2020 was a strange and strained year in so many ways.
Every aspect of culture has had to adapt to shifting circumstances. But cinema in particular — an institution based on the idea of large groups of people sitting in a tightly-packed room for two hours — had to adjust.
Schedules for both production and release have been continually disrupted, and despite efforts to convince audiences that they can feel safe returning to theaters, most have stayed away — and they are right to. As a result, a lot of great movies fell through the cracks.
The critically acclaimed Minari, for example, only saw a limited digital release for one week, with a theatrical debut scheduled for March. And the much anticipated News of the World is currently screening in theaters — even though Tom Hanks was the first famous face of the coronavirus pandemic.
With that in mind, it was a strange year to review cinema, but these are the best movies that felt safe to see in 2020.
Directed by: Christopher Landon
Written by: Michael Kennedy, Christopher Landon
Starring: Vince Vaughn, Kathryn Newton, Celeste O'Connor
For several weeks in 2020, Freaky topped US box office charts. While that probably wouldn't have happened in another year, Freaky's surreal blend of Friday the 13th and Freaky Friday delivers some bizarre but satisfying entertainment.
With Vince Vaughn and Kathryn Newton doing an impressive swap between the imposing psychotic slasher and the shy, mousy high school outcast, Freaky uses the familiar tropes of body swap and slasher movies to deliver a sadistic revenge fantasy against various bullies and abusive figures in its high school setting. The intense gore of the death scenes is not for everyone, but those who can stomach it will find a lot of cheesy entertainment in Freaky.
10. The King of Staten Island
Director: Judd Apatow
Writers: Judd Apatow, Pete Davidson, Dave Sirus
Stars: Pete Davidson, Bel Powley, Ricky Velez
Despite a remarkable comedy career, Pete Davidson's whirlwind ascension to public consciousness can be credited as much, if not more, to his personal life drama. It seems fitting then that his inaugural "leading man" role in a major motion picture be in a film based on his own life.
The King of Staten Island is a heartfelt comedy-drama that finds Davidson playing Scott Carlin, a character Davidson has described as an alternate-reality version of himself in which he never pursued comedy. Sure, the movie suffers from Judd Apatow syndrome: It's too long, the script meanders a bit, and for tone they selected "all of the above." But the intimacy and charm of this beautifully-shot gem is undeniable, making The King of Staten Island absolutely one of 2020's top watches.
9. Palm Springs
Director: Max Barbakow
zsWriter: Andy Siara (screenplay)
Stars: Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, J.K. Simmons
As we've noted previously, "a film like Palm Springs is exactly what society needs right now. Like many of us, the movie's characters are aimlessly floating in an in-ground pool of existential dread, while its inventive story arc imitates the sickening homogeneity of real-life wrought by COVID-19." Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti play jaded millennials Nyles and Sarah, who endure a one-day time-loop in, you guessed it, Palm Springs.
8. Bill and Ted Face the Music
Director: Dean Parisot
Writers: Chris Matheson, Ed Solomon 2 more credits
Stars: Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter, Kristen Schaal
Nearly 30 years after the life and death events of Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey, Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter returned this year as the iconic goofball slackers, all grown up for a third installment in the series. The only problem is that the prophecy from Excellent Adventure -- that their band, Wyld Stallyns, would write a song to unite the world -- hasn't come true. Now they have less than two hours left to make that happen -- and to pass on the torch to their loving and musically gifted daughters. It's silly fun.
7. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Director: Jason Woliner
Writers: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines
Stars: Sacha Baron Cohen, Maria Bakalova, Tom Hanks
The real star of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is Tutar, Borat's daughter, played by Irina Nowak in a breakout performance. The film follows ill-informed Kazakh reporter Borat as he and Tutar attempt to befriend Donald Trump in an effort to curry favor with Kazakhstan. To do so, they try to give Tutar as a gift to Mike Pence and later to Rudy Giuliani, and each time, it goes terribly — and a Republican is deeply humiliated. Coming in the midst of a fraught election season full of absurd conspiracy theories and insane political divides, this absurd and yet somehow very feminist film couldn't have arrived at a better time.
