2020: A Year in Film

2020 may yet prove the most consequential time for cinema in a century. With a large portion of the human race forced into isolation by COVID-19, the foundation of moviegoing — theaters — became inaccessible. For the time being, this has drastically accelerated the trend of films coming out straight to streaming platforms. Meanwhile, the big studios have withheld their major movies, hoping for the day when we can return to theaters. But by the time it’s safe to do that again, who knows what this landscape will look like. In the meantime, despite the strange circumstances, plenty of great films came out this year. Here are Hyperallergic’s 15 favorites, as voted on by staff and some frequent contributors. — Dan Schindel

1. Time

(image courtesy Amazon Studios)

Garrett Bradley is a filmmaker who brings a quiet strength and elegance to each of her subjects. With Time, she crafts a moving documentary focused on Fox Rich, a single mother who’s spent two decades fighting to free her husband (and really, her family) from the grip of a completely broken criminal justice system. Weaving contemporary footage with snippets of home video, Bradley captures in painstaking detail the immense pressures of Rich’s position and the constant performances required of her. She must play the part of a perfect and perennially patient wife, even as agents of the state make it abundantly clear that they couldn’t care less about the fate of her family. Exquisitely framed and directed, Time excels for its stirring emphasis on interiority, highlighting moments of subtle introspection, resolve, and astoundingly, joy. — Dessane Lopez Cassell

Available to stream. Read our review.

2. Bacurau

(image courtesy New York Film Festival)

The less revealed about the plot, the better. Directors Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles use the trappings of genre cinema to depict a nation under assault and a citizenry pushed to the brink by fascism and capitalism. A film which understands that subtlety crumbles under the boot of power, Bacurau delivers a violent message with the blunt force of a shovel to the face. As purely entertaining as it is venomously revolutionary, it’s a direct response to the far-right Bolsonaro government, a battle cry for Brazilians, and a wake-up call for the rest of the world.  — Justine Smith

Available to stream. Read our review.

3. Small Axe

(image courtesy Amazon Studios)

United in their study of institutional racism, each of the five films in Steve McQueen’s anthology focuses on an aspect of British history that has been deliberately paved over. West Indian communities in London are in the spotlight across different decades and genres. The thrilling Mangrove is a merger of protest film and courtroom drama, and its study of the psychology of incarceration and protest continues into the biopic Alex Wheatle. Lovers Rock is a mood piece, something of a respite, but it’s not just a simple ode to the blues party culture of the ’80s; it never loses sight of why these exclusive spaces exist in the first place. Another standout, Education, is McQueen’s most personal piece of work to date, excavating the history of segregation in London schools while engaging with his struggle with the stigma against learning difficulties. There’s been nothing in recent memory quite like Small Axe, so wide-ranging and ambitious in its recounting of Black British history, but intimate throughout. — Kambole Campbell

Available to stream. Read our review of the first three films in the anthology.

4. Dick Johnson is Dead

(image courtesy Netflix)

In a year marked by illness, Kirsten Johnson makes us reexamine the ways in which we look at death — and consequently, life. Dick Johnson is Dead is both a personal document of her father Dick succumbing to dementia and a loving homage to him, and it also opens up a communal means of grief, reconciling with the absence of a physical body, and embracing the ephemeral happiness their memories leave us. By the time the film ends, one wants to reach out, in tears and smiles, and give Johnson a tight hug. — Bedatri D. Choudhury

Available to stream. Read our review, and our interview with director Kirsten Johnson.

5. First Cow

(image courtesy A24)

Kelly Reichardt makes westerns that defy nearly every convention of the genre. She focuses on the experiences of those usually marginalized in history books. In this film, instead of a rugged homesteader or hardened gunfighter, we follow a meek Jewish cook and a Chinese immigrant who form an odd but beautiful friendship in their mutual pursuit of stability in 1820s Oregon country. Unfortunately, Manifest Destiny only manifests for a select few (that’s capitalism, baby!), and the pair’s scheme to steal milk from a rich man’s cow has a sword hanging over it. I could extoll Reichardt’s meticulous direction all day, but the true draw here is the star-making performance of the year: Evie the cow as the eponymous first cow. — Dan Schindel

Available to stream. Read our interview with director Kelly Reichardt.

