In a normal year, my favourite films would be an eclectic mix of blockbusters and indie darlings, perhaps a few Oscar contenders sprinkled in for good measure.
But in 2020, most blockbusters went bust, theatres closed and the year turned into a marathon of streaming premieres, virtual press conferences and battling with your family’s Wi-Fi to view the latest release.
Yet through the pandemonium of the pandemic, filmmakers found a way to speak to the moment. Watching from my couch, I found succour in shape-shifting wolf maidens, deaf drummers, wandering spirits and Indigenous samurai warriors.
Here are the best films of 2020, which helped me make it through the year we’d like to forget.
#10 Birds of Prey
I know, January seems like a century ago. But let’s not forget what a revelation Harley Quin’s wild ride of a film was. With director Cathy Yan behind the camera, Margot Robbie delivered a looney-toons romp worthy of Daffy Duck himself. Come for Rosie Perez’s simmering scowl and stay for the delightfully depraved Ewan McGregor as the villainous Roman. (On Video on Demand)
#9 Blood Quantum
The pandemic may have stopped Canadian Mi’kmaq filmmaker Jeff Barnaby from opening his zombie film in theatres, but COVID-19 just made this squeamish survival story stronger. Barnaby says he wants to do sci-fi next. I can’t wait. (On Video on Demand)
#8 The Painter and the Thief
The Painter and the Thief is a documentary that dares you to imagine what’s next and then constantly surprises you. It begins with a painter who tracks down the thief in Oslo, Norway, who stole her work. What follows is a lesson in allowing your subject to reveal themselves. (On Video on Demand)
In a struggling vegetable farm in Arkansas, Minari plants the seeds of a Korean immigrant family buying into the American dream. What follows is an epic tale of strife and sacrifice in the grand American tradition, and a film that asks: Why doesn’t everyone use Steven Yeun? (Coming to Canada in early 2021)
#6 Palm Springs
If you feel like every day is bleeding into the next, why not spend it with Andy Samberg, stuck in a wedding party that never ends? It’s great to see Samberg go deeper, but the real revelation is Cristin Milioti as the wide-eyed woman determined to leave the loop. (On Amazon Prime Video)
Nomadland is a film about listening and looking. It’s about the observant eye of director Chloé Zhao, and using Frances McDormand as a sounding board. McDormand plays Fern, a widow who joins a modern-day tribe of nomads who’ve left the rat race behind. This is a film with characters as distinctive as the striking landscape that frames them. (Coming to Canada in early 2021)
Cartoon Saloon is an Irish animation studio with a distinctive brand of imaginative fantasy films, such as The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea. Wolfwalkers continues the winning streak with a wild and woolly tale about having empathy for your enemies. The wonderfully chaotic art style complements the furry friendship as it evolves. (On Apple TV+)
#3 Sound of Metal
Sound of Metal isn’t just the best thing Riz Ahmed has ever done, it’s a master class in the benefits of inclusion. Working with a cast of mainly deaf actors, Ahmed gives us the story of someone who loses his hearing but gains so much more. (On Video on Demand)
#2 Dick Johnson Is Dead
Director Kristen Johnson was worried she was losing her father. So she killed him. Well, she staged his death on camera. Repeatedly. This is a documentary about dementia and memory, loss and love. It’s about celebrating who we have while we have them. Absurd and surprisingly wonderful. (On Netflix)
You may have heard about the Chicago 7, but how about the Mangrove 9? Mangrove is the film about the real-life case of community members charged with inciting a riot after marching to defend a West Indian restaurant in London from persistent police attacks. It’s also the first instalment in the five-part Small Axe series from Widows director Steve McQueen, which explores the Black experience in Britain.
Some of my critical brethren are spending time debating whether Small Axe is TV or film. But this year, I’m inclined to bend the rules. Some see this as television, but this two-hour instalment, culminating in a courtroom showdown, is cinema in its most pure and urgent form.
In Mangrove, we watch citizens finding their voice and standing against the police and the justice system. The place and time, the community and the accents are incredibly specific. But the idea of speaking truth to power is universal and undeniable. (On Amazon Prime Video)