Nine months into 2021, I’m finally getting around to recapping my favorite films of 2020. This is not just incredibly belated, it’s a resumption of my blogging. I haven’t even looked at this site in so long, let alone written anything for it. I was shocked to discover that not only had I so far neglected to post my 2020 list, but I haven’t even done my 2019 list (and 2019 was the best year for cinema since the now mythical 1999). So I’ll have to look back and do that soon. But my 2020 list has been in a note on my phone for months, I just haven’t gotten around to it, thanks largely to Covid and all the distractions and routine-upending impacts it has inflicted on all our lives. I’ll write more on that later, I have no doubt. For now, suffice to say that I’ve given my website a quick makeover and stripped it down to the basics: super simple color scheme, no graphics, and I’m going to focus completely and exclusively on blogging. Think of it as a personal return to the simpler days of Internet 1.0…
1. Host (Rob Savage)
Remember, this is my favorite films list, so I’m excused from the burden of trying to argue this was the best film of 2020. It’s not, but it is a lot of fun. And arguably, it is the best “zoom quarantine” film to come out of the global lockdown we all experienced. It was certainly one of the earliest. It’s really impressively made (under the confines of the UK’s first lockdown, with all actors in isolation having to do their own makeup, etc.) especially if you’re aware of the not-entirely-true making of marketing spin. It’s very short for something sold as a feature (it’s not really even a full hour) but it’s tight, thoroughly entertaining, and a good old fashioned horror film. It was also really timely being quickly made and released in the moment so that it feels the most authentically 2020 film of them all. (The most iconic such moment in the film comes when Gemma has to flee her home to go save her friend who is being attacked by some murderous ghost… but first pauses to don her face mask before stepping outside.) There are those who discount 2020 as a year worthy of “best of” lists or demand that it forever be the year with an asterisk affixed. Yes, 2020 sucked balls, but it did happen. It wasn’t the greatest year in cinema for a great many reasons, but Host is proof that great films did come out of it, and it absolutely tops my favorites list.
2. Lovers Rock (Steve McQueen)
I had never brought myself to watch a Steve McQueen film prior to his Small Axe anthology. From what I understand, his films are greatly respected. But they always seemed to me to be a rather brutal sort of chore I could just as well without, thank you very much. Lovers Rock, to me, is absolutely the pinnacle of his Small Axe series. From the early moments with the women cooking in the kitchen, to the hungover morning-after closing, it’s a movie that is absolutely living in the moment that it’s in and it transports you right there with it. It’s vibrant, alive, and incredibly powerful. I love it. Its best scene – the several minutes long acapella singing of Silly Games wile bodies grind together on the dance floor – is magical and mesmerizing, and the best scene of anything from 2020, period.
3. Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman)
I’d heard lots of very good things about this film a long time before I had the opportunity to see it. Since it was nominated for the Independent Spirit Awards, I was obligated to watch it, but I still went in with some sense of trepidation, not really sure how bleak the film would be. It is bleak – to an extent – but not so much that you don’t want to watch. Rather, it’s an unvarnished slice of naturalistic filmmaking that it very powerful and compelling. I thoroughly enjoyed it and in particular commend actress Talia Ryder for her supporting role.
4. Quo vadis, Aida? (Jasmila Zbanic)
Fuck me, this film just grabs you and doesn’t let you go. If I’d properly knew what this films was about before going in, I likely wouldn’t have wanted to watch. The subject matter is the Bosnian genocide, but the film plays as a frantic action-packed race against the clock. It’s edge-of-your-seat stuff. The gut punch comes at the end as past and present meet and you realize that sometimes life just fucking sucks. Very highly recommended.
5. One Night In Miami… (Regina King)
There was a time not very long ago at all, when talking about films in contention for major awards there would be “the Black film” for the year. The operative word being “the” as in there can be only one. 2020 was a seismic year for the widespread realization that systematic racism was very much always and still is a thing and, for the most part, a positive reckoning with it, which marks, hopefully, the beginning of a more enlightened and conscious new era. One Night In Miami is probably the most accessible “Black film” of 2020, but it is decievably so, for this is not just film about four friends hanging out (which the vibe of it undoubtably is) but has much more depth. The film is anchored by two moments near the beginning and at its end: Jim Brown being feted by his white plantation-owning family friend who turns on a dime to reprimand “you know we don’t allow niggers in the house” and the closing performance of Sam Cooke’s I Was Born On The River. Amazing stuff.
6. I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman)
A frustrating film, but one which lingers in the mind and compells you to return to it. It’s melancholy in the best way. The gimmick of it doesn’t entirely make sense, and neither really does the humor, but the heart and soul of it are full. I need to watch it again.
7. The Killing of Two Lovers (Robert Machoian)
Sparse, tense and very, very indie. This understated story of a crumbling man struggling to come to terms with his failing (failed?) marriage is fantastically calibrated. It know what it is and it does it well. I’m a sucker for films like this set in vast and empty snowy landscapes. Surprisingly, the film begins with the murder of the two lovers abruptly being abandoned (directly contradicting the film’s title) and from there you’re never really sure what’s going to happen next, which is a great thing.
8. Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee)
A most Spike Lee-ish of Spike Lee films, that resonates all the more for the injection of up-to-the-moment political context (in this case the fallout of the deadly Nazi gathering in Charlottesville) no matter how shoehorned it in sometimes feels. MVP is undoubtedly Delroy Lindo as a Trump-supporting Black man filled with rage but unsure of where it came from or what to do with it. It’s may not be one of Spike’s very best, but a good Spike Lee film is still more thought-provoking and better than most good films and it’s definitely worth a watch.
9. Judas And The Black Messiah (Shaka King)
This is the film I felt should have won the Oscar for Best Picture. It’s a crowd-pleaser, it’s very solidly-made, and the worthiness that Oscar typically goes for oozes out of its every pore. Alas, it did not. But hopefully between virtue of it being nominated and easily accessible on HBO Max a lot of people saw it and it resonated with them. If it did fall between the cracks, then hopefully this is one film that will be looked on someday and enjoy a renewed status as one of those films that everyone serious about film should watch.
10. The Assistant (Kitty Green)
Much like Never Rarely Sometimes Always, a film covertly about the misdeeds of Harvey Weinstein never really appealed to me, but this film absolutely won me over. It’s captivating, compelling, and no small part of that is due to Writer/Director Kitty Green and lead actress Julia Garner. A genuinely great little film.
Honorable mention: The Half of It (Alice Wu)
A queer, modern, teenish spin on Cyrano de Bergerac that is undeniably one of the most out-and-out fucking adorable films I’ve seen in a very long time. I don’t care if you want to write this off as a guilty pleasure, more movies like this please and thank you.