Back in December 2019, I practically threw out my shoulder patting myself on the back for a Top 10 list that was half movies directed by women. Well, 2019 Me can just shut up. Even a global pandemic couldn’t stop 2020 from being a historic year for such films. When I voted in my critics’ association poll, my ballot’s slots for best director were entirely filled by women. Quality matters, but so does quantity, and my full-length reviews of last year’s movies include 20 directed by women against 32 directed by men (plus one by a male-female duo). Those numbers should be in the normal range instead of an outlier, but it’s still more than I’ve ever run across in my tenure as a professional critic. Progress marches on. With that in mind, here’s my list of the best movies of 2020, per the time frame set down by the cinema establishment. Several of the films on this list have been deemed ineligible by their guidelines, but this is my list, so I do what I want. I can even deviate from the list I made two months ago, reflecting my ever-shifting opinions and the 80-odd films I’ve taken in since then.
1.) Never Rarely Sometimes Always. Just that climatic scene in the Planned Parenthood clinic, really. Except not really, because Eliza Hittman’s yarn about two small-town girls heading to the big city to procure an abortion is a coming-of-age saga on an epic scale. You can appreciate it on that count or just for the fact that it tells the story of one of the people who are somehow never heard when politicians debate abortion. Regardless, Hittman has waded into a touchy subject and emerged with this deeply compassionate work. That’s a prodigious achievement.
2.) Babyteeth. After too many bad movies about terminal illness, Shannon Murphy’s entry has the courage to be rough and weird and in tune with the wild Australian places that exist just outside the suburbs Down Under. As the cancer-ridden schoolgirl who wants a fling with the considerably older local drug dealer before she leaves this life, Eliza Scanlen is vivid, vibrant, angry at her fate, and so alive that she puts even her impressive previous performances in the shade. Where Hollywood movies try to be soothing about dying young, this one acknowledges the pain and unfairness of it all and achieves a real consoling power.
3.) First Cow. We’ve never appreciated Kelly Reichardt enough. This film’s release in theaters last March should have been our chance to right that — damn you, coronavirus. She’s in danger of being overlooked this awards season, too, but don’t let that keep you from this gorgeously lyrical Western about two men who find friendship in a place that’s not made for them: 19th-century Oregon. Right now, everybody’s saying cheap words about unifying the country. If you really want to bring the country together, you could do worse than this paean to the artery-clogging goodness of fried dough.
4.) Saint Maud. In our plague-ridden time, this Christian horror film tells us that it’s loneliness that eats the soul, not Satan. Everything in Rose Glass’ movie contributes to the tone of dread, from the crashing of the waves on the beach to the busker playing a snare drum on the wharf. Jennifer Ehle has the role of a lifetime as a cynical cancer patient with a dangerously cavalier attitude to the religious beliefs of her caregiver, but it’s Morfydd Clark you’ll remember in the grip of her delusions about being an instrument of God’s will. Her performance and Glass’ aptitude for a scarring visual (thumbtacks!) make this the class of 2020’s excellent horror flicks.
5.) Kajillionaire. Miranda July has Wes Anderson’s skill set, and she’s a more adventurous writer. Were she more consistent and productive, she’d merit his stature in the film world. As it is, this caper comedy about a family of West Coast grifters is oddball enough to catch the eye and substantive enough to stick in the mind. The same goes for Evan Rachel Wood’s daringly strange performance as a con artist who knows how to behave only when she’s impersonating someone as part of a con. The way her parents cut her cord is wrenching, devious, and perfect all at the same time.
6.) Cuties. The long history of French film has been a very white place, but we’re seeing that change now with Afro-French directors like Ladj Ly and Mati Diop. To that we add Maïmouna Doucouré, the Sorbonne-educated filmmaker who made a blazing debut on Netflix (and got herself indicted in Texas by a bunch of narrow-minded prudes) with this insightful and uncompromising drama about Parisian tween girls as they form cliques, rebel against their Muslim upbringings, behave awfully toward one another, and imitate the sexy videos that they see online. After all the strife that precedes it, the movie’s last shot gave me such a joyous high.
7.) Palm Springs. One thing that irredeemably sucked about 2020 was the absence of comedy movies from our multiplexes. The healing power of sitting in a packed auditorium full of laughter (or even just a few stray chuckles) can’t be underestimated. Max Barbakow’s entry improves if you don’t know about the science-fiction angle, but even if you do, it’s the boldest and funniest film of the COVID season. It debuted on Hulu just as the pandemic kicked in, and a great many people found something moving about Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti deciding that they want to spend the same day together forever.
8.) Beanpole. Love can take some strange forms, and it only seems fitting that this Russian film’s great tenderness and great cruelty exist side by side in a city that has been devastated by the Nazi occupiers. Amid the ruins of war, director Kantemir Balagov finds transporting beauty in the platonic love between two broken women and the red and green paint splattered all over the wall of their crappy apartment. Embodying the spirit of a people who are still proud despite absorbing a beating, this film has the depth and breadth of a Shostakovich symphony.
9.) The Wild Goose Lake. The city of Wuhan is known as where the coronavirus pandemic was first detected, but the subtropical metropolis deserves to be known for this superb crime thriller where all the actors speak in the local dialect instead of standard Mandarin. Writer-director Diao Yinan finds creative ways to film shootouts and bike chases in parts of China that the authorities would rather not show to the world. However, his real greatness is in detecting the rot at the heart of the capitalist Chinese Dream, as the have-nots resort to appalling illegal behavior just to see the next day. That’s why, despite my prediction from two months ago, this doesn’t fall off my list.
10.) (tie) The Invisible Man and Shirley. Let’s just give this last spot to Elisabeth Moss, playing a monster in Josephine Decker’s literary drama and a monster’s victim in Leigh Whannell’s horror film. Her insecure, tyrannical, snippy portrayal of Shirley Jackson fits perfectly inside Decker’s numinous and sharp-edged biopic. Then again, her brink-of-sanity turn as a battered woman came in a film about domestic violence that Whannell packaged so that a mass audience found it digestible. Both are part of the growing gallery of portraits Moss has drawn of women whom movies haven’t cared to depict before. As the rest of this list shows, she has lots of company.
Honorable mention: Emerald Fennell’s tasty rape revenge fantasy, Promising Young Woman … Chloé Zhao’s tribute to American resilience on the road, Nomadland … Sofia Coppola’s plush father-daughter road trip, On the Rocks … Darius Marder’s hardcore hearing-loss drama, Sound of Metal … Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’ magical realist Brazilian Western, Bacurau … Pietro Marcello’s sweeping, socially aware epic, Martin Eden … Eugene Ashe’s sumptuous African-American retro romance, Sylvie’s Love … Lee Isaac Chung’s captivating immigrant drama, Minari … Javier Bustamante’s Third World haunted house movie, La Llorona …Thomas Vinterberg’s alcohol-soaked midlife comedy, Another Round … Marco Bellocchio’s world-spanning true crime epic, The Traitor … Autumn de Wilde’s precisely choreographed literary adaptation, Emma. … Romola Garai’s bat-tastic immigrant horror film, Amulet … Philippe Lacôte’s fantastical prison drama about stories, Night of the Kings … Lawrence Michael Levine’s metafictional psychodrama, Black Bear … Natalie Erika James’ haunting meditation on aging, Relic … Chung Mong-hong’s epic about one crime’s lasting effects, A Sun … Michael Angelo Covino’s comedy about the worst best friend, The Climb … Armando Iannucci’s acerbic, fourth wall-breaking The Personal History of David Copperfield … George C. Wolfe’s valedictory adaptation of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.