List: Jay Ledbetter’s Top 10 Films of 2020
In the weird year that was 2020, I had to focus on small joys. It was hard to find big things to distract you from the world around us crumbling, so I buried myself in cinema. Even though I have not been to a movie theater since March 2020, I still consider 2020 to be the greatest year I have ever had, as a fan of cinema. I watched countless classics that I needed to catch up on and, despite its reputation, 2020 was a pretty good year for new releases. The year may lack the all-time classics at the top, but I could easily make this list a top 40 and be enthusiastic about every single film. It was a year that saw the public embrace more small films, as the blockbuster pipeline was completely cut off. It was also a year in which even the loudest defenders of the cinema experience had to embrace streaming. Without streaming, this list probably wouldn’t even exist. There would not have been enough releases to make this a worthwhile endeavor. It was a year for accepting new normals, and many of the standout films of the year speak to that. Whether it is hearing loss, dementia, marital issues, or having visions of an animated pig as you contemplate all of your life’s regrets, my top 10 list speaks to the difficulty of adjusting to 2020.
The story of a teenage girl dying from cancer seems like it should be a dour affair, through and through, but Babyteeth is all about taking advantage of what time you have left, rather than counting down the days until you die. In the lead role, Eliza Scanlan brings a great sense of curiosity, willing to try anything, knowing what is to come in the near future. Her most controversial compulsion is falling in love with a 23-year old ruffian. As Milla’s condition worsens, her parents basically adopt an anything goes mentality in an effort to make their daughter as happy as she can be for as long as she has left. Milla’s parents, played by the great Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis are the glue of the film, the audience surrogate. They cringe with every party they let Milla go to or the dinner invitation they extend to Moses, but the instinct to do so makes complete sense. It is a heartbreaking affair, and one with incredible vibrancy and panache. Shannon Murphy, in her directorial debut, crafts a beautiful film that celebrates life with almost surreal depictions of new experiences and friendly gatherings. The film is often visually heightened but the emotions stay grounded. And that final beach scene… an all-timer.
9. Sound of Metal
When I hit play on Sound of Metal, I was expecting something with an energy similar to a movie like Green Room rather than the patient, tender affair that Darius Marder’s film turned out to be. And what a great decision that was. Juxtaposing the adrenaline rush of heavy metal drumming with the tedious transition to a life without sound makes that transition even more difficult and extreme. Riz Ahmed has been doing incredible work for a long time in things like Four Lions, Nightcrawler and The Night Of, but he outdid himself with this performance. The way that he transforms from bitter to sad to accepting is really, really special, and there is always this specter of addiction bubbling underneath the events of the story, as well, adding even more nuance. It is such an understated movie, especially considering the subject matter. Darius and Abraham Marder did a wonderful job with their thorough, subtle character portrait and populated the film with fully fleshed-out supporting characters and the performances from Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, and Paul Raci are even able to elevate what is on the page.
8. I’m Thinking of Ending Things
This is the one movie on my list that, if someone comes up to me and says they absolutely hate this film, I won’t even try to talk them out of that opinion. It is the least accessible work from one of the least accessible Hollywood filmmakers, Charlie Kaufman. There are so many meta references to things like film critic Pauline Kael, several musicals, and maybe the joke of the year at the expense of Robert Zemeckis. It’s a film that demands a second watch, but watching it will never feel like a chore. It works both as a dreamlike journey and as a rigorous mental exercise. The cinematography from Łukasz Żal is an incredible achievement for a film like this, which is largely interior and spends about 45 minutes inside of a car. Making this film as visually varied and compelling as it is is remarkable. Throw in some great lead performances from the two Jessies- Buckley and Plemons, and a finale that you could write an entire thesis on that includes dance sequences, animation, and… some sort of ethereal plane, maybe? It’s impossible to even explain without watching it. It is a special film that has the power to overwhelm, both mentally and emotionally. This should absolutely not be the first Charlie Kaufman film anyone watches, but fans of his work will find it incredibly rewarding.
