Just like everything else in 2020, it was a highly unusual year at the movies… when we could go, anyway. The devastating coronavirus pandemic shut down most theaters in mid-March, leaving early arriving titles Bad Boys for Life, Sonic the Hedgehog, Birds of Prey, Dolittle (yes, Dolittle) and The Invisible Man as the five highest grossing movies released this calendar year.
Dozens of titles were delayed, while others changed hands from studios to streamers — some very good, like the instant holiday favorite Happiest Season, which Sony sold to Hulu, and Aaron Sorkin’s Oscar contender The Trial of the Chicago 7, which Paramount dealt to Netflix.
Speaking of those streamers, it was the movie theater industry’s chief nemeses (not Tenet, sorry) that saved 2020 in film. There were still oodles of great movies released, more than enough to fill out an Oscar ballot (even though the Academy decided to extend eligibility for April’s ceremony through the end of February, crushing the typical synchronicity of year-end lists with awards contenders.)
Of the 25 (technically 26) movies that made our list of the best of 2020, 18 were (or will be) available in our living rooms on its opening day or within weeks of a limited theatrical release. They include six titles from Netflix, three from Amazon, three from HBO/HBO Max (including Wonder Woman 1984), two from Apple, two from Hulu and two from Disney+. It was a bad year for the world, but a very good year for Netflix. Here are our picks for the very best (and also very worst) movies of 2020.
THE 25 BEST
Why it’s great: Somewhat lost in the hullabaloo over Warner Bros.’ decision to unleash the highly anticipated, six months-delayed sequel on HBO Max the same day as in theaters (the first of many in a controversial and shocking move from the AT&T conglomerate) is this delightful revelation: Wonder Woman 1984 is a major improvement over 2017’s Wonder Woman. Maybe even by battlefield leaps and bounds. With all that exposition out of the way, Patty Jenkins crafts a roundly entertaining ‘80s-set sequel that’s thrilling, awe-inspiring in its aerial scenes, funny in a dare-we-say Marvel-esque fashion (all hail Kristen Wiig) and features one of DC’s best villain turns not named Joker (all hail Pedro Pascal, who trots around the globe with the frenetic, sweat energy Adam Sandler had in Uncut Gems). It’s too long and there are some third act issues, but welcome to superhero moviemaking. Jenkins deserves all the biggest gigs. — Kevin Polowy
24. Sound of Metal
Why it’s great: Riz Ahmed brings the thunder in Darius Marder’s blistering addiction and recovery drama, which gracefully defies so many of the genre’s cliched trappings. In this case, Ruben Stone’s addiction isn’t to drugs (well… not exclusively anyway) but rather to life on the road, playing ultra-loud metal music with his soulmate, Lou (Olivia Cooke), by his side. But then severe hearing loss forces him into an extended pit stop at a recovery house for deaf addicts, and a serious life reevaluation inevitably follows. With Ahmed as its soulful guide, Sound of Metal explores a world and a community that’s never been depicted onscreen before, and you exit the movie grateful for — and deeply moved by — the people you’ve met along the way. — Ethan Alter
Where you can see it: Sound of Metal is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Why it’s great: Irish animator Tomm Moore wraps up his unofficial trilogy of Celtic cartoons — after 2009’s The Secret of Kells and 2014’s Song of the Sea — with what may be the best of the trio. Set in 17th century Ireland, this lushly drawn fable follows the friendship of two girls from two very different worlds. Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) is the daughter of a wolf hunter, while Mebh (Eva Whittaker) is the daughter of a wolf walker, a human/lupine hybrid whose spirit assumes a wolfish form at night. The story tackles timely issues like prejudice and the madness of crowds in ways that both kids and adults will respond to, and the hand-drawn animation is beautiful to behold. It’s not an exaggeration to say that every frame of Wolfwalkers belongs in an art museum. — E.A.
Where you can see it: Wolfwalkers is currerntly streaming on Apple TV+.
22. American Utopia and Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee Double Feature)
Even a worldwide pandemic couldn’t slow Brooklyn’s favorite son down. Spike Lee served double duty in 2020, first offering up his version of a Vietnam War picture with Netflix’s Da 5 Bloods, featuring a kick-ass ensemble headed up by likely Oscar nominee Delroy Lindo, about a squad of vets who head back to Vietnam to hunt for long-lost treasure. (The late, great Chadwick Boseman plays their friend and commander in flashbacks.) Lee followed that movie up with a filmed version of former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne’s hit stage show American Utopia for HBO. While it might seem jarring to go from the jungles of East Asia to the confines of a Broadway theater, the director never missed a beat. Lee understands what Shakespeare wrote so long ago: All the world’s a stage… and he’ll always be one of our favorite players. — E.A.
