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The Best Films of 2020, According to IndieWire’s Staff

In a bizarre year, how and where we saw movies might have changed, but the reason why never did: to see new worlds, to feel new emotions, to meet new people.

IndieWire Best of 2020

In a bizarre year, how and where we saw movies might have changed, but the reason why never did: to see new worlds, to feel new emotions, to meet new people. In a tough year, the entertainment industry alone has seen dozens of seismic shake-ups, but the possibility — the probability — of discovering wonderful films even in fraught times remained unchanged. Every year is a good year for film, even if you have to look a little harder or throw your attention a little wider.

Even 2020, with all its weirdness and pain, has played home to a thrilling assortment of films worth championing, the kind of films that would top any best-of list in any year. Such is the case with this year’s crop of “the best films,” as recognized by IndieWire’s own staff, who spend our literal lives consuming content (or, in more elegant terms, watching movies and TV shows).

Below, IndieWire’s staff unpacks some of our favorite films of the year. From awards darlings like “Nomadland” and “Minari” to festival favorites like “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” and “Time,” plus underseen gems like “Beanpole” and “Bacurau,” we’ve watched (and loved) a lot of movies this year. We hope you did, too.

And, if you’re in need of still more superlative lists about the best the year had to offer, be sure to check out Executive Editor and Chief Critic Eric Kohn’s best-of list, our annual critics poll with over 200 participants sounding off on a wide variety of films, or a look back at some of the small screen’s best series.

Anne Thompson, Editor-at-Large

1. “Nomadland”
This collaboration between producer-actress Frances McDormand and writer-director Chloé Zhao, adapting the Jessica Bruder book, is an uncannily prescient cinema vérité drama about the world we live in now.

2. “Da 5 Bloods”
Spike Lee and writer Kevin Wilmot have crafted an incendiary yet controlled hunt for buried treasure in Vietnam, with an incomparable ensemble cast led by NYFCC winner Delroy Lindo.

3. “The Trial of the Chicago 7”
Aaron Sorkin ups his directing game but could win his second Screenplay Oscar for this brilliant and engaging look back at the trial following the riots at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention.

4. “One Night in Miami”
Playwright-turned-screenwriter Kemp Powers and rookie feature director Regina King throw four African-American icons into a hotel room with surprising and provocative results.

5. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
George C. Wolfe and a superb cast led by Viola Davis and the late great Chadwick Boseman deliver the second in a series of ten August Wilson plays produced by Denzel Washington.

6. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”
Writer-director Eliza Hittman takes two vulnerable teenage girls on the road to New York to obtain an abortion they can’t get at home. Perfectly wrought.

7. “American Utopia”
Spike Lee directs David Byrne’s Broadway musical with ecstatic results. A thought-provoking dance movie for the ages.

Small Axe

“Lovers Rock”

Amazon Studios

8. “Lovers Rock”
One of Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” series, this film follows a young woman inside an ebullient dance party unlike anything we’ve ever seen or heard.

9. “Farewell Amor”
Ekwa Msangi makes an assured feature debut with this moving immigrant story about an Angolan teenager getting to know her long-distance father and New York City at the same time.

10. “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”
Charlie Kaufman’s best directing effort to date, starring sharp actors Jesse Plemons and Jessie Buckley, is a pretzel twist of an identity mystery that is delightful to debate and solve.

Best Animated Feature
Pixar’s “Soul” breaks animated family conventions as it reaches for a sophisticated audience with a portrait of a sad sack jazz musician (Jamie Foxx) trying to find himself before it’s too late.

Best Documentary Feature
“Fire at Sea” Oscar nominee Gianfranco Rosi’s “Notturno” is this year’s Italian Oscar submission, a heartbreaking immersion in the border regions of the Middle East, as soldiers and families, refugees and victims, mourn the past as well as the future.

Best International Feature
Thomas Vinterberg’s “Another Round” marks a star turn for Denmark chameleon Mads Mikkelsen as a depressed man in a midlife crisis, who as he tangles with the perils of alcohol, remembers how to dance.

