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Best Films of 2020
Credit: Illustration by EW; Josh Ethan Johnson/A24; Searchlight Pictures; Patti Perret/Amazon Studios; Focus Features (2); Disney/Pixar;

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, RelicAmulet, and She Dies Tomorrow. The deluge of great documentaries? Find Crip CampOn The RecordBoys StateWelcome to ChechnyaTimeAthlete 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 SpringsHappiest SeasonThe Forty-Year-Old VersionBorat 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. 

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SOUND OF METAL
Credit: Amazon Studios

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.

Dick Johnson is Dead
Credit: Netflix

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.

Promising Young Woman
Credit: Focus Features

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.

ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI
Credit: Amazon Studios

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.

KAJILLIONAIRE
Credit: Matt Kennedy/Focus Features

6. Kajillionaire

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.

EMMA
Credit: Focus Features

5. Emma.

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.

First Cow
Credit: Allyson Riggs/A24

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.

Soul
Credit: Disney/Pixar

3. Soul

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.

Minari
Credit: Josh Ethan Johnson/A24

2. Minari

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.

Nomadland

1. Nomadland

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

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capone
Credit: Vertical Entertainment

Capone

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.

Hillbilly Elegy
Credit: Lacey Terrell/NETFLIX

Hillbilly Elegy

Directed by Ron Howard

This ham-handed adaptation of J.D. Vance's lightning-rod 2016 memoir Hillbilly Elegy hits every smug, unsubtle note; Appalachian poverty porn recast as a moralizing soap opera.

IRRESISTIBLE
Credit: Daniel McFadden/Focus Features

Irresistible

Directed by Jon Stewart

It should have been a home run in a year like this: a master satirist riffing on the absurdity of modern politics, with Steve Carell and Rose Byrne. But, oh, what a lead balloon. #Resist

The Last Thing He Wanted
Credit: Netflix

The Last Thing He Wanted

Directed by Dee Rees

A lauded Joan Didion novel adapted by Mudbound’s Rees and starring Anne Hathaway and Ben Affleck — and, alas, for all its pedigree, a murky, baffling mess.

The Witches
Credit: Daniel Smith/ Warner Bros.

The Witches

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.

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