Greetings, fellow exhausteds, and welcome to The Best Films of 2020, a year that, despite being less than 365 days old, has aged so rapidly that Gary Oldman is circling the biopic. Some, uh, unusual stuff happened this year – I don’t know if you noticed – and it made compiling this collective list even more interesting than usual. A record-breaking 34 regular Playlist contributors submitted top tens (you can find the complete list of those to blame/praise for this ranking at the end of the feature). This created a total pool of 105 films (104 if you don’t count the single, presumably protest vote for “Hubie Halloween“) when usually we’re pulling from a long list of around 80.
This reflects, of course, the scattered viewing experience all of us have had in this most scattered of years. Largely without the funneling action that is theatrical distribution to winnow the numbers down, we’ve all been off on our own small-screen odysseys, filling up the long, at-best-boring, at-worst-horrifying pandemic days following noses, Netflix algorithms, and Neon streaming strategies to find succor in cinema anywhere we can. And as a result the following 25 films – and about another baker’s dozen that came very close – deserve kudos, not only for being good, but for managing to get themselves seen in the first place. Any film made available to the general US public in 2020 was eligible, and yes, we are considering the films in the “Small Axe” series as individual movies. Anyone who wishes to debate us on this point is very welcome to, by sending a triplicate handwritten 8-page reasoning by snail mail to the ring-tailed lemur enclosure in the Bronx Zoo.
You can be the judge of whether our overall tastes have shifted as a result of All This. But it is gratifying to note that our top ten, while not headed by as clear-cut a winner as 2019’s “Parasite” or 2018’s “You Were Never Really Here” has a higher than usual directorial diversity quotient – a tentative green shoot of hope for a future in which we don’t just desperately revert “back to normal,” but create a better, more inclusive new normal. That said, somewhat surprisingly, the summer’s only bona fide blockbuster also appears – you can’t help but wonder if it would have placed quite so high had the tentpole movie release schedule proceeded as planned. Or indeed, if it had been day-and-date with HBO Max.
It’s true that like every year, we’ve arrived at a list that represents no single one of us getting everything they wanted, in the order they wanted it. And yet we are all extremely proud of these results (several spurious lawsuits from the firm of Giuliani Associates Law & Total Landscaping notwithstanding), representing as they do the laughably outmoded principles of democracy, collegiality, and mutual respect. Buncha goddamn socialists.
Here’s where I’d normally say something about diving in and thus hastening the end of a year that has bullied us all beyond belief. But I’ve done that more or less every December in recent memory, only for the following year to take it as a challenge to be exponentially worse. Fool me four times, shame on me, so I’ll just say instead that while we wait warily to see if 2020’s younger sibling 2021 will quit shoving us in our lockers and stealing our lunch money or if it will escalate antagonisms, these are the 25 films that most helped us bear a borderline unbearable year.
25. “Mank” (David Fincher)
Full of inky black and white, Welles-ian deep focus, and old-school dissolves, David Fincher’s “Mank” may be shot digitally but it owes much to the Golden Age Hollywood style. That’s well suited to its subject matter: a biopic of sorts of “Citizen Kane” screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, played by a curmudgeonly and frail Gary Oldman. It’s written in a similarly mannered style, peppered with asides that don’t aim for realism so much as pithiness. “Mank” charts the creation of ‘Kane’ via a straightforward flashback structure, sharing the writer’s various entanglements with the who’s-who of silver screen lore. It’s a film that refuses to play to the gallery, be it of ordinary Netflix viewers who find its dense allusions baffling, or film history purists who will find its air-quote approach to the past frustrating. In that way, form stubbornly follows character: flawed but worthwhile. “Mank” is a gorgeously-rendered celebration of a little-remembered artist working within the confines of a politically fraught and commerce-driven system, and it dares to look askance at the more chequered elements of movie history. – Christina Newland
24. “Boys State” (Amanda McBain & Jesse Moss)