Ann Donahue, Executive Editor, TV

“Emma”

Focus Features

The 10 Movies* I Saw in Quarantine** While Living with a Six-Year-Old***

*Really, truly, I only saw 10 movies​ this year, so this is more of a default list instead of a list of favorites. There was a lot of competition for screen time around here, OK? Be glad this isn’t a list of “10 Best Episodes of ‘Octonauts’ I Watched to Prevent My Child’s Brain from Rotting and Possibly Teach Him Some Social Skills About the Value of Teamwork Via Cute Animated Animals Because He Hasn’t Seen Another Child in Seven Months” because I could have done that, too.

**That being said, I have seen all of “The Crown” and “Bridgerton” at least twice, and liked both of those series more than I like any of these movies, so please hit me up if you want to talk about them.

***No, the six-year-old didn’t watch “Borat.”

1. “Emma”
2. “I Am Greta”
3. “Enola Holmes”
4. “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga”
5. “Wonder Woman 1984”
6. “Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm”
7. “Shaun the Sheep: Farmageddon”
8. “The Half of It”
9. “Tenet”
10. The first hour of “Mank” before I turned it off

Christian Blauvelt, Managing Editor

Beanpole

“Beanpole”

Kino Lorber

1. “Beanpole” (Kantemir Balagov)
2. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” (Eliza Hittman)
3. “Let Them All Talk” (Steven Soderbergh)
4. “The Whistlers” (Corneliu Porumboiu)
5. “Time” (Garrett Bradley)
6. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (George C. Wolfe)
7. “The Glorias” (Julie Taymor)
8. “The Assistant” (Kitty Green)
9. “Vitalina Varela” (Pedro Costa)
10. “Da 5 Bloods” (Spike Lee)

Honorable Mentions: “Another Round” (Thomas Vinterberg), “Martin Eden” (Pietro Marcello), “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” (Ross Brothers), “Collective” (Alexander Nanau).

Kate Erbland, Deputy Editor, Film

"The Assistant"

“The Assistant”

Bleecker

Typically, I approach my annual top ten with academic rigor: ten films (only films!), listed in order of my preference, no fuss, no muss, done. But this year has only been about fuss and muss, and when I thought about organizing my usual list in the usual way, it didn’t make much sense. Everything else about 2020 has been unusual, so why not opt to be (just a touch) more unusual with my end-of-the-year round-up?

For now, this is what I’ve landed on, a list of 15 films (15, wow! but still all films!) that proved to be good enough to hold my attention during this hell year and inspire fresh ruminations many months after first viewings. Of these 15 films, only three of them (“Emma,” “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” and “Promising Young Woman”) were first seen in a theater, a horrible statistic I hope to never, ever revisit. But even the features confined to home viewing and all its attendant distractions emerged as hearty contenders, bright spots in a period of time without many of them. (Home viewing, of course, is not a bad thing, and I confess to having watched “The Invisible Man” at least five times since it hit HBO earlier the year, my love for it only growing with each re-watch.)

Presenting: The 15 Best Films of 2020 That Held My Attention, Interest, and Affection During This Very, Very Bad Year, Organized Alphabetically

“The Assistant”
“Emma”
“I’m Thinking of Ending Things”
“The Invisible Man”
“Lovers Rock”
“Minari”
“Never Rarely Sometimes Always”
“Nomadland”
“One Night in Miami”
“Palm Springs”
“Promising Young Woman”
“Saint Frances”
“Time”
“The Trial of the Chicago 7”
“Wolfwalkers”

Ben Travers, Deputy Editor, TV

Carrie Coon and Jude Law in "The Nest"

Carrie Coon and Jude Law in “The Nest”

Courtesy of IFC Films

1. “The Nest”
Both a gorgeous study of marriage at a crisis point and an enlivening evisceration of the institution’s sexist standards in society, “The Nest” is meticulously made, brilliantly acted, and rich with subtext. Jude Law’s ferocious ego is hysterical. Carrie Coon inhales cigarettes and coffee, often in the same breath, then exhales a perfect “fuck you” to the patriarchy. What a gem. I would watch 10 hours of this.

