Movies provided the escape so many of us needed this year, on several levels. They reminded us of being around those we loved, and about what life was like before the pandemic. They transported us to new places and situations, even though we were stuck inside and unable to travel. In some cases, they helped us revisit the classic and familiar.
A film's imagery helps convey so much of this, so we've put together a list of 10 of the best shots from this year's films.
This list is by no means exhaustive, and I'm sure there are some amazing films that have been left out. Trust me, it was difficult to narrow down the movies and moments. I limited the list to 10 for the sake of my sanity and included the moments that I could recall easily.
These moments made me feel something in this mess of a year.
Take a look, and let me know what you would have added to this list. (Spoilers below for all the featured films.)
The Nest, dir. Sean Durkin
The Nest is a taut family drama that is directed like a horror movie. I have always loved Durkin's cult drama Martha Marcy May Marlene , and I got very similar vibes here. Lots of static shots, slow zooms, and eerie framing.
In this Sundance hit, Jude Law plays a man obsessed with wealth and appearance. He moves his family (including his independent wife, played by Carrie Coon ) to a huge estate outside London, where she soon realizes they are living beyond their means, and their family is falling apart.
Throughout the film, Law spends a lot of time staring out of windows, and in one of the final scenes, after a disastrous night out and a failed deal, he finally comes clean about all his weaknesses to his cabbie.
It's a simple shot, but I love the hazy light, the blackness outside, and how the character is forced to meet his faint reflection as he comes to terms with the role he's been playing.
Birds of Prey , dir. Cathy Yan
If you wanted inventive action sequences and fight scenes this year, all you had to do was turn on Birds of Prey . Cathy Yan and the stunt team from 87eleven did amazing work on this grown-up comic book film. The entire police station fight sequence is a non-stop whirlwind of (mostly) non-lethal violence.
I'm a sucker for slow-mo and fog, and we got that in abundance here. Sprinkle in a little confetti and some artfully flailing stunt performers, and you've got perfection, my friends.
'Birds of Prey' Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures
I should also say I was this close to picking the shot of the egg sandwich flying through the air from this movie.
I've been thinking about that sandwich a lot this year.
First Cow, dir. Kelly Reichardt
DP Christopher Blauvelt did some extraordinary work in this movie, which follows two unlikely friends who meet in 1820 in the Pacific Northwest.
The entire movie's rich color palette is stunning, but it also feels like you're watching it through a hazy curtain. Blauvelt was tasked with shooting dense landscapes and day-for-night in a period setting, where the only motivated lighting would be sun, moon, and firelight. And so much of the story is told from Cookie's ( John Magaro ) perspective, which results in characters and action being shot in very unique ways. For instance, a bar fight takes place almost entirely offscreen while Cookie has a conversation with King-Lu ( Orion Lee ) early in the movie.
I was tempted to pick the cow's arrival from this one, but instead I landed on the film's final shot. The near darkness of these final moments, the closeness of these characters, and the swift cut to black all made this a scene that stuck with me.
'First Cow' Credit: A24
The Trip to Greece, dir. Michael Winterbottom
If there was one film that made me pine for travel, new places, good food, and company this year, it was certainly this one. I've always enjoyed this film series and its weird mix of off-the-cuff humor, impressions, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon playing larger-than-life caricatures of themselves, and real locations. I also appreciate the heavy focus on my favorite thing to do while traveling, which is eating and drinking a lot.
The scene below starts in a gorgeous wide shot with sunshine, cypress trees, and blue sky. I recall watching this the first time and thinking, Holy cow, remember restaurants? Remember being in other countries?
Although the shot still feels like a gut-punch, it remains a favorite.
I'm Thinking of Ending Things, dir. Charlie Kaufman
I wouldn't call this movie one of my favorites of the year. It's definitely stuck with me, but I probably won't watch it again for a while.
The plot is simple, although it goes a bit off the rails: Jake (Jesse Plemons) takes girlfriend Lucy (Jesse Buckley) to meet his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis). They skip through time as the evening progresses, then eventually leave, stopping for ice cream before finally ending up at Jake's old high school.
One sequence that has dogged me more than any of the other weirder, more visceral parts of the film is that mid-snowstorm ice cream stop. I'm still not entirely sure what was going on there (or why the girl who served them was so scared), but I can't stop thinking about how the Tulsey Town was an island of light in nothingness. The shot is eerily effective at conveying loneliness.
'I'm Thinking of Ending Things' Credit: Netflix
Dick Johnson Is Dead, dir. Kirsten Johnson
Dick Johnson Is Dead is an exceptional documentary film from Kirsten Johnson, who captures her father's decline into Alzheimer's at the end of his life. It's a deeply personal work, and the camera is often positioned as Johnson's perspective, so it feels like we're seeing her father through her eyes.
Johnson's approach can leave you weeping one second and laughing in another because her film forces you to do something she posits near the middle of the film.
"What loving demands is that we face the fear of losing each other," she says in voiceover. "That when it gets messy, we hold each other close. And when we can, we defiantly celebrate our brief moments of joy."
