2020 was a strange, depressing, and unpredictable year. When the world shut down in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, studios didn’t know what to do. They kept hoping that the pandemic would be over within a few months but little did they know it was only the beginning. When things didn’t return to normal by Easter, as suggested by our President, studios did everything they could to figure out what to do with their slate and how they could make money in 2020. While Universal paved the way by releasing Trolls World Tour on Premium Video-on-Demand with a $20 price tag, the rest of the major studios played the release date shuffle game for several months. As most major studios were trying to figure out what to do, the independent studios like IFC Films continued to push their films out on VOD and in drive-in theaters. As a result, independent films dominated the VOD charts and what little “box office” 2020 had.
However, the majority of audiences turned to Netflix as their go-to source for entertainment. Netflix was already making waves prior, but in 2020, they dominated the industry. Yes, other subscription services did ok too, like Hulu, Amazon Prime, Apple TV+, Disney+, and HBO Max, but Netflix was miles ahead of everyone else. Netflix’s stock doubled, and they had no shortage of content to provide its subscribers regardless if they wanted to watch a movie or television show. Netflix’s success, combined with the lack of content released by major studios, shined a very bright light on how important streaming services are to the future of entertainment. Throughout the rest of 2020, many big business decisions were made that would impact the industry for years to come. No one knows for sure what the future holds, but one thing is for sure, streaming will play a major part in it.
As I say goodbye to 2020, I have decided to take a look back on the films released this year as I have in previous years. I will be writing three articles to close out the year 2020 in film, beginning with the films I believe are the best of the year and are my personal favorites. As always, this list is entirely my opinion. If you disagree with my picks, that is completely fine, but please know that these are the films that personally resonated with me. These are personal choices, and I don’t expect everyone to agree with them. However, feel free to share your list with me as I would love to hear which films spoke to you and why. One of the most joyous aspects of the film is how it is subjective, like all art. You should always embrace what you like and never allow others to impact your own personal feelings on something subjective such as a film or tv show.
Before I go into my best/favorite list of 2020, I want to start with a few honorable mentions, which are in no particular order: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, An American Pickle, Let Him Go, Come Play, Freaky, Buffaloed, The Midnight Sky, Valley Girl, The Way Back, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Nomadland.
It is odd to kick-off this best-of/favorites list with Soul because I didn’t love it. However, I appreciated what it had to say. Soul didn’t always work, but when it did, it really did. Plus, I tend to admire films that challenge the viewer, and the ambitious nature of this story is what made the film stand out. I loved how Soul explored one’s purpose in life and how it ties back to passion. After watching the film, I felt very mixed about it, but I found myself thinking about it a lot over the last couple of months. To me, that really says a lot about the quality of the film because there have been numerous films released, especially this year, which I found to be completely forgettable. Soul didn’t blow me away or leave me in tears like some of the other Pixar films, but it did make an impact, which is why I feel it was important enough to have it on my list.
19. Class Action Park
I grew up in New Jersey, and I remember seeing Action Park commercials on television growing up. I honestly can’t remember my own experience from the time I went to Action Park, but I did go once, so watching Class Action Park was like an out-of-body experience for me. The nostalgia of seeing clips from the commercials and rides instantly took me back to my childhood and made me smile. Some of the rides I remember going on and other rides I was way too afraid of because they looked dangerous, even as a kid. Learning all about Action Park’s backstory was fascinating because, as a child, I wasn’t aware of any of it. I just always viewed that amusement park as that cool place with all those crazy rides. I didn’t know how many people died or got injured while at the park. Nor did I know about the corruption behind the scenes. Class Action Park was a strange nostalgia trip that managed to be entertaining and educational at the same time.
18. Over the Moon
I love musicals and tend to love animated films, so when I first heard about Over the Moon, well, I was over the moon. The legendary animator Glen Keane made his directorial debut with this film, an emotionally poignant tale that embraces the power of the imagination and how it helps to deal with loss. The animation is absolutely stunning, as many would expect from Keane and the songs are very reminiscent of those classic animated Disney films from the late 80s and 90s. However, the number one reason why Over the Moon is my personal pick for the best-animated film of the year is how it deals with loss. The film’s opening and ending are so beautiful and powerful. It brought tears to my eyes. I think children need to be exposed to these topics earlier to understand better how life works. Over the Moon is a wonderful film with a message that is universal.
