It’s been a weird year for movies, to say the least. I only saw four in actual theaters, and only one (Tenet) after the pandemic began. Yet movies kept finding ways to reach audiences, whether on one of the growing options of streaming platforms, or via the “new-for-2020” format called “virtual cinemas.”
The closure of movie theaters for much of 2020 will likely have lasting consequences. Who knows if audiences will ever return to the multiplex in numbers like they once did. The pandemic accelerated an already progressing shift toward streaming distribution, and the industry will forever be changed. What’s lost when we no longer watch movies in communal settings, amid crowds of cheering strangers, but only in the privacy of our own home? A lot, I think, but that’s an essay for another day. In the meantime, the good news is that good movies are still being made—and in a year like 2020, we needed them.
What follows are my recommendations for the best of a bizarre year. As always, viewers should use discretion in terms of content. Though I chose only movies that are in some way edifying or redemptive—depicting goodness, truth, or beauty in ways Christian viewers can celebrate—several films on my list are rated R or TV-MA and should be viewed with caution and discernment.
With that said, here are my 10 favorites, 10 honorable mentions, as well as 10 excellent documentaries released in 2020.
Almost every moment and image of Chloé Zhao’s film is packed with beauty and insight. Like her 2018 film, The Rider (read my TGC review), Nomadland is quietly observational, blurring the lines between drama and documentary (most of the cast are non-actors playing versions of themselves). Aesthetically influenced by Terrence Malick, Zhao’s film (watch the trailer) is more a collage of transcendent moments than a traditional narrative. Even so, its plot—about a widow, Fern (Frances McDormand), whose grief leads her to live a nomadic life in the American West—is compelling and tender. McDormand delivers a career-best performance in a film that ponders not only the contingency of “home” in a transient world, but the fragility of life itself. From the crashing waves of the Pacific to South Dakota’s Black Hills, Fern’s America is a stunning landscape for spiritual wandering. It’s a film that invokes the spirit of Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, Kerouac’s On the Road, or maybe even Shakespeare—a stage of fascinating people whose entrances and exits come and go as quickly as a cold front thundering through the plains. Wide release February 19, 2021. Rated R.
Lee Isaac Chung’s debut film, 2007’s Munyurangabo, came out of a Youth with a Mission (YWAM) trip he and his wife—both believers—took to Rwanda. Screened at the Cannes Film Festival and heralded as a “masterpiece” by Roger Ebert, the film was an auspicious debut for Chung. But with Minari—a semi-autobiographical portrait of Chung’s childhood on a rural Arkansas farm—the filmmaker enters a new echelon of acclaim (including much Oscar buzz). Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, Minari (named after a Korean herb that can grow anywhere) follows a Korean immigrant family as they forge a life in rural Arkansas in the 1980s. While many “Christian films” that celebrate faith and family feel forced and preachy, Minari (watch the trailer) is a more understated, nuanced, and thus more effective portrait. In a “safer at home” year like 2020, a film like Minari is a welcome reminder of the resilience of the nuclear family and the beautiful refuge of home—wherever you’re planted. Wide release February 12, 2021. Rated PG-13.
3. Sound of Metal
This remarkable film starts out loud and gradually gets quieter. It’s a trajectory that follows the film’s story—of a heavy metal drummer, Ruben (Riz Ahmed), who starts to rapidly lose his hearing—but also invites all of us to listen in a deafeningly noisy age. An impressive directorial debut by Darius Marder, Sound is also unintentionally theological. It thoughtfully ponders the meaning of suffering and disability, as well as how human works-oriented nature struggles to accept grace and mercy—especially when they come in ways that at first seem severe. Ahmed shines in the film, but my favorite character is a Christian minister named Joe (Paul Raci) who tries to help Ruben find peace in his hearing loss rather than trying to change it and “get back to normal.” Rather than pursue the constant hum of self-justifying work and self-salvation, Joe encourages Ruben toward “those moments of stillness” where the “kingdom of God is found.” It’s the key line the film returns to in its final shot, and one that has surprising gospel resonance. Watch on Amazon Prime Video. Rated R.
