With all of us stuck at home and new streaming options like the glorious HBO Max and the disastrous Quibi, the lines between what cinema actually is and isn't have started to blur together. Is watching a miniseries the same as watching a movie if you binge it all and there are no plans for a bad expansion? (See Big Little Lies' messy second season.) Is a uniquely staged live performance like the upcoming Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical not its own brand of film when you rent it and hit play? In 2020, all bets were off.
There were so many gems that screened at virtual festivals throughout the year that will be making their rounds with limited releases in 2021 (and some of which, heartbreakingly, still have no distributors). These include Summer of 85, Her Socialist Smile, Frank & Zed, Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time, Ask Any Buddy, The Wandering Mare, My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To, Pieces of a Woman, Undine, and Days.
In the realm of short films, many wonderful works debuted this year. Just to pick some favorites: Garrett Bradley’s America, Cecelia Condit’s I’ve Been Afraid, Pedro Almodóvar’s The Human Voice, Sophy Romvari’s Still Processing, Ben Rivers’ Look Then Below, Keisha Rae Witherspoon’s T, Meredith Alloway’s First Date, Tayler Montague’s In Sudden Darkness, Sara Kiener’s The Shawl, and Andrew Norman Wilson’s In the Air Tonight.
But as much as we’d like to honor and highlight dozens upon dozens of works from this year, I had to settle on a top 25. Without further ado, here they are.
25. Never Rarely Sometimes AlwaysEliza Hittman's commitment to exploring youth, the mistakes we make, and the often dangerous journeys we must go through in order to find some semblance of fulfillment is always fascinating. Sometimes it works (A Lot Like Love) and sometimes it doesn't (Beach Rats), but with Never Rarely Sometimes Always — a film entirely about a young woman trying to get an abortion and the obstacles set in front of her — she's at her best. It's intimate and empathetic in the best way, and Sidney Flanigan's central performance is stunning.
24. Da 5 BloodsPossibly the most riveting Spike Lee joint since Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, his Netflix feature Da 5 Bloods is more nuanced and interested in exploring flawed characters than anything else released on the platform this year. It's easy to look at this drama and play a game of catch the reference (Apocalypse Now and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre being the two most prominent), but there's more to it than just war and anger and foolish decisions. To say Delroy Lindo — and, hell, the entire male cast of this movie, despite the women being short-changed by Lee as usual — delivers one of the best performances of the year isn't a stretch.
23. First CowKelly Reichardt's films are not for everyone — they're quiet meditations on humanity and our follies — but First Cow might be her most accessible. She tells you from the get-go that we're being given a glimpse into a tale from long ago, of two men who create an everlasting bond by simply existing with each other and stealing milk from a rich man's cow in order to survive. It's as thrilling as it is warm, with a real texture to every leaf and mound of dirt on screen. What's so special about this simple story, though, is it makes us confront the fact that our stories will disappear with us despite our bodies being left behind.
22. TenetThere's real joy to be found in watching the claustrophobic fight scenes and massive car chases, especially when they're accompanied by Ludwig Göransson's phenomenal score, which punctuates cars flipping and racing down a highway with riveting EDM beats. Between Hoyte Van Hoytema's cinematographic work, Jennifer Lame's playful cutting style, and some wholly illogical but deeply engrossing special effects that make the backward flow of time seem all too real, Christopher Nolan has once again provided pure entertainment. Amid all the nonsensical writing, messy action, and blank characters, Tenet is a display of the pure, unfiltered blockbuster-filmmaking sensibilities that Nolan always delivers.
21. Monster HunterPaul W.S. Anderson’s Monster Hunter may not change the minds of skeptics who aren’t fond of his work and dismiss them as bad B-movies based on an art form they don’t really respect. But as the lines continue to blur between what “cinematic gameplay” is and what “films that look like video games” are and many directors claim to be “elevating” the genres they work within, Anderson’s adaptations (from Mortal Kombat to now) are as close to a true hybrid of the forms as we’re ever going to get.
20. The TruthMuch of Hirokazu Kore-eda's The Truth plays out casually, pleasantly void of the annoying spectacle and shouting matches that many family dramas offer. It’s a trait that will undoubtedly find it labeled as “slight,” but there’s beauty in how the film depicts a family, particularly two women, working through their complicated emotions and the ghosts of the past. Kore-eda complements this strained relationship by placing it alongside a film project Fabienne (Catherine Deneuve) is involved in, a sci-fi feature titled Memories of My Mother, adapted from the Ken Liu short story of the same name.
