Nomadland Best Films of 2020

That Shelf’s Top 10 Films of 2020

This year had some bright spots, after all

The best films of 2020 remind us that the year wasn’t all bad. If not for escapism, quality entertainment, and films that helped us make sense of a crazy world, we might have all gone nuts.


At the end of a year when few of us could actually go to the movies, it’s important to celebrate the art form. 2020 was inevitably a year for independents and emerging voices. While some pundits are pegging 2020 as the Death of Cinema (thanks., Warner Bros!), this year feels more like a new beginning thanks to all the promising young talent. This seems appropriate in a year that demanded change both inside and outside the movie-making system.


The contributors at That Shelf assembled to pick the best films of 2020. Our cumulative list again reflected the eclectic and diverse tastes of the team. Using a weighted ballot, contributors submitted their individual top ten for the best films of 2020, which were tallied into an overall definitive list of the best films of 2020. Due to some ties, we’ve expanded beyond the traditional ten to a happy dozen. Additionally, contributors were welcome to submit any feature film regardless of release format to accommodate the changes this year. Some members also included films not yet released in Canada in 2020, but had qualifying runs and festival premieres ahead of an early 2021 release.


Without further ado, That Shelf’s picks for the best films of 2020


10. The Forty-Year-Old Version (dir. Radha Blank)

A favourite of the Shelf team since Sundance, The Forty-Year-Old Version marks a wild and promising feature debut for Radha Blank. “TFYOV presents a perfect case for why we need diversity in filmmaking,” wrote Victor Stiff while reviewing the film. “I love Noah Baumbach, but I’ve been watching his stories about privileged white New Yorkers, for two decades now. He returns to certain themes, locations, and types of characters again and again. TFYOV feels like a breath of fresh air and serves as a game-changer in the indie scene…You just don’t see this character represented in Hollywood movies; a black woman fostering knowledge, respect, and unity in the black community, even while she works her own shit out. Seeing Radha’s students’ overwhelming love and support for their teacher left me on the verge of weepy.”


9. Possessor (dir. Brandon Cronenberg)

Equal parts disorienting, brilliant, and violent, Possessor attacks the 21st Century business landscape with vigour. Feel like your job is intrusive? Does it alienate you from your family? Tasya (Andrea Riseborough) goes to work knowing she’ll take over bodies to serve the .001%’s best interests. She never thinks twice until one of the bodies she occupies decides to fight back, putting a gun to her husband’s head and asking, “Do you think of your wife as a predator?” Brandon Cronenberg doesn’t mince words in detailing how often lives are secondary to profits. The film asks why a function of high society often demands us to be at our most animalistic, and it will definitely have you think twice about what your job is taking from you. – Colin Biggs


8. Lovers Rock (dir. Steve McQueen)

Taking viewers into a West Indian community of London in the 1980s, Lovers Rock is a deeply romantic film that excels in utilising mood and movement over words. The plot is rather simple, a young woman sneaks out one night to attend a reggae house party, but director Steve McQueen puts his own unique spin on the tale by making every shot and gesture meaningful in the second film of his Small Axe anthology. For one magical night, McQueen allows his Black characters to experience the euphoric joy of community. Whether it is the showstopping moment of unity on the dance floor, or the way the dangers of whiteness are kept at bay, the film lets its inhabitants exist like regular people. They can be sensual, insecure, arrogant, and romantic in ways that are rarely captured on film.  A rapturous celebration of joy, love and community, Lovers Rock once again shows why Steve McQueen is one this generation’s most fascinating directors.   – Courtney Small


