Compiled by Bill Marx
Our demanding critics choose the best films (along with some disappointments) of the year.
I’ve watched 75 films in 35 days, trying to make sense of 2020. It was the year of the Lead Actress, with 10 or more extraordinary performances, any of which are (I hate this term) Oscar-worthy. It was not much of a year for Lead Actor, with really distinguished work only from the late Chadwick Boseman in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Anthony Hopkins in The Father. It was a marvelous year for Black actors, as seen by the talented ensembles in Ma Rainey, One Night in Miami, and Da 5 Bloods. Most of all, it was the year — at last!! — of the woman director, and many, many of the best films had women behind the camera. Including this year’s Best Film and five of my 10 favorites.
The Best Feature Film of 2020: Nomadland
The Rest of the 10 Best: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, The Assistant, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Sorry We Missed You, Swallow, Minari, La Llorona, First Cow
Best Director: Chloe Zhao, Nomadland Runners-up: Charlie Kaufman, I’m Thinking of Ending Things; Jayro Bustamante, La Llorona; Michel Franco, New Order; Kelly Reichardt, First Cow
Best Documentary: Collective (Romania) Runners-up: City Hall, Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane McGowan, Dick Johnson is Dead
Best Foreign-Language Feature: La Llorona (Guatemala) Runners-up: Bacurau (Brazil), Wild Goose Lake (China), New Order (Mexico), The Traitor (Italy)
Best First Film: Swallow Runners-up: Emma, The Father, Ham and Rye, Saint Frances
Most Underrated Feature: Tommaso Runners-Up: Uncle Frank, Kajillionaire, The Nest, On the Rocks
Most Overrated Feature: The Forty-Year Old Version Runners-Up: Mank, Borat Subsequent Movie Film, Another Round, The Personal History of David Copperfield
Best Actor: Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom Runners-up: Anthony Hopkins, The Father; Jean Dujardin, Deerskin; Willem Dafoe, Tommaso; Ben Affleck, The Way Back
Best Actress: Frances McDormand, Nomadland Runners-up: Viola Davis, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom; Haley Bennett, Swallow; Debbie Honeywood, Sorry We Missed You; Kelly O’Sullivan, Saint Frances
Best Supporting Actor: Peter Macdissi, Uncle Frank. Runners-up: Frank Langella, Trial of the Chicago 7; Mark Rylance, Trial of the Chicago 7; Leslie Odom Jr., One Night in Miami; Arliss Howard, Mank
Best Supporting Actress: Amanda Seyfried, Mank. Runners-up: Candice Bergen, Let Them All Talk; You Yuh-jung, Minari; Charlene Swankie, Nomadland; Gina Rodriguez, Kajillionaire
Best Screenplay: I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Best Cinematography: Nomadland
Best Editing: Possessor
Best Ensemble: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
One advantage of home viewing is that smaller films may receive more attention as the line between theatrical release and home viewing becomes increasingly blurred. This year, in addition to films, there were many limited series worthy of attention. I have also included a list with eight of the best.
1. I’m Thinking of Ending Things: Charlie Kaufman’s latest film begins as an edgy romantic comedy as Jake (Jesse Plemons) drives his unnamed girlfriend (Jesse Buckley) to meet his parents (Toni Collette & David Thewlis) on the family farm. The visit grows increasingly strange and the story turns into a kind of thriller, then a ballet, finishing up via a high school musical. The last episode may (or may not) be a clue to Jake’s melancholy. Given all of the narrative’s time slippages, literary quotes, and bouts of odd poetry, any interpretation is up for grabs. The proceedings are buoyed by Jay Wadley’s marvelous score and brilliant performances, particularly by Buckley, who manages to maintain her equilibrium despite all the surreal goings-on. (Arts Fuse reviews by Isaac Feldberg and Peg Aloi)
2. First Cow: Kelly Reichardt’s evocative historical comic folktale riffs on the American entrepreneurial spirit, fate, and the fleeting nature of existence. In 1820, settlers of the Pacific Northwest hope to build a tolerable life in a wilderness that threatens as often as it solaces. With a gentle sense of humor, the film seesaws between hope and struggle, with plenty of intimations of mortality. Arts Fuse review
3. Nomadland: The Boston Film Critics awarded Best Film, Director, and Cinematography for this story of Fern (Francis McDormand) who, having lost her husband and job during the recession, becomes, by her own choice, a nomad. She lives and travels (in a trailer) around the American West to escape the suffocating confines of traditional society. Director Chloé Zhao (Songs My Brothers Taught Me, The Rider) writes and edits her own films; she immerses herself in the communities she represents.
