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, our chief film critic shares his picks for the best films of 2020.
Wanna feel old? 2020 was just last year. It was a rough one all around, and just one of its many victims was the theatrical experience in the U.S. We’ve lost some theaters for good while others are still clinging to life, but through it all, the movies continued with a new focus on alternative releases and rollouts — with all roads leading to VOD. Even with this year’s surreal reality, though, many of the films that made their way into the public eye by any means necessary are great cinema no matter where they’re viewed.
We’ve been celebrating them individually all year, but our 2020 Rewind highlights the best of the best. Our collective look at the fifty best films of the year — voted on by our entire staff — will be posting shortly, but for now, it’s my turn to draw attention towards my own picks for the year’s best movies. I watched nearly two hundred new releases in 2020, low for me but still a solid number, and the ones below represent twenty of the best.
20. The Way Back
Ben Affleck gets a lot of shit from people and paparazzi alike, and it’s easy to forget that the guy is a solid actor with the right material. This affecting tale finds his sweet spot as a broken man given a shot at redemption with a coaching job at his old high school. He’s grieving an unimaginable loss and drowning himself in alcohol and bad decisions, and his climb back up is increasingly insurmountable. Gavin O’Connor is no stranger to wringing tears and tension from sports underdog tales, and he manages to once again deliver one with unexpected turns in the third act that add to the film’s powerful effect. You will root for Affleck, oh yes, you will, and in the process you’ll discover that not all underdog sports movies follow the same beats.
19. Da 5 Bloods
Spike Lee‘s no stranger to films that blend entertainment with activism and his latest does so with a time-hopping narrative involving Black veterans of the Vietnam war. The four men — played by Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, and Isiah Whitlock Jr. — return to Vietnam in pursuit of both gold and closure, but it’s a journey fraught with memory and conflict. Lee weaves historical footage throughout highlighting the eternally at odds relationship between America and Black Americans right up through 2020’s rise of Black Lives Matter. The core narrative keeps moving forward, but these reminders highlight the tone and tenor of what the men are battling with well beyond the otherwise traditional action beats. Yes, the de-aging efforts are laughable (a Netflix staple at this point), but the film manages to transcend that distraction with its power and intent along with a powerful supporting turn by Chadwick Boseman.
18. She Dies Tomorrow
I’ll be honest and admit that I debated including this one as the opening twenty minutes or so feel like the kind of navel-gazing I typically abhor — but then the remaining sixty-five remind me that this is a brilliant piece of work. Writer/director Amy Seimetz has crafted a story about mortality that manages big laughs and cosmic horror at the same time. A woman wakes with the unshakable belief that she’ll die tomorrow, and that morbid ennui becomes a communicable feeling. How do you behave “knowing” you’ll be dead tomorrow? Who do you treat well, who do you fuck over, and how do you enter the final minutes of your life? This is something special made even more so by its timely release in a year like 2020.
17. Bacurau (Brazil)
Forget the sci-fi trappings in the descriptions of this terrifically structured dramatic thriller — okay, don’t actually forget them as they bring some mystery to the table — and dig in instead for a surprising tale of one small town fending off invaders both real and metaphorical. Directors Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho craft an engaging adventure here as people come together to repel both mysterious attackers and the possibility that they could so easily be made invisible and forgotten. The political overtones manage to be particular to Brazilian affairs while also delivering commentary on a world constantly evolving through technology that has no deference to people or culture. Bacurau is a fascinating genre mashup worthy of visiting.
16. The Hunt
That’s right, Craig Zobel‘s satirical riff on “The Most Dangerous Game” that conservatives railed against sight unseen actually came out in 2020 — and it’s still pretty damn great. A bunch of deplorables wake up in a field and immediately find themselves targeted by Liberal elites, and while that’s enjoyable enough in its face the story has a few beats queued up that turn things on their head to the point where everyone’s a target. Not every joke works, but there’s plenty that manage both laughs and a well-crafted commentary on ideological labels, social media, and our propensity for knee-jerk condemnations. Hell, even if you don’t care about any of that the film also delivers some stellar action including a brutal, elaborately choreographed brawl between Betty Gilpin and Hilary Swank, and that alone makes it a contender.