Top 10 2020 Films to Make You More Empathetic/Compassionate

“Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts.” — Roger Ebert

Empathy — the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

2020 came out swinging and upended the globe in a way no other year has in my unique set of trips around the sun. No one escaped the fallout of the pandemic and the ripple effects it’s had on everything from global systems to personal individual loss. We’ve lost so much. We’ve lost so many. Perhaps here in 2021 there’s never been a more important time to stretch our capacity for empathy. We simply won’t make it if we don’t. The cinema of 2020 is here to help you walk in the shoes of others, to show you heroes who speak truth to power, to expose villainy and extol those who do the best with what they’ve got. There’s no artform quite like cinema to broaden horizons and the films of 2020 offer us plenty of opportunities to do so.

Click on any of the titles below to see where you can access these films digitally to watch them in your own home.

10: Swallow

Decidedly not for everyone, this stylish thriller explores territory similar to one of 2020’s most seen and discussed films The Invisible Man: A woman trapped in luxury by a misogynist husband. But where that breakout genre film went in a high concept sci-fi direction, Swallow explores the psychological disorder known as pica. Lead Haley Bennett turns in an amazing performance as a woman desperately seeking any sense of agency as a history of trauma slowly reveals itself. Not a film that goes down easily, but not misery porn either, writer/director Carlo Mirabella-Davis takes us through a totally unique exploration of a woman taking back control.

9: Promising Young Woman

Carey Mulligan’s Cassie is unlike most any characters we’ve ever seen on the big screen before. Brought to life by writer/director Emerald Fennell, Cassie is an avenging angel, riddled with survivors guilt due to a friend’s death by suicide after she was sexually assaulted in medical school. A stylized, cotton candy and bubblegum nightmare, Promising Young Woman asks us to walk the path of righteous fury as our society’s culture of sexual assault is laid bare through the actions of a woman who simply refuses to let her friend die in vain. Controversial, burning with anger, and bitingly relevant, Promising Young Woman pulls no punches and implores us to reexamine the “nice guy”.

8: Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Writer/Director Eliza Hittman brings us a couple of days in the life of Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) and her best friend Skylar (Talia Ryder). It just happens that the slice of life we’ll be following them on are the days when Autumn travels across state lines into New York City to find a clinic and terminate her unwanted teen pregnancy. Abortion is certainly the hottest of hot buttons in our society, but Never Rarely Sometimes Always does what great cinema can do and simply walks us through Sidney’s life and the indignities she faces each day as a poor rural girl in modern America. Autumn and Skylar’s friendship is profound, and the desperate lengths they must go to for Autumn to make this journey has the power to open eyes and change perspectives.

7: Sound Of Metal

Riz Ahmed gives, for my money, the best male lead performance of 2020 as Ruben, a punk rock drummer and recovering addict who develops rapid hearing loss while on the road with the love of his life Lou (Olivia Cooke). Stripped of his ability to play music, on the brink of relapse, Ruben must find a way to live. Raw, powerful, and authentic, Sound Of Metal is undoubtedly one of the best films of 2020 and explores profoundly what it means to wrestle with recovery, to come to terms with hearing loss, and even the alienation that comes from making the sometimes impossible choices that life throws at us. Inspiring and beautiful, tragic and honest, Sound Of Metal will take you on a sensory journey unlike anything else this year.

6: Miss Juneteenth

Nicole Beharie turns in one of the most layered and fully fleshed out performances of the year as former Miss Juneteenth pageant winner Turquoise Jones. Deeply entrenched in modern, Black, Texas culture, Miss Juneteenth deftly explores topics of generational expectations, dreams deferred, and whether a strong Black woman in America today can achieve any measure of the dreams they have for themselves and their families. Turquoise is a powerhouse of a character, filled with pride at having won a competition steeped in local legend as a young woman, but dealing with the reality that life didn’t turn out as she’d planned. Forcing her young daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) to go through the motions of the same Miss Juneteenth pageant she once won may not be the best path forward for either of them. Brimming with authenticity from writer/director/native Texan Channing Godfrey Peoples, Miss Juneteenth exposes a tough reality and brims with the pride of accomplishment and relationship investment in equal measure.

