I don’t need to tell you what a weird year 2020 has been.
And that goes for movies.
Theaters have been closed. New releases have been available at home through rental, purchase or for “free” (if you’re paying for a streaming service). Many films’ release dates have been delayed. Even the Oscars — and movies’ eligibility for the Oscars — have been delayed.
Who knows if things will ever go back to the way they used to be? Right now we’re all just trying to survive. (Well, maybe not all of us are trying.)
Most of this year’s best films, whether coincidentally or not, reflect the current anxiety in the world. There’s a lot of anger — if not barely suppressed rage — and heartbreak behind them.
That’s not a bad thing. Movies are at their best when they promote consciousness, and that’s what these films do.
Warning: You maybe haven’t heard, let alone seen, most of these films. This isn’t me trying to play artsy critic. The movies that appear on this list are honestly my favorite films of the year, whether because of their emotional or intellectual impact, their artistry, or some other intangible. Gotta call ’em as I see ’em.
(See Below For Top Ten Performances of The Year.)
The best movies of 2020:
1. “Collective.” A Bucharist nightclub fire kills 27, and then many more die in hospitals. A newspaper uncovers why, leading to a wide-ranging scandal involving Romania’s national health-care system. Alexander Nanau’s documentary unfolds deliberately, powerfully, as institutional corruption is exposed and several people — including a new Minister of Health — heroically try to change the system. You don’t have to be from Romania to feel frustration over the greed and deceit at play here; they strike close to home.
2. “Sound of Metal.” Writer-director Darius Marder (“The Place Beyond the Pines”) delivers a knockout drama about a heavy-metal drummer (Riz Ahmed) who discovers he’s losing his hearing. Ahmed and Olivia Cooke, as the drummer’s bandmate/girlfriend, are great as a couple who have saved each other from self-destruction but struggle with this new obstacle as they move forward.
3. “Promising Young Woman.” Carey Mulligan gives one of the performances of the year as Cassandra, the sardonic heroine of this scathing revenge tale from first-time feature-film writer-director Emerald Ferrell. Cassandra’s dry, sarcastic wit is often hilarious, but she’s also heartbreaking, and the dark, disturbing details of this story ring gut-wrenchingly true.
4. “First Cow.” A cook (John Magaro) and a Chinese immigrant (Orion Lee) join forces in the wilds of 1820s Oregon to seek their fortune in this poetic meditation on friendship, ownership and shared wealth from writer-director Kelly Reichardt (“Certain Women”). This one creeps up on you, leading to a devastatingly poignant finale.
5. “I Am Greta.” Teenage climate-activist Greta Thunberg, Time magazine’s Person of the Year for 2019, will (most likely) leave you choked up with admiration in Nathan Grossman’s inspiring documentary about her rise to fame. The Swedish schoolgirl proves through her courage and perseverance that one person really can make a difference.
6. “The Truth.” Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche and Ethan Hawke — now there’s an impressive cast — star in this compellingly understated drama about family. Written and directed by Hirokazu Koreeda (“Shoplifters”), it involves a self-centered actress (Deneuve), her screenwriter daughter (Binoche) and the daughter’s husband (Hawke) as they deal with issues past and present.
7. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always.” Sidney Flanigan gives a breakout performance as a teenage girl from rural Pennsylvania who heads to New York City with her cousin/best friend (Talia Ryder) to get an abortion. Writer-director Eliza Hittman (“Beach Rats”) clearly has a pro-choice message, but no matter what your feelings are about abortion, her film is thought-provoking and moving. The scene related to the title might be the most powerful, and beautifully acted, of the year.
8. “I’m Thinking of Ending Things.” You’ll probably want to watch this one at least twice. Charlie Kaufman (“Synecdoche, New York”) wrote and directed this mind-blowing drama in which a man (Jesse Plemons) takes his girlfriend (Jessie Buckley) to meet his parents (Toni Collette, David Thewlis) at the family farm. Weirdness ensues, in a rewarding way, as Kaufman takes moviegoers on a head trip that challenges our notions of reality.
9. “Beanpole.” Two young women (Viktoria Miroshnichenko and Vasilisa Perelygina) suffer the brutal aftereffects of war amid the rubble of post-World War II Leningrad in this bleak Russian drama. Writer-director Kantemir Blagov (“Tesnota”) pulls no punches in this survival story, which has continued to haunt me. Perelygina stands out in a first-rate cast.
10. “Sorry We Missed You.” Veteran British director Ken Loach is known for films concerned with the frustrations of the working class, and he’s at it again with this compelling story about a delivery driver (Kris Hitchen) and his wife (Debbie Honeywood), a home-health nurse, who struggle to make ends meet, and the effects this has on their children, as well as themselves.
Honorable mention: “Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan,” ”Black Bear,” “The Trip to Greece,” “The Painter and the Thief,” “The King of Staten Island,” “On the Rocks,” “Palm Springs,” “One Night in Miami,” “Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President,” “Nomadland,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
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Top 10 performances
Ah, the great Kate. Kate Winslet, who has given us stunning performances in “Revolutionary Road,” “The Reader” and other films, returns to first-rate form in “Ammonite” and tops my list of best performances of 2020.
This has been a year of the actress, with the top four slots taken by women and eight of the top 10. Here’s my list:
1. Kate Winslet, “Ammonite”
2. Sidney Flanigan, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”
3. Carey Mulligan, “Promising Young Woman”
4. Vasilisa Perelygina, “Beanpole”
5. Chadwick Boseman, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
6. Riz Ahmed, “Sound of Metal”
7. Aubrey Plaza, “Black Bear”
8. Catherine Deneuve, “The Truth”
9. Viola Davis, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
10. Margot Robbie, “Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn”
Honorable mention: Debbie Honeywood, “Sorry We Missed You”; Anthony Hopkins, “The Father”; Gary Oldman, “Mank”; Christin Milioti, “Palm Springs”; Olivia Cooke, “Sound of Metal”; Brian Dennehy, “Driveways”; Zachary Quinto, “The Boys in the Band”; Kingsley Ben-Adir, “One Night in Miami”; Bill Burr, “The King of Staten Island”; Bel Powley, “The King of Staten Island”; Mads Mikkelsen, “Another Round”; Rashida Jones, “On the Rocks”; Jesse Plemons, “I”m Thinking of Ending Things”; Eliza Scanlen, “Babyteeth”; Hugh Laurie, “The Personal Life of David Copperfield.”
Tim Miller is a Cape-based member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. He and music producer Tony Raine host “Tim ’n’ Tony’s Rock ’n’ Pop Show” from midnight to 3 a.m. Sunday nights/Monday mornings on WOMR (92.1-FM), WFMR (91.3-FM) and womr.org. Those who aren’t night owls will find archived recordings of the shows at https://womr.org/schedule/broadcast-archive/. He also teaches film at Cape Cod Community College in West Barnstable. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or follow him onTwitter @TimMillerCritic.