What. A. Year.
2020 will be remembered as much for the way in which we watched movies as for the movies themselves. In a world shutdown by the COVID-19 virus, theaters closed and kept us indoors more often than not, watching streaming films at an increased rate while seeing major studio tent-pole releases constantly delayed. Netflix, Disney Plus, Apple TV Plus, HBO Max, Amazon Prime Video, and more are locked in a battle to secure our subscriptions, and almost all of my Top 10 can be found on one of these services.
Along with the change in release dates came a change in the awards season. With the Academy Awards pushing back until late April 2021, some films that will be eligible won’t even release until January or February 2021. I’ve made the decision to go ahead and finalize my end of year list without seeing a few of those, though they will be a part of my annual voting as a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. This year, our award timeline was delayed as well, and so I do not have a list of my nominations and our winners to share. Hopefully I can remember to come back and edit links to those in after they are complete.
This year I saw a resurgence in gaming, partially due to the launch of a new seasonal podcast about video games called The Games We Love, partially due to some extra free time while working from home for several months, and partially due to the excitement of welcoming the next generation of consoles into my home. I also watched more series content than in recent years, going through all of “Friday Night Lights” with my best friend and watching a season here and there of countless other shows. As of this writing, I’ve still managed to see 166 new films this year, a whopping 29 of which are documentaries. Finding room in my Top 20 (much less my Top 10) for every film that I want to sing the praises of is usually incredibly difficult and this year is no different. There were less films that blew me away this year but the overall quality of what I watched is strong and encompasses a wide range of genres. Since it’s impossible for me to ever just settle on ten best films, you will see some of my favorites of the year in the #11-20 special mention spots, as well as couple of extra highlights. While there are no specific thoughts accompanying the #11-20 films, you can always find my thoughts on what I’m watching at my Letterboxd account, so be sure to follow me there.
With regards to my criteria, when it comes to ranking films critically, I do that as part of my membership in the Seattle Film Critics Society. But on Feelin’ Film we focus more on matters of the heart, so my Top 10 films are often ones that I found the most affecting in 2020 – those movies that provided me an incredibly emotional or memorable experience of some sort. Another thing that factors strongly into my ranking is rewatchability, so think of this list as my favorites, which to me are the best.
In order to make this a tad easier on myself, and also because they truly are a unique medium unto themselves, I always list my Top 5 Documentaries separately. It feels like every year is a great one for non-fiction filmmaking and 2020 was no different. I still have quite a few highly-acclaimed ones to see and may even come back and edit this accordingly when I do. Regardless, I’ve expended this genre’s list to a Top 10 this year due to there being so many great documentaries that I want to bring attention to.
This has been a relatively long intro and I appreciate you taking the time to read it when you could have just scrolled down to the lists. With that said, I won’t take up any more of your time.
TED LASSO (Apple TV+) – “Ted Lasso” is simply one of the best pieces of entertainment media (film, series, game) that I have enjoyed in year. This ten episode series is based on an old NBC Sports commercial and follows a college football championship winning coach to England where he takes over a floundering Premiere League soccer team, despite knowing next to nothing about the sport. It’s a recipe that could so easily have led to stupidity but instead this show, which can be binged in less than 5 hours, is utterly hopeful and positive at all times. As Ted navigates learning the sport, dealing with the eccentric and egotistical personalities of the adult players he coaches, and struggles with his own quietly hidden relationship issues, this show manages to always keep you smiling and leave you feeling inspired. Response was so great that before season one had even finished airing, Apple TV ordered seasons two and three, so now is a great time to discover it and experience the uplifting ability this show will have on your life.
10. THE SOCIAL DILEMMA (Netflix)
9. THE DISSIDENT – Oscar-winning director Bryan Fogel (“Icarus”) returns with “The Dissident”, another strong contender that could win him a second statue, about the disappearance of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and villainy of Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. It is a gripping, immersive, and well-told piece of investigative journalism about the suppression of speech. The film covers a lot of information but its thriller style makes it go down easy. It features a fantastic score, too, and is incredibly urgent as the world becomes more and more fractured into sides who refuse to accept opposing viewpoints.
8. TIME (Amazon Prime Video) – “Success is the best revenge.” repeats Sunil Fox Richardson over and over angrily as she tries to convince herself to stay calm during yet another inhuman and unnecessary delay in the journey toward her husband’s release from prison. The resilience of this family on display is incredible and the way their story is told is both artistically compelling and emotionally evocative. This is an urgently needed piece that looks closely at the toll of injustice in America’s prison system, not from a broad statistics viewpoint but from a ground-level human one. The Richardson’s never once complain about having been arrested. They take full responsibility for their crimes but fight for fairness and changes to a system that, tragically, once it has its claws in you just never will let go. Their determination to make their family whole again and desire to see all justice system wrongs righted is hard to watch because you hate the pain and loss of time they’ve lived with, but ultimately an inspirational reminder that we (all of us) cannot allow this to continue in our world.
