Mike’s Top 20 Films of 2020
I've always believed in empathy and the equations and logic that lead to reason.
But after a lifetime of such pursuits, I ask: “What truly is logic? Who decides reason?”
My quest in 2020 has taken me through the physical, the metaphysical, the delusional… and back again.
And I have made the most important discovery of my career, the most important discovery of my life: it is only in the mysterious equations of movies that any logic or reasons can be found. I'm only here tonight because of movies.
They’re the only reason I am.
They are all my reasons.
20. The Invisible Man
You may not have noticed, but horror has been racking up quite a legacy for a good couple of years. The genre has always been ripe for the picking for smaller scale, lower-budget fare, and there are even a few of those from 2020 on this list. Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man is a knockout of a standard horror flick. Using a classic “monster” - metaphorically repurposed here as a stand-in for a seriously scary, real-life monstrosity - combined with the cannot-be-stopped talent of Elizabeth Moss and the undeniably thrilling flair of some of Whannell’s latest action works, The Invisible Man is a special kind of horror movie that operates to near perfection on just about every level.
19. The Wolf of Snow Hollow
Director Jim Cumming’s 2018 feature, Thunder Road, topped my list of favorites that year. While his follow-up feature purposefully builds on and plays with some of the things that made that film so special, it didn’t have the same energetic spark that seemed to radiate from every frame of Thunder Road. But luckily, Jim Cumming’s is a beast of a director and one of the greatest at balancing tone working today. The Wolf of Snow Hollow is clean, sharp, funny, and touching, an impressive tribute to decades of horror stylization and a Cohens-esque battle cry to the world on how we can treat the people in our lives as disposable.
18. Cuties (Mignonnes)
The bullshit film controversy of the year (#SnyderCut considered) was rustled up by people who have never heard the saying about the differences between depiction and endorsement. While a challenging watch, yes, ten minutes into Cuties should have even the densest of minds able to see what all this is supposed to be about, although I really may be giving a little too much credit there. Maïmouna Doucouré’s fanciful but intense coming-of-age film is just as mesmerizing as it is painfully uncomfortable, giving us a tale of morality and the pressure pot that is the need to fit in, leaving behind what should be considered this generation’s thematic equivalent to Lord of the Flies.
Every year I have some truly unhealthy anticipation for a few movies. Anticipation that ultimately proves unfair, yet still disastrous, to some awesome movies. Possessor was one such movie of 2020, and one of the few that blew my expectations out of the water. This is truly a cinema lover’s fantasy, filled to the brim with phenomenal portrayals, slick and dirty design, lighting that would make any DP quiver with envy, the list goes on. Every bit as violent and stylistic as it is potent and immersive, Brandon Cronenberg’s dystopian sci-fi revenge flick of the self is an absolute ride from beginning to end.
16. First Cow
As sweet as milk cake, First Cow is a delightfully moving and strangely unsettling tale of friendship and kindness. Kelly Reichardt (where my Old Joy peeps at?!) softens each scene with a sensory overload of just how delicate anything can be, weaving a tale of creativity and dreams that leaves you just hopeful enough to bear the film’s closing moments.
This one’s for the nerds, I suppose? My current (ahem, tentative?) standing as a movie theater operator gave myself and some close friends early access to Netflix’s big awards play - a full week before it hit the streaming service, and I was blown away by its tenacity to truly stick to what it wanted to be: both an ode to the stylizations of the movies that made us all, and a condemnation of what Hollywood is and always has been, warts and all. Imagine my surprise when the movie was met with the ever so respectable “TLDR” from the passive critics of the World Wide Web. Mank is a perfect example of a true blue tired expression: a labor of love. With some of the most memorable dialogue of the year, Mank is one of the films I’ve returned to again and again since its release only a few months back, and it has proven to be a member of another tired film criticism cliche: it gets better every time you watch it.
Ironically, this next flick takes us back to my movie theater operator/vigilante occupation. When the world shut down, Story Screen quickly partnered with several movie studios to start releasing films virtually through our website in an effort to keep the doors open to awesome movie watching and conversation. The very first film I, as the esteemed and ever-weary programmer, chose to host was Kino Lorber’s run of Bacurau. This movie holds a special place in my heart. It was the first bright light at the beginning of a dark and lonely time, and even led to the year-long journey my good friend (and lover of animation) Robby Anderson and I spent on our Stalking Carpenter podcast series, combing through the entire filmography of the great John Carpenter, whose decades of work are all over the entirety of this movie. The things to admire about Bacurau are fairly simple, yet Bacurau itself is anything but simple. It is an ambitious, cheesy fever dream of a movie with enough exploitation trappings to make that genre-infused commentary on injustice and colonialism go down real smooth. Plus, Sônia Braga!
