The 20 Best Netflix Original Movies of 2020
These are the ones actually worth your time.
Netflix banks on its original TV shows and movies to keep you hooked on the service, which explains why the streaming service budgeted more than $17 billion in 2020 to fill out its programming slate. While the quality of its original productions varies wildly, Netflix has churned out a diverse and increasingly impressive list of releases over the past few years, with gems from big-name directors like Alfonso Cuarón, Noah Baumbach, and Martin Scorsese, to name but a few, and 2020 continued the trend. Here are our picks for the 20 best Netflix originals released in 2020.
20. Hubie Halloween
After starring in the relentless crime thriller Uncut Gems, which earned him some of the best reviews of his career, Adam Sandler returned to his old tricks with this Netflix holiday lark. Hubie Halloween, which follows sweet man-child Hubie Dubois as he watches over the town of Salem on Halloween night, is a funny-voiced Sandler movie in the tradition of The Waterboy, Little Nicky, or the Canteen Boy sketches from SNL. (Keep your eyes peeled for an old photo of Hubie wearing a scout uniform.) It's got some of the family-friendly touches as the Grown Ups franchise along with the spooky trappings of the Hotel Transylvania animated series. It's also got enough cameos to make this the Sandler equivalent of the "Monster Mash," which unsurprisingly pops up on the movie's soundtrack. It's a fun title to say out loud, too.
19. Lost Girls
Documentarian Liz Garbus makes her narrative feature debut with this real life story based on a deeply reported book by Robert Kolker about the mystery surrounding a series of murders on Long Island. At the center of her narrative is Amy Ryan as Mari Gilbert, the ferocious mother of a young woman who disappeared. As Mari, Ryan is fiercely guarded but is drawn into a movement when she realizes her plight is being ignored because her daughter was a sex worker. At times, the film flattens into a routine procedural, but Ryan's anger is palpable and she's matched by strong performances from Lola Kirke and Miriam Shor.
18. Over the Moon
Four years after her mother's death, young Fei Fei (Cathy Ang) is still enamored with a legend her mother told her of the moon goddess Chang'e, who is said to live on the dark side of the moon waiting thousands of years for her lost lover. When she clashes with her family during their Moon Festival celebration, worried that her father's new relationship with another woman will replace their memories of her mother, Fei Fei vows to use her smarts to build a spaceship to the Moon and find Chang'e to bring back proof that her mother's story was true after all. But when she gets there, the moon goddess is not what she's expecting, and Fei Fei must complete a daring quest in order to get home to her family once more. With stunning animation and catchy musical sequences, this is a Netflix gem, directed by long-time Disney animator Glen Keane, you won't want to miss.
Master of None co-creator Alan Yang makes his directorial feature debut, in which he loosely adapts his own father's life. It's a tight film that's still epic in scale as it follows a man named Pin-Jui from his childhood as a young boy in Taiwan into his middle age in America. Yang jumps back and forth in time, as the present-day Pin-Jui (played in a wonderful, understated performance by Tzi Ma) reflects on his past. It's a tricky balancing act. The scenes of his life as a young adult as he bonds with his first love are flush with color, which fades as he settles into the rhythms of a passionless marriage in New York. At times Tigertail can feel like a condensed version of a much longer saga, and indeed that was sort of the case as Yang whittled down a draft that was more than 200 pages. Still, Yang has crafted a vivid tale about the immigrant experience, regret, and the bonds between generations.
Like a bloody riff on Rear Window where Jimmy Stewart has a gaming console, a drone, and a taste for Nutella, #Alive follows sweatpants-clad slacker Jun-u (Ah-In Yoo of 2018's excellent Burning) as he attempts to wait out the spread of a deadly virus at the apartment he previously shared with his parents. Though the film was shot in 2019, director and co-writer Il Cho clearly stumbled on a premise that resonated in a year when people all over the globe were experiencing the anxiety and tedium of quarantine. The opening stretch of the movie, where Jun-u must go it alone, is especially effective. #Alive doesn't exactly reinvent the zombie grene, but it does find bleak humor in the lockdown of the undead concept.
Tossing aside Thor's massive hammer and trimming his gnarly Avengers: Endgame beard, Chris Hemsworth picks up an assault rifle and gets to work in Extraction, a new Netflix shoot-em-up that re-teams the Australian actor with his former Marvel filmmaking buddies Joe and Anthony Russo. While Hemsworth's gun-toting commando protagonist Tyler Rake—yes, that's his name—lacks comic-book superpowers and Norse god strength, he can take a beating and keep fighting. At one point in the film's big show-stopping chase sequence, Rake gets slammed by a speeding car. His solution? Locate a bigger vehicle, preferably a large truck, and hit the bad guy back. That type of strategic thinking should give you a sense of Rake's tactical prowess and of the movie's blunt-force approach to action filmmaking.
