In the plague-stricken year of 2020, when going to the movies turned into staying home and streaming the movies, the best films asked the biggest questions.
Questions like: What life have I lived? How did I get here? Where am I going? Who is the person I love? What is a legacy? What’s going to happen when I die?
Seeking the answers — when we didn’t have any blockbusters to distract us — took us through surreal drama, scathing comedy, sweeping romance, vibrant animation, imaginative documentary, and re-creations of history. Some were gritty and real, others were flights of fancy. All of them were thought-provoking, heart-tugging and wholly fascinating, whether we were home on our couch or wearing a mask in a mostly empty theater.
Here are the top 10 movies of 2020:
1. “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”
A woman (Jessie Buckley) contemplates dumping her boyfriend (Jesse Plemons) as they drive through the snow to visit his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis). But nothing is as it seems in director-screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s shape-shifting comedy drama that explores the uncertainty of memory, the pain of regret, and the symbolism of “Oklahoma!” (Streaming on Netflix.)
Pete Docter, the most big-picture thinker among the Pixar directors, introduces us to Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a struggling jazz pianist working as a middle school music teacher — and what happens when his soul is taken to the portal of The Great Beyond, and he learns how souls get their “spark” before coming to Earth. Colorful, funny, imaginative and touching — in short, a Pixar movie. (Streaming on Disney+.)
A man and a woman meet, fall in love, and try to make their relationship work when one of them leaves Paris to join the other in New York. But what’s amazing is how writer-director Boaz Yakin explores the coupling — by casting two dancers, a man and a woman, in each role, with the masculine and feminine sides of their personalities taking turns. Yakin and choreographer Bobbi Jenn Smith (who plays the female half of the male character) create an intense look at the fluidity of a marriage in which everyone dances their hearts out. (Available as a digital on-demand rental, DVD or Blu-Ray.)
[Related story: Here are 13 of the best TV series of 2020]
Director-screenwriter Chloe Zhao applies her steady, quiet, forceful gaze on the American landscape, and the people who live in vans and RVs, moving from place to place as the gig economy or their own restlessness propels them. Focusing on Frances McDormand as a widowed woman moving from job to job, Zhao (adapting Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book) shows us the toll of the Great Recession and the resiliency of those refusing to play by others’ rules. (Virtual screenings were held for one week in early December; coming to theaters Feb. 19.)
5. “Sylvie’s Love”
An old-fashioned romance with deep undertones, writer-director Eugene Ashe tells of a record store clerk (Tessa Thompson) whose dreams of being a TV producer in late 1950s New York take a turn when she falls in love with a jazz musician (Nnamdi Asomugha). Issues of feminism and racial tensions add to the explosive chemistry between the leads, all within a picture-perfect production design. (Streaming on Amazon Prime Video.)
Writer-star Lin-Manuel Miranda and director Thomas Kail dropped a bombshell on a quarantined summer: a full video production of Miranda’s game-changing Tony- and Pulitzer-winning musical, taped in 2016 with Miranda and the original Broadway cast on the stage of the Richard Rodgers Theatre. Originally slated for theaters, the film showed the brilliance and energy of Miranda’s hip-hop history lesson, and benefited from the multiple viewings that streaming provides — because what else were you going to do? (Streaming on Disney+.)
7. “The Climb”
What do you do when your best friend is toxic? That’s the crux of the dilemma between Mike (Michael Angelo Covino) and Kyle (Kyle Marvin) — after Mike confesses that he slept with Kyle’s fiancée. That’s the first of many hilariously awkward moments between the buddies, shown as a series of smartly staged long takes, directed by Covino and written by Covino and Martin. (Opened in theaters Nov. 13; digital release pending.)
Director Miranda July, an artist of many forms of media, chronicles a family of penny-ante grifters, and what happens when the daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) starts wondering if there’s something more than the small-time scams her parents (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger) constantly devise. Wood’s deadpan performance provokes some laughs, but when she encounters a kindred spirit (Gina Rodriguez), the emotional needle clicks into the red zone. (Available as a digital on-demand rental.)
9. “The Trial of the Chicago 7”
Aaron Sorkin knows how to write a good courtroom drama (e.g. “A Few Good Men”), and finds a great one in the real-life 1969 trial of the activists — led by Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) — who sought to protest the 1968 Democratic convention and ended up in the “police riot” started by the Chicago Police Department. Sorkin’s writing and directing matches the moment, then and now, in a year when the whole world was again watching people taking to America’s streets to demand social justice. (Streaming on Netflix.)
10. “Dick Johnson Is Dead”
Kristen Johnson loves her dad, a retired Seattle psychiatrist in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. So she had to kill him. Over and over, in elaborately staged ways for her cameras, with Dad a willing participant. The filmmaker also stages her father’s funeral, and his vision of heaven, in a heartfelt tribute to him — and a soulful examination of how we look at dying, the one thing we’re all going to do someday.
The second 10
Eliza Hittman’s sensitive abortion drama “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”; Kitty Green’s intense #MeToo thriller “The Assistant”; Kelly Reichert’s rustic caper “First Cow”; Robert Machoian’s bare-bones Utah-made marital drama “The Killing of Two Lovers” (which premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, and will be released Feb. 23); Frederick Wiseman’s four-hour municipal documentary “City Hall”; Amy Seimetz’s internalized horror drama “She Dies Tomorrow”; Andrew Patterson’s lo-fi space-alien mystery “The Vast of Night”; Lee Isaac Chung’s precisely rendered immigrant story “Minari” (also a Sundance debut, it will be released Feb. 12); Brian Duffield’s satirical horror comedy “Spontaneous”; and Jason Wolinar’s newsmaking mock-documentary “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.”
The bottom 10
1. “Unhinged” • The first studio release after months of closed movie theaters — a distasteful road-rage thriller with a bloated Russell Crowe — made the argument that we could Netflix and chill a while longer.
2. “The War With Grandpa“ • After a career-summation performance in “The Irishman,” Robert De Niro tarnishes his brand with a pratfall-heavy kids comedy that’s aimless and witless.
3. “Bad Boys for Life” • Will Smith and Martin Lawrence return to cash a paycheck, shoot up portions of Miami, and remind us what a soul-crushing franchise this always was.
4. “Spree” • A feverishly disgusting attempt to satirize social media, with “Stranger Things” star Joe Keery as a serial-killing, wannabe-influencer ride-sharing driver.
5. “My Spy” • Dave Bautista makes his play to be the next Dwayne Johnson, in a movie that can’t decide whether to be an action movie or a kiddie comedy, and fails at both.
6. “The Painted Bird” • Jerzy Kosinski’s controversial Holocaust-themed novel inspires a self-regarding slog through the darker parts of humanity.
7. “SamSam” • You never heard of this idiotic animated superhero story from France. Lucky you.
8. “Friendsgiving” • A lot of funny people, led by Malin Akerman and Kat Dennings, in a Thanksgiving farce that generates no laughs.
9. “Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren and Stimpy Story” • If you’re making a documentary about a mercurial artist and his briefly popular creation, what would you do if you learned the guy was accused of sexually abusing teen girls? If you said “start over from scratch,” you did better than the makers of this deeply flawed movie.
10. “Irresistible” • Jon Stewart, once America’s sharpest political satirist, misses the mark with this preachy “both sides are bad” comedy about big-time political operatives taking over a small-town mayoral campaign.