best film: I’m Thinking of Ending Things from Charlie Kaufman is the best film of 2020. In an undeniably down year for cinema, it is Kaufman’s work that stands above the rest.


This is an intimidating film to try to say anything about with one viewing. It is a work of almost infinite creativity. Charlie Kaufman’s skills as a writer are matched by the visual artist in this effort.   Like his films that have proceeded it, it is densely layered, sprawling, and intelligent. Kaufman is clearly a singular artistic voice and genius.

The opening montage is a stunner—voiceover narration-aided montage of the rooms these characters would occupy for the next two hours– like Woody’s Interiors. Here it also foreshadows the color design and wallpaper patterns. Golds and green color palate in the design of the frame throughout. Shot by Lukasz Zal who worked on Ida and Cold War. Praise is due to the artist first- and rightly so- but it is hard to ignore the freedom Netflix seems to be giving these auteurs This is a work that is excruciatingly intimate and specific, yet boldly ambitious in its reach and aim.


most underrated:   Steve McQueen’s Small Axe is really five separate films. Lovers Rock is the #1 ranked film from the TSPDT consensus for 2020 and that is a fine selection. However, Red, White and Blue may even be slightly stronger and somehow that entry was completely left off the list of 24 films that make up the 2020 listed on the TSPDT 21st century list. Pieces of a Woman and Antebellum are among the best ten films of 2020 and both are also left off that 2020 consensus list.


Pieces of a Woman from Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó. After those opening moments, a 22-mintute long take ensues and captures a home birth in real time. It is an extraordinary shot. This is 1917, Victoria, Children of Men with all the discomfort of a 4 Months 3 weeks, 2 days or Irreversible. The birth scene in Roma certainly comes to mind as well. It is crucial to the visceral immediacy of the scene and moment that this is captured as one take. It breaks with Shia going out the door to the ambulance as the camera brilliantly holds on the ambulance door and fades, first to black, then to the film’s title card—30 minutes into the movie… very strong. Many critics note that the film never reaches that cinematic high again– and that may be true—but there is still much to praise in what remains—this definitely not a great scene in a bad movie by any stretch. Gorgeous Fassbinder/Ozu-like doorway frame within a frame device at least three times – not just pretty for the sake of pretty—but capturing Kirby’s Martha (like the example above) in isolation, in quiet rage and freefall…

Remember the names of Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz. They are the co-directors and co-writers behind 2020’s horror/thriller Antebellum starring the magnificent Janelle Monáe. It is the debut film for Bush and Renz, it premiered during the pandemic so there is virtually no box office, and the reviews are rough- so here’s hoping they get another chance. The prologue is a Faulkner quote- “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The opening shot many be cinema’s single finest shot in 2020. Their camera travels underneath the Spanish moss and past Don Johnson’s house in Django Unchained. It features these beautiful lens flares, shot during the magic hour for prime photography. There are more than a dozen characters involved in the one single shot- so the choreography has to be perfect. It has this tense, dramatic score— in total the tracking shot lasts four minutes. It is like a minor version of Joe Wright’s Dunkirk shot in Atonement.


most overrated: With the stage left absent by many fiction features- documentaries actually dominate the TSPDT consensus list top ten. Four of the ten are docs.  However, from what remains it does appear that Never Rarely Sometimes Always (#3 on the consensus list for 2020), Da 5 Bloods (#5) and Minari (#10) are all overrated and occupying a slot that should go to a stronger cinematic effort.


trends and notables:

  • The global pandemic obviously changed and hampered 2020 as a year. The results are one of the weakest years in cinema history. The drop off from 2019 (maybe one of the strongest years in the 100+ years of the arform) is indisputable. It is not hard to play the game of “what if” either as clearly films like Dune and The French Dispatch moved from 2020 releases to 2021 releases.
  • Netflix and Amazon were already on the rise and that was just accentuated in 2020. Netflix made the best film of the year for these second time in three years (Roma in 2018), two of the best three films of 2020, and three of the best seven. Amazon backed Steve McQueen (one of the single most talented auteurs to emerge in the 21st century) for a five-part film series.

Mank from David Fincher. Every year Netflix is supporting one of the best auteurs to make a passion project. Roma from Cuaron in 2018. The Irishman from Scorsese in 2019. Here, Fincher captures the light pouring in at Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley)’s funeral– easily one of the four to five greatest standout shots in the film. Not unlike Gone Girl or The Social Network– the verbal sparring is one of the film’s highlights- highly readable- dialog like a tennis match from Upton Sinclair to Hitler, politics and art—“do you always say whatever you think?” and “I’ve never not been fired”. Though he’s not really a screenwriter (it is credited solely to his father who passed away in 2003) I am once again blown away by how magnificently verbal and literate a Fincher film is. I would gladly read this screenplay. It cannot be a coincidence that The Social Network, Fight Club, Zodiac (I think each belongs as one of the best written films of their respective decade) all came from Fincher. This is better written than Sorkin’s 2020 entry The Trial of the Chicago 7 for example.

