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The A.V. Club's best films of 2020 – The A.V. Club

For one blissful month, it seemed like the defining moment of movie culture this year might be the most joyful one, too. Bong Joon Ho’s class warfare crowd-pleaser, Parasite, had beat the odds, shattered precedent, and overcome an American aversion to subtitles to win the Oscar for Best Picture. What a thing it was to experience live—a wonderful glitch in the simulation! Sadly, that night now feels miles away, a distant glimmer in the rearview mirror, a speck of light from the before times of ancient February. Just a few weeks after Parasite made history, James Bond made other plans: He would not be coming soon to a theater near anyone. In retrospect, this was the first sign that a whole industry—along with the rest of normal life as we knew it—would soon screech to a halt. 2020 would be a movie year like none before it.
That’s not hyperbole. For as long as Hollywood has been Hollywood, movies have made their way to theaters at a steady clip; you basically have to rewind to the days before the studio system to find a month on the calendar when nothing new was opening. 2020 gave us five months of that, an unprecedented drought. When theaters began reopening, tentatively and prematurely, back in August, blockbusters went bust; turns out most people weren’t willing to risk their lives just to see a new Christopher Nolan movie. The big pause on the big screen was felt in multiplexes and the arthouse alike, as superheroes flew to later dates and film festivals shrank and migrated online. Movie theaters haven’t disappeared yet, but they’re definitely in deep trouble. (AMC, one of the country’s leading chains, will reportedly go broke come January.)

It’s possible COVID has just accelerated a change that was already in progress. Streaming platforms have been angling to keep moviegoers on their couches for years now. In 2020, they won the fight by default, earning a (hopefully temporary) monopoly on a whole country’s viewing habits. If there were big hits after February, they were streaming fodder (like the Netflix quarantine time-waster Extraction) and movies originally slated for theaters (like My Spy and Mulan). Who knows how far off we were from instant, at-home access to the year’s splashiest titles, but that speculative future is suddenly a reality, as superhero sequels and Pixar adventures abandon their box office dreams to court streamers without subscriptions. Even the Academy has laid down arms: To keep their annual party alive, they’ll waive the usual requirement that a movie go big (screen) or go home; one year after Parasite broke the glass ceiling for foreign language fare, will Best Picture go to a Netflix original?

All of which it to say, it’s a scary and uncertain time for the movie industry, and for anyone invested in the survival of the theatrical experience. But as we noted a few months ago, when we rattled off some highlights at the half, a weird year for movies isn’t the same as a bad one. In fact, you could argue that the implosion of the release calendar—and a general absence of “bigger” projects sucking up all the oxygen in the room—has been a boon to the visibility of films otherwise in danger of being left out of the annual year-end conversation. These include a true bumper crop of exceptional movies by women, though they’d look rich, thoughtful, or daring no matter what year they came out.

Below, we proudly present the 25 best films of 2020, assembled from the ballots of a dozen A.V. Club contributors. In this year without blockbusters (and less middlebrow awards contenders), our critics cited documentaries, intimate independent dramas, adventurous visions from overseas, a bona fide avant-garde project, the kind of mid-budget Hollywood thriller the Oscars usually ignore, and the best installment of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology, whose five individual entries were all deemed eligible, even as the complete series earned a spot on our TV list. (In this purgatorial age of watching only from home, why split hairs about classification—especially when talking about one of the most ambitious dramatic projects of the year, regardless of specific medium?) And if we’ve successfully piqued your interest in any of the films cited, the goods news is that most are available right now to stream or rent. That makes 2020 unprecedented in at least one welcome respect.