Where you can see them: Da 5 Bloods is currently streaming on Netflix and American Utopia is currently streaming on HBO Max.
Why it’s great: What did you accomplished during the lockdown? Sacha Baron Cohen went and shot a whole secret Borat sequel. While his brutish Kazakhstani journalist may not feel as fresh the second time (especially after the crazypants news cycle that’s been the last four years), there are three simple reasons why Part 2 at least lives up to its predecessor. One is the arrival of breakout star Maria Bakalova, who manages to outshine (and out-shock) her onscreen father as the ambitious Tutar, aka Sandra Jessica Parker Sagdiyev. Two is the fact that the movie isn’t just incendiary, it also has a surprisingly sweet father-daughter redemption story. And finally, of course, is the film’s most famous and most stunning sequence, in which Bakalova and Baron Cohen play To Catch a Predator with Rudy Giuliani. Whether or not Guiliani was “just tucking in his pants” or not (and there are plenty of other things he needs to answer for), the fact that they could so easily dupe the former New York City mayor and closest ally to the outgoing president into an interview by simply putting “Patriot” in their fake news outlet’s name should alarm everyone. — K.P.
Where you can see it: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
20. The Midnight Sky
Why it’s great: George Clooney has had his highs (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Good Night, And Good Luck.) and his lows (Leatherheads, The Monuments Men) as a filmmaker. The Midnight Sky qualifies as an instant high. The gorgeously shot and dread-inducing post-apocalyptic thriller takes place in a not-so-distant future where one of Earth’s last inhabitants (Clooney, looking Syriana rugged) must attempt to warn a returning spacecraft to turn around and start anew on another planet. The eco cautionary tale is clear, but the film also proves oddly prescient in the age of COVID-19, and features one of the most shocking sequences you’ll see in any film this year. — K.P.
Where you can see it: The Midnight Sky is now playing in (very) select theaters and streaming wide on Netflix.
Why it’s great: One of most acclaimed docs to debut at January’s Sundance Film Festival, James LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham’s inspiring documentary — executive produced by Hollywood newcomers Barack and Michelle Obama under their Higher Ground Productions banner — begins as a sweet and charming look at Camp Jened, a ’70s-era summer camp for disabled teens run by the hippies who weren’t at Woodstock. Ultimately, LeBrecht (an alum of Camp Jened) and Newnham offer a stirring and vital look at how many of the camp’s attendees and counselors, including the unstoppable force that is Judy Heumann, went on to lead the long fight for civil rights for disabled people, culminating with the landmark Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, which turned 30 in July. — K.P.
Where you can see it: Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution is currently streaming on Netflix.
Why it’s great: Straight outta Broadway comes Radha Blank, who used her own experience as a struggling playwright as the basis for this hilarious and moving portrait of one artist’s mid-life crisis. Shooting her hometown in beautiful black-and-white — an obvious nod to Spike Lee’s classic debut, She’s Gotta Have It — Blank cuts to the heart of how creative types can be their own worst enemy, while also taking direct aim at the various gatekeepers who prevent fresh voices from speaking their truths to New York audiences. The film climaxes with a savage parody of a musical theater flop that ranks up there with Springtime for Hitler. Some smart Broadway producer would be wise to put Radha Blank and Lin-Manuel Miranda together ASAP. — E.A.
Where you can see it: The 40-Year-Old Version is currently streaming on Netflix.
Why it’s great: Arriving just three weeks shy of the presidential election, Alex Gibney, Suzanne Hillinger and Ophelia Harutyunyan’s shocking documentary took clear aim at the Trump administration’s botched response to the coronavirus that has now killed over 300,000 Americans — or as Gibney will tell you, 20 percent of the world’s COVID-19 death toll despite the U.S. making up only four percent of its population. That’s one of the many damning statistics dropped in this film that will also long serve as a document of posterity. Comprehensive, insightful and probably calmer than most will expect, it’s like watching the captain of the Titanic and his crew speed directly toward the iceberg for two hours. Totally infuriating, totally essential viewing. — K.P.
