It wasn’t easy to make a list of the best movies of 2020. It wasn’t easy for a lot of reasons. Start with the big one: Movie theaters have been pretty much closed since March, which made seeing them — and even releasing them — a struggle. A bunch of blockbusters have been bumped to next year. A fair amount of the most exciting Oscar contenders are not available to the vast majority of viewers yet, including the vast majority of our writers. Coming to a consensus was going to be hard. Ranking them in any order was going to be impossible.
So, we didn’t do that second thing. No rankings this year. What we did instead was try to create as inclusive a list as possible, with a wide selection of movies that people felt were important this year. It’s a pretty good list, which feels like a decent accomplishment considering only one film landed on all of our submissions. That will probably change as more of us have a chance to see more of the year’s movies, probably next year, but for now, it’s the best we’ve got.
Oh, and the one film on every list? It was the one about the guy who woke up every morning living the same day, again and again, seeing the same people and buildings and walls, just grinding through over and over and over in search of a way to break free. Art imitates life sometimes, and sometimes life imitates art.
A lot of attempts at a Groundhog Day-type plot exist, but none of them are as absolutely charming as this Andy Samberg picture. It’s breezy and refreshing and also maneuvers through those obligatory existential twists in a way that doesn’t feel obligatory. And let’s face it — a lot of us wouldn’t mind (especially in 2020) being stuck in a time loop while attending a destination wedding right about now. That seems pretty relaxing. All one really needs to achieve a zen-like mindset in the loop is liquor and entertainment and the freedom to act as stupidly as possible without consequence because (you guessed it) everything gets erased anyway, right? Nothing matters, until it does, and that’s when the romance part of the story kicks in, and Sarah (Christina Milioti) ends up tearing Nyles’ blissful little mindset apart.
A romantic comedy that prioritizes comedy and then sneaks up on you with the romance? Give me all of it. And look, there’s nothing like the original Bill Murray flick, but Punxsutawney never had dinosaurs or a goat or a vengeful J.K. Simmons. — Kimberly Ricci
Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari strikes a special chord in these United States as immigrants have been weaponized by the current presidential administration. So it’s almost impossible not to think of that rhetoric while watching Minari, as we get an intimate look at a Korean family who (after some time in California working a job they hate) settle in rural Arkansas in the 1980s to make on their own growing crops on some somewhat sketchy farmland. What this movie does best is it invokes a sense of how brave anyone has to be to embark on a journey like this – to move halfway around the world, to a place where you don’t speak the language, and try to start growing crops. Steven Yeun brings a noble sensibility to Jacob, even if his dream does, at times, seem futile to both his family and the viewer. What sticks out the most are the “mundane” intricacies of just trying to make it from one day to the next – which is where Minari finds its strength. When something big does happen, it almost feels out of place compared with just the daily struggles. Jacob just wants what’s best for his family, even though his family doesn’t quite understand why he’s pushing this hard with little to no payoff. If a person works this hard, good things will happen, right? And, that, right there, is the crux of what we call the American dream, which Minari captures better than any other film this year. — Mike Ryan
I’m Thinking of Ending Things
You know what you’re going to get from a Charlie Kaufman film. Existential dread. Themes of identity. Mind-bending plot twists and sad, lonely men. And even though his latest, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, trades in all those expected motifs, there’s something disturbingly fascinating about this movie – animated decaying pigs, perpetually wet dogs, and all. Most of that has to do with the performances. Jessie Buckley, who’s having a hell of a year, is mesmerizing as a young woman meeting her boyfriend’s parents for the first time. Jesse Plemons, who’s quickly becoming cinema’s go-to villain, is equally captivating as said beau – a depressed, unfulfilled man dreaming up an alternate reality that comes crashing down over the course of the film. And then there’s Toni Collette and David Thewlis who play his parents (and the most hellish dinner mates we’ve seen on screen in a long while). But Kaufman’s love of twisting the truth and making us question the very nature of his storytelling also elevates the viewing experience here. You never truly know what the hell is going on, and that’s half the fun. — Jessica Toomer
