The 30 Best Films of 2020

The 30 Best Films of 2020
by Jen Johans

An Introduction

For me, it is a truth universally acknowledged that while I love reading lists, I hate making them. Coming up with a quick and dirty Top 5 in the company of friends can be a fun conversational tool to stir debate among film geeks but the prospect of actually sitting down to make a definitive ranking of titles is about as appealing as deep cleaning my refrigerator. 

No two lists are alike, just like no two “three-star” movies are alike. I'd much rather champion or critique films in longer pieces throughout the year to inspire greater thought than rely on the quick stars I slap on a film on my Letterboxd account for record-keeping.

It all boils down to taste and criteria, both of which differ wildly from one person to the next. Should you choose your favorite films or the ones you think of when you hear the word best? When asked to explain the difference between the two, the example I always give is Martin Scorsese, whose “Raging Bull” I consider to be his greatest masterpiece yet “Goodfellas” is the picture of his that I watch the most. But when it comes to best, is the technical side of filmmaking more important than the theme of a movie if its cinematography and editing aren't quite where they should be to match the film's script and performances? When should you let the shortcomings of a film slide and when should you more harshly judge another one?

As I began to look at the rather unscientific list I made in 2020 of my favorite new films, I thought about what I looked for in end-of-the-year lists back when I was just a casual fan signing onto “The New York Times” or Roger Ebert's site each December. I realized that while I knew that the more times I came across titles like “Yi Yi” or “In the Mood for Love” on the web, they moved higher up on my list of films to seek out, the thing I loved even more than anything was discovering something new that represented an individual critic's personality in a stance that broke away from the pack.

Some films are, of course, objectively great, and that is the first criteria I used when compiling my list. Starting with the query to list the films that I consider the best of the year, I went with that “Raging Bull” vs. “Goodfellas” dynamic in listing unequivocally excellent films first but once those were out of the way, I started to play. I moved them to various locations in the rankings, by considering other questions as well.

Namely, which films spoke to me the most on a personal level as a 39-year-old disabled woman with my particular worldview and set of experiences? Which ones perhaps meant more to me in 2020 than they would've just one year earlier? If I'd never seen any of the films from 2020, which ones would I want a friend to tell me to see first? 

I meant to make a Top 20 of '20 list but my first draft went well past 50 films so I arrived at 30 as a means of compromise. The last movie that I saw in a theater was nearly a year ago and while I miss that communal experience, even without the theater, some truly amazing films were released last year. There are a handful of titles on this list that I watched more than once, including the top film, which I loved so much that I watched it twice in one week. Similarly, there are others you will see here that I found so hard-hitting that I know it will be a long time before I'm able to revisit them. I'm limited to the works that I have access to and/or have seen so far so this list might be right for today but it will inevitably shift with time and greater access to more movies. And as my whims change, something I currently have in my Top 5 or 10 might drop to my Top 20, and vice versa, and others might fall off this list completely.

While working on this project, I quickly realized that I shouldn't write about each film on this list individually for two reasons: the first being that I'm so passionate about these movies that it would be several thousand words long, and the second is that I want you to have that same sense of discovery that I had when I finally sat down to watch, say, 2002's “City of God” for the first time.

My advice to you is don't read too much about these films ahead of time before you push play. My friend, the veteran critic, and screenwriter Drew McWeeny argued on my podcast Watch With Jen that reading film criticism should be saved until after you've watched a movie and I wholeheartedly agree with him. I love and respect film writing and do my best not to spoil any plot points in my pieces but I know that as a consumer in my own right, I do the same thing as Drew. I save the reviews I want to read until after I've seen the movie and have sat with it for a while. 

It's incredibly valuable to bring other points of view into my relationship with a movie, whether I agree or disagree with their critique. Honestly, back in the "before times" when press screenings were safe to attend, I opted not to discuss new films very much with fellow critics and chose to instead think about it privately for at least twenty-four hours before I wrote my piece to avoid hyperbole or a rush to judgment. I didn't start out like this of course, because it took some time for me to learn that it's okay not to know what to think about a film right away.