14. Lost Bullet
Alban Lenoir, the star and co-writer of this proudly sturdy French action-thriller, has a rugged-yet-droll Statham-like quality, that rogue-like charisma that never reads as desperation. He plays Lino, a hapless thief who turns into an unlikely car mechanic for the police, and he spends most of the movie attempting to clear his name for a murder he didn't commit. (Tracking down the lost bullet of the title is easier said than done.) The best scene in the movie, a police station beatdown where Lino escapes from an interrogation room and fends off a number of officers with all available objects, occurs relatively early on, but Lenoir keeps you engaged as the plot plays itself out. Each head-denting, eyebrow-singing stunt gives him another opportunity to keep his cool. Lost Bullet is exactly the type of brisk, clever movie that tends to get buried in Netflix's algorithmic shuffle.
It's been a while now since the wine world had a worthy feature film. Sideways, released in 2004 and set in picturesque Santa Barbara wine country, made us rethink how wine is viewed, and even caused merlot sales to tank based on one line in the movie. Whether Netflix's Uncorked will have the same impact remains to be seen, but it has elements that should age well. It's set in Memphis, Tennessee, for one thing, a place not necessarily regarded as a wine hot spot, but the movie shows how wine can change the trajectory of your life. Uncorked centers on the relationship of young Elijah Bruener, played brilliantly by Mamoudou Athie (The Get Down, Sorry for Your Loss), and Louis Bruener, the stoic, hard-to-please dad played by the legendary actor Courtney B. Vance. By showcasing not only what goes into becoming a sommelier, but how wine can be the catalyst for bigger dreams, producing powerhouse Prentice Penny (best known for Issa Rae's Insecure), in his directorial debut, has made a wine movie we didn’t know we needed.
12. Horse Girl
As far as titles go, Horse Girl is a bit of a misdirect. Horse Girl sounds a bit precious, maybe even a touch unhinged, only in a quirky way. But this movie, which stars GLOW's Alison Brie, has more in common with the Peter Shaffer play Equus than any other equine-related material in that it's not really about horses but rather human psychosis. Directed by Jeff Baena, who co-wrote it with Brie, Horse Girl is about a woman named Sarah, who is experiencing a mental break that toys with her sense of reality, and it builds to an intentionally ambiguous conclusion that is nonetheless rattling. For the first three quarters of the film, Brie plays someone fighting against herself. By the end, she exhibits an unsettling serenity, having embraced the theories that once disturbed her. Is this liberation for Sarah? Or is she lost, giving over to her disease? Horse Girl doesn't answer these questions; it wants to leave you in the discomfort of not knowing.
11. The Trial of the Chicago 7
Aaron Sorkin's The Trial of the Chicago 7, which he both wrote and directed, is both pure, uncut Aaron Sorkin and very good. It is material that perfectly fits his bombast, but in this context, it is expertly deployed. The movie drops The West Wing creator back in one of his favorite places: a legal proceeding, as it tells the story of the (actually eight) men who were put on trial by the federal government after anti-Vietnam War protests turned violent at the 1968 Democratic convention. There are moments where the screenplay is extremely blunt, where characters swat declarative statements back and forth at one another as if they were in a tennis match, and it ends on a (fictional) note that's a little too comfortable, but it's proof that sometimes the Sorkinese hits just right.
10. His House
Bol and Rial Majur, a married refugee couple newly fled from war-ravaged South Sudan, begin a probationary period of asylum in a London suburb, where they are given a shabby townhouse and a weekly stipend. Bol attempts to assimilate by going out into town, hanging out in pubs, using silverware to eat meals, and buying new clothes, but Rial still clings to their Dinka culture and the memory of the child they lost during their crossing. They see specters all over the house and begin to believe that a witch is haunting them. The power of His House comes not from the intermittent scares or constant building dread, but from the devastating, final-act reveal that forces its characters to reckon with the trauma they've suffered and the guilt that has consumed their lives. There is a particular flavor of horror that exists in experiencing shocking violence and then escaping into a world that makes it seem like nothing more than a dream.
9. The Old Guard
Gina Prince-Bythewood's adaptation of Greg Rucka's comic series is a superhero movie with a soul. It stars Charlize Theron as Andy, aka Andromache, a warrior who has lived for six millennia and doesn't really see the point anymore. But she and her team of fellow immortals are drawn back into conflict when they start being hunted by a pharmaceutical brat who wants to use them as test subjects. At the same time, a new member joins their ranks, Nile (KiKi Layne), who survives a throat-slitting and is inducted into this strange club. Prince-Bythewood melds immensely fun fight sequences—it's a joy to watch Theron throw a punch—with groundbreaking moments of quietude, including a gay romance that's like nothing you've seen before in an action movie.
8. The Half of It
"This is not a love story," the heroine of The Half of It says at the outset of the movie. It's one of those things teens tend to say, but it's hard to believe, especially given that the movie is streaming on Netflix, which has become known in recent years as a teen rom-com factory where saccharine romance reigns. But Alice Wu's The Half of It is truly not a love story, which makes it all the better. By the end of the film, no one has "gotten the girl" and there's no coupling up. Each of the three main characters goes their separate ways. It's not an upsetting conclusion, but it doesn't spoon-feed its audience a classic happy ending, opting for something more honest along the way.
