For five years now I’ve been recording every movie I watch in my film diary at Letterboxd. Each month, I post a recap of what I watched the previous month, and at the start of each year I run down the full list of what I saw the previous twelve months. This is that full list, including a ranking of my favorite movies of 2020 (that I’ve been able to watch as of this writing). But first, here is a mildly interesting graph that I created from all of that activity.
Total Movies Watched by Year
That’s a quick overview of how many movies I saw each year since I began actively logging my movie consumption in January of 2016. For those who are counting, that’s actually a total of 1,011 over five years, with “year over year growth,” as they say, for every year…except 2020. I’m not quite sure why.
In theory I had more time for movies than ever during the pandemic—and they were easier to watch, too. I was able to see all but two of my top ten favorites (“First Cow” and “Emma.”) from home in their first run. As a result I probably saw a greater number of genuinely good movies in 2020 than in previous years, when I would have to make the time to trek out to theaters. In fact, compared to previous years when only the top five or so on my lists were movies that I was genuinely enthusiastic about, this year almost the full list of ten fall into that category.
On the other hand, one thing that became clear to me though is that the streaming media platforms still struggle to deliver genuinely good, original productions. Eight of my top ten movies were originally intended for theatrical release but were ultimately diverted to streaming. And only one of the remaining two, Steve McQueen’s highly variegated “Small Axe” series, truly originated with a streaming service. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” was a thrill, and a triumph for Netflix—for my money among the best things that the service has ever done—but it’s an adaptation of a well regarded stage play by August Wilson. The streaming services have yet to prove that they can turn out quality beyond a very few of their most earnest prestige projects like these and 2018’s “Roma.”
Complaints aside, it’s worth remembering how lucky we are to have this virtually unlimited, on demand library of new and back catalog films to get us through this terrible pandemic. For my family and me, the luxury of retreating into movies while the world seemed to fall apart outside was essential to coping with last year’s lockdowns and the loss of social intimacy. We were even luckier in that before the pandemic hit, we had set up a projector in our basement that allowed us to simulate a small movie theater in the comfort of our own home. And when the weather turned warm, I brought that projector out to the backyard, hung an inexpensive screen on the fence, and we were able to watch movies after sundown in the warm summer air. All in all, I was more grateful for movies in 2020 than ever.
Okay, here’s my list. You can see my full ranking of movies made in 2020 here.
“The Assistant” An ordinary but harrowing day in the life of an idealistic young office worker employed by a horrible person. Extremely subtle and even non-specific while still managing to incredibly explicit.
“First Cow” A lovely, heartbreaking tale of a friendship between two otherwise overlooked bit players in the gold rush of the late nineteenth century.
“Sound of Metal” A drummer in a rock band loses his hearing and the audience joins him in his journey in a way that’s startlingly novel and real.
“Bacurau” A genre picture so weird and unusual that it seems to invent itself as it goes along. Thrilling.
“Tenet” A massively ambitious art film disguised as a summer blockbuster.
“The Vast of Night” The amazing technical chops that this indie sci-fi thriller pulls off with its tiny budget is impressive, but what’s even better is the wonderfully vivid characters and dialog that sweep you up into the period setting.
“Emma.” They’ll be making new renditions of this endlessly entertaining story forever, but this one is directed with brilliant, lively panache.
“Small Axe: Lovers Rock” By far the highlight of this five-part series because it evokes a deep, joyous mood that we rarely get to see. There’s also an early morning bicycle ride that took my breath away.
“Mank” A potent re-creation of a lost era of artistic industry.
And below you’ll find the rundown for all of 2020. You can also see Letterboxd’s automatically generated overview of my year here. Or You can turn back time and see what I watched in 2019, in 2018, in 2017, and in 2016. Finally, you can always keep up with what I’m watching by following me on letterboxd.com—where I’m also writing tons of capsule reviews.
“Never Goin’ Back” (2018) ★★★★ A morally reprehensible but briskly made triumph.
“Extra Ordinary” (2019) ★★★½ Yet another Irish indie in which an unattached driving instructor speaks to the dead and battles a one-hit wonder rockstar, to largely amiable effect.
“The Report” (2019) ★★★★ Setting aside the vanity of a screenwriter directing a movie about a guy writing something so important that middle-managers and executives want to water it down, this meticulous reckoning with Bush-era torture is terrific.
“Speed” (1994) ★★★½ Rewatched. A good example of how a dumb movie can achieve greatness.
“Top Gun” (1986) ★½ This thinly plotted recruitment film remains aesthetically undimmed, but it’s also still just as empty-headed as ever.
“Uncle Buck” (1989) ★½ Disappointingly few laughs; I added a half-star out of fondness for John Candy.
“Revanche” (2008) ★★★★ A taut, expertly directed subversion of the revenge thriller form.
“Sullivan’s Travels” (1941) ★★★ Rewatched. A pointed declaration of ideals about comedy vs. realism that’s not particularly funny or realistic.
“Bacurau” (2019) ★★★★ Bonkers B-movie set in Brazil that continually reinvents itself, thrillingly.
“The Truman Show” (1998) ★★★½ Rewatched. Charming but maybe most commendable for neutralizing Jim Carrey’s insufferability.
“Deathtrap” (1982) ★★★★ A twisty murder thriller that’s maybe not so incredibly twisty, but it’s so tautly executed by the underrated Sidney Lumet that it’s a pleasure just to go along for the ride.
“Small Axe: Mangrove” (2020) ★★½ It’s shocking to watch a movie by Steve McQueen, one of the masters of nuance and subtlety, that’s clumsy and obvious.
“The Phantom Tollbooth” (1970) ★★ A swing and a miss at making a prestige picture from animation legend Chuck Jones.
“The Widow Couderc” (1971) ★★★★ A mysterious stranger who happens to look exactly like Alain Delon comes to a small French village and meets a widower who happens to look like Simone Signoret. Nothing too surprising happens, but the emotional authenticity that emerges is palpable.
“Small Axe: Lovers Rock” (2020) ★★★★Not everything quite lines up in this mood-first callback to West Indian nightlife in London ca. 1980, but it’s nevertheless a rapturous, irresistible romantic fairy tale on the order of “Before Sunrise.”
“The Muppet Christmas Carol” (1992) ★ When Gonzo is the straight man, things are not particularly Muppet-y, and not particularly fun.
“Back to the Future” (1985) ★★★★ Rewatched. A marvel of set-it-up and pay-it-off Hollywood storytelling.
“Other Music” (2019) ★★★ A sweet requiem for the lost hipster paradise of the world’s coolest record store.
“To Catch a Thief” (1955) ★★★★ Rewatched. Staggeringly gorgeous. One of the rare times when the form itself is so refined it matters more than the content.
“Soul” (2020) ★★★★ A hodgepodge of different movies. The least interesting of them is Pixar’s standard “secret, anthropomorphized world of things you usually don’t pay attention to” redemption tale. But when it lets its human characters actually be human, it soars.
“Mulan” (1998) ★★ Not particularly memorable, though not particularly terrible.
“Sound of Metal” (2019) ★★★★ At times this largely humorless drama about hearing loss threatens to be standard humorless indie fare, but it surpasses all of that by expertly putting the audience in its protagonist’s shoes. Also, absolutely killer opening scene.
“Small Axe: Alex Wheatle” (2020) ★★★ Another example of a story that would have been much better served as its own full-length feature than as an installment in an overly ambitious mini-series.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) ★★★★★ Rewatched. I’ll never be able to not cry when I watch this, I guess.