17. Yes, God, Yes
I first saw Karen Maine’s semi-autobiographical indie comedy at SXSW. I saw it out of pure curiosity largely since the plot description sounded amusing. I am a sucker for coming of age films, and I love films that poke fun at religion, so Yes, God, Yes was right up my alley. However, even though the film has several funny moments, I was more surprised by how honest the story was in exploring female sexual discovery. Natalia Dyer, who, like many, I knew from Stranger Things, truly embraced this role and the subject matter. Dyer clearly felt very passionately about the subject matter, as it was reflected in her incredible performance. I ended up revisiting the film twice in 2020 and found it even more, engaging in repeat viewings. Yes, God, Yes is a refreshing, awkward, and honest look at female sexuality that far too few films have had the courage to explore.
16. The Half of It
I credit Variety’s Jenelle Riley for bringing this film to my attention. I heard absolutely nothing about it and ended up watching it due to her glowing recommendation on Twitter. The Half of It is what many will label as a slow burn, but it’s a rather simple coming-of-age drama that packs quite the emotional punch. I found Leah Lewis to be really truthful in her performance as Ellie. The film explores feeling like an outsider in a small town while exploring how difficult it can be to love yourself and understand who you are. It is a very low-key film, but its simple nature is all part of its charm. I am glad I sought it out on Netflix.
I saw Deerskin at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, and it was one of those random movies that I added to my schedule to fill a gap. I read the plot and was like, “that sounds weird.” Deerskin is weird, but it is the kind of weird that I like. Much like Quentin Dupieux‘s Rubber, Deerskin is completely absurd but will work as long as you can appreciate the plot’s ridiculousness. While I know many people probably never heard of this film, it is a french horror-comedy about a man whose dream is to own a deerskin jacket and what happens when he ends up buying one. To tell you anything more about the film would be a disservice to the filmmaker but know that if you like foreign films which are super out there, Deerskin is very funny and very enjoyable.
14. Love and Monsters
Love and Monsters is one of those movies that came out of nowhere. I knew nothing about this film until I got an email saying that it was added to my Paramount online screening room account. I read the plot description, and much like Deerskin, I was like, “that sounds weird, so let’s give it a shot.” To my surprise, Love and Monsters was one of the most creative and entertaining films of 2020 as it blurred the lines of three vastly different genres; a romantic comedy, a post-apocalyptic film, and a creature feature. The film perfectly combines all three genres to make something that feels refreshingly original and entertaining to watch. I think it is safe to say at this point in 2020 that it is amongst one of the biggest surprises of the year.
13. Happiest Season
I am a Kristen Stewart stan, so just knowing that she was in Happiest Season made me excited to see the film. However, even though I love Stewart, I have no problem admitting when the films she is in aren’t as good as I hoped for. 2019’s Seberg was a massive disappointment, and while I enjoyed Underwater for what it was, it didn’t really leave that much of an impact on me. Happiest Season was supposed to be released theatrically by Sony Pictures in November but was sold to Hulu at the eleventh hour. The film became a huge success on Hulu and dominated the conversation online for a solid two weeks. I really loved this movie because of the cast and what director Clea DuVall was able to do with a traditional Christmas story. Happiest Season made its mark as the first LGBTQ Christmas film made by a major studio, which is an important thing to note, but more importantly, the fact that it was so successful in its execution-only is why it made my best-of list. Happiest Season is a charming and delightful LGBTQ romantic comedy that is sure to become a new holiday tradition for generations to come.
In 2020, Rachel Lee Goldenberg released two feature films, both of which I enjoyed immensely. In May, Goldenberg’s remake of Valley Girl was released on VOD, and in September, Unpregnant debuted on HBO Max. I struggled with which one of Goldenberg’s films to pick to be highlighted on this list; however, I ultimately decided on Unpregnant because of its unique premise. Also, who would have ever thought we would see a road-trip abortion comedy? I know I didn’t expect to. Unpregnant stood out to me for several reasons but most notably because it combines a comedic tale of female friendship with the devastating reality of having to travel hundreds of miles to get an abortion. Haley Lu Richardson and Barbie Ferreira’s chemistry combined with their back and forth banter make the film irresistibly entertaining. And when you add in Goldenberg’s terrific direction and storytelling, the film ends up finding that perfect balance between comedy and drama.