4. The Assistant: Kitty Green (Casting JonBenet) focuses on a day-in-the-life of Jane, secretary to a film producer reminiscent of Harvey Weinstein. Eschewing melodrama, the film examines the film production world through Jane’s eyes and ears. We are encouraged to imagine the toll that this debilitating environment takes on her psyche. Julia Garner (Ozark) is riveting in the lead role. Art Fuse review and interview)
5. Emma: Autumn de Wilde’s photography creates imaginary worlds and painterly landscapes. So it is no surprise that her first film is a playful interpretation of the Jane Austen novel, a colorful narrative filled with stolen glances and sumptuous interiors crammed to the brim with beautiful tapestries and extravagant portrait paintings. (Arts Fuse interview with de Wilde and star Anya Taylor-Joy)
6. Never Rarely Sometimes Always: First-time actress Sidney Flanigan won the Boston Critics Best Actress award for her performance as a young woman who travels with her cousin to New York City for an abortion. Director Eliza Hittman (It Felt Like Love) knows how to use spare dialogue, a lean story line, and naturalistic performances to maximum dramatic effect.
7. The King of Staten Island: Saturday Night Live’s Pete Davidson’s semi-autobiographical comedy caught me by surprise. Director Judd Apatow finds a balance between cringe and guffaw with the help of deft comic performances by Bel Powley and Marisa Tomei. Co-written by Apatow and Davidson.
8. Sorry We Missed You: This is the latest slice of working class life from one of the masters of British social-realism, Ken Loach. Kris Hitchen is heartbreaking as a delivery worker in the gig economy. Affronts to his pride, small defeats, and roiling family conflicts are put on raw display. Despite the grim outlook, the fine ensemble of actors delivers a message about survival, forgiveness, and perseverance that is ultimately uplifting.
9. Sound of Metal: Riz Ahmed plays a heavy metal drummer whose career is disrupted when he suffers sudden deafness. He is accepted at a deaf community for recovering addicts, but he is unable to completely abandon his musical ambitions. His mentor, played by Paul Raci, was named Best Supporting actor by the Boston film critics. Arts Fuse review
10. Minari: This film is set in the ’80s and revolves around a Korean family struggling to start a farm in Arkansas. The narrative is based on the experiences of director Lee Isaac Chung — he calls it a Willa Cather story with an Asian sensibility. By focusing on engaging characters rather than natural disasters or social discrimination he creates a quiet and inspiring masterpiece about the perseverance of the American Dream.
Honorable Mention: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Arts Fuse review), Ham on Rye, St. Francis, Babyteeth, Mank, The Father
1. The Painted Bird (Czech) (Arts Fuse review)
2. The Traitor (Italy) (Arts Fuse review)
3. Bacurau (Brazil)
4. The Life Ahead (Italy)
5. Another Round (Denmark) (Arts Fuse review)
6. Buoyancy (Australia/Cambodia)
7. La Llorona (Guatemala) (Arts Fuse review)
8. The Fever (Brazil)
9. New Order (Mexico)
10. To the Ends of the Earth (Japan)
1. Truffle Hunters
2. Coup 53
3. Painter and the Thief
4. Dick Johnson Is Dead
5. My Octopus Teacher
6. Our Time Machine
7. Crock of Gold
8. Crip Camp
Hillbilly Elegy: Where to start? Amy Adams looks like she’s in a high school production of L’il Abner. Glenn Close would be better suited in The Hills Have Eyes. I could barely recognize the book that “inspired” this mess. Even the editing is choppy. It is not often I have to tie myself to a chair to get through a movie.
