By Sean Boelman
Even though this year saw some unfortunate changes in the way in which films were viewed, there were still plenty of memorable releases. And while some great movies decided to stick it out to 2021 in the hopes of receiving a full-force theatrical release or to take advantage of the extended awards eligibility windows, 2020 offered some great flicks. Here are some of our favorites.
Note: Due to repeated infractions against disappointment media's strict anti-gatekeeping policy, all Netflix titles have been blacklisted from coverage on the site for a period of 30 days. This includes mentions in this article.
10. The Donut King
Telling the story of Cambodian immigrant Ted Ngoy, Alice Gu’s The Donut King is arguably one of the most poignant documentaries to come out in 2020. And while this is certainly a treat for foodies — because who doesn’t love donuts, after all — the focus is more on exploring the American Dream and Ngoy’s struggles with addiction and how they influenced his unlikely empire. Of course, the cinematography is pretty gorgeous, particularly when it comes to those delicious-looking food shots, thanks to Gu’s previous experience as a cinematographer, but it is the story that will cause this film to stick with viewers.
9. David Byrne's American Utopia
David Byrne, former frontman of the Talking Heads, already had one of the greatest concert documentaries of all time made about him (Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense), and now he has two with David Byrne’s American Utopia. Directed by master filmmaker Spike Lee, this is a truly joyous experience, the magic of Byrne’s music translating to the screen in an absolutely wonderful fashion. However, Lee’s touch on the film is obvious and welcome, as the more socially-conscious elements of the show have quite the impact. Offering both thought-provoking commentary and serious escapism, this film really embodies 2020.
8. Sound of Metal
The directorial debut of frequent Derek Cianfrance (The Place Beyond the Pines) collaborator Darius Marder, Sound of Metal is brilliant. Although it took a little over a year after its 2019 TIFF debut to make its way to wider audiences, it was worth the wait, as its powerfully subtle story about a heavy metal drummer who loses his hearing is touching and harrowing. Riz Ahmed delivers the finest performance of his already prolific career, and the sound design is truly magnificent and ambitious, cementing this as not only one of the best first features of the year, but also one of the best films of the year in general.
7. Farewell Amor
The second film on this list about the immigrant experience, Ekwa Msangi’s Farewell Amor starts seeming like it is going to be a relatively straightforward family drama but adds layer upon layer of nuance. This film about an immigrant family reuniting in the United States after spending many years apart doesn’t aim for the easy targets, with a few familiar plot points, but mostly focusing on the ones that are uniquely heartwarming. The ambitious nonlinear structure is also an ambitious swing for the fences, and it delivers, allowing this to be a phenomenal character study.
6. Bad Hair
Six years after his fan-favorite satire Dear White People, filmmaker Justin Simien’s sophomore feature Bad Hair offers an entertaining and insightful blend of social commentary, laughs, and thrills. The film follows an aspiring professional in 1980s music television who discovers that her weave may have a supernatural connection. It’s definitely a plus that the film is both hilarious and legitimately scary, but what really stands out is the way in which Simien immerses the viewer in the film. Both in terms of the ‘80s culture and the mythological foundations of the story, the film is very detailed, and that goes a long way in making it feel more atmospheric.
Artist, activist, and filmmaker Ai Weiwei has delivered one of the year’s most important films with his documentary Cockroach. Even though the film may not be the most pleasant watch, this portrait of the protests in Hong Kong is urgent in every sense of the word. Utilizing repetition and an interesting soundscape, Wewei’s film has an interesting and challenging emotional effect. Some viewers may be put off by the graphic and unflinching nature of the footage used in the film, but it is meant to be upsetting and infuriating. This is the social activism film of the year.
4. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Although its theatrical release was derailed because it started right before the COVID-19 pandemic hit its full force, Eliza Hittman’s exceptional Never Rarely Sometimes Always has still found the respect it deserves. Following two teenage girls who must travel from their conservative community to New York City in order for one of them to receive an abortion, this is undoubtedly one of the most emotional watches of the year. Additionally, lead actress Sidney Flanigan stands out in her very first role, giving one of the finest and most nuanced performances of the year.
3. Boys State
Even though it may be about teenage boys forming a mock government, Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss’s documentary Boys State reveals a lot about the state of our country right now. Equal parts funny, endearing, and disturbing, McBaine and Moss draw the viewer into this story in an unexpected way. Shot and edited dynamically and making its subjects very compelling, this documentary is thoroughly entertaining while still maintaining its depth and substantial material. Since 2020 was an election year, it was filled with political documentaries, and this stood out as the most unique, and arguably the most effective.
2. The Climb
Michael Angelo Covino’s buddy dramedy The Climb represents the best of what independent filmmaking has to offer. Featuring a brilliant screenplay brought to life by two charismatic performances and a kinetic shooting style, this is one of the funniest movies of the year. Taking the form of different scenes from the central friendship, the film includes some really impressive long takes. However, Covino’s film isn’t the flashy and gimmicky type. Instead, it is the charm of the performances and relatability of the script that really causes this one to stand out.
1. She Dies Tomorrow
Amy Seimetz has received her due in the film community thanks to her talents as an actress, but it’s about time she is recognized as one of the most exciting filmmakers working today. Her surreal and hypnotic thriller She Dies Tomorrow was extremely lucky to have been released in the middle of a global pandemic, but its message about paranoia and fear would ring true in any age. It has been divisive among audiences because of its loose narrative, but its dedicated fanbase has stood behind its gorgeous visuals and darkly funny moments. If any film screams 2020, it’s She Dies Tomorrow.
What were your favorite movies of 2020? Let us know!
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