Stef's Top 20 Films and Series of 2020
In a year filled with troublesome times and worldwide changes in every sector, the film and television were part of a still-ongoing crisis. Films were delayed, with some completely removed from this year's slate or went straight into streaming, productions were shut down, shows were cancelled and the cinema experience hangs from a thread.
Ever since cinemas had to shut down due to the pandemic, films that originally were going to be on the big screen had to adapt to the small one. As the artistic and production value on television shows has been raised significantly since the age of Mad Men and Breaking Bad, such narratives have been praised and to some cases regarded higher than most films that the Oscars deem worthy.
Still, this has been a year with some great content that will be some of the few fond memories of these dark times. For this year I will combine both media to the same list with my favourite productions from both. This collection of suggestions are based on both my personal and critical opinion as what I see to be both the most entertaining and culturally/artistically thrilling stories I had the pleasure to experience in 2020.
Disclaimer: I did not have the chance to watch Promising Young Woman and News of the World before the time of this publication of my list. Also, I have listed productions that are dated in 2020, so films like Parasite and Saint Maud are not legible as they premiered last year.
Normal People, Hamilton, I'm Thinking of Ending Things, Tenet, Dick Johnson is Dead, Palm Springs, My Brilliant Friend: The Story of a New Name, The Queen's Gambit, David Byrne's American Utopia and Unorthodox.
20. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (Netflix)
George C. Wolfe's adaptation of August Wilson's classic play is one of the most complex pieces of Black American historical revisionism that you can find this year. Even though it feels like a theatrical play due to the limitations of the location, Wilson's word still manages to captivate and challenge the way American culture has been downplaying and taking advantage of Black people, especially artists. Of course, the biggest highlight goes to the brilliant ensemble, led by the always ferocious Viola Davis, and the sadly late Chadwick Boseman (this would be his final on-screen performance) and delivering their best work.
19. Da 5 Bloods (Netflix)
The recent Academy Award winner Spike Lee returns with his long-awaited Vietnam war epic. Even though this is not Apocalypse Now (not that it doesn't try), it is a contextualization of both the recent history of sins of the US and a critique/homage to old American war films. Lee still keeps it entertaining with some great action sequences, and a popping soundtrack but Delroy Lindo deserves the most praise as he gives his best performance in his career. Boseman, once again, delivers another beautiful performance filled with some inspiring scenes of hope and serenity.
18. One Night in Miami... (Amazon)
If Ma Rainey had a spiritual sequel, I would imagine this would be it. Similarly to Wilson's play, the adaptation of Kemp Powers' play (who is also the screenwriter) follows four cultural icons of Black history as they discuss the pain of their people and the possible change they can provide for all Black people. Even though the limitation of a single room could be challenging, Academy award-winning actor Regina King makes an amazing directorial debut by knowing how to use a cast of four extremely talented individuals to never make it overly theatrical or boring.
17. Dark - season 3 (Netflix)
One of the most bizarre and complex plots in recent television history has come to an end. But again, maybe the end is the beginning and the beginning is the end. I remember when I started the show three years ago, I thought it would have been inspired by It but instead, it felt closer to both experimental and bizarre texts of Stephen King. Showrunners Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese somehow managed to make this three-season show feel cohesive and complete, no matter the amount of theoretical physics they drop and every entanglement between characters and timelines. Confused? That's Dark for you, and I will surely miss it.
16. Better Things - season 4 (FX)
The show's creator and star Pamela Adlon got full creative control to rise the show to the highest level of quality than it had before. In its latest season, Better Things became one of the most empathetic shows on television, showing how a single mother can be enough to make a whole family safe and complete. It's not afraid to show the harder side of being a mother but never loses the course of the hidden beauty in even the smallest fights between family members.
15. What We Do in the Shadows - season 2 (FX)
No one expected that the television adaptation of the 2014 sleeper hit mockumentary would become a worthy follow-up let alone one of the best sit-coms in current times. Jemaine Clement brought together a diverse group of talented writers to provide the insanity you would expect from a house of four childish vampires. With numerous surprise guests and cameos, like the one and only Mark Hamill and phenomenal episodes such as Colin's Promotion, this show could be one of the future classics of sit-com television.