The Invisible Man: Some critics actually like this? I’m not asking for Claude Rains but a little elegance would help this tale. Elisabeth Moss thrashes her way through a tediously plotted B-movie with cheesy low-budget effects.
I’m Your Woman: Rachel Brosnahan, so good in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, is a wife with a newly adopted baby on the run from a crime syndicate that her husband betrayed. The film goes from confusing to improbable and implausible via a patchwork of clichés posing as a feminist fable.
One Night in Miami: This “meaningful” gathering of key historical Black figures is a great premise but never transcends feeling like a stage play. Good actors resort to grimaces and unmotivated bursts of emotion, and preach their way through monologues.
1. Small Axe: British director Steve McQueen’s groundbreaking series is actually five separate films, each a story of Black heroism in late ’60s and early ’80s Britain. A standout collection by a great filmmaker. (Amazon)
2. We Are Who We Are: Luca Guadagnino’s (Call Me by Your Name) series is set among teenagers and soldiers on an Army base in Italy. It unfolds through a series of unpredictable episodes that celebrate the freedom and conflicts of a new generation with uncomfortable perspectives on gender and racial identity. (HBO)
3. I Know This Much Is True: Wally Lamb’s novel about Dominick trying to care for his schizophrenic twin brother, Thomas, develops over eight episodes. It features a towering performance by Mark Ruffalo in both roles. (HBO)
4. Fargo: In this fourth season, Chris Rock is featured along with a crack ensemble of gonzo character actors, including Jesse Buckley, Jason Schwartzman, Ben Whishaw, and Jack Huston. Watch for an outrageous tribute to the Wizard of Oz in Episode 9. (Hulu)
5. The Queen’s Gambit: The popular series, based on the titular novel, stars Anya Taylor-Joy as an orphan and chess prodigy. It avoids examining the game of chess in detail but manages to make the competitions exciting. There’s now a boom in chess playing, which is good. But those expecting the same spine-tingling experience will be disappointed. (Netflix)
6. Normal People: This Irish love story about class and coming-of age is based on the Sally Rooney novel. The series transcends the usual teen romance. Lenny Abrahamson (Room) directed the first six episodes, with strong performances by Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones as the lovers. (Hulu)
7. Perry Mason: Don’t expect Raymond Burr as Perry Mason and Barbara Hale as Della Street. This series reimagines the beginnings of Mason’s career as a lawyer (of seemingly unwinnable cases) with dark tales of kidnapping, corruption, and grisly murder in Depression-era Los Angeles. Matthew Rhys (The Americans) stars as Perry Mason. (HBO) Arts Fuse review
8. The Virtues: A character study of an Irish alcoholic piecing his life back together following a divorce. Directed by Shane Meadows (This Is England) with Stephen Graham (Topic) Arts Fuse review
Best of 2020 Cinema
What a year! Indies were emphasized, blockbusters fizzled. Here’s what I liked best, and what disappointed. Bear in mind, there are still a good number of much-ballyhooed films I have yet to see.
Gunda: This wordless black-and-white wonder begins with the birth of numerous wiggling piglets to a loving, lumbering sow and follows their days as they nurse, explore the forest snuffling for insects and fungi to eat, and sleep in the sunshine. We also meet some abused battery hens as they are released from their cages for the first time to walk on the earth, and some retired dairy cows who are overjoyed to run through the meadow together. But the pigs, the pigs…their gentle grunts and squeals will haunt your dreams. This Norwegian documentary was my favorite film of the year.
