Here’s what’s sure to be an incredibly divisive hot take for you about the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand And Twenty: It absolutely sucked. There are a select handful of people on this Earth who have emerged unscathed from this year in some way or form, and they’re probably the ones who are going to buy up either the pandemic-ruined movie theaters or studios as soon as a big enough one goes under. You know, your Bezos or Musks. They’re doing alright. Rest of us? Real fuckin’ shitty. So it feels weird to even be writing a list of the 20 best films from 2020, given that this year can be pretty much defined by the lack of them. Every major release was delayed. Every surprise following a festival was snapped out of existence. And the ones that did come out were inevitably released in truncated form — you can turn off the Motion Smoothing, but that’s only if you know it exists on your TV, which forced fuckin’ Tom Cruise to make a PSA about it a few years ago — even though they all cried to be seen on a big screen with a crowd.
It’s hard to believe that, 11 months ago, I was still going to the cinema every few days, having a life out and about. You know, in preparation for writing this list, I looked back on my diary of what I’d watched over the course of this year (spoiler alert: Not nearly as much as I should have), and I stumbled upon a series of films released early on in the year that I honestly didn’t believe were released in cinemas in this calendar year. Remember Underwater? The Rhythm Section? The Gentlemen? The Grudge? All those memories shifted into “the before times” as soon as COVID hit. SXSW was canceled. Bond was moved. At least for the short term, it looked like a mild interruption — we could make cute jokes about “quarantine” (which, according to the CDC, comes from the Italian quaranta giorni, referring to the 40 days a ship was required to sit in anchor if it was coming from a place of pestilence — we lapped that, didn’t we?), panic-buy all manner of dry goods and watch Tiger King. Perhaps we could even make some banal art if we wanted to.
But as those months dragged on, the Rich American Pageant found itself torn asunder from a variety of sources. Sure, there was COVID, but there were also the tragedies that unfolded over the summer as well, to remind us of what a fucked-up and nightmarish world we inhabited. From George Floyd’s murder, to the President tear-gassing peaceful protestors for a photo-op, to the passing of icons like Chadwick Boseman and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, it was hard to find any sort of escape. What should give us heart is that people stood up to injustice across the country and took to the streets and, later on this year, voted to make a change. But who knows what 2021 will look like. There’s no guarantee that it won’t be worse than this one, and we have to prepare for that fact.
Now, we here are decidedly not doomsayers: Things are most likely going to look better soon, and not just starting on January 1 or 20: The days will get brighter, each day, beginning in just a few short weeks, and the first vaccines will be strategically deployed in the first volley fired from a genetically-engineered calvary coming down the hills like the Riders of Rohan descending down Helm’s Deep. Eventually, we will be told to leave our houses again, and to see our friends again, and, yes, to go to the movies again. And that light sustains us through these dark days, where we’re forced to contend with the fact that the absolute luckiest among us have lost an actual year of life, or, rather, the things that make life worth living, because of this virus. Many, many more have been taken from us in the cruelest ways imaginable, and that fact makes many grievances about the “re-opening” process and/or our sadness at the loss of our lives feel as shallow and silly as it probably should.
But we should celebrate the good, lest it be totally forgotten. Let us remember those that took to the streets, those that affected great change, and the art that moved us in 2020. And, in accordance with that ethos, we present to you Vanyaland’s 20 favorite films of 2020, each accompanied by a superlative like it’s high school all over again. Thank you so much for reading.
Best Substitute for Actually Going to the Bar in 2020: Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
When you’re under deadline at a festival, there will be a few things that you will see that, lacking the time or proper justification, you won’t be able to write about. Bill and Turner Ross’ Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is one of those films, and it’s one of the movies I’ve spent the most amount of time turning over in my head like a hard-to-crack sunflower seed. Billed by the Sundance organizers as a “documentary,” the film documents the final operational day of a fictional Vegas bar called The Roaring 20s, which, as 2016 draws to a close, is going out of business. The gin-soaked regulars — each an actor, though you most definitely wouldn’t know it — live it up in their home away from home until last call, and hanging with this group of lovely fuck-ups and weirdos was the closest I got to feeling like I did whenever I went down to a place like Great Scott. We can yell about whether or not this is a documentary all day long, but Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is an impressive fucking film, and it’s one worth it for those missing their barfly pals as we’re all sealed away.
