10. “Promising Young Woman” (Dir. Emerald Fennell)
Emerald Fennell pulling double duty crafting her biting original screenplay and making her directorial debut with such a darkly funny social satire reminds me of Jordan Peele shocking the world with “Get Out” in 2017. While I don’t think “Promising Young Woman” is nearly as good or groundbreaking, it’s a striking indictment of rape culture and a showcase for Carey Mulligan, who is more than worthy of her first Oscar nomination.
Where to watch: Now playing in select theaters.
9. “Possessor” (Dir. Brandon Cronenberg)
Brandon Cronenberg’s sophomore film is not just the best horror film of this new decade, but it’s one of the best sci-fi films, as well. While it doesn’t explore its brilliant concept as much as some may have liked, it provides just enough style, thrills and horrifying violence to shock you to your core. Christopher Abbott stuns in the lead role, proving once again that he’s one of our best working actors, despite being regularly overlooked. For my money? Give me him over Pratt, Evans and Hemsworth in the race for Hollywood’s Best Chris.
Where to watch: VOD
8. “One Night In Miami” (Dir. Regina King)
This imagined conversation between Malcolm X, Cassius Clay, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke is one of the most consistently entertaining films of the year, despite being set almost entirely in one hotel room. The standout star is surely Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X, whose interpretation of the icon gives Denzel Washington a run for his money. The spectrum of ideologies and personalities combined with these talented actors provides fireworks, but Regina King behind the camera supplies all the confidence to pull it off in her debut. Along with “Pieces of a Woman” and “Sound of Metal,” the finale is one of the best of the year.
Where to watch: Now playing in select theaters, streaming on Prime Video January 15, 2021.
7. “Wolfwalkers” (Dir. Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart)
It’s rare that two animated films would appear so highly on my list in any given year, but this breathtaking and excitingly original film from studios Cartoon Saloon and Mélusine Productions has taken everyone by surprise. I found it just as enjoyable and engaging as “Soul,” especially the show-stopping musical sequence involving Aurora’s “Running with the Wolves.” The animation is also strikingly unique, reminding me of the distinct style that “Klaus” offered audiences last year. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say this is the best film Apple TV+ has yet to offer.
Where to watch: Apple TV+
6. “Soul” (Dir. Pete Docter)
Pete Docter has proven to be one of the great filmmakers in the history of animation. His directorial credits include “Monsters Inc.,” “Up” and — my all-time favorite — “Inside Out.” His latest might be the most ambitious and mature yet from Pixar, taking a meditative look at the purpose of life on Earth and… well, it’s about as meditative as a movie with a talking cat can be. While it isn’t the best that the studio or Docter have to offer, it’s still a stunning technical achievement with a lot of enjoyment for viewers young and old. That’s what we all want and expect from Pixar, right?
Where to watch: Disney+
5. “The Father” (Dir. Florian Zeller)
If “Sound of Metal” perfects its sound design to put you in the head of a deaf person, “The Father” uses film editing to put you in the mind of someone suffering from dementia. It is a surrealist nightmare and stunning directorial debut from Florian Zeller, whose formal control is magnificent, using every trick in the book to disorient and distort the viewer’s perception of even the simplest details. All that would be enough to make an engaging film, so the career-best turn from Sir Anthony Hopkins is just the cherry on top.
Where to watch: In select theaters February 26, 2021.
4. “Sound of Metal” (Dir. Darius Marder)
I’ve always thought cinema is the single art form that can most precisely and wholly put you into the shoes, head (or in this case) ears of another person. It’s been talked to death already, but the sound design here is extraordinary in its ability to put you through the experience of losing your hearing. That key sensory element is matched by Riz Ahmed’s stunning performance. It feels strange to call it a breakthrough for an actor that’s been around for over a decade, but I have no doubt that “Sound of Metal” and his work here will forever be looked at as a key milestone in his career.
Where to watch: Prime Video
3. “Pieces of a Woman” (Dir. Kornél Mundruczó)
Speaking of films that stick with you, I was lucky enough to see this back in November, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. It also joins “Tenet” and “Possessor” as the only films from 2020 that I’ve already watched multiple times. “Pieces of a Woman” is carried by a trio of shattering performances, with Vanessa Kirby leading the way to what should at least be an Oscar nomination. The film will be mostly remembered for its 20-plus minute birthing sequence, but the finale is what has been seared into my mind the most. In a film full of devastation, the resolution makes all the pain worth it.
Where to watch: Now playing in select theaters, streaming on Netflix January 7, 2021.
2. “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” (Dir. Charlie Kaufman)
Charlie Kaufman’s first directorial effort in five years resulted in one of the most bold and abrasive films Netflix has ever dared to produce. The result is a miracle of adaptation, taking a psychological thriller from the page and transforming the narrative into something only cinema can provide. It’s a stunner on every level, with one of the year’s best ensembles, striking film editing and some of cinematographer Łukasz Żal’s best work. It also inspired one of my favorite conversations of the year between ITFR co-founder Jake Lawler and contributing writer Josh Martin as we analyzed and broke down the film’s meaning together. The best films always keep you thinking and talking after the credits roll.
Where to watch: Netflix
1. “Nomadland” (Dir. Chloé Zhao)
Chloé Zhao and two-time Oscar-winner Frances McDormand team up for a story of loss and self-discovery in the American West. Often blurring the line between film and reality, the heart-wrenching narrative touches on the plight of Americans in the fallout of the Great Recession, roving through the desert and across the plains in search of work and companionship. McDormand delivers one of her greatest performances, and Zhao is an astounding talent who will only grow in the decades to come.
Where to watch: In select theaters February 19, 2021.
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Charlotte, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.