As our 2020 wrap-up kicks into gear, Chris couldn’t sit idly by and allow only ten of the best films this year get recognition so he decided to highlight 30 of his top titles.
Take a look below and be sure to follow all of our best of 2020 lists over here.
- We Are Little Zombies – Makoto Nagahisa
With the anarchic pop-visual sensibility of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World crashed into the existential dread of A Serious Man, Makoto Nagahisa’s boldly creative musical-dramedy about 4 orphans forming a band to mend their trauma is the year’s most audaciously original film. We Are Little Zombies is a kitschy and absurd coming-of-age film that never allows its unchained visual experimentation to distract from its deep-seated and heartfelt exploration of grief and the obstacles we invent that prevent us from moving on. Irreverent and surreal, We Are Little Zombies has imagination bursting from every intoxicating scene. A film that needs to be seen to be believed.
2. Possessor – Brandon Cronenberg
Unrelentingly visceral and mind-bendingly twisted, the latest from Brandon Cronenberg’s signature brand of muted body horror is a tour de force in discomfort and testing one’s threshold. At times an intensive sensory overload, at others a clinically restrained probe into the ethical limits of embodiment, Possessor is an aggressively uncomfortable film that seeks to get under your skin and succeeds on every level. Hopefully you all go back and give Antiviral another shot.
3. Da 5 Bloods – Spike Lee
Da 5 Bloods is Spike Lee masterfully grappling with the residual trauma from the failed Vietnam war for four disgruntled veterans. Their Treasure of the Sierra Madre-esque journey to recover a buried treasure and put their fallen brother in arms to rest is filmed by Lee with a keen sense of scope and a focus on these soldiers evolving awareness of their age, nationality, and mortality. Featuring a cast of standout veteran actors (including masterful turns by Delroy Lindo and Chadwick Boseman) and Lee’s powerful awareness of the course of history, Da 5 Bloods is in contention to be one of the veteran director’s best works
4. I’m Thinking of Ending Things – Charlie Kaufman
Based on Iain Reed’s novel of the same name, Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things is that rare kind of adaptation where the many poignant deviations from the source material are by far the most interesting aspect. The more or less faithful rendition of Reed’s prose is made stranger and more surreal by the key idiosyncratic flourishes and overbearing sense of apathetic dread of Kaufman’s work. A head-scratching meditation on ego and artistic value told with a chaotic melancholy, the odd but enriching cast give the film a sinister and unsettling texture that ensure it will be rattling around in your head long after you finish watching it.
5. The Small Axe films – Steve McQueen
Steve McQueen’s luminous Small Axe anthology created a lot of overdone discourse over whether or not the series should be categorized as “television” or “film.” What was clear, however, was nobody dared argue their collective brilliance or inarguable merit as transformative and moving pieces of art. We could split hairs about which entry (episode? part?) is superior, but McQueen’s consistent vision and sharp execution means a case could be made for literally every one of the released films as being the best. I include them as one entry on this list not as a reaching statement of these five separate films being a single filmic experience or to diminish each entry’s unique qualities, but to instead celebrate their overall impact and importance.
6. Never Rarely Sometimes Always – Eliza Hittman
One of the most emotionally devastating films of the year, Eliza Hittman’s teenage pregnancy drama/odyssey of unflappable friendship is overflowing with empathy for its protagonist. Given uncountable dimensions by breakout star Sydney Flanigan’s soft, unassuming performance, Never Rarely Sometimes Always compassionately explores the trials for young women to maintain autonomy and choice over their own bodies. Heartbreaking in a way that feels uncomfortably real, Hittman’s script and warm direction gives the film a deep emotional resonance unlike few other films this year.
7. Wolfwalkers – Tomm Moore and Ross Stewar
As someone who was an emotional wreck after Studio Chizu’s Wolf Children back in 2012, I had no chance not to be charmed by Cartoon Saloon’s own unique take on familial lycanthropy. An eye-pleasing sense of design inspired from Celtic woodblock and tapestry, the mature and heartwarming narrative of Wolfwalkers about the trials of friendship rings a familiar bell but is executed flawlessly. Bursting with tenderness, beautiful animation, and a voice cast that hits all the right notes, Wolfwalkers is the supreme animated achievement of the year which has solidified Cartoon Saloon’s already impressive track record for years to come.
