This is my 19th Ten Best Movies list for this newspaper and it comes out in a social and cultural landscape more transformed than any in my two decades at the Globe. Because of the pandemic, theaters have been closed for much of the year and sparsely attended when they’ve been open. Because of the pandemic, millions of people have stayed indoors watching entertainments streaming through their TV sets and laptops.
Because of the pandemic, the studios — or, more properly, the communications giants that own the studios — have doubled down on their investments in video on demand, launching new streaming platforms and shattering long-held distribution norms. The Walt Disney Company has reorganized itself around Disney+ and its 87 million subscribers. Warner Bros. announced that its 2021 heavy hitters will arrive in theaters and on HBO Max the same day. (Both studio and streamer are owned by AT&T.) Theatrical exhibition is no longer the horse that leads the Hollywood cart and it won’t be even when we’re all vaccinated. I have no idea what the new normal will look like, but it won’t be anything like the old normal.
However. If you wanted to know what a year would look like without movie blockbusters, 2020 delivered. With the studios pushing the bulk of their A-list jewels into 2021, we were suddenly spared the superhero franchise films, the sequels, the remakes, the reboots — all the noise that traditionally dominates the industry and popular culture. Remember during the spring COVID surge, when few airlines were running flights, how quiet the skies seemed? That’s what the mainstream movie year felt like.
Or maybe a more correct comparison is to a forest fire that takes out the overstory and allows the smaller undergrowth sudden access to the sun. Independent theaters and arthouses also struggled financially this year, but their decision to showcase virtual screenings — you bought a ticket to watch the movie at home, with a portion of the proceeds going to the host venue — kept them vital to and engaged with their dedicated customer bases. And smaller distributors had no compunction about releasing their films either on this new digital theater circuit or straight to existing streaming platforms. Three of the movies in my Top 10 debuted on Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix, respectively.
Does that mean they’re no longer movies but TV? This was a year in which the lines separating the two mediums blurred even further under the pressure of quarantines and home sheltering. A lot of people found pleasure in series like “The Queen’s Gambit,” which some even inhaled in one gulp like a single seven-hour film. My favorite movie of the year was part of a five-title project that the Internet Movie Database insists on calling a “mini-series,” no matter that each installment is a distinct feature-length story. We live in a time of flux, where media formats and memes evolve by the day. It’s likely that more people in 2020 watched a TikTok video of Nathan Apodaca, a.k.a. @420doggface208, skateboarding to Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” than the combined audience for my entire Top Ten.
So does that mean the cinema no longer matters? Hardly. I’d argue that the 90-minute-to-two-hour movie remains the perfect delivery system for visual narrative, long enough to develop depth and nuance yet short enough to be easily consumed in one go. That combination of length plus compactness encourages playing with form in ways a TV series can rarely afford (unless David Lynch is at the wheel) and viral videos can only dabble in.
And, too, movies tell stories that resolve, which series don’t often do (or do well), and in that resolution there is meaning and comfort. I look at my 2020 Top 10 and see a number of films that hover around the deeply missed idea of community, of the connections and conflicts that arise from people coming together. The settings are diverse — a house party in 1980s London, a van encampment in Arizona, a city hall, a frontier town, a bar that may or may not be in Las Vegas — but the spectacle of humans warming to each other in groups was consistent almost across the board. (The biggest exception was a story about a man unable to connect with anyone outside his own tortured mind.) In a year in which friends and family were reduced to squares in a Zoom grid, these films illustrated what it will feel like when we put our lives back together in the same room once more. May it be soon.
