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Screen Slate Best of 2020: The Top 20

   

The year-in-film 2020 has been unlike any other, so it seems fitting that it should be the first in nearly a decade that Screen Slate publishes end-of-year wrap-up coverage. The reasoning behind this development is twofold: on a personal note, growing up in suburban Ohio, I usually felt a twinge of exclusion reading year-end lists of films that I was unable to see. But in 2020, access conditions for viewers and critics has been largely equalized. (Or at least, the movies you haven't had a chance to see didn't rank with us, and we probably didn't see them, either.) Secondly, as I wondered which films might appear in annual assessments, it occurred to me that many lists in which I traditionally placed the most stock would not be appearing this year. Therefore, I was thrilled that writer-editor Nicolas Rapold accepted Screen Slate’s invitation to edit a definitive “Screen Slate’s Best of 2020” list along with a vast — and truly astonishing — selection of contributors’ notable first viewings and discoveries from the year in which we (mostly) didn’t make it to the movies. We’re honored and humbled by the participants, and we thank you, our readers, for sticking with us through a year of experimentation and improvisation. And we can’t wait to pull the curtain off what we have in store for the next one. —Jon Dieringer, Screen Slate editor

I remember the light, and perhaps others did, too. Seeing Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow for the first time, and again since its initial release this past March, I felt I was blinking into a bracing sunlight and breathing the crisp air of its 1820s Oregon setting. That sense of emerging into a bright world bristling with possibility stuck with me throughout 2020, and it’s impossible to deny that this year’s bunker existence only heightened First Cow in my mind as a hypervivid sense memory. Perhaps a little of that figured into the film’s appeal among Screen Slate’s viewers, but there is such a wealth of experience to be found in Reichardt’s latest work of art — its portrayal of companionship, wisdom about American origins and mortality, and lived-in performances, just to begin with — that it’s hard to settle on any one reason for its top spot in Screen Slate’s look at the movies of 2020.

Which leads to a basic question about a bizarre year: what were the movies of 2020? At the heart of Screen Slate’s “Best of 2020” survey is the recognition that we all met movies wherever and whenever we could during these profoundly strange and traumatic times. So the Screen Slate lists mingle together movies that opened theatrically with those that appeared via streaming, right alongside titles showed only “at” festivals, which found new audiences online. A shining example is Tsai Ming-liang’s Days, which received a renewed life this fall long after its Berlin premiere in February, and landed the fourth ranking in the poll. I’ll spare you my pontifications on the latest from cinema godhead Tsai, and just pass along the glad tidings that Grasshopper Film will distribute Days in 2021. (Which begs the question: who’s distributing another 2020 festival premiere on the list, Ephraim Asili’s The Inheritance?) [Update: a few hours after this post went live, it was announced that The Inheritance has been picked up by Grasshopper for March 2021 release.]

I’ve saved the best for last: Screen Slate contributors also share here their favorite first viewings of movies — not new releases, but anything at all discovered in the wilderness of moviegoing at home. These lists are printed in full, and the wide-ranging assortments put a spring in my step (and gave me hundreds of ideas for further viewing). You’ll find the lists on a separate page, indexed by the poll’s contributors, and testifying to what I think all of the site’s ardent followers believe—that the most recent year of releases is but a small corner in a universe of movies (and beyond). So, as the below selection pays tribute to the slow grinds of Lovers Rock, the ghostly mourning of Vitalina Varela, Dick Johnson’s one hundred deaths, and the Collective experience of injustice and exposé, it’s all incomplete without the fascinating self-curated retrospectives and deep-dives and wanderings in the First Viewings section.

But enough out of me—a big thank you to all the generous participants and filmmakers, and now on to the movies... Nicolas Rapold

Screen Slate's Best Films of 2020

1. First Cow (Kelly Reichardt)
2. Time (Garrett Bradley)
3. Lovers Rock (Steve McQueen)
4. Days (Tsai Ming-liang)
5. Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman) 

6. Martin Eden (Pietro Marcello)
7. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (Bill Ross IV & Turner Ross)
8. Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa)
9. Bacurau (Kleber Mendonça Filho & Juliano Dornelles)
10. City Hall (Frederick Wiseman) 

11. Dick Johnson Is Dead (Kirsten Johnson)
12. Collective (Alexander Nanau)
13. The Inheritance (Ephraim Asili)
14. She Dies Tomorrow (Amy Seimetz)
15. I Was at Home, But... (Angela Schanelec) 

16. The Woman Who Ran (Hong Sangsoo)
17. Undine (Christian Petzold)
18. Tommaso (Abel Ferrara)
19. Shirley (Josephine Decker)
20. Beanpole (Kantemir Balagov)

