In a year where the entire practice of moviegoing was turned upside-down, forcing theatres and studios into a pandemic-created existential crisis, the flames of a recent debate were reignited: when the lines are blurred, what makes a film a film and what makes television television? At the center of this discussion is director Steve McQueen’s Small Axe, a five-film anthology about London’s West Indian community that, due in part to its initial conception as a fairly standard television project and Amazon Prime Video’s decision to campaign it for the Emmys instead of the Oscars, has divided audiences and critics on whether Small Axe should be housed under the umbrella of cinema or television.
However, I’m not here to rehash that debate. While I personally consider them films (as McQueen also seems to), I don’t particularly care how others want to label the project (though I’ll be sad to see it miss out on the Oscars). I’m instead much more interested in what McQueen has done with the concept of the film anthology — creating a series of films that are interconnected by theme, rather than by character or corporate IP. Small Axe is truly special in this regard, and has inspired me to do something a little different with my top ten this year: instead of listing my ten favorite films, I’ve taken my top 50 (give or take) and crafted nine separate thematic anthologies (with Small Axe being the tenth).
While these sets are of course each the product of five different creative teams, their thematic links allow them to be in conversation with each other in a way that — in my humble opinion — can provide a viewer with a deeper appreciation of the films as single entities and as integral pieces of the year in cinema. Watch any of these sets and I think you’ll come away impressed with the range that the movies of 2020 had to offer.
Note: if you’re looking for a more typical best-of list, you can find it on Letterboxd.
Red, White and Blue
The main reason the film vs. television debate is so heated but yet, ultimately, doesn’t matter, is that Steve McQueen is too talented for his work to do much else but transcend the questions of form. While I may not consider any of these films individually to be his crowning achievement (impossible for me in a world where Widows exists), it’s hard to argue with the sheer scope and brilliance on display here — five McQueen films in a single year is the definition of an embarrassment of riches.
The Ties That Bind
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Dick Johnson is Dead
2020 has been an often sobering reminder of the importance of family — both those we’re born into and those we choose. Cinema has no shortage of stories about siblings, parents, and children, but the best examples from the past year hit a little harder than they might otherwise; from 1650 Ireland to the International Space Station and everywhere in between, these films remind us how much the unconditional love of a family facilitates our ability to survive and thrive.
The American Dream
What the Constitution Means to Me
For so many over the years, the American Dream stood for the possibility of freedom, of a better life for one’s family and one’s descendants. But of course, as we’ve seen over and over again, the reality is far removed from the dream. For scores of Americans achieving that dream is a fight against seemingly insurmountable odds, but their stories — a smattering of which you can find woven through these films — remind us to interrogate what our country truly stands for and what it still has the potential to become.
From childhood to adolescence, there’s something universal about the journey to adulthood. Though the trials of a modern day college student are much different than those of a 19th century English heiress, an indigenous teenager in late 20th century Quebec, or a young Asian-American boy in upstate New York, we can see ourselves in all of these figures. Their struggles remind us that we’re all searching for our place in the world — it’s simply a part of being human.
Is This All There Is?
The Forty-Year-Old Version
What’s even scarier than growing up? The realization that you’re already grown and are hurtling through adulthood and a rapidly accelerating pace. Some of the films here are inspirational, others lean into the horror of it all, but each asks the question: once you’ve had that realization, do you recommit yourself to changing your own narrative, or do you let yourself succumb to the weight of Father Time?
Tendrils of the Past
Da 5 Bloods
The Kid Detective
Promising Young Woman
The Way Back
“Living in the past” is often applied derogatorily, but to do so overlooks the fact that for many it’s not a choice. Trauma and pain isn’t easy to outrun; memory is a double-edged sword that can lead equally to happiness or despair. We watch these films with the hope that their characters can break free, while knowing that they very well may not — and understanding why. If nothing else, these films spark empathy and compassion, and leave us considering how we might help others sleep just a little easier.
Us Against the World
Birds of Prey
David Byrne's American Utopia
One Night in Miami...
The Trial of the Chicago 7
Underdogs. Outsiders. Visionaries. What all the groups featured here have in common is their willingness to take a stand against the systems of oppression that would seek to maintain the status quo. Through art, politics, and violence, these men and women fight back against injustice and inequality, digging deep to set an example for those that follow.
The Artist and the Art
The Bee Gees: How Do You Mend a Broken Heart
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Sound of Metal
Does art give meaning to life? Or does life give meaning to art? In either case, can you truly ever separate the art from the artist? These films give a peek behind the curtain at the trials and tribulations faced by those willing to sacrifice in order to create something bigger than themselves. Sometimes the stories end in success, more often in tragedy, but ultimately it’s the art that stands the test of time.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
These films take a deeply unsparing look at how our systems — political, justice, corporate, health — are in many ways fundamentally broken, propping up those in power while suppressing those who need support the most. But the failings aren’t the point of these stories: yes, we should walk away angry and desperate for change, but the key element in each film is the perseverance of those who are forced to fight against the inequities on display. Their courage and their compassion give us hope for the future.
The Invisible Man
She Dies Tomorrow
Much of this year’s speculative- and science-fiction trended towards the nihilistic. Whether it was technology used for nefarious ends or mysterious plagues that infect the mind, it always seemed like we were facing a particularly terrifying set of apocalyptic scenarios. And though we sometimes watch these films through the lens of a future that seems depressingly inevitable, we also watch them for the heroes — whether they’re superspies or just regular folks — who set an example and instill hope that the end of the world can indeed be averted.