2020 has certainly been an unconventional year for the movie business, but that doesn’t mean there has been a shortage of excellent films. From the foreign films of yesteryear being distributed for the first time in the US to the indies that put themselves out there in any way they could during the pandemic, here are the films I liked the most as this year comes to a close.
20. A Sun (陽光普照)
An unforgiving crime drama with a captivating, sprawling plot, A Sun is an impressive feat. Despite some flaws, it’s easy to remain invested in this dense film throughout its 150 minute runtime. With its many shifts in tone and situation, the film can be compared to an epic novel.
19. Black Bear
Black Bear is one of the most unique films I’ve seen all year. It’s best to go in blind (including avoiding the trailer), as the movie takes twists and turns that should really be saved for the viewing. Aubrey Plaza gives an excellent lead performance in the kind of role she should have gotten long ago.
A terrifyingly beautiful documentary, Time manages to be urgent social commentary as well as poignant meditation on its titular concept. It compresses so much pain and emotion into its brisk 80 minute runtime, and leaves a lasting impact.
An emotional and personal dramedy about a lonely college freshman, Shithouse manages to balance its tones in a very effective way. In one moment it’s a sweet and empathetic mumblecore-lite film, and in the next it’s a Booksmart-esque comedy, and it handles the combination expertly.
16. The Book of Sun (شمس المعارف)
The Book of Sun is a hilarious and entertaining coming-of-age film about making a movie. The passion that this film exudes, particularly through the meta aspect of it all, is palpable, which helps it be an incredibly fun journey. I’m not intimately familiar with the culture the film presents, and I’m sure some things land better in a regional sense, but it’s worth it all the same.
15. Call (콜)
If you’re looking for a genuinely insane edge-of-your-seat film, look no further than Call. It’s a mindbending reality-altering thriller that includes excellent performances and very impressive direction. There are inconsistencies and small flaws in the film’s logic, but what do you expect from a film that plays with time?
Kajillionaire is undoubtedly a bit of a bizarre film, but it surprised me in how impressive it is in every regard. It blends tones and handles shifts expertly, and doesn’t lag in any technical or creative regard. It’s one of the best shot films of the year, and features one of the best scores. Its story is well-written and affecting, and goes to unexpected places.
13. His House
His House sets itself up like a fairly conventional haunted house story, but, as the film goes on, it evolves to become more and more complex, with fully realized arcs of understanding one’s own grief, trauma, and guilt. Its horror is terrifying, and it contains some of the most striking and creative imagery of the year.
12. Sound of Metal
Despite its subject being a heavy-metal musician, Sound of Metal is a calm and serene film about coming to terms with a major shift in one’s life. It features award-worthy performances from Riz Ahmed and especially Olivia Cooke, and its sound mixing is brilliantly immersive.
Bulbbul is an astonishing and beautiful dark fairytale full of mystery, romance, and revenge. Its visuals are gorgeous, making it feel like a fable has been brought directly to the screen. In this sense it has glimmers of films like Pan’s Labyrinth or Tigers Are Not Afraid, but Bulbbul is very unique.
10. She Dies Tomorrow
Nihilistic in a lightly comedic manner, She Dies Tomorrow is a hypnotizing exploration of existential fears and paranoia. It defies genre, but delivers a healthy dose of psychological horror. It’s executed very well at every level, and is an excellent film to define the era we are living in.
9. The Invisible Man
It’s not often that a studio horror film is particularly impressive, but The Invisible Man manages to achieve just that. It’s exemplary when it comes to adapting source material for the modern age, as it’s able to both capture the essence of a classic Universal monster movie as well as seem very appropriate for the present. A fantastic musical score and remarkable lead performance elevate the movie to chilling, goosebump-inducing heights.
8. I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Charlie Kaufman is back, and with a film more mature and coherent than ever. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is bold and abstract, but this only serves to deliver greater clarity of its themes. Few movies are able to capture the tone that this one does. It feels like a tangled web of thoughts and memories and internal monologue, as if peering into a corrupted sense of self. It’s incredibly crafted, and boasts some of the best performances of the year.
While Pixar is no stranger to injecting emotional and human themes into their animated films, Soul is perhaps the most conceptually and emotionally mature film they have ever crafted. It’s truly one of Pixar’s best, with an excellent score, gorgeous (and daring for a Pixar film) CG visuals, and messaging that is so profound and personal, it’s one of the most human films of the year.
Another animated gem, Wolfwalkers is consistently beautiful. Every aspect of the film is brimming with personality. Every brushstroke, pencil-line, and flaw serves to remind the audience of the individuals that created it. With clear influences from the likes of Miyazaki and Disney, this film is well-constructed and well-conceived, and serves as an exciting and emotional journey.
Residue exemplifies cinematic poetry, painting a dreamy and surreal portrait that comes together in a comfortingly coherent way. It’s personal, intimate, and incredibly well-crafted. It’s a collection of memories that build upon each other to deliver an urgent message. It’s undoubtedly a little messy, as are most films that are so clearly personal to those creating them, but this only elevates the film.
4. Last and First Men
Last and First Men is a simple film. It consists of Tilda Swinton narrating over a haunting and beautiful score that breathes with the narration and images and stark 16mm footage that seems foreign and alien, almost as if the images are being recorded by a space probe exploring a new world. These simple elements culminate into something fantastic, a unique cinematic experience that forms the emotions of the narrative in unexpected ways.
3. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is relentlessly tender, leaving so much pain left unsaid, but whispering in the background of every moment. Every element of the film works together to construct an empathetic product, allowing for a slow build of emotions. Its message is very important, but its in its depiction of humanity that the film succeeds.
2. House of Hummingbird (벌새)
House of Hummingbird is a meticulously constructed coming-of-age drama that brilliantly highlights the pains of adolescence. It relays the powerlessness that the main character feels, as she has to live in a world where so much is happening around her and to her, but she has to take everything in stride. It’s a portrait of conflict compounding itself upon a lonely and forgotten young girl.
Minari is a brilliant, beautiful film. Its screenplay overflows with warmth, humor, strength, and soft-spoken drama. Its storytelling is beyond impressive, injecting complexity into every character and constructing its conflicts in an incredibly natural way. This is a very, very special film. Warm, tender, emotional, and brimming with heart.