A Bizarre Year in Film: The Best Movies Of 2020 And How To Watch Them
For the last decade or so, I’ve made a hobby of compiling a year-end best films list. But as with so many things in 2020, the way we watch movies was upended by coronavirus.
Major titles scheduled for release this year were delayed to 2021—or beyond—and even the most passionate fans of the in-theater experience were relegated to our couches at home, juggling an ever-expanding pantheon of streaming services in pursuit of the best entertainment options.
For better or worse, that changes things. What works on the big screen doesn’t always work on your television or—God forbid—your smartphone. And with so many platforms competing for our eyeballs and subscription dollars, it’s easy for good work to fall through the cracks.
What follows, then, is my attempt to honor this bizarre year in film through a list of 10 double-headers. Ranked by order of necessity, this list pairs each of 2020’s best movies with an additional title for anyone looking for extra recommendations.
As one of only a handful of major theatrical releases this year, Christopher Nolan’s latest film faced daunting expectations and delivered something of a mixed bag. More time is needed to see whether at-home viewers will embrace the often confusing and at-times incomprehensible thriller, but there’s no question the movie delivers on bombast and spectacle, rewarding viewers equipped in one form or another with the largest screens and most dynamic sound systems.
Your mileage will certainly vary. And while the time-jumping shenanigans are dazzling at first sight, it requires multiple viewings that I’m not sure the film earns to make real heads or tails of them. But at minimum, think of Tenet as the classic roller coaster at the amusement park that you have to ride at least once. Rather than pick nits, dim the lights, sit back and enjoy the ride.
Pair it with: Da 5 Bloods
The first of Netflix’s big swings of 2020 (more on that later), Spike Lee’s film follows four Black veterans-of-a-certain-age who return to Vietnam to find the remains of a fellow soldier— played in flashbacks by the late Chadwick Boseman—and the horde of stolen gold they hid before his death. It runs a touch long at 2.5 hours, but features an excellent cast with ensemble chemistry and a contemplative plot punctuated with action.
9. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Writer-director Eliza Hittman’s film about two teenage girls who go to New York City for an abortion is an impeccable piece of show-don’t-tell storytelling. The film’s leads, Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder, feel like lightning in a bottle and manage to convey volumes through very little dialogue, particularly in the gutting scene from which the movie derives its name.
This is a heavy film, and undeniably political in its depiction of women’s healthcare. But it also shows real people facing real-world problems, and does so with heartbreaking humanity.
Pair it with: On the Rocks
After Never Rarely Sometimes Always, you’ll need something a little on the lighter side. Enter On the Rocks, part of Apple TV’s first cohort of streaming films. Written and directed by Sofia Coppola, the movie pairs Bill Murray and Rashida Jones as a father-daughter pair who make a romp out of Jones’ character’s nascent suspicions of her husband’s (Marlon Wayans) infidelity.
At 96 minutes it’s a quick, winning dramedy that averages on the lighter side of the scale and features an extremely watchable cast.
This is by far the most violent double-header on this list so discretion advised. I also must acknowledge a personal bias for Bacurau, as I lived in Pernambuco—the rural, northeast Brazilian state where the film is set—for a time. But effectively everyone in Utah either lived in Brazil or knows someone who did, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
The film follows a tight-knit community that, following the death of the town matriarch, has to defend itself from adversarial forces. That’s the best I can think of for a synopsis, as Bacurau truly defies description. It’s funny, it’s scary, it’s quite bloody, and it is very, very Brazilian. Pois é.
Pair it with: The Hunt
Initially planned for release 2019, The Hunt is *that* movie that got bumped to a plague slot due to controversy over its plot, which sees a group of liberal elites literally capturing rural conservatives to hunt them for sport.
Now to be clear, this film is quintessentially satirical, in a way that its sight-unseen detractors on the political right might have thought about before tilting at windmills. But nevertheless, this movie is now available to be seen and it is an absolute riot that will play into your expectations and jettison them in amazing, awful ways.
7. The Trial of the Chicago 7
Another of this year’s Netflix slate is the latest drama from writer-director Aaron Sorkin, which mixes the courtroom sparring of A Few Good Men with the righteous fury of The West Wing to tell the story of a group of men prosecuted for protesting the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
Sorkin’s film starts in the middle of the story, with the so-called Chicago 7 facing their first days in court. From there we move in two directions, following the progression of the trial and pairing testimony with flashbacks to the days-long demonstrations near the convention, which turned violent in the face of an unrelenting police response. It’s a neat trick, as Sorkin doles out context and clues to both the on-screen jury and the audience in tandem, while exploring a corner of the late 60s that doesn’t seem so long ago.
Pair it with: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Forty years earlier in another version of Chicago, Ma Rainey—the real-life “Mother of the Blues”—was taking a break from touring to cut a record, or so says this film from director George C. Wolfe and adapted from the August Wilson play of the same name.
If you didn’t know going in that this was based on a play, you would after about one minute of watching the film, which wears its stage roots with pride. It works, with scenes that function like mini-plays, and lengthy monologues that ask its cast to really go for it — notably Chadwick Boseman (in his final role) as a gifted trumpet player working against odds for his big break, and Viola Davis as a woman who knows the rarity of her success and is fighting to keep it.
6. I’m Thinking of Ending Things
If you’re familiar with Charlie Kaufman’s work (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Anomalisa) you’ll have a fair sense of what you’re in for. If you’re not familiar with his work, lean into the surrealism.
The film follows a young woman (Jessie Buckley) traveling with her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) to his parent’s farm. We hear her doubts about the relationship via narration, and we follow her down the rabbit hole as her mind’s confusion and dissonance play out on screen. Or at least I think that’s what happens?
Pair it with: First Cow
A story of the Wild Wild West that sees a camp cook landing in Oregon and teaming up with a Chinese immigrant to get rich by stealing milk and selling cake. It’s a simple, beautiful film that rewards patience.
5. Boys State
A remarkable documentary (and Sundance Film Festival selection) embedded in a single cohort of the Texas Boys State, a massive extracurricular program for high school-aged youth that sees participants divided into partisan factions and tasked with forming and running a simulation government.
Directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss excel at capturing the broader moods of the event alongside the individual routes of their film’s primary subjects. The result functions as a time capsule of popular U.S. politics in the twenty-twenties, with all its passions and scorched-earth savagery, trickled down through the nation’s newest batch of young adults.
Pair it with: Transhood
What Boys State does with children in one time and place, Transhood does with the passage of five years. The film rotates through the lives of four trans youth of varying ages and their families in Kansas City, checking in year after year as circumstances take them in different directions. As an audience, you’re a fly on the wall to the agonies of puberty, break-ups, step-parents and other childhood pains, but all with the added layer of transition and the toll that takes on a person and the people around them.
4. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
It is simply astounding what Sacha Baron Cohen has pulled off as a professional prank, and in his second film as the character Borat, he combines his talents with that of breakout Maria Bakalova for an exponential result.
Yes, many of the film’s major set pieces have been unavoidably spoiled by their inherent newsworthiness (Here’s lookin’ at you, Rudy!), but I assure you, no matter how much you’ve heard there is still plenty to see and be shocked by.
Pair it with: The Gentlemen
Dropped unceremoniously on January 24 just before we all retreated to our homes for months, Guy Ritchie’s crime thriller about an American weed king in London (Matthew McConaughey) who just wants to retire in peace didn’t get a fair shake. Stacked with a cast of “Oh-Hey-That-Guy” actors orbiting an against-type Hugh Grant, Ritchie puts together a zippy gangland rumpus that indulges in style and whimsy.
3. Bill & Ted Face the Music
This movie rocks and it made me cry. No way? YES WAY, TED!
Decades after their initial adventure through time, the Wild Stallions have failed to produce a song that unites all mankind. This, of course, threatens to tear apart the space-time continuum and destroy reality as we know it. Thus, a middle-aged Bill and Ted are once again compelled to rock out with their clocks out, racing to save the universe with the help of their daughters Billy and Thea.
B&T 3 is wall-to-wall infectious optimism. And after this year it’s nice to remember that people are mostly OK, and if we could all just be excellent to each other it really could fix the world.
Pair it with: Palm Springs
Elsewhere in time travel stories, Palm Springs sees Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti caught in a Groundhog Day-style time loop after meeting at a wedding. The movie has the requisite fun with the reset button before settling into something with a little more on its mind, while making sure not to take itself too seriously.
The big Netflix movie this year, and an undeniable awards contender. Mank introduces us to Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), a hard-drinking prestige writer slumming it in Hollywood and having a ball until he falls on hard times and is picked by Orson Wells to write what will become Citizen Cane.
We know that Mank will ultimately write one of the titles on Movie Mount Rushmore, but to do that he has to mine his personal life for material, specifically his relationship with William Randolph Hearst, the American titan on whom Charles Cane is overtly based.
It’s candy for movie fans. Director David Fincher opts for black-and-white, nodding to imagery from Citizen Cane and evoking the look and feel of a classic Hollywood film. Fincher’s father wrote the screenplay for Mank and the director has talked about how it has been on his mind for years. His work here is excellent, as are the performances of Oldman and Amanda Seyfried.
Pair it with: Tesla
My colleague Ben Winslow caught this at Sundance and didn’t care for it. I was late for that same screening and had to wait until it landed on Hulu and I respectfully disagree.
But, I admit, this movie is not for everybody. It’s a biopic of Nikola Tesla—known to history as Thomas Edison’s rival in the race to electrify the world—but is presented in a nontraditional format that sees actors standing in front of obvious backdrops in lieu of location shooting and Tesla and Edison shoving ice cream cones in each others’ faces before a narrator on a laptop explains anachronistically that nobody knows how things really went down.
It works because Tesla is a little odd and among the runners-up of history, for whom greater creative leeway is permitted, if not necessary. And it’s one more rung in the Tesla v. Edison ladder (see also: The Prestige, Family Guy, etc.) that I have a soft spot for.
The movie leans into its limitations by stating clearly what is known and what is speculation — capturing the spirit of Tesla, who insisted on looking for a different way of doing things.
1. Lovers Rock
All five of director Steve McQueen’s Small Axe collection are worth watching, but the second film, Lovers Rock, is magic. A flowing camera drops the viewer into the middle of a house party in 1980’s West London, weaving on and off the dance floor to capture the essence of a group of people thrust together in a small space.
This film is sensory, and watching it is the closest thing you’ll get this year to the feel of a dance party (unless you’re a reckless BYU student, I suppose). McQueen boxes you in so you can smell, hear, and taste the party, carried along by a hypnotic, nearly-ceaseless soundtrack that peaks during perhaps the single best scene of the year. Would that I could have seen this in a theater.
Pair it with: The Sound of Metal
Writer-director Darius Marder’s film about a heavy-metal drummer losing his hearing does remarkable things with sound, approximating deafness to a remarkable and at times visceral degree. But along with the film’s audio wizardry is the outstanding performance of Riz Ahmed, who channels rage, despair and pain, often wordlessly, as his character adapts to and struggles to reconcile with his new way of living.
Benjamin Wood is a writer whose work has appeared in Entertainment Weekly, The Salt Lake Tribune, and City Weekly. He's also a biker, ukulele player, and cinephile. Find him on Twitter and at bjaminwood.com.