2020 will likely go down as one of the most unique cinematic years in all of film history (please, no one hold 2021’s beer). The vast majority of movie theaters are still closed, and Hollywood has effectively been on pause since early March, at least when it comes to standard theatrical fare.
But movies are still finding their way to audiences. The Sundance Film Festival narrowly missed the pandemic, allowing a handful of critics like myself to get an unintentionally misleading preview of what the year would (eventually) bring. Even aside from these festival releases, streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and HBO Now/Max have maintained a mostly steady flow of new content, and we’ve seen the emergence of more out-of-the-box solutions like virtual cinemas and premium video-on-demand rentals.
If anything, curating a list of 2020’s finest films feels more necessary and useful than ever. While many film lovers have used their time sheltering at home to catch up on classic cinema (as we all should), I’ve spent the last several months trying to see at least 4 or 5 new movies a week via screeners and the aforementioned avenues. Now that we’ve reached the halfway point of this bizarre, unpredictable year, I want to share the 25 films that have left the deepest impact on me, whether they be a festival indie from last year just now getting a bigger release, a more mainstream feature from the first block of the year, or somewhere in between, I hope there’s at least one positive recommendation in this list for everyone.
Note: Naturally, I didn’t get a chance to see everything I wanted, so I’ll get some of those out of the way, here. Still meaning to catch First Cow, And Then We Danced, Blood Quantum, A White White Day, The Burnt Orange Heresy, and Promising Young Woman, just to name a few.
#25 – Driveways
Director Andrew Ahn’s warm hug of a family drama didn’t sweep me up too forcefully upon first viewing, but this is one of those gems that just simply grows on you. Absolutely worth your time, if only to properly pay tribute to the late Brian Dennehy in one of his final performances.
#24 – Birds of Prey
It’s hard to recall a year where we didn’t get at least one new superhero movie every month, but at least this past February we got to see the return of Margot Robbie as one Harley Quinn, along with an ensemble of memorable DC characters making their mark in this vibrant, well-realized action comedy about overcoming your abusive tormentors.
#23 – The Invisible Man
Speaking of women overcoming their abusive tormentors, Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man did the seemingly impossible earlier this year: revitalize the “Universal Monsters” franchise with just a small Blumhouse budget and Elisabeth Moss’s brilliant commitment to a role that would otherwise feel all too familiar for her.
#22 – The Vast of Night
Some of the best films of 2020 were the ones that dialed back our expectations on what makes a narrative traditionally exciting. Despite loads of dialogue and long pauses in character progression, Andrew Patterson’s The Vast of Night keeps up its gut punch of an aesthetic almost entirely on the shoulders of its engaged cast, especially Sierra McCormick.
#21 – Charm City Kings
In many ways, Angel Manuel Soto’s Charm City Kings is a far cry from the stereotypical Sundance feature. It’s loud, frenetic, and saddled with a simplistic underdog plot structure. But somehow Jahi Di’Allo Winston and Meek Mill forego all the drama in favor of some terrific stuntwork and sheer charisma.
#20 – Bacurau
Bacurau is probably the twistiest flick to hit virtual cinemas this year, but it’s obvious by the end of the first half hour that Brazilian filmmakers Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’s true goal was to infuse the standard neo western with some grisly social commentary you won’t soon forget.
#19 – The Assistant
Directed and written by Kitty Green, The Assistant utilizes the incredible potential of Julia Garner as a leading actor, but more importantly it drives home the urgency of the #MeToo movement without stepping around responsibility in its own industry.
#18 – Worth
What is a human life worth? This question hasn’t left me since first seeing Sara Colangelo’s new movie Worth at Sundance this year, which stars Michael Keaton and Stanley Tucci as sparring racoteurs negotiating the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund and who it would ultimately benefit.
#17 – Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution
Crip Camp is easily the best new Netflix documentary I’ve seen so far this year, highlighting the life and struggles of disabled individuals who met as teens at a life-changing camp, only to help each other achieve the civil rights in America they’d long deserved.
#16 – Herself
Phyllida Lloyd is best known for her work directing Mamma Mia!, but as it happens, her knack for navigating the rich relationships between mothers and daughters comes through brighter than ever in Herself, an Irish drama showcasing the understated talent of Clare Dunne and Conleth Hill.
#15 – Bad Education
HBO probably didn’t expect its spring release of Bad Education to be such a timely salve for film lovers stuck at home. But with its one-two punch of performances from Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney (including a treasure trove of ensemble actors in the wings), this is one of the few recent streaming exclusives that just screams Oscar-nomination.
#14 – Sylvie’s Love
I still have no idea how or when Sylvie’s Love will get a chance to seduce its intended audience (Amazon acquired the rights after its premiere at Sundance), but here’s hoping this old-fashioned period romance starring Tessa Thompson and Nnamdi Asomugha finally gets its due before the year is up.
#13 – Emma.