Beanpole: This bleak but often tender Russian story — a young woman struggling with poverty and epilepsy in postwar Leningrad — is wrought in a vivid color palette and features powerfully authentic performances. Filmmaker Kantemir Balagov is only 28 and won the “Prix Un Certain Regard” at Cannes for this masterpiece.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things: This beautiful, surreal, and — as it’s Charlie Kaufman — existentially brutal film stars the stunningly good Jessie Buckley as a young woman in a casual relationship who goes to meet her boyfriend’s family. It’s a bizarre, dreamy, color-coded odyssey through memory, nostalgia, fear of aging, and disappointed desire, and it’s one of the best films of the year.
First Cow: Kelly Reichardt’s films so often feel as if you are being dropped, unobserved, into other peoples’ lives. This gentle story of two men, an aspiring baker (Carol’s John Magaro) and an eager but poor entrepreneur (X + Y’s Orion Lee) who find friendship during the 1850s Gold Rush is less about drama (though there is plenty) and more about how to get through the day and make the best of what you have. You will emerge hungry and humbled.
Emma: A stunning debut by Autumn de Wilde, this visual feast of an adaptation is deeply loyal to Jane Austen’s novel but reinvents it with sensual and sensory delights of flesh, fabric, flowers, and finery, the trappings of lives lived by people straining at the seams of their propriety.
Nomadland: Based on Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction exploration of older folks who sell their homes and hit the road looking for work, Chloe Zhao’s adaptation is a down-to-earth odyssey. Anchored by naturalistic performances by Frances McDormand and David Strathairn, the film is full of actual people whose financial or emotional circumstances find them living a demanding, risky, lonely, but quietly satisfying lifestyle.
Another Round: Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg returns to his Dogme 95 stylings with this cheeky but dark story of four male teachers who fight midlife crisis with day drinking. Mads Mikkelsen is, as ever, astonishingly good. Here, we get to see him dance. This film is by turns harrowing, hilarious, and triumphant.
The Nest: Sean Durkin’s second film is a skewering portrait of a Yuppie couple who move from New York to London in pursuit of things they’re not sure they really want. Jude Law and Carrie Coon head the tight cast, and the moody cinematography and score make this every bit as haunting and intense as Martha Marcy May Marlene.
Shirley: Elisabeth Moss plays depressive, antisocial novelist Shirley Jackson, Michael Stuhlbarg is cast as her perversely narcissistic academic husband, and Odessa Young plays a young woman who becomes enchanted by the couple. All of the emotional doings are directed by fledgling filmmaker Josephine Decker, and that’s all you need to know. This is intense and weirdly erotic and rather mesmerizing.
Relic: This brilliant debut from Natalie Erika James is a powerful look at how dementia can erode a family’s strength, but also reinforce bonds. Woman are the caregivers, of bodies and minds and homes and hearts — the film reminds us of this inescapable truth. Beautifully acted, never saccharine, this is also a horror film underneath it all.
Babyteeth: A coming-of-age film and debut by Shannon Murphy. Eliza Scanlen (Little Women) plays a teenage girl whose quiet life is upended when she meets a slightly older drifter and addict. Her parents (Essie Davis and Ben Mendlesohn) struggle to do what’s right. This is the saddest and sweetest film of the year, wrought with artistic wit and sensitivity, and I loved it.
Lovers Rock: This is a postcard-perfect vintage snippet. The subject is a blues and reggae party from ’70s London, and the portrait is 70 minutes of pure sparkle, passion, and life lived in the moment. Highly recommend: the entire Small Axe series from Steve McQueen.
Vivarium: This odd dystopian chamber piece is a triumph of scarily precise design elements, chilling horror of the slow-creeping variety, and perfectly calibrated performances by Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots. I found this very hard to shake off, and it has eerie parallels to our current lives in quarantine.
The Assistant: This minimalist but absolutely incendiary narrative debut from Kitty Green stars Ozark‘s Julia Garner as the personal assistant to a high-powered Hollywood executive whose predatory ways are excused and all but ignored by the assistant’s coworkers. The gradual build of tension and mundane horror is excruciating because it is so banal and familiar.