Best of 2020
1. Lovers Rock The most ecstatic party I went to all year, and not just because it’s the only party I went to all year. All five of the films in writer-director Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” anthology are excellent, but while the other four tackle socio-political dramas within England’s West Indian community, “Lovers Rock” is simply (and not so simply) the story of a rent party in Notting Hill in the 1980s, before the neighborhood got gentrified. We see the DJs set up and the women deck themselves out, feuds and flirtations unfold — and for two strangers (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn and Micheal Ward), there might be something like love. But the vibe’s the thing, the air thick with patois, perfume, and sweet release, all cued to the greatest reggae soundtrack since “The Harder They Come.” And when a living room full of dancers takes Janet Kay’s “Silly Games” off the turntable and into its collective heart, it’s a moment of movie magic and a snapshot of what makes us human. (On Amazon Prime, but you have to look for it under the “Small Axe” heading.)
2. Nomadland With “The Rider” (2017), filmmaker Chloé Zhao reached into America’s heartland for a story about the people who live there. Her follow-up is more epic in scope, sympathy, and smoldering anger: the story of Fern (Frances McDormand), a factory worker’s widow whose town has literally vanished off the map and who takes to the road in a battered camper van, picking up seasonal gig work in Amazon warehouses and moving from one trailer park or encampment to the next. As with the earlier film, Zhao peoples the screen with non-professionals playing some version of themselves — you won’t soon forget Swankie — but her gaze out at an unmoored America and its uprooted underclass is wider and wiser this time. Beatifically photographed by Joshua James Richards, the movie’s a modern “Grapes of Wrath” and a modern western, too. And McDormand, our most down-to-earth movie star, makes Fern both real and complex, a woman cast off by her country and in no hurry to come back. (In theaters February 2021)
3. Never Rarely Sometimes Always A teenage girl named Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is pregnant. She lives in rural Pennsylvania, where options don’t really exist. Eliza Hittman’s quiet, profoundly moving drama follows Autumn and her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) as they journey to New York City by bus to get her an abortion. It’s a movie about the invisible support system of women — of how far you would go, no questions asked, for a sister and a friend. (Hittman has said she made the movie in response to the great 2007 Romanian film “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days.”) It’s also about the damage that some people do and that other people keep hidden until something like a nurse’s banal reading of a health and safety questionnaire brings the bruises to the surface. Flanigan, a first-time actor, has the stillness and sorrow of a saint in a hoodie, and she and Ryder carry their roles with the weight of knowing this isn’t only Autumn’s story. (Available on demand)
4. Palm Springs Man, did I need a good, whip-smart romantic comedy this year, and if it came with metaphysical gravitas and a grounding in quantum physics, all the better. It’s a wedding comedy until about 15 minutes in, when it hops off the ledge into something much weirder and wilder. Andy Samberg always seems like a smirk with legs until you realize he’s actually an intelligent, caring, and funny smirk with legs, and he catches all the existential curveballs of Andy Siara’s twisty script without breaking a sweat. But it’s Cristin Milioti who takes the stock role of the bride’s misfit sister and brings it to life with heartbreaking hangdog farce and fury. If this were 20 years ago and “Palm Springs” came out in a theater, Milioti would be hailed as the next big thing. But it’s on Hulu only, and the discovery may feel like yours alone.
