Best of 2020: Beyond the Rankings

The Daily — Dec 29, 2020
Sierra McCormick in Andrew Patterson’s The Vast of Night (2019)

Year-end rankings of the best films of the year have taken on more creatively varied forms over the past couple of weeks (see the previous roundups here, here, and here). For the thirteenth year running, Notebook editors have asked writers—nearly sixty of them this time around—to program fantasy double features by pairing a film from 2020 with another, older one seen this year. Further mashups of the old and the new appear on the nearly ninety lists of first viewings and discoveries at Screen Slate, which has also polled its contributors for the first time in almost ten years to come up with a best-of-2020 list introduced and edited by Nicolas Rapold.

Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow tops not only that list but also the ones voted up by the editors and writers at the A.V. Club and the Film Stage. Named best picture of the year by critics circles in New York and Florida, this story of the bond between two men in Oregon Country in 1820 has also made the list put together by Pedro Almodóvar, who finds that the “intense presence of nature brings Lucrecia Martel to mind.” In his alphabetical list for WBUR, Sean Burns calls First Cow “a glimpse of America in the process of becoming itself, for better and worse.”

At the Ringer, where Sean Fennessey and Adam Nayman roll out their list in the form of ten thematically resonant double bills, Nayman has selected a surprising partner for First Cow: “While nobody would confuse Andrew Patterson’s gee-whiz debut The Vast of Night for a Reichardt homage (it’s too busy genuflecting at the altar of Steven Spielberg), it’s a similarly sweet and fatalistic portrait of outsiders in a remote outpost—specifically, New Mexico in the 1950s, a dateline that both spoils and deepens the story’s sci-fi surprises.” Roderick Heath admires The Vast of Night as well. Patterson, he notes, has “underlined his fascination, bordering on fetishism, for backdated technology and the accompanying mystique of past entertainment—the fertile, deftly minimalist palette of radio drama and the threadbare expressionist sketches of early television, the savored fervor stoked in a time when expressions of nerdy obsession had to await the mailman bringing a magazine packed full of mind-expanding concepts and thrilling wonder stories.”

More pairings come from Becca James in the Chicago Reader. “Quiet anger hums” through both Kitty Green’s The Assistant and Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal, for example. Rolling Stone’s K. Austin Collins tops his list with a tie between Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always and Garrett Bradley’s Time. “What’s long stood out in Hittman’s work is her skill for rendering stories we know, or think we know, in terms that feel unusually spacious, resistant to easy conclusions,” writes Collins. Time is “an equally stunning, humane portrait” of Fox Rich, who has spent close to two decades fighting to see her husband released from prison. Incorporating Rich’s own documentation of her struggle, Bradley “cedes ground to Fox, her voice and her effort, to make a case for the value of her husband’s life, which is to say, her own life. There’s nothing quite like this movie.” Michael Glover Smith, who has interviewed Bradley as well as Rich and her husband, Rob, also has Time at the top of his list.

Two other standout works of nonfiction top the lists from Alissa Wilkinson at Vox and Nick Schager at Esquire. Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova tracks down Karl-Bertil Nordland, who stole two of her paintings from a gallery in Oslo, in Benjamin Ree’s The Painter and the Thief, a film that, Wilkinson writes, “actively challenges what we think we understand about its characters based on their appearance, class markers, or behavior.” Kirsten Johnson stages and restages the death of her father in Dick Johnson Is Dead. “At once an alternately joyous and distressed confrontation of mortality and impending grief, not to mention a celebration of the cinema’s (illusory, and yet magical) capacity to combat time and fate,” writes Schager, “Johnson’s follow-up to Cameraperson is a uniquely warts-and-all portrait of facing the inevitable with courage, creativity, and devotion.”

At Hammer to Nail, Dick Johnson Is Dead lands on Matt Delman’s list but not on Christopher Reed’s, though Reed does have films from eight other women directors represented in his top ten fiction features—including Chloé Zhao, who has been named best director of 2020 not only by the previously mentioned critics groups in New York and Florida but also by those in Chicago and Los Angeles. In Nomadland, an overall favorite for the critics at Screen that also made Barack Obama’s list, Frances McDormand plays an unemployed widow who sets out on journey through the American west. “The pull of the narrative, like McDormand’s presence among her fellow-wanderers, seems neither willed nor forced,” writes Anthony Lane in his overview of the year in movies for the New Yorker, “and the heroine’s plight, though particular to the economics of now, has the timeless texture of a fable.”

