The Best Movies of 2020

You might not catch them in theaters, but there are still plenty of movies to check out!

'Tenet' | Warner Brothers Pictures
'Tenet' | Warner Brothers Pictures

When 2020 started, the routine of going to a theater, purchasing a bag of popcorn, and losing yourself in a movie for a couple hours was still mundane. Over the last few years, streaming services like Netflix and money-burning companies like MoviePass have pulled at the threads of the traditional theatrical distribution model, testing the limits of consumer behavior, but the business never felt like it might completely unravel. Even as comic book blockbusters grew in power and smaller titles shifted to VOD releases, the big screen retained its mythic appeal. That's where the movies played. 

Not any more. The ongoing pandemic has closed theaters across the globe, upended the release plans for the studios of all sizes, and potentially transformed viewing habits for years to come. Where did that chaos leave the committed moviegoer? With plenty of movies to watch. Whether you were arranging a socially-distanced screening of the latest Christopher Nolan adventure, journeying to a drive-in to catch an old favorite, or simply scheduling your own programming block in quarantine, film still had a role to play in helping people get through this difficult year. These are the best movies of 2020.

For more new movies to watch, check out the Best Movies of 2021. For more 2020 movies, check out our genre-specific rankings of Best Horror Movies of 2020, Best Science-Fiction Movies of 2020, and Best Action Movies of 2020.

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Amazon Prime

Release date: October 23
Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Maria Bakalova
Director: Jason Woliner
Why it’s great: Tasked with playing the hits and capturing a feeling of surprise, comedy sequels have a uniquely difficult set of challenges. Luckily, the quasi-documentary style of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, along with the movie's reliance on elaborate Jackass-esque stunts, gives it a slight edge over more conventional (and bloated) Hollywood sequels like Anchorman 2 or Zoolander 2. If you like stuff like this, you just want to see what new trouble Cohen, joined by the equally mischievous Maria Bakalova as his daughter, gets into and who they piss off along the way. Even with more conventional scripted gags and some pandering political messaging, which comes across as self-important when presented in such a fundamentally misanthropic setting, the movie nailed a handful of show-stopping, skin-crawling set-pieces. In a year without many mainstream comedy hits, Borat delivered.

Where to watch: Stream on Amazon Prime (Watch the trailer)

let them all talk

Release date: December 10
Cast: Meryl Streep, Candice Bergen, Dianne Wiest, Lucas Hedges
Director: Steven Soderbergh (The Laundromat)
Why it’s great: The self-contained world of a cruise ship—with all of its stately decks, long corridors, and dining rooms—ends up being an ideal location for a Steven Soderbergh movie. In telling a story of an acclaimed author (Meryl Streep) traveling to receive an award with two old college friends (Candice Bergen and Dianne Wiest) and a sensitive nephew (Lucas Hedges), the script by short story writer Deborah Eisenberg finds just the right combination of gentle farce and spiky intrigue. The many scenes over cozy meals and fancy cocktails have an uneasy tension that's highlighted by Soderbergh's abrupt editing and his steady camera. More broadly, the set-up allows an unpretentiously cerebral filmmaker to poke at questions about creativity, money, and personal responsibility that riddle his work, turning what could've been a breezy vacation into a slightly heavier trip. Like with last year's equally adventurous High Flying Bird, all that talk becomes the action. 
Where to watch: Stream on HBO Max (Watch the trailer)

the vast of night movie
Amazon Studios

Release date: May 29
Cast: Sierra McCormick, Jake Horowitz, Gail Cronauer, Bruce Davis
Director: Andrew Patterson
Why it’s great: This low-budget debut feature is a UFO movie that takes time to achieve lift off. In addition to saddling the story with a mostly unnecessary framing device, which underlines the already obvious echoes of The Twilight Zone, director Andrew Patterson and the film's writers open the 1950s New Mexico-set story with a handful of overly precious exchanges featuring the two main characters, chatty DJ Everett (Horowitz) and young switchboard operator Fay (McCormick). In the beginning, these two might get on your nerves. But once the movie locks them in place, tampering down the acrobatic camerawork and letting the sound design take control, the material finds a more natural rhythm, drawing on the hushed intimacy of old-fashioned radio drama. Like many of the best UFO yarns, The Vast of Night taps into a deep sense of yearning. Wanting to believe is half the battle. 
Where to watch: Stream on Amazon Prime (Watch the trailer)

