Even if very few movies received a wide theatrical release this year, that doesn’t mean there were any less movies to watch or that there was even that much of a difference in quality.
Here now, Alabama Liberal’s annual countdown of the year’s movies from worst to best…
The Worst Movie of 2020: “Antebellum”…There were several strong candidates for “worst movie of 2020” (as you’ll soon see) but this one stood out because of how completely, utterly offensive it is to me personally. You’ll notice a huge theme in this year’s countdown is how shamefully negative Hollywood continues to portray black/white romantic relationships. And it’s been that way for almost as long as I’ve been doing this countdown (“American Son” and “Get Out”) and I’m getting fed up waiting for it to change.
One of the worst things about “Get Out” being such a huge hit was that it made the copycats inevitable (this year also saw “Kindred”). Although, “Antebellum” also steals heavily from “Westworld” and “Django Unchained,” it seems to exist solely to showcase sexual and physical brutality of white men towards black women. It hides it’s complete lack of sense in some “allegorical” commentary that couldn’t be more hollow.
Runner-Up: “The Painted Bird”…Don’t be fooled by the artful black-and-white photography that might trick you into believing this movie is deep. The sole reason this movie exists is so you can watch a child actor getting tortured for nearly three hours. This movie is nearly unwatchable, and if it weren’t for my personal obsession against movies like “Antebellum,” then “Bird” would’ve been the worst.
170. “Devil All the Time” D- …I only caught up with “Antebellum” and “Bird” in the last month of 2020, and so for most of the year I felt certain this turkey would be the worst of 2020. Ultimately, Robert Pattison’s skilled performance as a rotten (but all-too-believable) Southern preacher elevated it slightly. But everything else in this movie is just inauthentic, posturing junk that deserved some of the hatred “Hillbilly Elegy” got.
169. “The Last Days of American Crime” D- …This movie got a 0% on rotten tomatoes for very good reason. It takes a potentially fascinating premise (a brain-altering signal will permanently end criminal impulses in America) and stomps on it with some of the worst execution I’ve ever seen. Several scenes in this movie play like some odd Cinemax porno from twenty years ago, and Michael Pitt would surely be on the shortlist for a Razzie this year if this movie were a little bit better known.
168. “Bloodshot” D- …So far, all the movies I’ve picked are downright offensive for violating various Alabama Liberal pet peeves (interracial couples villainized or an all-British cast in a Southern setting). But “Bloodshot” is just incompetent junk, not even memorable enough to be offensive.
167. “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” D …One of the year’s most frustrating movies because there are a couple of sequences that actually work (most notably a choreographed dance inside a high school perfectly symbolizing the nostalgia of youth). But the majority of this film made me feel more like a hostage than a viewer. Even though I’m a Charlie Kaufman fan (“Anomalisa” is one of the best movies of this century) this is easily the worst thing he’s ever done.
166. “The Turning” D …It takes a special kind of turd to make even the glorious Makenzie Davis nearly unwatchable, and this horror dud is just such a thing.
165. “Fantasy Island” D …Made the “worst five” for many, many critics, and I can certainly see why, but there’s nothing particularly offensive about it. And a doomed “careful what you wish for” parable is also what “Wonder Woman 1984” is, so…I’m just saying…
164. “Artemis Fowl” D+ …Surprised at how bad this was. Josh Gad and Judy Dence do what they can though.
163. “Doolittle” D+ …What is there to say? A universally disliked movie, but if you have kids, you could certainly do worse than talking polar bears and tigers.
162. “The Old Guard” C- …If I was going to be forced to watch a Netflix action junker, “Extraction” has better action sequences, a less convoluted premise, and isn’t nearly as groan worthy.
161. “The Wretched” C- …Steals so liberally from other, better horror movies that I hope “It,” “The Witch,” “The Thing,” “Stranger Things,” etc. get royalties. Also, the second I saw the main kid’s white father had a black girlfriend, I was like “welp, one of them is a goner,” and guess what?
160. “Ava” C- …Poor Jessica Chastain, how quickly the hottest star of 2011/2012 has wound up in a movie Angelina Jolie would’ve turned down 10 years ago. As one of the best actresses out there, I’d love to see her make a comeback.
159. “Wendy” C- …I’m one of the only critics alive who didn’t go nuts for “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” and this movie from the same director is substantially worse. It’d be great if Manhattanite writer/director Benh Zeitlin wanted to do something besides fetishize the deep South for his next movie.
158. “The Happiest Season” C- …”Guess Who’s Coming to Closeted Christmas?” is cliched (right down to the gaaaaaay best friiiiiiiend!), contrived, and is one of the many 2020 romantic movies where the main couple actually don’t belong together. Kristen Stewart’s scenes with Aubrey Plaza generate much more heat and genuine chemistry. All Stewart and Mackenzie Davis seem to have in common is being white and having blonde hair, but that’s apparently enough for Hollywood–since this is yet another example of a same-race gay couple being more positively portrayed than an interracial heterosexual couple. [Hollywood’s selective progressivism is real funny.]
157. “Mulan” C- …Adding an “evil witch” as the main villain undercuts the movie’s girl-power narrative, but the real problem is that this adaptation is almost surreally unimaginative with a lifeless cast. Liu Yifei is stiff in the Mulan role, and it’s more than a little ironic that an obvious puppet of a repressive regime (she got the job because of her good standing with the Chinese communist party and has actively shat on Hong Kong protesters) would be playing this too-tame “rebel.”
156. “The Sleepover” C- …Family friendly dud that feels like a discarded plot that’s been making the rounds since the 90’s.
155. “Scoob” C- …People eager to see Scooby Doo and the gang back in animated action probably weren’t looking for this. The movie is not only a mess, but might even scare younger kids.
154. “The Wasp Network” C- …This should be a fascinating story (Cuban spies pretend to be defectors to infiltrate the Miami exile community in the 90’s), but the execution makes this look more like an episode of “Burn Notice” than the nerve-jangling thriller this should’ve been. It doesn’t help that Ana De Armas is the most prominent non-spy in the cast, but also the only one who fully commits to her role. [I’m getting tired of Wagner Moura, Gael Garcia Bernal, and especially Edgar Ramirez.]
