Some of the TV and movies that are on our list are smart, emotional, and captivating. Others are terrifying, cutting, and suspenseful. Here are the best movies and TV shows of 2020.
In a year like 2020, streaming TV shows and movies provided an escape and place of solace as we all dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic while remaining in our homes. What we thought would be a few months, turned into a majority of the year. If you were one of the lucky ones, your home became the place where you eat, sleep, work, and entertain yourself. The looming pandemic has eviscerated the experience of going to movie theaters, so watching a new TV series and watching a new big-time release felt like the same experience.
Streaming new movies and series from the comfort of your couch has become a completely normal experience. And, we admit, it does feel a bit off to catch award-winning films on streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu next to smaller-scale TV shows from young burgeoning showrunners. Regardless, it’s clear that in such an off-putting year, the stories that arrived from creators in 2020 came at the perfect time.
The TV and movies that are on our list are smart, emotional, and captivating. Others are terrifying, cutting, and suspenseful. Here are the best movies and TV shows of 2020.
Best Movies of 2020
10. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (Amazon Prime)
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is hilarious and provocative. Sacha Baron Cohen attempts to recapture what captivated audiences back in 2006 and in the political climate of 2020, it garners more than just laughs. If you were hoping for serious, thought-provoking moments, this isn’t the right film for you. But, if you’re looking to dive into an ill-judged universe filled with trivial exploits, dive right in.
9. Selah And The Spades (Amazon Prime)
Black girls are often viewed as hyper-sexual, pained objects with no agency in previous coming-of-age stories. Selah And The Spades seeks to disrupt that. For her directorial debut, Tayarisha Poe focuses on power. The film intensely traces Selah (Lovie Simone), the most popular student at an elite Pennsylvania boarding school. Selah isn’t just popular, she’s also the head of her school’s drug operation. On her hunt to mold a student (Celeste O’Connor) she deems her protégé she stoops to dangerous, inconceivable lows.
8. Time (Amazon Prime)
Garrett Bradley’s stunning documentary Time fleshes out Fox Rich’s upward battle figuring things out over the course of 20 years. During that time period, she’s raised six sons, became a prison abolitionist, and steadily worked at figuring out how to live without her husband who is incarcerated. The doc weaves together Fox’s home-movie footage with other intimate portraits which assist with painting an accurate picture of her and her family’s life.
7. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Netflix)
First, Chadwick Boseman’s death shattered hearts throughout the nation. Second, his performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is otherworldly. In his final role, all eyes were on him and for good reason, he was damn good as Levee the trumpet player. In this adaptation of August Wilson’s acclaimed play, Viola Davis leans aggressively into her character and gives a raw performance that’s unforgettable. This movie is a contender for our top picks of the year simply based on how it fixates on the ramifications of what can happen when power and influence become disposable.
6. The Invisible Man (HBO Max)
In The Invisible Man, director Leigh Whannell graphically captures the incessant violence that Elisabeth Moss’ character is subjected to on behalf of her abuser. Moss’ portrayal of someone who can’t escape a former partner even if no one believes her is hypnotic and it’s worth a watch (maybe just not alone).
5. The Old Guard (Netflix)
In The Old Guard, the emotional connections between main characters in a superhero movie is something only director Gina Prince-Bythewood could master. Charlize Theron is Andy, the leader of a crew of immortal warriors that includes KiKi Layne as Nile and Marwan Kenzari and Luca Marinelli as the madly-in-love couple Joe and Nicky. You have not seen a superhero movie like this before.
4. Palm Springs (Hulu)
Rom-coms get a bad reputation for coming across as corny and unbelievable, Palm Springs flips this on its head. The inventive movie is funny in the perplexing way it addresses being stuck in a time-loop. What’s not to be lost here is that 2020 has been so repetitive that it’s pretty refreshing to see two people repeat the same day with no real option to actually escape. Palm Springs is what happens when you mix the sci-fi genre with existential dread and love.
3. Miss Juneteenth (Google Play)
Miss Juneteenth is a deeply moving debut by writer-director Channing Godfrey Peoples. Nicole Beharie plays Turquoise Jones, a single mother who enters her teenage daughter (Alexis Chikaeze) in the same pageant she won years ago in hopes of transforming her life. What comes next is a case study in love, resilience, and tenderness. Beharie gives an underrated performance that makes this one of the year’s best films.
2. Lover’s Rock (of the Small Axe series) (Amazon Prime)
Lover’s Rock by Steve McQueen is a vibrant, cinematic masterpiece. In 70 minutes McQueen successfully captures the intimacy of Caribbean house parties, and not just the main event, but also the preparation beforehand. Through an immersive lens from the comfort of our homes, we’re transported to one night in the 1980s in London. The tiny details in Small Axe are also exceptionally splendid: the DJ, the dancing couples, the guests breaking out singing acapella, and the excitement of the evening. The presence of the Black Power movement in the anthology isn’t heavy-handed. In fact, it proves that subcultures even across the pond are more similar than different.
1. The 40-Year-Old Version (Netflix)
Radha Blanks’ The 40-Year-Old Version, which she wrote, produced, and starred in is a remarkable film pulling directly from her real-life experiences. Blanks’ wry humor bleeds through the entire project and that was no small feat. Beyond the jokes, viewers are served a poetic love story featuring hip-hop, New York’s theater community, and Blanks’ fight for her artistic integrity.
