Every product was carefully curated by an Esquire editor. We may earn a commission from these links.

The Best Movies of 2020

These are the phenomenal films that helped us overcome a challenging year. And you can watch them right now.

best movies of 2020
Elaine Chung

This was, in many respects, a year to forget—but not so when it came to film. Although most were viewed on inadequately small screens, the legion of fiction and non-fiction releases that helped us cope with our pandemic-wracked reality delivered welcome doses of excitement, drama, terror, and humor. Whether tapping into universal hopes and fears, or incisively reflecting our current insane circumstances, they offered insight and escape, as well as thrills of a breathtakingly varied sort. No one knows if 2021 will bring us back to theaters or have us continuing to experience new works on our TVs, tablets and phones. Yet as evidenced by the numerous gems that arrived over the course of the past twelve months, cinema remains as vital as ever. While we can’t celebrate them all, this year-long rundown has certainly tried to do justice to the finest that filmmakers had to offer. Dynamic, unique and altogether triumphant, these are our selections for the best movies of 2020.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
65) On the Rocks
on the rocks
On the Rocks

With On the Rocks, Sofia Coppola reunites with her Lost in Translation star Bill Murray for another odyssey involving a young woman and an older man. Though the results aren’t as dynamic as their prior collaboration, Coppola’s fizzy romantic drama nonetheless finds its headliner in outstanding form as Felix, the suave ladies-man father to Laura (Rashida Jones), with whom he embarks on an investigation into the possible two-timing proclivities of her husband Dean (Marlon Wayans). Seemingly riffing on Coppola’s own famous dad Francis, Murray is a charming force of nature as an incorrigible lothario at once devoted to his mother-of-two kid and wholly, hilariously consumed with himself, and his performance does much to enliven this breezy saga about Laura’s mid-life crisis. A nighttime race through Manhattan in an old-school sports car is the material’s comedic high point, and contributes to the warmth and affection that Coppola showers upon her metropolitan setting, here envisioned as a dreamy wonderland full of intrigue, adventure and alternately enervating and enlivening domesticity.

Watch Now

64) The Trip to Greece
the trip to greece
.

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon follow the path first traversed by Odysseus in The Trip To Greece, once again engaging in the witty banter and dueling celebrity impressions that have become the hallmark of this Michael Winterbottom-stewarded comedy series. For this fourth and ostensibly final installment, the bickering couple (Coogan arrogant and condescending; Brydon cheery and patient) enjoy fine meals and show off their imitative vocal skills, here highlighted by Coogan doing a pitch-perfect Ray Winstone as King Henry VIII. In keeping with its predecessors, the duo’s latest colors its humor with a strain of wistful regret rooted in their thorny feelings about transitioning into middle age. Anxiety about mortality turns out to be more pronounced than ever, particularly via Coogan’s Ingmar Bergman-esque dream sequence, which is related to dismay over his father’s failing health. Nonetheless, the alternately combative and chummy English pair remain in fine, funny form, and their swan song proves to be their most substantive collaboration since their maiden outing.

Watch Now

63) Lost Girls
dsc9294arw
Jessica Kourkounis

The true story of a mother’s search for her missing child, Netflix’s Lost Girls is a clear-eyed and moving expose about the many ways in which troubled young women are let down by parents, police and society at large. Using Robert Kolker’s book as her source, director Liz Garbus recounts Mari Gilbert’s (Amy Ryan) efforts to find her oldest daughter Shannan, a prostitute, after she vanished following a house call in a gated Long Island community. At every turn, what Mari discovers is a lack of urgency about, if not outright indifference to, her daughter’s disappearance, even after other bodies are found in the very same area. Ryan’s powerhouse performance as the fiercely determined Mari is the nucleus of this dispiritingly bleak tale, in which there are few concrete answers to be found, but plenty of blame to pass around. That Garbus doesn’t let Mari off the hook for her own mistakes, while nonetheless casting a reproachful gaze at the individual and systemic failings that allow such crimes to occur – and go unsolved – only strengthens her cinematic case for compassion and togetherness as the bulwark against tragedy.

Watch Now

62) The Whistlers

Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu once again melds his interests in language and genre filmmaking with The Whistlers, a neo-noir about a police officer named Cristi (Vlad Ivanov) who travels to the Canary Island of La Gomera to learn an ancient whistling language that doesn’t sound anything like a human form of communication. This subterfuge is demanded by Cristi’s gangster bosses, with whom he’s both in league with and tasked with nabbing by his law enforcement chief Magda (Rodica Lazar). Cristi’s playing-both-sides predicament is complicated by his relationship with Gilda (Catrinel Marlon), an alluring beauty whose femme fatale status is underlined by her famous noir name, and Porumboiu fractures his narrative so that chronology, like the various dialects employed by his characters, comes across as intricately coded. Repeatedly shouting out to both crime movies and Westerns – even its title and central conceit feel like references to Lauren Bacall’s iconic To Have and Have Not line of dialogue – the director orchestrates his action with slippery subtlety and droll humor, and he continually surprises on his way to an expressively non-verbal finale of light and music.

Watch Now

61) Synchronic

Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson are genre filmmakers adept at crafting time-travel stories that double as subtle inquiries into the human condition, and their latest, Synchronic, is their most straightforward and high-profile venture to date. For New Orleans paramedics Dennis (Jamie Dornan) and Steve (Anthony Mackie), life has turned out to be an unexpected disappointment, and their discontent with their disparate stations in life (Dennis is an unhappy husband and father; Steve is a lonely and aimless ladies man) is amplified by a spate of deaths that seem to be related to a new synthetic drug called synchronic that causes Dennis’ 18-year-old daughter to disappear. As Steve soon learns, synchronic has the capacity to spirit users to bygone eras, which instigates a quest that speaks directly to larger issues of mortality, loss, grief, and the push-pull between dreams and reality. Everything is connected in this economical and thrilling sci-fi saga, as the writer/directors – aided by understated performances from their Hollywood leads – deliver a unique vision of intertwined fates, the links between the past and the future, and the importance of cherishing the present moment.

60) Bad Education
bad education
HBO

Using cheery smiles and go-getter glares to conceal profound depths of resentment, ambition and greed, Hugh Jackman gives the performance of his career as Roslyn, Long Island public school superintendent Dr. Frank Tassone in Bad Education. A dramatic account of the historic embezzlement scandal that engulfed Tassone and his colleagues – most notably, assistant superintendent Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney) – Cory Finley’s film (based on Robert Kolker’s New York Magazine article) is a ruthlessly efficient and even-keeled affair about the intense pressures of suburban academia, where educational-ranking achievements and college acceptance rates are intimately intertwined with real-estate prices. The director lays out the myriad forces at play in this ostensibly picture-perfect milieu in exacting detail, and his preference for longer takes means that the focus remains squarely on his performers. That, in turn, allows the HBO feature to rest on the sturdy shoulders of Jackman, who never resorts to caricature in embodying Tassone as a discontent striver whose eagerness for validation dovetailed with his lifelong deceptiveness, to disastrous ends.

Watch Now

59) Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin

Werner Herzog is non-fiction cinema’s foremost philosopher poet, and with Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin, he pays reverent tribute to his celebrated writer friend Bruce Chatwin, who passed away from AIDS in 1989, and whose 1980 novel The Viceroy of Ouidah was the basis for Herzog’s 1987 film Cobra Verde. Splitting his documentary into chapters based on Chatwin’s books, and guiding his action with typically lofty narration, Herzog embarks on the sort of “erratic quest” for answers to existence’s biggest questions that were favored by Chatwin. The way in which nature, history, dreams and myth intertwine is a central focus here, as Herzog expresses how he and his subject were kindred spirits bonded by a shared fascination with ancient knowledge and a habit of embellishing facts in order to get at a deeper “ecstatic truth.” Though the director employs considerable archival material, its footage of his own journeys – set to Ernst Reijseger’s eclectic score – that really gets to the heart of Chatwin as an itinerant artist drawn to life’s far corners, and enduring mysteries.

Watch Now

58) Color Out of Space

Nicolas Cage and H.P. Lovecraft are an ideal genre-movie pair, and Color Out of Space ably channels the latter’s gift for unreal terror while providing the former with a vehicle for charmingly out-there antics. Directing his first feature since being booted off of 1996’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, Richard Stanley brings trippy majesty to his adaptation of Lovecraft’s short story about a family – led by Cage’s cassoulet-cooking dad and Joely Richardson’s breadwinning financial-whiz mom – whose lives in rural Arkham are upended after a meteor crashes in their backyard, spawning menacing magenta foliage, absorbing lightning, and radiating not-of-this-Earth colors. Madness has arrived in infinite-hued form, as Stanley evokes a sense of rifts opening between our world and the great abyss beyond, and delivers fantastical sights of both a CGI and practical-effects sort. Even amidst such insanity, however, the filmmaker never loses sight of his characters’ humanity, nor their humorousness, be it Tommy Chong’s local squatter or Cage’s paterfamilias, a dork prone to fits of rage and weirdness – such as when he demonstrates the proper way to milk an alpaca.