tesla movie
IFC Films

27. Tesla

Release date: August 21
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Kyle MacLachlan, Eve Hewson, Jim Gaffigan 
Director: Michael Almereyda (Marjorie Prime)
Why it’s great: Ice cream, roller skates, and karaoke might not be the first things that come to mind when one considers the life of inventor Nikola Tesla, but Michael Almereyda's uncompromisingly idiosyncratic biopic doesn't exactly stick to the expected story beats. Played with both vigor and wearniess by Ethan Hawke, this Tesla is often chasing funding for his next experiment and the movie shows an uncommon interest in the intricacies of how history is often underwritten by the whims of men carrying large checkbooks. As Tesla moves from one setback to the next, Almereyda, who covered similar territory in 2015's Stanley Milgram biopic Experimenter, lets his story fold back on itself in jarring ways, using techniques like rear-projection and direct-address to the audience to call attention to its own construction. Even if some of the digressions are more successful than others, the cumulative effect is galvanizing in the way it makes one consider how technology shapes the present and codifies the past.
Where to watch: Stream on Hulu; r
ent on AmazoniTunesVudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

bad boys for life
Columbia Pictures

Release date: January 17
Cast: Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Vanessa Hudgens, Paola Núñez 
Director: Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah (Black)
Why it’s great: In what wasn't exactly a great year for action movies, Bad Boys for Life was the biggest surprise. Given its lengthy production history, its January release date, and the departure of series director Michael Bay—the action auteur gets a winking cameo here, perhaps taking a break from shooting Netflix's 6 Underground—this movie could've been a disaster. Instead, Smith and Lawrence easily slip back into the roles that made them action movie icons in the '90s and the writers find a way to update the garish, over-the-top aesthetic of the series for the franchise era. In a wise decision, directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah don't even bother trying to top the excess and mayhem of Bay's Bad Boys II.Bad Boys For Life is a gentler, sillier movie than its predecessor, less interested in moments of vulgarity than in scenes of sitcom-like human connection and familial melodrama. There are explosions and car chases through the streets of Miami and jokes about getting too old for this shit, but the material is given a light touch that lets the two stars do what they do best. 
Where to watch: Rent on AmazoniTunesVudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

palm springs movie

Release date: July 10 
Cast: Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, J. K. Simmons, Camila Mendes 
Director: Max Barbakow
Why it’s great: Arriving on streaming in the middle of a pandemic, a time when many lives have fallen into unceasing loops of quarantine-related repetition and tedium, the Lonely Island produced comedy Palm Springs perhaps resonated differently than when it premiered at Sundance earlier this year. Jokes about doing the same shit over and over just hit harder now. Tracking a romance between a goofball wedding guest (Andy Samberg) and the bride's self-destructive sister (Cristin Milioti), writer Andy Siara's clever script combines Groundhog Day existentialism with a quippy take on quantum physics, doling out inspirational life lessons and math cram sessions at a clipped pace. In the same way Tom Cruise had to battle aliens in Edge of Tomorrow, the two must relive a wedding over and over, struggling to escape from an Instagram-ready, celebratory hell. It might not be as purely funny as Samberg's other big screen adventures Hot Rod and Popstar, but Palm Springs finds its own winning spin on a surprisingly robust micro-genre.
Where to watch: Stream on Hulu (Watch the trailer)

miss juneteenth
Vertical Entertainment

24. Miss Juneteenth

Release date: June 19
Cast: Nicole Beharie, Kendrick Sampson, Alexis Chikaeze, Liz Mikel 
Director: Channing Godfrey Peoples
Why it’s great: Nicole Beharie, the star of Miss Juneteenth, knows how to make small movements matter. The way her character, former pageant winner Turquoise Jones, holds a cigarette, shops for a used dress, or watches her daughter perform on stage, her face teetering between fear and pride, helps evoke a rich inner life and a sense of history. Her interactions with her elderly boss, her religious mother, and her on-again-off-again boyfriend (a wonderful Kendrick Sampson) hint at a complicated web of broken promises and stalled commitments. Similarly, director Channing Godfrey Peoples's patient approach to the material draws the viewer into the sweaty Fort Worth, Texas setting, a community centered around family and tradition. When people open car doors or step outside, you can almost see the heat waves.
Where to watch: Rent on AmazoniTunesVudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

