Best Movies of 2020

Manohla Dargis | A.O. Scott

Manohla Dargis

I Watched Until My Eyes Bled

It was a year of watching obsessively yet indiscriminately, a year of small and smaller screens. On one lost day not long ago, I spent a horrifying (embarrassing!) 11 hours and 15 minutes on my phone. I read the news, doomscrolled Twitter, did puzzles, checked my email and kept scrolling. It’s no wonder that my eyes had begun to regularly ache and sometimes sting, prompting me to worry that I needed a new prescription for my glasses. I didn’t, I just needed to stop watching, but I couldn’t put down my phone, which tethered me to the larger world that I greatly missed.

The point of a top 10 list is to share our preferred movies. But in thinking about my favorites of the year and all the many new and old titles I’ve seen, I also thought a lot about how I watched movies and, well, just watched. A big-screen fundamentalist, I love going out to the movies, to first- and second-run cinemas as well as to art houses, museums and cinémathèques. I know which theater and studio in Los Angeles (where I live) has the biggest screen, the best sound, sightlines and seats — me, I like to sit in the middle of the theater, perfectly centered.

When movie theaters closed in Los Angeles in March, I cried. (They’re still closed.) The tears of critics are tiny, but moviegoing is who I am. I grew up in New York in the 1970s watching as many films as I could, including on TV. But going to the movies was one of my first adventures in sovereignty, one of the first ways that I experienced navigating ordinary life without parental supervision. Moviegoing was my thing, a way of seeing and of being. Up until March, it was also instrumental to how I understand time, its shape, texture and demands: moviegoing dictated what I did day and night, including the many hours I clocked driving to and from screenings.

Like a lot of people, I have felt unmoored this year partly because of how I now experience time. I’ve long worked from home, but to review movies, I go to theaters. So I found it challenging learning to watch the movies I was reviewing at home, how to respect the focus they required and deserved, how to sit — and keep sitting — on the sofa and not hit the pause button, not check Twitter. It didn’t help that we have a lot of windows, which made it impossible to replicate a dark screening room, even with the shades drawn. So, staying classy, I hung sheets over the shades and even taped Trader Joe’s shopping bags over one small window, which was as ridiculous as it sounds.

I finally figured out how to really watch the movies I was reviewing at home when I categorically separated them from the other images I was soaking up, the stream of faces, shapes and moments that also defined my year: Sarah Cooper’s devastating Trump performances; Doggface skateboarding to Fleetwood Mac; the Scottish sports announcer Andrew Cotter and his dogs Olive and Mabel; the sometimes shocking science videos demonstrating how far sneezes and coughs can travel (27 feet!); and the friends and strangers whose lives I’ve watched as they made bread, settled into new homes, marched for Black lives and, at times, mourned the deaths of loved ones.

This stream has been alternately sad and joyous, devastating and enlivening. I have grown fond of people I have never met, and become invested in their well-being. Occasionally, the stream can feel like an inundation, as it did on my shameful day of 11 hours-plus on my phone. And I know, yes, the arguments against spending too much time on social media, in particular. But all these streaming images are entirely different from the discrete pleasures of movies not just in terms of how they look — the integrity of their images, where the camera is — but also how movies begin and how they end, the specific rhythms, shape and sense of time they create.

The seemingly endless, indistinguishable months of the pandemic have been perfect for the undifferentiated streaming flow of baking shows, crime dramas, TikTok videos, fleeting Instagram stories and five-second GIFs. Streaming companies know how to do flow: they often bypass credits and start up the next episode before you’re finished watching the current one. Streaming blurs time and before you know it you’ve watched four episodes of “The Crown” back to back. This is of a different order of how we experience time when we go out to the movies, which give us two or more hours’ respite from the clock-and-capitalism-determined flow of everyday life.

