In early March, Durham’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, an event that draws thousands of cinema lovers from across the world every year, was called off. It was one of the first mass local events to be canceled; the news hit like a gut punch. 

Nine months later, the subsequent whirl of cancellations has broken down Hollywood’s movie-making machine—as Glenn McDonald details in his review of News of the World—as well as the way we consume movies: alone, not together; via the small-screen, not big-screen. 

In the glaze of streaming, it’d be easy to miss the gems, as they slipped into an increasingly virtual year defined by Zooms, TikToks, and miniseries. Still, there have been cinematic signs of life. In this sampling of films that INDY writers and editors loved this year, some are cerebral and some are escapist; all are moving. —Sarah Edwards

Dick Johnson Is Dead

Kirsten Johnson introduces her charming father (His name is Dick Johnson) and her fear of his mortality. The documentary stands out for the younger Johnson’s multi-textured approach: She watches Dick, speaks with Dick, monologues about Dick, and…kills Dick. As in, there are staged, graphic scenes wherein her dad acts out his own possible deaths. Dick also stars in a recurring slo-mo “heaven” sequence, feasting with dead luminaries, the air hazy and full of fat confetti.

These fantasies, in both their intensity and their levity, artfully disrupt the story of Dick’s real decline, marked by milestones like his retirement and, later, moving out of his home and into Kirsten’s. Here’s the raw beauty and sorrow of people who are, for now, alive together. —Anna Cassell


Colonialism? Bad. Unequal distribution of economic and technological resources? Also bad. Rich foreigners coming in, erasing your small Brazilian village from Google Maps, then proceeding to spy on you with UFO-shaped drones so that they can start killing you in an act of live-streamed bloodsport? Definitely, definitely, extremely bad. These are the fundamental messages of Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’ Bacurau, one of the most thrilling, inventive, and downright fun films of this or any year.

Standing up in the face of these threats is a small revolutionary vanguard of villagers, including a hearty troupe of sex workers, a notorious killer vying for redemption through true love (and also more killing), and a heroic, gender-fluid desperado whose ability to enact righteous violence is unequaled. A glorious combination of Harmony Korine, Quentin Tarantino, and Brazil’s homegrown Cinema Novo movement, Bacurau is a triumph of political filmmaking, wearing its radicalism on its blood-soaked sleeve. —Drew Millard 

Good Trouble

This excellent documentary on statesman, activist, and tireless American hero John Lewis was released just a few weeks before he died—another gut punch in the rolling tragedy that was 2020. But this film is, above all, a message of hope, and a desperately needed one. Lewis was known as the conscience of the U.S. Congress, and he carried the light of the Civil Rights Movement for decades—for progress, for us. The film takes its title from his famous exhortation, “Speak up, speak out, and get in what I call good trouble. Necessary trouble.” —Glenn McDonald

Lovers Rock 

It’s apt that one of this isolating year’s most exhilarating films celebrates the closeness of bodies. Named for the romantic reggae subgenre, Lovers Rock—the second installment of Small Axe, Steve McQueen’s landmark five-film series about Black West Indian life in London from the 1960s to the 1980s—takes place before, during, and after a house party.

Couples come together sweetly and violently; at dawn, they sneak back to wallpapered family homes, settling into twin beds beneath crucifixes.  Janet Kay’s “Silly Games,” the film’s animating anthem, keeps everyone on the dance floor, ecstatically singing long after Kay’s higher-planing falsetto fades out. Kinetically filmed by Shabier Kirchner, Lovers Rock is a timely affirmation that the act of coming together is always sacred—and always political. —Michaela Dwyer 

On the Rocks

The year’s most surprising switcheroo, director Sofia Coppolla’s On the Rocks is a light and old-fashioned New York City comedy starring Rashida Jones as Laura, an unhappy writer, and Bill Murray as Felix, her aging playboy dad. When Laura suspects her husband of cheating, dad tries to catch him in the act, kicking off a low-key and ritzy Manhattan caper comedy. The big switch comes when you realize Jones and Murray aren’t the real stars here; Coppola is. As a visual storyteller, she has an easy elegance and a lovely throwback style, gifting us a portrait of New York City just before the virus changed everything. —GM


When filming the short Alone, artist and filmmaker Garrett Bradley was literally handed a story: Sibil “Fox Rich” Richardson, a woman featured in Alone, handed Bradley a box containing decades of video diaries that she’d recorded for her husband, Robert Richardson, who was serving a 60-year sentence without parole for an armed robbery.

An intimate collaboration between the pair followed, with Bradley poetically interspersing the videos—intimate scenes of family life recorded on a mini-DV camera—with current-day footage of Fox Rich tirelessly advocating for her husband’s release. Bradley is the ultimate show-not-tell documentarian and doesn’t spend much time on expositions of the carceral system. Instead, time itself—the liquid past and present—unspools between shots, telling a difficult story of love and systemic inequality with tender conviction. Watch it. Everyone should. —SE


Director Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland is the stealth bomb of 2020, a quiet little projectile that lands with devastating force. Frances McDormand plays 50-something Fern, a Nevada widow knocked into homelessness by the Great Recession. Living out of her van, she joins a roving community of discarded Americans who eke out a living wherever they can. Nomandland is a withering indictment of terminal-stage capitalism, as well as a gorgeous character study by McDormand. Zhao populates her film with real-life American nomads, and much of the movie is essentially documentary, with the filmmaking crew embedded in this new American tribe. —GM

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