Despite the fact that Hollywood and the global movie industry took a major hit, 2020 was still a great year for film. We just had to look in different places, use different platforms, and watch things less theatrically than in years before.
In some ways, it was kind of cool. (At least speaking movie wise, death, unemployment, et al, not cool, not cool at all.) Unexpected films became bigger hits than they otherwise would have, smaller movies got more eyes, and people, out of necessity, explored titles they’d probably avoid for one reason or another in normal times. Also, any year Scott Adkins is in like 50 movies is a good year around these parts.
(Yeah, we cover big movies here, but so much of what we do focuses on indie, international, and otherwise left-of-center films, not much changed for us in a practical sense. Sure, we didn’t hit the theater as much, but given our niche, so much of what we cover already arrives on screeners and digital links, it wasn’t all that different on this front.)
Film festivals adapted and evolved, changing their strategies at a rapid pace, and smaller fests led the way. They already have to be inventive and resourceful to survive, and many larger, more established events followed their streaming model. Again, this led to many people diving into films and fests they don’t normally have the chance on inclination to explore. (And again, we cover so many events remotely, it was old hat for us.)
In the grand scheme there was, of course, more damage done than good and the industry may never be the same. (Movie theaters have taken a beating for sure, many projects have died on the vine, countless people lost their jobs.) But there has been a lot written about that by people with more insight and knowledge, so we choose to focus on what positives we can find.
As earlier stated, 2020 was still a great year for movies, regardless of what anyone says. And because of that, we have (and by we, I really mean I, I’m the only one here most of the time) slapped together a best-of list for the plague year.
As always, “best” is a subjective term. I have been and continue to be bad at quantifying movies, ranking and rating them, and slapping relative values on them. Most accurately, these are “my favorite movies of 2020.” If you’ve read this far, you likely know my taste, so make of that what you will. Who knows how many will actually make this list. I’m not great at counting and I always forget one or two titles that I find a way to cram in at the last minute.
One last thing, these aren’t in any particular order. Most years I have a clear favorite and the rest just kind of show up on the list in the order I think of them. This time, however, there’s no obvious number one, but know that if it shows up here, it rocked my brain in one way or another.
Without further ado, here we go, my favorite movies of 2020.
Dinner in America
A “middle-finger-flying, punk-rock-fuck-you of a love story,” Dinner in America doesn’t release until later in 2021, so you all need to mark your calendars. Hell, it might make my list next year, too. Comparable to the likes of Repo Man and Bonnie and Clyde, this is urgent and pressing at the same time it’s aimless, and the film captures the feeling of punk in an authentic fashion most films that try fail to achieve. “Fuck the rest of them, fuck ‘em all but us.”
Color Out of Space
If Nicolas Cage and Richard Stanley adapting a one of H.P. Lovecraft’s most cosmic horror tales sounds like something you’d enjoy, you’re in luck. I called it “Hyper-stylized, strange and gooey, existential and mind-bending…this is wild psychedelic sci-fi.” Yeah, that sums it up pretty well.
Why Don’t You Just Die!
Darkly comic, viciously brutal, mean-spirited as all hell, Russian import Why Don’t You Just Die! is nasty, violent, funny, twisted, and much more. A blood-soaked roller coaster, it’s reckless chaos end-to-end. It’s like a Roadrunner cartoon if the Coyote actually exploded, or if Sam Raimi made Evil Dead a revenge thriller instead of a cabin-in-the-woods horror film.
In reality, Palm Springs probably stands as my favorite of 2020, if for no other reason than I’ve watched it more than any other new movie this year. It quickly became one of my go-to comfort movies, one I could throw on and enjoy at any time. The time-loop rom com manages to not only be sweet and charming, thanks in large part to leads Cristin Milioti and Andy Samberg, but the script is endlessly clever and intricate—I continue to notice small, crafty details on each rewatch.
Da 5 Bloods
No film of 2020 has a better ensemble cast than Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods. The story of four Black veterans returning to Vietnam to find the remains of their beloved squad leader, and the fortune in gold they hid during the war, the film delves into race in America, collective trauma, friendship, brotherhood, and more weighty ideas. All wrapped in a Treasure of Sierra Madre-style adventure, it’s incendiary and human in the way of Lee’s best. And while the entire cast is fantastic, but Delroy Lindo absolutely destroys.
The Dark and the Wicked
I keep describing Bryan Bertino’s The Dark and the Wicked as a mixture of the isolated, creeping supernatural dread of The Witch and the sparse West Texas aesthetic of Hell or High Water, and I stand by that. It leans hard on tone and atmosphere, gradually escalates the demonic tension, and plays up family grief as supernatural horror. Bleak and desolate, this is one of the most terrifying films of the year.