Watch Now

57) Boys State

Politics are chaotic, combative and undertaken by both true believers and amoral schemers—a state of affairs depicted in starkly microcosmic terms by Boys State. Directors Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine’s documentary follows a number of kids as they make their way through Texas’ week-long Boys State program (sponsored by the American Legion), in which hundreds of teenagers are split into two political parties (Federalists and Nationalists) and asked to create a unified platform and elect officials. The most coveted of those positions is governor, which pits progressively oriented Steven against conservative Eddy in a battle that echoes those being waged in the corridors of Washington, DC power today. Guns, abortion and immigration are the most contentious of the hot-button topics tackled by these would-be representatives, and through their campaigns, what emerges is a portrait of politics as a war defined by personalities, prejudices, fearmongering, and dirty tricks and slander. It’s an acute snapshot of the American democratic process as filtered through an alternately inspiring and horrifying Lord of the Flies lens.

Watch Now

56) The Beach House

Bio-terror comes in corrupting forms in The Beach House, whose contagion-based scares speak, subtly if severely, to our present moment. On a Cape Cod getaway, aspiring astrobiologist Emily (liana Liberato) and her going-nowhere boyfriend Randall (Noah Le Gros) wind up sharing accommodations with fiftysomething couple Jane (Maryann Nagel) and Mitch (Jake Weber), friends of Randall’s dad. Drinks and hallucinogenic edibles help alleviate the initial awkwardness of this get-together, but the good times are fleeting, thanks to a strange mist emanating from the dark, furious depths of the ocean, which contaminates the area with glowing Lovecraftian foliage and giant, slimy organisms. The normal order is quickly turned on its axis—quite literally, in one unforgettable shot—as alien forces infest, infect and annihilate. Aided by Liberato’s accomplished performance, first-time writer/director Jeffrey A. Brown stages his mayhem with assured efficiency, creating an air of impenetrable mystery through uneasy silence, compositions that devolve into cascading bubbles and a squishy foot-surgery sequence that would make body-horror maestro David Cronenberg proud.

Watch Now

55) Young Ahmed

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne gaze into the dark heart of religious fanaticism in Young Ahmed, a drama that’s all the more chilling for proffering no easy answers. By the time the filmmakers’ story begins, urban 13-year-old Ahmed (newcomer Idir Ben Addi) has already been indoctrinated by a jihad-encouraging imam (Othmane Moumen). No amount of adult counter-programming can affect the kid, and when he attacks a female teacher (Myriem Akheddiou) for her modernist Islamic teachings, he winds up in a juvenile detention center and, then, at a farm where the affections of Louise (Victoria Bluck) complicate his worldview. With a stony countenance and dark eyes that mask his interior thoughts, Ahmed is a chilling protagonist in thrall to a rigid ideology that preaches violence against all heretics. Their handheld camerawork trailing him as he embarks on his cataclysmic rise-and-fall journey, the directors’ aesthetics are as formally rigorous and evocative as ever, capturing the unyielding nature of zealotry, as well as the difficulty of loosening extremism’s terrible grip on individuals’ hearts and minds.

Watch Now

54) Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Acting doesn’t come much bolder and more blistering than in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, George C. Wolfe’s adaptation of August Wilson’s 1982 play about a 1927 Chicago recording session by real-life blues legend Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) and her backing band, comprised of trombonist Cutler (Colman Domingo), bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts), pianist Toledo (Glynn Turner) and trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman). Courtesy of Ma’s demanding diva imperiousness and Levee’s cock-of-the-walk arrogance, the session becomes a powder keg whose fuses are related to African-American oppression, ambition and music-industry exploitation. Wolfe keeps the material spry and sensual (as well as explosive) by keeping his roving camera trained on his stars, who swing for the fences with ferocious gusto. Davis has rarely been better as the take-no-shit Ma, staring down anyone who might question her authority – including her manager (Jeremy Shamos) and the studio’s owner (Jonny Coyne) – with a glare that would fell an angel. In his final screen performance, Boseman matches his co-headliner’s intensity, his Levee so full of vibrant, self-destructive fury, desire and life that it’s a tragedy the performance stands as the late actor’s swan song.

Watch Now

53) Apocalypse '45

A companion piece to last year’s excellent The Cold Blue, Erik Nelson’s Apocalypse ’45 imparts a striking sense of WWII chaos and carnage via newly unearthed and restored material shot during America’s campaign against the Japanese in the Pacific theater. The vivid footage that comprises the entirety of Nelson’s non-fiction portrait is downright stunning, be it of soldiers crouched behind sandy dunes upon arriving at Iwo Jima, or aerial dogfights that are depicted via the POV of fighter planes’ gun turrets. Those jaw-dropping sights alone make Nelson’s latest a must-see. Yet greatly enhancing its trip back in time are the many recollections from WWII vets—including marine Hershel “Woody” Williams, who earned the Medal of Honor for singlehandedly taking out a series of enemy pillboxes with his flamethrower—whose commentary about their wartime duty serves as the film’s guiding narration. Thrillingly grand and revealingly intimate, it paints a timely portrait of the heroism, and sacrifices, required to uphold democracy.

52) Mank

Less a definitive answer to the question “Who deserves credit for Citizen Kane?” than a fictional drama about Herman J. Mankiewicz’s struggle to complete his most famous screenplay in a Hollywood torn between art and commerce, David Fincher’s Mank is a poison pen letter to the golden-age era that it channels with every one of its gorgeous chiaroscuro images, Bernard Herrmann -esque soundtrack notes, and artificial reel-change cigarette burns. Taking the form of a black-and-white film from the 1940s, Fincher’s inside-baseball character study scrutinizes the marriage of movies and politics, and the push-pull between self-destruction and creativity, through the lens of Mank (Gary Oldman), whose story flip-flops between his time in a ranch house writing Orson Welles’ (Tom Burke) masterpiece and his prior relationships with William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) – the inspiration for Kane – and the mogul’s mistress, actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). Oldman is magnetic as the dissolute scribe, and Seyfried is even better as the not-as-dumb-as-you-think blonde starlet. Still, in an ironic twist, the real draw of this tribute to writers is Fincher’s remarkable directorial artistry.

Watch Now

51) Driveways

Driveways isn’t simply one of the late Brian Dennehy’s final performances—it’s also one of his finest. In Andre Ahn’s touching indie, Dennehy is Korean War vet Del, who comes to befriend socially awkward young Cody (Lucas Jaye) after the boy and his mother Kathy (Hong Chau) take up temporary residence next door, cleaning out the pigsty that used to belong to Kathy’s deceased sister. All three of these characters are suffering in their own distinct ways, due to a combination of loss, loneliness and fear, and Ahn (working from Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen’s precise script) intertwines their plights with few contrivances and a potent measure of empathy, especially once Del and Cody begin developing an unexpected bond. Be it Kathy going through her sister’s things and cleaning a bathtub soiled by a cat’s corpse, or Del caring for his VFW pal Roger (Jerry Adler), who’s slowly losing his mind, the specter of death—and the memories summoned up by the end of the road—looms large over the proceedings, culminating in a shattering Dennehy speech of irreparable sorrow.

Watch Now

50) Shirley

Despair, desire, and madness are all entangled in Josephine Decker’s Shirley, about the late horror writer Shirley Jackson’s (Elisabeth Moss) attempt to pen her sophomore novel Hangsaman while dealing with her unfaithful critic/professor husband Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) as well as two boarders, aspiring academic Fred (Logan Lerman) and his pregnant wife Rose (Odessa Young). The director’s follow-up to Madeline’s Madeline is a psychosexual affair about lost women driven crazy by callous, self-serving men, and their resultant fears and needs. As with her acclaimed debut, Decker’s latest recounts its action through expressionistic visuals—smeary, off-center compositions; intense close-ups; dreamy interludes in which fantasy and reality blend together—and a score of jangly, strident strings, rumbling bass and thunderstorm crashes. As the famed author behind The Lottery and The Haunting of Hill House, Moss radiates ferocity and instability, and she’s matched by Stuhlbarg as the creepy, codependent Hyman. It’s Young, however, who holds the hothouse material together as the self-actualizing Rose, whose journey mirrors that of the missing girl Jackson is writing about, and who serves as the beating heart of this slyly furious film.

