It certainly wasn’t a typical year for, well, anything, including movies. As Hollywood packed up shop and pushed a lot of their projects to 2021 or streaming services, questions arose about how to critically assess such an unusual time for cinema. Some groups like the Academy pushed their awards back to make a longer window for inclusion while some writers lamented the lack of quality overall. They just weren’t looking hard enough. In the end, it was a very solid year for the form, and the lack of blockbusters only allowed for more room to assess the movies that might have otherwise gone under the radar. Let’s just say that it was not hard to come up with 20 films that we feel represented the quality of 2020. And great movies didn’t even make the cut. Every single one of the 20 films below will stand the test of time, remaining important works of art even after the din of this horrible year is behind us. Art endures.
About the rankings: We asked our regular film critics and editors to submit top ten lists, ranked or unranked, and then consolidated them with a points system resulting in the list below, with a new entry for each awarded film. To read each critic’s Top 5 individual list
1. “The Assistant”
Kitty Green’s remarkable “The Assistant” is about #MeToo and Harvey Weinstein without explicitly being about those things. Instead, this quiet, day-in-the-life drama breaks down the many ways employees are forced to tolerate bad behavior. In the film, Jane (Julia Garner) is a hardworking everywoman who treks into the office each morning from Queens when it’s still dark out. But today, something is off. She finds an earring in her boss’ office. A woman she’s never seen before stops by to pick it up. A young woman from Idaho flies in for a job likes hers and the company puts her up at a fancy hotel. When her boss disappears, all her coworkers seem to know where he’s gone. When Jane finally works up the courage to report him to a HR representative (a chilling Matthew Macfadyen), he waves off her concerns and warns that her report could end her career. As Jane tearfully gets up to leave, he tells her not to worry: “You’re not his type.”
“The Assistant” psychologically explores all the little ways someone trying to do the right thing meets resistance. Others in the office know what’s happening, but more or less lead by example to look the other way. Jane’s supposed to be relieved that she’s not on the receiving end of sexual harassment, but what about the other women? Or the next executive she works for? Green’s movie, which she also wrote and directed, works not just within the setting of a production company but to almost any toxic workplace that encourages its employees to ignore abuse and give them no tools to stop it. (Monica Castillo)
2. “The Nest”
There are scenes in Sean Durkin’s marital drama “The Nest” that are so raw and real, so specific and vivid, you may feel the need to watch them through splayed fingers. As writer and director, he creates the sensation that you’ve wandered into an intimate space where you don’t belong, watching as a husband and wife tear each other apart with deep-seated resentments and hyperverbal jabs. It’s uncomfortable—but you can’t look away, because the dialogue is so riveting and the performances from Jude Law and Carrie Coon are so exquisite.
Nine years after his debut film “Martha Marcy May Marlene” (my pick for the best film of 2011), Durkin once again explores themes of seeking and striving, of reinventing yourself into an idealized persona with dangerous consequences.Durkin never spells out that notion, though. Rather, it’s part of the rich atmosphere he creates, as Rory, Coon’s Allison and their two kids relocate from upstate New York to England in pursuit of elusive riches. Rory already lives like he’s made it big, but he’s hustling and schmoozing, relying on his looks and charm to get him in the door at prestigious investment firms, and it’s clear that the tightrope he’s walking will snap beneath his feet at any moment. While he insists on moving his family into a sprawling manor they can’t afford, a building sense of claustrophobia is inescapable.
Within this slow burn, Law and Coon give career-best performances.And Coon is just a knockout as Law’s fed-up wife. She has a chameleon-like quality as an actress, but no matter the role, she exudes a bracing directness. She always gives you an authentic truth. And when she finally snaps, she’s ferocious. ranging from
The Cure to Bronski Beat to Al Jarreau. But while the period details are specific, the story of desire and deceit is timeless. (Christy Lemire)
3. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”
The title is the list of possible answers to a series of sensitive questions a social worker asks a pregnant teenager seeking an abortion.
In an interview, Hittman told me she wanted to “reclaim the narrative” on reproductive rights with a woman’s perspective. She tells the story with great tenderness, more protective of the two girls than the other characters are. Hittman’s intimate, documentary tone illuminates the girls’ vulnerability, their determination, and their resilience. (Nell Minow)
Its first major tragedy alone, involving the death of a child, may be too much for some to bear.
There aren’t a million different stories to be told. Most stories, even personal ones, contain familiar elements or come from similar sources.And so the lens got wider. The story didn’t lessen in relevance, but expands because more people are included in it. Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari,” loosely based on his own childhood in Arkansas, is this kind of film.
“Minari” is a familiar immigrant story, and a familiar American story, filled with the dream of owning land, working the land, being your own boss. Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han), Korean immigrants, make the bold choice to leave their jobs as chicken sexers in California, to move to Arkansas with their two small children, chasing Jacob’s dream to start a small farm. Jacob revels in the dirt, the sweat, the vision of crops to come. Monica hates all of it, and the children look on, scared, as their parents’ marriage disintegrates. Monica’s mother, staying with them, adds tension in the small home.