7. Another Round (dir. Thomas Vinterberg)

I don’t know about other members of the Shelf team, but I had my wildest TIFF closing night party in years whilst going drink for drink with Mads Mikkelsen and company in Another Round. The film is a raucous dramedy that sees a boyish bet go awry. Four friends, all of whom are high school teachers, make a pact that they’ll go to work with their blood alcohol levels at the legal limit. But what at first seems like a fun prank to spice things up becomes a booze-fuelled portrait of addiction. The friends increase the stakes and alcoholism consumes their lives, destroying careers and families in the process. At the centre of Vinterberg’s darkly funny, and deeply troubling, film is Mikkelsen’s performance.  It’s his best work yet in a much-lauded career. The Hannibal star gives a sobering take on alcoholism as his Martin spirals out of control, culminating in a champagne-soaked dance that is one of 2020’s wildest scenes. A toast to Another Round! – Pat Mullen


6 (tie). Boys State (dir. Jesse Moss, Amanda McBaine)

As essential as it is extraordinary, Boys State is a remarkable snapshot of the present and future chaos of American politics. This immersive doc captures eight days in the “Boys State” camp in which aspiring young men perform a mock election. Using a handful of crews to capture the action that unfolds just as rapidly and dramatically as it does in real elections, Moss and McBaine observe a microcosm of American politics. In a situation with a flurry of activity and no room for second takes, the team delivers a lucid portrait of the raucous camp that is equally enlightening and entertaining. This year’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner for American documentary is bravura filmmaking and as solid a portrait of the state of the union as last year’s Oscar winner American Factory. –PM


6 (tie). Time (dir. Garrett Bradley)

It is easy to label Garrett Bradley’s enthralling and poignant experimental documentary Time a film about prison reform. After all, the film looks at Fox Rich’s two-decade battle to get her husband out of a Louisiana State prison. However, the film is so much more than that. Utilising 100 hours of home videos that Fox and her children shot, Bradley constructs a thought-provoking meditation on the power of family and unwavering love. The passage of time is a constant reminder of both the enduring emotional pain of a husband/father’s absences and just how hard the family has worked to defy the less than favourable odds that are often bestowed on those with incarnated love ones. Even with all the hardship displayed in the film, Bradley’s tale is ultimately one of love and perseverance. –CS


5. Dick Johnson Is Dead (dir. Kirsten Johnson)

Personal docs about family members are often major no-nos. (Nobody enjoys your baby pictures as much as you think they do.) However, when done properly, they can be revelatory and disarmingly personal works that take non-fiction filmmaking to unexpected places. Kirsten Johnson (Cameraperson) achieves this feat with Dick Johnson Is Dead. The film is a living wake for her father, Dick, as they imagine his death together. The film beautifully invites Johnson, who has Alzheimer’s, to experience and understand his end of life while still lucid. Somewhat in the vein of Nicholas Ray and Wim Wenders’ collaboration Lightning Over Water, which imagined Ray’s death through the filmmaking process, Johnson’s doc reminds us of film’s ability to preserve life and make sense of some of life’s most difficult moments through the creative arts. The top doc among the best films of 2020 (again) proves Johnson a master of her field. – PM


4 (tie). The Father (dir. Florian Zeller)

Director Florian Zeller adapts his play for the screen with a masterful performance by Sir Anthony Hopkins. As Anthony, an aging man coping with memory loss, Hopkins is note-perfect in the drama that’s full of unexpected twists.  In a year that has seen dementia as a plot point in Dick Johnson Is Dead, Falling, and Relic, The Father seems deceptively simple on the surface as it presents itself as a drama about a daughter (Oliva Colman) worried about her father’s slipping grasp on reality. What it delivers is a devastating turn of events that at times plays out like a psychological thriller, with Anthony’s emotions running the gamut from confusion and frustration to rage. It’s incredible to watch Hopkins transform on screen in his best performance in decades. After playing Sundance and TIFF, The Father will be released in 2021 and undoubtedly land Hopkins at the forefront of awards season. – Rachel West


4 (tie). The Sound of Metal (dir. Darius Marder)