What will American politics look like for the next generation of high school civics try-hards who have been raised on a steady information diet of Buzzfeed, Facebook, Fox News, and everything in between? That’s the question that Sundance breakout “Boys State” asks, and based on the young men it features it’s hard to know if one should be optimistic or terrified. What is obvious is that these teenagers are a reflection of the current state of politics in the United States, tangled up as it is in a cloudy cesspool of half-truths, wedge issues, party talking points, dirty tricks, and an entrenched winner-loser binary. “Boys State” takes turns inspiring and deflating its audience, as for every bright-eyed teenager with good intentions there’s a hard-hearted cynic whose soul must have been sold in the womb. In the end, it’s messy and complicated and points towards an uncertain future, but then again, that’s America in 2020. – Warren Cantrell
23. “Ema” (Pablo Larraín)
Volunteer firefighting is a tradition with deep roots in Chile, romantically patriotic and for life. But in Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín’s sweaty and scorching “Ema,” the metaphor is inverted and twisted, no one is saved and everything is ablaze. Set in the port town of Valparaíso—the home of firefighting in the proud South American nation— an eccentric, impulsive couple are burning down their house. A volatile, peroxide-bleached reggaeton dancer (Mariana Di Girolamo) and her narcissistic choreographer husband Gastón (Gael García Bernal) torch their reputations and their toxic marriage when an adoption goes awry. Returning a boy they can love, but can’t manage (“You taught him to set things on fire!” Gastón protests), the provocative “Ema” proceeds to twerk, pop, lock, and spin itself into an incandescent fury of shame, regret, betrayal, lust, seduction, and hedonistic catharsis. Confrontational, and set to a libidinous electro beat by composer Nicolas Jaar, “Ema” throbs with chaotic emotion throughout, a potent and fearless incineration of desire, love, and the notion of the modern-day family. – Rodrigo Perez
22. “Babyteeth” (Shannon Murphy)
A young woman is coming face to face with life both beginning passionately and ending violently all at once in Shannon Murphy’s tender “Babyteeth”. Milla (Eliza Scanlen) is a teenage girl whose world is bulldozed by a boy, as seems familiar, but also fatal cancer that has been growing throughout her body, making the most formative years of her life to also her last, disappearing like into quicksand. The story is high-stakes, but the film never loses its light touch, and Scanlen is perfect company, while Essie Davis and Ben Mendelsohn play Milla’s loving and imperfect parents, and Toby Wallace stakes his claim as our next best heartbreaker. “Babyteeth” hits you like a rush of blood to the head, remembering the key moments of our life that left you fractured and hurt – but still exhilarated just to have felt anything at all. – Ella Kemp
21. “Bacurau” (Kleber Mendonça Filho & Juliano Dornelles)
In Kleber Mendonça Filho & Juliano Dornelles‘ film, the bond between residents of a small Brazillian village (Thomas Aquino, Sônia Braga, Bárbara Colen), through trauma and systemic oppression, is palpable, as is the specter of death that dominates the screen for two hours. Sometimes, a little righteous bloodshed is needed to maintain this bond. The magical directorial combination of Filho and Dornelles produces draw-dropping results, which one could call Tarantino-esque, though where his splattered brains and guts can feel unwarranted, the violence of “Bacurau” simply makes sense, considering the appalling nature of the film’s colonizing villains (Udo Kier). There’s no one main character or protagonist to latch onto here; instead, it’s an entire community whose traditions and shared heritage give the film its heart. Brandishing western and sci-fi thriller elements, this 2019 Cannes Jury Prize winner compels right through to the final standoff, but at its core “Bacurau” is an intelligent socio-political drama where the underdogs— on the verge of being completely erased—fight back. – Kyle Kohner
20. “Palm Springs” (Max Barbakow)
Plenty of ink has already been spilled on the way that director Max Barbakow and writer Andy Siara’s time-loop comedy accidentally felt so of-the-moment when it dropped mid-pandemic: it captured our collective monotony (“Happy Millionth Birthday, Dipshit!”), as well as our desperate need to stop the days from blurring into one. But let’s not forget that the movie was already a Sundance sensation in the Before Times, and not in the double-edged “Hamlet 2,” “Happy, Texas” kind of way: This would surely rank just as high in a normal year. Underneath the (very welcome) Lonely Island silliness, undoubted visual pep, and time-shifting shenanigans, you have the bones of the most effective rom-com in at least a decade, an oddly resonant love letter to the idea of finding the person who helps you make this stupid, absurd life bearable. – Oli Lyttelton
