It’s safe to say that 2020 didn’t turn out the way anyone thought — and that’s no different when it comes to films and moviegoing. In the Before Times, I was a religious theater-goer, excited to see the good movies and the bad if it meant I could view them with an audience. It’s a feeling I’m excited to experience again when we are all safely able to do so. In the wake of shifting release dates an an uncertain future for moviegoing, I turned to the streaming platforms, to the indie films that might have otherwise been overlooked. Here are my top 10 films of 2020:
Honorable Mentions: Soul, Mank, The Assistant, Sound of Metal, Miss Americana, Time
10. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (Dir. Jason Woliner)
Most will remember Sacha Baron Cohen’s notorious character from the 2006 film Borat, a mockumentary about the titular, fictitious Kazakhstani journalist traversing across the “US and A” and the real-life people he interacts with along the way. With Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, Baron Cohen revives the character for a much more pointed, surprisingly emotional look into 2020’s America — and yes, that includes the pandemic.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm follows Borat Sagdiyev (Baron Cohen) as he attempts to offer his daughter Tutar (Maria Bakalova) as a bride for Vice President Mike Pence in order to restore honor to his country Kazakhstan. Along the way, Borat breaks into CPAC, lives with conspiracy theorists as the pandemic rages, attends the March for Our Rights Rally back in April (in which the film crew captures an attendee give a Nazi salute), and captures that moment between Tutar and Rudy Giuliani.
At the heart of this film is a tour-de-force performance from Maria Bakalova. If the Academy is paying attention, there should be no debate as to who deserves the trophy for Best Supporting Actress. She and Baron Cohen’s father-daughter dynamic gives the film an emotional richness not present in the first film.
If there’s one thing you can expect from Baron Cohen, it’s his uncanny ability to distill America down to its core. What we find in that core are two extremes that exist simultaneously: our capacity for hate and fear-mongering, and also our capacity for empathy and love. Yes, there are numerous damning scenes in Subsequent Moviefilm, but there are also people like professional babysitter Jeanise Jones, who shows compassion towards Tutar, and Holocaust survivor Judith Dim Evans, whom Baron Cohen broke character for offscreen. It is, put simply, America at its worst and best.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is available on Amazon Prime
9. Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Dir. Eliza Hittman)
Eliza Hittman’s film is a stark, unblinking look into 17-year-old Autumn’s (Sidney Flanagan) journey across state lines to get an abortion. This plot synopsis bares near-identical resemblance to the HBO Max film Unpregnant (which I would also recommend), but whereas that film is a buddy-comedy, this film is a drama so rooted in the realities of this process that it almost feels like a documentary.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always burrowed under my skin, sitting in my gut for weeks after I watched it. Before we even get to their cross-state journey, we follow Autumn and her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) amid their daily routines, and the little pieces of themselves they must sacrifice just to navigate this world as young women. When Autumn reveals her situation to Skylar, Skylar helps her without a single question asked, a bond that feels authentic and true to life — further strengthened by two raw performances from Flanagan and Ryder.
There are two scenes I find myself still thinking about: in an unbroken take, a counselor asks Autumn a series of questions regarding past sexual partners as well as physical and sexual abuse. Autumn breaks down during this questioning, making it clear to us the past traumas she’s experienced prior to when this story takes place. The other scene depicts Skylar reluctantly appeasing a boy they met on the bus so he will pay for her and Autumn’s bus tickets home. These two moments depict the ways in which society continues to uphold a patriarchal world which leaves young women like them in the cracks.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is available on HBO Max
8. The Vast of Night (Dir. Andrew Patterson)
The Vast of Night is a sci-fi period piece set in 1950s New Mexico and feels like it could be an episode of The Twilight Zone. When switchboard operator Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick) picks up on a mysterious frequency, she teams up with Radio DJ Everett Sloan (Jake Horowitz) to discover its origin. As they investigate, the pair discover that they could be dealing with an extraterrestrial entity.
The film benefits from the simplicity of its premise which allows it to have a bit of fun within its genre constraints. It has a classical feel and rhythm to it that I can’t help but be charmed by. The characters speak at a rapid fire pace that would make even Aaron Sorkin blush, adding an energetic undertone to its mystery elements. I also admire how much director Andrew Patterson is able to do with such a low budget; his cinematography is impressive — particularly an extended long-take in which the camera travels across landscapes, through the school gymnasium, and back again as the characters dig deeper and deeper into this frequency. It’s lo-fi aesthetic works in the film’s favor, and I look forward to what else Patterson has up his sleeve in future projects.
