2020 Vision: Backwards and Forwards
At this point, it feels redundant to remark on the unusual nature of 2020. If you’re reading this, you already know that the world was turned upside down by a global pandemic, the threat of an economic recession, and a never-ending U.S. presidential election. But since you’re on this website, you—like me—probably also turned to the movies to help you cope with what was, by any measure, an unbelievably tough year.
Of course, the movies themselves weren’t immune to the disruption caused by COVID-19. Much of the original 2020 release calendar remains unseen, shifted to new dates in the as-yet-uncertain future when theaters are able to reopen safely. But with most of the major studio releases waiting in the wings for their multiplex audiences to return, that left room for others to fill that space. Quiet indie films took advantage of the extra oxygen left behind by retreating blockbusters to find new audiences, and for me, they were joined by old classics filling in cinematic blind spots, favorite rewatches providing celluloid comfort food, and even a handful of filmed theatrical productions. And the time normally spent on a daily commute was instead spent on curating watchlists and squeezing in extra screenings.
By pure happenstance, my 2020 began with three five-star rewatches. And although in January I had no way of knowing what the rest of the year would bring, those early screenings set the tone for a year full of rediscoveries. Historically, I haven’t been much of a movie rewatcher. There are so many new movies every year and so many old movies I’ve never seen—watching something for a second time always felt like a wasted opportunity to try something new. But with some encouragement, I found comfort in revisiting familiar childhood classics and recent favorites all year long.
That’s not to say I didn’t watch any new pre-2020 movies. All that extra time at home meant a sizeable dent in my nonetheless ever-growing watchlist. From Golden Age Hollywood pictures to iconic international arthouse films, I expanded my cinematic horizons further in one year than I have since I was a college student with endless free time. Of course, each new discovery generated another dozen titles to add to my lifelong project of moviegoing—but that’s half the fun.
Then, of course, there were the year’s new movies. Divorced for the most part from the theatrical experience, I found myself drawn to films and moments that made my ever more familiar surroundings melt away. Sometimes, that meant movies that demanded my attention through bold choices and immersive storytelling, from a candy-coated patron saint of vengeance to a friendship born from a temporal pincer movement. Others were painful reminders of the small pleasures we’ve lost to the pandemic—singing and dancing in a crowded room, tender connections with neighbors—counterbalanced by hopeful visions of the life still worth living just outside our front doors. And still more met the turbulent times of their release with calls to action for justice and fierce moral urgency amplified by the year’s events. As always, there are still more to catch up on (looking at you, Nomadland), but a most unusual year brought—like every other—an excellent array of new films for anyone willing to go looking for them.
No matter how different, what the movies of 2020 all shared was the capacity to transport me, even briefly, to another place outside the four walls of my apartment. Here are three (and a quarter) lists of my favorites, new and old, that did just that.
Top Twenty 2020 Releases
Lovers Rock (Small Axe)
Education (Small Axe)
Mangrove (Small Axe)
And, because I rank documentaries separately:
Dick Johnson is Dead
Mucho Mucho Amor
John Lewis: Good Trouble
Full list of 2020 releases on Letterboxd
Top Twenty Rewatches (alphabetical) All About Eve Back to the Future Do The Right Thing Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Ex Machina Gentlemen Prefer Blondes Jaws Jurassic Park Mad Max: Fury Road Men in Black Michael Clayton No Country for Old Men Pan’s Labyrinth Selma The Silence of the Lambs The Social Network Sunset Boulevard When Harry Met Sally Who Framed Roger Rabbit 20th Century Women
Top Twenty Catch Ups (alphabetical) The Age of Innocence Amadeus The Bad and the Beautiful Badlands Brief Encounter Bringing Up Baby The Devil’s Backbone JFK Le Samouraï M Malcolm X Nashville Nine to Five Paper Moon A Place in the Sun Rififi Sweet Smell of Success What’s Up Doc? Yojimbo The 400 Blows