Movies & TV / Columns

The Top 20 Films of 2020 (#20 – 11)

January 27, 2021 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas

Top 20 Films of 2020 (#20 – 11)

Welcome, one and all, to my Movies Year in Review for 2020! I’m your host Jeremy Thomas, and today we’ll starting a look at the best and worst films of the past 12 months. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You’re free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong but stating that an opinion is “wrong” is just silly. With that in mind, let’s get right into it!

My 2020 movies year in review is back for week two in the 411 Movie Zone! Last week, we looked at the worst films of 2020 and I’m more than happy to be done with those abominations. But with every bad, there must be some good and this week brings us to the best films of the year. 2020 obviously saw many changes to the movie industry, and that resulted in a lot of major films being pushed out to 2021. While it would be easy to think that meant 2020 was a bad year for film, it was actually remarkably good. Horror and midbudget films got a chance to shine in a big way, and independent dramas got their chance. We even got a great blockbuster or two thanks to studios figuring things out a bit and trying some experimental ideas. So without further ado, let’s take a look at the best movies of 2020.

Caveat: My criteria used to be that if the film had its domestic theatrical release this year, it was eligible. Obviously, that would lead to a very short list of films for 2020. Not only that, but the business is changing anyway (a move that’s long been needed), so I’m altering my structure a bit. If a film was released in theaters in any remotely significant capacity, or if it was a high-profile and marketed release on VOD or a major streaming service, then it was eligible. I don’t include films that are purely straight-to-video and may have a star or two but is essentially being shoveled out to reap in some profit on some name value. 2020 examples of this include Survive the Night (Bruce Willis), Last Moment of Clarity (Samara Weaving), and The Night Clerk (Tye Sheridan, Ana de Armas, John Leguizamo and Helen Hunt). There’s obviously some wiggle room on some of these and people may debate if some films are really “high-profile releases,” but that’s why it’s my list.

The only other caveat is that I have yet to seen everything that was released in 2020, especially factoring in streaming services. The films that I missed that could have possibly qualified based on reputation are Never Rarely Sometimes Always, The King of Staten Island, His House, and News of the World. Other than those, I feel reasonably confident I would have seen every movie that would have likely made the list. For those curious, I saw a total of 119 films that were released in 2020 (catching two more between my Worst Of and Best Of lists).

Just Missing the Cut

The Gentlemen
Anything For Jackson

#20: Host

Top Films of 2020 - Host

One thing that you’ll quickly be able to note is that this year’s top 20 features a lot of horror. There’s a couple reasons for this. For one, horror is a genre that can perform well at home, which is frankly where most of us saw films this past year thanks to the pandemic. It’s tough to put out a blockbuster that will be incredibly well-received across the world when you’re watching it on a smaller screen (hello, Wonder Woman 1984 and Tenet), but horror hits whether you’re in a theater or your darkened living room. The other reason is that 2020 was just a very good year for horror. Maybe the garbage fire that was the year put people in the need for the emotional release that horror provides, or maybe a lot of artists came into their own this year. Honestly, it’s probably both. Whatever the case, a lot of horror films hit my top 20 this year.

And speaking of such…you know, it’s rare for a film to be of an absolutely perfect length. Even most of the best films run a little long or a little short, the result of editing being less than a perfect science. And that’s part of what makes Host so good. The Zoom-based found footage film about a group of friends who do an internet call-based seance, which was filmed during the pandemic and released on Shudder, is lean and very mean. And I mean that in the best way. There’s nothing profoundly original in Rob Savage’s movie, but it works beautifully. The film’s scares are bolstered by naturalistic actors and a script that keeps things simple yet spooky. We’ve seen this idea before in films like Unfriended, and Savage goes beyond that franchise by creating a tension is almost overbearing at times. The moments of silence between scares are practically pounding through his direction, and the effects are incredibly good considering the technical limitations of the cast having to help perform their own practical stunts. There isn’t a lot that will make you say “Whoa, I’ve never seen that before!” here. But that doesn’t make a film bad when it’s put together this effectively. Kudos to Savage and his cast and crew for pulling off a successful horror flick this way in one of the most pleasant surprises of 2020.

#19: Onward

Top Films of 2020 - Onward

Onward had the dubious distinction of being, along with Bloodshot, one of the last two films I’ve seen in a theater. Released just as the pandemic was starting to shut theaters down, the Pixar animated film saw its box office cut short and ended up being released on Digital and then Disney+ within a few weeks of its theatrical bow. It’s unfortunate that it didn’t get the chance to be seen by more people in theaters, because it’s a delightful film that may fall a touch short of the usual Pixar magic but presents an engaging, heartwarming adventure flick with a lot of fun sequences.

