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Top 25 Films of 2020

With Hollywood's biggest blockbusters shelved, smaller titles proved triumphant

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2020 Films of the Year

    Our Annual Report continues as we reveal the Top 25 Films of 2020. Stay tuned for more awards, lists, and articles in the days and weeks to come about the best music, film, and TV of the year. If you’ve missed any part of our Annual Report, you can check out all the coverage here

    Going to the movies ain’t like it used to be, right? What an understatement. With theaters shuttered up and movie chains filing for bankruptcy, one might argue it’s been a pretty crap year for cinema. Financially speaking, they’re not wrong.

    But, art is a funny thing. It has a way of enduring even the most arduous obstacles — you know, that whole Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park, “life finds a way” bit — and this year was a testament to that truth. Art had no issue finding a proper stage.

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    That stage, as fate would have it, wound up being our living rooms. Be it through streaming services or Premium On-Demand drops, film managed to circumvent the closures and still make an impact on us through even the worst of the pandemic.

    Hell, one could argue film bruised us even harder this year. With most of the colossal blockbusters shelved, audiences were less distracted, spending more time with smaller titles, the likes of which would have been marginalized any other year.

    That’s why, as you’ll see up ahead, 2020 wound up being an incredibly rich year for cinema. There were so many stories told across so many genres that it was almost impossible to keep up with them all. Alas, we tried our damndest.

    –Michael Roffman
    Editor-in-Chief


    25. Emma

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    Emma Movie Review

    Emma (Focus Features)

    Release Date: February 21st via Focus Features

    Who’s in It? Anya Taylor-Joy, Bill Nighy, Johnny Flynn, Mia Goth, Josh O’Connor, Rupert Graves, Miranda Hart, Callum Turner

    You Gotta See This! Like Shakespeare and Dickens, there’s no shortage of onscreen adaptations (let alone British ones) of Jane Austen’s work, and yet first-time director Autumn de Wilde’s take on Emma feels delightfully fresh and wickedly funny even in its utter faithfulness to the source material.

    Anya Taylor-Joy sparkles as the popular, rich, and infinitely poised twentysomething Emma Woodhouse, who would rather meddle in the love lives of her family and friends than take responsibility for her own — including her neurotic father (played by a cutting Bill Nighy) and handsome but frustrating brother-in-law Mr. Knightley (a charming Johnny Flynn).

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    Sparks fly, hearts get broken, egos are bruised, and love triumphs over all in a surprisingly brisk two hours and twelve minutes with an emphasis on the comedy in this comedy of manners. While Clueless remains the best and most inspired adaptation of Austen’s last and cheekiest novel, de Wilde’s candy-colored vision of Emma is no doubt as irresistible and precocious as its titular heroine. –Emmy Potter

    Extra! Extra! Read Irene Monokandilos’ full review here.

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    24. Scream, Queen! My Nightmare On Elm Street

    Shudder in June

    Scream, Queen! (Shudder)

    Release Date: June 5th via Shudder

    Who’s in It? Mark Patton, Cecil Baldwin, Robert Englund, Jack Sholder, David Chaskin

    You Gotta See This! A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge has long been considered an outlier in the franchise. Dismissed as “gay,” it all but destroyed the career of its star, Mark Patton, whose queerness was blamed for the movie’s failure. Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street is his attempt to rewrite the narrative and tell his story in his own words.

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    Patton describes his early life and career, recounting his experiences during the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic and the pressures of being a closeted gay man in Hollywood. We follow him as he reunites with the cast of Freddy’s Revenge and confronts screenwriter David Chaskin over hurtful comments about the way the film was written and received.

