Hello, all, and welcome back to The Friendly Film Fan! Well, it is finally that time. Time to take off the veil, peel back the curtains, remove the covering, and reveal my picks for the Top 20 Best Movies of 2020. Many of you may be thinking, “why a Top 20? Doesn’t he usually just do a Top 10?” And, indeed, I can understand the question completely. Why switch up the format now? I have a couple of notes in that regard. Firstly, movies in 2020 went through the ringer, to put it lightly. So many things we were all looking forward to got bumped to this year, and even next year if they happened to get particularly unlucky. As it is, we still haven’t seen No Time to Die, F9, Dune, Black Widow, The French Dispatch, or many other high-profile releases we were meant to have seen by now. However, if one knew where to look, there was still a ton of other great material from 2020, and a lot of films that may not have otherwise gotten a shot at the spotlight now are being included amongst “Best Of” lists the world over.
Doing a Top 20 instead of a Top 10 is both borne of a desire to spotlight and celebrate these other films, and in an attempt to recognize their respective quality and importance alongside the other films one might expect to be in a “Best Of” list, especially one of mine. I saw a lot of movies this past year (179, to be exact, almost 20 more than my previous record), and although the ones in this list did not ultimately make the Top 10, there were so many great ones that I could not pass up an opportunity to write about them and give them some sort of “official” moniker as being some of the best movies of the past year. (Plus, my Honorable Mentions list was already pretty long.) Secondly, it’s unlikely that I’ll be doing a full Top 20 again after this year, so I figured that 2020, of all years, would be the appropriate time to try something new and expand the context of “Best Of” a little bit. With all of that covered, let’s get right into it. Here are my picks for numbers 20-11 of the Top 20 Best Movies of 2020!
20. Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution
This Netflix documentary premiered at the Sundance film festival at the very beginning of the year, and picked up a lot of steam from there, though it seemed to peter out as the year went on due to the more pressing nature of *vaguely gestures at everything*. That doesn’t mean, though, that it wouldn’t have been full-steam-ahead under normal circumstances, and with its inclusion on the Oscars’ “Best Documentary Feature” shortlist, a little bit of that momentum has been restored. Its story concerns a summer camp both run and attended by disabled individuals – be they physical or mental disabilities – and soon morphs into one of the most powerful dramas of 2020. The first act of it is mostly about the camp itself, compiled from old archival footage and a series of interviews by attendees and staff, but once the summer camp has been well and truly documented, the viewer is let in on the ground floor of the movement for exactly what the subtitle implies: a disability revolution. This camp was ground zero for the start of the Americans With Disabilities act, one aim of which to increase access and ease by which disabled persons could access federal and state buildings, as well as any public institution and even sidewalks, and this all began when a bunch of the people from this camp staged sit ins in federal offices. It’s a fascinating story I very much doubt many people know about, and learning about it as the film went along was a real treat to behold.
19. I’m No Longer Here
Mexico’s entry for the International Feature competition at the Oscars this year, I’m No Longer Here may not be a masterpiece, but it is undoubtedly one of the boldest, most unique, and captivating films of 2020. Led by a stellar performance from Juan Daniel Garcia, the film uses a misunderstanding between the main character and a gang that’s after him in order to explore the socio-economic inequalities between Mexico and the United States, the isolation one can feel when fleeing to a new place where you don’t know anyone, and just how attached one can become to a sense of identity that it colors their entire perception of the life they wish to lead. The final shot of this film is one of the best of the entire year, and though it is difficult to articulate the exact way the film captures one’s senses (especially through its music), it is irrefutable that the intended effect is accomplished by film’s end.
18. The Dissident
There were a number of documentaries up for the Oscars shortlist this year, but no absence from that list was more surprising or disappointing than Bryan Fogel’s brilliant The Dissident, which chronicles the rise and subsequent government-sponsored assassination of prominent U.S. citizen and Saudi-born Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Khashoggi, a widely outspoken critic of the Saudi government, was killed just recently, with the blame largely falling on the Saudi government’s leader in particular, Mohammad bin Salman (who President Biden essentially gave a pass to recently). One can find this story in essentially every news outlet all over the world if one wishes to, but it’s in crafting something like a spy thriller than Bryan Fogel’s documentary elevates itself to become not just one of the best documentaries of 2020, but one of 2020’s best films, full stop. The score, the editing, and the reveal of information all work at a pace designed with the precision of a Swiss watch, and even in its documentary format, the film is more riveting than most other thrillers throughout the past year. Please check this one out if you get the chance – it is absorbing stuff.
17. Welcome to Chechnya
The Chechen government is systematically torturing and killing LGBTQ+ individuals, and somehow, no one seems to be talking about it in any important way – no one, that is, except David France, who follows a team of extractors that supply these people with new identities and escape plans in order to get them out of Chechnya and into safer territory. Landing on both the Documentary Feature and Visual Effects shortlists, the film plays out like an elevated heist film, with danger around every corner, and severe consequences for failure or abandonment of the plans this team crafts in order to get these individuals to safety. Many moments of the film are incredibly difficult to watch, and much of it is frustrating, but it never feels particularly manipulative or as if the filmmakers are hiding another side to things; the issue is plain and simple, and the way that Welcome to Chechnya employs deepfake technology in order to hide the identities of both the extraction team and the individuals they attempt to rescue is among the best and most effective use of visual effects I’ve seen in decades (decades, I say, as a 25-year-old man). For reasons I don’t want to get into here, this film hit me pretty hard on a personal level, and I would implore everyone I know to watch it at least once, provided you can handle its more triggering moments.
