We’ve made it through a year like no other, and I’m sure, like me, you’re looking forward to a clean start in 2021. And, you know, maybe the chance to watch a good new movie in an actual movie theater. But the lack of theaters didn’t prevent me from watching more than 200 new movies in 2020. There were some interesting ones, some poor ones and some great ones. Below are the 10 movies I loved the most and the five that, well, I could have gone without seeing.
Share your own favorites in the comments!
10. Clouds (Disney+)
About: This one is a biopic about Zach Sobiech (Fin Argus), a high schooler battling cancer while launching a music career. The film is about love, friendship and, surprisingly, about hope. Disney+ has been criticized a bit for not producing a ton of original content, but the films they’ve released have been strong. Clouds was a movie that hit me hard emotionally in a way I didn’t expect. Argus is great in the lead role, with supporting performances from Neve Campbell and Tom Everett Scott as his parents, Sabrina Carpenter as Zach’s best friend and performing partner and Madison Iseman as the girl that falls for Zach despite the obvious complications. This movie has a lot of heart and stuck with me long after it played and is well worth checking out. Just be prepared for some tears.
9. Let Him Go (VOD)
About: For a few years now, I’ve enjoyed Kevin Costner in Yellowstone, where he plays a grizzled and quiet patriarch that will do anything to protect his family. That same vibe comes in strong in this one, as Costner and Diane Lane play a couple whose son dies, leaving a widow and a young son. When their son’s widow marries a new man, who turns out to be violent and part of an even more violent family, they act to protect the grandson who is all they have left of their son. Costner and Lane are great in this movie, which is tense and, at times, dark. Leslie Manville gives a chilling performance as the matriarch of the new husband’s family and the primary antagonist. This one has some strong and beautiful sequences, and writer/director Thomas Bezucha does a nice job adapting from the novel by Larry Watson.
8. Boys State (Apple TV+)
About: It’s been a great year for Apple TV with both original series and with original films. It’s also been a spectacular year for documentaries. I saw a ton of them, and I liked a ton of them. Three of them made this list, starting with Boys State, which chronicles a mock government exercise over a week-long event in Texas. It was surprisingly engaging and emotional and gave audiences both a glimpse at the next generation and the pitfalls of politics. While you’ll more than likely be disappointed by the outcome for many of the primary subjects, it’s hard not to fall in love with the journey.
7. Soul (Disney+)
About: There have been some interesting animated films released this year, including a few on Disney+. This latest Pixar film follows an aspiring pianist and current middle school teacher, Joe (Jamie Foxx), who sees his soul leave his body following a freak accident as he’s on the cusp of achieving his dream. There he meets a new soul (Tina Fey) who is reluctant to go to Earth. This one starts a little slow and has some amusing sequences, but it’s the third act that really hums. There is a piece in this film about what it means to really live your life to the fullest, and it’s inspiring. I found myself moved by the final act and impressed with how it all came together. This one was a Christmas gift for audiences, arriving on the streamer on Christmas Day, and it’s worth your time to seek out.
6. Tenet (VOD, Blu Ray)
About: Christopher Nolan is one of my favorite filmmakers, and Tenet is a film that’s been in the works for a while. This year presented a lot of obstacles for seeing films in theaters, but Tenet was one of the few big films that I got to see in a theater this year. I’m glad I did. Nolan is great at his craft, and while some may have struggled with the dense, time-bending plot of the film, I greatly enjoyed the ride. John David Washington and Robert Pattinson are strong as the focal characters while Kenneth Branagh makes for a strong villain. This film had the best action sequences of the year, too.
5. Dear Santa (VOD)
About: We come to the second documentary on this list, one that focuses on a 100-year-old program by the Post Office to answer letters to Santa and make dreams come true for children, and adults, in need around the country. Writer/director Dana Nachman delivers a beautiful film that dives deep and helps you get to know the letter writers and their stories as well as the stories of the elves who help Santa reach out and meet the needs of those who write letters. This not only boosts your Christmas spirit, it should tug at your heartstrings. I know it did for me.