    Presented as a tell-all reckoning with the tongue-in-cheek tagline, “The Claws Are Out,” Scream, Queen! becomes a poignant but uplifting journey to forgiveness and self-acceptance. It’s a love letter to an important film in the horror genre and its all-but-forgotten star that beautifully shows the empowerment and reassurance onscreen representation can bring. –Jenn Adams

    Extra! Extra! Read Blake Goble’s full review here.

    shudder Top 25 Films of 2020


    23. Soul

    50 Anticipated Movies of 2020

    Soul (Pixar)

    Release Date: December 25th via Disney+

    Who’s in It? Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Phylicia Rashad, Angela Bassett, Rachel House, Questlove, Graham Norton, Alice Braga, Wes Studi, Richard Ayoade

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    You Gotta See This! Whereas Disney proper still clings to sequels, remakes, and broad properties, one has to give a light chuckle of admiration for Pixar for keeping things not only original, but real, fantastical, and everything in between on this one. The Emeryville artists spent an alleged — and whopping — $150 million to develop and deliver a soul and jazz odyssey about a New York middle-school instructor’s near-death experience. Kids, this is Pixar’s Death & Pianos. But what a glossy, good idea of a riff.

    Bear with me. They articulate the afterlife – or is it a theoretical plane of existence? — like Picasso doodles in 3D. The everyday of NYC is light in Autumnal hues. Night clubs are opened up like swirly, gel-lit Blue Note album covers. Famed playwright Kemp Powers (One Night in Miami) backs Pixar magnate Pete Docter (Inside Out) in an irresistible work of fusion, exploring spaces previously unseen, suggesting vividly that everything is connected. From sweat-soaked music making to an abstract expressionist peek at what lies beyond, Soul is serene, silly, and apt. –Blake Goble

    Extra! Extra! Read Josh Spiegel’s full review here.


    22. Tesla

    Film Review Tesla

    Tesla (IFC Films)

    Release Date: August 21st via IFC Films

    Who’s in It? Ethan Hawke, Eve Hewson, Kyle MacLachlan, Hannah Gross, Josh Hamilton, Jim Gaffigan, Lois Smith, Ebon Moss-Bachrach

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    You Gotta See This! As Tesla showcases by means of ice cream cone battles, narrators with MacBooks, and Tears for Fears karaoke, Michael Almereyda has honed a particularly postmodern and lightly surreal slant on the cinematic break from reality. However, if his East Coast war spin on Shakespeare’s Cymbeline and his Y2K NYC adaptation of Hamlet insinuate anything, it’s that his gleeful riffs on history benefit from the anchoring of certain actors, namely one Ethan Hawke.

    Infusing the namesake inventor with an aloof, soft-spoken demeanor, Hawke’s performance provides a foundation for the film to conduct its study of a man obscured in his own legacy and speaks to the values of his life through its warped, Brechtian visuals and anachronistic nods to the modern world of technology he’d shape. At essentially zero points in the film does Almereyda set out to craft an objective account of Nikola Tesla’s life. Rather, he’s satisfied as a director to take a sledgehammer to the modern biopic’s conventions and fashion an image in Tesla’s spirited likeness out of the colorful shards. –Sam Mwakasisi

    Extra! Extra! Read Clint Worthington’s full review here.

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    21. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

     Top 25 Films of 2020

    Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Netflix)

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    Release Date: December 18th via Netflix

    Who’s In It? Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman (in his final live-action performance), Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, Michael Potts

    You Gotta See This! Film adaptations about famous Black figures are having a moment right now (see One Night in Miami… elsewhere on this list). But where Regina King’s film is quiet and contemplative, George C. Wolfe’s adaptation of the August Wilson play thrums with the lively energy of a crowded jazz club, even as it sits us with four musicians and their diva (Davis’ show-stopping Ma Rainey) in a sweaty Chicago recording studio.

