When it came time to find the best movies of 2020, this was a very different year, as there was no moviegoing experience for about 3/4 of the year for most of us. Theaters have been closed or greatly restricted this year due to the pandemic, but amazing films still found a way to make it to us, on streaming services where they could entertain, delight and move us at home.
While many 2020 movies were delayed until next year (or even later), many others found a new way of reaching us: streaming. Yes, it’s not just for binge-watching TV shows. Some movies also broke ground by becoming available for premium video on demand, at movie theater prices from the comfort of your own home.
- The best TV shows of 2020
- These are the best Netflix movies to stream now
- Best Hulu movies and TV shows
The best movies of 2020 run the gamut from silly comedies to politically relevant dramas to action-packed superhero flicks. Documentaries about two icons of the music industry are on our list, as is the filmed production of the award-winning, blockbuster Broadway musical Hamilton.
Because we practiced social distancing and theaters in our areas weren't open for business, the movies on our list were the ones available to us on streaming.
Check out our picks for the best movies of 2020 and where you can find them on streaming services.
An American Pickle
I didn't think 2020 would mark the year Seth Rogen grew up, but this year has been full of surprises. In this Pickle, Rogen has two roles: Herschel Greenbaum, an Orthodox Jewish factory worker who gets brined to the future in a giant vat of pickles, and Ben Greenbaum, Herschel's only living relative when he wakes up in our times. The two barely ever get along, but when their differences become too grating to stand, both get in hot water with the public.
Both humorous and poignant, An American Pickle touches upon how today's generation is living a life that their ancestors would have no way to understand. — Henry T. Casey
Watch An American Pickle on HBO Max (opens in new tab)
Beastie Boys Story
Now here's a little story, I've got to tell, about three Beastie Boys, we don't know all that well — or at least we thought we did. The Spike Jonze-directed Beastie Boys Story film put Ad Rock and Mike D on stage to tell their own side of their story, from their rise to fame to the troubled years where the band was all but broken up, and how they came back and innovated again on Paul's Boutique. Along the way, you'll learn who tried to push them in ways they didn't want to go — Rick Rubin wanted the boys to be more like pro wrestlers — and most importantly you'll see Diamond and Horowitz pay tribute to MCA (Adam Yauch) who passed away far before he should have. Before Ted Lasso came along, this was the best reason to sign up for Apple TV Plus, as it gave Beasties fans the experience they didn't even know they needed. — Henry T. Casey
Watch Beastie Boys Story on Apple TV Plus (opens in new tab)
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)
You may have missed the DC movie we never knew we needed because they buried the name Harley Quinn at the end of a Fiona Apple album-length title, but now’s a perfect time to hit play, puddin’. That's because you can now stream Birds of Prey — a neon-soaked, fourth-wall-breaking, bone crunching bit of hysterically funny film — on HBO Max (or rent it from somewhere else if you don't have a Roku or Fire TV).
And you should be watching it — not just for Margot Robbie's excellent performance as Ms. Quinn, but for her excellent supporting cast, including Rosie Perez as the hard-boiled det. Renee Montoya and Mary Elizabeth Winstead who is charmingly awkward as Huntress. — Henry T. Casey
Watch Birds of Prey on HBO Max (opens in new tab)
Equal parts sci-fi and horror, The Call is a time-bending thriller that poses the question
"if you could alter your past, what would you change?" The story follows two women who live 20 years apart, but are somehow able to talk to each other via a landline. Through their calls, the two women are able to change the present as Seo-yeon (Park Shin-hye) — who's living in the present — warns Young-sook (Jun Jong-seo) of impending danger. Their decisions rapidly spiral out of control with life-altering consequences for both women. The Call is as unpredictable and engrossing as modern-day thrillers get. — Louis Ramirez
Watch The Call on Netflix (opens in new tab)
Da 5 Bloods
A Spike Lee joint is always going to be incisive and politically pointed, but Da 5 Bloods was particularly timely, with Netflix releasing it during the surge of Black Lives Matter protests in June. The film flashes back to a different era of protests and violent government response, the Vietnam War, and the empty promises given to Black soldiers who fought and died for America and were treated like second-class citizens at home.
The movie is mostly set in the present day, when a group of Black veterans — led by an incandescent Delroy Lindo — return to Vietnam to search for the remains of their fallen leader. Oh, and some buried treasure. Da 5 Bloods blends an old-fashioned adventure with social commentary to create an absorbing and striking tale that fits right in with Lee’s best work. — Kelly Woo
Watch Da 5 Bloods on Netflix (opens in new tab)
If Parasite is the apotheosis, the entree if you will, in 2019’s cinematic “eat the rich” feast, then the 2020 version of Emma is the sugary cream puff of a dessert. Every generation has its adaptation of the Jane Austen classic — shout out to my fave, Clueless — and this one brings its own delightful vision to the familiar tale. This adaptation is quite the visual feast in a very twee way. The palette is dominated by pink; if this was set in modern times, the titular heroine (Anya Taylor-Joy) would totally carry a rose gold iPhone.
Emma is “handsome, clever and rich.” So rich, she doesn’t need to get married, which is why she spends her time matchmaking for friends. Misunderstandings and hijinks ensue. While Emma may have a lot of money and time, she’s also naive, inexperienced and stuck-up. It’s deeply satisfying when she’s brought down a few pegs by her dishy neighbor Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn). But since this is a sweet story, it’s equally wonderful to see a humbled Emma get her happy ending. — Kelly Woo
Watch Emma on HBO Max
Imagine a world where a cow is an incredibly novel sight to see. That's life for Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) who finds himself in the Oregon Territory during the time of the Gold Rush, where his cheffing skills are malnourished by a lack of supply. A beautiful and especially soft film, First Cow would have benefited greatly from being seen in the constrained environments of a movie theater, but after debuting at film festivals in 2019, First Cow barely spent any time in U.S. theaters before the COVID-19 pandemic hit and shut every movie house down.
