Looking Back: Alex's Top 10 Favorite Films of 2020 - 'Nine Days' at #1
by Alex Billington
February 26, 2021
"You are being considered for the amazing opportunity of life." Another year, another Top 10. Better late than never, as they say! Though this usually happens with me, getting this list out takes a lot of time… It was a tough year to keep writing during 2020, despite watching films all the time. I saw over 400 films during the year, trying to watch as much as I could despite the lockdowns and the shut downs, and everything else going on. But here it is anyway - my personal list of my Top 10 Favorite Films of 2020. Most of all, I just want to share my love for these glorious works of cinema. It's not that surprising that many of my favorite films are films about how magical and mesmerizing life is to live, which is important during this pandemic time anyway. We have to keep on living, despite all the challenges, we have to seek the light, despite all the darkness, we have to find beauty, despite all the ugliness. And these films provided that much needed bliss.
For last year's Top 10 of 2019 list, topped by Bong Joon-ho's Parasite, click here. You can also see Adam's list of his Top 10 of 2019 here, featuring Brian Duffield's explosive Spontaneous at #1 (it's worth a watch).
A few notes: this is a list of my favorite films, not the best films of the year, these are the ones that I love for my own reasons and I'll try to explain why with each one. As always, I wish I had so much more to time to watch/rewatch films, and see every last film that played in 2020, but that's impossible so this is just what I decided to run with. Also - my film selection is based on the date when I originally saw the film at a public event, including film festivals (Venice, Sundance) or public releases limited or otherwise. This is not based on only films released in 2020, but the ones I experienced in 2020, and is a good representation of the best cinema has given us, in my opinion. I'm always a bit shy to share these picks, but they really are films I love.
#1. Nine Days directed by Edson Oda
This was my #1 all year and nothing was better. I haven't stopped thinking about this film since seeing it at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival more than a year ago. Soul-stirring, life-affirming cinema. A magnificently moving, original work of art. A film that dares us to re-examine our own lives, and rediscover all the little moments that matter. My heart is pounding. I LOVE this film. Not a single frame I'd change, it's perfection. Winston Duke is god level phenomenal in this film. He took my breath away. Give him all the awards. The score by Antonio Pinto is absolutely astonishing, and was the main reason I cried multiple times in this. Also the shots of Zazie Beetz. Also Winston Duke just being the best. His final scene in this is one for the ages and I can't wait to watch and rewatch it, over and over again. The film is inspired by religion, but isn't overtly religious, instead it examines the meaning of life through honest, emotional storytelling. Nine Days establishes Edson Oda as an incredibly talented filmmaker, not only with a one-of-a-kind visual aesthetic, but with an innate understanding for humanity and the indescribable feelings hiding deep inside all of us.
#2. Berlin Alexanderplatz directed by Burhan Qurban
I'm a big-time fan of City of God, and few films since that one have ever been that good. Burhan Qurbani's Berlin Alexanderplatz is one of the only other films to remind me of City of God and feeling like it captures that experience of what it's like to work as a criminal in a bustling city just because you need to survive and there's no other way to live. This is epic, monumental filmmaking that takes us on a complex, captivating journey into the life of an immigrant named Francis, who makes his way to the German city of Berlin. It's inspired by the original novel by Alfred Döblin, but it's an entirely new take on this story, infused with the authentic experience of German-Afghan director Burhan Qurbani, and enlivened with extraordinary grace by Portuguese-Guinean lead actor Welket Bungué, who plays Francis. Not enough people have seen this film yet, and not many are talking about it yet, but I hope with time it'll find its audience as more discover it.
