Our Annual Report continues as we reveal the Top 25 Films of 2020. Stay tuned for more awards, lists, and articles in the days and weeks to come about the best music, film, and TV of the year. If you’ve missed any part of our Annual Report, you can check out all the coverage here.
Going to the movies ain’t like it used to be, right? What an understatement. With theaters shuttered up and movie chains filing for bankruptcy, one might argue it’s been a pretty crap year for cinema. Financially speaking, they’re not wrong.
But, art is a funny thing. It has a way of enduring even the most arduous obstacles — you know, that whole Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park, “life finds a way” bit — and this year was a testament to that truth. Art had no issue finding a proper stage.
That stage, as fate would have it, wound up being our living rooms. Be it through streaming services or Premium On-Demand drops, film managed to circumvent the closures and still make an impact on us through even the worst of the pandemic.
Hell, one could argue film bruised us even harder this year. With most of the colossal blockbusters shelved, audiences were less distracted, spending more time with smaller titles, the likes of which would have been marginalized any other year.
That’s why, as you’ll see up ahead, 2020 wound up being an incredibly rich year for cinema. There were so many stories told across so many genres that it was almost impossible to keep up with them all. Alas, we tried our damndest.
Emma (Focus Features)
Release Date: February 21st via Focus Features
Who’s in It? Anya Taylor-Joy, Bill Nighy, Johnny Flynn, Mia Goth, Josh O’Connor, Rupert Graves, Miranda Hart, Callum Turner
You Gotta See This! Like Shakespeare and Dickens, there’s no shortage of onscreen adaptations (let alone British ones) of Jane Austen’s work, and yet first-time director Autumn de Wilde’s take on Emma feels delightfully fresh and wickedly funny even in its utter faithfulness to the source material.
Anya Taylor-Joy sparkles as the popular, rich, and infinitely poised twentysomething Emma Woodhouse, who would rather meddle in the love lives of her family and friends than take responsibility for her own — including her neurotic father (played by a cutting Bill Nighy) and handsome but frustrating brother-in-law Mr. Knightley (a charming Johnny Flynn).
Sparks fly, hearts get broken, egos are bruised, and love triumphs over all in a surprisingly brisk two hours and twelve minutes with an emphasis on the comedy in this comedy of manners. While Clueless remains the best and most inspired adaptation of Austen’s last and cheekiest novel, de Wilde’s candy-colored vision of Emma is no doubt as irresistible and precocious as its titular heroine. –Emmy Potter
Extra! Extra! Read Irene Monokandilos’ full review here.
24. Scream, Queen!
Scream, Queen! (Shudder)
Release Date: June 5th via Shudder
Who’s in It? Mark Patton, Cecil Baldwin, Robert Englund, Jack Sholder, David Chaskin
You Gotta See This! A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge has long been considered an outlier in the franchise. Dismissed as “gay,” it all but destroyed the career of its star, Mark Patton, whose queerness was blamed for the movie’s failure. Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street is his attempt to rewrite the narrative and tell his story in his own words.
Patton describes his early life and career, recounting his experiences during the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic and the pressures of being a closeted gay man in Hollywood. We follow him as he reunites with the cast of Freddy’s Revenge and confronts screenwriter David Chaskin over hurtful comments about the way the film was written and received.
Presented as a tell-all reckoning with the tongue-in-cheek tagline, “The Claws Are Out,” Scream, Queen! becomes a poignant but uplifting journey to forgiveness and self-acceptance. It’s a love letter to an important film in the horror genre and its all-but-forgotten star that beautifully shows the empowerment and reassurance onscreen representation can bring. –Jenn Adams
Extra! Extra! Read Blake Goble’s full review here.
Release Date: December 25th via Disney
Who’s in It? Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Phylicia Rashad, Angela Bassett, Rachel House, Questlove, Graham Norton, Alice Braga, Wes Studi, Richard Ayoade
You Gotta See This! Whereas Disney proper still clings to sequels, remakes, and broad properties, one has to give a light chuckle of admiration for Pixar for keeping things not only original, but real, fantastical, and everything in between on this one. The Emeryville artists spent an alleged — and whopping — $150 million to develop and deliver a soul and jazz odyssey about a New York middle-school instructor’s near-death experience. Kids, this is Pixar’s Death & Pianos. But what a glossy, good idea of a riff.
Bear with me. They articulate the afterlife – or is it a theoretical plane of existence? — like Picasso doodles in 3D. The everyday of NYC is light in Autumnal hues. Night clubs are opened up like swirly, gel-lit Blue Note album covers. Famed playwright Kemp Powers (One Night in Miami) backs Pixar magnate Pete Docter (Inside Out) in an irresistible work of fusion, exploring spaces previously unseen, suggesting vividly that everything is connected. From sweat-soaked music making to an abstract expressionist peek at what lies beyond, Soul is serene, silly, and apt. –Blake Goble
Extra! Extra! Read Josh Spiegel’s full review here.
Tesla (IFC Films)
Release Date: August 21st via IFC Films
Who’s in It? Ethan Hawke, Eve Hewson, Kyle MacLachlan, Hannah Gross, Josh Hamilton, Jim Gaffigan, Lois Smith, Ebon Moss-Bachrach
You Gotta See This! As Tesla showcases by means of ice cream cone battles, narrators with MacBooks, and Tears for Fears karaoke, Michael Almereyda has honed a particularly postmodern and lightly surreal slant on the cinematic break from reality. However, if his East Coast war spin on Shakespeare’s Cymbeline and his Y2K NYC adaptation of Hamlet insinuate anything, it’s that his gleeful riffs on history benefit from the anchoring of certain actors, namely one Ethan Hawke.
Infusing the namesake inventor with an aloof, soft-spoken demeanor, Hawke’s performance provides a foundation for the film to conduct its study of a man obscured in his own legacy and speaks to the values of his life through its warped, Brechtian visuals and anachronistic nods to the modern world of technology he’d shape. At essentially zero points in the film does Almereyda set out to craft an objective account of Nikola Tesla’s life. Rather, he’s satisfied as a director to take a sledgehammer to the modern biopic’s conventions and fashion an image in Tesla’s spirited likeness out of the colorful shards. –Sam Mwakasisi
Extra! Extra! Read Clint Worthington’s full review here.
21. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Netflix)
Release Date: December 18th via Netflix
Who’s In It? Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman (in his final live-action performance), Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, Michael Potts
You Gotta See This! Film adaptations about famous Black figures are having a moment right now (see One Night in Miami… elsewhere on this list). But where Regina King’s film is quiet and contemplative, George C. Wolfe’s adaptation of the August Wilson play thrums with the lively energy of a crowded jazz club, even as it sits us with four musicians and their diva (Davis’ show-stopping Ma Rainey) in a sweaty Chicago recording studio.
The colors are as vivid as the songs, but at its core it aches with the pain of Black artists having to work twice as hard to appeal to white gatekeepers who will simply toss them aside as soon as it’s convenient. And smack dab in the middle is the late, great Chadwick Boseman, who literally plays his role as the ambitious Levee as if it were his final part. It’s a turn filled with incredible pain, anger and joy, a true testament to Boseman’s immense range (and a somber reminder that we’ll hardly ever see his like again). –Clint Worthington