The Vast of Night is available on Amazon Prime
7. Da 5 Bloods (Dir. Spike Lee)
What many of the films on this list have in common are their varying depictions of American life, from its political landscape to its damaging patriarchal structure. Spike Lee’s latest film offers a related perspective on our country — the traumas of our past, and the permanent scars they leave behind.
In Da 5 Bloods, a group of Black Vietnam War veterans (dubbed “Bloods”) travel back to Vietnam to retrieve a stash of gold they had buried away and to recover the remains of their squad leader, Norman (Chadwick Boseman). The film cross-cuts between the group’s present day journey and their time at war — buttressed visually by a shifting aspect ratio and the fact that the same actors portray themselves both in present day and in the past — thus cementing the notion that the trauma of war, of loss, of the violence Black people experience churns within a vicious cycle throughout time.
Lee zeroes in on Paul (Delroy Lindo) to explore how his trauma has left him jaded. He wears a red “Make America Great Again” cap throughout the film, believing in the promise that the nation will be made great again, that perhaps his pain will be absolved by the very leaders who seek to oppress him. Lindo’s performance is powerful, full of anguish and rage and pain, and I hope he is recognized for it. Da 5 Bloods, like much of Lee’s extensive filmography, is another searing look into American life and the injustices that Black Americans have faced and continue to face now.
Da 5 Bloods is available on Netflix
6. Palm Springs (Dir. Max Barbakow)
If Borat captured the climate of 2020, Palm Springs portrayed what it was like waking up in 2020 each morning. There were many days where I felt like I was Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day: my alarm blares, my eyes blink awake, and the realization of another day in which little changes hits me. Palm Springs is not the first film to borrow from Groundhog Day’s premise, but it does give a fun spin on the subgenre in a way that feels perfectly suited to 2020.
Nyles (Andy Samberg) wakes up in Palm Springs the morning of a wedding. He seems to sleepwalk through his day, his nonchalance and carefree manner attracting the attention of Sarah (Cristin Milioti). After accidentally following him into a mysterious vortex, Sarah finds herself stuck in a time loop with Nyles. Max Barbakow’s film combines the time loop trope with the structure of a romantic comedy, this time allowing two individuals to experience the monotony of reliving the same day together.
Samberg and Milioti have great chemistry together, their initial comedic hijinx transforming into something more serious as their connection deepens and their predicament continues. This aspect is not unlike quarantine, in which all of us can only experience life with a handful of people. This, combined with the repetitive nature of the time loop, makes it a fitting 2020 film.
Palm Springs is available on Hulu
5. Shithouse (Dir. Cooper Raiff)
My favorite films tend to be ones which speak to the human experience in some way, films that I can see myself in. Cooper Raiff’s Shithouse, a slice-of-life, coming of age dramedy explores themes about relationships, growing older, and becoming your own person.
In addition to writing and directing, Raiff stars as Alex, a college freshman struggling to adapt to life away from home. He attends a party at the “Shithouse” on campus, and finds himself hanging out all night with his RA Maggie (Dylan Gelula). Like The Vast of Night, Raiff accomplishes something special with the limited resources at his disposal — which is especially impressive when taking into account that he is still in his early 20s, a fact which simultaneously inflames my insecurities as a young, aspiring writer/director/creative person but also inspires me to narrow my scope and attempt something like this. The story is simple in a way that makes me lean back and exclaim, “of course, why didn’t I think of that?” Yet, there’s a sincerity here which makes the characters feel real, rather than just caricatures of how we might envision two young college kids to behave.
Raiff combines Richard Linklater and Noah Baumbach’s sensibilities with a mumblecore aesthetic to create something which speaks directly to what it’s like to come of age now, particularly in the era of social media. Buoyed by two excellent performances from Raiff and Gelula, Shithouse balances humor and heart, sadness and hope, in a story that is deeply human.
Shithouse is available to rent on Amazon Prime
4. Wolfwalkers (Dir. Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart)
3-D animation has advanced considerably in the last decade. Studios like Pixar creep closer and closer to photo-realism with each passing film (this year’s Soul just missed the cut on this top 10 list). While that is still completely valid, sometimes there’s nothing better than an old-fashioned 2-D film, and Wolfwalkers truly earns the label “stunning.”
