It was the year the movie theaters died — or at least went on indefinite hiatus, with few assurances about if or when they’ll return. And for that reason, by their very absence, they meant more to me than ever. It’s neither surprising nor coincidental to me that so many of my favorite movies this year were ones that I originally saw in theaters before the pandemic set in, where I could give their beautiful images and enveloping narratives my undivided, worry-free attention.
Which is not to say that I didn’t see my share of terrific movies at home, or that Netflix, Amazon and other streaming services didn’t keep that great virtual content-a-copia stuffed to overflowing. One of my favorite viewing experiences this year involved waiting for my family to go to bed, turning off the lights and throwing on “Relic,” a horror picture that turned out to be even more moving than it was scary (and it was plenty scary). A new Frederick Wiseman documentary could probably rivet me from an iPhone screen, not that I’m eager to test that theory.
Movie theaters closed. Broadway went dark. Concert venues fell silent.
But those precious theatrical experiences are the ones I remain most grateful for — like the press screening of “First Cow” I attended in February, shortly before theaters went dark, or the packed Hollywood premiere of “The Invisible Man,” probably the last moviegoing experience where I could feel the entire audience jump as one. My list includes experiences from last year’s Cannes Film Festival, where I saw “Beanpole” for the first time, and Venice, where “Martin Eden” and “Collective” left their indelible first impressions.
Special mention must be made of Sundance, one of the last major film events to take place before the world changed, and which, like many festivals, is presently gearing up for a 2021 edition like no other. It was at Sundance 2020 that I saw my two favorite movies this year, mere days apart. It was also there that I got to see my friend Lee Isaac Chung bask in a warm festival embrace for his family drama “Minari” — a sweet memory from what now feels like a different time, though my sincere hope is that happier ones are still ahead.
As has become standard practice, I’ve listed my favorite titles as a series of thematic pairings. Treat them as double bills, or just as another reminder that art never takes place in a vacuum.
1. “Vitalina Varela” / 2. “Time”
In “Vitalina Varela,” a gravely haunted story of grief and remembrance from Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa, a Cape Verdean woman travels to a Lisbon shantytown to bury the husband who abandoned her years earlier. In “Time,” Garrett Bradley’s emotionally overwhelming documentary, a Louisiana woman works tirelessly to free her spouse from a decades-long prison sentence. Few movie heroes in 2020 projected greater authority, or proved more galvanic in their command of the screen, than Vitalina Varela and Fox Rich — two Black women dwelling worlds apart but possessed of the same unflagging courage, fearlessly confronting personal loss without granting it the final word.
(Watch “Vitalina Varela” on Grasshopper Film and “Time” on Amazon Prime Video.)
3. “Nomadland” / 4. “First Cow”
Two pitch-perfect stories of the American wilderness, and also two stark requiems for the American Dream. In “Nomadland,” a widow joins a nationwide migratory movement that offers the company of strangers and the comforts of solitude. In “First Cow,” two lowly travelers build a home and a business together, with some help from a bovine scene stealer. These stories may unfold nearly two centuries apart, but they exist on a moral and political continuum that Chloé Zhao and Kelly Reichardt know more intimately than any filmmakers working today.
(“Nomadland,” which received a weeklong virtual run in December, will be released more widely in February. Watch “First Cow” on streaming platforms.)
5. “Martin Eden” / 6. “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”
The two boldest, most inventive literary adaptations I saw this year, densely packed with ideas and full of formal bravura. Both Pietro Marcello’s sweeping Italian epic and Charlie Kaufman’s shape-shifting puzzler ruthlessly demolish the self-defeating intellectual vanities of men, unwittingly enabled by the women they claim to love. And both follow their antiheroes into a dark, solipsistic void — and take us along for the ride just about as far as we can go.
(Watch “Martin Eden” on Kino Marquee and “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” on Netflix.)
7. “City Hall” / 8. “Collective”
Sometimes government works; a lot of the time it doesn’t. The ratio is pretty even in Frederick Wiseman’s beautifully expansive Boston symphony “City Hall,” a sprawling yet tightly focused work from a 90-year-old master. His indelible influence can be felt amid the meetings and press conferences of “Collective,” Alexander Nanau’s furious exposé of the Romanian healthcare system — a portrait of institutional corruption and journalistic acumen that could hardly feel more devastatingly of the moment.
(Watch “City Hall” through virtual cinemas and “Collective” on streaming platforms.)
9. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” / 10. “Beanpole”
In Eliza Hittman’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” two Pennsylvania teenagers travel to New York so that one of them can procure an abortion. In Kantemir Balagov’s “Beanpole,” a child’s death scars two women struggling to carry on in postwar Leningrad. Two wintry stories about the resilience and vulnerability of female friendship, unflinchingly bleak yet told with the most delicate of human touches.
(Watch “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” on streaming platforms and “Beanpole” on streaming platforms.)
Here are 10 honorable mentions (in no particular order):
“The Assistant” and “The Invisible Man”
Two chilling gaslighting thrillers, stunningly acted by Julia Garner and Elisabeth Moss, respectively, as women bravely sounding the alarm while a male monster lurks and terrorizes with impunity.
“I Was at Home, But … ” and “Relic”
A family home becomes a zone of implacable grief and deep, wormy mystery in both Angela Schanelec’s elliptical, enigmatic drama and Natalie Erika James’ tale of an all-too-relatable haunting.
“Lovers Rock” and “Mangrove”
A house-party bliss-out and a stirring courtroom drama showed the dramatic range, political will and sheer cinematic bravura of Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” anthology. Film or television, it’s one of the events of the year.
“Mank” and “Tesla”
Two dazzling, bursting-at-the-seams biographical fantasias, each one setting a prickly intellect against a commercial system designed to exploit creativity, stifle genius and uphold the bottom line.
And 15 more close to my heart: “Bad Education,” “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution,” “David Byrne’s American Utopia,” “Driveways,” “The Forty-Year-Old Version,” “Fourteen,” “Kajillionaire,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Proxima,” “She Dies Tomorrow,” “Sound of Metal,” “The Vast of Night,” “A White, White Day,” “The Wild Goose Lake,” “Wolfwalkers”