The year’s best films told all kinds of stories. | Amanda Northrop/Vox
The 25 greatest films from an unforgettable year.
Writing about movies in 2020 was, in a word, bizarre. Theaters were closed for months, and remain closed in major markets. Only a few film festivals — usually anchor points for the year — happened in person, and the rest shifted online or were canceled altogether. Release dates kept changing. The rules and dates for next year’s Oscars changed too.
Perhaps most bizarrely, the tentpole releases that normally prop up the calendar disappeared, pushed into a future that we trust will arrive eventually. And each big delay of an anticipated film spurred a new wave of headlines.
So while many, many great movies came out in 2020, it felt like most people didn’t really know about them. (I had a lot of conversations that began, “So what are you doing without any new movies to write about?”) Without the marketing engine behind them that massive franchise properties command, and with most debuts happening on streaming services, undifferentiated from one another — or moving to unfamiliar “virtual cinemas” — a lot of people seemed to lose track of film altogether.
There was a silver lining, of a sort, for people who write about movies. Without flashy, slick Hollywood fare flooding the zone, the more risky, daring, and original films — with smaller budgets and no nostalgia to rely on as a built-in, audience-grabbing crutch — were the films we got to focus on, and they were often a joy. Even if we tired of watching movies from our couches instead of in a movie theater, it felt like every week brought fresh, interesting new faces and voices to our screens.
Those audacious films are the ones that fill my list of the 25 best movies of 2020, and the ones I’ll remember for years to come, long after more predictable offerings return to the calendar. They’re all worth seeking out and watching again and again — and would be no matter when they were released.
25. Bill & Ted Face the Music
I’m starting off with the exception that proves the rule. I’m as grumpy as any critic about Hollywood’s fixation on only rebooting or revisiting existing films and franchises, rather than telling new stories from new storytellers. But if you’re going to make a long-awaited sequel to a beloved movie, Bill & Ted Face the Music is a great example of how to do it. The clever comedy is just as sweet and funny as the original films, with Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) teaming up with their daughters Thea and Billie (Samara Weaving and Brigette Lundy-Paine) to save the world, again. Just thinking about it makes me smile.
How to watch it: Bill & Ted Face the Music is available to digitally rent or purchase on a wide variety of on-demand platforms, including iTunes and Amazon. Check the movie’s website for the full listing.
24. South Mountain
South Mountain is the wise, sometimes bitter, sometimes overwhelmingly emotional tale of a woman learning to fall out of love. Lila (Talia Balsam) and Edgar (Scott Cohen) live in the Catskills with their teenage children. Life is tranquil there — but when that sense of tranquility is suddenly shattered by a revelation, Lila is forced to reckon with both what she believes about herself and how she plans to live going forward. Director and writer Hilary Brougher has crafted a film in which nothing is cleanly resolved, but a future is still possible. It’s a bit like a coming-of-age tale for middle age, and each scene feels vibrantly alive.
23. Palm Springs
I saw this movie at Sundance in January and thought it was clever, diverting, and probably not worth the record-breaking sales figure it commanded. But I didn’t realize that its story about two burned-out black sheep who find themselves trapped in an eternity of reliving the same day together would feel excruciatingly real within a few months. Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti boast perfect chemistry as the ill-fated pair, whose experience makes them realize some things about just getting through life. Rewatching Palm Springs this summer, I suspected it was prophetic. Thankfully, it’s also hysterical.
How to watch it: Palm Springs is streaming on Hulu.
Wolfwalkers is a gorgeously animated Irish folk tale, created by the artists behind The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea. It’s the story of a little English girl named Robyn Goodfellowe, who travels with her father, a hunter, to Ireland. His task is to aid in wiping out the wolves, which the Lord Protector of the village decrees must be destroyed, lest they menace the villagers any further. But one day, she befriends another girl, Mebh, who lives in the woods and transforms into a wolf at night. Mebh is a wolfwalker. And through their friendship, Robyn’s view of the world — and her role in it — changes drastically. It’s a beautiful, rich story with plenty for the whole family to discuss.
How to watch it: Wolfwalkers is streaming on Apple TV+.
21. She Dies Tomorrow
Another one of 2020’s eerily prescient dramas, She Dies Tomorrow is a brilliant slow-burn story of a young woman named Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil), a recovering alcoholic who becomes convinced she’s about to die the next day. She’s not suicidal; she just knows it’s going to happen. But her premonition does not remain hers alone — it starts to spread to her friends. She Dies Tomorrow is designed to infect you, too, at least a little; colored lights, unidentifiable soundscapes, and a heavy pace cast a spell of existential dread. The mood is catching, as the film challenges both what we pretend to be and what we really are by forcing us to remember that we’re real, living in bodies that won’t last forever.