Every so often, someone asks what I think will happen to movies. I haven’t a clue, beyond my conviction that good, bad and indifferent ones will continue to be produced, distributed and exhibited. How and what we watch, though, is much less certain. What we do know is that the American movie industry has weathered — and profited from — a succession of cataclysmic crises from its monopolistic foundation to the coming of sound, the end of the old studio system and the introduction of television and of home video. The advent of streaming has added another chapter in a history that will continue to morph and outlive any one company or crisis. Time will tell, and so will we.

1. ‘Martin Eden’ (Pietro Marcello)

In this brilliant take on the Jack London novel of the same title, Luca Marinelli plays an autodidact who abandons the working class to embrace a soul-and-world-destroying bootstraps ideology. (Watch on Kino Marquee.)

2. ‘City Hall’ (Frederick Wiseman)

Frederick Wiseman, one of America’s greatest, most generous chroniclers, brings you into Boston’s City Hall, where men and women help make a city — and democracy — work. (Watch through virtual cinemas.)

3. ‘Gunda’ (Victor Kossakovsky)

A sow gives birth to a charmingly rambunctious litter and a one-legged chicken roams blissfully free in this intimate, exquisitely beautiful look at animal life from the ground up. (Watch through virtual cinemas starting Dec. 11.)

4. ‘David Byrne’s American Utopia’ (Spike Lee)

Given how great it looks, how superbly it moves, how glorious it sounds and how high it sends me, it should be titled “Spike and David Are Here to Take You Away from 2020.” (Watch on HBO Max.)

5. ‘Bacurau’ (Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho)

This exhilarating genre-buster mixes high and low to upend the classic story of the town forced to battle outside evil. Funny, weird, bloody and deeply political. (Watch on streaming platforms.)

6. ‘First Cow’ (Kelly Reichardt)

A tender story of male friendship and a rebuke to rugged individualism, Kelly Reichardt’s drama offers an alternative to the triumphalism of most frontier stories. And the cow is lovely. (Watch on streaming platforms.)

7. ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’ (Eliza Hittman)

You can feel the rage wafting off the screen in this drama about a teenager’s difficult quest to obtain an abortion. Scene by scene, you can also see the terrific filmmaking. (Watch on streaming platforms.)

8. ‘Collective’ (Alexander Nanau)

This gripping, at times shocking documentary tracks the aftermath of a catastrophic fire in Bucharest that killed scores of people, brought down the government and inspired heroic journalism. (Watch on streaming platforms.)

9. ‘The Forty-Year-Old Version’ (Radha Blank)

There’s Woody Allen’s New York, Spike Lee’s and now Radha Blank’s. As a floundering playwright in the midst of a crisis, Blank stakes a claim on the romance of artistic struggle, making it her own with wit, rap, an open heart and a burst of glorious color. (Watch on Netflix.)

10. ‘Beanpole’ (Kantemir Balagov)

This tragic, painful, dazzlingly directed drama takes place in the Soviet Union right after the Second World War. Balagov is a heartbreaker, and a major talent. (Watch on streaming platforms.)

Garrett Bradley’s “Time” would be in my top 10, but it was a coproduction of The New York Times, so I can’t include it because it’s a conflict of interest. But you should watch it. Here are some other movies I’m grateful for: “76 Days,” “Alex Wheatle,” “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” “Buoyancy,” “Circumstantial Pleasures,” “Coded Bias,” “Crip Camp,” “Da 5 Bloods,” “Dick Johnson Is Dead,” “Emma,” “Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds,” “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey,” “House of Hummingbird,” “I Wish I Knew,” “The Invisible Man,” “Lost Girls,” “Minari,” “Miss Juneteenth,” “Nomadland,”“The Old Guard,” “On the Record,” “On the Rocks,” “One Night in Miami,” “The Photograph,” “Tesla,” “The Traitor,” “The Wild Goose Lake,” “Sorry We Missed You,” “Soul,” “The Truffle Hunters,” “The Truth.”

Reasons to look forward to 2021 (other than vaccines): “The Boy From Medellín,” “MLK/FBI” and “The Woman Who Ran.”

