It was a year of movies to remember in a year we otherwise wanted to forget. The coronavirus pandemic upended the film industry in unthinkable ways. As movie theaters went dark, several major releases were pushed back. Others found a home on streaming as movie studios scrambled to adapt.
Instead of buying movie tickets, we turned to Netflix, Disney Plus and other streaming services for new flicks. Instead of leaning back in our theater seats, we watched films from the comfort of our couches.
Though 2020 wasn’t anything like how we imagined, there were still good – and bad – movies to be found. The year delivered mind-bending thrillers and popular musicals, plus immersive dramas and breathless actioners. We look at the best and worst that 2020 had to offer in film.
“Da 5 Bloods”
Spike Lee’s powerful Vietnam war drama debuted on Netflix as racial turmoil erupted across the nation, proving incredibly timely and relevant. Six months later, it’s still the best and most important movie of 2020. With its lush cinematography and daring performances, “Da 5 Bloods” brought quality filmmaking into our living rooms during the pandemic.
In its black-and-white glory, David Fincher’s “Mank” lovingly paid homage to classic Hollywood while savagely criticizing the powerful machine behind it.
“The Trial of the Chicago 7”
Much like “Da 5 Bloods,” Aaron Sorkin’s gripping “The Trial of the Chicago 7” asks viewers to judge our present through the lens of the past.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
Two powerhouse performances from Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis should propel the drama into the Oscars race.
“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”
If you had told me the “Borat” sequel would be my favorite film of the year, I would have told you that you were crazy. I hated the original, but “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” had me laughing more than any other movie this year. I watched it three times, and every time I laughed even harder. The brilliant Sacha Baron Cohen masterminded a rip-roaring sequel that’s more relevant, funny and heartwarming than the first film. “Borat” delivered the humor we needed during a stressful year.
The adrenaline-fueled Netflix actioner was the first good film we watched on streaming. Chris Hemsworth delivers his best performance yet, showing off his action prowess and dramatic chops.
Thanks to Disney Plus, “Hamilton” transported the feel of Broadway into our homes while the Great White Way is shut down. Never having seen the musical before, I was completely enamored by the R&B-riffing songs, sweeping musical numbers and engaging cast.
“Coffee & Kareem”
Netflix’s crass and unfunny buddy-cop comedy tries so hard to be offensive that it’s offensively bad. For 88 minutes, a 12-year-old boy relentlessly makes fun of Ed Helms, with a bunch of homophobic and pedophile jokes thrown in. The lowest of its lows is when Oscar-nominated actress Taraj P. Henson gets Tasered.
Spitting up toilet humor and out-of-touch jokes, the mean-spirited comedy is a throwback to better Adam Sandler films – which you could just watch instead. I did get a kick out of June Squibb’s collection of T-shirts with inappropriate sayings.
Director Jon Stewart’s sophomore effort reveals its true hand in an intriguing third-act twist. Unfortunately, it comes too late to save the film.
“Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga”
The delightful Netflix musical comedy about two childhood friends (Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams) aspiring to win the popular contest is an instant pick-me-up. This is Ferrell’s best work in years. The pop songs are so catchy that I have several in my Spotify playlist.
“Bad Boys for Life”
Released before the pandemic, the “Bad Boys” three-qual reminds me of when going to the movie theater was – well, normal. The fun action-comedy reuniting Will Smith and Martin Lawrence is a total blast.
“Sonic the Hedgehog”
After an outrage over the spiky-haired groundhog’s original design, the adorable film won over audiences with its retooled main character and sweet story about friendship.
Millie Bobbie Brown’s charming teen sleuth puts a female-empowering spin on the Sherlock Holmes mythology.
The iconic “Black Panther” actor, who died last summer, shined in a pair of roles that could earn him nods for best supporting actor and best actor at this year’s Academy Awards. Boseman plays an inspiring squad leader in “Da 5 Bloods,” whose character takes on mythic proportions. And he electrifies the screen as a passionate but naive trumpet player in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” his career-best performance. These roles hint at even more greatness if his life hadn’t been cut short by colon cancer.
Sacha Baron Cohen
After a 14-year break between movies, the actor brought back his offensive Kazakh journalist Borat in the hilarious “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.” But he also showed he can tackle drama in “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” balancing sarcasm and seriousness. The latter should put Cohen in the running for the best supporting actor race.
Lindo’s fiery performance powers “Da 5 Bloods.” The actor delivers an Oscar-worthy turn as a strong-willed veteran struggling with PTSD.
