In just one of so many ways that 2020 is a weird year, many Oscar contenders are not going to be widely available until after December 31. The restrictions on theater release changed, but an odd release schedule allows 2021 films to qualify for the Oscars ceremony celebrating 2020. While this list is less comprehensive than previous years, it’s a snapshot of a crazy year for movies.
I watched 110 feature movies for the first time in 2020. 30 of them debuted this year. Here is how the films of 2020 stack up against each other (with overall quality and difficulty being the primary consideration). For my 2019 list, click here.
30) Spenser Confidential – All Spenser Confidential had to be was a mediocre action flick with a few good one liners. It couldn’t even be that. Chalked full of bad local humor, it’s hard to believe this is in Mark Wahlberg’s otherwise successful Boston canon. It is even worse when considering he was able to draw from beloved novel and television series. Winston Duke, however, continues to be a ray of sunshine and was by far the best part of this disastrous movie.
29) Downhill – In an underwhelming flick with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell, the laughs actually belong to Miranda Otto. The Lord of the Rings star slays as an oversexed ski bunny who crashes an American family’s Euro winter vacation. Precious little worked in this remake of Force Majeure.
28) I’m Thinking Of Ending Things – This hubris-filled Odyssey misfired like a bad acid trip. If it wasn’t for the low bar of the previous two films, Charlie Kaufman’s existentialist movie would have been the easy choice for worst movie of 2020. Kaufman was, however, trying to piece together a more difficult story than the other two. More than any other picture (including Tenet), I spent more time trying to decipher the movie than watching it. The low stakes and lack of a meaningful plot make I’m Thinking Of Ending Things a frustrating watch despite its potential.
27) Wander – If you dig frantic Aaron Eckhart movies about conspiracy theories that do (or don’t) lead anywhere, Wander is for you. Otherwise, this one is an easy pass. Don’t let the impressive cast of Heather Graham, and Tommy Lee Jones fool you. Wander is poor man’s Memento.
26) The Climb – This was close to being a fun indie comedy. The story of friendship that outlasts multiple betrayals is the brainchild of writers and lead actors Michael Angelo Covino and Kyle Marvin. There are a few plus scenes, but massive story arc holes lead leave much to be desired. An elevated script that fleshed out the “why” of their relationship would have gone a long way towards making this film an “A.” Instead, it’s a “meh.”
25) The Planters – Weird for the sake of being weird. Written, directed, and starring Alexandra Kotcheff and Hannah Leder, The Planters follows a group of sad sacks dealing with loss and a sales deadline. The film has its shares of chuckles and nonsensical yucks. A lack of character development stalls the movie.
24) The Last Vermeer – The post-World War II period piece examines the story of Han van Meegeren, a Dutch art broker who is on trial for collaborating with Nazis. The paint by numbers portrayal of the art dealer is kept afloat by Pearce, whose performance has enough gravitas to keep The Last Vermeer afloat.
23) Wolf of Snow Hollow – The not-quite horror, not-quite dark comedy, not quite-detective thriller is a partial mix of things that never gel. What first looked like Fargo + Jaws flattens because of its lead. Jim Cummings created a dark dramedy with promise, but failed to go next level because a few plot items were undeveloped in the short(er) feature. It was also unclear how much of his uncompelling turn as a troubled cop was intentional camp or comedy.
22) Wonder Woman 1984 – Gal Gadot and Chris Pine are solid in the second Wonder Woman film, but Kristen Wiig and Pedro Pascal steal the show as archvillains. The flick is solid for a superhero film. Director Patty Jenkins uses the 1980’s backdrop to give a “greed is good” vibe that allows the movie to have more depth that its predecessor.
21) I’m Your Woman – The Rachel Brosnahan vehicle is another movie that was so close to being a memorable piece of cinema, but ultimately lacked that dynamic “thing” that makes it click. Brosnahan is great as a mother forced to rely on the kindness of strangers after her husband puts the family in danger. She is surrounded by a great supporting cast that includes Frankie Faison, but ultimately the story is also a “meh.”
