2020 was a very strange year for movies. Most theaters in the United States have been closed since March in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing studios to push most of its offerings into 2021 at the earliest. While it may seem like a bare year for cinephiles, there was still plenty to enjoy. If the pandemic had never happened, then this list of the best 2020 movies would likely look very different.
Streaming services picked up the slack with Oscar contenders flocking to the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime. Studios experimented with releasing more tentpole features on their respective streaming platforms to varying degrees of success. 2020 was a year like no other when it came to watching movies, and years from now when the pandemic’s officially behind us, we’ll look back at this year as a turning point within the entertainment industry. We’ll also look back on it as giving us some of the best films of the 21st century so far.
BEST MOVIES OF 2020
If you want an action movie that’s a cut above normal summer tentpole features, then you get in touch with Christopher Nolan. His latest film, Tenet, is a time-warpy adventure following an unnamed Protagonist as he finds himself in the midst of an organization with the ability to manipulate time so that he can stop World War III. If you're still scratching your head over the plot, we can help with our explanation of Tenet.Tenet may be light on character arcs, but you really just have to sit in awe of the screenplay’s structure, which follows a perfect parabolic arc. Once you hit the midpoint, you recognize where the film’s heading and how you’re about to revisit all of the previous moments in the movie with the knowledge the Protagonist is the one interacting with past events. After watching the film once, you’ll want to go back to rewatch it with the knowledge you have now to appreciate just what the director did, proving no one else comes close to Christopher Nolan’s directing style.
BEST FILMS OF 2020
18. On the Rocks
Sofia Coppola’s latest effort shows a father and daughter, played by Bill Murray and Rashida Jones respectively, who team up to try to catch her husband in an act of infidelity. Their schemes escalate as her father continues putting ideas in her head, causing her to question why she listens to him in the first place.
On the surface, the film has a plot that seems like it would be more at home on a sitcom than a serious film. However, Coppola manages to find the minutiae of what it means to be torn between your father and your husband, particularly when a father has such a dynamic personality. No one wants to believe their parent or spouse is fallible, and the movie portrays the alienation that happens when you get stuck between those two extremes.
BEST 2020 MOVIES LIST
Time may just be one of the most important documentaries to come out in recent memory. It follows Sibil Fox Richardson, an abolitionist who’s fighting for the release of her husband from jail, who’s currently serving a 60-year prison sentence. The movie highlights how their children have had to grow up without a father and how ruthless the criminal justice system in the United States truly is.
The prison industrial complex has ruined the lives of countless (and predominantly Black) men in the country. Through beautiful black-and-white footage, the movie questions whether this system truly makes society safer or if we’re still living with the remnants of slavery.
2020 ALL MOVIES LIST
There are plenty of break-up movies, but few get under your skin as well as Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things. The film follows a woman who considers breaking up with her boyfriend of seven weeks while they go on a trip to visit his parents.
It’s the movie equivalent of watching someone unravel at the hands of neurosis. There are no answers here that help illuminate the human condition. In fact, after you watch it, you may find yourself more in the dark than ever before. But it’s a film that sticks with you and forces to grapple with your own existential shortcomings.
GOOD MOVIES OF 2020
15. Yes, God, Yes
Yes, God, Yes is a coming-of-age story (a common theme explored by filmmakers) about a girl from a Catholic school who gradually discovers her budding sexuality. This often puts her at odds with the conservative environment she wants to be a part of.
Catholic school is a very strange beast. You’ll have people shame you for having completely natural thoughts, and then the next moment, they act on those same urges with their boyfriend. It’s a widely hypocritical setting that can make things incredibly confusing when you’re trying to figure out your own moral compass (I went to Catholic school myself if you couldn’t tell). Yes, God, Yes perfectly captures what this is like while providing Natalia Dyer a great project to show off her range as an actress.
TOP 2020 MOVIES
14. The Nest
The Nest is one of the most emotionally-impactful films of the last year. In it, we follow an English couple moving from their home country to the United States so that the husband, Rory, can take advantage of the financial windfall taking place in the country in the 1980s. However, he soon starts spending more money than the family has, putting him at odds with his wife’s sensibilities.
Carrie Coon and Jude Law provide some of the best performances of 2020 in this film about a marriage on the brink of destruction. The tension you can sense between the two leads is all too real for pretty much anyone as we’ve all been in a situation where money led to stress. It’s brilliantly directed by Sean Durkin, who’s perhaps best known for his previous indie effort Martha Marcy May Marlene, one of the best films from 2011.
