Published Dec 15, 2020Looking back many years from now, 2020 will be likely be seen as the moment the film industry changed forever. With theatrical screenings prohibited for much of the year (and sparsely attended even when they were allowed — sorry, Tenet), studios were forced to find new ways to reach audiences. Blockbusters were sent straight to streaming services, VOD became a viable model for major studios, and Warner announced a hybrid streaming/theatrical model for its entire 2021 schedule.
Although the countless cancellations made 2020 a very strange year for movies, some standouts rose above the din. Regardless of the upheaval going on the industry and in the world at large, these films made big statements — ones that would resonate in any year.
13. I Used to Go Here
Directed by Kris Rey
Gillian Jacobs and Jemaine Clement do what they respectively do best in this charming, self-effacing and delightfully goofy comedy. Director Kris Rey has a background in mumblecore, but fortunately her characters are loud and, particular in the case of "Tall Brandon," larger than life. The result is a film about growing old and losing touch that makes the pains of aging all the more fun.
12. Hubie Halloween
Directed by Steven Brill
Adam Sandler movies are secretly always good in their own Adam Sandler movie sort of way, but Little Nicky director Steven Brill brought the classic Sandman vibe back with Hubie Halloween, which is both an homage to the best of Happy Madison and a delightfully stupid Halloween movie in its own right. It's a perfect way to waste your time without feeling like you're wasting your time.
Directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers
Soul is a movie about life and death, but it tackles these enormous ideas by focusing on the little things. After a middle school music teacher (Jamie Foxx) finds himself in the afterlife following an accident, he becomes a life coach to an unborn spirit (Tina Fey), and in the process is reminded of all the small pleasures that make being alive great. Pixar also released another heart-warming tearjerker in 2020, Onward, but Soul is the one with the more resonant message.
10. The Invisible Man
Directed by Leigh Whannell
This Blumhouse adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel puts viewers in the uncomfortable position of questioning their own perception of reality. After a woman's abusive partner dies, she becomes convinced that he is still alive and stalking her — and even as horrifying clues mount up, everyone around her (and, by extension, the audience) begins questioning her judgement. The well-known source material means that the eventual reveal isn't a surprise, but Elisabeth Moss sells it with frenzied conviction.
9. Sonic the Hedgehog
Directed by Jeff Fowler
What a journey. What a feat. When the "live-action" Sonic movie was first introduced, the little blue dude was a hellish mess of pointy teeth, frighteningly ripped calf muscles and evil, darting eyes. Somehow, they didn't just redesign him into a lovable lil furball, but they also managed to bless him with a family movie that is packed with jokes, hijinks, and the best Jim Carrey performance in decades. (We'll ignore the subtle copaganda, considering how much we love this one particular boy in blue.) Could we get a Crash Bandicoot film next, please?
Directed by Miranda July
Almost a decade removed from her last feature, director Miranda July returns with all her eccentricity and emotional incisiveness intact. Evan Rachel Wood as the odd duck daughter in a family of odd duck con artists is a great asset for Kajillionaire — Wood's performance edges close to off-putting while remaining constantly curious and remarkable. Outside of that core, though, all the details of July's world fit together, a whimsical and entertaining approach that amplifies real-world traumas and earnest feelings.
7. Dick Johnson Is Dead
Directed by Kirsten Johnson
As a documentarian, Kirsten Johnson has processed events around her through a camera lens for years. It's natural that, as her father's health begins to fade, she'd document his final months. In her followup to 2016's celebrated Cameraperson, she's going beyond presenting the man and his end, instead processing his life through fantasies, comic imaginings of his demise, and a filmmaker's sharp eye. Taken together, the film gives the audience a sense of the man while allowing him to transcend what time takes away.
6. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Directed by Eliza Hittman
This story about 17-year-old Autumn crossing state lines to get an abortion is more demonstrative than didactic. Simple and delicate in its execution, writer and director Eliza Hittman shows us what it looks like to survive in the face of societal misogyny that's mundane as weather. Its success lies in its simultaneous distance from and immersion into Autumn's experience — she's given control of her story over how much of it is shared. This slow-burner is required viewing.
5. i'm thinking of ending things
Directed by Charlie Kaufman
On its surface, Charlie Kaufman's i'm thinking of ending things is a mind-bending, surreal breakup movie anchored by a tired manic pixie dream girl trope. Digging deeper, it's a heart-wrenching examination of loneliness, ageing, regret and suicidal ideation that completely flips viewers' expectations in its final moments. There's a never-ending struggle between fantasy and reality here, and, most compellingly, it's never quite clear which side triumphs over the other.
4. Possessor Uncut
Directed by Brandon Cronenberg
When you see a recognizable last name, it's hard not to cry nepotism — and while those critiques are often valid, they're not always a bad thing. With Possessor Uncut, Brandon Cronenberg manages to not squander his opportunities, paying homage to his father David's grisly body horror oeuvre while indulging his own stylistic impulses, and the result is a techno thriller that marries cyberpunk and horror in a way we've never seen before.
3. His House
Directed by Remi Weekes
South Sudanese refugees try to build a new life within the dingy confines of social housing, and their real-life traumas manifest in the form of fever-dream hallucinations and supernatural horror. It touches on bureaucracy and racism while also keeping viewers on their toes with surprising revelations and unclear morality. His House isn't quite the allegorical tale you initially think it is — and, maybe most importantly for a horror movie that arrived on Halloween weekend, it's scary as hell.
2. Feels Good Man
Directed by Arthur Jones
Feels Good Man couldn't have come at a better time. In an era fraught with post-truths and alt-right trolls, Arthur Jones' documentary stands as a redemption arc for comic artist Matt Furie's once-beloved goofy green stoner, Pepe the Frog. Tracing Furie's reclamation of the character from its fascist appropriations, Feels Good Man is both a massive win for an independent artist and a masterclass on the unregulated, potentially dangerous world of meme culture.
Directed by Chloé Zhao
It's one thing to explore the current malaise of late capitalism, but Chloé Zhao's Nomadland is so simultaneously artful and profoundly human that it goes further than social commentary and feels like a pure slice of life itself. Frances McDormand is at her most restrained in her career-best performance as Fern, a woman who embarks on life as a van-dwelling nomad in modern America. The film is both vast and contained, seamlessly contrasting life in a cramped van with the wide-open majesty of American landscapes. Modern life plays a foil for the pioneer experience, as the nomads break new ground and suggest unlimited potential, but Fern is also tied to the reality of American decay thanks to her work as an order picker at an Amazon fulfillment plant. Breathtaking cinematography, lived-in performances, and a seriously impressive scope make Nomadland one of the best films in years, bar none. You'll never see anything quite like it. And following its triumphant festival debut in 2020, it's now been scheduled for wide release on February 19 of next year — meaning that it just might be the best film of 2021, too.