Each year, we write these top 10 lists to talk about how unique the past year in film has been, how spectacularly dramatic or delightfully unexpected the best movies of the year were, and so on and so forth. Well, we’d like to take a moment to apologize for all the other years we’ve said that because, in retrospect, that was nonsense. Those years were nothing compared to this year, which by any objective measure was unlike any other in living memory when it comes to movies.
Moves that once felt unimaginable became commonplace, as release dates locked years in advance were scrambled and then scrambled again, the awards season schedule stretched beyond the calendar year, and theatrical rollouts were scuttled in favor of digital or day-and-date ones. Streaming services competed to put out ever-more-lavish exclusive content, while cinemas shuttered or reopened in response to local COVID restrictions. It was a year when nothing about the state of movies felt predictable. Indeed, it’s difficult to even now to know what the coming months will look like.
But through it all, we viewers found what we always have in the movies — comfort, excitement, joy, fear, the whole range of human experiences distilled into their most fascinating forms. All of which is just a fancy way of saying: We saw a lot of stuff we liked. Here are 10 of our very favorites.
10. The Trial of the Chicago 7
In a year as devoid of the classic movie experience as 2020, Chicago 7 is the kind of film that makes you long for theaters. Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, the film takes classic Hollywood liberties with true events surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention, giving the story a dramatic momentum propelled by actors like Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II.
Filmed in 2019, it’s not deliberately mirroring 2020’s surging interest in social justice and our broken system, but does so nonetheless. The Seven present a range of often clashing viewpoints within progressive activism that they don’t entirely resolve — what matters is surviving this moment and making it to the next fight, to keep working. — Proma Khosla, Entertainment Reporter
Where to watch: Netflix
9. Palm Springs
When Palm Springs arrived in July, most movie releases were postponed inevitably because of the pandemic — yet here was a movie, a new movie, a festival darling, about people going quietly insane with monotony and losing grip on time itself.
Max Barbakow’s film showcases a cheerfully nihilistic Andy Samberg, along with Cristin Milioti in her best work to date as his increasingly frenzied companion, in “one of those infinite time loop situations you might have heard of.” Their chemistry makes Andy Siara’s script soar, leaving ample room for J.K. Simmons’ sinister interludes and just the right amount of time travel interrogation. It’s a sharp, original comedy worth revisiting again, and again, and again. — P.K.
Where to watch: Hulu
8. She Dies Tomorrow
One of those titles bizarrely prescient for the pandemic, writer-director Amy Seimetz’s She Dies Tomorrow asks viewers to stew in their own inevitable demise. When a young woman, played by Kate Lyn Sheil, becomes convinced her death is imminent despite showing no signs of illness or injury, she embarks on a troubling exploration of her interiority that results in unforeseen consequences — and some of the most darkly comedic material released this year.
A feature-length mood perfect for stretching your existential legs, She Dies Tomorrow doesn’t offer a solution for avoiding the oblivion we all face but instead presents a salve for those feeling the weight of the cosmos. Come for the promise of an ensemble featuring Jane Adams, Katie Aselton, Chris Messina, Tunde Adebimpe, Michelle Rodriguez, and Olivia Dudley. Stay for everything that comes after the line, “I was thinking I could be made into a leather jacket.” — Alison Foreman, Entertainment Reporter
7. Promising Young Woman
Don’t let that candy coating fool you: Underneath its ultra-feminine aesthetic and bubbly pop soundtrack, Promising Young Woman is pure, burning acid. It begins as a growl of barely suppressed rage, following a mysterious young woman, Cassie (Carey Mulligan), on a one-woman reign of terror against the would-be rapists of her town. As her actions become more extreme, however, and as the true motivations beneath them begin to reveal themselves, her story transforms into something altogether more troubling and tragic. In refusing the relief of catharsis or easy answers, writer-director Emerald Fennell serves up a portrait of rape culture as searing as it is — unfortunately — familiar.
