Connect with us


The 50 Best Films of 2020

This year, a pandemic revealed that cinema, like every other facet of society, wants for more democratization.




The 50 Best Films of 2020
Photo: Icarus Films

Zombi Child

20. Zombi Child (Bertrand Bonello)

Restlessly shuttling between 1960s Haiti and present-day France, Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child roils with colonialist tensions. But as with the director’s prior Nocturama, this quixotic, slow-burn genre film is political largely in the abstract. While there are moments here where a history of exploitation informs the relationship between the French, lily-white Fanny (Louise Labeque) and Haitian refugee Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat)—classmates at an all-girls school established by Napoleon Bonaparte—Bonello’s interests go much deeper than race relations. The dialectical relationship between past and present has become a central organizing principle of Bonello’s artistry, evident in his anachronistic soundtrack choices and his unmooring of characters from their period settings through decidedly modern behaviors or situations, but here he approaches that dialectic in a crucially different manner. Instead of overlaying modern-day signifiers on a period piece setting, as he did in House of Pleasures, Zombi Child suggests two temporalities that exist parallel to each other. Sam C. Mac

Yourself and Yours

19. Yourself and Yours (Hong Sang-soo)

With Yourself and Yours, Hong Sang-soo has effectively constructed a narrative in which every character is conceivably culpable of committing an act that adversely effects those around them, and without just cause. More impressive, these unresolved sources of blame allow for a reflexive empathy. It’s possible that either—though not both—Min-jung (Lee Yoo-young), a controlling artist, or Young-soo (Kim Joo-hyuk), his live-in girlfriend, hasn’t explicitly wronged the other, so the moments in which they escape from whatever vice or cruel coincidence might be keeping them apart resonate with a quietly harrowing sense of romance, charged as they are with the gravity of what they may have done and the possibility of their own individual blamelessness. By the end of the film, neither Min-jung nor Young-soo seem particularly concerned with the details of their estranged circumstance, nor even their given roles in this story. Instead, they merely want to accept each other for who they themselves feel they need to be. And this, in fact, seems a natural progression of the ideas in Hong’s cinema: Neither culture nor film can define the world for you—that’s up to you and yourself alone. Mac


18. Tommaso (Abel Ferrara)

Many films have dealt with the highs and lows of addiction, even the challenges of recovery. Less common are films about living at length with sobriety, about the peace it can bring and the lingering absence that an addict in recovery must learn to accept. Abel Ferrara’s Tommaso is about that precise feeling of living with an itch unscratched, which the protagonist manages with a life of fetishistic interiority. Ferrara’s collaborations with Dafoe are studies of privilege, power, fantasy, and loneliness. They’re also surveys of Dafoe’s remarkably suggestive presence and physicality, as well as flirtations with European artiness. Tommaso is erotic in a manner that’s unusual for American films, suggesting that Ferrara has truly gotten Italy into his bloodstream. Almost every encounter here is freighted with the promise of sex—the kind that’s understood to be possible primarily because of Tommaso’s success and station. These wandering, episodic films are politically conscious, yet they’re also about the lurid pleasure of being a man with a certain degree of reputation. In Tommaso, Ferrara both rues and enjoys his protagonist’s power and insularity, which scans less as hypocrisy than as an honest admission of the difficulty of navigating the divide between accountability and temptation. Bowen


17. Collective (Alexander Nanau)

On October 30, 2015, a fire breaks out during a free rock concert at the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest, Romania. The club has no fire exits. Twenty-seven people are killed right away and 180 are injured. Dozens more die soon after, many of them not because of the severity of their burns, but from bacterial infections contracted while in intensive care—and this after the Romanian government assured the victims that they would receive the same medical care that they would receive in Germany. The government’s attempts to save face begin to crumble and mass protests spread across Romania. In Collective, Alexander Nanau trails investigative reporters exposing the astonishing offshore fraud scheme involving hospital disinfectants which led to dozens of avoidable deaths in the wake of the fire. In the documentary, the sleuthing aimed at restoring the integrity of a community, however belatedly, is the work of reporters undaunted by the potentially lethal consequences of speaking truth to power, through reportage, press briefings, and TV appearances. Collective reminds us that without investigative reporting there’s no democracy, and that traditional expectations around impartiality and objectivity may be untenable in the face of horror. It proves that journalistic integrity is achieved not through neutrality, but by pledging fierce allegiance to the public’s interest. Semerene

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

16. Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman)

Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a bravura depiction of the social barriers that get in the way of women asserting their agency. Eliza Hittman’s dreamy coming-of-age stories at times suggest something from the Larry Clark school of provocation, where a certain penchant for transgression comes at the expense of verisimilitude. But the strength of this film is that its transgression comes from the shock of how the abortion system works. How each thing that ostensibly keeps people safe is harmful in a different way. Use your invaluable health insurance, and the procedure will show up on your parents’ statement. Spend the stolen cash to pay for it instead and you can’t buy a ticket home. This approach might be didactic at times, but Hittman’s screenplay manages to capture the interlocking effects of wider, separate issues with impeccable precision. Medicare for all, toxic masculinity, the working class, pro-lifers, homelessness, and privatization of public space—all are gestured to without moralizing or pontificating. It’s all in service of character. Flanagan


