“2020 has been a weird year for film” feels like a massive understatement even in the moment. The pandemic has ransacked reliable sources of new films like theaters and film festivals. And any number of major titles we may have looked forward to on January 1, 2020 (from Dune to Top Gun) have instead chosen to push back by at least 12 months.
In just a few years, however, it feels more likely we’ll look back at 2020 not as “weird,” but as an industry inflection point. Warner Bros. is the first major studio to push an entire year’s worth of film releases to streaming services simultaneously with whatever theaters are open, a trend that has loomed over the film landscape ever since streaming-first companies like Netflix and Amazon have become major production powers. And just a year after an independent foreign film took home the Oscars top prize, the uncertainty of the box office moving forward may all but ensure the only stuff that makes it to most theaters (whatever that landscape may look like heading into 2022 and beyond) will be heavily reliant on familiar IP, whether that means superheroes, space, or some other established film franchise behemoth.
Today, we’re not here to hypothesize or fret about film’s future, though. As grim as things seem, right now there’s still an ample amount of diverse new films worth getting excited about. From the streaming services churning out new work with heavyweights (from Mank to Da Five Bloods), to unorthodox productions pleasing massive audiences (American Utopia, Hamilton), to however you want to classify a new 2020 Borat film, 2020 may have been harrowing for films at large but it gave film fans just as many exciting new titles to enjoy as almost any other year.
We’ve whittled down the cache of new films we’ve seen across screeners, drive-ins, streaming services, and VOD film festivals into a list of the 15 best things we’ve seen these last 12 bizarre months. So with apologies to some supposedly great films we just haven’t caught (the pandemic horror classic, Host; RZA’s post Katrina action film, Cut Throat City; one of many excellent COVID-19 docs, Totally Under Control) and to the promising titles that just rolled out to late for us to consider (Wonder Woman 1984, Soul, or promising documentary, The Last Blockbuster), these are the best films of 2020. In alphabetical order…
We are living in a golden age for documentary, with more platforms than ever willing to invest in a filmmaking genre that traditionally wouldn’t deliver massive numbers at the box office. (On top of that, there’s perhaps a premium on facts and truth for a majority of the country.) Perhaps our favorite for 2020 comes from one of the modern documentary scene’s stalwarts: ESPN. Be Water provides an in depth look at the life and impact of Bruce Lee, leveraging Lee’s own unearthed writings, interviews with friends and family, and oodles upon oodles of great footage. The Last Dance (rightfully) sucked up a lot of the (attention) oxygen for ESPN’s 2020 output, but Be Water is the more apt film for the times, especially in a year where COVID-19 fears bred anti-Asian sentiment and thousands continue to take to the streets in support of Black Americans. In between all the action brilliance and details showcasing Lee’s immense cultural significance, director Bao Nguyen never lets audiences forget the actor rose to prominence in the United States during the 1960s civil rights era. More than a platform for some cool Lee facts and face-offs, Be Water again and again shows him as a man of his time pushing for equality across many aspects of his life.
—Nathan Mattise || Stream the film on ESPN+.
Bill & Ted: Face The Music
If you would call yourself a Bill & Ted series diehard—the kind who suffered through the uneven cartoon adaptation and has written lengthy online analyses of their Bogus Journey—this blurb isn’t for you. You have already seen (and adored) Bill & Ted Face The Music, the series’ third feature-length film from this August, and you got everything you wanted: A tasteful transition from George Carlin’s character Rufus, a healthy dump of amusing references from the original films, and a whole lot of Keanu.
For the rest of us, B&T3 isn’t necessarily essential viewing. But it sure is an ideal film for this year: one that is perhaps too polished and amusing for “straight to video” designation, yet whose cheesy ending and occasional momentum stumbles are all the easier to swallow as high-quality living-room viewing. The sequel’s absolute highlight is its toying with Bill S. Preston Esq. and Ted Theodore Logan’s multiple selves colliding via near-term time travel. The filmmakers apply deft green-screen editing to slam the characters into each other, thus mining this gimmick to incredible comic effect while standing out from other takes. (For my money, I enjoyed it more here than as an Avengers Endgame macguffin, as much as I liked that film.)
