Aaron’s Expansive Top Ten Films of 2020

Even in a year where the theater-going experience was compromised by an ongoing pandemic, I found no shortage of quality releases for my list of the Top Ten Films of 2020. Between streaming services and films available on VOD for less than the price of a movie ticket, studios may have been challenged when it came to the box office but could still lean on the many smaller-scale options available for release. If anything, given the ease of watching even more new films this year (250+ by my count), I can only hope putting a spotlight on less commercial releases can open some eyes to the many ambitious filmmakers out there who absolutely want to contribute something fresh to the world of cinema. So, here is my full list of favorites for the year 2020, with plenty of runner-ups and honorable mentions, followed by the top ten. Enjoy! (Reviews are linked when available AND, as per usual, I’ve also linked some fun Easter Eggs in every picture you see.) Watch Small Axe!

Movies I Missed:

76 Days, And Then We Danced, Bloody Nose Empty Pockets, City Hall, Collective, Crip Camp, Extra Ordinary, Gunda, The Kid Detective, Martin Eden, The Painted Bird, La Llorona, Saint Maud, Spontaneous, A Sun, A White White Day, The White Tiger, Vitalina Varela Watch Small Axe!

Runner-Ups (Ranked 60-21): Watch Small Axe!

60. Come To Daddy

55. Bill & Ted Face The Music

59. Swallow

54. Time

58. The Painter and the Thief

53. Embattled

57. Emma

52. Let Them All Talk

56. Blow the Man Down

51. Babyteeth

50. Eyimofe

45. The Outpost

49. Miss Juneteenth


48. Bad Education

43. The Whistlers

47. Possessor

42. Wolfwalkers

46. Promising Young Woman

41. I’m Your Woman

40. The Nest

35. The Trip to Greece

39. Wild Goose Lake

34. On the Rocks

38. Uncorked

33. Minari

37. Critical Thinking

32. Farewell Amor

36. Kajillionaire

31. One Night In Miami

30. Another Round

25. Black Bear

29. Synchronic

24. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

28. Saint Frances

23. Tenet

27. The Forty-Year-Old-Version

22. Beastie Boys Story

26. Sound of Metal

21. Boys State

Honorable Mentions (Ranked 20-11): Watch Small Axe Peter!

20. The Wolf of Snow Hollow

15. The Father

19. Color out of Space

14. Dick Johnson is Dead

18. Deerskin

13. I’m Thinking of Ending Things

17. Palm Springs

12. The Climb

16. The Invisible Man

11. Nomadland


The Top Ten: Watch Small Axe NOW

10. Bacurau

“Look everybody, let’s find Bacurau on the map.”

Watching this oddball Brazilian film had me understanding it as a political allegory, a thriller, a western, and I suppose a sci-movie to some degree. Few films can evoke Sergio Leone and John Carpenter while hitting on ideas concerning racism, economic unrest, and geographical concerns. Yet, directors Kleber Mendonca Filho and Juliano Dornelles have made this weird and transfixing feature. The atmosphere is rich thanks to the combination of an authentic portrayal of rural village life and the sudden presence of foreign mercenaries. The way Bacurau manages to layer in various forms of humor, all while raising the tension, never ceases to be impressive, largely because I haven’t gotten the film out of my head. Plus, the always watchable Udo Kier steps in with his own strange energy, further allowing this foreign and thematically wild film to stand out. (Available on the Criterion Channel and Kanopy)

9. Jallikattu

“They will catch it before daybreak. Trust me.”

Think The Raid, but focused on a group of villagers attempting to capture an escaped buffalo. I was not prepared for how mesmerizing this film would be in terms of the cinematic delivery of such a primal story. With a strong and unique handle on cinematography, editing, and sound design, Jallikattu is a wild Indian film that is made with the sort of exact precision you want from someone trying to share a look at a culture to some degree, but with an intent to create a visceral action experience. The efforts taken to capture a buffalo are only exacerbated by the personal squabbles seen throughout the film, leading to powerful sequences relying on proper filmmaking, some clever special effects, and daring stuntmen. This movie leaves an impact. (Available on Amazon Prime Video)


8. Soul

“Life is full of possibilities. You just need to know where to look.”

When director Pete Docter is around, Pixar films take a big step towards more abstract concepts, with an attempt to connect them to big ideas. Soul is not setting out to tell audiences the meaning of life, but it does have a lot on its mind as far as delving into how one can live life to its fullest and all there is to appreciate about the time we all have on Earth. Co-written and co-directed by Kemp Powers, this is also the first Pixar film to focus on a black lead character, let alone incorporate black culture so prominently. As a result, in addition to being an imaginative adventure about a music teacher whose soul is sent to the other side and back, there’s a wonderful life-affirming story doing a tremendous job of making the metaphor of life being like jazz work. There’s also the spectacular visuals and fantastic score and arrangements from Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, and John Batiste, all helping to place this on the highest tier of Pixar films. (Available on Disney+)


7. The Vast of Night

“The sound we heard out in the desert; it was coming from thousands of feet higher than anything could fly.”