An immaculately executed display of tone and tension, Swallow effortlessly places us in the cruel, capable hands of Carlo Mirabella-Davis, a director who will most assuredly be spinning heads for decades to come. Cravenly sadistic to a point where you just CANNOT dare to look away, the film offers up scene after scene of amazing work, all held together by Haley Bennett’s exquisite portrayal of a woman going to disturbing lengths in an effort to gain the mere semblance of control of her own life.
12. Bad Education
(Taps fingers on the table in what can only be described as deep, deep consideration).
Look, when I say a movie houses the best Hugh Jackman performance ever, I don’t say it lightly. The man has turned in an array of genre works for decades and he’s the boss. Y’know? He’s the boss! But Jackman’s portrayal of Frank Tassone is one of my favorite things of 2020, movie-related or otherwise. When the dude hung up his claws, I got excited for what he was going to really start to open himself up to, and after we got The Greatest Showman (which is surprisingly enjoyable when you’re intoxicated, I might add) I was nervous that my man might be slipping into a comfortable state, just super chill to do whatever he fancies and works for his image. But Bad Education is a rock-n-roll movie, with great performances from the entire cast and a fine follow-up to director Cory Finley’s Thoroughbreds, which I still regret to this day not including in my Best of 2018 list. Stark, ugly, charismatic, and hip, Bad Education is above all else an insanely funny and captivating flick. You just can’t take your eyes off the thing.
11. The Vast of Night
One of the biggest criticisms I had with 2011’s Super 8 was the unrelenting lack of innovation on a production level when it came to creating a loving homage to the very genre the film was attempting to flatter through imitation. This is very much not the case with The Vast of Night, a film that has just as much value in its execution as it has to its purpose. This is a goddamn miracle of a movie, something so raw and creative that it frankly makes me jealous and somewhat mournful that I gave up trying to make films years ago. There is perseverance on display here that wrapped me up, and expressive intuition in control of everything that is outright stimulating to behold. Director Andrew Patterson has exploded onto the scene in the most earnest of ways and is going to be making movies that make many lists like this for a long time.
10. Lover’s Rock
Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology of films will forever be regarded as one of the brightest lights of 2020, arriving at a time the creators never could have anticipated, but also at a time their stories couldn’t have possibly been more needed. And the brightest light of all of them is Lover’s Rock. An almost incomprehensible experience, Lover’s Rock takes its time but doesn’t mince words. It illuminates the screen with the joy and pain of everything that it has on its mind. There are instances of get down bliss countered with almost too real moments of struggle, lacking any levity that could possibly allow the viewer to feel anything but sadness, followed up so naturally by more cinematic euphoria in the shape of true people bottled up in true elation.
Ladies, gentlemen, and all other fine folks, please stand: this is one of the best sci-fi horrors to be released into our reality in a long time. With shades of Carpenter, hues of Villeneuve, and the added bonus of some Denis visualization and blocking, Sputnik is a straight-up cinematic hammer to the face for any sci-fi/horror lover. There is nothing wrong with this movie, it basks in its political metaphors, dances in the fire of its bombastic, ever-shifting plot, and ultimately delivers on shock after shock in its final act.
8. Love and Monsters
Surprises come in all shapes and sizes, but when a movie "movies" as hard as Love and Monsters does, you need to stand up and respect. I knew nothing about this movie, other than a color palette I sorta dug from one of those fifteen-second Amazon ads I was spoon-fed while trying to watch the latest indie Bulgarian romantic-comedy on my list. But oh my lawd, what an awesome movie! This baby’s got everything (insert “slaps hood of car joke,” yes, even though it’s 2020), and upon multiple rewatches, it has only grown in my favor as one of the very best genre movies of recent memory. Think Zombieland and The Last of Us by way of Turbo Kid with a budget. I could exhaustively tell you about its top-notch script, bore you to death about its impeccable tone work and world-building, even try to roar up excitement about its progressive character arcs, subversive foreshadowing, and insanely thrilling action set pieces, but how about this: watch the movie, and if you don’t desire another one of these right away, seek help.
A wildly effective and emotionally draining masterpiece. Time’s greatest strength, other than its obviously heart-wrenching subject matter, is that it, well, takes its time. Life is beautifully stitched together over decades throughout the course of the film’s runtime, revealing the immense sorrow and anger that can be born from injustices and apparent apathy when it comes to the lives of those deemed seemingly unimportant. But what Time proposes is that we are all, each and every one of us, important and worthy of the good fight those closest to us may have to engage in day after day, year after year, and in this case, decade after decade. All of these pieces of a woman: her husband, her children, and those in her life swirl together into a mixture of veracious clarity, leaving you with the film’s final moment that is guaranteed to make a Matthew McConaughey from Interstellar out of us all.