    The colors are as vivid as the songs, but at its core it aches with the pain of Black artists having to work twice as hard to appeal to white gatekeepers who will simply toss them aside as soon as it’s convenient. And smack dab in the middle is the late, great Chadwick Boseman, who literally plays his role as the ambitious Levee as if it were his final part. It’s a turn filled with incredible pain, anger and joy, a true testament to Boseman’s immense range (and a somber reminder that we’ll hardly ever see his like again). –Clint Worthington

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    20. Bad Education

    HBO's Bad Education

    HBO’s Bad Education

    Release Date: April 25th via HBO

    Who’s in It? Hugh Jackman, Allison Janney, Geraldine Viswanathan, Alex Wolff, Rafael Casal, Stephen Spinella, Annaleigh Ashford, Ray Romano

    You Gotta See This! Bad Education was like the writing of one of its main characters, Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan). Bhagvara, when tasked with doing some puff piece on a new construction project, managed to spend weeks and months uncovering years and millions of dollars’ worth of secrets. Embezzlement and false identities and bad publicity, oh my — the price of higher education.

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    Bad Education went way deeper with more research, insight, and analysis of the education system than most imagined, offering a tidy and rich deep dive on the shallow side of why we send kids to school. It’s not just about grades, but what high walking schools and brand-name acceptance letters can buy in the long run. Come for the scandal, stay for the career-best work from Hugh Jackman, operating on multiple levels. Jackman’s superintendent Tassone carries the film’s repulsive, heartbreaking, and exasperating tone. –Blake Goble

    Extra! Extra! Read Matt Melis’ full review here.

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    19. Freaky

    Freaky Expertly Balances Horror and Humor for a Hell of a Good Time: Beyond Fest Review

    Freaky (Blumhouse)

    Release Date: November 13th via Universal

    Who’s in It? Kathryn Newton, Vince Vaughn, Celeste O’Connor, Misha Osherovich, Uriah Shelton, Dana Drori, Katie Finneran, Alan Ruck

    You Gotta See This! Christopher Landon once again brings humor and heart to the horror genre with his latest Body Swap Slasher mash-up, Freaky. Kathryn Newton and Vince Vaughn star as both killer and final girl who each wake up in the other’s body after Vaughn’s killer, the Butcher, attempts to murder Newton’s Millie with an ancient and powerful knife. The swap begins a race against the clock as Vaughn’s Millie must stab Newton’s Butcher with said knife before midnight or they will be stuck in each other’s bodies forever.

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    Body swap films live and die by their lead’s abilities to distinguish between each persona, and Newton and Vaughn are stellar in their portrayals of two iconic horror archetypes. Their performances transform a simple horror comedy concept into a touching commentary on power, strength, and acceptance while lovingly deconstructing staples of the genre. Throw in some creative kills and revenge fantasy catharsis and you’ve got a modern teen horror film destined to become essential Friday the 13th viewing. –Jenn Adams

    Extra! Extra! Read Ryan Larson’s full review here.

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    18. Shirley

    Hulu's Shirley

    Shirley (Hulu)

    Release Date: June 5th via Neon

    Who’s in It? Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Logan Lerman, Odessa Young

    You Gotta See This! Shirley Jackson is one of the great writers of the 20th century, and like many writers, her messy life led to inspiring some of her greatest work. The unnerving new film Shirley, based on the novel of the same name, takes its cue from history but takes Jackson and her husband Stanley Edgar Hyman down a psychosexual route akin to that of the older couple in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.

    Elisabeth Moss plays Shirley as a mix of frayed edges and dry, cutting wit, trying to balance her mental shakiness with caustic humor as she deals with Fred and Rose Nemser (Logan Lerman and Odessa Young), a younger couple living with her and Stanley. As Shirley and Rose build out a disturbing friendship that inspires the writer to tackle one of her darkest novels, Hangsaman, the writer’s grip on reality loosens further. Though Michael Stuhlbarg, as Stanley, handles his role with appropriate menace, it’s Moss and director Josephine Decker who make Shirley stand out from a crowd of uninspired biopics. –Josh Spiegel

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    Extra! Extra! Read Jenn Adams’ full review here.

    hulu Top 25 Films of 2020


    17. Mank

    David Fincher's Mank Is a Dense, Technically Marvelous Ode to Old Hollywood: Review

    Mank (Netflix)

    Release Date: December 4th via Netflix

    Who’s in It? Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, Arliss Howard, Tom Pelphrey, Sam Troughton

    You Gotta See This! Rarely do passion projects outlast their expiration date. Originally set to be David Fincher’s follow-up to 1997’s The Game, this biographical retelling of Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz has been collecting dust for well over two decades. There’s nothing to sneeze at here, though, as the dense screenplay by Fincher’s late father says more about today than it does of the early 20th century it paints.

