2020 changed the way we see movies. There are a lot of aspects to the year which are important, like the government abandoning Americans who can’t pay rent and are at risk for going hungry, but I don’t have the bandwidth to discuss that. What I do discuss is movies and television shows to keep my sanity. I like to rank all the movies I’ve seen in a given year. It’s something I’ve done the last two years, but it doesn’t seem nearly as interesting this year with so many other Oscar contenders coming out in 2021 and blockbusters being pushed to 2021 with very exceptions. I did decide to complete a top 50 but include television shows and movies as well. There were still some excellent films that came out in 2020, and I will honor 17 of them right here.
17. Birds of Prey
I saved this spot for Wonder Woman, but that movie is bad, and I’d rather focus on the weird silly DC movie that actually does some different things without being racist and bringing up issues of consent. I can’t pretend Birds of Prey is perfect, but it’s a film I feel has aged well since coming out in February. It’s low stakes, colorful, has some well done action, and allows Margot Robbie much more freedom to turn Harley Quinn into a full character. Like the DC animated show, Harley Quinn feels so much more realized than in previous endeavors like Suicide Squad. I really do wish we had gotten to know the other birds better, but Ewan Macgregor rules in his role as the main villain.
What a great piece of filmmaking and a simple premise. It’s Tom Hanks and a number of mostly anonymous crew members navigating their way through the tough terrain of European waters in World War II. I definitely would have preferred seeing this in theaters just given the scope, but this is a really excellent dad movie. At 80 minutes, this was a very easy watch and an interesting turn.
15. On the Rocks
Hey, another movie streaming on Apple. As much derision as they’ve gotten for their strategy of releasing mostly mediocre television shows, they’ve also released some very good to great movie. I would classify Sofia Coppola’s latest as very good although it feels much more slight then her other work. This movie heavily relies on the comedic chemistry between Rashida Jones and Bill Murray to success. The main plot line is almost bizarre and Marlon Wayans seems like a bit of a miscast. Maybe a movie like this would hit me different at another point in time, but seeing people bask in the glow of New York city was a welcome respite.
Earlier, this year, I ranked my 100 favorite movies, and one of the things I figured out was that Inside/Out is my favorite Pixar film. There were five other ones on the list, but it’s clear Pete Doctor is one of our most ambitious filmmakers. Even if the ideas don’t work and casting Tina Fey in a role that should have gone to a Black woman don’t work, this movie feels like a repudiation of La La Land in so many ways because of the message it sends about finding a purpose and living life. Plus, the animation is gorgeous, and the music is spectacular. This is second tier Pixar, but even that makes it a cut above most other films.
13. I’m Thinking of Ending Things
I have mixed feelings on Charlie Kaufman as a director, but this is a film that works so well because of the chemistry between the leads. Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons are asked to have extended scenes with one another. The dynamics are not always clear, and in the end, we realize an older version of Jake is thinking about what might have been or fantasizing about a potential love of his life. This is a very abstract and not always clear film, but it’s one I think has a lot to say about the human condition. One thing we’ve all certainly had more time to do in 2020 is think.
12. The Way Back
Because this came out in March, I can’t imagine Ben Affleck is going to be able to score an Oscar nomination for this role as an alcoholic basketball coach. This purports to be a sports movie with a redemptive arc for Affleck as well as the kids he’s coaching. Jack Cunningham’s story is not a simple one as he struggles with his demons and doesn’t have a clean happy ending. I wish this movie had been more successful and hasn’t come out right at the time the pandemic started in the United States. This is definitely worth checking out if you’re doing some 2020 catch-up.
11. Bad Education
One of the things I have appreciated about Hugh Jackman is how he always goes for it in every role. Here he plays a superintendent who is trying to do well by his school district but also steals money for his various plastic surgeries and boyfriend in New York. I also like that there is a journalism angle as well with Geraldine Viswanathan as Rachel exposes what’s happening at the school and ends up costing multiple power people their jobs. Allison Janney and Ray Romano also have excellent supporting turns.
10. Sylvie’s Love
I legitimately didn’t even know of the existence of this film until days before it came out on Amazon prime. Eugene Ashe directs kind of a Barry Jenkins lite type movie. It still sings. Tessa Thompson is a tremendous lead character as she controls the action and has so much of her own agency. Nnamdi Asomugha, who was in the NFL for 11 years, plays Thompson’s love interest and a struggling musician. It would be easy for a movie like this to focus on the problems Black people have experienced in this country. This film manages to focus on the opportunities these characters have and still manages to feel realistic. The racist overtones are kept to the background with a few choice pieces of dialogue. This is a really underrated movie that I hope gets its dues simply for being so widely available and being promoted by Amazon. I hope Tessa Thompson has a chance to produce more movies like this. This was a great romantic drama.