20) Extraction – The Chris Hemsworth action flick had a few brilliantly shot action sequences. The lead developed solid chemistry with Rudhraksh Jaiswal, who played the kidnapped son of drug lord that Hemsworth is tasked to rescue. This Netflix film isn’t the best action vehicle out there, but it is a solid movie that has the feel of a franchise.
19) Enola Holmes – The YA movie stars Millie Bobby Brown as the younger sister of Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes. Brown goes on a hunt for her mother (Helena Bonham Carter), who disappears as crucial reform legislation is up for debate in Parliament. Enola Holmes meets expectations as a fun family story without much detail.
18) Tenet – I love Christopher Nolan movies. I also admire his willingness to challenge linear storytelling. While I followed and even predicted the “what?” of the Tenet script, its “why” and “how” are tough to decipher. Even strong performances from John David Washington and Robert Pattison could not save a blockbuster based on theoretical physics. The film does not crack Nolan’s top tier (arguably the most elite of any director of the 20 years), but still gets points for strong action scenes.
17) Sylvie’s Love – The period romantic film is defined by its two leads. Tessa Thompson knocks her performance out of the park. Co-lead Nnamdi Asomogha (yes, the former Philadelphia Eagle) is solid as a strong, silent type who is also an ace jazz musician. Well he lacks the charisma of his co-lead, he mostly holds his own. Sylvie’s Love is a solid date night more that feels like a snapshot of your parents or grandparents dating.
16) Half Brothers – This comedy about two estranged brothers on a scavenger hunt to piece together their father’s life has a few chuckles and a fun story arc. Starring Luis Gerado Mendez and Connor Del Rio, the two brothers fight Mexican and American stereotypes (and each other) as they travel across the Southwestern United States. Half Brothers is a fun rental for viewers searching for mindless humor.
15) Ammonite – Kate Winslet and Saorise Ronan are two of the top actors of their respective generations. Ammonite features the pair in an LGTQ romance with sparse dialogue. The emphasis on showing and not telling is intimate, but does not fill out the film’s two hours as well as a contemporary. A better watch is Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, a recent French movie with a similar premise, but more developed story.
14) The Devil All The Time – The Netflix movie is a film that I had high expectations for, but was ultimately a tad disappointing. Many of the performances in The Devil All The Time are terrific. Robert Pattinson, in particular, is captivating as a corrupt preacher. The surrounding backwoods macabre involving multiple stories has shades of True Detective’s first season. The movie does not quite click as a film, but the complexity of the story would have been better suited for television.
13) Emma – This Clueless remake starring Anya Taylor-Joy is a solid adaption of Jane Austin’s classic novel. Props to director Autumn de Wilde for injecting period music and physical humor into the rom com. de Wilde’s creative choices continually elevate the final product and cement an impressive feature debut. Emma is a fun date night movie that younger audiences can enjoy. Music fans may be more familiar with her daughter, Arrow, who is the lead singer of Starcrawler.
12) One Night In Miami – The hypothetical meeting of Muhammad Ali, Sam Cooke, Malcolm X, and Jim Brown is an intriguing apocryphal crossroads. It never happened, but the gathering of superstars represents a major transition moment in their professional and personal lives. The quartet discuss social issues and the challenges of stardom. The film is helmed by Regina King, who pulls all the right strings in her directorial debut.
11) Palm Springs – The Hulu flick is the best pure comedy on the list. Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, and J.K. Simmons are wedding guests trapped in a time loop. Even though it seems a tad prescient to 2020 life, Palm Springs is more About Time than Groundhog Day 2.0 in terms of style. Themes introduced in The Good Place find their way into the story as the pair try to escape the endless weekend and get on with their lives.
10) Mank – David Fincher’s homage to Citizen Kane will be a force to be reckoned with at the Oscars. In addition to a slew of technical awards, the film is likely to garner nominations for Gary Oldman and Amanda Seyfried. Both are phenomenal in this piece of cinephile’s cinema. Fincher wisely makes the “who wrote Citizen Kane” a very small part of a move about who wrote Citizen Kane. The most powerful moments in Mank take place as Fincher interweaves sociopolitical intrigue, creating a relevant piece of filmmaking that stands on its own.