Bacurau

1. First Cow (Kelly Reichardt)

Our coverage: “Reichardt frames westward expansion as a story of capital, which helps her drain excessive sentimentality from the film’s tenderness: decency seems a poignant triumph over greed. … [She] dedicates the film to the landscape filmmaker Peter Hutton, and her prologue suggests human impermanence within a durative wilderness: in the present day, a woman and her dog come upon a pair of buried skeletons, laid next to each other like twins. This inevitable endpoint may hang over the film, but it could also be a matter of perspective, as Reichardt marvels at the small fact of this togetherness enduring two centuries later.” Chloe Lizotte

Where to watch: First Cow is streaming on Showtime and available to rent or purchase through most digital marketplaces and on disc.

Bacurau

2. Time (Garrett Bradley)

Our coverage:Time doesn’t aim to be a scathing reveal of the internal horrors of the prison system. In fact, the prison itself is not the main focus; instead there is a distinct reality depicted here in the humanity of those who have been in prison, and those who have loved ones inside. This documentary is a stunning representation of Black family life and the ways that system fails us. Having a story like this in the hands of a Black, female director is the reason why it flows so well and stands out as a beautifully timely release.” Nia Tucker

“Fox [Rich, the documentary’s protagonist] takes the carceral state to task with well-deserved vitriol, but the film's focus stays squarely with the love and hope that animates her and her sons in their quest to see their father again. I know I wasn't the only audience member with tears streaming down my face.” Cosmo Bjorkenheim

Where to watch: Time is streaming on Amazon Prime

Bacurau

3. Lovers Rock (Steve McQueen)

Our coverage:Lovers Rock is an enrapturing celebration of the West Indian diaspora and Black love. ... The script by McQueen and Courttia Newland places incisive, pitch-perfect dialog in between scenes that otherwise develop through furtive glances across the dancefloor and the acclimation of bodies to each other, carried by lead Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn’s auspicious screen debut. It’s a mood piece that in some ways feels suited to the intimacy of the home — but also made me miss being around people.” Jon Dieringer

“It’s a delicate work that opens up over its runtime, and in that way, a rich new mode for McQueen.” Chloe Lizotte

Where to watch: Lovers Rock is part of Small Axe, streaming on Amazon Prime

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4. Days (Tsai Ming-liang)

Our coverage: “There were a few shots that really destroyed me.” Jeva Lange

“I was emotionally annihilated.” Chloe Lizotte

Where to watch: Days screened in national public virtual film festivals and will be released in 2021 by Grasshopper.

Bacurau

5. Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman)

Where to watch: Never Rarely Sometimes Always is available to watch on HBO Max or purchase through most digital marketplaces and on DVD.

Bacurau

6. Martin Eden (Pietro Marcello)

Where to watch: Martin Eden is now showing in virtual cinemas (streaming rental benefiting theaters)

Bacurau

7. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (Bill Ross IV & Turner Ross)

Our coverage: “An exercise in riff-raff sentimentalism. ... Its aesthetics are decidedly lo-fi, the lens at times as grimy as the bar counter and the jukebox grinding out tinny A$AP Rocky and Spice Girls in the background. But we get more than just toothless boomers growling incoherently about the jobs they're ignoring to spend the day at the Roaring 20s, a Las Vegas dive bar on the verge of closing its doors for good. It's also a lament for the disappearance of a city that was once as multifarious and vibrant as the bar's patrons. ‘This whole town is losing its character,’ the bartender complains. ‘Fuckin’ Celine Dion can have it.’” Cosmo Bjorkenheim

Where to watch: Bloody Nose Empty Pockets available to rent or purchase through most digital marketplaces and on disc.

Bacurau

8. Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa)

Our coverage:Vitalina Varela is a neutron star: tenebrous, weighty beyond its small scale, drawing us into its formidably still orbit. Glacial pacing dilates Vitalina’s resentment, sadness, and confusion to fill entire scenes without saying a word, and the film’s sense of lingering despair outside time will feel familiar to those following Costa’s works, but Vitalina Varela offers something new.” Danielle Burgos

Where to watch: Vitalina Varela is streaming on the Criterion Channel

Bacurau

9. Bacurau (Kleber Mendonça Filho & Juliano Dornelles)

Our coverage: “Without a doubt the most cathartic cinematic experience of 2019, Bacurau presents an unashamed fantasy of grisly violence against the pillager class at the hands of an indigenous community. If we’re doomed to hem and haw over inadequate emissions standards and how politely to chastise fascists for burning down the rainforest, let us rejoice in a rare piece of popular entertainment pointedly at odds with the demons bent on ransacking the natural world and exterminating any who resist. Directors Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho synthesize graceless exploitation overkill with warmly observed celebrations of village life in remote Brazil and ultimately produce a revenge fantasy cleansed of nihilism. Tired of seeing countless people of color fall to anonymous deaths in the background of globe-trotting franchise extravaganzas? Here’s the righteous inverse.” Patrick Dahl

Where to watch: Bacurau is streaming on the Criterion Channel and Kanopy and available to rent or purchase through most digital marketplaces and on disc.

