Well, 2020 happened. It was a weird year for everyone, but especially for the movie industry. With theaters shut down, most big blockbusters postponed their releases. The Oscars are even postponed for two months later than usual. But without blockbusters dominating the box office and pop culture this year, some truly special and unique movies were able to shine. Movies that aren’t your typical action or adventure experiences. In fact, some of the best movies of the year I saw tackle some really big questions, issues and themes. They can be difficult to watch at times, but they help us grapple with these questions ourselves and take stock of our world, and that makes them even more important.
Here are my top 10 movies of 2020:
- Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Gorgeous, breathtaking, magnificent, captivating, spectacular. I’m cheating a little bit here since this movie technically had its world premiere in 2019, but it wasn’t released wide in the US until 2020. The story of this movie is so simple: an artist is hired to paint a portrait of a wealthy young woman for her upcoming wedding. But their relationship grows into something much more than artist and subject and the slow burn quickly erupts into a fiery passion. So much is done with so little in this movie, with stolen glances between the two main characters saying more than most lines of dialogue. The set design, cinematography and costumes are incredible. There’s so little music within in the film that when it does show up it’s shocking. And there’s literally one line of dialogue spoken by a man in the whole movie. The less you know about this going in, the better you’ll appreciate it, but I couldn’t recommend it more.
Have you ever seen a movie that just makes you want to appreciate the world and life more? Because that’s what Soul did for me. There’s so much to love in this movie – from the absolutely gorgeous animation of the “real world” and the weirdness of the soul world to the existential nature of what life means and how we can all live fulfilled lives. The trademark Pixar humor is there, especially in the second act that was perfectly hidden from all the trailers, and the expected emotional gut punch is one of the studio’s strongest. Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey are fantastic in the lead roles, but the supporting cast truly shines throughout. And the music – both the vibey sounds of the soul world to the energetic jazz – is just outstanding and really becomes a character of its own.
3. Sound of Metal
If you lost something that was integral to who you are and how you identify yourself to the world, you’d go to any length to hold on to your identity. In Sound of Metal, heavy metal drummer Ruben slowly begins to lose his hearing, and we watch him fight to hold on to himself, grieve at what he’s lost and slowly learn how to live in his new reality. This movie is both heartbreaking and deals with anger, grief, fear and acceptance. Riz Ahmed is fantastic in the lead role and really brings the audience along through every emotion. Partnered with Ahmed’s performance is the fantastic sound design of the movie, which allows the audience to “hear” what Reuben hears. And we don’t get subtitles for characters using sign language until Reuben learns enough to understand what others are saying. The final shot of this movie is incredible.
4. Palm Springs
This is such a fun movie. Palm Springs takes the classic Groundhog Day time loop setup and refreshes the idea by having two people living the same loop together. Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti are absolutely wonderful and expertly balance the humor and “no consequences” mindset of the early time loops with the exhaustion and despair of feeling like they’ll never get out. There’s some really fun twists as the story unfolds, and the finale takes a surprisingly metaphysical turn and gets pretty wild, but it’s a blast throughout.
5. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Let’s get this out of the way at the beginning: this is a movie about abortion. High-school student Autumn travels from rural Pennsylvania to New York City with her cousin to get an abortion after an unplanned pregnancy. At no point in this movie is abortion glorified or celebrated – instead, it shows the mental toll it can take on a woman and the difficulty she must go through to make a decision like this. The silences in this movie speak volumes and it’s filled with so much empathy that you want to jump into the screen and tell Autumn that everything’s going to be okay. It’s a heartbreaking movie, but extremely powerful, and one that is necessary to discuss.