9) Trial of the Chicago 7 – I watched Ammonite (a film with precious little dialogue), directly before Aaron Sorkin’s treatise on the court room theater of the 1968 DNC riots. The reversal in dialogue styles was striking. The film takes certain liberties, but Sorkin is on his game as a writer and director. None of its inaccuracies matter as Sorkin forms a powerful narrative of the event that have parallels with 2020. The movie has a clear ax to grind, but watching the filmmaker shape the narrative is a terrific watch.
8) The Invisible Man – Elisabeth Moss’ The Invisible Man was much better than expected. The update of the film turns the titular character into a Silicon Valley mogul who stalks his estranged wife. We don’t see the husband in the flesh for much of the film because the movie successfully rode the Jaws device of hiding the villain. The flick is terrifying and Moss is terrific as a woman left on her own.
7) Greyhound – This is not Tom Hanks’ best World War II flick. Greyhound is not even his best work as a captain in distress. It is a solid war film that punches way above its weight as a movie that only goes for the jugular. Hanks plays a captain charged with escorting a convoy targeted by German U-Boats during the Battle of the Atlantic. It is a great movie for Dads to nerd out on with technical jargon and strap in for a wild battle for survival.
6) The Way Back – Ben Affleck has an unusual profile for a box office star. He can be wooden in films where he can’t tap into his charisma. He can also carry a movie with a powerful performance that turns a solid story into an “A.” The Way Back is the latter.
Affleck is on his game as an alcoholic coach tasked with resurrecting his high school team’s program. The film finds a way to show the pitfalls of the scholastic basketball world and separates itself from being just another Hoosiers. Bonus: the movie was written by Villanova alum Brad Ingelsby and includes a deep cut reference to Big 5 basketball.
5) Soul – The sweetest movie of 2020 comes from Pixar. The animated masterpiece is a modern day update on It’s A Wonderful Life. Its premise is a soul trying to unify with its body while realizing how a life can be defined. Soul belongs in the upper echelon of Pixar movies. Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, and Questlove are among the impressive cast of voice actors in the one.
4) Da 5 Bloods – Movies are ultimately about the stories that make you feel something. Spike Lee films certainly do that. Lee’s tonal shifts can be sudden and do not offer the most fluid story. They do spark reactions that are the true mark of an avante garde filmmaker. Look for Delroy Lindo to get strong consideration for best supporting actor of 2020 as a veteran returning to Vietnam with his brothers in arms.
3) Promising Young Woman – The most challenging film of 2020 was executed at a high level. The movie empowers a femme fatale to avenge a friend’s sexual assualt and intermixes dark comedy with poignant thoughts on societal reaction.
Viewers who take lead Carey Mulligan’s sometimes harsh actions literally may take umbrage with the film. Audience members who take the scenes as an allegory will appreciate its tenacity. There is little ambiguity to Promising Young Woman. It is a potent film that will likely be seen as a hit or miss with little gray area.
2) Sound of Metal – This film about a metal drummer who loses his hearing snuck up on me. Riz Ahmed gives a great performance as the lead character. Ahmed endures his tribulations as a musician who is suddenly without a trade.
In addition to Ahmed’s performance, Sound of Metal tells its story with compelling sound design techniques. Its production go a long way in creating an immersive experience that turns a little movie like this into something greater.
1) Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – Music biopics rarely break from formula. “Making it,” sex, drugs, rock ‘n roll, and redemption are almost always included in their stories in that order. This creates a genre that is uninteresting, but sells tickets based on nostalgia. This adaptation of August Wilson’s play smashes the biopic mold by focusing on a particular recording session in early blues singer Ma Rainey’s career.
This movie is marked by sensational performances by Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis. The two deliver moving roles and relay a sense of place and time. The 1927 setting features Davis as a diva who reminds those around her of her value. Boseman plays a talented, yet troubled trumpet player who is filled with ambition.
The cast’s passion for the material is second to none. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom will go down as Boseman’s final film. The brilliant actor went out with arguably his most electric performance in a career filled with terrific roles.
About the Author: John Saeger is a music and film writer from Philadelphia. He is also the co-host of the Philly sports podcast The Boo Birds. Prior to The Globe, he wrote the pop-culture blog Long After Dark, a site dedicated to the arts in the City of Brotherly Love and beyond. Email/ Twitter