4. News of the World
This stellar western pairs Tom Hanks with director Paul Greengrass for the first time since the two collaborated in Captain Phillips (2013), which I still think contains Hanks’s best performance. Playing a “captain” again here (Captain Kidd), Hanks is characteristically great as a widowed Civil War veteran who reads the news (or “performs” it, depending on how you look at it) for a living and finds himself thrust into a drama he didn’t seek out. Like many other films on this list, News of the World feels at home in 2020 in its celebration of the havens of family, friendship, and virtue against the backdrop of a menacing and deeply broken world. Based on the book by Paulette Jiles, News reminds us that the headlines “out there” might be nice to know, but the realities and problems closer to home—those goods and injustices within our power to pursue or subdue—are where we should primarily direct our energies. Watch in theaters now (or on Netflix if you live outside the United States). Rated PG-13.
5. First Cow
Like Nomadland, Kelly Reichardt’s film is a portrait of the American West that captures both the greatness and tragedy of American dreams. The plot concerns an unlikely pair of economic and cultural outsiders who band together to survive in the cutthroat 1820s Pacific Northwest frontier. Like many of Reichardt’s other films, First Cow explores the elusive beauty of relational connection in a world that is often isolating and cruel. The central relationship in the film is a sweet reminder of the necessity of trustworthy friendship in a dog-eat-dog world. Yet the film contains many other interesting layers and textures, there for the interpretive taking of audiences willing to look closer. Shot less like a film and more like a painting (framed with a 4:3 aspect ratio), Cow “invites viewers to bring their own interpretive eyes to its subtle imagery and thematic portraiture,” I wrote in July. “Is the film about America? Capitalism? Friendship? Time? Yes, and more.” Watch on Amazon. Rated PG-13.
6. Small Axe: Lovers Rock
Small Axe is an anthology series of five distinct films from director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) that explore stories of London’s West Indian immigrant community in the 1960s–’80s. All five films are superb and utterly timely amid 2020’s global focus on racial justice. My favorite of the collection, however, is also the least plot-driven. Lovers Rock is essentially a 70-minute celebration of the beauty of culture—and the haven it can be in a hostile world, especially for immigrant or minority cultures. Named after a style of reggae popularized in London in the 1970s, Lovers Rock takes place at a West London house party over the course of one night in the 1980s. Long takes simply observe partiers dancing freely and experiencing the “safe place” joy of a sweaty, crowded, communal experience (remember those?). To watch the film in these “social distancing” days is to be reminded that we were made for embodied, communal closeness, not isolated distance. Watch on Amazon Prime Video. Rated TV-MA.
7. Young Ahmed
Empathy seems in shorter and shorter supply today, which is why Belgian filmmaker brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are such treasures. Though not explicitly Christian, their films are consistently driven by moral grounding and deep concern for the dignity and preciousness of image-of-God bearing humans—even if they are “alien” to us or otherwise hard to love. The story of a radicalized young Muslim and the people in his life perhaps too willing to give him grace, Young Ahmed poses many difficult questions—about the nature of evil, rehabilitation, and the limits of empathy—that it leaves the audience to answer. As in most of their other films, Ahmed is not interested in categorizing people in broad “good” or “bad” categories. It rather sees that none of us escapes the stain of sin, even as none of us is too far from the reach of grace. Rent on Amazon. Not rated.
8. The Assistant
Though certainly not in the “enjoyable to watch” category, Kitty Green’s film is nonetheless a powerful and timely piece of cinematic storytelling. Ostensibly inspired by the Harvey Weinstein sex-abuse scandal—and the corrupt systems of silence and ambition that allowed such an “open secret” to persist for so long in Hollywood—The Assistant is harrowing in its depiction of the ease with which humans can dehumanize each other. A “day in the life” narrative of a low-ranking female assistant (Julia Garner) to a Weinstein-esque film executive (whom we never see in the film), the film contains eye-opening, bracing insights into how powerful people can manipulate those around them to ignore or cover up abuse rather that report and expose it. For Christians—who of all people should seek to dismantle rather than perpetuate cultures of abuse—this is an important film to watch. Rent on Amazon or watch on Hulu. Rated R.