14. Another Round (Nordisk Film/Studio Canal)
Thomas Vinterberg's dark comedy seems to be the front-runner for the Best International Feature for the next Oscars and it is worth it. An ode to life itself and to Vinterberg's late daughter (who was going to make her acting debut in the film) the film manages to bring some shade of light in the darkest times. It pulls no punches with the emotional fragility of its leads with Mads Mikkelsen being the finest he had ever been. The ending is probably my favourite final minutes of any film this year.
13. Euphoria - Trouble Don't Last Always (HBO/Sky Atlantic)
Even though the pandemic shut down production on its second season, Euphoria's crew managed to provide something for 2020 in the form of an unconventional Christmas special. The show's creator Sam Levinson, directed the hour event with the lead Zendaya and castmate Coleman Domingo. Under strict social distancing restrictions, they created a philosophical study between two generations, that covers several contemporary social issues. Even if this is a depressing outlook on festive times, Trouble Don't Last Always does end up giving hope to both our characters and to our troublesome world.
12. The Father (Sony Picture Classics)
Florian Zeller brings his own play to the big screen with a similar level of creativity as he did on stage. An empathetic and complex depiction of dementia, presenting the inevitable loss of reality and memory as a psychological existential horror. Even though there are no jump scares or typical elements of traditional horror films, the fragility of someone's mind brought far more terror than any other scary movie this year. That wouldn't have been possible without an exceptional Anthony Hopkins, who gives not only his best work since The Silence of the Lambs but also the most emotional and vulnerable performance of his career.
11. Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Focus Features)
Indie director Eliza Hittman makes her most daring feature yet. By putting on the shoes of a young pregnant woman trying to get an abortion in New York City, we see the amount of stress and dangers that come to women with no support from either their families or communities. Instead of overt drama, Hittman presents us with subtle, quiet moments. The dialogue is used in short measures, making us pay attention to everything that is said with meaning. That is heavy lifting for newcomers Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder, who knock it out of the park, using their glances and body language to convey different meaning on several questions.
10. I May Destroy You (BBC/HBO)
After the success of Chewing Gum, Michaela Coel returns with her most personal and brave work yet. Inspired by her own traumatic experience, Coel writes and stars in this semi-autobiographical limited series, depicting victims of sexual abuse with veracity and honesty. She tries to ask some difficult questions with even harder answers. Coel runs the fine line between script and diary, especially the final episode which truly makes a 180 degrees turn, to the point of creating something transfixing and ethereal that I still can not fully understand. However, I have been attuned to Coel's mind and soul ever since.
09. Lovecraft Country (HBO/Sky Atlantic)
Imagine a world where not only everything H.P. Lovecraft wrote was true but it also existed in the '50s Jim Crow America. That is the premise of Matt Ruff's novel Lovecraft Country, the original inspiration of Misha Green's HBO horror show. Each episode, similar to each chapter of the book, is a different genre than Lovecraft was famous for while also including the gothic author's racist past as a white supremacist. Green is not afraid to expose the discriminatory monster of America, making humans seem more terrifying than the actual monsters. A show that is not scared to show the genre's history of camp and pop, Lovecraft Country and its beautiful multicultural characters deserve to return for another season.
08. The Mandalorian - season 2 (Disney+)
A year after the Skywalker Saga came to a lukewarm end for the fans and critics, little did we know that the show about a helmeted space-cowboy with a small green puppet would be able to not only revive a troubled franchise but give it a new identity by combining the past with the future. Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni achieved something that previous filmmakers couldn't, unifying old fans and new to this space opera with great action sequences, new worlds, and returning characters that bring a sense of hope for the future of Star Wars that I have not felt since 2015.
