The 20 Best Movies of 2020

Back in the fall, we were so uncertainly about the prospects of discussing the best movies of 2020 in a timely fashion that we decided to call it early and do a best-movies-of-the-year podcast in September. Who knew when anything would get back to normal, if ever? As it turns out, we’re well into 2021 and things still haven’t gotten back to normal (and no amount of pushing the Oscars into April has changed that). But something that stayed the same, albeit in weird and different shapes, were movies, in that there were good movies all through 2020, and in a hell year–hell, a hell-year-plus–that’s still worth talking about. So here we are, talking about the best movies of 2020 again; this time in writing, though a podcast will soon follow, too. And if we (I, Jesse) didn’t get this up until March, well, we’re still having the conversation earlier than the Oscars. That’s gotta count for something, right? Maybe in a few months, you can even start to think about how you might see revivals of these movies out in the real world again. The best movies of 2020 are here for you well into 2021 and beyond! Herewith, Sara, Marisa, Jeremy, Jesse, and Nathaniel talk about their collective favorites.

The 20 Best Movies of 2020

20. Bill & Ted Face the Music

“If I’m making a list of the movies of 2020, that particular year that we all experienced, something that I really responded to in Bill & Ted Face the Music, and in general that I was looking for in pop culture this year, was the ways of people trying to connect and express that we were all experiencing something together. Across the world, we were all having this experience, and being able to feel that sense of connection even though we were all sitting at home. And especially as the year went on and that feeling began to really fray… and as much as I loved Bill & Ted as part three of a series that I love and getting to spend time with these characters and the fun silliness of it, the buoyant joyousness of those characters… the way they resolved this thread of this song that’s supposed to save the world, with that sequence of people all throughout history and the universe all vibing on the same thing, last year, that was the moment where no other moment in film approached how nourishing that was for me.” – Nathaniel, on a forthcoming podcast, explaining why this movie was #1 on his list

19. Mank

Poor Mank just can’t catch a break! First he co-writes Citizen Kane, which becomes a consensus choice for the greatest movie of all time, but well after Herman J. Mankiewicz is dead and gone, and mostly attributed to director/co-writer/star Orson Welles. Then a whole damn movie is made about him, seems like it’s poised to become the sensation of the awards season, and gets insta-backlashed over its Manky interpretation of events and unexpected subplot about the gubernatorial race in 1930s California. Now it’ll be lucky to Mank out a Best Picture nom! Where’s the justice for Mank and Mank? If this sounds ridiculous or sarcastic, you’re onto something; obviously David Fincher’s Mank is no underdog, anymore than a rich, successful, Oscar-winning screenwriter has been screwed over by history. But that’s not really what Mank is about, anyway (at least most of the time). It’s more about the costs and compromises of doing what you love, but at the behest of other people. Mank (Gary Oldman) likes writing and drinking and making pithy remarks at parties—and becomes so uncertain that this is getting him anywhere that he lashes out in ways both admirable and, just as often, deeply stupid and/or self-destructive. As the cornball Oscar clip-package intro will go: Shot in eerily beautiful black and white, evoking both the romance and injustice of a bygone era that may not be all that bygone, this is Mank. – Jesse

18. The Climb

Michael Angelo Covino and Kyle Marvin have somehow constructed a series of stunts that feel true to life, a balletic heightening of male bumbling and tricky emotions told through long takes and other logistical nightmares usually left out of bros-being-bros comedies. The relationship at the center of The Climb owes a little bit to late-2000s-era Apatow bromance, but it also has a lot of Noah Baumbach in its bracing bad behavior and cinematic bona fides. In the one-take opening scene that everyone must discuss when writing about this movie or even describing it, two dudes on a challenging uphill bike ride see their relationship fracture in real time as one confesses to sleeping with the other’s fiancée. The movie repeatedly jumps forward in time from that point, deepening and developing the story of the two men at its center, empathetic but not especially romantic about their failings and their on-and-off connection. It may sound trite, but it’s true: the uphill climb doesn’t end when you get off the bike. – Jesse