the way back
Warner Brothers

Release date: March 6
Cast: Ben Affleck, Al Madrigal, Michaela Watkins, Janina Gavankar
Director: Gavin O'Connor (The Accountant
Why it’s great: Disciplined in its approach and unapologetic about its contrivances, Ben Affleck's basketball coach in crisis drama The Way Back is a sports movie that understands the fundamentals. What it lacks in flashiness or ingenuity—the underdog narrative of a crappy team hitting its stride under the leadership of a gruff coach hits all the requisite Hoosiers notes—it makes up for with an oddly enthralling downbeat craftsmanship. Little details, like the freeze-frame when the scores of games pop up on screen or the click-clack percussion-heavy music, accumulate emotional power over the film's brisk runtime. Playing a washed-up ex-athlete with an immediately apparent drinking problem and a number of strategically hidden personal demons, Affleck delivers a weary performance that resonates with his off-screen persona (and his recent tabloid headlines) in ways both obvious and surprising. In brief stretches, director Gavin O'Connor, who helmed the similarly intense melodramas Miracle and Warrior, pulls off the ultimate sports movie trick of making you believe the character's redemption isn't inevitable. Every win is a battle—even if you know the results going in.
Where to watch: Stream on HBO Max; rent on AmazoniTunesVudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

the assistant
Bleecker Street

22. The Assistant

Release date: January 31
Cast: Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen, Kristine Froseth, Makenzie Leigh 
Director: Kitty Green (Casting JonBenet)
Why it’s great: The systemic culture of indifference and cruelty that often forms around a powerful serial abuser gets put under the microscope in this studiously observed New York office drama, which draws inspiration from the behavior of Harvey Weinstein while intentionally blurring some of the details. We never learn the name of the tyrannical boss in the story and the exact nature of his crimes are never fully revealed; instead, Julia Garner's assistant Jane, a Northwestern grad fresh off a handful of internships, provides our entryway into the narrative. The movie tracks her duties, tasks, and indignities over the course of a single day: She makes copies, coordinates air travel, picks up lunch orders, answers phone calls, and cleans suspicious stains off the couch. At one point, a young woman from Idaho appears at the reception desk, claims to have been flown in to start as a new assistant, and gets whisked away to a room in an expensive hotel. Jane raises the issue with an HR rep, played with smarmy menace by Succession's Matthew Macfadyen, but her concerns are quickly battered away and turned against her. Rejecting cheap catharsis and dramatic twists, The Assistant builds its claustrophobic world through a steady accumulation of information. While some of the writing can feel too imprecise and opaque by design, Garner, who consistently steals scenes on Netflix's Ozark, invests every hushed phone call and carefully worded email with real trepidation. She locates the terror in the drudgery of the work. 
Where to watch: Stream on Hulu; rent on AmazoniTunesVudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

another round movie
Nordisk Film

21. Another Round

Release date: December 4
Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Lars Ranthe, Magnus Millang
Director: Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt)
Why it’s great: As the titular serial killer on NBC's strange, hypnotic Hannibal, Mads Mikkelsen played a villain who was always in control, evading capture and carving up his enemies with skill and flair. In Another Round, the statue-like Danish actor is given what could be considered an even tougher acting challenge: convincingly playing buzzed, drunk, and obliterated. His character, a middle-aged high school history teacher, decides to partake in an ill-advised experiment with his friends where they maintain a 0.05% BAC throughout the day. On the surface, the premise of Another Round sounds like it could be the plot of an unruly Will Ferrell or Vince Vaughn comedy, yet another tale of prolonged adolescence and mid-life crisis. The movie is funny, filled with booze-soaked scenes of bad behavior and slurred speech. But it's also genuinely moving and surprisingly melancholy, building to a dance-filled ending that lets Mikkelsen gracefully explore the thin edge between joy and oblivion.
Where to watch: Rent on AmazoniTunesVudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

sound of metal
Amazon Studios

Release date: November 20
Cast: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Lauren Ridloff
Director: Darius Marder
Why it’s great: Ruben, the metal drummer played by Riz Ahmed in Sound of Metal, builds his life around structure. A recovering heroin addict, Ruben plays in a band with his romantic partner Lou (Olivia Cooke) until he suddenly loses around 80% of his hearing in the middle of a tour. Without the routine of his life on the bus and the catharsis of live performance, Ruben starts to spiral out of control and checks into a rehab center run by a deaf veteran (Paul Raci) who pushes him to think about his hearing loss on different terms. Director Darius Marder takes an abrasive, thoughtful approach to formally dramatizing the effects of hearing loss through inventive sound design while never losing track of the story's emotional throughline or overshadowing Ahmed's inward, multi-layered performance.
Where to watch: Stream on Amazon Prime (Watch the trailer)

