May 14, 2021

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The 25 best movies of 2020 you didn’t see in theaters

15 min read

Despite what you may have heard, movies were released in 2020. In fact, plenty of them were.

While many movie theaters big and small closed in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the film industry soldiered on, determined to release its bevy of content to the masses.

Not all of it, of course. Many of the big tent items — a new James Bond film, Marvel’s “Black Widow,” a “Top Gun” sequel and much more — were pushed to 2021 or taken off the release calendar entirely. And for some, that means there may as well have been zero movies released last year. And that’s fine, if those kinds of movies are your thing. But I’m here to tell you that 2020, against all odds, was a damn good year for film.

Of course, many of these movies weren’t shown in theaters. Some snuck into cinemas in the first few months of 2020 — “First Cow” and “The Invisible Man,” to name two — so they won’t make this list, but by all means, seek them out. But after the pandemic struck, studios made tough decisions to sell off films to streaming services or moved them to Video On Demand.

In the case of some, like Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet,” a push for a theatrical release resulted in dismal box office numbers — though it certainly didn’t help that “Tenet,” in a word, was bad. But because of the limited theatrical success and the uncertainty of when theatergoing might become a regular aspect of life again, studios are floundering. In early December, Warner Brothers announced that its 2021 slate will simultaneously release on HBO Max, meaning some of the year’s biggest movies can be streamed in your home on the day of their release.

It’s a decision that will likely send ripple effects through the business that will be felt for years.

Despite the turmoil and uncertainty, the only constant was the presence of quality cinema, no matter where it could be found. If you missed it, there’s a glut of good movies just waiting for you on Netflix, Amazon Prime and other outlets. And to save you the trouble, I’ve gathered up the best of the best.

25. Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution — Netflix

Executive-produced by Barack and Michelle Obama through their Higher Ground Productions, this Netflix documentary starts in 1971 at Camp Jened, a New York summer camp for disabled teens. It then follows the central characters all the way to their involvement in the Disability Rights Movement, specifically the 504 Sit-In in San Francisco. Co-written and directed by former Camp Jened attendee James LeBrecht, the film is enlightening and invigorating, brought to life by an inspiring and delightfully fun cast.

24. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm — Amazon Prime

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

Maria Bakalova and Sacha Baron-Cohen in “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.”Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Arguably one of the biggest surprises of 2020 came when Sacha Baron Cohen was spotted over the summer in a yellow truck while donning the costume of his popular Borat character. Sure enough, a sequel to his 2006 mockumentary was announced in September, and Amazon released the film merely a month later. Cohen’s return to Borat could not have come at a better time, skewering the United States political landscape just before the election, all while fully committing to the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic. It also packed quite an emotional punch, largely thanks to breakout star Maria Bakalova (who has a legitimate Oscar nomination case). It also, of course, gave us what is assuredly the most talked-about scene of the year.

23. Driveways — Available for rent

Director Andrew Ahn’s charming feature was one of the more under-the-radar releases of the year. Kathy, played by Hong Chau, drives to the house of her recently deceased hoarder sister to clean out all the junk and brings her 8-year-old son, Cody. Much to their surprise, they befriend crotchety next-door neighbor Del, played by Brian Dennehy in one of his final performances, making it all the more bittersweet.

22. The Vast of Night — Amazon Prime

Director Andrew Patterson’s fun debut film is 50% “Stranger Things” and 50% “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” The brisk and eerie 90 minutes captures a couple of 1950s New Mexico teenagers trying to track down a mysterious sound they heard over a switchboard while working for a local radio station. The snappy dialogue and vivid sense of place and time makes for an immersive adventure with one of the great endings of 2020.

21. Dick Johnson is Dead — Netflix

This one’s a tear-jerker. Filmmaker Kirsten Johnson turns her camera toward a personal subject: her father. The aging Dick Johnson and his daughter use the magic of movie-making to stage a number of ways Dick might tragically die, and what might await him after that. It’s a slightly morbid, but mostly endearing portrait of a father and daughter navigating the end of one’s life.

20. Palm Springs — Hulu

Palm Springs

Cristin Millioti and Andy Samberg in “Palm Springs.”Courtesy of Hulu

One of the buzzier streaming releases of the summer, the Sundance Film Festival breakout charmed audiences in becoming the most expensive Sundance acquisition ever. The time-loop comedy starring Andy Samberg and Cristin Millioti had the most hours watched in a film’s opening weekend in Hulu’s history. Also starring J.K. Simmons, the riotously funny and bizarre rom-com is best viewed knowing as little as possible, though the time-loop premise is quite fitting for quarantine days that all feel the same.

