2020 turned the world upside down in so many ways, causing upheaval to our every way of life.
Though movies are a relatively trivial example of the existential threat posed by COVID-19, Bay Area movie theaters were effectively shut down for most of the year, giving new life to socially-distanced drive-ins and a major shot in the arm to streaming services as Americans hunkered down in front of their TVs for their escapism. Disney+ emerged as a frontrunner in the streaming war and Quibi lost big, with Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, HBO Max, AppleTV+ and others still hanging tough.
By necessity, the line between cinema and other sight-and-sound art forms has never been thinner than in 2020. We had Steve McQueen's "Small Axe" (Amazon Prime Video), a series of five telefilms from a major filmmaker that was never intended for theaters. As live theater became all but an impossibility for the foreseeable future, superb filmed Broadway performances of "Hamilton" (Disney+), "David Byrne's American Utopia" (HBO), and "What the Constitution Means to Me" (Amazon Prime) became extra-precious gifts. And despite many high-profile films being rescheduled to 2021 and beyond, 2020 saw major blockbusters begin to bypass theaters and head straight home: Disney's "Mulan" and Pixar's "Soul" (both drawing eyeballs to Disney+), as well as Warner Brothers' superhero movie "Wonder Woman '84" (shoring up HBO Max).
In the rush to release content for home viewing, 2020 became a bounty of American independent films, but enjoy it while it lasts, as fresh independent films are liable to dwindle dramatically as the supply runs out, and film production in the COVID era becomes prohibitively expensive. Movie theaters face imminent bankruptcy, so cineastes should take extra care to explore the "virtual cinema" offerings keeping some theaters alive via online ticket sales for streamed independent and foreign films (SF's Roxie Cinema has one of the most active platforms).
So this year, Your Friendly Neighborhood Film Critic abandoned his theater-going routine and went "wee wee wee" all the way home. Mindless "comfort food" may have done the work of preserving sanity on the wane, but as so many in isolation longed for human contact, it was the year's most intimate and empathetic films that nurtured the better angels of our nature, offering one way safely to extend our reach into the outside world.
(Author's note: Streaming service noted in parentheses when film is not currently available through multiple on-demand video services.)
The top ten films of 2020
In a year that was anything but, sometimes you just need a film that's nice. "Driveways" was that lovely warm hug of a movie this year. On paper, the tale of a single mother (Hong Chau) and her young son (Lucas Jaye) befriending the grumbly old war veteran next door (Brian Dennehy in his final film role) sounds schmaltzy and old hat. But Andrew Ahn's gentle touch (along with the acknowledgement of tough realities) and three outstanding performances make "Driveways" the film you didn't know you needed to put a smile on your face.
9. 'Sound of Metal' (Amazon Prime Video)
Riz Ahmed's heavy-metal drummer and addict Ruben faces a traumatic life change in the narrative filmmaking debut of screenwriter Darius Marder ("The Place Beyond the Pines"). Temporarily and tentatively reliant upon a new community, Ruben crawls through the stages of grief, achingly resisting acceptance of his "new normal," the love offered by his girlfriend (Olivia Cooke), and the caring mentorship of a community leader (Paul Raci, in one of the year's best supporting turns).
Writer-director Dan Sallitt explores a friendship over time in this quietly observant drama. Brooklynite Mara (Tallie Medel) enjoys a closeness with best friend Jo (Norma Kuhling), but the latter's mental-health issues and drug abuse take an ever-more-distressing toll on her and the friendship as the years slip by. Sallitt's delicate touch and the empathic performances build a potent tragedy around a recognizable, cruelly isolating problem with no clear solution.
7. 'City Hall' (PBS)
The brilliant Frederick Wiseman stays true to form with his latest four-and-a-half-hour documentary film to paste up a collage of details defining an American institution — in this case, the city of Boston, Massachusetts.
The film shadows Mayor Marty Walsh in his duties, but this microcosm of the political challenges facing modern America also follows Wiseman's pattern of finding meaning in the mundane (from a city-inspector walkthrough to a weekly garbage pickup) as well as the everyday heroic (public servants and community organizers addressing evictions and economic advancement).
6. 'Never Rarely Sometimes Always'
Set where the reality meets the remove of a social issue, writer-director Eliza Hittman's abortion drama takes us on the sad journey of a 17-year-old girl seeking an abortion under a patronizing patriarchy. In beautifully understated performances, Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder capture a friendship tested by crisis. In scenes like the one that gives the film its title, Hittman gut-punches us with the blithe bureaucracy and moral judgment that often stand in the way of a girl's difficult personal choice.
5. 'Lovers Rock' (Amazon Prime Video)
Percy Bysshe Shelley called poetry "the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds." Perhaps the best compliment one can pay "Lovers Rock" is that it feels like a cinematic poem, taking a very specific, very personal experience and translating it into a cinematic language that makes it identifiably universal. This telefilm in Steve McQueen's "Small Axe" series expands our understanding of London's culture of West Indian immigrants circa 1980, but its swoony, sweaty depiction of romance blossoming at a reggae house party movingly reminds us of something 2020 robbed from us: communal public experiences.