8. She Dies Tomorrow – Amy Seimetz
An anxiety-inducing experience, Amy Seimetz latest is a mystifying psychological horror that confounds while never losing its ability to terrify. Pulled from Seimetz’s personal struggles with panic attacks, She Dies Tomorrow and it’s rousing depiction of a virally-transferred thanatophobia is the type of film that is really hard to describe, but all the better for its overwhelming impact. Watching Seimetz work through this concept in such a petrifying manner with calculating and dread inducing direction is just enthralling.
9. Sound of Metal – Darius Marder
A wall-to-wall showcase for the inimitable talents of Riz Ahmed, Darius Marder’s nuanced and multifaceted exploration of disability and those sudden adjustments in life is poignant and dripping with compassion. A guaranteed sound editing/mixing Oscar for its multifaceted approach to dramatize sudden acute deafness for headstrong metal drummer Ruben, the film resonates due to its attention to the deaf experience and the raw skill of Ahmed to immerse himself in this world.
10. The Wild Goose Lake – Diao Yinan
Immediately infatuating and paced expertly with an overpowering tension, Diao Yinan’s long awaited follow-up to the sleeper hit Black Coal, Thin Ice as enigmatic and assured as you’ve come to expect from this director. A tale of the criminal underworld and how it operates its own form of justice, the film carries a gritty exploitation feel while highlighting a restrained yet thrilling direction by Yinan. The Wild Goose Lake is like The Fugitive by way of a very noirish vision of the Wuhan district.
11. Dick Johnson is Dead – Kirsten Johnson
Dick Johnson is not Dead, but he is constantly dying in increasingly outlandish dramatizations of his own death, as designed and staged by his loving and patient daughter Kirsten Johnson. The Cameraperson director continues her self-reflexive exploration of the subject by making her father and her struggle to accept his mortality the focus of her blackly-comic but ultimately earnest film. Part steadfast celebration of life, part sorrowful acceptance of death, part imaginative jest over the documentary process, Dick Johnson is Dead is an insightful and spirited work for the ages.
12. On-Gaku: Our Sound – Kenji Iwaisawa
The labored and protracted nature of its 7-year independent production where director Kenji Iwaisawa hand-drew 40,000 frames himself is an achievement worthy enough of praise. Considering the end product is a piece of pure vibes, chill entertainment, evocative animation, and powerfully understated mood makes On-Gaku: Our Sound all the more a miracle. The tale of three eternally bored layabouts who discover a sense of motivation and joy from playing their monotonic, flat music and forming a band on a whim is insightful about those strange places where inspiration hits and the overwhelming power of just jamming.
13. Time – Garrett Bradley
In Garrett Bradley’s film, time itself is stretched, condensed, shuffled, and endlessly ruminated over to tell the story of the Rich family and the time they missed out on together. Broken up by the uncaring prison system, Sybil and Rob Rich have spent a lifetime separated and pining for the day they can be reunited as a family. As Bradley’s film compassionately shows through extensive archive footage and interviews, time is always marching forward and a life separated is not one unlived. While a scathing critique of the justice system is folded into Time, Bradley’s films true achievement is capturing a family and making their endless waiting for a reunion feel tangible.
14. First Cow – Kelly Reichardt
A wise exploration of masculine tenderness in historically untender times. A condemnation of unfettered capitalism and the trials and moral compromises it takes to survive in that kind of system. A series of star-making turns for John Magaro, Orion Lee, and Eve the cow. First Cow is all this and more. A soft-hearted and disquieting western about the hardships of being kind and genuine in times of ruthless greed, Kelly Reichardt’s latest is a visually stunning parable that lifts your spirits before dashing them expertly.