Where to watch: In theaters Dec. 25
6. I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Emotional demolitions expert/filmmaker Charlie Kaufman destroys audiences once more in the mind-boggling I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Adapted from Iain Reid’s novel of the same name, this cryptically titled psychological thriller follows a woman, played by Jessie Buckley, and her boyfriend, played by Jesse Plemons, on a disturbing visit to his parents’ remote farmhouse. What follows? Well, that depends on who you ask.
A transfixing meditation on art, existence, value, authorship, isolation, and more, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a truly one-of-a-kind experience as profound as it is disquieting. You may not have a great time in this house of abstract horrors (especially when Toni Collette is onscreen doing those classically terrifying Toni Collette things), but it will be a lasting one. — A.F.
Where to watch: Netflix
5. Lovers Rock
The second installment of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe film series, Lovers Rock traces the life cycle of a house party in 1980 London, attended by Black youth who weren’t welcome in the white clubs of the time. We follow a handful of partygoers from the giddy anticipation of preparing for a big night out all the way through to the early-morning make-out, drinking in details like the flex of a hand on a woman’s hip, the rustle of a burning cigarette, the condensation collecting on a wall in a sweaty room. It’s awash in beauty and joy and occasionally even crosses over into the sublime, with an impromptu singalong that takes on the transcendence of a hymn. Especially in a year when so many of us are craving physical human contact, Lovers Rock is a sensory experience so rich, it might make you weep.
Where to watch: Amazon Prime
Woven together from dozens of home video footage and set to a soundtrack of swirling piano pieces by Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, Garrett Bradley’s Time examines the American prison industrial complex from the most intimate of perspectives — that of a family whose father, Rob, has been imprisoned.
Its heroine is Fox Rich, Rob’s wife, an entrepreneur and abolitionist who’s spent the past two decades fighting for his release while also raising their six children. The documentary flows backward and forward in time, capturing pivotal moments and everyday details alike, finding the family in moments of pain, joy, frustration, and reflection. In the process, it raises the crucial, heartbreaking question of what exactly the years of a person’s life are worth, and what’s accomplished — or not — by taking them away.
Where to watch: Amazon Prime
3. Da 5 Bloods
Spike Lee did what Spike Lee does in : He delivered a work of cinema that’s both timely and timeless, marked by stellar performances and a camera lens that tells a story even if you ignore the script. The plot follows four Black Vietnam vets as they return to the former war zone in search of their dead squad leader’s remains…and the millions in CIA gold they plundered and buried before their tour ended. Political differences between the men foster mistrust and complicate their journey, leading to a powerful finale that’s not-so-strangely resonant — this is Spike Lee — for our current moment in history. — Adam Rosenberg, Senior Entertainment Reporter *
Where to watch: Netflix
2. First Cow
Director Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow enchants with the tense yet tender tale of two friends and their criminal, baked goods enterprise. Set in 1820 along the Oregon Trail, this regularly funny period drama stars John Magaro and Orion Lee as travelers who team up to steal milk from a wealthy Englishman who owns the first (and so far, only) cow in the territory.
This low-stakes heist enacts a chain of events that oscillates between thrilling, like a western, and charming, like a buddy comedy. You know, one of those classic cow-centric buddy comedies. Delightful and a bit tragic, First Cow is a rewarding watch that hangs with you in the way only really good stories do — nestling a spot for its two heroes and their faithful cow friend deep inside your heart. — A.F.
1. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Eliza Hittman’s is candid about the harsh realities facing girls like Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), a teenager on a two-day trek to New York City for an abortion she can’t get in her Pennsylvania hometown. But just as powerful is all the things the film doesn’t say, because it doesn’t need to.
You don’t need Autumn and her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) to point out predatory men to see them leering from the edges of the frame. You don’t need Autumn to explain the circumstances of her pregnancy to realize the horrors she’s suffered. You don’t need the girls to discuss their friendship to understand how fierce it is, and how much it means to each of them. You just need to experience this journey with them, to see how it’s changed them forever — and how it might change you, too.*