Emma. happens to be the most recent film I saw in a theater making it onto this list (sorry, The Hunt), and it also happens to be one of the year’s most enchanting and colorful comedies to boot. Jane Austen’s novel has been adapted too many times to count, yet director Autumn de Wilde and the film’s star, Anya Taylor-Joy, entirely make this wonderful joyride through Regency England their own.
#12 – Kajillionaire
OK, so maybe Sundance did have a stereotypical quirk-comedy or two in its lineup. But to be fair, Miranda July helped perfect the Sundance darling in the first place, and Kajillionaire is some of her strongest work yet, thanks in no small part to Evan Rachel Wood, Richard Jenkins, and Debra Winger, as well as a musical composition 2020 has yet to top.
#11 – Beastie Boys Story
While we’re on the subject of music, Spike Jonze made a Beastie Boys documentary we got to see this year, and it’s definitely as idiosyncratic as the band itself. Structured as an interactive TED Talk of sorts, with constant flashbacks and videos narrating their musical careers, Beastie Boys Story is pure fun for even the most casual fans.
#10 – Shirley
Unless I missed someone, Elisabeth Moss might be the only actor on two films in this list, and they’re both (sort of?) based on books! Centered around a fictional account of the author Shirley Jackson, Josephine Decker’s follow-up to the wonderfully weird Madeline’s Madeline is faithful to the director’s bold filmmaking to date, and I’m just glad we’re not hurting for Michael Stuhlbarg content for once.
#9 – Boys State
The genius of Boys State is how honest it is about politics. It can be just as hopeful as it can be depressing. But whether you’re an optimist or a cynic, this Sundance documentary about Texas teens holding a mock election for one week has the capacity to genuinely inspire people to action.
#8 – Onward
Thanks to Disney+, Pixar’s latest original film had a second chance to reach audiences after the pandemic interrupted what was already a tepid debut at the box office. Despite this, Onward has proven itself to have a kind of magical resilience with viewers that we haven’t really seen from the studio since Coco.
#7 – The Painter and the Thief
At first glance, Benjamin Ree’s documentary about an unlikely friendship between a painter and the man who stole one of her paintings appears to be little more than a concept fit for a short film. But it twists and turns into a striking portrait of what can break and ultimately repair the human spirit. And no, it takes a lot more than “friendship.”
#6 – True History of the Kelly Gang
On the one hand, I understand the complaints dragging this Australian western utterly remixing the infamous life of outlaw Ned Kelly, a figure as old as Hollywood itself. On the other hand, Russell Crowe plays a bushwhacker.
#5 – Tommaso
It would be woefully reductive to compare Tommaso with last year’s Pain and Glory and call it a day, but Abel Ferrara certainly has plenty on his mind in common with Pedro Almodóvar’s recent masterwork about aging filmmakers processing addiction through their art. In Tommaso, it’s Willem Dafoe effortlessly capturing the spirit of a director’s demons, while also taking aim at the universal pitfalls of male fragility.
#4 – Palm Springs
It’s been too long since a comedy was just this plain fun. Palm Springs takes what we love about the best time-bending movies since the 80s and finds a way to supersize its goofy premise without ever dumbing itself down. It’s just icing on the cake that Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti bring a sincere heart that most Lonely Island movies have sorely been lacking.
#3 – Never Rarely Sometimes Always
In terms of plot, Eliza Hittman’s follow-up to Beach Rats might initially come off as a surprisingly basic movie about a teen trying to abort an unplanned pregnancy. But it’s the execution of this road trip drama (and double whammy performances from Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder) that elevate Never Rarely Sometimes Always into one of the most affecting, heart-wrenching dramas of the last two years, not just 2020.
#2 – Minari
2020 has been a somewhat awkward year for A24, which still has Green Knight on the horizon, but aside from Boys State, First Cow, and Zola (a bit further down the list for me), the studio has been missing its midyear hit (Edit: the studio has just announced Saint Maud will be released in theaters next month. Sure.) That’ll hopefully change soon with Minari, Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-biographical retelling of his childhood in the 80s, with Steven Yeun and Han Ye-ri as Asian immigrant parents trying to achieve the American dream for their young kids. This film is bliss, blending heart and humor in the most authentic ways, complete with a career-best performance from Youn Yuh-Jung as the family’s wise-cracking grandmother.
#1 – Da 5 Bloods
Spike Lee’s Vietnam War epic (which only a studio like Netflix would apparently see as a budgeting risk worth taking) is mostly set in the modern day, which is fitting because its message about preserving the Black experience for the next generation couldn’t be more urgently needed. As nationwide protests continue to seize the cultural zeitgeist, Da 5 Bloods steps in for a character-focused, semi-archival adventure story set in the jungles of PTSD, complete with a handful of 2020’s best performances thus far, including an essential turn for Jonathan Majors and an exceptional, Oscar-demanding tour de force from Delroy Lindo.