16. Saint Maud
Saint Maud may not have fulfilled its full potential as an A24 horror film (they have a pretty high bar to get over), but as an exploration of spiritual possession, it’s an immaculate work of art. Morfydd Clark very quickly establishes herself as a firebrand of a young actress as she struggles with her sexuality, spirituality, and lust for martyrdom all at once. It certainly won’t be for everyone, and its relatively abrupt ending may prove divisive once it picks up a bit more of a following, but the cinematography and score are top notch, and one scene in particular is so idiosyncratic in how it’s crafted that it hasn’t left my mind since I saw the film for the first time. Rose Glass has really made something particularly special here with her directorial debut, and I have a feeling that as Glass’ reputation grows, this will be the film people point to as the one to demonstrate how great she’s always been.
Bitesize Breakdown Review
One of the most anticipated films of the 2020 awards season, David Fincher’s Mank (adapted from a script by his late father, Jack Fincher) is a staggering technical achievement, even if its story elements may not resonate with all types of movie lovers (many considered it a disappointing film). If you’re not as familiar with the history and making of the film Citizen Kane, and the circumstances under which it was born, I can understand how it might seem underwhelming, but for my part, I absolutely loved it. Its technical affects (especially the cinematography, editing, and sound) are marvelous to witness as it emulates films of the Kane era, and are its strongest parts, but it cannot be understated just how incredible Amanda Seyfried is in this film as Hollywood starlet Marion Davies. Gary Oldman is great in the lead as Herman Mankiewicz, no doubt, but it’s really Seyfried who shows off career-best work here and could very well land an Oscar nomination if the Academy is willing to consider her for the prize. This is yet another one of those films that won’t be for everyone, but it’s a remarkable departure from Fincher into something very much outside of the norm for him, and personally, I think it worked brilliantly.
Bitesize Breakdown Review
14. Better Days
Hong Kong’s entry to the International Feature race was technically released both abroad and in the U.S. in 2019, but it wasn’t submitted for International Feature until this year, so I am counting it on a technicality here. This is high melodrama for sure, especially for what essentially amounts to a feature-length anti-bullying PSA, but you’d be shocked at the things they manage to make work here, even when they really shouldn’t go together upon reflection. The performances of Zhou Dongyu and Jackson Yee are remarkable, the script flies in a lot of different directions without ever losing altitude, and though one can really feel the film pushing the length of its ending quite a bit, and some of its editing feels as though it could be switched around a bit, that doesn’t make all the previous filmmaking any less effective. It’s difficult to describe this movie without getting into spoilers, but suffice it to say, it’s absolutely one of my favorites of the past year, and a great achievement for director Derek Tsang.
13. First Cow
One of the early great movies of 2020, Kelly Reichardt’s absorbing tale of two men starting a business by stealing milk from a local landowner’s prized cow is indeed subtle and extremely quiet with both its narrative and themes, but I found myself entirely unable to stop thinking about it or its immaculate cinematography by DP Christopher Blauvelt. The performances of co-leads John Magaro and Orion Lee are fantastic, their chemistry palpable from the minute they meet, and as the narrative unfolds, you really do become attached to the idea of these men as partners. There’s a subtlety to the film that may come off as the movie being slow, but for me, it was all about being able to let oneself bask in the peace the story provides, as well as the small moments of tension that stand out because of that very subtlety. Between the two major A24 dramas that came out this year, this is the inferior, but it remains one of the best (and certainly best-looking) movies of 2020 all the same.
12. A Sun
A Sun may be my favorite International Feature contender not in the top 10, and although the length runs quite long (the film is around 2 hours and 30 minutes), don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s slow in any way. The second half of the film does stretch the length quite a bit, but even for a film that’s just a little too long, what fills those minutes remains positively riveting. The performances in this are uniformly great (particularly Yi-wen Chen), but it’s really Kuan-Ting Liu that steals the show as the film’s sort of villain character, the one who made the whole plot happen in the first place. Liu is unsettling in this film (though he’s not in it much), a genuinely terrifying presence in an otherwise non-thriller type of film that has a lot to say about how a family deals with their child being implicated in some horrific criminal activity. This film is as much about the family around the main character, particularly the father who has a lot of trouble forgiving his son for bringing such shame to their family, as it is about the main character himself, and the cinematography by co-writer and director Chung Mong-Hong may seem unremarkable at first, but slowly reveals itself to be some of the best of the year, even if you don’t notice it at first.
This got so close to making my Top 10 of 2020, but given that there were ten more films that either meant more to me personally or had a greater impact on me as pieces of filmmaking, it lands at the top of Part 1. Minari is a gorgeous, tender film that aches to be seen on a theater screen, with beautiful cinematography by Lachlan Milne and a wonderful, Oscar-worthy score by Emile Mosseri. Lee Isaac Chung’s tale of the American dream and what that even looks like, seen through the eyes of a Korean family that moves to Arkansas in the 80’s, is one of the most quietly moving and powerful films of all of 2020, and the most likely to pull some dark horse momentum for a Best Picture win at the Oscars this year. The performances from the entire cast are fantastic, especially Steven Yeun, Alan S. Kim, Youn Yuh-jung, and Han Ye-ri, who all turn in award-worthy work. Echoing such indies as A24’s other multi-language hit, The Farewell, this is an essential film to see from 2020, and though it lands just outside the Top 10, it’s one I’ve grown to love more and more every time I think about it or catch a glimpse of it somewhere. Definitely seek this one out.
Bitesize Breakdown Review
And those are my picks for Part 1 of my Top 20 Best Movies of 2020! What are some of your favorite movies from last year? Anything else you think should be here? Let me know in the comments section below. Thanks for reading!
- The Friendly Film Fan