Watch Now

49) Emma
Headpiece, Lip, Hair accessory, Headgear, Gesture, Fashion accessory, Style,
Amazon

“Handsome, clever and rich” is how Emma’s tagline describes its matchmaking heroine (Anya Taylor-Joy), but it’s also an apt summation of director Autumn de Wilde’s Jane Austen adaptation, which is energized by meticulous style, spirited wit and passionate emotions. Hewing closely to its source material, the film charts Emma Woodhouse’s efforts to find a suitor for her doting companion Harriet Smith (Mia Goth) while struggling with her own blossoming feelings for her sister’s brother-in-law, George Knightley (Johnny Flynn). Round and round the romantic entanglements go, not only for these three characters but a host of others that de Wilde and screenwriter Eleanor Catton faithfully delineate in clean, bright brushstrokes. Its studied imagery suggesting a daintier variation on Wes Anderson’s trademark visuals, Emma boasts an aesthetic confidence that’s matched by its performers. At the head of that impressive pack (which also includes Bill Nighy) is Taylor-Joy, whose Emma exudes just the right amount of playful cockiness and ambition – qualities ultimately undercut by her realization that no amount of manipulations can change what the heart wants.

Watch Now

48) The Way Back
Facial hair, Event, Beard, White-collar worker, Businessperson,
.

Gavin O’Conner (Miracle, Warrior) is modern cinema’s preeminent sports-drama director, a status he maintains with The Way Back, a conventional but deeply felt story about addiction, anger and the rough road of rehabilitation. Reuniting O’Conner with his The Accountant star, the film concerns Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck), a former high-school basketball phenom who, in the wake of multiple familial losses, gets through his construction-work days and wayward nights with a perpetual drink in hand. By means of a job coaching his Catholic alma matter’s struggling team, Jack is blessed with a shot at salvation, turning around the fortunes of his players and, by extension, his own life. Subdued and melancholy, Jack’s journey is a familiar one, and yet O’Conner and Affleck – the latter turning in an expertly modulated, interior turn – shrewdly locate their protagonist’s alcoholism as the self-destructive byproduct of regret, resentment, fury and hopelessness. Also generating pathos from agonized father-son traumas, it’s a male weepy that, courtesy of its well-calibrated empathy, earns its melodramatic tears.

Watch Now

47) Father Solider Son

Brian Eisch’s overseas tours of duty took an immense toll on his two young sons, Isaac and Joey, and his return home from the battlefield with a catastrophic leg injury only compounded their unique family dynamic. Father Soldier Son spends ten years with the Eisch clan as they struggle to overcome various hardships wrought by military service, as the now-disabled Brian grapples with depression and loss of identity, and his boys come to grips with a new, strained reality that permanently alters their emotional and psychological outlook on their own situations, and plans for the future. Catrin Einhorn and Leslye Davis’ intimate direction captures this family’s saga through ups (Brian’s new marriage) and downs (an unthinkable loss), in the process conveying how our dispositions and adult paths are inherently shaped by our parents (and the values they teach) as well as by the calamitous incidents that detonate our sense of stability. In this empathetic portrait of the scars of war, there are profound truths about grief, survival, and the ingrained patterns of our lives.

Watch Now

46) Beanpole
People, Human, Sitting, Photography,
Non-Stop Production

Dramas don’t come much bleaker than Beanpole, director Kantemir Balagov’s wrenching story about the damage caused by war, and the exceedingly high cost of survival. In a 1945 Leningrad still recovering from the end of WWII, lanky Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), aka “Beanpole,” works as a nurse even though her military service has left her with a condition in which she becomes temporarily frozen. Iya cares for Pashka (Timofey Glazkov), the young son of her frontlines friend Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), and when Masha appears to reclaim her child – only to learn of an unthinkable tragedy – their relationship buckles under the weight of grief, guilt, regret, resentment and need. Cruel blackmail soon proves to be Masha’s means of coping with loss, but healing is in short supply in this ravaged milieu. Shot in alternately tremulous and composed handheld, director Balagov’s long takes place a premium on close-ups, the better to convey the dizzying anguish of his subjects, who are as decimated as their environment. Overpoweringly desolate and moving, it’s a vision of paralyzing individual, and national, PTSD – and, ultimately, of women banding together to forge a new future.

Watch Now

45) Mangrove

One of five features included in 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” compilation, Mangrove dramatizes the real-life story of the Mangrove Nine, a group of Black British West Indians from Notting Hill who were charged with inciting a riot after they marched in protest against police harassment and brutality – all of it centered around Frank Crichlow’s (Shaun Parkes) The Mangrove restaurant. As with Lover’s Rock (another entry in the filmmaker’s quintet), McQueen imparts a genuine sense of his immigrant milieu. At the same time, he reveals the ways in which the white status quo – embodied by villainous PC Pulley (Sam Spruell) – sought to destroy it. At its midway point, McQueen’s film becomes a straightforward courtroom drama about the fight against prejudice and for justice. No matter its conventionality, however, Parkes’ heartfelt performance as Crichlow, a man who wanted to realize a dream and came to understand that he’d created a vital hub for his community, is so enraged and aggrieved that, alongside Letitia Wright’s turn as Altheia Jones, it invigorates this legal affair.

Watch Now

44) Capone

Tom Hardy’s gift for hulking intensity and charismatic growling are in full effect in Capone, a fictionalized account of the last year in the life of the legendary American gangster. Trapped in a palatial Florida estate, his mind deteriorating thanks to neurosyphilitic dementia, Al Capone (Hardy) rants, raves, soils himself and freaks out over hallucinatory visions of people, and events, from his past. Writer/director Josh Trank’s film is a subjective affair told largely from Capone’s POV, so that nothing can be trusted and yet everything speaks, symbolically, to the man’s deep-seated ambitions, fears and misgivings. It’s a headfirst dive into delusion, told with free-flowing suspense and absurd comedy, all of which comes to the fore during a late scene in which Capone opens fire on his friends and family with a giant golden tommy gun while wearing a diaper and chomping on a cigar-like carrot. Part Cowardly Lion, part Bugs Bunny, and altogether ferocious even as his sanity frays, Hardy’s Capone is yet another triumph for the star, who ultimately captures his protagonist less through imposing physicality than via his dark, glassy, lost eyes.

Watch Now

43) Ammonite

Ammonite takes a few dramatic liberties in painting a picture of the affair between real-life self-taught paleontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) and younger married Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan). Nonetheless, writer/director Francis Lee’s film follows in the grand tradition of The Age of Innocence in recounting its protagonists’ flowering relationship, which is complicated by not only the women’s different dispositions and situations, but by a society that prevents them from expressing their amour. Drawn to the gray, crashing-waves shores of her Lyme Regis hometown, Mary is a dour intellectual loner whose life is altered by her unlikely connection with Charlotte, a young beauty left in her care by the woman’s husband (James McArdle). There’s not much mystery to this tale of forbidden desire, but considerable restraint and subtlety, as Lee exquisitely conveys Mary and Charlotte’s emotional states through shrewd, textured compositions of Mary’s spartan home (which she shares with her mother) and oceanic workplace. It’s Winslet, though, who carries the day, exuding so much repressed longing that she – and the film – practically explode during those rare moments of romantic release.

Watch Now

42) Crip Camp
Adaptation, Family, Photo caption,
Netflix

Historical changes often have humble beginnings, as was the case with the American Disabilities Act (ADA), whose origin is Camp Jened, a 1970s summer getaway for disabled men and women in New York’s Catskill mountains. James LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham’s documentary is the story of that quietly revolutionary locale, where disrespected and marginalized handicapped kids were finally given an opportunity to simply be themselves, free from the judgement of those not like them. What it instilled in them was a sense of self-worth, as well as indignation at the lesser-than treatment they received from society. Led by the heroic Judy Heumann and many of her fellow Jened alums, a civil rights movement was born, resulting in the famous San Francisco sit-in to compel U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Wellness Joseph Califano to sign Section 504 of 1973’s Rehabilitation Act, and later, the ADA. Intermingling copious footage of Camp Jened and the movement it produced with heartfelt interviews with some of its tale’s prime players, Crip Camp is a moving example of people fighting tooth-and-nail for the equality and respect they deserve – and, in the process, transforming the world.