Directed by Monsters University helmer Dan Scanlon, Onward could flippantly be boiled down to a genderflipped Frozen II with a Dungeons & Dragons theme. That’s not fair to either Onward or Frozen, but it’s not entirely inaccurate either. Set in a world where magic is real and magical creatures live side by side with humans, the film focuses on brother elves Ian and Barley as they set off on a quest to fully resurrect their father in the 24 hours before the spell that started the process wears off. Scanlon puts a lot of adventure hijinks in play here, animated with the usual sense of imaginative wonder by the Pixar team, while the voice cast including Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Octavia Spencer have a hell of a lot of fun with their roles. Scanlon never goes too far into the humor and antics that he loses touch with the film’s heart, mostly in the relationship between the two brothers. Pixar has always been good at keeping the storylines fun while keeping the emotional touchstones intact, and even with a few flaws here and there that touchstone allows Onward to stand among the best of the year.

#18: Shirley

Top Films of 2020 - Shirley

There were a fair number of biopics released in 2020 — some quite good, and some abjectly awful. Josephine Decker’s Shirley is by far the most interesting among them. Decker’s tale of The Haunting of Hill House novelist Shirley Jackson’s fictional friendship with a young college student during the writing of Hangsaman in 1951 uses its artistic license to play almost more like a dramatic thriller than a straight biopic. Odessa Young, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Logan Lerman deliver fine performances as the college student Rose, Jackson’s husband Stanley Edgar Hyman, and Rose’s husband Fred, respectively, allowing Decker to build her story around the titular character as played by Elisabeth Moss.

And really, this is Moss’ show from start to finish. The actress has had quite a year, with Shirley being her best work. The script by Sarah Gubbins, based on Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel, subtly and not-so-subtly plays with the kinds of horror tropes that Jackson worked in. It’s important to note that this is a fictionalized portrayal of Jackson and Hyman, but keeping that in mind you absolutely have to give it up for Moss’ work. She establishes a lighting rapport with Young and comes off as terrifying at times, just vicious in others, but always sympathetic thanks to Moss’ little inflections and choices. The climax may be a bit divisive, but it’s the perfect coda to an unsettling and absorbing drama about one of America’s greatest writers.

#17: La Llorona

Top Films of 2020 - La Llorona

The story of The Wailing Woman has been adapted to film and television often, and not always well. The one that audiences will be most familiar with of course is 2019’s intensely substandard The Curse of La Llorona, the pseudo-Conjuring Universe film. The better films made from the myth on the other hand have been (unsurprisingly) from the countries where the legend hails in Latin and South America. That’s the source of the succinctly-named La Llorona, coming from Guatemalan filmmaker Jayro Bustamante. Bustamante adapts the story of the ghostly woman who lost her children into a tale of a country’s pain, putting it within the context of Guatemala’s genocide of the indigenous Mayan population under dictator Efraín Ríos Montt.

Rios Montt has a stand-in here in Julio Diaz’s Enrique Monteverde, but he may as well have been Rios Montt. Monteverde’s acts serve as the framework from which Bustamante and co-writer Lisandro Sanchez set their story. Largely confined to their house due to public outrage, Monteverde and his family find themselves plagued by haunting activity after a young Mayan woman comes to work for them in the wake of their domestic workers exiting. The film keeps the story very streamlined, and Bustamante makes it an extremely slow burn that will be off-putting for some horror fans. Those who stick with it will be rewarded by the top-notch performances and a tale that is more interested in the mundane horror of Monteverde’s actions than the supernatural acts of justice. Bustamante favors wide shots with lots of negative space, which plays well into the paranoia that settles into the household. There’s just enough revealed in the narrative at just the right times that we start to feel for pretty much everyone except the dictator himself. La Llorona is a horror flick about a much bigger and deeper wound than the “typical” La Llorana story — it’s about a people’s loss, and it’s better for it.

#16: Just Mercy

Top Films of 2020 - Just Mercy

Just Mercy might surprise people by its inclusion on this list, if for no other reason than it was technically released at the very end of 2019. However, that was strictly an Oscar-qualifying run and for all intents and purposes it is a 2020 film. (That’s a messy thing for films released this year due to the pandemic, as a side note). Either way, this legal drama based on the true story of Walter McMillian’s appeal of his murder conviction is an earnest, inspiring tale anchored by Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx’s pitch-perfect performances. Jordan plays attorney Bryan Stevenson, who convinces McMillian in 1989 to appeal his wrongful conviction for murder in Alabama and takes it to trial.