11. Hillbilly Elegy
Hillbilly Elegy has become the awards season punching bag for reasons that I will never fully comprehend. The film tells an emotional and powerful story about substance abuse, overcoming childhood trauma, and social class division within the United States. It is one of those rare films where I felt everyone involved brought their A-game. Each member of the cast makes the viewer feel exactly how their character feels. I believe that J.D. Vance’s story is very relatable, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation. Hillbilly Elegy is a universal story about how one must accept and move past their past to succeed in the future. It is Ron Howard’s best film since Rush.
Aneesh Chaganty’s directorial debut Searching was one of my favorite films of 2018. I remember seeing it at Sundance and being so deeply engaged and invested in the story and the performances. Two years later, Chaganty has returned with Run, his sophomore project, originally slated to be released theatrically by Lionsgate in May but was sold to Hulu due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Run is a suspense thriller that follows a young teenaged girl named Chloe who discovers that her mother has been keeping secrets. Chaganty takes a traditional thriller concept and adds his own unique take. The result is something that is wholly entertaining and a non-stop thrill ride. Besides casting the always brilliant Sarah Paulson, Chaganty always finds fresh new talent to appear in his films. In Run, Kiera Allen was cast as Chloe, who somehow manages to steal Paulson’s spotlight. She is absolutely superb in the film and brings a level of authenticity to her performance. Be sure to keep an eye out for Allen because this is one hell of a performance that is sure to earn her more roles very soon.
9. Black Bear
I saw Black Bear at Sundance way back in January. This is one of those hidden festival gems that I stumbled upon, and I was immediately taken back by. Aubrey Plaza is an actress whose body of work is one that I typically admire. Like many actresses who are mostly known for independent films, Plaza has taken on some questionable roles in big studio films, which have left me scratching my head. Black Bear is a reminder of how gifted Plaza is as an actress and how much range she has. This is not a film for everyone, but it really struck a chord with me. You can see how much preparation went into this film, and Plaza has never been better than she is here. The film is basically divided up into two different stories told from a different perspective. The film doesn’t really explain what happens in the end or which story is true, but it did leave me thinking about it for days after seeing it. I normally am not a fan of the cliched open endings found in many indie films, but because the writing and performances were so strong and thought-provoking, I found myself surprisingly accepting of its lack of a real ending.
8. On the Rocks
On the Rocks is Sofia Coppola’s most accessible film to date and easily her best film since Lost in Translation. I found myself deeply engrossed in the father/daughter storyline and the chemistry between Rashida Jones and Bill Murray is second to none. There isn’t really anything flashy about On The Rocks in terms of its direction or storytelling, but that is all part of the film’s charm. The movie relies very much on the performances, and Coppola allows Jones and Murray to do their thing. The result is something that goes down easy but will keep you smiling consistently throughout. I also think the film features one of the funniest and most entertaining “car chase” scenes in recent memory.
7. Palm Springs
If you told me that one day I would have a comedy starring Andy Samberg on my best-of list, I would have never believed you. I know it is wrong to judge an actor based on their previous roles, but again, I think it makes it all the more rewarding when you see a movie like Palm Springs and you end up loving it. I had the same problem with Seth Rogen for years, but I sort of dig the guy after Long Shot and An American Pickle. Palm Springs was another Sundance surprise. I wasn’t going to see it, but after hearing rave reviews, I decided to give it a shot. The film is a complete and utter delight. It is a unique take on a time-loop comedy and one that I found myself wildly amused by. While the script is well-crafted and the direction is solid, I have to give credit where credit is due, and that is to Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti, whose performances are really the heart and soul of this film. They carry all of the comedic and emotional weight. The two are irresistible together and allow the viewer to buy into this weird and wacky world that Andy Siara created.
6. Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn
While I was at Sundance, I got an email about attending the first screening of Birds of Prey back in Los Angeles. I generally stay at Sundance for about a week, so I was torn on whether I wanted to leave early to attend the screening. Upon looking at my festival schedule, I realized that I saw the majority of films I wanted to see, so I ended up switching my flight so I could make the screening. I got back to Los Angeles at midnight and ended up driving to the Arclight at around 8:00 am the following morning to attend the screening. Even though I wasn’t a fan of Suicide Squad, it’s actually the only DCEU movie I despise, and I was nervous yet hopeful about Birds of Prey. Within a few moments of watching Birds of Prey, I quickly realized it was totally my jam. I loved how the film looked, I loved the characters, and I loved how weird and random the movie was. This felt unlike anything DC or Marvel had ever down before. It really spoke to me, and since that screening, I have repeatedly revisited this film, and it only gets better with age. Birds of Prey is bat-shit crazy and a total blast.
