Here are Rolling Stone’s best

Photo: Netflix

Here are Rolling Stone’s best movie picks of 2020

From a black-and-white ode to Old Hollywood to a reggae-soaked mood piece and a Romanian doc, here are Rolling Stone’s best movies of 2020.

Here are Rolling Stone’s best

Photo: Netflix

Here are the top 20 films of 2020: from a life-affirming concert movie to a soul-saving portrait of a dance party, a Romanian documentary to a Guatemalan ghost story, a black-and-white throwback to Old Hollywood to a pulpy colonialist revenge thriller in vivid living colour:

The best movies of 2020


David Fincher’s look at the origin story of Citizen Kane’s screenplay is neither a valentine nor a poison-pen letter to Ye Olde Hollywood; it’s not even an attempt to “rescue” the reputation of one Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman, pitch-perfect and practically emanating gin fumes), who’s portrayed here as a lout, a drunk, and a one-man battalion of his own worst enemies. And no, for God’s sake, it’s not a kiss-off to one O. Welles, Boy Genius Auteur, either. What the Zodiac director has delivered is a game-recognizes-game drama about navigating the fine line between speaking truth to power and being complicit in the systems — studio, class, political — that keep those same folks calling the shots. Even if Mank ends up winning the long-game war with his vendetta of a script, American (spoiler alert: it will be retitled), he still loses every single battle along the way. A witty, audacious, exhilarating throwback of a movie, down to its creator’s formal in-joke of making it sound as if you’re watching the film in some drafty revival house. Extra shout-outs to Amanda Seyfried and Arliss Howard, whose respective Marion Davies and Louis B. Mayer performances up the sweet-and-sour quotient substantially.

The Assistant

How do you try to tackle something as thorny, massive, and paradigm-shifting as the #MeToo movement? If Kitty Green’s story of an entry-level personal assistant (Julia Garner) to a powerful and highly toxic male film producer can be seen as a template, the answer is: You go at it sideways and concentrate on the damage done within its perimeter. Any resemblance to a real-life indie-movie mogul/monster is not coincidental, even if we never do see the perpetrator in question. What we do witness are the dozens of tiny details — a stain on a couch here, an odd line item on a financial spreadsheet there, the parade of young hopefuls directed to “private meetings” in closed-door offices and hotel rooms — that suggest a much larger picture of abuse enabled at every level. And thanks to Garner, we also see the death-by-a-thousand-cuts of one person’s soul while stuck in this ogre’s orbit.

La Llorona

Guatemalan filmmaker Jayro Bustamante’s third feature takes a welcome detour into supernatural horror, as the elderly Gen. Don Enrique (Julio Diaz) is brought before a war-crime tribunal to account for his transgressions. He refuses to acknowledge he’s done anything wrong and soon finds himself trapped in his palatial estate along with his wife (Margarita Kenéfic), daughter (Sabrina De La Hoz), and extended family members, as a mob rages outside his gates. Then a mysterious young Mayan woman (María Mercedes Coroy) shows up, announcing she’s the new servant — at which point you remember that the film takes its name from a mythological character doomed to perpetually weep and mourn. It’s a deeply unsettling ghost story that doubles as an exorcism for social ills and historical political sins, and an exemplary cri de coeur about the past never being done with us; the fact that the general is loosely based on an actual dictator only gilds the narrative lily.

Boys State

For decades, the American Legion has run a program called “Boys State,” in which promising young men are selected to form a mock government in one week, complete with stump speeches and elections. Filmmakers Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine (The Overnighters) embed themselves with a host of Texas teens as they get a firsthand look at how the sausage of modern politics is made — and observe how tomorrow’s Obamas, Trumps, and Karl Roves replicate the agonies and ecstasies of our broken two-party system, right down to the last smear campaign. An absolutely compelling and often alarming tag-along doc that, in an election year rife with divisiveness and dirty-trick attempts to destroy the foundations of our democracy, only became more resonant as this cursed year comes to a close. These kids are our future. You pray that our present moment hasn’t curdled their ideology or given them any “bright” ideas.

She Dies Tomorrow

What if the paranoid thought that your death was a mere 24 hours away was not just a parasite gnawing away at your mental stability, but an actual contagion? This is the question percolating at the center of writer-director Amy Seimetz’s existential nightmare, in which a young woman (indie MVP Kate Lyn Sheil) is suddenly gripped with the feeling that she has less than 24 hours to live. She mentions this unshakeable sensation to a friend, who then later finds herself suffering from the same fatalistic ennui and mentions it to acquaintances at a birthday party — and soon, the fear that it’s all coming to an end is everywhere. There were any number of films you could plausibly dub “the movie of 2020,” but Seimetz’s low-fi horror flick was one of the only movies that actually captured the center-cannot-hold vibe of 2020 itself. The longer you watch these folks succumb to communal self-destruction, the more you recognize their collective madness.

