What films should’ve made our best of 2020 list?

The A.V. Club
·11 min read
Clockwise from upper left: Let Them All Talk (Photo: HBO Max), Emma. (Photo: Focus Features), Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Photo: David Lee), One Night In Miami… (Photo: Amazon Studios)
Clockwise from upper left: Let Them All Talk (Photo: HBO Max), Emma. (Photo: Focus Features), Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Photo: David Lee), One Night In Miami… (Photo: Amazon Studios)

We published our list of the best films of 2020 earlier this week. Of course, we stand by our choices, but we’re not so naïve as to think our list would please everyone. Which is why we’re asking:

What film should’ve made our best of 2020 list?

Read more

The Wild Goose Lake

Having now written about the film in a festival dispatch, two preview capsules, a halftime appreciation, and an overview of one of its best scenes, I’m actually a little relieved that The Wild Goose Lake didn’t make our list… if only because I’ve basically run out of ways to summarize its pleasures. But okay, once more with feeling: Diao Yinan’s slick manhunt thriller about a gangster on the run from the law is basically a two-hour noir sizzle reel, stringing together one extravagantly cool shot after another and finding endlessly inventive ways to stage (or abstract) its pulp conventions, including violent scuffles and chases that pass into the realm of the surreal. Anyone down with some glorious style over negligible substance should rent it yesterday (or stream it for free on Tubi). I really mean it this time! I’m not going to tell you again! [A.A. Dowd]

Collective

It was only after a half-dozen people recommended it to me that I actually sat down to watch Collective, so I don’t hold it against my fellow voters for leaving it off of our list. But although its basic premise—an investigation into corruption in the Romanian healthcare system—isn’t very sexy, the film itself is incredibly absorbing. Beginning with a Romanian sports magazine’s investigation into why 38 people with only minor injuries died in hospitals after a tragic nightclub fire, Collective spirals out from minute details about the effectiveness of disinfectants into massive neglect, corruption, and mismanagement at all levels of the country’s government. The shocking disregard for human life in the film is countered by the directors’ access to interim health minister Vlad Voiculescu, whose attempts to reform the system from within are captured at every frustrating stage. What happens to this poor, earnest man is cynically predictable, but it’s also chilling, given the rise of misinformation-driven right-wing populist movements all over Europe and the world. [Katie Rife]

Tenet

Tenet may have suffered to some degree from limited availability—it still wasn’t viewable from home at our voting deadline—but I’m surprised by how many of my peers failed to appreciate it simply as lightning-paced, jaw-dropping spectacle. Nolan’s facility for orchestrating mega-budget mayhem has grown enormously since The Dark Knight (when it was one of his big weaknesses), and his latest, for all its convoluted chrono-inversion, works in more or less the same chilly, technocratic mode as the Mission: Impossible franchise, minus Tom Cruise’s increasingly sweaty need to impress. Don’t think, just gape. [Mike D’Angelo]

Kajillionaire

In what I believe is a first for me as a contributor to the A.V. Club best-movies-of-the-year round-up, my choice for the single best movie of the year, Miranda July’s Kajillionaire, didn’t place at all on the final list. I can accept that July’s sensibility is too strange or off-putting to make headway with everyone. (I won’t say “twee,” because it means nothing.) But finding out that it didn’t have enough support to crack the top 25 stings; this is such an original riff on the con-artist subgenre, with Evan Rachel Wood as a woman who has grown up both too fast and not at all, thanks to her parents’ low-level scams. The movie’s offbeat humor gives way to July’s insights about the role-playing that goes into so many parent-child relationships, with a perfect ending that made my heart leap. Please go watch it. I’ll sit here with my nostalgia for the time I forced God Help The Girl onto the 2014 list. [Jesse Hassenger]

The Painted Bird

An evident patience for severe, lengthy European art films allowed the slow-moving grief of Vitalina Varela and the color-graded desperation of Beanpole onto our list, so where’s the love for all the hatred contained within The Painted Bird? Václav Marhoul’s unsparing black-and-white visualization of the many countryside torments suffered by a Jewish boy on the run during World War II aspires to more than shock value, its hardest-to-watch moments in service of an arc that will ultimately find redemption beyond pain. So few Holocaust-set movies engender in their audiences the authentic feeling of make-it-all-stop hopelessness that the characters onscreen must contend with—we ought to acknowledge the few that do. [Charles Bramesco]

Emma.

Emma. probably wasn’t the most critically beloved movie of the year, but it was certainly the one I enjoyed the most. I’m always a sucker for a good Jane Austen adaptation, and this one, helmed by rock photographer Autumn de Wilde, was charmingly modern—while, of course, being absolutely not modern at all. Anya Taylor-Joy was a delight as the titular Emma, and Johnny Flynn made a charmingly rugged Knightley. Throw in the supporting cast, which featured The Crown’s Josh O’Connor and the always enchanting Bill Nighy, and I thought it was a solid winner. [Marah Eakin]

Cuties

No thanks to an unfortunate marketing snafu that unleashed overblown, and completely misguided, conservative outrage, Maïmouna Doucouré’s provocative and deeply considered coming-of-age film Cuties was mostly overshadowed by its controversy. Look beyond the commotion and you’ll find a complex critique of how modern culture encourages young girls to grow up fast, one that never dismisses the very real desire for community that motivates them in the first place. Doucouré’s directorial debut plays like the more grounded and emotionally earnest lovechild of a Dance Moms and Showgirls mashup—a difficult balancing act to pull off. And for all its biting social commentary on the horrors of social media addiction and the hypersexualization of children, it’s also—thanks to some incredible youth performances—a hell of a tearjerker. [Beatrice Loayza]