2. “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”
This is The Young Woman’s movie, and I shall hear no other interpretation. (Just kidding, I’m going to read every wild take I can find, since that’s what Charlie Kaufman’s mind-bending beauty demands: imagination.)

3. “Let Them All Talk”
Both achingly plaintive and an absolute hoot, “Let Them All Talk” takes an incisive look at our struggles to communicate and connect (and, for once, does so without reductively scapegoating the internet). Meryl Streep’s delightfully isolated, snob of an author and Candice Bergen’s blunt but single-minded broke Texan finely illustrate the erosion of friendship, while a well-rounded cast of intriguing characters magnify more immediate personal disconnects. (Dianne Wiest, MVP.) Best of all, Soderbergh (with a script by Deborah Eisenberg) guides us through this gorgeous “crossing” to an actionable, appreciative end. Separations happen, but there are paths back to everyone — you just have to take the time to find them.

4. “Bad Education”
A beautifully crafted con artist story and searing indictment of America’s education system, “Bad Education” is also a sneaky good time and a showcase for Hugh Jackman. Allison Janney, too, fantastic as ever, and Ray Romano is a well-timed dose of humanity.

5. “Soul”
When it sits with its pathos, “Soul” is just a beautiful movie. From the tangible loss of an active life ended too early to the trickle of missed opportunities Joe discovers too late, Pete Docter and Kemp Powers’ animated, existential story makes for a far more resonant holiday tale than similarly reflective classics like “It’s a Wonderful Life” or any of the recent “Christmas Carols.” Though it can skew a bit too kid-coddling, this one still packs quite a punch.

6. “World of Tomorrow Episode Three: The Absent Dimensions of David Prime”
Honestly, the comedy worked even better for me than any of the latter half’s surprising, enriching reveals. I think that’s OK. What an adventurous, ever-adaptable franchise.

7. “Another Round”
Don’t we all fear of growing old and boring? Aren’t too many of us obsessed with reliving past glories? Shouldn’t some nights be reserved for getting absolutely pissed? Thomas Vinterberg’s sneakily sweet and painfully relatable look at four men’s not-so-objective experiment in intoxication never takes the easy way out of its delicate issues, and Mads Mikkelsen delivers a nuanced turn unlike anything I’ve seen from him before. When this is inevitably remade as a broad comedy by some Hollywood studio, may they have the wisdom to rehire Mads, so we can see him dance once more.

8. “First Cow”
I love star turns. *Love them* And Evie’s star turn — floating down the river, glowing in the morning sun, leading a barge dedicated to her queenly glory — is so breathtaking, I blacked out.

9. “I’m Your Woman”
Taut, twisty, and tantalizing, “I’m Your Woman” reverses a familiar conceit and then drives it in a radical new direction. Julia Hart’s eye-popping, painterly framings steadily build to an exciting event, revelation, or both, but my favorite part of this beautiful film is that, even though Rachel Brosnahan’s Jean serves as the audience proxy for unraveling her husband’s knotty backstory, she’s not reactive or deferential. She’s behind the wheel, slowly and assuredly stepping on the gas.

10. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
A subtle, specific production sets the stage for powerhouse performances that tear through like freight trains. Every artisan recognizes the quarreling generational story they’re telling, translates with efficiency and elegance, all while rattling the audience with their fervor. Chadwick Boseman’s career best. Glynn Turman, so tender. Viola Davis like you’ve never seen. I really admire this adaptation.

Chris O’Falt, Deputy Editor, Film & TV Craft

A still from Time by Ursula Garrett Bradley, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

“Time”

1. “Time”
2. “Wolfwalkers”
3. “Lovers Rock”
4. “Collective”
5. “The Invisible Man”
6. “Sound of Metal”
7. “Swallow”
8. “Mank”
9. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”
10. “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”

Honorable Mentions: “Shirley,” “Dick Johnson Is Dead,” “Minari,” “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets,” “First Cow.”

