2020 was a year for the books. We were stuck inside, but there was never a shortage of entertainment options appearing on streaming services to keep us entertained while we waited out the apocalypse. Turns out there were plenty of movies to consider for a best/worst list this year. I wanted to start with the disclaimer that these are the films that brought me out of the depression, panic, and existential dread that lingered over 2020. These might not be technically the ‘best’ films of the year, but these are the films that scooped me up and took me somewhere else. And that’s why we love movies to begin with, isn’t it?
1. Promising Young Woman
One of the boldest and most confident first features I’ve ever seen. A fast-paced comedic psychological thriller that will leave you shaken, thinking about it for days. It’s about something topical, but is never really about that. This is a story about survivor’s guilt, the ramifications of trauma, and the limits of revenge. Emerald Fennell’s bleak and brutally funny debut screenplay is less interested in how far our heroine will go, and more interested in why. It’s also Carey Mulligan’s best case for an Oscar yet.
One of the best teen coming-of-age films I’ve seen in years. Actually, we might be into all-time-great territory. It’s sharp, unpredictable, hilarious, devastating, terrifying, and has a shocking amount of heart and emotional depth. First-time writer/director Brian Duffield’s surprisingly wise script nails the uncertainty of what it’s like to be a young person thrust into a horrifyingly uncertain world they never asked for, and provides a truly hopeful message.
3. The Prom
Maybe not bold-print perfect, but no other film in the entirety of 2020 made me smile so much from beginning to end. The Prom is a total blast and it’s kind of become my comfort movie that I turn on when I’m anxious or depressed or overwhelmed by the state of the world. It’s a thrillingly vibrant love letter to the magic of Broadway. A collection of show-stopping musical numbers with an overwhelming excess of energy and heart. Also, we have a delicious Meryl Streep camping it up like never before, a performance that imagines what the first five minutes of Death Becomes Her would look like as a full feature.
The Pixar movie they made us watch at home turned out to be one of their all-time best. Soul is a groundbreaking achievement, even by Pixar standards. It’s part hilarious screwball buddy comedy and part deeply moving contemplation on what it means to be alive and what a life amounts to. Complete with some truly innovative art direction and character design, Soul will make you contemplate your own reason for living and will stick with you long after it’s over.
5. Palm Springs
The best of the ‘pandemic movies’, Palm Springs takes a Groundhog Day backdrop and dissects every aspect of that subgenre in a fascinating way. It’s kind of a disaster movie and existential crisis drama but primarily it’s a very sharp and yet endearing romantic comedy with a very charming Cristin Milioti and a career- best Andy Samberg. I’ve come back to this film several times since its initial Hulu release, and will likely continue to do so.
6. On The Rocks
Sofia Coppola’s first project with Apple that feels like an extended therapy session and yet I never wanted it to end. Rashida Jones and Bill Murray play a father and daughter that are sleuthing around New York City trying to prove her husband’s infidelity. And it’s one of my favorite Coppola films, and probably the defining performance of Murray’s career, one that should receive some kind of awards-season recognition.
7. Let Them All Talk
Steven Soderbergh’s latest shows him taking yet another cinematic big swing, filming an entire movie on the Queen Mary 2 cruise ship, and taking some of the most celebrated living American actresses with him. And also there’s not really a script – an outline of how they want scenes to go, and Soderbergh simply lets them all talk. And it somehow became one of the best films of his career.
8. Words on Bathroom Walls
A wonderful John Hughes-ian coming-of-age drama that doesn’t really rewrite the genre rules, it just does everything in the most lovely and perceptive way. Charlie Plummer impressed me twice this year (this and Spontaneous), but his performance here suggests a truly great career ahead of us. This is the kind of film that could be deeply meaningful for audiences of many generations, and it’s absolutely worth seeing.
9. Pieces of a Woman
Vanessa Kirby arrives late in the game this Oscar season, but leaves a lasting impression as a woman struggling with incapacitating grief after a home birth that goes tragically wrong. This is an actor’s showcase, but also a fascinating look at how debilitating grief can be. One of the most powerful films of the year.
10. Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn
Undoubtedly the only time I’ll ever put a superhero movie on this list. Birds of Prey is a joyfully weird, kinetic, explosive, and gleefully over-the-top adventure that embraces the mayhem created by its titular character, and was a true delight from beginning to end.