Austin360's favorite 25 movies of 2020: What and where to watch
A secret love affair in a post-Soviet country. Lives stolen by the prison system. Charlize Theron beating people up.
Oh, they still made movies this year. We might not have been in the theater to see all of them, but film fans didn't suffer too much. And for those of us watching more movies than ever at home — interminably, at home — it was a real comfort to have these stories to escape through.
Here are my favorite new films of 2020. Disclaimers: I absolutely missed some great flicks, and this list is limited to films that received a release of some sort this year.
Josephine Decker’s “Shirley” isn’t a literary biopic, really. It turns its subject, author Shirley Jackson of “The Lottery” fame, into the kind of gothic menace that could haunt one of her stories. Elisabeth Moss plays Jackson as a pain-stricken snarl on legs, set loose into a midcentury tale of horror and erotic thrills. The mood: best described as sick, yellow and hot. The crackling desire between Moss and co-star Odessa Young as the author’s live-in assistant: spellbinding.
(“Shirley” is streaming on Hulu and is available on demand elsewhere.)
24. “Sound of Metal”
Yes, the concept is irresistibly melodramatic: a hardcore rock drummer loses his hearing. Yes, the filmmaking is just on the novel side of gimmicky: stretches of sound from his point of view, whether silent or plagued by the tinny strangeness of a cochlear implant. But Darius Marder’s “Sound of Metal” thunders, thanks to its undeniable lead performances from Riz Ahmed, as the drummer forced to reckon with reality, and Olivia Cooke, as his bandmate and girlfriend. In her fearful eyes during a crucial scene at a rehab facility, she sees a thousand futures die, and you mourn, too.
(“Sound of Metal” is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.)
Scooters swarm and ladies sift through lotuses as you peer down from an invisible ceiling. Lithe, barely lit bodies twist in humid rooms. Writer-director Hong Khaou’s “Monsoon,” about a man (Henry Golding) returning to his native Vietnam to spread his parents’ ashes, was generous with its visual pleasures. It also was a story about being just on the other side of where you used to belong.
(“Monsoon” is available on demand.)
22. “The Old Guard”
Charlize Theron could mop the floor with Tom Cruise. In director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s adaptation of Greg Rucka’s comic book — Rucka also wrote the screenplay — the artist formerly known as Furiosa imbues an immortal general with the brawny soul to match a few millennia of life. But credit’s due, too, to Prince Bythewood and Rucka, who give this thrill-ride smash-'em-up real philosophical heft. This year, the weight of surviving was worth sitting with.
(“The Old Guard” is now streaming on Netflix.)
21. “The Forty-Year-Old Version”
For anyone who’s ever felt like they got started too late, Radha Blank’s got something to say. The playwright came bursting onto the scene with a charm-bomb debut — writing, directing, producing and starring in a semi-autobiographical love letter to late(r)-stage reinvention. Filmed in 35 mm black and white, “The Forty-Year-Old Version” feels like a quintessential New York City tale, and Blank herself feels like the cool new person you met at a party whom you actually intend to text later.
(“The 40-Year-Old Version is streaming on Netflix.)
Might just be a soft spot for me — “Onward” was the last movie I saw in person with friends before the pandemic — but I’ve been surprised to see such little love for Pixar’s fantasy road trip flick. Is it the best Pixar film? No. (I think that might be “WALL-E”? Ask me again tomorrow.) But this character-driven adventure about family and the potential within still got my tear ducts flowing almost 10 times. I did count, but it’s been a few minutes since March.
("Onward" is streaming on Disney+ and is available on demand elsewhere.)
19. “Martin Eden”
The word “sumptuous” was invented for Pietro Marcello’s “Martin Eden,” a grand and gutsy adaptation of the Jack London novel. The setting shifts to Naples, so it’s juicy eye candy, and that’s not mentioning handsome brute Luca Marinelli as the hero. You need a sponge to sop up the color saturation of its shorelines and gardens. With the time period subtly fractured into a puzzle, it’s that much easier to connect the film’s passionate rumination on class and political morality to our own era.
(“Martin Eden” is in theaters and virtual cinemas, including AFS and Violet Crown.)
18. “Circus of Books”
An unassuming married couple with kids make their living running a porno shop? This is no quirky indie dramedy; it’s a documentary about Karen and Barry Mason, longtime proprietors of Los Angeles' Circus of Books. Their daughter Rachel Mason directs a weird, heartfelt trip through the history of smut, the plight of mom-and-pop businesses and the lives of one average American family.
(“Circus of Books” is streaming on Netflix.)
I, too, am shocked that a teen body-swap slasher starring Vince Vaughn was one of the most gleefully unhinged and thought-provoking horror movies in recent memory, but 2020 has given us all a few jump scares. Vaughn’s absolutely unwinking in his commitment to playing a teenage girl in the body of a 6’5” serial killer. As the other half of the swap, Kathryn Newton brings stabby star power. And the gore, snark and oozing gender subtext? My bloody hands were tied.
(“Freaky” is in theaters and is available on demand.)