20. City Hall
Frederick Wiseman is a legendary chronicler of American institutions (here’s a guide to his films) who’s spent more than five decades making lengthy, intimate portraits of everything from high schools to welfare offices to the New York Public Library; for his latest film, Wiseman spent weeks in Boston, anchored at City Hall. His camera mostly follows Mayor Marty Walsh as Walsh crisscrosses the town to meet senior citizens in a church basement, veterans in a community hall, real estate developers in a hotel boardroom, and citizens at open-air rallies.
Periodically, the filmmaker floats away from Walsh to watch a wedding being performed, observe a budget presentation, or listen in as a committee dedicated to public housing reform debates how to prevent people from becoming unhoused. The result is not a portrait of a city, really. Refreshingly — and maybe even a little surprisingly — it’s a portrait of a government that actually seems to be working for its citizens.
How to watch it: City Hall is available nationwide through virtual theaters (short-term rentals that benefit local theaters); check the film’s website for listings.
19. Da 5 Bloods
I’m a little upset by how few people seem to know that Spike Lee released a new movie this summer — not to mention that it’s one of Lee’s best. Da 5 Bloods stars Norm Lewis, Clarke Peters, Isiah Whitlock Jr., and a magnificent Delroy Lindo in a story about four Black Vietnam vets who return to the country, decades after their tours of duty, in search of gold and their fallen buddy’s remains. (The late Chadwick Boseman also plays a small but pivotal role.) Da 5 Bloods takes on myriad issues, starting with the US government’s treatment of Vietnam veterans, a sharply disproportionate number of whom are Black and who were left to live with the traumatic remnants of a pointless war long past when the rest of the world had moved on.
Lee weaves that strand of history into the broader canvas of the 1960s and ’70s, from the civil rights movement to the moon landing. Then he extends it all the way to the Black Lives Matter movement today. Lindo gives a staggering performance as Paul, whose traumas have turned him into a MAGA-hat-wearing spout of paranoia, to the discomfort of both his friends and his son, David (Jonathan Majors). David is a Morehouse alum who goes looking for his father after he returns to Vietnam; that narrative choice alone means Da 5 Bloods, while political to the bone, refuses to be stuffed into partisan pigeonholes. What it means to be Black in America does not fit into tidy fables.
How to watch it: Da 5 Bloods is streaming on Netflix.
18. The Forty-Year-Old Version
Playwright Radha Blank took the screen by storm this year with The Forty-Year-Old Version, which premiered at Sundance and earned her a directing award. She stars in the film, too, as a frustrated playwright and Harlem high school teacher named Radha, who’s rounding the corner on 40 and starting to feel stuck. She’s forced to cater to the whims of a white producer who has very distinct ideas about what a play should be — and her exasperations drive her to a (hilarious) breaking point that seems to scuttle her future chances of ever getting a play on stage again. Bereft, but exhilarated, she has an epiphany: She’ll try to become a hip-hop performer instead. The Forty-Year-Old Version is pointed, satirical, and sharp as a rapier, and it hits every beat perfectly.
How to watch it: The Forty-Year-Old Version is streaming on Netflix.
Unmoored from home by choice, economic necessity, or both, an increasing number of retirement-aged Americans are traveling all over the country, living in vans and RVs and following patterns of seasonal work. Based on Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book, Nomadland melds fiction and reality to tell their story.
Frances McDormand plays Fern, a woman who leaves her small town in Nevada after the death of her husband and becomes part of the nomad community — most of whom, in the movie, are played by themselves. Director Chloe Zhao (who made 2017’s The Rider and the upcoming Marvel film Eternals) crafts an aching reminder of the loneliness and loss that many older Americans face in a country that has no place for them. And she does it against a backdrop of rolling hills and wide open plains almost too beautiful for words.
How to watch it: Nomadland received a one-week virtual cinema release in early December. It is slated for nationwide theatrical release on February 19, 2021.
Another Sundance standout — and the winner of both the festival’s US dramatic prize and its audience award — Minari is the story of Korean immigrants Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han) who move their two small children (Noel Kate Cho and Alan S. Kim) from California to Arkansas in pursuit of Jacob’s dream of farming. But Jacob and Monica’s marriage is on the rocks, a circumstance that doesn’t improve the way they hoped it would when Monica’s mother (Yuh Jung Youn) comes to stay with them.
