Don’t trust anyone who says it’s impossible to make a best movies list in 2020. There were plenty of films to like and even love over this dark, strange, unprecedented year. Just ask the 12 contributors to The A.V. Club’s list. Each made a ranked ballot of their 15 favorites of 2020, and while there’s certainly overlap on all of them, you’ll also find passion picks sprinkled throughout: the movies that spoke, powerfully and singularly, to one critic in particular. We call those the outliers—the films that appeared on one ballot and no others—and they’re among the five superlatives affixed to each individual list. Keep reading to get a look behind the scenes of our best-of process, a sense of how our contributors aligned and diverged in their tastes, and maybe a few extra titles to add to your catch-up list as 2020 cycles over to 2021.
2 / 14
1. I’m Thinking Of Ending Things
2. The Assistant
3. The Climb
4. First Cow
8. Lovers Rock
9. Vitalina Varela
11. The Grand Bizarre
12. The Nest
13. A White, White Day
14. The Wild Goose Lake
Had my old partner in critical crime, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, submitted a ballot this year, it’s possible I wouldn’t be, uh, alone in tossing points to this ruthlessly efficient abduction thriller from the director of the last two Universal Soldier sequels. Bucking most current trends in American horror (though the heroine is a widow, scarcely a single one of the film’s 98 minutes is devoted to grief, as opposed to desperate survival), it’s an unpretentious exercise in suspense that brings to mind the sparse elegance of John Carpenter. Slow burns are great and all, but sometimes you want your thrills fast, lean, and mean.
Most overrated: The Trial Of The Chicago 7
I’m not immune to the cornball charms of Aaron Sorkin walk-and-talk theater. (Steve Jobs was delectably witty.) But the West Wing creator is all wrong, in his ’90s-liberal civility, for the true story of a group of activists hauled into a kangaroo court to play culture-war scapegoats. Sorkin can’t resist nudging everyone, from his firebrand protagonists to a real-life prosecutor so fascist they nicknamed him “Darth Vader,” toward the center. It’s the dramatic equivalent of a bipartisan appeal—one that looks especially out of touch at a time when witch hunts for the “radical left” are still very much in fashion.
Most underrated: Come Play
Not all Poltergeist wannabes are created equal. Critics were much too hard on this one—a 21st-century Amblin entertainment that transcended its earnest (if debatably sensitive) family drama through sheer force of crackerjack craftsmanship. Why get hung up on the film’s more generic qualities when you can shiver to its downright Spielbergian exploitation of background space, flickering illumination, and gadget screens? Cool monster, too.
Biggest disappointment: Tenet
That said, skill behind the camera doesn’t solve everything. For all its gleaming cosmetic pleasures, Christopher Nolan’s time-bending spy thriller is almost impossible to follow—a palindromic mess of paradoxes and sci-fi anti-logic. His best films reward the untangling of their byzantine plots; Tenet just abuses that effort. The only thing more disappointing than the movie itself was Nolan’s reckless push to get it into theaters during a pandemic.
Most welcome surprise: The Invisible Man
After Dracula Untold and The Mummy, I can’t say I was terribly stoked to see Universal reboot another of its classic monsters. But the studio’s loss of a Dark Universe was a gain for the rest of us, as writer-director Leigh Whannell ran with the freedom to ignore franchise obligation in favor of a taut, resonant, and blessedly self-contained stalker nightmare scenario. The film’s so good, in fact, that I’m now excited to see what Whannell does with The Wolf Man—provided, of course, that Universal doesn’t try to backdoor a shared universe by hooking Lawrence Talbot up with an invisible teammate.
3 / 14
2. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
4. The Assistant
6. Lovers Rock
7. First Cow
9. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
10. I’m Thinking Of Ending Things
11. The Forty-Year-Old Version
14. The Truffle Hunters
15. His House
Brandon Cronenberg’s jaw-droppingly violent, harrowingly psychedelic take on the body-swap movie isn’t for everyone. But it was far and away both the best sci-fi and the best horror movie of this year, throwing the genres into a blender with gallons of blood for an intense, provocative film that excites on both an intellectual and a visceral level. And with the great Andrea Riseborough in the starring role, the performances are on a higher plane as well.