The doc cuts quickly to one of its "heaven" sequences that features the below shot, something buoyant and colorful after this somber reflection.
'Dick Johnson Is Dead' Credit: Netflix
Throughout the doc, Johnson reflects on the loss of her mother and the inevitable loss of her father, then plays at different ways of "killing" him. My favorite shots are from these heaven sequences, which see Dick Johnson reunited with his late wife, dancing, and reveling in confetti. They are beautifully staged and feel like authentic joy, even though we see behind the scenes of their creation.
I actually wavered between a few shots on this film. Dick Johnson's shoes up in the air at the beginning, after he falls pushing a swing. The quiet cityscape view from his empty office once he retires. His reflection in the window as snow falls.
Just watch this one.
Gretel & Hansel, dir. Oz Perkins
Listen, I will watch literally anything Oz Perkins makes. I think he's an extremely attentive and deliberate horror director, and although his stories are sometimes a really slow burn, you can count on them to be beautiful and dreadful at the same time. Is Gretel & Hansel a little stilted? Yes. Is the voiceover necessary? No. But is it lovely to look at? Heck yes.
Perkins worked with DP Galo Olivares to create this visually rich take on the disturbing Grimms fairy tale, and from beginning to end it's filled with gorgeous and otherworldly imagery. They take full advantage of desolate forest landscapes, but also build out sets that feel entirely alien to the time period and setting, so places like the witch's house are appropriately discomforting.
Early in the movie, Gretel seeks a job with a local lord. The scene is smoky and dark, lit to one side by stunning rainbow stained class. The lord sits between two candelabra with gold reflectors. The rest of the room is empty and filled with shadow.
This shot is an early indication of how thoughtfully and artfully even basic scenes are approached in the film.
'Gretel & Hansel' Credit: United Artists Releasing
Da 5 Bloods, dir. Spike Lee
Just look at this joyful tracking shot from Spike Lee's Da 5 Bloods . Everything about it is perfect. The song, the movement, the light, the staging. Watching it makes you want to dance, too.
In this movie about five Black war veterans (Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Isiah Whitlock Jr., and Norm Lewis) reconnecting in Vietnam to recover the body of their squad leader (Chadwick Boseman), we get few moments of levity and connection before it all goes pretty bad. This is one of them.
DP Newton Thomas Sigel gave special consideration to this scene. He told Variety that he wanted it to appear like the characters were traveling through time in the bar, so he added lights and color.
"That created some frenetic energy that reflected the guys' reunion,” he said in Variety .
Emma, dir. Autumn de Wilde
Whoops, here's another one from DP Christopher Blauvelt, but we also have to credit Autumn de Wilde's eye for detail on this retelling of the classic Jane Austen romance. De Wilde, who started as a music and fashion photographer, brings a level of perfectionism that had never before been seen in previous Austen adaptations.
This is another film where I feel you could just pick a shot at random and call it one of the best. Knightley ( Johnny Flynn ) rescues Harriet ( Mia Goth ) at the ball? Gorgeously and emotionally framed. Emma ( Anya Taylor-Joy ) apologizes to Miss Bates ( Miranda Hart ), beautifully backlit by natural window light? Stunning.
But my pick is a quiet, quick moment after the Christmas banquet. Emma gets stuck riding home with Mr. Elton ( Josh O'Connor ), who shortly after professes his love. On her way to the carriage, alone, Emma is tracked from the side as snow falls around her. It's silent. And beautiful.
'Emma.' Credit: Focus Features
'Emma.' Credit: Focus Features
Palm Springs , dir. Max Barbakow
I feel like this was a movie a lot of us needed this year. On its face a light comedy, Palm Springs took viewers on an existential journey that demonstrated the importance of human connection in a year where a lot of us weren't getting that. We were able to fall in love with Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti as they fell in love with each other throughout their silly hijinks.
My pick is the whole end sequence , really, but particularly this moment. I love it because you've just seen the characters pull off their huge plan to bend time. Did it work? We're back at the pool again. Has anything changed?
But then you realize, it doesn't matter. Sarah puts her hand on Nyles' leg, a gesture of comfortable affection and intimacy. Even if they're still stuck in the loop, they'll be okay, because they have each other.
'Palm Springs' Credit: Hulu
Of course, the family who owns the house finally shows back up, proving that time has passed. This is such an effective final punchline for the film, and it works brilliantly because we get the emotional setup of this shot.
Looking over this list and psychoanalyzing myself for a second, I think my picks are pretty indicative of my (and maybe your) emotional state over the past year.
We felt a lot of loneliness and separation. I gravitated toward lone characters framed by large swaths of negative space, like in I'm Thinking of Ending Things . But often that negative space was filled with beautiful landscape, like in The Trip to Greece , so maybe it's just a matter of perspective. I also picked out moments where characters share deep connections, like in First Cow and Palm Springs , which is probably what a lot of us want right now.
So. What did I leave out? Please let me know what your picks are.
Still feeling nostalgic about 2020? Then check out the rest of our Year in Review 2020 coverage for more of our top picks, industry trends, and end-of-year takes.