As much as the Los Angeles critics admire Zhao’s work, when it came to voting for best picture, Nomadland took second place behind Small Axe, Steve McQueen’s series of five standalone features, stories rooted in Britain’s West Indian community from the 1960s to early 1980s. Some critics single out just one of the films—the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips tops his list with Lovers Rock, for example—while others, such as the contributors to Little White Lies, consider the entire anthology to be the year’s greatest viewing experience: “A major artistic achievement and a watershed moment for Black British culture, Small Axe is by turns defiant, joyous, and sobering in its depiction of the everyday realities of racial prejudice and injustice, the insidious persistence of which makes McQueen’s statement all the more urgent and affecting.”


Spike Lee, too, “has had a year,” as Dana Stevens puts it at Slate, where she’s opened this year’s Movie Club, a week-long conversation she’s having with Justin Chang, Odie Henderson, and Alison Willmore. Early in May, at the height of the first wave of the pandemic, Lee shot, edited, and released New York New York, a three-and-a-half “love letter” to his hometown. Just weeks later, George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, and in June, as Black Lives Matter protests spilled out into streets from coast to coast, Netflix released Da 5 Bloods, Lee’s story of Black vets returning to Vietnam. “With Delroy Lindo giving the most spellbinding performance of the year as the PTSD-suffering Paul, and some of Lee’s boldest editing and music choices (that a cappella Marvin Gaye needle drop!), Da 5 Bloods is easily the most essential film of 2020,” writes Matt Singer at Screen Crush.

#2 on Singer’s list is David Byrne’s American Utopia, in which Lee captures the hit show that’s slated to eventually return to Broadway. For the Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney, this “hyper-kinetic hymn to community and connection in a politically divided, environmentally ailing world is by far the most therapeutic time I had at a movie in this trying year of isolation and anxiety.” Back at the Movie Club, Odie Henderson notes that, since American Utopia’s premiere in September, he’s returned to it again and again “in moments when I felt most dire and helpless.”

Henderson is no fan of Martin Eden, Pietro Marcello’s free adaptation of Jack London’s novel, so it’s up to Alison Willmore to defend it. She’s found the film “to work as a fable—a piquant and a gorgeous one, drifting unmoored through the twentieth century, and benefiting visually from its archival snippets, its rich colors, and Luca Marinelli’s matinee idol profile.” For Joshua Rothkopf, Martin Eden announces a new Italian cinema that comes “within shouting distance of the epics of Bernardo Bertolucci.” It lands at #3 at In Review Online, where the list is topped by To the Ends of the Earth, which finds Kiyoshi Kurosawa working in a “border zone openly contested by opposing modes, genres, and moods . . . no one else is making movies like this.”

Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite, last year’s winner of the Palme d’Or, wasn’t released in the UK until earlier this year, right around the time it made Oscar history as the first film in a language other than English to win best picture. It’s hardly a surprise, then, to find Parasite at the top of lists from the Guardian, the New Statesman, and Time Out. The Telegraph’s Robbie Collin, though, goes for Josh and Benny Safdie’s Uncut Gems, while the Observer’s Mark Kermode, ever the horror aficionado, champions Saint Maud: “Rose Glass’s electrifying debut feature establishes the writer-director as a thrilling new voice in British cinema.”

Sight & Sound, in the meantime, has polled forty-two creators of audiovisual essays who have submitted a total of 170 recommendations—“online video essays, essay films, documentaries, installations, and an HBO series; also a Kanye West music video!”—that, taken together, offer several days’ worth of the year’s best work in audiovisual criticism. It won’t take nearly as long to watch the top ten title sequences of 2020 as selected by a panel put together by Art of the Title. These sequences have been “painstakingly animated, painted, composited, illustrated, torn and pasted, shot, performed, and typeset by teams large and small all around the world, navigating a global pandemic, with budgets modest and mighty, over video calls, in state-of-the-art facilities and in home studios.” And finally for now, there are plenty of online galleries displaying the year’s best movie posters, but only one is essential: Adrian Curry’s in the Notebook.

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