Watch Now

41) Welcome to Chechnya

Deepfake technology gets a stunning workout in Welcome to Chechnya, as documentarian David France uses the face-transforming device to mask the identities of his subjects: a group of LGBTQ+ activists intent on smuggling gay men and women out of their native Chechnya before the government can kidnap, torture and murder them. That the Russian-controlled state is on a genocidal mission to “cleanse the blood” of the nation by exterminating its homosexual population is a terrifying reality brought to light by France, who details the efforts of these brave souls to use subterfuge to sneak at-risk individuals to safer European enclaves. At the center of his tale is Maxim Lapunov, whose release from a Chechnyan torture chamber—and resultant knowledge of the government’s monstrous activities—turns him into the state’s Enemy Number One. Lapunov’s courageous desire to legally strike back at the system is one of many threads exposing the fascistic new Final Solution being perpetrated by Putin-backed Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. A cry for help and a call to arms, it’s nothing short of straight-up horrifying.

Watch Now

40) To the Ends of the Earth

Kiyoshi Kurosawa conjures an atmosphere of humorous dislocation and acute fear with To the Ends of the Earth, the story of a travel TV show host named Yoko (Atsuko Maeda) who’s on assignment with her all-male crew in Uzbekistan. An opening scene in which Yoko fails to catch a mythical big fish in Aydar Lake – and then has her femininity blamed for this letdown – serves as a gentle metaphor for her ensuing search for purpose, freedom and confidence to face a strange world that seems intent on menacing her, be it police officers whose questions and demands she doesn’t understand, or an amusement park ride that spins her into near oblivion. Kurosawa repeatedly frames Yoko amidst enormous, enveloping crowds, the better to suggest her feelings of isolation and confusion. Those sequences, as well as a disaster-wracked finale, also capture her gnawing anxiety about finding her way – an issue that also pertains to her dream of becoming a singer, which manifests itself in two separate fantasy sequences that prove highlights of Kurosawa’s idiosyncratic latest.

39) The Invisible Man
Beauty, Darkness, Photography, Flash photography, Fun, Sitting, Night,
Mark Rogers/Universal/Kobal/Shutterstock

Gaslighting gets downright monstrous in The Invisible Man, a 21st-century take on Universal’s classic unseen specter. Helmed with playful menace by Leigh Whannell, whose camerawork and compositions constantly tease subtle action in the corners of the frame, this slick genre effort finds Elisabeth Moss trying to convince anyone who’ll listen that she’s not crazy, and really is being hunted by her supposedly dead abusive boyfriend. Since said predator isn’t visible to the human eye, however, that’s not an easy task. Hot-button issues emerge naturally out of this basic premise, thereby letting Whannell sidestep overt preaching in favor of orchestrating a series of finely tuned set pieces in which lethal danger might materialize at any moment, from any direction. Avoiding unnecessary diversions or italicized politics, the filmmaker streamlines his tale into a ferocious game of cat-and-mouse, with Moss commanding the spotlight as a woman tormented both physically and psychologically, and determined to fight back against her misogynistic victimization.

Watch Now

38) Relic

No matter that her characters are plagued by malevolent supernatural forces, Natalie Erika James’ directorial debut is a thriller with grimly realistic business on its mind. Called back to their rural Australian childhood home after matriarch Edna (Roby Nevin) goes temporarily missing, Kay (Emily Mortimer) and daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) discover that the past refuses to remain dormant. The specter of death is everywhere in this rustic residence, whose cluttered boxes and myriad artifacts are reflections of its owner’s mind, and whose creepy wall rot is echoed on Edna’s aged body. Edna’s vacant stares and strange behavior are the catalyst for a story that derives considerable suspense from unnerving set pieces and, more pointed still, the question of whether everything taking place is the result of unholy entities or the elderly woman’s physical and mental deterioration. That balance is key to Relic’s terror as well as its heart, both of which peak during a claustrophobic finale set inside a literal and figurative maze, and a coda that suggests that there’s nothing scarier, or kinder, than sticking with loved ones until the end.

Watch Now

37) Aviva

Aviva tackles the multifaceted nature of gender identity in fittingly diverse fashion, depicting the highs and lows of a couple’s relationship via narrative and modern-dance means – as well as by having both a man and a woman play each of its protagonists, male Eden (Bobbi Jene Smith, Tyler Phillips) and female Aviva (Zina Zinchenko, Or Schraiber). That Buñuelian device speaks to the masculine and feminine sides of both characters, whose ups and downs together and apart form the basis of Boaz Yakin’s (Remember the Titans) unconventional semi-autobiographical tale. From email pen pals, to husband and wife, to estranged exes, Eden and Aviva’s love story is told from both external and interior vantage points. The writer/director employs narration, shifts in perspective, flashbacks, and wild dramatic scenes—both male and female Edens and Avivas sometimes share the screen, partying, arguing or having passionate sex—to provide an intimate sense of the desires and fears propelling these conjoined figures forward. Yakin’s sinuous, passionate indie is as entrancing as it is daring.

Watch Now

36) Tesla

Disaffection and sorrow hover over Tesla, Michael Almereyda’s daringly unconventional film about the famed nineteenth-century inventor. An immigrant who rivaled Thomas Eddison (Kyle MacLachlan) and partnered with George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan), JP Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz), and Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan), Almereyda’s Tesla (Ethan Hawke) is a stoic genius with determination in his eyes and sadness at the corners of his mouth. Driven to first prove the viability of alternate-current electricity, and then to create a revolutionary wireless energy system that will connect humanity – bringing light, power and resources to the dark corners of the globe – Tesla is an alienated soul embodied with mysterious, self-destructive passion by a superb Hawke. Guided by narration from JP Morgan’s daughter Anne (Eve Hewson), Tesla’s tale is recounted as a fragmentary collage full of scenes set to painted backdrops and peppered with anachronistic touches (a vacuum cleaner here, an iPhone there) that speak to the lasting legacy of his revolutionary toil. Less an attempt at a cohesive life story than an act of experimental expressionistic portraiture, it’s an audacious drama that energizes the staid biopic genre.

Watch Now

35) The Father

Florian Zeller’s The Father conveys the terror, fury and anguish of dementia from the inside-out, assuming the unreliable and fragmented perspective of its protagonist, Anthony (Anthony Hopkins), until the boundaries between reality and delusion are as bewildering to us as to him. Adapting his own stage play with puzzle-box formal rigorousness, Zeller situates his action in Anthony’s flat, where he’s visited by a collection of individuals whose identities – and circumstances – seem to change on a whim, be it his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman), a woman who might also be Anne (Olivia Williams), two men who are apparently Anne’s husband (Mark Gatiss and Rufus Sewell), and a new nursing aid (Imogen Poots) who closely resembles Anthony’s younger (and possibly dead?) daughter. A swirling psychodrama about loss of reality – and thus, self – the film is wrenching precisely because it doesn’t unduly pull on the heartstrings; rather, Zeller respectfully evokes the grand and subtle horrors of this all-too-common nightmare, with Hopkins embodying Anthony with pitiable mystification, malice and dread.

34) Sound of Metal

Roaring blast-beat assaults give way to eerie silence for Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a punk-metal drummer whose hearing disappears suddenly, and terrifyingly, in writer/director Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal. Faced with this unexpected and debilitating turn of events, Ahmed’s Ruben is forced by his bandmate/partner Lou (Olivia Cooke) to leave their tour and park his Airstream trailer at a home for the deaf run by generous but stern Joe (Paul Raci). Accepting fate, letting go of the past, and defining a new identity are all processes that require help from others, and thus prove deeply painful for Ruben, whose tattooed torso and bleach-blonde hair speak to his gung-ho go-it-alone spirit. Ruben is a recovering junkie whose quest to regain his auditory senses is its own form of addiction, and Ahmed embodies him with equal parts ferociousness and anguish. Marder evokes Ruben’s condition through an expertly calibrated soundscape that vacillates between harmonious, crystal-clear atmospherics and the low, scary dullness that now besets Ruben. Sharply incorporating closed-captioning into its storytelling, it’s a quiet-LOUD-quiet portrait of finding peace in the present stillness.

Watch Now

33) Da 5 Bloods

Spike Lee goes for broke with Da 5 Bloods, tackling historic and modern racism, oppression, guilt, greed and brotherhood through the story of four Vietnam Vets (played by Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Norm Lewis) who, along with the son of Lindo’s character (Jonathan Majors), return to Southeast Asia to both recover the remains of their fallen comrade Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman) and to find the gold they buried years ago. Lee holds nothing back in recounting this sprawling tale, employing different aspect ratios and film stocks, plentiful Marvin Gaye tunes, flashbacks, shout-outs to Black Lives Matter, denunciations of President Trump, and references to notable (but largely forgotten) African-American trailblazers. Throw in nods to Apocalypse Now, The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and you have an epic that’s bursting at the seams, occasionally to its overstuffed detriment. Nonetheless, Lee’s action-movie investigation of internal, domestic and global racial dynamics—and defiance—thrums with timely anguish and fury, and is bolstered by an Oscar-worthy turn from Lindo as a MAGA-supporting man drowning in chaotic rage.