let him go
Focus Features

19. Let Him Go

Release date: November 6
Cast: Diane Lane, Kevin Costner, Lesley Manville, Will Brittain
Director: Thomas Bezucha (The Family Stone)
Why it’s great: After playing Superman's caring foster parents in Zack Snyder's Man of Steel, where they provided emotional heft to an almost purely mythological comic book narrative, Diane Lane and Kevin Costner reunite for this comparatively spare neo-Western about family feuds, bloodlines, and sacrifice. Following the tragic death of their son in a horse-riding accident, Margaret (Lane) and George (Costner) watch as their daughter-in-law Lorna (Kayli Carter), the mother of their precious grandchild, marries abusive terror Donnie (Will Brittain), who hails from a family led by an intimidating matriarch played with wild-eyed zeal by Lesley Manville. The set-up is drawn from a 2013 novel by Larry Watson and there's a weight to the writing, a willingness to let the characters core values dictate action and a trust that the performers will know how to play the spaces in the dialogue, that elevates this above other recent violent backwoods dramas. Costner, off the Yellowstone ranch here, is excellent as the subdued, conflicted grandfather, but this is Lane's movie, a showcase for both her quiet grace and fierce determination.
Where to watch: Rent on AmazoniTunesVudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

bad education

Release date: April 25
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Allison Janney, Ray Romano, Geraldine Viswanathan 
Director: Cory Finley (Thoroughbreads)
Why it’s great: A chronicle of greed, status, and vanity, Bad Education shares more than a few qualities with Martin Scorsese's financial crimes epic The Wolf of Wall Street, the story of another Long Island striver with slicked-back hair. Trading the stock market for the public education system, director Cory Finley's wry docudrama, which takes its inspiration from a wild New York Magazinefeature from 2004, charts the tragi-comic downfall of Roslyn School District superintendent Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman), a charming and beloved administrator in a rising wealthy area. When his assistant superintendent Pam Gluckin (Allison Janey) gets caught allowing family members to make personal charges using the school's credit cards, Frank's world of healthy smoothies, expensive suits, and gleeful deception begins to unravel. Using a high school newspaper reporter as an audience surrogate (Geraldine Viswanathan), the script withholds key details of Frank's life for large sections of the runtime, allowing Jackman to give a performance that gradually reveals new layers of emotional complexity and moral emptiness. Like the tweezers Frank uses to dutifully pluck his nose hairs, the movie takes a surgical approach to its subject.
Where to watch: Stream on HBO Max (Watch the trailer)

possessor movie

17. Possessor 

Release date: October 2
Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Christopher Abbott, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Sean Bean
Director: Brandon Cronenberg (Antiviral)
Why it's great: Opening with a piece of metal piercing the top of a woman's head, the second feature from filmmaker Brandon Cronenberg announces the type of movie it is right away. The son of body horror legend David Cronenberg, the director splices together elements of Inception, The Matrix, and his father's own cyberpunk reality-bender eXistenZ to create an art-damaged thriller about an assassin (Andrea Riseborough) who uses advanced technology to take control of other people and carry out her assigned hits using their bodies. For her latest mission, she invades the mind of Colin (Christopher Abbott), the boyfriend of the daughter of a powerful tech CEO. Simple job, right? Not so fast. From the plot description, Possessor sounds relatively straightforward, but Cronenberg piles on enough gruesome gore effects, Walter Benjamin quotes, lengthy sex scenes, and hallucinatory montages to make this a sufficiently out there experience. 
Where to watch: Stream on Hulu; rent on AmazoniTunesVudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer

im thinking of ending things

Release date: September 4
Cast: Jesse Plemons, Jessie Buckley, Toni Collette, David Thewlis 
Director:Charlie Kaufman (Anomalisa
Why it’s great: A snowy road trip, which finds a young woman (Buckley) traveling with her new boyfriend (Plemons) to the remote farm owned by his eccentric parents (Collette and Thewlis), turns into a journey into the hard problem of consciousness in the latest movie from Charlie Kaufman, the filmmaker who first emerged as the screenwriter behind brain-teasing comedies like Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Older and gentler in some respects, Kaufman remains plagued by life's biggest questions and tickled by occasional bursts of the surreal. Like the previous features he's directed, the stunning Synecdoche, NY and the puzzling Anomalisa, this new one, adapted from a novel by Iain Reid, is a less outwardly comic affair. Riddled with references and quotations, including bits of Pauline Kael and William Wordsworth, the movie resists a single reading or an elegant interpretation, embracing neurosis as a subject and a style. As the characters think and talk themselves in circles, the ideas pile up like mounds of fresh powder. Best to bring your brain's tire chains.
Where to watch: Stream on Netflix (Watch the trailer)