153. “The Owners” C- …”Burglars break into the wrong house” horror movies haven’t been hard to come by in recent years, but I’d watch “Don’t Breathe” a second time before I watched this one once. It’s more tedious than nerve-jangling with characters repeatedly doing things that make no sense. And if you want a movie about young British punks getting hunted by stuffy patricians, check out “Get Duked!” instead.
152. “Spree” C- …Aside from “burglary” horror movies, another huge trend is “the horrors of social media” (“Infamous,” “The Social Dilemma”) but I’m still surprised a movie studio agreed to make this. All the hand-wringing last year over “Joker” inspiring copycats definitely should go to this one instead. Worse, even though it’s clear the main character is a monster, many of his victims are so unsympathetic it seems to imply that they somehow deserve it–even though it’s clear this character isn’t motivated by that and would kill his own father if it would trend (literally). To be honest, I would be afraid to let someone truly impressionable watch this.
151. “The Photograph” C- …Unreasonably slow and uninteresting, and another 2020 romance where the lead characters “look” more right for each other than they feel. Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield are so “cool jazz” smooth that they seem just as likely to fall asleep as generate real heat. [I prefer the spikier, nervier chemistry of Rae and Kumail Nanjiani in “The Lovebirds.”]
150. “The Night Clerk” C- …Proof that Ana De Armas can make almost any movie watchable, but why should she have to work this hard in bad movies?
149. “The Quarry” C- …I don’t see how a movie starring Michael Shannon and Shea Whigham couldn’t be better than this. They take a killer premise (a murderer takes the place of a small town preacher he accidentally kills) and keep exploring the least interesting angles within it.
148. “I’m Your Woman” C- …Even if this weren’t the 4,000th example of a negative portrayal of a black/white couple (and that mid-movie “I’m his second wife” twist is also more than a little ridiculous), I’d still probably give this movie a bad review due to how little sense it makes. It’s portrayal of the “mafia” in the mid-70’s shows that the mob is somehow organized enough to send several hitmen to hunt them down, but disorganized enough that nobody knows what’s happening from moment to moment. It’s not even clear why they want to find the lead character so badly. Not to mention, far too many scenes feel meandering and more tedious than tense.
147. “Bad Boys for Life” C …Most people like this movie more than I do (it’s the biggest box office hit of 2020, although that’s a little bit like being the world’s tallest dwarf since the box office was mostly shutdown for the last nine months of the year), but a lot of people like “Fast and Furious” movies too. And the Michael Bay ‘tude feels somehow even more in your face than usual.
146. “Infamous” C …”Social media hungry killers” were almost as big as haunted house movies this year, and so the repetition somewhat dulls the “shock” effect. Also, Bella Thorne’s performance has been praised as the best thing in the movie, but how big a stretch is it really for her to be playing a fame-starved girl with tattoos?
145. “Project Power” C …An interesting premise (that Alabama Liberal had and shopped around years ago) is wasted with over-the-top execution.
144. “The Inheritance” C …Simon Pegg enjoys himself playing the kind-of part that seems more natural for Ben Mendelsohn, but not much that happens here makes sense. Once you find out the “twist,” it makes even less sense. [Would somebody really keep the most dangerous man they’ve ever met in a bunker like a tiger that will inevitably kill them? Would they gift that same man to their daughter? Would they confide their deepest secrets to that same man?]
143. “Downhill” C …A movie that I wanted to like a lot more than I did. Some beautiful ski lodge scenery can’t make up for a script that barely feels like it’s trying. Maybe should’ve left “Force Majeure” as it is…minus the “maybe.”
142. “Coffee and Kareem” C …This is not a good movie, but Ed Helms and Taraji P. Henson are one of the year’s most positive portrayals of a black/white couple. That should tell you something about 2020.
141. “Endless” C …Alexandra Shipp is just waiting for bigger things.
140. “Nocturne” C …Other than a horrific final image, I can’t remember very much of this movie at all.
139. “Roads Not Taken” C …A wasted opportunity for a fine cast (Javier Bardem, Dakota Fanning, and an especially vivid Salma Hayek). This movie is not even 80 minutes long if you take away end credits, and it still feels like a meandering, bloated mess.
138. “Sylvie’s Love” C …Celebrated by most critics as “an old fashioned romance,” and it definitely is that in the sense that the main characters don’t belong together and the story is slow, predictable, and uninvolving.
137. “The Rhythm Section” C …A frustrating experience since you can practically feel a good movie right beneath the surface, desperate to claw its way out of confusing presentation and an improbable set up. If the portrayal of the romance between Blake Lively and Sterling K. Brown were a little more positive, I’d probably bump this up a little.
136. “Shirley” C …We already know Elizabeth Moss can do literally anything (she’s been the best thing in some absolute flops like “The Kitchen”). But you can see evidence of that in some much, much better 2020 movies like “Invisible Man.”
135. “Seberg” C …I was surprised this wasn’t better.
134. “Fireballs: Visitors From Darker Worlds” C …If you like Werner Herzog’s other documentaries (and I mean all of them), then you’ll probably sit comfortably through this since all the hallmarks are there: ponderous visuals, heavy-handed narration, faux-philosophical literary-esque musings straining-to-the-point of breaking for larger significance. But for most people, it’ll be very tough to stay awake through the totality of this movie.
133. “Greed” C …Occasionally insightful (particularly the flashback scenes) on the very bad habits of the 1%, but there’s also too many characters and too much of it feels tedious.
132. “Rebecca” C …Classic gothic romance that never really connects with its material, but does have great production design. If you’ve ever wanted to watch “Downton Abbey: thriller version,” this movie is for you.
131. “The Last Thing He Wanted” C+ …So many other critics absolutely despise this movie that it almost makes me want to recommend it. [Between this and “Tenet,” critics made it clear that anything “complicated” or that requires you to fully pay attention to it would not be tolerated.] If the twist ending were set up a little better, and the length were a little shorter, it just might be enough to save it. As is, it’ll just have to settle for being the very worst of the “C+” grade movies.