Best Not-So-Surprisingly Necessary Sequel: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
From our review: “Very little has changed in Cohen’s approach over the space of 14 years: The victims of his pranks remain mostly the same — the patriarchal wealthy, the right-leaning political class, and your average dipshit racist — and the venom he directs towards them is perhaps even stronger than it was originally. If anything, the American populace is all the more willing to believe and be misled than they were back in 2006, even if that misinformation isn’t coming strictly from the government anymore, and Cohen wisely includes a skewering of social media in his approach this time as well, given how Extremely Online our dumb culture is. We’re almost at the point where Borat doesn’t have to do very much anymore to get his interviewees to shed their skins and reveal the horrors lurking behind their polite expressions, and that prospect should terrify every one of us.”
Best Proof That Meek Mill Needs To Start Acting Full Time, Full Stop: Charm City Kings
From our review: ‘”Charm City Kings’ follows the formula of so many of these silver screen bildungsromans that one might accuse it of being somewhat paint-by-numbers in its execution, despite having a very solid and oftentimes very amusing screenplay, penned in part by ‘Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins. Every emotional beat here feels ripped from something else, but like the bikes that Mouse and his friends make over the course of the film, it’s repurposed into something new — something wholly original even if it’s cobbled together from spare parts. Soto’s style is the new paint thrown up around it: Flashy, though occasionally restrained, this is probably the first Sundance movie I’ve seen with an honest-to-Christ ‘Fast and Furious’-level car chase in it. He captures the beauty of the bikers in a slow-motion grace, their engines’ roar nearly knocking pieces of the ceiling off of the Eccles Center’s auditorium thanks to the Dolby Atomos.”
Best Streaming Film, Hands Down, With the Best Damn Soundtrack of the Year Too: Da 5 Bloods
From our review: “I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: The last 10-or-so years of Spike Lee’s career have been some of the most fascinating that any director has had. He’s an incredibly prolific director, and what few misfires of his that have hit screens are often offset and/or enhanced by his successes. But ‘BlacKkKlansman’ captured the cultural conversation in 2018 and became his most successful film in years, and Lee finally won an Oscar for his work. Now, in the midst of another tragic moment of our Country’s reckoning with its ever-festering original sin, Lee has returned with ‘Da 5 Bloods,’ a messy, long film about the Vietnam War and its effects on Black America, from the lives it ended and altered, to the protest movements it kickstarted, to the cultural creations it influenced — chiefly, in cinema and in music (Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’ provides much of the film’s soundtrack). It is just as urgent and fiery as its predecessor, and ‘Da 5 Bloods’ is yet another masterwork from Lee, one that demands your immediate attention.”
The Best Film We Saw This Year: First Cow
First Cow is the Kelly Reichardt movie for people who previously haven’t vibed with her work (that’s a shame, given that she’s one of our cinema’s most vital directors, but, hey, everybody goes at things at their own speed). It’s a lovely little pseudo-western about an odd little cook and a Chinese businessman who start a small business making oily cakes in the Oregon territory back in the early 19th Century. The only problem? Their business is dependent on them stealing the milk from the territory’s only cow, who is walled off in a rich man’s garden. It’s a peaceful, funny, and deeply moving film, and its romantic portrayals of both the territory and its few and far-between joys are absolutely intoxicating. I interviewed Reichardt back before things went to hell, and you can read that piece here. But, seriously, go see this one. It’s absolutely lovely.