sorry we missed you
Zeitgeist Films

15. Sorry We Missed You

Release date: March 6
Cast: Kris Hitchen, Debbie Honeywood, Rhys Stone, Katie Proctor
Director: Ken Loach (I, Daniel Blake)
Why it’s great: The modern gig economy is set up so that the customer rarely has to think very much about the person delivering a package to their door. Sorry We Missed You, the latest working class social drama from 83-year-old English filmmaker Ken Loach, is a harsh reminder that those piles of cardboard Amazon boxes have a human cost. The film follows married couple Ricky (Kris Hitchen) and Abbi (Debbie Honeywood) as they attempt to raise their two kids, keep their humble home in Newcastle, and and hold down jobs stripped of conventional protections. As Ricky's domineering boss tells him at the beginning of the movie, he's not an "employee." No, he's his own small business owner and independent contractor. Loach finds dark laughs and absurdity in the the convoluted language of precarity, particularly the way management attempts to sell poor working conditions as a form of empowerment, but he also captures the tender, intimate moments that occur in even the most soul-sucking jobs. Ricky and his daughter find joy in knocking on doors and leaving notes; Abbi, who works as a nurse, genuinely cares for her patients like her own family even if the company she works for refuses to pay for her transportation. Though the script leans too hard on melodrama in its final stretch, setting up scenes that don't always deliver on their dramatic potential, Loach never loses his moral grasp on the material.
Where to watch: Stream on Criterion; on AmazoniTunesVudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer

color out of space
RLJE Films

14. Color Out of Space

Release date: January 24
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Joely Richardson, Madeleine Arthur, Brendan Meyer
Director: Richard Stanley (Hardware)
Why it’s great: For a certain type of moviegoer, any film where Nicolas Cage says the word "alpacas" multiple times is worth seeking out. Luckily, Color Out of Space, a psychedelic adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's short story from 1927, offers more than just furry animals and unhinged Cage theatrics. Mixing hints of science-fiction intrigue and bursts horror movie excess, along with a couple splashes of stoner-friendly comedy, Richard Stanley's proudly weird B-movie vibrates on its own peculiar frequency. Cage's Nathan, a chatty farmer with a loving wife (Joely Richardson) and a pair of mildly rebellious kids, must contend with a meteoroid that crashes in his front yard, shooting purple light all over his property and infecting the local water supply. Is it some space invader? A demonic spirit? A biological force indiscriminately wreaking havoc on the fabric of reality itself? The squishy unknowability of the evil is precisely the point, and Stanley melds Evil Dead-like gore showdowns with Pink Floyd laser light freak-outs to thrilling effect, achieving a moving and disquieting type of genre alchemy that should appeal to fans of Cage's out-there turn in the similarly odd hybrid Mandy. Again, you'll know if this is in your wheelhouse or not. 
Where to watch it: Rent on AmazoniTunesVudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

the empty man
20th Century Studios

13. The Empty Man

Release date: October 23
Cast: James Badge Dale, Marin Ireland, Stephen Root, Ron Canada 
Director: David Prior 
Why it’s great: From its lengthy opening prologue, a snow swept chronicle of a scenic hike gone wrong, to its bracing mind-fuck of a finale, an endearingly '90s attempt to pull the rug out from underneath the viewer, The Empty Man confounds expectations. Dumped in theaters by Disney in the middle of a pandemic with little promotional fanfare, this debut from filmmaker David Prior, adapting a Boom! Studios comic series after a notable career shooting DVD special features for David Fincher, is as rewardingly batshit as modern studio filmmaking tends to get. James Badge Dale plays an ex-cop who investigates the disappearance of a friend's child and soon finds himself caught up in a conspiracy that touches on a Scientology-like religion, kids-on-a-bridge urban legends, and sinister ancient folklore. Like Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, it's perhaps best interpreted as a parable about the mental strain of staring at a computer screen and looking for meaning, the feeling of watching reality dissolve right in front of your eyes.
Where to watch it:
Rent on AmazoniTunesVudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer) 

