Watching movies at home just isn't as good as in the theaters. The drive-in isn't much better. As coronavirus shuttered theaters and decimated the release schedule, I realized how much the forced concentration of sitting in a dark room with a socially-enforced no-distractions custom boosts the viewing experience. Maybe that's why 2020 was the first year in a decade where I watched less than 70 year-of releases before it ended, or one that had so few to reach the A-tier. Maybe the heavier straight-to-streaming schedule made everything seem less urgent, even as it put more obscure fare in front of more eyes. I'm sure exactly no one would've seen Straight Up without a Netflix release. If a lessening of passion for cinema is the worst thing that happens to a person in 2020, then they sailed through a momentous period of history unscathed. That alone is something to be grateful for, and it's not like 2020 didn't have its fair share of exceptional movies, several of which are listed below.
The Invisible Man
What Is It: A modern adaptation of the classic novel told from the perspective of the titular villain's main target.
MVP: Director Leigh Whannell, crafting almost-unbearable suspense in negative space.
Why It's Here: It takes a classic movie monster and turns it into a chilling tale of domestic abuse and domination, and is the first of three other Best of 2020 that are about women fighting back in very different ways against the men that wronged them.
What Is It: A perceptive and clinical deconstruction of the man who killed Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin.
MVP: Yehuda Nahari Halevi as the pathetic zealot who's sadly recognizable as a red-pilled psycho.
Why It's Here: Incitement fully grasps how political violence performed on a grand scale appeals to that particularly dangerous species of human, the aimless young male looking for purpose.
What Is It: Slacker Groundhog Day in the titular California wasteland.
MVP: Cristin Milioti in a star-making performance that veers from carefree indulgence to earned self-flagellation.
Why It's Here: Tremendously fun and surprisingly heartfelt, Palm Springs whipsaws viewers between throat lumps over a little boy watering a dog turd and the glee of JK Simmons shooting Andy Samberg as he stands in a recycling bin.
What Is It: Sean Durkin's long-awaited return to cinema tracks a wealthy family as they pull the curtain back from their lifestyle.
MVP: Carrie Coon, dominating the considerable actors she works opposite from in every scene.
Why It's Here: The Nest is a film that despises its characters, especially Jude Law's patriarch. Watching their world crumble is the exact right thing and it's a delicious thing to see.
Promising Young Woman
What Is It: Carey Mulligan's Cassie pretends to be drunk at bars and sees if any men will attempt to take advantage of her. They always do.
MVP: Writer/director Emerald Fennell, making an emotionally visceral and occasionally hateful debut
Why It's Here: This venom-tipped confection is the 2020 film I've most wanted to talk about with other people.
What Is It: A gay man and a straight woman are both uninterested in physical intimacy but have great chemistry and shared interests. Why shouldn't they be a great couple?
MVP: Writer/director/star James Sweeney, willing this highly verbal indie into being.
Why It's Here: Straight Up is packed with ideas about conformity, gay politics, sexuality. ambition or lack thereof, and half a dozen others, with each given meaning and weight within an appealing screwball package.
What Is It: Pixar's latest adventure follows a man who dies on the eve of his big musical break and his soul must get back to his body.
MVP: Director Pete Docter for playing my emotions as ably as the lead plays his piano.
Why It's Here: Soul snows my inherent skepticism and distance from the metaphysical and repeatedly puts me in a state of ecstasy with Docter's mastery of some kind of cinematic formula that works every time he chalks it out on his screen.
What Is It: A missing lion cub threatens to throw a poor Parisian neighborhood into chaos.
MVP: Writer/director Ladj Ly for creating a Wire-esque world in a Parisian banlieue.
Why It's Here: In its depiction of a France that is recapitulating the conflicts that made it stand out on the historical stage, Les Miserables shows how so many facets of a community are letting the young down and leaving them few outlets beyond anger and anarchy.
What Is It: The Texas Boys State political/civic experiment is found to reflect the same kind of divisions and conflicts in the broader country.
MVP: Director Jesse Moss, an unprolific documentarian who makes up for lack of quantity with incredible quality.
Why It's Here: Teenagers making big decisions and taking steps towards the good or compromised people they might soon become is given significant dramatic weight in Boys State, a film that insists that kids are paying close attention to the people who built the world they're going to inherit, for good and ill.
What Is It: A dancer and her husband are plagued by self-recrimination when they have to give up their adopted son.
MVP: Mariana di Girolamo for her whole-body commitment to the titular role.
Why It's Here: Pablo Larrain's latest is a horny, exuberant exaltation of found families, and also twerking.
Sound of Metal
What Is It: A heavy metal drummer's hearing disappears overnight.
MVP: Riz Ahmed in a desperate and frenzied performance.
Why It's Here: Sound of Metal provides a rare peek into deaf subculture and the issues that divide it as first-time director Darius Marder fully puts the viewer into the protagonist's head.
What Is It: A frontier cook and a savvy Chinese immigrant team up in a rough Oregon town to feed the settlers with oily cakes, made with stolen milk.
MVP: John Magaro as sad-eyed Cookie, daring to imagine something greater for himself.
Why It's Here: Kelly Reichardt's best film in her impressive career fully understands the country and the nomadic, unbound people she's spent so much cinematic time exploring.
What Is It: Embezzlement is uncovered in a wealthy and high-performing New Jersey public school.
MVP: Hugh Jackman in a career-best role as an image-obsessed superintendant.
Why It's Here: Cory Finley's second film, a twisty and claustrophobic deconstruction of the upper class meritocracy, takes a huge leap and puts him in the top tier of young directors.
What Is It: A beautifully animated story of civilization butting up against nature in a subjugated Ireland.
MVP: Directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, turning each frame into a literal painting with their throwback style of animation.
Why It's Here: A richer and darker How To Train Your Dragon, Wolfwalkers represents Cartoon Saloon's ascension into the top ranks of animation studios.