Best Revival of a Horror Movie Franchise and Under-Utilized Metaphor: The Invisible Man
From our review: “I don’t know if this particular take on the tale is my favorite — beyond Claude Rains’ tenure as the character, I’m bizarrely fond of Paul Verhoeven’s ‘Hollow Man,’ with its mix of nutty special effects and cartoonish nihilism that scared the hell out of me as an impressionable 13-year-old — but I know for a fact that ‘The Invisible Man’ is the most vital, relevant and, most importantly, scary that a Universal Monster has been in probably half a century. Yes, one could accuse Universal of once again chasing a trend here, in the form of a Blumhouse-produced Social Issues-Centric Horror, much like they did with their attempts at making the monsters into superhero cannon fodder for franchise fans. But it’s almost like those style-and-idea driven films share a more common lineage than that ever did, and if you’re going to bring these characters into the 21st century, there are few better ways to do so than how Whannell and Moss have done here.”
Best Heist Film: Kajillionaire
From our review: “July’s magical-realist aesthetics have never been stronger than they are in ‘Kajillionaire’ — the bubbles, funnily enough, prove to be really interesting visually, seeping through the shitty walls and on to the floor — and, as such, her deeply empathetic storytelling manages to hit the notes that she wants better than ever before, and their dark denouncements have never felt more bitter. For Old Dolio, cruelty is the norm, and the cult-like lack of care that she’s been forced to endure over the course of her life is genuinely painful to experience, even in the briefest of moments, but unlike in dozens of other worse indie films, the twee trappings of her life give way to the true ugliness beneath all of it. Midway through the film, there’s a scene in which the con artists gather at the house of a dying man, to whom Melanie needs to deliver glasses, and the man asks them to make noise, to make it sound like his loved ones still live in the home. That way he can die peacefully, surrounded by some sort of family, even if it is ultimately a false one. July amps up the warmth of the scene until it is nearly amber-orange with feeling, with the mother and father taking on bizarre traditional roles, full of love and kindness, and Melanie plays a tune on the piano. Old Dolio doesn’t know how to process it, but she begins to discover that she likes what she’s been missing out on. And just as soon as it started, the moment ends, and the illusion is irrevocably shattered. It’s all tremendously sad, even when it’s being very twee and funny.”
Best Movie That Puffs Up The Writer’s Ego About the Need and Purpose of His Chosen Profession: Mank
From our review: “It shouldn’t surprise anyone that David Fincher’s ‘Mank’ is a complete break from what we’ve come to expect from the filmmaker over the course of his nearly 30-year career as a director. Fincher’s famously known for his steely-eyed and methodical approach to populist cinema — since 2010, his source material of choice has been the kind of airport paperback that, in the right hands, could be transformed into something closer in line to classic film noir than what a contemporary of his might do with it — but he’s often reserved for himself a single and highly-emotional film, usually around in the back end of a given decade, to explore other styles and means of expression. The first of these, 1997’s ‘The Game,’ saw him refine his approach to the thriller, but in a shockingly meaningful way (the ending of that film still hits me like a ton of bricks); the second, ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,’ was an attempt to grapple with aging and, ultimately, death, through the usage of metaphor serviced by innovations in digital effects; and now, ‘Mank,’ a tribute to writers and, specifically, his late father Jack, who penned the screenplay. It is a lovely, vivacious film, full of wit and humor evocative of the best of Old Hollywood writing spouted from the mouth of one of our greatest actors, gorgeously rendered in a luscious grayscale that will make both HDR televisions and film screens pop.”
Best In-Film Prank: Minari
From our review: “But what I hope many take away from ‘Minari’ is its gentleness and kindness, as it offers both forgiveness and redemption for each of its characters, all of whom, excluding the children, have the weight of the world upon their shoulders. Chung is very, very comfortable dealing with the grey areas found within his protagonists, and allows his incredibly strong cast, of which Yuen and Han are the standouts, to explore the depths of their feelings, no matter if it winds up in some uncomfortable places. Even tertiary characters, such as the philandering, dip-spitting father of one of David’s young friends, get a chance to show themselves as something other beyond what they appear to be at first blush. It doesn’t make excuses for them — the film very much wants its characters to learn from their trials and tribulations — but it refuses to pillory them or to write them off as less than they actually are. And, as such, ‘Minari’ presents to us a story of a family who, much like the sturdy, hearty green that David’s grandmother grows at the creek near their house, remains tough and resilient regardless of where it lays its roots.”