Most overrated: Mank
Mank isn’t without its charms—David Fincher’s famously meticulous directing style does make for some fabulous tracking shots. But, and there’s no delicate way to say this, just because a script was written by the filmmaker’s late father doesn’t mean it’s worthy of his talents. Mank’s characterization of its title character as the one decent guy in a pit of Hollywood vipers isn’t unique or powerful enough to keep this loose collection of simulated celluloid quirks on track, no matter how many famous names pop in and announce themselves.
Los Espookys received a fair amount of buzz among English-language critics, so it’s puzzling that the latest feature from its director, Fernando Frías de la Parra, made so little headway in the U.S. Maybe its cultural specificity—the film revolves around a unique Mexican subculture known as Cholombianos—hindered its crossover appeal, leading foreign viewers to think that it was just another immigration drama. They couldn’t be more wrong, however, as de la Parra’s striking visuals and mastery of tone ensure that not only is the narrative poignant, but the vibes (as they say) are immaculate as well.
Biggest disappointment: The Glorias
A Gloria Steinem biopic starring Julianne Moore by the director of Titus and Frida should have been the cinematic spectacle of the year. Instead, it’s an unfocused, indulgent mess that frustratingly oversimplifies Steinem’s politics. If your feminism doesn’t begin and end with pink pussy hats, try the 2014 documentary She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry instead.
Most welcome surprise: Yes, God, Yes
2020 was a surprisingly strong year for modest coming-of-age films, but the one that resonated with me the most was Yes, God, Yes. It’s true that writer-director Karen Maine covers a lot of familiar adolescent territory: confusion, disillusionment, being so horny you think you might die. What makes this semi-autobiographical comedy special is the light touch with which Maine probes these subjects, making for a refreshingly warm and openhearted take on a teenage girl trying to reconcile her sexual awakening with her Christian faith.
4 / 14
1. The Twentieth Century
3. Da 5 Bloods
4. First Cow
5. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
6. Lovers Rock
8. The Painted Bird
10. Vitalina Varela
12. Dick Johnson Is Dead
13. I’m Thinking Of Ending Things
14. The Assistant
15. The Grand Bizarre
O Canada, land of repressed, glorious depravity. In the heavily fictionalized pre-office years of wartime PM William Lyon Mackenzie King, imagined by writer-director William Rankin as an unending series of misfortunes and embarrassments often sexual in nature, a birdbrained framework for recent history takes shape from dumb happenstance and untamed libidos. While working within an eye-popping surrealism all his own, Rankin joins Dr. Strangelove in the profane proposition that war, government, and politics are all just what weird, upset men do to get their rocks off.
Most overrated: Kajillionaire
I much prefer Miranda July’s bizarre Instagram exhibitions with Margaret Qualley to her latest feature-length effort, a work of suffocating, unclever quirk that posits having no money—one of the things that sucks hardest in this life—as a defiant stand of individualist principle. Evan Rachel Wood, giving the worst performance of her life as a seeming cousin of Napoleon Dynamite, has the good sense to reject this lifestyle foisted on her by parents Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger, but not before another addition to Sundance cinema’s annals of liberating goofy dances. The movie might as well be made out of finger paints.
Most underrated: Matthias & Maxime
Xavier Dolan has been one of the more polarizing talents on the Cannes circuit since his earliest enfant-terrible days, and the dual letdowns of It’s Only The End Of The World and his English-language debut The Death And Life Of John F. Donovan had a growing faction of detractors counting him out. Maybe it was that predisposition, maybe it was a quiet U.S. streaming release on MUBI, but for whatever reason, it seems that most everyone’s slept on his most confident, moving effort in years. A warmly lived-in end-of-your-20s movie about two bros reckoning with their feelings for one another before embarking upon the next phase of their lives, it’s funny and tragic and sexy, the prince’s pivotal effort to move beyond his knowing, winking immaturity.
