Best Films Of 2020


NOMADLAND

2020 began its film business as usual among news of record box office attendance and the ongoing conversations about lack of diversity and inclusion in the industry; the male-female big divide; the increasing weight of digital platforms… Sundance gave way to the typical arguments about the state of US Indies; the Oscar frontrunners hinted at a Scorsese versus Tarantino battle; the Berlinale, flaunting a brand new director, Carlo Chatrian, announced new sections and a revamped line-up on its official competition, full of renowned auteurs.

Sundance’s slate proved to be a bit lacklustre -if anticipating at a quite strong year for documentaries and launching one of this year’s Oscars favourites in ‘Minari’; Korean director Bong Joon-Ho’s ‘Parasite’ took the Academy awards by surprise and swept the board; the Berlinale’s impressive line-up wasn´t all that the names included on its selection anticipated it would be, yet it delivered two of the year’s finest with the latest works by Kelly Reichardt and Tsai Ming-Liang. But fate had other plans and despite those minor surprises and upsets, we can only look at it all now invaded by the nostalgia of which feels like golden days long time gone. Shortly afterwards COVID happened, bringing the world to a halt with its lockdowns, social distancing, business shutting down or being put on hold and a change in everyday life for everyone, among the endless pain and suffering it has caused.

During the springtime lockdowns, though, cultural and audiovisual works were able to claim its importance, as they helped ease our going through one of the most dramatic periods in recent story. From all corners of the world, filmmakers; distributors; film libraries and institutions made a big number of films available to watch for free, making our home confinements more bearable.

DAYS

The much debated role of digital platforms and distribution windows was alleviated by circumstances and, during the year, Netflix, Prime, Hulu, etc. ended up being a support for an industry whose activity was severely disrupted, when not totally altered. Numbers of online audiovisual consumption rocketed; new platforms like Apple and Disney + arrived and many other big players rushed their way to their debut (HBO Max). More tailor-made, cinephile propositions, such as Mubi, which launched its own library to complement its a-film-a-day model, also benefitted from this state of things, as did local national ones such as BFI Player in the UK or, in Spain, Filmin.

Festivals were cancelled or transformed into online versions of themselves. Cannes most notably only had a virtual market edition, launching a label initiative to support the films that would have been premiered there, and were left without the big promotional backing that the French event means. After the brief truce the summer’s smaller number of infections provided, some late summer events such as Venice or San Sebastian managed to successfully get on with presential editions. But shortly after them the severity of the pandemic made many others to turn back to heavily reduced, hybrid of fully online models, the London Film Festival, Toronto or Seville among them.

In Spain, after the first long and very severe lockdown, theatres were allowed to reopen among largely increased safety measures and a #CultureisSafe campaign to promote the public returning to their seats, which has happened only intermittently. This has allowed some breathing space for a very damaged sector, where big studios (with perhaps the exception of Warner, which dared to launch Christopher Nolan’s ‘Tenet’ during the summer and ‘Wonder Woman 1984′ for Christmas) have deserted cinemas by postponing all their big new releases (the biggest and most talked-about was the new Bond, initially scheduled for Spring and now postponed until maybe the Autumn). After the situation in the States where most cities’ cinemas have remained closed, they left their most awaited works as appeal to boost the subscriptions for their own online platforms (most painful example was perhaps Disney, which after putting their summer tentpole ‘Mulan’ as an expensive extra pay-for in its platform, launched the latest and excellent Pixar effort ‘Soul’ straight on it for Christmas). Other majors have negotiated with the big online players to debut their production through them, while Warner ended the year controversially, among financial constraints, announcing that such long awaited works as ‘Dune’ and the rest of its production would debut same date on theatres and its digital platform during 2021, earning heavy criticism but heralding perhaps the arrival of a new era without distribution windows as we know them.

SMALL AXE: LOVERS ROCK

Only in Spain, box-office takings suffered a 72% cut, with the only good news being that, at least temporarily, national production and independent distributors have taken a bigger share of the (smaller) pie. They were more ready to take risks at facing the diminished profits of launching their slates under these circumstances, making titles like ‘Beginning;’ ‘The Father’ or Almodovar’s short ‘The Human Voice’ – which made headlines for becoming the biggest earning short in Spanish history- available.

But numerical and industrial considerations aside, perhaps the saddest thing is how good this year’s films have been, even when the act of watching them has been widely removed from its natural, theatrical element. The films who stood up come from all areas of Today’s film production.

From those aiming at making the film medium evolve as an art, such as the latest offerings by veteran masters as Tsai Ming-Liang (Days) or Pedro Costa (Vitalina Varela) in which both refined their well admired crafts to new heights. The Taiwanese auteur delivered a heartbreaking portrait of urban loneliness through a small series of minimal, long-shots observing, dialogue free, the alienating circumstances in the life of two very different men and their ultimate brief intimate encounter. The Portuguese filmmaker also provided an impressive depiction of the mourning of the protagonist, from whom the film is named after, returning to the characters of the Cabo Verdean community in Lisbon, the subject to some of his best work. Elsewhere, the impressive debuts by Dea Kulumbegashvili (Beginning) or Alexander Zolotukhin (A Russian Youth) took the influence of great classic auteurs such as Akerman or Tarkovsky to new grounds.