Bacurau

10. City Hall (Frederick Wiseman)

Our coverage: “Wiseman’s cinema eye is certainly one of equity. He’s made this film, and shared it with the world, I believe because he feels there is a moral lesson to be gleaned from the glorious, patient, painful, devastating, arduous duty one has to rectify one’s life — and the lives of those around them — to the betterment of their society, their nation, their time. The film’s closing highlight, however, feels like our zeitgeist held up to a funhouse mirror — a female African-American Boston police officer leading the national anthem. It’s exactly what a white ninety-year-old American documentarian would cap off his film with in the year 2020: a spectacle so awkwardly charged in its relationship to our current reckoning, standing in pride and guilt at the same time.” Conor Williams

City Hall, which could be my favorite film from his late-2010s stretch (the film was shot in late 2018, so it feels natural within that grouping). Maybe it’s my own tendency to be awed by everyday details of the world around me, but I’ve never found his running times forbidding — they make his work more immersive by removing the subconscious expectation of an endpoint. And City Hall really benefits from that breadth as it examines Boston’s city government: while Mayor Marty Walsh is the fulcrum of the movie, it spans a slew of committees and subcommittees, inspectors and archivists, marriages and parking-ticket hearings (it wouldn’t be Boston without those).” Chloe Lizotte

Where to watch: City Hall is now showing in virtual arthouses (streaming rental benefiting theaters)

Bacurau

11. Dick Johnson Is Dead (Kirsten Johnson)

Our coverage: “ [In] Dick Johnson Is Dead, [Kirsten Johnson] helps her elderly and neurologically deteriorating father come to terms with the idea of his own death by staging different ways it could happen. … Besides hybridizing genres she also charts new tonal terrain, alternating rapidly between hilarity and grief, tenderness and near-callousness.” Cosmo Bjorkenheim

Where to watch: Dick Johnson is Dead is streaming on Netflix

Bacurau

12. Collective (Alexander Nanau)

Where to watch: Collective is available to rent or purchase through most digital marketplaces

Bacurau

13. The Inheritance (Ephraim Asili)

Where to watch: The Inheritance screened in national virtual film festivals and will be released by Grasshopper Film on March 12.

Bacurau

14. She Dies Tomorrow (Amy Seimetz)

Where to watch: She Dies Tomorrow is streaming on Hulu and available to rent or purchase through most digital marketplaces.

Bacurau

15. I Was at Home, But... (Angela Schanelec)

Where to watch: I Was at Home, But… is streaming on Mubi and available to rent or purchase through most digital marketplaces.

Bacurau

16. The Woman Who Ran (Hong Sangsoo)

Where to watch: The Woman Who Ran screened in national, publicly accessible virtual film festivals and will be released in 2021 by Cinema Guild.

Bacurau

17. Undine (Christian Petzold)

Where to watch: Undine screened in national, publicly accessible virtual film festivals and will be released in 2021 by IFC Films.

Bacurau

18. Tommaso (Abel Ferrara)

Where to watch: Tommaso is streaming on Kanopy and available to rent or purchase through most digital marketplaces, including Kino Now, and on disc.

Bacurau

19. Shirley (Josephine Decker)

Our coverage: “‘A clean house is evidence of mental inferiority,’ declares a mythicized Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) in Josephine Decker’s new film. The writer means this literally—her floors are covered with crumpled papers and her bedsheets snarl in perpetual disarray—and, befitting a horror novelist, supernaturally; the house quivers under each of her visions or moods. As Shirley strives to wrench a few sentences free from the chaos, Decker steeps Shirley in this harrowing psychological fluidity, not to romanticize it as a creative necessity, but to explore Shirley’s retreat from ’50s society through a Jackson-style Gothic.” Chloe Lizotte

Where to watch: Shirley is streaming on Hulu and available to rent or purchase through most digital marketplaces.

Bacurau

20. Beanpole (Kantemir Balagov)

Where to watch: Beanpole is streaming on Mubi and Kanopy and available to rent or purchase through most digital marketplaces.

For a full list of critics who contributed to this list, including their individual picks, see our First Viewings & Discoveries article.