The Vast of Night

Welcome to Cayuga, New Mexico, your typical 1950s Smalltown, U.S.A. hamlet likely located a stone’s throw from Roswell. Two alpha-nerd A.V.-club teens — Everett (Jake Horowitz), a tech whiz and late-night disc jockey, and Fey (Sierra McCormick), who connects folks at the local switchboard — find themselves dealing with an odd blast of sound coming over the airwaves. Fey fields a panicked phone call about … something that may or may not be of this Earth. The military seems to be involved as well. Then things get weird. The debut of writer-director-editor Andrew Patterson is chock full of virtuoso filmmaking (those long, serpentine tracking shots!) and enough sustained Spielbergasms that it technically qualifies as a close encounter of the fourth kind. But all of those chops and retro Twilight Zone stylings — down to a fake TV show paying homage to Rod Serlings’ landmark series — are put into the service of a slow-burn dread that lingers with you. Watch the skies, people. Watch the skies.

Night of the Kings

In an Ivory Coast correctional facility, the “Dangôro” is the alpha male who lords over everything — and must take his own life when he can no longer rule. But when it’s time for Blackbeard (Les Miserables‘ Steve Tientcheu), the current king of the cellblocks, to step down, he picks a fresh-fish convict (Koné Bakary) to take on the exalted position of “Roman,” the jail’s resident storyteller. The young man must entertain his fellow criminals with an epic tale or else. He may also have to fulfill an even larger duty in the grand scheme of things. Filmmaker Philippe Lacôte’s extraordinary, singular take on prison dramas starts as an anthropological look at life in West Africa’s notorious Maison d’Arret et de Correction d’Abidjan, before taking some left turns into magical realism, colonialist allegory, folklore, fantasy, and meta-commentary on the power of a good yarn. Just when you think things couldn’t get better, Beau Travail‘s Denis Levant shows up as an eccentric inmate. C’est magnifique.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things

Boy (Jesse Plemons) meets girl (Jessie Buckley). Boy takes girl home to the family farm, to meet his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis). Things fall apart, and the center cannot hold. Charlie Kaufman’s adaptation — or maybe “adaptation” is more appropriate — of Iain Reid’s novel is one long, strange trip down memory lane, though whose memory and which lane are mysteries that the viewer is left to unravel. As with his much-lauded screenplays and his 2008 movie Synedoche, New York, the writer-director’s latest resides squarely in the sweet spot between funny ha-ha and funny WTF?, but beneath all of the Oklahoma references and cringe-comedy grotesquerie is a genuinely heartbreaking story of loneliness and regret. There’s absurdity and irony galore, for sure. And then the emotional weight of what’s really going on behind the narrative loop-the-loops suddenly wallops you in the back of the head.

Bean Pole

Her name is Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), but most folks call this lanky young lady “Beanpole.” A former anti-aircraft gunner who served on WWII’s Western front, she now works as a nurse in Leningrad. Soon, her friend Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina) shows up to pay a visit — and we begin to understand the complicated history between these two women, and that a debt needs to be repaid. The breakout movie from Russian filmmaker Kantemir Balagov is a dual character study that sometimes veers very close to being a bleak, caustic buddy comedy. But most of all, Beanpole is a stunning exploration of postwar trauma, post-ceasefire collateral damage, and the process of healing that uniquely prioritizes the female perspective. Some wounds never heal.


Based very loosely on his dad’s formative years in Taiwan and assimilation into American life, Master of None co-creator Alan Yang’s directorial debut has a way of gingerly lifting you up then quietly breaking your heart. Pin-Jui (Hong Chi-Lee) grows up working in a factory, dancing to Sixties beat pop, and falling in love with a childhood-friend-turned-sweetheart named Yuan (Yo-Hsing Fang). An opportunity in the U.S., however, beckons him to leave. Decades later, the elderly Pin-Jui, who now goes by Grover (Tzi Ma in one of the year’s best performances), looks back on his life and begins to wonder if this “better life” really was better after all. Yang has a keen sense when to let an emotional exchange play out in silence, and when to glide by moments most other filmmakers would milk for maximum treacle — which makes a difference when you’re reminding people that every immigrant’s story is both singular and, at its core, an experience shared by millions. That last shot is a killer.


Gleaned from author Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book on 21st century AARP-age migrants, Chloe Zhao’s character study of a community focuses primarily on Fern (Frances McDormand), a widow ready to hit the road after her small town is economically forced to shut down. She hooks up with fellow RV travelers — many of which are real nomads — who occasionally stop, drop, and work, then make their way across the U.S.A. to where the next gig or mobile-home park takes them. A travelogue that treats its subjects with near-divine tenderness and zero didacticism, this observant drama is both a level up for The Rider writer-director and a showcase for a legendary actor who continually makes you forget you’re watching a movie star. It’s such a rich portrait of rootlessness as a way of life, and how a big-picture social failure is somehow reframed by certain types into a pivot toward personal liberation. Yet the film never tries to upsell an economic downturn as an excuse for a makeover. It has too much respect for these real-life vagabonds and your intelligence.

Martin Eden

It feels like some lost Italian masterpiece from the 1970s, unearthed from a locked vault after decades of gathering dust and slotted into the middle of a late De Sica/midperiod Francesco Rosi triple feature. But Pietro Marcello’s adaptation of Jack London’s 1909 novel is the sort of movie that restores your faith in an art form — or, at the very least, in the craft of turning a bygone era’s paragraphs on a page into an urgent, po-mo moving picture. As our hero (played by Luca Marinelli in a breakout role) goes from working-class sailor to would-be writer to Literary Wastrel, Superstar, you get a very clear sense of Martin’s hunger — for the aristocratic object of his desire Elena (Jessica Cressy), for fame and fortune, for a place at the gilded table, for political causes, and, ultimately, to be left alone. For good measure, Marcello throws in tinted documentary footage and some nods to the country’s neorealism cinematic heyday to add extra textures.

Dick Johnson is Dead

Or rather, Dick Johnson is slowly succumbing to dementia — so Kirsten Johnson (Cameraperson) does what any good daughter would do and makes a film about him. Did we mention that said documentary is filled with staged scenes of him shuffling off this mortal coil via falling air conditioners, hit-and-run accidents, and fatal cardiac arrests? This may be the most lighthearted, uplifting movie about death ever concocted, as well as an act of catharsis for both those behind the camera and in the audience. The more Johnson inoculates herself against future grief one grisly mock killing at a time, the more you sense the love and affection behind what is really a celebration of an ordinary life. Come for the sight of an old man getting “stabbed” in the jugular vein; stay for the Pierre et Gilles-like heavenly scenarios involving celebrity tap dancers, confetti, and an exasperated Christ.


The title refers to a leafy, green plant used in a number of Korean dishes that can grow anywhere and still retain its characteristics. And drawing on his own backstory as a Korean American kid growing up in 1980s Arkansas, filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung (Munyurangabo) reminds you that the way you tell a coming-of-age story is just as important as what you choose to include in it. Having uprooted his entire family from California to the South’s Natural State, an ambitious immigrant (Steven Yeun, absolutely killing it here) tries to establish his own farm, and threatens to fray the ties that bind in the process. His wife (Yeri Han), elderly mother-in-law, and two kids have to deal with their own fish-outta-water experiences; it’s Chung’s screen counterpart, a seven-year-old named David (Alan Kim), who provides the wide-eyed perspective to the triumphs and tragedies that lie ahead. It’s a work of cinema à clef that’s a symphony of grace notes, buffered by a wonderful ensemble cast and a gentle sense of looking back at the past with the benefit of wisdom.


After her husband went to prison for bank robbery, Fox Rich began keeping a sort of black-and-white video diary. Her son was four; she was also pregnant with twins. Over the next two decades, Rich would raise her kids to be outstanding young men, become a bestselling author, lecture groups about the art of the memoir, and establish herself as a prison-reform activist. She would also work tirelessly to get her spouse freed from a life sentence. A stream-of-consciousness trip through one woman’s story, Garrett Bradley’s documentary assembles both Rich’s home movies and her own footage to craft an intimate, inimitable look at the toll that the mass-incarceration epidemic takes on everyone involved. Yet it never treats its subject as a case study or this family’s journey as a Dateline human-interest episode, and simply presents a highly personal interpretation on the title’s numerous meanings — the passage of time, doing time, time waits for no one. And just when you think things could not get more emotionally resonant, the movie turns what might have been a gimmicky trick into a sublime realization of how what’s been lost can be magically recaptured. Simply stunning.


Already a contender for modern arthouse/grindhouse classic status, Brazilian filmmakers Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Western/horror/white-hot bullet of a movie introduces us to the good (and not so good) people of a rural village that’s been wiped off the map — literally: Almost overnight, you can’t find the town of Bacurau on satellite grids. It seems that a local politician may have sold out the populace to high-paying tourists interested in human prey for sport hunting. Except this prey has a long history of fighting back. A violent, neo-exploitation-flick slant on the ways the rich get richer and the poor get the picture, this tweaked take on the ol’ Most Dangerous Game scenario couldn’t be a more cathartic call to arms. This is what a satire looks like when you give it serrated edges and an abundance of blood splatter. This is what rage looks like when people get mad as hell — at imperialism, at capitalism, at ugly Americans, at Udo Kier — and refuse to take it anymore. Plus, you get the mighty Sonia Braga as the resident doctor with a chip on her shoulder and the spirit of Che Guevara in her heart.