After showing herself game to take on a variety of roles, the actress may get her first Oscar nomination after reaching new heights as starlet Marion Davies in “Mank.”
The talented newcomer earns laughs as Borat’s daughter Tutar in “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.” Bakalova capably stands toe-to-toe with Cohen in a breakout performance.
Sigrit Ericksdóttir (Rachel McAdams in “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga”)
The loyal and optimistic Sigrit always stands by her musical partner Lars’ (Will Ferrell) side, even though she’s the much better singer of the two. But when the pair advance to the coveted contest, Sigrit comes out from Lars’ shadow and finds herself. “Eurovision Song Contest” is really the story of Sigrit coming into her own – and deciding where she belongs. McAdams is funny and sweet, making Sigrit feel like a real person caught up in a fantastical experience.
Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell in “Birds of Prey”)
The conflicted Black Canary carries the burden of her family’s crime-fighting legacy while working as a bodyguard for crime lord Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor). Smollett-Bell conveys the songstress’s struggle beautifully as her conscience weighs on her.
John (Dan Levy in “Happiest Season”)
The quirky John is a supportive and devoted best friend to Abby (Kristen Stewart), although his pet-caring skills are questionable. I wish I had John as a friend in real life.
It has my name. It’s my favorite Alfred Hitchcock film. But despite Lily James and Armie Hammer’s star power, the hollow remake of the 1940 best picture winner does little to justify its existence. The Netflix adaptation lacks the suspense that made Hitchcock’s film a classic.
“Wonder Woman 1984”
Even though I enjoyed aspects of the sequel to “Wonder Woman,” the follow-up fell far short of the masterful original. It’s too convoluted and too long, lacking the wonder of the first film.
Cast Jessica Chastain as a wronged assassin and you should have a “John Wick”-type hit on your hands, right? Wrong. It’s not Chastain’s fault, but the bland actioner “Ava” entirely misses its marks.
“Brahms: The Boy II”
It’s not surprising that the sequel to the mediocre “The Boy” was disappointing. What is surprising is the follow-up completely undoes the original’s ending – and still manages to disappoint.
12-minute tracking shot in “Extraction”
In the heart-pumping sequence, the camera follows Tyler Rake (Chris Hemsworth) and the boy he’s protecting as they swerve through the streets and run through an apartment building. There’s cars, knives, guns and hand-to-hand combat. And it’s all … one … take. Director Sam Hargrave channels his stunt work experience into shooting the best action sequence of the year.
“Satisfied” musical number in “Hamilton”
After Eliza Schuyler (Phillipa Soo) sings about her and Alexander Hamilton’s (Lin-Manuel Miranda) whirlwind courtship in “Helpless,” the actors freeze in place. Everyone starts moving in reverse as Eliza’s sister and maid of honor Angelica Schuyler (Renée Elise Goldsberry) breaks into “Satisfied,” the heartbreaking ballad in which she reveals her hidden love for her new brother-in-law. I’ve rewatched the scene numerous times, mesmerized as the regretful Schuyler sister tells her own side of the story.
“Husavik (My Hometown)” finale in “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga”
During the finals of the Eurovision Song Contest, Sigrit performs a song she’s written about her hometown, Husavik, in Iceland. The gorgeous ballad marks the heartfelt culmination of Sigrit’s personal journey.
The church scene in “The Devil All the Time”
They both play superheroes. But when Tom Holland and Robert Pattinson face off in a church in “The Devil All the Time,” it’s downright personal. The chilling encounter is the high point of the Netflix drama.
I had the benefit of watching this movie three times and it gets better and better. The acting, directing, effects and score are simply phenomenal. Is it confusing? Yes, but it’s meant to be. It’s more understandable the second time through. I understand if you aren’t willing to put in that effort to a 2-hour, 30-minute film, but I promise you it proves rewarding. Even the credits include an awesome Travis Scott song. “Tenet” is the best all-around film this year.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
I adored this film, powered by Oscar-worthy performances from the late, great Chadwick Boseman and the brilliant Viola Davis.
“Da 5 Bloods”
Spike Lee follows up 2018’s “BlacKkKlansman” with another stellar outing. Delroy Lindo’s career-making performance pushes “Da 5 Bloods” into the best picture conversation.