15. Babyteeth – Shannon Murphy
Sharp and honest, Shannon Murphy’s Babyteeth is an uncomfortably real confrontation with youth and mortality that feels direct, poignant and tuned into the teenage mindset like few others one could name. With a mature and layered performance by breakout star Eliza Scanlen as a sixteen-year old cancer patient, Murphy’s direction crackles with empathy for the tragic Milla and her doomed budding romance with the flakey and criminal Moses (Toby Wallace). Babyteeth is an emotional rollercoaster of a film that feels rewarding and uplifting despite its crushing morbidity.
16. Shithouse – Cooper Raiff
Have you ever had a drunken night at college that seemed to last forever, where after indulging in an excessive amount of cheap wine or beer you start to get really existential, wrestling with the decisions you’ve made in your short life? Cooper Raiff’s microbudgeted Shithouse distills the essence of one of those nights and strains it through the irresistible charms of mumblecore comedy. The story of one struggling freshman who goes on a journey of self-discovery after one particularly awkward one-night stand is made shockingly relatable due to Raiff’s simple, honest script about the college experience.
17. Feels Good Man – Arthur Jones
To condense the complex and maddening saga of meme-cum-hate symbol Pepe the Frog into a clean, readable narrative is worthy enough of praise for director Arthur Jones. Going above and beyond the call of duty for Feels Good Man, his film is a fully immersive and informative dive into the culture of memes, politics, extremism, the status of authorship in a terminally online world, and a compassionate portrait of the totally chill artist that became a footnote to his own creation.
18. Labyrinth of Cinema – Nobuhiko Obayashi
Obayashi Nobuhiko’s wild legacy in Japanese cinema is unmeasurable, and for his final statement as director he pointed his camera around at the very idea of cinema itself. Like the progressively meta experiments of Godard in his later years, Labyrinth of Cinema is an epic love letter to the emotional and transportive powers of movies which sees the late-great director wrestle with his personal memories and the ones the films made for him. Most directors could only hope their last artistic endeavors are this textured, memorable, and befitting their legacy.
19. La Llorona – Jayro Bustamante
The inclusion of Jayro Bustamante’s engrossing supernatural thriller that reworks the titular figure of Spanish folklore into a parable of guilt and complicity on this list is mostly to make a statement about the uselessness of the term “elevated horror.” The cold, calculating design of La Llorona and its thematic resonance make Bustamante’s film a heady yet unsettling experience which operates with a restrained, oppressive sense of tension. It hits such chilling notes in its story of a General being confronted with his war crimes that make its relevance exist far beyond the restricting categorizations of genre, be they “elevated” or otherwise.
20. Driveways – Andrew Ahn
“Simple but effective” was my initial reaction to Andrew Ahn’s coming-of-age story about a mother and son and their project to clean out her estranged sister’s hoarder house. The more I let the understated drama of Driveways marinate in my brain the more I came to appreciate its surprising emotional depth and its mature exploration of economic disparity and wrestling with the regrets we make with our family. With a solid cast including a heartwarming sendoff performance by the inimitable Brian Dennehy, Ahn’s film is a genuine, feel-good gem that deserved far more attention this year.
21. The Invisible Man – Leigh Whannell
Sleek and timely, Whannell’s updating of Universal’s classic movie monster places the spotlight on the victim to explore gaslighting and egotistical sociopathy with a horror twist. Anchored by an award-worthy (if the Academy didn’t have it in for horror) and harrowing performance by Elisabeth Moss who sees her entire reality unravel at the hands of her abuser, the film just thrills with its glossy visuals and horrifying (yet sadly recognizably familiar) plot of manipulation.
22. Bacurau – Kleber Mendonça Filho
Partly an exploitative cultural tourist twist on Seven Samurai, partly a rebellious tale about a disheveled community trying to uncover the mystery of recent unexplained phenomena. Bacurau is a wild, inventive, and violent neo-western which feels textured, abrasive, but ultimately enigmatic. Kleber Fiho’s masterful vision occasionally dips into the surreal territories of the acid western, but the overall effect of the film is blood-freezing intensity, especially with a vicious climax that would make Sergio Leone proud.
