Deadline Critic Todd McCarthy’s Top 10 Films Of 2020

If someone had told me a year ago that I would never set foot in a movie theater or screening room in 2020 after the first week of March (the impressive The Outpost and lousy The Hunt were the last films I saw on big screens) but that I would remain healthy and somehow seeing new films, I couldn’t have guessed what they were talking about. Nor could I have imagined that I’d be experiencing the 2021 Sundance Film Festival by myself on my home screen with no parkas or ski boots by the front door. Maybe I’ll put some on for fun while I watch a couple of Sundance titles at home next month.

But that’s where we’re at right now, with no sure return in sight. All the same, we’ve experienced a downpour of movies, produced by diverse sources and delivered to the public in unprecedentedly unconventional ways. The rupture may mark the end of moviegoing as we have always known it, as many theaters might never reopen and traditional studios decompose into unrecognizable shells of their former selves.

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One thing that this lost year and the recent voting for the year’s best films by various critical fraternities has affirmed is that the always tenuous distinctions between film/television, majors/indies and American/foreign productions have been vastly diminished; at this point, a movie is a movie is a movie more than ever before.

What might be lost with this development—certain distinctive traditions, styles, flavors and approaches to narrative in different cinematic cultures—looks to be compensated for by a freewheeling, anything-goes approach that ignores traditional national and stylistic boundaries and embraces new label-defying approaches. It’s a wonderful thing that a Chinese-born woman has made some of the most insightful films about America’s displaced populations and that a young Korean immigrant could grow up to direct a very accessible drama about just such a kid’s hard-scrabble upbringing on a remote Arkansas farm. I sincerely hope movie theaters can make a comeback, but how we define what we’re watching—and under what circumstances we consume it all—is undergoing a significant change, vide the Los Angeles Film Critics Association’s recent acclamation of Steve McQueen’s multi-part Small Axe British television anthology, which consists of five entirely distinct narratives of varying lengths, as best “film.”

With the world in simultaneous states of disturbing tumult and agonizing stasis, following are my picks for the best films of the forlorn year of 2020.

1. Nomadland

After Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider, Chloe Zhao completed a trilogy of features about the modern American West and its itinerant residents with this hauntingly resonant, female-centric road movie starring a fits-right-in Frances McDormand. And Zhao has already finished her next film, Marvel’s Eternals.

2. The Father

Anthony Hopkins caps a terrific career with his astounding turn as an Alzheimers-afflicted old father in Florian Zeller’s supremely nuanced screen adaptation of his own theater piece. The art direction is a subtle and telling as are the performances.

3. Promising Young Woman

Another Sundance 2020 highlight is this startling revenge tale that goes all the way and then some, with Carey Mulligan pulling out all the stops to put over Emerald Fenell’s daringly audacious first feature.

4. Dick Johnson Is Dead

In another year of many outstanding documentaries (yes, this was at Sundance too), Kirsten Johnson’s collaborative and often riotously funny tribute to her dementia-afflicted father is incontestably unique.

5. Small Axe: Mangrove

Steve McQueen pulled off something distinctive and penetrating with his quintet of films about the difficulties faced by West Indian immigrants in London from the early 1970s onward. Each is distinctive in its own way, but Mangrove, at feature length and climaxed by a historic trial, is arguably the most powerful and fully realized of the group.

6. Into the Deep

Sundance also provided the launching pad for Emma Sullivan’s simultaneously riveting and appalling documentary about the murder of a female Swedish journalist at the hands of a demented Danish inventor aboard his own hand-made submarine.

7. Soul

Pixar again proves itself as the gift that just keeps giving with this venturesome departure from the company’s norm. Pete Docter’s distinctive style is compounded here by the jazz-accentuated score in a tale that inhabits numerous realms, one more delightfully intriguing than the last.

8. The King of Staten Island

Staten Island is the only New York borough I’ve never been to, simply because no one ever said it was worth even a look, but Judd Apatow and Pete Davidson’s film absolutely merits a journey as it brings an entirely unheralded community alive with humor and insight.

9. The Outpost

Rod Lurie has sometimes flirted with real quality during his eclectic career, but he finally put it all together in this film, a tight, concentrated, unrelentingly intense account of a dreadful Alamo-like siege on an Army outpost during the war in Afghanistan.

10. Devil Between the Legs

This possible career capper by veteran Mexican director Arturo Ripstein will probably never be released in the United States (I saw it at Toronto 2019), so it seems like now or never to salute this bizarre, claustrophobic, superbly directed Last Tango-like study of sexual obsession on the part of a dissolute couple in their 70s. To be sure, there’s never been anything quite like it, although it’s hard to identify its target audience, other than horny geriatric ward residents. Calling Henry Miller…

Runners-up, 11-20

Minari (Lee Isaac Chung), First Cow (Kelley Reichardt), The Dissident (Bryan Fogel), Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman), Martin Eden (Piertro Marcello), I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman), The Painted Bird (Vaclav Malhoul), Beanpole (Kantemir Balagov), On the Rocks (Sofia Coppola), Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (George C. Wolfe).

Most over-rated film

Bacurau (Kleber Mendonca Filho), violently vile nonsense

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