5: Minari

The best overall film of 2020, Minari is a masterpiece of the American dream and the Korean American immigrant experience. Set in Arkansas in the 1980s amidst a family attempting to start a farm, writer/director Isaac Lee Chung pulls from his own life experience to immerse us in the sweeping beauty and hardscrabble daily life of a family just trying to make it in this world. With a universality that any American can connect to, and a specificity that those of Korean descent (or likely any immigrant) can relate to, Minari is simply one of the most quintessential tales of the American experience one can ever hope to find.

4: Collective

An absolutely riveting, tragic, and brave piece of filmmaking, the documentary Collective absolutely cannot be missed. A film about journalism; a film about a tragic nightclub fire; a film about corruption and systemic failure. Somehow, this movie about a nightclub fire in Romania in 2015 is also about America in 2020. And it’s the kind of film that can simply change you. If the footage of the tragedy itself isn’t heart-stopping enough, Collective exposes how Romania’s healthcare system suffers a catastrophic failure that results in many more dying from infection than the fire itself. As the government works to cover up the failure, journalists, survivors, and reformist politicians risk everything to make a change in the system that’s much bigger than themselves. Heroes stand up for what is right even as institutional power moves to save face. This is humanity exposed, showing a profound struggle between the truth and the powers that be, with individuals putting themselves at great risk to see justice is served. Not so much inspiring as eye-opening, Collective shows us true bravery in one frame, and the despair of corrupt systems in the next.

3: Sorry We Missed You

Filmmaker Ken Loach offers a thorough indictment and dismantling of the modern gig economy through a powerful and endearing family drama. When a modern day father in the United Kingdom signs up to be a delivery driver to help make ends meet, he smashes full speed into a system set up to absolutely grind him into the dirt. This, as his wife works as a home health provider dealing with low pay and late nights and weekends, all as their pre-teen and teenager have their own struggles. Angry, authentic, relevant, and powerful, Sorry We Missed You will having you falling in love with its central family, perhaps seeing yourselves in them, and rooting for them to prevail against an economic system with no room for humanity. I’ve never seen a film take aim at the gig economy and how it impacts families quite like this one does.

2: Nomadland

Perhaps the most lauded and critically praised film of 2020, Nomadland follows Frances McDormand’s Fern throughout the American southwest as she experiences isolation and community while living out of her van. Homeless? Fern would beg to differ. Houseless? Unquestionably. Writer/Director Chloe Zhao is an Asian American filmmaker who has, between this film and her previous effort The Rider, proven to herself to be one of the most insightful filmmakers to point a camera at the modern American southwest. Fern’s travellings and interactions with others living a nomadic lifestyle affirms the power of human connection and community, while laying bare the profound personal costs of the big corporations keeping all the profits in the hands of a few at the top. Fern’s nomadic journey begins with the catastrophic loss of her husband and their chosen town itself shutting down entirely. What she finds on the road is equal parts devastating and uplifting, and I can’t encourage you enough to experience Fern’s journey yourself.

1: Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution

“If you don’t demand what you believe in for yourself, you’re not going to get it.” — Judith Heumann

Containing perhaps the most striking image of heroism I’ve ever seen on film as disabled protestors drag themselves and their wheelchairs up the steps of the United States Capitol because they have no other physical way to access that hall of power, Crip Camp is nothing less than the documentation of a revolutionary movement of heroes who forever changed American society. What starts with humble beginnings at Camp Jened, a beautiful camp for those with disabilities where they’re heard, seen, and valued, soon blows up into the fascinating tale of the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act and the young campers who went on to become political revolutionaries. Have you ever ridden a bike or pushed a stroller or navigated your wheelchair over a curb cutout or up a ramp into a building? Then you’ve got some of the young campers from Camp Jened to thank for dragging America kicking and screaming into a system that provides access to the physically disabled and bars them from being discriminated against for their disability. Of crucial importance in Crip Camp is the profound value that disabled individuals have and the incredible accomplishments they achieve which benefit us all when they achieve access. It speaks to today with profundity as well. What other undervalued and underserved populations are on the verge of impacting us all for the better if we’ll simply give them access? And, pointedly, Crip Camp also shows that if we don’t provide equality and access, then underserved and underrepresented people may just rise up and take it for themselves.

And I’m Out.

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