It would be one thing to make a cheap little indie film about possible UFO sightings and do enough with the story to make it compelling. Director Andrew Patterson goes many steps further by really pushing the direction of The Vast of Night in a way that brings out inventive and eerie qualities to this story set in 1950s New Mexico. With a reliance on process, there is a lot of great detail and care going into how a radio DJ and a switchboard operator use their skills to uncover some mysterious activity in their small town. Adding to that is the effort to use the period to its advantage as far as the style of dialogue, production design, and even some social commentary regarding what kinds of people are involved in this unfolding event. The Vast of Night is as impressive as it is ambitious, with a good level of charm to help balance out this atmospheric extraterrestrial sci-fi flick. (Available on Amazon Prime Video)

6. First Cow

“History isn’t here yet.”

When your film features the year’s best cow, obviously, it’s going to end up as one of the best films of the year as well. In all seriousness (although I’m not sure why anyone would joke about a movie having the best cow), First Cow is an artful work of simplicity and precision. Kelly Reichardt’s deliberately-paced neo-western uses subtlety as its strong suit to tell the tale of Cookie and King Lu, a couple of frontiersmen who stumble onto a business opportunity of sorts. Of course, the film takes its time to arrive at a more traditional story. Much of the runtime puts a focus on the Pacific Northwest atmosphere they are surrounded by. First Cow is a quiet and intimate story, with its own approach to the idea of manifest destiny. It also strikes gold with the two lead performances from John Magaro and Orion Lee, who develop a lovely friendship in the midst of their cow-based baking operation. (Available on VOD and Showtime)


5. The Personal History of David Copperfield

“Don’t worry. You’ll make it through. And you’ll have quite the ride on the way.”

There’s an argument to be made that Armando Iannucci’s adaptation of David Copperfield has everything I could ever want in a movie. It makes the material its own, has a strong sense of humor, nails its poignant moments, features a charming sense of imagination to make the world more fantastical, and effectively relies on colorblind casting to show how not all period films need to look alike. The fact that a film like this is coming in a PG-rated package from a filmmaker who previously made swearing an artform just adds to the good-natured whimsy of this film. Dev Patel continues to prove what a fine leading man he can be, with enough supporting talent to make you feel like Tilda Swinton and Benedict Wong deserve a round of applause when they enter the film as their eccentric selves. It’s no easy feat to turn a 600+ page book into a two-hour movie, and yet the way this film truncates what’s necessary to deliver something manageable is impressive, to say the least. (Available on VOD)


4. David Byrne’s American Utopia

“Same as it ever was, same as it ever was.”

Whether or not you’ve ever been a fan of Talking Heads or the music of David Byrne, there’s an unbridled joy held throughout David Byrne’s American Utopia. Stop Making Sense already stands strong as one of the greatest concert films ever made, so the idea of David Byrne having another concert film coming anywhere close is a lofty ideal. And yet, director Spike Lee’s control over the cameras has led to something exceptional. Performing his Broadway show, Byrne and his multicultural supporting cast of 11 musicians and dancers bring so much life to their minimalist setup. All appearing in grey suits, no shoes, and using wireless equipment, they occupy an empty stage space relying on the music and pure exuberance in their performance of these different tracks that range from social satire to clear acknowledgment of societal issues (a portion of the film Lee very much understands how to capture appropriately). Still, regardless of tempo, this is such a fun show of performance art, made all the better by a director who truly knows how to put it on display. I hope this isn’t a once in a lifetime collaboration. (Available on HBO Max)


3. Mank

“You cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours. All you can hope is to leave the impression of one.”

This film totally Manks! While he’s done the best he can in the small screen world, it’s been six years since director David Fincher’s last film. Fortunately, Mank was worth the wait. Working as a tribute to the golden age of Hollywood, Citizen Kane, and his late father, Jack Fincher, who wrote the screenplay,  Mank is much more than a straightforward biopic about the man who wrote one of the most celebrated films of all time. It’s a wonderful critique of the times, with a well-placed Gary Oldman taking an entertaining dive into the world of studio politics, celebrity egos, and more. It’s surprisingly relevant, as well as a wonderful expression of technical filmmaking at its best. The black and white photography, coupled with all the old fashion touches (sound design, the score, the dialogue), make for a seemingly old but new film fit for film fans and adults who would dig a look back at this time from an informed angle. (Available on Netflix)


2. Da 5 Bloods

“I will choose when and how I die.”

