Ladies and gentlemen, I present the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: the only people who want to make 2020 longer. This past summer, the body that gives out the Oscars made the absurd and illogical decision that this year will end in February instead of December, so that films released two weeks after Valentine’s Day will still be eligible for the Academy Awards for this year. They probably want traditional Oscar bait pictures to be released, but most such prestige dramas have already come out, on streaming if not in theaters.
I say that the year ends now, but since my critics’ association is following the Oscars’ lead and holding their vote two months hence, I’m putting out two Top 10 lists, this article to cover the movies that came out in calendar 2020 and another one in February to cover the same films as everyone else. Thus, this won’t have such late entries as Nomadland and One Night in Miami, but look for them later. I think it’s a shame that people are doing it this year, because there were, as always, plenty of good movies that were presented to us without the traditional Oscar bait. Here’s my chance to recognize some of those comedies, horror movies, and lowbrow science fiction pictures that are usually overlooked at this time of year.
In a typical year, I watch 300 films. Early in this pandemic, I made peace with the fact that I wouldn’t be hitting that number. Indeed I didn’t, but when I counted up what I saw, I was surprised to find I had seen well over 200 movies in theaters, on disc, and on streaming, about the same number as I would see in the early 2000s when I started this job. That number is a testament to my incredible work ethic and dedication to my craft. It’s also a testament to how freakin’ bored I got sitting at home while the epidemic raged outside my door. I mean, I watched so many films that I’m still able to sequester the documentaries and give them their own separate list, which will come out in February along with my customary lists of best acting performances and directing debuts. Because this is the first of two Top 10 articles, I’ll be going relatively light on descriptions here and drilling deeper when I do this again in February. See you all then, and hope all our lives are better.
1. Never Rarely Sometimes Always. Thought this was the movie of the year when I saw it back in March, and nothing moved me off that opinion.
2. Babyteeth. I should hate this teen weeper from Australia, but Shannon Murphy’s debut feature sucked me in.
3. Cuties. Those idiots in Tyler County don’t know an honest movie about teen sexuality when it’s in front of them.
4. First Cow. Sometimes the meaning of human existence can be found in an oily cake.
5. Kajillionaire. Evan Rachel Wood doesn’t try to charm us, and she is at her most charming for it.
6. Palm Springs. This time-travel romance was the deepest and funniest comedy of the year.
7. A Sun. This Taiwanese crime epic was buried on Netflix before Variety’s gong rescued its reputation.
8. The Invisible Man. #MeToo hit horror films with a vengeance this year, and this was the best of a distinguished lot.
9. On the Rocks. I was waiting for Sofia Coppola to put it all together again, and she managed it in this comedy.
10. The Wild Goose Lake. This probably gets knocked down to the next tier in February, but Diao Yinan deserves his due as one of the world’s best thriller directors.
Honorable mention: Natalie Erika James’ Relic … Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’ Bacurau … Josephine Decker’s Shirley … Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield … Kantemir Balagov’s Beanpole … Radha Blank’s The 40-Year-Old Version … Stella Meghie’s The Photograph … Hikari’s 37 Seconds … Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman … Marco Bellocchio’s The Traitor … Eugene Ashe’s Sylvie’s Love … Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal … Lawrence Michael Levine’s Black Bear … Sean Durkin’s The Nest … Clea DuVall’s Happiest Season … George C. Wolfe’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom … Remi Weekes’ His House … Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz’ The Lodge … Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden … Autumn de Wilde’s Emma. … Andrew Patterson’s The Vast of Night.