10. “Miss Juneteenth”
The story of a mother living vicariously through her daughter’s pageant participation has certainly been told before, but never has it been told with as much heart and depth as in “Miss Juneteenth.” The film follows Turquoise Jones (Nicole Benarie), a former winner of Fort Worth’s Miss Juneteenth pageant, as she struggles to make ends meet by working two jobs while also training her 15-year-old daughter, Kai (Alexis Chikaeze), to follow in her Miss Juneteenth footsteps. Though the film originally debuted at Sundance on Jan. 24, it saw a spike in popularity with its widespread release on the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth, at a time when demand for Black stories told by Black creators was at an all-time high. Although the story beats are somewhat predictable, masterful atmosphere-building coupled with Benarie’s breakout performance result in a candid tale of the joys and hardships of Black motherhood. — Hunter T. Baldwin
We included “Miss Juneteenth” as one of our recommendations for movies to watch instead of “The Help.” Read more here.
Released just in time to qualify for this list, “Soul” was the perfect Christmas gift to end this rather tough year. Following Joe Gardner’s (Jamie Foxx) journey from New York to The Great Before and back again, Pixar’s latest film is both stunning and smart. It is metaphysical in the simplest of ways, and — underneath the beautiful artistry, animation, and sound design — manages to sneak in a profound message about the meaning of life. — Kalos K. Chu
We reviewed “Soul” and gave it 4.5/5 stars. Read more here.
Though the original Jane Austen romance has been remade several times, Autumn de Wilde’s adaptation brings fresh humor, richness, and intimacy to the classic tale of matchmaking gone wrong. Anya Taylor-Joy is delightfully precocious as Emma, countered by the equally charming Johnny Flynn as Mr. Knightley. Like Joe Wright’s cult-favorite “Pride and Prejudice” (2005), the film is beautifully shot and designed, and the portrayal of high society in Regency England is irreverently absurd. In a rough year spent mostly inside, “Emma.” felt like a ray of sunshine. — Harper R. Oreck
We reviewed “Emma.” and gave it 4.5/5 stars. Read more here.
7. “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”
Like many of Charlie Kaufman’s films, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is hard to wrap your head around — but parsing out (some of) the meaning behind this haunting, atmospheric drama is well worth it. What begins as the story of a man (Jesse Plemons) bringing his girlfriend (Jessie Buckley) home to meet his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) spirals out into an unnerving, gorgeous exploration of memory, perception, and loneliness. The film shifts constantly and unpredictably into new tones and conflicts, succeeding both as an unexpectedly harrowing family drama and a work of innovation in modern filmmaking and narrative structure. Toni Collette is dynamically scene-stealing, per usual. And it’s also just a fascinating (albeit dark) movie to watch and discuss with friends or family, as some of its twists may take unpacking but are sure to stick in your head for days (or months) to come. —Harper R. Oreck
We reviewed “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” and found it risky, odd, and worth watching. Read more here.
6. “Lovers Rock”
In a year defined by isolation, “Lovers Rock” delivers a powerful burst of collective euphoria. The film — one entry in director Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” anthology — follows the events of a Blues Party in 1980s London, focusing in particular on the burgeoning romance between Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and Franklyn (Micheal Ward). McQueen uses movement and music to drive his film forward, relying only minimally on dialogue; the cinematography reveals the desires and fears of characters with impressive intimacy, as the camera weaves gracefully through dancing couples and awkward bystanders alike. As an aesthetic experience, “Lovers Rock” is totally immersive. Although grounded firmly in the context of London’s West Indian community, the sense of togetherness that serves as the film’s beating heart is universal. — Connor S. Dowd
We reviewed “Lovers Rock,” and gave it 4/5 stars. Read more here.
5. “The Half of It”
This was a big year for both Asian American (“Tigertail,” “Never Have I Ever”) and queer (“The Prom,” “The Boys in the Band”) representation on Netflix. One of the most powerful films of the year, however, managed to combine the two: telling the story of high school senior Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) with poignancy, nuance, and more than a dash of wit. It was, by itself, a beautiful film — an exploration of love and growing up filled with plenty of heartfelt and compelling relationships — but its choice to feature a queer Asian American protagonist makes for a refreshing and powerful addition to the teen coming-of-age genre. — Kalos K. Chu
We reviewed “The Half of It” and gave it 4/5 stars. Read more here.
4. “Boys State”
The indie studio A24 has a reputation in Hollywood for its incredibly inventive, stylish, and provocative films — and this year’s “Boys State” was no different. Centered around Texas’ Boys State summer program where a thousand teenage boys are invited to build a representative government (replete with platforms, parties, and elections) from scratch, the documentary maps out the political coming-of-age arcs of some of the camp’s more active participants. “Boys State” presents surprisingly useful insights into our own contemporary political climate, and amidst the partisan fighting, also features several touching moments of progress, cooperation, and mutual respect between supposed enemies — something that, as one of the documentary’s subjects Robert McDougall said in an interview, “you don’t see in actual big-world politics” too often. —Samantha J. O’Connell
We reviewed “Boys State” and gave it 5/5 stars. Read more here.
Written, edited and directed by Chloé Zhao, “Nomadland” is a beautiful portrait of life on the outskirts of mainstream society. Zhao’s film follows Fern (Francis McDormand), a woman in her 60s who moves to the American West and lives as a nomad after losing her livelihood in the Great Recession. With stunning wide-angle landscape shots and a powerful central performance, Zhao’s film soars as a critique of capitalism and how it has disenfranchised millions of Americans. Unlike recent critiques (like Todd Phillips’ “Joker"), Zhao’s film doesn’t merely point to a problem; rather, she puts audiences firmly in the headspace of her central character, until we don’t just relate to her — we understand the tiniest minutiae of her motivations. Zhao’s respect for both the story and its characters is palpable, and aided in large part by her decision to cast real nomads in prominent supporting roles. “Nomadland” looks to anchor the upcoming awards season, alongside technical juggernauts like David Fincher’s “Mank.” — Lanz Aaron G. Tan
We reviewed "Nomadland" at the New York Film Festival and gave it 4/5 stars. Read more here.
2. “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”
“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” written and produced by Sacha Baron Cohen, skewers contemporary American politics with a simple thesis: Americans are willing to put up with bigotry if people around them do. What does that look like? One store owner willingly sells a cage to Borat so that his daughter can “live” inside it, while a baker unquestioningly frosts an anti-Semitic message on top of a cake. The “best” moment comes when Borat runs through CPAC dressed as a Klansman — at which no one bats an eyelash. (Hmm.) The satirical film elicits chuckles, as Baron Cohen intended, but ultimately, it is a political film, and the message is right at the end. The whole premise would be more funny if it weren’t so tragic. — Cassandra Luca
We reviewed “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” and gave it 4.5 stars. Read more here.
1. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
Directed by George C. Wolfe and based on the play of the same name, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” gives viewers a look into an afternoon recording session of Ma Rainey and her band. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” stars powerhouses Viola Davis as Ma Rainey and the late Chadwick Boseman as her band’s trumpeter, who both perfectly capture the film’s 1927 Chicago aesthetic. With its heart-wrenching love stories, rapid-fire dialogue, beautiful blues music, and exceptional acting, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” makes the legendary “Mother of Blues” a household name for its 2020 audience. — Annie Harrigan