First Cow

A manifest-destiny epic in D minor, Kelly Reichardt’s moody, brooding, brilliant Western follows a cook (John Magaro) — named, what else, “Cookie” — and a fugitive, King Lu (Orion Lee), who decide to partner up for a business venture. Cookie makes the best “oily cakes” for miles around; Lu knows how to market them to hungry prospectors and furriers dying for a taste of home. It’s a frontier capitalism success story, albeit one predicated on the duo stealing milk from a cow owned by an an effete Englishman (Toby Jones). Reichardt’s vision of a nation in transition is so beautiful, modest, and delicate on the surface that you might miss the disruptive David-versus-Goliath narrative burbling underneath it all. The seeds of corporate America are already starting to spout. The little guys don’t stand a chance. “History isn’t here yet, but it’s coming,” Lu declares. “Maybe this time we’ll be ready for it.” If history has proven anything, it’s that we’re never ready for it even when we do glimpse it on the horizon.

American Utopia

David Byrne’s greatest-hits revue-cum-performance art piece ran on Broadway from November 2019 until February 2020. If you didn’t manage to catch it live, don’t worry: Spike Lee has your back. And like Jonathan Demme, he’s treated the opportunity of working with the former Talking Heads frontman in the spirit of artistic collaboration as opposed to simply press-play documentation. Opening up the show by placing his roving cameras up, down, sideways, backstage, and seemingly everywhere but the Hudson Theatre’s restrooms, the filmmaker is as much a part of this production as the singer, the gray-suited musicians onstage, or the visual slide show happening all around them. (The way he enhances Byrne and Co.’s cover of Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout” turns the show’s already wallop-packing take into a gut punch.) That his American Utopia still keeps the intimacy of the original production is a testament to his skills and the solidity of its creator’s high-concept stage presentation. Seeing Byrne and his multicultural crew spill into the audience during a raucous, marching-band take on “Burning Down the House” — and seeing such a giddy example of community at a moment when so many of us needed exactly that feeling — was enough to make the tears flow. It’s a canon-worthy concert film that gave this critic the second most joyous moviegoing moment of 2020.…

Lover’s Rock

… And here’s what was responsible for our single most joyous moviegoing moment in 2020. Steve McQueen’s ambitious, five-part whatsit Small Axe — is this an anthology series, a suite of feature-length films, a dessert topping, a floor wax? Discuss. No, please, by all means, endlessly discuss — takes a look back at black life and West Indian diaspora culture in Britain from the late Sixties to the early Eighties. Each of the chapters focuses on a different story, from the police harassment of a restaurant owner and his clientele (Mangrove) to a scathing indictment of the Thatcher-era public-school system (Education). But it’s the second of the five movies, which revolves around a “blues” house party, that stands head and dressed-to-the-nines shoulders above the rest. We see the DJs setting up their sound system and women cooking Jamaican food in a West London flat. We see Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) sneaking out her window so she can meet up with her girlfriend and get ready, a young man named Franklyn (Michael Ward) make flirtatious small talk with her once she gets to the soirée, and roughnecks and would-be Casanovas strut their stuff as the reggae music kicks into gear. And then, when Janet Kay’s “Silly Games” comes on, we see Martha and Franklyn — along with a dozen other couples — slow dance and sing along. (Cue the endorphin rush.) McQueen’s masterpiece of a joyous, moving memory piece is peerless when it comes to evoking a mood, channeling a bygone moment, and using sound and vision in a way that’s simply transcendental. He makes you feel like you are right there on that cramped dance floor, sweating alongside these folks, swaying and jumping, forgetting everything else around you and getting right into a communal groove.


On 30 October 2015, in a rock club in Bucharest named Colectiv, a fire killed 27 people and injured another 180. There was enough public outrage to cause protests and a shift in Romania’s government. And then a journalist at a sports newspaper began to hear about some of the club patrons dying while convalescing in the hospital. He and his team of investigative reporters decide to dig a little deeper, and soon, a massive scandal involving power, corruption, lies, and even the Mafia slowly begins to come into focus. For moviegoers who’ve been following the Romanian New Wave since it started cresting in the mid-aughts, Alexander Alexander Nanau’s documentary will play like a perfect nonfiction companion piece to the country’s bounty of fictional dramas and black, bleak comedies. For everyone else, this muckraking procedural will feel like a docu-version of films like All the President’s Men and Spotlight, where tense conversations around conference tables, writers huddled over computers, and editors issuing orders from behind desks make for compelling drama.