Written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung (Munyurangabo, Lucky Life) and set in the 1980s, Minari feels deeply personal. It’s both a family drama seen through the eyes of a Korean American boy and a moving tale of love and loss in the American heartland, exquisitely told.
How to watch it: Minari received a one-week virtual cinema release in early December. It is slated for nationwide theatrical release on February 12, 2021.
In 2015, a fire in a Bucharest nightclub killed 27 people — and in the weeks that followed, 37 more, due to shockingly inadequate hospital conditions that led to infections in the survivors. Collective, named in part for the nightclub, is an observational documentary that traces the conditions and exposes huge deficiencies in the Romanian health care system as a whole, which led directly to that additional loss of life. Documentarian Alexander Nanau captures the lies told by government officials during the fallout from the fire; eventually their actions resulted in the government’s downfall, though that was short-lived.
Collective plays out like a chilling, slow-moving trainwreck, a study in how a government gaslights its citizens into accepting conditions that would be avoidable, but for greed and corruption. In its second half, the film focuses on a new, young minister of health — Vlad Voiculescu, who’s trying to effect change — while also showing the uphill battle and eventual fruitlessness of his fight.
14. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Based on August Wilson’s 1982 play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a devastating stunner of a showcase for its stars, Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman. (Boseman passed away at age 43 in August; this is his final role.) Davis plays Ma Rainey, the pioneering blues singer, as she heads into the studio to record an album at the height of her fame in 1927. Boseman is Levee, a cocky young trumpet player who’s trying to overcome the cards that life has dealt him. Also starring Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman, Michael Potts, and Taylour Paige, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is really about the too-often illusory nature of power for Black Americans at the time — even for a wealthy icon like Ma.
Set against the backdrop of the Great Migration, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom powerfully illustrates the dead-end world in which its characters live, and the last scene is an unforgettable sucker punch to the gut.
How to watch it: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom premieres December 18 on Netflix.
13. Scheme Birds
The excellent documentary Scheme Birds finally came out in 2020 after a largely overlooked tour of the 2019 festival circuit. The film plays like a coming-of-age story, a vérité portrait of teenaged Gemma, who lives with her grandfather in Scotland.
Directors Ellen Fiske and Ellinor Hallin follow Gemma for three years as she causes trouble with her friends, raises birds with her grandfather, falls in love, has a baby, and tries to decide what her future holds — all while Gemma narrates her own story, explaining what she thinks, feels, and does. The film is a different sort of study of teenage life than we’re used to, intimate and raw without manufactured drama. And without sentimentality, it draws out the challenges that a girl like Gemma faces in trying to change her life.
In the late 1960s, a restaurant in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood, the Mangrove, was an important gathering place for members of the West Indian community — a place to eat, to meet, to talk and argue, to laugh and dance, and to discuss the issues that affected them. But it was also repeatedly targeted by police in the area, who frequently raided, ransacked, and arrested people at the Mangrove.
In 1970, nine people were arrested and charged with inciting a riot during a protest against the actions of the local police force. They became known as the “Mangrove Nine,” and their trial was highly unusual. Mangrove tells their story, weaving it into the larger life of London’s West Indian community and showing the deeply entrenched racial animus they fought against. The film is the first of five films in Steve McQueen’s wonderful Small Axe series, and it boasts a stellar cast led by Letitia Wright (Black Panther) as Altheia Jones-LeCointe, the leader of the British Black Panther movement.
How to watch it: Mangrove is streaming on Amazon Prime.
11. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
In the extraordinary Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, documentarians and brothers Bill and Turner Ross chronicle the last night of service for a Las Vegas dive bar called Roaring ’20s. Their cameras roll as regulars come and go, fight and kiss, and try to face facts: After tonight, the place that felt most like it was theirs will no longer exist. For them, it’s the end of the world.
But there’s a catch: The Ross brothers used a real bar in New Orleans as a set, and asked people to play characters much like themselves. Is the movie fiction? Yes, technically. Is it nonfiction? Not exactly. Is it “real”? Absolutely. It’s another film that inadvertently captured the mood in a year that felt apocalyptic — a lament for the world of days gone by, deep longing for places we used to visit, and hope that we’ll find ourselves there once again.
The Russian films that play at Cannes tend to be very bleak, but Beanpole — which debuted at the festival in 2019 before coming out this year — may take the (gravel-filled) cake for sheer misery. It’s a period piece from Russian director Kantemir Balagov, about two young women living in Leningrad just after the war. They met in combat and now work in a hospital, and both bear the physical and mental scars of their young, troubled lives.
