The screens we watched them on may have been smaller, but there was certainly no shortage of great movies released around the world in 2020! Whether you saw them in cinemas or on your laptops, these were the triumphant standouts from a tumultuous year for the film industry.
(Note: The following picks were limited to films released in Singapore in theaters, online or on Blu-ray within this calendar year.)
Honorable mentions:Bad Education,Bombshell, The Forty-Year-Old Version, A Thousand Cuts, Swallow, Athlete A, Jojo Rabbit, Black Bear, Yes God Yes, Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution, Circus of Books, Relic, The Kingmaker, Spaceship Earth, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, Sementara, 1917
25) First Cow
Set in 1820s Oregon, First Cow is a tranquil and tender yarn of camaraderie, capitalism and crime. Following the unlikely friendship between a Bostonian cook and a Chinese immigrant who plot to steal a landowner’s cow to start a baking business, this film plays like a gentle poetic dream in untamed natural splendour. Thoughtful and texturally rich, Kelly Reichards’ vivid frontier film mesmerizes with its own rhythms, iconography and ideas of entrepreneurship. First Cow is an indie masterwork that’s charming and unsparing – suffused with wonder and dread.
Riz Ahmed’s turns in a brilliant performance as Ruben in this passionate character study of a heavy metal drummer who is rapidly going deaf. Sound of Metal is a mesmerizing debut feature from Darius Marder, conveying a visceral story of a musician committed to the physical toll of his art, and his complex struggle to come to terms with the loss of his hearing and music career. Notable for its experimental sound design (the audio often toggles from muffled to unmuffled to silence), this film is an aurally captivating journey that immerses us into Ruben’s disorientation.
Documentarian Kitty Green directs her first narrative feature here, and her unsensationalized nonfiction roots are put to great use in crafting this spare but searing look at the unchecked appetites of a man in power. The Assistant never mentions Harvey Weinstein by name, instead choosing to shed light on the people around him who learn to tolerate and accommodate his behavior. The phenomenal Julia Garner (Ozark) stars as our entry-level proxy into this shameful machine, allowing us to understand her bottom-rung struggle, while making her complicity clear.
In Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, tensions and temperatures escalate throughout the course of a recording session in 1920s Chicago. A band of musicians await the arrival of the Mother of the Blues, Ma Rainey. As Rainey clashes with her manager over control of her music, trumpeter Levee spurs his fellow musicians into revealing truths that will change all their lives. Led by stupendous performances from Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman (his final role), alongside vibrant cinematography, music and costumes – this August Wilson adaptation is magnificent.
David Fincher’s first feature since Gone Girl is a gorgeous, bracing and immersive trip in 1930s Hollywood through the eyes of social critic and screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz as he races to finish the screenplay of Citizen Kane for Orson Welles. Steeped in glamour, sleaze, glory and corruption – Mank is a meticulous black-and-white period drama made with dense historical detail that unpeels the power structures of America’s studio machinery. Built on Gary Oldman’s towering performance, this love letter and cautionary tale is a layered metatextual masterpiece.
Miranda July returns with her best film to date! Kajillionaire focuses on a family of con artists, made up of eccentric parents Robert and Theresa, and their emotionally stunted daughter Old Dolio. Their grifts are small-time, and they’re barely able to eke out a living. However their lives are upended when a deeply curious woman who gets roped into their latest scheme decides to stick around and join their crew. Often hilarious yet gradually heartbreaking, July’s empathy for these weird, desperate characters offers a sly exploration of broken people flailing for meaning.
If you weren’t fortunate enough to catch Lin-Manual Miranda’s Broadway sensation on stage, well good news, because the beloved hip-hop musical is now available to stream! A recipient of endless praise, Hamilton has won 11 Tonys and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama – and this filmed version (taped in 2016 at New York’s Richard Rodgers Theatre) captures the original production and cast at its best. Telling the story of America’s founding father Alexander Hamilton through non-white actors, using rap, soul and R&B – Hamilton is musical theatre at its most exhilarating.
Polish director Jan Komasa’s absorbing film of spiritual struggle follows 20-year-old Daniel, an ex-con who dreams of joining the clergy, but cannot because of his criminal past. So instead, he impersonates a priest and becomes a pillar of a small-town community. His unorthodox take on holiness seems to have a positive impact on his unsuspecting flock, who are devastated by grief after a terrible accident. Led by a terrific performance from Bartosz Bielenia, Corpus Christi is a blistering morality play about comforting lies, ugly truths, earned penance, and pious hypocrisy.