5. The Painter and the Thief The first movie you see at a film festival is usually a hit-or-miss proposition, but Benjamin Ree’s documentary, which I screened shortly after arriving at Sundance in January, has haunted me for the rest of the year. Ostensibly about an artist, Barbora Kysilkova, who befriends Karl Bertil-Nordland, the heroin addict who stole two of her paintings from an Oslo gallery, the movie is actually a drama of kindness, human frailty, and healing, with the painter’s own emotional issues rippling the tale and the thief embodying our worst fears and best wishes for the screw-ups in our lives. Subtly edited to tell the tale from the point of view of both unreliable narrators, it reminds us that hope comes from other people and nowhere else. If ever there were a message to get us through a plague year, that’s the one. (Available on demand)
6. I’m Thinking of Ending Things Adapted from a novel by Iain Reid, this puzzle-box of a drama allowed writer-director Charlie Kaufman to indulge his standard obsessions — misery, failure, the unreliability of the time-space continuum — in a wintry fable that only seemed to be about a romantic breakup. But maybe the woman who’s narrating the story — the peerless Jessie Buckley, walking the tightrope with finesse — isn’t the one actually telling the tale. Why do the eager-to-please parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) of her boyfriend, Jake (Jesse Plemons), keep changing hairstyles and ages? Who’s the elderly school janitor (Guy Boyd) mopping the floors in a blizzard? If your tastes run to linear plotting and away from brain-twisters, you may throw in the towel early and angrily. Those who stay may be rewarded with a piercing — even beautiful — tragedy about a man condemned to wander the corridors of his past. (Netflix)
7. First Cow A gentle frontier parable with unexpected bite, Kelly Reichardt’s seventh feature film whisks us back to 1820s Oregon territory, where a cast-off camp cook (John Magaro) and a runaway Chinese laborer (Orion Lee) befriend each other, set up house on the edge of what someday will be called a town, and go into business making primordial doughnuts for the local miners and trappers. Does it matter that the recipe involves milk taken under cover of night from the local bigwig’s prize heifer? There are echoes of Robert Altman (“McCabe and Mrs. Miller” specifically) in this tall tale of America’s two selves, one rapacious and the other with arms wide open. Two centuries later, we remain locked in that selfsame struggle. Pass the doughnuts. (Available on demand)
8. Bacurau From Brazil, a fiery magical-realist broadside that takes some of the same concerns as “First Cow” and turns them into a last battle. The title town, a village of rebels in the middle of nowhere, is under siege by just about everyone — fat-cat local politicians, the Brazilian army, a troupe of multinational mercenaries led by a German assassin, shadowy American interests. In my review last March, I said the movie has “more than a touch of spaghetti western, as well as a share of Gabriel García Marquez and a side of Che Guevara.” It also has a contingent of rowdy, committed performances, not least from Sonia Braga as the town doctor and community bruja. Written and directed by Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho, it’s a call to arms for Brazilians and everyone else. (Available on demand)
9. City Hall In which Frederick Wiseman, native son and patron saint of the documentary, comes home to remind us of the dull, ennobling daily work of local government — how, when wielded with compassion and attention to the nuts and bolts, it can be the glue that binds us together as a species rather than driving us apart in enmity. A four-hour-plus tour of Boston’s Brutalist title building and the ways its policies and people feed out to all the city’s neighorhoods and back again, “City Hall” is as fascinated as any Wiseman movie by the drama of institutional process. This may be the first of the 90-year-old filmmaker’s many works to have something like a hero, though, in our unprepossessing mayor, Marty Walsh, who exudes the glamour of simple bureaucratic decency at a time when it has seemed long out of fashion. (On PBS Dec. 22)
10. Bloody Nose Empty Pockets After this year, you must be ready for a drink. The Ross brothers, Bill and Turner, make movies that play in the cracks between documentary and fiction: This one takes place in a Las Vegas bar on the Strip that’s closing down and having one last blow-out for the regulars. The regulars are real, but the bar’s actually a set in New Orleans, so what’s truth here and what’s make-believe? Such niceties may seem beside the point as you watch the confabulations and comings and goings of the clientele at the Roaring 20s, a collection of ex-hippies and young ne’er-do-wells who love each other the way only barflies can. Almost in spite of itself, the film’s a modern-day Eugene O’Neill play, with Michael Martin ultimately very touching as the one rummy aware of the daylight waiting just outside the barroom door.
Runners-up: 25 movies I also liked a lot -- “The Assistant,” “Beanpole,” “Boys State,” “Collective,” “Crip Camp,” “David Byrne’s American Utopia,” “Dick Johnson Is Dead,” “Driveways,” “The Father,” “Ghost Tropic,” “Gunda,” “Ham on Rye,” “Mank,” “Martin Eden,” “Minari,” “Miss Juneteenth,” “The Nest,” “One Night in Miami,” “Possessor,” “Promising Young Woman,” “She Dies Tomorrow,” “Shirley,” “Sound of Metal,” “Time,” “The Vast of Night”