Every year, I write another one of these introductions. At this point, it’s almost parody, the movies’ editor writing a screed about how terrible the movies list is; “This list is not a place of honor. No highly esteemed deed is commemorated here…nothing valued is here.” But it would stand to reason that this year, when most people weren’t able to go to the theaters, when mainstream blockbusters were pushed back, that we finally have a movies list that I don’t find myself entirely predisposed to hate.
There are big-budget films on here, and who knows if they’ll hold up decades from now, when we are able to exit the fallout shelters and rejoin society. This list encompasses a truly broad range of film-going experiences from extremely low budget art house films to the last film most people saw in a physical theater. There is nostalgia and lesbians on beaches, films that were strangely prescient and ghost stories.
In no particular order, but actually in order of 10th to 1st, this is the list of the top 10 movies of 2020 according to Unwinnable.
– Amanda Hudgins, Curator
I want to say upfront that Onward didn’t hit me as hard as I was expecting it to. I went into it after seeing virtually everyone talk about how emotional it gets at the end and, well, it just wasn’t that profound for me. I don’t want to get into specifics because that might spoil things, but suffice it to say I probably would have been a sobbing mess by the end if my upbringing was different. I did tear up, but I didn’t need a tissue is what I’m saying.
With all of that out of the way, damn was Onward an enjoyable movie.
Right from the start the premise is wonderful: a magical fantasy world in which magic was basically tossed aside in favor of modern technologies and convenience; where the magic still exists, but everyone has pretty much forgotten about it – because why cast a light spell when you can just flip a switch, right? I cannot overstate how much I adore that concept, or seeing stuff like magical creatures who live in a world with magic that are obsessed with fantasy-based tabletop role playing games (i.e. Legally Distinct Dungeons & Dragons).
I knew there’d be a ticking clock regarding siblings Ian and Barley trying to finish a visitation spell so that they would be able to spend time with their deceased father, who’s initially botched summoning has left him as a pair of legs, but the bizarre mixture of a proper high fantasy quest and modern world mundanity is… I want to say perfect? Or at least perfect for me.
– Robert Rich
Bill & Ted Face the Music
Watching Bill & Ted Face the Music was like receiving a long awaited hug from a couple of old friends that you’ve missed dearly. While the film could have went on a note for note nostalgia run and called it a day, it decides to take the high road honoring the original’s legacy instead of cashing in on it. For a movie that unintentionally turned Bill & Ted into a trilogy. Face the Music was heartfelt, kind and most excellent indeed.
– John “Hambone” McGuire
I have to recommend Sister Tempest because it’s the most fun I’ve had with a movie in a good long while. Yes, you can tell that a good number of the scenes were shot in someone’s Californian backyard and yes the plot is about as solid as a plate of Jell-O after thirty minutes beneath the July sun, but none of that matters. The conflict and relationship between the main character and her sister is wacky enough to keep you laughing but has moments of sincerity that keep you grounded in the hope things can work out as she explains herself before the mysterious council who’s judging her life story. The overarching narrative is just coherent enough that you can follow along with the general events on-screen, but has odd moments of student cannibalism or mother-is-killing-me metaphors that make you pause and go, “Wait what?” as well as, “Did they hire that drag queen specifically to eat that piece of paper?” and “Why all the powdered wigs?” I treasure it in the same way I treasure Bad Channels or Never Too Young to Die. If you’re a fan of strange or simply good-bad movies, give this a shot when it becomes available in February.
– Gingy Gibson
The Vast of Night
On paper, The Vast Of Night sounds like something you’ve seen a hundred times – UFO first contact in a 1950s town, I know you’re already groaning – but somehow it’s not. The Vast Of Night uses every bit of its small budget effectively, with unique camera work that both keeps you at a distance from the characters and gives you the exciting feeling that you’re also traveling through the town and following this UFO trail. There is at one point a smooth transition to a sequence that truly feels like walking into one of those stationary vans equipped with hydraulics and big video screens at fairs that they had back in the 90s and going for an on-rails 3D thrill ride. The writing is the other thing that makes the movie amazing – half naturalistic and fun flowing dialogue, half accounts of alien encounters that feel like creepy vintage radio dramas and actually make UFOs feel like an intimidating threat again. I was totally drawn in by this film, and knowing someone can make an idea this old feel this new makes it my favorite I saw in 2020.
An allegory about things as specific as the refugee experience in England and as broad as how we face and process trauma, His House is a haunted house flick that is both familiar and new. Genuinely eerie, with spot-on imagery, scares that actually work and surprisingly visceral specters that call to mind Jacob’s Ladder every bit as much as they do The Conjuring, this impressive debut from director Remi Weekes should have us all chomping at the bit to see what he does next.
