10 Most Visually Stunning Films of 2020

Despite the strains and stresses the industry endured throughout the pandemic, 2020 remained an undisputedly stunning and robust year for film,

We have assembled a list of 2020s ten most visually awe-inspiring films to light up your home theater.

A challenging task with so many visually exquisite viewing options to choose amongst and one we did not undertake casually. Although several extraordinary canvasses were immediate visual considerations –– Nomadland, directed by Chloe Zhao, Lover’s Rock, directed by Steve McQueen, and Mank, directed by David Fincher, led the rankings of the most exemplary cinematography 2020 had to offer.

We present a list of gracefully exquisite compositions with dazzling depth, gorgeous framing, and unrivaled symmetry. Enjoy the finest films 2020 had to offer.

1. Nomadland

Such a majority of films were postponed and had their release dates rescheduled. A good portion of 2020 was spent anticipating the upcoming movie from director Chloé Zhao (The Rider, Songs My Brothers Taught Me) and hoping that it wouldn’t be delayed. Nomadland finally appeared! A jaw-droppingly exquisite neo-realist treasure already proclaimed as Best Picture by the National Society of Film Critics and Venice’s Golden Lion. A movie destined to receive more awards season wins.

A story that lackadaisically unfolds amidst disintegrating, crumbling American Midwest towns. Joshua James Richards, a talented cinematographer (who filmed previous works with Zhao), showcases poetically rare vistas, landscapes, and perpetual sunsets—portraying a magic hour America. All while carefully communicating the self-possessed dignity of an ever wandering Fern (Frances McDormand, who is also raking in the awards for her portrayal). As Fern’s friends and family struggle to negotiate with her about her itinerant and vagabond lifestyle, the deeply immersed and profoundly resonant grandeur that has become a signature Zhao trademark holds steady. Nomadland will rove about your heart and entertain your brain for a good long while.

2. Lovers Rock

Intimate like a lover’s gentle caress yet energizing like the most resounding music hall.  Lovers Rock, directed by Steve McQueen, may well be the 2020s most immersive and rapturous cinema experience yet, and it’s romantically divine.

Almost entirely set at an early 1980s West London birthday celebration house party. An almost heavenly, gorgeously realized exhibition, itself a delightfully exhilarated review of Black fortune and hardship that takes place throughout the renowned Thatcher era, is simultaneously uplifting while leaving you gasping for your next breath.

The formalist lilt of Lovers Rock, at times, mimics the full free-spirited flow in Wong Kar wai from the mid-90s (with aristocratic restraint akin to In the Mood for Love and a likewise romantic essence to Chung king Express). Still, this time McQueen is pursuing his inspiration. His ever-ready camera floats about the dance floor as people sway and sing, consuming alcohol and marijuana in ecstatic, almost holy communion.

A film that boasts so many pivotal moments and lengthy lingering scenes that it begins to arouse multi-orgasmic feelings –– Janet Kay’s “Silly Games” along with the acapella celebration it initiates could be among the most significant theatrical moments of the 2020 year.

During times of pandemic quarantine, this satisfying film ultimately became the house party/birthday bash we all wished we could attend and something much more; a sanctuary of continuous harmony amidst ever-changing great strife. Your heart will swell, your eyes leak, your body will sway, and fundamentally, Lovers Rock will let your soul’s spirit fly.

3. First Cow

Contemplative musings on survival and friendship from American filmmaker Kelly Reichardt (Certain Women, Meek’s Cutoff), a brilliantly rendered tale, First Cow, feels quaint but has an immense and intense core.

Following two weary travelers in the 1820s Northwest, one a Chinese immigrant, King-Lu (Orion Lee), and the other, Otis “Cookie” Figowtiz, a bashful cook (John Margaro). The two plot an entrepreneurial scheme that depends on a well-to-do landowner (Toby Jones), or more directly, his most prized dairy cow.

From such a simple conjecture and featuring a supple slow cinema sweep, First Cow unspools with allure and incessant poise. Her filming, aided by superb production designer Anthony Gasparro (a sequel pairing after 2016’s Certain Women) and usual cinematographer Christopher Blauvet, makes for a powerful Americana pastoral setting.