Based on the real Stevenson’s memoir, the film focuses on Stevenson’s experience as a Harvard graduate dealing with a system that was unfairly stacked against his client. A lot about this film, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton from a script he co-wrote with Andrew Lanham, is a very conventional court drama. There isn’t a lot in here that would surprise you, and Cretton plays up the drama of going against racist police and his dealing with a town hostile to his attempts to get a convicted death row inmate freed. But Jordan is up to the challenge of elevating this material, helped along by Foxx’s restrained work and Brie Larson as Stevenson’s ally in Eva Ansley. In fact, it is exactly Destin’s decision to keep to the genre’s conventions that allows the film to shine and its message to be heard. Just Mercy’s intentions are bare; it’s here to entertain audiences while also speaking to the very topical matter of an unequal justice system. But it delivers on those intentions with a nearly flawless aim, speaking to a situation that has been broken for a long time and calling for the need to change.

#15: The Trial of the Chicago 7

Top Films of 2020 - The Trial of the Chicago 7

Speaking of court dramas, Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 sure as hell hits differently in 2021 than it did in 2020. Sorkin’s Netflix film about the trial against the various leaders of anti-Vietnam protestors at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago was already a great film before this year, but it takes on a new poignancy after what went down earlier this month in Washington, D.C. I’m not going to delve into that whole mess, but the point is that the 13 years of delays and hold-ups that this film underwent feels almost like providence, allowing it to come out just four months before inciting riots became a thing again.

This film obviously touches on a lot of very relevant issues, as the government sought to prosecute the seven (eight actually) men they considered to be ringleaders of the riots as a form of political retaliation. Sorkin’s script touches on the abuse of power and takes some liberties with details to streamline and heighten the drama, decisions that by and large work well. But the strength in this film is how much of an actor’s showcase this is. Sorkin projects are and always have been made for actors to elevate, whether it’s the ensemble cast of The West Wing, Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network, Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs, or Jessica Chastain in Molly’s Game. Here he provides fertile ground for his ensemble to work with and they knock it out of the part. Eddie Redmayne and Sacha Baron Cohen spark against each other as the diametrically-opposed defendants Abbie Hoffman and Tom Hayden, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II delivers powerful work as the “eighth member” Bobby Seale, and Mark Rylance and Joseph Gordon-Levitt deliver in their roles as the attorneys. The cast fully elevates what is a decent Sorkin script into the realm of a great movie, and one that happened to come around at a very timely moment.

#14: The Dark and the Wicked

Top Films of 2020 - The Dark and the Wicked

One of the biggest things to emerge out of horror in 2020 was the ascension of slow-burn horror to the top of the genre. Horror films with gradual builds have been making a comeback for some time. Films like Ari Aster’s Hereditary and Midsommar, Robert Eggers’ The Witch and more have brought these languidly-paced movies that are high on dread and tension but relatively low on jump scares back to prominence over the last several years, labeled (much to many in the horror community’s disdain) as “elevated horror.” 2020 saw slow-burn horror rise to new levels with films like Amulet and this lovely little piece of bleakness. Bryan Bertino is still best known for his first film in 2008’s The Strangers, but this could very well replace that as his most prominent work.

The film stars Marin Ireland and Michael Abbott Jr., two estranged siblings who return to their parents’ farm after their dad gets sick. It’s quickly clear to them that something isn’t right there, both from their mother’s hostility to their return and the eerie feeling that has settled over the property. They aren’t prepared for just how dark things are about to get. Bertino is masterfully restrained here, letting the desolate landscapes and quiet fill the story with their weight. Ireland is the star here and she knocks it out of the park as Louise slowly begins to realize just how over her head she is. Like most slow-burn horror films, this may be a bit too slow for some and it certainly won’t be satisfying to those who were bored by The Witch. But for those who appreciate a film that takes its time in building terror, The Dark and the Wicked is a stark and often quite disturbing film that will stay with you for a while.

#13: The Lodge

Top Films of 2020 - The Lodge

The Lodge is very similar to The Dark and the Wicked in that it’s a fairly slow-burning horror film that takes a remote location and goes into remarkably dark territory. Where the former film sets its dread among wide open spaces though, this psychological horror film from Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala finds terror in the walls of a winter vacation cabin. The story sees Grace (Riley Keough), who long ago survived a cult’s mass suicide, reluctantly spend Christmas with her fiance Richard (Richard Armitage) and his two children Aiden (Jaeden Martell) and Mia (Lia McHugh) at the remote cabin. Aiden and Mia are already hostile to Grace for replacing their recently-deceased mother, and when Richard is called away to work it doesn’t get better. Grace is left to take care of the kids, and things start to get ominous. Grace and the kids’ belongings vanish, including Grace’s dog, and the generator goes out which leaves them in a precarious position. That is, of course, if they’re not already dead and just haven’t realized it.