Plus, this year is an ideal one to see old, comfortable characters slot into ridiculously happy, stars-aligned endings. All of us at Ars were able to put our critical glasses down and beamed with misty eyes to see Bill, Ted, and their families get their wicked licks together just in time to save the world (spoiler alert, whatever, you’ll see it coming). We urge you to get your own kids together to do the same.
Feels Good Man
Making a good film about the Internet is hard (see modern film history from The Net onward); making a compelling and true film about the Internet might be Cuphead-level hard. And while anyone who’s seen Feels Good Man will inevitably refer to it as “the Pepe film” (yep, the same animated frog co-opted by the alt right), this documentary earned a place in our hearts for how thoroughly it understands and explains the way information spreads and evolves in the most unvisited corners of the Internet. Illustrator Matt Furie is an extremely willing participant for director Arthur Jones throughout, but it’s Feels Good Man’s diversity of interviews that ensures this film paints a fuller and more robust picture of modern online media. From 4chan users to scholars studying meme spread, major television illustrators to a digital director for the Trump 2016 campaign, the array of perspectives encompassed in Feels Good Man might make Ken Burns blush. It’ll definitely give viewers at all levels of Internet savvy something new to think about.
If we’re being honest with ourselves, we’d have been excited about any documentary taking on Midway Games, the legendary arcade developers responsible for all-timers like NBA Jam and Mortal Kombat. But sometimes the right subject finds the right person behind the camera, too, and that’s what makes Insert Coin much more than your average video game behind-the-scenes documentary. You see, filmmaker Joshua Tsui was once game developer Joshua Tsui, and he started his more than two-decade career as the new guy at Midway. The first time feature filmmaker puts his experience, rolodex, institutional knowledge, and wider industry perspective to great use throughout Insert Coin, and the resulting film has something to offer everyone from the casual gamer to the person who still remembers “MJT” would unlock Turmell. The film cut that delighted 2020 festival circuit watchers recently became available on Amazon Prime, but here’s hoping Tsui’s initial five hour cut eventually sees the (streaming) light of day, too.
—Nathan Mattise || Stream the film on Amazon Prime.
The Invisible Man
This has the distinction of being one of the last films I was able to see in an actual theater before pandemic-induced closures went into effect. A traumatized woman named Cecelia (Elisabeth Moss) escapes her abusive relationship, only to find she is being stalked by an unseen entity in The Invisible Man, (very) loosely based on the H.G. Wells science fiction novel. It’s less a direct adaptation than a reinvention, written and directed by Leigh Whannell, best known for the Saw and Insidious horror franchises. Whannell’s take on The Invisible Man combines elements of the original premise with another classic film, Gaslight (1944), about an abusive husband who tries to drive his wife mad.
Whannell’s horror bona fides are evident throughout the film. It’s well paced, with a solid, coherent plot that still boasts plenty of twists. The menace builds slowly at first, and Whannell is a master of setting up jump scares without making it seem cheap. One scene in particular elicited several audible gasps from the audience in my screening. It was completely unexpected, shifting the tone and raising the stakes dramatically to set up the final act. The film is also highly atmospheric and beautifully shot in such a way that the audience begins to share Cecelia’s claustrophobic, increasingly paranoid inner state. As I wrote in my review, “The Invisible Man is horror in the best sense of the word, working on multiple levels and firmly anchored by star Elisabeth Moss’ intensely emotional, yet nuanced, performance.”
—Jennifer Ouellette || Stream the film on HBO Max
We could all use a good laugh in 2020, and Walton Goggins (Vice Principals, Righteous Gemstones) may sneakily deliver laughs as reliably as any headlining comedian or comedic actor who may come to mind faster. No prior knowledge of cars, the auto industry, or automotive history is required to indulge in his latest, the Hulu mockumentary John Bronco. Goggins stars as the famed (non-existent IRL) pitchman of Ford’s famed SUV, and John Bronco is every bit as hyperstylish and rugged as the vehicle he (at times alarmingly) loves. Goggins brings his signature oblivious bravado, and director Jake Szymanski (HBO’s Tour de Pharmacy) and producer Marc Gilbar allow that strength to set the tone for 37 minutes of silliness and surprise detours that consistently pay off. In a “normal” year, this would’ve become a film fest darling. But in any year, John Bronco’s 1990s Ford Bronco ad should be a contender for bit of the year.
