My year began with a New Year’s Day screening of Cats, and I didn’t expect that to factor into the post about the best films of 2020. I joked that Tom Hooper’s romp in the kitty litter was setting the bar for 2020. But after three months of quarantine (and more to come), movie theatres shuttered by COVID-19, and one exhausting news cycle after another, I think that watching Cats with a bunch of day-drinking strangers at Cineplex Yonge and Eglinton actually was one of 2020’s high points. I don’t say that ironically, but 2020 hasn’t been the best year for one’s social life.
It’s been a rough year for movies, too. Theatres have been out of commission for months, leaving many cinephiles with memories of drunk Ben Affleck as their final theatrical experience of 2020. The future of theatrical film-going still looks shaky as the world plans to emerge from coronavirus lockdown. However, while it’s been an off-year for movie-going, it would be unfair to say that 2020 has been a bad year for movies. Case in point: the following best films of 2020.
Theatres closed just when there seemed to be an embarrassment of riches for film buffs. The Invisible Man proved that January/February didn’t have to be a junk heap of terrible horror movies. (Cough, cough, The Turning.) Margot Robbie gave us a fantastically zany comic book flick with Birds of Prey, as well as the yummiest cinematic sandwich since Spanglish. Small gems like First Cow, True History of the Kelly Gang, Bacurau, or Never Rarely Sometimes Always wowed the few people who braved the theatre before the box office closed or rewarded viewers who coughed up cash for premium “virtual theatre” screenings. Michael Jordan made Netflix binge-watching a slam dunk.
As distributors and exhibitors have experimented with digital releases, quality films like The High Note and The King of Staten Island relieved movie buffs during lockdown. Spike Lee threw down the glove for award season with Da 5 Bloods. The Oscars are now 10 months away, and it will be a challenge for any of the best films of 2020 so far to make the nominations, but Delroy Lindo pretty much needs to tell voters whether he’s campaigning in the lead or supporting category and clear his shelf. Finding quality films is often about putting in the work, and this year has enough movies to make another three months of quarantine seem like a breeze.
To salute the films that have saved us during the long strange trip of 2020, the writers of That Shelf offer their picks for the top five movies of the year so far. Since it’s a wonky year, contributors were welcome to include films screened at festivals, for theatrical release, or on home video. Please join us in saluting the best films of 2020 so far as we await the second wave. -Pat Mullen
That Shelf‘s Picks for the Best Films of 2020 So Far
5. Be Water: Bruce Lee’s early death created a kind of myth surrounding the man, but Be Water illuminates the real challenges he faced on his way to becoming an icon, and also the profound sense of loss of what could’ve been.
4. Da 5 Bloods: Like Inside Man before it, Spike Lee uses a genre framework (think Treasure of the Sierra Madre) to inject an insightful film about trauma, and the way that a country casually discards lives in war and peace.
3. The Last Dance: The Chicago Bull’s defining 1997-98 season started tumultuously but ended in a championship. The ten hours flew by, but throughout Michael Jordan’s miraculous run, it was impossible to ignore that even during a captivating, once-in-a-lifetime-run, we couldn’t help but fixate on the end.
2. The Invisible Man: Presumably updated to introduce Universal monsters to a newer, younger audience, Leigh Whannell’s film also captured a timeless fear; the way society tends to treat predators as victims and accusers as monsters.
1. Bad Education: America presents itself as a land of opportunity. People are successful because they deserve it, or they didn’t work hard enough. Bad Education undercuts that lie by showing how “successful” people got to where they are now.
The Painter and the Thief: It is rare that a documentary will make you scream out in disbelief, but this made me scream three times. It is beautiful and kind, and has a story that is as incredible as the paintings themselves.
Shirley: An unapologetic look at a fascinating author. We are never allowed to feel too close to Shirley Jackson, but trying to get there sure is a worthy pursuit.
Swallow: An intimate and empathetic look at mental health and the antiquated roles still hoisted upon women. Haley Bennett is absolutely brilliant as Hunter and makes an uncommon ailment feel universal.
Underwater: Any underwater hijinks films that have no time or concern with too much character development, and just stick to survival and sea monsters, will always have a special place in my heart.
The Vast of Night: First time director Andrew Patterson had the gall to not only emulate a radio play in this feature film, but also to have his shots carry on for so long you are breathing with the characters, and to paint an entire science fiction plot without any visual cues towards the fantastic. It is truly a beautiful and confident film.
5. Da 5 Bloods: Da 5 Bloods is a dense movie that rewards you upon multiple viewings. You could watch and just marvel at the aspect ratio changes to set time and tone or unpack the idea that there is no de-aging used except for in a photo. You could also just enjoy the music and action.
4. Birds of Prey: I’m not just saying this because it’s the only comic book movie to come out from one of the “big two.” I enjoyed Birds of Prey because the execution of fight choreography and a chance to finally give Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) her due really worked for me.
3. The Invisible Man: Re-imagining The Invisible Man so it’s from the perspective of a woman (Elisabeth Moss) in an abusive relationship felt like a fresh take. It really paid off as far as I’m concerned.
2. Uncorked: I am a weirdo who doesn’t like wine but I was here for Elijah (Mamoudou Athie)’s journey to follow his sommelier dreams while working through his issues with his father (Courtney B. Vance). Niecy Nash is amazing as well as Elijah’s mother in Uncorked.
1. Just Mercy: Just Mercy is an emotional movie that plays out the events of the true story of Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) trying to prove Walter McMillan (Jamie Foxx). Even though this played at TIFF in 2019 I was only able to see it during its wide release in January of this year. Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx give strong lead performances but it doesn’t stop there. Rob Morgan and O’Shea Jackson Jr. provide great support by playing two of Walter’s neighbouring inmates. The ability for the performances to pull me in and make me invested even in the face of ostensible hopelessness is what makes this movie the best of the year so far.
