A year unlike any other. COVID-19 upended the movie and TV industries in a big way. Production shutdowns led many below-the-line artists and crew workers to look for new ways to monetize their skills, if not abandon their careers. Movie theaters were closed for the majority of the year forcing big studio films to be delayed upon delay. Distributors experimented with a mix of streaming and theatrical release strategies (with very questionable success).

All the while people sat at home with more time than ever to absorb all forms of virtual content on their screens, making our streaming subscriptions an equal necessity alongside masks and social distancing. But amidst all the crazy, there was some positive. A renewed attention for the kind of movies that are normally crowded out by bigger studio fare. It was a very good year for film. Particularly films made by women or featuring strong female characters. You just had to know where to look.

In no particular order other than alphabetical, here are my favorites from 2020 (of the ones I’ve seen so far at least).

The Assistant

Directed by Kitty Green

Photo: Courtesy of Bleeker Street

Although inspired by it, “The Assistant” is not about the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse scandal. It’s about the abusive atmosphere created by the Harvey Weinstein’s of the world. It’s a very restrained film that quietly follows one day in the life of Jane (Julia Garner), a recent college graduate and aspiring film producer who has recently landed her dream job as a junior assistant to a powerful entertainment mogul.

Her day is pretty mundane and routine, but as her day progresses, she begins to suspect something more insidious is playing out around her. A form of abuse that seems to cloud every aspect of her work day. An accumulation of degradations that are protected, ignored, and denied by the culture within. It’s all very subtle, yet it’s not.



Directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho & Juliano Dornelles

Photo: Courtesy of Kino Lorber

Imagine mixing a Sergio Leone spaghetti western and John Carpenter sci-fi. The kind of B-movie that would have inspired a young Quentin Tarantino. That is “Bacurau”. A bloody, supernatural, thriller, drama that draws on modern Brazilian sociopolitical concerns.

The film is set in a small, rural village in the Brazilian sertão. Its residents have started to experience odd events that suggest someone (or something) wants to expel them from their homes, but not before the villagers organize themselves for one last stand.

Films of this style wouldn’t normally rise to the level of a top 10 any year, but it’s the delicate balance of politics and story that elevates the film. A protest against inequality, and an allegory for how Brazil has been drained by government, businesses, and Westerners.


City Hall

Directed by Frederick Wiseman

Photo: Courtesy of Zipporah Films

The prospect of people taking the time to watch a 4.5 hour documentary focused on the inner workings of Boston’s City Hall is a long shot. Especially when standard documentary techniques like narration, interviews, or visuals illustrating interesting statistics are nowhere to be found. Yet “City Hall” is a fascinating viewing experience showcasing the complexity of city government and the lives it touches everyday.

There aren’t any specific individuals the film focuses on, except perhaps Marty Walsh, Boston’s mayor, who makes a number of appearances throughout. Instead, the characters are simply Boston’s city buildings and the neighborhoods themselves. You drop in and observe the exchanges taking place within, whether it’s a city meeting, a resident contesting a parking ticket, a renter escalating a pest complaint, or low-income town members debating the merits of opening a marijuana dispensary on their block.

At a time when so many Americans question the value and effectiveness of our federal government, “City Hall” presents a mammoth portrait of rational governing guided by genuine empathy.



Directed by Andrew Ahn

Photo: Courtesy of FilmRise

Film dramas don’t come any gentler than “Driveways”, a story about a friendship between Cody (Lucas Jaye), a shy eight-year-old boy helping his Asian-American single mother, and Del (Brian Dennehy), a lonely Korean war vet who spends his days on his front porch.

While the film does offer a small portrait of an Asian-American family, it’s much more about the kindness offered between neighbors (both figuratively and literally). The kind that transcends the lines that often divide us, allowing for a friendship to blossom and offer unexpected gifts to all three characters.

In one of the most achingly tender scenes shown on screen this year, Del advises Cody to not hurry past the experiences in life that matter, as they pass so quickly on their own. Words made even more poignant coming from the late Brian Dennehy in one of his final performances before passing away this past April.


The Invisible Man

Directed by Leigh Whannell

Photo: Courtesy of Universal

As much as I enjoy escapist horrors and thrillers, they are rarely done well, let alone worthy of any top 10 list, but damn, Leigh Whannell did something smart here. What could’ve easily been a dumb remake of H.G. Wells’ 123-year-old classic, Whannell offers a fresh and scary reimagining perfect for the #MeToo era.

In the original, the focus was on the scientist, whose experiments render him unseeable and leads him to go on a murdering spree. Here, the focus is on the scientist’s girlfriend, Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss), who is desperately trying to escape an abusive relationship. Scares are expertly built through an excellent use of lighting, framing, and a suggestive presence of negative space throughout.

