2020 will likely go down in the history books as a particularly terrible year on planet Earth. In a year marked by global pandemic and racial protests, many people probably set movie-watching aside as a low priority. But for many this was also a year of staying home, and for those of us who needed the escape that movies and TV can provide, we got more out of our streaming subscriptions than ever before.
The good news: there were actually a lot of really great movies out this year, and many went direct to streaming making them super easy to access (let’s not even talk about the state of movie theaters right now).
So, whether you have less time than ever for movie-watching and just want to make time for one or two films in the coming weeks, or you’re an avid streamer who wants to know what you may have missed this year, here’s the official Arthouse Garage list of the top 10 films of 2020.
10. Welcome to Chechnya
dir. by David France
This year saw the release of some incredible documentaries, including this one about the plight of the LGBTQ+ community in the Russian republic of Chechnya.
Director David France and his crew used found footage and captured footage of their own showing the horrors facing gay people, who are often arrested and tortured at the hands of the Chechen police and government solely because of their sexual orientation. It is essentially a modern day witch hunt. Activists in the region become central characters in this story as they are doing what they can to rescue people and their families from the terrible situation there.
On top of the timely and compelling subject matter, this film’s technical innovation gives it a place on this list. The filmmakers created a sort of digital “veil” to hide the identities of people in the film, giving them alternate faces without the need for blur or pixellation. This is a brilliant way to hide identities while allowing the film’s viewers to experience the emotion present in each scene, as people are forced to leave their homes to find safety.
No film this year had such up-to-the-minute real world stakes as Welcome to Chechnya, shining light on an unresolved social issue that needs attention and funding right now if it’s going to be fixed.
9. I’m Thinking of Ending Things
dir. by Charlie Kaufman
Writer/director Charlie Kaufman is responsible for some of our very weirdest movies, and I’m Thinking of Ending Things is no different.
On the surface it’s a story of a young woman meeting her boyfriend’s parents for the first time, but that’s complicated by an unreliable narrator, seeming time travel, shifting character identities and a truly confounding final sequence. It all adds up to a film that’s crammed full of genuinely fascinating ideas, mysterious as it is thought-provoking.
The performances in this film are great across the board. Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons star as the central couple, with Toni Collette and David Thewlis as the parents. Through the unusual goings-on and the endlessly snowy setting, Kaufman gives the film a tone of dread that leads to an ending that will likely not satisfy all viewers, but for those that can dig into the dialogue along the way, I’m Thinking of Ending Things provides a unique experience with plenty of meaty concepts to chew on.
dir. by Steve McQueen
This year Steve McQueen blessed us with five films in the form of the Small Axe series, which explores different aspects of the West Indian culture and community in London in the 60s and 70s.
The first of these films is Mangrove, which details the discrimination that took place in and around the Mangrove restaurant, and the subsequent legal battle in 1971. Centering on the restaurant owner, Frank Crichlow, the film depicts the cultural safe haven that the restaurant became with a unique sense of energy, one that feels completely authentic. Equally real-feeling, and all the more upsetting for it, are the acts of police brutality and dehumanization depicted in the film.
The court case is as thrilling as any legal drama I’ve ever seen, with fantastic performances throughout, including a wonderful turn by Letitia Wright as Altheia Jones-LeCointe, one of the Mangrove 9 as they came to be known. This court case is a too-little known piece of history and one that has incredible resonance today, and McQueen depicts it with urgency and vitality.
7. First Cow
dir. by Kelly Reichardt
I don’t always love pioneer stories in cinema, but this one is exceptionally well told by director Kelly Reichardt. The lead character is a cook who goes by the name Cookie, played wonderfully by John Magaro.
He and his newfound friend King-Lu (Orion Lee) become businessmen when Cookie begins frying up delicious oily cakes. King-Lu, with his enterprising spirit, turns an enormous profit on the cakes selling to settlers in the area who are otherwise deprived of any sort of sweets or comforts of home. The only problem—the two men are stealing the milk for the cakes from the area’s one and only cow, highly prized by its owner.