17. Bacurau

A year after Parasite took the world unexpectedly by storm it might have been a bit too much to hope for another foreign film to manage the same feat. We all had a lot of things on our mind, after all, and no Cannes Film Festival to guide the way. But of all the potential heirs to that lofty throne, Brazil’s Bacurau comes closest to capturing the renegade spirit of Bong Joon Ho’s masterpiece. Similarly slippery when it comes to genre delineations and informed by the same anti-capitalist politics, the film is off-kilter from the beginning: a portrait of an isolated rural town that starts as quirky social commentary and eventually coalesces into a grindhouse-esque pastiche, complete with UFO-like drones, renegade motorcyclists, really big guns, and an impeccably supercilious Udo Kier. It’s also a bit of a mess, but that’s part of the fun. True revolution is rarely tidy, but it’s also rarely so mischievous. No 2020 film expressed that with more go-for-broke gusto than this one.– Sara

16. Beanpole

Beanpole was the last movie I saw in theatres, on March 4th, 2020 at the Gene Siskel Center in downtown Chicago. Sometimes I wonder if that’s why I continue to hold it in such high regard. It’s a strange movie to feel nostalgic about, since there’s little that’s warm or inviting about it, aside from the rich colors director Kantemir Balagov uses to deliberately offset the unrelenting grimness of his film. But it is a story about survival, in this case of two women in post-World War II Leningrad who work in a veteran’s hospital and form an unusual, often parasitic, bond. Forced to endure a tumultuous time in world history, neither quite has the means to achieve the life they want, a circumstance that only grew more painfully relatable as 2020 wore on. In a year full of surprising dance sequences, some delightful and some unsettling, the tortured choreography of Masha and Iya’s mutual destruction might be the most resonant. – Sara

15. Tenet

A giddy rush of propulsive action, sleek imagery, and timey-wimey nonsense, Christopher Nolan’s latest sci-fi epic is a triumph of blockbuster filmmaking, a work of monumental size and filigreed detail. Sure, it’s imperfect: The screenplay is incomprehensible, and the depth of character is limited. But those flaws are dwarfed by the project’s extraordinary ambition and even more exhilarating execution. Fusing strains of James Bond and Jason Bourne with his own restless imagination, Nolan conjures a globe-trotting adventure that pulses with energy and momentum. When an expository lackey advises John David Washington, “Don’t try to understand it, feel it,” it may be a risible piece of lampshading, but it’s also pretty damn sensible advice; you don’t need to follow Tenet’s plot to appreciate the boisterous elegance and breathtaking innovation of its set pieces. (A magnificent car chase is both explosive and coherent, while an eye-popping duel where one combatant is moving backward in time bristles with verve and ingenuity.) And while Nolan’s brain tends to outpace his heart, he remains an unappreciated humanist; Washington and Robert Pattinson, effortlessly parrying the script’s playful dialogue, evince a winning chemistry that’s genuinely touching in its loyalty and warmth. Segments of Tenet may travel in reverse, but in wielding his gift for crafting idea-driven spectacle, Nolan continues to move forward. – Jeremy

14. I’m Thinking of Ending Things

Looking at both my personal list and our master list of Best 2020 films, I was struggling a bit to think of a throughline linking them all. Immersion felt like one possibility, from the sound design of Sound of Metal to the traumatic use of VFX in The Invisible Man to Mank’s slavish recreation of old Hollywood. A certain vein of tension that I like to call “latent horror” was another. This is the creeping feeling that something very bad is about to happen, but the filmmakers withhold the cheap catharsis of a traditional jump scare. The first half of Black Bear and Sean Durkin’s The Nest, which both made my list but not the group’s, qualify. But it’s Charlie Kaufman who brings those two themes together in the way only he can with I’m Thinking of Ending Things, his third directorial feature. It’s the purest distillation of the writer’s anxious proclivities thus far, and a deeply uncomfortable viewing experience, so it’s kind of hilarious that it debuted on Netflix, the most milquetoast of the streaming services. Ostensibly the story of a young woman going to meet her boyfriend’s parents for the first time, it’s aggressively disorienting from the start – the characters trapped in a seemingly endless snowstorm, speaking both elliptically and identically, at one point quoting a Pauline Kael review in full. The wobbly reality beneath the couple slips even further away at the house, where the family dog can’t stop shaking its head and the parents seem to be aging at a rapid pace. Things takes its time to reveal its true protagonist, a person who can’t imagine a happy ending for themselves even in their wildest fantasies, and I can’t blame any viewers who bowed out well before the bewildering climax. Even though I greatly admired it and ranked it highly, I’m not eager to revisit it myself. My headspace is anxious enough. Billy Crystal is a nancy, though.– Sara