In other remarkable pieces of work, Steve McQueen’s ground-breaking anthology of five films ‘Small Axe,’ explored institutional racism against the Afro-Caribbean emigrant communities in the UK. The anthology, produced by the BBC, somehow managed to erase the blurring division between the worlds of Film and TV. Pietro Marcello ventured the literary adaptation of ‘Martin Eden,’ the Jack London novel deemed unfilmable, with exquisite cinematography which recalled the family sagas in European classic cinema. Kelly Reichardt delivered a charmingly offbeat indie Western with ‘First Cow.’ Frank Beauvais elevated the form of the essay film, a genre that is quickly growing in popularity and exposure, with ‘Just Don´t Think I’ll Scream,’ his tribute to cinephilia made with bits of a personal collection of films he needed to leave behind.

FIRST COW

Jayro Bustamante’s ‘La Llorona’ expertly used the tropes of horror in order to expose the atrocities of Guatemala’s Historical memory, whereas Luis López Carrasco explored Spain’s recent one, going back to the 90s and the riots caused by the industrial dismantling. as demanded by the EU, of Cartagena’s productive fabric, revealing the long-lasting effects within the region’s society in ‘The Year Of The Discovery,’ our favourite documentary in a year full of great ones. Among them, ‘Collective’, the Romanian exposé of political corruption profiting from the decline of public health services, brought to public attention after a fire in a nightclub left many dead and severely burned; Bill Ross IV & Turner Ross fading the frontier between fact and fiction in their recreation of the last days of a small bar outside Las Vegas, ‘Bloody Nose Empty Pockets,’ or the latest of Frederick Wiseman ‘City Hall,’ another master refining its unique craft with a thorough look at the way government institutions work in Boston. The music documentary also seemed to be going through a booming time, with Spike Lee taking time from filming his own war epic ‘Da 5 Bloods’ to capture the groundbreaking ‘David Byrne’s American Utopia’ show in full glory and Nick Cave having a go at directing in ‘Idiot Prayer,’ his solo gig from an eerily empty Alexandra Palace which perfectly embodied the mood cultural industries around the planet are experiencing.

And for ambition and scope, few could match Ilya Khrzhanovsky and Jekaterina Oertel’s megalomaniac project, ‘Dau.’, an immersive recreation of the rise and fall of the Institute created by the Nobel laureate scientist Lev Landau, originally dedicated to the experimentation for the betterment of mankind. The project that has spawned fourteen features to date, two of which, ‘Degeneration’ and ‘Natasha,’ premiered at Berlin, and other multidisciplinary outfits, can be watched at a dedicated website and brilliantly represents the decline of the Soviet civilization.

But if each one of the above mentioned films could have proudly stood up as our film of the year, the one that packed a bigger emotional punch and, perhaps unexpectedly, better captured the feeling of the times was Chloé Zhao’s ‘Nomadland.’ In just three features, the Chinese American director has established herself as one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary cinema. Her humane, compassionate and life-affirming look at the travelling community going from state to state wherever seasonal work is available, filmed against the changing backdrop of the magnificent American landscape, was a showcase for veteran and non professional actors alike, led by Frances McDormand’s career best performance. This modern nomad community, living almost at the fringes of conventional society, and their values of solidarity, resilience and mutual help, served us all as a reminder of what is needed to face a global catastrophe of the calibre of the one we are enduring, putting lives first and celebrating that is it our care, decency and support for the common good and each other what really makes us human.

VITALINA VARELA

To make a best of the year list under this situation was not going to be easy. If, as usual, it was only to feature films released in theatres, despite distributors’ efforts as well as filmotecas and cinetecas’ excellent programming that has allowed us a bit of catching-up, not enough of the best ones have been released. A large number of 2019 festival titles, which under normal circumstances would have somehow reached our screens, have instead generated a production glut that without finding room on digital platforms may not see the light of day.

On the other hand, the proliferation of online festivals has made, no matter how briefly, many of the most prominent works of the season available to audiences; while others await for their digital debut or some awards push. That’s why we have decided to consider for this year’s list everything we have seen, including all the titles that are in contention for this abnormally long awards season – the Oscars have been moved to April to allow more time for those films to reach an audience- whose release is roughly expected during the first quarter of 2021. We have left out of the list only a handful of titles that, due to their wins across the Spanish festival circuit, are hopefully getting released later on the year and will likely be part of next January’s recap conversations; among them the most recent works by Chaitanya Tamhane (The Disciple); Lili Horváth (Preparations To Be Together For An Unknown Period Of Time); Hong Sang-soo (The Woman Who Ran) and Cristi Puiu (Malmkrog), all of which would have featured among our annual favourites.