To her repertoire of intense eccentrics and uncanny madwomen, Elisabeth Moss adds suspense writer Shirley Jackson, portrayed in Josephine Decker’s expressionistic drama as a human shard of glass with a propensity for the occult, debilitating body-image issues, and a sapphic side awaiting its awakening. She’s broken out of a creative slump by the arrival of a lodger (Logan Lerman) and his blushing young wife (Odessa Young), who enflames the passions of Shirley as well as her professorial lech of a husband (Michael Stuhlbarg, a gem as ever). The newcomers are both writerly inventions, inserted just as Decker erased Shirley’s three children, turning Jackson from a subject of portraiture to a component in a more intimate perspective on womanhood, artistry, and their overlapping psychological hazards. She’s a character here, an idea open for interpretation rather than a model of voice and physicality to be slavishly emulated. Future entries in the ever-expanding Troubled Genius Biopic genre would do well to takes note. [Charles Bramesco]

Leigh Whannell’s Universal Monster movie is arguably the most potent and effective film treatment of this elusive moral void of a character, thanks to its reorientation around Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss), the woman the Invisible Man menaces and stalks, conferring his status as a true monster. But Whannell’s real trick, one that keeps The Invisible Man on a harrowing knife’s edge between empowerment and exploitation, is that he hasn’t abandoned his B-movie roots: Although the filmmaking elegantly explores all those haunted empty spaces where an abuser could be lurking, this is also a nasty horror picture with at least one pitiless shock for the ages. Whannell even casts workmanlike performers in the villainous roles, giving those characters some rough edges while denying them the usual bad-guy charisma. Or does it just seem that way because Moss is such a powerful force? As Cecilia, she fights through a gaslit hell, channeling terror and resolve in equal measure. [Jesse Hassenger]

Watch The Nest with the sound off and you might well mistake it for a chiller about a haunted mansion. Sean Durkin’s second feature, which arrived nine long years after Martha Marcy May Marlene, employs the visual grammar of movies like The Haunting and The Shining to entirely symbolic ends, its big spooky British country house devoid of anything scarier than the myriad frustrations of the family who temporarily inhabits it. While the film is set in the late ’80s (when Durkin was a Canadian-born kid living in England), it’s anything but a superficial nostalgia piece; that was the “greed is good” era, and Jude Law’s status-conscious patriarch can’t abide the thought of not at least appearing affluent, however potentially ruinous the impact of his machinations upon his ferociously independent wife (Carrie Coon), his confused teenage stepdaughter (Oona Roche), and his perpetually nervous younger son (Charlie Shotwell). Nothing like some actual cavernous emptiness to underscore the plaintive echoes resounding in the human heart. [Mike D’Angelo]

At the very beginning of this absurdly funny and bleakly honest tale of male friendship, we watch our two leads, a pair of thirtysomething American dudes, cycling up a steep hill in the south of France. It’s apparently the best time for Mike (director Michael Angelo Covino) to confess to his best friend, Kyle (Kyle Marvin), that he’s been sleeping with his fiancée, an outrageously uncomfortable scene that plays out in a single extended shot. Such are the trials of romance for these hapless man-children, but friendship never fades, for better or worse. Scripted by in-real-life besties Covino and Marvin, The Climb traces roughly a decade in the lives of friends who repeatedly fall out and back into each other’s orbits. A bristling debut whose warmth, easy humor, and cynicism seems to grow organically out of its central relationship, this is also an insightful portrait of male intimacy that embraces, even as it derides, its characters’ imperfections and ugly behaviors. [Beatrice Loayza]

Beanpole begins with a noise. It’s somewhere between a rattle and a wheeze, wrung from the frozen, looming form of Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), like water from a damp towel. This is the sound of a war that’s ended but endures in the lives of the people just getting by in post-siege Leningrad—lives haunted by literally paralyzing bouts of PTSD, as in Iya’s case, or reaching a dead end when the veteran hospital where she works tells its hopeless patients that they don’t have to go home but they can’t stay here. The prodigious Russian director Kantemir Balagov, working from a screenplay co-written with Aleksandr Terekhov, never shies away from grimness, but this is no parade of misery. Instead, Beanpole trembles with color and life, thanks in no small part to Vasilisa Perelygina’s unforgettable turn as Masha, whose complex bond with Iya drives one of the great last acts of the year. [Allison Shoemaker]

