This article is part of our 2020 Rewind. Follow along as we explore the best and most interesting movies, shows, performances, and more from this very strange year. In this entry, we escape the real world for a trip to the best sci-fi and fantasy movies of 2020.
Every year, our showcase of the best science fiction and fantasy movies is a mix of blockbusters and smaller works because the speculative fiction genres are most enjoyable when they’re the biggest effects spectaculars or little economical indies with smarter ideas and a focus on the performances. In 2020, there was a shorter supply of the former because so many tentpoles rescheduled to 2021 due to theaters being closed and/or mostly abandoned during the COVID-19 pandemic. So, this year’s list spotlights more of the smaller works anyway, but also they really shined regardless.
The best thing about this year’s smaller sci-fi and fantasy movies rising to the top is that it’s not all Netflix’s doing. In fact, for all that the streaming giant attempted in keeping audiences entertained at home, they only have a few titles on our list, while Hulu, Amazon Prime, and most notably VOD distribution brought us the best of the best works in these genres. This year, I have excluded animated movies because they’d have filled too much of the top ten, and I tried not to have too much overlap with our horror list, but that’s difficult when a lot of smaller sci-fi/fantasy tends to dip into horror.
20. The Midnight Sky
George Clooney‘s adaptation of Lily Brooks-Dalton’s Good Morning, Midnight has one of the most intriguing sci-fi premises of the year: Earth has finally hit its breaking point with a cataclysmic event that kills most of the planet’s population at the same time that the first manned mission to explore a habitable moon of Jupiter is returning home. And communication is lost between them. Up until the disappointingly eye-roll-inducing ending, The Midnight Sky is full of thrilling moments and the year’s best outer-space-setting eye candy, even if most of the visual concepts are familiar. We needed this sort of grand sci-fi spectacle this year, even if it’s more stunning in its imagery than in its imagination. Available on Netflix.
I’m fascinated by the very existence of this movie, which couldn’t have even been conceived of one year ago. Written, produced, and released during the COVID-19 pandemic, Songbird takes humanity’s present situation and exaggerates it to show what could be even worse in a few years. That is what sci-fi is for, isn’t it? While undeniably exploitative since its speculation concerns something presently killing a lot of people (that something being actually two things: the virus and the government response to the virus), it could have been worse, and I found its B-movie level storytelling entertaining enough and also impressively executed given the circumstances.
I know that I’m in the minority for accepting Songbird let alone liking it. But I genuinely haven’t stopped thinking about this movie, albeit less so for its contents than what it is within the context of when and how it was made. It would be less interesting, though, if its plot didn’t also reflect that context as well. And if Peter Stormare wasn’t so dependably enjoyably over-the-top in his latest villainous role. Watching Sofia Carson in something that isn’t a Descendants movie and outshining the rest of the interwoven ensemble cast by giving a better performance than this probably called for is also a plus. Available On Demand.
18. Sonic the Hedgehog
One of the best surprises of this year was how much fun the Sonic the Hedgehog movie is. Released back when we could still enjoy mindless fluff at the movies (after a delay from 2019 to thankfully improve its special effects), this video game adaptation did the trick with its basic fish-out-of-another-dimension plot and its amusing vocal performance from Ben Schwartz in the titular role. Then it went above and beyond with Jim Carrey‘s deliciously dastardly portrayal of Dr. Robotnik. For the first time in a while, when the fan-servicing sequel teaser arrived at the end of a wannabe franchise starter, we were all cheering. Available On Demand.
A well-rendered aesthetic and a hilariously annoying child performance (by Senan Jennings) elevate Garret Shanley and Lorcan Finnegan‘s Vivarium from being just a one-note obvious allegory. Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots play a couple trapped in a surreal suburban hell after deciding to buy a home together. There is a dark honesty to the representation of parenthood that comes unexpectedly to the protagonists that I found hilarious, and I never got tired of the Magrittesque look of the labyrinthine world. Available on Amazon Prime Video.
16. Love and Monsters
I have problems with the plotting of Love and Monsters (from screenwriter Brian Duffield, who will show up again later), including its contrived set-up, its inconsistent narrative structure, and its out-of-nowhere third-act shift, but that’s okay because Dylan O’Brien continues to be a winning screen personality and, most of all, the monsters, when we get to see them, are fantastic. Love and Monsters begins as something that seems to be a Zombieland clone but with more heart than cynicism and ends up more of a memorable YA-grade tribute to creature features as varied as Mysterious Island and Tremors. And yet, oddly enough, the best sequence in the movie actually involves a randomly inserted robot. Available On Demand.