The 50 Best Movies of 2020

The 50 Best Movies of 2020

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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.

50. End of Sentence (2020)

7.1

Country

Iceland, Ireland, United States of America

Director

Elfar Adalsteins

Actors

Aine Ni Mhuiri, Amy De Bhrún, Andrea Irvine, David Grant Wright

Moods

Easy, Feel-Good, Sunday

Logan Lerman (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and John Hawkes (The Sessions) star in this easy road drama about a father who tries to rekindle with his son. After the mother passes away, they try to execute her dying wishes of spreading her ashes in her home country of Ireland. The son, Lerman’s character, is freshly released from jail and accepts to take the trip on the one condition that he never sees his father again. This premise makes for a fun mix between a family drama and an adventure movie. Both characters have a lot to discover in Ireland: about the country, each other, and themselves.

49. The Call (2020)

7.1

Country

South Korea, United States of America

Director

Lee Chung-hyun

Actors

EL, Jeon Jong-seo, Jo Kyung-sook, Jun Jong-seo

A woman loses her phone on her way back to her countryside childhood home. Once there, she connects an old landline in hopes of finding her lost mobile, only to start receiving weird calls that seem to be from 20 years ago.

On the other side of the receiver is a girl who seems to be in danger. The Call is thrilling, sometimes scary, but also brilliantly shot, and its plot is so expertly woven. It’s a proper movie-night movie.

48. Our Friend (2020)

7.2

Country

United States of America

Director

Female director, Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Actors

Ahna O'Reilly, Casey Affleck, Cherry Jones, Dakota Johnson

Moods

A-list actors, Depressing, Slice-of-Life

Dakota Johnson and Casey Affleck star in this comedy-drama as a small-town couple, one of whom gets diagnosed with a terminal illness. Their best friend (Jason Segel) puts his life on hold and moves in with them, picking up the husband when he faints at the hospital, shaving his head in solidarity with the wife, and even taking care of the dog who also gets sick.

It might seem like just another terminal illness drama, but Our Friend is based on a true story, and it’s as much about the illness as it is about how to be there for people, and reversely, the power of people being there for you.

47. Zappa (2020)

7.2

Country

United States of America

Director

Alex Winter

Actors

Frank Zappa, Gail Zappa, Ian Underwood, Mike Keneally

Moods

Instructive, Thought-provoking

Frank Zappa’s creative scope could barely be defined –  a mix of rock, composition, design, and in his early days even filmmaking.  This documentary does its best to summarize the un-summarizable, starting with Zappa’s last time playing guitar and going back to early details like an infatuation with explosives as a kid. 

Zappa’s overwhelmingly full life is focused on the documentary in the study of his incredible work ethic and unique creative philosophy. Far from the drugged hippie perception he was often met with, Zappa was hard-working, business-aware, and didn’t take drugs.

The manifestations of his exceptional intellect and unique character are abundant in a film that will please his fans and send anyone new to him into a deep Wikipedia rabbit hole.

46. Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020)

7.2

Country

United Kingdom, United States of America, USA UK

Director

Eliza Hittman, Female director

Actors

Brian Altemus, Carolina Espiro, Christian Clements, David Buneta

Moods

Challenging, Discussion-sparking, Intense

This difficult movie is about a seventeen-year-old from the U.S. underclass who has to deal with an unplanned pregnancy. Autumn is creative, reserved, and quiet, but those are not qualities that her environment in rural Pennsylvania seems to value. On the opposite, she is surrounded by threats, including disturbing step-father and boss characters. 

Dangers escalate as Autumn decides to travel to New York to have an abortion. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is about unplanned pregnancies as much as it is about just how dangerous it is to be a teenage girl living in America.

45. The Kid Detective (2020)

7.3

Country

Canada

Director

Evan Morgan

Actors

Adam Brody, Alicia Brand, Amalia Williamson, Avery Esteves

Moods

Funny, Grown-up Comedy

In The Kid Detective, Adam Brody stars as Abe Applebaum, a once-beloved child prodigy turned pathetic P.I. stuck in the glory days of his past. At 32 years old, he’s still solving petty mysteries and coasting on his parents’ money, but things start to change when he is finally dealt with a real, adult case: a murder that confounds even the local police. As Abe uncovers more details about the case, he also unwittingly finds a connection to his traumatic past and begins a long-overdue coming-of-age journey. 

