Now that Netflix and other streaming services have become our virtual movie theaters, the potential for long-form storytelling has been explored like never before. In addition to this list ranking the Top 10 Films of 2020 (click here for #11-20), you will find a section dedicated to Special Honorable Mentions on television that are the equal of any film I’ve seen this year. Many of these are sublime examples of what I call “serialized cinema,” in that they are self-contained narratives that just happen to be separated into multiple chapters. This article would be incomplete without them, as well as the thirty titles I’ve grouped into my list of additional honorable mentions.
Even with theaters shut down and my mind on other projects, I still managed to see plenty of essential films this year. Without further ado, here are the best of the best, many of which you can stream now from the comfort of your living room…
10. The Father
Adapted by Florian Zeller from his own play, this brilliant psychological drama centers on an elderly man, Anthony (Anthony Hopkins at his very best), who finds himself losing his grip on reality. As his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) visits him at his flat, various unsettling discrepancies start to emerge. Certain faces change without warning, while people who appear to be made of flesh and blood vanish into thin air. It’s not long before we realize that the story is being viewed through the eyes of Anthony as he battles Alzheimer’s disease, which is expressed in endlessly imaginative ways, such as a dinner table scene that seems to double back on itself. This is the sort of horror film capable of inspiring profound empathy.
“The Father” will be officially released in the US on February 26th.
9. Finding Yingying
Horror is certainly an apt term for describing the plight of Yingying Zhang, a 26-year-old Chinese student who suddenly disappeared while studying at the University of Illinois’ picturesque campus in Urbana, where Ebertfest was annually held prior to COVID-19. One of Zhang’s peers, Jiayan “Jenny” Shi, decided to chronicle the search for the missing woman, whose family and boyfriend traveled to the United States for the first time in order to ensure that she would be found. The resulting picture is as much a tribute to Zhang’s exuberant spirit as it is to the devotion of her loved ones as their anxiety grows with each passing day. This is another humanist triumph from Kartemquin Films, and a magnificent debut feature from Shi.
“Finding Yingying” is currently streaming at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
8. The Assistant
Whereas Deborah Kampmeier’s “Tape” kicked the door down to expose the abuses of power committed by opportunistic monsters like Harvey Weinstein in locked offices, Kitty Green’s meticulously nuanced drama takes the perspective of a young assistant, Jane (Julia Garner), who cannot enter the room. It’s through subtle observations and casually toxic exchanges that Jane’s suspicions grow regarding the behavior of her boss, an unseen executive who snarls at her over the phone. Matthew Macfadyen delivers Oscar-caliber work in his single scene as the man who quietly tells Jane to back down after she has opened up to him. It’s what remains unspoken in this film that lingers most vividly in one’s memory.
“The Assistant” is now streaming on Hulu.
7. Beyond the Visible – Hilma af Klint
Halina Dyrschka’s debut feature about Swedish painter Hilma af Klint is one of the best films I’ve seen about fine art. It casts an entrancing spell that allows the staggering depth of its subject’s work to consume us, while showing how her trailblazing vision left an unmistakable imprint in over a century of iconic art spanning various mediums, resounding through history like a drop of colored paint in a pitcher of water. This is one of many metaphorical motifs Dyrschka poetically utilizes to convey the essence of af Klint’s artistry and the magnitude of its unsung influence. She also conveys the transformative power of meditation, racking focus to show what unseen wonders reveal themselves in the foreground when we adjust our gaze.
“Beyond the Visible – Hilma af Klint” is available for rental on Prime Video. Read my interview with Halina Dyrschka here.
2020 is the year where all of us have had to learn, in one way or another, how to live without certain things to which we had not only grown accustomed, but taken for granted. “The Rider” director Chloé Zhao’s remarkable third feature follows Fern (Frances McDormand), a widow rendered “houseless” by the Great Recession, who finds a newfound sense of belonging in her community of fellow nomads living out of their vans, while savoring the majesty of nature. McDormand has always been a national treasure, and her subdued work here proves every bit as mesmerizing as her foul-mouthed bravado in “Three Billboards.” Like “Beyond the Visible,” this film indelibly complements our transformative periods of reflection in quarantine.
“Nomadland” will be officially released in the US on February 19th.
For this harrowing and courageous documentary, first-time director Sasha Joseph Neulinger sifted through over 200 hours of home videos shot from the earliest days of his youth to the moment he moved out for college, examining the footage to illuminate the cyclical story of sexual abuse buried within seemingly inconsequential interactions. The ability to read a great work of cinema is not all that different from psychoanalysis, since signs of trauma are often conveyed through nonverbal behavior rather than expositional monologues. I found myself drawing upon the same instincts I utilize for processing visual storytelling as I regarded young Sasha’s piercing stare, radiating the pent-up agony he is not yet ready to articulate.
“Rewind” is available for rental on Prime Video.
Inspired by the oral histories of Soviet war veterans, 28-year-old Russian director Kantemir Balagov strove to portray the criminally underrepresented experiences of female soldiers grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder. Astonishing newcomers Viktoria Miroshnichenko and Vasilisa Perelygina play contrasting comrades bound together by their desperate and often bruising pursuit of happiness. Balagov and his impeccable cinematographer Kseniya Sereda sport the confidence to tell this tale chiefly through the faces of characters as well as their placement in the frame, thereby making the dialogue of secondary importance, while utilizing color as artfully as any painter one can name.