Biggest disappointment: The Lodge
The chilly, sadistic model of horror promoted by Austrian aunt/nephew duo Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala with their debut, Goodnight Mommy, was very much to my liking, all sleek architectural compositions and squirming cockroaches. But something must have gotten lost in translation as they made the trip to North America for their follow-up, a cabin-fever nightmare so pointlessly grim that not even a starring turn from the unimpeachable Riley Keough can salvage it. Nothing connects, from the tasteless jack-in-the-box shock that opens the film to a pair of kids’ hilariously over-the-top loathing for Dad’s new girlfriend—no one wants Mom replaced, but maybe triggering the trauma survivor with memories of her cult’s mass suicide is a bit much?
Most welcome surprise: Swallow
How did it take us this long to get a movie about the psychological terrors of the object-eating disorder known as pica, steeped as it is in the body horror of internal laceration and the intimacy of compulsive behavior? Haley Bennett shines as a tremulous newlywed who responds to the sanitized domestic prison her moneyed husband has put her in by snacking on it, hurting him as she hurts herself and any child they might have on the way. The scenes of her tentative, thrilled self-mutilation and the surgeries required to undo it qualify as the year’s most visceral, made all the more unsettling by how banal, lifelike, and plausible they really are.
5 / 14
1. First Cow
2. A White, White Day
3. The Grand Bizarre
4. The Nest
6. Red, White And Blue
8. Dick Johnson Is Dead
9. Lovers Rock
10. The Old Guard
11. 76 Days
12. Save Yourselves!
14. The Vast Of Night
15. The Invisible Man
Understandably, people might not be ready just yet for a harrowing documentary about the pandemic we’re still smack in the middle of—especially a doc that’s focused almost entirely upon medical professionals coping with too many gravely ill patients and not enough information, beds, or protective equipment. If you have the stomach to reckon with what’s happening in American hospitals right now, however, this fly-on-the-wall portrait of events in one Wuhan hospital last spring is essential viewing.
It didn’t make our list, to my surprise, but Alexander Nanau’s documentary about rampant corruption and medical malpractice in Romanian hospitals has been hailed elsewhere as one of the year’s very best. It’s less a great film, though, than a great subject for investigative journalism, devoting its first half in particular to shoe-leather reporting that would be much better served by good old print columns. Only when Nanau switches his focus to a new health minister who’s in over his head does Collective feel like a movie.
Look, I get why people swoon over Lovers Rock (which you’ll find on my own list), and can appreciate that Mangrove, running nearly two hours, plays like a more conventionally satisfying drama. But Red, White And Blue is Small Axe’s stealth weapon, placing John Boyega’s fresh-faced bobby in a system that’s infested with just enough overt racism to make its more insidious examples easier to overlook. Steve McQueen has never been bolder or angrier, building to a conclusion so utterly devoid of hope that the film just abruptly ends.
As a fan of Mexican filmmaker Gerardo Naranjo’s Miss Bala (important: not the remake starring Gina Rodriguez), I got ridiculously excited, back in 2014, by news that his next film would be some sort of ’80s indie-rock melodrama starring Dakota Fanning and Evan Rachel Wood. My mental image, based mostly on the title, was delectably lurid. But the actual movie—finally released after six years moldering on the shelf, perhaps using the pandemic as cover—turned out to be as terminally listless as a Spin Doctors deep cut.
I put off watching this for months, despite its generally favorable reviews, because the prospect of yet another superhero movie inspired overwhelming ennui. And there’s no question that it’s basically an X-Men riff that just gives everyone the same superpower: functional immortality/indestructability. But director Gina Prince-Bythewood and her actors keep tapping surprising depths of genuine emotion, not least in a testament of love, in the face of homophobia, that’s somehow as ferocious as it is corny.
