This year has certainly been one for the books, but not in the way we all hoped. At the start of 2020 numerous blockbusters were lined up and ready to go. Three new Marvel movies, the new “Wonder Woman” sequel, a new “Fast and Furious” film, the latest James Bond movie, numerous animated films including two Pixar movies, “A Quiet Place Part II” and many more, most of which were sidelined by the COVID-19 pandemic that closed theaters and ushered in a new era of streaming dominance at least for the calendar year. But the industry has thus far prevailed moving forward with new projects and hoping for a better tomorrow in 2021. Through it all we still got plenty of fun, imaginative, and crazy movies that hit either the big or small screen and entertained us through it all.
Over the past twelve months I’ve tried my best to continue to review and examine some of the biggest, and smallest, releases within my abilities and while I did not do my yearly genre countdowns, I still feel it’s appropriate to honor the movies that, for me at least, stood out as the finest cinematic projects that found a way to our screens in such a crazy year. So, as I do every New Years Day, it’s time to take a look back at a year of cinema that was truly transformative. This list encompasses my picks for the best movies that I reviewed throughout 2020, all receiving five stars when all was said and done. These are my picks for the Top 20 Movies of 2020.
Now there were a lot of movies I missed in 2020 like “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”, “On the Rocks”, “Midnight Sky” and “Sound of Metal” which were all probably very deserving of this list but I couldn’t find the time to review while films like “Nomadland” and “Minari” won’t be available in my market until 2021. With that in mind I plan on checking these out and they’ll probably make me rethink my ranking for this list in hindsight. What is your favorite film from this past year? Let me know in the comments. Let’s take a look back at the best this year has given us through our trying times.
20. “The Platform”
The only foreign language film on this list and one of the first movies to gain widespread attention on streaming after the pandemic hit internationally, “The Platform” is a sci-fi horror mashup that follows a man who willingly enters a unique prison called “The Pit” where each month inmates are sent to new levels with their only source of food coming from a platform that drops for mere minutes allowing each level to eat. The greed of those on higher levels leads those lower to be left with only the scraps. The movie is a compelling allegory for the errors of a capitalist system but also serves as a simple dystopian horror story if you just want to take it for face value. Brutal and uncompromising, “The Platform” is high concept, cross-genre filmmaking at its best.
One of two Pixar movies released in 2020, “Onward” was one of the first movies severely impacted by the pandemic as it released to the big screen just before the virus led to theater closures. Following a pair of brothers in a fantasy world much like our own, “Onward” sees them trying to hunt down a magic stone to help bring their father back to the living world for one more day. While arguably inferior to a lot of Pixar’s movies, it’s still a fine example of the studio’s talent for thoughtful and emotionally resonant storytelling while still offering its trademark beautiful animation and levity. Its exploration of nontraditional family dynamics and the bonds of brotherhood can’t be overlooked. As many great animated movies do, it also effectively implores us all to see the beauty in the journey as much as the destination.
The second sci-fi horror blend to make this list, “Possessor” comes from the mind of Brandon Cronenberg, the son of body horror legend David Cronenberg, and contains a lot of the family trademarks while also tackling an intriguing concept. The story focuses on an assassin who performers her kills by inserting herself into a host body, thus possessing them for a time. However, when her latest job goes wrong her newest host refuses to comply providing a scenario that forces us all to look in the mirror and consider how little attention we give to deceitful acts that don’t affect us directly. It’s easy to perform a tasteless or heinous act when you don’t have to face the consequences yourself and that very horror is at the core of this film. Work in some fun cinematography and bloody violence and you have one of the most creative cross-genre concepts of the new decade so far.
17. “Happiest Season”
It’s not often that a Christmas movie makes my “best of the year” list but 2020 offered us a rom-com that offers something a little more special with the normal holiday flair. Released on Hulu in November, “Happiest Season” focuses on lesbian couple Abby and Harper who are spending their first Christmas together with Harper’s family who are unaware of her sexuality. This, of course, creates some conflict between the pair and a few comedic moments as Harper tries to tiptoe around the truth. However, “Happiest Season” tackles the coming out narrative with tact while also showing the stress avoiding one’s truth can put on a relationship. LGBTQ films are becoming much more prominent in mainstream cinema these days and this film serves as an important and honest eye opener for those unfamiliar with what coming out can really be like for some members of that community.
16. “The Devil All the Time”
One of the most talked about Netflix films of 2020, and one of the darkest and most depressing movies of the year at that, “The Devil All the Time” is a peak into the evils within us all regardless of our good intentions. Exploring numerous intertwining stories that all involve the life of a young man named Arvin leading him on a path of vengeance, “The Devil All the Time” is not for the feint of heart providing an unsettling slow burn that challenges viewers’ resolve around every corner. Raw, uncompromising, and insightful in its examination of hypocrisy, cause and effect, and hidden demons “The Devil All the Time” is one of those films that doesn’t try to provide hope, but rather provides an honest look into the darkest recesses of humanities unfortunate history and obsession with violence and revenge.