Fall Back Down
“A lo-fi punk mystery romance…Fall Back Down is the cinematic personification of living in a big punk house with a ton of roommates. It’s fun and chaotic, random and strange, frustrating and complicated, full of wild characters, and leads you into all sorts of off-kilter adventures. You’re going to drink too much, you’re going to write some songs, you’re going to wake to find an impromptu concert in your basement, you’re going to make out with some people you shouldn’t. And it’s never going to wind up where you expect.” This is one of the most authentically punk movies I’ve ever encountered.
Promising Young Woman
Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman pulls zero punches, and that makes some people uncomfortable, which is the goal. It’s a savage tear down of the boys-will-be-boys/we-can’t-let-one-mistake-ruin-a-bright-future (so long as that bright future belongs to a man) mentality so pervasive in our society. The story of a once-top-of-her-class med student derailed by a traumatic event, the film illustrates the damage this mindset causes, as well as imagining the comeuppance that so rarely accompanies instances of sexual assault. Carey Mulligan plays a searing lead, and the supporting men are absolutely perfectly cast to drive home the point of how often “nice guys” aren’t actually so nice. (Almost each one has prominently played that nice guy role in their career, often it’s what they’re best known for.) This is timely, bold, and unflinching, and doubly impressive for being a directorial debut.
One of Steve McQueen’s five Small Axe films, Lovers Rock is more an immersive experience than typical narrative. Set in early 1980s London, in a neighborhood predominantly made up of Caribbean immigrants, it tracks the life cycle of a house party from beginning to end. There’s the pre-gathering excitement, the awkward early stages, the unfettered joy when it peaks, the barely clinging sanity as it presses into early morning. All the while, McQueen places the viewer smack in the middle of it all. Without explicitly stating any of it, the film touches on race, class, violence, and more. It deftly exudes the feel, tension, and atmosphere of a place and time as people carve out moments of joy and create a place of their own where one didn’t already exist.
Sometimes everyone is right about a movie, and Nomadland is a prime example. Quiet and sparse and meandering, Chloe Zhao’s film is a nuanced, textured character portrait; a moving, distinct exploration of American poverty; a sharp, subtle evisceration of capitalism and all its failings; and much, much more. The story follows an older woman, a brilliant Frances McDormand, who, after losing her husband, job, and home, becomes part of a nomadic subculture of travelers who live in their vehicles, roaming the American backroads, working and living and forming a loose family and safety net where no other exists. Touching, poignant, and imminently necessary in the current world. It doesn’t release until later this year, but one 100% worth waiting for.
It wouldn’t be a best-of list without a movie about exploding teens, now would it? When high school students inexplicably begin to burst—in the bloodiest, gooiest fashion—it changes everything. Two seniors, no longer assured of their bright possible futures, struggle to come to terms and make the most of whatever time they have left. Starring Katherine Langford and Charlie Plummer, Spontaneous wraps earnest teen romance, a raucous dark comedy, and a sharp social satire, in a moving, bittersweet package. This has future classic written all over it.
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
Damn I miss bars. Not necessarily the drinking, you can drink anywhere, but the sense of community. Documentary Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets tracks the final day of a Las Vegas dive bar. More than anything, it captures the family atmosphere that so often develops, the friction, the shared joy and pain, and so much more—you may fight, you may yell, but in the end, you’re kin. I’ve had places like this, I’ve lost places like this, and in this case, the cameras show it all, good, bad, ugly, and everything in between.
Sound of Metal
As someone who hasn’t had a moment of true silence thanks to the omnipresent ringing in my ears since I was 16, Sound of Metal hits close to home. Riz Ahmed plays a drummer and recovering addict who, when he suddenly loses his hearing, has his entire world torn asunder. This threatens his career, his dreams, his relationship, his sobriety, everything. As he struggles to navigate this new reality, he’s forced to confront who he is, what’s most important, and what truly defines him. Quietly devastating, Ahmed gives one of best performances of 2020, along with Paul Raci delivering one of the year’s best supporting turns.
The Invisible Man
One of the last movies I saw in a theater in 2020, Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man not only revisits the classic Universal horror feature but gives it a clever update that’s both terrifying and pressing. Elisabeth Moss plays a woman trapped in an abusive relationship with a tech-genius billionaire. Even when she escapes, and he kills himself, he finds ways to torment her. Taut, surprising, and a constant gaslighting escalation, Moss delivers one of two incredible 2020 performances (the other being Shirley), Whannell makes impressive use of a modest budget, a shrewd story, and negative space, and The Invisible Mandelivers one of the year’s best movies, horror or otherwise.