Beanpole tells the story of their stormy relationship as it’s crunched and crushed by life, much like the patients in the hospital. The film — which won Balagov the Best Director Prize in the festival’s Un Certain Regard competition — is not easy to watch. The women’s struggles seem endless. But it’s achingly beautiful, with unnerving performances.
9. First Cow
Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow is set in a 19th-century frontier settlement somewhere in Oregon, near the Columbia River. The settlement is populated by people who are trying to scratch out a living in the New World, as well as the First Nations people who’ve been living there for generations; then a cow arrives, setting off a chain of events both momentous and small. But First Cow is about much more than just a cow and a settlement.
The film is also a gentle (and gently devastating) tale about male friendship, about finding someone to share in your aspirations and dreams, and, most deliciously, about cooking. And it smartly calls attention to the kinds of constructed hierarchies — based on factors like race, class, money, and firepower — that seem to be imposed on the world wherever new civilizations pop up.
Heartbreaking and passionate, Time is the chronicle of a love deferred and the drive to keep going that hope can provide. Garrett Bradley won the directing prize at Sundance for her documentary, which follows Fox Rich, a woman who has spent 21 years doggedly petitioning for the release of her husband Rob from prison.
Rob has been sentenced to 60 years following a crime he committed as a young man, in which he and Fox were both involved. Meanwhile, she’s been raising their six children and becoming a powerful advocate for change in her community. And all along, Fox has made videos at home, which together feel like a diary of her pain and endurance. Time details her struggle, demonstrating how mass incarceration persistently separates Black families in America as well as how bureaucracy and centuries of official narratives conceal the truth and pain of those separations.
How to watch it: Time is streaming on Amazon Prime.
7. Another Round
I cannot understate my love for Another Round, a movie about four middle-aged Danish men who are much more miserable than they’re willing to admit to themselves or to one another. One night, though, a cordial birthday dinner turns into a weeping confessional, and then into a rager — and they realize, with the ancients, that in vino veritas. The men decide to embark on an experiment, reasoning that the human body is naturally 0.05 percent deficient in alcohol and that they can test whether maintaining a low buzz all day will enable them to live a better life. Obviously, things escalate from there.
This sounds like a sophomoric and possibly horrible premise for a film, but instead director Thomas Vinterberg has made a truly wonderful movie about trying to come to grips with life, anchored by terrific performances from Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Magnus Millang, and Lars Ranthe. It’s funny, and gutting, and great.
How to watch it: Another Round premieres on digital on-demand services on December 18. Check the film’s website for more details.
6. The Assistant
It took two years for a truly great movie to come out about the Harvey Weinstein case, and The Assistant is it. Julia Garner (Ozark, The Americans) plays Jane, a new assistant in the Tribeca offices of a high-powered movie studio executive. The Assistant follows Jane through one long workday. She makes coffee and copies, takes calls and endures light ribbing from her colleagues; she also witnesses, to her growing horror, what she thinks might be her powerful boss’s inappropriate behavior toward a young woman who shows up unexpectedly, saying she’s been promised a job in the office.
We don’t see the “Weinstein” character directly. Instead, we hear his voice and see his back from a distance; we also see the fear he provokes in his subordinates. He isn’t the point of the story, though. The point, as The Assistant makes blindingly clear, is that the studio executive gets away with his behavior because of the people around him. The monster is as much the business that enables him as it is the man himself.
How to watch it: The Assistant is streaming for subscribers on Hulu.
Driveways is surprising at every turn. It’s a modestly told drama about a boy named Cody (Lucas Jaye) who feels out of place, and his friendship with the Korean War vet named Del (Brian Dennehy, who passed away in April) who lives next door. But it’s not the film you might expect from that setup. Instead, the shifts that happen thanks to Del and Cody’s friendship are muted, almost imperceptible. Del finds something new to live for. Cody discovers a new community. They both gain a little confidence.
Driveways is profound in its simple focus on everyday, neighborly life. It explores, with exquisite sensitivity, the barriers we all put up between ourselves and others to protect us from the things we fear. And in 2020, that lesson was even more important to learn. For me, a film like Driveways is like a firefly caught in a jar, a small light of something like a sign that we can learn from one another and love one another, despite whatever storm is raging in the outside world. That we can meet each other on our porches — or at a healthy distance — and keep the ties between us strong, even now.
