This was easily one of the weirdest years not only for film but as a human being. We had our lives turned upside down in March, and with that came a huge change to movie watching this year – a lack of movie theater experiences. At the beginning of 2020, it looked like it was going to shape up to be another home run of a year like 2019 was. Due to the circumstances, many films got postponed or strictly moved to video on demand (VOD). With this move to a lot of at-home viewings, I thought I would see more new releases than I had in previous years, but it appears the opposite happened. In comparison, I saw about sixty films released in 2019, but in 2020 with so many new releases available from the comfort of my couch, I only saw twenty-six.
A lot of this would be caused by missing the experience of going to the theater. Even if I saw a bad film at a theater, I remember the communal experience of going to the theater, picking out seats, and having an experience is a more enjoyable experience than just picking something and watching it home. So, when reading this list of my favorite films from 2020, keep in mind that there is a lot I haven’t seen from this year. Here’s to a more enjoyable and fulfilling year of film in 2021.
Honorable Mentions: Frist Cow & Mank
10. Palm Springs
Arguably the most 2020 film out there, Palm Springs follows Nyles and Sarah, who continue to live the same day over and over and over again. I watched this in the middle of a stay-at-home order where I was living out the same day over and over again. I was worried that Palm Springs would feel too much like Groundhog Day, but it did enough to feel unique in its ways. It felt good and almost stress relieving to see a film that encapsulated that feeling so effortlessly. I think many people felt stuck in a rut of their daily stay-at-home routine, and Palm Springs felt freeing in the way it was told.
Palm Springs was the directorial debut for Max Barbakow, and it was an absolute hit. It was charming, funny, romantic, and had a great balance of those same themes and genres. Andy Samberg as Nyles and Cristin Milioti as Sarah had some of the best chemistry in any film I had seen this year, and they made it so easy to fall in love with their characters. You can watch Palm Springs on Hulu.
My Grade: B-
9. I’m Thinking About Ending Things
I first watched I’m Thinking About Ending Things back in September. Over four months later, and it is still a film that is rather hard to digest. There are times where I find myself thinking about it and trying to decipher what the true meaning is behind Charlie Kaufamn’s latest film. It is equal parts beautiful and bizarre and is one I will continue to revisit over the years. I’ve just been utterly fascinated by this film since its initial release.
I’m Thinking About Ending Things has some of my favorite performances of the entire year. Toni Collette and David Thewlis gave some of the most underrated performances as the mom and dad to the character played by Jessie Buckley’s character. In the film, Buckley’s boyfriend, played by Jesse Plemons, was also fantastic, and he has quickly become one of my favorite actors working today, he’s just so damn good in everything he is in. Then finally, Jessie Buckley, who plays the role of Young Woman and she plays it to perfection. She deserves all of the praise she has received for this film. You can stream I’m Thinking of Ending Things on Netflix.
My Grade: B-
8. Sound of Metal
Sound of Metal is a truly intimate story about how sometimes we have to go on journeys of re self-discovery to figure out how to adapt our lives. And even though we want to change things about ourselves, sometimes leaving things as they are is better than altering ourselves because our idea of that type of enhancement doesn’t pan out how we want.
This film does a remarkable job of putting the audience in Ruben’s shoes (played by Riz Ahmed), a metal band drummer and ex-addict who is rapidly losing his hearing. It goes through all of the thoughts and personal tribulations that one in those shoes has to go through. The film’s beginning does a superb job of putting the audience through something as anxiety-inducing as losing your hearing and having your livelihood put in jeopardy.
A lot of the film is a little clunky, but the messaging and themes are strong throughout. It’s incredibly emotional and visceral. It includes one of my favorite performances of the year through Riz Ahmed, but it has an excellent supporting cast, which helps push the film and guide Ruben through this story. It also has some of the best sound mixing and overall design of any film I’ve ever seen. It’s a must-see. Oh, and that final shot is simply perfection. You can stream Sound of Metal on Amazon Prime Video.
My Grade: B-
7. Birds of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)
Hey, a movie we saw in theaters! This is the first on the list that mass audiences could have seen in theaters, which was an absolute delight. It came out in February and since then has been moved to streaming. Birds of Prey is one of the bright spots in the DCEU. While I haven’t seen everything in the DCEU yet, what I have seen has been underwhelming, to say the least. Bird of Prey has a powerful cast. It stars Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, who is fantastic as usual. The main antagonist, Roman Sionis, played by the masterful Ewan McGregor. The rest of the star-studded cast includes Rosie Perez, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Jurnee Smollett.
Birds of Prey is a film that is heavy on women empowerment, and it rocks from start to finish. It has the fun moments that comic book movies should have while simultaneously feeling like a serious and more mature drama. It includes a tremendous sophomore performance by director Cathy Yan who, after Birds of Prey, should be able to tell any story that she wants. It is a film that feels grounded enough that so much of it is relatable but carefully balances the fantasy elements that make so many comic book movies great. You can currently stream Birds of Prey on HBO Max.
My Grade: B-
Tenet seems to be one of the more divisive films of 2020. Many people (myself included) seem to love it, while many dislike it. Tenet is the most recent story from the mind of Christopher Nolan, and I think it could be argued it was one of his best. It was a film that some were able to see in theaters, but this was an at-home experience for many. Fortunately, I think Tenet is a film that holds up extremely well at home.
