The 50 Best Movies of 2020

The 50 Best Movies of 2020

February 19, 2024

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Coming off of the industry milestones of 2019, the first year of the new ’20s was a peculiar one. Due to the onset of the COVID-19 virus, dozens of high-profile releases were shelved for the time being, and just as many local and international film festivals were postponed—leaving the 2020 release calendar looking seemingly uneventful. But don’t let that fool you: smaller independent films and international gems continued to hold the fort for an industry still trying to regain its footing. Below are 50 films that reminded us that cinema will never stay down.

41. A White, White Day (2020)

7.8

Country

Denmark, Iceland, Sweden

Director

Hlynur Palmason

Actors

Arnmundur Ernst Björnsson, Björn Ingi Hilmarsson, Elma Stefanía Ágústsdóttir, Haraldur Ari Stefánsson

Moods

Dramatic, Slow, Suspenseful

A man is struggling to mourn his passing wife in this slow-burning Icelandic drama. The story starts with him converting an abandoned electricity station into a house, in an effort to find peace. Soon, however, questions about a possible extramarital affair that his wife disturb this peace and make it seem unattainable. 

The way A White, White Day’s brilliant story unfolds might catch you off-guard a couple of times. Still, it’s slow and requires a little bit of patience. Make sure you’re in the mood for that to be rewarded with unmatched insight on how differently people process grief.

42. The Painter and the Thief (2020)

7.8

Country

Norway, United States of America

Director

Benjamin Ree

Actors

Bjørn Inge Nordland, Karl-Bertil Nordland

The Painter and the Thief opens with a great hook: an artist tracks down and confronts the man who stole her painting. In a surprising turn, the two become close and develop an intimacy that deepens when she begins to paint the troubled man.

Yet, director Benjamin Ree pushes past where other documentarians would have been content to stop, and instead begins to deconstruct the very narrative we’ve followed up till now. At its core, this is a film about the way we tell stories about ourselves and others, and how often people don’t fit into the neat categories we set out for them.

43. David Byrne’s American Utopia (2020)

7.8

Country

United States of America

Director

Spike Lee

Actors

Angie Swan, Bobby Wooten Iii, David Byrne, Jacqueline Acevedo

Moods

Uplifting

Legendary Talking Heads frontman David Byrne returns with this enigmatic stage show, and with Spike Lee in tow, the film reaches for the heights of the iconic concert doc Stop Making Sense. For those unfamiliar, Stop Making Sense directed by Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs) captured the Talking Heads’ invigorating live show in their early eighties prime, and is often considered one of the best concert films of all time.

Now nearly forty years later Byrne attempts a resurrection of that spirit or a form of it given his former bandmates notably absent from the project. His propellant energy is on full display as he goes through the ‘Heads catalog with a backing band that dances in intricately choreographed sequences around him. Most notable, however, is the sparseness of the stage production which brings to mind a dirge-like atmosphere. Byrne’s righteous thrashings against Reagan’s America carry renewed weight in the despondency of the Trump-era. So despite his attempts at optimism, aching futility runs through the heart of the show; most pointed when Byrne sings the famous lines from in Once In A Lifetime: “Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was.”

44. The King of Staten Island (2020)

7.8

Country

United States Japan, United States of America

Director

Judd Apatow

Actors

Action Bronson, Alexis Rae Forlenza, Anthony Lee Medina, Bel Powley

Moods

Character-driven, Emotional, Grown-up Comedy

If you’ve seen his stand-up, you’ll know that Pete Davidson likes to make fun of himself. But it’s also true that Davidson is honest. He speaks openly about his childhood traumas and mental health struggles, and this film about his life is no different than his live performances. It’s darkly funny and deeply personal, this time plumbing new depths of his life with the help of director (and patron saint of comedians) Judd Apatow. 

Here, Apatow allows Davidson to hell his story in his own irreverent flavor, all while boosting him with directorial flair and his trademark balance of humor and humanity. A triumphant collaboration between Apatow and Davidson, King of Staten Island is rich with nuanced performances and relatable insights into the life of someone slowly but surely healing from pain and coming into his own. 

