As 2020 comes to a close, it’s time to look back on the very best this godforsaken year had to offer. While it was undoubtedly a devastating year for moviegoing – from shuttered theaters to never-ending delays – 2020 still managed to deliver some incredible films.
In a typical year, I usually feel like I have a solid Top 25 to choose from when December rolls around. This year, all things considered, I’m honestly ecstatic to have come up with a list of 10 films I loved, plus a handful of honorable mentions.
Just as a bit of clarification before we get started, if you can’t tell from the headline, this is a personal list. My decision-making process was a blend of what I consider to be the best quote, unquote “film,” but also what I simply enjoyed the most. Let’s get started.
Almost there, but not quite. I enjoyed these movies immensely, but they just couldn’t crack the Top 10. Shame not to mention them, though.
10. “On The Rocks” (Dir. Sofia Coppola)
Let’s start things out simple – and that’s exactly what Sofia Coppola does in her latest dramedy. Rashida Jones and Bill Murray star as an insanely charming father-daughter duo who get into all sorts of globetrotting trouble. While it may have two celebrity stars, a story that crosses international borders, and a high-speed chase through New York City, “On The Rocks” is anything but big. At its core, it’s a deeply intimate look at love, trust and dealing with feelings of inadequacy.
Where to watch: Apple TV+
9. “Boys State” (Dir. Jesse Moss, Amanda McBaine)
I’m not going to lie… I’m not a huge documentary guy, but “Boys State” hardly feels like a typical doc. Set at Boys State, a prestigious politics camp in Texas where a thousand teenage boys create a mock government, the film plays out with more compelling characters and a tighter storyline than most narrative features did this year. If you’re looking for hope for the future after the onslaught of the 2020 election cycle, you may not find it here – but you will find a completely engrossing and masterful example of vérité filmmaking.
Where to watch: Apple TV+
8. “Palm Springs” (Dir. Max Barbakow)
It’s a premise you’ve seen done time and time again – literally. It seems the time-loop film is reborn every few years, but “Palm Springs” does it in a way that makes it feel brand new. From the tangible chemistry between its dynamic duo of Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti to the surprising emotional depth it digs into, “Palm Springs” bucks tropes and instead takes the entire subgenre to new heights.
Where to watch: Hulu
7. “Birds of Prey” (Dir. Cathy Yan)
Remember when I mentioned movies I simply enjoyed? Case in point. Maybe it’s the fact that “Birds of Prey” was one of the few theatrical releases I saw this year, maybe it’s the fact that it just flat-out rules. Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn was the only saving grace of 2016’s “Suicide Squad,” and seeing what she’s capable of being in the hands of a competent director was an absolute blast. Theater or not, seeing Robbie and Co. team up as a crew of badass antiheroines is always a good time, and the end result was the best entry in the DC Extended Universe to date.
Where to watch: HBO Max, VOD
6. “Minari” (Dir. Lee Isaac Chung)
Quiet and sincere, no film this year better encompassed the essence of the traditional “American Dream” than “Minari.” Director Lee Isaac Chung tells a measured and quiet story that paints a deeply intimate portrait of love, family and the struggles of assimilation in the 1980s. Youn Yuh-jung delivers an Oscar-worthy performance as the batty old grandmother, and Alan Kim is sure to be the cutest thing you’ll see onscreen this year.
Where to watch: In select theaters Jan. 26, 2021.
5. “The Invisible Man” (Dir. Leigh Whannell)
Long ago, before the collapse of the movie theater, I sat in a packed auditorium and held my breath for two hours alongside about hundred other people. The thrill of that mutual fear and excitement is the reason I firmly believe movie theaters will never truly go away, and it helps when you have films as mind-blowing as “The Invisible Man.” Director Leigh Whannell’s modern reinterpretation of the H.G. Wells classic perfectly translates the story to fit 2020, diving deep into the #MeToo movement, exposing gaslighting front and center, and still delivering pure, edge-of-your-seat terror. All the while, Elisabeth Moss carries the film with a Best Actress-worthy performance that has stood the test of time since February.
Where to watch: HBO Max, VOD
4. “The Trial of the Chicago 7” (Dir. Aaron Sorkin)
Who doesn’t love a good courtroom drama? The tense back and forth between sides, the high-stakes verdicts, and in this case, the star-studded cast. These movies often walk a fine line between droning legal jargon and dynamic, compelling drama – and “Chicago 7” feel more like a thrill ride than most action movies did this year. Writer-director Aaron Sorkin’s legendary knack for dialogue is well-known, and it’s on full display here as every line feels like a zinger, from witty wisecracks to the deliverance of court orders. After everything that has happened in 2020, I still stand by my prediction from September that the perfect storm is brewing for this to take home Best Picture.
Where to watch: Netflix
3. “Da 5 Bloods” (Dir. Spike Lee)
Speaking of the perfect film for 2020, what could be more relevant than a story about a population of Black men who feel forsaken and left behind by a country to which they have given so much? In typically Spike Lee fashion, “Da 5 Bloods” holds nothing back and delivers a serious gut-punch to the injustices Black veterans – and Black people in general – face in America. While that may be the grander message at play, Lee manages to deliver those sentiments through an all-encompassing compelling narrative filled with action, comedy, heart and plenty of drama thanks to stellar performances across the board. If it were up to me, both male acting categories would likely find their winners here, with Delroy Lindo taking home Best Actor and Jonathan Majors or Chadwick Boseman as Best Supporting Actor.
Where to watch: Netflix
2. “Soul” (Dir. Pete Docter)
After all of the pain, heartbreak and all-around doom and gloom of 2020, Disney and Pixar delivered a much-needed dose of happiness, hope and empathy to close out the year. On top of the beauty of “Soul’s” absolutely stunning animation and delightful score, the story at its core is even more poignant. Director Pete Docter once again forces viewers to reckon with the foundation of their very existence, and the result is a profound and moving film that will leave you searching for your spark.
Where to watch: Disney+
1. “Promising Young Woman” (Dir. Emerald Fennell)
“Soul” came in at the end of 2020, and it locked up the top of my list for nearly a month – that is, until I saw “Promising Young Woman.” Out of nowhere director Emerald Fennell’s provocative thriller arrived at the buzzer to steal my top spot by providing a darkly comedic, stylish and absolutely batshit crazy surprise. Carey Mulligan stars in a career-best performance thanks to a script filled with twists and risks that truly let her shine. I went into this with essentially zero knowledge of what it would be about and was completely blown away, so I’d highly recommend going in as blind as possible.
Where to watch: Now playing in select theaters.
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Raleigh, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.