Things get tense when the owner of the cow gets involved in their lives, but the true joy of this film is the friendship between the two leads, as hinted in the opening text scroll, a quote from William Blake: “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.” Cookie is immediately recognizable as a bit of an outsider because he’s the only kind, gentle soul in a world of toxic alpha males, and when he comes across King-Lu, the bond they form over the film’s first half is simply beautiful. There are certain relationships that can thrive despite vast cultural differences, and the setting of this film is ripe for diversity; one character remarks that the territory is no place for cows, another retorts that it’s no place for white men either. Reichardt has explored similar themes in her previous films, but never has her work resonated so deeply as it does in First Cow.
6. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
dir. by Eliza Hittman
This film follows Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) as she discovers and then deals with an unwanted pregnancy, traveling to New York with her friend Skylar (Talia Ryder) to seek an abortion.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a heavy film, harrowing at times, but imbued with emotion throughout. This comes partially from the grounded and reserved performances, but mostly from the brilliant direction of Eliza Hittman, who makes sure all the feelings stay beneath the surface and yet come through in overwhelming waves.
No one is talking about how they feel in this movie. It’s very realistic in that way, but it’s almost frustrating at times how little the characters communicate verbally what they want. It’s an absolutely genius way to make a film though, because it requires the viewer to key into every little gesture and facial expression on the screen, and it rewards this close attention with moments of beauty that hit hard. Hittman wrote the script too, and she’s clearly interested in mental health; this film depicts trauma and dissociation with subtlety and emotional resonance. Hittman has only a few directing credits thus far and is entirely new to me, but she’s absolutely got my attention going forward.
5. One Night in Miami…
dir. by Regina King
Regina King moved behind the camera for this film, her directorial debut, and she knocked it out of the park. Playwright Kemp Powers adapted his own work for the screen, telling the story of four legends: Cassius Clay, Malcom X, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke.
In 1964, these four spent the evening together after Cassius was named heavyweight champion of the world, and this story imagines what they might have talked about.
Each of the four men brings different ideas to the table, with the main conflict coming between Malcom X and Sam Cooke, who have differing ideas of how to affect change as members of the Black community in the 1960s. The things they discuss are eerily prescient, and the four lead performances in this are absolutely terrific. In particular, Leslie Odom Jr. shines as Sam Cooke, even getting to show off his vocal cords at times. Few 2020 films were this dialogue heavy, and few kept me this engaged.
dir. by Chloé Zhao
Frances McDormand shines as the lead in Chloé Zhao’s latest, Nomadland, a film that blends fact with fiction into one of the most emotional films in recent memory.
McDormand plays Fran, a woman who has lost her husband to illness and her hometown to economic collapse, and she’s left trying to figure out what her life is. She discovers nomadism and decides to embrace the lifestyle, living in her vehicle and traveling to find work. Fran interacts with other nomads too, many of them playing themselves in the movie.
Because this is partially documentary, the people and emotions we’re seeing for much of the film are absolutely real, and the true stories are blended into the fictional narrative absolutely seamlessly. Fran faces many challenges as she becomes a nomad and has to deal with family issues while coming to terms with her own losses. I found this film to be overwhelmingly emotional, depicting loneliness and connection with remarkable potency. This one will likely win several awards a few months from now, and it will deserve every one of them.
3. Dick Johnson is Dead
dir. by Kirsten Johnson
Another film that blends documentary with fiction is director Kirsten Johnson’s Dick Johnson is Dead.
Johnson films her own father as he battles Alzheimers, but with a twist: she fakes his death repeatedly on camera as a bizarre way for them both to face the reality that he doesn’t have much time left.