15. “Palm Springs”
A standout comedy of 2020, “Palm Springs” is the latest in a long line of time loop movies but its self-awareness and heart help it stand out from a pretty impressive crowd in the subgenre. Starring Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti as a pair of individuals cursed to live the same day over and over again, “Palm Springs” contains many staples of the subgenre including the exploration of the stages of grief but does so with a great bit of meta humor and some high concept themes such as the complexity of relationship building that help make it feel fresh and new in spite of its familiarity. On top of that it’s just a genuinely funny movie with a witty script and capable leads making for a jolly good time you can’t help but watch over….and over….and over….and over again.
“Emma” is a bit more classic cinema than many of the other films on this list. Led by Anya Taylor-Joy in the titular role, this latest retelling of Jane Austin’s classic novel explores Emma’s cynical perspective on romance as she tries to influence the love lives of those around her. The backdrops and costume design in this period piece are enough to immerse you in Emma’s reality, but it’s the acting and the tasteful handling of the material that harkens back to a simpler time when stories didn’t have to take themselves so seriously to be respected that are the true draws for this feature. “Emma” almost feels like a story that shouldn’t work with more modern sensibilities, and yet it does. It’s dry humor and style help make it the most enjoyable period film since “The Favourite” and trust me when I say that’s a huge compliment coming from me.
13. “Da 5 Bloods”
A Netflix-released Spike Lee joint, “Da 5 Bloods” is just as provocative as the director’s past works taking aim at Donald Trump’s America as well as the plight of African American veterans who fought in the Vietnam War. The story sees four Vietnam vets returning to their former battlefield to reclaim the body of their fallen commander, played by the late Chadwick Boseman in his penultimate movie role, as well as lost gold they had discovered and buried while on patrol during the war. “Da 5 Bloods” is a little more on the nose than many of Spike Lee’s previous outings, but it accomplishes its mission all the same with a willingness to explore some pretty dark places such as PTSD and the tendency for the United States to forsake the men and women who fought for their country after they leave the serve. It’s not Spike Lee’s best, but I do consider one of his best.
12. “His House”
“His House” is one of the finest horror movies to come out of the last 12 months and one of the best Netflix offerings to boot. Like many great horror movies this film provides insight into some real-life terrors, specifically the immigrant experience, as it follows a married couple who escape a nation at war to London where they are given worn down housing where a strange being seems to be determined to make them pay for an unspoken sin. Inspired, relevant and insightful in its own special ways, “His House” is a daring piece of commentary on a true-life human experience that, for many, would contain its own terrors even without the threat of the supernatural. It’s a fine piece of work from director Remi Weekes who threatens to join a growing cast of modern horror filmmakers with a eye on relevant issues and subtext.
11. “News of the World”
One of the last films released in 2020, “News of the World” is a reminder that westerns are still alive and well. In an era where the genre has been diluted down to a glorified subgenre Director Paul Greengrass and star Tom Hanks teamed up to provide an engaging and beautifully shot story in post-Civil War America about an ex-preacher who makes a living telling the news of the world to each town he comes across who takes it upon himself to help an orphaned young girl. Sporting gorgeous landscapes and some thought provoking concepts “New of the World” might feel like a typical western embracing many genre cliches, but it rises above them with a genuine sense of awe and sincerity reserved for only the best handled stories.
10. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”
“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” was probably one of the most controversial films of 2020. Sporting breakout performances by Sydney Flanigan and Talia Ryder, the story focuses on a young woman who discovers she is pregnant and takes a trip with her best friend to have an abortion without her parents finding out. Along the way she endures protests and must come to piece with her impending decision as well as the emotional toll of the relationship that brought her to this point. Director and writer Eliza Hittman does a fine job juggling a heavy topic with great character moments refusing to vilify either side of the abortion debate but rather keeping the focus squarely on this young woman’s experience and journey, a perspective we rarely see in films with such sincerity and careful tact.
9. “Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm”
The “Borat” sequel might not be a follow up we demanded to see. It might not even be what we wanted to see. But it’s the movie we all needed in 2020. The original “Borat” was released in 2006 and poked fun at the state of America at the time. The sequel takes place and was filmed during the controversial and divisive 2020 presidential election and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic providing a much more focused criticism of the state of our country. While it is critical of the conservative base and its COVID comedy might seem tasteless given the times, it’s surprisingly respectful of the divided opinions of the nation and allows us the chance to laugh at the unfortunate situation in which the world has found itself. In a year where people needed some relief from the tension, “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” provided just that.
8. “First Cow”
I considered “First Cow” one of the greatest bits of storytelling 2020 had to offer and I stand by that statement even half a year later. Focusing on a cook and a Chinese immigrant who steal milk from a wealthy Englishman’s cow to make a profit off of biscuits, the story sounds simple but it’s layered with character moments and commentary on the American Dream. Similar to the 2020 Best Picture winner “Parasite” in a lot of ways, “First Cow” captures the struggles of Americans and immigrants in the early 1800s in an inspired and nuanced manner that’s forces viewers to debate whether or not they would do anything different if they were in the characters’ situation. In July I considered this the first true Oscar contender of the year and hopefully it earns a few nods in 2021.