6. And Then We Danced
And Then We Danced is about as enthralling as a film can get. One cannot help but be swept into its moves and gestures, playfully pulled along the road from the first frame to its ending shot, joyously smiling in the film’s bright, sun-soaked moments and practically begging for release during its harsher, visceral scenes. Director Levan Akin, along with his secret weapon, newcomer Levan Gelbakhiani, choreographs not only some of the most delicious dance scenes I’ve seen but also instances of such strong sensuality and immediacy that the viewer is left falling in love with the characters and story just as they do each other.
5. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
While including my beloved “Wishing,” by Flock of Seagulls would typically be more than enough to get any movie on to a top list of mine, luckily Never Rarely Sometimes Always also happens to be a dream of a movie. Director Eliza Hittman is an absolute pleasure to watch do her thing, seamlessly documenting the short passages of time that take place throughout the film in a way that is really breathtaking. This is another example of certain types of filmmaking that connect with me on both a personal and technical level when I start to become envious of such skill. Talia Ryder, here playing our protagonist’s sidekick-cousin-confidant, is also a remarkable arrival and an actor of interest that I anticipate will be on our minds for a long time to come. But the true star of the film is, naturally, its hero: Sidney Flanigan. Even as I consider my words of high praise for the performer, recalling moments from my experience watching the film late one night, I get chills and my heart starts to beat at the same odd pace it did during all of those mesmerizing close-ups of Autumn’s practically war-torn, emotionful face. It is everything you want a movie to be, and its beauty truly comes from all of its moving parts working completely in sync with one another.
4. Beanpole (Dylda)
Crashing into my 2020 film world like a maniac, hell-bent on burning my world to the ground, Beanpole may not top this list for various reasons, but it is decidedly the best-directed piece of film of the year, in my own not completely humble opinion. Kantemir Balagov is a prodigy of blocking and design, creating a world so full of color you almost forget how devastatingly miserable it all is in every instance. Our main characters, portrayed by Viktoria Miroshnichenko and Vasilisa Perelygina, practically superglue your eyeballs directly to their every move and gesture the moment they first arrive onscreen, a necessary feat to ensure everything that follows is not only witnessed but felt. Beanpole is a film critic’s dream movie: a raw, uncompromising story told by a devilishly talented mind and performed to absolute perfection by an absurdly overwhelming cast of professionals.
3. Sound of Metal
The delicate nature of our lives and the things we take for granted are propelled into stimulating clarity in Darius Marder’s remarkable debut as the writer-director of Sound of Metal. Anchored by another chef’s kiss of a performance by the great Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal’s greatest attraction, at least for me, was its remarkably simple yet groundbreaking approach to visual and auditory storytelling, utilizing old tricks in new ways to produce something all at once recognizable, but ultimately contemporary and thrillingly confrontational. One of the few movies I was able to see in the comfort of my own big ass theater, this was a movie that packed several punches throughout and left me feeling appreciative of the world around me and my place in it, even during a time when those things have never been more confusing and uncertain.
2. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
As is the case with many people, this was one of the last films I saw in a theater during "The Normal Times." While that feeling of connection to a lost time won’t be swept away from my memory of this film anytime soon, it is probably one of the least personal motivations for me loving the absolute hell out of it. While movie critics in their grand circles were fortunate enough to catch this masterpiece in 2019 during its festival runs, I was forced to wait and wait until its official release in the US in February 2020. And when I finally looked upon it, I saw that it was, indeed, that fire. Director Céline Sciamma, working with the consistently amazing cinematographer, Clair Mathon (of Atlantics and Stranger by the Lake fame), crafts a visual palette for the film, that so directly resembles an oil painting that I found myself confused at times at just how they made so many different colors pop so variously within single frames. This technique proves quite necessary for the film’s ultimate themes, anchoring the idea of experiences in our lives, eventually, all being transformed into single, solitary pieces of memory that we recall more in the ways they made us feel, rather than how they may have actually occurred. The movie is a stunner on a technical level, and has an emotional rollercoaster of a story, featuring two break-out performances by Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel. A passionate look into the very souls of its characters, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is one of the most special movies one could ask for and features an all-timer of an ending that is sure to haunt movie watchers for decades to come, just like its beautiful, beautiful characters.