6 / 14
1. I Was At Home, But...
2. Martin Eden
3. To The Ends Of The Earth
4. Yourself And Yours
5. The Traitor
6. City Hall
7. Young Ahmed
8. The Grand Bizarre
10. The Day After I’m Gone
13. Vitalina Varela
14. A White, White Day
15. Another Round
The two most name-checked directors in reviews of I Was At, Home, But… are Robert Bresson and Maurice Pialat—influences that German director Angela Schanelec isn’t shy about acknowledging. But at this point in her relatively under-the-radar career, which spans over two decades, her style is entirely her own. In telling a story of domestic, parental anguish in contemporary Berlin, I Was At Home, But... presents not just some of the most gorgeously limpid compositions in contemporary cinema but also an astonishing breadth of ideas regarding performance and acting, all while sacrificing none of its emotional acuity.
Having won the Best Director prize in the Un Certain Regard sidebar of last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Kantemir Balagov will almost certainly be back on the festival circuit with his next feature. In a sense, that’s kind of the issue with Beanpole. Combining bleak subject matter (post-war trauma in Leningrad circa 1945) with all-too-familiar arthouse conventions (drawn-out acting beats and obscure psychology, erratic behavior and meticulously art-directed frames), it feels like a promising filmmaker just going through the motions.
It seems just a bit unfair that critics lavished so much praise on The Irishman but largely ignored Marco Bellocchio’s superb (and, in my opinion, superior) mafia movie. Much like Scorsese’s film, The Traitor works superbly as a mournful vision of aging and regret as refracted through both the director’s career and an entire genre tradition. But on top of that, it also manages to be raucous and rousing, and includes, among other things, some of the most jaw-dropping courtroom scenes of recent years.
Biggest disappointment: Wasp Network
On paper, an Olivier Assayas spy thriller featuring Carlos star Édgar Ramírez seemed like a sure winner. But apart from being politically muddled, Wasp Network features some of the most lackluster filmmaking of the French director’s admirably consistent career. Perhaps recognizing this himself, Assayas planned to recut the film soon after its Venice premiere last year. But really, it’s the kind of thing a re-edit can’t save.
Most welcome surprise: Palm Springs
It’s hard to get too excited for new Groundhog Day riffs, and having never warmed to Andy Samberg’s screen presence, I didn’t hold out much hope for Palm Springs. But in this universe, at least, I was pulled in by the script’s sharp twists on the basic premise and charmed by both Samberg and Cristin Milioti. The film isn’t exactly a modern, high-concept equivalent of, say, The Palm Beach Story (and misses some opportunities to capitalize on its premise), but it’s a promising step in the right direction.
7 / 14
1. Saint Frances
2. Sound Of Metal
5. First Cow
6. Miss Juneteenth
7. True History Of The Kelly Gang
8. The Assistant
9. His House
10. Red, White and Blue
12. One Night In Miami...
13. Sorry We Missed You
14. The Wild Goose Lake
15. A Shaun The Sheep Movie: Farmageddon
Three makes a trend, and of this year’s trio of films related to women’s health care and access to abortion (Saint Frances, Premature, and Never Rarely Sometimes Always), the latter was the clear breakout. But both those other films, and in particular Alex Thompson and Kelly O’Sullivan’s Saint Frances, deserved more attention. O’Sullivan is naturalistic and winning as a thirtysomething woman who realizes that deciding not to have a child herself does not mean she’s incapable of love. The film’s insistence that we think more broadly about what an affectionate relationship can look like and expand past the strict mother/child binary is thoughtful without being preachy, and Saint Frances is one of the most low-key lovely movies of the year—and for this critic’s money, the best, too.
“Impenetrable” comes to mind. Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking Of Ending Things holds the frustrating distinction of being driven by a plainly obvious narrative twist while also surrounding it in tedious opacity, and the result is a deeply trying film convinced of its singularity. Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons could have never left for that trip to visit his parents and that would have been fine by me.
Most underrated: The Devil All The Time
Antonio Campos’ adaptation of Donald Ray Pollock’s novel builds a world of nearly universal misery, full of abuse, neglect, and death. Harry Melling’s fanatical preacher dumping a box of poisonous spiders on his own head to prove his faith isn’t even the worst part! But this discomfiting Southern Gothic drama lingers after it’s over for its analysis of the relentless cruelty and unceasing misogyny of men, and you can blame the strange dandy feralness of Robert Pattinson’s supporting role for that. He’s never been weirder.