In the cheekily named Forty-Year-Old Version, writer-director-star Radha Blank plays a fictionalized version of herself—a playwright struggling to recapture the early momentum of her career as she heads towards 40. As the onscreen Radha takes an unexpected detour into rapping, the real-life Blank announces herself as a wholly original cinematic voice. The Forty-Year-Old Version is incredibly funny, mining humor from the lackadaisical teens Radha teaches at her day job and the relatable frustrations of a particularly slow bus ride. The film saves its most pointed jabs for the elitist, heavily commercialized nature of the New York theater scene. But there’s also real—if sometimes prickly—heart to this story of a Black woman’s attempt to maintain her identity as both an artist and a person in a world that so often expects her to fit herself into a narrow box. The Forty-Year-Old Version is an exhilarating debut and the best comedy about theater since Slings & Arrows. [Caroline Siede]

The history of movies is a history of faces, and Vitalina Varela has one of the great ones. The film bearing her name unfolds, like most of the “slow cinema” of Pedro Costa, in a crumbling Lisbon, which the Portuguese director captures in painterly tableau and long takes of its immigrant population staggering like lost souls down narrow passageways. But the ruins of this ghost town are no more striking than the visage of Costa’s nonprofessional star, playing a version of herself: a Cape Verdean woman who flies in to say goodbye to her dying husband, only to discover that the man who abandoned her decades earlier is gone already. Framed tightly in close-up, staring from the shadows of a dilapidated house, Varela exudes a forceful commingling of grief, resentment, and regret—it’s a performance nearly as agonizingly expressive as Falconetti’s Joan of Arc. Costa’s movies can be impenetrable, but there’s no missing the entryway into this one, its naked emotional appeal. [A.A. Dowd]

David Fincher’s period Hollywood drama is ostensibly about how Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz filled the revered classic with his own memories and observations, and thus should maybe be considered as much the “auteur” of the movie as its director, Orson Welles. But don’t get too hung up on that argument, which has divided cinephiles ever since Pauline Kael and Peter Bogdanovich fought about it in the 1970s. Instead, marvel at how Fincher meticulously re-creates both the Depression-era squalor and the lavish decadence of the 1930s and ’40s. And appreciate Gary Oldman’s poignantly melancholy take on Mankiewicz, which shows him as a drunken middle-age wag, using the opportunity of Citizen Kane to tell the truth for once about the self-serving autocrats who run the world. [Noel Murray]

In a year when the movies shrank to the size of a TV or laptop screen and the studios held their bigger titles until further notice, Spike Lee absconded to Southeast Asia with around $40 million of Netflix’s money for one of his filmography’s grandest visions. A squadron of Black veterans—a uniformly excellent ensemble including Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., and a god-mode Delroy Lindo as the gnarled conscience of MAGA-era conservatism—return to Vietnam to retrieve a cache of gold stashed back in the 16mm ’60s by their slain leader (Chadwick Boseman, his untimely passing lending the performance an added angelic glow). Along the way, they get tangled up with land-mine disposers and a French smuggler and some marauding gunmen, a perilous adventure inviting comparison to Treasure Of The Sierra Madre. But they’re mostly caught in the thrashing tides of history, as Lee traces the American tradition of racial exploitation from the Summer of Love to the present day. [Charles Bramesco]

Nostalgia tripping back to the 1950s is especially fraught in 2020, which makes The Vast Of Night’s throwback magic look all the more miraculous. The film follows a DJ and a switchboard operator, both teenagers in a small New Mexico town, as they investigate a mysterious signal of possible extraterrestrial origin. Director/co-writer Andrew Patterson pulls from plenty of sources: The Twilight Zone, radio plays, teen-adventure movies, even a touch of screwball comedy in the brilliant opening sequence. But he grounds his work with sensory and analog details, like the squeak of shoes across a gym floor and the excitement of screwing around with a new tape recorder. The atmosphere is evoked with thrillingly dynamic filmmaking, elaborate tracking shots alternating with long passages where characters and viewers alike essentially listen to disembodied voices in the dark. The movie ultimately uses its fantastical hook not for fond remembrance but to depict a moment when teenage enthusiasm and curiosity give way to a bigger, scarier world. [Jesse Hassenger]

