Stuck at home, with no offices or movie theaters to go to, we burrowed in and binged, catching up with classic TV (we meet again, Chief Superintendent Foyle), flitting from “Tiger King” to “Schitt’s Creek” to “Queen’s Gambit” and “The Crown” with the abandon of easily distracted bees. For a year in which watching became both psychic balm and social currency — what else were we going to talk about on all those Zoom calls? — visual storytelling took on higher stakes than ever before.
Although highly addictive series became the biggest cult hits (the darker and more Scandinavian, the better), and although some of the most hotly anticipated movies wound up being pushed back indefinitely or until theaters reopened, 2020 turned out to be an improbably strong year for cinema, from the beguiling virtual cinema hit “Saint Frances” to the wildly popular action flick “The Old Guard.” Pandemics and politics be damned, the scripted movies of 2020 trafficked in pure pleasure: indulgent, escapist, hard-won and often eerily timely.
1. ‘Small Axe’
Steve McQueen’s five-film anthology for Amazon, linking stories set in London’s West Indian community over the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, demonstrates why McQueen is one of the finest filmmakers working today. Inspired by real-life stories of trauma, oppression, survival and autonomy, McQueen brilliantly captures the intimacy of individual characters’ experiences while conveying the structural realities that conditioned their lives. Bursting with color, sensuality, brutality and transcendent joy, “Small Axe” is a triumph, as gratifying in each individual facet as in its rich, gemlike whole.’
Chloe Zhao’s epic adaptation of Jessica Bruder’s book features Frances McDormand in a performance that grabs the viewer by the heart and never lets go, as her character joins the growing ranks of itinerant seasonal workers who live out of their vans and make their living on the margins of the mainstream economy. Flinty and funny, McDormand never asks for pity for her character, who craves her independence but wouldn’t say no to a living wage. Zhao gives her a big, sprawling backdrop of the American West against which to create a timely American archetype: independent yet connected, tough yet meltingly tender.
3. ‘First Cow’
Maybe it’s because this was the last movie I watched in a theater this year, but I will always have a soft spot for this intriguing period piece, directed by Kelly Reichardt with her characteristic restraint and exacting, sensitive eye. John Magaro and Orion Lee star as unlikely friends who go into business together in 19th-century Oregon, a time when the American identity was still in flux, with white chauvinism and capitalistic greed overcoming pluralism and cooperation. As with all of Reichardt’s movies, this one obeys its own rhythms and rhymes, treating viewers not just to an engaging yarn, but to something more contemplative and poetic.
4. ‘Miss Juneteenth’
Writer-director Channing Godfrey Peoples made an assured narrative feature debut with this closely observed drama about a former Texas beauty queen preparing her teenage daughter to vie for the crown. Nicole Beharie and Alexis Chikaeze are note-perfect as the two main characters, whose devotion to each other is palpable beneath the bickering and betrayed dreams. And Peoples delivers an acute, often warmly compassionate portrait of small-town Texas, where the beer is best with a little salt — just like the characters’ freighted history and their love for each other.
5. ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’
Armando Iannucci makes bright, irreverent work of Charles Dickens’s classic novel, populating the famously crowded story with a glorious cast of gratifyingly varied actors. As the title character, Dev Patel bumps up against Tilda Swinton as his aunt and Benedict Wong as Mr. Wickfield, with the likes of Hugh Laurie, Peter Capaldi and Gwendoline Christie tossed in for good measure. Shake, stir, put into a pacey, quippy narrative and the entire enterprise fizzes with good humor and an unshakable faith in humanism.
6. ‘Palm Springs’
Between the aforementioned “Old Guard” and Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” — not to mention the real-life sequel to “Groundhog Day” we all seemed to be living in — 2020 was an eventful year for time-loop movies. But amid an admittedly strong field, this fleet little comedy stood out. Andy Samberg plays a guy who gets stuck in a cosmic temporal rut while attending his girlfriend’s sister’s wedding; as he repeatedly plays out the same day, he befriends the wry maid of honor, played by Cristin Milioti with winning esprit de corps. Equal parts funny ha-ha and kinda-makes-you-stop-and-think, this was a delightful way to trade our rabbit hole for a wormhole, if only for a change in perspective.
7. ‘The Assistant’
Julia Garner plays a young, ambitious secretary in Kitty Green’s tautly modulated, Weinstein-adjacent drama. Over the course of one day, we see Garner’s character work the phones, prepare meals and clean up after meetings, all the while pretending not to know what’s often happening behind her boss’s strategically closed door. We never see the actual man, an astute choice for a movie that depends on the audience’s own moral imagination to fill in the blanks. The result is an exceptionally graceful portrait of how sexual harassment and assault at the top of a corporation seeps into its culture, harming even the most “blameless” bystanders.
8. ‘The Half of It’
We all needed a rom-com this year and writer-director Alice Wu delivered, with a delightful retelling of the Cyrano de Bergerac story with an of-the-moment twist. Leah Lewis portrays heroine Ellie Chu with a well-calibrated combination of smarts and vulnerability, but it’s Daniel Diemer who steals the show as the lunky, hunky jock who asks her to pen letters to his love interest. Together, they work up a believable chemistry — whether it’s as lovers or friends is under lock and key in the Spoiler Alert box. This is that rare rom-com that ends happily and believably.
9. ‘The Trip to Greece’
Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s Trip series has been one of the joys of moviegoing over the past 10 years. Here, they sign off with an installment that captures all the sensory joys of the movies — delicious food, dazzling backdrops — as well as their poignant subtexts. The two actors have aged nicely, their repartee and competing impressions still sparkling and hilariously funny. Re-creating Odysseus’s trip from Troy to Ithaca, they touch on everything from Mick Jagger to mortality, with the witty banter of a prolix Hope and Crosby and the delicacy of a dragonfly’s wing. Godspeed gentlemen, and to bed.
Once we all began living in Zoom, it was only a matter of time until someone made a movie using the conferencing platform. What began as filmmaker Rob Savage pranking his friends about hearing “strange noises” in his house grew into an impressive DIY horror film, entirely composed of people relating in little black boxes on a computer screen while they participate in an online “seance.” Smart, relevant and genuinely scary, this creepy-funny sleeper hit on the Shudder channel led to a deal with Blumhouse and marked Savage as perhaps the most resourceful filmmaker of the lockdown era.
The year's five best documentaries:
1. ‘The Painter and the Thief’
An engrossing, always surprising examination of accountability and healing outside the confines of adversarial justice.
2. ‘The Fight’
A splendidly crafted chronicle of ACLU lawyers fighting Trump administration policies within the confines of adversarial justice.
3. ‘76 Days’
A heartbreaking account of life and death in Wuhan hospitals at the height of the coronavirus epidemic in China.
4. ‘Coup 53’
An ingeniously structured tutorial on the American-British led removal of Iran’s democratically elected leader in 1953, and the action’s disastrous ripple effects.
5. ‘Dick Johnson Is Dead’
A funny, somber, ultimately exhilarating exercise in learning to let go of the people we love most.