13. Kajillionaire

I understand why Miranda July’s work might strike some viewers as alien, or at least affected: She doesn’t traffic in handheld realism, and her characters often have that indie-movie combination of ridiculousness and quiet interiority that make them resemble Wes Anderson creations. Yet to me, her strange and lovely con-artist romance Kajillionaire feels very much of this world, not some twee alternate universe. It centers on Old Dolio (Even Rachel Wood), the adult child of two-bit scammers (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger), who dutifully performs a series of cons so low-level, they barely seem to exist. (Shades of the frustrating Tom Sawyer passages of Huckleberry Finn.) July even offers contrast in the form of a more outwardly well-adjusted woman (Gina Rodriguez) who takes a brief shine to this family of oddballs. But what family isn’t full of oddballs, and isn’t the whole set-up full of performance and role-playing, even if it’s sometimes insignificant enough to escape notice? As Old Dolio (whose goofy name has a thematically fitting and sublimely tossed-off explanation, I promise) starts to possibly-maybe extricate herself from this bizarre situation, July trains her keen eye on what’s toxic and weird about it, yes—but also what’s eerily familiar, like the improvised familial-chatter theater the scammers perform for a dying stranger as they prepare to ransack his house for checks to forge. What is the value of the damage we inevitably suffer in our upbringing? Kajillionaire does a brilliant job of performing that impossible calculation. – Jesse

12. Straight Up

It’s understandable that comedies live and die on the strength of their jokes, but it’s important to remember that they’re movies—you know, motion pictures, with a camera and everything. In this regard, 2020 yielded a veritable bounty; where The Climb stylized its toxic bromance with silky long takes reminiscent of Michael Haneke, Straight Up sports the atypical aspect ratios and precision framing of a Wes Anderson film. The debut feature of James Sweeney (who also stars), it exhibits unusual care in how its images are composed, with lots of whip-pans and dead-center close-ups, and nary a generic over-the-shoulder shot to be found. This level of meticulousness extends to Sweeney’s script, which deploys a delightful rat-a-tat banter while also grappling with thorny issues endemic to modern romance: the fluidity (or lack thereof) of sexual preference, the necessity (or lack thereof) of physical intimacy in relationships, the lingering scars of past trauma. As a production, Straight Up is so painstakingly controlled, it might have risked feeling suffocating, were it not for the vivacity of the lead performances. Sweeney, presumably playing a version of himself, is wonderfully persnickety, while Katie Findlay is downright luminous as the struggling actor who finds him both enchanting and infuriating. As they bond and bicker over glorious trivialities—Alanis Morissette lyrics, white elephant rituals, Gilmore Girls—this very funny, fiercely intelligent film acquires an extrasensory insight: that falling under the spell of a great movie can feel an awful lot like falling in love. – Jeremy

11. Soul

Is Pixar’s latest wonder a buddy comedy, a ticking-clock thriller, or an existential study of happiness and despair? The answer, of course, is all of these, but one of the achievements of Pete Docter’s triumph is that it doesn’t shoehorn itself into discrete boxes, instead nimbly integrating its vigorous charms with its more ruminative qualities. Visually, it’s both predictably gorgeous and startlingly unusual, with a supple minimalism whose spare beauty cuts against the more-is-more approach that typifies modern animation. And narratively, it’s exquisite for the way it smoothly traces the arc of a traditional hero’s journey while also upending our expectations. Soul is a broadly entertaining movie, replete with spry dialogue, funny sight gags, and sumptuously rendered environments. But it also lingers with you, asking sincere questions—about life and death, work and play, art and commerce—rather than dispensing neatly packaged platitudes. That it can provoke legitimate thought while also delivering witty references and fart jokes is a testament to Docter’s versatility as a storyteller. One of the film’s ideas is that passion and fulfillment aren’t necessarily the same thing. Fair enough. But the spirit of joyful creativity that runs through Soul is unmistakable, implying that the equation might in fact hold. After all, Pixar’s labor is our pleasure. – Jeremy