Watch Now

32) Koko-di Koko-da

Grief is a monster that you can neither fight nor flee in Swedish director Johannes Nyholm’s Koko-di Koko-da, a surreal nightmare about a married couple (Leif Edlund and Yiva Gallon) that, in the aftermath of their daughter’s unexpected demise, goes on a camping trip in the woods. There, the husband and wife are preyed upon by a creepy trio—bowler hat-wearing dandy Mog (Peter Belli), unkempt Cherry (Brandy Litmanen) and giant Sampo (Morad Baloo Khatchadorian)—in an endless Groundhog Day-style time loop that always concludes with their deaths. The murderous threesome seems to have leapt to life from a painted music box coveted by the couple’s child, thereby casting the proceedings as a symbolic portrait of heartache as a never-ending predator intent on destruction. Marrying the handheld-centric realism of the Dardennes with the unnerving dreaminess of David Lynch, director Nyholm blurs the boundary between fantasy and reality until it vanishes altogether, with the nursery rhyme of the title (sung by Mog) and animated shadow-play sequences both contributing to a wicked storybook atmosphere.

Watch Now

31) Rewind

Autobiographical tales of trauma don’t come much more wrenching than Rewind, director Sasha Neulinger’s non-fiction investigation into his painful childhood. A bright and playful kid, Neulinger soon morphed into a person his parents didn’t recognize – a change, they soon learned, that was brought about by the constant sexual abuse he (and his younger sister Bekah) was suffering at the hands of his cousin and two uncles, one of whom was a famed New York City temple cantor. Its formal structure intrinsically wedded to its shocking story, Neulinger’s film reveals its monstrous particulars in a gradual bits-and-pieces manner that echoes his own childhood process of articulating his experiences to others. Not just a portrait of Neulinger’s internalized misery, it’s also a case study of how sexual misconduct is a crime passed on from generation to generation, a fact borne out by further revelations about his father’s upbringing alongside his assaultive brothers. Most of all, though, it’s a saga about perseverance and bravery, two qualities that Neulinger – then, and now – exhibits in spades.

Watch Now

30) Tommaso

Willem Dafoe gives a raw, unvarnished performance as a proxy for Abel Ferrara in the writer/director’s Tommaso, the story of an American filmmaker named Tommaso now residing in Rome with his young wife and child. Guided by a loose, jazzy, improvisatory spirit, Ferrara’s quasi-autobiographical drama charts its protagonist as he works on a new project, teaches acting classes, attends AA meetings, and spars with his 29-year-old bride Nikki (Cristina Chiriac), whose father issues are at the root of her marriage to a much older man, just as Tommaso’s desire to remain a vital presence in daughter Deedee’s (Anna Ferrara) life stems from his own prior parental failures with his adopted children. Enlivened by an intoxicating feel for Rome’s nocturnal streets, periodically segueing into fantasy sequences, and vacillating on a dime between laid-back romanticism and anxious volatility, the film refracts its maker’s highly personal hang-ups through an intense and immediate lens. At the center of this guilt- and fury-driven tale, a magnificent Dafoe exudes inner torment and a yearning for salvation, as well as a self-loathing that feels destined to land him on a cross.

Watch Now

29) His House

Sudanese refugees Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) successfully make it to England, only to discover that they’ve been followed by relentless ghosts, in His House, a complex horrorshow of guilt, grief and regret. Forced to flee their native land by inter-tribal warfare, and then compelled to assimilate in a foreign environment where locals glare at them with suspicion and revulsion, the couple prove figuratively homeless no matter which way they turn. Worse, they’re plagued by specters that live in the walls of their ramshackle new government-issued abode, promising to return the daughter they lost during their treacherous overseas journey if only they’ll make a sacrifice in blood. Weeks’ scares are assured, and all the better for being intertwined with his protagonists’ complicated refugee circumstances, with Bol eager to fit in and Rial increasingly resentful about her rootless condition. Bolstered by Dirisu and Mosaku’s heartfelt turns as lost souls desperate for forgiveness and peace, it’s a film whose haunting, dreamlike terror proves an expression of lingering trauma.

Watch Now

28) The Dark and the Wicked

Home is where the Devil is in The Dark and the Wicked, as siblings Louise (Marin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbot Jr.) discover upon returning to their parents’ rural farm to tend to their ailing bed-ridden father (Michael Zagst) and distraught mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone). Writer/director Bryan Bertino once again takes a simple premise and maximizes it for unbearable tension, drawing out white-knuckle suspense from Louise and Michael’s efforts to grapple with tragedy (and impending loss) while simultaneously reckoning with unholy forces beyond their comprehension or control. There’s no filmmaker working today more adept at generating scares via the sudden appearance of shadowy background figures, or at prolonging sequences to their nerve-wracking breaking point. Cast in funereal grays and blacks, and aided by lead performances that do much with minimal gestures, it’s a nightmare – about the fleeting nature of life, the finality of death, and the unspeakable evil that lurks in the shadows – that’s soaked to the rotten bone with misery and terror.

Watch Now

27) Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

Fourteen years after becoming a household name, Sacha Baron Cohen’s Khazakstani reporter Borat Sagdiyev returns to mock racist, misogynistic, anti-Semitic Americans in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, the rare comedy sequel to equal the side-splitting hilarity of its predecessor. Ordered to restore his homeland’s reputation (which he ruined with the first film) by gifting a famed monkey to Vice President Mike Pence, Borat winds up accompanied by his stowaway 15-year-old daughter Tutar (Maria Bakalova) on another cross-country odyssey that entails making pit-stops at stores, debutante balls and white nationalist rallies (where he leads sing-alongs that reveal the hatred of those in attendance). Courtesy of a phenomenal Cohen and Bakalova, Borat and Tutar’s sour-to-sweet relationship provides a sturdy backbone for a series of politicized hidden-camera gags in which the foreigners’ unacceptable behavior coaxes real people to expose themselves as bigots and sexists. Utilizing a variety of disguises to mask his (fictional) identity – because everyone, by now, recognizes him on-sight – Borat reaffirms his status as cinema’s clown prince of pranksterism, culminating with a Rudy Giuliani interview that has to be seen to be believed.

Watch Now

26) The Painter and the Thief

Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova responded to the theft of two prized paintings by befriending Karl-Bertil Nordland, the drugged-out gangster behind the crime. Benjamin Ree’s intriguing The Painter and the Thief tells the tale of their unlikely relationship from both of their perspectives, charting its ups and downs with formal astuteness and inviting intimacy. Beginning with Kysilkova’s decision to paint Nordland’s portrait (peaking with one of the year’s most stunning scenes), their bond is forged by underlying similarities: traumatic and abusive pasts, as well as their habit of risking their lives for their addictions – in his case, drugs; in hers, painting. Ree reveals such connections through subtle juxtapositions that emerge naturally from his subjects’ day-to-day travails, which eventually involve financial hardships and a near-fatal car crash for Nordland. In private moments alone and between the two, the director illustrates how the act of seeing each other – truly, and without prejudice – is key to their shared affection, thereby turning his documentary into a tribute to the transformative power of empathy.

Watch Now

25) The Wolf House

A descendant of Jan Švankmajer and the Brothers Quay, Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña’s The Wolf House is a mesmerizing stop-motion storybook fable about a young girl named Maria who flees her Chilean-situated German colony (based on the notorious real-life Colonia Dignidad, formed by ex-Nazis) and, to protect herself from a predatory wolf, takes refuge in a house in the woods. That domicile is in a constant state of transmutation, as is Maria and the two pigs she finds inside, which she transforms into her de facto children. Maternal love is both a blessing and a curse in this ever-metamorphosizing enclave, and León and Cociña’s stunning imagery—combining hand-drawn, painterly, clay- and paper-mache-based animation—is a swirling wonder. Marked by endlessly rotating, fluid hallucinations of birth and decay, it’s a symbolism-rich fantasia that marries the personal and the political in ways that veer from the sweet to the sinister. There’s gnarly, unnerving texture to everything in this unhinged film, which fragments and reforms like a nightmare born from the darkest recesses of the mind.