    Because when you look past the film school porn involving Orson Welles’ landmark picture, a wave of deja vu sets in. Old Hollywood is just as myopic now as it was then, and the breadcrumbs to today’s age of misinformation aren’t as fresh as we want them to be. That’s ultimately the Rosebud of Mank: Change is both rare and slow, and the echoes of the past are all too often the sounds of the present. –Michael Roffman

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    Extra! Extra! Read Clint Worthington’s full review here.

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    16. Nomadland

    Nomadland Film Review

    Nomadland (Searchlight Pictures)

    Release Date: December 4th via Searchlight Pictures

    Who’s In It? Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, and a caravan’s worth of nonprofessional actors.

    You Gotta See This! Chloé Zhao has a profound knack for capturing the dreamlike essence of the American frontier without fetishizing its people as simple, but honest folk who live on an alien world from the elites on the coasts. Much like 2018’s The Rider, Nomadland is another sumptuous swim in the waters of middle American authenticity.

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    But this time, Frances McDormand is in tow, wringing pools of pathos out of her turn as a widowed woman who’s turned to the itinerant life for purpose in her golden years. It’s astounding in its lyricism, deeply obsessed with showing us the real people forgotten by most Hollywood cinema. Hillbilly Elegy this ain’t. –Clint Worthington

    Extra! Extra! Read Joe Lipsett’s full review here.


    15. Sound of Metal

    Sound of Metal

    Sound of Metal (Amazon Prime Video)

    Release Date: December 4th via Amazon Prime

    Who’s in It? Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Lauren Radloff, Mathieu Amalric

    You Gotta See This! Riz Ahmed became a star in the 2010s, appearing in Nightcrawler, HBO’s The Night Of, Rogue One, and, of course, 2018’s masterpiece Venom. Sound of Metal, written and directed by Darius Marder, shows a completely different side to Ahmed in his performance as Ruben, a metal band drummer who begins to lose his hearing. It’s simultaneously a thorough portrait of the deaf community, a triumph over anxiety and loss, and a story about a relationship that naturally falls apart. It’s gut-wrenching and sad, but also warm and optimistic.

    Ahmed takes full advantage of the camera, which rarely pulls away from his face, completely disappearing into the expressive Ruben. He sincerely captures anxiety and confusion in a transformation that is unlike anything he’s done in his career so far, perhaps a more understated answer to Adam Sandler’s nervous, neurotic energy in last year’s Uncut Gems. The film’s experimental sound design, which contrasts Ruben’s mumbled hearing with either complete silence or sound so clear you could hear a mote of dust move, makes watching the film an immersive and cinematic experience, even from the comfort of your own home –Carrie Wittmer

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    Extra! Extra! Read Clint Worthington’s full review here.

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    14. Red, White and Blue

    Steve McQueen's Red, White and Blue Doesn't Give Easy Answers on Police Brutality: Review

    Red, White and Blue (Amazon Prime)

    Release Date: December 4th via Amazon Prime

    Who’s in It? John Boyega, Steve Toussaint, Joy Richardson, Neil Maskell, Stephen Boxer, Antonia Thomas, Liam Garrigan, Tyrone Huntley, Nadine Marshall, Mark Stanley.

    You Gotta See This! The third entry in his Small Axe series, British filmmaker Steve McQueen gives an accurate account of Leroy Logan’s (John Boyega) journey from scientist to one of the police department’s most decorated officers. McQueen’s commitment to documenting the human struggle through the eyes of Black people has allowed Red, White and Blue to become an important contribution to this year’s new approach to the cinematic experience.