—Nathan Mattise || Stream the film on Hulu
Love and Monsters
This post-apocalyptic coming-of-age adventure is one of the most entertaining films to come out this year. The premise of Love and Monsters is that humans destroyed an asteroid hurtling toward Earth, only for the chemical fallout to turn all cold-blooded creatures into giant, mutant monsters who see humanity as one big buffet. The catastrophe separates 17-year-old Joel Dawson (Dylan O’Brien) from his girlfriend, Aimee (Jessica Henwick), as well as claiming the lives of his parents. Flash forward seven years, and Joel is living underground with a band of survivors, reduced to cooking meals and fixing the electronics because his PTSD makes him freeze in life-threatening situations.
But when he finally tracks down Aimee living amongst another band of survivors, he decides to leave his cozy bunker and trek the 85 miles to her underground bunker, despite all the ravenous monsters above ground. Fortunately, he soon joins up with a plucky dog named Boy, a wizened survivalist named Clyde (Michael Rooker), and a tough-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside precocious young girl named Minnow (Ariana Greenblatt). Clyde and Minnow teach him some basic survivalist skills, and Joe makes use of his artistic gifts to compile a kind of bestiary of the various monsters he encounters, along with their strengths and weaknesses. As I wrote in my capsule review, “The film is equal parts funny, heart-pumping, and occasionally heartbreaking, in a similar vein as Zombieland or Tremors. And it has some surprising turns, which isn’t easy to pull off these days. Who knew a “monsterpocalypse” could be so much fun?”
This new live-action version of the classic 1998 Disney animated feature, directed by Niki Caro (Whale Rider), isn’t just a lazy frame-by-frame copycat of the original (looking at you, live action The Lion King). Part historical drama and part superhero origin story, it’s an inventive re-imagining that owes as much to the Chinese source material as to its animated predecessor, transforming the character of Mulan from a feisty tomboyish Disney princess into a fierce, true warrior.
The film eschews the goofy, family-friendly humor and musical numbers in favor of a more serious tone. While some fans might miss those previous elements, Caro has skillfully woven in nods to the animated film in her own interpretation of the legend. That includes the songs: their musical phrasing wafts throughout the elegant soundtrack composed by Harry Gregson Williams.
Perhaps the biggest difference from the 1998 version is that this Mulan has a super power: especially strong qi (or ch’i), a vital life force energy in Chinese philosophy that permeates everything. Those with strong qi, who can learn to channel it, make for fierce, skilled warriors. But as Mulan’s father, Hua Zhou (Tzi Ma) reluctantly tells her, “Qi is for boys. It is time to hide your gift away.” Girls who exhibit those gifts are shunned as witches.
The witch, Xian Lang (Gong Li), is an inspired addition to the story, particularly since Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee) is such a one-dimensional villain (he was in the 1998 film, too, but it was less noticeable in that cartoonish setting). She is Mulan’s dark reflection, akin to Harry Potter and Voldemort or Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader—except Xian Lang has a far more compelling sales pitch when she urges Mulan to join forces with her, arguing that she will never be accepted into Chinese culture. Gong Li’s portrayal matches Liu Yifei’s luminous performance as Mulan; they play off one another beautifully, making their interactions among the film’s most memorable moments.
As I noted in my review, thematically, Mulan is not about defying unfair gender stereotypes or overthrowing the patriarchy. It’s about having the freedom to be true to ourselves and to cultivate our unique gifts. But it’s also about having others recognize those gifts and accept us for who we really are—hence its broad popular appeal. “One warrior knows another,” Hua Zhou tells his daughter when she returns home to seek his forgiveness for running away. “You were always there, yet I see you for the first time.”
Sniff. Yeah. Something in my eye.
—Jennifer Ouellette || Stream the film on Disney+
Netflix’s Project Power made me miss going to the movie theater as much as any film in 2020. It’s a perfect summer blockbuster: driven by stars you want to hang with (Jamie Foxx, Joseph Gordon Levitt), set somewhere that’s fun to look at and even better to imagine being (New Orleans), and ultimately made to deliver one kinetic action sequence after another gripping set piece. Ostensibly, the film centers on a seedy startup that grants temporary, and unpredictable, super powers to its consumers. And as a way to demonstrate its potential for would-be foreign government investors, this company seeds the drug into the streets of New Orleans, where it enters the daily life of both crooks and cops. It may all sound a little familiar, and that’s because it is—there is no shortage of “bad government entities manipulating populations” or “superpowers get complicated” movies. But Project Power executes its concepts and flexes its cinematic muscles with a real bit of industry (which bodes well for superhero fans, since this film’s screenwriter is helming the Robert Pattinson Batman). In a year where most film watching takes place on a couch or via a laptop, my eyes never veered away to check a browser tab or phone notification, not even once.