Dick Johnson is Dead
In Dick Johnson Is Dead, documentary filmmaker Kirsten Johnson deals with her father’s recent dementia diagnosis and impending mortality by having him play himself in a series of death scenarios that she has imagined for him. The movie jumps between those scenes that they’ve filmed, and the documentary version of those scenes as they’re being filmed. Movies about death and dementia are often too sad or painful to sit through, but Johnson’s method of turning it all into an extended flight of fancy, living in the grey between fiction, fact, and possibility, actually gives us a language to discuss those awful things in ways that aren’t depressing. It ends up being not only not sad, but weirdly life-affirming. At times even hilarious, like during a staged funeral for Dick Johnson during which one of his genuinely grief-stricken friends plays for him what can only be described as a mournful kazoo dirge. It helps that Dick Johnson himself is a lovable old charmer. It’s a must-watch. Long live Dick Johnson! — Vince Mancini
Is Small Axe a movie or a TV show? That’s been the dominant discussion around director Steve McQueen’s Amazon Prime Video blank check when, really, we should be talking about the film (it’s a movie!) series’ (it’s a TV show?) finest installment, Lovers Rock. The 70-minute whatever takes place over the course of one exuberant night, as a young woman named Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) from a God-fearing family attends a reggae-soundtracked blues party in a West London house. Away from the music, bad things happen. Sexual violence, racism, religious guilt. But when Martha is on the dance floor, she allows herself to let loose, especially when the DJ plays “Silly Games” by Janet Kay. She may have even met someone she didn’t know she was looking for, but now can’t imagine living without. Lovers Rock is a euphoric tribute to the power of communal music and dance. It will stay with you like a song you don’t mind being stuck in your head. — Josh Kurp
The Invisible Man
Is Leigh Whannell the best pulp director working? Whereas most directors as good as Whannell want to make us think, Leigh Whannell is content to merely make us shit our pants. In Whannell’s The Invisible Man, the umpteenth Hollywood take on the Invisible Man, the title character is, just as in Paul Verhoeven’s Hollow Man (2000), a villain rather than a hero. But whereas the central question Hollow Man posed was “what would you do if you didn’t have to look yourself in the mirror every morning?” The Invisible Man asks “what would your psychotic ex do if he didn’t have to look himself in the face every morning?”
Elisabeth Moss plays the tormented heroine, turning in yet another nearly perfect awards-worthy performance in what may be the ultimate gaslighting thriller. In fact, just as the term “gaslighting” itself was becoming so overused as to be almost meaningless, Invisible Man and Elisabeth Moss came along and made it terrifying and real again. The Invisible Man is one of those horror movies so well done that the main consideration in recommending it is whether it’s too intense. — Vince Mancini
This is not an exaggeration or a brag: I’ve watched Commando more times than any other movie. As twisted as it sounds, it’s a feel-good film for me. You can thank my (very cool) dad for plopping this thing into the VCR during school breaks to keep us entertained, which made Arnold Schwarzenegger kind-of my babysitter (one who slaughtered an entire army without reloading his guns) back in the day. This admission probably also tells you too much about my formative years, but damn, I truly miss watching action scenes that aren’t in service of distractingly complicated plots and flashy camera work that can slide into shaky-cam territory. What I’m trying to say is this: I really don’t need my ass-kicking with a side of nuance or nausea.