130. “The Life Ahead” C+ …All the right elements are there, but it just feels like something’s missing in the presentation. People that love Gavin Hood’s “Tsotsi” will probably find this movie a little more believable than I did.
129. “Birds of Prey” C+ …I found it disappointing that this is really more of an ensemble film than a true showcase for Harley Quinn. And then to saddle the queen of anarchy with a kid to take care of? Whaaaaaat? It’d be like finally giving Hannibal Lecter a standalone movie and then giving him a puppy to raise.
128. “Emma” C+ …This movie is closer to Whit Stillman than Emma Thompson, and I consider that to be a bad thing. Still, the Wes Anderson-level production design is meticulous enough.
127. “Hope Gap” C+ …Annette Bening is blind-sided by her husband Bill Nighy leaving her for another woman. As much as I love Nighy (he steals scenes by doing almost nothing in “Emma”), I can’t help but feel he’s slightly miscast her. Too often, he allows his depressed nooge to let Bening act furious circles around him. His character is so emotionally shutdown and repressed, it doesn’t seem entirely likely he’d have the passion to even have an affair.
126. “The Witches” C+ …It’s not quite as terrifying for smaller kids as the Anjelica Huston version (which I can still vaguely remember the nightmares from), but also not anywhere near as memorable. Yet another remake that just feels like Hollywood is throwing IP at the wall to see what sticks instead of trying something new.
125. “Enola Holmes” C+ …Most people love this movie a lot more than I do, but it’s too long, too repetitive, and too standard. Millie Bobbie Brown is very good in it though.
124. “The Lie” C+ …An intriguing setup is undone by one twist too many.
123. “Evil Eye” C+ …An intriguing setup is undone by one twist too few. Much of this movie is filmed with the tension of a Starbucks commercial, and so I think it’s as much a problem of direction as script here.
122. “Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You” C+ …This documentary will depend 100% on how much you enjoy Springsteen’s latest album since black-and-white jam sessions with his band performing it are about the only thing on display. It’s fine, but aging boomers will probably prefer “American Utopia” instead.
121. “Selah and the Spades” C+ …One of those movies that treats high school like feudal England with iron-clad caste systems and high drama. If you like cliches and over-the-top melodrama, pull up a chair.
120. “Time” C+ …A documentary critics are pretending to love, as we watch the effects of over sentencing on one incarcerated black man’s family (his wife and six kids). There are vastly better movies about the prison industrial complex (“The House I Live In” for example), and so this is more of a self-contained narrative about the effects over incarceration has on one family, but the filmmakers never dig deep enough. They seem content to just let endless slice-of-life scenes play out, making the movie feel a lot longer than it actually is.
119. “Dads” C+ …Bryce Dallas Howard makes a movie about dads that is so benign, innocuous, and easy to forget (the big lesson: there’s no one way to be a good dad), I could see it being a smash-hit in hospital waiting rooms across the country.
118. “Tesla” C+ …It’s rare to find an Ethan Hawke performance that doesn’t fully work, and so I’d like to forget this movie ever happened. Watch “The Current War” instead.
117. “Chemical Hearts” C+ …YA romances are a dime-a-dozen, but this is a pretty good depiction of the ache that young love can feel like, where it feels like the world just might end if things don’t work out.
116. “Trolls World Tour C+ …The first movie was about the literal end of the trolls race as Bergens wanted to eat them to be happy (perhaps a sly allegory for eating meat?). This second movie is about the horrors of…rock and roll hegemony and/or pop music’s cultural appropriation. If those stakes sound diminished, that’s because they are. Just like the first “Lego Movie” (also featuring the end of their world) was great, and the second one felt a little soggy under the weight of more nebulous, angsty-themes, you could say the same about the “Trolls” franchise.
115. “The Elephant Queen” C+ …If documentaries about elephants are your happy place, check out Disney Nature’s “Elephant” instead.
114. “My Spy” C+ …Hokey, but has some funny parts. Could’ve been a lot worse.
113. “You Cannot Kill David Arquette” C+ …This is subject matter I had NO interest in (David Arquette’s wrestling career), and I consider this the best possible representation of this subject.
112. “Charm City Kings” C+ …A half hour too long, but the bike-racing scenes are solid.
111. “Bodycam” B- …A ghost thriller with real-world significance, not too long and fairly involving. Although it’s a little predictable, watch this movie late at night when you have nothing to do.
110. “The Wrong Missy” B- …One of the many 2020 romances where the leads don’t belong together, but if you can look past the contrivances, you’ll see that it’s fast paced, not as dumb as it could’ve been, and has a handful of shockingly good laughs (like a debate on the likability of “Free Willy”).
109. “Arkansas” B- …Another movie or TV show where the “villain” is actually the most sympathetic, interesting character on screen. The flashback scenes showing Vince Vaughn’s rise-to-the-top might be more compelling than watching Liam Hemsworth falling-upwards in the present day.
108. “Hammer” B- …Any showcase for Will Patton isn’t a bad way to spend 75 minutes.
107. “Stargirl” B- …Another young adult romance with a quirky dream girl showing the lead how to be himself. Not a bad message, but far from electric.
106. “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made” B- …As I already said in my “Doolittle” review, anyone with a polar bear sidekick can’t be all bad.
105. “Latte and the Magic Waterstone” B- …This isn’t a good movie, but during endless CoVid shutdowns, no movie that holds the attention of small kids is a bad movie.
104. “Black Beauty” B- …It’s sleep for the whole family!
103. “The Sunlit Night” B- …Jenny Slate’s quasi-homeless artist moves to Norway to paint a barn. And the movie is almost as exciting as it sounds.
102. “Radioactive” B- …A Marie Cure biopic that is neither memorable nor eye-rolling.
101. “Clouds” B- …You could do worse.
100. “First Cow” B- …I wanted to like this movie more than I did. Luckily, other critics loved it enough for all of us.
99. “Traitor” B- …Most critics love this movie about the mob’s first major traitor a lot more than I do, but I thought it was too long and repetitive.
98. “Extraction” B- …Action sequences that pop and a distinctive Indian setting make this movie almost good.