Best Movie We Never, Ever Want to Watch Again: Never Rarely Sometimes Always
From our review: “Ever since I saw Eliza Hittman’s ‘Beach Rats,’ and even though she’s an American filmmaker, I’ve always thought of her work as being spiritual kin to the work of the British New Wave back in the ‘60s. Perhaps that was merely because Harris Dickinson’s performance there could rival the best of the late Albert Finney’s in terms of depicting a type of modern Angry Young Man, struggling with his masculinity and burgeoning sexuality and finding a variety of perhaps unhealthy outlets to express himself through. That comparison feels even more true with her latest film, ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’ (a title that seems quirky at first blush, like a comedy that might have played at Sundance in the mid-aughts, before it is said in the film itself and it subsequently becomes devastating), which plays almost as a modern-day take on ‘A Taste of Honey,’ had young Jo opted (or even had the choice) to get an abortion in Tony Richardson’s classic. It’s, once again, a showcase for Hittman’s incredible talents as a pseudo-documentarian of young people’s lives, her kitchen-sink grittiness underscoring every emotional beat. And, much like in ‘Beach Rats,’ it proves to be the launching pad for a pair of incredible young performers, Sidney Flanagan and Talia Ryder.”
Best Movie to Show Your ‘Van Life’ Loving Dad While Giving Him His Christmas Beer Koozie: Nomadland
From our review: “McDormand and Zhao don’t shy away from examining Fern’s psychology in depth (there’s a particularly heartbreaking conversation that she has with her sister later on in the film that, while being muted and somewhat free of dramatics, is still absolutely devastating), nor do they try to cover up that this is an exceptionally hard way to live. You are at the mercy of a machine that may fail you and leave you stranded on a roadside that may or may not be properly insulated, and any sort of connection one has can only really be in passing — after all, you’ll never quite know when you see one of your friends on the road again. Fern’s confronted with an opportunity to, perhaps, step off the path that she’s on and establish a new life down the road, and how she responds to it feels somewhat akin to the works of Bob Rafelson. But, ultimately, the lure of the open road, of freedom, remains as strong for some as it did in the days of ‘Easy Rider,’ and ‘Nomadland’ attempts to examine that impulse, and, more importantly, feel it along with them.”
Best Time Spent Hanging Out With Icons Since Our Fourth-Grade Vacation to The Hall of Presidents at Disneyland: One Night in Miami
From our review: “A fear when one watches any adaptation of a stage play is that it will not inherently be cinematic, and ‘One Night in Miami’ does a surprisingly good job of keeping things propulsive. The most-stagey moments in the film come in the backstretch, in which the group argues and comes to an understanding in X’s motel room, and King can’t help it from feeling somewhat claustrophobic, but she makes a lot of wise choices. For one, she lets her performers carry the tempo of her film, and the ebb and flow between the men feel natural thanks to Kemp’s great dialogue and the massive amount of talent between the four leads. Each defies the easy caricature, straddling the public perception of the man with how Kemp’s portrayed them on the page. We get a softer look at Ali, whose bluster and confidence conceals his deeper struggles with his role in the sports world, and a Malcolm X who is both a devoted family man committed idealist, and a total fucking buzzkill at the party (when Cooke asks if he’s got any beer, X responds by pulling out cartons of vanilla ice cream from his freezer). But Ben-Adir, who is treading in the footsteps of two icons — X himself and Denzel Washington’s portrayal of him in Spike Lee’s 1992 masterpiece — manages to honor both and also create his own deep take on the man and his legacy.”