10. Never Rarely Sometimes Always

A woman’s right to choose is protected by the U.S. Constitution (for now!), but that might come as news to the heroine of Never Rarely Sometimes Always who endures a panoply of indignities while undertaking a simple quest for healthcare. Yet while Eliza Hittman’s third feature is unashamedly political, it is too humane to be punishing, and too nuanced to be polemical. It is instead a compassionate study of gritty resourcefulness and feminine solidarity. Chronicling the grueling adventures of a young woman (a heartbreaking Sidney Flanigan) seeking an abortion, Hittman tells her story with crushing matter-of-factness, but she also imbues it with whispers of decency and grace. In some ways, Never Rarely unfolds like an action movie, in which its overmatched heroes must use their singular abilities to defeat an army of powerful foes—except the villains here aren’t individual evildoers, but a complex network of governmental interference and patriarchal moralizing. And so, in a year largely devoid of superheroes, one of cinema’s most rewarding team-ups is the quiet partnership between a determined 17-year-old woman and her equally strong-willed cousin (Talia Ryder). They’re just a teenager and her bratty friend, but in fearlessly navigating the minefield of anti-choice obstacles that Hittman so persuasively depicts, they transform into an indomitable warrior and her steadfast paladin. And in relaying their journey with such clarity and tenderness, Hittman does honor to her characters, and to countless subjugated women across the country besides. – Jeremy

9. Bad Education

The pleasures of watching Bad Education, a fact-based story about a high-achieving school superintendent who’s embezzling money, are obvious: Everyone loves true crime tales, no one can resist a good scammer story, and if you wrap the two in a package as easy to watch (craft-wise) as Hugh Jackman, and you’ve got a movie that’s easy to devour. But for me, the appreciation goes beyond that. I grew up a commuter-rail train ride from New York City, and I’m always complaining about the way that suburbs are portrayed in movies. Whenever a movie is pointedly set in the ‘burbs, it’s about 1) adultery, 2) adultery, 3) key parties?, or 4) the souring-of-the-American-Dream via American Beauty-style commentary on empty consumerism. In my experience, that’s not what the suburbs were about. And though I didn’t grow up on Long Island, Bad Education is one of the few movies that captures what my suburban experience was like. It’s not about adultery, it’s about making sure your school district is a little bit ahead of Jericho’s, to prove that you’re just a little bit better than them. And if it means looking the other way and bending the rules, so be it. Just don’t get caught. Very cursory internet research tells me that Cory Finley didn’t grow up in the New York City area, but between this and Thoroughbreds, he can continue telling my suburban story. – Marisa

8. Sound of Metal

Darius Marder’s movie, about a heavy-metal drummer who begins to lose his hearing, proves that cinema is an auditory medium as much as it is a visual one. At every given moment, you’re thinking about sound as you watch it. The movie is closed-captioned (a fact Jesse and I, watching at home, didn’t understand at first, so we kept trying to find a way to turn the subtitles off), and it plays with how well you can actually hear what you can read. It puts you off-balance, and then on top of that off-kilter feeling, you’re paired with Riz Ahmed’s Ruben, whose life and livelihood is slipping away along with his hearing. His frustration, anger, and fear becomes yours. His acceptance grows as you fall into the rhythms of the movie. Paul Raci’s Joe becomes a guide to both of you. Through them, you get to wonder what the world would be like if you had to process it all differently. – Marisa