And I hope that someone picks these up for American distribution: “The Disciple,” “The Monopoly of Violence” and “Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time.”

A.O. Scott

Moviefilms for Make Benefit a Weary and Anxious World

It’s been a year of deprivation and abundance. The press screenings and catch-up trips to local theaters that have punctuated my weeks for more than two decades vanished, and my internet connection turned into a 24-hour cinémathèque. I missed going to the movies a lot, but I didn’t much miss the Hollywood fare that has dominated screens in the past few years. The ascendance of streaming makes me uneasy — because of the passivity it engenders in the audience and the aesthetic compromises it renders all but irresistible — but for now I’m grateful to have seen so many good films. I’ve needed them more than ever.

1. ‘Borat Subsequent Moviefilm’ (Jason Woliner)

Would I call this the best movie of 2020, from the standpoint of cinematic art? Look, I don’t know. It’s been a weird year. But I would insist that this sequel to a cringey, pranky, 14-year-old classic is undeniably the most 2020 movie of all time. This is partly because Sacha Baron Cohen and his collaborators — including Maria Bakalova, the phenomenal Bulgarian actress who plays Borat’s daughter, Tutar — worked through the first months of the pandemic and the start of the presidential campaign, giving their antics a present-tense flavor that went beyond mere relevance.

But this new Borat adventure also captured the feeling of its moment with dismaying accuracy. Once again, Cohen’s friendly, idiotic alter ego arrived on our shores from Kazakhstan to show Americans as we really are. Which is appallingly bigoted, ignorant and paranoid, but also disarmingly polite and kind to strangers. There is something touching about the part of the movie in which Borat quarantines with a pair of QAnon believers who later help him find Tutar at an anti-mask MAGA rally. And a welcome dose of noncomedic humanity arrives in the person of Jeanise Jones, who patiently tries to free Tutar’s mind from its patriarchal prison.

Not that “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” offers much in the way of comfort. When satire and documentary converge, it’s a sign that both have reached a dead end. The truth won’t necessarily set you free. Laughter might not be any medicine at all. There is admirable rigor both in the ways Cohen constructs his gags and in his understanding of their limits. The movie is extremely funny, but it won’t cheer you up. Reality, in any case, went beyond even Cohen’s scabrous imagination. He and Bakalova might have contrived to embarrass President Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, in a New York hotel room, but Cohen can only envy whatever comic deity organized that postelection press event in a Philadelphia parking lot, next door to a sex shop and across the street from a crematory. Not even Borat would go there.

Borat’s ultimate embrace of I’m-the-father-of-a-daughter feminism is sweet, and it tempers the bitterness of the film’s ending. This moviefilm, like the first episode, is the tale of two countries, a fantasy Kazakhstan and an actual “U.S. and A.” At the end of this chapter, one of those countries stands as an example to the world, a place of progress, enlightenment, responsible journalism and respect for science. The other, once glorious, has descended into brutishness and superstition. I won’t spoil it by telling you which is which. (Watch on Amazon.)

2. ‘City Hall’ (Frederick Wiseman)/‘Collective’ (Alexander Nanau)

Hatred of government and contempt for journalism are staples of the modern anti-democratic mind-set, and these documentaries offer powerful counterarguments. Frederick Wiseman’s long, contemplative look at the workings of Boston’s municipal administration becomes a symphony of process, a demonstration of how democracy abides in the absence of drama. Alexander Nanau’s hair-raising chronicle of lethal official corruption in Romania is, by contrast, intensely dramatic — an exposé of horrific governmental dysfunction and heroic efforts to combat it that will make your heart race and your blood boil. Together, these films suggest that patience and rage are vital and complementary civic virtues. (Watch “City Hall” through virtual cinemas; watch “Collective” on streaming platforms.)