6. The Vast of Night
Directed by: Andrew Patterson
Written by: Andrew Patterson, Craig W. Sanger
Starring: Sierra McCormick, Jake Horowitz, Gail Cronauer
If you like movies about alien encounters, but aren't interested in popcorn garbage like Independence Day or Cats, then The Vast of Night is for you. With a budget of only $700,000 (microscopic, compared to most movies on this list) first-time director, Andrew Patterson, accomplished an unbelievable cinematic feat with this film. Set in 1950s New Mexico, The Vast of Night follows two characters led to believe there may be something behind the clouds above their small town.
The events of the story take place in virtual real time, with Patterson employing astonishing long takes (some shots without a single cut in upwards of four minutes) of our characters interacting and searching for clues. The dialogue is fast paced and detailed. How actors Sierra McCormick and Jake Horowitz managed to memorize so many lines and deliver them so convincingly is beyond us.
When filmmakers aren't blowing their budget on CGI monsters, they can focus on refined nuances of their constructed world. With TVoN, Patterson and team went to great lengths to ensure the period-accuracy of their set pieces and dialogue in painstaking detail. The result is a mesmerizing and unsettling film that sticks with you, long after watching.
5. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Director: George C. Wolfe
Writers: Ruben Santiago-Hudson (screenplay by), August Wilson (based on the play written by)
Stars: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Colman Domingo
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is a film adaptation of August Wilson's 1980 stage play of the same name. The story focuses on a fictional recording session in 1927 with legendary blues singer Ma Rainey (Davis) and her band in Chicago.
With a run time of 1 hour and 34 minutes, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is subtle, yet bold. The cast of seasoned veterans conveys genuine emotion without overacting. Boseman's presentation will make viewers emotional.
4. The Invisible Man
Director: Leigh Whannell
Writers: Leigh Whannell (screenplay), Leigh Whannell (screen story)
Stars: Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Harriet Dyer
Elisabeth Moss gives a stunning performance as Cecilia Kass in The Invisible Man. A tense story of abuse, trauma, and redemption, Kass must figure out a way to escape her abusive ex when he fakes his death and uses an experimental invisibility suit to stalk, harass, and gaslight her.
On one level the film functions as a parable for recovering from abuse, but it can also be appreciated as a straightforward and viscerally gripping thriller about an invisible tormentor.
3. Sound of Metal
Director: Darius Marder
Writers: Darius Marder, Abraham Marder
Stars: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci
To prepare for his role in Sound of Metal as Ruben, a heavy metal drummer who loses his hearing, Riz Ahmed learned ASL and took six months of drum lessons. Directed by Darius Marder, the film is a poignant look at Ruben's journey to a new normalcy and what the loss of his hearing means for his band, his relationships, and his future.
Director: David Fincher
Writer: Jack Fincher (screen play by)
Stars: Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins
Following the life of Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, David Fincher's Mank borrows stylistic cues from the era — and from Orson Welles' classic film. With a brilliant performance as Mankiewicz by Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour, Sid and Nancy), Mank paints a compelling portrait of a deeply flawed man who is immensely talented and ultimately guided by a sense of justice and integrity. It's quiet, intense drama makes it one of Fincher's best works and one of the best movies of the year.
Directors: Pete Docter, Kemp Powers (co-director)
Writers: Pete Docter (story & screenplay by), Mike Jones (story & screenplay by), Kemp Powers ... (story & screenplay by)
Stars: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton
Pixar's long-anticipated Soul tells the story of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a middle school music teacher and jazz pianist in New York who finally books the gig of a lifetime only to have his soul torn from his body in a tragic accident. In his quest to return to his body in time for his big break, he must help a wayward soul (Tina Fey) to understand the value of life on Earth.
In the process, Joe rediscovers the joy of living and is made to reexamine his narrow sense of purpose. Soul's urgent narrative and playful sense of humor make for an engaging viewing experience, and the animation of mystical beings — drawing inspiration from Picasso's line drawings and from the classic Italian cartoon series La Linea — is some of Pixar's most original.