Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order):

  • Athlete A
  • Babyteeth
  • Bad Education
  • Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)
  • Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
  • Deerskin
  • Dick Johnson Is Dead
  • I Used to Go Here
  • I’m Thinking of Ending Things
  • Let Them All Talk
  • Nomadland
  • The Nest
  • Palm Springs
  • Sound of Metal
  • Time
  • Undine
  • Yes, God, Yes

10. David Byrne’s American Utopia

Part documentary, part concert film, and part conceptual art installation, the former Talking Heads frontman’s newest project is one of the most joyful experiences of the year. Byrne brings back beloved songs and melds them with new work to create a stage show that brings the themes of memory and human connection to life. You wouldn’t necessarily envision a project like Utopia to be directed by Spike Lee, but Lee’s dynamic camerawork, combined with choreography by Annie-B Parson, help to make the boundless energy from Byrne and his musicians feel infectious and sustainable. Even being a newcomer to Byrne and his career, his enthusiasm for performing transcends musical genre boundaries. Concert films have a reputation as superfluous fluff but, in addition to the legendary Stop Making Sense, Byrne has found a way to make them not only fun but memorable. It may be a while before we can safely attend live shows again, but thanks to Spike Lee and David Byrne, American Utopia is an enjoyable substitute. Now Streaming on HBOMax

9. The Swerve

Sean Durkin’s The Nest rightfully received its due praise for depicting a marriage in slow decline, but don’t sleep on this long-simmering nightmare from first-time director Dean Kapsalis. Azura Skye is magnetic as Holly, a teacher, wife, and mother, going through the worst mid-life crisis ever, as her husband, children, and immediate family regard her as another inconvenience in their lives. Skye’s stoic reactions to each mounting disaster reveal the rage hiding just beneath the surface, while still maintaining a calm exterior. Though there are elements of nightmare logic as Holly loses her mental grip, Kapsalis keeps the events of the film grounded in grim reality as we wait for the final shoe to drop throughout the 95-minute runtime. And when the finale comes along, it’s a gut punch of terror and dread, as Holly’s life truly reaches the point of no return – it’s one of the sequences that will resonate with me for a long time. The Swerve was the last film I watched in 2020, and I can only hope to see more from Kapsalis, Skye, and everyone involved, hopefully sooner than later. Now Streaming on Amazon Prime

8. Wolfwalkers

Wolfwalkers is not only the best animated film of the year, but the best looking animated film since 2018’s Into the Spiderverse. Animation studio Cartoon Saloon’s hand-drawn aesthetic vibrantly brings a fairy-tale to life involving an Irish town and a little girl who can communicate with wolves. The look of the film isn’t the only draw here, though. Richly-developed and memorable characters voiced by Sean Bean, Honor Knesfsey, and Eva Whittaker make Wolfwalkers a formidable offering in a year with limited animated features. Hayao Miyazaki may be the master of environmentalism stories, but directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart present their argument without coming off as preachy and still appealing to wider audiences. The film may lack the big set pieces and cartoonish hijinks that are frequently populated in Disney and Pixar films, but Wolfwalkers is an entertaining journey that all ages can enjoy. Now Streaming on Apple TV+

7. Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Eliza Hittman’s third feature film deserves as much praise for the film that it is, as it does for the film that it is not. The story of a high schooler’s harrowing journey to receive an abortion in New York can very easily be turned into a story that’s all message and no heart. The big city isn’t populated by frightening, inherently harmful people, and there’s no monolithic enemy to get past. Instead, Hittman focuses on the quieter, more intimate moments between Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) and her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) as she explores the idea that sometimes, more than anything, the best help can be somebody that’s willing to listen. Flanigan, in her acting debut, gives one of the best performances of the year, often without saying a word. The scene that gives the film its title remains one of the most brutal of the year as well, a masterclass in one-take directing from Hittman and a devastating performance from Flanigan. Now Streaming on HBOMax

6. Da Five Bloods

Spike Lee followed up his Oscar-winning BlackKklansman with Da Five Bloods, one of the best films of his storied career. Working with a stellar cast involving Clark Peters, Norm Lewis, Jonathan Majors, Chadwick Boseman, and a never-better Delroy Lindo, Lee uses all of his tricks to make a Vietnam War movie that focuses as much on the war as it does on the psychological trauma it unleashed, especially among the Black community. Lee weaves elements of a heist story, a family drama, a war movie, and plenty of comedy to create a topically poignant story with unexpected relevance to the events of today. And, to Lee’s credit, his story is much more nuanced than the geriatric “old men acting young again” genre. Credit should also be given to cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, who films the flashback sequences in a boxier aspect ratio, with de-saturated colors to look more like a vintage documentary. Lee also employs another unique stylistic choice when turning to the flashbacks of the war, by using the same middle-aged actors as their younger selves, without de-aging technology or visual trickery. It’s a daring decision, a way of visually suggesting that these men never have and never will leave the battlefield. Though almost all of the films on this list could have benefited from being seen on the big screen, Da Five Bloods is a bold, often-messy war epic that is a beauty to behold at home regardless. Now Streaming on Netflix