4. The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Netflix)
About: I love Aaron Sorkin and his writing, and I think this original film that focuses on the seven men put on trial after riots surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. This one has a great cast and unfolds in an engrossing way. It was a big swing for Netflix, and one that lands well. It will surely be part of this year’s awards competition, and it was one of my favorite scripted films of the year.
3. Nomadland (Limited Release)
About: A few years ago, I was really taken with Up In the Air, a film about a shifting economy and those being put out of work en mass. It also focused on a man whose whole identity was wrapped up in being on the road and having no connections. Nomadland feels like a natural successor to that story, set in 2012 and focusing on a group of older adults who live a nomadic life, traveling from place to place for temporary jobs and living out of vans and RVs. The central character is a woman (Frances McDormand) who saw her entire town collapse when the local mine shuttered, leading her to take up a nomadic life. This one is based on a non-fiction book, and much like Up In The Air features real life people in this situation helping tell the story. But at the heart of it is McDormand, who gives a great performance. Chloe Zhao, who adapted the story, gives some brilliant direction and in a film that’s often beautiful to behold.
2. Rebuilding Paradise (Hulu)
About: This documentary from director Ron Howard focuses on the town of Paradise, California, which was destroyed by a raging fire and the people who spend the next year rebuilding it. When I first saw this movie, I was deeply moved and shaken. It is a tough film to watch at times, but it’s beautifully and lovingly crafted. For most of 2020, it was my favorite film of the year. It’s an incredible documentary, and one that you need to make a point to check out.
1. Promising Young Woman (Limited)
About: And we come to my favorite film of the year, this searing film from writer/director Emerald Fennell. At times it’s one of the funniest films I’ve seen this year, and at other times it’s a gripping and engaging drama. All of it works beautifully thanks to some great writing, strong direction and an incredible lead performance from Carrey Mulligan. It’s a tough story to watch, and doubtless some will have strong opinions about how it ends. But everyone should be able to agree that Mulligan is incredible and gives the performance of the year in the best film I saw in 2020.
And now, for the not so great…
5. Capone (Amazon Prime)
About: Josh Trank delivers this biopic about the latter years of Capone (Tom Hardy) when he’d been released from prison to live out his days, dying from advanced dementia due to syphilis and gonorrhea. So much of this movie is about incoherent speech, strange mental confusion and Capone having no control over his bowels. If you thought this was going to be a crime drama, the only crime is against the audience.
4. The Prom (Netflix)
About: This candy-colored spectacle from Ryan Murphy is an adaptation of the stage play of the same name. It features an all-star cast and plenty of big production song and dance numbers. It also features an insipid and preachy plot that left me cold. This is one of the biggest train wrecks of the year.
3. Choke (Amazon Prime)
About: This film from writer/director Gregory Hatanaka is meant to be some kind of engaging crime drama. It’s a low-budget disaster that features a lot of, well, choking of women for no reason that’s been made clear. It was incredibly bad.
2. She Dies Tomorrow (Hulu)
About: This is meant to be a pensive horror film about existential dread. The only dread you’ll be feeling is that you have to watch this weird film that goes along with no real explanation, including exciting scenes like actors dancing seductively with walls. The true horror is having to watch this film.
1. Tesla (Hulu)
About: Where to begin… this biopic of Nikola Tesla (Ethan Hawke) is meant to be taken seriously. But it’s crafted like a parody of a biopic, complete with a scene where Tesla and Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) settle a dispute by slamming ice cream cones in each other’s faces. It was easily the most painfully absurd film I saw this year.
Matthew Fox is a graduate of the Radio, Television and Film program at Biola University, and a giant nerd. He spends his free time watching movies, TV, and obsessing about football. You can find him @knighthawk7734 on Twitter and as co-host of the Fantasy Football Roundtable Podcast, a proud member of the Drive-In Podcast Network.