19. The Forty-Year-Old Version — Netflix

One of the year’s biggest breakouts was Radha Blank, the writer-director-producer-star of Netflix’s black-and-white comedy. Blank plays a fictionalized version of herself, a struggling New York City playwright trying to see a show through to the stage, but struggling with compromising her integrity in the process. All the while, in an effort to find some fulfillment, she dips her toe into the underground rap scene. It’s an incisive and charming film that’ll leave you waiting to see what Blank does next.

18. Soul — Disney+

The newest installment from the animation titan Pixar was pulled from theaters in favor of a Christmas Day release on Disney’s streaming platform, sacrificing movie ticket sales for Disney+ subscriptions. Like Pixar’s other fare, the film connects just as much with adults as it does children, if not more. Following struggling jazz musician and teacher Joe Gardner, voiced by Jamie Foxx, “Soul” pulls viewers into not the afterlife, but the before-life, as Joe examines the direction and purpose his life has followed. It’s a very on-the-nose message that resonates deeply with anyone from age 5 to 50.

17. Boys State — Apple TV+

Boys State

René Otero and other Boys State Texas participants in “Boys State,” now streaming on Apple TV+.​Courtesy of Apple TV+

Directors Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine gained access to the 2018 Texas Boys State, essentially a week-long summer camp for the next generation of state representatives and senators (whether that’s good or bad is up to you). It documented a somewhat random collection of participants — Steven Garza, René Otero, Robert MacDougall and Ben Feinstein — as they fight to win over their respective parties for Boys State dominance through deceit, mud-slinging and earnest appeal. It’s both a moving and terrifying document of how the American political system has melded itself into all of our brains, including a thousand rowdy teenage boys in tucked-in T-shirts.

16. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom — Netflix

Of all the blows 2020 has delivered, the death of Chadwick Boseman was one of the toughest. He was among the brightest stars in Hollywood and delivered a number of knockout performances. His work in this adaptation of August Wilson’s play is no different. The film is quite good thanks to solid performances all around, but Boseman, who plays a firebrand trumpeter in early 20th-century blues star Ma Rainey’s band, is a spark plug at the center of it, raising the film a level. His performance alone makes it a tough film to swallow, given the knowledge that one of the best in the business was lost much too soon.

15. Wolfwalkers — Apple TV+

The best animated film of the year comes from Ireland, with a magical tale about humans turning into wolves. Sounds silly, but wouldn’t you want to turn into a wolf if you could? Wolves don’t need to pay taxes. A tale of xenophobia and environmentalism told through the lens of mid-1600s Ireland, the film follows Robyn, a young wannabe-warrior, and her newfound friendship with Mebh, one of the titular “wolfwalkers,” as they try to save Mebh’s pack from the aggressively fearful people of Robyn’s village, including her own father. Even without the expertly woven socio-political commentary, its wonderfully vivid and fluid animation makes “Wolfwakers” a captivating watch.

14. His House — Netflix

A young refugee couple from South Sudan flee to the United Kingdom in hopes of a better life, but they’re met with systemic racism, disenfranchisement and poor living conditions. To make matters worse, their government-assigned housing isn’t occupied by only the two of them, but by the ghosts and horrors they thought they left behind. Director Remi Weekes’ debut feature is one of the best pure horror films of the year, bolstered by stellar performances from Sope Dirisu and Wunmi Mosaku. It’s a slow-mover, based more in growing tension than constant scares, but the final twist will leave your heart pounding and your mouth agape.

13. One Night in Miami… — Amazon Prime

One Night in Miami...

(L-R) Leslie Odom Jr., Eli Goree, Kingsley Ben-Adir and Aldis Hodge star in “One Night in Miami…”Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Before you go rushing to your TV to check out Regina King’s feature film directorial debut, “One Night in Miami…” was released in a limited theatrical run Dec. 25, but won’t come to Amazon Prime until Jan. 15. But it’s worth the wait, as the adaptation of Kemp Powers’ play (he also wrote this adaptation, in addition to co-writing and co-directing “Soul” — good year for Mr. Powers) features four dynamite performances from four Black icons — Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.). Over the course of one night, the four men celebrate Clay’s victory over Sonny Liston, but devolve into often-tense debate about their roles in the Civil Rights movement through their respective careers. The night is fictional, of course, but watching the interactions in a hotel room where most of the film takes place leaves viewers tantalized.

12. Mank — Netflix

If nothing else, David Fincher’s newest film inspired viewers to walk around yelling “Mank!” in an old-timey voice. But for some, it was much more than that. One of the most critically divisive movies of the year worked well for me, and I suspect it will for others who have a deep affection for early Hollywood and its petty drama. The film is well-crafted, shot, scored and edited in the style that a film from the 1940s might have been. Gary Oldman is merely OK as the titular Herman J. Mankiewicz, one of the screenwriters of the masterpiece “Citizen Kane,” but the film’s supporting actors — namely Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins and Arliss Howard — shine. Fincher’s father, Jack, wrote the script years ago based on legendary film critic Pauline Kael’s essay on the true history of the “Citizen Kane” screenplay, which has since been largely proven wrong. So, the facts behind “Mank” are often fictionalized. But it’s not a documentary, and Fincher’s devotion to Mank as the original screenwriter feels like much more of a veiled tribute to his own father’s screenplay that he’s bringing to life.