the nest
IFC Films

12. The Nest

Release date: September 18
Cast: Jude Law, Carrie Coon, Charlie Shotwell, Oona Roche
Director: Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene)
Why it's great: "This was our fresh start," says Carrie Coon's Allison to her husband Rory (Jude Law) early on in The Nest, Sean Durkin's severe drama of marriage and money. The way Coon delivers the line hints at a shared history, a series of broken promises and a desire to salvage a relationship through drastic change. The couple moves to London from America with their children so that Rory can secure a financial windfall: It's the '80s and regulations in the English markets are loosening. But the plan doesn't work and soon Rory is spending money he doesn't have to maintain a lifestyle Allison doesn't even necessarily want. His reckless financial risk-taking feeds her natural cautiousness, which slowly turns into resentment and anger. Interrogating the way class anxieties forged in childhood can determine patterns of behavior, Durkin's movie is as perceptive as it is tense.
Where to watch: Rent on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

shirley movie

Release date: June 5
Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Odessa Young, Logan Lerman
Director: Josephine Decker (Madeline's Madeline)
Why it’s great: In short stories like The Lottery and novels like The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson conjured unease, tension, and queasy strangeness that made them difficult to put down. Fittingly, Shirley, an adaptation of a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, examines a highly pressurized moment in the author's life that makes for occasionally nerve-rattling viewing. As played by Elisabeth Moss, Jackson can be temperamental, brilliant, and cruel, especially to Rose (Odessa Young) and Fred (Logan Lerman), the newlywed couple that move into the paper-strewn house she shares with her controlling professor husband (Michael Stuhlbarg). Where Decker's previous exploration of the creative process, the dizzying Madeline's Madeline, took an often nonlinear, combustible approach, Shirley retains some of the stuffy mechanics of the writerly biopic, particularly in the scenes of Jackson typing away at what will become her novel Hangsaman. (That book, which was partially inspired by the real-life disappearance of college student Paula Jean Welden, was written earlier in Jackson's life than the movie portrays.) But Moss's mischievous performance, the subtle interplay between the two women, and the feeling that the movie could tilt over the edge into chaos, chasing darker impulses and rolling around in the mud with Decker's roaming camera, keeps it from falling into many of the traps set by the often worshipful "great artist" micro-genre.
Where to watch: Stream on Hulu; rent on AmazoniTunesVudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

dick johnson is dead

Release date: October 2
Director: Kirsten Johnson (Cameraperson)
Why it’s great: Watching Kirsten Johnson's kind-hearted dad, Richard "Dick" Johnson, get crushed by an air conditioning unit, struck by a car, and knocked in the head by a construction beam provides a startling thrill. These strange little experiments, staged by his filmmaker daughter and carried out by seasoned stunt professionals, form the structural backbone for this tender documentary, a work of memoir sprinkled with touches of the surreal. Instead of just making a portrait of her father, a cheery psychiatrist from Washington, Johnson constructs a film that attempts to confront a universal fear by delving into matters of process. Death, terrifying and unconquerable, becomes an art project. Like with an episode of Nathan for You or, sure, even Jackass, there's a delicate tonal line being walked: Why does Dick agree to go along with these elaborate stunts? The simple answer—he loves his daughter—becomes increasingly clear as Dick Johnson Is Dead unfolds.
Where to watch it: Stream on Netflix (Watch the trailer)

she dies tomorrow

Release date: July 31
Cast: Kate Lyn Sheil, Jane Adams, Kentucker Audley, Chris Messina 
Director: Amy Seimetz (Sun Don't Shine)
Why it’s great: The strobing lights and shifting colors that flash across the at crucial points in She Dies Tomorrow signal a psychological shift that can't be fully explained or articulated by any of the characters. They all know something is wrong—unavoidable death is approaching, soon—but they can't exactly put a name to it or make others empathize with their anxiety until the reaction spreads. And this condition spreads fast: starting with Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil), who just moved into a sleek new house, and jumping to her obsessive friend, and then that friend's family and on and on. Is this a medical thriller stripped of jargon or a dark social comedy of manners stylized into a more abstract register? Quibbles about genre feel less urgent as the movie builds its peculiar world of dune buggies, leather shops, and swimming pools. Director Amy Seimetz scrutinizes behavior with a careful eye, and she brings joy out of the performers even in dire circumstances, but the movie's big questions are metaphysical. Surrendering to the void or stepping into the light can only do so much.
Where to watch it: Stream on Hulu; rent on AmazoniTunesVudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

tenet movie
Warner Bros.