If that sounds weird, it is, but it’s also remarkable in every way. Few films this year blended humor and drama so deftly, and that has a lot to do with Dick Johnson and his affable nature. This is an intensely personal film, and the relationship between Kirsten and her father is a big part of what makes it so memorable. Through staging death, and staging a funeral, and talking to people in her circle about death, Kirsten Johnson has created an incredible meditation on death itself, both how we cope with it and how it affects those we love. This is another film that overwhelmed me with emotion, but sometimes I was laughing at the same time.
2. Lovers Rock
dir. by Steve McQueen
Another of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series, Lovers Rock is an absolutely engrossing dive into West Indian culture. Music plays a big part in all of the Small Axe films, but none as strongly as this.
The films depicts a house party thrown in a West London home, and follows the various people who come in and out of the festivities. From the likable DJs to the cooks in the kitchen to the fierce but likable bouncer, we get to know a wide array of colorful characters in the film’s quick 70-minute runtime, and amazingly, each of these characters leaves a lasting impression.
That’s especially true of the lead character Martha, a young woman who has snuck out of her house to attend her first party. This film is incredibly sensual, filming the dance floor with fluidity and grace, capturing every little emotion of the people dancing. This film also works as a real showcase for 1960s reggae, featuring an impressive variety within that genre. We see friends moving to upbeat songs, lovers swaying to slow jams, and groups of men and women taking the floor to showcase their unique styles of dance. All of this is filmed in a way that is so full of energy and vitality that it’s impossible to look away. McQueen clearly has a love for the human spirit, and Lovers Rock shows off a particularly fun side of it.
1. Sound of Metal
dir. by Darius Marder
Riz Ahmed is absolutely magnetic as Ruben, the lead in Sound of Metal who suddenly loses his hearing. This jeopardizes both his work as a metal drummer and his relationship with Lou (Olivia Cooke), his partner and the singer in their musical duo.
Ruben joins a Deaf community against his will after learning that surgery isn’t a good option, and the film follows his struggles and successes before going in some surprising directions.
No film better captured transformation this year, and that has just as much to do with the direction of Darius Marder as it does with Ahmed’s powerhouse performance. The sound design in this film is astounding, and unique to anything else I’ve ever seen. But even more than that, Marder clearly knows how to plot a story and stage a scene with incredible efficiency while maximizing emotional impact. And all of this happens while seamlessly and organically raising awareness of the Deaf community with nuance and grace. The ending of this movie absolutely floored me and resonated on a spiritual level more strongly than anything else I saw this year, and that’s why it’s number one.
dir. by Alex Garland
My favorite streaming show of the year was Alex Garland’s Devs. After directing films like Ex Machina and Annihilation, Garland moved to TV this year and gave us another beautiful piece of high-concept sci-fi.
Following a young IT professional at a mysterious tech corporation, Devs weaves a gritty, twisty tale filled with intrigue while asking the viewer to ponder big, mind-boggling questions about the multi-verse and whether we might be living in a simulation. On top of that, it gives us Nick Offerman as the anti-Ron Swanson–he plays the tech company’s somber leader who tries to work out his traumatic past with billion-dollar science experiments.
Devs has it’s issues—not every performance is great, and opinions vary greatly about whether the ending really works—but it’s full of interesting ideas and it has a dark, brainy tone that made it stick with me all year.
Most Watched: Hamilton
dir. by Thomas Kail
This one isn’t on my top ten list, but it feels significant enough to get a mention. The Broadway sensation Hamilton made its way into living rooms this year via Disney+, and no film was watched more times at my house.
As filmed stage productions go, this isn’t the most dynamically shot, but it successfully captures Lin-Manuel Miranda and company as they sing, dance and rap their way through his ingenious historical hip-hip opera.
Hamilton is great for so many reasons, not the least of which are its key performances from Phillipa Soo, Leslie Odom Jr., Daveed Diggs, and many others. And because it’s so densely packed with clever lyrics and wonderful moments, Hamilton is intensely rewatchable and will likely be the 2020 film that I watch the most in the coming years.
And that’s 2020! It really was a great year for film, and you can’t go wrong with any of the titles above.