5. Small Axe: Lovers Rock

I had to watch Lovers Rock with subtitles on because of (1) my genetically terrible hearing, and (2) the incredibly thick accents and lingo used by the characters. But the film could probably be watched without understanding any dialogue at all and still have the same blissful effect. Steve McQueen’s second film in his Small Axe anthology (a series which could have entirely made its way onto this list) is economical in its storytelling, but maximizes its emotions in its runtime. Told largely over the course of one night at a house party amongst the West Indian community of London in the height of the funk/reggae era of the 70’s, McQueen uses music to not only set the mood but the connection between the members in attendance. The director’s series was conceived as a way to illuminate the injustices and experiences of the West Indian population, through both a micro and macro lens. Lovers Rock may not seem to fit that bill at first, but once you realize the pure happiness experienced by a group of people, simply gathering in one place and shedding their daily fears, the film is a testament to the joy of being together. More than any other film this year, Lovers Rock is one that can be accurately described, but must be experienced firsthand to understand. Now Streaming on Amazon Prime

4. Boys State

For my money, a great documentary stands out by not only illuminating a difficult subject, but showcasing memorable people. Boys State does both, as directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss follow a select few of the attendees at the Boys State conference throughout a summer in Texas. The documentary introduces viewers to a wide range of “characters” worth rooting for and against while they campaign and run for fictional office against each other. 2020 was a great year for documentaries, and Boys State was my favorite amongst them because of its unflinching ability to find unforgettable moments. When you’re not captivated by what’s happening on-screen, you’ll find yourself wondering not only how McBaine and Moss were able to find such interesting subjects, but how they could condense so much footage into such a fascinating narrative. Boys State showcases the – often toxic – American political discourse that the adults in Washington have created, and how it’s rubbed off on the next generation. Smear campaigns, sacrificing of personal values, and underhanded tactics all reveal themselves to be features, rather than anomalies, of political campaigning as each candidate does whatever it takes to win. If this is what these young men will do to win an office that only lasts for less than one summer, imagine what they’ll do when the stakes are real. Now Streaming on Apple TV+

3. The Vast of Night

Director Andrew Patterson’s micro-budget debut shows that you don’t need the $200 million financing or A-list actors that’s become too prevalent in Hollywood sci-fi today. From the opening minutes, Patterson’s camera swoops around a high school gym, while the dialogue between Fay and Everett (Sierra McCormick and Jake Horowitz) zips and zings just as quickly, establishing its characters and setting with economic competency. Full of long takes – including one memorable one at the midway point that will leave you wondering how they pulled it off – The Vast of Night blends elements of Contact, Close Encounters, and The Twilight Zone as the teenage duo investigate a mysterious signal of unknown origin. Patterson emerges as a talent to look forward to in the inventive ways he tells the story – there’s a sequence that lasts several minutes where the screen turns completely blank, which helps to reinforce the importance of the dialogue at play. It’s difficult to give every film your full attention when watching at home, but Patterson makes it a necessity, and the result is a spectacle to behold. Now Streaming on Amazon Prime.

1. (tie) First Cow

First Cow‘s plot may primarily be concerned with a duo (played by John Magaro and Orion Lee) and their plan to steal milk from a wealthy man’s cow, but Kelly Reichardt fills her film with layers and layers of subtext to enjoy. There’s a moment when Magaro and Lee have just sold their last biscuit to a man who jumps to the front of the line and pays more than what they’re asking for the last one. He picks it up, sniffs it, and immediately winces. He’s just bought something he didn’t know he wanted; he just wanted it because everyone else wanted it. This is just part of what makes Reichardt a great filmmaker: she sums up the American experience in one wordless sequence. Reichardt’s film moves at a snail’s pace, full of tender, quiet moments without resorting to melodrama, which may turn off some viewers, but I found myself enraptured with the world she’s created. There’s many indelible images throughout First Cow, including the wordless sequence that opens, and the heartbreaking one that mirrors it at the close of the film. Reichardt has been beloved for years amongst film nerds and critics, but First Cow is an easily accessible film, a triumph of minimalist storytelling and production. Now Available to Rent on VOD.

1. (tie) The Assistant

We all knew there would eventually be numerous films to be made of the Harvey Weinstein/ #MeToo saga, but Kitty Green’s quiet drama proved to be the best way to tell it. Told throughout the single workday of an office assistant for a (nameless) film producer, we only see the aftermath of his sexual harassment through secondhand accounts. Green’s tactics make it clear, without underlining the issue, how a predator like Weinstein could hide in plain sight for so long. Rather than any big, bombshell revelations, Green focuses on the mundane, everyday tasks that don’t divulge much on their face, but add up to a dark picture. Emmy-winner Julia Garner gives a subtly great performance by playing into her character’s fear; fear of speaking up, fear of doing wrong to the company, and fear of losing her job. The Assistant never becomes a horror movie per se, but the atmosphere of dread permeates throughout, just below the surface. Green’s film goes to show that a film can provoke a myriad of emotions while still remaining emotionally honest. Now Streaming on Hulu

Ben headshotAbout the Writer: Ben Sears is a life-long Indianapolis resident, husband, and father of two boys, as well as a contributing writer on ObsessiveViewer.com and a recurring co-host on The Obsessive Viewer Podcast. Aside from watching movies and television, Ben enjoys photography (bensearsphotography.com) and running marathons, but never at the same time. That would be difficult.


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