“Host” was one of the biggest surprises for me in 2020. There’s no superstars or Oscar-quality style, but for me it was one of the most timely and engaging movies of the year. “Host” is the shortest film on this list at just about an hour long. It’s designed that way as it takes place during the current COVID-19 pandemic as a group of friends conduct a séance over Zoom welcoming a dangerous being into their lives. Since a normal Zoom meeting is limited to an hour long, the movie conforms to that time limit and the actors actually filmed their scenes on their home computers using guidance from the director to set up special effects themselves. This film not only touches on the horrors of isolation and the unknown many have felt during the pandemic, but it’s a fine example of perseverance in the art and a genuinely scary watch to boot.
This year lacked the abundance of biopics that we’re used to seeing, but those we did get still managed to rise to the top. Case and point, “Mank”. Featuring Gary Oldman as the titular screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, the film chronicles his conception and writing of “Citizen Kane”, considered by many to be the greatest film ever made, and his struggles with gambling, alcoholism and gaining credit for his artistry. Oldman brings another Oscar worthy performance to the screen, but the entire cast also shines in this black and white, fast paced masterwork by director David Fincher who adapted a screenplay from his late father Jack Fincher. “Mank” is a unique examination of the screenwriting process and how Mank took elements from his real-life experiences and adapted them to the Oscar winning film. It might not be the best Netflix movie of 2020 (more on that soon) but it’s definitely one of the year’s best.
5. “The Invisible Man”
While “Host” might have been the timeliest horror movie of the year, “The Invisible Man”, one of the last big theatrical releases before the pandemic shutdown, was by far the best in the genre for 2020. H.G. Wells’ classic horror story has been told on the big screen many times, but horror director Leigh Whannell put an appropriate modern spin on the concept focusing on Elizabeth Moss as a woman trying to escape her abusive boyfriend only to discover he may have found a way to torture her without being seen. Not only is it an effective adaptation of the story for the #MeToo era, it’s blend of mainstream personality and art-house themes make it the best of both worlds in the horror genre satisfying both mainstream fans and those looking for a little more substance. It’s an uncomfortable thrill ride that finally puts Universal’s attempts at adapting their legendary movie monsters for today’s world on the right track.
4. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
Notable for being the final film of the late, great Chadwick Boseman, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” has much more to offer than just his spectacular Oscar-worthy performance. Viola Davis as the titular Mother of the Blues also turns in an awards-worthy turn in a story based on the August Wilson play of the same name that explores conversations and conflicts between members of Ma Rainey’s band during a recording session. The staging, pacing, blocking and script are all top notch here making for one of the smoothest viewing experiences of 2020. It’s themes of artistic control and the effects of racism as well as its fly-on-the-wall style examination of the genuine interactions between its characters make “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” a true contender for the upcoming award season.
Director Christopher Nolan is well known for his mind-bending films and creative approach to storytelling. “Tenet” is only the latest display of his genius and might be his most ambitious film to date. The movie follows the Protagonist, played by John David Washington, who joins an organization called Tenet which sees operatives conduct missions but inversion, allowing them to move backward through time while the normal world remains in forward motion. While the science talk and complicated ideas may be too much for some to get behind, “Tenet’s” brilliant visual style, energetic pacing, practical effects and original concepts continue Nolan’s reputation as one of the most inspired and inventive filmmakers in the industry. It’s a mind trip in the best way worthy of several repeat viewings to fully understand its complexities making it both challenging and exciting to experience over and over again.
Some might wonder why this film is on this year’s list and not last year’s. Well while “1917” received limited release in late 2019 to contend for Oscars, it was actually released to the masses in January of 2020 and as such is a film counted for this calendar year and it is a beauty. Directed by Sam Mendes and inspired by his grandfather’s stories from World War I, “1917” follows two soldiers traveling across battlefields to deliver a message to stop an attack deemed a suicide mission. The entire film is designed to appear as if it was shot in a single take save for one moment in the film’s middle point. The two actors at the center of it all take full advantage of their time in the spotlight and the production design, camerawork and editing are all astounding. This is truly an artistic spectacle and one of the most immersive war movies you will ever behold. It’s a sincere dedication to the men who fought in the First World War and truly earned the Golden Globes it took home as well as its Oscars for sound mixing, visual effects and cinematography.
I have never before felt compelled to put an animated movie at the top of these lists, but here we are. Pixar is well known for its numerous artistic achievements and quality films, but “Soul” is the pinnacle of their talents for storytelling, animation and casting. “Soul” explores a musician’s journey in the afterlife when he is paired with a rebellious pre-soul who doesn’t want to join life on Earth. As you might have guessed they discover the true hidden beauty of living and realize that just because you don’t accomplish what you feel you are meant to do doesn’t mean you have failed to find your purpose. I can’t say enough about how much this movie does right from the committed voice cast to the eye-popping visuals to its tear-jerking and universally relevant themes. It’s also arguably the perfect film for both kids and adults to watch as anyone can take something away from this story. “Soul” isn’t just the best animated movie of the year, and in my opinion best movie of the year, it might be Pixar’s magnum opus that challenges all animation studios to step up their game.