Biggest disappointment: Mulan
In hindsight, Mulan feels like a sort of lesson: A movie checking off some of the right boxes in terms of inclusivity and representation in front of and behind the camera does not, in and of itself, make that production a successful film. So it goes for the latest Disney live-action remake, which flattened its titular character into a superhero, stripped the original of all queer subtext, overwhelmed the narrative with militaristic propaganda, and struggled to find a consistent tone. They got rid of all the songs for this?
Zeina Durra’s sophomore film is a gorgeous romance operating on the same wavelength as Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, using a specific location to explore the growing attraction between two characters. Andrea Riseborough and Karim Saleh have invigorating chemistry as a former couple falling back into their old rhythms in Luxor, Egypt, and the film’s sensual spell is one of complicated nostalgia and longing.
8 / 14
2. The Vast Of Night
3. First Cow
4. Straight Up
5. Da 5 Bloods
7. The Invisible Man
8. Palm Springs
9. The Assistant
11. The Climb
12. On The Rocks
13. Let Them All Talk
14. I’m Thinking Of Ending Things
15. Weathering With You
Outlier: Straight Up
A snappy reminder that rom-coms need not be indifferently prepared comfort food, Straight Up revels in visual and verbal choreography, with rapid-fire banter perfectly blocked in a 1.33 frame. It’s exactly the kind of neo-screwball precision needed to tell a tricky story about a guy who’s always presumed he’s gay (played by writer-director James Sweeney) cautiously experimenting with heterosexuality after he meets a skittish but darkly witty new pal. Katie Findlay’s performance as the latter delivers heartbreak as a kill shot.
Even accounting for the Netflix bounce—that extra critical and audience appreciation some titles receive from a combination of low expectations and sheer availability, exacerbated by pandemic blues—I’m downright baffled by the acclaim for the dreary, weirdly self-congratulatory action movie The Old Guard. This atrociously written franchise-starter about the world’s least engaging immortals, set largely in a series of hallways and hangars, plays like a TV movie that sprouted up around Charlize Theron, with a few split-second moments of reflection shamelessly passed off as thoughtful character development.
Most underrated: Valley Girl
Based on the general critical indifference to Valley Girl (and the number of passes given out to Rob Marshall or Adam Shankman), I’m not sure if some folks can tell the difference between a bad movie musical and a good one, unless it’s as obvious as a pack of disgusting humanoid cats. Rachel Lee Goldenberg’s low-profile remake of the 1983 teen classic isn’t as lived-in as its source material, but the director knows her way around a well-staged, brightly colored musical number, and an ensemble led by Jessica Rothe makes the most of the jukebox song score. Give it a chance. It might brighten your day.
Most welcome surprise: Underwater
Maybe it’s just nostalgia for the big-screen before times of last January, but my affection for this long-delayed creature feature only grew as the year went on. Underwater launches efficiently into its disaster-meets-monster premise; its smeary imagery sometimes looks downright painterly; and it features Kristen Stewart credibly ripping off Sigourney Weaver. Farewell, 20th Century Fox genre movies! You were too schlocky and beautiful for this mega-merger world.
Biggest disappointment: The Witches
If a second version of Roald Dahl’s elementary-age nightmare fuel always sounded unnecessary, at least Robert Zemeckis seemed more than qualified to create an energetic workout of suspenseful slapstick and technological playfulness. Too bad no one told him that. Zemeckis barely seems to have shown up to this lifeless revisitation, and certainly hasn’t bothered to stage a single workable set piece. He’s missed before, but never with so little of his trademark zeal.
9 / 14
1. Martin Eden
2. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
3. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
4. An Easy Girl
10. Sound Of Metal
12. Vitalina Varela
13. The Climb
14. The Invisible Man
15. The Nest
At once a luminous beachside reverie in the vein of Éric Rohmer and a subtle depiction of how hypocrisy fuels perceptions of “easy” women, Rebecca Zlotowski’s understated coming-of-age film never quite got the attention it deserved. Set in Cannes and centered on two young Maghrebian women who befriend a pair of wealthy older men, An Easy Girl deconstructs transactional relationships from the purview of a naive teenager observing her sexually candid cousin. It’s also that rare story that considers issues of race and class without having its characters speak those problems into existence.