97. “Like a Boss” B- …I was surprised that this movie didn’t suck nearly as much as I thought it would. But buried beneath an over-the-top Tiffany Hadish performance is a satire of “women’s empowerment” capitalism, as Salma Hayek’s ruthless executive (with elements of Lori Greiner, Bethany Frankel, and dozens of others) pays lip service to supporting women while actually trying to steal their companies.
96. “Prom” B- …When people say that they want Ryan Murphy to feature more minority actors, I’m pretty sure they didn’t mean casting Kerry Washington (of all people) as the face of small-town Indiana bigotry. And “Prom” is about 15 minutes too long and unintentionally dehumanizing (we learn almost nothing about the person they’re trying to help other than her sexuality).
But it’s hard to be totally against a movie where the leads are obviously having a blast (one of the opening songs has Nicole Kidman going wild on a cowbell while James Corden declares he’s “gayer than a bucket of wigs”), that discovers Meryl Streep and Keegan Michael-Key have great chemistry, and some of the songs are terrific (like Andrew Rannells schooling some kids about what The Bible actually says in a mall).
95. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” B- …Chadwick Boseman is electric in his final performance, but Viola Davis is monotonously belligerent. And it’s a little disheartening to see critics praising this dated, stagey work when 2020 has probably the biggest budgeted and most progressive slate of black-led movies ever produced (“Soul,” “Tenet,” “Da 5 Bloods,” “The Banker,” “His House,” “Jingle Jangle,” “Black Box,” among others). This is almost like something “The Forty Year Old Version” would make fun of.
94. “Greyhound” B- …I was surprised this movie wasn’t better. Nearly the entire thing takes place in the command center of a large Naval ship, and I felt oddly cheated by this decision.
93. “Baby God” B- …A documentary about a fertility doctor who impregnated 100’s of unwitting women with his own sperm. A potentially fascinating story that feels like it’s holding back. I would’ve loved to have seen a deeper exploration.
92. “Sputnik” B- …It really says something about Russian movies that this is the least depressing one I’ve ever watched.
91. “Human Capital” B- …The movie starts off fascinating, but keeps shifting into less interesting stories (from the class-clash of two fathers whose kids are dating to the richer husband’s wife to the spunky daughter of the less wealthy dad) to where the ending feels oddly half-finished.
90. “Wonder Woman 1984” B- …Not totally surprised at how hokey and underwhelming this is (the plot is like some “Wishmaster” parable from the actual 80’s). But any excuse we get to see Chris Pine and Gal Gadot together again isn’t the worst way to spend your time.
89. “Hillbilly Elegy” B …Other critics hate this movie in a way that feels weirdly personal (or even political), but I can’t help but wonder that if the exact same movie had a non-professional cast and unknown director, they’d be heaping awards in its general direction. Appalachia was actually invited to the award’s show party this year, but between this and “Devil All the Time,” only “Elegy” feels remotely authentic.
88. “The Hunt” B …Betty Gilpin has quietly morphed into a believable, compelling action heroine, and parts of this movie are hilarious.
87. “Vivarium” B …To be honest, most people would be better off not watching this. It’s frustrating and haunting in equal measure, and I can’t quite shake it all these months later.
86. “Blush” B …Wendy McClendon-Covey in a dramatic role. The movie itself is only so-so, but this could be the start of more serious work to come for Covey.
85. “The Lodge” B …The world’s dumbest dad thinks it’s a good idea to leave his kids in a snowy, remote cabin with his new, ex-cult member girlfriend only a few months after their mother dies of a suicide. This movie is genuinely scary though.
84. “Sea Fever” B …A mysterious sea creature seems to be infecting the crew of a boat. Some CoVid-parallels make this more relevant than it might otherwise have been.
83. “Underwater” B …I love deep sea movies, and so my compassion for this “Alien”-knockoff might be more than most people’s. But the murky visual effects and claustrophobic setting would be just right for a midnight movie in your house during the shutdown.
82. “Ordinary Love” B …Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville give this script their all, and it’s particularly good to see Neeson embracing something different.
81. “The Lovebirds” B …Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae are the biggest reasons to watch a scattershot script and haphazard direction. [It wouldn’t surprise me if many of their best lines were ad-libbed.] Yet this feels like a realistic couple in a way most 2020 “romances” didn’t, right down to fights about social media posturing, reality shows, and fashion.
80. “Superintelligence” B …The best of the Melissa McCarthy/Ben Falcone team-ups (not that that’s high praise). They ditch a lot of the more pitiful themes that dominated “Tammy,” “The Boss,” and “Life of the Party” to tell a slight story about the end of the world. The genuinely sweet chemistry between McCarthy and Bobby Cannavale is solid.
79. “City Hall” B …I have the utmost respect for what they were trying to do with this “movie,” but the finished product could cure insomnia. It’s over four hours of city government meetings and speeches with little context, voice over, editing, or individual commentary. If you need something to lower your blood pressure after watching golf, C-SPAN, or weather maps, this is it.
78. “Crip Camp” B …The first third is mostly “slice of life” footage in a 1970’s camp for people with disabilities, but the pace picks up when they begin to detail the fight for civil rights for special needs Americans.
77. “The Fight” B …I’m a little underwhelmed at this documentary that shows the ACLU taking on four different legal cases, but it’s still a good behind-the-curtain glimpse at what they do, and how little power the group actually has. [Which I, unfortunately, experienced firsthand.]
76. “Animal Crackers” B …”Hey look, it’s a kid’s movie we haven’t seen available to watch right now on Netflix!” “Is it any good?” “I said we could watch it now.” “I’m in!”
75. “Shaun the Sheep: Farmaggedon” B …”Oh, this movie is a little dull–” “It’s a kid’s movie we can watch on Netflix for free!” “I’m in!”
74. “Over the Moon” B …”The visuals are nice, but isn’t this movie really slight–” “Like I said, it’s a kid’s movie we can watch for free on Netflix. What part of this are you not getting?”
73. “Christmas Chronicles 2” B …”Isn’t this movie a little cheesy?” “I’m gonna say this one more time…small kids + 10 months of shutdowns = we’ll watch anything Netflix wants to offer us.”