7. Da Five Bloods

There was a time in the late ’90s and early ’00s where I thought I had the great Spike Lee pretty well-figured: He would do a clear, purposeful movie that plays to his strengths, followed by something ambitious and often less satisfying. He Got Game and Summer of Sam, then Bamboozled. 25th Hour, then She Hate Me. Inside Man, then Miracle at St. Anna. Some years in more experimental wilderness seemed to throw that out of wack: the messiness of Red Hook Summer chased with the unsuccessful mainstream play of the Old Boy remake feels like a funhouse-mirror refutation of my dumb theory. Da Five Bloods refutes it even better, following the accessible, relatively straightforward BlacKkKlansman with a long, digression-heavy, war-movie-buddy-comedy-action-adventure-state-of-the-union hybrid, by turns strange and dazzling and threatening to fall apart. But anchored by the central quartet of Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., and especially Delroy Lindo, playing Vietnam War buddies reuniting to dig up their old commanding officer and maybe get some lost gold, Da Five Bloods has enough gravity to keep it from flying off the rails. Lee’s open desire to reckon with how the Black Experience tangles with the fullness of American history seems like it should trigger a massive overreach; instead, it generates an inimitable electricity. And it’s got me thinking I should really look at Bamboozled again. – Jesse

6. The Assistant

To some viewers, perhaps, The Assistant might have the feel of an exercise: its one-day-in-the-life structure; its cold, sterile, and unvarying interiors; the tracking of secretarial drudgery in real time; the pains it takes to keep the boss unseen but omnipresent. For these viewers, perhaps, they felt some distance from Julia Garner’s unnamed protagonist working at a Weinstein-esque film company. Why does she stay in a situation that’s clearly harmful? Why doesn’t she quit, if it’s really so bad? Surely there must be other, better jobs out there where this wouldn’t be a problem. These viewers, perhaps, have never kept quiet while a co-worker cried in the next bathroom stall. Never felt that tiny stirring in the chest when praise, usually parceled out is miserly portions, is suddenly granted. Never had an HR rep sneer when they told them what borough they live in and then used that to dismiss everything else they had to say. This is how director Kitty Greene makes us complicit. It’s not a pleasant viewing experience, but it’s a timely reminder for those of us longing to return to the office that it wasn’t all that great for many of us to begin with.– Sara

5. The Vast of Night

Every so often, a smallish independent film breaks through based on sheer ingenuity. Sometimes it’s as an example of production limitations becoming a strength (“this two-person one-room movie is so gripping!” or “they shot this whole thing using the Instagram story feature!”) and sometimes it’s a case of approximating a bigger budget look using indie tools (“they created the monster AND the space city on a computer in their garage!”). The Vast of Night flirts with both approaches but ends up somewhere all its own. In a movie built around conversations, debut director Andrew Patterson does assured work making them distinct and involving. From the sneakily complex tracking shots that follow Fay and Everett (Sierra McCormick and Jake Horowitz giving real “where have these people been hiding?” performances) as they go about their evening, flirt, and get to know each other, to the tense close-ups-punctuated-by-blackouts conversations that delve into the mystery at the heart of the story, each sequence turns limitations into strengths. But for all its indie-movie talkiness, it also has some big movie flavor, with a convincing period setting and a show-stopping traveling shot that links characters across town without any obvious trickery. And finally, for all of these “what a neat movie” qualifications and beautifully executed spooky vibe, it lands on something real and bittersweet in the connection between the two main characters, outsiders both but maybe not destined for the kind of escape they both really deserve. – Nathaniel

4. The Invisible Man

I’ve seen the original Invisible Man. It’s awesome. It’s violent. But it’s not especially scary. Leigh Wannell’s The Invisible Man tells you from the opening moments that it’s going to be fucking scary. You’re thrown into Cecila Kass’s escape. You don’t know from whom, or why, but, from Elisabeth Moss’s gut-twisting panic, you know immediately that she has to get the fuck out of there or some bad shit is going to go down. (My only complaint about the movie is that Moss is so good, she seems like she can chew up and spit out all the other actors through her sheer tour-de-forceness, including Mr. Invisible; it’s the one thing that slightly undermines the “making the victim the main character” storyline this was pushing, because every other performer is a victim of the Moss acting steamroller.) As more of the story is revealed, you don’t get to feel any safer. There are gasp-eliciting moments throughout. This may be another reason why I think so fondly about The Invisible Man: I got to see it with other people, back when that was possible. There were gasps. There were screams. There were couples not-at-all whispering the plot to each other. Now, all these people still exist somewhere, but I can’t see them. They’re all invisible to me. – Marisa

