Best of the rest: my favorite films of 2020

Each year, Oscars Sunday is my official cutoff for my favorite films of the previous year list. This year, because of the Academy Awards pushing their ceremony two months, I’ve had extra time to catch up of 2020 films. I’ve already written about some of my favorite documentaries from last year, and each of those three films made my 2020 favorites list. I’ve also written about all of the Best Picture nominees, and of those eight films, I would count both Minari and Sound of Metal among my favorites of the year.

Below are the best of the rest, my favorite films that were released in the year 2020. With most studios holding their big blockbusters for a theatrical release in 2021, streaming services stepped up their game and kept film fans engaged throughout our yearlong lockdown, and four of the movies below debuted on streaming services. Independent and foreign films, as well as documentaries, also continued to debut throughout the year on VOD, so even though there were fewer films released in 2020, the quality remained high all year long.

Take a look at my favorites of the year below.

Matthias & Maxime

Directed by Xavier Dolan

Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan established himself as a filmmaking prodigy on the international scene throughout the 2010s with a series of stylistic melodramas scored to pop songs, winning him countless awards before his 30th birthday. His English-language debut, The Life and Death of John F. Donovan, derailed his upward trajectory, was a critical and financial failure, and many took glee in his humbling.

He regained his footing and thrived by paring back some of his bombastic tendencies and delivers this beautiful, naturalistic portrait of a lifelong friendship thrown into flux when an intimate moment unlocks something deep inside both Matthais and Maxime.

What I love about Dolan is all here, including some terrific music choices alongside a gorgeous piano score. Dolan excavates emotional depths in his two leads, focusing not on making them likable, but on making them feel real. The best way I can describe it is that Matthias & Maxime is not really a love story, it’s a portrait of two people who might be in love.

Available to rent and purchase on all major platforms.

First Cow

Directed by Kelly Reichardt

Kelly Reichardt has made a name for herself over the years by making quiet films about seemingly unremarkable people living in the Western United States. She has an eye for the drama of everyday life, focusing her camera on the small moments in between the big ones.

First Cow, her latest film, tells a simple story of Cookie and King-Lu, two men brought together by chance just trying to make it in the Oregon Territory, clandestinely utilizing a wealthy landowner’s cow (the titular first cow in the territory) to start a business and carve out their own American Dream.

While most of Reichardt’s films focus on women, she is one of the best chroniclers of masculinity. In her world, men are allowed to be vulnerable with each other and create a supportive friendship. Watching Cookie’s interactions with the cow are heartwarming, free of self-seriousness, and just tender. Tender is a great way to describe the film as a whole, and in the early days of the pandemic it was a light in the darkness.

Available to rent and purchase on all major platforms.


Directed by Tomm Moore & Ross Stewart

It should come as no surprise that, in a year where many of us were separated from loved ones, my three favorite films were portraits of friendship. Wolfwalkers, from the Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon, is the most straightforward and heartwarming of the bunch, but it still weaves a complex tale of self-discovery and love.

International animation is one of the few places audiences can turn nowadays to see traditional, hand-drawn films, as the American studios have completely turned to computer animation at this point, and Wolfwalkers feels timeless because of this. There are sequences in this film that feature some of the most breathtaking animation I’ve ever seen, and the color palate of the forest sequences radiates warmth.

It feels reductive to compare this to Disney/Pixar/Dreamworks/etc., but it’s also hard not to think about them while watching it. Watching a film like Wolfwalkers makes me wish that the large animation studios didn’t completely forgo stylistic diversity in their films, and that traditional animation could still find a wide audience. That change doesn’t seem to be coming anytime soon, and I’m grateful that Wolfwalkers is showing all of us what we’re missing.

Available to stream on Apple TV+.

And Then We Danced

Directed by Levan Akin

Familiarity can work against a film, especially when you’re walking on the well-trodden trope of star-crossed lovers, but And Then We Danced finds a way to stand out with its heart and specificity.

The first Georgian film I’ve ever seen, And Then We Dance lets its sense of place permeate every scene, as two Georgian dancers find love in a country where homosexuality is still very much unacceptable. You know how the story will end, but that doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking. Along the way, dancing plays a pivotal role in how the two lovers connect and communicate. Their dancing can be flirtatious, sexy, competitive, and redemptive.

Traditional Georgian dance is all about masculinity and power, and the film’s doozy of a final scene subverts that, thumbing its nose at tradition, leaving the audience shaken, but ultimately hopeful.

Available to rent and purchase through all major platforms.

His House

Directed by Remi Weekes

Netflix, with their need for fresh original content, has a tendency to purchase the American rights for films and subsequently bury them on their service, doing little to no promotion for them. His House received this treatment, but strong word of mouth and critical acclaim saved it from obscurity, helping the year’s best horror film find a passionate audience.