16. Charm City Kings
Why it’s great: Written by Sherman Payne, directed by Angel Manuel Soto and produced by Barry Jenkins (in case you needed more cred), this poetical drama follows a trio of young Black Baltimore teens whose interest in urban dirt biking finds them subsequently caught up in more than a couple of illicit and dangerous activities. It’s easy to compare it to ‘90s reference points like Boyz N the Hood and Juice, but there’s an undeniable originality to the stylishly captured story, particularly in how it introduces Charm City’s famed dirt-bike culture and expertly weaves in a hard-hitting, deeply affecting coming-of-age story. — K.P.
Where you can see it: Streaming on HBO Max.
Why it’s great: There are at least seven dynamite performances in this tense and topical retelling of the Vietnam War protestors (and one Black Panther) roped into a ridiculous court case after one fateful night at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Sacha Baron Cohen (having himself a year, razor-sharp as outspoken Yippie founder Abby Hoffman), Eddie Redmayne (as the quietly combustible Tom Hayden), Yahya Abdul-Mateen (as the simmering Bobby Seale) and Mark Rylance (as shaggy dog ACLU lawyer William Kunstler) are tops among them. The writing and directing is expectedly on-point as well, with master wordsmith Aaron Sorkin quickly developing into a helluva filmmaker, too, in his second effort after Molly’s Game. — K.P.
Where you can see it: The Trial of the Chicago 7 is currently streaming on Netflix.
Why it’s great: In a perfect, non-COVID world, the filmed version of this Broadway sensation would have hit movie theaters in the fall. Instead, the pandemic sparked a revolutionary idea: Why not launch it, at no extra cost to subscribers, on Disney+ ahead of the Fourth of July weekend? And that, folks, is how scores of Americans spent the holiday brushing up on their U.S. history in the company of Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr. and the rest of the original cast. Recorded live across multiple performances back in 2016 — back when the only way to get in on the Founding Father action was to rob a Brink’s truck — the footage is a seamless showcase of robust storytelling and contemporary creativity (read: Rap battles! Duels! Unrequited love! Thomas-Jefferson-as-Prince and surly King George!). In a year of bleak box office action and streaming strife, Hamilton’s release may have been the only real “event” watch of the pandemic period. Way to get the job done. — Erin Donnelly
Where you can see it: Hamilton is currently streaming on Disney+.
Why it’s great: Patience rewards in this slow-building Western drama about a traveling news reader and battle vet (Tom Hanks) who must transport a young girl (Helena Zengel) across a treacherous frontier in post-Civil War Texas. Once the bond forms between our two travelers and the stakes rise higher, it’s an increasingly emotionally rich and agonizingly taut tale from Bourne, United 93 and Captain Phillips director Paul Greengrass. Spread the word. — K.P.
Where you can see it: News of the World opens in theaters Friday, Dec. 25.
12. First Cow
Why it’s great: A decade after Meek’s Cutoff, Kelly Reichardt returns to the Oregon frontier for another immersive 19th century period piece. John Magaro and Orion Lee star as a pair of down-on-their-luck pioneers, whose fortunes start to change when they go into business together selling baked goods made with fresh milk from the region’s lone cow, played by breakout bovine performer, Eve. But the film’s gently-paced narrative is secondary to Reichardt’s primary interest: crafting a richly-layered evocation of a long, long ago and far, far away America. — E.A.
11. Boys State
No documentary succeeded more this year in capturing the political mood (and divide) of America than Boys State, a film in which Donald Trump and Joe Biden draw nary a mention. Instead it follows students at Texas’s Boys State, the American Legion program held annually across the country in which representatives of various high schools form a mock government. We meet teens who feel compelled to mischaracterize their stances on the issues, such as abortion — “That’s politics, I think,” one candidate for office says — and to use divisive campaign tactics. The Sundance award winner is at once devastating and hopeful, as it exposes both the effects of America’s fractured government and provides optimism in our next generation of leaders. — Raechal Shewfelt
Where you can see it: Boys State is currently streaming on Apple TV+.
Why it’s great: Those who scare easily should watch this thriller during the day. Elisabeth Moss is as fantastic as ever as Cecilia, a woman whose abusive husband has just died, but who she still senses everywhere. As she insists that he’s still alive to her friends and authorities, they tell her that she’s losing her mind — a possibility she’s considered, too. Is it all in Cecilia’s head, or has her ex made good on his promise that he would be there to torture her if she ever tried to leave? Seeing the answer revealed is deliciously frightening. — R.S.