How to watch it: Driveways is streaming on Showtime Anytime, and on Hulu and Amazon Prime with the Showtime add-on. It’s also available to digitally rent or purchase on platforms including iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu.
4. Dick Johnson Is Dead
I first rhapsodized about Dick Johnson Is Dead in January, when contemplations of mortality weren’t quite as much of an everyday occurrence. Times have changed a little, but it’s a credit to Kirsten Johnson’s unconventional documentary (if I must categorize it) that it feels even more poignant now than it did then. Johnson started filming with her father — the Dick Johnson of the title — after his dementia diagnosis. The only way she could imagine making the road ahead more bearable would be to collaborate with him in imagining what his death and afterlife would be like. They decided to “reenact” the different ways he could die, and in the midst of it, they contemplate the meaning of life.
The result is of course moving, but it’s also strangely joyful. Deep connection and abiding love are evident in every frame, and imagining the possibilities together gives them a way to picture the unspeakable, live through the inevitable, and tentatively step into the future without surrendering to it quite yet. In some ways, Dick Johnson Is Dead is a model for facing the inevitable head-on, and maybe, just maybe, for finding a way to smile and cry and get a grip on what we truly are: tied to bodies and minds that eventually fall apart, but also tied to one another.
How to watch it: Dick Johnson Is Dead is streaming on Netflix.
3. Lovers Rock
Lovers Rock is exhilarating. Another installment of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series of films, it takes its name from a style of reggae that foregrounds women’s voices and experiences — and the events of the film do the same. Set at a house party in the early 1980s, Lovers Rock is less of a story than a mood. At the time, white-dominated nightclubs were not friendly to Black people, so house parties provided an alternative scene where passion and defiance could entwine.
Watching Lovers Rock is like being at the party where the film takes place. There’s a story focusing on a young woman named Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) who sneaks out of her strict parents’ home to attend the party with her friend Patty (Shaniqua Okwok). There she meets Franklyn (Micheal Ward). There are other characters and plot lines, but Lovers Rock is all about the music, and a scene where the revelers dance and sing to Silly Games is worth the price of admission. In a year when we’ve been forced apart physically, Lovers Rock is an exuberant reminder of what awaits on the other side — and how yielding ourselves to music and dance can help us remember what it means to be alive.
How to watch it: Lovers Rock is streaming on Amazon Prime.
David Osit’s hilarious and moving documentary Mayor follows Musa Hadid, who is mayor of Ramallah, the de facto Palestinian capital that is surrounded on all sides by Israeli settlements. Hadid is beloved in the city, a true public servant, and also one who has to deal with matters that few mayors encounter — dealing with sewage and cemetery issues that stem from stonewalling by the Israelis; receiving the British royal family for a visit; experiencing the repercussions of international politics that directly affect your constituents’ daily life; suddenly discovering there are active gunmen on the ground in your city.
But he also just has to do normal mayor things, many of which are faintly ridiculous, and that makes Mayor a very funny film. At times, it plays like Veep — if the characters in Veep were actually kind, compassionate, and oriented toward what best serves the public’s interest. But Mayor also shows how challenging the job of mayor is, even for a talented leader like Hadid, who struggles to show the world what the citizens of his city are facing as they, and he, go about their lives under impossible and seemingly intractable circumstances.
How to watch it: Mayor is playing in virtual theaters throughout the country; see the film’s website for listings.
1. The Painter and the Thief
I have thought about Benjamin Ree’s movie almost every day since I saw it at Sundance in January, and my love for it grows every time I rewatch it. The Painter and the Thief is a stunning film about young Czech painter named Barbora Kysilkova, and Karl-Bertil Nordland, the thief who stole two of her paintings from an Oslo gallery. When she tracks him down, he says he was so high that he can’t remember why he did it — or what he did with the paintings. Barbora is less interested in the thief himself than in where he took her artwork, but eventually she decides to paint his portrait, after which they form a friendship and creative partnership of sorts.
The Painter and the Thief actively challenges what we think we understand about its characters based on their appearance, class markers, or behavior. It highlights the way artists of all kinds, from painters to filmmakers, turn reality into something that’s at least a little fictionalized in order to make their work, and how everyone conceals the truth at times. And then there’s its last shot, which you’ll never forget.
Honorable mentions: 76 Days, Bacurau, Bad Education, Emma, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, Feels Good Man, Fourteen, Kajillionaire, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, The Invisible Man, Mank, Martin Eden, Miss Juneteenth, The Nest, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Shirley, Soul, The Surrogate, Welcome to Chechnya, and White Noise.