3. Nomadland

Nomadland is a movie that takes place in the corner of your eye. It’s not about the people or places you keep in the front of your mind — it takes places on the fringes. Fern is older, living out of her van (not even an RV), working when she can at seasonal jobs at Amazon or in tourist traps and befriending those who do the same. She’s not a bad person, she doesn’t seem miserable with her life, she’s not desperate to find love and sex or avoid love and sex. She’s almost designed to slip from your attention. How the hell do you build a movie around someone like that? First, you cast Frances McDormand, so Fern can no longer be ignored. Then have Chloé Zhao improve on the approach she used in The Rider, perfecting the mix of empathy and interested distance. It’s not a plot-heavy movie, but its tale of just barely hanging on evokes a very 2020 mood. – Marisa

2. Palm Springs

Ah, a movie for everyone to enjoy. Doesn’t that sound a bit like something an Andy Samberg character might say in an SNL sketch before putting on something horrible like The Roommate? Yet after years of intermittently making box office bombs destined for unprofitable years-later mass reclamation, then some more years of making modestly popular but vaguely flavorless sitcom episodes about zany cops, Andy Samberg finally delivered a crowd-pleasing critical hit that doesn’t sacrifice his comic skill set for faux-seriousness—and naturally, Neon paid a then-record Sundance acquisition fee only to see that go up in smoke as the movie went off to Hulu post-pandemic. So, even Samberg’s designated big hit kinda flopped. But Palm Springs will stick around; look no further than the individual lists submitted by SportsAlcohol.com’s movie crew, where everyone placed it and no one had it as high as it wound up ranking on the group list. That’s some nobody-hated-it consensus right there, speaking to the movie’s sneaky accessibility: it’s a time-loop comedy, one that’s well aware of how we’ve seen this time-loop-comedy stuff before, and often, and flips that familiarity into a hitting-the-ground running energy as space and time contrive an existentially terrifying way for a genial doofus-wiseass (Samberg) and a charming fuck-up (Cristin Milioti) to fall in love when they start sharing their stasis—with each other, and no one else. A perfect pandemic-season trap has the dark whimsy of some of Samberg’s Lonely Island jams, but lent some rueful soulfulness by filmmakers Andy Siara and Max Barbakow. Its greatest and forgivable lapse of sci-fi logic: Would it really take a whole time loop for someone to fall in love with Cristin Milioti? – Jesse

1. First Cow

On Friday, March 13th, 2020 I went for my last drinks in a bar. I was with work colleagues and we were giddy with a lot of things: excitement, apprehension, bourbon. The college we worked for had recently announced they would be closing for the next two weeks in an effort to combat COVID. Before we dispersed into the night, we talked about plans for the weekend. I thought I might see a movie. I’d heard good things about First Cow. The next day, Governor Pritzker announced a lockdown on Chicago. Though technically it wouldn’t start until Monday, I decided against a trip to the theatre. Maybe it would still be playing there when things were safer.

By the time I did see First Cow via a streaming offer it was July, and I hadn’t been to the movies in four months. I watched it on my laptop, alone in a studio apartment I had only left for weekly trips to the grocery store or walks in the park, desperate to be transported somewhere, anywhere else. Kelly Reichardt’s film gave me what I needed and more. Almost all of her films could be categorized as odes to society’s outsiders, and if you didn’t feel like one in the midst of endless imposed isolation and Zoom calls, then we experienced very different years. The story of two enterprising souls in Oregon Territory, one a Chinese immigrant and one a Jewish man, who scheme to steal milk from their frontier town’s only cow, it’s a withering capitalist critique sheathed in a warm and modest tale of kindred spirits. At a time when kindness often seemed in short supply, maybe it’s not surprising that a film that advocates its virtues in a hard world spoke to so many of us. In the end all we have is one another, Reichardt insists in the film’s heartbreaking final moments. To ignore this condemns us all to dust. – Sara

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