Why it’s great: Escapist entertainment this ain't. Eliza Hittman's devastating drama follows a rural Pennsylvania teen (Sidney Flanigan) who, upon discovering she's pregnant and with the help of her cousin (Talia Ryder), embarks on a desperate odyssey to New York City to have an abortion. Like the anti-Juno in both its tone and resolution (but certainly not quality), it's one of those quietly potent films that's driven not by dialogue but story, emotion and superbly understated performances by its two leads. This one can haunt you for days. — K.P.
Why it’s great: Happiest Season is the first lesbian romantic comedy and also the first same-sex holiday rom-com to be produced by a major movie studio. But beyond its cultural significance, it also just might become an instant holiday classic. Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis play a Pittsburgh couple visiting the latter’s parents for the first time over Christmas, where they’re forced to hide the nature of their relationship because of the conservative father’s political aspirations. The hilarious and heartfelt film, directed by Clea Duvall, feels groundbreaking yet timeless at the same time, like Meet the Parents over Christmas, with a long overdue gay twist on the broad rom-com. Stewart and Davis lead a stellar cast, but it’s Mary Holland (who co-wrote the script with her Veep costar Duvall) who delivers the year’s funniest performance as Davis’s lovable oddball sister Jane. — K.P.
Where you can see it: Happiest Season is currently streaming on Hulu.
Why it’s great: After The Invisible Man, Promising Young Woman became the second high-profile #MeToo revenge thriller of 2020, and it’s the most vital of its kind to date. Written and directed by actress-turned-filmmaker (and Killing Eve creator) Emerald Fennell, the thriller stars the routinely superb Carey Mulligan as an ex-med student who feigns intoxication to give would-be sexual assaulters a crucial lesson. Fennell references high profile real-life cases like Brock Turner and Nate Parker in crafting a pulsating, subversive, darkly comedic and ultimately haunting tale of trauma, empowerment and comeuppance. – K.P.
Where you can see it: Promising Young Woman opens in theaters Christmas Day (natch).
6. Palm Springs
Why it’s great: Let’s face it, we’ve all been living a grim Groundhog Day — stuck at home on a repeat cycle of mindless routine, from the Zoom calls to the tired takeout. That’s what made Palm Springs one of the year’s most revelatory, relatable films, and arguably the breakout movie of the summer. An existential entry in the déjà-vu genre, this Hulu feature finds Andy Samberg, Cristin Miloti and J.K. Simmons stuck re-living the worst wedding ever, while questioning the meaning of life, love… and quantum physics. Palm Springs delivers plenty of heart and a message we can all get behind: Life might suck now, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel. — Marcus Errico
Where you can see it: Palm Springs is currently streaming on Hulu.
Why it’s great: The folks at Pixar will be the first to tell you their first Black-lead adventure is long overdue. But beyond the cultural significance of their 23rd feature, which follows a down-and-out middle school music teacher (Jamie Foxx) who falls through a manhole and ventures to The Great Beyond the same day he finally scores the jazz club gig of his dreams, the animation giants have also delivered one of their most thought-provoking, life affirming, inventive and amusing entries, a testament to living every minute to the fullest. Bonus points for the pizza rat cameo and taking jazz back from Ryan Gosling. — K.P.
Where it’s streaming: Soul premieres on Disney+ Christmas Day.
Why it’s great: The eighth Sundance premiere on our list, and the very best. Writer-director Lee Isaac Chung tells this deeply personal story of a Korean family who moves from California to rural Arkansas in the 1980s when the father (The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun) sees affordable farmland and a trailer home as his best shot at realizing the American dream. Like life itself, the film is alternately sad, sweet and achingly funny (if Robert De Niro had The War With Grandpa call this The War With Grandma), not to mention gorgeously filmed, profound and deeply poignant. A truest gem. — K.P.
Where you can see it: Minari opened in very limited engagement Dec. 11 prior to a wider theatrical release Feb. 21, 2021.
Why it’s great: Regina King is a national treasure. The Beale Street Oscar winner and Watchmen Emmy winner makes what’s easily the best directorial debut by an actor in 2020 with this towering stage-to-screen adaptation from Kemp Powers (himself having a super-powered year between Miami and Soul) that tells a fictionalized account of a real-life hang between American icons Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.). Give this one 30 minutes to rev up and you will be transfixed by its simmering tension and phenomenal acting before the film’s musical climax gives you three straight minutes of chills. — K.P.