It is a very Nolan-esque film. It has a lot of interesting concepts, and I think it pulls them off rather well. Nolan seems to be obsessed with the construct of time and, more so, how we think about time. We see this in Interstellar, Inception, and now in Tenet. Tenet has a lot of the same issue some of Nolan’s other films have, and that is that his characters lack a lot of emotional depth. Still, I think the roles that John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, and Kenneth Branagh play are some of his best-created characters. In the end, Tenet was one great time, and I think everyone should at least try it out. Tenet is not available for streaming yet, but you can purchase the physical or digital copy.
My Grade: B
5. The Invisible Man
The Invisible Man is another film that many had the opportunity to see in theaters. As the plot unfolds and the intensity heightens, it became one of those great theater experiences. It was one of the last films I got to experience in theaters, and I am just so glad I did. It had me on the edge of my seat from the get-go until the final frame.
It is technically sound, and Elisabeth Moss is an absolute hit throughout her performance. There were many times throughout The Invisible Man where I found myself trying to catch the actual invisible man in the background, thinking they might try and slip him in without the audience knowing. It has some great direction and writing from Leigh Whannell, which helps put it in the category of this year’s best. You can stream The Invisible Man on HBO Max.
My Grade: B
4. Da 5 Bloods
It is inarguable how important a filmmaker, Spike Lee is. He continues to create films that help articulate what the experience is like for black people in America. He did it with Do The Right Thing, he did it again in BlacKkKlansman, and he delivers it again with Da 5 Bloods.
In a summary – Da 5 Bloods is about the African American experience in America, and more importantly, what it is like during wartime. It looks at the true horrors of what it is like to be involved in an unjust war and the personal aftermath of that service. While at times, it is a tad bit messy but delivers a powerful story regardless. It was one of my favorite stories told through film this year and is one that I think can resonate with most people. It becomes a story about forgiveness. More importantly, it becomes a story about learning how to forgive yourself to move past your mistakes, and I think we need more films like that.
Da 5 Bloods had two of my favorite performances of the year. The first was through the late and great Chadwick Boseman as Stormin’ Normin. He was used in such a great way in one of his final performances, and he deserves to be nominated for Best Supporting Actor in this, or Best Actor in Ma Reiney’s Black Bottom, if not both. The other performance that I would like to highlight is Delroy Lindo as Paul. His jungle monologue is one of THE scenes of 2020 that I keep going back to and being memorized by over and over again; his performance and the film as a whole are just prolific. You can stream Da 5 Bloods on Netflix.
My Grade: B+
3. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Before I get into the specifics of my top three, I want to point out that they are virtually tied with one another, and on any given day, they fluctuate in where I place them. One thing I know for certain is they are all pretty damn great.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is one of those films I didn’t expect to fall in love with, but I was so pleasantly surprised that I did. This film is just simply remarkable. It has such an effective and emotional storytelling style. Each piece of it feels real and deeply personal, even if it isn’t something you haven’t been through or can’t relate to. Every big emotional moment is earned, and it feels like you are Autumn, played by Sidney Flanigan in those moments.
This was the debut for Flanigan as a lead actress, and I cannot praise her enough. She had the confidence and composure that you expect from veteran actors. She just had me breathless with her performance and continuously shattered my heart over and over again; she was just brilliant.
This is a film that has a lot to say but does it in such a quiet way. It’s an incredibly angry movie in terms of what it is saying, but it says it in such a quiet yet effective way. It points out the harsh reality of an unplanned pregnancy and deals with what women have to go through in their daily lives and how they are often mistreated and feel pressured in their romantic and sexual relationships, starting at such a young age. You can stream Never Rarely Sometimes Always on HBO Max.
My Grade: B+
Nomadland is a film that not many people have had the opportunity to see, so I will keep my summary short to avoid spoilers. Nomadland is just so powerful. It deals with so many themes and emotions, and the ending just took my breathe away. Chloe Zhao has such a unique and philosophical look at life and the afterlife – she is a special storyteller, and I can’t wait to see what she has in store for us next. Frances McDormand gives one of her best performances of her career and is deserving of every award coming her way. I just can’t wait for everyone to have the opportunity to see Nomadland, it’s a truly special film. Nomadland releases on February 19, 2021.
My Grade: A-
Soul is arguably the most thematically rich film of 2020. It tackles so many broad and personal ideas of what we go through on a day to day basis and throughout the journey of our individual lives. I think that Pixar is at its very best when it get weird while simultaneously dealing with more adult themes.
Soul looks at the ideas of depression, self-doubt, what our purpose is here on earth, and the afterlife. It instantly became one of my favorite films from Pixar and quite possibly the most important film from them to me. I went into Soul expecting to like it and maybe even love it. It is safe to say that Soul blew my expectations out of the water. Soul may be the most important to me out of all the Pixar films out there. As someone who is a teacher and for much of my life has put so much weight into the idea of having a purpose in the world, Soul spoke to that on a very personal level for me.
Soul was just so personal to me. I saw myself in this film in so many ways. Its story and its powerful themes resonated with me on a level like no film has this year has. I instantly fell in love with Soul, and I cannot wait to revisit this crucially important film. Soul is one of Pixar’s most mature films, and it is arguably one of its best as well. It was just the finest film of the year, and I cannot suggest it enough to people no matter what type of films or stories they enjoy. I think that everyone who watches Soul can walk away with something gained from it. You can stream Soul on Disney+.
My Grade: A