Moss’ performance vividly captures a woman’s paranoia, sensing her ex-lover is close by and doing things to mess with her head. Why doesn’t anyone believe her? Invisibility…a perfect metaphor for the gaslighting and emotional toll brought on by abuse.


Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Directed by Eliza Hittman

Photo: Courtesy of Focus Features

Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), a quiet seventeen-year-old high-school student in rural Pennsylvania who, upon learning she is unable to get an abortion in her state without parental consent, ends up traveling with her cousin to New York for the procedure. There’s no melodrama. No preaching or rhetoric. The focus is solely on the hidden pain a teenager carries as she confronts her predicament alone.

Eliza Hittman tells the story with great tenderness and a show of protection over the two girls. Their vulnerability, determination, and resilience rendered beautifully on screen when their two little fingers interlock in a moment of solidarity. And in one of the year’s most unforgettable scenes, we witness a dozen memories and emotions flicker across Autumn’s face in a 4.5 minute long shot giving the film its title: “Never? Rarely? Sometimes? Or always?”


Palm Springs

Directed by Max Barbakow

Photo: Courtesy of Hulu

The same monotonous routine. Day in and day out. That is the state Nyles (Andy Samberg) and Sarah (Cristin Milioti) find themselves in after crossing paths at a wedding. Two unhappy screw-ups that are drawn to one another. “Palm Springs” will feel familiar (and predictable) if you’ve seen any romantic comedies, but a hilarious sequence of events takes the film in a fun and different direction.

No other film this year better captures the experience of the COVID-19 quarantine. The unescapable doldrum of rolling out of bed, going through your day, stuck in the same place as the days float by. A perfect mix of cynicism and hope, and a perfect year for this film.

I didn’t know anything going into it, other than it was a comedy and very good. Do yourself a favor and do the same!


Promising Young Woman

Directed by Emerald Fennell

Photo: Courtesy of Focus Features

Social complicity. Toxic masculinity. Sexual assault. Consent. “Promising Young Woman” is a bold and daring film that tackles these themes by holding up a mirror to all of us, men and women. Carey Mulligan plays Cassandra, a woman out for revenge after a college rape upended her life. Her form of revenge though is not about violence. It’s about teaching men a lesson. Something she does each night at skeevy bars, at least until she crosses paths with cute and funny Ryan, who she used to go to school with.

Emerald Fennell’s work comes at you in a pink bubblegum shroud of dark humor and puppy romance, but it pulls no punches, each one landing with gut-wrenching force. If you saw the original trailer before COVID struck, it could’ve fooled you into thinking this was some kind of bloody serial killer movie using “what does consent mean?” as a pretense for existing.

Instead, Fennell only cares to focus on this question and examine it with brutal honesty. A cold indictment of the culture and institutions that protect predators. The more I sit with it, it’s the film I admire most from this year for its sheer boldness and audacity.


76 Days

Directed by Weixi Chen, Hao Wu, & Anonymous

Photo: Courtesy of MTV Documentary Films

Filmed inside four hospitals and dedicated to frontline medical workers worldwide, “76 Days” captures the lockdown period in Wuhan, China right at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak. Avoiding the need for political overtones, alarming statistics, or interviews, the film is solely concerned with the human face of COVID.

It follows overworked and harried medical workers as they care for frightened patients who are almost literally pouring into the hospital at one point. Scenes you typically expect to only find in horror films. It’s surprising nearly a year since the Wuhan lockdown, there is still very little visual evidence of exactly how horrible COVID-19 is. “76 Days” offers us that proof in bare naked reality.

As difficult as it may be to watch at times, “76 Days” is defined more by the resilience and compassion on display. Medical personnel demonstrating a capacity for kindness and patience that would be remarkable under ordinary circumstances. The film serves as a perfect time capsule of a key moment in history that is still unfolding today.



Directed by Pete Docter & Kemp Powers (co-director)

Photo: Courtesy of Disney/Pixar

“Soul” is a metaphysical story that explores the afterlife and the great beyond when Joe, a jazz pianist, has a near-death experience. He ends up as a soul that doesn’t want to die and gets paired up with a soul that doesn’t want to live. It’s heavy stuff, even by Pixar standards, but it succeeds on many levels.

What do we do with the precious time we have here? Is it enough to have a calling and passion in our life? What if we never find one? These are deep philosophical questions that everyone can connect to but is visually complex to represent on screen. The kind of film that kids walk away feeling happy and entertained by, while adults are left in a state of self-reflection for the next hour or two asking themselves, “What is my life’s purpose?”

The film’s inventiveness and heart makes “Soul” one of Pixar’s best, even if it may not be one of their funniest. It’s also the first Disney/Pixar film to feature a black lead character, depicted in a way that avoids animation’s long and painful history of stereotyped caricatures and racist design tropes!