It's said that the legendary critic Gene Siskel would leave the theater rather than see the trailers for upcoming features back when he was writing for “The Chicago Tribune.” While I've never gone that far, I do find myself only watching thirty seconds or so of a YouTube trailer to get the feel of a movie I might agree to review without the disappointment of inevitable spoilers. I love going into a movie knowing little to nothing about it.

Now that we're all home during the pandemic and so much great cinema is available with the push of a button, I encourage you to try something new. Check out films from genres you normally don't embrace and be sure to explore titles from other countries as well. View movie-watching as a new adventure. After all, it's a way to safely travel in the comfort of your own home in 2021. I know that having the ability to go to Greece and swim in the sea with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon is a big part of the reason that I ranked their newest “Trip” film so highly on this list. Yet even though the rest of the movies I included aren't comedic travelogues, they do offer you the chance to escape reality for a while by going back in time or walking in the shoes of someone you'd never expect to meet in your everyday life. 

Like seeing a “you are here” sticker on a map, a majority of the best movies of the year opted for a neorealistic approach to storytelling. They aim to drop you directly into the world of their protagonist and lose you for a while. From blue-collar workers going wherever they need to go for work as modern-day nomads to heavy metal drummers or farmers doing the same, most of these films use blisteringly compelling first-person or small ensemble narratives. Concentrating on individuals living their lives on the fringes, we encounter the uncelebrated souls of people just getting by, the un-Coogan and Brydons, if you will.

When writing about what these movies have in common, some critics preferred to zero in on the Me Too aspect apparent in many of 2020's best features and it is definitely there. The popularity of this vital theme, along with the fact that over a dozen of the films in my unedited list of '20 favorites were made by women cannot be understated when evaluating the year's best works. However, I think the real story here is that in a largely (and thankfully) superhero-free year, filmmakers have argued that the real superheroes are the ones who are not “the best” genetic specimens but rather, the ones who get up and do the best they can, regardless of race, gender, or ability. 

Navigating wrongs as they're able while also knowing that they still need to put food on the table, in many of these movies, there's a recurring question of who has and what it means to have power. Many of our main characters are backed into a corner and forced to reconcile what it is that they need in this life with what they want. The desire to simplify, to make a connection, and to find meaning even in a world where things aren't fair is felt throughout all of these works, regardless of who the film's subjects are. We see this when we tag along with guests to a 1980s West London dance party, when we watch a Czech artist find a new friend and muse in the Norwegian thief who stole two of her paintings, and in a thinly veiled autobiographical portrait of a filmmaker in Italy trying to come to terms with his own demons and desires.

A combination of “best” and “favorite” movies, including the ones I immediately recommended to others and the ones that kept me up nights, when given the impossible task of making a list, I took a cue from these films and found my own meaning as well. In the end, don't ask me to explain it. Just enjoy the movies because then it’s time for you to decide. 

Jen's 30 Best Films of '20

1) “David Byrne’s American Utopia” 
2) “Sound of Metal” 
3) “Minari” 
4) “The Trip to Greece” (full review)
5) “Small Axe: Lovers Rock” 
6) “The Nest” (full review)
7) “I’m Your Woman” (full review)
8) “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” 
9) “The Assistant” (full review)
10) “A Sun” 
11) “Nomadland” 
12) “Another Round” 
13) “Babyteeth” (full review)
14) “The Painter and the Thief” (full review)
15) “A Good Woman is Hard to Find” (full review)
16) “Black Bear” 
17) “One Night in Miami” 
18) “Saint Frances” 
19) “First Cow” 
20) “Herself” 
21) “News of the World” 
22) “The Burnt Orange Heresy” 
23) “Da 5 Bloods” 
25) “Time” 
26) "The Vast of Night" 
27) “Driveways” 
28) “Alone With Her Dreams” (full review)
29) “Tommaso” 
30) “Corpus Christi” 
Note: I will continue to update this list on Letterboxd as I see more movies and/or revise the order of the titles. You can visit the list in progress here.

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