6. Boys State
Every year, thousands of high school boys descend on state capitals across the country to participate in a mock-government program called Boys State (there’s also a Girls State – gotta keep those boys and girls separate!). This documentary follows the 2018 Texas Boys State in all its horror and glory. The first 20 minutes of this legitimately felt like a documentary about a cult. Boys State is hyped up for these boys like it’s bigger than the Super Bowl or the most important job interview they’ll ever have. The movie follows four participants as they learn the political process and play the game. Some of them only want to play to win – and will do absolutely anything to do so. But there are others who genuinely want to connect with people and seek power to make positive change. And to see the effects that the current political climate (even in 2018) have on potential leaders of tomorrow is… concerning. Even in a mock situation, some of the things these boys do to win is unnerving. However, there are a few rays of light and I found myself inspired by some of the boys and was able to feel both concerned and hopeful for our future.
7. Da 5 Bloods
The Vietnam War defined a generation and changed the world, but for many who were there, the war never ended. Da 5 Bloods follows a group of Black American Vietnam veterans who return to the country to search for a forgotten treasure and say their final goodbye to a fallen soldier. A lot of this is hard to watch, and rightfully so. It shines a light on some of the darker flaws of American history – the Vietnam War, racism and civil rights, PTSD and the treatment of veterans. This was one of Chadwick Boseman’s final film performances before he died, and even as he was undergoing cancer treatments, he was an absolute force of nature in his few scenes here. The rest of the main cast is also incredible, but Delroy Lindo and Jonathan Majors give the best performances out of the bunch.
This movie has everything I love – beautiful, unique animation, Irish accents, folklore and mythology, and magic. A young hunter comes to Ireland with her father who has been tasked with wiping out a threatening wolf pack, but she meets a girl in the woods who shows her that the wolves are not as dangerous as they may seem. Wolfwalkers tells the familiar story of enemies becoming friends through a new understanding of each other and seeing the world through each other’s eyes. There’s a real heart to this movie that pulls you in through its humor and some of the darker moments. It’s a story about relationships – between enemies, friends, and parents and children. There’s also a strong environmental message about learning to coexist with nature and not only to control it.
9. Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)
The one major studio superhero movie we got this year came from DC and Harley Quinn. Birds of Prey is a delightfully weird breath of fresh air. Margot Robbie clearly loves playing Harley, and she shines in the role. She has made Harley one of the true stars of the DC movie universe. The rest of the cast is fantastic too – my personal favorite is Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Huntress, full of angst and anger. Ewan McGregor gives his all as the villainous Roman Sionis and looks like he had a blast doing so. The story structure is just as chaotic as the movie’s title, but it works well for Harley’s vibe. And the action scenes are absolutely incredible – particularly the climactic battle in the fun house.
10. Promising Young Woman
Believe women. In Promising Young Woman, a young woman makes it her mission to get revenge on men take advantage of women. She’s driven by a tragedy from her past and can only find solace in making sure no other woman goes through what happened to her best friend. Carey Mulligan is electric in the lead role, and the men she encounters are all expertly played by men known for being the “nice guys” in other movies and shows, done purposefully to make the audience even more uneasy. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous throughout. Promising Young Woman is about revenge, yes, but it’s also about grief, trauma and male privilege. I don’t think I blinked or breathed during the entire final act of this movie. Believe women.
And the ranking of all the other 2020 movies I watched:
13. The Invisible Man
14. First Cow
15. Trial of the Chicago 7
16. I’m Thinking of Ending Things
17. One Night in Miami…
18. The Assistant
19. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
20. Bad Education
25. Bill & Ted Face the Music
26. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
27. Happiest Season
29. Miss Americana
30. The Lodge
31. Shawn Mendes in Wonder
32. Black Bear
33. The Old Guard
34. David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet
35. Wonder Woman 1984
36. Enola Holms
38. The Devil All the Time
39. The Lovebirds
40. The Boys in the Band
41. The Half of It
42. The Hunt
43. Sonic the Hedgehog
44. Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey
45. To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You
46. The Babysitter: Killer Queen
48. The New Mutants
51. The Witches
52. The Princess Switch: Switched Again
54. The One and Only Ivan
55. Trolls World Tour
56. Christmas on the Square
57. The Kissing Booth 2