It was not much of a year for movie-going, and I fear that 2021 will be the same: how any movie can get made in these conditions beats me. I can’t remember the last movie we saw in a theater, and watching them on TV brings them into competition with made-for-television series, which can be longer and more engrossing and are often therefore more memorable. It seems a bit left-handed to anoint the best movies of the year without acknowledging the TV series that left more of a mark; and because we had watched little TV before the pandemic struck, we folded 2019 (and older) releases* into what we considered current viewing. Before listing movies, therefore, I would acknowledge the TV series that in quality and impact matched anything on the list of movies that follows.
- Our Boys*
- My Brilliant Friend
- The Last Dance
- Baghdad Central
- Flesh and Blood
- Das Boot*
Honorable Mention: Roadkill, Queen’s Gambit, Normal People, The Undoing, Money Heist*, Lenox Hill
Mentioning 16 TV series gives me license, or an excuse, to include a similar number of films, which I will further disguise by presenting them in natural pairings, which will make a 1-10 order especially arbitrary (am I ranking them by highest score or combined score?). Here goes…
1. The Mangrove / The Trial of the Chicago 7
It is fitting in this year of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests that my two favorite films showcase police brutality and protest. That both involve real events from 50 years ago only added to their poignancy and relevance. The story of the London police and judiciary bullying West Indian immigrants trying to make their own place in British society packed more emotional power, while the pen of Aaron Sorkin brought his usual razor-sharp wit and intelligence to the motley band of Yippees and idealists who opposed the Vietnam War.
2. Les Miserables* / The Traitor*
These were almost the last two films I saw in a theater, a great start to a truncated year. Both were down-and-dirty looks at the underworld, one the gangs of the banlieues of Paris, the other the Cosa Nostra of Sicily. Both were brutal, physically violent and reminders of how good European cinema can be. “Powerful, engaging and historically informative,” I called The Traitor, which was a true story, and the same goes for Les Miserables, which could have been. The Irishman is the American equivalent of this genre, but that seemed sleeker and faker, perhaps due to the presence of Al Pacino and, especially, Robert De Niro.
3. The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart / Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind*
Featuring the music and performances of the respective title characters, both documentaries started on second base. The arc of their stories, largely positive, moved them to third, and the story-telling presence and perspective of Barry Gibb and Gordon Lightfoot themselves brought the movies home. These probably provided my happiest moments in front of a TV screen this year.
4. Nomadland / Never Rarely Sometimes Always
I’m not normally a fan of movies about down-and-out characters in tough situations, but the lead performances of Frances McDormand and Sidney Flanigan were riveting as, respectively, a houseless wanderer and an abortion-seeking teen. Set in the expansive American West, Nomadland had a visual beauty wholly absent from the bus rides, arcades and medical offices of Never Rarely, but in both movies it was the character’s inner determination to resist bad odds that shone brightest.
5. Athlete A / Boys State
I might feel awkward about putting our daughter’s documentary about women’s gymnastics on this list except that other critics listed Collective (#2 for TIME), which tells a similar story but is not nearly as good a film (not even close). Providing gender balance to Athlete A, Boys State is embedded in its moment, not an after-the-fact report, but in its small way, the insight it provides into American politics today is just as troubling.
6. Just Mercy* / Lost Girls
Two true-life stories of underdogs battling a system that’s stacked against them. The former is predictable but nonetheless heartwarming and on point in the BLM summer. The latter, by contrast, is unresolved, but the saga of the desperate mother, played sensationally by Amy Ryan, is enough. Both movies are beautifully acted by a trio of my favorite actors.
7. Da 5 Bloods / Uncut Gems*
Two high-energy, unexpectedly gripping adventure yarns, with Delroy Lindo and Adam Sandler, respectively, punching at phantoms, getting more and more desperate. One was set in Vietnam, the other on 47th Street; one featured Chadwick Boseman, the other Kevin Garnett. Spike Lee’s film raised issues of friendship, greed, race and Vietnam while the Safdie brothers’ card was a high-intensity style that exhausted and exhilarated.
8. Yes, God, Yes
No Oscar nominations here, but this low-budget quirky comedy tickled my funny bone, attacked a deserving target and was pitch-perfect throughout. It reminded me of a “Spin & Marty” episode updated to the 1970s with computers.
Even though I’ve listed 15 films (and 16 TV series) already, I should note that the Motion Picture Academy has postponed the deadline for 2020 Oscar releases to February 28; and of the 11 movies cited in the Times today for best actor buzz, 6 have yet to be streamed. Just as I have included five 2019 releases on my 2020 list above (indicated by *), I will consider these upcoming films in the year I get to see them – i.e., 2021.