2020 BEST MOVIES
Cassie was wronged by men in the past, so she seeks out on an epic revenge quest to right various wrongs. While the plot synopsis may sound pretty straightforward, Promising Young Woman takes its central conceit in new, unexpected directions, making for something that has ample bite.
The #MeToo movement from several years ago really upended Hollywood, and various films over the last few years have attempted to grapple with the sins of the powerful. However, few movies have truly wrestled with this idea as effectively as this one. It truly doesn’t pull any punches, and while it occasionally delves into a heightened reality, it somehow never feels like it’s exaggerating the very real threat women have to deal with on an almost-constant basis.
BEST MOVIES OF THE YEAR
Death is a sensitive subject, especially when it comes to discussing the topic with loved ones. Kirsten Johnson’s father, suffering from dementia, doesn’t have long to live, so in this documentary, she stages various scenarios where her father “dies” to help her cope with the inevitability.
There really is no other documentary like this. It’s part-hilarious and part-depressing. By poking fun at death, Kirsten and her father are able to make the situation seem less scary. It doesn’t make the future any less scary, but it at least gives them both some closure in knowing that life will go on when he eventually passes. Plus, the two of them created plenty of fond memories Kirsten can enjoy for the rest of her life.
BEST MOVIES IN 2020
11. Palm Springs
Palm Springs takes a classic rom-com set-up and infuses it with a science-fiction twist. Nyles and Sarah get caught in a time loop on the day of Sarah’s sister’s wedding. As such, they relive that day over and over again, starting off by engaging in nihilistic tendencies before eventually attempting to find a way out of this conundrum.
In a year where every day seemed to blend together with the next, no film exemplifies 2020 perhaps as well as Palm Springs. While most people will be familiar with the formula from Groundhog Day, this film puts its own unique spin on it, showing how we can all find meaning within the chaos.
THE BEST MOVIES OF 2020
The Invisible Man is perhaps the best Universal monster reboot of the 21st century. Cecilia finds herself in an abusive relationship, and after she escapes, she discovers her abuser has “died.” Only she believes he’s not actually dead, and instead, he’s turned invisible to ruin her life and bring her back to him.
The opening sequence is one of the most brilliantly-filmed things in 2020. Without any dialogue, you immediately understand the situation Cecilia is in and what the stakes are. It’s a film a lot of people can unfortunately relate to as there are plenty of abusers who are willing to resort to gaslighting to make you believe you’re crazy when you can see more clearly than anyone else. The titular character may be the monster Cecilia has to fight in the film, but the true monster is how prevalent this story is in modern society.
LIST OF TOP MOVIES OF 2020
Two con artists have trained their daughter basically her entire life to become a thief. Now that she’s grown up, she starts planning her own heists, teaming up with a stranger along the way who threatens everything the family has worked for up to this point.
With themes related to wealth and family, it’s easy to draw comparisons between Kajillionaire and the best film of 2019, Parasite. Kajillionaire is also similar to the film in that you’re never quite sure what direction it’s going to take next, and trust us, it takes some pretty wild turns.
RANKING 2020 BEST MOVIES
Mank isn’t your average biopic. While a good portion of the film focuses on screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz’s process of writing the script for Citizen Kane, it’s intercut with scenes from Herman’s past where we see him interact with the contentious political climate of 1930s Hollywood.
Mank is an impressive feat from director David Fincher, who does precisely that with every one of his movies. The film’s shot in black-and-white and even the sound design makes it sound as though it was shot in the time period it’s set in, a noteworthy task, especially considering the movie’s a Netflix original you could really only watch on your TV. The authenticity even extends to the score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, with everything blending together into a brilliant example of why Fincher is a master of his craft.
BEST MOVIES IN 2020 FOR FILMMAKERS
Sound of Metal follows a heavy metal drummer who loses 80 percent of his hearing while on tour. He also happens to be a recovering heroin addict who has built his life around structure, so when his life is thrown for a loop, he checks himself into rehab and learns to accommodate his new disability.
Again, the sound design helps bring you into the world presented by the film. Even in total silence, you can pick up on all these nuanced details of Ruben’s life. And it’s all bolstered by a mesmerizing performance from Riz Ahmed.