Before she starred in 2020’s breakout Netflix hit, The Queen’s Gambit, 24-year-old English-Argentine actress Anya Taylor-Joy delivered a terrifically snobby performance as Emma Wodehouse in Autumn de Wilde’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic. A colorful, quirky, and fun British period film (exactly the sort of smart escapism 2020 deserved), Emma is also a film with sincere and compelling commitment to virtue. Emma’s journey in the film toward self-awareness and repentance is refreshing to watch, in an age when “downward spiral” arcs (think Breaking Bad) and “anti-culture” deconstruction of the past are more common than straightforward celebrations of bygone propriety. The repeated refrain on the soundtrack of “How Firm a Foundation,” sung by British folk artist Maddy Prior, underscores the film’s homage to an era of more straightforward right, wrong, and moral clarity. Rent on Amazon. Rated PG.
This quiet, unflashy film doesn’t raise the alarm about some global injustice or headline-grabbing scandal. It’s not showy, shocking, or self-important. It’s simply a film about a few neighbors who become close friends—across various differences (age, race, culture) that would suggest such a bond would be unlikely. But far from a mundane and simply “feel-good” story, Driveways is radical for modeling the beauty of faithful local neighboring at a time when the internet tends to pull us everywhere else but our own backyard. As I wrote earlier this year, “In times of cultural crisis, narratives like this remind us that change often happens locally, through the people we get to know, and learn to love, right next door.” Rent on Amazon or watch on Hulu. Not rated.
10 Honorable Mentions
Da 5 Bloods (TGC review), Greyhound (TGC review), I’m Thinking of Ending Things (TGC review), Mank, On the Rocks, Small Axe: Mangrove, Thy Kingdom Come (TGC review), Tenet (TGC review), The Way Back (TGC review), Wolfwalkers.
10 Excellent Documentaries
Here are 10 of the best documentaries released in 2020 (listed in alphabetical order), along with where you can watch them.
There will be many films made about the COVID-19 pandemic, but this is the first great one. Directed by Hao Wu, Weixi Chen and an anonymous journalist, the film—which follows front-line health workers in Wuhan, China’s 76-day lockdown—is both harrowing and humane, viscerally capturing the heroism of doctors and the human toll of the virus. Now playing in virtual cinemas. Not rated.
This film follows the IndyStar reporting that uncovered the extensive sexual abuse of U.S. Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar. Like Collective on this list, Athlete A is an inspiring reminder of the power of good journalism to expose corruption, advocate for the vulnerable, and bring truth to light. Watch on Netflix. Rated PG-13.
Jesse Moss’s fascinating look inside Texas Boys State is at once inspiring and horrifying, not only because of what it reflects about the state of politics today, but also because its focus on the next generation provides both reason to cheer and fear. Read TGC’s review. Watch on AppleTV+. Rated PG-13.
In a “post-truth” era in which trustworthy journalism has never been needed more, this Romanian documentary is an inspiring look at how one newspaper’s dogged, “facts are facts” commitment to exposing government and health-care corruption literally saved lives. Rent on Amazon. Not rated (but includes some language and disturbing images).
Dick Johnson Is Dead
Probably the most creative documentary of the year—and equal parts funny and tragic—Kirsten Johnson’s film reflects on mortality, memory, faith, and hope through the lens of her own aging father’s impending death. Watch on Netflix. Rated PG-13.
Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds
Greenland may be 2020’s more entertaining asteroid-hits-Earth movie, but Werner Herzog’s typically quirky, spiritually curious film examines the asteroid in a much more compelling, culturally and philosophically compelling way. Watch on AppleTV+. Rated PG.
Jump Shot: The Kenny Sailors Story
The Last Dance
ESPN’s docu-series on Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls was exactly what sports-deprived fans needed in the early months of the pandemic. Gripping as a portrait of the sports icon who is arguably the GOAT, the series (read TGC’s review) also doubles as comforting nostalgia for those of us who grew up in the ’90s. Watch on Netflix. Rated TV-MA.
The Social Dilemma
This sobering look at the negative societal effects of social-media algorithms may pin too much blame on (and ascribe too much power to) tech companies—and too little on consumers—but its cautionary lessons are still potent. Read TGC’s review. Watch on Netflix. Rated PG-13.
More tone poem than typical documentary, Time takes a contemplative look at family, faith, criminal justice, and the long shadows cast by choices we make in a moment. Watch on Amazon Prime Video. Rated PG-13.