Best Not-Remake of Groundhog Day: Palm Springs
From our review: “What follows is a remarkably funny little film, in which we watch these characters grow and change as they’re trapped together in these circumstances, the horror and resulting nihilism of their predicament becoming more bearable — and a lot more fun — now that they’re stuck with another person. Sounds remarkably like one’s day-to-day when I put it like that, huh? Samberg and Miloti have a fantastic chemistry with one another, and their romance feels believable, even if their situation feels like a genre-construction. There are some wonderful bits strewn about, including some of the biggest laughs of the entire festival, especially when the pair turn their eyes to disrupting the perpetual wedding celebration for a cycle, and I don’t want to spoil them here for you. But I just know that the Lonely Island seal of quality means something to a whole lot of people, and both their sense of humor and strong writing is preserved here, even if they’re only really involved as producers (excepting Samberg, of course). And you know what? It’s better than ‘Popstar.’ There. I said it.”
Best Sean Bean Death of the Year (and our personal fave thing we saw in 2020): Possessor
From our review: “You know you’re doing something right at Sundance when, barely a minute into the film, you’ve already got the audience gasping like they’ve just seen a corpse in the woods behind their house. But when you’re watching a young woman plunge a wired needle into the top of her skull and tuning something that looks like an AM radio as she cycles through a number of emotions, you’re gonna jostle people. That’s exactly what happened with ‘Possessor,’ the new cyberpunk thriller by Brandon Cronenberg, and it very well might be the best adaptation of a William Gibson short story that the man never wrote, and it’s nearly neck-and-neck with ‘The Matrix’ as the best film to emerge from filmmakers under his influence. A portrait of a bleak corporate dystopia that’s impossible to place in a specific thanks to its blend of the low-fi and high-fi, Cronenberg’s film is about identity and guilt, wonderfully directed with a ton of cinematic flair. Had it been in the Midnight category of the Sundance program, it would have easily taken the crown as “most essential midnight movie to come out of the fest,” because holy shit, you are gonna want to see this with a crowd.” (Oh, how we wish you could have.)
Best Film About Your 20s That Resembled How Your 20s Actually Went Down and Not How You Wished They Had Gone Down: Shithouse
From our review: “Some have called ‘Shithouse’ ‘mopey,’ which I would say is an accurate descriptor, all things considered, given that it’s capturing the mopiest time of one’s life. These ages — 18, 19 — are when one’s mental illnesses really begin to manifest, and it’s also the first time that many kids have spent any time away from home, away from any traditional sources of comfort or community, and have to fend for themselves emotionally. I can remember vividly a few of my friends shedding tears in front of me during the first week of my own time at school, no liquor involved whatsoever. You’re lonely, fucked up in your own way, and you’re close to a kindred spirit who seems to understand what you’re going through, or at least wants to. What’s wrong with crying a bit, or talking about being scared of death? ‘Shithouse’ pays tribute to those moments of self-doubt, confusion, and frustration, and empathizes deeply with them, even as it’s trying to tell you that, hey, things might get better one day.”
Best Heaving Sobs Produced By a Children’s Film: Soul
We’ll have a full review of Pete Docter’s Soul coming before it hits Disney+ on Christmas Day, but, man, what a gorgeous little film. I thought Onward was about as close as the new Pixar was going to get to their glory days, but Soul absolutely annihilates that standard. It’s a really moving little tale about Joe (Jamie Foxx), a teacher and jazz musician who ascends to “the great beyond” on the night before his big break, and is paired up with Twenty-Two, a new soul who needs to learn the ropes before she can head to Earth. The pair decide to help each other out — to find Twenty-Two find her purpose and to get Joe back to his body before he hits the stage — and the results are as sob-inducing as they are funny. The animation is absolutely fantastic, the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is great, and the voice acting is phenomenal — let it be known that this is the first time I’ve truly enjoyed a Tina Fey performance in a major motion picture. It’s also a lovely, lovely tribute to the beauty of pre-pandemic New York. You might not want to watch it with your kids (enjoy that post-film discussion, parents), but it should prove incredibly rewarding for adults as well.
