Good movies kept coming in 2020, even when everything else stopped. In a year that often felt like its own kind of cataclysmic Hollywood production, the movies — even if relegated to smaller screens — were as necessary as ever. It was the year of the drive-in, the backyard-bedsheet screening and the streaming service. But wherever they played, the best films of the year offered some escape and connection: the possibility of grace, a spark of fury — and something the rest of the world couldn’t offer: the assurance of an ending. Here are movie critic Lindsey Bahr's picks for the best movies of 2020:
1. “Nomadland”: There is an unfortunate, inevitable hurdle when you come to something that already has scores of accolades, but Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland” is that rare creation that not only lives up to the hype but also makes you forget about it. This is a gentle, humane and dizzyingly poetic ode to the people on the fringes of American society, the ones who choose to wander and drift across the great Western landscape. Frances McDormand gives a performance that is so alive and unguarded that it feels like non-fiction. Many want to be the next Terrence Malick, but “Nomadland” proves Zhao is it.
2. “Kajillionaire”: Miranda July’s “Kajillionaire” is also about people on the fringe, but her protagonists aren’t highway exiles. The Dynes, Robert (Richard Jenkins), Theresa (Debra Winger) and Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood), are lousy small time con artists hiding in plain sight in sunbeaten, concrete Los Angeles. Original and dazzlingly surreal, you may be surprised at the emotional punch this odd and lovely story packs and you’ll never look at a pancake the same way.
3. "Lovers Rock": All you really need to know is that “Lover’s Rock” is a pulsating, 68-minute dance party directed by one of our living greats, Steve McQueen. It is sweaty, glittery, heady and, like a great guest, doesn’t overstay its welcome.
4. “Collective”: It’s hard to recommend something that is likely to enrage, this year especially, but “Collective,” a searing Romanian documentary about the aftermath of a deadly Bucharest nightclub fire is just too good and eye opening to deny.
5. “Mank”: Movies about the movies are an easy target for anyone wanting to criticize Hollywood’s naval-gazing tendencies, but “Mank,” about the man who almost didn’t get credit for writing “Citizen Kane” does something different. Directed by David Fincher and written by his late father Jack, this film is nostalgic but not mawkish, reverent but not blind. It is a stylish and wry look at a man who came to Hollywood to sell out and ended up creating something he was proud of. Gary Oldman as the titular character and Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies are splendid.
6. “On the Rocks”: Sofia Coppola’s latest goes down so easy, it might seem a little insubstantial. But although its surface pleasures are many — I’ll tour ritzy Manhattan haunts with Bill Murray and Rashida Jones in a convertible with caviar and champagne any day — it’s also a work of subtle power. It’s an accessible, thoughtful and wonderfully adult treatise on men and women in the most unlikely of packages — a father/daughter comedy.
7. “Tenet”: “Tenet” was one of the only films this year that I saw on the big screen, having spent the first few months of the year on maternity leave and the rest in pandemic lockdown. Although it’s hard to separate from the experience of simply being in a theater, there was no more thrilling, glamorous and purely cinematic film this year.
8. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”: One of the year’s quietest but most devastating films looks at the decidedly unempowering experience of existing in a female teenage body, especially for a teenage girl living in rural Pennsylvania who needs an abortion. From director Eliza Hittman, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is a tremendous exercise in mood and a beautiful showcase for some up and coming talents.
9. “Promising Young Woman”: A messy, bold movie about a messy, bold woman (Carey Mulligan) who has given up on her own life to become a kind of #MeToo vigilante, scaring strangers and enemies into seeing that there are no gray areas when it comes to sexual misconduct. The bubblegum pink brainchild of writer-director Emerald Fennell (who also plays Camilla Parker-Bowles on “The Crown”) is garish, beguiling and unapologetically itself. Mulligan is terrific, as is Bo Burnham.
10. “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga”: No film made me laugh more this year than “Eurovision,” a knowingly silly lark about an Icelandic pop duo (Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams). Its songs and one-liners still echo in my head nearly six months later (in a good way).