In adapting a 1909 novel by Jack London, Italian director Pietro Marcello transposes its story from Oakland to the coast of Naples (home of his co-screenwriter, Maurizio Braucci). But as in Christian Petzold’s Transit, our sense of time is scrambled, Marcello refusing to pin down the film’s era and thus setting us adrift in the sea change of the 20th century. In the title role, Luca Marinelli gives a vigorous, vital performance that animates Martin Eden’s voyage from proletarian sailor to renowned writer. Marcello, for his part, continually opens up his literary adaptation with discombobulating period anachronisms, gorgeous bursts of 16mm archival footage, swooning Italian pop, and thrillingly mobile camerawork. Reality, though, can’t quite match our hero’s dreams and political aspirations, and he eventually slides into decadence, surveying his past with a disillusioned eye. But in this temporally indeterminate film, the past may well be looking right back. [Lawrence Garcia]

The danger of tying your identity to your work is that a disruption of one can destroy the other. That’s what happens in Darius Marder’s riveting Sound Of Metal, starring Riz Ahmed as a drummer and recovering heroin addict whose life is upended when he loses nearly 80% of his hearing; eventually, he butts heads with a deaf Vietnam War veteran (an exceptional Paul Raci) who challenges his conception of self. Marder’s sound design is remarkable, drawing us into the narrative in a deliberate and immersive way, and the film’s contrast between the hearing and deaf communities goes deeper than surface level. But Sound Of Metal is ultimately Ahmed’s movie: In his highly introspective, beautifully nuanced performance, the actor helps us understand why this man would risk sabotaging his own opportunity for adaptation in pursuit of the life (and self-image) he once made for himself. [Roxana Hadadi]

The promise of America has always been linked to its land and to the idea that a small corner of this sprawling, green country can one day be yours to cultivate, nurture, and grow. Writer-director Lee Isaac Chung chases that life-affirming notion in his semi-autobiographical drama about a Korean American family that moves from California to Arkansas to support the agricultural dreams of its patriarch, played by an exceptional Steven Yeun. Minari cuts from dad’s struggles to find water for his crops to the changing relationship between his young son (Alan Kim) and his eccentric mother-in-law (Youn Yuh-jung)—a structure that’s tonally disjointed but integral to the contrast of old- and new-country ideologies it establishes. Ultimately, it’s the way Minari both subverts and fulfills the myth of America as a place for reinvention that makes it one of the most emotionally gripping films of the year. [Roxana Hadadi]

Icelandic director Hlynur Pálmason’s sophomore feature is a magnificently controlled character study, following a middle-aged police chief, Ingimundur (Ingvar Eggert Sigurdsson), struggling to reconcile his complicated feelings toward his recently deceased wife, his professional duty toward his community, and his love for his granddaughter. But as the title suggests, A White, White Day is just as attentive to the movements of the natural world and the passage of the seasons as to Sigurdsson’s fearsome portrayal of a volatile, violent man. Pálmason deploys stark, elemental imagery in counterpoint to Ingimundur’s simmering rage, then pushes things to a point where symbolic or even thematic correspondence becomes an afterthought. This is a film of free-floating unease, where dread suffuses the air like a thick fog. By the end, one is reminded that mourning, like most any other journey, is an intensely physical experience. As physical, even, as the weather. [Lawrence Garcia]While cinema is littered with stories of romance, platonic love stories are rarely explored as powerfully. Thankfully, this year gave us Fourteen, one of the most potent films about a waning intimate friendship in recent memory. We initially see longtime pals Mara (Tallie Medel) and Jo (Norma Kuhling) working within a familiar routine as adults—Jo undergoes a personal or professional crisis, and Mara helps her pick up the pieces—but writer-director Dan Sallitt slowly illustrates how a bond disintegrates over time as one person grows and another regresses for respectively understandable reasons. Sallitt, a film critic himself (he has friends here at The A.V. Club and elsewhere in the business), doesn’t pass judgment on his characters, instead aiming a compassionate eye at the tragic but ordinary arc of their relationship. Take our praise with a grain (or heap) of salt if you must, but this subtle, worldly film on a constantly overlooked subject shouldn’t be missed. [Vikram Murthi]