Riz Ahmed has always been good. Anyone who saw Nightcrawler, The Night of, Four Lions, and even The Reluctant Fundamentalist knows this. And while it took a while for Ahmed to land the leading film role he deserved, he delivered two this year with Mogul Mowgli and The Sound of Metal. The latter film sees Ahmed’s drummer Ruben Stone relapse when he goes deaf, and struggles to retain his grasp on the drumsticks that fuelled his sobriety. Darius Marder’s drama follows him through the road to recovery at a rehabilitation of deaf addicts, where much of the dialogue plays in American Sign Language. Ahmed makes the most of his dynamic role, channelling the pain of addiction while delivering a nuanced and respectful portrait of what it’s like to experience a world with sound—and the emotional stakes entailed when music was the rhythm of one’s life. – PM


3. Da 5 Bloods (dir. Spike Lee)

Led by a searing performance by Delroy Lindo, Da 5 Bloods is a sprawling and mesmerizing work. A far more ambitious and riveting film than BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee’s latest drama is not your typical Vietnam War film. On the surface, Lee’s film is an engaging tale about four veterans returning to Vietnam to recover the remains of their fellow soldier (played by the late Chadwick Boseman in flashbacks) and find hidden gold along the way. However, Lee uses this story as a launch pad to discuss everything from systemic racism in America to the hypocrisy of Trump’s America to the fallout of war on generations of Vietnamese people. While there is a lot going on in the film, and I mean A LOT, Lee manages to weave it all together with ease. Even in its messier moments, Da 5 Bloods remains a captivating film. –CS


2. Promising Young Woman (dir. Emerald Fennell)

Sexy, sinister, and seriously funny, Emerald Fennell’s feature debut is a sinister satire. Promising Young Woman is a bold revenge saga for the #MeToo era. Carey Mulligan gives one of her best performances yet by trading her period garb for hot stilettos and slick blazers while revealing a new hand at deadpan comedy. As Cassie, a woman delivering justice for a friend who fell victim to the crimes of shitty men and the people who enable them, Mulligan navigates a high-wire act balancing the tone and razor-sharp bite of Fennell’s script. It helps, too, that she’s cast alongside a who’s who of Hollywood hunks (plus McLovin) who gamely play into their boy-next-door personas. The film is a scathing take on toxic masculinity told through an unabashedly female gaze. –PM


And the best film of 2020 is….


1. Nomadland (dir. Chloé Zhao)

Every film is inevitably a product of the time in which it is released. For Nomadland, sitting atop the best films of 2020, the timing couldn’t be more perfect. This point might seem weird—that’s is great for a movie to open amid a global pandemic when theatres are closed—but Jessica Bruder makes a point in her book Nomadland that the growth of America’s nomadic population is tied to moments of social upheaval. Life won’t be the same after COVID-19 and Nomadland anticipates social change. Chloé Zhao’s brilliant adaptation of Nomadland poignantly captures America in crisis, seen through the eyes hard working people adapting to survive. Zhao’s film creates a brilliant new space between fiction and non-fiction as she creates a dramatic story that follows Fern (Frances McDormand in a performance that will undoubtedly win her a well-deserved third Oscar) throughout America’s heartland working seasonal jobs. This poetic observation of iterant workers casts McDormand alongside the very people who informed Bruder’s book and live the #vanlife 24/7. What results is a beautifully intimate essay on the hardships that everyday people face when asked to live within a broken system and their resilience to adapt, survive, and inspire us to re-evaluate the structures that govern our lives. – Pat Mullen


The Best Canadian Film of 2020

There was little consensus among the That Shelf team when it came to CanCon this year. However, with two votes each for Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor and Deepa Mehta’s Funny Boy, the poll captured the range of tastes among our writers. Possessor proved the future of Canadian horror alive and well in Cronenberg’s squishy and cerebral uncut gem, while Mehta’s queer love story set against the Sri Lankan civil war is a film to root for even if we can’t do so on Oscar night.