Well, Extraction manages to feel reminiscent of not only Commando but many other 1980s action pictures, too. That includes Lethal Weapon, especially because Chris Hemsworth’s character is very much a Martin Riggs-esque, swaggery, damaged dude who is actually named Tyler Rake (an amazing fight-guy name), but he can fight like Arnold, and the whole movie feels like a throwback to a cinematic world where it’s alright to appreciate a real-shoot-and-punch-and-explode-’em-up type of joint where everything flows almost too beautifully. It’s like watching a Hemsworth pull off the sweatiest, most grueling ballet moves of all time. The runtime does go a bit long, admittedly; 90 minutes would have been enough (to shave off some of that backstory) to let that Hemsworth charisma shine while leaving open some intrigue for a future franchise. I still think this is a fine throwback, and I’m here for a leaner and meaner sequel. — Kimberly Ricci
One Night in Miami
Based on Kemp Powers’ play (who also wrote the screenplay), it’s almost too good to be true that Regina King’s One Night in Miami is based on a real-life event. Now, we don’t know the actual particulars of what happened that night down to the details, but putting Muhammed Ali (Eli Goree), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) all in the same room together, hanging out right after Ali beat Sonny Liston, seems like some sort of Justice League of historical figures fan fiction. Set in 1964, all four men have differing views about what their roles are in the civil rights movement, or if they have any defined role at all. Add in some skepticism against Malcolm X and what his motives might be in recruiting someone like Ali, it leads to a fascinating dialogue between these four historical heavyweights. One Night in Miami is a masterstroke by King on how to direct actors. A phenomenal film. — Mike Ryan
The Trial of the Chicago 7
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is very much an Aaron Sorkin movie, which makes sense because it was written and directed by Aaron Sorkin. Your appreciation of it probably had as much to do with that as it did with anything else: the story, the acting, any of it. Personally, I like a good Sorkin courtroom scene, with all its desk-banging and idealistic speechifying and mind-changing, so I enjoyed his take on real-life events surrounding the riots outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention. It helped that he had actors who went for it. Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong as press-savvy/hungry counterculture activists Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin? Going for it. Yahya Abdul-Mateen as Black Panther leader Bobby Seale? Going for it. Eddie Redmayne as the more mainstream political figure Tom Hayden? I mean, you know Eddie Redmayne is going for it. The end result is an extremely watchable movie about events that resonate today, with lots of snappy dialogue and Frank Langella as a cranky judge and, hey, I almost forgot Michael Keaton is in this movie, too. That counts for something, too. The Trial of the Chicago 7 isn’t an arthouse darling or flash of directorial brilliance, but it is a good movie that tells a good story and features good actors doing good work. That might sound like a backhanded compliment but I promise it is not. The Trial of the Chicago 7 was a good movie. Making good movies is hard. It’s on the list. — Brian Grubb
Of all the films to come out in 2020, nothing has stuck with me quite like Nomadland. Chloé Zhao’s haunting, gorgeous film about a woman named Fern (Francis McDormand) who works odd jobs here and there, but is having a hard time finding steady work, so she travels around from one place to another, staying at community van parks and often running into the same cast of characters. This is a stunningly gorgeous film that harkens back to some of Malick’s most beautiful shots. People buy 4K televisions and usually talk about the big-budget superhero movie or whatever huge blockbuster that looks wonderful in this format. Honestly, it’s movies like Nomadland that these televisions were built for. Even not being able to watch in a theater, if you have the right television Zhao’s film makes a viewer feel like they are right there, every step of the way with Fern. It’s a stunning display of direction and cinematography (by Joshua James Richards) that just cements Zhao’s standing as one of the best directors working today. Nomadland would be my personal pick for the best film of 2020. — Mike Ryan
The majority of movies about male friendships involve casino heists or muscular handshakes. I love those as much as the next guy-being-dude, but it’s refreshing when a movie like First Cow comes along. The relationship between Cookie (played by John Magaro), a 19th century cook who breaks away from the Oregon fur trappers who relentlessly bully him, and King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant on the run, is one of tenderness; there’s a platonic affection between the two men, who get into business together to make oily cakes. First Cow is a subtle rebuke to movies like The Revenant, an unrelentingly grim movie about MANLY MEN. Through Cookie and King-Lu, director and writer Kelly Reichardt shows a different kind of manhood, one of necessary kindness in order to survive in a harsh world. It’s right there in the opening text: “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.” Also, the titular cow? A very good cow. — Josh Kurp