7. David Byrne’s American Utopia
2020 was a huge David Byrne crash course for me. I really started digging into the music of Talking Heads for the first time while listening to a podcast about them. They are now one of my favorite bands. I watched David Byrne’s only directorial credit, True Stories, for the first time (and then twice more, after that.) It is now one of my favorite movies. And then there was American Utopia. I don’t want to relitigate this whole thing again, but there was one reason that I wasn’t really that amped for the film’s release: Hamilton on Disney+. I just wasn’t sure if a stage musical could successfully translate to film. What I forgot is that there were two stone cold geniuses in charge of the American Utopia recording: Spike Lee and David Byrne. The musical is fantastic, preaching unity and acceptance in a time when those things seem so rare, all with the kind of energy you would expect from the guy from Stop Making Sense. The choreography is inspired, letting the uber-talented members of the company do what they do best as the goofy, gangly David Byrne tries to keep up, a perfect metaphor for what the show is really about. But the real difference maker is Spike Lee, who uses the camera to make it a truly cinematic experience, which I wasn’t sure was possible. So, I think we cracked the code for making good films: simply team up two artistic geniuses to make all your movies. It’s easy!
Ryan and I did not make our love of David Fincher a secret this year with our David Fincher series on Extra Film, and Mank was always my most anticipated film of 2020, even before all the cancellations. And Fincher delivered. It is his most political movie and also the first time he is really looking back on his career. It is hard to not think about Alien 3 when the Hollywood studios are shown to be this power-hungry and callous. The film is funny, biting, and extremely well-paced, anchored by what is, in my opinion, the heart of the film- the relationship between Gary Oldman’s Herman J. Mankiewicz and Amanda Seyfried’s Marion Davies, two people with very similar outlooks who have chosen to take on the world in diametrically opposed ways. Mank refuses to go calmly into the night, intent on standing up to the forces of the Hollywood system in the name of his art and in the name of, hopefully, forging a better society. Marion has accepted her lack of control, even if it means having to sacrifice her ideals. They are both unhappy in some ways, but Mank is downright self-destructive. It’s a wholly entertaining affair with the Fincher’s typical technical wizardry, which does a bang up job recreating the cinematic style of Citizen Kane.
5. Lovers Rock
Lovers Rock is the movie from 2020 that most made me miss going to the movie theater (which is ironic, since I probably never would have had the opportunity to watch the film in a movie theater, pandemic or no.) Steve McQueen managed to make a house party feel like a world-changing event because, to the people in the film, it is that important. McQueen’s Small Axe series is all about the omnipresence of racial intolerance and Lovers Rock is like going to the one hidden haven where you can escape, but only temporarily. The film takes place almost entirely at a house party, while terrific, but not on-the-nose, period music thumps and the party shifts from joyous, to sensual, to aggressive. Different people are looking for releases in different ways, and all of that plays out over the course of the party. The movie is short, all on its own, but it ends in an absolute flash. No movie in 2020 enveloped quite like Lovers Rock. It’s almost hard to talk about because it is a movie you experience, as much as anything. The film is an hour-long tingling sensation.
4. First Cow
Kelly Reichardt is one of my favorite contemporary filmmakers with a style all her own. My anticipation for First Cow was high, but I was not quite prepared for how much I would enjoy the film. I believe, by the slimmest of margins, First Cow is Kelly Reichardt’s best film, to date. It is a film that upends traditional frontier tales of masculine partnership by replacing it with deep-rooted tenderness. The idea of creativity is at the front of the film’s mind, but so is art’s relationship to commerce. Cookie and King-Lu have a brilliant idea that the world loves, but they lack the capital to sustain their dream. Nature gives them their dairy for free, but, in the case of the community cow, nature is owned by the town big wig. Said big wig eventually nixes their culinary dreams and, in turn, puts their lives in danger. All of the details in First Cow, a movie that seems so simple, are so nuanced and watching the film was such an enriching experience. I felt a little more connected to the world after watching it.