11. Possessor — Available to rent

If there was one word to describe Brandon Cronenberg’s body-swapping feature, it would be “disgusting” or maybe “grisly” or “unhinged.” But this movie rocks. It’s certainly not for the faint of heart, nor people who are afraid of needles (me), but if you can stomach it, the sci-fi thriller is a gorily aesthetic roller-coaster. The film stars Andrea Riseborough as an operative working for a corporate agency that inhabits other people’s bodies to carry out assassinations and Christopher Abbott as the body in question. The slick filmmaking and simple yet gripping plot lend a more artful appeal to the violence, rather than a bloody-for-blood’s-sake approach. I’d highly recommend it, but only if the phrase “stabbing a fireplace poker into Sean Bean’s mouth” sounds like your definition of a good time.

10. David Byrne’s American Utopia — HBO Max

David Byrne's American Utopia

A scene from “David Byrne’s American Utopia.”Courtesy of Warner Media

If you’re in need of lifting your spirits, former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne collaborated with Spike Lee for a pre-pandemic concert film of his Broadway show that acts more like an 105-minute serotonin boost rather than a movie. It’s hard not to think of the 1984 Talking Heads concert film “Stop Making Sense” by Jonathan Demme, and it’s also hard to say that “American Utopia” is better, per se. But watching the film during a pandemic, when live music feels more like a thing of the past, gives Byrne’s current show a feeling of being alive. Much of that is aided by Lee’s dynamic camera work, but quite simply, it’s really fun to engage with live music again — a fact that cannot be denied as the concert closes with the Talking Heads classic “Road to Nowhere.”

9. Time — Amazon Prime

Much of this documentary, hands-down the best of the year, wasn’t even shot by director Garrett Bradley. Fox Rich, the subject of the film, had heaps of home video shot on her own that adds a tremendously moving personal additive to a film that was already as intimate as one can get. Bradley’s doc follows Rich in the present day as she works to get her husband released from prison. Shot in black and white and intercut with similarly colored footage from Rich’s own archive, the story of resilience and homecoming is nothing short of inspiring as it leads up to its final sequence, one of the most heartfelt and victorious of 2020.

8. I’m Thinking of Ending Things — Netflix

Be forewarned, this film will probably leave you with more questions than answers, and a fair share of Googling will send you down many a rabbit hole full of theories on what exactly is going on. But even so, the first watch of Charlie Kaufman’s adaptation from the novel of the same name leaves you feeling as though you just absorbed something profoundly moving. The second watch, which is essentially required to grasp what’s going on, confirms that feeling. Starring Jessie Buckle and Jesse Plemons in excellently distant performances, the film is mind-bendingly inconsistent in its details while also being hysterically funny. I have my own theory about what it all means and whose perspective it’s from, but let’s wait to discuss that until you have your own.

7. Never Rarely Sometimes Always — HBO Max

The headline for Eliza Hittman’s film is without a doubt the breakout debut of Sidney Flanigan, who stars as the central character in this bracing journey about “girl problems,” as Flanigan’s Autumn refers to them. The singular “girl problem” in question is an unwanted pregnancy. The film details high-schooler Autumn’s fraught trip to New York City from rural Pennsylvania to get an abortion, joined by her cousin Skylar, played to perfection by another relative newcomer, Talia Ryder. A scathing indictment of the United States’ health care system, the film is often infuriating and eye-opening, while on the outside, remaining rather subdued — a testament to both Hittman and Flanigan for being able to convey so much with so little.

6. The Assistant — Hulu

The Assistant

Julia Garner stars as Jane in “The Assistant,” a Bleecker Street release.
Courtesy of Ty Johnson/Bleecker Street

I suppose I’m cheating here because this did get a small theatrical run right before the pandemic hit. But documentarian Kitty Green’s first fictional feature is a harrowing, slow-burn look at one day in the life of an assistant to a Hollywood executive. Green astutely skewers the institutional and predatory patriarchy of Hollywood and the world at-large as Julia Garner provides one of the best performances of the year. At only 88 minutes, it’s on the shorter side for a feature film, but it feels agonizingly elongated due to the tense build-up, culminating in one of the most quietly provocative scenes of the year.

