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Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter, with film, TV and streaming reviews and more. Sign up today.

Frances McDormand gives a magnificent performance in Chloe Zhao's Nomadland.

Courtesy of TIFF

If 2019 was spent wondering just what exactly constitutes cinema – must it be shown in theatres? Do Marvel adventures count the same as Scorsese epics? – then 2020 was consumed by questions of the form’s very survival. Yet despite moviegoing itself being an impossible pastime for most of the year, there is still much to celebrate – so much so that I’m cheating by highlighting the 10-but-really-20 films that I could not stop thinking about this year. (And how to watch many of them this very moment.)

1. Nomadland & First Cow

Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow was the last great film to open in cinemas before the pandemic hit – it eked out 1½ days at the TIFF Lightbox before Toronto shut down – while Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland will (hopefully) be the last great movie to open in theatres this year. Both films are connected by more than timing and excellence; each explores the existential anxiety that is living in an America designed to exploit, and each pivot on magnificent performances: John Magaro and Orion Lee in First Cow, Frances McDormand and David Strathairn in Nomadland. Oh, and that titular cow is pretty dang great, too. (Nomadland will open in Canadian theatres in early 2021; First Cow is now available digitally on-demand)

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2. The Platform & She Dies Tomorrow

There is no way that either The Platform director Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia or She Dies Tomorrow’s Amy Seimetz could have predicted the isolation, fear and social upheaval of 2020 when making their respective masterpieces. Yet both films speak to this cursed year with a terrifying level of prescience, with the bloody dystopia of The Platform and the small-scale pandemic apocalypse of She Dies Tomorrow offering haunting, unforgettable viewing experiences. (The Platform is on Netflix; She Dies Tomorrow is available on-demand)

3. I’m Thinking of Ending Things & Tenet

There is a huge gulf between the cerebral beauty of Charlie Kaufman’s darkly funny I’m Thinking of Ending Things and the bombastic discombobulation of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. But both films are intense, demanding, and ultimately rewarding works – and movies that only their respective directors truly understand. (I’m Thinking of Ending Things is on Netflix; Tenet arrives on-demand Dec. 15)

4. David Byrne’s American Utopia & Da 5 Bloods

If you want the most uplifting, toe-tapping movie of the year, Spike Lee’s concert documentary of David Byrne’s Broadway show has you covered. And if you want the most complicated, angry and surprising movie of the year, Lee’s war movie Da 5 Bloods has you, too. (American Utopia is on Crave; Da 5 Bloods is on Netflix)

5. Lovers Rock & The Nest

The through-line between Steve McQueen’s house-party snapshot Lovers Rock and Sean Durkin’s domestic drama The Nest isn’t obvious. The former is a joyous celebration, the latter an anxious plunge into misery. But both are made with the highest level of craftsmanship and linger intensely. (Lovers Rock is on Amazon Prime Video, The Nest is on-demand, including digital.tiff.net)

6. Minari & Saint Frances

Exceptionally cute kid actors anchor both Minari and Saint Frances, but the two dramas – the first a powerful look at one South Korean family’s experience in the American heartland, the second a scrappy comedy about one nanny’s journey toward self-actualization – are not remotely precious, only excellent. (Minari opens in Canadian theatres in early 2021; Saint Frances is on-demand)

7. The Painter and the Thief & Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets

The two best docs of the year – the first focusing on the aftermath of an art heist, the other on the last days of a dive bar – both deliver by refusing to play by the traditional documentary rules. (The Painter and the Thief and Blood Nose, Empty Pockets are on-demand)

8. Martin Eden & Bacurau

Two of TIFF 2019′s wildest sociopolitical manifestos arrived in theatres (well, virtual theatres) this year with fiery urgency. Martin Eden and Bacurau are perspective-changing affairs with fever-dream potency. (Bacurau is available on-demand; Martin Eden is available at digital.tiff.net)

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9. The Vast of Night & Sound of Metal

First-time directors Andrew Patterson and Darius Marder both get a tremendous amount of mileage with their respective auditory conceits. Whereas Patterson’s B-movie homage The Vast of Night uses the power of the radio to explore audio fabulism, Marder’s Sound of Metal cuts off our access to sound, the better to mimic the hearing loss of the film’s heavy-metal drummer. (The Vast of Night is on Amazon Prime Video; Sound of Metal is available on-demand, including digital.tiff.net)

10. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm & The Trial of the Chicago 7

While 2020 has been exceptionally bad for most everyone, it’s been pretty good to Sacha Baron Cohen. The man can lay claim to both the funniest movie of the year with his sneak-attack Borat sequel and the most old-school stand-up-and-cheer drama with his lead performance in The Trial of the Chicago 7. Very ... niiiiiiiiiiiiiiice. (Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is on Amazon Prime Video; The Trial of the Chicago 7 is on Netflix)

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