I’ve considered how to approach 2020 as a year in cinema for quite a while. The challenge isn’t easy. Normally I have about thirty films I’ve seen in a given year that I toss around and debate which ought to be considered the “Best” of the year.
Two things have changed for me in the past year:
1. The COVID pandemic radically reduced the number of new releases down to streaming and a handful of films from early in the year.
2. My own personal priorities in regards to how I ought to write these lists have changed.
As a critic, I consider my job to be to foster discourse that draws people closer to a deeper understanding of the art form of cinema, which in turn draws them into a deeper understanding of humanity and the purpose of art in general.
As such, I’ve considered these lists since 2014 to be primarily objective in nature. The best films of the year should be the films that most objectively approached the art form on its own terms and came out creating a piece of singular work that stands on its own as a unique artistic statement.
Looking at the challenges of this year though, I heavily reconsidered my goals with the list. Most of the movies I REALLY connected to have been lessor films that didn’t match the objectively best films of the year. If I were being cold and critical, I’d say the best films of the year belong to smaller fair the slipped through the cracks such as First Cow, The Vast of the Night, The Assistant, The Devil All the Time, On the Rocks, Borat 2, Birds of Prey and Da 5 Bloods.
I enjoyed all of those films (mostly) and respect their craft and artist merits (mostly) but the experience of watching those films was quite cold. I had more engaging discussions and viewings watching lessor schlocky genre films like The Gentlemen, Greyhound and Color Out of Space than I did watching the films most critics respected. I even enjoyed watching Wonder Woman in a schlocky ‘90s sequel sort of way.
One of my favorite filmmakers Alex Garland had a new project this year but released it as a mini-series on Hulu called Devs. It’s one of the most intelligent stories I’ve seen this year but it doesn’t qualify for the list as a TV show.
Maybe the two most interesting film discussions of the year came out of Tenet and Mank. I reviewed both films for Geeks Under Grace and rated them both roughly 8/10 at the time of release but the discussions since then have offered a lot of interesting intellectual discussion about the ways their stories are compromised in complicated ways.
Heck, 2020’s most popular film might’ve been the objectively mediocre Sonic the Hedgehog film which build an earnest fan base for reasons I honestly respect.
I’m not making an argument that pop art is innately more important than the genuine article. On the contrary. 2020 has been such a weird year that people are scraping the bottom of the barrel for entertainment. Our conversations and priorities are getting more personal as our options shrink for reasons outside of our control.
As such, I don’t want to just use this list to push obscure art movies or feed populist whims. I’m more interested in using this list going forward as a means of subjectively expressing what it is I most value and connect with in cinema as an art form. I think that will result in more personal writing and create a better opportunity to discuss the values behind the cinema we enjoy absent the stigma of what we personally WANT the objective best film of any given year to be.
I should also note there are a handful of successful films from this year that I just never got around to watching for whatever reason so I couldn’t add them to my conclusions: Hopper/Welles, Palm Springs, Saint Frances, Nomadland, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Minari, Ammonite, Possesor, News of the World, Let Them All Talk, An American Pickle, Lovers Rock, etc.
What follows is seven movies that I had the most deep and enduring engagements with in 2020. Some are films I agree with. Others are films I want to sit down with and have a chat about their self harming tendencies. In any case, these six are the ones that spoke most deeply to me for reasons intellectual and silly.
I cannot, in any honest sense, describe Capone as a good movie. It’s cheap. It’s grotesque. It’s disgusting, unfocused and meandering. It’s also a perfect cinematic metaphor for mental deterioration. As I discussed in my piece for Rebeller Media earlier this year, Capone perfectly emulates the experience of what it’s like to suffer from memory loss. It’s a film where the experience of being a listless, empty husk that burdens the people around you comes into it’s worst possible end.
Al Capone might still be living in the body of Al Capone but without his memories or a basic grasp on reality what is left of the soul of Al Capone?
The fact that the movie is as confused as it’s lead character is part of what makes it work. Neither one of them knows where they’re going. All they can do is rely on their love ones whom the slowly forget day by day as you forget yourself. That’s the true horror of dementia.
6. Bill and Ted Face the Music
I didn’t grow up with the Bill and Ted films so I didn’t approach the third film in the series with any nostalgia. Seeing it on opening night, I couldn’t help but get swept up in the film’s wave of feeling. Bill and Ted are such wonderfully silly characters. They’re totally sincere, kind hearted and just want to rock. In adult bodies, their schtick only takes on more weight as they’re faced with the realities of age and marriage. I would never call these films deep but they are effective and funny. The third film does a really efficient job of bringing the story of the series to it’s natural conclusion and finding a really clever way to answer the riddle of the series: How do you bring the entire world together and make it better while it’s tearing itself apart? As silly as it is, the final scenes to this film are incredibly cathartic and fun. Few films will make you feel as great this year as this film can.