9. The Invisible Man
Elizabeth Moss is the lead, and it’s really a showcase for her acting skills and the trauma going on throughout the movie. The legacy of The Invisible Man will be as the last big movie before the pandemic changed our moviegoing lives forever. Blumhouse has changed the way horror movies get made and has created a model for success. Even though they have low budgets, a lot of the films have been high quality, and this is no exception. Unfortunately, if Toni Collette nor Florence Pugh weren’t going to get awards recognition, I can’t see Moss getting it either. This is an excellent Moss showcase and a great metaphor for gaslighting and mental illness (even if the ending doesn’t totally work).
8. Miss Juneteenth
Nicole Beharie has been in a number of television shows, but this movie is a showcase for her as a performer. She plays a former beauty queen (the aforementioned Miss Juneteenth) who is now guiding her uninterested daughter through the competition. This is a complicated movie that actually focused on a leading woman of color, something that is still all too rare. Beharie shines here, but all of the actors, most of whom are not household names, excel too.
Another Apple TV+ movie. This is a gorgeously animated work, a fantasy story that uses werewolves as an allegory for so many of the issues we have with outsiders. I really hope this is able to win awards and not get lost in a year where Soul has come out. It’s also great that at a time when Disney seems to be so dominant in the animation, that we get a non-traditional 2D piece of work by another smaller company. Here’s hoping this movie is successful enough to warrant more movies in this style and using more 2D in general.
I don’t even know how to rank this because it’s not even a movie really but a capturing of a series of live performances. While we certainly can debate the politics, which are very problematic given almost every person portrayed was a slaveholder, I can’t argue with the quality of the writing and many of the actors. This is an extraordinary exercise in great music, excellent lyrics, and finding actors who made names for themselves through this work. In a year when we really needed something high quality to watch at home, this was welcome.
5. Small Axe
In a normal year, I would probably have separated these movies individually because they’re all extraordinary in different ways. Mangrove is the longest and most in-depth because it does what The Trial of the Chicago 7 was attempting to do. McQueen actually has something to say and a relevant political message. He speaks out against the system and in so many of the subsequent films. Education feels like his most personal one, and it ended up being my favorite. I certainly understand the critical response to Lovers Rock as it is an hour of joy and a tremendous soundtrack. I sincerely hope McQueen is able to continue this series in some way because there’s so much more to be told about West Indian immigrants in the UK.
David Fincher’s latest has been met with some mixed reception in the critical world, but I really enjoyed this old Hollywood tale. I was impressed to see someone who is often credited as being an auteur create a film that opposes auteur theory by showcasing how important screenwriters are. This is a collection of great performances within an authentic feeling world meticulously crafted by a director with a reputation for being detail oriented. I also enjoy that this movie waded specifically into politics and actually made me invested in a random California governor’s race.
3. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
This is now known as the movie that will be Chadwick Boseman’s last live action performance. It will very shortly be known as the movie he won a posthumous Oscar film for. August Wilson’s plays are supposedly going to be brought to the screen by Denzel Washington. Even if the adaptations can sometimes feel stagey, I am all for these being realized. Not only was Boseman great, but Viola Davis also serves some great looks and lines of dialogue as the titular character. Walk into this with an eye for this being an actor’s showcase and a comment on American society at this time and even today as to how we see Black entertainers.
2. Da 5 Bloods
Spike Lee has had a bit of a resurgence since Trump’s election in 2016. He finally won an Oscar for BlacKkKlansmen and then there’s this, a powerful examination of the Vietnam generation, but this time a group of older Black gentlemen. Chadwick Boseman probably should get a second Oscar for his supporting turn, but this is a great showcase for a number of underrated Black performers. This includes Delroy Lindo, who will get nominated for his big monologue alone, as well as Clarke Peters (best known for the The Wire), Isiah Whitlock, and Jonathan Peters. This feels like the last Vietnam story in so many ways given the generation and the direct references to current events.
1. Palm Springs
I know this is not going to win awards like a lot of the other movies on this list, but when I think of the pandemic, this is going to be the quintessential piece of art I am going to take with me. Palm Springs is both exceptionally funny and advances the time loop film a step or two. I wrote about this film previously as it made my top 100 favorite movie list. I’m still impressed after a couple rewatches. My hope is this will live on as one of the great comedies of the 21st century and that we can enjoy it together in an actual movie theater.