2020 was a year like no other, and that was definitely the case in the movie space. Theatrical films were really only a thing during the first few months of the year, and here and there in the last few months of the year…lots of films ended up on streaming or were postponed to next year.
Still, there was no shortage of great movies that came out in theaters and on streaming platforms. That's good news for fans, as most of these are now available from your couch. What better way to celebrate the new year, than with the best from this year? Count down to '21 with these great films from '20…our 9 picks for the very best cinematic experiences!
9Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)
We're going to call it and say that "Birds of Prey" was the most underrated should-have-been blockbuster of 2020. Unlike other would-be blockbusters that either debuted on streaming or delayed to '21, "Birds of Prey" landed in theaters in early pre-pandemic times and still didn't go over with audiences. We'd encourage everyone to give it another shot on streaming. This is where Margot Robbie truly claims ownership of the Harley Quinn character, and she does it in supreme style alongside other empowered female badasses, in a film that has attitude and energy for days.
Action / 2020 / R
Of all the movies that somehow tie into the live and repeat the same day over and over formula, "Palm Springs" is the best and most unique – it's not just one person having to do it again and again, it's a couple who may or may not really like (love?) each other. Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti are both extremely affable, and what's more, the film isn't just funny and heartfelt. There are some real ideas at play in this time-spinning sci-fi-rom-com-thriller-drama.
For those who really love the idea of challenging their brains as well as their senses at the cinema, Christopher Nolan is never one to deny those pleasures. But this is by far his most heady and ambitious project to date. Is he successful at pulling off this espionage actioner that plays with the idea of "inversion" (things moving in reverse back through time)? Not entirely, but the effort is admirable, and the action sequences are fantastic, as are the lead performances from John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki and Kenneth Branagh. Bonus points, too, to Nolan for attempting to keep the exhibition business afloat during these challenging times.
Action / 2020 / PG-13
We were shocked and saddened when Chadwick Boseman died from cancer this year. We're grateful, though, for his two final performances which debuted on streaming this year – a supporting turn in "Da 5 Bloods" (more on that later), and his star turn in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" as the trumpet player for Ma (the glorious Viola Davis) and her incredible blues band. The adaptation of August Wilson's acclaimed play is a powerhouse film that includes dynamic performances from the entire cast and some amazing music. Viola Davis is Oscar-worthy as the lead singer, and Boseman gives it his entire body and soul as the troubled, wrestling-with-God musician and suffering human being.
Drama / 2020 / R
5The Trial of the Chicago 7
The real-life trial of 7 activists after the violence at the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention is the basis for this intense and thrilling project written and directed by Aaron Sorkin. It's a fast-paced and often funny account that draws some timely parallels between that period's strife and the current issues facing America. In a cast of standouts, Sacha Baron Cohen as the outspoken activist Abbie Hoffman is one of the best supporting turns in 2020 cinema.
Drama / 2020 / R
4Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
It was truly a banner year for Cohen, who shined in "The Trial of the Chicago 7," and was uproarious in "Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm." The further adventures of Borat had the Kazakh this time trying to pawn off his daughter to the current administration in exchange for favor for his beleaguered countrymen. Really, though, it's just an excuse for the funnyman to put up a mirror to America's many, many absurdities. The finale, well…you just have to see it. The movie's the most funny and prudent comedy of the year.
This black and white beauty of a film from first-rate director David Fincher tells the story of the origins of the "Citizen Kane" script, and the irascible writer Herman J. Mankiewicz who penned it. Gary Oldman gives the best lead performance of the year as "Mank," the constantly inebriated, larger-than-life Hollywood veteran who's always ready to make a scene, and hopefully write some good ones, too. The cinematography, the supporting cast, and all the details in "Mank" are worthy of comparison to the actual classic "Kane." And Oldman's performance ranks at the top of his esteemed filmography.
Drama / 2020 / R
2Da 5 Bloods
Spike Lee's war drama "Da 5 Bloods" is a lot of things. It's a Vietnam-era war film. It's a modern-day action-adventure treasure hunt. It's a sociological drama about African American manhood. And it's a story about our country, and the realities for our citizens, and their relation to the people in the rest of the world. It's much to take on for one film. Surprisingly, it succeeds on all fronts in near equal measure. Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Chadwick Boseman (in a limited, powerful turn) are the blood and soul of the film, and you can't keep your eyes off them.
Pixar's first film to feature an African American lead is also the best film of the year. It's a truly magical tale about a jazz musician who accidentally falls into a manhole, dies, and attempts to return to Earth instead of moving on to the Great Beyond. Joining him on his adventure is a soul who's never been here, and together, they learn what life is really all about. It seems simple enough, but the movie captures what we all know is really true - life is complicated, and uniquely beautiful.
Animated / 2020 / PG
About the Author
Chuck is an editor/writer who's worked for NCM, Fandango, Movies.com, MediaTrip, Hollywood.com and Newsweek. His favorite movie is "Jaws." He's definitely a dog guy.