Honorable Mentions: The Vast of Night, Uncle Frank, The Invisible Man, Tesla, The Wolf House, Minari, Host, His House, The Painter and the Thief, Amulet, She Dies Tomorrow, Promising Young Woman, Da 5 Bloods, The Other Lamb, Feels Good Man, Birds of Prey, The Burnt Orange Heresy, Satanic Panic, True History of the Kelly Gang, and Anything for Jackson.
Quite a year for watching movies, albeit mostly a solitary experience in living rooms and on computer screens. But, beset with lockdowns and quarantines, what better than to fill the time with one more film…? It was a year to catch up on those gems moldering in my Criterion queue (Bill Duke! Amy Seimetz! Claire Denis!) and to even (say it!) dive into the deep bench of peak television, or whatever it is we call television these days (if The Queen’s Gambit is television, count me in) and even those long-lost “must-watch” series (at last, The Leftovers).My movie list is most notable this year for its preponderance of women: protagonists, writers, and directors. In fact, six of my top 10 are directed by women. Let’s hope that we may have finally reached a tipping point where that fact becomes unremarkable.Top 10 plus 1 (in no particular order)Never Rarely Sometimes Always: Eliza Hittman’s social drama is spare and plain, a portrait that is as timeless as it is contemporary about the unique travails of girlhood. The assault comes from all corners: from the opposite sex, her increasingly circumscribed right to an abortion, and her own self-doubts as she confronts impending adulthood. The titular scene hits with an emotional punch unlike any other this year.Time: The best documentary of 2020 deconstructs its title by interweaving years of home-video footage into present-day material about the trials and tribulations of a distinctive Louisiana family. Produced and directed by Garrett Bradley, the film gives us matriarch and serial video-maker Sibyl Fox Richardson, who shows film of her six children (at various ages) as she recounts the story of her husband, Rob, who is serving a 60-year sentence at the infamous Angola prison in Louisiana for a robbery she abetted and for which she also served time. The emotions generated by this film range from mournful to hilarious; this is the story of a life that was, a life that is, and a life that might have been. Picking up where Ava DuVernay’s 13th left off, the documentary dramatizes the human cost of America’s obsession with incarceration as well as its racist past and present. Editor Gabriel Rhodes deserves mention for his skill in stitching together years of home-video footage with contemporary material.
Babyteeth: An odd mix of tones combines to create an endearing story of a well-behaved teenage girl, her terminal cancer, and her unlikely face-tattooed, drug-dealing love interest. And her two well-meaning parents, who are trying to balance it all. Beautifully filmed and edited, with a cast to die for (Eliza Scanlen and Ben Mendelsohn are standouts, but all deserve accolades), and a soundtrack that strikes the gut as well as the heart, from Mozart to the Tune-Yards.Lovers Rock: A standout in Steve McQueen’s anthology of new films about West Indian immigrant life in ’60s and ’70s London. The movie jumps off the screen with its kinetic and joyful portrayal of the attendees at a Brixton house party, tinged with reggae and soul music, slow dancing and couples pairing off, sweat and smoky rooms. Ultimately, this is a portrait of the liberation inspired by music and community. It’s sensuous and lushly beautiful to look at (cinematographer Shabier Kirchner deserves awards), and McQueen clearly revels in making his most personal films to date.The Assistant: A worm’s-eye view, so to speak, of life in an industry populated by horrible men and the people who enable them. Julia Garner manages all the contradictory emotions of a young woman working as the personal aide-de-camp to a Harvey Weinstein-like producer (artfully never seen on screen), while she is forced to confront the complacency and willful blindness of her colleagues — and her own — in condoning the boss’s abuse for the sake of a dream career. A spray bottle of bleach cleanser has never loomed so ominously on screen.The Way Back: A sports movie that isn’t quite a sports movie. Ben Affleck portrays an alcoholic fighting his demons, drawn back to his old high school to coach its basketball