Contrary to popular belief, the pandemic did not significantly dent the wealth of cinematic offerings. This is the third year I’m accumulating my end of the year list (which admittedly is coming very late after 2020) and it’s the hardest I’ve worked to whittle down my viewings to a select set of favorite films. Some notes to make: I stretched the definition of a 2020 movie. To me, films like Nomadland and One Night in Miami, which received wide-releases in 2021 but played significantly on the festival circuit, a virtual circuit that witnessed a major uptick in audience participation, did enough to qualify as 2020 movies.
Some film that barely missed the cut but I loved nonetheless: The 40 Year Old Version, A Sun, Another Round, Black Bear, Da 5 Bloods, Ema, His House, I’m No Longer Here, Invisible Man, Kajillionaire, La Llarona, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Promising Young Woman, Relic, She Dies Tomorrow, and Vitalina Varela.
25. Wolfwalkers 🇮🇪
This year, not only is Wolfwalkers the best animated film non-cinephiles haven’t heard of, it’s also the top animated film of the year. Directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, Wolfwalkers is the type of hand-drawn animated folklore film that Disney once specialized in. It concerns Robyn Goodfellowe and her father Bill, who has been hired by the zealot leader “The Lord Protector” to hunt and kill the area’s wolves. Robyn struggles to prove her hunting prowess to her father only to befriend a wolfwalker, someone who can morph into a wolf, named Mebh. Both girls are trying to save their respective parents, one from servitude, the other from certain death. While the narrative is captivating, the hand-drawn animation is the star. It’s gorgeous, technically brilliant, and magical. And it scratches an itch that you didn’t know you had for a style of animation that feels as legendary as the characters themselves.
Available on Apple TV
24. Impetigore 🇮🇩
It’s a classic horror set-up: Two city dwellers venture into the country only to find folklore frights. Except this story comes by way of Indonesia. In Joko Anwar’s chilling Impetigore, Maya (Tara Basro) returns to her small village, with her best friend Dini (Marissa Anitato), to reclaim a possible birthright. See, Maya didn’t her parents. She was raised by her aunt. Flat-broke, she learns that her parents once owned a large house in the country, and she might be the heir to it. Despite its name, Impetigore isn’t very gory. Rather the horror unhinges your nerve endings through its foreboding atmosphere. When Maya and Dini arrive at her village, they find a place without children, and without much hospitality either. A curse hangs over the jungle hamlet. It hangs over her former house, too. Anwar employs a deep depth of field to great effect to build a haunted house frame amidst a tastefully bloody terrain. With a pinch of black magic, Impetigore is another creepy addition to the rich tradition of Asian horror.
Available on Shudder
23. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom 🇺🇸
I won’t dwell too much on Chadwick Boseman’s death, as this isn’t the only Boseman film to make this list, but suffice to say, that this film is extremely bittersweet. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the second of August Wilson’s plays from his Century Cycle to be adapted into a film, Fences being the first, is directed by theater veteran George C. Wolfe. Viola Davis stars as the titular mother of the blues; a stern tactician who’s well-aware of her worth as a singer, while Boseman appears as the conceited trumpet player Levee. The two are in the same band but are in opposition to each other. Mostly because the young upstart Levee wants to form his own band. But Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which takes place during a recording session on Chicago’s south side during the 1920s, is only tangentially about music. Themes relating to the Great Migration, the spiritual, and the advancement of Black people course through this play, building the drama until a shocking final explosion. Coleman Domingo, Glynn Turman, and Davis provide stirring support. But it’s Boseman’s movie from beginning to end. He’s a triple threat: singing, dancing, and acting into eternity. It’s quite simply the best performance of his brief career.
Available on Netflix
22. Blow The Man Down 🇺🇸
I wish more people were talking about Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy’s New England black comedy Blow the Man Down. Anchored by two supreme performances from Morgan Saylor as Mary Beth Connolly, and Sophie Lowe as Priscilla Connolly, and a rich deep cast, this clever hoot is an ambitious subversion of the crime genre. Mary Beth and Priscilla are polar opposite sisters who become embroiled in the death of a rapist while mourning the death of their mother. Brian McOmber and Jordan Dykstra’s uneasy kooky score pepper the unearthing of the seismic secrets coursing under this seemingly quaint Maine town. Margo Martindale is so formidable as the brothel’s madam while the coven of older women, which includes an endearing June Squibb, are equally as dazzling. There’s real heart in this bumbling comedy filled with boisterous shanti songs. During Mary Beth and Priscilla’s escape from the law, they learn about the once-vibrant person they called their mother, and the ways they need each other. Blow the Man Down is a sharp low-key Northeastern flick concerning female empowerment that does Manchester By the Sea better than Manchester By the Sea could ever dream of.
Available on Amazon Prime
21. The Vast of Night 🇺🇸
Andrew Patterson’s Twilight Zone-inspired debut The Vast of the Night, which takes place in Cayuga, New Mexico, is a sci-fi that showcases inventive filmmaking on a minimal budget. Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick) is a reserved switchboard operator while Everett Sloan (Jake Horowitz) is the self-absorbed disc-jockey. Both outsiders desperately want to leave their quaint small town; Crocker to a bigger switchboard and Sloan to a larger radio station. The Vast of Night is subtle in its themes: the devaluing of black voices, the limited career prospects for women during the 1950s, and how we tell stories through technology—but plays big in its tiny surroundings. McCormick and Horowitz not only bounce off each other through with easy chemistry, but maneuver the wordy snappy dialogue like wind through the dry brush. A five-minute monologue from a mysterious man named Billy (Bruce Davis) calling about army testing and aliens is eerie. A five-minute monologue from Gail Cronauer is petrifying, as well. And the tracking shot, captured by DP M. I. Littin-Menz, which defies gravity by whizzing just barely above the ground, from one end of the town to the other, is not only thrilling, it’s among the best shots of the year. The Vast of Night is the type of indie debut we crave, visionary and resourceful, yet is so rarely given to us.
Available on Amazon Prime