Sunday, 17 January 2021

The Year in Movies – 2020

Like many, many things in 2020, this blog and any updates gave way to very different priorities, and not only did I watch fewer movies last year, but the way in which I watched them and the aspects that I paid most attention to and appreciated most also shifted, perhaps irreversibly. I found myself responding much more strongly to movies where the filmmakers took conspicuous and considerate care in imagining and conveying characters’ emotional lives, and to stories that seemed informed by lived experiences and hard-won knowledge.

Miranda July’s Kajillionaire (which could just as easily have been my Number 1 movie of the year), a movie about familial struggles, was born not only out of her prodigious imagination, but also out of her accumulating feelings of frustration, fury, discovery, joy, and a multitude of others that arise from her new experience of being a wife and a mother. Shirley was made by a consummate cinematic creator, Josephine Decker, who herself must have experienced some of the terrors and ecstasies of artistic creation before evoking them in the story of her protagonist, the real-life novelist Shirley Jackson.

Bringing up these two examples reminds me of another distinction in this year’s list, one that I hope will last in coming lists: 8 of the 11 movies I’ve selected were made by women. I think it’s one of the many examples of the way that moviegoing completely changed in 2020; with tentpole releases being all but cancelled for the year, and independent movies getting a larger platform than ever before, a bottleneck widened a little, and the market opened up to a slightly broader cohort of filmmaking artists than before. The state of American and worldwide film industries is still nowhere near as inclusive as it should be, but more and more people are getting the chances to show off their work, and we’re getting many more opportunities to see movies from not only diverse demographics but from as heterogeneous a variety of perspectives as there has ever been.

There are many excellent 2020 movies missing from my list, because I watched so few 2020 movies last year – so few movies at all, in fact. Watching movies from previous years felt no different to watching contemporary ones, as suddenly every story watched had become stranger, more touching or less affecting, and had been altered by being watched in a different world than the one they had been made in. Movies that I saw for the first time last year and greatly enjoyed – and that I had to remind myself did not belong on the list below – include Moir, un noir, Hereafter, A Simple Favor, Pretty Poison, Imitation of Life, Within Our Gates, Win a Date with Tad Hamilton, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Eve’s Bayou, The Juniper Tree, Just Go With It, and, crucially, a number of classic African works that streaming services have also made so much more widely accessible: Black Girl, Yeelen, and Moolaadé. Some of these titles are still not available in South Africa on any legal platform, and eager viewers still need to work a little harder to get a hold of many of the great movies that are out there to be seen.

A word on the ranking of the movies below: Each year, my rankings feel more and more arbitrary, and just about each of the movies below had some pleasurable part of them that could induce me to put it in the Number 1 spot. Consider them shuffled and randomly placed, and let me know which are the most critical omissions that should be considered when I catch up on 2020 viewing in the future.

The Best Movies of 2020

Uncut Gems (Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie) (Available on Netflix)

Kajillionaire (Miranda July)


Shirley (Josephine Decker)


A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Marielle Heller) (Available on Netflix)

The Forty-Year Old Version (Radha Blank) (Available on Netflix)

Little Women (Greta Gerwig) (Available on Netflix)

Dick Johnson is Dead (Kirsten Johnson) (Available on Netflix)

Atlantics (Mati Diop) (Available on Netflix)

Yes, God, Yes (Karen Maine)

Richard Jewell (Clint Eastwood)

Lil Peep: Everybody’s Everything (Sebastian Jones, Ramez Silyan) (Available on Netflix)

Best Actress

Elisabeth Moss, Shirley
Odessa Young, Shirley
Radha Blank, The Forty-Year-Old Version
Renee Zellweger, Judy
Evan Rachel Wood, Kajillionaire

Best Actor

Adam Sandler, Uncut Gems
Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Paul Walter Hauser, Richard Jewell

Best Supporting Actress

Idina Menzel, Uncut Gems
Kathy Bates, Richard Jewell
Debra Winger, Kajillionaire
Gina Rodriguez, Kajillionaire

Best Supporting Actor

Eric Bogosian, Uncut Gems
Michael Stuhlbarg, Shirley
Oswin Benjamin, The Forty-Year-Old Version
Richard Jenkins, Kajillionaire

Best Original Screenplay

Ronald Bronstein, Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie, Uncut Gems
Radha Blank, The Forty-Year-Old Version
Miranda July, Kajillionaire
Karen Maine, Yes, God, Yes

Best Adapted Screenplay

Sarah Gubbins, Shirley
Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Greta Gerwig, Little Women

Best Editing

Ronald Bronstein, Benny Safdie, Uncut Gems
David Barker, Shirley
Jennifer Vecchiarello, Kajillionaire
Robert Grigsby Wilson, The Forty-Year-Old Version

Best Cinematography

Darius Khondji, Uncut Gems
Claire Mathon, Atlantics
Emile Mosseri, Kajillionaire
Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, Shirley
Eric Branco, The Forty-Year-Old Version

Best Original Score

Daniel Lopatin, Uncut Gems
Tamar-kali, Shirley

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