19. “Shirley” (Josephine Decker)
“Shirley” is a film full of impressive performances, but there is one particular scene that makes Josephine Decker’s latest directorial effort impossible to forget. After being chastised for months over her lack of progress over her new novel, acclaimed author Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) presents the first draft to her obsessive and often cruel husband, Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) for his critique. As she sits in another room alone, dreading his reaction, Decker makes the brilliant choice of leaving the camera on the actress for almost three minutes as Moss conveys Jackson’s journey from fear and insecurity to utter relief and joy over his approval. It perfectly encapsulates the manipulative and confining gender roles of the early 1950s that are at the center of the picture, shackles that even Jackson and her former muse, Rose (Odessa Young), are struggling to break free of. And it’s Decker’s intimate aesthetic that conveys these 70-year-old conflicts in an unexpectedly contemporary manner. The impact is simply sublime. – Gregory Ellwood
18. “Soul” (Pete Docter & Kemp Powers)
The studio that brought us sentient cars, toys, monsters – even sentient emotions – Pixar inevitably sets its sights on life’s biggest questions. This kind of dense storytelling, developing ever since Woody and Buzz took their first steps, has led to “Soul”– a film made for creatives by creatives. It follows a middle school band teacher (Jamie Foxx) whose dreams of a jazz career have gone by the wayside, but then a mishap knocks his soul out of his body, and his travels to The Great Before help to restore a sense of passion and purpose. The film refreshingly acknowledges that an artist’s main obstacle can also be their greatest gift, while simultaneously delivering a touching ode to the mentors who bring out the greatness we fail to see in ourselves. Sharp, witty, and boasting one of the most effective scores in a Pixar film to date (thank you Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross), the film is Pixar manifest: a culmination for these pioneer storytellers who, by baring their own souls, somehow managed to answer the unanswerable. – Griffin Schiller
17. “Beanpole” (Kantemir Balagov)
Psychological trauma takes physical form in Kantemir Balagov’s somber post-war drama, whether it’s through the wounds of the soldiers in the Leningrad hospital where Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) works, or the sudden nosebleeds that befall her fiercely pragmatic friend Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina). Most significant, perhaps, are Iya’s frequent seizures, which yield tragic consequences in the film’s harrowing first act, which suggests a war that continues to claim casualties after the fighting has stopped, Meanwhile the exquisitely composed, claustrophobic, visuals create an environment tinted by the horrors of recent history as Iya and Masha try to move ahead yet remain trapped within an aimless, empty present, unable to process the ugly truths that their bleak surroundings so vividly reflect. But as pessimistic as Balagov’s film can get, the rich humanity and quiet longing that “Beanpole” discovers within its two leads provide just enough hope that these two might yet find a way through this uncertain new reality. – David Pountain
16. “The Assistant” (Kitty Green)
Detailing the minutia of Jane’s (Julia Garner) work-life, as she runs errands for her film producer boss, “The Assistant” slowly builds in small revelations about her boss’s personal life, which leads Jane to realize not only that he’s a sexual abuser, but that the entire company is covering for him. A slow-motion horror show, Kitty Green’s debut narrative feature is uncomfortably quiet, never moving from Jane’s point of view, as she tries to balance her personal ambition against her moral realizations. “The Assistant” is more powerful for what it leaves out, never showing the Weinstein-inspired mogul, whose presence is nonetheless felt. And in Jane’s confrontation with an HR representative, played with an extra dose of cowardice by Matthew Macfadyen, it becomes clear that it’s not only the powerful who exploit the system, but also those who turn a blind eye to abuse. By showcasing such a specific point of view, in a compressed time frame, “The Assistant” delivers a lacerating look at the film industry. – Christian Gallichio