3. Dick Johnson Is Dead
The amount of style that Dick Johnson Is Dead has and the intense personal nature of the story it is telling makes the film truly unlike any documentary I have ever seen. The blending of reality and fiction shows director Kirsten Johnson’s keen awareness of the ways that we go to movies to cope with loss and trauma in our real lives. That is doubly true for a person who actually works in the film industry. People will bury themselves in their work when they grieve. People will bury themselves in art when they grieve. For Johnson, work and fiction are inextricably tied. So, when coping with the mental deterioration of her eminently charming father, she couldn’t think of a better outlet than to make a film about him. It is a celebration of life in the name of accepting death, a theme that has already been featured on my top 10 list and also a theme that rang especially true in 2020, a year unlike any. No movie moved me more than Dick Johnson is Dead in 2020. If it moved me as much as it did, I can’t imagine what it did for Kirsten and her father. The film scratches an itch of anxiety that I think every person has and did it absolutely beautifully. It is not a weepy, but it will make you cry. It is not a comedy, but it will make you laugh. The movie is not one thing, and that’s what makes it so great.
2. The Nest
The Nest is the 2020 film that I could not get out of my head. The style, the themes, the performances, the visuals… it all completely stuck with me. The film is a 1980’s-set domestic drama staged like a 1970’s horror film made in 2020. That cinematic alchemy took my breath away. I don’t exactly know why Sean Durkin has only made 2 movies in the last decade, but we need more from him. I liked Martha Marcy May Marlene a lot, but I think The Nest is a significant step up from that film. We have a special filmmaker on our hands and I hope he keeps getting opportunities to make movies like no one else currently working does. The tension that oozes out of every corner of this story about a family falling apart is remarkable. Our main vessel throughout the story is Carrie Coon’s Allison, who really feels like she is in physical danger, a representation of her emotional and mental health state. The ominous sense of being watched or being followed consumes so many scenes in the film. Coon gives the performance of the year in the role, but Jude Law is also stellar and the reverberations of their arguments and poor decision-making have a profound impact on their children, who start looking to replace the satisfaction they used to get from their parent’s affection, which has disappeared. It is a gloomy film and one that kind of left me in a state of shock. Oh, and Carrie Coon has a dance scene, so of course, it’s great.
Tenet brought to the forefront all of the things I love about Christopher Nolan’s movies and left out most of the things I really dislike. Nolan did not feel the need to explain every bit of the world to you like he did in a film like Inception. He throws you headfirst into a world where people say things like “temporal pincer movement” and doesn’t hold your hand nearly as much as we are accustomed to from Nolan. Tenet has the visceral momentum of Dunkirk, a movie that is all forward progress and urgency, driven by Ludwig Goransson’s incredible score. It ditches Nolan’s dead wife crutch. I have heard people call it hollow or superficial, but I found genuine emotion in Kat’s journey to free herself and her son from the clutches of her horrific arms dealer husband. Does it all make sense? Hell no- or, I guess, I’m not really sure yet. But it has been a long time, probably since I saw another Nolan film, The Prestige since I felt the desire to return to a puzzle of a movie like this with the desire to crack the code. That is because everything surrounding the puzzle is so masterful. And, let’s be honest, you can get the broad strokes on first watch. The idea of The Protagonist as the main character (literally the name of John David Washington’s character) actually pays off in the end, when he makes the decision to give a kind of life he knows he can never have to someone he has come to care about. Throw in some amazing turns from Kenneth Branagh and Robert Pattinson, some of the greatest set pieces ever put on film with an emphasis on practicality and some amazing visuals (people going backwards just looks cool, okay?) and you have the best film of the year. 2020 was… let’s be generous… an imperfect year. Tenet represents something imperfect, but something striving for greatness and the type of filmmaking that we should be encouraging. Christopher Nolan is not the savior of cinema, but he is the only man on Earth with the access to the resources that he has access to that wants to make movies the way he does. He gets to do what he wants, and if what we get moving forward are films as good as Tenet and Dunkirk, bring it on. When I watch Tenet, everything else washes away. Christopher Nolan has been trying to make a Michael Mann movie basically his whole career. This is the closest he has ever come. It was a balm in a horrific time, so I had to put it at #1.
The rest of my Top 20:
12. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
15. Let Them All Talk
16. Another Round
18. Da 5 Bloods
19. On the Rocks
20. I’m Your Woman