15. Bacurau (Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles)

Kleber Mendoça Filho and Juliano Donnelles’s Bacurau assembles a vibrant and eclectic collage of reference points. It’s a wild neo-western that pulls into its orbit UFO-shaped drones, elaborate folklore, limb-flaying and head-exploding gore, and Udo Kier as a villain who shouts in a mockingly high-pitched voice, “Hell no!” The Bacurau of the film’s title is a fictional town in Brazil’s northeastern interior, depicted here at some point in the not-too-distant future. The citizens live in a relatively undisturbed harmony—until Bacuaru is literally wiped off the map (GPS no longer can locate the backwater), local cell service is jammed, and the people find themselves hunted, A Dangerous Game-style, by gringo infiltrators. Mendoça Filho is one of contemporary Brazilian cinema’s most sharply political filmmakers, and Bacurau solidifies his commitment to rebuking Brazil’s current administration and its willful erasure of the country’s culture and heritage. Mac

The Wild Goose Lake

14. The Wild Goose Lake (Diao Yinan)

Diao Yinan’s The Wild Goose Lake is a crackerjack genre exercise, but it’s up to a fair bit more than it might at first seem. Diao joins other contemporary Chinese filmmakers like Vivian Qu (Trap Street) and Xin Yukun (Wrath of Silence) in recognizing that genre movies offer a kind of smokescreen for a form of sociopolitical engagement that the Chinese censors likely wouldn’t otherwise approve. Which is to say, the heightened violence and ugliness of a crime film seems to allow for a kind of depiction of Chinese social life that wouldn’t be acceptable from a “realistic” drama. Diao takes this all a bit further, however, utilizing the sprawling geography of what’s essentially a chase film to deep-dive into the sordid underbelly of a Chinese society where lawlessness trumps order. The Wild Goose Lake’s masterstroke is that its fugitive antiheroes are framed by an environment that reflects their criminal lives back at them, seemingly no matter where they turn. Mac

Space Dogs

13. Space Dogs (Elsa Kremer and Levin Peter)

The dogs that took part in the Soviet Sputnik program—most famously Laika, a Moscow stray who became the first living being in space—are still heralded as heroes in Russia. The Kubrickian opening of Space Dogs—an abstract vision from the perspective of a Sputnik capsule re-entering our atmosphere, in which the Earth’s rim is subsumed by a wild purplish flame that suggests damaged photographic film—effectively puts an end to canine space-faring romanticism. Though anti-romantic, the film isn’t averse to wonder, which finds root on our Earth, in the exterior facts of life and impenetrable inner lives of Moscow street dogs. Imaginative and playful but drawing us through its play toward darker, too-seldom-considered sides of human and doggy nature, Space Dogs fulfills the implicit cinematic mission of bringing us to places we otherwise could never go. In the novel world it uncovers, the film finds new lines of questioning, if not necessarily answers. When the “hero” dogs were orbiting the Earth, the narrator observes, “No one had wondered what they might have dreamt about in their space capsules.” Speculating about the dreams of other humans is challenging enough. Perhaps we need a kind of intellectual launching pad to reflect on the inner life of what is, after all, an alien form of being. Which is just what Elsa Kremer and Levin Peter’s film provides. Brown

American Utopia

12. American Utopia (Spike Lee)

“Thank you for coming. Thank you for leaving your homes,” David Byrne says when first addressing the audience in Spike Lee’s filmed version of the musician’s world-tour-turned-Broadway-show American Utopia. What was an ironic statement in 2019 has been inadvertently cast in a radically different, altogether more earnest light a year later. Byrne and Lee not only reckon with the legacy of Stop Making Sense, they find ways to update its rich undercurrents of social commentary. Byrne’s dance moves in Jonathan Demme’s concert film subtly incorporated parodies of ‘80s excess, from exercise-video-craze dances to the use of a too-big suit as a metaphor for the hollow promise of Reaganomics. Here, the robotic movements of Byrne and his performers, in their matching gray suits, become a kind of interpretive dance about gentrification, homogenizing an international, diverse roster of performers for a show performed on Broadway. But despite this satirical undercurrent, American Utopia doesn’t wallow in cynicism, and the closing stretch breaks through Byrne’s many layers of postmodern impunity for a stirring, openhearted plea for a better world. In a year in which the coronavirus pandemic has devastated both the theatrical and live-music industries, American Utopia feels as much like a balm as it is a surprisingly direct call to political action and social betterment. Cole

Martin Eden

11. Martin Eden (Pietro Marcello)

A deft collapsing of both history and time that packs an allegorical wallop, Pietro Marcello’s ingenious adaptation of Jack London’s 1909 novel of the same name is set in a version of 20th-century Italy that captures the pop fizz of the 1960s alongside the ruin of the post-war era and the foreboding of the decade before, as Benito Mussolini rose to power. Luca Marinelli, infusing Eden with a watchful determination and charisma, is an avatar of the country’s shifting identities, and the film traces his evolution from an itinerant worker who becomes, after his first taste of wealth and beauty, a self-educated polemicist who only finds fame late in his career, when his idealistic politics have curdled into a selfish and dangerous strain of libertarianism. As a film about the life of the mind, Martin Eden is an intoxicating seesaw of romance and disillusion, but it’s more bold and disorienting as a film about the eternal recurrence of self-devouring populism: Liberated from time (Marcello incorporates a wealth of local archival footage of labor movements alongside his more gauzy and glamorous image of Italian social life), it doesn’t hurtle its protagonist through history so much as it finds a singular means of depicting his free fall into his own self-regard. Gray

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, consider becoming a SLANT patron, or making a PayPal donation.