Master screenwriter Aaron Sorkin returns with a tremendous new courtroom film starring Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and more. The Trial of the Chicago 7 follows the peaceful protests outside the 1968 U.S. Democratic Convention as they unravel into a fatal clash with police, and the trial that ensues. Featuring potent themes of civil disobedience, this timely political drama crackles with the eloquent wit of Sorkin’s renowned dialogue, as well as a sensational ensemble. Riveting, chilling and inspiring – this film is a sure Oscar contender.
Palm Springs is easily the year’s biggest laugh-out-loud comedy! This hilarious sci-fi rom-com follows the carefree and nihilistic Nyles (Andy Samberg), a guest at a destination wedding who has been reliving the same day over and over again for a very long time. When the bride’s cynical sister Sarah (Cristin Milioti) is somehow pulled into the same time loop, the pair get closer as they have way too much fun living a meaningless existence free of consequence. But amidst the laughs Palm Springs is also a surprisingly profound adventure in love and growth.
This fantastic documentary unravels the strengths and flaws of American democracy through the microcosm of a summer camp for politically-inclined youths. Boys State (and Girls State) is an annual program that gathers young people and immerses them in the political process as they try to build a representative government from the ground up. This film follows one such program in Texas as we witness a thousand 17-year-old boys campaign. As exciting as sports and as riveting real elections, Boys State is one of the finest political documentaries ever made.
Beautiful, delirious and idiosyncratic – Charlie Kaufman’s latest film is an audaciously creative existential minefield (like all his films). Based on Iain Reid’s 2016 novel, this surreal film follows a young woman who takes a road trip with her faux-intellectual boyfriend to his family farm. Filled with thoughts of breaking up, everything she understands begins to unravel around her. I’m Thinking of Ending Things isa solipsistic dive into the rift between the mind and the world that’s filtered through it – as well as an impressionistic meditation on aging, reality and regret.
Written and directed by Sean Durkin, The Nest is a wrenching, beautiful drama set in the 1980s about a married couple who relocate from New York to an English country manor, where their seemingly solid family unravels. Led by a pair of rich performances from Jude Law as Rory and Carrie Coon as Allison, this film subtly and sumptuously digs into their spousal cracks. Blinded by an inferiority complex from growing up poor, investment banker Rory chases his capitalistic dreams through financial gambles that increasingly leave his family unmoored and in despair.
Macedonian documentarians Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska make a visually poetic and carefully observational debut with this sumptuous, wistful portrait of a lone rural beekeeper. Honeyland tracks the life of Hatidze, a 50-something peasant woman who harvests wild honey. Shot over three years, with no voiceover or interviews, this documentary begins as a gorgeous anthropological study, before stumbling into a conflict when new neighbors move onto the land, threatening Hatidze’s solitude and livelihood with their less nature-conscious farming methods.
Saint Frances is a small-scale, low-key masterpiece – and a breakout feature debut for writer / star Kelly O’Sullivan. Following the inept and floundering 34-year-old Bridget, who becomes a nanny to precocious 6-year-old girl named Frances, this indie family comedy is imbued with a quietly tender and refreshingly nonjudgmental sense of humanity. Through Bridget’s growing bond with Frances, the former’s messy insecurities and arrested development, and the latter’s struggling lesbian parents – Saint Frances offers a funny and frank portrait of modern women.
Tomm Moore’s latest is a resonant fable and a lovely take on ancient Irish folklore. Wolfwalkers is undoubtedly the year’s best animated film – a visually dazzling, richly imaginative production that taps into contemporary concerns while being true to its magical origins. Set amidst Oliver Cromwell’s colonization of 17th century Ireland, the story follows apprentice hunter Robyn Goodfellowe as she befriends a mysterious girl rumored to be able to transform into a wolf. This is a stunning instant classic that’s as enchantingly gorgeous as it is philosophically profound.