8. Tenet

Release date: September 3
Cast: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh
Director:Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk)
Why it’s great: Despite all its time travel shenanigans and theoretical physics exposition, delivered by elegantly dressed characters as they stroll through scenic locales and dine over cups of tea with Michael Caine, Tenet has the attitude of a more straightforward action movie. John David Washington's unnamed CIA agent gets a world-saving Ethan Hunt-like mission, which he accepts, and then goes about trying to accomplish without wrinkling his suits. That convoluted mission allows director Christopher Nolan to dip his toe into international spy-craft, a genre that meshes well with his logistics-obsessed filmmaking style, and string together a number of wildly impressive set-pieces, including a raid on an opera house, a heist that involves crashing an airplane, and a ridiculous desert siege built upon a handful of conceptual gimmicks I still don't understand. In the background, Washington and Robert Pattinson, playing a British intelligence figure named Neil, forge a surprisingly touching buddy cop partnership, one that grows more poignant on further reflection, and Ludwig Göransson's pulsating synth-heavy score never lets up, pushing sequences beyond mere comprehension or coherence.
Where to watch it: Purchase on AmazoniTunesVudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

small axe
Mangrove | Amazon Prime

Release date: November 15
Cast: Shaun Parkes,  Letitia Wright, Micheal Ward, John Boyega, Sheyi Cole, Kenyah Sandy
Director: Steve McQueen (Widows)
Why it’s great: Small Axe, director Steve McQueen's anthology of five films chronicling the lives of members of London's West Indian community from the '60s to the '80s, careens between moments of struggle and triumph. On one level, each film examines a different political or social system: Mangrove takes on the courts, Lovers Rock surveys the dancefloor, Red, White and Blue confronts the police force, Alex Wheatle dissects prisons, and Education takes the viewer inside a struggling school. That might make each individual film sound like an academic exercise, an attempt to unpack one theme or institution at a time, but McQueen's moral focus and his sensitivity to subtle shifts in human behavior gives each story a startling complexity. Though it's tempting to highlight one favorite in the series--Lovers Rock, laced with music and romance, is a uniquely joyful entry in McQueen's filmography--Small Axe deserves to be seen and considered in its often stunning totality.
Where to watch it: Stream on Amazon Prime (Watch the trailer)

bloody nose empty pockets

6. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets

Release date: July 10
Directors: Bill and Turner Ross (Western)
Why it’s great: The theme song from Cheers succinctly summed up the communal appeal of the local bar: "Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name." On the surface, this genre-bending documentary from brother filmmaking team Bill and Turner Ross is a straightforward celebration of that concept, one that explores depths of feeling, patterns of behavior, and types of language you wouldn't see on a network sitcom. Chronicling the closing night of a Las Vegas dive called Roaring '20s in November 2016, in the the shadow of Donald Trump's election victory, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets introduces a series of bartenders and barflys, observing them in verité style as they watch Jeopardy! on TV, sing songs, and get in arguments. An Australian regular takes acid; a cake gets smashed. Just another night out. The setup is simple and the hangout vibe is a pleasure, but the story of how the the film was made, which goes mostly unacknowledged on screen, blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction in a way that gives the events a woozy texture. It's a sentiment most bar-goers can relate to: Why let the truth get in the way of a great story?
Where to watch it: Rent on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

da 5 bloods

Release date: June 12 
Cast: Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis
Director: Spike Lee (BlackKklansman)
Why it’s great: Exploding with historical references, directorial flourishes, and flashes of combat action, Spike Lee's war epic Da 5 Bloods is a movie that embraces the inherent messiness of its subject matter. At first, the story sounds simple enough: four elderly Black veterans regroup and travel to Vietnam to recover the remains of their squad leader Norman (Chadwick Boseman) and search for a shipment of gold they buried in the jungle decades ago. But Lee, pushing the movie in sharply funny and emotionally fraught directions depending on the demands of the scenes, refuses to approach the Treasure of Sierra Madre-like set-up in a straight-forward manner. Instead, the movie pings between the MAGA-hat speckled present and the bullet-ridden past, using his older actors in the flashbacks as their younger selves to underline the strangeness of time's passage. While some of the detours might test your patience, particularly once the men discover the gold and start arguing over what to do with it, the powerful ending, which becomes a moving showcase for the great Delroy Lindo, makes this a long journey worth embarking on.
Where to watch it: Stream on Netflix (Watch the trailer)