Funny Boy (Pat Mullen, Shane Slater)

Possessor (Colin Biggs, Deirdre Crimmins)


Other votes for the best Canadian film of 2020:


The Kid Detective (Courtney Small)

No Ordinary Man (Rachel West)

Shiva Baby (Manuel Betancourt)

The Twentieth Century (Will Perkins)


The Best Lead Performance of 2020


Once again illustrating the range of tastes and quality work to choose from in 2020, only two members of the team agreed on the best lead performance of 2020. That turn was Delroy Lindo’s magnetic performance in Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods. His portrait contained the traumas of the Vietnam War and Trump’s America in a psychological powderkeg that made The Treasure of Sierra Madre look like child’s play.


Delroy Lindo in Da 5 Bloods (Courtney Small, Victor Stiff)


Other votes:


Riz Ahmed in The Sound of Metal (Colin Biggs)

Nicole Beharie in Miss Juneteenth (Shane Slater)

Haley Bennett in Swallow (Deirdre Crimmins)

Carrie Coon in The Nest (Will Perkins)

Henry Golding in Monsoon (Manuel Betancourt)

Anthony Hopkins in The Father (Rachel West)

Mads Mikkelsen in Another Round (Pat Mullen)


The Best Supporting Performance of 2020

We had a tie here that felt weirdly appropriate. Maria Bakalova and Toni Collette gave two of the batshit craziest performances of the year in Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm and I’m Thinking of Ending Things, respectively. The former had the tricky act of convincing Rudy Giuliani that she was a legit journalist while still playing her role as Borat’s daughter big enough to garner laughs for the audience in on the joke. Collette’s shape-shifting turn as Jake’s mother in Ending Things, meanwhile, flew off the rails at just the right moment to set up the wild ride of the film’s third act.


Maria Bakalova in Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm (Deirdre Crimmins, Will Perkins)

Toni Collette in I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Manuel Betancourt, Shane Slater)


Other votes:

Kosar Ali in Rocks (Courtney Small)

Bill Murray in On the Rocks (Colin Biggs)

David Strathairn in Nomadland (Rachel West)

Stanley Tucci in Supernova (Pat Mullen)


Best TV Series/ Episodic Work

Another tie! Two of the year’s most talked about series, one that went out on top and one that opened with a bang, drew two votes each from Shelf contributors. The former, Schitt’s Creek saw a beloved Canadian sitcom sweep the Emmys after ending on a high-note (a rare feat for any series) and delivering six seasons of good-humoured cheer with the Rose family. Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You, on the other hand, was one of TV’s breakout hits for its no holds barred study of consent. Surprisingly, although Steve McQueen’s anthology/mini-series appeared on several ballots for the best films of 2020, it didn’t receive a vote here despite being released as a mini-series by Amazon.


I May Destroy You (Manuel Betancourt, Shane Slater)

Schitt’s Creek (Pat Mullen, Courtney Small)


Other votes:

Between the World and Me (Victor Stiff)

Devs (Will Perkins)

The Great (Rachel West)

What We Do in the Shadows – On the Run (Colin Biggs)


Best Short Film of 2020

Shout out to films that kept things short but sweet: Zoom calls, take note!


The Human Voice (Manuel Betancourt)

In Sudden Darkness (Courtney Small)

Migrants (Colin Biggs)

Sing Me a Lullaby (Pat Mullen)

You Wouldn’t Understand (Rachel West)


Best Festival Film Awaiting Release or Distribution

Paging distributors in need of content! (Or stay tuned!)


Akilla’s Escape (Courtney Small) – coming in 2021 from LevelFILM and Vertical Entertainment

Judas and the Black Messiah (Colin Biggs) – coming Feb. 12 from Warner Bros/HBO Max

Jumbo (Deirdre Crimmins)

L.A. Tea Time (Pat Mullen) – distributed in Quebec from La Distributrice de films

P.S. Burn This Letter Please (Maneul Betancourt)

Quo Vadis, Aida? (Shane Slater)

Zola / Minari (Victor Stiff) – Zola coming in June 2021 from VVS Films and A24 / Minari coming in Feb. 2021 from Elevation Pictures and A24


Best “New to You” Film of 2020

If there was a silver lining to quarantine life, it was the chance to scratch off many of those unseen classics. In addition to the best films of 2020, here are the standouts from other years over the past 12 months of binge-watching.