18. Birds of PreyIn a year when next to no comic-book movies came out, there was one disaster (Wonder Woman 1984) and one absolute wonder: Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). What works about this is, well, everything. There's a vibrancy and texture to everything, from gorgeously choreographed and filmed fight scenes to set pieces that basically look like what you'd get if you took Moulin Rouge! and turned it into a Lady Gaga music video from 2009. And despite being about Margot Robbie's delightful Harley Quinn (and if I may make a side recommendation: Check out Kaley Cuoco's animated Harley Quinn series immediately), Cathy Yan gives us a true ensemble superhero/supervillain/supereverything movie that commits to having the cast's delight on set translate into the audience's delight while watching.
17. World of Tomorrow Episode 3: The Absent Destinations of David PrimeFor all the discourse around Pixar finally making a movie about what it means to be alive with the wildly mediocre Soul, Don Hertzfeldt has been delivering one of the most beautiful explorations of what existence, memory, and the future actually means with his World of Tomorrow series of films. Each work is an existential dream, the first leaning into playfulness, the second into melancholy, and this installment pivoting toward a sort of anger. The Absent Destinations of David Prime leaves behind whatever naiveté was present in the past and engages with the inevitability of death and the inability we have to change what is to come. Our journey toward this may frequently be painful, but what this trilogy (so far) suggests is that maybe it's all worth it as long as we can hang on to the fleeting memories we treasure.
16. KajillionaireIt isn't a film short of absurdities and visual metaphors that feel a little heavy-handed (like pink foam that bubbles up in our con family's household and threatens to overwhelm any given situation). Still, it's easy to be taken in by the appealing aesthetics, sweet score, and endless eccentricities that it offers. Miranda July's lovingly queer Kajillionaire may not be for everyone, but if you're willing to adjust to the wavelength of the filmmaker and her characters, it's a rewarding view that, more than anything else, feels like a warm blanket.
15. Lovers RockMaybe it's because of the pandemic and the inability to go out and experience someone else's body dancing against your own, but Steve McQueen's Lovers Rock (part of his Small Axe collection of films) is intoxicating from top to bottom. For someone whose past films have been accused of being distant, cold, and even actively unerotic, this is a work that coaxes you into vibing with it from the second it starts. All of the highs and lows, swears and beats, drama and desire that come with a house party are shoved into just over an hour of intimately composed cinema. And you'd be hard pressed to find a single scene in film this year that's as sexy as the film's "Silly Games" dance centerpiece.
13. EmaPablo Larraín’s Ema is the most unhinged piece of bisexual cinema since Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct. Hyperbolic as that statement may sound, the two films share more in common than one might expect, including a penchant for indulging in pulp while critiquing societal standards and the placement of a sociopathic queer blonde at the film's core.
12. Let Them All TalkThe experimentation of Steven Soderbergh as a filmmaker never gets boring to me and, after the disappointment of The Laundromat, it's exciting to see the man back in his element with Let Them All Talk. The film offers a gorgeous collection of semi-improvised performances by Meryl Streep, Candice Bergen, and Dianne Wiest, paired with the director's brilliant comic timing on a formal level. The sincerity and sweetness underneath the bitter humor that Deborah Eisenberg's script provides are surprising and result in a dark comedy that's as smart as it is playful.
11. How to With John WilsonEvery episode of John Wilson's How to With John Wilson works as its own stand-alone short film, as well as as a beautiful collection that results in a fascinating portrait of New York City (and of America as a whole, really). Each one is framed loosely as a tutorial — for making small talk, putting up scaffolding, improving your memory, covering your furniture, splitting the check, and making risotto — but actually leads Wilson to a number of absurd and curious individuals he interviews and connects with. It toes a very fine line between making fun of these people and empathizing with them, and its unpredictability is endlessly charming.
10. DrivewaysAndrew Ahn's Driveways is a gorgeous and intimate exploration of the minutiae of existing with others, of the relationships we make and ignore, the paths that lead us away from and toward each other, and all the little things we cherish and regret. Hong Chau, Brian Dennehy, and Lucas Jaye are all phenomenal in what proves to be a wonderfully sensitive piece of cinema. It's in the little details that Ahn offers in his queer, lovely portrait of childhood: recoiling from wrestling, being overwhelmed at the world, reading manga, fixating on the scratches that exist around us, and playing bingo with old folks.
9. Ride Your WaveTo say Masaaki Yuasa is the best auteur currently working in animation isn't a stretch. He's one of the best directors around — whether working on a miniseries or a film — and Ride Your Wave is a total delight. Even when tackling a road as widely traveled as the traditional romantic comedy, Yuasa finds a way to embed a magic and fluidity to the images he's presenting that could never be done in live-action. It's unique and engaging in its visual storytelling and, even when leaning into heavier narrative beats, it never loses any of its charm.
8. Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!If Ride Your Wave showed us Yuasa's approach to a standard rom-com, Eizouken lets us see what the coming-of-age teen girl drama looks like through his eyes, and, boy, is it phenomenal. The 12-episode miniseries is a true love letter to the art of animated filmmaking, dedicated to exploring the ins and outs of the artistic process without ever sacrificing charm and good characterization. It is, quite possibly, one of the few works in existence that aptly captures what it's like to be a wide-eyed kid, with creativity exploding out of your pores, desperate to create something with your friends.
7. TimeGarrett Bradley's lens as a documentarian offers a level of intimacy that's rare in the genre, and Time, her latest feature, is utterly captivating. It's an undoubtedly political piece of cinema that follows a woman trying to keep her family together while fighting for the release of her incarcerated husband, but it's not just that which makes it political. Time is a film about Black love, the kind that spans decades despite being apart for long stretches of it, and the way Bradley pieces together her own footage with all of the video that Fox Rich brought herself is truly a marvel to witness.
6. PossessorIt is riveting to see that Brandon Cronenberg seems to be following his father David's footsteps on several levels with his latest feature, Possessor. It's in the skillful world-building and characterization and the deep critiques of capitalism and how it distorts us. It's in the subtle queerness that is dripping from its every sliced open vein. Possessor is the ideal standard for what a body-swap narrative should look like: a minimalist, gory sci-fi horror film with experimental flourishes, two master-class performances by Christopher Abbott and Andrea Riseborough, and distinct aesthetic shifts from body to body, from mind to mind.
5. I'm Thinking of Ending ThingsWith his latest film, Charlie Kaufman goes for my favorite kind of adaptation of a piece of literature, playing distinctly with themes present in the source text while completely sidestepping its narrative weaknesses to create a unique perspective out of something that exists. I'm Thinking of Ending Things is something of a perfect pas de deux between reality and fiction, with platitudes like “it gets better” depicted as empty as they really are, musing on the harm of begging for and creating idealized images of representation in what we read/see to escape our trauma. It's a cynical film that may put off some viewers, but the work by actors Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons here is unbearably great, complementing and contrasting each other in the best of ways.
4. ShirleyShirley is a perfect commingling of all the themes and aesthetics Josephine Decker's been working on over the years. The film is more attuned to the mood of Shirley Jackson’s literature than any recent adaptation of her work, despite stretching (and often outright ignoring) the truth for the sake of a multitude of metaphors. Though the film is ostensibly about the writing of Jackson's 1951 gothic novel Hangsaman, Decker has little to no interest in creating a biopic; she's telling a story in the author’s voice, projecting an image of Jackson and her characters onto a fresh-faced young woman and her husband coming into the author’s life and shaking things up.
3. Dry WindDaniel Nolasco's first nondocumentary feature is a work of inexplicable beauty. Dry Wind drips with eroticism and intimacy, as the camera's gaze closes in on everything from the grip of a hand in a moment of desperately needed connection to a bearded face buried between bushy butt cheeks. It's as camp as it is mysterious, as arousing as it is heartbreaking, radiating queerness from its every exquisitely composed frame.
2. David Byrne's American UtopiaDavid Byrne's concert tour turned Broadway show turned feature film is one of the best works of art released this year. Spike Lee, clearly a fan of the performer, doesn't try to restage something like Jonathan Demme's seminal Stop Making Sense but instead creates his own vision of what a concert film should look like. It's more intimate than any Broadway show filming and an experience that's as joyous as it is political. Lee always gets what seems like the best shot possible for every single beat of every single song and the result keeps your body grooving along the entire time.
1. Circle JerkOK, fuck it. Circle Jerk is the most riveting piece of art I've had the pleasure of watching in 2020. Yes, it was a live-theater piece that was streamed directly into people's homes instead of being limited to a stage in Gowanus where only artsy Brooklynites would find it. Yes, it is not strictly what one would consider a "film" nor is it really strictly a "play" or anything in particular. It's a work of art that's as fluid in its identity as its incredibly messy characters are. Yet, there is more attention to the filmmaking in Circle Jerk than there is in basically any contemporary piece of cinema. Michael Breslin, Patrick Foley, and Cat Rodriguez not only deliver endlessly quotable lines, but their performances also seem to be constantly in conversation with what it looks like to communicate with one another with an increasingly digital lexicon.
It's in the way they indulge in TikTok memes, layer their faces onto GIFs via REFACE, use split-screen and lip-syncs and videos that we've seen a thousand times to create a narrative that is as much a scathing critique of contemporary queer folks as it is a celebration of the way we navigate identity at any given point in time. Circle Jerk is the kind of confrontational and exciting queer art we need more of in this world, and if you missed its limited streaming period this year, don't fret: the show is coming back on demand on January 1-17.