7. CONSOLE WARS (CBS All-Access) – Can’t really ask for much more from a 1.5 hour adaptation of a 576-page book. The original is definitely more in-depth and focuses even more heavily on SEGA’s perspective, but this visual version does it justice and is enhanced by the ability to show things such as the commercials and events of the console war era, which at times is much more effective than just imagining or trying to remember them when reading. This is a fantastic overview of this critical period of gaming history.
6. DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD (Netflix) – A filmmaker daughter and her aging father stage his death to help prepare for his eventual passing. I cried gobs and gobs because of course I was thinking about my own mom who passed away in 2014 and also remembering the struggles my grandfather had with Alzheimer’s before his death. But there is such joy in what Kirsten Johnson is doing that it far outweighs the sadness; the humorous stunt work, fantastical Heaven sequences, and enjoyment I had from seeing Seattle on screen helped to never let me wallow in the inevitability of what we’re seeing play out for too long at one time. Pictures and videos immortalize our loved ones in ways that fading memory never can quite match. This is beautiful. This is special. I almost feel guilty for peeking into someone’s intimate life story in this way, but I know that the purpose of these two sharing their passions together before Dick is gone forever and putting it on film for us to see in this intelligent, clever, and poignant manner is very much for themselves first and an inspiration for us second.
5. MISS AMERICANA (Netflix) – Taylor gets very raw and real in this documentary where she comes clean about just how hard celebrity life has been for her, in a way that we can never really understand, and puts into perspective how that can negatively affect someone’s emotional and mental well-being. I loved seeing the songwriting process, too. One of my favorite things about Taylor is her storytelling ability. That’s what makes her special, and it was a joy to watch some of these hits developing in their infancy. I also definitely appreciated her vulnerability about eating disorders, the Kanye stuff (that whole incident just makes me even madder now), disagreements with her parents, the awful experience of going through being sexually assaulted, and her struggle with trying to be the picture of who fans wanted instead of the person she actually is inside. Taylor has come a long way and deserves the right to grow and change and voice her opinions just like any of the rest of us do. I laughed, I smiled, I cried, I was brought back to many memories related to her music, and I came away from this feeling like I respect her and love her as an artist even more, but most importantly as a person who has feelings and thoughts and opinions. We so often think celebrities just exist for our entertainment. That may be their job, but there’s so much more to their lives.
4. BOYS STATE (Apple TV+) – A documentary that follows an annual event in Texas where a thousand 17-year-old boys join together to build a representative government from the ground up. It is cinematic, incredibly entertaining, super insightful, and a huge crowd-pleaser. It’s also eerie how much this serves as a microcosm of big-time American politics, but luckily manages to remind us that there is still some hope, as well.
3. TAYLOR SWIFT – FOLKLORE: THE LONG POND STUDIO SESSIONS (Disney+) – I adored this intimate and personal film that doesn’t just have Taylor playing her incredible songs from the Folklore album but provides a much bigger opportunity for her to discuss the stories behind their meaning and how they came to be written, as well as ruminate on her collaborative efforts with The National and Bon Iver. This is such a perfect companion piece to her Resolution Tour film, one that is full of her energy and showmanship. This shows a very different side of her and that is what makes her so special, the ability to be real in both ways and both places. It is an absolutely perfect music documentary on one of the greatest American singer-songwriters ever.
1b. THE LAST DANCE (Netflix/ESPN+) – What really needs to be said? This incredible 10-part documentary captured the attention of every major sports fa every Sunday night over a month in 2020 as we watched behind the scenes coverage of and relived the Chicago Bulls 1997-98 championship season. Centered around that particular year and the end of a dynasty, the documentary simultaneously serves as a portrait of the career of NBA legend Michael Jordan. It is a riveting piece of work and one of 2020’s best overall cultural moments.
1a. THE HISTORY OF THE SEATTLE MARINERS (YouTube) – Since there are two sports documentaries essentially tied for my favorite of the year, I’m going with the more unique one in this top spot. This film (which you can view in chunks or as one 3.5 hour long supercut at the link above) immediately goes on my Mount Rushmore of sports documentaries. It is an incredible, engaging piece of storytelling and statistics that relives the franchise’s history from its highest highs and “what ifs” to the many, many years that have left fans feeling like the team is cursed. It is an ode to a city, a team, its icons and its villains, that manages to be both entertaining and supremely informational while never once losing my attention. Yes, I may be slightly biased because I’m also a fan of the team being covered, but the format is undeniably mesmerizing regardless, and this is a truly complete history of the team we Mariner fans sometimes hate to love. SoDo Mojo!