16. “The Half of It”
Netflix’s bench of YA rom-coms is often full of empty calories. Writer-director Alice Wu’s high school swooner is no such thing. Set in a sleepy Pacific Northwest town, “The Half of It” gives voice to the kids for whom coming of age isn’t so simple as giddy crushes and a buffet of college applications. The film’s Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis, so open-hearted you want to hug your TV) wrestles with sexuality and parenting her own parent, with Wu’s script smartly bending teen rom-com tropes and a Cyrano de Bergerac plot to her will.
(“The Half of It” is streaming on Netflix.)
15. “The Twentieth Century”
I know not a lick about Canadian politics, except that Justin Trudeau appears to use mousse instead of pomade, but somehow I don’t think that historical fidelity was the goal of Matthew Rankin’s maple-drenched mass hallucination. Ostensibly the story of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King’s rise to power, it’s really a bat out of cable access hell and a blizzard of satire, fascism, feats of strength, prophecies, drag and a climaxing cactus. O (my stars and garters what is happening) Canada!
(“The Twentieth Century” is available through virtual cinemas like AFS and also on demand.)
14. “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)”
Margot Robbie balletically beating people up with a baseball bat! Mary Elizabeth Winstead punching a thug in the face as they hurtle down a funhouse slide! Mobster Ewan McGregor playing not for the cheap seats but for the parking lot attendants! A very cinematically significant hair tie! We didn’t get many superhero blockbusters in 2020, but thank badness we got “Birds of Prey,” easily one of DC Comics’ best film adaptations yet.
(“Birds of Prey” is streaming on HBO Max and is available on demand elsewhere.)
13. “Boys State”
There have been a couple horror movies on this list already, but this documentary begs the question — see where it’s going? I bet you see where it’s going — “What if we’re in the horror movie?” The Austin-filmed “Boys State,” about the annual mock government exercise in the state capital, is a grotesque but kind of inspiring examination of the mess America’s made for its young men. By the end, there’s no denying that boys will be boys, and that’s bone-chilling.
(“Boys State” is streaming on Apple TV+.)
12. “Palm Springs”
Max Barbakow’s “Palm Springs” lucked out, in some ways, to hit Hulu in 2020, our year of perpetual routine. It's the story of two unlucky souls at a desert wedding (Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti) trapped in a perpetual time loop. The film builds on predecessors like “Groundhog Day” and “Russian Doll,” with a taste more of unhinged cosmic hocus-pocus. Samberg and Milioti had the most winning rom-com chemistry of the year. And I appreciated a film that helped me make a little peace, no matter how tenuous at times, with monotony.
(“Palm Springs” is streaming on Hulu.)
It was Anya Taylor-Joy’s year, and we were just watching it. Chess saga “The Queen’s Gambit” made her a true star, and she was inarguably the best part of the cursed, middling “New Mutants.” But “Emma,” Autumn de Wilde’s snappy and stylish Jane Austen adaptation, was my favorite use of Taylor-Joy’s impossibly expressive eyes. Even if you don’t go in for Victorian sitting room chucklers much — I don’t — this film was one of the brightest spots of those early, uncertain pandemic days.
(“Emma” is streaming on HBO Max and is available on digital and home media.)
10. “Extra Ordinary”
As Irish as binge-watching “Derry Girls” with the Cranberries playing in the background and a glass of whiskey in your hand. This kind-hearted horror farce directed by Michael Ahern and Enda Loughman (with a script from Loughman) goes full gonzo, telling the story of a kind driving instructor and reluctant medium (Maeve Higgins) drawn into a sinister Satanic plot to sacrifice a teen girl in her Irish village. Oh, and Will Forte plays the villainous rock singer behind this dark ritual. From its cozy exorcisms to its ribald climax, “Extra Ordinary” left nothing on the table (or sacrificial altar, as the case may be).
(“Extra Ordinary” is streaming on Showtime and is available on demand elsewhere.)
9. “Da 5 Bloods”
They don’t get much more operatic than Spike Lee’s Vietnam veterans tale. With a terrifying and irresistible performance from Delroy Lindo and a supporting turn from Chadwick Boseman that’s only become more remarkable since the actor’s death, this is a classic adventure yarn, set against vibrant jungle scenery and pulsing with as much revolutionary spirit as you’d require from a Spike Lee joint. “Da 5 Bloods” tackles reparations, PTSD and the immorality of war, and even if it feels fit to burst sometimes, it’s worth all 156 minutes.
(“Da 5 Bloods” is streaming on Netflix.)
8. “Promising Young Woman”
From its opening shot of doughy male torsos writhing to Charli XCX’s female gaze anthem “Boys,” this wry, unrelenting, dazzling film from writer-director Emerald Fennell subverts its pop references with wicked, righteous glee. Following a modern-day Greek Fury on a hunt to make predators pay (Carey Mulligan, in complete control), “Promising Young Woman” is a pulpy revenge thriller, a wickedly smart trauma story and a rom-com dipped in pitch-black tar. It’s squirm-inducing, unforgiving and an utter blast.