Most overrated: On The Rocks
Perhaps I’m immune to Bill Murray’s charms, but Sofia Coppola’s latest plays like a mid-2000s comedy that still finds novel or amusing the idea of a rakish, misogynist dad. Dated and condescending as an exploration of midlife malaise, On The Rocks works just fine as a father-daughter bonding movie, but not well enough to warrant the warm reception it seems to be getting (at least in my neck of the woods). And while I understand how Rashida Jones makes a suitable world-weary avatar for the director herself, I’m not convinced she’s got the charisma for this sort of role, especially opposite a personality as big as Murray’s.
Few filmmakers capture women breaking down quite like Justine Triet, who playfully balances humor and unhinged melodrama. This knotty, sensual comedy-thriller perhaps alienated audiences whiplashed by its temporal tinkering. Still, Sibyl assembles a power trio of European actresses (Virginie Efira, Adèle Exarchopoulos, and Sandra Hüller) whose performances simmer and pop off the screen. Call me a sucker for outrageously messy female characters whose big personalities tower over everyone around them.
Biggest disappointment: Promising Young Woman
Emerald Fennell’s rape-revenge thriller swings for the fences, but ends up looking like an edgeless portrait of female trauma crafted by a #MeToo focus group. Bold stylistic choices—genre mishmashing and a Candyland aesthetic—create the illusion of something provocative and confrontational. But make no mistake: Promising Young Woman, with its one-track-minded supergenius avenging angel, aims to satisfy rather than truly shake and disturb. Kudos to Carey Mulligan, but even her fierce performance isn’t enough to break the film out of its artificial shell.
Despite my affection for Riz Ahmed, I can’t say my expectations were terribly high for what seemed to be yet another edgy drama about tortured musicians. But much to my delight, Darius Marder’s feature directorial debut is a refreshingly grounded character study less interested in fame and ambition than in identity—specifically the devastation of losing it and needing to forge a new one. Anchored by Ahmed’s best performance to date, Sound Of Metal is an emotional wrecking ball that rarely feels inauthentic or gimmicky.
10 / 14
1. First Cow
2. Dick Johnson Is Dead
3. The Whistlers
5. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
6. Lovers Rock
7. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
11. Da 5 Bloods
12. Sound Of Metal
13. The Assistant
14. The Invisible Man
15. The Nest
Like a lot of Romanian writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu’s films, The Whistlers seems pretty simple on the surface: It’s just a plot-driven procedural, involving undercover cops and duplicitous crooks, some of whom use an elaborate system of secret signals. But while the movie’s pleasures are mostly tied to its dryly comic tone and its twisty story—played out in amusingly muted deadpan by the cast—there’s still some meaning beneath all the machinations. This is a fascinating tale of people who say one thing but signify another, and how it feels for them to go through life looking for anyone who can understand what they’re really communicating.
There’s absolutely a lot to admire about Eliza Hittman’s acclaimed indie drama, which goes into granular detail about what it takes these days for a working-class woman to procure a legal abortion. But while Hittman does an excellent job with the milieu and the particulars, her characters—a Pennsylvania teen dealing with an unwanted pregnancy and the cousin who accompanies her—are disappointingly blank. As is the case with way too many art films about “regular folk,” the characters here hardly every talk, and they certainly don’t express much about their tastes, their dreams, their senses of humor, or their personalities.
Most underrated: You Don’t Nomi
One of the finest pieces of cinema criticism this year is a documentary that covers just about every imaginable angle of the Showgirls phenomenon, from the strange circumstances under which this 1995 big-budget softcore psychodrama was made to its long afterlife as a camp classic. The allusive (and elusive) title may have kept some kitsch culture junkies from seeking this movie out, which is too bad, because director Jeffrey McHale and his impassioned band of interview subjects deliver a nuanced and in-depth deconstruction of a controversial film, analyzing its subversive strengths without ignoring its fundamental ridiculousness.