72. “Dolphins” B …Disney Nature knows what we want from these kind-of movies: beautiful scenery, some semblance of a story, and narration that doesn’t make us eye-roll too hard.
71. “The Octopus Teacher” B …I love octopi, and if you do too, then you’ll definitely want to check this out. If you hate octopi, this movie will almost certainly put you to sleep, and you probably wouldn’t be watching it in the first place.
70. “Godmothered” B …An enjoyable fish-out-of water comedy that’s lifted by Isla Fisher and Jillian Bell.
69. “The Willoughbys” B …Inventive, original, and gorgeously animated. Even if the pace occasional drags, there’s a lot to recommend here.
68. “The Call of the Wild” B …I love this type of movie, but I might watch “Togo” a second time than this one a first. Still, a soulful Harrison Ford grounds the movie (which has too much CGI) in effortless realism.
67. “The Vast of Night” B …The movie is basically a filmed podcast, but it tingles with the mystery and excitement of potentially finding a UFO. Watch this at the right time of night in the right mood, and it should cast a spell.
66. “The Burnt Orange Heresy” B …It takes its time getting there, but the themes (what obligation does an artist have to create?) and thriller elements that take over the last third of the movie enliven things. The carefully placed fingerprint is a killer ending worthy of a classic murder-mystery.
65. “The Gentlemen” B …Even if you’re completely over Guy Richie gangster movies, this isn’t a bad one. Special appreciation to Hugh Grant as a weaselly private detective.
64. “Mr. Jones” B …The Soviet Union suppressing information is a very relevant story for 2020. I just wish the execution of this movie had been a little tighter, but ultimately still worth watching.
63. “What the Constitution Means to Me” B …Sometimes feels like “Karen Explains the Constitution” and the “time limit” debate structure grew tiresome. But it also highlights the constitution in a personal way that makes it a little more accessible. At this point, I’ll take any movie that might inspire a deeper understanding or viewers to seek out a Civics class. [Although Colin Quinn’s “Unconstitutional” and other one man shows are better, funnier, and smarter.]
62. “Safety” B …Ultimately exists to highlight the ka-razy NCAA rules that are hurting student athletes in obscurantist ways. The actual story is basically just an after-school special, but I’ll recommend any movie that highlights the bizarre governance of the NCAA, which could give the US Senate lessons in prioritizing arcane procedure over people’s lives.
61. “Class Action Park” B …A documentary about the world’s most dangerous water park starts strong but eventually feels padded. [Why is there so much commentary from Chris Gethard who merely visited the park?] But the story is just crazy enough to hold your attention.
60. “The Trial of the Chicago 7” B …A solid cast and trademark crackling-dialogue from Aaron Sorkin, but I’m getting a little tired of “allegories for 2020” that are still very squarely based in that boomer period of the 60’s/70’s that there have already been 1000s of movies based on. We want Trump takedowns and we want them now!
59. “American Utopia” B …Like most concert documentaries, this will 100% depend on how much you love the music. If you’re a fan of the Talking Heads or David Byrne’s solo career, you’ll be in heaven. If you’re not, then you’ll probably feel like a hostage. I basically split the difference.
58. “Da 5 Bloods” B …Spike Lee’s movie about Vietnam veterans returning to the country many years later to retrieve a stash of gold. It should feel like “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and “The Deer Hunter” had a baby (which is a great idea for a movie), but the results are surprisingly unmoving and tension-free. Some solid performances though.
57. “The Swamp” B …This documentary gets access to the inner-workings of “Freedom Caucus” nuts and gives actual information most people may not know (I didn’t know House members essentially pay for their committee assignments through fundraising). But I wish the doc had probed a little harder into why these people don’t seem to realize Trump is anathema to what they claim to believe. [According to everything I’ve read, the “Freedom Caucus” nuts are about the only congresspeople who actually like Trump.]
56. “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” B …Easily Will Ferrell’s best live-action movie since 2012’s “The Campaign” (it’s surprising how many turkeys he’s made lately), and a welcome return to form. Not all the jokes work, but Rachel McAdams’s soaring final song absolutely captures why these contests are so popular.
55. “Scandalous: The Untold Story of the National Enquirer” B …A good crash course in how the enquirer got started and rose to the top of the trash heap. But I still wish they’d spent a little less time recapping the overplayed 90’s scandals (Bill Clinton, Michael Jackson, OJ of course), and maybe a little more detailing the rag’s slide into Trump Country. [It also brings up the juicy tidbit that they may be working on Saudi Arabia’s behalf currently but don’t elaborate on that. We have to go to the next movie to get more on the kingdom…]
54. “Kingdom of Secrets” B …Was journalist Jamal Khashoggi killed because he knew something about 911 and Bin Laden’s ties to the Saudi royal family? That’s the tantalizing theory of this documentary that shows his life, connections to the mysterious Saudi royal family and Bin Laden, and eventually his infamous murder.
53. “American Pickle” B …Seth Rogen mostly plays variations of himself, and so it’s good to see him taking on his best character since “Observe and Report.” The movie is better than you might think.
52. “Run” B …A nerve-jangling thriller that actually works from start to finish. Tight filmmaking and solid acting with Sarah Paulson as one of the year’s scariest villains.
51. “She Dies Tomorrow” B …What if a psychological plague started spreading that convinced people they’re going to die tomorrow? It’s a great set up for a movie in 2020 (it opened as CoVid was making questions about death a lot more visible) but the execution may be a little too abstract and expressive. [If I thought it was my last day on Earth, would I really be acting like I’m on mushrooms vs. doing what I’ve always wanted to do?]
51. “Jingle Jangle” B …Surprised that I didn’t fall in love with this (I’m loooong overdue for a new Christmas classic), but the movie is more than a little stagey and might bore younger kids. Still, Keegan-Michael Key is having a blast as the villain, and almost makes that infectious for an audience.
50. “After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News” B …Handy guide to Pizzagate and a dozen other conspiracies you’re sick of.
49. “I Am Greta” B …How is an activist born? This documentary will only add fuel to Greta’s critics (“she did this just to get famous!”) but watching her find the thing she’s great at is transcendently inspiring.