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Is Borat 2 as funny as the first? In terms of total laugh volume, probably not. Yet it’s arguably a much greater achievement to have pulled off a social experiment in a country that already feels like we’ve been living in a social experiment. In this installment, Sacha Baron Cohen spends nearly the entire film double disguised, as Borat disguised as a series of other characters, from “Philip Drummond III” (at a debutante ball) to “Country Steve,” at a rightwing rally. Borat’s fame leaves his daughter, Tutar, to carry the film, and it’s not too much to say that Maria Bakalova deserves an Academy Award nomination for the performance. Lots of people can make-believe, but let’s see Meryl Streep expose a fake period-soaked crotch in a roomful of dozens of horrified southerners. Sacha Baron Cohen makes acting legitimately dangerous, which is why it’s so hard to turn away (for those of us who can bear to watch in the first place, that is). In the midst of all that, this time around Cohen has created a legitimately compelling arc between these two preposterous characters. Oh, and then there was that scene in which they lured Rudy Giuliani to an underage (as far as he knew) girl’s hotel room to “tuck in his shirt.” It’s only because Rudy Giuliani has found new and entertaining ways to hilariously fall on his face twice a week since then that this wasn’t the craziest news story of the year. — Vince Mancini
King of Staten Island
I have to admit, when I first heard the basic concept for The King of Staten Island — Pete Davidson playing the son of a deceased firefighter who lives with his mom on Staten Island — I didn’t find it all that compelling. It sounded like Pete would be basically playing himself in a movie and I wasn’t sure that that was something I’d care for. (I was a bit Pete Davidson-ed out at the time, to be honest, what with all the stuff about him in the gossip rags and whatnot.) But then I learned more about the film and thought, “Okay, I’ll keep an open mind and give this a shot.” And then I saw it back in May or June and it was the first thing I’d watched since the pandemic started that I was able to truly get lost in and forget about the world for a couple of hours. It was simply a beautiful movie. I was not expecting to cry watching a Pete Davidson movie, but I did (twice), in addition to laughing out loud multiple times. His and Bill Burr’s performances are nothing short of tremendous. Again, it’s just a beautiful movie, and a really touching, moving love letter to Staten Island — one of the last parts of New York City that still feels like an older version of New York City — and to firefighters everywhere. — Brett Michael Dykes
Da Five Bloods
Spike Lee’s been doing some of his best work in the past few years. Maybe that’s because the subject material of so many of his films doubles as a needed reminder of how our shared history seems doomed to repeat itself. In this outing he’s shedding light on yet another murky bit of the past: The Black experience filtered through the lens of the Vietnam War. A group of veteran talents (Delroy Lindo chief among them) and promising newcomers (Lovecraft Country breakout Jonathan Majors) play a squad of close-knit vets, returning to the country to retrieve the remains of their fallen comrade (Chadwick Boseman) and the buried treasure they left behind. There’s a bit of B-movie adventure to this that keeps it entertaining, but the way Lee rounds out his storytelling, drawing threads from the past to very real issues we’re facing in the present, is what makes it awards-contender material. The fact that this is one of the last films Boseman made before his tragic passing this year? Well, that just makes it an all-the-more-emotional watch. — Jessica Toomer
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Never Rarely Sometimes Always was primed to be an indie breakthrough hit when it was released in theaters in March, boosted by strong reviews and a prestigious Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize win at the Berlin International Film Festival. Unfortunately, something else happened in March and director Eliza Hittman’s film was shuffled to video on-demand. You may not have been in the mood to watch a depressing-sounding drama about abortion then, but there’s no excuse now. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a stunning film about the frustrating obstacles that women, especially teenagers, face when they require an abortion. After failing to self-induce a miscarriage, 17-year-old Autumn, played with remarkable introspection by Sidney Flanigan, travels from her home state of Pennsylvania to New York City to have the procedure, accompanied by her cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder). Autumn’s journey isn’t easy, and Never Rarely Sometimes Always (the title comes from a series of questions that Sidney is asked during her Planned Parenthood appointment) isn’t always an easy watch. But it’s a journey worth taking. — Josh Kurp