Biggest disappointment: The Grudge
Granted, there was no reason to expect greatness from this umpteenth version of a J-horror classic. But it was written and directed by Nicolas Pesce, whose previous films, The Eyes Of My Mother and Piercing, are both punchy and distinctive. Also, it does star the magnificent Andrea Riseborough. The potential was there for something better than such a slow, dour, predictable reboot. (Kudos to Pesce, though, for the movie’s final scene, which is genuinely terrifying.)
Most welcome surprise: Big Time Adolescence
The King Of Staten Island was meant to be Pete Davidson’s big play for movie stardom this year, but honestly, he’d already proved himself in a smaller and funnier role, in a movie that came out a couple of months earlier. As the immature chaos agent who pressures his teenage buddy to become a high school drug-dealer, Davidson is at once charismatic, sweet, and a little scary, playing a knowing variation on the “bad influence” nearly everyone finds hard to escape at some point in their youth.
11 / 14
1. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
2. First Cow
3. The Assistant
4. A White, White Day
5. I’m Thinking Of Ending Things
6. Lovers Rock
7. The Grand Bizarre
12. Martin Eden
13. City Hall
15. Ham On Rye
Coming-of-age tales are a dime a dozen these days, evidenced by the myriad teen romance films that populate streaming services like Netflix. So it’s nice to see a film like Ham On Rye, whose formal rigor and oneiric tone actively reshape what’s superficially a Dazed And Confused-esque “greatest night of our lives” story. In fact, Tyler Taormina takes an abstract approach to the idea of who gets left behind in the wake of suburban adolescent rituals and reaches some appropriately unsettling conclusions.
Most overrated: She Dies Tomorrow
On the surface, there’s a lot to admire about Amy Seimetz’s art thriller, especially the lack of exposition for its viral psychological disease premise and Kate Lyn Sheil’s performance. General offbeat vibes aside, however, so much of the film feels stiff and forced that the premise’s emotional weight stalls halfway through in spite of its relevancy. I might have had a more positive reaction if I found it funnier, but alas, that wasn’t in the cards either.
Though widely rubber-stamped by the critical community (but not at The A.V. Club), The Trial Of The Chicago 7 was derided by audiences upon its release for its cornball theatrics, factual lapses, and dodgy depictions of ’60s leftist radicals. It’s understandable that Aaron Sorkin’s interpretation of these events would set some teeth on edge, but besides the awful climax, I thought it was mostly snappy entertainment that features good actors delivering rapid, rhythmic dialogue. That this is my pick for most underrated and film editor A.A. Dowd’s pick for most overrated only serves to illustrate the varying definitions of these metrics and that broad reception of the film remains an ongoing question.
As an enormous fan of Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson, I highly anticipated her follow-up, Dick Johnson Is Dead, which operates in a similar memoir vein. While I did like the film, and gave it a positive review for The A.V. Club, I didn’t have the same enraptured feeling toward it as many of my colleagues. The idea of working through grief in real time is immensely appealing, but some of Johnson’s choices, like the fantastical heaven and hell scenes or the leading voice-over, left me quite cold.
Most welcome surprise: The Way Back
I wouldn’t necessarily seek out a generic underdog sports movie unless I was being paid for the pleasure, but I watched The Way Back during my end-of-the-year catchup and was pleasantly surprised by it. More star vehicle than standard genre affair, it plays off of Ben Affleck’s public relapse and uses addiction/recovery as a lens into grief... as well as, yes, making it to the playoffs. Maybe the film would be more forgettable with someone else in the lead, but Affleck’s sensitive performance really elevates it.