Honorable Mentions: On The Record, His House, & Host
Best TV of 2020
10. Grand Army (Netflix)
If you completed this Netflix series and wondered if the kids are really alright, you weren’t alone. Grand Army is an eager and honest depiction of diverse students attending a prestigious school. Each episode was biting as the show focused on sexual assault, economic class struggles, and racism. Odley Jean breathed life into her character, a student dealing with family issues. Throughout the series, Jean tackled what life threw her way with grace. Odessa A’zion was equally brilliant. What Grand Army got right was the room that characters were given throughout the series to be their whole selves, nothing seemed overdone or exploitative.
9. High Fidelity (Hulu)
High Fidelity, the television adaptation of Nick Hornby’s 1995 novel, stars Zoe Kravitz as Rob, a record shop owner. Kravitz was progressive, well-dressed, and slick-mouthed in the way she spoke about pop and rock classics. But what truly made her character work were the moments where she dug herself into a bottomless self-loathing pit. Cherise, played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph (Dolemite Is My Name) stole the spotlight with every appearance she made. We honestly wish she got a bit more screen time. Over eight episodes, the television adaptation allowed viewers to get an understanding of Rob’s love fuck-ups, but it also presented why falling in love and staying in it are so damn hard. It’s too bad the series won’t make it to Season two. It deserved more than that.
8. Industry (HBO Max)
Despite swooping in on the tail end of 2020, Industry is a workplace drama worth binge-watching. In the pilot, you’re immediately thrown into the intersecting worlds of Harper (Myha’la Herrold), Yasmin (Marisa Abela), Gus (David Johnson), Robert (Harry Lawtey), and Hari (Nabhaan Rizwan). After this episode, Harper becomes the most interesting character worth paying attention to. Her snappy demeanor and selfish inclinations are hard to ignore especially alongside her mentor Eric who she’s a carbon copy of. There’s something electric about watching the pressures, extreme narcissism, and batshit craziness that takes place on Pierpoint’s trading floor.
7. Fargo (FX)
Chris Rock was the sell for Fargo’s fourth season and he earned every right of that. In the newest installment of the anthology series, Rock played Loy Cannon, a nefarious mobster out to conquer Italians who had a stronghold on power in Kansas City. The buck doesn’t stop there, Noel Hawley sticks to his guns and provides a colorful cast that you simply just can’t ignore. Nearly 12 others also play instrumental roles that are important to Fargo. In total, the backstory of racism and ongoing power struggles intertwine with Hawley’s storytelling extremely well.
6. PEN15 (Hulu)
The magic of PEN15 is Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle’s chemistry. They play middle schoolers in 2000 dealing with: their parents, their raging hormones, and schoolyard drama. If you forgot about what life was like when you were having your first crushes and early sex conversations with your friends, PEN15 has got you covered. Beyond digging into what life was like twenty years ago, the show provides comic relief as the two main characters aren’t just normal students, they’re also struggling to fit in.
5. Vida (Starz)
The LGBTQ-focused drama Vida didn’t get renewed for a fourth season, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a smart watch filled with emotional touchpoints and fitting cultural nuances. In three seasons, East Los Angeles was explored extensively through the eyes of two estranged sisters who returned to their roots. Their ultimate goal was to turn a profit on their mother’s failing bar after her untimely death, but the show accomplished more than that. Journeys of self-discovery, alongside the backdrop of gentrification, were highlights of the series. In Vida, queer characters were fleshed out in a unique manner (they weren’t just sidekicks).
4. P-Valley (Starz)
If you’ve ever visited King of Diamonds or Magic City, you’re well aware of the energy that emits from these treasured strip clubs. Katori Hall’s P-Valley manages to capture the gritty essence of holes in the walls in the Deep South. Based on a play, P-Valley focuses on the Pynk, a strip club that has a loyal following due to its skillful, loyal dancers. Under Hall’s watch, the women in this space are seen in a humane manner and that’s exactly what makes P-Valley one of the best shows of 2020.
3. Lovecraft Country (HBO Max)
To put it plainly, Lovecraft Country was a wild ride. Even though the series, set in the ‘50s and other time periods, was a bit confusing, it’s undeniable that it captured a lot of viewers’ interest during the height of the pandemic. Leti (Jurnee Smollet) and Hippolyta (Aunjanue Ellis) gave compelling performances as they dwelled within a world that was a mashup between sci-fi and horror. Jonathan Majors (Atticus) and Courtney B. Vance (George) played two impressive characters who were an important part of Lovecraft’s ever-changing narrative. The fact that real-life history and racism both played such large roles in the 10-episode season made it one of the most hard-hitting shows on television this year.
2. Ramy (Hulu)
Ramy is a worthy watch mainly because its title character is unapologetically himself. In the sitcom, comedian Ramy Youssef is funny but he also proves to be more than a stereotype. As he struggles with his unique Muslim-American experience, you can’t help but keep watching. The distinction between each of his immediate family members comes across as exploratory, but also well thought out.
1. I May Destroy You (HBO Max)
Over the course of the 12 episodes of I May Destroy You, a young author Arabella (Michaela Cole) deals with her life in the aftermath of sexual assault. The extraordinary series concentrates on the author’s headspace after she experiences the aforementioned act that changes her life. Coel explores consent, trauma, and more in a way that only she’s capable of in the critically acclaimed show.
Honorable Mentions: The Mandalorian, Blood & Water, and Little Fires Everywhere.