Always Shine (Deirdre Crimmins)

The Awful Truth (Shane Slater)

Black Christmas [1974] (Colin Biggs)

Le Doulos (Rachel West)

Harlan County, USA (Courtney Small)

Notorious (Pat Mullen)

Punch-Drunk Love (Will Perkins)

El puto inolvidable (Manuel Betancourt)


Most Anticipated Film of 2021

We are all itching to get back to movie theatres and see films on the big screen with friends as soon as we’re all vaccinated. After making the list of the best films of 2020, these are the films that have us hungriest for 2021.


Dune (Will Perkins)

Fast & Furious 9 (Courtney Small)

The Green Knight (Deirdre Cummings)

In the Heights (Victor Stiff)

Luca (Mauel Betancourt)

Nightmare Alley (Pat Mullen)

Spiral and the new Martin McDonagh film with Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson (Rachel West)

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (Colin Biggs)

Zola (Shane Slater)



Best Films of 2020 – Individual ballots


Manuel Betancourt

1. Dick Johnson Is Dead
2. Nomadland
3. Monsoon
4. Minari
5. Promising Young Woman
6. The Father
7. Lingua Franca
8. Driveways
9. Summer of 85
10. I Carry You with Me


Colin Biggs

1. Promising Young Woman
2. Possessor
3. The Sound of Metal
4. Bad Education
5. The Invisible Man
6. La Llorona
7. The Nest
8. Small Axe: Collection
9. Palm Springs
10. Be Water


Honourable mentions: Impetigore, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, Another Round


Deirdre Crimmins

1. Koko-Di Koko-Da
2. The Vast of Night
3. Relic
4. Swallow
5. Da 5 Bloods
6. Possessor
7. Wolfwalkers
8. The Painter and the Thief
9. Scare Me
10. Nomadland


Honourable mentions: She Dies Tomorrow, Uncle Peckerhead, Never Rarely Sometimes Always


Jason Gorber

1. Boys State
2. Beanpole
3. The Sound of Metal
4. The Father
5. The Painter and the Thief
6. The Climb
7. Bacarau
8. Minari
9. Dick Johnson Is Dead
10. Farewell Amor


Pat Mullen

1. Nomadland
2. Promising Young Woman
3. Boys State
4. Another Round
5. Let Them All Talk
6. Summer of 85
7. Funny Boy
8. First Cow
9. Pieces of a Woman
10. Nadia, Butterfly


Honourable mentions: Bloody Nose Empty Pockets, The Father, French Exit, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Minari, Pahokee, The Personal History of David Copperfield, Possessor, The Truffle Hunters, Wolfwalkers


Shane Slater

1. Collective
2. Nomadland
3. Time
4. Dick Johnson Is Dead
5. And Then We Danced
6. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
7. 40 Years a Prisoner
8. The Way I See It
9. On the Record
10. Premature


Honourable mentions: Wolfwalkers, Athlete A, Boys State


Courtney Small

1. Time
2. Promising Young Woman
3. Da 5 Bloods
4. Lovers Rock
5. Sound of Metal
6. Nomadland
7. Rocks
8. The Invisible Man
9. The Kid Detective
10. The Forty-Year-Old Version


Honourable mention: Birds of Prey, Soul, Crip Camp, His House, The Assistant


Victor Stiff

1. The Forty-Year-Old Version
2. Da 5 Bloods
3. Lovers Rock
4. Between the World and Me
5. The Phenomenon
6. Hamilton
7. His House
8. Host
9. Kajillionaire
10. Nomadland and Soul (tie)


Rachel West

1. The Father
2. Another Round
3. Nomadland
4. Farewell Amor
5. Host
6. Promising Young Woman
7. Hamilton
8. Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm
9. Rocks
10. The Columnist


Honourable mention: Never Rarely Sometimes Always


Happy New Year!

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