—Nathan Mattise || Stream the film on Netflix
The world of film has lost so, so much in 2020: in-theater experiences, large scale productions, maybe even certain types of scenes involving intimacy or crowds (at least for awhile). Film festivals as we knew ’em are another entry on this list, as some of the biggest names in that game (from SXSW to Toronto) begrudgingly shifted to various VOD formats. Among the smaller industry players impacted by this are short filmmakers, the folks who depend on the industry circuit to take their proof of concepts to audiences in the hopes of attracting funding or bigger professional opportunities or distribution channels or at least eyeballs. Who among us is going to consistently watch ~10 minutes of something and someone you likely never heard of when you sign up for the VOD film festivals mainly for the full length headliners?
Still Wylde, a 12-minute debut short about a pregnancy that wasn’t from writer/director/actor Ingrid Haas, deserves better. In a year where Never, Rarely Sometimes, Always is a fixture on year-end lists, we’re reminded about how few honest portrayals of miscarriages, failed pregnancies, abortions, and other physically and emotionally traumatic pregnancy experiences make it to the big screen. Anyone who watches Haas’ humorous and heartfelt story will be moved by what’s already here, but they’ll also instantly recognize the potential for a gripping full length film delivering laughs, cries, and reflection in equal doses. Still Wylde was supposed to debut in front of audiences at SXSW; we all know how that turned out. But luckily a local drive-in swept in to air willing shorts, and Haas has been putting her work in front of as many audiences as possible ever since. If the film industry gets back to an existence that looks anything like it did before, here’s hoping Haas’ work eventually gets its rightful theater full of onlookers (ideally with an even longer runtime).
—Nathan Mattise || Stream the film as part of various film festivals (most updated screening details on the film’s Instagram)
Chances are you missed Synchronic, a sci-fi film written and directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, when it was released in limited theaters and drive-ins last month. And that’s a shame, because Synchronic is a smart, inventive, thought-provoking film, featuring standout performances from co-stars Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan. Mackie and Dornan play New Orleans paramedics and best friends, Steve and Dennis, who are called to the scenes of several bizarre, gruesome accidents.
Initially, they chalk it up to the mysterious new party drug (the titular “synchronic”) found at the scene. But then, per the official premise, “Steve stumbles upon a terrifying truth about the supposed psychedelic that will challenge everything he knows about reality—and the flow of time itself.” It’s not just one’s perception of the flow of time that is affected. The drug actually makes you physically experience different time periods. And if that happens to involve a Spanish conquistador attacking you because you just appeared out of nowhere in a swamp, you will suffer a very real death if he succeeds in skewering you with his sword. Plus, some people can get stuck in the past.
There is one particular scene that was so powerful, and frankly so upsetting, that it is permanently seared onto my brain. But it’s critical in terms of raising the emotional stakes, so objectively, I have to applaud Benson and Moorhead for not blinking on that score. The entire structure of this movie is admirably tight, and the filmmakers continuously add extra constraints to further heighten the tension and build genuine suspense. As I concluded in my review, “Synchronic is a smoldering slow burn that pays off with a surprisingly moving, bittersweet conclusion.”
—Jennifer Ouellette || Somehow, this film is *not* yet available to stream (stay tuned to the distributor’s page for details)
Maybe the real treasure of Tenet was the film industry schadenfraude we enjoyed along the way. One film an industry does not make, but it’ll be hard to ever separate Christopher Nolan’s latest sci-fi blockbuster from the plight of theaters mid-pandemic. Those issues, of course, had started festering long, long ago (only a small percentage of people are willing to pay ~$ 10/head to see something brand new when ~$ 14/month gets everyone in your life home access to most movies you can think of), and even a successful bottom line theatrical run for Tenet may not have stopped happenings like Warner Bros.’ decision to simultaneously release 2021 films on HBOMax as the pandemic risk of theaters remains quite real. But insisting on your film only playing The Theater™ in the midst of a generational health crisis felt dumb at the time and may look worse in retrospect.