It just so happens my favorite movie of the year is also the Christopher Nolan film. When a Nolan film comes out, there is a good chance it will top my favorite movies of the year list (see 2008’s “The Dark Knight,” 2010’s “Inception” and 2014’s “Interstellar”). I am a Nolanite (I think that’s what we’re called), and I fully admit I give him a pass sometimes. But this time, I think the movie is that good, which I mentioned earlier. What cements it atop the favorite category was my theater experience and rewatchability. I went to the theater once to see a film during the pandemic and it was “Tenet.” It was an absolutely incredible theater experience. It’s kind of hilarious to think about now, but I almost cried during the opening opera set piece. I guess I didn’t realize how much I missed the theater. The beauty of the visuals and action set pieces on the big screen and the sound bellowing off the walls of the theater became one of the best experiences of this listless 2020. Also, I could watch this movie a number of times and never get bored with it. “Tenet” is endlessly rewatchable. I’ll always find something new with every viewing.
(Realistically it’s probably “Da 5 Bloods” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” here too, but let’s have a little fun instead of giving you the exact same movies as the best)
After I was lucky enough to see the musical on Broadway, it’s a joy to have the filmed musical in my living room. The direction and camera work give the audience an experience that in some ways proves better than seeing it in person.
“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”
This film brings the laughs from the first movie and adds a heart. “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” is the most surprisingly awesome film of 2020.
I did not laugh once. The film offended me. Somehow Adam Sandler goes from “Uncut Gems” to this. And we’re getting a sequel apparently!?!?!?!
“Coffee & Kareem”
This was just a hurling of insults back and forth that weren’t funny. Betty Gilpin and Andrew Bachelor (aka King Bach) made me chuckle a couple times to keep it from the top spot.
This was essentially a Lifetime movie with watchable actors. It was short, so it had that going for it.
My dad signed up for Apple TV-plus’ free trial so I watched the World War II flick. It was an awesome, contained film. It jumped right into the action and focused on showing the audience what it was like for destroyers to protect convoys from U-boats across the Atlantic Ocean. The action set pieces were phenomenal and the non-stop pursuit of U-boats revved up the tension. I was hoping it would be released on Blu-ray or digitally, but it seems like it’s staying on Apple TV-plus.
“Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn”
I almost put this in my favorites of the year category. I never thought this movie would work, because I didn’t agree with the vision on 2016’s “Suicide Squad.” Apparently, the filmmakers felt the same way, because “Birds of Prey” is nothing like “Suicide Squad.” Who knew this film would be miles better than “Wonder Woman 1984?”
“Bad Boys for Life”
I may be stretching the term hidden gem for this film and “Birds of Prey,” especially considering “Bad Boys for Life” is the highest-grossing domestic movie of 2020. But, they came out before the world shut down and that feels like ages ago. This third installment was the best of the three, and the film my new brother and I exchanged at Christmas.
“The King of Staten Island”
This movie went straight to video on demand and cost $20 to rent upon its initial release. Now, it’s available to rent and buy for less, and I would definitely recommend it. Pete Davidson proves he can carry a movie and Bill Burr gives an excellent performance. It hits on comedy and emotional beats beautifully.
This award has to go to the beloved actor, who might be nominated in two categories at the Oscars, and could honestly win both. He creates a great mythical presence as a supporting actor in “Da 5 Bloods” and gives the greatest performance of his career as a leading actor in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Rest in peace, King. We already miss you.
I found out this year that a lot of people still refer to Robert Pattinson as “The Twilight actor.” He returned to the spotlight this year, after a successful stint in independent films. He didn’t sneak in the back door, either. Pattinson had a monster year with a phenomenal supporting performance in the blockbuster “Tenet.” He also had a small role in Netflix’s “The Devil All the Time,” where he stole the film for about 20 minutes. As if he needed anything else, “The Batman” trailer dropped this year and it looks awesome. Pattinson is an elite actor with the charisma to handle a blockbuster. Welcome back to the spotlight. You’re not leaving any time soon.
Before I saw Delroy Lindo in “Da 5 Bloods,” I knew him mostly from “Broken Arrow” (a good/bad John Woo movie). I had no idea Lindo had this performance in him, but now he’s no longer that guy from “Broken Arrow.” He’s Delroy Lindo.
Sacha Baron Cohen
There were two straight weeks in October when Sacha Baron Cohen starred in the newest movie release. He gives an Oscar-worthy performance in “The Trial of the Chicago 7” and follows that up with a hilarious and heartfelt performance in the satire “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.” He essentially owned October, and was the talk of the movie scene for longer than that.