#3. Pixar's Soul directed by Pete Docter & Kemp Powers
"Lost souls are obsessed by something that disconnects them from life." What a marvelously entertaining, spiritual, deeply inspiring, warmly uplifting, totally trippy (!!) film about life and the beauty of living. All the incredible jazz music, the funky score, the clever storytelling, the twists and turns that give it some spunk, the profound soul-searching third act. Not to mention some truly original, stunning animation which I know Pixar is excellent at and I've missed seeing from them. I think Pete Docter has made another knock out - another movie that stands proudly side-by-side with Inside Out as a glorious work of spiritual art. It's also so lovely to hear Pixar get outstanding voice performances that perfectly fit the characters and aren't showy. I'm just so happy to fall in love with another Pixar movie again. I love Soul with all my heart and I think it's one of the greatest life-affirming stories in cinema, a reminder to make sure you truly live every single day.
#4. Pieces of a Woman directed by Kornél Mundruczó
Life is not only happiness and love and wonderful moments, as much we all wish it were. With all the good in life, there is also the bad, and every last one of us struggles greatly with the weight of emotions during these tough times when they find us. Each one of us responds and reacts differently, and it's not always easy to pull yourself back together after a tragedy. Pieces of a Woman is a film by Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó, and writer Kata Wéber, and to be blunt: it's a film about grief. Not just grief itself, but about all five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. It is an exceptionally emotional film, realistic in its depiction of people dealing with grief, and also vividly cinematic. It's the kind of film what will break you and then, through an honest depictions of good people, rebuild you by the end. This movie left me in tears and I haven't forgotten it since the Venice Film Festival – a powerful experience.
#5. Feels Good Man directed by Arthur Jones
It always feels vital to put a documentary on my Top 10 (and this year there are two!), because they deserve more attention and acclaim. And this is unquestionably one of the best documentaries of this Golden Age era. What makes Feels Good Man so exceptional is that it's so much more than just the story of Pepe the Frog and what happened to him on the internet. The fantastic animated sequences, the sweetness of Matt Furie, the twists and turns with Pepe's story, the intelligent analysis, everything about it is impressive and entertaining. Not your average doc, this includes a massive amount of context along with tons of footage of Furie and excerpts and discussions to make you think about how the modern digital world twists things and does whatever they want with whatever they want. There's no "putting the genie back in the bottle", as they say in this film. It's a must watch documentary no matter what you think about Pepe or docs or the internet.
#6. Another Round directed by Thomas Vinterberg
Skol!! Very happy to discover this film is as good as was hoping it would be. It's serious, but not too serious. A genuine celebration of life - and of libation. Subtle in its depiction of alcoholism, and showing how a bit of alcohol can be joyful, but too much can be bad, without hitting us over the head with this message. Mads Mikkelsen is always great in every film he makes. He's entirely believable and has so much depth right in the first scene of this film. And the whole cast is just phenomenal - everyone handles all the ups and downs with grace, and makes this film as wonderful to watch as it is depressing. There are some sad moments, but that is life, there's good and bad. And enjoying a few drinks helps us handle it all. And I am so glad the film doesn't to try wag a finger at us. As always, moderation is the key to life. "The world is never as you expect."
#7. The Truffle Hunters directed by Michael Dweck & Gregory Kershaw
Truffle doggos!! The defining doggie documentary of 2020 (that is finally being released this winter). Made by filmmakers Michael Dweck & Gregory Kershaw, The Truffle Hunters is an exquisite, lovable, utterly sublime documentary that takes us deep into Piedmont, Italy to meet a few of the finest truffle hunters in the entire world. This doc is the BEST!! I absolutely love this film, and I have been telling everyone about it. A perfectly shot and perfectly presented love letter to the great truffle hunters and truffle dogs of Italy. There is really nothing to change about it, nothing to even nitpick. Just bask in the glory of this doc. Not only did the filmmakers spend three years filming this, earning the trust of the local truffle hunters, but they let all of their footage speak for itself. Which makes a difference because this film feels a bit like a painting more than anything. Even if you're not a big fan of docs, this is a good one to go out of your way to discover.