5. Da 5 Bloods — Netflix

Spike Lee had a hell of a 2020, releasing two of the best films of the year, plus the moving pandemic short film “New York, New York.” His sprawling Vietnam War epic, however, is the best of the bunch. Taking place mostly in the present day, the film is full of references to other popular media about the war, which seems to be the extent of what the audience is shown of it. That is until the four remaining Bloods flash back to their time in the war (featuring absolutely zero de-aging technology) in their remembrance of the fifth Blood, the deceased Stormin’ Norman, played by Chadwick Boseman. Boseman’s death makes the performance in the film, which premiered months before his death, all the more powerful. The movie is, in many ways, a tribute to the Black members of the armed forces who fought for a country that was doing nothing to thank them. And the four surviving Bloods are a depiction of how that pain and anger still resonates. In particular, Delroy Lindo’s performance as Paul exemplifies this best. His story arc shouldn’t be spoiled, but it’s angering and intense, wrestling with tremendous guilt and PTSD. Lindo, for my money, turns in the single best performance of the year.

4. Sound of Metal — Amazon Prime

The Riz Ahmed vehicle slowly but surely built up hype during the fall film festival season, culminating in a debut on Amazon Prime that has all but cemented him a Best Actor nomination at the Oscars. The elevator pitch: Ahmed’s punk metal drummer, Ruben, suddenly loses his hearing and is forced to cope with a new way of interacting with his environment, while fighting addiction and struggling to put together the money for cochlear implants. The film’s innovative sound design brings viewers into Ruben’s head, or rather his ears, creating a thoroughly moving character study in his impatience and denial of his newfound situation. While Ahmed is certainly the headline, veteran supporting actor Paul Raci, a child of deaf parents and the frontman of a Black Sabbath cover band that performs in American Sign Language, should get plenty of recognition as Joe, who becomes a mentor of sorts to Ruben.

3. Nomadland — TBD

Nomadland

Frances McDormand in “Nomadland.” Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

Chloe Zhao’s epic is seemingly the front-runner for Best Picture, and you won’t find an argument from me. Set against the backdrop of the western United States, “Nomadland” is a lush and beautifully captured exploration of the world of the American nomad. Based on a 2017 nonfiction book by Jessica Bruder about older Americans who travel across the country looking for work in vans converted into homes, Zhao’s film stars Frances McDormand and David Strathairn, but casts real-life nomads in many of the supporting roles. It gives the movie an authenticity reminiscent of Zhao’s previous film, the critically acclaimed “The Rider.” McDormand transcends as Fern, who turned to the nomad lifestyle after losing both her husband and much of her livelihood to the Great Recession. It’s a deeply felt portrait of a lifestyle not often seen, but one as American as any experience. The film premiered at festivals in 2020 and is set for a wider theatrical release Feb. 19 in order to capitalize on the delayed Oscar season.

2. Small Axe — Amazon Prime

This one requires some exposition. “Small Axe,” which is streaming in full on Amazon Prime, is actually five films by British director Steve McQueen — yes, five — ranging from 63 minutes to 127 minutes (most are under an hour and 20 minutes). There has been much debate in recent weeks over each anthological installment being considered a TV episode or a film. Personally, I’m going with film. I think McQueen would agree.

The films each look into the life of the West Indian community in London between the 1960s and 1980s. Of the five films, two in particular stand out — “Mangrove” and “Lovers Rock.” Mangrove is a beautiful and stirring revisiting of the Mangrove Nine, a group of activists protesting police brutality and harassment in the 1970s in Notting Hill — a subject relevant today after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among others.

“Lovers Rock” on the other hand, is a celebration. A 1980s house party in the West Indian community, the film’s content is a largely plotless document of young love and the importance of music and dancing in the community. Most every film critic would agree the lengthy dance scene set to Janet Kay’s “Silly Games” is the best of the year.

1. Minari — TBD

The Golden Globes decided that Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical film about a family of South Korean immigrants in the 1980s would have to compete in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Feb. 28 ceremony because the dialogue is largely in Korean. This, quite frankly, is bullsh*t. Chung’s story of a family of four settling in Arkansas and working to assimilate is arguably the most American film that premiered in 2020, capturing the spirit of the so-called American Dream in its depiction of struggle and alienation.

Starring Steven Yeun, Han Ye-ri and the delightful Youn Yuh-jung — plus young breakout star Alan Kim — the film follows the Yi family as it attempts to settle in rural Arkansas and make a living by chicken sexing. It’s a sweet and tender film broken up by occasional outbursts of desperation due to the struggles of trying to establish roots. Chung deftly bookends the emotionally expansive film with moments of hilarity, typically brought about by the Yi’s grandmother, played by Yuh-jung. Whether the Golden Globes think so or not, “Minari” is the film of the year. Like “Nomadland,” Minari had a fall festival run and limited theatrical release in the fall and will be released in theaters March 15.

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Connor Lagore may be reached at [email protected].

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