Shuttered theater chains, constant release delays, an upcoming April Oscars and an earth-shaking shift to streaming: 2020 was the most unusual and significant year in the history of moviegoing. Still, against all odds there was no lack of strong films to enjoy.
Here, our critics tell us their picks for the best of a bizarre year.
Best movies of 2020 — Johnny Oleksinski
It was a dreadful year for the movie business, no doubt about it. But don’t confuse mandatory theater closures for the quality of the films themselves. Our fears of being stuck inside with nothing to do were soothed by a steady stream of, well, streaming movies. Good ones, at that! Sure, most giant action flicks delayed their releases for a year or more, but smaller gems were able to wrestle away attention from James Bond and Marvel for once. Still, I very much hope to see you all back at the movies in 2021!
The best of the year was “Mank,” David Fincher’s wondrous ode to old Hollywood and “Citizen Kane” screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz. A niche idea for a film, the black-and-white drama was a deeply personal project for the director — his late father Jack wrote the script — and the attention to detail in recreating 1930s Los Angeles was remarkable. As was the gregarious lead performance from Gary Oldman, especially when he drunkenly berated William Randolph Hearst.
Unexpectedly, some of the year’s finest performances came from a documentary. Called “Boys State,” the captivating movie followed a pack of 17-year-old future politicians who inspire, cajole and lie to get (fake) elected office at a week-long Texas camp. After it premiered at Sundance, its stars Rene, Steven and Ben became bigger than T-Swift.
“The King of Staten Island”
This Universal comedy, directed by Judd Apatow and starring Pete Davidson, was one of the first major films to go direct-to-digital and skip a wide theatrical release. I’m so glad it did. Besides cementing the “SNL” star as a lovable comedy powerhouse, it warmed our ailing hearts at the perfect moment.
“Trial of the Chicago 7”
Aaron Sorkin’s sharp and witty drama featured a trove of excellent performances (Frank Langella, Mark Rylance, Eddie Redmayne), but none were better than Sacha Baron Cohen as activist Abbie Hoffman in “Trial of the Chicago 7.” Baron Cohen, who also yukked it up in “Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm,” predictably mastered Hoffman’s stand-up-like delivery, but also imbued him with fierce passion for his cause.
“On The Rocks”
Not only did “King of Staten Island” join the ranks of great New York films. So did “On The Rocks,” Sofia Coppola’s witty wild night out starring Bill Murray as a suave father who helps his daughter (Rashida Jones) figure out if her hubby is cheating on her. Coppola whisked us to 21 (RIP), the Carlyle and the Soho House, with Murray as our enviably sophisticated tour guide.
“Da 5 Bloods”
Delroy Lindo scorched the screen in “Da 5 Bloods” whether you watched him on an iPhone or a 70-inch TV. The British actor played a Vietnam vet in Spike Lee’s tense drama of paranoia and betrayal, who returned to the battlefield to search for a lost treasure. Midway through the movie he unleashes a vicious minutes-long monologue as he stomps through the jungle that viewers won’t soon forget.
Both “King of Staten Island” and Pixar’s “Onward” involve main characters dealing with the loss of their fathers. One featured a lot more F-bombs and pot (I shall not reveal which). Unusual for Pixar, the movie had elements of fantasy and lots of hearty “Dungeons and Dragons” jokes. A realization of young wizard Ian (Tom Holland) about his brother (Chris Pratt) in the end brings on the tears.
“Pieces of a Woman”
A movie about the worst moment of a woman’s life was a highlight of the mostly-digital Toronto International Film Festival this year. Venessa Kirby, who gets better and better, plays a pregnant wife whose baby dies during a home birth — a hard sequence to watch. Her resentment toward the midwife who let it happen and her ghost-like presence as she unhappily walks the earth make for a harsh and moving sight.
“Palm Springs” is the opposite of awards/list-bait, but the Gen-X “Groundhog Day”-riff starring Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti was hypnotically enjoyable. Although the comedy premiered at Sundance in the icy mountains of Park City, Utah, it dropped in Hulu in the middle of summer and went down like a cold pina colada.
“The Personal History of David Copperfield”
One of the zaniest Charles Dickens adaptations in recent years was “The Personal History of David Copperfield,” starring Dev Patel. Director Armando Iannucci blew the dust off an old book, and infused it with groovy color. This Christmas, I suggest you skip “A Christmas Carol” and enjoy this cool, surprisingly funny movie instead.
Best movies of 2020 — Sara Stewart
Our 2020 movie landscape may have been chaotic, but great films persevere no matter what. Some of these titles — even if made in years prior — presciently spoke to our unique circumstances, while others offered a welcome escape to far-off locales and unsung histories.
“Promising Young Woman”
This is a candy-colored Molotov cocktail of a film, with Carey Mulligan a vengeful avatar for every ignored sexual assault victim. The ending’s a doozy that should provide conversational tinder for months to come.
Who but the vanity-free Frances McDormand could anchor director Chloe Zhao’s masterful “Nomadland,” an ode to the aging wander-laborers of middle America? Its hauntingly beautiful landscapes and supporting cast of non-actors are unforgettable.
“News of the World“
Tom Hanks embarks on a different sort of travelogue in the gloriously old-school Western “News of the World.” A traveling newspaper-reader in post-Civil War Texas, Hanks’ Captain Kidd is reluctantly charged with returning a Native American-assimilated young girl (Helena Zengel) to family.
“I’m Thinking of Ending Things”
You don’t come to a Charlie Kaufman pic expecting a linear plot, but “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” takes the director’s labyrinthine storytelling to new extremes in this story of a man (Jesse Plemons) bringing his new girlfriend (Jessie Buckley) to meet the parents.
“The Vast of Night”
This film beckons us into the milieu of midcentury radio plays and sci-fi serials. It’s a marvelously low-fi tale, set in a small town where something strange — could it be alien? — is broadcasting a captivating frequency.
Director Rob Savage pulls off the Blair Witching of Zoom with “Host,” a scary, freaky little horror film that makes cheeky use of the now-ubiquitous platform.
“The Trial of the Chicago Seven”
Aaron Sorkin expertly punches up an already-punchy true story in “The Trial of the Chicago Seven,” with Sacha Baron Cohen very comfortably inhabiting the role of 1960s merry prankster Abbie Hoffman.
Moving to the 1970s, the documentary examines the nascent disability rights movement, with roots in an upstate New York summer camp for disabled youth that gave its attendees an inspiring vision of how life could be.
“Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado”
“Mucho Mucho” arrives with a blast of glitter to celebrate the life of a globally-beloved, androgynous Puerto Rican astrologer. Whether you’re a longtime fan or a newcomer, Mercado and his message of love are guaranteed to charm.
“Minari” continues the rise of Steven Yeun as one of our finest actors, here as the patriarch in Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical story of a Korean family moving to 1980s Arkansas to start a farm. Little Alan Kim steals the show as the impatient young son, while Yuh-Jung Youn is magnificent as his unconventional grandma.