Released during the first year of the pandemic, The Kid Detective understandably flew under the radar when it first came out, garnering sufficient critical praise but not enough fanfare. It will no doubt find a second life among film lovers, though; it’s too smart and riveting to go unnoticed. Most impressive is how director Evan Morgan, in his feature debut, deftly balances multiple genres in a movie that often feels as if Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, and modern stoner humor were somehow rolled into one. The gags consistently amuse, the drawn-out mysteries pay off, and the human element persists throughout. Adam Brody, himself a kid celebrity back in the day, expertly carries this delightful and sobering film. 

44. The Half of It (2020)

7.3

Country

United States of America

Director

Alice Wu, Female director

Actors

Alec Tincher, Alexxis Lemire, Becky Ann Baker, Billy Thomas Myott

Moods

Easy, Feel-Good, Slice-of-Life

This lovely romance is about Ellie, a straight-A student who takes money from a classmate, Paul, to write love letters for him. Ellie does this to help with the household bills but there is one big problem: the girl Paul is in love with is also the girl Ellie has a crush on.

This might seem like the set-up for a standard Netflix comedy (and if you’re thinking Bergerac, you’re right, it is based on the famous play) but as the introduction of the film reads: “This is not a love story … not one where anyone gets what they want.”

It is in fact, personal work from a brilliant and quality-focused director, Alice Wu. Her last movie, Saving Face, a pioneering lesbian romance set in an Asian American context, was released a long 15 years ago.

43. The Grizzlies (2020)

7.4

Country

Canada

Director

Female director, Miranda de Pencier

Actors

Anna Lambe, Ben Schnetzer, Booboo Stewart, Brad Fraser

Moods

Easy, Emotional, Feel-Good

This uplifting Canadian sports drama is based on a true story set in the remote Nunavut town of Kugluktuk. The small community has the highest teen suicide rate in North America, as it suffers from intergenerational trauma, and the resulting alcohol and drug abuse. A new young history teacher who is sent by the government is shocked by the state of the school and the lives of the teenagers. He realizes that he can’t engage the kids with history, and turns to his passion for Lacrosse to try to ignite change.

The teacher and director of the movie are both white, which, added to the story, raise red flags about white savior tropes. But thanks to First Nation producers who made sure the kids had time to develop their characters, The Grizzlies narrowly misses disaster. Instead, it gives a voice to communities that are rarely heard from. 

42. Babyteeth (2020)

7.4

Country

Australia

Director

Female director, Shannon Murphy

Actors

Andrea Demetriades, Arka Das, Ben Mendelsohn, Charles Grounds

Moods

Dark, Quirky, Weird

This artistic Australian coming-of-age drama stars Eliza Scanlen (Little Women, Sharp Objects) as Milla, a teen from a dysfunctional family. The father is a psychologist and the mother suffers from depression, so he medicates her under the table. Meanwhile, Milla, a 16 year old, starts dating a charismatic almost-homeless 24 year old drug dealer. Unusual circumstances make the family tolerate the relationship in this story where every character feels like the main one. 

If you’re looking for something different, you will love Babyteeth. Something happens to Milla in the 10 minute mark that descriptions and reviews online all mention – but is definitely a spoiler. Just know that it’s not all romance and coming-of-age, there is slow-burning darkness to this movie. 

41. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (2020)

7.5

Country

United States of America

Director

Bill Ross IV, Turner Ross

Actors

Shay Walker

Moods

Slice-of-Life

This stirring peek into the final days of a shuttering Las Vegas dive might be one of the finest odes to American bar culture yet. It also serves as a powerful portrait of a particular moment deep into the disastrous Trump years, yet right before the pandemic struck.

Directors Bill and Turner Ross capture the good, bad, and ugly, allowing conversations to unfold naturally. The colorful hues of the bar create a cinematic canvas for the patrons, who awash with booze and nostalgia, uncertainty, fear, and love, spend their last day together. If there was ever a film for those who miss the rough and tumble nightlife of the pre-Covid world, this is it. 

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