48. “Saint Francis” B …This was sometimes lumped in with the other 2020 abortion movies (“Unpregnant,” “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”), but “Francis” is closer to “Trainwreck” or “Brittany Runs a Marathon” in that it’s really about a blonde 30-something woman trying to make life changes.
47. “Let Them All Talk” B …A solid cast improvises most of their dialogue on a luxurious cruise across the Atlantic. One of those movies where you just feel comfortable (but never riveted) to be in the hands of people who know exactly what they’re doing. And a seething Candice Bergen steals the movie.
46. “The Assistant” B+ …Like “Francis,” this movie is somewhat mislabeled. Although you could look at it as a “Me Too” movie, it’s really more a very accurate depiction of a soul-crushing job. It’s built in subtle moments (like the title character having to literally squeeze past two jerks blocking the door to her office). It’s finely observed filmmaking into the tension of a dehumanized, hostile workplace that will probably make you grateful when it’s over.
45. “Get Duked!” B+ …Not only a raucous comedy, but a sly parable for generational warfare. [When one of the central kids tells off the two patrician codgers who’ve been hunting him, most of what he says is true.]
44. “Waiting for the Barbarians” B+ …Underrated cautionary tale about the dangers of empires starting fights with enemies they don’t understand. Johnny Depp and Robert Pattison are chilling villains, but Mark Rylance gives one of his best, least mannered performances as a magistrate gradually realizing he’s being overseen by cruel morons who could take away everything in a moment.
43. “Blow the Man Down” B+ …I didn’t think it was possible, but this is the rare crime thriller that feels original. And any excuse to watch Margo Martindale in a juicy role is fine by me.
42. “7500” B+ …Whatever “Greyhound” (another thriller that takes place largely in one setting) lacks in tension, “7500” could give it lessons; tight, exhilarating filmmaking.
41. “Antrum” B+ …Clever found footage horror movie that casts an eerie spell.
40. “Extra Ordinary” B+ …Smart horror comedy that is occasionally hilarious and restlessly creative.
39. “Buffaloed” B+ …Eventually grows exhausting, but has a relentless energy and sharp takedown of the debt collection industry.
38. “Elephant” B+ …I prefer Disney Nature documentaries that tell a real narrative, and this one (about a family of elephants making a dangerous trek) definitely qualifies.
37. “The One and Only Ivan” B+ …A sweet true-life tale about animals trapped in captivity. Subtly affecting and not nearly as sappy as it could’ve been.
36. “The 40 Year Old Version” B+ …Didactic, overstuffed, and slightly pretentious (the idea of a struggling playwright throwing away a broadway hit at 40 would’ve been ridiculous even before CoVid).
But it’s also original, sporadically hilarious, and a scathing takedown of pre-CoVid Broadway. [Seeing the way critics have gone nuts for 2020 entertainment like “P Valley”—Katori Hall could basically be the lead character in this movie except she doesn’t decline the sell-out—only illustrates the main character’s point.]
35. “Spaceship Earth” B+ …A documentary about a huge news story from my childhood that seemingly disappeared. Late in the movie it’s revealed that none other than Steve Bannon took over the biome project (and subsequently ruined it), proving Trump’s “swamp rats” have been around for a loooong time. [I also wonder if he wasn’t working on behalf of oil companies when they refused to release the research findings from this experiment.]
34. “On the Rocks” B+ …Is there anything better than watching Bill Murray do his thing? Here, he’s so effortlessly appealing and insightful (explaining to his daughter why his marriage ended all those years ago just might win him the Oscar this year) that it takes a while to realize the movie around him doesn’t work. But it’s hard to care when Murray drives away with it in his ridiculous red “stakeout” car.
33. “The Perfect Weapon” B+ …Documentary about cyber-warfare that gives a good past, present, and future of where it’s headed.
32. “Alabama Snake” B+ …How could I resist a North Alabama set documentary? This one’s about a preacher who used snake-handling as a way to cover up an attempted murder.
31. “The Banker” B+ …A black banking virtuoso has to use a white man as a front in order to get business done. Anthony Mackie and Samuel L. Jackson are solid in this remarkable true story that shows the more things change…
30. “Onward” B+ …Even if it wasn’t the best movie Pixar released this year, it’s still great to see them creating original worlds again. The more the adventure keeps going, the wilder (and more 80’s inspired) it gets.
29. “Sound of Metal” B+ …Riz Ahmed gives one of the year’s best performances, and his character is the one I felt the most for in all of 2020. He plays a hard rock drummer who goes deaf virtually overnight and is plunged into the terrifying world of losing the one thing you truly love. [Not-so-luckily, his longtime girlfriend seems ill-equipped to help him, ear implant surgery is incredibly expensive, and he falls in with a deaf commune whose leader is–in my opinion–more interested in isolating him from his pre-hearing loss world than teaching him how to live in it.]
This movie is a little reminiscent of “The Rider” in that it’s the exploration of a young man exploring the question “Without the thing I love most, what am I?” But I still wish “Metal” weren’t so fixated on portraying the hearing-less community in such a positive light that it refuses to dive deep into the inevitable follow-up question “If the thing I love most is killing me, do I want to live?” [Like “The Wrestler” did] Too many of the characters in the movie view rapid and sudden deafness as a “hey buddy, we’ve all got problems” no-big-deal thing no more limiting than a case of hiccups, and even if that message is more positive, it does undercut the drama of what’s happening. Too many scenes seem to adopt the viewpoint that Riz’s character’s real problem is his mindset, not that he’s lost his career, passion, relationship, and opportunities in rapid order.
28. “Borat Subsequent Movie Film” B+ …Even if it’s not as good as the first one, there are still more than a few belly laughs and scathing takedowns.
27. “Dick Johnson is Dead” A- …A documentary filmmaker reacts to the impending death of her father by staging various fake deaths for him and her own version of the afterlife–heaven, hell, and even his own funeral. Alternates between the mundane and the profound, not unlike life itself.
26. “The Outpost” A- …”Black Hawk Down” for Afghanistan, but with a skillful mood of dread that feels almost suffocating even if you know what’s coming. Perhaps the first truly good movie of the Afghanistan War.