6. Vitalina Varela

(image courtesy Grasshopper Film)

Summoned to Portugal from Cape Verde after the death of her husband, whom she hasn’t seen in decades, Vitalina Varela settles in his house, still bloodstained from his fatal accident. Visitors encroach on her space, telling her to return to her homeland, but she refuses. Like her husband, she plans to die in Portugal. Set in an endless night, Vitalina Varela tells a true story, with Vitalina, who appeared previously in director Pedro Costa’s Horse Money, playing herself. Her performance is stoic and magnetic; her rage and melancholy lend Costa’s otherwise spectral world enormous presence. Costa’s films are trance-like, existing in a liminal space between life and death. In his stark and expressionistic work, marked by darkness and silence, he investigates Portugal’s most vulnerable citizens and the country’s complicated colonial past. — Justine Smith

Available to stream. Read our interview with director Pedro Costa.

7. I May Destroy You

(image courtesy HBO)

With its very title, Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You makes a promise — one it enacts several times over in its treatment of the aftermath of sexual assault. Over the arc of 12 episodes, the series builds on, pulls apart, and ultimately demolishes every convention fiction has for grappling with the ripple effects of such a visceral transgression. It’s exceedingly clever, expertly shot, and filled with powerhouse performances. But perhaps most importantly, I May Destroy You stands out for its layered and razor-sharp take on consent, highlighting the “one step forward, two steps back” nature of healing with side-splitting humor as it navigates the murky recesses of rape culture. — Dessane Lopez Cassell

Available to stream. Read our review.

8. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets

(image courtesy Utopia)

For most of this year, the time-honored tradition of drowning the day’s frustration in a shitty bar has been off-limits to most of us. (Hanging out at outdoor seating really, really isn’t the same.) This lent the Ross brothers’ latest an extra heft of melancholy. Their bracing observations at a bar on its last night of business make for a beautiful cross-section of hangdog nightlife. It’s the strange solidarity of communal commiseration — one of many things we can’t replicate right now over Zoom or socially distanced meetups. The closest we can come is the parasocial connection of cinema. — Dan Schindel

Available to stream. Read our interview with directors Bill and Turner Ross.

9. Never Rarely Sometimes Always

(image courtesy Focus Features)

17-year-old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), travels from rural Pennsylvania to New York City to exercise her right to an abortion. Eliza Hittman’s film is far from agitprop, but it is at heart an ardent feminist manifesto. Intensely quiet, its anger is burnished so bright that it radiates. From the start, Autumn’s taciturn resolve is measured against small yet insidious chauvinist gestures by those around her, from peers and family alike. Aided by her valiant cousin Skylar (Taila Ryder), Autumn navigates the Big Apple’s subways and streets, trying to tough it out on little money while they await her procedure. Playing out like a perilous obstacle course, the film is intensely watchable. Flanigan and Ryder wear their vulnerability plainly through their characters’ gritty solidarity. — Ela Bittencourt

Available to stream.

10. Shirley

(image courtesy NEON)

Reality and fantasy, creativity and madness blur in Josephine Decker’s sensuous, headily intoxicating film. Shirley brilliantly conveys the head-cramp of writer’s block, that sense of being lucidly present while also lost in the ill-defined, magical space of invention. With influences like Darren Aronofsky and Andrea Arnold, Decker lends her own keen sense of immersive cinema to a story that’s brainy but must also be felt. As Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) embarks on a new mystery novel, subtle touches of gothic horror and suspense creep into her life with her unfaithful husband (Michael Stuhlbarg) and the young married couple that assists them both (Odessa Young and Logan Lerman). Shirley’s outsider status in the claustrophobic, conservative milieu of her provincial town takes on a somber and anguished tone. — Ela Bittencourt

Available to stream. Read our reviews from Sundance and the film’s release.

