The 10 best (and 5 worst) movies of 2020
It’s true that this year didn’t give us the movie slate we expected; 2020 was funny like that. But to say that a world without Bonds and Wonder Women and only provisional Christopher Nolan is somehow not worth noting would be huge disservice to all the smart, strange, and often entirely unexpected films we were lucky enough to get instead. So many, in fact, that dozens couldn’t even make this list. A boom in female-helmed horror? Yes please, Relic, Amulet, and She Dies Tomorrow. The deluge of great documentaries? Find Crip Camp, On The Record, Boys State, Welcome to Chechnya, Time, Athlete A, and The Mole Agent streaming online. A pretty strong Ben Affleck drama? We see you, The Way Back! (And we regret you, The Last Thing He Wanted). A lot of nervy, norm-cracking comedy, too: Palm Springs, Happiest Season, The Forty-Year-Old Version, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.
We may be more than ready to put these past months in the rearview, but in a moment decidedly short on magic, the ten picks here represent something sweeter: Education, escapism — and more than anything, the sheer joy of cinema.
10. Sound of Metal
Directed by Darius Marder
Adversity dramas aren’t hard to come by, but Sound of Metal is something else. Riz Ahmed, his hair bleached blonde and his body a taut wire, is Ruben, a thrash-punk drummer whose hearing disappears overnight. The ensuing struggle to redefine the world as he knows it becomes, in director Darius Marder’s hands, a beautifully naturalistic piece of filmmaking; tender, ferocious, and quietly transcendent.
9. Dick Johnson is Dead
Directed by Kirsten Johnson
Dick — retired therapist, dedicated Seventh Day Adventist, zippy octogenarian — becomes the muse of his documentarian daughter (and one of the year’s least likely movie stars) in the sweetly surreal Dead, a fantastical true-life experiment in which deep fakes become the sincerest form of parental love.
8. Promising Young Woman
Directed by Emerald Fennell
Hell hath no fury, it’s true; but Fennell’s eviscerating, darkly comic debut is no mere candy-coated portrait of a woman scorned. As a self-appointed one-girl wrecking crew named Cassie, Carey Mulligan takes on misogyny one noxious dude-bro at a time. She’s a knockout, and the ending is too.
7. One Night in Miami...
Directed by Regina King
Though it takes a minute to shake off the constraints of its stage roots, King’s slow-burner One Night in Miami... — about the stranger-than-fiction convergence of four Black superstars at Cassius Clay’s 1964 title bout — becomes both an illuminating snapshot of the era and a sort of acting Olympics for its outrageously talented stars.
Directed by Miranda July
A sunny bystander (Gina Rodriguez) wanders into the circumscribed world of two aging L.A. grifters (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger) and their grown daughter (Evan Rachel Wood); the financial stakes may be low, but July (Me and You and Everyone We Know) makes it feel like millions, emotionally.
Directed by Autumn de Wilde
As delectable as a tower of pastel macarons and nearly as hard to resist, de Wilde’s tart take on Jane Austen’s classic romance spills over with great performances from the likes of Bill Nighy and The Crown’s Josh O’Connor, though it’s a sublimely droll Anya Taylor-Joy in the title role who truly takes the cake.
4. First Cow
Directed by Kelly Reichardt
Stop us if you heard this one before: a pair of Gold Rush prospectors, a biscuit recipe, a contraband dairy cow. Though the latest from Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff) may play like a shambolic tale of male friendship and flaky pastry, there’s a sneaky transcendence at the center of it all.
Directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers
When Pixar is good, it is very, very good; when it’s great, it can touch the profound. Soul, about a middle-aged jazz pianist (voiced by Jamie Foxx) who finds himself trapped in purgatory on the eve of his big break, feels as tender and funny and gorgeously human as anything on screen this year.
Directed by Lee Isaac Chung
Korean immigrant Jacob (Steven Yeun) dreams of a plot of Arkansas land to call his own; his dubious wife (Yeri Han) just wants some stability for their young family. Chung’s ’80s-set dramedy — winner of Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize — is the kind of indie gem you wait for: a small, exquisitely acted story with a huge heart.
Directed by Chloé Zhao
Tone poem, nouveau Western, elegy for the American dream: Nomadland can feel like all those things, and more. Much of the drama in Chloé Zhao’s starkly unadorned portrait of a widowed Nevadan named Fern (Frances McDormand) who learns to fit her entire world into a van happens in small, almost imperceptible moments. There are long days laboring in Amazon warehouses or potato fields; endless stretches of tarmac and rest stops; even a bittersweet hint of romance with a fellow vagabond (David Strathairn). That the movie manages to serve as both a grim reckoning of our nation’s frayed safety net and a celebration of a sort of middle-aged manifest destiny is certainly a testament to Zhao’s deceptively spare script. But it’s the dreamlike, richly textured soul of her story that stays; a new kind of cinematic classic, painfully made for these times.
The Worst: Prestige Gone Bad
Directed by Josh Trank
How it started: a sobering portrait of the last days of the world’s most notorious gangster. How it ends: a putty-nosed Tom Hardy, mumble-raging and filling his adult diaper to the brim.
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Ask not why Zemeckis felt compelled to remake Roald Dahl’s classic tale when a perfect 1990 film version already exists. No, seriously — don’t ask.
This article originally included The White Tiger, directed by Ramin Bahrani, among EW's 10 best films of the year. It has since been removed from the list, as Netflix shifted its theatrical release plan from December 2020 to January 2021.
For more on our Entertainers of the Year and Best & Worst of 2020, order the January issue of Entertainment Weekly or find it on newsstands beginning Dec. 18. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.