5. Bad Education
Like Deerskin, I saw Bad Education at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival before HBO Films eventually purchased it. I remember watching the film at the Princess of Wales theater and thinking to myself how great a movie it was. Bad Education is based on a true story and is as compelling as it is darkly comedic. While the entire cast was terrific, I thought Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney’s performances were particularly awards-worthy. Bad Education ended up being one of my favorite films to play at TIFF that year, and since it was released in 2020 on HBO, it has found its way onto my best of the year list.
4. The Broken Hearts Gallery
I love romantic comedies, and The Broken Hearts Gallery is one of the best I’ve seen in recent years. Natalie Krinsky, who wrote and directed the film, puts a modern-day spin on a classic romantic comedy tale. Lucy Gulliver (played by the always hilarious Geraldine Viswanathan) struggles with relationships and letting go of her past. After a recent breakup, she accidentally meets Nick (Dacre Montgomery), who inspires her to start a gallery where people around the city can donate various knick-knacks from previous relationships. The Broken Hearts Gallery is one of those films that just made me happy the entire time I was watching it. I loved the chemistry between Viswanathan and Montgomery, as well as the film’s supporting cast, which included Molly Gordon and Phillipa Soo as Lucy’s best friends. The Broken Hearts Gallery made me laugh and feel great, and in 2020, that is all one could really ask for.
3. Sound of Metal
I somehow missed Sound of Metal when it premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival and was curious how good it could be, based on how long it took to get a release date. However, I am happy to report my initial gut instinct was wrong, and Sound of Metal is one of the best films of the year. I am not a fan of heavy metal music, but I was almost immediately invested in this story, which revolved around a drummer who started to lose his hearing. I appreciated so many things about this film, from the incredible performances to the film’s superb use of sound, but what stood out the most about its handling of the deaf community and how it showcased people with disabilities. The film really spoke to me, and I felt it was one of the most genuine explorations of what it was like to go from not having a disability to learning how to embrace having one. Sound of Metal was very powerful and poignant.
2. The Prom
As much as I love watching movies and going to the movie theater, my absolute favorite thing to do is to see a show on Broadway. I absolutely adore musicals, especially on stage, so since 2020 didn’t allow for that to happen, I embraced every single movie musical that was released. I actually had the opportunity to see The Prom on Broadway in 2018, and I absolutely loved it. Even though I am part of the industry, I love how the Broadway show and Ryan Murphy’s film adaptation mocks celebrities’ egos and how they “help the common folk.” The Prom pokes fun at being a celebrity while also celebrating people coming together. No other film in 2020 has made me as happy and hopeful as The Prom. I have watched this film three times already and have listened to the soundtrack at least once a day since it was released earlier this month. The entire cast brings the Broadway show to life with the same amount of humor and heart. I love this movie and truly believe that it is one of the best musical adaptations in well over a decade.
1. Promising Young Woman
I had a feeling that when I saw Promising Young Woman at Sundance, I had just witnessed my favorite film of 2020. I remember walking out of the MARC theater and running up to my friends at Ginsberg Libby, exclaiming how much I loved the film. Throughout the rest of the festival, whenever someone asked me about which movies I liked, the conversation always began with Promising Young Woman. This, to me, is the reason why I think the Sundance Film Festival is the best of all film festivals. It is a festival built on discoveries, and each year, I walk away from the festival with at least one film that ends up on my favorite films of the year list.
Since its debut at Sundance, I have revisited Promising Young Woman multiple times. Given that the film relies very heavily on certain plot twists, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I still loved it even after repeat viewings. With so much conversation about the Time’s Up and Me Too movement over the past few years, it is nice to see a film that isn’t afraid to hold up a mirror to society and point fingers. Emerald Fennell doesn’t hold back with this film. She attacks everyone and their failure to act. The film’s ending, which packs one hell of a punch, will not work for everyone. There have already been many articles written with various takes on the ending, some are positive, and some are rather critical. Personally, the ending is what makes the film perfection. It’s not expected and doesn’t clean everything up with a tidy little bow. Its point is to get you upset and make you talk about what you just watched.
Promising Young Woman is a bold and unforgettable masterpiece. It is a conversation starter and a film that will stick with you for weeks, months, or possibly even years after seeing it. In my humble opinion, Emerald Fennell has made the best film of 2020 and one that will be discussed and analyzed for many years to come.