Why it’s great: Frances McDormand leaves those three Missouri-based billboards in her rearview, and tours the rest of the country in Chloé Zhao’s piercing, perceptive road movie. Surrounding its star, as well as her occasional traveling companion, David Strathairn, with a mixture of real nomads living that #VanLife — the lucky few by personal choice, many more by harsh economic realities — Nomadland weaves a tapestry of what the American dream looks like in an era when the gap between the haves and the have-nots has grown wider than ever. While Zhao’s sweeping wide angle vistas of America’s country roads and mountain ranges will have you missing the big screen in a big way, the movie’s cumulative emotional power will still wash over you at home. — E.A.
Where you can see it: If you missed Nomadland’s one-week virtual release that started Dec. 4, the film releases theatrically Feb. 19, 2021.
Even if it didn’t contain Chadwick Boseman’s final screen performance, George C. Wolfe’s moving adaptation of August Wilson’s Tony-winning play would still top our list. Set over one hot summer day in 1920s-era Chicago, the movie addresses so many of the issues that we’ve wrestled with throughout 2020, from society’s casual exploitation of Black men and women to the double standards confronting artists of color versus their white counterparts. Viola Davis disappears into the role of real-life blues singer, Ma Rainey, and she’s backed up by a terrific ensemble that includes Colman Domingo and Glynn Turman. But all eyes will obviously be on Boseman’s vivid portrayal of trumpet player, Levee, whose grand ambitions run headlong into grand tragedy. That the actor left us so soon is a tragedy in and of itself; thankfully, we have this movie — and the rest of his career — as a reminder of his massive talent. — E.A.
Where you can see it: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is currently streaming on Netflix.
THE 5 WORST
5. New Mutants
What sounded like a slam-dunk premise — a superhero horror movie about a group of adolescent mutants coping with terrifying new powers featuring a cast of rising stars (Maisie Williams, Anya Taylor-Joy, Charlie Heaton, Blu Hunt) — instead became the sad epitaph for 20th Century Fox’s X-Men franchise, playing out like a watered-down YA One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with decidedly unfrightening CGI monsters. Undoubtedly the most memorable thing about New Mutants is its tortured trip to release; between re-edits, Disney’s acquisition of Fox and the coronavirus pandemic, the film was originally slated for theaters in 2018 and bounced around the schedule for years before limping into theaters in August. Maybe it should have stayed on the shelf. — M.E.
There was very good (The Invisible Man), very OK (The Hunt) and very bad (Fantasy Island) from horror powerhouse Blumhouse Productions in 2020. Imagine the 1970s TV show but with Ricardo Montalbán replaced by Michael Peña, a misfiring horror remix that’s never scary, filled with unintentional laughter and a zombie surgeon. Here’s to next year’s TV reboot washing away the taste of this rotten tomato in 2021. — K.P.
3. Artemis Fowl
You know you’ve made a bad movie when the most talked about aspect online involves Josh Gad playing a dwarf named Mulch Diggums who farts dirt out of his butt. Disney surely had an easy decision moving this Harry Potter-light turkey from theaters to its streaming platform, and will likely take a mulligan on its franchise potential. But hey, at least they don’t have to worry about it competing with Marvel, Pixar and Star Wars for eyeballs. As for the rest of us? We’ll always have Mulch Diggums and his dirt-farting. — K.P.
Here’s the secret behind The Secret: Dare to Dream — it’s a Lifetime movie disguised as a major motion picture. And not even a genuinely awesome Lifetime movie like Mother, May I Sleep With Danger or that KFC mini-movie with Mario Lopez as Colonel Sanders! No, this snoozy family drama is content to coast by on admittedly pretty Louisiana scenery and our residual goodwill for scenes of Katie Holmes standing on docks by bodies of water. With apologies to Paula Cole, we didn’t want to wait… for this movie to be over. — E.A.
Tony Stark died for this?! After bidding adieu to the MCU in Avengers: Endgame, Robert Downey Jr. decided to try his hand at kid-friendly fare with this ostensible comedy based on the classic British stories about a Victorian vet who talks to animals — a role previously played by Rex Harrison in the 1967 musical and Eddie Murphy in a franchise-spawning 1998 reboot. But from Downey’s weird Welsh accent to the crudely rendered CGI critters to the feckless fart jokes, everything about this Dolittle is a disaster. Let’s just say we don’t love it 3,000. — M.E.
— by Ethan Alter, Erin Donnelly, Marcus Errico, Kevin Polowy and Raechal Shewfelt
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