45. 76 Days (2020)

7.8

Country

China, United States of America

Director

Hao Wu, Weixi Chen

Moods

Challenging, Depressing, Discussion-sparking

Focusing on the personal over the global, 76 Days serves as a valuable reminder for generations to come, of the catastrophic human cost of a pandemic. The film’s directors (including one or more filmmakers who have had to keep themselves anonymous) take an entirely boots-on-the-ground approach in Wuhan, China. Together they find both humanity and the loss of humanity in these individual cases of COVID that are stalled by small inconveniences or a general lack of understanding of the disease. And all of this confusion is punctuated by the humbling fact that we never see the nurses’ faces. It’s a harrowing watch, but it tells us everything we need to know about how much assistance our health workers need and the kind of superhuman things they’re tasked with doing every single day.

46. This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection (2020)

7.8

Country

Italy, Lesotho, South Africa

Director

Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese

Actors

Jerry Mofokeng, Jerry Mofokeng Wa, Makhaola Ndebele, Mary Twala

Moods

Slow, Uplifting, Well-acted

A relatively straightforward story of a village of Sotho people building the courage to resist unwanted development on their land and the erasure of their culture, the rousingly titled This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection wastes no time on the oppressors’ point of view. For director Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese, there is no debate: these people are more important than any markers of progress hoping to displace them. Their struggle is rendered in some of the most crisp and colorful cinematography you could hope to see, with a powerful performance by the late, great Mary Twala front and center, channeling so much sadness into fury and determination.

47. The Earth Is Blue as an Orange (2020)

7.8

Country

Lithuania, Ukraine

Director

Female director, Iryna Tsilyk

Moods

Discussion-sparking, Inspiring, Original

The Earth Is Blue as an Orange chronicles the lives of a single mother and her four children as they live in the war-torn Donbas region of Ukraine. Despite the constant threat of violence, the family finds solace in the arts (more specifically in filmmaking). While striving for normalcy in these tumultuous times, they channel their efforts into creating a film about the effect of war on their family. Even as they try to lead individual lives, nurturing this collective project, bombs, debris, and their reality is unavoidable. 

This film is a moving testament to the power of art, creativity, and hope in the darkest times. 

48. Twilight’s Kiss (2021)

7.7

Country

Hong Kong

Director

Ray Yeung

Actors

Ben Yuen, Ben Yuen Foo-Wa, Ben Yuen Foo-Wah, Kong To

Moods

Emotional, Lovely, Romantic

Two elderly gay men, Pak and Hoi, start a secret relationship during their twilight years. The catch: Pak is married and both are, well, old. Beneath their shared moments of tenderness, there is an undercurrent that the romance is ultimately futile, their remaining years too short to start life anew. Yet at the same time, director Ray Yeung uses the protagonists’ old age as justification for their love affair. Having dedicated their entire lives to their families and loved ones, romance is presented as a rewarding experience indicative of queer freedom, no matter how ill-fated or short-lived it might be.

49. Beastie Boys Story (2020)

7.7

Country

United Kingdom, United States of America

Director

Spike Jonze

Actors

Adam Horovitz, Adam Yauch, Afrika Bambaataa, Ben Stiller

Moods

Easy, Lighthearted

Beastie Boys Story, a live documentary that runs for two hours and consists entirely of two speakers presenting a PowerPoint onstage, shouldn’t be as enjoyable and enthralling as it is, but with the help of director Spike Jonze, remaining band members Mike D and Adam Horovitz pull off the impossible and draw in a rapt crowd by chronicling how the iconic hip-hop group came to be.

Told with intimate detail and blithe humor, Beastie Boys Story has the easygoing charm of a dear friend recounting the good old days with you. Mike D and Adam Horovitz are skilled storytellers, and with Jonze operating the technicals to a tee backstage, everything comes together in a satisfyingly smooth and utterly watchable take. You don’t have to know much (if anything at all) about the Beastie Boys to enjoy this documentary, and whatever your opinion is of them beforehand, you’ll leave this film knowing a bit more about the creative process, necessary growth, and unbelievable luck all artists go through.

50. Little Girl (2020)

7.7

Country

Denmark, France

Director

Sébastien Lifshitz

Moods

Discussion-sparking, Emotional, Heart-warming

It would be understandable if it only occurs to you midway through that Little Girl isn’t actually a narrative feature but a gorgeously made documentary. Director Sébastien Lifshitz approaches his main character of Sasha not just with respect and empathy for her identity, but with a dedication to bring out the euphoria of feeling comfortable in one’s skin. As a result, Lifshitz seems to intentionally avoid any and all scenes where Sasha may face discrimination (especially at school), but even if this choice occasionally make the material feel thin, getting to see Sasha gradually learning to express herself more—or even just just seeing her enjoy a quiet moment on her own—is more precious than anything.

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