11. małni—towards the ocean, towards the shore

(image courtesy Sundance Film Festival)

Sky Hopinka’s first feature is like a slow, meditative, breathtaking poem. The narrative meanders like water around its protagonists as they navigate their lives, surrounded by the mythologies of death that they’ve grown up with. Questions of identity and politics emerge, but never urgently, and they get answered with an organic sense of spirituality. There is a pervading stillness that allows the subjects and the audience to absorb the bright hues of the wilderness. We surrender to the tug of the earth, where we belong, and the call of the ocean, toward which we move, only to come back to Earth again. —Bedatri D. Choudhury

Read our review.

12. Through the Night

(image courtesy Long Shot Factory)

Meticulously shot and superbly paced, Through the Night is a film that stays with you, resurfacing in luminous flashes for days on end. This second feature from Loira Limbal highlights the essential but rarely recognized labor of Black and brown working-class mothers via a 24-hour daycare center run by Deloris “Nunu” Hagan. Edited by Malika Zouhali-Worrall, the documentary captures in affective detail the preciousness of time, and how under the constraints of a thoroughly unequal labor system, there’s never enough of it, no matter how hard you work. But rather than portray any of her collaborators as martyrs, Limbal rightly positions them as the bedrock of our society, affirming with quiet force that mothering should be treated as crucial and radical labor. — Dessane Lopez Cassell

Currently available in virtual cinemas. Read our review.

13. Lingua Franca

(image courtesy Netflix)

Lingua Franca unfolds mainly in private spaces. Written, directed, produced, edited, and starring Isabel Sandoval, this remarkable film portrays a host of specific struggles with warmth and attention. Imbued with a deep sense of longing and anxious alienation, the movie subverts many expectations of immigrant stories. Mixed in with the quiet, distant shots of domestic life are lingering close-ups of Sandoval’s face, intimately acquainting us with her beauty, slightly hardened by time and hardship. Much like Vitalina Varela, it’s preoccupied with paperwork. Olivia’s Philippines documents are rife with misidentifications, and her quest for a green card offers not just the promise of a new life, but also an affirmation of her true self. The complications that emerge from this struggle elevate Lingua Franca to something unique and fresh in the tired landscape of US independent cinema. — Justine Smith

Available to stream. Read our review.

14. American Utopia

(image courtesy HBO)

Minus one or two moments of “go out and vote” heavy-handedness, David Byrne’s American Utopia is blissful in its minimalism. With the striped-back staging and cavalcade of grey-suited band members, it feels like a more contemplative revisiting (but not a rehash) of Stop Making Sense, ruminating on what has changed and remained static about human interaction, as well as Byrne’s own body of work. Spike Lee’s work behind the camera, whether through a steady hand or more dramatic flourishes, compliments the constantly evolving stage performance perfectly. It’s a soothing, euphoric, even escapist experience, but not ignorant; the songs are all tinged with humanist concern. It’s a more complex concert film than it lets on, the magic lying in how simple Byrne and company make it all look. — Kambole Campbell

Available to stream. Read our review.

15. City Hall

(image courtesy Zipporah Films)

The past four years have provided those of us in the US with an ongoing demonstration of government at its most aggravatingly incompetent. (And this year in particular has shown it in even worse light.) Frederick Wiseman’s latest epic-length study of an institution does not necessarily provide an alternate, more positive vision of government and governance. In studying the mayoral administration and everyday bureaucracy of Boston, it rather asks (implicitly) just what it is we expect of the “normal” functioning of government. And is that enough? Should we be asking for more? (At the risk of providing editorializing, which Wiseman, being a wise man, gracefully refrains from, I say that yes, we should.) — Dan Schindel

Available to stream. Read our review.

Honorable Mentions

We couldn’t stop thinking about Keisha Rae Witherspoon’s short film T for its stunning treatment of grief and remembrance (read our review, watch it here).

One of the most unique, eye-opening TV shows of the year was How To With John Wilson (read our review, watch it here).

And Khalil Joseph’s latest project, BLKNWS, is a consensus pick for favorite video installation / mixed media work (read our review, find out where you can see it in LA here).

Our favorite movies of 2020, brought to you by the writers and editors of Hyperallergic.Read MoreFilm, Best of 2020, Sunday EditionHyperallergicRead More

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