Garrett Bradley conceived Time as a documentary short. But fate, or Fox Rich, intervened: On the last day of shooting, Bradley’s subject handed her a bag containing 18 years of home movies. It’s a story that should become the stuff of film legend, as that trove of footage—a first-person video diary Rich kept from the earliest days of her husband Robert’s incarceration—transformed Time into a feature of tremendous power. By virtue of the tapes, Bradley’s remarkable, non-linear black-and-white documentary becomes both chronicle and artifact. It tells the story of Fox’s exhausting, relentless fight for Robert’s freedom; it’s also proof of the incredible loss her family suffered over the years he was behind bars. Advocacy and birthday candles, court battles and school projects—these things sit side by side, creating a tension that drives this compassionate, elegant film to its breathtaking conclusion. [Allison Shoemaker]

Filmmaker and cameraperson Kirsten Johnson pays puckish tribute to her own father in this offbeat, funny, and often tearjerking documentary in which a daughter spends some quality time with her kind-hearted and good-spirited old man, as his mind gradually weakens. The movie’s central gimmick is perversely “fun,” with Johnson and her dad imagining and staging different ways he could die, in order to demystify the process. But Dick Johnson Is Dead is ultimately less about death and more about life, and how to live it with a spirit of adventure and an inner joy. It’s also a film about film itself, and how the medium can preserve the essence of a person—so long as the person doing the preserving takes the time to do it. [Noel Murray]

Neither narrative nor documentary (in the conventional sense, at least), Jodie Mack’s hour-long kaleidoscopic textile extravaganza makes visual abstraction dizzyingly pleasurable. Imagine someone showing you a gorgeous piece of fabric, brightly colored and intricately patterned. Now imagine someone showing you a dozen such swatches every second, in spectacular arrays, shot against striking backdrops located around the globe and accompanied by a gloriously eclectic score. For those inclined to look for it, The Grand Bizarre does offer subtext on the toll of human labor—memorably encapsulated in the film’s lengthy finale, which juxtaposes a whirlwind of high-speed images with audio of the slow, exacting process by which they were made. Mostly, though, this is just pure eye candy: a dazzling compendium of the ways in which we impose beauty upon what could be strictly utilitarian objects. [Mike D’Angelo]

It’s funny that Charlie Kaufman once lost an Oscar to Inside Out. Don’t most of his movies also plunge audiences into the mind, via magic or sci-fi or just good ol’-fashioned voice-over? I’m Thinking Of Ending Things, the third film he’s directed from one of his own ingenious scripts, has left some viewers feeling rather trapped within its oppressively interior psychodrama; it’s a disorienting nightmare reverie about a young woman who begins to lose her grip on herself during a surreal day trip to meet her boyfriend’s parents. Yet for all the slippery cerebral games Kaufman plays with his source material (including boldly abstracting the twist ending of Ian Reid’s novella), the film remains anchored to an emotional reality—the foundation of quotidian discomfort offered by a terrific Jessie Buckley, finding a personality even as the details about her character begin to shift like sand in an hourglass. She’s our guide through the dense thicket of Kaufman’s imagination: a wondrous twilight zone of existential anxieties, dream ballet, and Robert Zemeckis jokes. [A.A. Dowd]

It says a lot about the state of America that the “abortion road trip movie” has now become its own subgenre. Like Little Woods and Unpregnant, Never Rarely Sometimes Always centers on two close-knit women who have to travel across state lines to obtain a safe, legal abortion. And the quietly observational film casts a pointed eye on the other large and small indignities that characterize daily life as a teenage girl, from routine harassment from a skeevy boss to the immoral manipulations of a “crisis pregnancy center.” Above all, however, writer-director Eliza Hittman is interested in the quiet support and kindness that exists between the women and girls linked by those shared hardships. From the heroic employees of Planned Parenthood to the supportive cousin who unquestioningly agrees to take that daunting road trip with the film’s protagonist, Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a stunningly empathetic character study that finds light without ignoring the dark. [Caroline Siede]