(“Promising Young Woman” is in theaters.)
Our review:A 'Promising Young Woman' hunts predators
7. “What the Constitution Means to Me”
How is it going for me this year? I cried watching a filmed production of a one-woman show about the U.S. Constitution! Brought to the screen this year by director Marielle Heller, “What the Constitution Means to Me” starts as a gleeful, high school forensics-style presentation by playwright and performer Heidi Schreck and then mutates, sometimes distressingly, into a reckoning of how little our oft-fetishized founding document protects women and immigrants. Searing but never pedantic, it’s a map to a more perfect union.
(“What the Constitution Means to Me” is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.)
Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical drama about a Korean family trying to make it as farmers in 1980s Arkansas is both modest and concerned with nothing smaller than the American Dream. As patriarch Jacob, Steven Yeun anchors a hope to create life — both from the ground and for his family — in every heartbeat of the film. But Alan Kim and Youn Yuh-jung steal "Minari" as an unforgettable grandson-grandma duo.
(After screenings at film festivals and limited virtual screenings, “Minari” is slated for wider release in February.)
5. “Yes, God, Yes”
I don’t always go in for cringe comedies — Hulu’s “Pen15,” by all accounts a masterwork, makes me want to die — but Karen Maine’s 2000-set film cuts right to the bone. Which, coincidentally, is exactly what its heroine wishes she could do. “Yes, God, Yes" follows Catholic school girl Alice (Natalia Dyer of “Stranger Things”) as her developing sexuality meets the repressive, hilariously hypocritical world of Christian youth retreats. From embarrassing AOL chats to triggering arm hair to sterling turns from Timothy Simons and Donna Lynne Champlain, “Yes, God, Yes” is a real scream.
(“Yes, God, Yes” is streaming on Netflix and is available on demand elsewhere.)
A tour-de-force Frances McDormand performance and contemplative, compassionate direction from Chloé Zhao keep “Nomadland” in your mind long after you watch it. Zhao also wrote the screenplay, based on a 2017 nonfiction book about Americans left behind after the Great Recession. McDormand’s haunted Fern travels the West in a van, piecing together a life. The premise sounds bleak — the scenes of a weathered Fern trying to figure out her next move in the middle of gorgeous, unforgiving, snow-bitten emptiness do fit that bill. And “Nomadland” provokes questions, like: Is an Oscar-winning actress doing blue-collar cosplay among real-life nomads in the cast condescending? But discomfort is part of this journey. As runaway capitalism continues to benefit fewer and actively disenfranchise more, Zhao’s empathetic film hits different.
(After screenings at film festivals and limited virtual screenings, “Nomadland” is slated for U.S. release in February.)
3. “Dick Johnson Is Dead”
Death was never far from our minds this year, so what a fortune to have “Dick Johnson Is Dead” give us a hand to hold. There’s nothing like this film: Director Kirsten Johnson shares her relationship with father Dick, a genial man who palpably adores his daughter, as he nears the end of his life and retreats into the fog of dementia. In between, Kirsten films Dick dying in a series of fantastical fictitious scenarios. A sly comedy and a documentary in one, “Dick Johnson Is Dead” demystifies the end of life with humor and warmth. What an act of generosity.
(“Dick Johnson is Dead” is streaming on Netflix.)
In inky, glowing black and white, documentary filmmaker Garrett Bradley condenses lifetimes into an hour and a half. Lyrical, gutting and persuasive, “Time” is the ballad of Fox Rich, a Black woman who turns the full force of her days toward getting her husband, Rob, out of prison over the course of 20 years. In the meantime (and often seen through seamlessly integrated home video), the hands of the clock carry her family along in a slow, steady whirl. America’s poorly named justice system, as Bradley’s film lays bare, often commits far greater crimes than its victims do. And it does so without a shred of humanity. “Time” is an elegy for those stolen lives.
(“Time” is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.)
1. “And Then We Danced”
Small people fear anything that breaks the shape they know. This Georgian-Swedish romance insists upon that freedom, with every staggering step and gratifying glance between its leads. In “And Then We Danced,” sweet, sensitive Merab (dancer Levan Gelbakhiani in his screen debut) struggles to fit into the calcified machismo his culture demands, even in its art. “There is no sex in Georgian dance,” he’s told. The game of masculinity comes much easier to handsome newcomer Irakli (Bachi Valishvili). But eventually, in the immortal words of Gloria Estefan, the rhythm is gonna get ya. For Irakli, Merab and the sexiest dance scene ever committed to film (to the seductive, narcotic sea of Robyn’s song “Honey”), that lesson is thrilling and devastating to learn.
Screenings of Levan Akin’s movie were met with violent homophobic protests in Georgia, which only speaks to the power of the story. As the defiant, hold-the-air-in-your-throat final scene of “And Then We Danced” would answer such hardened hate: Holding onto your softness takes more power than any strongman could imagine.
(“And Then We Danced” is streaming on Amazon Prime Video and is available on demand elsewhere.)