The whole of 2020 was a weird time to be writing about film. It was a year basically without movie theaters, as the majority remained closed due to COVID-19. And because of that, the big studio tentpoles — films that typically rule the box office — ended up vacating the year’s release schedule almost entirely.
Without theaters and big-budget blockbusters to fill them, I heard more than one casual moviegoer complain that there “weren’t any movies in 2020.” But that’s far from the case: there were loads of great films this year. It’s just the way in which we experienced them that dramatically shifted.
Most film debuts are happening digitally, whether through streaming services, video on demand, or virtual cinemas, which means there’s a never-ending deluge of new titles competing for viewers’ eyes. The upside is that with the major studio product out of the way, the path has been cleared for a more diverse range of documentaries, international films, and smaller indies to get some much-deserved attention.
And while the increased accessibility of those films is great, it seems without a theatrical release (and the related marketing campaigns) to build buzz for a title, so many films simply get lost in the shuffle. Even though movies are more accessible than ever, it feels like they’re somehow harder to find.
2020 was tough, and not being able to go to the movies — one of my absolute favorite things in the world — made it that much more difficult. But even as the cinematic experience changed, I found plenty of films to help me make it through. It’s a testament to how many good ones there were that I had a hard time narrowing this list down to only 15.
No movie more completely caught me by surprise than Brian Duffield’s utterly unclassifiable blend of teen romance, comedy, horror, and coming-of-age story about a class of high school seniors facing a mysterious affliction that causes them to explode (literally popping like blood-filled balloons) at random. A wild premise (based on a YA novel) grows into an affecting and strangely timely story about growing up and attempting to live a normal life while under an ever-present existential threat.
14. “The Painter and the Thief”
A Czech artist impulsively reaches out to the thief who stole two of her most prized paintings from the gallery where they’d been displayed. Documentarian Benjamin Ree keeps his camera rolling as this simple act leads to an unexpected friendship. Over time the film becomes a compelling look at the relationship between artist and subject, and the sometimes codependent bond formed between two broken people.
13. “The Twentieth Century”
The most impeccably designed film of the year, Matthew Rankin’s absurdist biopic about Canada’s first Prime Minister is beautiful, deeply strange, and unlike anything else I saw all year.
A most unusual romance from French filmmaker Zoé Wittock, about a young woman who falls head over heels in love with the tilt-a-whirl at the amusement park where she works. It’s a touching ode to finding your own happiness, and letting any judgement from those who don’t understand it be damned.
11. “Crip Camp”
James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham’s expertly edited chronicling of the creation of Camp Jened, a summer camp for disabled teenagers, founded in the Catskills during the early 1970s, and the ways it planted the seeds for the burgeoning disability rights movement. Powerful and deeply inspiring.
10. “Promising Young Woman”
Emerald Fennell’s audacious debut is less the candy-colored revenge thriller that the marketing suggested, than a sharp-toothed (and against all odds, often darkly funny) indictment of a culture far too eager to give toxic masculinity a pass. Carrie Mulligan gives one of the year's best performances as a woman consumed by grief, who puts her own life in danger in a quest to assuage her guilt over not preventing the rape and subsequent suicide of her best friend.
9. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
George C. Wolfe expertly adapts August Wilson’s stage play about race, artistic ownership, and the blues into a film filled to the brim with a staggering collection of performances from its ensemble of actors — including a never-better Chadwick Boseman in his final role.
Watching Haley Bennet’s indelible performance as a newly pregnant housewife with a growing compulsion to consume dangerous objects, I found myself getting almost unbearably anxious, desperately hoping that things would turn out okay for her. The empathy writer-director Carlo Mirabella-Davis extends to his protagonist propels this unsettling character study into admirably uncomfortable territory.
This sweet folk tale about a young girl and apprentice hunter who strike up a friendship with a member of a magical forest-dwelling tribe gifted with the power to shape-shift into wolves is the most gorgeous-looking film yet from Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon. Delightfully imaginative, with some catchy songs and a touching message about family, love, and acceptance.
6. “Boys State”
Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss film the annual “Boys State” event, in which a thousand 17-year-old boys from Texas come together to build their own mock government. It’s not exactly shocking to see how quickly the teens fall into the same patterns that currently plague our country’s political system, but the way it all plays out leaves you simultaneously terrified and hopeful for the future.
5. “The Assistant”
Chronicling a day in the life of Jane (Julia Garner), an assistant working in the New York City offices of a high-powered movie executive, Kitty Green’s quietly harrowing film offers a clear-eyed look at the systems that allow a predator to remain protected.
This genre-bending Brazilian thriller was one of the most exciting films to watch this year, keeping viewers on their toes as it morphs from a rich portrait of a close-knit rural Brazilian community, taking on influences of dystopian fantasy, spaghetti western, political allegory, and bloody exploitation action cinema.
3. “Sound of Metal”
I was deeply moved by this story of a heavy metal drummer (brilliantly played by Riz Ahmed) who struggles to accept his new reality after he suddenly goes deaf. Possibly the film I most wish audiences had a chance to see in theaters, the incredible sound design is integral to the way director Darius Marder puts us directly into his character’s headspace.
Centered around a fantastic performance from Frances McDormand as Fern, a 60-something widow who builds a life for herself by living out of a van and heading out on the open road, Chloé Zhao’s gorgeous third feature beautifully examines both the promise and the lie of the American Dream.
Andrew Ahn’s modest drama about a young boy who accompanies his mother on a trip to clean out the house owned by his late aunt, and the friendship he develops with elderly neighbor (the late Brian Dennehy) who lives next door. Its story about simple kindnesses, empathy, and what it really means to be a neighbor felt like a healing salve for 2020.
Honorable Mentions: “Another Round,” “Beanpole,” “Beastie Boys Story,” “Da 5 Bloods,” “David Byrne’s American Utopia,” “The Father,” “First Cow,” “The Invisible Man,” “Kajillionaire,” “Minari,” “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” “Night of the Kings,” “One Night in Miami,” “Palm Springs,” “The Surrogate,” “Time,” “Yes, God, Yes”
Adam Lubitow is a freelance film critic for CITY. Feedback on this article can be directed to Rebecca Rafferty, CITY's life editor, at firstname.lastname@example.org.