“Beanpole” is available for rental on Prime Video.
3. I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Watching writer/director Charlie Kaufman’s exhilarating adaptation of Iain Reid’s strikingly Kaufman-esque book, I couldn’t help feeling as if I were watching my own pandemic-era life reflected in a funhouse mirror, as my girlfriend and I repeatedly embarked on trips across farmland to our respective parents’ houses, while time lost all sense of meaning. It’s fitting that I coincidentally streamed the film on the sixtieth anniversary of Hitchcock’s “Psycho” being released in theaters, with its forbidden basements, cackling mothers, frantic windshield wipers and gleefully pervasive sense of dread, not to mention central characters that only gradually reveal themselves. And, oh yeah, Jessie Buckley stops the show once again.
“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is now streaming on Netflix.
In light of how COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted people of color, coupled with the widespread police brutality that ended the lives of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many others, thus further amplifying the voices of the Black Lives Matter movement, no narrative feature in 2020 cuts as deep as Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” film series. Each of its thematically linked features has found a place on this list, either in the Top 20 or the honorable mentions, and this epic first installment about the historic trial of the Mangrove Nine (set just after “The Trial of the Chicago 7”) is an electrifying tour de force. After her crowd-pleasing skewering of “colonizers” in “Black Panther,” Letitia Wright reaffirms her status as one of the brightest lights in the galaxy of modern actors, as does her co-star, Shaun Parkes.
“Mangrove” is now streaming on Prime Video.
1. Lovers Rock
When I spoke with McQueen in 2016, he told me of how he wanted to create situations that would allow for a multitude of narratives in a single shot or vista. That is certainly true of this extraordinary second installment in his “Small Axe” series, which provides a welcome burst of euphoria after the stomach-churning tension of “Mangrove.” The luminous Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn stars as Martha, a young woman who attends a boisterous house party in West London and finds herself falling for her smitten dance partner, Franklyn (Micheal Ward). Clocking in at a mere 70 minutes, this lyrical vignette instantly emerges as one of the greatest music-based films ever made, as the rapture of songs like Dennis Bovell’s “Silly Games” unites a crowd of strangers, whose shared glances from across the room speak volumes. I can’t think of a lovelier escape from our socially distanced reality than this slice of cinematic nirvana.
“Lovers Rock” is now streaming on Prime Video.
SPECIAL HONORABLE MENTIONS
Considering the embarrassment of riches provided to us on streaming platforms this year, I could only whittle down my annual list of Special Honorable Mentions to ten alphabetized titles, starting with Steve James’ five-part masterwork, “City So Real,” on Hulu, an illuminating portrait of Chicago’s diverse communities in the days leading up to the lockdown. The arrival of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s already iconic Broadway musical “Hamilton,” as filmed by Thomas Kail, on Disney+ certainly brightened my Fourth of July, while Nanette Burstein’s four-part Hulu documentary, “Hillary,” shed provocative new light on the polarizing presidential candidate. If “Blue Valentine” director Derek Cianfrance’s six-hour HBO limited series, “I Know This Much is True,” featuring Mark Ruffalo’s Emmy-winning portrayal of twin brothers, were released as a film, it would’ve ranked very high on my Top 10 list. And few things I saw in 2020 provided me as much pure enjoyment as Jason Hehir’s ten-part docuseries, “The Last Dance” (now on Netflix), which provides ample proof that Michael Jordan, Phil Jackson and the Chicago Bulls of the 90s remain unmatched.
I had the pleasure of interviewing “Jesus Camp” directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady about their own splendid Showtime docuseries, “Love Fraud,” a jaw-dropping look at a Trumpian flim-flam man, while Hulu’s “Mrs. America” humanized Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett), a conservative activist who attempted to garner power by fighting against the equal rights of women. I was delighted to see one of my favorite actors, Anya Taylor-Joy, team up onscreen with one of my favorite filmmakers, Marielle Heller, in Scott Frank’s richly entertaining Netflix drama, “The Queen’s Gambit.” Though its rumored second season has yet to be confirmed, the first eight episodes of Luca Guadagnino’s “We Are Who We Are”— which are linked by the title, “Right Here Right Now”—stand on their own as a glorious ode to the fluidity of identity. Finally, as a love letter to those suffering in quarantine, “Trouble Don’t Last Always,” Sam Levinson’s special holiday episode of his stunning HBO show “Euphoria,” is a soul-cleansing gem, thanks to top-drawer dialogue and riveting performances from Colman Domingo and newly christened Emmy-winner Zendaya.
Thirty More Honorable Mentions: “Alex Wheatle,” “And Then We Danced,” “Antigone,” “Bad Education,” “Black Bear,” “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets,” “Boys State,” “Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn,” “Circus of Books,” “David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet,” “Denise Ho: Becoming the Song,” “Desert One,” “Education,” “Epicentro,” “The Invisible Man,” “I Used to Go Here,” “Kajillionaire,” “Mr. Soul!”, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” “Oliver Sacks: His Own Life,” “One Night in Miami,” “Pieces of a Woman,” “Promising Young Woman,” “Run,” “A Secret Love,” “Soul,” “Swallow,” “Time,” “The Vast of Night,” “Wolfwalkers”