Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
To say it was a weird year would be an understatement. Not only did studios and distributors have to pivot how they released their films, it required all of us to change how we watched and interacted with them. Some turned to comfort viewing, catching up with classics and other cinematic blindspots. Others tuned into new releases on streaming services. But even without the in-person post-screening conversations with friends (now conducted over Zoom, private watch parties, or on other social media platforms), plenty of films managed to lift our spirits in the darkest of times.
I’ve hyperlinked my full reviews (where possible) for easier access to my long-form gushing over what I consider to be this year’s best of the best.
20. FREAKY: There were a few body swap features out this year, but director/ co-writer Christopher Landon’s is the best of the bunch. It’s fun, inventive, and has lots of clever kills. Coupled with two brilliant, vibrant performances from Vince Vaughn and Kathryn Newton, this horror-comedy with a disarming amount of heart cuts to the bone. She’s a fucking piece!
19. I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS: I was sent tumbling head-first into a minor, yet absolutely soul-crushing existential crisis after watching Charlie Kaufman’s latest dastardly radical feature. After it ended, I sat in silence for an hour, pondering what my life is about. It melted my brain in the best of ways, speaking to identity, aging, time, memory, and the concept of personality. There’s also a totally random, hilarious sick burn at the expense of another filmmaker.
18. FIRST COW: When is a heist movie not like every other heist movie? When it’s a film by Kelly Reichardt. Not only is this one a cunning dissection of American commerce, it’s a tale of friendship between two entrepreneurs hoping to make better lives for themselves. John Magaro, Orion Lee and co-star Elsie the Cow are superb in this restrained, refined drama. William Tyler’s score and Christopher Blauvelt’s cinematography both earn top marks.
17. THE WOLF OF SNOW HOLLOW: Filmmaker Jim Cummings knows how to craft atmospheric tension and mounting character drama, giving us compelling stakes in which to get invested. He delivers another excellent performance (post-THUNDER ROAD) as a cop wound too tight, this time solving a slew of murders at the claws of a creature plaguing a quiet ski town. Natalie Kingston’s saturated cinematography makes the aesthetics look lush, and Ben Lovett’s score sets an audibly entrancing soundscape.
16. THE FORTY-YEAR-OLD VERSION: Radha Blank’s feature centering on a woman’s quest for career satisfaction and purpose is bursting with sharp wit, warmth, authenticity and life. Shot on big, beautiful black & white film, it’s a real treat.
15. NEWS OF THE WORLD: Playing like the reverse journey of THE SEARCHERS, director/ co-writer Paul Greengrass’ adaptation of Paulette Jiles’ novel holds a lot of profundity in its quiet corners. The film points to themes of displacement, disillusionment and disenfranchisement. Tom Hanks’ work shows off quite a few new colors, and his co-star Helena Zengel is powerhouse performer on the rise.
14. HIS HOUSE: Director Remi Weeks delivers an intense horror where the inescapable haunted house drama emanates entirely from inside the characters’ souls. Not only does this tackle immigration issues thoughtfully, but the traumas incurred leave a scar on the audience’s soul. It’s smart, incisive work all around, from the actors’ performances to the craftsmanship on display. It’s not to be missed.
13. THE NEST: As many of you already know, I adore portraits of marital discord onscreen. Filmmaker Sean Durkin tackles this subject matter with vigor and verve. Themes of self-reflection, identity, and achievement reverberate throughout. An underlying sense of dread lurks in the underpinnings of a tale about a family who moves from America to England in the 80’s. It houses smashing career-defining performances from Jude Law and Carrie Coon. Plus, it’s got a fantastic soundtrack and score.
12. WOLFWALKERS: Every frame of this exquisite animated film looks like a painting. It’s a tale of defiance, courage, friendship and family that’s highly resonant.
11. PALM SPRINGS: Charming, existential time-travel-centered romcoms are hard to find. But we got a great one this year. Funny, snappily-paced, and anchored by two wonderful leads (Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti) plus a resplendent supporting performance (J.K. Simmons), this is a treat. Perfectly curated soundtrack selections add to the narrative’s electric charge.
10. DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD: Filmmaker Kirsten Johnson’s documentary chronicling her father’s lapsing memory will hit hard with those who’ve dealt with a parent with dementia/ Alzheimer’s. A celebration of life and death that’s heart-filled and heartbreaking, joyful and sad, grounded and fantastical. It’s a loving tribute to a lovely man.
9. A SUN: A criminally-underseen, under-publicized feature about familial strife that holds a staggering amount of haunting magnitude. It’s one of the year’s true discoveries – one that’s been under our noses on Netflix for the majority of the year. Brilliantly acted and captured, this is a must-see.
8. NOMADLAND: Director Chloé Zhao’s adaptation of Jessica Bruder’s novel tells a compelling story, filling it with understated vistas and compassionate characters, capturing the brave spirit of wanderlust with empathy and poetic grace. Joshua James Richards’ cinematography is sublime.
7. MISS JUNETEENTH: Nicole Beharie’s stellar performance in Channing Godfrey Peoples’ wonderful directorial debut is an all-timer. This story about a single mother trying to do the best she can for herself and her teenage daughter is truly special.
6. I’M NO LONGER HERE: Fernando Frias’ gorgeously lensed, impeccably constructed film centers on a young man who flees his hometown in Monterrey, Mexico to escape a cartel’s wrath, only to find himself unhappy in New York City. It’s heartrending to see Ulises’ travails as he soldiers on with his journey. Mixing cultural specificity with complexities and graceful nuance goes a long way to authentically earn its audience’s empathy. It eschews all melodrama, rooting itself in truth. The final shot has a lasting sense of poignancy.
5. THE INVISIBLE MAN (2020): There’s one scene in particular that – hyperbole aside – left me gasping for air. Elisabeth Moss’ performance is incredible in Leigh Whannell’s modernized remake of the Universal “monster movie,” where the monster manifests as gaslighting, abuse and manipulation. This is a masterclass on the use of practical effects and negative space. Benjamin Wallfish’s sonically gripping score is one of the highlights of the year.
4. THE DARK AND THE WICKED: Filmmaker Bryan Bertino made one of the scariest films of all time (THE STRANGERS), and returned to show off his prowess at perfectly crafting taut, unrelenting and unnerving horror. He’s got an incredible efficiency with words and a grasp on creating mounting physical and psychological stakes. This visceral, gripping character-driven piece centers on two siblings who arrive home to help their harried mother take care of their dying dad, only to find a far more nefarious presence spooking up the joint. Simply put, this one is unshakable.
3. THE ASSISTANT: Writer-director Kitty Green’s drama is an unconventional horror film where what remains unspoken becomes the insidious disease that spreads. It’s blistering, bruising and simply unforgettable. It’s a claustrophobic chamber piece propelled by Julia Garner’s finely-tuned performance, playing a thankless assistant to a maniacal Harvey Weinstein-inspired boss. Absolutely impeccable sound design with office white noise filling in the calculated silences. The scraping of a metal tissue box cover across a desk has never sounded more nefarious, speaking volumes where dialogue does not.
2. DAVID BYRNE’S AMERICAN UTOPIA: This one (on HBO/ HBOMax) has been a balm for my weary soul, as I’m sure it has for many of you kind folks, in a year that’s felt upside down. Spike Lee delivers a masterclass in how to film a live stage show, making it feel like we’re in the room. The electricity, spontaneity and sound unite us in chorus and dance. It’s an absolutely powerful blessing.
1. NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS: Writer-director Eliza Hittman exercises a deft touch crafting a deeply affecting drama about a 17-year-old traveling across state lines to get an abortion. Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder show us what it’s like to walk through this world as young, very aware women. It’s unflinching in its motivations and potent in its impact.
Honorable mentions: Driveways, Small Axe: Lover’s Rock, Boys State, The Vast of Night, The Father, Minari, Sound of Metal, I’m Your Woman, The Half Of It, Birds of Prey, The Way Back, Jallikattu, Relic, Sylvie’s Love, Swallow, Gretel & Hansel.