Miss Juneteenth

The point of Miss Juneteenth is how easily Black women are underestimated, and perhaps there is bleakly poetic irony to Channing Godfrey Peoples’ film not landing on our best-of list. Since winning Fort Worth’s Miss Juneteenth pageant as a teen, Turquoise (a nuanced Nicole Beharie) has compiled various regrets. Determined that her daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) not make the same mistakes, Turquoise pushes her toward the same competition while navigating working-class life and balancing her own judgmental mother and disappointing love interest. The image of Beharie in her pageant crown and cowboy boots, sitting on the front stoop of the home she’s built for Kai and wondering where life will take them next, is the defining moment of Peoples’s thoughtful, underrated film. [Roxana Hadadi]

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

I suspect Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom may be absent from the list because not enough critics have had the chance to see it. (It premiered on Netflix yesterday, December 18.) I also suspect it’ll do very well in whatever passes for “awards season” this year… and not just because it features an all-time great performance from the late Chadwick Boseman, in his final screen role. Director George C. Wolfe and an ace cast—featuring peak turns by Viola Davis, Colman Domingo and Glynn Turman—bring heat and light to August Wilson’s classic play about the R&B business, trading moments and monologues like musicians at a jam sessions. [Noel Murray]

One Night In Miami...

There’s a real art to making an accessible crowd-pleaser with actual substance. And in her elegant directorial debut, Regina King absolutely nails it. One Night In Miami... riffs on the evening that friends Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree) spent celebrating Ali’s 1964 heavyweight championship win. And while I suspect the film’s talky, slightly stagebound feel (it’s based on a play by Kemp Powers) might have bothered some of my colleagues more than it did me, the blend of stellar performances and impressively nuanced themes elevated it to one of my favorites of the year. It’s a timely, timeless character study that’s well worth twistin’ the night away with. [Caroline Siede]

Let Them All Talk

Instead of choosing something from my own ballot, I’ll stump for Steven Soderbergh’s terrific Let Them All Talk, which I just didn’t manage to see before the voting deadline. Like Olivier Assayas’ Non-Fiction, the film uses its book publishing milieu to toss off all sorts of modish observations about the commodification of speech, while its ocean liner setting draws a connection to classic Hollywood films like Tay Garnett’s One Way Passage and The Lady Eve. But Soderbergh being Soderbergh, he understands that the eloquent, charming hustlers and cons that once populated those films (not to mention his own) have become obsolete. Increasingly, everyone knows full well they’re either playing or being played. They just avoid talking about it. [Lawrence Garcia]

Critical Thinking

I wrote about this film for our Watch This series on the best films we didn’t review this year, but Critical Thinking deserves a spot on this list as well given that (I assume) it’s still on very few people’s radars. John Leguizamo’s feature directorial debut is a quiet and unexpectedly captivating movie, despite sounding like something you’ve seen 27 times when distilled down to one sentence: Based on a true story, a team of inner-city high schoolers from Miami overcome adversity to win a national chess competition title. Leguizamo leads his young cast both as director and as the team’s coach, working with docuseries cinematographer Zach Zamboni to make the film feel as authentic as possible. Though the triumphant ending is preordained, Critical Thinking is still full of enough surprises and worthwhile performances to make it worth the few bucks to view it on demand. [Patrick Gomez]

His House

From the unseen threat of The Invisible Man to the existential dread of I’m Thinking Of Ending Things, horror feels well represented on our best of list for 2020, the most horrifying of years. But no movie rattled me quite like Netflix’s His House—the feature directorial debut from Remi Weekes—an intimate haunted house tale of two South Sudanese immigrants who can’t escape the past, and aren’t sure if they deserve to. The metaphors of trauma and assimilation at the heart of His House are rich, and Weekes explores their complexities through his two leads, Wunmi Mosaku and Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù, delivering indelible, heart-wrenching performances. The scares are great too, with spirits in every crack and around every corner, and there’s a reveal in the final act so shocking that it made me pause the movie just so I could catch my breath. [Cameron Scheetz]

The Burnt Orange Heresy

I’ll confess to some surprise there hasn’t been more acclaim for The Burnt Orange Heresy, the kind of deliciously barbed old-school adult thriller that has seemingly been on the endangered species list in Hollywood for the better part of the 21st century. It’s no shock a film so intentionally awash in surface-level pleasures doesn’t make best-of lists—our own Mike D’Angelo referred to it as “magnificently superficial entertainment” (he’s quite right)—but the superb craftsmanship with which this lowbrow-meets-highbrow vehicle has been so elegantly assembled deserves a second look. Giuseppe Capotondi’s direction captures mirrors within mirrors, the better to emphasize the Hitchcock-goes-meta nature of the material (art critic blackmailed into stealing an artwork from the art world’s most famous recluse), and Scott B. Smith’s script is loaded with elliptical zingers of the kind more often seen in meandering French dramas than tightly-wound pulp. Add to this the effortlessly charismatic turns from Elizabeth Debicki, Claes Bang, and Donald Sutherland (Mick Jagger is also there), and you’ve got a delightfully sophisticated bit of silliness. [Alex McLevy]

Tesla

While I’m not surprised it didn’t make the final list, Michael Almereyda’s Tesla remains a true anomaly from this year that’s worthy of more attention. Almereyda livens up his sideways biopic with meta flourishes, like a narrator who acknowledges the script’s fictions in direct address, and anachronistic interventions, but Tesla uses the inventor’s life to examine something near and dear to any independent filmmaker’s heart: the intersection of creativity and commerce, and how the needs of capitalism dictate “progress” more often than the labor and talent of individuals. Aided by a steely lead performance from Ethan Hawke and Sean Price Williams’ warm photography, Tesla is a unique beast whose aims engage with the current zeitgeist more than one might expect. [Vikram Murthi]