23. Swallow – Carlo Mirabella-Davis
A Pica-based psychological body horror, Swallow is a clandestine story of bodily autonomy and class expectations which feels menacing without losing its sense of empathy. Watching the emotionally isolated Hunter (Haley Bennett) struggle to resist her strange obsession of ingesting inanimate objects is an uncomfortable experience in and of itself, but given Mirabella-Davis’ compassionate hold over the story and Bennett’s commanding performance it elevates the weirdness of the premise into high pathos.
24. The Assistant – Kitty Green
As someone who vehemently hates descriptors such as “the first great film of the ________ era,” Kitty Green’s brilliantly underplayed The Assistant and its profound understanding of a post “#metoo” world in action makes a case for its importance in this epoch. A coldly realistic portrait of one exhausting day for a young assistant working for a high-powered film production company, the crushing monotony and gradual toxicity of her environment is captured in an uncomfortably minimalist yet genuine presentation by Green’s direction. With a masterful performance by Julia Garner that crackles in silent indignity and bitter complacency, The Assistant is a film that feels immediately relevant and devastatingly real.
25. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – George C. Wolfe
George C. Wolfe’s adaptation of August Wilson’s play “about” the Blues legend Ma Rainey and one tumultuous day of recording with her backing band does not do much to transcend the stagey feel of its protracted prose. And yet, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a testament to the heavy-lifting a pitch perfect cast and a bevy of memorable, towering monologues can do for a film adaptation. When the likes of Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis, Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo and Michael Potts are working their way through the evocative dialogue of Wilson, it is hard not to get something out of Wolfe’s adaptation
26. The Lodge – Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala
As someone who believes children can be unfathomably cruel monsters at the slightest provocation, to me The Lodge is one of the scariest horror films of the year. A deliberately minimal design that charts the mental unravelling of a cult survivor at the hands of unending manipulation with a sinister flair, the film’s encroaching sense of dread and cold, clinical visuals make it an aloof but affecting horror experience. Stony and unsettling, the film is made unforgettable once the cruel twist of its story is teased out over an agonizing slow burn.
27. Capone – Josh Trank
An uncompromising artistic vision usually goes one of two ways: the filmmaker is vindicated for steadfastly sticking to their guns by producing a bold and original artwork, or their resistance to collaboration swiftly blows back in their face as their inflexible vision proves too “out-there” for anybody but the filmmaker. Occasionally, you get something like Josh Trank’s Capone, a baffling biopic built on perplexing decisions that hits a strange balance between inspired and nonsensical. A gruff, meandering performance by Tom Hardy, a scatological obsession with Capone’s body breaking down, and a deluge of plot points that rarely if ever go anywhere, Capone is an oddity of a film that feels true to whatever Trank was going for. And that is kind of what makes it so special.
28. Tenet – Christopher Nolan
I could lie and say I completely understood Nolan’s time-manipulating gimmick at work in the slick and sumptuous Tenet, but on my first viewing that’s not really what I got out of the experience. For me, Tenet is in essence a very straightforward secret agent action spectacle propped up by paper thin characterizations and a plot and tone not dissimilar to the star vehicles of Van Damme and Seagal of yesteryear. The mindbending concept of “inverted entropy” is interesting, but in execution it really only exists in Tenet to jazz up the jaw-dropping and splendidly shot action set pieces. And that makes for a great time.
29. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm – Jason Woliner
We needed a laugh this year, and when he was most needed, Borat Sagdiyev returned to give us the cringe-inducing, uncomfortably hilarious release we desired. A film so entwined to the insane milieu of 2020 that its shelf life is yet to be determined, Sacha Baron Cohen nevertheless struck while the iron was hot and brought his A-game of raunchy, uncomfortable satire to this garbage fire of a year with shocking, hilarious, and occasionally heartfelt results. If anything, it gave us THAT Rudy Giuliani moment and a breakout performance for Maria Bakalova, which is more than a lot of other films did this year.
30. Proxima – Alice Winocour
A simple story told with an overpowering sentiment, Alice Winocour’s Proxima is the age-old maternal separation drama made freshly relevant. With an anchoring performance by Eva Green as a single mother preparing for a year long stint in space and the separation anxiety she feels for her daughter, the film is overflowing with tenderness. In a year when many of haven’t seen our parents in months, this one hit particularly hard.