Anchored by achingly raw performances from Wunmi Mosaku and Sope Dirisu, the lived experiences of the characters do what the best horror does, informing not only how they react to the film’s ghosts, but how we do. And, like all good ghost stories, His House is about a past that won’t stay buried and how we can never build a new life on the bones of the old without bringing it with us.
– Orrin Grey
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
When the young painter Marianne arrives late at the familial estate of Héloïse, who she has been hired to paint the wedding portrait of, it is cold and dark and must be made warm. The rest of the film follows in form: warmth and brightness, color and life are slowly but confidently introduced into the threads of the narrative. Héloïse, smoldering in frustrated anger, like a damp log choking in a cold hearth, is gently repositioned, exposed to the heat and light of love and tenderness, passion and danger, and erupts gleefully into a healthy and jubilant flame.
But a log can only burn so long before crumbling into ash and even the most passionate and florid of our great love stories lasts for only so long before flaming out or dissipating quietly away. Still, Portrait reminds us that no hearth is ever truly cold and dead. As long as the memory remains, the fuel waiting in each other’s hearts, there is hope. It only takes a spark, a thought, a smell or a violin’s motif, for the burning passion to erupt once again in one’s chest, the tendrils of flame licking and dancing in the space behind one’s eyes.
– Yussef Cole
A lot of movies got screwed this year (RIP, Tenet), but Palm Springs is probably the one film in 2020 that couldn’t have asked for a better year to be released in. An infinite time-loop where you’re stuck in the same place with no end in sight, with nothing to do other than drink, do silly shit and/or learn quantum mechanics? Doesn’t sound unfamiliar, right?
I thought this came back out in April, when the lockdowns started happening, but nope, this first premiered in July. This realization hits a bit hard on a rewatch, when you see Andy Samberg’s character realize he’s been stuck in Palm Springs for so long that he doesn’t remember what job he used to have before he was trapped. Different strokes, I know, but the realization that time has lost so much of its meaning through messed up sleep schedules, weeks blending into one another, no reason to go outside much anymore besides a change in scenery. The sensation of being trapped is…not hard to understand nowadays.
It’s a great thing that this is the funniest film I saw all year too, because god damn could we use some laughs right now. This is the other essential part that makes Palm Springs a defining movie for 2020: not only does its story feel depressingly apt, but its tone makes it feel like a needed, almost merciful reprieve as well.
– Evan Dennis
Taking place a few years into the future, Bacurau follows a remote village in North Brazil as they come under attack from a malicious outside force. What follows is an incredible anti-Western, which is full of tension and powerful ensemble performances, set against the backdrop of a beautifully filmed rural landscape. There is also some incredible action at all the right moments that never feels gratuitous. This film is a powerful genre-bending piece of anti-colonial filmmaking, showing the strength that can be found in community. Its ethos is crystal clear as you watch the village’s funeral procession and feel that power brimming beneath the surface. It’s in every footstep. Every note of their song. A solemnity, a unity and a promise. A promise to the dead and the living to keep fighting, to hold onto each other and never let go.
– Oluwatayo Adewole
January is a hinterland where movies go to die. Movies released here are born far from the light, sent out into an environment totally hostile to them. Movies released in the dump month of January are primarily known for being studio detritus. Which made it perfect for Underwater.
Kristen Stewart’s opening narration summarizes this. Who else would work on in a place in one of the deepest, darkest parts of the world? People with problems. Those running away from things. This isn’t a crew of rebels and misfits, this is a crew of haunted skeletons. And they will soon be made to suffer.
Underwater spends little time setting the table before kicking it over. The station is catastrophically damaged in minutes. And, like the survivors of the initial disaster, it will slowly be chipped away by the terrors of the deep, worsening the situation minute by minute.
It’s a journey not easily made. As the remaining crew of Kepler 822 try to make their trek to safety, they must carry the bloated mass of T.J. Miller. As of December 2020, Miller has multiple accusations of assault and violence against him as well as pending legal action regarding a false emergency call he made alleging that a fellow train passenger was carrying a bomb. Watching Miller ravenously chew the scenery is uncomfortable at best and painful at worst.
And then, late in the movie, you see it. The thing that makes it all worth it. Your patience, your faith, the years you’ve waited to see the dreamer beneath the waves. Underwater just shows it to you. And it is horrible.
– David Shimomura
Birds of Prey
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is the kind of effervescent pop nonsense comic book movies so rarely deliver. It’s stuffed with witty, crackling brawls, manic narrative convolutions and hot girls devouring food. Margot Robbie gets to settle into her Harley Quinn in a way that wasn’t possible within the, um, tumult of Suicide Squad, heading an ensemble cast that’s so much fun to watch that the movie failing to get them all together onscreen immediately is its only real shortcoming. Without hyperbole this is the most – only – fun superhero movie in like twenty years. Show the girls some love.
– Astrid Budgor
Check out the list on Letterboxd for information on cast, crew, and where to find these films in your region.