Leonardo Adrian Garcia, Creative Producer

Stacey Abrams in ALL IN: THE FIGHT FOR DEMOCRACY

Stacey Abrams in “All In: The Fight for Democracy”

Courtesy of Amazon Studios

My 11 Favorite Films of 2020 Which Denis Villeneuve Likely Doesn’t Consider Cinema (as they’re not of “Dune’s” scope and scale) and listed alphabetically

“All In: The Fight for Democracy”
“The Assistant”
“Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets”
“David Byrne’s American Utopia”
“I’m Thinking of Ending Things”
“Kajillionaire”
“Never Rarely Sometimes Always”
“Palm Springs”
“Sound of Metal”
“What The Constitution Means To Me”
“Wolfwalkers”

Zack Sharf, News Editor

sound of metal

“Sound of Metal”

Amazon

The Best Film of 2020: “Sound of Metal”
A Very Close Second: “Lovers Rock”

Other Film and TV Highlights:
“The Assistant”
“The Nest”
“I May Destroy You”
“The Great”
“Time”
“Dick Johnson Is Dead”
“News of the World”
“The Invisible Man”

Ryan Lattanzio, Weekend Editor

Meryl Streep in “Let Them All Talk”

Peter Andrews

“The Nest”
“Let Them All Talk”
“And Then We Danced”
“Shirley”
“Monsoon”
“Lovers Rock”
“Welcome to Chechnya”
“Luxor”
“Possessor”
“Beanpole”

David Ehrlich, Senior Film Critic

Steven Yeun appears in Minari by Lee Isaac Chung, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

“Minari”

1. “Time”
2. “Minari”
3. “World of Tomorrow, Episode III”
4. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”
5. “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”
6. “Bacurau”
7. “Nomadland”
8. “David Byrne’s American Utopia”
9. “Bad Education”
10. “Swallow”

Kristen Lopez, TV Editor

Promising Young Woman

“Promising Young Woman”

Focus Features

1. “Promising Young Woman”
2. “Sylvie’s Love”
3. “The Assistant”
4. “Sound of Metal”
5. “Birds of Prey”
6. “Da 5 Bloods”
7. “Miss Juneteenth”
8. “Crip Camp”
9. “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”
10. “The Old Guard”

Bill Desowitz, Crafts & Animation Editor

Soul

“Soul”

Disney/Pixar

1. “Soul”
2. “Wolfwalkers”
3. “Nomadland”
4. “Mangrove”
5. “Pieces of a Woman”
6. “News of the World”
7. “Mank”
8. “The Trial of the Chicago 7”
9. “The Midnight Sky”
10. “One Night in Miami”

Tom Brueggemann, Box Office Editor

“First Cow”

“The Assistant” (Kitty Green)
“Dear Comrades!” (Andrey Konchalovskiy)
“First Cow” (Kelly Reichardt)
“The Forty-Year-Old Version” (Radha Blank)
“A Sun” (Chung Mong Hong)
“Time” (Garrett Bradley)
“To the Ends of the Earth” (Kurosawa Kiyoshi)
“Vitalina Varela’ (Pedro Costa)
“The Wild Goose Lake” (Diao Yinan)
“Wolfwalkers” (Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart)

Jude Dry, Associate Editor

“Dick Johnson Is Dead”

1. “Dick Johnson Is Dead”
The doyenne of hybrid non-fiction filmmaking elevates the genre yet again with a deeply honest and whimsical interrogation of mortality, memory, and family. Kirsten Johnson is fearless filmmaking personified, proving that cinematic risk-taking doesn’t have to be flashy. With a wry humor and soul-searching meditations, she confronts her father’s deterioration on film. It feels as intimate as filmmaking can get.

2. “The Forty-Year-Old Version”
One of the most original new cinematic voices to emerge this year, Radha Blank’s semi-autobiographical comedy is unlike anything Hollywood has produced before, and that’s the point of the whole movie. Whether it’s an unexpected smoldering romance, or a thrilling all-female rap battle in the Bronx, Blank renders images of Black life onscreen that contain an everyday beauty to her, but feel all too rare in the context of popular indie film. The films is so bursting with life that one wishes Blank could have made three movies — here’s hoping she gets the chance.