STUDIOBINDER’S TOP MOVIES OF 2020
Soul is arguably the most philosophically-interesting Pixar film ever. The movie follows Joe Gardner, a music teacher with aspirations to become a big-time jazz musician. However, when his life is unexpectedly cut short, his soul must find a way back to its body, which takes him on a spiritual journey in learning what it truly means to be alive.
Soul just feels different from other Pixar animated films. While it’s child-friendly, it genuinely feels like it was written for adults in mind and children could just come along for the ride. After all, the disillusionment of wondering what you’re doing with life and what you would even do after achieving your goals is something that seems like it would go over a kid’s head. But then again, kids are smarter than you think, and leave it to Pixar to refuse to dumb things down for the next generation of moviegoers.
THE BEST MOVIES OF 2020, RANKED
Minari turns its attention to a Korean-American family that settles down in rural Arkansas in search of the American Dream. Things are further thrown for a loop when the family’s sly grandmother decides to move in with them, completely upending the normal family dynamic.
There are macro- and micro-level themes present throughout Minari. On the macro level, it’s about what it means for a family of immigrants to assimilate into the United States. On a micro level, the story focuses on what it means to assimilate into one’s own family. While the film may take place in the 1980s, what it has to say about immigration is just as pertinent today.
OUR LIST OF 2020 BEST MOVIES
Based on the August Wilson play of the same name, this film shows what happens during a single recording session involving legendary singer Ma Rainey and her bandmates. Trumpeter Levee has big aspirations, and it’s these dreams that often get him into contention with his fellow performers. Truths get revealed as tensions continue to escalate throughout the film.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a faithful adaptation of the stage play, but thanks to legendary performances from Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman. The locations are minimal, but those two, along with the rest of the immensely talented cast, are able to infuse an energy like no other into every scene.
BEST MOVIES OF THE YEAR (2020)
Never Rarely Sometimes Always came out early in 2020 and is one of the most tender films on this list about a sensitive subject. It follows a 17-year-old girl who discovers she’s pregnant, so she and her cousin travel out-of-state for an abortion. The film deftly shows what young girls who want to get an abortion without parental consent have to go through and the numerous hurdles that stand in the way for the medical procedure.
There isn’t a ton of dialogue between the two leads. Instead, their bond is often shown in glances and the way they hold one another’s hands. They don’t need to spend a ton of time outwardly ruminating on the subject of abortion. It’s just treated as something that needs to be done, which is a refreshing change of pace from how the subject is normally portrayed in pop culture.
GREAT 2020 MOVIES LIST
2. First Cow
First Cow has had a lot of awards buzz since it debuted to general audiences earlier in 2020. The western-drama takes place in the 1820s Northwest where two hunters have big dreams of striking it rich. Part of their plan involves using someone else’s prized dairy cow.
The movie functions as a beautifully-crafted allegory about what it means to be an American. Dealing with themes of hope and ambition, First Cow shows a director at the top of her craft and shows how the Western is still alive and well if you have the right story to go along with it.
THE BEST MOVIE IN 2020
Nomadland is a beautiful portrait of what it means to leave society behind, directed to perfection by Chloé Zhao. It follows a woman in her 60s who lost everything she had in the 2007-2008 recession. As such, she ventures into the unknown with a group of nomads, traveling across the western United States in search of meaning and purpose.
A common theme that came up in our rankings of the best films of the 2010s was how many films dealt with economic anxiety. The 2007-2008 recession affected millions of Americans, and many movies over the next few years tried to depict this anxiety on film. It’s been over a decade since that time, and it’s abundantly clear that for a significant portion of the population, recovery still hasn’t adequately arrived.
Nomadland shows a side of life, with real nomads in the cast, depicting what it would mean to abandon what we’d consider to be the typical life. It also suggests there’s another way than just the hustle, bustle, and grinding that’s come to define capitalism. If Nomadland is any indication, we’re in for some incredible works of art going into the 2020s.
Best Movies of the 2010s
Want to take a trip down memory lane? The 2010s set the bar high as far as filmmaking. It was a decade of experimentation, and while many people may be focused on the rise of superhero movies and shared universes, there was still plenty of room for auteur-driven pieces that would go on to be far more influential. From The Social Network to Parasite, you don’t want to overlook our ranking of the best 2010s films.