#8. Sound of Metal directed by Darius Marder
This film is brilliant on about 30 levels. Just outstanding. Specifically in how beautifully it shows how warm and welcoming and upbeat the deaf community is, and how caring they are for each other. It invites us to see how deaf children learn and how unique it is. The sound design is phenomenal, and makes a difference with regards to how we experience the film. It's not only a film about going deaf, it's about addiction, and love, and family, and growth, and acceptance, and music, and much more. Even better on a second viewing. Riz Ahmed handles this role perfectly, and pulls off the impossible making it all believable. I really admire all the random beautiful shots just dropped into the film, and my big theory is that, while every single one of these shots has natural sound, the idea is that there doesn't need to be any sound for it to still be beautiful, something we (by way of Ruben) must come to learn. I'm thinking this should be higher up on my Top 10…
#9. Lovers Rock directed by Steve McQueen
The second time I watched this film, I turned the volume way up, and just danced along with it for its entire 70 minute runtime. It's pure bliss. What an immaculate film, full of life and joy and amazing reggae. One of the best party movies ever made. Hands down, without a doubt. I also think it's the best of the bunch from Steve McQueen's Small Axe anthology series, although Mangrove is just as good (and honestly Mangrove deserves to be tied with Lovers Rock here on my Top 10, too). This film is the epitome of "instant classic" - utter joy in every sense, already one of my all-time favorites. That iconic shot of sweat dripping down the wall during "Silly Games" is hilarious and incredible. This also probably sets a new record for the number of joints being smoked on screen, which makes it even better. All of this just makes me seriously wish I could go to this party and jam with them. It's pretty much a spiritual experience to watch McQueen's Lovers Rock.
#10. Nomadland directed by Chloe Zhao
This is the most soulful film of the year. Utterly gorgeous. Almost every shot is a sunset shot, but I still love it. It's somber and sad but heartfelt, a reminder to truly *live* our lives with fervor not just remember what we were and stay stuck in the past. And it's a story about freedom, what that means to Fern and ultimately what it might mean to all of us. A freedom many think they have, but they really don't. And that's poignant and refreshing. Also the film's score by Ludovico Einaudi is spine-tingling exceptional and fits right with the film and the imagery in the most magical of ways. I really adore this one, and I'm happy to say that because I was worried Chloe Zhao might not live up to The Rider… But she does!! And she does something different, offering up some thoughtful wisdom about life in this film about Fern and her travels on the road.
Additional Faves - Runner Ups: Lee Isaac Chung's Minari (wonderful), Sasie Sealy's Lucky Grandma (badass), Brandon Trost's An American Pickle (brine time fun), Tomm Moore & Ross Stewart's Wolfwalkers (gorgeous), Cory Finley's Bad Education (extra sharp), Kelly Reichardt's First Cow (I want some oily cakes).
And my special list of the Best Documentaries from 2020 - since there were SO many outstanding docs that I want to highlight in addition to my favorite features. I very much enjoy spending time with docs, there are so many remarkable stories being told. I recommend ALL of these: Alexander Nanau's Collective, Alice Gu's The Donut King, David Osit's Mayor, Maite Alberdi's The Mole Agent, Radu Ciorniciuc's Acasa, My Home, Jeff Daniels' Television Event, Mark Waters' Chasing the Present, Jerry Rothwell's The Reason I Jump, Sam Pollard's MLK/FBI, James Lebrecht & Nicole Newnham's Crip Camp, Elizabeth Lo's Stray, Matthew Salleh's We Don’t Deserve Dogs, Sébastien Lifshitz's Little Girl (Petite Fille), Jóhann Jóhannsson's Last and First Men, Netflix's David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet, Ryan White's Assassins, and of course Pippa Ehrlich & James Reed's exceptional My Octopus Teacher.
I could discuss all of my favorites endlessly, so if you ever want to chat about cinema, just ask me something about any of them. You can always find all of my ratings and additional thoughts on every film I watched in 2020 on my Letterboxd profile. There were a few important films I did not get the chance to watch last year due to time constraints, as usual, but I still try to catch as many films as possible that critics rave about. I am always watching new work throughout the year, craving unforgettable experiences - films that connect deeply. If you have extra questions or thoughts about my Top 10 picks, please get in touch: @firstshowing. Now let's continue onward into 2021 with high hopes of discovering and enjoying more phenomenal films.