The Definitive List of the 10 Best Movies of 2020
There was a pandemic this year. Maybe you noticed. Maybe you didn’t.
Needless to say, 2020 was a potentially revolutionary year for movies, with the sudden and forced shift to at-home releases, a trend that was only accelerated by the global closure of movie theaters (I say potentially because despite all the doom and gloom about the fate of theaters, I see plenty of reason for optimism).
Regardless of what the future holds, 2020 undoubtedly shifted the landscape short term. Many major studio releases were pushed to 2021 or beyond, some went digital, and movies that otherwise may have been overlooked as being “straight to video” garnered significantly more attention than they otherwise would have, deserved in some cases, not so much in others.
“Pandemic quality” became a thing–as the months wore on, and as the big studios held their products close to the vest, praise came from left and right for films that, in other years, would be considered middling at best. And yet, while 2020 may be lacking the spectacle of big blockbusters, it was by no means a year lost.
On that note, let’s get onto the list… my top ten movies of 2020 and what many* would describe as the definitive list of the best this year had to offer.
What begins as a drama set in a remote and impoverished Brazilian town turns into something entirely else, and it’s this unpredictably that powers the surprisingly badass Bacurau. To say more would lessen its impact, but Bacurau is a worthy endeavor if you’re in the mood for something a little less conventional. And some blood.
My first reaction to News of the World was: this is pretty good. Not great. But pretty good. After chewing on it for a couple weeks, however, this Tom Hanks western continued to linger, and upon a rewatch I warmed to it even more. Though not the most complex of films, it’s an acutely directed drama-thriller that is likely to be a mainstay in my household for years to come.
If a month ago you had asked me whether a Gerard Butler disaster flick would make my top ten, I would have laughed you out of the room. But 2020 is full of surprises. When I think about movies I’ll still be watching 10 years from now, this entertaining, exciting, and surprisingly grounded thriller certainly fits the bill.
Promising Young Woman isn’t perfect. But it is one of the boldest, colorful, and satisfyingly angry movies released all year. And to argue that the movie doesn’t have a score to settle, and that it doesn’t do so memorably, would be to discount all the things debut filmmaker Emerald Fennell does right.
Riz Ahmed delivers a fantastic performance as a heavy metal drummer who loses his hearing, forcing him down a new and unexpected path. A beautiful story capped by an emotionally powerful final scene, Sound of Metal is deserving of any accolades thrown its way.
5. Palm Springs
I rarely include comedies in my list of favorites, but when said comedy is a weird Groundhog’s Day-esque film in which Andy Samberg relives the same day over and over again, occasionally hunted and tortured by J.K. Simmons, all while stuck in ultra-boring Palm Springs, one has to make exceptions from time to time. Funny, but also clever and genre-bending and sort of sweet while sometimes dark and twisted, Palm Springs deserves more attention and accolades than it has received.
4. First Cow
The nicest serious movie of the year, Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow is about two strangers who meet and bond over Chinese honey cakes and start a business selling them in frontier times, relying on the stolen milk from the only cow in the region. First Cow is a beautifully quaint film that defies expectations thanks to a terrific screenplay and the performances by its two leads, John Magaro and Orion Lee.
When my wife and I first watched Nomadland in late November, I turned to her at one point and declared, “this is one of the first fully realized films I’ve seen since 2019.” Featuring another award-worthy performance by Frances McDormand, Nomadland immerses you into its world within its first minutes and never lets go. In terms of Oscars, Nomadland has my vote.
But when it comes to the movie I’m most likely to watch year after year for the foreseeable future, it’s The Invisible Man, the riveting horror-thriller from Leigh Whannell. Elisabeth Moss gives a terrific performance that transcends the material and the genre, and the superbly made movie packs a viscous, creative, and feminist-swinging punch.
(it should be noted that several other great and lesser known horror movies landed just outside my Top 10)
In normal years, I wouldn’t have considered a recorded stage play for this list, let alone put it in my top spot, but 2020 ain’t no normal year. With the lines fully blurred between theatrical and TV releases, no “cinematic” experience rivaled that of watching the hit musical for the first time, even if it was on my TV weeks after its debut. Full of energy and life, powered by a witty screenplay and sensational musical numbers, Hamilton was the most rewarding viewing experience of 2020.
For a full list of my favorites (and least favorites), view this list of the best and worst movies of 2020.
*many = my parents and immediate family, though my mom would question the term “definitive.”