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Clockwise from top left: Mangrove, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Wasp Network, Crip Camp, and Lovers Rock.

A Radical Guide to the Best Films of 2020

Crushed between COVID and the increasing dominance of streaming companies, the future of film festivals, movie theaters, and independent distribution is in danger. Filmmakers making challenging work are facing new obstacles in a profit-driven business that has rarely been hospitable to independent voices. But, despite all the obstacles, this was a year of powerful films challenging patriarchy, white supremacy, ableism, and imperialism. Below are some films to watch and inspire us as we fight for a better world.

Feminist filmmakers made many of the best films this year, including three films…


35+ Revolutionary Films to Watch While Under Quarantine

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Born in Flames

Check out my lists of best social justice films from 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, and earlier.

In this time of pandemic and quarantine, there is power in exploring the ways that past generations have confronted rising tides of fascism and crisis. For 100 years, communists, socialists, anarchists, anti-colonialists, and other revolutionaries have made films that attempt to intervene in their moment, to not just tell stories, but lift up silenced voices and imagine better futures. Together, they form an underground history of the 20th and 21st centuries. …


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Images courtesy of The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, Parasite, Jojo Rabbit, and Knock Down the House.

For the best revolutionary films from previous years, see my lists for 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, and earlier.

Like society as a whole, Hollywood needs systemic change, from top to bottom. Despite the new opportunities that have opened up for a wider range of filmmakers to tell their stories, change is not happening quickly enough. There are still a higher percentage of women and people of color in the White House than in Hollywood’s writers’ and directors’ guilds. This list celebrates filmmakers inside and outside the Hollywood system who are part of that systemic change, shifting power…


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From Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You.

For the best revolutionary films from other years, see my lists for 2019, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, and earlier.

Peak TV is creating more opportunities for independent film directors, and for new stories to be told. Films from around the world are more accessible via streaming, and Netflix spent an estimated 13 billion dollars on content just this year. More cash available can translate to more stories by and about communities of color, women, transgender and gender nonconforming people, and other communities Hollywood has long ignored. …


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From Girl’s Trip by Malcolm D. Lee (Universal Pictures)

For the best revolutionary films from other years, see my lists for 2019, 2018, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, and earlier.

Seeing activists like Tarana Burke, Ai-jen Poo, and Rosa Clemente given a platform at the Golden Globes was a welcome change, but much more needs to be done to change who is given the resources of Hollywood to tell their stories. As Girls Trip star Tiffany Haddish said at the recent New York Film Critics Circle Awards, “There’s so many people like me that you guys have no clue about. But they’re coming. …


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From Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight.

Check out my lists of best social justice films from 2019, 2018, 2017, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, and earlier.

The 2016 Oscar’s race pitted La La Land, a relatively sunny musical that celebrates a timeless and relatively white fantasy of Los Angeles; against Moonlight, a deeply moving and poetic Black gay coming-of-age story set in 1980s Miami. Whoever wins the awards, Moonlight is this year’s best film. Like Beyoncé losing the album of the year Grammy to Adele, the fact that La La Land is even a contender reveals the prejudices of the entertainment industry. It’s not that La La…


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From Tangerine, directed by Sean Baker

For the best revolutionary films from previous years, see my lists for 2018, 2017, 2016, 2014, 2013, 2012, and earlier.

This week the Oscars were announced, and once again they were notable for a lack of diversity. Popular entertainment helps shape how we view the world, and Hollywood shapes the world as a very white, very male place. The Oscars often snub films like Selma (at the Academy Awards last year), giving its seal of approval to a whitewashed world. …


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From Pride, directed by Matthew Warchus.

More than 100 years after the birth of cinema, it sometimes feels like every story has been told. But the best films of 2014 dared to break out of their genres, explore new ways of filmmaking, and inspire viewers. Some of them even provided tools for popular understanding of our current political moment. This year, Selma, Tales of the Grim Sleeper, and Out in the Night all told stories of a criminal justice system harming Black communities, while Dear White People used satire to address racist power structures. …


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Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant in Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station.

We live in the era of Hollywood mega-budget sequels, where theaters are filled with stories based on comic books, children’s books, or a line of toys. Originality is rarely rewarded: this year, the top five grossing films, taking in about a billion dollar each in ticket sales, were all sequels. Even among the critically praised award-season releases, there were terrible and exploitative films, glorifying profit and exploitation. Of these, the worst was The Wolf of Wall Street. …


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From Jim Hubbard’s United in Anger.

This was a spectacular year for cinema. There were dozens of powerful documentaries, pulpy experiments, brilliant auteur pieces, and even some thrilling blockbusters.

My taste leans towards creative filmmaking with a conscience. Films like Zero Dark Thirty, that have little to say outside of glamorizing torture and military adventurism, rate extremely low, while passion, skills, and ideas rate high. I love filmmakers not afraid to break molds and challenge conventions. While Spielberg’s Lincoln deserves high praise for Daniel Day Lewis’ riveting lead performance, and an overall cast that includes scene-stealing performances by veterans like Tommy Lee Jones and relative newcomers…

Jordan Flaherty

Journalist, author, producer. See more at jordanflaherty.org.

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