07. Soul (Pixar/Disney+)
Imagine if A Matter of Life and Death was an animated film, but instead of a white pilot, a black jazz pianist in contemporary New York. That's Soul. After Inside Out, Pete Docter returns to the director's chair with One Night in Miami's Kemp Powers, creating an existential conversation on what makes an individual who they are through the eyes of a middle-aged artist. Even watching a second time, I am still surprised that this is a film targeted at children, as it felt so personal to me in a time where the future feels uncertain. Powers makes his directorial debut by showing some of the most beautiful and authentic animated depictions of black life I have seen from the studio.
06. BoJack Horseman - final season (Netflix)
The end of the humanoid horse is finally here and its final chapter was as unconventional and thought-provoking as I was expecting it to be. Raphael Bob-Waksberg has given us six years of one of the most self-destructive antiheroes on television, and even though he deserved every downfall he had, he managed to make us care for him. Somehow, an animated alcoholic man with a horsehead ended up being one of the most interesting, multilayered characters in the last decade. I will miss BoJack Horseman but I am glad that we have the chance to say goodbye, even halfway down.
05. Wolfwalkers (Cartoon Saloon/AppleTV+)
For years Cartoon Saloon has been making quality animated features, even though it did not manage to get the international success of the bigger studios. With Wolfwalkers, Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart have possibly made their best outing yet. Just like several of the past films from the studio, Wolfwalkers makes a heartfelt homage to Irish folklore by having a beautiful female friendship with the backdrop of a dark world of colonialism and imperialism in Ireland. Not only it managed to surpass the previous excellent films of Cartoon Saloon but it became the Best Animated film of 2020.
04. Small Axe (BBC/Amazon)
The distinction between cinema and television has never been looser than with Steve McQueen's Small Axe. The anthology show is a collection of five distinct films directed by the Oscar-winning director, with all of them following the lives of East Indian communities through four different decades in London. Each one is a beautiful exploration of Black British lives and the shameful past of the UK. Even though the quality varies between each film, with Lovers Rock being the best, all have their own identity, beauty, and phenomenal performances, with John Boyega and Letitia Wright giving the best.
03. Minari (A24)
Lee Isaac Chung's autobiographical drama is one of the most heartfelt and real depictions of a Korean family in a western country I have ever seen. The sensitivity of the film towards the relationship between the family members is genuine and shines through the whole film. The friendship between the younger child and his grandmother is the most gorgeous arc in the film that drove me into tears by the end. The performances of the whole ensemble are magnificent. Youn Yuh Jung, playing the grandmother, is delightful to witness. Also, a big shout-out to Steven Yeun for possibly the best role of his career and Yeri Han is a revelation of acting talent.
02. Nomadland (Searchlight Pictures)
For years Chloé Zhao has been making a name for herself on the indie side of the industry by depicting western lives with the real-life counterparts of her films. Nomadland is no different but this time around, instead of focusing on a single location, the highroads and the natural habitats of the US become the main setting. Frances McDormand feels as genuine and real as all the real nomads who play versions of themselves. Zhao transforms into a filmmaker that could be described as a love-child of Terrence Malick and John Cassavetes in the way she presents people's lives and the enormity of nature's beauty. A film that feels honest and true to the nomads and McDormand's sensitive performance makes this my favourite film of the year.
01. Better Call Saul - season 5 (AMC/Netflix)
When it was announced in 2013 that Saul Goodman would get his own spin-off show, I have to admit I was not a fan of the idea. Seven years later, I must say that not only has Better Call Saul surpassed every expectation I had but I can even say that is equal to Breaking Bad. The slow turn of Bob Odenkirk's Jimmy into Saul has been handled with the level of complexity and suspense that Breaking Bad is now so famous for. Not only we had more growing admiration for already beloved characters like Jonathan Banks' Mike and Giancarlo Esposito's Gus but also to get new favourites like Rhea Seehorn's Kim and Michael Mando's Nacho. Also this season we got the pleasure of meeting Tony Dalton as the terrifyingly thrilling Lalo, who blew my mind. The show deserves more attention from everyone. It might seem too slow or quiet in the beginning, but like a good soufflé, it needs time to be fully baked.
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