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    Boyega gives another powerful performance as Logan, portraying the inner turmoil that many Black officers struggle with across the world. With parallels to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, McQueen told a story universal to many people of color — regardless of social class — and tackled prescient issues of police brutality and large-scale systemic oppression with an objective and unapologetic eye. –Okla Jones, III

    Extra! Extra! Check out Clint Worthington’s full review here.

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    13. The Dark and the Wicked

    The Dark and the Wicked Is Visceral, Bleak, and the Perfect Horror Movie for 2020: Review

    The Dark and the Wicked (RLJE Films)

    Release Date: November 6th via RJLE Films

    Who’s in It? Marin Ireland, Michael Abbott Jr, Xander Berkeley, Lynn Andrews, Julie Oliver-Touchstone, Michael Zagst, Tom Nowicki, Ella Ballentine

    You Gotta See This! Over a decade ago, writer-director Bryan Bertino changed the slasher landscape with his chilling contemporary classic The Strangers before tackling two drastically different genres within the realm of horror: found footage flick Mockingbird and minimalist creature feature The Monster. Both were met with middling praise, but now, 12 years after the chilling delivery of “because you were home,” Bertino returns with an absolutely haunting and mesmerizing feature in The Dark and the Wicked.

    Bertino melds atmosphere from the past and the present, bits of The Shining and Don’t Look Now meet The Babadook and Hereditary, but still manages to craft something entirely his own. Ireland and Abbott Jr both deliver standout roles as manifestations of different forms of grief, and Bertino uses that theme as the central conceit of the film, packing the movie full of dripping suspense and stomach-punching scares.

    The Dark and The Wicked is a return to form for Bertino and stands out as a highlight in a year that was good for horror. –Ryan Larson

    Extra! Extra! Read Michael Roffman’s full review here.

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    12. One Night in Miami

    One Night in Miami (Amazon Studios)

    One Night in Miami (Amazon Studios)

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    Release Date: December 25th via Amazon Prime Video

    Who’s In It? Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Coree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr.

    You Gotta See This! One fateful night in 1964, four Black icons — Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown, and Cassius Clay, soon to be Muhammad Ali — met in a Miami hotel room to discuss the perils of Black success, the responsibilities they held to their community, and the pressure of staying authentic in industries that commodify them.

    Regina King proves herself a mighty director of actors in her directorial debut, handling all four of her leads with delicate care and giving each of them ample time in the spotlight and with each other. But it also tackles the difficult discussions evoked by Kemp Powers’ play about what it means to hold Black cultural power, and what to do with their platforms.

    As an energetic chamber piece, it sings; as a meditation on race and celebrity, it soars. –Clint Worthington

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    Extra! Extra! Read Joe Lipsett’s full review here.


    11. First Cow

    first cow Top 25 Films of 2020

    First Cow (A24)

    Release Date: March 6th via A24

    Who’s in It? John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones, Ewen Bremner, René Auberjonois, Scott Shepherd, Lily Gladstone, Alia Shawkat

    You Gotta See This! After receiving glowing reviews on the festival circuit, director Kelly Reichardt’s latest slow-moving, graceful meditation on the ragged wilderness of the Pacific Northwest became one of the first cinematic casualties of the pandemic, pulled from theaters just a week into its release.

    But if anyone understands golden opportunities cut short, it’s First Cow’s Cookie (John Magaro) and King-Lu (Orion Lee): two dreamers on the run in the beautiful and often brutal Oregon Country in 1820 who find friendship and overnight success selling biscuits made with milk stolen from a rich landowner’s cow, which is the first in the territory.

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    Like all of Reichardt’s work, the film teems with gorgeous western landscapes and quiet, tender human moments, but First Cow also digs ever-so-gently-if-purposefully into issues of ownership, class boundaries, and early American Capitalism, revealing just how little we’ve changed in 200 years and how many hurdles to success still exist in the supposed Land of Opportunity. If that’s not deeply relatable this year, I don’t know what is. —Emmy Potter

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