The third installment in Cartoon Saloon’s “Irish Folklore Trilogy” (after The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea), Wolfwalkers focuses on Kilkenny, an expanding town that seeks to clear out the surrounding woods. This puts them into conflict with the pack of wolves who reside there, led by Mebh (Eva Whittalker) a wolfwalker — a person with the ability to transform into a wolf. When Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) crosses paths with Mebh and her wolf pack, they join forces to protect the woods from those who seek to destroy it.
Watching this film feels like walking through an art gallery; each frame feels like a painting come to life, complete with beautiful cel animation and abstract backgrounds. Not since the classic Studio Ghibli films have I seen animation with such richness. The story itself explores the ongoing conflict between man and nature, and whether it’s possible to coexist with the environment and respect its limitations. It is also a story about friendship, about the ways in which people from seemingly discrete worlds create something more meaningful together.
Wolfwalkers is available on Apple TV+
3. Emma. (Dir. Autumn de Wilde)
Something I learned about myself in 2020 is that I’m a big fan of period costume films. Emma. is a retelling of the classic Jane Austen novel about the titular Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy), a young woman who plays matchmaker for everyone else around her, but grows weary when she begins to develop feelings for someone herself.
This is certainly not the first time this novel has been adapted (where are my Clueless stans at?). However, director Autumn de Wilde approaches this familiar material with a comedic, almost off-beat tone not unlike Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite from 2018. Anya Taylor-Joy captures Emma’s mischievous nature as well as her uncertainty and guilt when her meddling goes too far. Between this and her performance in The Queen’s Gambit, I’m sold on anything Taylor-Joy decides to take on in the future. Mia Goth also shines as Harriet Smith, a naive girl whom Emma takes under her wing.
One of my greatest regrets from 2020 was not seeing this in theaters when I had the opportunity. It’s a fun, welcome approach to the period genre.
Emma. is available on HBO Max
2. Mangrove (Dir. Steve McQueen)
Mangrove is the first film in director Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology series. The five Small Axe films released in 2020 center around West Indian immigrants living in London in the 1960s and 70s, exploring themes of racial injustice, police brutality, and life during this time.
Mangrove depicts the true story of Frank Crichlow’s (Shaun Parkes) Mangrove restaurant, a bustling hub where people in the Black community could gather. Throughout the film, the restaurant gets repeatedly raided by police officers on baseless grounds, which leads to many members of the community being put on trial.
This film is primarily a courtroom drama — a structure which allows the actors to individually showcase their talents and deliver the most powerful (and my favorite) performances from this year. In particular, Malachi Kirby’s portrayal of activist Darcus Howe who defends himself in court delivers an argument that eviscerates the accusations levied against him and the other activists on trial, leaving me completely floored. Steve McQueen presents this neighborhood and this community in a tactile way, like you could step through your screen and be transported to this world.
Mangrove and the Small Axe films are available on Amazon Prime
1. The Invisible Man (Dir. Leigh Whannell)
The Invisible Man holds a special place in my heart because it was the last film I watched in theaters. In fact, it’s the only film on this list that I saw in theaters. Perhaps that plays into its placement at the top of my list, but that said, this is still the most entertaining film of the year.
From the very moment the film begins, director Leigh Whannell puts his foot on the gas and never lets up for a second. We follow Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss), a woman recovering from an abusive relationship with Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). When Adrian dies by apparent suicide, he leaves his wealth to Cecilia. As strange occurrences happen around Cecilia, she becomes convinced that her ex-boyfriend is not dead; he’s invisible, and he’s following her every move.
The brilliance of this thriller’s premise is the nature of the antagonist: we can’t see where he is. And if we can’t see where he is, he could be lurking nearby at any time, day or night. In this sense, the audience is along for the ride with Cecilia as she continues to be gaslit by this man fighting for control over her. Elisabeth Moss is excellent at selling this sense of mounting dread. This builds towards my favorite ending from a film this year.
Moviegoing ultimately boils down to one thing: did I enjoy that experience? With The Invisible Man, that answer is a resounding yes, which is why it’s my favorite film of 2020.
The Invisible Man is available on HBO Max