In a year defined by keeping one’s distance, there might not be a more enviable film on this list than Lovers Rock, which is primarily set at a sensuous reggae house party in 1980s London. In the second entry of his Small Axe anthology, Steve McQueen eschews most traditional characterization in favor of pure carnal spectacle, observing as bodies grind the night away to sexy grooves and soulful vocals. Shabier Kirchner’s gauzy digital cinematography captures every bead of sweat on the faces of the partygoers, all hypnotized by the music and intoxicated by their passion. Although Lovers Rock features a lovely romance at its center between two strangers who attend the soiree (Micheal Ward and Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn), McQueen’s focus remains squarely on the event as microcosm for the Black British community. He never lets you forget that the house party is an act of rebellion, an insurrectionary gesture by a marginalized and oppressed people simply trying to live free in their country. [Vikram Murthi]Although Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets presents itself as the final 18 hours before the permanent closing of a bar on the outskirts of Las Vegas, directors Bill and Turner Ross staged the shoot using a New Orleans location and an assembly of mostly untrained actors told to improvise. The resulting film, a verité-style portrait of barflies toasting the end of an era, looks and feels genuinely real thanks to the duo’s unobtrusive camera and the offhand naturalism of their eclectic, boozed-up cast. That the Rosses don’t bother “revealing” the truth—this bar isn’t actually a beloved local haunt, and the whole experience is curated—feels like a matter of principle. After all, there is something real happening at their fake bar, aptly named The Roaring 20s, that blurs the boundaries of fact and fiction. A tribute to the spirit of American bar culture and the kinds of folks who find comfort and solace in the camaraderie of the watering hole, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets locates truth in the haze of intoxication, raw feelings beneath a layer of artifice. [Beatrice Loayza]

Taken individually, each of the red flags in Kitty Green’s The Assistant could be dismissed as “no big deal.” And that’s the point. As Jane (Julia Garner) goes about her long, thankless day as a junior assistant to a Weinstein-esque movie mogul in New York, making copies and enduring verbal abuse from her boss, the subtle signs that something deeper is amiss pile up around her until they’re impossible to ignore. That’s also the nature of sexual harassment and assault allegations, which gain power with every new voice that’s added to the chorus. And although we are now living in a “post-#MeToo era,” Green’s warning about how complicity corrodes the soul—just look at Garner’s tired eyes and set jaw—will, unfortunately, be forever relevant. [Katie Rife]

Even if it wasn’t such a sensitive and luminous drama, Nomadland would still be a fascinating case study in adapting nonfiction. Writer-director Chloe Zhao and star-producer Frances McDormand used Jessica Bruder’s 2017 book of the same name as a jumping-off point for their own wanderings, as Zhao, McDormand, and the crew lived and worked alongside self-proclaimed “nomads” who traverse the American West in search of seasonal employment and a place to park for a while. The result of this lived experience can be seen in McDormand’s vulnerable, melancholy performance as Fern, a hard-working woman who takes being abandoned by the system in stride. Fern doesn’t know any other way but forward, and Nomadland elevates her humble journey, and those of her fellow travelers, to the same romantic status as the restless cowboys and hopeful pioneers who came before. [Katie Rife]

Kelly Reichardt’s soulful, offbeat portrait of life on the fringe of 19th-century civilization hit theaters the first week of March, mere days before most of them shut down. It was a sadly apropos fate for a film about modest American dreams and everything in their way. Returning to the era and aspect ratio (but not the dread) of her mesmeric Meek’s Cutoff, Reichardt chronicles the risky culinary venture of two men gentler than the age they were born into: a soft-spoken baker (John Magary) and an inquisitive businessman (Orion Lee) who begin milking, without permission, the only cow in the Oregon Territory—an old world as grubby and invitingly real as the mining town of Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller. That’s the long and short of it, but like most of this writer-director’s commiserative odes to the outsider, the movie has the hidden depths of an iceberg: Its touching tale of friendship conceals a larger critique, an origin story of our so-called land of opportunity. Reichardt’s ability to find one in the other helps account for how First Cow has lingered in hearts and minds, months after its theatrical run abruptly ended. In 2020, what could be more sympathetic than a race against economic ruin, or more alluring than the company of a true blue lying close in the grass? [A.A. Dowd]


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