Clearly, winning an Oscar hasn’t slowed Spike Lee down. He has not one but two films on my top ten list this year, and for good reason. The man’s passion has never diminished, but connecting with unique and interesting projects has certainly kept him energized to deliver. Da 5 Bloods is a fantastic war drama bringing to light a side of Vietnam not often explored – the role black soldiers had in a fight where that population made up a large portion of the draft in terms of ratios. Riffing on The Treasure of Sierra Madre, of all things, for the sake of structure, Netflix gave Lee the means to craft an ambitious war picture/treasure hunt utilizing flashbacks, an ensemble cast, an exotic location, and more to really tell this story. And you better believe Lee knows how to connect it to the present. Delroy Lindo, a standout cast member, along with the late Chadwick Boseman (perfectly cast), delivers a powerful and raw performance as a man suffering through his PTSD. Letting that help inform the film’s contemporary narrative means expressing many thoughts concerning the now, contrasted with the past. It makes for a meaty film that can touch on a lot of subjects yet still work as a daring adventure film. (Available on Netflix)


1. Small Axe Watch Small Axe Right Now!

“So, if you are the big tree, we are the small axe. Ready to cut you down, to cut you down.”

Picking a number one film of the year means highlighting the film that had the largest effect on me. I can’t think of a piece of a work that had a greater effect on me than what director Steve McQueen pulled off with his Small Axe anthology film series. Consisting of five films telling distinct stories about the lives of the West Indian immigrant community in London during the 60s and 70s, it would feel out of sorts to narrow it down to just one of these entries. Mangrove is the best courtroom drama I’ve seen in years. Lovers Rock is a sublime representation of finding joy, despite limited means. Red, White and Blue put an angry focus on an authority system perpetuating discrimination. Alex Wheatle shows how compassion and understanding can win over a life that may not begin with a clear path. And Education digs into how a younger generation should always have a chance.

Really, as much as I contend that each of these entries is part of one unit, expanding on the same themes, despite sharing none of the same characters, there is a key character – the West Indian community. Each story has its own style and intent as far as the narrative is concerned. Still, the way McQueen allows the culture to shine through in each one provides this wonderful sense of consistency that never leaves a viewer wondering how each segment connects to the other. Add to that a terrific set of performances to be found all over, including Shaun Parkes, Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn, John Boyega, Letitia Wright, Sheyi Cole, and Kenyah Sandy. It’s a mix of proven talent and newcomers, but all know exactly how to dial into these roles. Small Axe really is one of the strongest achievements I’ve seen from a filmmaker who has strived to tell achingly human stories, whether set in the past or present. McQueen is confronting lots of conflict head-on, but doing it with the assured sense of a director entirely in control. Impressive and important, I was more than happy to have time to process each story and found it very easy to see this ambitious accomplishment as my film of the year. (Available on Amazon Prime Video)


And that should do it for 2020. The year has been rough enough on the world, so I don’t have any need to put together any kind of “worst-of” list. That in mind, as much as I miss going to the movie theater to see new releases, it’s the variety I see in my list that keeps me thrilled by all that’s out there to check out in the world of cinema. Please be sure to enjoy some of the other recent lists I’ve put together, including my picks for the best Blu-rays of the year and my favorite movie scenes of 2020. Feel free to hear more of my thoughts on the year’s releases, along with others via the podcast I’ve co-hosted for nearly a decade. Finally, feel free to leave comments and check out the lists all the other folks at Why So Blu have put together. Soon enough, there will be a list of my most anticipated films of 2021. Here’s hoping things will get better enough for me and my lovely girlfriend to see some of those in a theater. I Love You Ana


Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Gamer, Comic Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

4 Responses to “Aaron’s Expansive Top Ten Films of 2020”

  1. Brandon Peters

    Beyond being someone’s personal best list for the year, this is THE guide of guides for people looking for entertainment and fresh stuff while at home and reflecting on the year. I sure as hell took some notes. I’m even going back and wondering if I found all the easter eggs. As large as it is, its so smooth to read through. Happy to cross over 3x. Looking forward to getting around to many of these. Keep crushing it

    I’m shocked that Small Axe made your list. I didn’t know you even saw it. I’m glad you did, Peter Paras won’t shut up about it.

  2. Aaron Neuwirth

    It really is the chance to give others so many ways to explore the films from throughout the year that makes this worthwhile. And yes, there’s so much good stuff I was happy to consider, and somehow rank. Enjoy the egg hunt!

  3. Brian White

    I agree with Brandon. When I awoke this morning this was one of the first things that greeted and holy wow was I smitten about this. It’s not about the length, but the quality and depth of compassion you put into writing all of this. And make fun of me all you want, but holy wow too did I miss all of these so thank you for bringing to my attention. There’s a lot to digest here and as Brandon said prior review, re-read and act upon. This is the definitive Top 10 list of the year if I ever saw one. Thank you and Happy New Year!

  4. Aaron Neuwirth

    I appreciate that Brian. I like putting a lot of effort into this list and would like to think the reward is knowing people went to check out some cool movies, some of which may even be out of their comfort zone.