Documentarian Kirsten Johnson’s latest film finds her staging various inventive and fantastical ways for her 86-year-old father to die. This is all done in the hopes that cinema might help her bend time, laugh at pain, and keep her ailing dad alive forever. Dick Johnson is Dead is both a poetic act of defiance and a portrait of love at the end of a life, straddling a cheeky line between humor and grief. Johnson and her father seem to share a love of transgressive jokes, and an innate interest in humanity that gives this film bittersweet, celebratory air – despite its morbidity.
Fueled by panic sweats and jittery anxiety, the Safdie Brothers’ (Good Time) latest is the most exhilaratingly stressful film you’ll see this year. Uncut Gems breathlessly hurtles with desperate energy as we follow New York jeweler and compulsive gambler Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) through the disorienting chaos that is life. When a rare black opal comes into his possession, Ratner engages in a series of high-stakes bets – even as he balances debt collectors, his family, and his mistress. This heart-pounding sprint of a movie is pure arrhythmia-inducing electricity.
American Utopia brings David Byrne’s critically acclaimed Broadway show to the screen in a unique musical film directed by Spike Lee. Recorded during its run at Hudson Theatre in New York City, Bryne is joined by an ensemble of 11 musicians, singers, and dancers, inviting us into a joyous dreamworld where human connection, self-evolution, and social justice are paramount. Magical, whimsical and electrifying – this theatrical 21st century rock concert is studded with breathtaking numbers, ranging from Bryne’s eponymous album to classics from Talking Heads.
Expertly crafted on a micro-budget, this stunning debut by filmmaker Andrew Patterson heralds the coming of a very special talent. Set in 1950s New Mexico and framed as an episode of a Twilight Zone-esque show, this intimate sci-fi film uses that period’s history of UFO phenomena and Soviet paranoia to create a riveting thriller unfolding in real-time. Following a radio DJ and a switchboard operator as they investigate a mysterious sound, The Vast of Night uses ingenious camera work, experimental sound design and winsome dialogue to elicit old-school wonder.
Pixar has set a high bar for animated movies, but even by it’s standards, Soul is the studio at its peak. Centered on a jazz pianist who dies just before his big break, the film follows his journey to the afterlife and to The Great Before – a fantastical place where new souls are formed before they go to Earth. Soul is an existential masterpiece with intricate storytelling, visual flourish, emotional intelligence, cerebral whimsy and a phenomenal soundtrack. Rooted in the spiritual essence of jazz, this film riffs on big themes (mortality and the meaning of life) to dazzling effect.
Louisa May Alcott’s novel is probably the most-filmed book in all of literature. But through eight different adaptations over the last century, Greta Gerwig’s version is undoubtedly the best. This latest Little Women reimagines the classic to its roots, retelling the story nonlinearly, while exuding a deep affection for the source material. Although a period piece, its themes of women finding a place in a patriarchal society is still relevant 150 years later. And Gerwig masterfully infuses a contemporary prism to a familiar tale with such joy, sadness and sweeping emotion.
Trey Edward Shults’ bruising, beautiful drama set in sun-drenched South Florida is an emotional knockout. Tracing the emotional journey of a African-American suburban family as they navigate love, forgiveness and coming together in the aftermath of a loss – Waves pulsates with colour and life in all its vibrancy and fragility. Aurally and visually resplendent, this boldly original tale of family fracture and healing is also bolstered by a quartet of career-defining performances. The film undergoes a radical shift midway, and it’s a shock that earns a profound emotional payoff.
Faced with an unintended pregnancy, Autumn and her cousin Skylar embark on a fraught journey from rural Pennsylvania across state lines to New York City to procure an abortion. Directed by Eliza Hittman, Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a quietly devastating gem that portrays the number of hoops women have to jump through in order to have autonomy. Told without melodrama or much dialogue, this exceptionally naturalistic film transcends polemics to tell a pair of powerfully tender and emotionally precise character studies. Read our full review.
Chloé Zhao’s lyrical road movie about one woman’s desire to resist settling down is 2020’s best film. After the economic collapse of a rural Nevada town, we follow Fern (Frances McDormand) as she packs her van and sets off to live a life outside conventional society. Backdropped by sweeping natural scenery and filled with a supporting cast of real-life nomads, this non-narrative character study immerses us into the ecosystem of these wanderer communities. Balancing romanticism with harsh struggle, Nomadland is a poignant panorama of forgotten America.