team, where he was once a standout. The script manages to avoid — even subvert — some of the clichés that would swamp a lesser film. Yet it still provides a rousing feel-good underdog story. Director Gavin O’Connor (who made the USA Hockey flick Miracle) had the good sense to foreground the emotional landscapes instead of the more obvious physical realities.Emma: Autumn de Wilde lovingly contributes to the Jane Austen film canon with this notably stylish and contemporary portrait of the sharp-tongued young matchmaker and her foibles arranging — and finding — love. Anya Taylor-Joy continues to shine, putting her doe-eyed, expressive face to great comedic effect as a version of the title character that Austen herself would likely enjoy. Production design and costumes to die for.Bacarau: This Brazilian social satire surprises at every turn, serving as a sly commentary on globalization. Wealthy foreign predators roam the Brazilian countryside literally bent on hunting down the locals for sport, but when the locals (including the implacable Sonia Braga) band together to fight back, things get…interesting. A thriller disguised as a political drama, or an economic parable posing as a revenge drama. Take your pick.La Llorona: Another social parable in the guise of a haunted house story, this Guatemalan film confronts that country’s recent history of genocide and brutality against its indigenous population, as the ghosts of the past literally and figuratively confront the family of the dictator responsible for the atrocities. Supremely self-assured filmmaking by writer-director Jayro Bustamante working across genres, with clever and horrifying allusions to everything from Jorge Luis Borges to the Ringu films.
First Cow: A historical drama set in Gold Rush-era Oregon, about food, friendship, and ambition. Its beautiful ending is telegraphed in the film’s initial sequence. Indie writer-director Kelly Reichardt works wonders with her deliberately quiet, patient style of storytelling, though it must be noted that First Cow ratchets up its tension, slightly, to rev its narrative engine. Understated is a word often misused but quite apropos here.Plus one…Portrait of a Lady on Fire: Although this had its official release in 2019, the film didn’t screen in Boston until early 2020. The story works on a number of levels — a sumptuous visual feast, a socially relevant commentary, an academic treatise on gender and art — all fused in a doomed love story among 18th-century French women. The movie underlines the essence of love and of art, along the way showing how patriarchal norms have (mis)shaped our visions of both. And suggests what we might experience without those mind-forged manacles.Honorable MentionsPalm Springs, Ham on Rye, The Wild Goose Lake, She Dies Tomorrow, Bad Education, Shirley, Cuties, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, The Invisible Man, Minari, Sound of Metal, Dick Johnson Is Dead, The Vast of Night, The Painter and the ThiefBiggest Disappointment Tenet: Good Lord, I risked my health to see a theatrical showing for this back in August, buying into director Christopher Nolan’s admonition that this MUST BE SEEN in its large-scale format. I would love to tell you what it’s about, but I’ve mostly forgotten. What I remember isn’t particularly compelling. Ostensibly, it’s a film shaped in the form of a palindrome, but it mostly stands as an overly ambitious piece of conceptual art disguised as a big-budget action movie made for the multiplex. Theoretically, if you read this paragraph backwards, it will provide the same lousy take as it does forwards.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
The Forty-Year-Old Version
The Personal History of David Copperfield
Runners up fiction: The Wolf House, Coming Home Again, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Mangrove, Kajillionaire, Shirley, Joan of Arc, First Cow, Beanpole, Sound of Metal, One Night in Miami, Sorry We Missed You, Ham on Rye, Babyteeth, Ammonite, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, Swallow, The Trial of the Chicago 7
Runners up documentary: Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan, Dick Johnson Is Dead, Some Kind of Heaven, Crip Camp, Coup 53, In My Blood It Runs, City Hall
Sanity sidebar: The viewing experience that sustained me in quarantine? My Blu-ray boxed set of the 1960s Batman TV series.