2020 Critics Poll: The Best Films and Performances According to Over 200 Critics from Around the World

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.

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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.

“I’m Thinking of Ending Things”

Mary Cybulski/NETFLIX

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.

Best Film

“Nomadland”

Courtesy of SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES

1. “Nomadland”
2. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”
3. “First Cow”
4. “Lovers Rock”
5. “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”
6. “Beanpole”
7. “Time”
8. “Da 5 Bloods”
9. “Martin Eden”
10. “Bacurau”

Best Director

Chloe Zhao

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”

Best Performance

“Sound of Metal”

Amazon

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”

Best Documentary

“Dick Johnson Is Dead”

1. “Dick Johnson Is Dead”
2. “Time”
3. “Collective”
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”

Best Cinematography

“Nomadland”

Searchlight

1. “Nomadland”
2. “Mank”
3. “Vitalina Varela”
4. “Lovers Rock”
5. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”
6. “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”
7. “First Cow”
8. “Tenet”
9. “Beanpole”
10. “The Painted Bird”/”Gunda” (TIE)

Best Screenplay

“I’m Thinking of Ending Things”

1. “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”
2. “First Cow”
3. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”
4. “Promising Young Woman”
5. “Mank”
6. “Fourteen”
7. “Minari”
8. “The Trial of the Chicago 7”
9. “One Night in Miami”
10. “Kajillionaire”

Best International Film

“Bacurau”

1. “Bacurau”
2. “Beanpole”
3. “Another Round”
4. “Vitalina Varela”
5. “Martin Eden”
6. “Collective”
7. “Wolfwalkers”
8. “And Then We Danced”
9. “The Painted Bird”
10. “His House”

Best First Feature

“Promising Young Woman”

Focus Features

1. “Promising Young Woman”
2. “The Vast of Night”
3. “The 40-Year-Old Version”
4. “One Night in Miami”
5. “Relic”
6. “The Sound of Metal”
7. “The Assistant”
8. “Ham on Rye”
9. “Babyteeth”
10. “The Climb”

Best Films Opening in 2021

“New Order”

TIFF

1. “New Order”
2. “Pieces of a Woman”
3. “Beginning”
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:

A.A. Dowd
Adam Kempenaar
Adrian Curry
Alaka Sahani
Alejandra Musi Arcelus
Alison Willmore
Alissa Wilkinson
Alonso Duralde
Amber Wilkinson
Amy Taubin
AnaJosefa Silva
Anke Leweke
Anne Thompson
Arturo Aguilar
Ascanio Cavallo
Avner Shavit
Ayelet Dekel
Aysha Iqbal
Beatriz Martínez
Blake Williams
Brian Tallerico
Carlos Aguilar
Carmen Gray
Caryn James
Cedric Succivalli
Charles Taylor
Chris Knight
Chris Knipp
Christian Blauvelt
Christopher Llewellyn Reed
Christopher Schobert
Corey Craft
Courtney Howard
Cynthia Fuchs
Dan Kois
Dan Mecca
Dan Persons
Dan Sallitt
Daniel Barnes
Daniel Loria
Daniel Schindel
Daryl Chin
David Ansen
David Ehrlich
David Fear
David Sterritt
David Walsh
Devika Girish
Diana Agudelo
Diana Drumm
Diana Ospina
Diego Battle
Diego Lerer
Djia Mambu
Donald Clarke
Dustin Chang
Ed Gibbs
Ed Gonzalez
Edward Douglas
Edwin Arnaudin
Elcin Yahsi
Elizabeth Weitzman
Eric Hynes
Erick Estrada
Erik Childress
Ernesto DiezMartinez
Ernesto Garratt
Esther Zuckerman
Ethan Alter
Fernanda Solorzano
Francisco Cangiano
Gary M. Kramer
Gerald Peary
Glenn Heath Jr.
Glenn Whipp
Godfrey Cheshire
Guy Lodge
Hannah Brown
Hannah Pilarczyk
Hans Morgenstern
Herb Stratford
Jacqueline Coley
Jake Cole
Jana J Monji
Jared Mobarak
Jason Bailey
Jason Shawhan
Jay Kuehner
Jean-Philippe Guerand
Jeffrey Overstreet
Jennie Kermode
Jennifer Merin
Jim Fouratt
Joanna Langfield
Joey Magidson
John Maguire
Jon Frosch
Jordan Hoffman
Jordan Raup
Jordan Ruimy
Josh Larsen
Josh Spiegel
Joshua Brunsting
Joshua Rothkopf
Juan Carlos Gonzalez
Juan Manuel Domínguez
Jude Dry
Justine Smith
Kaleem Aftab
Kate Erbland
Katherine Rife
Katie Walsh
Keith Phipps
Keith Simanton
Kenji Fujishima
Kent Turner
Kimber Myers
Kristen Yoonsoo Kim
Kristian Lin
Kristy Puchko
Kyle Turner
Laura Clifford
Leonardo Garcia Tsao
Lesley Chow
Liliana Zapata
Lindsey Romain
Luke Buckmaster
Luke Y. Thompson
Madhu Eravankara
Manuel Kalmanovitz G.
Marjorie Baumgarten
Mark Keizer
Marshall Fine
Martin Botha
Matt Donato
Matt Prigge
Matt Rorabeck
Michael Doherty
Michael Ghennam
Michael Nordine
Michael Sicinski
Mike D’Angelo
Molly Haskell
Myron Meisel
Naama Rak
Namrata Joshi
Nathalie Atkinson
Nathaniel Rogers
Neil Young
Neta Alexander
Nicholas Bell
Nick Schager
Niclas Goldberg
Noah Gittell
Noel Murray
Norm Wilner
Orr Sigoli
Patrick Mullen
Patrick Z. McGavin
Peter Debruge
Peter Howell
Peter Knegt
Peter Travers
Poly Lykourgou
Prairie Miller
Raghavendra MK
Rania Richardson
Ray Pride
Rex Reed
Richard Brody
Richard Lawson
Rob Thomas
Robert Daniels
Robert Horton
Robert Koehler
Rodrigo González
Ryan Lattanzio
Ryland Walker Knight
Sasha Stone
Saul Austerlitz
Scott Nye
Scott Renshaw
Sean Burns
Sean Means
Shoma A. Chatterji
Sidney Cadot-Sambosi
Stephen Farber
Stephen Whitty
Steve Erickson
Steve Newall
Susan Vahabzadeh
Tara Brady
Tara Karajica
Thelma Adams
Thomas Sotinel
Tim Grierson
Todd McCarthy
Tom Charity
Tom Meek
Tomris Laffly
Tony Dayoub
Ty Burr
Vadim Rizov
Violet Lucca
Wen Win
Wendy Ide
Wilfred Okiche
Will Leitch
Willow Catelyn Maclay
Yael Shuv
Yair Raveh
Zac Oldenburg