatience, and gave me a taste of what my grandmothers have lived through.
I guess I’m a dumb Millennial, but I knew absolutely nothing about this episode in American history. Apologies to my high school social studies teachers, but this depiction is more dynamic than any bolded textbook terms could imply. It’s some of the best of Aaron Sorkin’s idealist monologues and ideological pitter-patter, and it captures a debate about political activism, healthy debate, and fairness in government. (The writer in me also loved the tribute to the importance of grammar.) If you think there’s no way this wild trial happened as depicted, be sure to read up on the real events and learn how the film toned down the judicial circus for the sake of a reasonable runtime.
5. Promising Young Woman
This revenge thriller may remind you of works by Sofia Coppola and Quentin Tarantino, but writer/director Emerald Fennell still makes a film distinctly hers. The jokes, pop soundtrack, and pastel color palette will draw you in, but its indictment of how our culture handles sexual assault is as scathing as ever.
4. On the Rocks
Because great films can be breezy. Sofia Coppola’s modern elegance, Rashida Jones’s relatability, and Bill Murray’s dry deliver create a story both moving and laugh-out-loud hilarious. Watching Murray talk his way out of a ticket is now part of his career highlight reel.
With inspiration from The Searchers, it’s a story about how the stories we tell shape our worldviews. I made a goal to dig into Westerns in 2020 because I’ve largely missed the genre, but I never imagined I’d cap the year with a film so thoughtful and heartfelt. I could just watch Tom Hanks being a good person forever.
Nothing about Lee Isaac Chung’s breakthrough film looks like my childhood, but everything about it feels like my childhood. It’s a portrait of a marriage in conflict and a family in crisis, and the cast makes this immigrant family’s relationships so realistic it’s as if cameras have just dropped in to watch. Everything from the cinematography to the score invites us to revisit our childhood, and what a gift it is to be invited to experience it again.
It’s the most high-concept storytelling Pixar has attempted to date, and it may be the studio’s greatest yet. Soul journeys into ideas usually relegated to religious services and philosophy colloquia, but only Pixar could fashion them into a plot so fun. The movie never misses a chance for silliness, and the vibrant animation is so in sync with the transcendent score I’m not sure which is leading the other. Soul is a film for adults and children alike because the message is universal: You matter no matter who you are. So yes, this is another Pixar piece that just might make you cry.
Rounding Out the Top 20
11. Mank – This black-and-white riff on Citizen Kane made me want to live with the era’s larger-than-life personalities on a 1930s studio lot in all their flawed glory. In a perfect world, these musings on the creative process would’ve been the more popular Lily Collins Netflix premiere of 2020. (#SorryNotSorry, Emily in Paris.)
12. Da 5 Bloods – While Spike Lee’s latest ran a bit long, it’s hard to know what to cut when its updated take on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is so engrossing. Between the performances, the action, and the treasure hunt plot, it’s the rare Netflix original during which you won’t be tempted to look at your phone. In a perfect world, Delroy Lindo would be up for an Oscar this year.
13. Enola Holmes – An entirely charming addition to the Sherlock Holmes-verse that makes me entirely excited to see where Millie Bobby Brown’s career goes and the potential comedy pivots for Henry Cavill and Sam Claflin.
14. Boys State – An insightful documentary looking at a microcosm of American politics. I spent much of the movie wondering why the mock government at a Texas boys’ summer camp should be considered high-stakes, but as the final votes were being tallied, I was on the edge of my seat.
15. Tenet – I admit I have no reasonable answer to my dad’s question, “Why would someone make something 98% of people won’t understand?” I probably need to watch Tenet six more times to just understand just the first 20 minutes, but I’m still recommending it because this sci-fi action thriller kept me 100% engaged. Here’s hoping John David Washington leads more movies as thrilling and cool as this.
16. Sound of Metal – Like The Father, this brought me into a life experience I’ve never lived thanks to innovative sound editing and a thoughtful script. I’ve been a fan of Riz Ahmed since he stole the show as a Jason Bourne antagonist, so what a pleasure to see him own this atypical leading role.
17. One Night in Miami… – Regina King’s directorial debut breaks one long night of conversation out of its stage play conceit to create an exciting debate between Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke, and Malcolm X. I’m ready for Leslie Odom Jr. to become a movie star in addition to a Hamilton star.
18. Wonder Woman 1984 – It may not live up to the reputation of its predecessor, but I wish more superhero adventures had this kind of ambition for style and storytelling, even if Diana’s golden wings did get too close to the sun this time.
19. The Vast of Night – A fresh take on The Twilight Zone with a filmmaking style as vibrant and curious as its mysterious plot.
20. Let Them All Talk – Not everything in this Steven Soderbergh/Meryl Streep/Candice Bergen/Dianne Wiest/Lucas Hedges/Gemma Chan/Wow This Is a Stacked Cast film works, but some moments are brilliant. I think I finally understand the Lucas Hedges appeal!