This was not the year we were promised. It started off on a series of high points: a fruitful Sundance, a history-making Oscar win for Parasite, the release of several notable 2019 fest-circuit gems for general-public consumption. Movie theaters were still filled with annoying texters and talkers, but they were open for business. We looked forward to seeing Daniel Craig’s Bond farewell, Christopher Nolan’s latest question mark of an IMAX thriller, Wes Anderson’s tribute to old-timey newspaper folk, a Peter Jackson documentary on the Beatles’ Let It Be sessions; we braced ourselves in anticipation (and also with some trepidation) about new Marvel movies, a belated Top Gun sequel, yet another Ghostbusters franchise coffer filler. We speculated on what would make the cut for Cannes in the spring, and by extension, the lineups of Venice, Telluride, and Toronto in the fall. We debated whether First Cow‘s bovine star Eve the Cow should be considered a best supporting actress or more of a co-lead.
And then in late February and early March, as if it was buried deep in a soundtrack’s mix, you’d hear the faint voices of news anchors talking about this virus that was showing up with alarming frequency in Asia, and Europe, and now the United States.…
We all know what happened next: Release schedules became endless games of musical chairs, communal spaces like cineplexes were treated like crime scenes, film and TV production grinded to a halt, and so many studio movies slated for huge screens were Hail Mary passed to home screens. Nolan’s supposed savior of the theatrical experience, Tenet, did eventually go big even as those of us in the U.S. stayed home — but if a complicated thriller about time, space, and people in tailored suits running from explosions played to empty seats, did it really ever get released? Movies being punted to summer, then late summer, then early winter, then 2021, or some TBD great beyond were often the least of our worries as the world shut down. But for those of us who still cherish the idea of communal viewing, and who still crave that feeling that occurs when the lights in a theater dim, the idea of those same house lights staying dark forever was one more casualty of life circa 2020.
To say that there were no good movies in 2020, however, is dead wrong — there were actually a lot of great movies that we were lucky to see this year. We just ended up seeing them via virtual cinemas (the unheralded saviors of cinephilia this year, support one today) and VOD services and, of course, the now omnipresent corporate streamers. But they were there, some of which were holdovers from last year, some of which finished production just under the shutdown wire, and some that managed to be completed in the most trying of circumstances. Here are the top 20 films of 2020: from a life-affirming concert movie to a soul-saving portrait of a dance party, a Romanian documentary to Guatemalan ghost story, a black-and-white throwback to Old Hollywood to a pulpy colonialist revenge thriller in vivid living color.