HAMILTON (Disney+) – Hamilton the stage musical is a perfect piece of groundbreaking theater, one of the greatest shows of all-time, from the mind of absolute genius Lin-Manuel Miranda. And while this filmed version is missing that special energy that makes a live viewing so special, that is more than made up for here with the careful camerawork providing close-ups, unique angles, and tracking shots that allow for a more intimate and detailed experience than the vast majority of viewers would ever be able to have. The show is a masterpiece plain and simple, and I’m glad that they went this route instead of adapting (and lessening) it into a different media form. “Hamilton” the “movie” immediately becomes one of the things I will re-watch the most for the rest of my life. It is simply extraordinary.
THE FEATURE FILMS
20. SOUND OF METAL
18. MONSTER HUNTER
17. ON THE ROCKS
13. ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI
12. FIRST COW
10. THE INVISIBLE MAN (HBO Max) – “The Invisible Man” put a new spin on a classic horror property with a sci-fi twist, plenty of surprises, and an all-too-real story from the perspective of someone who is tormented by her long-time domestic abuser. It is not always easy to watch and trigger warnings definitely apply, but for those who can stomach it, the painful brilliance of Moss’ exceptional traumatic performance, catharsis and a genuinely unnerving but entertaining experience is to be had. Universal has finally figured out what a new line of monster movies can look like, with truly evil and unredeemable villainous fiends and social metaphors delivering a contemporary vision all their own. Let’s hope this is the start of a great franchise and not just a splendid flash in the pan. (Hear our discussion about “The Invisible Man” in Episode 219 here.)
9. WOLFWALKERS (Apple TV+) – “Wolfwalkers” has so much symmetry that you’d think Wes Anderson directed it. This technique, and accompanying use of varying geometric shapes to display its 2D art style, result in some of the most visually striking, memorable, and sublime animation I’ve seen in years. The story hits emotional beats aplenty with its fable-like tale of friendship between two girls from different worlds and its single-parent relationship struggles. There’s also the historical setting to take in for those who want to learn about this traumatic period of English control in Ireland’s past. And there are some environmental messages here akin to what Miyazaki tackles in his wonderful film “Princess Mononoke”. The musical score is an absolute delight, too, with its traditional Irish folk sounds perfectly matching the wondrous colorful images. Cartoon Saloon puts out nothing but hits and this is simply next in line.
8. THE FATHER – With all due respect to the other leading men of the 2020 awards cycle, Sir Anthony Hopkins has entered the room. In a memorable (ironically) performance that absolutely floored me, he brilliantly transports us into the mind of an elderly man suffering from dementia. He navigates a range of emotions from lovable and harmless to infuriating and heartbreaking with delicate expertise. Combined with focused first-time direction from award-winning playwright Florian Zeller and an expertly adapted script of his own work, the story plays out (pun intended) at times almost like a psychological thriller instead of a straight drama. As his daughter (played lovingly committed yet on the cusp of a breakdown at all times by the wonderful Olivia Colman), and others, enter and exit his world, nothing is certain for character or audience, allowing us to feel the suffocating struggle that loss of memory must have on those who suffer from it, and provoking a level of empathy for them that I’ve previously not experienced.
7. PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN – Stylish, twisted, bitingly mean, deviously funny, and yet confidently firm in what it has to say about rape culture and those who protect it. Like its title, writer/director Emerald Fennell is a promising young woman, too, crafting a multi-tonal thriller that puts a new spin on a familiar revenge story in a way that definitely leaves a mark. It helps that the film is led by Carey Mulligan, in what is at least equal to the best work of her career, and features an expertly curated soundtrack. This is an ambitious and fascinating confrontation of a toxic masculinity culture that needs to disappear and the grief and trauma victims of it face.
6. CHARM CITY KINGS (HBO Max) – It’s not often that a film is as fresh to me as “Charm City Kings”. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen anything quite like the perspective of this coming-of-age story before and I was blown away by the feelings it left me with and the strong character development throughout. It follows a group of young teenagers navigating life in Baltimore while admiring a local biker gang, learning about masculinity and loyalty along the way. Ángel Manuel Soto has created something special and rapper Meek Mill is a revelation in a powerfully emotional supporting role.