5. The Whistlers: Corneliu Porumboiu’s offbeat crime caper is the wackiest Romanian heist movie in some time. Perhaps also the only one.
4. Pahokee: This documentary observes the lives of four Florida high schoolers, offering a fascinating study of the social factors that shape a person’s future.
3. First Cow: Kelly Reichardt’s unconventional western is her strongest film in a decade. At a time when movies move faster than ever, she finds power in stillness.
2. Boys State: Believe the hype. This year’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner for American documentary is cinema verité at its finest. A raucously hopeful portrait of the next generation of American leaders.
1. Promising Young Woman was the first press screening I attended after this year’s Oscars and it set the bar for the best films of 2020. The review’s still in draft mode, though, since Miss Rona delayed the release. So, lest the embargo gods smite me, can I finally say how much I loved it? Promising Young Woman is an electrifyingly badass directorial debut for Emerald Fennell, who was the showrunner for season two of Killing Eve and plays Camilla on The Crown. It’s the ultimate revenge thriller for the #MeToo moment with a deliciously sinister Carey Mulligan, who gives one of her best performances playing against type. With its candy-coloured palette of and a soundtrack fuelled by banger pop hits including the best un-ironic use of Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind” you’ll ever see, Promising Young Woman shakes just the right cocktail of naughty and nice.
5. Tigertail: Slow moving and richly layered, Alan Yang’s Tigertail is an honest examination of choices and regret.
4. The Assistant: Kitty Green’s film is an intoxicating exploration of abuse of power and the systems that cultivate it.
3. Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn: Cathy Yan made one of the most original and entertaining comic book movies in decades. It is a shame this film has not received the love it truly deserves.
2. The Invisible Man: Thanks to Elisabeth Moss’s brilliant performance, The Invisible Man builds and sustains tension in a remarkable fashion.
1. Da 5 Bloods: 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 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 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.
5. Minari: In many ways, Minari is the anti-Zola: an intimate, thoughtful, and slow-paced coming-of-age story about a Korean family that moves to Arkansas to start a farm. It’s one of those small-scale films that swoops in under-the-radar and then blows you away with great performances, memorable characters, and touching themes.
4. Zola: Sure, Zola is based on a wild Twitter thread that went viral, but the less said about this film, the better. If you go in blind, this movie will blow your mind. Zola is an insane road-trip flick packed with flashy visuals, nutty dialogue, and over-the-top characters. Don’t be surprised if Zola becomes 2020’s most-memed movie.
3. Kajillionaire: Miranda July needs to direct more movies. Her films strike a dreamy tone unlike anything Hollywood is churning out right now, and I can’t get enough of them. Kajillionaire takes a universal human desire—the need to be loved—and spins it into a surreal story (the main character’s name is Old Dolio) grounded in raw human emotions. Kajillionaire is a testament to the power of love that is equal parts silly and sweet.
2. The 40-Year-Old Version: Radha Blank is about to become Netflix’s next big thing. Blank wrote, directed, and starred in The 40-Year-Old Version, her feature debut. The film is a soulful dramedy laced with smart social critiques and Blank’s silly antics. Blank stars in the lead role and play a version of herself, also named Radha—imagine Mindy Kaling crossed with Larry David and Queen Latifah, and you start to get the picture. The 40-Year-Old Version is my favourite feel-good movie in 2020, and I can’t wait to see it again.
1. Da 5 Bloods: Netflix just gifted us with another powerful Spike Lee joint to add to the Brooklynite’s long list. Like much of Spike’s best work, Da 5 Bloods is both thrilling and hard to watch. Spike draws us into the story with a great setup and a charismatic cast of characters, and once he has our attention, the film forces us to confront uncomfortable truths. Da 5 Bloods is a gripping action movie, a funny road-trip flick, and a thoughtful character study that entertained me and left me emotionally raw.
Beastie Boys Story: Even as a casual fan of the Beastie Boys, Spike Jonze’s filmed take on Adam Horovitz and Mike Diamond’s live trip down memory lane is at once inventive, entertaining, and informative. There’s years of material and ground covered as the remaining members pay tribute to the late Adam Yauch. Beastie Boys’ trademark humour and quirks are on full display as they chronicle their immense musical and cultural rise with plenty of self-deprecation.
Emma: I had my doubts as to whether we really needed another adaptation of Emma since it seems like we just had one (okay, that was 24 years ago but really, Gwyneth Paltrow, Toni Collette, and Ewan McGregor haven’t aged that much, and neither have we). But Anya Taylor-Joy is a delight in Autumn de Wilde’s colourful take on the classic Regency era romance and the casting of Johnny Flynn, Mia Goth and Bill Nighy in supporting roles is superb.
The Invisible Man: One of the biggest surprises of the year (so far) is Elisabeth Moss’ turn in Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man. Anyone expecting a throwaway horror with a February release date was in for a shock when the movie actually delivered clever twists and turns and some downright terrifying moments that not only made the concept of an invisible man work, but also made it believable without too much a stretch of the imagination.
Out: Pixar made history with the first LGBTQ+ main character in their touching tale about a man named Greg who fears not only coming out to his parents, but also introducing them to the man he loves. A universally uplifting story about love and acceptance, Out is also a beautifully animated short and is one of Disney+’s must-sees.
The Trip to Greece: You know exactly what you’re going to get with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon on their fourth road trip: great food, hilarious impressions, a bit of bickering, and gorgeous scenery. They’re not reinventing the wheel when it comes to The Trip to Greece and that’s precisely why it continues to be so great.
What are your picks for the best films of 2020 so far?