Watch Now

24) The Cordillera of Dreams

The mythic quality of the Cordillera – the towering eastern stretch of the Andes mountains that serves as both a protective and isolating barrier for the city of Santiago – is harmonized with the grand, destructive illusions of Chile’s Pinochet regime in The Cordillera of Dreams, documentarian Patricio Guzmán’s personal rumination on his homeland’s tumultuous history, and his relationship to it. From vast sights of the snow-capped Andes, to grainy on-the-street video footage of Pinochet tyranny, to introspective interviews with fellow artists, Guzmán’s film (the third entry in a trilogy that also includes Nostalgia for the Light and The Pearl Button) examines the catastrophic upheaval of 1973’s coup d’état, and the lingering scars it left on him and the country’s citizens. In vistas of the ancient and immovable Cordillera, close-ups of cracks lining the hardscrabble soil, and gazes into labyrinth-like patterns found on junkyard car doors, Guzmán (who also serves as narrator) evokes a poetic sense of imposing mysteries and unrepairable fissures, which spread through him – and economically unbalanced Chilean culture – like the solemn valleys that course between the Andes’ peaks.

Watch Now

23) Bacurau
People, Social group, Youth, Event, Fun, Leisure, Tourism, Crowd,
Vitrine Filmes

In the fictional northeast Brazilian town of Bacurau, residents are puzzled to discover that their home has disappeared from all GPS maps, and their cell service has ceased. Stranger still is the 1950s-style UFO zooming around the sky – perhaps a hallucination invoked by the psychotropic drugs the townsfolk have ingested? Or is it a tool of other sinister forces preparing to strike? Teaming with his former production designer Juliano Dornelles, director Kleber Mendonça Filho (Neighboring Sounds, Aquarius) delivers an allegory of zonked-out weirdness with Bacurau, which quickly has locals engaging in a do-or-die battle with a pair of interloping São Paulo bikers and a group of murderous Western tourists (led by a hilariously peculiar Udo Kier) who’ve traveled to South America to partake in a variation of The Most Dangerous Game. Stylistically indebted to both the Westerns of Sergio Leone and the thrillers of John Carpenter, and yet imbued with an out-there spirit all its own, Filho and Dornelles’ film takes a gonzo scalpel to geopolitical dynamics.

Watch Now

22) Let Them All Talk

Steven Soderbergh shoots movies like no one else, and his warm, silky direction is central to Let Them All Talk’s mirthful and prickly charm. In the hope of rekindling old relationships, acclaimed author Alice Hughes (Meryl Streep) invites her college friends Roberta (Candice Bergen) and Susan (Dianne Wiest) on a Queen Mary 2 cruise to England to receive a literary prize. Alice and Roberta’s bond is particularly fractured thanks to the latter’s suspicion that her real-life ordeals were exploited by the former for her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The tension between them, however, is only one facet of this semi-improvised drama, which also features a clandestine accord struck by Alice’s beloved nephew Tyler (Lucas Hedges) and her new agent Karen (Gemma Chan), both of whom are on the ship, the latter covertly. Secrets, lies and communication breakdowns are all part of this amusingly heartfelt package, which – elevated by expert performances from its cast (in particular, the seething Bergen and affable Hedges) – suggests that in life, as in art, forging dialogues with ourselves, each other and the past is akin to a miracle.

Watch Now

21) Gretel & Hansel
Poster, Movie, Fiction, Darkness, Digital compositing, Adaptation, Screenshot, Heat, Photo caption, Fictional character,
Orion Pictures

Oz Perkins is a horror lyricist fixated on grief and female agency, and both factor heavily into his atmospheric reimagining of the classic fairy tale. In a countryside beset by an unknown plague, teenage Gretel (It’s Sophia Lillis) refuses to work as an old creepy man’s housekeeper, and is thus thrown out by her mother, forced to take her young brother Hansel (Sam Leakey) on a journey through the dark woods to a convent she has no interest in joining. Beset by hunger, the two come upon the home of a witch (Alice Krige), whose feasts are as mouth-watering as her magic lessons for Gretel are simultaneously empowering and unnerving. Perkins sticks relatively closely to his source material’s narrative while nonetheless reshaping it into a story about feminine might and autonomy, and the potential cost of acquiring both. Drenched in ageless, evil imagery (full of triangular pagan symbols, pointy-hatted silhouettes, and nocturnal mist), and boasting a trippiness that becomes hilariously literal at one point, Gretel & Hansel casts a spell that feels at once ancient and new.

Watch Now

20) Tenet

Tenet may be the ultimate Christopher Nolan movie, distilling the director’s aesthetic style, storytelling conventions and thematic preoccupations down to their abstract essence. Good luck making coherent heads or tails of the film’s convoluted story about a CIA agent known only as the Protagonist (John David Washington) who teams with a shadowy colleague (Robert Pattinson) to discover the origins of bullets that, thanks to entropic “inversion,” can travel back in time. His mission leads him to a Russian arms dealer (Kenneth Branagh) and his unhappy wife (Elizabeth Debicki), although the narrative twists and turns of this would-be blockbuster – made even harder to follow by a sound mix that turns some dialogue unintelligible – are secondary to the flair of its set pieces, full of reverse bungie-jumping and skirmishes, shootouts and car chases that run simultaneously backwards and forwards. Staged on a massive scale, overflowing with nattily dressed heroes and villains, and set to an unnervingly blaring electronica score by Ludwig Göransson, it’s a temporally wonky spectacular to be experienced rather than lucidly understood.

Watch Now

19) Gunda

As intimate and up-close-and-personal as non-fiction cinema gets, Victor Kossakovsky’s Gunda documents the life of a mother pig and her newborn brood on a farm. Beginning with those infants’ births, the film—from a startlingly close proximity that exudes tenderness and empathy—captures animal life in all its drudgery and beauty, full of struggle, nurturing, conflict, exploration and abandonment. Also fixing its gaze on a one-legged chicken cautiously trudging through tall grass, and a herd of cows whose dark, mysterious eyes gaze intently at the camera, Kossakovsky’s dialogue-free portrait conveys essential truths about survival, togetherness and love through protracted takes that creep around and alongside its four-legged subjects. The director’s striking black-and-white imagery invites investigation and rumination about these familiar creatures, whose experiences and motivations are at once uniquely beastly and poignantly relatable, the latter of which comes to the fore in a finale of confused anguish and desperation. You’ll never look at sows quite the same way again.

18) Sorry We Missed You
Social group, People, Photograph, Standing, Snapshot, Fun, Jeans, Photography, Temple, Family,
Zeitgeist Films

The modern gig economy receives a thorough thrashing by Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You, another sober class-conscious drama from the celebrated British director. Faced with limited professional options, Ricky (Kris Hitchen) gets a job as a delivery driver for a company that doesn’t technically hire him; rather, he’s “self-employed,” meaning the onus for everything falls on his shoulders. That proves to be an arduous state of affairs given that his wife Abbie (Debbie Honeywood) is a home care nurse who works long hours (also for “herself”), and their son Seb (Rhys Stone) is a school-skipping, graffiti-spraying teen who – having seen the incessant, back-breaking toil and anxiety that comes from his parents’ chosen paths – has opted instead for delinquency. As hardships mount, Loach incisively details the major and minor ways in which this contractor-oriented paradigm is fundamentally rigged against workers. His despairing condemnation is all the more wrenching for coming via a deeply empathetic portrayal of an everyday clan buckling under the strain of unjust forces out of their control.

17) Another Round

There may be no more joyous 2020 cinematic scene than the closer of Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round, a sloshed dramedy about four Copenhagen teachers’ attempts to reinvigorate their moribund lives by testing psychiatrist Finn Skårderud’s theory that humans’ optimal blood alcohol content level is .5%. Led by Martin (Mads Mikkelsen), whose indifference in the classroom is matched by his apathy at home with his wife (Maria Bonnevie) and two kids, the quartet begins imbibing during working hours, only to discover—voila!—that being a bit buzzed has transformative effects on their teaching, relationships, and disposition. Sneaking swigs of booze, of course, has a predictable downside, and Vinterberg’s film (co-written by Tobias Lindholm) charts his protagonists’ revitalizing high and inevitable crash with compassionate attention to the malaise of middle age and the temporary bliss that comes from getting good and blitzed. It’s a muted and moving snapshot of men searching for a second wind in reckless fashion, and as Martin, Mikkelsen delivers one of the finest performances of his career, veering between numbness, regret, doubt and—in that astounding climax—liberating release.

16) The Vast of Night

Andrew Patterson’s The Vast of Night is a marriage of the old and the new, blending effects-aided cinematic showmanship to old-school radio drama. In the director’s sterling feature debut (written by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger, and framed as an episode of a Twilight Zone-ish show called “Paradox Theater”), two 1950s high schoolers – confident radio DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz) and telephone operator Faye (Sierra McCormick) – stumble upon a strange signal that, they come to suspect, originates from the stars looming above their small-town-USA home. Like Orson Welles’ classic 1938 The War of the Worlds broadcast, the film is a tale of potential invasion that plays out over radio waves, and Patterson thus naturally focuses on intently listening faces, and the spoken words that captivate them, as a means of generating anticipation, mystery and suspense. At the same time, his centerpiece sequences are models of formal precision and depth, as protracted shots across sprawling fields, through crowded gymnasiums, and in and out of cramped buildings create pulse-pounding tension while simultaneously conveying the propulsive flow and binding, interconnected nature of narrative storytelling itself.