In the next days, we will announce the nominations for our annual Film Poll and, after that, we will try and analyse in more depth what this year in film has and has not brought. In the meantime, we hope those works who haven’t yet will find a theatrical release when things get back to normal and you all have the chance to enjoy them. Here’s the list of our Top 60 favourite films of 2020:

1-NOMADLAND
(Chloé Zhao)
2-DAYS
(Tsai Ming-Liang)
3-SMALL AXE ANTHOLOGY
(Steve McQueen)
4-FIRST COW
(Kelly Reichardt)
5-VITALINA VARELA
(Pedro Costa)
6-MARTIN EDEN
(Pietro Marcello)
7-EL AÑO DEL DESCUBRIMIENTO (THE YEAR OF THE DISCOVERY) (Luis López Carrasco)8-BEGINNING
(Dea Kulumbegashvili)
9-JUST DON'T THINK I'LL SCREAM (NO CREAS QUE VOY A GRITAR) (Frank Beauvais)
10-LA LLORONA
(Jayro Bustamante)
11-DAU. DEGENERATION / NATASHA (Ilya Khrzhanovsky and Jekaterina Oertel)12-DAVID BYRNE'S AMERICAN UTOPIA
(Spike Lee)
13-A RUSSIAN YOUTH
(Alexander Zolotukhin)
14-SOUL
(Pete Docter)
15-DIVINO AMOR (DIVINE LOVE) (Gabriel Mascaro)
16-MINARI
(Lee Isaac Chung )
17-THE HUMAN VOICE (LA VOZ HUMANA)
(Pedro Almodovar)
18-I'M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS (ESTOY PENSANDO EN DEJARLO)
(Charlie Kaufman)
19-COLLECTIVE
(Alexander Nanau)
20-NUEVO ORDEN (NEW ORDER)
(Michel Franco)
21-BLOODY NOSE, EMPTY POCKETS
(Bill Ross IV & Turner Ross)
22-GHOST TROPIC
(Bas Devos)
23-BACURAU
(Kleber Mendonça Filho)
24-NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS (NUNCA, CASI NUNCA, A VECES, SIEMPRE)
(Eliza Hittman)
25-UNDINE (ONDINA)
(Christian Petzold)
26-CITY HALL
(Frederick Wiseman)
27-I WAS AT HOME, BUT... (ESTABA EN CASA, PERO...) (Angela Schanelec)
28-SYNONYMES
(Nadav Lapid)
29-DEERSKIN
(Quentin Dupieux)
30-DWELLING IN THE FUCHU MOUNTAINS
(Gu Xiaogang)
31-ANOTHER ROUND
(Thomas Vinterberg)
32-ADORATION
(Fabrice Du Welz)
33-THIS IS NOT A BURIAL, IT'S A RESURRECTION (Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese)
34-OVERSEAS
(Sung-A Yoon)
35-LOS CONDUCTOS
(Camilo Restrepo)
36-DA 5 BLOODS (HERMANOS DE ARMAS)
(Spike Lee)
37-ÖNDÖG (EL HUEVO DEL DINOSAURIO)
(Wang Quan’an)
38-GIVE ME LIBERTY
(Kirill Mikhanovsky)
39-MANK
(David Fincher)
40-POSSESSOR
(Brandon Cronenberg)
41-WELCOME TO CHECHNYA (David France)42-THE GRAND BIZARRE
(Jodie Mack)
43-NIGHT OF THE KINGS
(Philippe Lacôte)
44-SAINT MAUD
(Rose Glass)
45-YA NO ESTOY AQUÍ (I AM NO LONGER HERE)
(Fernando Frías)
46-GUNDA
(Viktor Kossakovsky)
47-VOICES IN THE WIND
(Nobuhiro Suwa)
48-IT MUST BE HEAVEN
(Elia Suleiman)
49-HOGAR (MATERNAL)
(Maura Delpero)
50-IDIOT PRAYER
(Nick Cave)
51-LITTLE JOE
(Jessica Hausner)
52-THE WORLD TO COME
(Mona Fastvold)
53-WORKFORCE (MANO DE OBRA) (David Zonana)54-SHE DIES TOMORROW
(Amy Seimetz)
55-THE PAINTER AND THE THIEF (LA PINTORA Y EL LADRÓN) (Benjamin Ree)56-MY MEXICAN BRETZEL
(Nuria Giménez)
57-SWALLOW
(Carlo Mirabella-Davis)
58-EL AGENTE TOPO (THE MOLE AGENT) (Maite Alberdi)59-CORPUS CHRISTI
(Jan Komasa)
60-YOU WILL DIE AT 20
(Amjad Abu Alala)

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