The Lodge makes no bones about what kind of film you’re getting into, with a suicide taking place in literally the first couple of minutes. It doesn’t get much cheerier from there. Franz and Fiala focus their camera on Keough, Martell, and McHugh and they all deliver fantastic work. Keough carries the weight of this film on her shoulders, and as things get bad she begins a descent that is agonizing to watch in the best way. Several sequences are downright harrowing and the final reveal of what’s going on is an absolute gut punch before things get even worse. The snowy environs are used to great effect, both visually and in the plot, and Keough makes us a believer even when the a few narrative shortcuts are taken that don’t necessarily hold up to scrutiny. This isn’t a film to watch if you’re in the mood for some good old slasher-style horror fun and there isn’t a lot of blood or violence, but as a horror film it definitely leaves its mark.

#12: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Top Films of 2020 - Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

I excoriated a few Netflix films in my Worst Of list, but the service had some absolute gems in 2020 as well. Case in point: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. This adaptation by George C. Wolfe of the late August Wilson’s stage play is crackling with energy from start to finish, more than you might expect from a play adaptation that takes place entirely within a 1927 recording studio. We can thank the unbelievable cast for this, including Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman, and Michael Potts as band members for the real-life Ma Rainey and both Jeremy Shamos and Jonny Coyne as Rainey’s manager and the studio executive, respectively. These talented supporting actors make Wilson’s words, adapted for the screen by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, feel lived in and authentic as they worry, banter, and wait for their recording session to start and then finish.

But foremost among the cast are, without question, Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman. Davis is at the top of her game embodying the larger-than-life Ma Rainey, right down to the gold teeth and undeniable performing presence. Rainey was an important part of the blues and Davis gives her the swagger she needs, but also never forgets that she has the weight of the world on her shoulders as a woman of color cutting her own path in a world where she is not set up to succeed. Her opposite is Boseman, who exudes so much bouncy charm and as the cocky trumpeter Levee Green, but also knows how to bring some thunder when dramatic gravitas is needed. The performances enable a film that delves into the appropriation of Black culture long before “appropriation” was an internet buzzword. Wolfe makes great use of his single location setting, staging the lower-level room where the session band plays as a sort of verbal boxing arena between Levee and the others while Ma jabs and weaves against Shamos and Coynes’ characters on high. Everything is a battle in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Davis and Boseman — the latter in his final film — come out as absolute champions regardless of what happens in the script.

#11: Sound of Metal

Top Films of 2020 - Sound of Metal

Sound of Metal is a film that almost passed me by. I had only vaguely heard of it as the end of the year approached and it popped up on a few lists of potential Oscar nominations. It didn’t really register to me until just at the end of the year that this was something I should check out. And man, better late then never. Riz Ahmed deserves all of the awards love he’s going to receive for his role here as Ruben, one half of a metal act whose life gets thrown into chaos when he loses his hearing. A recovering addict as well who is having problems coping with his hearing loss and hoping for an expensive cochlear implant to fix the situation, he reluctantly agrees to go to rehab and learns some very important lessons along the way.

Darius Marder, who co-wrote the script for Sound of Metal with Abraham Marder, is also behind the camera for this film. It was stunning for me to realize that this was Marder’s directorial debut, because his maturity as a director is above that of those with far lengthier resumes. (This was, as a side note, a very good year for first-time directors as we will see more of next week.) Marder skillfully weaves a poignant theme in this film about change and coming to terms with it, all the while giving a fantastic look at what deafness is like. Ahmed lets us see Ruben’s panic, hopes and fears with a raw intensity that never feels affected, and he has some great actors to bounce off in Olivia Cooke as Ruben’s partner and Paul Raci as Joe, the deaf man who runs the rehab clinic for the hearing-impaired. Marder adeptly puts the audience very much in Ruben’s shoes with an astounding sound design that absolutely certain to earn Nicolas Becker an Oscar for Best Sound. Sound of Metal is not a film I probably would have uncovered on my own, but I’m glad I did find it as it’s one of the best of 2020.

And that will do it for this! Join me once again later this week as we count down numbers ten through one! Before I leave you though, I wanted to give some love and recognize some of the top documentaries of the year. I don’t include documentaries in my Best Of/Worst Of because they’re a very different beast from narrative films, so below you can see the best of the format for the past year:

5. Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm StreetJoseph Lee’s review
4. Nail in the Coffin: The Fall and Rise of VampiroMy review
3. You Cannot Kill David ArquetteMy review
2. On the Record
1. Robin’s WishMy review

And that’s that! Until later this week, have a good one and don’t forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at! JT out.