Watch Now

15) Possessor

David Cronenberg’s writer/director son Brandon proves himself a chip off the old body-horror block with Possessor, a twisted sci-fi thriller about a near future in which assassin Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) carries out her hits by hooking herself up to a face-hugger-style machine and “entering” another person’s mind and body, whom she then manipulates like a puppet. The symbiotic relationship between man and machine is the foundation upon which Cronenberg constructs a dark, demented story about performance, and the effect it has upon the performer’s sense of self, which truly comes to the fore when Tasya’s latest vessel—Colin Tate (Christopher Abbot), boyfriend to the heiress of a data-mining mogul (Sean Bean)—turns out to be a less-than-compliant instrument of death. Penetration, invasion, corruption and control are all part of this sinister techno-stew, which drenches itself in reflective mirror imagery, sexualized carnage and color-filtered visions of conjoined faces tearing apart from each other. There’s volatility in its every unreal frame, as well as in the performance of Riseborough as a ruthless invader in search of autonomy.

14) City Hall

With City Hall, 90-year-old documentarian Frederick Wiseman trains his critical eye on the city of Boston and the many civic institutions and organizations that keep it running. At four-and-a-half hours, the legend’s latest sociological investigation paints a sprawling portrait of the work that goes into maintaining, and improving, a metropolis, especially when said locale is undergoing a significant demographic transformation (55% of Boston is now non-white), and its economic inequality is complicated by a host of racial, gender and class-related issues. In extended scenes of press conferences, presentations, boardroom meetings and community hearings—as well as snapshots of day-to-day life in Beantown’s diverse districts—Wiseman conveys the mundane toil of legislative and regulatory action. Moreover, he imparts a sense of the vital role that dialogue plays in fostering change, and uniting dissimilar people. Unifying its scenes of public service via flowing transitional montages of city streets, and routinely featuring committed and candid Mayor Marty Walsh as its nominal “protagonist,” his doc pays tribute to the act of listening, and engaging in constructive conversation, as a vehicle for progress.

13) Vitalina Varela
Black, Face, Human, Darkness, Eye, Smile, Photography, Adaptation, Portrait, Night,
.

The darkness is all-consuming, as is despair over a lost past and future, and a purgatorial present, in Vitalina Varela, Pedro Costa’s aesthetically ravishing true tale of its protagonist, a Cape Verde resident who returns to Portugal mere days after her estranged husband’s death. Vitalina wanders through this dilapidated and gloomy environment, which Costa shoots almost exclusively at night, the better to conjure a sense of ghosts navigating a dreamscape of sorrow, suffering and disconnection. Each of the director’s images is more ravishing than the next, and their beauty – along with an enveloping soundscape of squeaking beds, sheets blowing in the wind, and rain pattering on crumbling roofs – is enchanting. Presenting its story through fractured plotting and dreamy monologues, the Portuguese master’s latest is a series of tableaus of lovelorn grief concerning not only Vitalina but also an aged priest in spiritual crisis and another young man poised to endure his own tragedy. The film’s formal grandeur – its compositional precision, and painterly interplay of light and dark – is overwhelming, as is the majestic presence of Vitalina herself.

12) Collective

The battle against corruption and criminality—and for democracy—is an ongoing one, and as illustrated by Collective, it doesn’t always have a happy ending. Alexander Nanau’s bracing and vital documentary concerns the fallout from the October 30, 2015 fire at the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest, Romania that resulted in 27 immediate deaths, and the resignation of the ruling Social Democratic administration. In the ensuing weeks, 37 more burn victims perished due to bacterial infections at local hospitals, which journalist Catalin Tolontan and his colleagues soon link to a widespread scandal involving diluted disinfectants, gangster hospital managers, and amoral bribery and profiteering that incoming health minster Vlad Voiculescu is tasked with cleaning up. That’s as arduous a job as Tolontan’s quest to speak truth to power, and the film traces both of their efforts during an election year in which the reforms they seek are threatened by an old guard that wants to return to the crooked past. Also focused on a Collectiv survivor attempting to rebuild her shattered body and life (replete with a new, artificial hand), Nanau’s doc is a harrowingly immediate dissection of a country that seems to be so rotten to its core, no amount of heroic crusading and reform can sanitize it.

Watch Now

11) Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Putting a poignant face on a contentious social topic, Never Rarely Sometimes Always tells the story of pregnant Pennsylvania 17-year-old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), who with her loyal cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) by her side, travels to New York to procure an abortion. As envisioned by writer/director Eliza Hittman (Beach Rats), Autumn’s with-child circumstance leads to a harrowing ordeal of uncomfortable doctor visits, financial anxieties, and incessant indignities suffered at the hands of men, be it sexually harassing classmates, her drunk and uncaring father (Ryan Eggold), or a boy (Théodore Pellerin) she and Skylar meet on the bus to Manhattan. Forced to navigate a chauvinistic world that treats them as disposable sexual playthings, denigrates them as whores when they attempt to fulfill that role, and then thwarts their desire for agency – and independence – at every turn, Autumn’s saga is all the more heartbreaking for being so ordinary. Drenched in silence that expresses the loneliness of its heroine, and speaks volumes about the tacit understanding and compassion shared by women, it’s a sobering study of perseverance in the face of individual, and systemic, oppression.

Watch Now

10) The Assistant

Kitty Green’s The Assistant is the first great #MeToo film, a scathing look at the mundane day-to-day ways in which gender-imbalanced abuse and unfairness are built into workplace systems. Though you won’t hear Harvey Weinstein’s name uttered once, his presence is palpable throughout this clinical story about Jane (a sterling Julia Garner), whose position as the low woman on the totem pole at a film production company necessitates enduring mistreatment of both a subtle and overt sort. Whether being chastised by her boss (who’s only heard in hushed phone calls), or sharing quiet, pointed glances with her female colleagues, Jane is a victim of both exploitative men and, just as severely, a corrupt institutional structure that perpetuates itself by fostering cutthroat ruthlessness and alienating silence. Epitomized by Jane’s meeting with a cruelly calculating human resources rep (Succession’s Matthew Macfadyen), whose threats are all the more harrowing for being both implied and logical, it’s a portrait of sexism’s many insidious forms.

Watch Now

9) Minari

A gentle film that radiates overpowering compassion for its characters and their plights, writer/director Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari charts the 1980s endeavor by Korean husband/father Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) to make something of himself by starting a farm in rural Arkansas – an American dream that worries his wife Monica (Han Ye-Ri), and poses challenges for his daughter Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and son David (Alan Kim), the latter of whom suffers from a potentially fatal heart condition. Their lives are further complicated by the arrival of Monica’s mom Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung), a foul-mouthed grandma whose relationship with David begins rockily before transforming into something profound. Chung’s storytelling is awash in contrasts – between alienation and communion; the urban and the rural; religion and self-determination – that he establishes with a lyrical touch, allowing his tale to slowly reveal itself to be a multifaceted family drama about faith, togetherness, survival and adapting to new and daunting circumstances. Every performance is magnificent, but no one in the cast stands taller than the diminutive Kim, whose turn is irresistibly authentic and charming. There may be no more suspenseful moment in cinema this year than the sight of David running after Soon-ja – nor one more affecting.

8) Martin Eden

Martin Eden is a superb period piece that also exists out of time and is directly attuned to our perilous present. Director Pietro Marcello’s adaptation of Jack London’s caustic 1909 novel relocates its action from America to Italy (circa the decades between World War I and II) to follow the tumultuous trajectory of Martin Eden (Luca Marinelli), a lowly sailor inspired by his aristocratic paramour Elena (Jessica Cressy) to embark on an autodidactic quest to elevate himself educationally, culturally and politically. That, in turn, compels him to become a writer who rails against capitalism and socialism (which he views as two sides of the same master-slave coin) and champions a Nietzschean individualism that alienates him from virtually everyone. Through use of piercing close-ups, grainy archival clips, and an agile editorial structure, director Marcello infuses his action with hard-edged lyricism, equally rugged and romantic, enlivening and ominous. Marinelli’s performance is similarly fraught, his gargantuan presence as entrancing as it is intimidating. A sweeping story about a self-made man who transforms himself into an empty vessel, it’s a caustic critique of the sorts of annihilating ideologies that run far too rampant today.