I’ve enjoyed Amanda Seyfried’s career, and she added a possible Oscar nomination to it in “Mank.” She was another one who pleasantly surprised me with a performance I didn’t know she had in her. She elevated her career this year, and it’ll be fun to watch a new stage of it play out.
Harley Quinn (as portrayed by Margot Robbie in “Birds of Prey”)
Margot Robbie is one of the best actors in Hollywood, and she somehow saved the Harley Quinn character from the abomination that was “Suicide Squad.” Quinn narrates the film and has a perfect Jim Halpert fourth-wall break mid-way through the movie. That filmmaking allowed the audience to develop a connection with Quinn and her eventual team of warrior women. She made me laugh and emotionally invest in her as I grew to understand her realistic plight. Robbie also captured the physicality and non-verbal communication of the role perfectly.
Ma Rainey (as portrayed by Viola Davis in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”)
Viola Davis portrays the real-life “Mother of Blues” with a fierceness and intelligence that make the audience respect her. Watching the Black female character hold power over white men in the 1920s blew me away. She puts up a wall of strength and attitude because she understands how the world works. Hidden underneath the brashness is a heart that sneaks out. I knew nothing about Ma Rainey before watching the film, but if she was anything like Davis’ portrayal, she was an unbelievably admirable figure in history with great talent.
The Protagonist (as portrayed by John David Washington in “Tenet”)
John David Washington gave us a glimpse of his talent in the HBO series “Ballers,” broke out as the lead in “BlacKkKlansman” and now cemented himself as a legitimate movie star as the main character in “Tenet.” His character, simply known as “The Protagonist,” brings a James Bond level of cool to the film with his fighting style, swagger and heart beneath the surface. Every part of the character screams awesome, but he still proves relatable.
“Wonder Woman 1984”
I adore the first film, and the sequel took the franchise in a different direction for some reason. I expected much more from the talent involved who made the first installment so successful, but “Wonder Woman 1984” proved a waste and the franchise took a step back.
Jessica Chastain is my favorite actress, and I was excited to see her branch out into action. My excitement was killed early in the film, not because of Chastain. It was everything else. Hopefully, “The 355” will be better.
“The Old Guard”
Much like Chastain, when Charlize Theron is in a movie, I’m on board to see it. Unfortunately, the film didn’t live up to the standard that Theron brings. I didn’t think a movie about immortal warriors could be so bland.
12-minute tracking shot in “Extraction”
This may have been the best technical sequence of the year. “Extraction” is a great action movie with a bland plot and villain. This scene made the film memorable. The camera followed characters through the window of a speeding car, down a three-story fall and during numerous hand-to-hand combat sequences. I don’t know how they did it because the sequence is seamless. I would never return to the film if that scene didn’t happen.
Opera house opening in “Tenet”
Nolan creates legendary opening sequences. This ranks right up there. As I mentioned earlier, I almost cried.
Temporal pincer ending in “Tenet”
“Tenet” ends with a massive action set piece when people, buildings, bullets and rumble are simultaneously moving backward and forward. It’s an incredible technical achievement I’ve never seen before.
Egg sandwich in “Birds of Prey”
Learning how much Harley Quinn loves a specific egg sandwich made me laugh and buy into the character. The tragedy of her losing the egg sandwich as it tumbled in slow motion to the ground is the most relatable thing she did in the film.
Michael Bay 360 shot in “Bad Boys for Life”
The third installment had a little fun with Michael Bay, the director of the first two films. Bay played a wedding MC and the film executed a 360-degree camera shot around him. Fans of Bay films know this pokes fun at Bay’s love of these shots. The self-referential humor had me dying in the theater.
Landmine in “Da 5 Bloods”
One of Lindo’s best moments comes when his character’s son steps on a landmine and Da Bloods have to try to get him off of it without it killing him. It’s an incredibly intense sequence masterfully acted by Lindo.
Church scene in “The Devil All the Time”
What I found a mediocre film shined brightest when Tom Holland confronted Pattinson and the actors went toe-to-toe. Holland proved he could handle more than Spider-Man.
Rebecca Kivak and Joe Baress write about movies for Take 2 blog. Together, they review current flicks and offer their insights into the latest movie news. Rebecca is a copy editor and page designer at The Times-Tribune. She started her career with Times-Shamrock Newspapers in 2005 and has won several professional journalism awards for page design and headline writing. She also covers NASCAR races from Pocono Raceway. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; 570-348-9100 x5126; @TTRebeccaKivak