never rarely sometimes always
Focus Features

Release date: March 13
Cast: Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder, Théodore Pellerin, Ryan Eggold
Director: Eliza Hittman (Beach Rats)
Why it’s great: The Port Authority bus terminal provides the backdrop for a good deal of the drama and the waiting in Eliza Hittman's powerful portrait of a teenager traveling from Pennsylvania to New York to have an abortion, a procedure she can't receive in her home state. Quiet and watchful, Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) observes the world around her from benches, bus seats, and doctor's office chairs, dragging an enormous suitcase through the drab interiors of various midtown locations. She doesn't tell her parents about her pregnancy or her trip. She's joined by her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder), who wants to be a supportive friend and sounding board. Still, the two don't talk much. The movie's most striking image shows the two holding hands in a moment of shared vulnerability, like their bond transcends language. As a filmmaker, Hittman is most interested in behavior and gesture, approaching her story with the type of careful rigor that allows for poetic moments to emerge in unexpected places. It's a style that's especially suited to the challenging emotional terrain of the material. 
Where to watch: Stream on HBO Max; rent on AmazoniTunesVudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

time movie documentary

3. Time

Release date: October 9 
Director: Garrett Bradley
Why it’s great: Phrases like "time is what you make of it," "time flies," and "time heals all wounds" get turned inside out by this exquisitely constructed documentary. Time chronicles the life of entrepreneur and activist Sibil “Fox” Rich as she lobbies for the release of her husband, Robert Richardson, from the Louisiana State Penitentiary, otherwise known as Angola. (The prison is shown from the sky in a chilling drone shot, emphasizing the enormous scale of the facility.) Filmmaker Garrett Bradley blends modern footage of Rich—taking care of her children, delivering moving speeches, and running her business—with intimate home video archives shot by Rich over the span of a lifetime. In one moment, you might see a giggling child; in the next shot, that child is a watchful teenager. Few movies display such a total command of craft, summoning complex ideas and grappling with fundamental truths, while telling such a profoundly moving story.
Where to watch: Stream on Amazon Prime (Watch the trailer)

Kino Lorber

2. Bacurau 

Release date: March 6
Cast: Sônia Braga, Udo Kier, Bárbara Colen, Thomas Aquino
Directors: Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles
Why it’s great: When a movie tells a story about a community joining together to fight off outside invaders, there are certain shots, moments, and heroics you want to see. Bloodshed, vengeance, and justice all have a place in Bacurau, a feverish, quasi-dystopian genre mash-up centered around a fictional Brazilian city in the country's Northwestern region, but the film doles out its cathartic showdowns in an inventive, dizzying manner. After a stretch exploring the geography, political realities, and daily routines of the city, a scheming American villain arrives and, in an inspired bit of casting, he's played by B-movie staple Udo Kier, reveling in the cruelty and complexity of the role. He's leading a team of aspiring would-be commandos, the type of people who view killing as a novel thrill. (The movie would make for a revealing double-feature with its more outright silly American counterpart The Hunt.) Exposition gets tucked in odd narrative corners; the tactical demands of the situation shift; scenes play out in tense, curious confrontations. Eventually, the movie explodes like a volcano, bursts of stylized gore and righteous indignation flying everywhere. Both visually hallucinatory and morally centered, Bacurau excites and inspires in equal measure.
Where to watch: Stream on Criterion; rent on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

first cow movie

1. First Cow

Release date: March 6
Cast: John Magaro, Orion Lee, René Auberjonois, Toby Jones
Director:Kelly Reichardt (Certain Women)
Why it’s great: First Cow, Kelly Reichardt's evocative and wise tale of frontier life, begins with the discovery of two skeletons in the woods. An unnamed young woman (Arrested Development's Alia Shawkat) and her dog—echoing the human-and-canine pair at the center of Reichardt's 2008 road story Wendy and Lucy—come upon the bones in the modern day Pacific Northwest. Then we flash back to a time when the Oregon territory was far less developed, an era of perilous opportunity and rampant exploitation, and meet Cookie (John Magaro), a bashful and unassuming cook for a team of unruly fur trappers. Eventually, he befriends the wandering King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant who claims to be fleeing some Russians. The two stumble on an opportunity to make some money: A wealthy landowner (Toby Jones) brings the first cow to the region, and Cookie and King-Lu decide to steal the cow's milk at night and use it to bake sweet honey biscuits, which they sell at the local market. The story has an allegorical quality, gently pulling at classic American notions of hope, ambition, and deception. Reichardt, who chronicled a similar historical period in 2010's neo-Western Meek's Cutoff and an equally rich male friendship in 2006's buddy comedy Old Joy, has a gentle human touch that never veers into sentimentality. On a literal and metaphoric level, she knows where the bodies are buried.
Where to watch: Stream on Showtime; rent on AmazoniTunesVudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

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Dan Jackson is a senior staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.