3. ‘First Cow’ (Kelly Reichardt)

Kelly Reichardt’s latest quasi-western is a quiet study of friendship and a biting critique of global capitalism — as manifested in 19th-century Oregon Territory. Orion Lee and John Magaro are wonderful as a pair of misfits whose snack-cake start-up falls afoul of supply-chain problems, questionable business practices and ruthless human greed. (Watch on streaming platforms.)

4. ‘Martin Eden’ (Pietro Marcello)

Jack London’s autobiographical novel, published in 1909, has long been more popular in Europe than in the land of London’s birth, and Pietro Marcello’s wild screen version is both an earnest love letter and a brazen act of cultural and imaginative appropriation. Martin (the insanely hot Luca Marinelli) has been transplanted to Naples and given pretty much the whole 20th century as the backdrop for his ardor and ambition. Literature, politics, class struggle, sex — it’s all here in a seething, perpetually surprising epic that obliterates the distinction between realism and fantasy. (Watch on Kino Marquee.)

5. ‘The Forty-Year-Old Version’ (Radha Blank)

Radha Blank is a wonderful character — insecure, funny, decent, vain. Radha Blank, who plays her, is a terrific performer, supplying compassion and also the unflinching candor that is a necessary ingredient in any kind of memoir. Best of all, Radha Blank, making her feature debut, is a brilliant filmmaker, with an eye for the absurdities of New York theater and for the glorious theater of the city itself. (Watch on Netflix.)

6. ‘Palm Springs’ (Max Barbakow)

Cristin Milioti and Andy Samberg meet not-very-cute at the start of this variation on the themes of “Groundhog Day,” and search for love and meaning in a world of diminished expectation and endless repetition. The filmmakers (Max Barbakow directed; Andy Siara wrote the screenplay) didn’t set out to make a quarantine love story, but something about the way the central pair does battle with boredom, anxiety and the temptations of cynicism made this a balm and a bright spot in a dreadful, seemingly interminable year. (Watch on Hulu.)

7. ‘Bacurau’ (Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho)

Udo Kier and Sônia Braga! Science fiction and western! “Bacurau,” named for a fictional town in the Brazilian backlands, is a rollicking, violent adventure whose defiance of genre and narrative convention stands for a more general — and more pointed — form of defiance: against the arrogance of power; against the legacies of colonial cruelty and slavery that still afflict modern Brazil; against the authoritarian impulse to erase history, suppress joy and ignore urgent messages from the future. Which is what this movie, above all, seems to be. (Watch on streaming platforms.)

8. ‘David Byrne’s American Utopia’ (Spike Lee)/‘Lovers Rock’ (Steve McQueen)

What do you miss more, live performances or house parties? These films, driven by music and the movement of bodies in enclosed space, are full of joy and desire even as they recognize how hard life can be. “Lovers Rock,” the shortest, sweetest chapter in Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” anthology, unfolds in a single night in London in the early 1980s. “American Utopia,” directed by Spike Lee, captures a performance of David Byrne’s omnibus 2019 show at the Hudson Theater in New York. In both cases, the medium is the message and the pleasure is the politics. (Watch “American Utopia” on HBO Max; watch “Lovers Rock” on Amazon.)

9. ‘Dick Johnson Is Dead’ (Kirsten Johnson)

Kirsten Johnson’s movie is a documentary that walks up to the very edge of knowable reality, contemplating the mysteries of death, memory and human consciousness. It’s also an imaginative collaboration between the filmmaker and her father, a retired psychiatrist with dementia, who together act out scenarios of paternal demise. The result is funny and shocking, ghoulish and surpassingly humane. (Watch on Netflix.)

10. ‘Soul’ (Pete Docter)

The message of the latest Pixar feature — a lyrical, metaphysical tale of a jazz pianist’s adventures in the afterlife — is that it’s good to be alive. The movie was originally slated for release in the spring, so the filmmakers could not have imagined just how timely, and how welcome, that message would feel. (Watch on Disney+ starting Dec. 25.)

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