  • Speaking of McQueen’s work at Amazon. His career resume remains impeccable in 2020- he has started his career making the top ten in each year (2008, 2011, 2013, 2018 and now 2020).  His Small Axe (though I think it is five films) is certainly part of a trend of auteurs working in the longer miniseries cinema format.  Luca Guadagnino and Derek Cianfrance did the same thing with archiveable entries in 2020. Though this longer format is nothing totally new (go back to Fassbinder, Bergman, Kieslowski) this is certainly a trend in 2020.

There is plenty of debate as to whether Steve McQueen’s Small Axe is television or cinema (he insists it is cinema, and I wholeheartedly agree), or whether it is five separate works, or one larger work that runs 406 minutes (just under seven hours). But, there can no debate as to McQueen’s talent and accomplishments to date- he is simply one of the greatest cinematic artists working since his stirring 2008 debut Hunger. Evaluating the entire Small Axe work is a tougher task. Certainly you can compare and contrast with something like Kieslowski’s’ Dekalog or Three Colours If we’re talking about Dekalog there’s nothing that touches A Short Film About Killing. But there is nothing either that rises quite to the level of say McQueen’s long-take car ride shot of Colin Farrell’s character through Chicago in Widows either. The Small Axe films are connected to each other, even the ones that are radically different in tone are constructed that way by McQueen for a reason. Lovers Rock and Red, White and Blue are 2 ½ hours of some of the finest cinema of 2020.

  • All of the box office champions for 2020 were films that were either 2019 holdovers or were released in January or February just before the pandemic struck (March of 2020). The resulting global box office cratered.
  • Charlie Kaufman’s triumph only barely outpaces Chloé Zhao’s ambitious Nomadland.  This is the third film of Chloé Zhao. Nomadland is a work that is both enhanced by 2017’s The Rider and makes The Rider a stronger film as part of a larger vision from Zhao.

Zhao is largely a realist. The Rider had all non-professional actors. Here only Frances McDormand and veteran David Strathaim are professionals—they are the only two actors not playing versions of themselves. And both of them play their roles in a stripped down, minimal way. Zhao and cinematographer Joshua James Richards have earned the comparisons to Malick.  Many directors with strong photography, landscapes, nature photography get compared to Malick but this feels different. That pink, vanilla sky Monet of a cinematic painting (think Unforgiven—Schrader has a nice one in First Reformed) is used at least three times here. It is used in The Rider as well (which is also shot in South Dakota).

several still cinematic paintings like the Longhorn Saloon shot with McDormand outside—and the little space between the open fence in the backyard at her home in Empire with the mountains creating a beautiful landscape.


gems I want to spotlight:    The last name and reality-bending premise of Possessor may make you do a double take—yes—Brandon Cronenberg (son of David) is taking up the family business—mindf*ck cinema, disturbing and brainy. Certainly even without the last name it is hard not to think of Videodrome, eXistenZ (technology tied to the body)—but comparison to others including Inception (corporate espionage, memory-blending) or even De Palma’s Mission Impossible are not out of place as a comparisons either. Brandon Cronenberg’s work is darker (and eerier) than Nolan—sexualized and violent.  Escape from Pretoria is a film that eluded many in 2020 and should be sought out by cinema enthusiasts. Francis Annan has created a very solid entry in the annals of the prison break subgenre.  Daniel Radcliffe leads the way for the cast—but really it is here because of the strong use of the split diopter and full frame compositions.


Possessor- this is an imaginative work—excited to see what Brandon does next.



best performance male: It is a three horse race at the top here of 2020 between John Boyega, Gary Oldman and Jesse Plemons.   Oldman is outstanding as the titular Mank in Mank.  It may be his best work- I would need another viewing of this film, The Darkest Hour, and Sid and Nancy to tell for sure.  Oldman appears in nearly every frame and this is an immaculate character study. If this is Oldman’s shining moment, the drunk (yet genius) Quixote vomit speech may be the specific scene career summit. Boyega gives the best performance of any of the five 2020 Steve McQueen Small Axe films. He is focus of Red, White and Blue playing Leroy Logan. He is moral, intelligent (if not a little naïve) and physical. Jesse Plemons’ achievement in I’m Thinking of Ending Things may be a half step below costar Jessie Buckley but still- he deserves credit for giving himself over to this ambitious project.