His House is social commentary by way of the horror film, in the vein of the films of Jordan Peele, and tells the story of two refugees who are placed in a subsidized apartment that just happens to be haunted. The haunting is both literal and metaphorical, as the couple is trying to overcome the grief and guilt they feel from the life they fled, while trying to make a new life in an unfamiliar world.

His House is not for the faint of heart, with a handful of scenes that had me closing my eyes, but the film has a lot of heart, and is anchored by the outstanding performances of its two leads, including a BAFTA nominated Wunmi Mosaku.

Available to stream on Netflix.

Palm Springs

Directed by Max Barbakow

No film captured the mundanity and boredom of pandemic lockdown better than Palm Springs, giving many of us a momentary release of our anxiety when it premiered on Hulu last July.

Riffing on the endless time-loop format Groundhog Day, Palm Springs follows two strangers who meet at a wedding in the titular resort town, only to get stuck in a time-loop together, reliving the same, painfully boring wedding day after day, a feeling many of us were familiar with at the time, four months into lockdown.

The chemistry of the film’s two leads, Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti, is what makes the film work, and it thrives in the “boring” moments where their characters are doing dumb things to make each other laugh and pass the time. Less a romantic comedy than a comedy with a romance, the film’s medium-level stakes were a balm for a moment in time that felt so out of our control. Heartwarming, genuinely hilarious, and featuring a cast bringing their A-game, Palm Springs was one of the year’s great escapes.

Available to stream on Hulu.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things

Directed by Charlie Kaufman

Charlie Kaufman is not known for his accessibility, and his latest film, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, does not change that reputation. The story is simple enough: a woman and her boyfriend are traveling through a snowstorm to meet his parents, and she is having doubts about their relationship. What follows is an existential treatise on aging and art, and oh yeah, it’s a horror film? But only kind of?

Adapted from a favorite book of mine, the film forgoes the novel’s psychological horror and finds a terror all its own. This would not work if the performances weren’t there, and luckily everyone is at the top of their game here, especially Jesse Buckley as our lead, and Toni Collette as the boyfriend’s mother.

It’s not a movie I can broadly recommend, and its availability on Netflix almost certainly tanked its audience score, but if you go into it prepared for a mind-bending ride, you will be more than satisfied.

Available to stream on Netflix.

The Empty Man

Directed by David Prior

I’ll admit, when The Empty Man‘s trailer dropped, I had no intention of seeing it. The film looked like yet another basic, run-in-the-mill urban legend horror film, and I had been burned by too many of those over the years. Once it became available to rent, it developed (ironically) an instant cult following, with many saying it was one of the better horror films in recent years.

The plot is difficult to summarize, but more or less it follows an ex-police detective who is investigating the disappearance of his neighbor’s daughter, who she fears joined a cult. That’s the set up, but what this film does over the course of its 137-minute running time defies all summation. It kicks things off with a 20-minute prologue that fries your nerves, and does not let up from there. The film also earns two of the most deserved jump scares I’ve ever seen. If you’re a fan of horror, you cannot miss this bizarre, wholly unique gem.

Available to rent and purchase through all major platforms.

Weathering with You

Directed by Makoto Shinkai

Director Makoto Shinkai follows up his massive worldwide hit Your Name with another magical realism-inflected love story, this time following a boy who falls in love with a girl who has the power to stop the rain.

Your Name was a huge surprise to me, as I’m not really big on anime, but I connected with its central love story. In Weathering with You, the love story is again the strong point, and while it loses points for originality by having a near-identical ending to Your Name, that doesn’t dull its effectiveness.

The story is a little weaker this time around, and at times needlessly convoluted, but the animation is stunning. This film made me even more excited for what Makoto Shinkai will do next, as he has seemingly endless talent.

Available to rent and purchase through all major platforms.


Directed by Christopher Landon

Director Christopher Landon established himself as a horror-comedy master a few years ago with Happy Death Day, a time-loop slasher that had a brilliant mix of scares and laughs, and he returns to form (following that film’s less effective sequel) with a horror-comedy take on another well-loved trope.

Freaky follows Millie, a teenager living a dreadfully normal life, who nearly becomes the next victim of the Blissfield Butcher. Just as she is about to be murdered, the universe intervenes and the pair swap bodies. Our killer is now in the body of a teenage girl and ready to go on a rampage, and Millie is stuck inside the body of Vince Vaughn, its own special kind of horror.

This film had the impossible task of making me like Vince Vaughn, and it did that and more. Freaky is high-concept popcorn fun at its finest, a film destined to be replayed at countless sleepovers for years to come.

Available to rent through Apple, Amazon, and Vudu.