Chloé Zhao wrote, edited, and produced this part-commentary, part-character study based on Jessica Bruder's 2017 non-fiction book "Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century." In exploring the alternative culture of Americans living out of RVs — alternative, that is, to the American Dream rat race — Zhao places professional actors (like David Strathairn) amongst real-life nomads for heightened authenticity. The soul of the film, however, resides in Frances McDormand's leading performance, an utterly convincing study in the psychology of willful isolation.
3. 'First Cow'
Kelly Reichardt scores again with this adaptation of Jonathan Raymond's novel "The Half Life." Filmmaker and novelist collaborated on the screenplay, which convincingly transports us to 19th-century frontier America while keeping one foot planted in our not-so-evolved 21st-century landscape. In dramatic terms, "First Cow" tells the story of an unlikely friendship born of an entrepreneurial business arrangement between John Magaro's white itinerant cook and Orion Lee's Chinese-immigrant striver, but at heart, the film serves as a meditation on capitalism, from its infancy to its late stage occupying a space between ingenuity and crime.
Documentary filmmaker Alexander Nanau explores two timely topics in the nonfiction film of the year: the fragility of society and the crucial role of investigative journalism. Nanau observes as a deadly nightclub fire in 2015 reshapes Romania's political landscape: in particular, health care negligence and fraud — in shamefully overwhelmed pre-COVID hospitals — reveal the depth of governmental failure and corruption. Key to the nation's fortunes is an unlikely last bastion of the news: a sports magazine that pivots to hard news.
And the best film of 2020 goes to:
1. 'Vitalina Varela'
There's a transcendence to Pedro Costa's filmmaking that earns the term "art film." In this spinoff from Costa's "Horse Money," the writer-director collaborates with the titular heroine — a Cape Verdean in Lisbon — to tell her own story of seeking the truth about her late estranged husband. Varela's mesmeric performance compliments Costa's peerless work, alive and gorgeous from its subject to its mise en scène to its painterly cinematographic interplay of shadows and light.
Honorable mention: "Hamilton," "What the Constitution Means to Me" & "David Byrne's American Utopia."
"The Assistant," "Babyteeth," "The Painter and the Thief," "Red, White and Blue," "Martin Eden," "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm…" "The 40-Year-Old Version," "Soul," "Possessor," "Wolfwalkers."
The bottom five films of 2020
This too-cynical attempt at relaunching Scooby-Doo — and, yes, a Hanna-Barbera Cinematic Universe — became Warner Brothers' first big experiment in dumping lackluster theatrical material onto VOD (video on demand). Now residing on HBO Max, this chaotic action comedy has the dubious distinction of featuring an animated Simon Cowell hanging with Mystery, Inc.
4. 'The Grudge'
After a dozen films, including an American trilogy, the Japanese-born "The Grudge" franchise just can't let it go. This "sidequel" to the American trilogy films wastes a top-notch cast (Andrea Riseborough, Demian Bichir, John Cho, Jacki Weaver) on its dull daisy chain of death.
3. 'Fantasy Island'
TV's "Fantasy Island" returns again, this time as a big-screen horror schlockfest. Every fantasy still has a twist, but this time around with a lot more blood. A dopey idea dopily executed.
2. 'Artemis Fowl'
Nothing that needs to work works in Kenneth Branagh's YA fantasy adaptation: not the casting, not the script, not the direction, not the design, not the score. This movie plays like Branagh farmed out all the work so he could kick back in his trailer.
And the worst film of 2020 goes to:
1. 'The Secret: Dare to Dream'
This brand extension of the bestselling self-help franchise was arguably more than a terrible movie; it was a dangerous one. Released in the middle of a global pandemic, this spiritual romance insisted that the power of positive thinking can magically solve every problem.
The best heroes
5. Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) in "The Invisible Man"
4. Vitalina Varela (Vitalina Varela) in "Vitalina Varela"
3. Leroy Logan (John Boyega) in "Red, White and Blue" (Amazon Prime Video)
2. John Lewis in "John Lewis: Good Trouble"
1. The essential workers in "76 Days"
The worst villains
5. Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey) in "Sonic the Hedgehog"
4. Chief Factor (Toby Jones) in "First Cow"
3. The Men of "Promising Young Woman"
2. Mr. Wilcock (Matthew Macfadyen), head of Human Resources, in "The Assistant"
1. The Invisible Man (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) in "The Invisible Man"
More top documentaries
5. "Boys State" (AppleTV+)
4. "The Cordillera of Dreams"
3. "Welcome to Chechnya" (HBO)
2. "After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News" (HBO)
1. "The Social Dilemma" (Netflix)
The animated winners
5. "Over the Moon" (Netflix)
4. "Weathering with You"
3. "Onward" (Disney+)
2. "Wolfwalkers" (AppleTV+)
1. "Soul" (Disney+)
Freelance writer Peter Canavese can be emailed at [email protected]
Read more of our year-in-review coverage: