My Favorite Directorial Efforts of 2020

I should stress that these are going to be slightly odd lists because this year, the Oscar season is split between two years. Typically a fair portion of what makes these lists are the late-year ‘awards’ type movies. But since we still have January and February for those to come out… I’m working with what I have. That being the 2020 calendar year. Which, as we all know, was a strange one. So while this list is normally my prep for what would be my own personal Oscar choices… it can’t be that this year. Which might be a blessing in disguise.

I’m just gonna shout out the stuff from this year that I liked. Not even gonna rank anything. I felt like trying to do things by my normal standards was keeping some stuff off the list, since I kept looking for things that weren’t there. This way, I’m just telling you what I liked. We’re not trying to say one is better than the other and this way I’m just telling you, “Hey I thought this was good.” It’s probably better. And honestly, it’s actually getting me, in some cases, to put more than the usual 15 that I try to get to for each category.

This one I thought about for a long time, because not a whole lot really jumped out at me like, “Oh wow. That was a great job.” Maybe it’s a byproduct of the year and my thoughts will change. But I got the 15 I at least felt best about.

So here are my favorite directorial efforts of 2020:

  • Max Barbakow, Palm Springs

It’s really hard to pull off a time loop film. Since Groundhog Day, it’s become increasingly impossible to attempt without being compared to that film. And trust me, Netflix puts out at least one of those a year, it seems. So I’m used to all sorts of pale imitations that bring nothing to the table. But this is the first one I’ve seen in a while that felt fresh and new. Partially because it started years into the loop and partially because it found a way to be endearing and do different things. You just felt there was a care and an intelligence that went into the writing of the script, which carried over to the direction. There’s a real carefulness that you have to have when trying to put one of these films together, so I’m hugely appreciative that Barbakow managed to pull it off so successfully.

  • Lee Isaac Chung, Minari

There’s such a tenderness to this film. You just feel love in every frame, and I really appreciated how Chung managed to tell such an intimate story in such a way that it feels universal. This is one of the more lauded films of the year, so there’s not much I need to add here (plus, in most of these cases, I was only really able to see the films once, so there’s not a whole lot I can say intelligently about them other than ‘I really liked them’).

  • Sofia Coppola, On the Rocks

There’s a real comfort to watching this film. I can’t explain it. You sort of know exactly where the plot is gonna go within 20 minutes, and yet… doesn’t matter. I just like sitting with the film and the characters. The look and feel of it is kind of what it feels like when you get home from work at the end of the day and it’s about to be the weekend and you can just relax and not worry about anything for a while. Which is interesting, since I feel like I end up feeling a coldness to her films sometimes. But this one just completely worked for me and was nice to have in a year like this.

  • Emerald Fennell, Promising Young Woman

This is one of the most impressive efforts of the entire year. You sort of knew there was something special to this from the moment the opening credits hit and Carey Mulligan is walking up the street in slow motion to ‘It’s Raining Men’ and it looks like she’s covered in blood for a second. I love everything Emerald Fennell did with this movie and honestly this is one of the best efforts of anything on this list.

  • David Fincher, Mank

It’s David Fincher. Pretty much any time he makes a movie, it’s gonna be on this list. But here, the black-and-white and period nature of it all just really spoke to me. So of course I loved this. Sometimes a film is just made for a person.

  • Julia Hart, I’m Your Woman

Hart almost made this list last year (or even may have, I can’t remember) with Fast Color. She’s really impressed me with her handful of films thus far. This one, though, really struck that perfect chord. It felt almost like a Jeff Nichols film (although, you know, not southern) in that it grounded everything in such a believable way, to the point where the period nature of the film happened just so subtly and with such ease that you almost didn’t even notice it. It’s a beautiful film, all around, and Hart is one of the most exciting directors we have who hasn’t yet hit the mainstream yet.

  • Eliza Hittman, Never Rarely Sometimes Always

There’s something special about this movie. I can’t explain why it is, but the way she films it is so hypnotic and so captivating that you just want to keep watching, even during the uncomfortable moments. This is one of the best efforts I saw all year, bar none.

  • Thomas Kail, Hamilton

It’s hard to film a stage show properly. And Kail does that. I guess they shot it over two or three nights with an audience and then one extra time with them alone so Kail could get specific angles, and it really works. He knew exactly where to cut in and where to put the camera for those specific moments to add to the emotion of the story itself and knew when to keep it wide so you could experience exactly what the audience was experiencing. I’m new to this show, so forgive me if I’m more excited about this than most people might be. But I was also excited about Kail after Fosse/Verdon, so this is just confirmation of what I already saw there.

  • Charlie Kaufman, I’m Thinking of Ending Things

Don’t look now, but this might be my favorite effort of the year. Not gonna say it’s the ‘best’, but I might say this is my favorite. I love how goddamn out there and experimental this is. There’s such a controlled chaos to this movie, and it’s so unlike anything you’ve ever seen. And somehow I just know that, yet again, Kaufman won’t get his proper respect for having made this movie. But I don’t care. It’s absolutely a perfect piece of filmmaking.

  • Spike Lee, Da 5 Bloods

Spike once again reminds us of why he’s such a vital filmmaker and a voice we need to keep making films at a level people see. There’s such an energy here, and it’s that energy that makes the movie work so well, from all the stock footage to having the guys play themselves in the flashbacks instead of casting younger actors to making all the flashbacks look like period-appropriate war footage. It’s a brilliant piece of filmmaking. I’m so glad everyone is back recognizing how great Spike is.

  • Steve McQueen, Small Axe

This might be the best piece of filmmaking of 2020. What McQueen accomplishes here is absolutely stunning. If you haven’t seen the Small Axe films, please just do so. You’re really missing out. And then go see whichever of McQueen’s films you haven’t seen (which probably is some combination of Widows, Shame and Hunger, since I imagine most people have seen 12 Years a Slave by this point). He’s a master filmmaker and this is such a masterpiece of filmmaking.

  • Shannon Murphy, Babyteeth

I love the renegade attitude of this movie. I haven’t seen Fleabag, but I imagine there’s a bit of that in this, mixed with some of that attitude that Augustine Frizzell’s movie that I loved had. Never Goin’ Back. I’ve been saying all along — this is Fault in Our Stars but with a personality. It’s not sappy and sugar-coated. It’s just fucking, “Here it is, warts and all.” And I love it. I love when she subtly knows when to break the fourth wall and I love the visual style she adds to it (sometimes even being very discreet as she does so, which is wonderful). Just one of the better debuts I’ve seen recently

  • Christopher Nolan, Tenet

I love that he keeps taking these big swings. The filmmaking is always fantastic, even if you could question the writing and the story (which you absolutely can here). But the filmmaking is spot on. And Nolan remains one of the only people able to make really interesting material at this budget level. And for that, I’m glad. Because I’m pretty sick of blockbuster filmmaking at this point.

  • Andrew Patterson, The Vast of Night

One of the best pieces of filmmaking all year. He made this movie for $700,000. And the way he did it is just stunning. It looks like a much more expensive movie than that, and even without knowing the budget, it’s so damn captivating. And yet, he’s got one scene that’s just ten minutes at a switchboard. That’s real filmmaking. When you can captivate an audience in a single location with just story, acting and direction. This is truly one of my favorite efforts of the year.

  • Jack Henry Robbins, VHYes

God, I love what he did here. Recreating 80s and 90s TV in such a loving and insane way. I don’t know why you’d make this, but I’m so glad it exists. It’ll never make anyone else’s list of best of the year, but this fit so firmly up my alley that I couldn’t not shout it out here. This was more entertaining to me than 90% of the stuff that came out this year.

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