5. SMALL AXE: LOVERS ROCK (Amazon Prime Video) – This movie is a vibe. Steve McQueen offers a prime example of not padding a story just to hit some arbitrary runtime. This is one night, one party in a West London neighborhood in the 1980s, and the narrative doesn’t need more than that to completely immerse us in the experience of these would-be lovers and others just wanting to dance the night away in carefree bliss. There is no overarching conflict or problem to solve, just a few instances of natural interpersonal drama between party-goers throughout the evening. The aesthetic is incredible with a hazy cinematography as if the camera was shooting through the clouds of marijuana smoke that fill the house, and the music is flat-out incredible, provoking an involuntary response for the viewer’s body to move to the sweet rhythms and lyrical sexiness of Mercury Sound’s reggae jams. In the film’s final moments it captures the hope and feelings of newfound love beautifully and realistically, and leaves us with a smile that will go down as one of 2020’s best film moments for me.
4. NOMADLAND – “Nomadland” is a tremendous portrait of the American vagabond uprooted by recession, constantly moving as a means of survival, while simultaneously experiencing the world around her in a way that so few of us ever really do. Chloé Zhao’s use of non-actors again elevates her film, giving it a sort of slightly dramatized documentary feel. Hearing the real-life stories of nomads that Fern meets on the road and watching her learn about their ways was enlightening and humbling, showcasing a segment of humanity that is far less reliant on luxuries than I will likely ever be. Joshua James Richard’s sweeping, majestic Midwestern cinematography captures beautiful landscapes in wide glory but Zhao knows when to have him come in close to show us the incredible emotional tolls on Fern, thanks to what I believe is a career-best performance by the great Frances McDormand. And Ludovico Einaudi’s melancholic and moving score triggered tearful eyes nearly every time it sparingly appeared.
Above all else, “Nomadland” is an inspiration, much in the way that something like “Into the Wild” has always been for me. It offers an awakening to the very real struggles some face in the 21st century, and reminds us that home truly is where the heart is, while no doubt leaving a lingering mark on your soul. Zhao’s storytelling approach is truly something special and combined with her unique cinematic eye and gift in editing this film proves that “The Rider” was no fluke and she is one of the most important voices in American filmmaking right now.
3. RIDE YOUR WAVE (Hoopla) – “Ride Your Wave” walloped me emotionally and is my new favorite film from Masaaki Yuasa. It’s a romantic dramedy anime with relatively restrained use of fantasy elements (for Yuasa, at least) and a reoccurring musical theme that gives me strong “La La Land” vibes. It also teaches how to make great coffee, which is a huge bonus! The film is gorgeously animated with a softer style that perfectly fits the tone of its story and has nuanced emotional depth as it deals with love, loss, and what it means to move on. It’s also an extremely accessible anime for mainstream animation fans and nice to see something in the genre that focuses on adults and not teens. Year after year, I continually find myself drawn to romantic stories in anime and while that has mostly been Makoto Shinkai pictures, I’m thrilled to find other directors hitting those same chords that resonate with my heart.
2. THE WAY BACK (HBO Max) – “The Way Back” is not without its typical sports cliches in the personalities and stories of the basketball team players, but it is also a film that completely subverts them when it comes to its overall primary character arc and ending. It’s an addiction drama about how we cannot change the past, but how we can affect the future, one step at a time, and of the impactful part relationships and passions play in that process. It is a feel-good basketball story with a dose of exciting in-game action, some hearty laughs, and plenty of sincere feels, made even more special when you consider the cathartic personal role it played in Ben Affleck’s own recovery. Director Gavin O’Connor has cemented himself as the king of this genre and is now 3 for 3 with sports drama masterworks. (Hear our discussion about “The Way Back” in Episode 260 here.)
1. SOUL (Disney+) – At first, you might not think “Soul” is Pixar’s most perfectly entertaining film from start to finish. It definitely feels like some of their heaviest existential drama to date and is less accessible for younger kids, but it all comes together to pay off brilliantly in an absolutely triumphant and moving final act reached through a screenplay that deftly navigates complicated concepts. What personality traits are we born with and how do we choose our passions are among the big questions asked by Pete Docter and crew this time around, and it will certainly get you thinking about your own life, how you got here, and where you’ll go next. The score by Reznor and Ross is my favorite of the year and the film’s vibrant visuals (which look incredibly different when in New York or in the spirit world) are stunningly gorgeous, unsurprisingly making me very sad that I wasn’t able to see this in a theater. Thankfully, for viewers who do find it a bit abstract, the talking cat helps keep it light despite the big ideas and characters dealing with death. Ultimately, “Soul” is a tender film and one that is refreshingly all about hope and realizing just how incredible every day of life is whether we have attained our dreams or not.
Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He reviews with a focus on the emotional experience he has with a film. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted, and follow along with his daily film thoughts on Letterboxd.