25. “Capital” A- …A documentary about the history of capitalism that serves as an excellent “Economics 101” crash course for the uninitiated.
24. “Wolfwalker” A- …If you loved animated director Tomm Moore’s “The Secret of Kells” and “Song of the Sea” (and I did), then this is for you. And the plot might even be slightly stronger here.
23. “The Way Back” A- …Better than you might think sports drama about an alcoholic former basketball star (Ben Affleck, close to a career-best performance, radiating sadness and anger) who gets a second chance when asked to coach the basketball team of his old school. One of those quiet dramas that sneaks up on you with significance long after it’s over.
22. “Unpregnant” A- …Although this seems suspiciously like a script I wrote called “Destination Abortion,” let’s give the makers the benefit of the doubt that they did come to this idea organically. Haley Lu Richardson is magnetic in the role that is probably the last time she can convincingly play a teenager, and this movie manages a tricky balancing act of zany comedy, touching friends-bonding movie, and pro-choice message movie. It excels at all genres more than most movies succeed at one. And yet there was one more pro-abortion movie that was even better…
21. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” A- …Viewers will probably prefer “Unpregnant”‘s more humorous take on similar subject matter, as “Never” unfolds like the most matter-of-fact of docudramas. [At times, it is so bleached of conventional “movie-ness” that I wondered if Frederik Wiseman might’ve snuck into the editing room.] But this movie lives in the details and in just how maddeningly difficult it can be to have an abortion in 2020–despite the SCOTUS ruling nearly 50 years ago. The soul-crushing weight of bureaucratic hang-ups give this the mood of a foreign film (some might even say the lead characters are unrealistically quiet). Ultimately, any movie that encourages freedom from unwanted pregnancies is worth supporting.
The Top 20
20. “Sonic the Hedgehog”…Sure, most people would think I’m absolutely nuts ranking this movie higher than “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” or even a comparable family film like “Onward,” but if we can’t embrace the magic of an extremely well-made piece of studio diversion every now and again (especially in CoVid times), then we’ve forgotten what movies were created for in the first place.
“Sonic” is the best video game adaptation ever made (I realize that’s a low bar), and brought me back to the simpler times of playing Sega Genesis all those years ago. It does what too many video game adaptations fail to do–they know the lyrics but not the music–by going after that visceral, hellz-za-popping feeling. Jim Carrey does wonders for his villainous character, and–sure–I enjoyed that James Marsden and Tika Sumpter have genuine chemistry, appealing personas, and possibly the most positive portrayal of an interracial couple in a movie this year. For all these reasons and more, I am not ashamed of picking “Sonic” to be in the top 20.
19. “Palm Springs” …One of the very few romantic movies of 2020 where the leads have actual chemistry. Not to mention the movie is genuinely funny, inspired, and well aware of “time loop” tropes, then giddily goes about demolishing them. [It’s probably the first R-rated comedy where you could pick up some quantum physics before it’s over.]
18. “Kiss the Ground” …I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that most people are not familiar with the problems facing the world’s soil. This is the first documentary I’ve seen in ages that isn’t essentially confirming something I already knew, and the thrill of revelation is more than enough to catapult it over (arguably) better made documentaries. Ultimately, the environment is the biggest issue facing all of us today, and this is the best documentary tied to that subject–and too few critics are even aware “Ground” exists. Spotlighting underrated gems is what this site and countdown are all about.
17. “Tigertail” …Tzi Ma is an actor I would rarely call fascinating to watch, and so it’s revelatory to see him here, as a long-repressed Taiwanese immigrant struggling to connect with his grown daughter while experiencing the pain of decades-old memories. “The past isn’t dead” certainly isn’t a new theme for indie dramas, but I was moved by this man’s story of survival and lost love, which has kept him alive but also not alive at the same time.
16. “Driveways” …Like “Tigertail,” this is a story of looking back at lost connections towards the end of your life, father figures, and unexpected connections (for both the young and the old) when you’re at your most isolated. A beautiful movie that lives in the small moments, and a fine showcase for Hong Chau, Lucas Jaye (at the beginning of his career), and the late Brian Dennehy in one of his final performances.
15. “The Social Dilemma” …”The only two businesses in the world that call their customers ‘users’ are illegal drugs and software” is a quote that’s shared early on in this eye-opening, quietly horrifying documentary, and we can tell we’re about to enter the rabbit hole. “Orwellian” is a word that gets tossed around a lot in the age of Trump, but if platforms that virtually everyone is using quietly work to shape your unconscious thoughts and manipulate your behavior (the self-censorship of what one shares on social media is as devastating as anything the companies themselves are doing) isn’t “Orwellian” then I don’t know what is. By the end, the case is pretty clear that social media and some of the biggest software companies have almost no real need to exist.
14. “His House” …Effective indie horror movie about Sudanese refugees confined to a London house that just might be haunted. Jump scares are plentiful, and some of the imagery is not only terrifying but beautiful. Sope Dirisu is vividly harrowing in his first lead role; he makes their ordeal visceral.
13. “Gretel and Hansel” …Probably the scariest PG-13 rated movie ever made. There’s an atmosphere of otherworldly dread conjured from the opening scene onward. This year had more than a few horror movies (theaters that weren’t shutdown were inundated with them because they’re cheaper and less likely to be big losses), but I’m not sure any of them got under my skin or stuck with me as long as “Gretel” did. Not bad for a story from the 1800’s that’s been the subject of dozens of movies.
12. “Totally Under Control” …You can show this to any Trumpers that want to insist the pandemic wasn’t the administration’s fault and there was nothing they could’ve done to prevent it. This procedural documentary reveals how the Trump administration did everything wrong step by infuriating step. Even if you watch the news religiously, this doc might have tidbits you haven’t seen before. Either way, it makes the most concise, clear case that America had a truly awful pandemic response, and that government (and who’s in charge of it) absolutely matters.
11. “The Midnight Sky” …A movie I keep wrestling with and keep changing its exact place in the rankings (it’s been as high as #4 and also didn’t crack the top 20). Ultimately, any movie that’s making me think about it this much after seeing it must be doing something right. Whether or not you fully love this movie (or believe every character’s action), it’s hard not to marvel at the stark Arctic landscape (the space scenes look downright cozy), the skillful twist ending, and the movie’s timely questions about returning to a planet that’s ending vs. setting off for new life elsewhere.