7) The Wild Goose Lake
Pink, Magenta, Room, Performance, Event, Scene, Performing arts, Stage, Drama, heater,
Memento Films

As with his prior Black Coal, Thin Ice, Chinese director Diao Yinan’s The Wild Goose Lake has a coiled intensity that amplifies its romantic fatalism. Diao’s neo-noir follows a gangster named Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge) who, after killing a cop in a criminal enterprise gone awry, partners with a “bathing beauty” prostitute named Lu Aiai (Gwei Lun Mei) in order to reunite with his estranged wife Yang Shujun (Wan Qian), all so she might collect the reward on his head. Rife with betrayals, manhunts and shootouts, the auteur’s narrative is constantly taking sharp, unexpected turns, and the same is true of his breathtaking direction, which reveals unseen figures, and twists, via elegant camerawork and expressionistic flourishes that are married to a realistic depiction of rain-soaked Wuhan and its lawless lakeside communities. Hunted by police captain Liu (Liao Fan), Diao’s protagonists are engaged in a deadly game that’s played in silence because they all inherently know the rules, and their sense of purpose is echoed by the film itself, which orchestrates its underworld conflicts with bracing precision. Plus, it boasts 2020’s most gruesomely inventive use of an umbrella.

6) Nomadland

On its surface, Nomadland is a simple story about a middle-aged woman named Fern (Frances McDormand) who, after losing her husband (to disease) and her home (to the closing of a plant and the town it supported), embarks on an itinerant life across the American plains. Yet there are profound depths to director Chloé Zhao’s follow-up to 2018’s The Rider, steeped as her film is in swirling issues of loss and sorrow, discovery and wonder, hardship and survival, and loneliness and togetherness. McDormand constructs a towering performance from subtle gestures and expressions, her Fern at once a part of the expansive landscapes in which she roams—and the band of fellow nomads she befriends, including David (David Strathairn)—and yet also separate from them. With modern economic and social dynamics as its narrative backdrop, Zhao’s film locates beauty, fear, danger and quiet euphoria in Fern’s wandering search for contentment, which proves that being alone and being lonely aren’t always the same thing. Attuned to the rhythms of the road and the alternately harsh and inviting (and awe-inspiring) terrain of the Midwest, and populated by a host of excellent non-professional actors, Zhao’s film is a a poetic Malickian ode to the pioneering nature of the restless American spirit.

5) Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets

Bill and Turner Ross’ unique documentary-fiction hybrid depicts the end of the road for The Roaring 20s, a dive bar on the outskirts of the Las Vegas strip where a motley collection of boozehounds come for one final closing-night round of intoxicated camaraderie and revelry. The film’s gimmick is that said drinking establishment is actually located in New Orleans, and its patrons have been cast to play improvised versions of themselves—a formal approach that allows the directors to faithfully capture the entire spectrum of sloppy, joyful, self-pitying, antagonistic and regretful emotions that invariably materialize in (and define) such a joint. Over the course of one sloshed 24-hour period, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets evokes a pitch-perfect sense of its going-to-seed milieu and equally haggard visitors, with former actor-turned-floor sweeper Michael proving the weary epicenter of its laid-back action. Shot with bobbing, swaying gracefulness that’s in tune with its environment, it’s an evocative, empathetic and altogether unforgettable portrait of life on the fringe, where escape from reality is a constant—if self-destructive—desire, and solace is only found at the bottom of a glass, in the company of fellow drunks.

Watch Now

4) The Painted Bird

A nearly three-hour black-and-white odyssey through allegorical Holocaust horrors, Václav Marhoul’s The Painted Bird isn’t for the faint of heart. Adapted from Jerzy Kosiński’s celebrated 1965 novel of the same name, Marhoul’s film is a harrowing saga about an unnamed Jewish Boy (Petr Kotlár) who, during WWII, is subjugated to every depraved indignity under the sun at the hands of various Eastern European villagers with whom he temporarily stays. From a witch-y medicine woman who buries him up to his neck (the better to let the crows peck at him) and a bachelor (Julian Sands) with pedophilic inclinations, to a violently jealous old man (Udo Kier) and a young girl with bestial desires, the individuals whom the Boy comes into contact with are a wild, wicked bunch. Nonetheless, amidst such incessant, graphic cruelty, compassion fleetingly materializes in the form of a kindly priest (Harvey Keitel), a Nazi soldier (Stellan Skarsgård) and a Russian sniper (Barry Pepper) who teaches him about “eye for an eye” justice. Crucifixes and fire are twin motifs underscoring this gorgeously austere, bleak tale about intolerance, oppression, dehumanization and the scarring struggle to survive, which descends into darkness with its haunted eyes wide open. Few films are this tough to sit through—or difficult to forget.

Watch Now

3) I’m Thinking of Ending Things

Charlie Kaufman once again descends into a surrealistic pit of death and despair with his adaptation of Iain Reid’s 2016 novel, which charts a road trip by Jake (Jesse Plemons) and his girlfriend (Jessie Buckley) to his parents’ rural farmhouse home. That Buckley’s protagonist is referred to with various names speaks to her fuzzy, fragmented identity, just as the film’s blend of comedy and horror, as well as intricate dialogue and interior narration, speaks to its duality-centric nature. Plummeting down a rabbit hole of confusion, longing, regret and grief, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a film of careening left turns. Those truly escalate once Buckley and Plemons’ protagonists have dinner with Jake’s crazy mom (Toni Collette) and dad (David Thewlis), and then forge onward into a snowy night where an encounter with ice cream shop girls and a trip to Jake’s old high school—and a meeting with a mysterious janitor (Guy Boyd)—further mark the proceedings as a journey into the subconscious. His aesthetics as probing as his writing is dexterous, Kaufman overstuffs his material with literary and cinematic shout-outs (and critiques), all while blurring the line between reality and fantasy until such distinctions cease to matter. Rich in agonized angst and formal flourishes, it’s a masterwork of unhinged tone, as well as a showcase for Buckley, whose grand performance covers an expansive stretch of emotional terrain.

Watch Now

2) First Cow

Few directors are as attentive to the rhythms of nature – human and otherwise – as Kelly Reichardt, and the filmmaker’s formidable skill at evoking a sense of place, thought, emotion and motivation is on breathtaking display in First Cow. Adapted from Jonathan Raymond’s novel The Half Life, Reichardt’s slow-burn drama focuses on a nomadic 1820s chef named Cookie (John Magaro) who, after arriving at a Pacific Northwest fort, befriends and goes into business with on-the-run Chinese loner King Lu (Orion Lee), baking and selling popular “oily cakes” made with milk stolen from a dairy cow owned by wealthy Chief Factor (Toby Jones). Cookie and King Lu’s attempt to rise above their socio-economic station through a criminal scheme, and the potential disaster that awaits them, is the suspenseful heart of this tranquil quasi-thriller, which – awash in redolent faces, gestures and customs – imparts an understated impression of the forces propelling its characters, and the pioneering nation, forward. Framing characters amidst forest greenery or through constricting cabin windows, and setting its action to the serene sounds of its rural environment – snapping twigs, chirping birds, running water, human breath – it’s an empathetic vision of profound male friendship and perilous capitalist enterprise.

Watch Now

1) Dick Johnson is Dead

Rarely has a film expressed so much bountiful love for its subject as Kirsten Johnson’s Dick Johnson is Dead does for its center of attention, Johnson’s elderly father Dick, a career psychologist who in 2017 begins suffering from the same sort of mental deterioration that consumed his Alzheimer’s-afflicted wife. Determined to document her father’s decline, Johnson charts her time by her father’s side while simultaneously, and crazily, staging fanciful fictional scenarios involving his death—from getting hit on the head by a falling air conditioner, to being accidentally stabbed by a construction worker—as well as sequences of him reveling in a glittery heaven full of dancers wearing cardboard cut-outs of his, and his wife’s, younger visages. 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, Johnson’s follow-up to Cameraperson is a uniquely warts-and-all portrait of facing the inevitable with courage, creativity and devotion. As the focus of this saga of aging and survival, fragility and strength, Johnson is a boundless delight, charming and candid and open-hearted even as his memory begins to wane and his daughter has him watch his own mock funeral (attended by friends and family). Dick Johnson is Dead is a daring masterpiece about the loss of loved ones, and of memory, and the movies’ ability—and, also, inability—to make the impermanent permanent.

Watch Now

This content is created and maintained by a third party, and imported onto this page to help users provide their email addresses. You may be able to find more information about this and similar content at piano.io
Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
More From Best of 2020 Guide