The positive side of the double-edged sword that was the movie world in 2020 is that the movies that might otherwise be buried under week after week of big studio releases all got a chance to shine in the streaming/video-on-demand landscape. While the following list contains a handful starry movies, most of them are ones where lesser known actors showed that they too are capable of stellar work.
Two notes: Several anticipated films, including Nomadland, Minari, and One Night in Miami, are not on this list as they will not be released until well into 2021, although they will be eligible for the Oscars in April. I'm also choosing not to include the fantastic Portrait of Lady on Fire, which was released in February 2020, but was eligible for the 2020 Oscars.
This tense hijacking thriller is set almost completely in one location - the plane's cockpit - and the claustrophobic nature of keeping the action in one tight space intensifies the story immeasurably. The film keeps the focus on the story by using no music at all, which, combined with a plethora of technical jargon, adds to the real-feeling atmosphere. Joseph Gordon-Levitt kicks off a busy year for him in a great starring role. (7500 is available on Amazon Prime Video.)
The success of this film relies on three things: the change-of-pace performance by Oscar winner Viola Davis; the astonishing, in-your-face performance by the late Chadwick Boseman; and the storytelling of playwright August Wilson, from whose play the film is adapted. With dynamic filmmaking from director George C. Wolfe that lets the story loose from stage confines, the movie sings from beginning to end. (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is available on Netflix.)
This wholly unique documentary saw a filmmaker honoring her dementia-stricken father ... by killing him repeatedly. Kirsten Johnson comes up with a series of macabre-but-funny situations showing her dad, Dick, dying that she films for posterity. The scenes are all in good fun and are clearly a way for Dick and Kirsten to connect in his waning years. With a focus on the obviously loving relationship that Dick and Kirsten have, the film sets a new bar on how to pay tribute to one's parents. (Dick Johnson is Dead is available on Netflix.)
There have been a handful of films that have tried to reckon with #MeToo movement, but The Assistant does the best job yet by putting forth a completely fictional plot. Julia Garner plays a low-level movie production company assistant with quiet fire, enduring the indignities of covering up for her boss' bad behavior. The compelling film is a clarion call for others to hold people in authority accountable for their actions. (The Assistant is available on Hulu.)
6) Palm Springs
The time-stretching rom-com on Hulu was not only a fantastic film, but its Groundhog Day-style story felt wholly appropriate in a year in which each day seemed to be like the next. Stars Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti have immediate chemistry, and the fact that their characters are experiencing the strange phenomenon at the same time allows the film to explore some fun and strange scenarios. Multiple viewings only heighten the impact of the best comedy of the year. (Palm Springs is available on Hulu.)
This low-budget but high-impact film is about a young woman trying to get an abortion, but the journey it takes becomes about much more than that, including a disparity in wealth, healthcare, and gender equality, along with the generally awful manner in which women are treated by men. Newcomer Sidney Flanigan shines in the lead role, underplaying the part until she breaks out at just the right moments. (Never Rarely Sometimes Always is available on HBO Max.)
The latest film from writer/director Aaron Sorkin has his signature great dialogue, but more than anything else, it's a showcase for its actors. Sacha Baron Cohen, right before releasing another Borat movie, shows he has great dramatic skills, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II steals every scene he's in with real gravitas. Sorkin paces the historical drama well, focusing on the titular trial while going back to the events for which they're on trial at strategic moments. (The Trial of the Chicago 7 is available on Netflix.)
This throwback sci-fi film was the most unexpected delight of the year, an unabashed homage to The Twilight Zone by a trio of first-time filmmakers. They demonstrate a level of filmaking and storytelling technique that is astonishing, utilizing advanced shots and taking their time setting the tone despite the film being only 90 minutes long. The switches between long moments of stillness to periods of breathless activity are fantastic, as are several speeches that impart a lot of information. It's a near flawless film with actors who deserve to be showcased even more. (The Vast of Night is available on Amazon Prime Video.)
Sound of Metal is one of those special few films which put the audience in the shoes of a character, turning something special into transformative. Following a rock drummer who's losing his hearing, the film's sound design, which fades out, distorts, or disappears completely depending on the state of Riz Ahmed's character at different points in the film, is impeccable. By putting real thought into portraying Deaf characters and destigmatizing deafness, the filmmakers give even more meaning to the story. (Sound of Metal is available on Amazon Prime Video.)
This film starring Carey Mulligan about a woman taking righteous revenge against predatory men and those who permit that bad behavior hits all the right notes from beginning to end. The story has surprising depth while still offering a highly entertaining framework on which to lay that complexity. With shifting tones that mesh well, a fun and interesting soundtrack, and an Oscar-worthy performance by Mulligan, Promising Young Woman rose to the top of movie landscape in 2020. (Promising Young Woman is currently only in theaters, but should come to video on demand in early 2021.)