10. “Black Box” …An underrated thriller that deftly grounds itself in the humane. Even the movie’s antagonist makes perfect sense and isn’t unreasonable in what they want. [I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie where I perfectly understood and empathized with every character.] The fight to keep from being erased (both in life and in memories) is a sometimes-nebulous movie theme that’s presented literally here in one of the year’s most surprisingly moving, subtle, overlooked films.
9. “Invisible Man” …By now, some may feel this movie is at risk of being vaguely over-praised, but this is commercial filmmaking at its absolute best. Early on, the appearance of a breath over Elizabeth Moss’s shoulder is enough to make you giggle with delighted terror, but we also realize it’s a perfect allegory for what being in an abusive relationship actually feels like. There’s something wrong but you can’t quite put your finger on it; everything looks normal to the outside world, but you’re scared to death. Congratulations to Elizabeth Moss for giving such a nuanced, layered performance opposite thin air.
8. “All In: The Fight for Democracy” …Could there have been a more timely subject for a documentary this year than voting? [Other than the CoVid crisis explored by “Totally Under Control.”] We were treated to a pair of great documentaries about voting, and this one serves as a quasi-biography of Georgia’s Stacey Abrams as well. Rousing, inspiring, and informative is almost all I can hope for…
7. “Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections” …Amidst talk of voter suppression and gerrymandering and voter ID laws lies an even more evil topic that the country is almost afraid to discuss: if the election itself is rigged? I don’t mean Trump’s version of “rigged” (which seems to be any race he loses), but something like what “Kill Chain” lays out where America’s voting machines are horrifyingly easy to hack, manipulate, and change. With all due respect to “His House” and “Invisible Man,” this was the scariest movie I saw this year, and asks the absolutely necessary question: are we really sure Trump actually won in 2016? After watching this, I’m not sure how you could be.
6. “Mank” …Too many movies think “old fashioned, classic-Hollywood moviemaking” means “slow, predictable, and tedious” (cough, “Sylvie’s Love,” cough), but “Mank” understands that old Hollywood movies actually crackled with lively dialogue, killer setups, and occasionally better plotting than today’s movies do. Director David Fincher comes as close as anyone to capturing the actual spirit of those black-and-white classics: the acidic zingers, the glamorous dread, the haphazard-hurtling-into-cohesion pacing (it’s like a messy deck of cards that assembles itself all at once). That the script was written by his own father Jack Fincher (who died in 2003 but is only now having his script rescued from development hell) only adds to the satisfaction of the tale of a screenwriter’s last big act.
5. “Tenet” …This is basically “Primer” meets James Bond, but I don’t consider that a bad thing at all. And I’m tired of seeing Christopher Nolan being penalized by other critics for his ambition. Yes, this movie is complex and/or “complicated” or perhaps even confusing. You can’t fold laundry or check your phone as you watch it. Critics used to celebrate that stubborn tendency in movies…or at least pretend that they wanted to see more mature, original works.
Watching this movie, I felt a little bit like I did the first time I saw “The Matrix” or “Snowpiercer” or Nolan’s own “Inception,” something mind-blowing that I already knew would have to be watched a second time. Several scenes in this movie make you feel like Nolan is performing magic tricks right before your eyes, and the cast (John David Washington, Kenneth Branagh, Elizabeth Debicki, and Robert Pattison) are uniformly solid. Embrace the illusion.
4. “Soul” …Easily Pixar’s best movie since “Inside Out” (which was also directed by Pete Doctor, along with “Up” and “Monsters Inc.”). It borrows elements from “Up” (a reluctant mentor), “Coco” (vision of the afterlife transit station but not quite the afterlife), and especially “Inside Out” to make something that’s original, but familiar in a way you can’t put your finger on (not unlike life itself). I loved the blending of animated styles, the breakneck run through new ideas, and moments of unexpected profundity, like what happens to the central character after he finally gets to play that “life changing” jazz performance.
3. “Bad Education” …A career-best performance from Hugh Jackman as a closeted, embezzling education administrator. In a perfect world, this movie would’ve gotten a theatrical release and become an end-of-the-year indie sensation. As is, it won the Emmy award for Best TV Movie.
Like “Black Box,” this is one of the rare movies where even people doing bad things make perfect sense, and it’s hard to identify with any one character over another. [Is Hugh Jackman’s character a great teacher or a predator? Does he have a point with how little education pays being the real crime?] It’s also the only movie I’ve ever seen that seems interested in education administration, a mysterious segment that eats up so much of the education budget. Seek this out on HBOMax, and be glad you did.
And then a tie for the first place movie between two worthy political documentaries…
“537 Votes” …A documentary about the 2000 election being stolen from Al Gore, in all its nuts, bolts, and agonizing details. Too few Americans are even familiar with exactly what happened (message boards are lit up with conservatives framing Al Gore as a “sore loser”) and how infuriating it was to see a potentially-great President robbed by America’s worst President other than Trump.
This is equal parts character study (the Mayor of Miami is a fascinating weasel), heist movie (like where paid protesters literally storm the recount center in Miami), and mystery. What do Elian Gonzalez, Roger Stone, Jeb Bush, and Janet Reno have to do with Gore vs. Bush in 2000? Watch this movie and find out.
“Boys State” …Where do bad politicians come from? It’s an intriguing hook for a movie in 2020, and a question I genuinely wanted the answer to. Like “537,” this documentary is equal parts character study and propulsive, narrative-driven drama.
By going back to the origins of where politicians (or campaign managers) get started, you can better see the foundation for everything that’s right or wrong about modern politics: one boy candidly admits he’s pro-choice but actively campaigned on a platform of being anti-abortion anyway; another boy blatantly makes up a story about a rival that appears to pay dividends for him; the de facto protagonist refuses to pander to the Texas-secessionist vote, etc.
Years from now, I could see political science classes (or documentary classes) assigning “537 Votes” and “Boys State” as mandatory viewings. And the students won’t mind at all.