To say nothing of our poor theaters, it wasn't the friendliest year to watch movies at home either.
Living rooms tend to flatten films, not just visually but psychologically. You're 5 feet from the day's stresses, and the need for escapist content dominates all else. In 2020, streaming services became simultaneously more cryptic and crucial, as countless movies bailed on theaters and were instead released online.
Still, 2020 did yield some astoundingly good work—especially from indie directors who deserve recognition. So in a year defined by making the best of it, these were the best of 'em.
Stitching together black-and-white home video with contemporary documentary footage, rising star Garrett Bradley personalizes activist Fox Rich's two-decade battle to free her incarcerated husband, Rob. In all its meanings, time both feeds Fox's resilience and carries its own injustice: A decade evaporates while a 30-second disappointment stretches into eternity. Amazon Prime.
9. I'm Thinking of Ending Things
If you're skipping family time these holidays, Charlie Kaufman can affirm your decision. The acclaimed Hollywood scribe's adaptation of Iain Reid's novel follows a young woman (Jessie Buckley) visiting the parents of her boyfriend (Jesse Plemons) in a snowstorm. It instantly becomes an unshakable whiteout of flickering consciousness and incurable loneliness—that is to say, a Very Kaufman Christmas. Netflix.
8. Dick Johnson Is Dead
Cameraperson director Kirsten Johnson employs cinema as experimental therapy and immersive theater, casting her dementia-stricken father in outlandish renditions of his own demise. Laughter and tears often share the same split second, and Dick Johnson (bless his heart) deserves some kind of humanitarian award for being the world's kindest old man. Netflix.
7. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
The year's second-best soundtrack rules this quasi-documentary ode to a dive bar's closing night. Set in Vegas but shot in New Orleans and featuring barflies playing versions of themselves, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets finds directors Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross blurring reality, but strict authenticity hardly matters. The sorrow of a fringe community's last last call rings true. Amazon Prime, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube.
6. Lovers Rock
And here's the best soundtrack of 2020, fueling the second installment of Steve McQueen's Small Axe film series. Amid the larger anthology's complex depictions of West Indian immigrants in 1970s London, Lovers Rock romantically ambles its way through a house party that refuses to end. You've never seen the Widows director unwind this way before, and he's brilliant at it. Amazon Prime.
Onetime Portland legend Miranda July's latest feature is her most Hollywood, meaning she had slightly more money to stay true to her strangeness. Evan Rachel Wood gives an admirably committed performance as a daughter seeking love outside her chilly, manipulative family of grifters. Touch, as 2020 so cruelly reminded, is a powerful thing. Amazon Prime, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube.
4. Bad Education
Hugh Jackman is at his beaming, slippery best in this saga of crime and cover-up as a Long Island public school district superintendent. While maintaining character-study intimacy, Thoroughbreds director Cory Finley shrewdly interrogates the incentives to cheat in a system founded on dreams of ascension. Amazon Prime, Google Play, HBO Max, Hulu, Vudu, YouTube.
3. Boys State
In documenting the titular mock-government camp for young men, Boys State unveils a fishbowl of testosterone and ambition in the nascent political class. You don't have to squint to observe how broken political systems imprint on future generations and parroted rhetoric becomes brutally internalized. Apple TV+.
2. Another Round
Mads Mikkelsen gives the performance of 2020 as a Danish history teacher trying to imbibe his way to a higher plane of joie de vivre. Yet the most surprising dimension of director Thomas Vinterberg's cautionary tale is its unwavering empathy; Another Round knows well the symbolic heft alcohol takes on as a last link to youth. Amazon Prime, Google Play.
1. First Cow
When a given year's best Oregon movie is also its best writ large…well, a much-deserved *chef's kiss* to the pair of pre-Oregon Territory bakers (John Magaro and Orion Lee) grounding this parable of frontier capitalism. Portlander Kelly Reichardt is arguably the best filmmaker still searching for America in its under-examined past, and in First Cow, she's crafted a Western that's watchable yet patient, touching yet unsparing, and poetic yet plain. In other words, the Meek's Cutoff director has done what she always does. Only better than ever. Amazon Prime, fuboTV, Google Play, Hulu, Showtime, Sling TV, Vudu, YouTube.