1. i’m thinking of ending things
I love ideas. I like a story that’s got some concrete structure but also holds abstractions. Life is filled with abstractions. And the way we make heads or tails of it is through intuition… Some people love these abstractions and it gives them room to dream. An abstraction to me is a thing that cinema can say and it’s so beautiful, for me anyway, to think about these pictures and sounds flowing along together in time, in a sequence, making a thing that can only really be said in cinema. It’s not words, it’s not just music, it’s a whole bunch of things coming together and making a thing that didn’t exist before… It’s the viewer and the picture and sound. And it makes a circle and it just goes like that. So, you just feel it and think it. That’s kind of intuition: emotion and thinking together.
-David Lynch, on the intuitive nature of abstraction in film. (FULL VIDEO)
Charlie Kaufman’s latest directorial effort displays, in my opinion, the director finally finding his voice as a visionary storyteller in a way that fits perfectly with his style of writing and story structure. His early works (which were directed by the genius buffoons by the names of Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry) were praised upon release, and have stood the test of time as thoroughly engaging and fascinating studies on the self and the many ways loneliness can consume us. But they’re also all extremely funny. This lighthearted touch was something I always felt Kaufman’s directed projects lacked. Sure, Synecdoche, New York, and Anomalisa have their fair share of funny and odd moments, but I never found myself enjoying those features the same way I did his other works, even if they are both astoundingly well-made films. But, with i’m thinking of end things, Kaufman disguises possibly his loneliest look into the soul yet, by entrapping all the pain and thoughts of meandering existence within a tone that vibrates discomfort in a laughable way at all times. This balancing act is so impressive on its own, that the rest of the film could’ve been watered down in feeling and technical accomplishments, but these things are all one and the same in this movie; each one reacts to the other and so on in a circle of absolute movie magic. While the film is definitely, and very understandably, not for everyone, I personally find myself intoxicated by its fancifulness every time I watch it. (I’ve checked it out three times now, with a fourth viewing probably happening immediately after I finish typing this!) There’s so much to notice, so much to take apart and examine in every moment, that the film miraculously feels fresh each time, new layers revealing themselves, making it greater than before with each passing scene.
But of course, easter eggs and hidden meanings a good film does not make. No, what makes i’m thinking of ending things a GREAT film is its artistic and stylized deconstruction of memory and the idea of the self - how the things that we do, the art we ingest, the pieces we choose to hold onto, the things we choose to forget or rewrite in our own minds - all of this equals a person that at once is us but also really isn’t. And these thoughts, when shed upon with too much light in the mind, can lead to a feeling of immense loneliness and regret. At the same time, they fill us with joyful memories and moments that exude the very nature and reason for living in the first place: how we affect other people, and how they affect us. Kaufman has crafted the very thing David Lynch was referring to in the earlier quote: “Making a thing that can only really be said in cinema.” The concept of loneliness and memory have long been portrayed in writing, music, and, yes, even many films, but Kaufman has distilled these concepts down to a mood and tone that you can feel and relate to, embellishing his film with a sad mundanity that can very easily be mistaken for disinteresting, or even (gasp!) boring.
i’m thinking of ending things is a challenging film, but a rewarding one because of this. It is a work of true poetry, a magical experiment happening right before your eyes for an entire 134 minutes. It is not only my favorite film of this year, but has become one of my favorite films of all time, and that’s something so special, so rare, that even the world falling apart around me can’t take away the significant and memorable feeling that gives me. Plus, that Beautiful Mind makeup burn is the coldest shit I’ve ever seen. 5 stars.
I saw too many movies this year, coming in just over 150, because I am a monster that must be caged by the conventions of the normal world, otherwise I will destroy myself and take the world with me. While this was an amazing experience, filled with fantastic stories and lots of crying, it ultimately proved sinister in my attempt to pick only 20. The following are a few other movies that very easily could’ve cracked this list in a number of spots, and I will regret not including many of them for years to come. This is the way.
The 40-Year-Old Version, The Assistant, Another Round, Anything for Jackson, Babyteeth, Black Bear, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, Butt Boy, Da 5 Bloods, Deerskin, Dick Johnson is Dead, Emma., Eurovision Song Contest, Feels Good Man, His House, Host, I’m No Longer Here, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Miss Americana, The Old Guard, One Night in Miami…, Palm Springs, Promising Young Woman, Relic, She Dies Tomorrow, Shirley, Shithouse, A White, White Day, The Wild Goose Lake, Wolfwalkers, World of Tomorrow Episode Three, You Cannot Kill David Arquette
Founder of and programmer for Story Screen. Lover of stories and pizza in the dark. When he isn't watching movies, you can find him reading things about people watching movies. He currently resides in Poughkeepsie, NY, and most assuredly is going through a French Connection phase.