Anyone following the outcome of the 2020 election has grown familiar with the term “razor-thin margin.” It also applies to the outcome of IndieWire’s annual critics survey, which resembles a lot of this year in that it reflects some tough decisions. With 231 critics and journalists voting on the best films and performances in this year’s survey, Chloé Zhao’s delicate road movie “Nomadland” emerged victorious, winning Best Film, Best Director, and Best Cinematography. The list of participants included staffers from IndieWire, Variety, and The Hollywood Reporter. It also included writers from local newspapers, websites, freelancers, and contributors on film from across Europe, Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. However, all participants were required to vote only for films that received theatrical or VOD releases in North America over the past calendar year.
Despite the “Nomadland” victories, the second place finisher for Best Film almost won the top spot outright. Although “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” was released in the first quarter of the year, Eliza Hittman’s suspenseful abortion drama loomed large in critics’ minds, coming in at a close second place. In fact, the movie ended up with the most number of votes as a whole, appearing on 84 ballots, while “Nomadland” appeared on 81. However, because the survey asks critics to submit ranked lists, “Nomadland” wound up with a slight edge by scoring first place on just a few more ballots — specifically, it scored that way on 24 of them, while “Never Rarely” appeared on 16. Like we said, razor-thin margins are so very 2020.
Regardless, the proximity of both films speaks to the widespread critical adoration that has surrounded them over the past few months, and together they bracket the sheer unpredictability of the past year. Hittman’s film launched at Sundance, one of the last major film festivals to take place as a physical event before the pandemic, and barely made it into theaters a month later before shutdowns forced a pivot to VOD. “Nomadland” secured a slot at one of the few major festivals to actually take place during the pandemic, winning the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival, before Searchlight Pictures qualified in theaters and a New York-only virtual release at the start of this month.
Without that choice, “Nomadland” wouldn’t have been able to win this poll, since critics were instructed to vote only for films that had received a theatrical or VOD release in North America during the 2020 calendar year. Fortunately, they found no shortage of movies to celebrate within those parameters. “Nomadland” marks the first time in this survey’s history that a film directed by a woman took first place. Beyond that, the top three titles in the Best Film category are all directed by women: “Nomadland,” “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” and “First Cow.” The Best First Film category was also topped by a woman, Emerald Fennell, for the Carey Mulligan thriller “Promising Young Woman.”
The Best Film finalists dominated a range of categories: Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” entry “Lovers Rock” came in fourth place, and McQueen was a runner-up for Best Screenplay. The winner of that category was Charlie Kaufman’s mind-bending “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” and the movie landed in fifth place for Best Film.
Other top 10 finalists reflect the sheer range of celebrated films in contention, from Spike Lee’s Vietnam vet buddy movie “Da 5 Bloods” to Brazilian Neo-western “Bacurau,” which also won the category of Best International Film. A full list of the top 50 films will be published later this week.
For the first time, the survey consolidated the Best Actor and Best Actress categories into a gender-neutral Best Performance category. The result was that Riz Ahmed took the top spot for his vivid turn as a heavy metal drummer who loses his hearing in Darius Marder’s debut, “Sound of Metal.” Frances McDormand’s “Nomadland” turn was just behind Ahmed in second place.
The finalists for Best Documentary illustrate the strength of the year in non-fiction. Kirsten Johnson’s boundary-pushing exploration of mortality, “Dick Johnson Is Dead,” handily won the category. The movie, a surreal first-person look at the filmmaker’s fear of losing her father, started generating praise from critics following its Sundance premiere in January and never stopped. But so did “Time,” Garrett Bradley’s black-and-white chronicle of an activist fighting for the release of her incarcerated husband, and it came in second place.
Anyone perusing these results should consider what they represent as a whole: While each category has a clear-cut winner, consensus only tells a part of the story. No matter the many challenges it created, 2020 gave us a lot of movies worthy of celebration, so we encourage readers to look beyond the first place slot and consider each list as its own special viewing list. Finally, the survey asked critics to vote for the best film with a scheduled 2021 release that they’ve already seen. Michel Franco’s violent Mexican thriller “New Order” topped that list. Look out for it in the months ahead.
Browse the finalists in all categories below, then get to work on seeing them all.
Courtesy of SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES
2. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”
3. “First Cow”
4. “Lovers Rock”
5. “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”
8. “Da 5 Bloods”
9. “Martin Eden”
1. Chloe Zhao, “Nomadland”
2. Steve McQueen, “Lovers Rock”
3. Eliza Hittman, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”
4. Kelly Reichardt, “First Cow”
5. David Fincher, “Mank”
6. Spike Lee, “Da 5 Bloods”
7. Charlie Kaufman, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”
8. Pietro Marcello, “Martin Eden”
9. Kantemir Balegov, “Beanpole”
10. Lee Isaac Chung, “Minari”
1. Riz Ahmed, “Sound of Metal”
2. Frances McDormand, “Nomadland”
3. Chadwick Boseman, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
4. Delroy Lindo, “Da 5 Bloods”
5. Maria Bakalova, “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”
6. Jessie Buckley, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”
7. Luca Marinelli, “Martin Eden”
8. Gary Oldman, “Mank”
9. Carrie Coon, “The Nest”
10. Mads Mikkelsen, “Another Round”
1. “Dick Johnson Is Dead”
4. “City Hall”
5. “The Painter and the Thief”
6. “Bloody Nose Empty Pockets”
7. “76 Days”
8. “The Social Dilemma”
9. “The Mole Agent”
10. “Totally Under Control”
3. “Vitalina Varela”
4. “Lovers Rock”
5. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”
6. “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”
7. “First Cow”
10. “The Painted Bird”/”Gunda” (TIE)
1. “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”
2. “First Cow”
3. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”
4. “Promising Young Woman”
8. “The Trial of the Chicago 7”
9. “One Night in Miami”
3. “Another Round”
4. “Vitalina Varela”
5. “Martin Eden”
8. “And Then We Danced”
9. “The Painted Bird”
10. “His House”
1. “Promising Young Woman”
2. “The Vast of Night”
3. “The 40-Year-Old Version”
4. “One Night in Miami”
6. “The Sound of Metal”
7. “The Assistant”
8. “Ham on Rye”
10. “The Climb”
1. “New Order”
2. “Pieces of a Woman”
4. “Nine Days”
5. “The Killing of Two Lovers”
Click to the next page to see a list of critics who voted.
Critics who voted in the poll:
Alejandra Musi Arcelus
Christopher Llewellyn Reed
Gary M. Kramer
Glenn Heath Jr.
Jana J Monji
Juan Carlos Gonzalez
Juan Manuel Domínguez
Kristen Yoonsoo Kim
Leonardo Garcia Tsao
Luke Y. Thompson
Manuel Kalmanovitz G.
Patrick Z. McGavin
Ryland Walker Knight
Shoma A. Chatterji
Willow Catelyn Maclay
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