Best Performance by a Leading Actress: Swallow
Swallow is the kind of heartbreaking feminist cinema that we so desperately need more of. It’s a phenomenally acted and directed film about a woman who, as she’s trapped in the rigid roles required of her by her husband, begins to eat small objects, some dangerous, some not. It would be a decent film no matter who was in the lead role, but Haley Bennett — known mostly for her blockbuster work in films like The Magnificent Seven and The Girl on the Train — transforms the film into something absolutely mesmerizing. Her work here is by far the best of any working actress I’ve seen this year, and it’s not to be missed. Seriously, go watch this now.
Best ‘Ethan Hawke At The Karaoke Bar’ Simulator: Tesla
From our review: “‘Tesla’ is a film endowed with feeling, and it’s all expressed in a moment near its end that has proven to be quite the divisive choice. I won’t spoil it for you, but the information is out there online, and I was genuinely pleased when it unfolded in front of me. As a heightened expression of emotion, there’s generally nothing better than what Almereyda does here, and I sort of fell in love with ‘Tesla’ for its willingness to be its odd and iconoclastic self. It gets to the truth of how we see a figure like Tesla, and I wish more biopics were willing to go this hard in the paint: Cinema would be so much better as a result.”
Best Travis Scott-Adjacent Thing That Happened in 2020: Tenet
From our review: “There’s plenty to chew on in the narrative itself, though I’m going to hold off on discussing my personal analysis on one aspect of the film’s themes until more people have seen it. But ‘Tenet’ is the kind of thrilling blockbuster that we so desperately need in any summer, a brainy, brawny, and frankly astonishing work of populist cinema that doesn’t patronize its audience and actively encourages them to make connections for themselves. And, surprisingly, Nolan’s having a blast telling the story as well, perhaps for the first time since ‘The Dark Knight.’ This isn’t like solving a puzzle box — it’s like watching the movements of a Phillipe Patek, observing how the gears shift, and understanding both the simplicity and complexity of its construction.”
Best Homoerotic Australian Outlaw Film: True History of the Kelly Gang
If you like your modern westerns punk-as-fuck and decidedly not in the vein of the Respectable Hollywood Western, well, has Justin Kurtzel got a film for you. The director of Macbeth and Assassin’s Creed goes roots to dramatize the oft-told story of Ned Kelly, outlaw and folk hero to many Aussies, although this time it’s not quite like you might expect if you’ve seen Jagger or Ledger in the title role. No, this time it’s George MacKay, leading an army of dress-clad bandits on a pillaging tour across the countryside, along with some excellent supporting turns by Thomasin McKenzie, Nicholas Hoult, and the patron saint of chubby bearded dudes in this century, Russell Crowe. It’s like if Vivienne Westwood decided she wanted to pull a Tom Ford and tell a wild-ass story. The film’s final shootout will literally blow you away, as well — it’s just a gorgeous way to go out.
Best Picture to Start A Friendship-Altering Conversation With Your Roommate About Your Belief in Aliens After: The Vast of Night
From our review: “Andrew Patterson’s ‘The Vast of Night’ is one of the most astonishing debut sci-fi films in quite some time, being a tribute in equal parts to classic ‘50s genre television (say, ‘The Twilight Zone’ and ‘The Outer Limits,’ as alluded to in its stylized intro) and the magic of radio storytelling in all of its forms — fictional, nonfictional, and all that exists in between. Its story will no doubt be somewhat familiar to those who have regularly tuned in to ‘Coast to Coast AM’ over the years in order to dream about the unknown wonders of the universe, seemingly inspired (at least in part) by a 1997 incident in which host Art Bell was contacted by a very upset caller who claimed to have worked at Area 51. Bell’s satellite transmission was soon cut, mid-conversation, and his chat with the caller was cut short. ‘The Vast of Night’ captures so smartly what it must have been like to have either been Bell himself or listening on that fateful night, but repackages it in a period-appropriate way and setting.”