The unfortunate thing, culture-wise, is that Tenet turned out to be quite fun. John David Washington turns in a lead performance that leaves you questioning why he doesn’t helm every modern, well-suited action franchise from here out. The mechanics of the time bending detective story that Nolan dreamt up are what reddit rabbit holes were made for. And, as has been Nolan’s directorial signature, the sheer spectacle of his locations and frenetic setpieces are the very things that may one day still make theater-going worth it in the face of more efficient streaming at-home options. Tenet hit VOD on December 15, and if you haven’t seen it yet and enjoy action, it’s well worth the rental price. It’s just absurd you couldn’t choose to see it before now.
The Columnist had my attention right from the log line: Newspaper columnist gets horrifically harassed online, slowly starts to take real world vengeance. Maybe that sounds like a 2020 newsroom fever dream realized as a schlocky B-movie, but director Ivo van Aart and writer Daan Windhorst have a clever story, a tightly wrapt plot, and a final act where I didn’t guess the outcome in advance. Yes, there are some easy-to-sympathize-with action sequences where our hero(?), columnist Femke Boot (Katja Herbers, Westworld), ends up ripping a finger off some thoughtless idiotic dude. But while you can simplify a description by calling this film a revenge fantasy, The Columnist ultimately has more thoughtful and interesting ideas to share on everything from the mental health impact of online toxicity to free speech, modern media promotion to the culpability of trolls. It’s all a good reminder to never read the comments (outside of Ars Technica)… but if you do, it’ll be even easier to empathize with the plight of The Columnist.
—Nathan Mattise || This film doesn’t yet have a US release or a streaming platform deal; for now it’s available on the Netherlands’ streaming platform, NPO Start+.
The Vast of Night
I mean, c’mon. Watch that again. We’ll wait.
You know films like The Vast of Night: small town America, a few kids start noticing strange happenings around town, they take it upon themselves to investigate while the adults are occupied, otherworldly encounters ensue. But you haven’t seen a film like this, one done so artfully and meticulously that story might be the third or fourth thing (at best!) that keeps you locked in for a kinetic 90 minutes. First time feature film maker Andrew Patterson has the vision and the capability, so prepare for lovingly crafted scenery, lengthy and unlikely soliloquies that never let you go, and sequence after sequence that will have you running for the rewind button to see once more. If this is the kind of work you can expect as a first run streaming release (Amazon Prime) going forward, maybe the future won’t be so bad for independent film after all.
—Nathan Mattise || Stream the film on Amazon Prime
…and Ars’ favorite 2020 film: Palm Springs
Time loops are a well-trodden trope, with not one, but two innovative multiverse twists last year alone: the Netflix comedy series Russian Doll, and the horror/comedy Happy Death Day 2 . One would think there wouldn’t be many new veins to mine in this subgenre, but Palm Springs rises to the challenge, delivering a slyly subversive, charmingly self-aware time-loop tale that toys with audience expectations in subtly surprising ways. Andy Samberg plays Nyles, who strikes up a friendship at a Palm Springs wedding with the bride’s reluctant maid of honor, Sarah (Cristin Milioti). But their chance encounter gets complicated when Sarah discovers that Nyles is trapped in a time loop that repeats the wedding day over and over—and she’s now trapped in the loop with him.
Palm Springs sets itself apart from the outset, because when we first meet Nyles, he has already been “looping” for an indefinite, but clearly long, period of time—long enough that he has become cynically resigned to his fate. It also takes a page from Russian Doll, in that there is more than one person caught in the loop. So we get to experience the same looping day from different perspectives—and Nyles gets to watch Sarah work through all the various stages of processing her situation that he did, offering his jaded “been there, done that” commentary along the way. Think committing suicide will close the loop? “I’ve done a lot of suicides, so many,” Nyles said, advising that she make it as quick as possible if she’s going to try it. “We can’t die but the pain is very real. There’s nothing worse than dying slowly in the ICU.”
As I noted in my review, I’m not a hardcore Samberg fan, but he gives a sweetly acerbic performance as Nyles, and his strong chemistry with Milioti is ultimately what makes Palm Springs work. You’ll be drawn in by the sharp, smartly irreverent humor, but you’ll be won over in the end by the film’s considerable heart.
—Jennifer Ouellette || Stream the film on Hulu