This was a good year for female directors. The cynical part of me wants to say that’s because the studios were more likely to release movies made by women in a year of cutting losses. But it may also be the result of efforts to boost equity in the wake of the Weinstein revelations, which occurred in late 2017. If a lot of female-directed/produced movies picked up for distribution after premiering at 2018 and 2019 film festivals, the majority of those titles would start coming out in 2020.
When I was writing this list, I wasn’t sure what should count as a 2020 movie, since the Academy Awards have been pushed back to April. Ultimately, I decided only to include movies that were available via VOD in 2020, so this list doesn’t include some big titles like Regina King’s One Night in Miami and Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland, although I plan to catch up with them when they are released later this month and in February. This list is a reflection of my year, and what I was able to watch on streaming platforms, “virtual” cinemas,” and via screening links. It’s probably a little quirkier than my previous best of lists in 2018 and 2019, but this was an odd year, and I’d guess that the next couple of years are going to continue to be unpredictable as Hollywood figures out what movie-going looks like in a post-COVID world.
So, here’s my top ten, in descending order . . .
Directed by Marina Zenovich
When I reviewed Lance on my blog back in June, I did not expect that a three-and-a-half hour sports documentary would make my top ten list. But here I am in January, still thinking about it. For anyone who has followed Armstrong’s career, this two-part ESPN doc may be too much of a rehash, but I had never delved beyond the headlines, so the material was new to me. It felt like essential 2020 viewing because there is something so Trumpy about Lance Armstrong: his lying, his bullying, and his desire to win at all costs.
9. On The Rocks
Written & Directed by Sofia Coppola
When I watched the trailer for this movie, I thought it seemed lightweight and so I wasn’t expecting much. But there is an elegance and surprising depth to this father-daughter portrait. Rashida Jones plays a New York-based writer with small children who turns to her father for advice when her marriage seems shaky. Instead of addressing her martial problems, she ends up reckoning with the legacy of her charming but superficial father. Bill Murray’s performance is magical, but Rashida Jones is the calm center. It’s unusual to see a woman in this kind of leading role and I appreciated Coppola’s attention to her daily routines and interactions.
8. Crip Camp
Written & Directed by James LeBrecht and Nichole Newnham
This was the last movie I saw in the theaters, and I reviewed it on my blog back in March. It tells the story of the disability rights movement, and it is a remarkable portrait of those activists, but it also shows how activism naturally occurs when you allow people with similar experiences to share space together — in this case, a summer camp called Camp Jened. Although the movie does not focus exclusively on the summer camp experience, the 1970s footage from the camp is extraordinary as it captures a lost time and place.
7. Dick Johnson is Dead
Directed by Kirsten Johnson
Written by Kirsten Johnson and Nels Bangerter
I recently started reading All About Love by bell hooks and in it, she describes love as “the will to nurture our own and another’s spiritual growth.” This documentary is made with such care and respect. It is all about love. Just see it.
6. Blow the Man Down
Written & Directed by Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy
This was the 2020 movie I recommended most frequently to friends and family. With its mix of genres and moods, I felt like it would appeal to people who like any of the following things: murder mysteries, fairy tales, small-town intrigue, Twin Peaks, and the Coen Brothers. Also, it’s streaming on Amazon and this was the year everyone gave in and got Amazon Prime.
5. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Written & Directed by Eliza Hittman
I was late to catch up with this story of two teenagers trying to get an abortion, and I worried it would be slow and dreary. It’s not. It has a swift pace while also containing a lot of stillness. Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder star as cousins forced to go on a road trip to obtain an abortion. They are utterly convincing as teenagers, as small-town residents, and as cousins who are bound together by familial love and acceptance as well as friendship and happenstance. It’s not a documentary, but writer and director Eliza Hittman looks so closely at the logistics of obtaining an abortion that it sometimes feels like one. I was completely drawn in by her precise realism, as well Flanigan and Ryder’s naturalistic performances.
Written & Directed by Miranda July
Miranda July’s third feature is about a family small-time crooks who live on the edge of society, getting by on low-stakes heists. When a stranger enters their midst, the power balance is upended and their daughter rebels. It’s a movie about precarity, parenting, and the vulnerability that comes with caregiving. The story takes a lot of left turns that lead to some truly bizarre situations, some more believable than others. At the same time, there was a strong element of realism, with images and emotions that speak to a culture that has become transactional to the point of lovelessness. Evan Rachel Wood gives a very strange and wonderful performance, manipulating her voice in a way that reminded me of Elizabeth Holmes, the Theranos grifter. There’s also a completely bonkers recurring situation that I won’t spoil, but which epitomizes the ridiculous compromises the parents have made in order to feel invulnerable.
3. The Forty-Year-Old Version
Written & Directed by Radha Blank
This movie was a total delight and a shoo-in to my personal canon of New York City movies. It captures the spirit and energy or NYC, and has a lot to say about art-making, grief, and middle age. I reviewed it on my blog in October and knew then that it would be on this list.
2. First Cow
Directed by Kelly Reichardt
I am so grateful that I saw First Cow in a theater. I love Kelly Reichardt’s films, but they are quiet and slow and reward a quiet, dark viewing. (For home viewing, I recommend watching it at night and turning out all the lights so that you can see the details in the many scenes with dim lighting.) I reviewed First Cow for The Common and was so taken by Reichardt’s detailed attention to place that I barely mentioned just how wonderful the central performances are. Orion Lee is magnetic as King Lu, an immigrant in search of riches in Oregon, and John Magaro embodies sweetness as Cookie, a baker who puts his heart and soul into the “oily cakes” that he and King Lu sell. If you love Reichardt you will love this, and if you’ve never seen her work, this is the place to start because it’s more traditionally plotted than her other movies.
1. The Assistant
Written & Directed by Kitty Green
I saw this in the theater back in February and as I wrote in my review, it gave me nightmares, bringing back my years of working as an assistant in an extremely stressful environment. This is Kitty Green’s debut narrative feature, but she has made two documentaries previous to this, and she brings a documentarian’s eye to this day-in-the-life story. Green focuses on the minutiae of an assistant’s job, and she apparently interviewed executive secretaries to get the details right: the little cleaning chores, the endless revisions to the boss’s schedule, the furtive snacks and lunches. One little thing that stuck with me is the way that the assistant, played by Julia Garner, has no place to put her coat and must stuff it into a file drawer. It is eerily suspenseful and the movie slowly builds to an emotionally crushing scene that shows how abusive power structures are maintained.