7. Time to Hunt
Unrelenting in its pursuit of scenarios where guys point big guns at each other in sparsely lit empty hallways, Time to Hunt is a South Korean thriller that knows exactly what stylistic register it's playing in. A group of four friends, including Parasite and Train to Busan break-out Choi Woo-shik, knock over a gambling house, stealing a hefty bag of money and a set of even more valuable hard-drives, and then find themselves targeted by a ruthless contract killer (Park Hae-soo) who moves like the T-1000 and shoots like a henchmen in a Michael Mann movie. There are dystopian elements to the world—protests play out in the streets, the police wage a tech-savvy war on citizens, automatic rifles are readily available to all potential buyers—but they all serve the simmering tension and elevate the pounding set-pieces instead of feeling like unnecessary allegorical padding. Unlike Netflix's futuristic action slog The Last Days of American Crime, which tripped over its own convoluted premise and failed to spark genuine suspense, Time to Hunt uses its elongated runtime to build sequences in a meticulous, considerate way that should appeal to viewers who have seen Heat, Collateral, and Miami Vice too many times to count.
6. Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
Even if you aren't already invested in the cult of Eurovision, the singing competition that keeps a huge swath of the world rapt every year, you'll probably be charmed by Eurovision, Will Ferrell's ode to the bizarre annual event. Ferrell stars alongside Rachel McAdams as Lars Erickssong and Sigrit Ericksdottir, an Icelandic duo that make up the band Fire Saga. These goofy musicians land a spot in Eurovision (with the help of some elves) and go on a wild and sweet adventure. Playing like Talladega Nights meets Billy Elliot, it's an absolute joy, and the music is great. (Play Jaja Ding Dong!)
5. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
There's an undeniable pain in watching Chadwick Boseman give his final performance in Netflix's adaptation of the August Wilson play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. Boseman, who died in 2020 from colon cancer, plays Levee, an ambitious yet volatile trumpeter, a talented, tragic figure who tempts fate. In the role, he's at turns charming, seductive, furious, and, ultimately, broken. There are multiple moments when you're compelled to break out into applause. Seeing Boseman's posthumous performance will inevitably be the draw for many queuing up Ma Rainey, which also stars Viola Davis as the blues singer around whom the narrative orbits, but it's also an immensely satisfying rendering of one of the best plays of the 20th century, a reminder that Wilson's work should be as essential to American education as Shakespeare or Arthur Miller.
David Fincher doesn't get enough credit for his range. To just say he's a filmmaker interested in stylized bloodshed doesn't really capture the extent of his work. That being said, Mank, a snapshot of the life of Herman Mankiewicz, the co-screenwriter behind Citizen Kane, feels like a career outlier. It seems like Fincher and Pauline Kael would agree that Mankiewicz deserves the lion's share of the credit for Orson Welles' work, but Mank, based on a script written by his late father Jack Fincher, essentially stops before Kane starts to shoot. Instead, the movie uses its protagonist as a window in the 1930s Hollywood studio system and the politics that it was pushing amid the Depression, acting as a sort of explanation for why the writer was compelled to take a swing at William Randolph Hearst after becoming part of his chummy circle. Mank is defined by all kinds of stylistic flourishes from the lush, dramatic black and white to the cigarette burns and fade outs, but it's also a talky movie brimming with ideas. Most unexpectedly, it's a movie about tycoons abusing their workers in the midst of a cultural crisis and how artists can wield their pens to reclaim a sliver of power. Mank is less slick than some of Fincher's other films, but it's no less fascinating.
3. The 40-Year-Old Version
This semi-autobiographical movie follows Radha Blank, a playwright for whom a "30 Under 30" honor now seems but a distant memory. When we meet her, Radha is teaching a group of hilarious and unruly high school kids, constantly sipping on a diet drink, and trying to get a play about her Harlem neighborhood produced. After a particularly enraging incident with one of the obnoxious white gatekeepers of the New York theater establishment, Radha turns to her old hobby: churning out rhymes. But her character's burgeoning desire to rap is really just a gateway for Blank to craft a narrative about finding creative integrity in a world that wants to pigeonhole you. Frequently, The 40-Year-Old Version feels like a rejoinder to the type of movies that sometimes become hits at Sundance, where it premiered in 2020: ones that engage in poverty porn or use an oddball storyline to offer some trite inspiration.
2. I'm Thinking of Ending Things
A snowy road trip, which finds a young woman (Jessie Buckley) traveling with her new boyfriend (Jesse Plemons) to the remote farm owned by his eccentric parents (Toni Collette and David 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 is older and gentler in some respects, but he 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 and resists 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.
1. Da 5 Bloods
Exploding with historical references, directorial flourishes, and flashes of combat action, Spike Lee's winningly spry war epic Da 5 Bloods embraces the inherent messiness of its subject matter. At first, the story sounds simple enough: Four elderly Black veterans, each with his own personal trials and tribulations, return to Vietnam to recover the remains of their beloved 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 the 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 inherent 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.
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