I was suspecting Pixar’s Soul to be another empty and enjoyable entry into the legacy of an animation studio that’s long past it’s prime. Much to my surprise, the film scratched the same itch that 2015’s Inside Out managed to itch by reaching deeper into it’s premise and ripping out a heart wrenching story about the spark the makes life worth living.
I found both of its lead characters to be immediately relatable and immediate. I share Joe’s deep passion for life but I also totally get 22’s deep sense of apathy and fear. In a year like 2020, there’s nothing more relatable than a character that just wants to retreat from the world and curl up in a cozy ball where the world cannot affect you.
On the reverse side of that, it’s also important to take that kind of character and rip them out of their comfort zone. Life is wonderful and worth living for its own sake inspite of the tragic nature of it!
4. Mr. Jones
The film that might’ve been 2020’s most important film was also one of it’s bleakest. Mr. Jones was initially an offbeat curiosity released only in Europe but caught a lot of attention by word of mouth when people realized that there was a mainstream film in circulation about the Holodomor. The Soviet genocide of Hungary by way of an artificial famine is one of the least well known atrocities of the 20th century.
As the film explores, there are very real reasons why. The journalistic maleficence by The New York Times, the complacency of world governments and just plain indifference of the world’s populace caused the deaths of millions of farmers to go unreported for the better part of a century. To this day, it’s still dismissed as a conspiracy theory by far-leftists. I was lucky enough to interview the film’s screenwriter Andrea Chalupa earlier this year and she offered a lot of insight into the film’s intention and meaning. The fact that people are drawing parallels to the film was never intended.
It just goes to show how the problems that caused a genocide to go unreported still exist today. It’s story is more vital than ever. In an age when many communists still deny the Holodomor ever happened and where socialism is the most popular ideology of the day, a film that makes you stare directly into the faces of the starving and dead victims of such an ideology is necessary. As it’s titular character says to George Orwell later in the film, communism is every problem we deal with right now but worse.
3. I’m Thinking of Ending Things
I’ve joked before that Christianity is just a form of hopeful nihilism. Maybe that’s why I’m intrigued by deeply fatalistic and depressing stories. Charlie Kaufman certainly knows how to deliver on that front. While I don’t always enjoy the breadth of his existentialism and emotional turmoil, his newest film really caught my attention. It’s one of the best original films that Netflix has ever produced!
I would never recommend it to everybody though because it is a trippy, surrealistic, art film that only functions when you fully consider what the imagery on screen represents symbolically. When you do so, you start to recognize it as a painful march to death and inevitability. This story of relationships falling apart and revisiting old places turns into terrifying delve into the deep where one man’s fear and self loathing consume him to the point where he totally gives up on reality itself. It’s hard to explain how that happens but I respect just how well the film accomplishes these ideas.
2. Smalltown Wisconsin
From a film produced by the largest distributor in the world to one of the most humble films I’ve seen in years…
I saw Smalltown Wisconsin at the El Dorado Film Festival in south Arkansas with a crowd of less than a hundred people. That doesn’t change the fact that this meager indie film was one of the most affecting and emotional films I’d seen all year. The film is very much a story in the realm of Hillbilly Elegy. It’s the story of the forgotten man living in small-town America and struggling to get by.
Unlike the exhausting Ron Howard film of the same name, Smalltown Wisconsin is slick, angry and heart wrenching. We meet a man who is about to totally lose custody of his child because of his raging alcoholism and irresponsibility. Facing that reality, he asks for one more vacation with his son so he can relate to him because they’re forced to part ways. What follows is one of the most heart breaking portrayals of alcoholism, parenthood and personal growth I’ve seen on film in years.
1. Blood Quantum
I thought a lot this year about the film that I personally thought was the best this year. I wasn’t sure what ought to receive a title like that. In a year like 2020, should I give an award to the most emotionally cathartic film of the year or the most artistically important? Like Smalltown Wisconsin, I thought there was something to be said for the small and intimate story in this time. I ultimately decided that the best film of 2020 had to be a film that captured the spirit of the time.
When I considered that, Blood Quantum became the immediate answer. The film got a lot of attention early in the year when it was released by Shudder with the gimmick of being an entirely Native American-made zombie film with real Native actors and filmmakers. Upon inspection, the film offered something a great deal more emotional than mere reactionary progressive racialism. The film very much captures the spirit of our time. The zombism of the film captures the fear of disease that pervades our culture. The isolated island where the film’s Reservation is located is completely cut off from the outside world. Most importantly though, the film captures the fundamental fear of trust of other people.
In the film, this is captured by the nuanced relationships between Native Americans and white Canadians before and after the apocalypse. In this relationship, we see firsthand just how and why these people on the reservation are afraid of the inside world. Trusting a Canadian who walks up to their door could mean unleashing a murderous zombie on their compound. The film very much reflects the fear of a dying culture struggling with the everyday needs of survival and cultural integration. It depicts the very real challenge involved in multiple cultures sharing a land together. For good measure, it’s also one of the most fun zombie films since Shaun of the Dead!
No other film truly captured the intense ideological, social and emotional pressures of a year like 2020 quite like Blood Quantum was able to.