Her admirers will cherish this quintessential unpolished gem with a familiar Reichardt gleam. It’s a small-scale but priceless treasure.

4. Mank

David Fincher’s Mank, an overstuffed and restless story, was admittedly somewhat of a letdown for us. Its exposition-hefty screenplay and steeped in nostalgia gimmickry over-saturated the film. Fincher did, however, really come through with the vividly detailed design and depth in his 1930’s Old Hollywood tale.

Scrupulous production design from Donald Graham Burt, nostalgic black-and-white cinematography from Erik Messerschmidt, and the richly gilded costume design from Trish Summerville along with the era-appropriate musical score from Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor all excel at overcompensating for Fincher’s uneven plotting and somewhat didactic drawing-room hang-ups. Gary Oldman, a saving grace, acts up a storm, making it easier to forgive and forget the multitude of letdowns that plague this visually luxurious yet emotionally defunct Tinseltown tribute.

Mank moves along just fine with technical flourishes and wistfulness in profusion as a spirited throwback, and there’s an ebb to it all that works eerily well, too. But, while the surface charms are affluent and vivid., don’t go digging too deep because Fincher’s latest is assuredly destined to disappoint.

5. The Vast of Night

The astonishing debut of director Andrew Patterson brings us The Vast of Night. Patterson proves, over and over, to be a resourceful, exciting, and competent storyteller. Set in Cayuga, Mexico, during the 1950s. Home to Fay ( played by Sierra McCormick), teenybopper and switchboard operator enthralled by a newly acquired tape recorder, who enjoys endlessly chattering and swapping wise-cracks with radio DJ and fellow teen Everett (played by Jake Horowitz).

Some shared suspicions about the future and science unite the duo. It appears likely, at first, that a Nancy Drew-style mystery may be afoot until it becomes evident that the pair are more in cahoots with the likes of Special Agents Scully and Mulder. Then, they intercept signals that may have originated from an extraterrestrial source.

Patterson’s niche for creating intrigue and building dramatic suspense keeps us on edge as we close in on a revelation that is the fundamental part of what makes the Vast of Night an ominously audacious tale. But, unfortunately, the anticipatory tease is nearly more enticing than the grand unveiling. The result? A compelling, technically striking (one centerpiece tracking shot exemplifies some dynamically excellent technical skills) and often comedic sci-fi film feels original and darkly vast, indeed.

6. My Mexican Bretzel

This imaginative first feature debut from Nuria Giménez is a remarkable conjuration of diary/essay collage-like film diorama. It smacks of underlying tones, not unlike David Holzman’s Diary, Grey Gardens, or F for Fake — one part magical mid-century home movie, another part fascinating travelogue, amidst being unique and original unto itself, all the while.

While admittedly continuously mesmerized by My Mexican Bretzel, this writer declares an uncertainty about knowing what elements consisted of found footage, which was fiction and which were real, nor did I really care. So I watched, unblinking, down the rabbit hole and became engrossed in colorful daydream-like imaginations that filled my head with sweet spellbinding sorcery, slowed my heartbeat, and left my eyes unabashedly more than just a bit damp.

A singularly spectacular film that will take you to places you’ve never been and leaves you longing hopefully to return.

7. Bacurau

Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho direct this genre-flexing strange horror/western/thriller that takes on an intense Sergio Leone energy as it expounds on numerous jet-black comedic twists, a monumental body count, and a very lax pace.

The setting takes place in a remote location in Brazil’s northeast, the self-proclaimed village of Bacurau. Where residents go to battle against potentially aggressive alien forces as this ultimately singular, “The Most Dangerous Game”-type iteration unwinds with vigor and bursts with splashes of epic gore.

Udo Kier and Sônia Braga star on opposing sides, each, perhaps, being manipulated by sinister forces. But, assuredly, all shall be unveiled to the riveting electronic frequencies of John Carpenter, exposing transnational gestures along with some graphically horrific acts of bloody recompense.

Whatever genre you categorize this film as (western sci-fi horror?), it’s a grotesque gem you’ll be remembering and raving about for a long while. Bacurau vibrates with brilliant butchery, mysterious beauty, and delicious cruelty.