Dick Johnson is Dead
We all process death and dying differently. For documentarian Kirsten Johnson (Cameraperson), she dealt with her father’s descent into Alzheimer’s by repeatedly pretending to kill him on screen and filming it. The result, Dick Johnson is Dead, is funny and warm, a joyous celebration of love and life, and absolutely, unequivocally crushing. This documentary left me floored, shaken, and sobbing in a corner. Beautiful and devastating in equal measures.
Like I said earlier, 2020 may have been a bad year for blockbusters, but it was still a great year for movies in general. Honestly, this is the most trouble I’ve had whittling down one of these lists in a long, long time.
It was sure as hell a banger year for horror. Movies like La Llorona and Impetigore even became their respective countries’ official Oscar submissions. Hell, in October, there were more horror releases than days in the month. (I may or may not make a separate 2020 horror list if I have the time, we will see.)
Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor was the hardest cut from this list. Gnarly psychedelic body horror must run in his DNA and I love it. His House was a close second. Remi Weekes’ debut feature frames an immigrant story as an unnerving supernatural horror yarn. Jeff Barnaby’s Blood Quantum, about an indigenous population with an immunity to a zombie plague, shows once again that there is life in the undead. Despite some sketchiness behind the scenes, I dug VFW, Joe Begos’ mutant-punks-versus-grizzled-war-vets siege movie that looks and feels like it crawled out of a grimy, urine-soaked gutter in John Carpenter’s neighborhood. Get Duked! drops a bunch of urban Scottish teens in the wilderness to swear, be out of place, and get hunted by rich weirdos in masks. It’s a boisterous and wild and features the best hallucinatory rabbit poop barn rave you’re likely to find. The Platform hasn’t received as much attention as it deserves, but it’s brutal and inventive and well worth a watch for genre fans and others.
Outside of Palm Springs, I haven’t watched a new movie more this year than Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga. It’s a bit long and has some issues, but it’s also impossible to watch without a giant shit-eating grin and yelling, “Play ‘Jaja Ding Dong.’” And if it doesn’t win an Oscar for best original song, the whole thing is rigged. Similarly, Bill & Ted Face the Music has flaws, but damn, if this isn’t exactly the shot of joy and hope and fun this year so desperately needed. Birds of Prey was easily my favorite superhero movie of 2020, a candy colored, brash, unapologetic blast. Also, who expected a Gerard Butler epic disaster movie to be as good as Greenland? But here we are, and it’s the best American disaster movie in years.
I didn’t watch many animated movies this year, but Wolfwalkers and Pixar’s Soul are both fantastic for adults and kids alike. (I also disliked Onward quite a bit, but many others seem to love it, so make of that what you will.)
At times, One Night in Miami feels uneven and a bit too constrained by its stage-play roots, but when it hits, it absolutely sings, with a top-tier ensemble. And if this is Regina King’s directorial debut, she needs another movie STAT. Rousingly anti-imperialist and anti-colonial, Bacurau offers up a strange mix of near-future dystopia with frontier western vibes. It also has one of the all-time great cinematic mullets. Wakaliwood’s latest action extravaganza, Crazy World, doesn’t hit highs of Bad Black, but they continue to churn out enthusiastic, unhinged action films the likes of which most people never see. This year also gave us the likes of Indian import Jallikattu, which is both gorgeous and bonkers; Skylines, which further propels the unlikely sci-fi action franchise in awesome new directions; and Malaysian banger Wira, which drops some of the year’s best fight scenes.
There are always a ton of incredible documentaries, but by all accounts, 2020 was an exceptional year. I’m lacking a bit in this realm, but I still saw tons of extraordinary non-fiction films. Class Action Park is a wild, chaotic ride about a phenomenon that could no longer exist today, then takes a drastic shift and becomes a damn horror movie. The History of the Seattle Mariners may be almost four hours and look like a Power Point presentation, but it’s also remarkably riveting, watchable, and entertaining. You Don’t Nomi presents a fun, moving, insightful look at the critical and popular reappraisal of Showgirls. Yes, that Showgirls. Collective follows a group of Romanian journalists investigating a tragedy, which leads them to uncover shocking levels of systematic corruption, illustrating the power and necessity of the press now more than ever. Truly an important, vital piece of filmmaking.
There are obviously a ton of other movies I haven’t seen, or that almost made this list. What movies moved you and blew your hair back in 2020? Sound off in the comments below.