3. “Circus of Books”
The logline for “Circus of Books” sells itself: This is the true story of a straight Jewish couple have been running a successful gay porn shop in LA for almost 30 years. The fact that filmmaker Rachel Mason is their daughter adds a whole added level of brilliance to this layered comedy and fascinating slice of queer history.

4. “Sound of Metal”
Riz Ahmed’s enthralling performance as a drummer experiencing the early stages of hearing loss proves the young actor is one of the greats. The sound editing and design is unlike anything you’ve heard before, but the delicate and gripping storytelling is the true triumph.

5. “Lucky Grandma”
This rip-roaring noir comedy takes a few hilarious twists and turns through New York City’s Chinatown through the misadventures of a chain-smoking, gambling, cutthroat Chinese Grandma. Sasie Sealy and Angela Cheng’s whip smart script is peppered with characters reminiscent of the Hong Kong action flicks of the ’70s and ’80s, including outlandish gangsters and a hulking mensch of a bodyguard. The juxtaposition of an elderly Grandma, in a charismatic turn by Tsai Chin, calling the shots, is what makes it gold.

6. “Minari”
The agrarian landscapes of Lee Isaac Chung’s deeply felt family drama unfurl gorgeously in “Minari,” but the pain and striving roils outward from its characters beating hearts. All of the performances are excellent, but the complicated friendship story between little David (Alan Kim) and his disappointment of a Grandma (Youn Yuh-jung) is a truly unique delight.

7. “Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado”
The Latinx world that knew and loved flamboyant astrologer Walter Mercado got some longstanding questions answered in this wildly entertaining portrait of the Puerto Rican icon; the rest of us were just chuffed to finally learn about the genderqueer cape-donning psychic and his message of love.

8. “Promising Young Woman”
Emerald Finnell has come a long way since her “Call the Midwife” days, though she’ll always be Patsy to devotees of the BBC period drama. In her splashy feature filmmaker debut, she forgoes the rape revenge genre thriller for something more narratively driven. It’s a bit of a bait and switch, especially given that eerie trailer, but it pays off in the end, making Carey Mulligan’s Cassie an all the more tragic figure.

9. “Emma”
It’s hard to improve on Jane Austen, but Autumn de Wilde’s visually sumptuous take on one of Austen’s more popular novels stays true to its source material while contemporizing her wit in equally satisfying measures.

10. “Alice Junior”
This wacky Brazilian YA romp puts a wildly self-possessed trans girl at the center of her very own coming-of-age comedy. Featuring a star turn from Anna Celestino Mota, Gil Baroni’s feature debut is colorful, zany, and full of heart.

Chris Lindahl, Film Business Reporter

"Never Rarely Sometimes Always"

“Never Rarely Sometimes Always”

Angal Field

“Time”
“Nomadland”
“Never Rarely Sometimes Always”
“Kajillionaire”
“Bad Education”
“Dick Johnson is Dead”
“Swallow”
“Blow the Man Down”
“Promising Young Woman”
“The Social Dilemma”

Tambay Obenson, Staff Writer

Da 5 Bloods

“Da 5 Bloods”

David Lee/Netflix

“Da 5 Bloods”
“The Trial of the Chicago 7”
“Bacurau” (“Nighthawk”)
“The Forty-Year-Old Version”
“Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey”
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
“Farewell Amor”
“One Night in Miami”
“Zombi Child”
“On the Record”

Leah Lu, Social Media Coordinator

Maria Bakalova and Sacha Baron Cohen play daughter and father in "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm" Borat 2

Maria Bakalova and Sacha Baron Cohen play daughter and father in “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”

Amazon Studios

“Minari”
“Never Rarely Sometimes Always”
“Sound of Metal”
“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”
“Lovers Rock”
“The Assistant”
“Palm Springs”
“Soul”
“I’m Thinking of Ending Things”
“Dick Johnson Is Dead”

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