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8. Ema

Chilean director Pablo Larraín (Jackie) holds nothing back in this exhilarating and, at times, quite disturbing stress test. As visually spectacular as it is fraught with turbulent emotions. You’ll be tapping toes one moment and eye-rolling the next.

The titular Ema, played by novel actress Mariana Di Girolamo, is a scorned woman plotting to reunite with her adopted pyromaniac son, Polo (played by Cristian Felipe Suarez). Ema’s world will be challenging for the viewer to forget but easy to ravish visually; she’s an interpretative dancer of phenomenal talent. Her impulsive maternal instincts coupled with her fluid sexual provocations make her difficult to ignore, but it is confoundingly impossible to applaud or flinch away from her behavior.

Larraín’s film exhibits a chaotic melodrama tempered with explicit sex, stunning dance choreography, metatextual montage, staggering close-ups, and much more. Transitioning from beautiful to bewildering in the bat of an eye.- yet another unconventional, independent excitement. Ema’s delirious energy will inspire you as you sway to the beats of this distinctly different drum.

9. Da 5 Bloods

Many filmmakers have had a go at portraying the war of Vietnam. So one is readily forgiven for scoffing, at first, at what seems to be an already overdone attempt. However, Da 5 Bloods equals classic Lee. During this trying time, the Spike Lee rendition of the Black American experience is seasoned with merciless revisionism conforming to his signature style (recreations blended with archival footage of documented atrocities and astonishing newsreel and iconically graphic imagery; camera directed fourth wall crashing monologues, etc.).

It claims a position as one of Spike Lee’s best joint ventures around- fetching additional points for numerous references to the movie Treasure of the Sierra Madre (some of these marks, though, are neutralized by the overuse of references to Apocalypse Now) and multiple epic performances. Explicitly the complex Delroy Lindo, an ex-soldier now addled by PTSD seeking out understanding and redemption.

There’s a whole bank of tropes reworked here, in what’s basically an actioner. Broken family relationships, a standard theme among Lee’s collective works tracing back to 1986 with his initial film, She’s Gotta Have It, we get a taste of the filmmakers’ other obsessions; in-your-face and up-to-the-minute social commentary (MAGA and BLM movements are factors in his occasionally patronizing strategy as a storyteller) and his passion for jazz.

All in all, it’s an impressive performance that, though excusably flawed, is a remarkable story of family – sons, fathers, and forgiveness.

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10. Tenet

2020 brought us the scorchingly anticipated movie from unpredictable heavyweight director Christopher Nolan. Again, another gimmick-filled sci-fi affair, this time a “time inversion” convoluted thriller, commanding a large budget and putting all the oversized excitement front and center.

While lacking the psychological thrills of his exceptional work (The Prestige), Tenet presented visually stunning on-location photography. In addition, several moving action set figures played to the filmmaker’s strengths as a primarily visual storyteller.

It’s a transgression that shallow dialogue and generic characters more than overpopulate this tale (Kenneth Branagh’s Russian baddie character is a cliché-spewing repetitive joke, Clémence Poésy wholly exists to deliver exposition, etc.). Still, everyone is making a show of such fabulously designed and very expensive-looking tailored suits that Nolan essentially succeeds in getting away with his yarn of espionage primarily constructed of smoke and mirrors.

Presenting a commendable visual spectacle is the only redeeming salvation of this film. However, this is Nolan’s third collaboration with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (after Interstellar and Dunkirk), and the two do seem to mesh well. The film compensates for what it lacks in emotional fortitude with lush in-depth designs and impressive spanning vistas.

Honorable Mentions:

She Dies Tomorrow (directed by Amy Seimetz), My Octopus Teacher (directed by Pippa Erlich and James Reed), Into the Storm (directed by Steven Quale), Siberia (directed by Mathew Ross), Gretel, and Hansel (directed by OZ Perkins), I’m Thinking of Ending Things (directed by Charlie Kaufman), Last and First Men (Johann Johannsson), Undine (directed by Christian Petzold), Shirley (directed by Josephine Decker), Possessor (directed by Brandon Cronenberg).

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