best performance femaleJessie Buckley is where you have to start here for her work in Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Her performance has it all (including blowing raspberries at Plemons’ character just like Gena Rowlands did in A Woman Under the Influence).  Frances McDormand lands here as well for her work in Nomadland.  Casting a major actor/star at the center of a  film dedicated to realism is a tough choice to make. Think of De Sica making the brilliant choice not to use someone like Cary Grant for Bicycle Thieves —and how Cuaron went with Yalitza Aparicio for Roma. But this casting choice with McDormand in Nomadland works– this is a triumph for her (along with Zhao of course). McDormand’s weathered face and natural style are the canvas here but McDormand dials it way back so she is not acting in a different movie than everyone else (almost all non professional actors). In one scene Fern’s sister describes her as “braver and more honest than everybody else” and who better to play that than McDormand? Vanessa Kirby is the breakout actor of 2020. She lands the third slot for her work in Pieces of a Woman. The fourth and final slot of 2020 goes to Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman.  This is a choice role for Carey Mulligan.  On a per-minute basis she is better in Steve McQueen’s Shame (2011)—but it is tough to compare because she is in almost every frame here in Promising Young Woman as she plays Cassandra.


Fennell’s screenplay fearlessly shifts tone. But it is razor sharp- she pulls it off- it is never grating or awkward. There will be some violence, or seriously offensive behavior (by any number of male characters in the film- essentially everyone except for the Alfred Molina character) and then Mulligan’s Cassandra will punctuate a scene with a “Your novel sounds terrible by the way” hilarious one-liner. The success in mixing the tones is a compliment to both Fennell’s writing, and Mulligan’s performance.



top 10

  1. I’m Thinking of Ending Things
  2. Nomadland
  3. Pieces of a Woman
  4. Red, White and Blue
  5. Lovers Rock
  6. Promising Young Woman
  7. Mank
  8. Antebellum
  9. Emma. 
  10. Shiva Baby


Emma. – a pastel-infused triumph from debut filmmaker Autumn de Wilde

Jane Austen and Anya Taylor-Joy do their part- but the entire mise-en-scene, from the décor to the costumes here is what sets it apart. There is enough here to make Wes Anderson proud. Other films have been made in this mode, including Paddington 2 (2017). Wes Anderson is one of this generation’s greatest filmmakers- it would make sense to have this level of influence. Given the period genre Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette is another.

Andy Samberg has been making everybody laugh for ten to fifteen years- but 2020’s Palm Springs, a take on 1993’s masterful Groundhog Day, is the best thing he’s been a part of. Formally repeated use of the overhead shot in the pool.

Promising Young Woman– confectionery in design- like a Brittany Spears video (a key song in the film, a horror version/– all strings version of “Toxic”). Paris Hilton’s song in the pharmacy (as a disarmingly charming Bo Burnham sings along with Mulligan). Director Emerald Fennell (in her debut) truly knows how to measure and set a beautiful frame.

A superb on-a-wall-in-a-museum frame of the Blue Star lounge at the 55-minute mark from Promising Young Woman. 


Archives, Directors, and Grades

Alex Wheatle – Mcqueen R
Another Round – Vinterberg R
Antebellum – Bush, Renz HR
Come True – Burns R
Da 5 Bloods – S. Lee R
Days – Ming-liang Tsai R
Education – McQueen R
Emma. – de Wilde R/HR
Escape from Pretoria – Annan R
Extraction – Hargrave R
I Care a Lot – Blakeson R
I Know This Much is True – Cianfrance R
I’m Thinking of Ending Things – C. Kaufman MS
Let Them All Talk – Soderbergh R
Lovers Rock – McQueen HR/MS
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – Wolfe R
Mangrove – McQueen R/HR
Mank – Fincher HR/MS
Minari – Chung R
Never Rarely Sometimes Always – Hittman R
News of the World – Greengrass R
Nomadland – Zhao HR/MS
On the Rocks – S. Coppola R
One Night in Miami…– R. King R
Palm Springs – Barbakow R
Pieces of a Woman – Mundruczó HR/MS
Possessor – B. Cronenberg R
Promising Young Woman – Fennell HR/MS
Quo vadis, Aida? – Zbanic R
Red, White, and Blue – McQueen HR/MS
Relic – James R
Riders of Justice – Jensen R
Shirley – Decker R
Shiva Baby – Seligman R/HR
Soul – Docter, Powers R
Tenet – Nolan R/HR
The Devil All the Time – Campos R
The Dry – Connolly R
The Father – Zeller R/HR
The Forty-Year-Old Version – Blank R
The Nest – Durkin R
The Rental – Franco R
The Trial of the Chicago 7  – Sorkin R
Undine – Petzold R
We Are Who We Are – Guadagnino R
Wolfwalkers – Moore, Ross Stewart R/HR


*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-See- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives