25. Miss Juneteenth
Channing Godfrey Peoples’ astounding and poignant feature debut, Miss Juneteenth, follows Turquoise (Nicole Beharie), a former beauty pageant queen who now lives as a single mom in Fort Worth and works in a bar to make ends meet. She enrolls her teenage daughter in the Miss Juneteenth pageant, hoping the scholarship prize will be enough to secure a way out of the cycle of regret that Turquoise finds herself in. For her daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze), the pageant is more of a way for her mother to live vicariously through her. The overbearing pageant mom narrative is a cliche, but the film counters this with a nuanced portrayal of both the hope that the pageant offers the young black women who enter it and the constraints and prejudices that place a limit on their potential.
At the heart of this is Beharie’s stunning portrayal of Turquoise. She’s a woman grappling with her own dedication to break generations of trauma embedded in her familial fabric, all while bills are piling up on the counter. It’s not an easy life. But it’s one that Turquoise is willing to deal with if it means setting Kai up for success. The film touches on her strength and commitment as a mother without flattening her as a character. Her persistence also makes her stubborn; her flaws are what make her human. She’s electrifying as she shines and breaks hearts in this film. If there’s any justice, we’ll be hearing Beharie’s name in the Oscar conversation soon. (Anna Swanson)
24. The Platform
As much as positive, uplifting stories were in heavy demand in 2020, sometimes it’s the more nihilistic films that speak in a truer voice. This Spanish feature drops viewers into a near-future dystopian prison — an enormous tower with one cell per level and two prisoners per cell — that stands as a metaphor for society. Glorious banquets are lowered in from the top, and while those above eat well the pickings grow ever slimmer the lower the platform goes. The Platform is a grim, violent, and harrowing ride as one man stands up for those beneath him with unexpected results. (Rob Hunter)
23. Palm Springs
A year full of tumultuous elections, insurrections, pandemics, and wildfires calls for a little cheeky romantic time travel tomfoolery to help us survive with a sense of humor. The Lonely Island’s newest Andy Samberg vehicle joins the likes of Groundhog Day and Russian Doll as one of the stronger iterations on the time loop premise. The situation is thus: a fellow gets stuck in a time loop at his friend’s wedding in Palm Springs, only to find out that one other woman (Cristin Milioti), someone he doesn’t know, is stuck in the loop with him.
Rom-com hijinks ensue, spring-break neons flood the desert oasis cinematography, drama emerges, and, ultimately, Conner O’Malley steals the show with his boisterous body flailing and hilariously monotonous, entitled-customer-esque shout. As is the case with wide-appealing fare, you will have to endure the occasional moment in which a theme is spoon-fed to you (“What we do to people matters.”) as opposed to tastefully delivered, but it’s a small price to pay for an otherwise terrific time. (Luke Hicks)
Shirley Jackson is one of the mothers of horror literature. Her stories such as “The Lottery” and The Haunting of Hill House continue to remain relevant. But behind the woman was a deeply troubled personal life, which is portrayed in Josephine Decker’s Shirley with Elisabeth Moss in the titular role. Shirley is viewed through the eyes of young housewife Rose (Odessa Young), who has, with her husband Fred (Logan Lerman), traveled to the home of Shirley and her husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlberg). There, Fred will work with Stanley, and Rose is delegated as Shirley’s keeper. While almost everyone misunderstands Shirley as simply insane, Rose bonds with her and they strike up a rather unusual friendship, one steeped with compassion, empathy, and desire. Moss and Young have incredible chemistry, making this relationship all the more alluring.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Shirley is one of the sexiest movies of 2020. It includes one of the best sex scenes in 2020 as Rose and Fred get down in a train car, which sets a lustful tone for the rest of the film, particularly as Rose and Shirley grow closer. There is electrifying energy when someone finds another that just gets them. Decker’s lust may be stranger than expected, but it is nonetheless steeped with sexual energy. It is a film that is both extremely hot and distressing. The sexual tension can be cut with a knife, but there’s also such deep frustration with the way Shirley is treated. Shirley is a rollercoaster of emotions that will have the viewer getting in line to experience again. (Mary Beth McAndrews)
Wolfwalkers is another knockout adventure exploring Irish folklore from Cartoon Saloon. What differentiates it from their previous brilliant endeavors is how directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart bend their animation to match their characters’ emotional state. The linework is wildly exciting, eagerly ditching convention in an effort to stir a visceral response from their audience. The style and design spring out of woodblock prints but radically mutates into something wholly unique as tensions mount. Every aesthetic choice remains rooted in character and story. Wolfwalkers never feels like an experimental movie, but when you hit that pause button, the magic of these decisions leave you gobsmacked. (Brad Gullickson)