2020 was destined to be hampered by high expectations. 2019 had been an unusually strong year for film, bringing modern classics of every stripe from summer blockbusters (Knives Out), to anxiety-fueled thrillers (Uncut Gems), to period romances (Portrait of a Lady on Fire), and everything in between. In an act of divine cinematic justice, the awards circuit closed by handing Best Picture to the actual best picture—Parasite—and making history in the process, by awarding an international film.
Viewers of the 92nd Academy Awards couldn’t have possibly imagined that only weeks later the rapid spread of COVID-19 would send the world into crisis mode. For the movie world, the pandemic meant cancellations, delays, virtual openings, and a complete lack of the theatrical experience. 2020—a year that already had its work cut out for it —fell victim to the unpredictable machinations of history.
Yet, even if the selection cannot quite match that of the year prior, 2020 has its fair share of gems. Powerful stories, impressive debuts, beautiful imagery, sharp scripts, and heartbreaking performances still manage to adorn the small screen. One can only hope that when the 93rd Academy Awards begin their virtual ceremony, the lights in 2020’s darkness get the recognition they deserve.
For your consideration:
Best Picture: Minari
Honorable Mention(s): Sound of Metal, First Cow
Though confusingly labelled a Foreign Language Film by the Golden Globes, Minari is easily the year’s definitive “American” film. Indeed, the tale of a Korean family moving to an Arkansas Farm is a beautifully shot, acted, and scored rendering of the American Dream’s highs and lows. With excellence in craft and a warm, beating heart, it is well deserving of the highest prize.
Two runner-ups—Sound of Metal and First Cow—are similarly empathetic works, and their testimonies to the resilience of the human spirit form a powerful counterpoint to a bleak year.
Best International Feature: Another Round (Denmark)
Honorable Mention: Bacarau
In Another Round, Thomas Vinterberg makes an intoxicating (pun intended) study of alcoholism, following four high school teachers who launch a booze-fueled experiment. Like its area of study, it is at once seductive, exhilarating, and saddening. It also features Mads Mikklesen in one of his best performances, and one of the most cathartic endings in recent history.
Also worthy of recognition, Bacarau is a righteously angry rollercoaster.
Best Cinematography: Lovers Rock
Honorable Mention: First Cow
Even if debate continues on whether or not the individual segments of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology count as films, it is undeniable that the whole series looks fantastic. Director of Photography, Shabier Kirchner’s powers reach their height in the transcendent Lovers Rock. The lush rendering of a colorful house party in 1980s London is guaranteed to make you miss the pre-pandemic social scene.
Across the pond, First Cow captures the frontier in a beautiful 4:3 aspect ratio.
Best Animated Feature: Wolfwalkers
Honorable Mention: Soul
Although Pixar added a strong entry to its filmography with Soul, the real standout of the year is Irish studio CartoonSaloon’s Wolfwalkers – a gorgeous and moving 2D-animated folk tale about a young apprentice hunter who comes into conflict with her father as she discovers the secrets of the magical, wolf-filled forest outside town.
Best Actor: Riz Ahmed
Honorable Mention: Chadwick Boseman, Steven Yeun
Sound of Metal has a lot going for it—especially in its sound design—but all of its moving parts are built around the intense, magnetic central performance of Riz Ahmed as Ruben: a metal drummer losing his hearing. Ahmed brings a brilliant complexity to the already complex role, tailoring his acting in non-obvious but highly effective ways.
Following closely behind are a deeply empathetic Steven Yeun in Minari and a stunning Chadwick Boseman in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom—a fantastic performance that is still (arguably) only his second best of the year.
Best Actress: Carey Mulligan
One of those categories where it isn’t really even close: Promising Young Woman is an electrifying, if ultimately flawed, swing for the fences that is carried on the back of a potentially career-best Carrey Mulligan. It is an absolute sledgehammer of a performance.
Best Supporting Actor: Chadwick Boseman
Honorable Mentions: Paul Raci, Kingsley Ben-Adir
Although Kingsley Ben-Adir stands out in an already strong ensemble and Paul Raci is near-perfect in Sound of Metal, only one man turned in two Oscar-worthy performances this year. Chadwick Boseman was an incredible talent, bringing a unique intensity to his roles in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and, for this category, Da 5 Bloods.Together, both performances form a legacy-defining capstone to a career cut tragically short.
Best Supporting Actress: Maria Bakalova
Matching the energy of Sacha Baron Cohen is an Oscar-worthy feat in its own right, and in Borat: Subsequent MovieFilm, newcomer Maria Bakalova matches, and even exceeds, him with ease.
Best Ensemble Cast: One Night in Miami
While not technically an Oscars category, One Night in Miami makes a convincing case that ensemble cast should be. Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, and Leslie Odom Jr. each give stellar performances as four icons of the civil rights era, in turn helping the film overcome common stage-to-screen pitfalls through the sheer strength and watchability of their group dynamic.
Best Original Screenplay: Palm Springs
Best Adapted Screenplay: Martin Eden
An actually good time-loop story? In 2020? It’s more likely than you would think. Thanks in large part to Andy Siara’s original script, the always hilarious Palm Springs is the most rewatchable film of the year. On the more serious side, Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden—a Jack London adaptation—is a thought-provoking exploration of the intersection between art and politics.
And for some informal awards:
Best Movie(s) I Haven’t Yet Seen But Would Almost Certainly Get An Award Otherwise: Nomadland / Judas and the Black Messiah
Worst Sound Mixing: Tenet
Most ‘What the Fuck?’ Picture: Possessor
Best Gummy Bear Song Needle Drop: Spree
Razzie(s) for the Road: Hillbilly Elegy / Wonder Woman 1984