12 / 14
2. First Cow
3. Dick Johnson Is Dead
5. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
6. She Dies Tomorrow
8. Black Bear
10. The Forty-Year-Old Version
11. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
12. The Assistant
13. The Father
14. I’m Thinking Of Ending Things
15. Promising Young Woman
If a revelatory turn from Aubrey Plaza was all Black Bear had going for it, it would still be among the year’s most riveting films; it’s the kind of performance that lingers, a feral thing, predatory and fragile at once. But writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine’s nightmarish character study has far more under its hood than Plaza’s tour de force, including two performances (from Sarah Gadon and Christopher Abbott) that rival hers; an origami-like approach to both character and storytelling, in which the narrative folds in on and upends itself; and enough built-up tension to give last year’s Uncut Gems and Her Smell a run for their anxious money.
Most overrated: Ammonite
Francis Lee (God’s Own Country) wrote a lesbian period romance about Mary Anning, “the greatest fossilist the world ever knew,” then cast Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan. And yet somehow, it’s deeply dull. The cruelty of 2020 knows no bounds.
Most underrated: Deerskin
Okay, so maybe a French horror comedy about a guy with “killer style” whose obsession with a deerskin jacket drives him to both homicide and filmmaking isn’t a particularly easy sell. But this latest whatsit from writer-director Quentin Dupieux deserved far more attention, both for its frank, almost elegant staging and for performances by Jean Dujardin and Adèle Haenel that manage to be simultaneously relaxed and committed. It’s irresistibly bonkers.
Biggest disappointment: Onward
Ammonite’s flatness may be cruel. But consider, also, that Pixar made a Dungeons & Dragons-influenced movie about two elf brothers off on a side-quest with the sentient pants of their dead dad, and it turned out forgettable. That is the unkindest cut of all.
Adapted from his own 2012 play, Florian Zeller’s intimate drama never crosses over the near-invisible line that often divides excellence from indulgence. Anchored by subtle, compassionate performances by Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman, it offers a thoughtful, disorienting depiction of dementia that avoids cheap manipulation, and the result is a film far more heartbreaking and humanist than its prestige trappings might suggest.
13 / 14
1. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
2. The Vast Of Night
4. The Forty-Year-Old Version
5. First Cow
7. Sound Of Metal
8. Birds Of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation Of One Harley Quinn)
9. I’m Thinking Of Ending Things
11. One Night In Miami…
14. The Personal History Of David Copperfield
15. The Assistant
One thing that’s stuck with me all year is the giddy feeling of leaving an afternoon showing of Birds Of Prey, in what would turn out to be one of my last times in a movie theater in 2020. For whatever its flaws, this demented girl-power fantasia made me want to put on my highest boots and kick the patriarchy squarely in the face. And while, yes, there’s a lot to be said about the high art of cinema, there’s also a value to films that just make you feel cool as hell, particularly in a genre that doesn’t often cater to you.
For its first two-thirds, I was fully captivated by Sean Durkin’s eerie examination of 1980s excess, eager to see what this slippery family fable was building toward. But with a ponderous, overly simplistic final act that left me completely cold, it turns out the destination wasn’t worth the journey.
Most underrated: The Half Of It
I have no one to blame but myself with this one. I slightly missed the forest for the trees in my positive but not exactly glowing review of Alice Wu’s queer coming-of-age story. In retrospect, however, The Half Of It’s gentle, contemplative tone has stuck with me far more than I expected it to, especially thanks to a final scene I haven’t stopped thinking about all year.
Biggest disappointment: Dolittle
Again, this one’s on me. While Twitter scoffed at the trailer for this $175 million, heavily re-shot Robert Downey Jr. kiddie vehicle, I was fully convinced it was going to be a secret masterpiece. And while I do think there are pieces of a compellingly whimsical action adventure in the bloated final product, it’d be fair to say my initial optimism floated away like a dragon fart in the wind.
Most welcome surprise: Eurovision Song Contest: The Story Of Fire Saga
That I strongly considered putting Eurovision on my top 15 ballot speaks to just how much this sweet, goofy comedy was the perfect balm for this hard year. With a pitch-perfect use of Rachel McAdams and a climactic song that never fails to make me cry no matter how many times I listen to it (which is a lot), Eurovision is the perfect example of a comedy that understands that openhearted kindness can be just as funny as snarky subversion. The elves, it seems, took it just far enough.
14 / 14