Needless to say, unless this is being read centuries in the future by someone with diminished historical sense, that 2020 was an unusual year, to say the least. Considering all that has happened, in so many dimensions, all over the globe, film-watching habits are among the lesser impacts of the pandemic, but films are what this space is about, mostly.
My local lockdown hit early in March, when “Filmgoing 2020” was about to start; as a result, a tiny minority of the films that I consider for this list were actually seen in a theater. (It’s interesting that last year, I harped on the need for films to be released theatrically, but now that idea has been put to sleep; temporarily, I hope.) Film festivals were canceled or delayed, reducing the number of “prestige” films made available. A variety of streamers picked up the pace with some of those releases; still, while I watched more films in 2020 than ever before, mostly I was catching up with older releases. In general, it was a matter of availability and mood; light and silly fare are what I mostly went for. All that to say that the “eligible” universe shrank in 2020, and as a result, this list will actually contain 10 films this year, for a change. Maybe.
So, to the list.
Best Documentary Feature Film: My Octopus Teacher
Documentaries once more proved to be a great source of, well, everything, from information to deeply emotional experiences. They ranged from very topical issues to stories that would feel outlandish in fiction films, but this small nature documentary proved to be the heaviest hitter, emotionally. The simple observation of the female octopus, given the plasticity and serenity of the underwater images, would be already an interesting film, but the loving interview with Craig Foster, as he forms a bond with the animal, closes the deal.
Best Live-Action Feature Film: I’m Thinking of Ending Things
For starters, Jessie Buckley’s performance is the best of the year, full stop. Charlie Kaufman constructs a film that is hard to fully comprehend, let alone properly describe objectively. It’s cold, it’s moody, it’s uneasy; but at its ending, at a deep, emotional level, the film makes sense, becomes something greater, emotionally consistent. Listen, it’s not easy to argue for it either, but it is a memorable cinematic experience.
Best Animated Feature Film: Soul
Animation proved yet again to be a rich field, with a great variety of stories told and aesthetics, both in feature and short films. Soul was probably among the riskiest projects, with a metaphysical, thematically engaging, and somewhat psychedelic story. The execution was great, however, resulting in a film that is entertaining and has eye-popping visuals.
Best Television: Dark – Season 3
The final season of this German series was a marvel. The story has always been complex, with a multitude of narrative threads that could easily become confusing if not for the complete domain of the visual codes that have been present since the beginning. Not only this season finishes the plot convincingly, but it also manages to make it emotionally satisfying.
Best Short Film (Of any kind): If Anything Happens I Love You
This short is the most powerful, touching, complete piece of storytelling of 2020, bar none.
Best Book (Released in 2020): The Glass Hotel, by Emily St. John Mandel
Best Book (Released before 2020): Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel. Her other novels (The Singer’s Gun, Last Night in Montreal, The Lola Quartet) are not far behind. Yes, I fell in love with her sad and elegant prose, as she dances around multiple characters in a non-linear fashion.
Best Album: Quarantine Album: Unreleased B-Sides, by Tuba Skinny
The remaining films are alphabetically listed below:
An unmistakable character, the subject of this documentary was a gifted storyteller (as his songs and interviews are ample evidence of); by simply giving him a voice, we get an idea of his trajectory, what made him tick as an artist, his love of the city. Adoniran’s music lives to this day, entertaining and insightful as always.
David Fincher is known for his aesthetical precision, which so deep that his films can often result in being a bit aloof. But that doesn’t make them any less entertaining. The craft of Mank is absolutely top-notch, from the way things look onscreen to the amply capable cast dealing with the fun dialogue.
A smart documentary director will not be a prisoner of the initial concept of a project. Maite Alberdi proves that here. The initial concept would be intriguing enough for its comical and aesthetical possibilities; however, the material asked for another direction and the ensuing film is filled to the brim with humanity and sweetness.
It is not always about the “story”. Sometimes, such as in this case, it is about the mood, the characters, and the relationships. The perfectly toned performances of Rashida Jones and Bill Murray allow their chemistry to be front and center, inviting the viewer to watch them lovingly bitter.
No, this is not a subtle film. But what it has to say needs to be heard and has been ignored for far too long, so hammer to the head it is. Anchored by a great performance by Carey Mulligan, one of the year’s best, on top of a very shrewd casting of the supporting players going against type. It’s entertaining, cathartic, tense. It also looks very good.
Of the many recent films that told stories directly related to social issues in the US, Aaron Sorkin’s film is the one with the busiest plot, with the most characters to deal with. It could very easily be a confusing or superficial film, but it’s neither: it tackles the story and its thematical implications with ease. It naturally has a large ensemble performing pretty well, and simple and elegant effectiveness in its aesthetics.
Science-fiction films don’t automatically call for big budgets or special effects, and Andrew Patterson shows that in spades with The Vast of Night. It is very moody, with its two lovely protagonists operating mostly in the dark over a few hours as they bump into something that may or may not be big. Very well-acted, beautifully shot, nearly unforgettable.
As much as I tried, I could not finish this post without:
I would love to know in the comments area below what your favorite films of 2020 were. Thanks for reading!