So, it's time to put your phone on silent and watch as Figowitz and his new friend King Lu (Orion Lee) happen upon a form of income: being able to bake using ingredients that they abscond with in the dead of night. Very much a delicate independent movie, First Cow will reward you for as much as you're willing to let it. — Henry T. Casey
The Oscars can go fly a kite, because Hamilton is certainly one of the best movies of 2020. Hamilton the movie is a blended recording of Hamilton the award-winning Broadway musical. Bless Disney Plus for bringing it to the masses, many of whom had heard about the phenomenon but couldn’t see it on stage. But let’s truly give thanks for creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and his astonishing, history-laden, hip-hop-influenced songs. We also can’t forget the cast’s stunning performances, led by Miranda as the Founding Father and Leslie Odom Jr. as rival Aaron Burr.
We fall squarely on the side that Hamilton isn’t merely a recording of a stage performance. Director Thomas Kail used several recordings of live performances in front of audiences, as well sequences filmed without an audience for close-ups. What resulted was a gorgeous, entertaining and heartstopping movie that should definitely be a contender for Best Documentary (if the Academy gets its act together). — Kelly Woo
Watch Hamilton on Disney Plus (opens in new tab)
The King of Staten Island
As unlikely a movie star Pete Davidson looks, he more than holds his own as the lead of Judd Apatow’s first directorial project in years. It helps that he’s essentially playing a version of himself: An aimless, unemployed high school dropout who spends his days smoking weed and hanging out with friends. Like Davidson, his character Scott’s dad was a firefighter who died on the job (in Davidson’s case, on 9/11).
When his incredibly patient mother (Marisa Tomei) starts dating another firefighter, Ray (Bill Burr), Scott is not happy about it. After an attempted pharmacy robbery with his friends that goes awry, Scott finds himself without anyone to turn to — except Ray and his station buddies. The King of Staten Island makes excellent use of Davidson’s surprising vulnerability and charm. The result is a soulful, tender tale of growing up. – Kelly Woo
The latest horror movie to show the influence of director Ari Aster (Hereditary, Midsommar) focuses on children still grieving the death of their mother, and their father's insistence that they need to accept their new stepmother Grace (Riley Keough). And where else do you go to bring a family together, than a remote lodge cabin in the iciest days of winter? Predictably, things get weird fast, and Grace's childhood trauma — growing up in a cult — becomes a topic of conversation.
One of the neat tricks of The Lodge is that the film plays with your instincts about who is the true villain here. While the father, Richard (Richard Armitrage) is always a bit of a nuisance to all, you'll spend multiple scenes trying to figure out if kids Aiden and Mia (Jaeden Martell, Lia McHugh) are out to get Grace or if their potential new step-mom is actually evil. And, yes, Hulu will tell you The Lodge is a 2019 movie, but its main theatrical release came in 2020. —Henry T. Casey
Watch The Lodge on Hulu (opens in new tab)
Taylor Swift has been extremely famous for half her life, the subject of both devotion and disdain. This documentary from director Lana Wilson looks at the woman behind the myth and the legend. Some of the film is a fascinating peek at Swift’s songwriting process during the making of her 2019 album Lover. But most of the focus is placed on Swift’s political awakening and emergence, after remaining quiet during the 2016 presidential election.
Swift surprised the world by dropping not one but two surprise albums this year, Folklore and Evermore. They resulted in some of her best critical reviews, a bunch of Grammy nominations and top spots on the charts. When you're done watching Miss Americana, check out Folklore: The Long Pond Sessions on Disney Plus (opens in new tab) for a stripped-down play-through of the album by Swift and her collaborators. — Kelly Woo
Watch Miss Americana on Netflix (opens in new tab)
The Old Guard
Based on a comic book series from award-winning author Greg Rucka, The Old Guard on Netflix hearkens back to a time when action movies were content to just be fun. Charlize Theron stars as Andy: an unkillable warrior who fights for money alongside a team of fellow immortals. Following a botched operation, the group seeks revenge, but stops along the way to recruit a new member: a U.S. Marine named Nile Freeman (KiKi Layne). If you've ever seen an action movie before, you can probably guess the story beat-for-beat, and the stakes are admittedly pretty low, since most of the main characters can't die. But if you want to see Theron and co. kick butt for two hours, The Old Guard is exactly the movie it sets out to be. — Marshall Honorof
Watch The Old Guard on Netflix (opens in new tab)
Andy Samberg (SNL) and Cristin Milioti (How I Met Your Mother) co-star in a romantic comedy that starts off by being a fun night at the worst desert wedding ever, but soon becomes a never-ending spiral of bad decisions and zero repercussions. Samberg plays Nyles, who wakes up one morning (or so it seems) with no interest in Misty (his current girlfriend) even though they have a wedding to attend. But once Nyles makes it through to the dinner, he starts chatting up Sarah (Milioti) the sister of the bride, who seems as out of place at the wedding as Nyles is with Misty.
Then there's this incident with a hunter and a mysterious cave, and I should probably stop there. Watch Palm Springs. Just don't get stuck in a loop of watching it over and over again. You have a life to live, just like Nyles and Sarah. – Henry T. Casey
Watch Palm Springs on Hulu (opens in new tab)
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
The heart wants what it wants, and often it has no interest at all in getting married. That's the story at the root of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, where Héloïse has been put into an arranged marriage that she has no emotion for. Her only way out, so far, has to stop her parents from successfully commissioning a portrait of herself, which has to be done before she is wed. Enter Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a portrait artist who travels to the remote island in Brittany, France where Héloïse is spending her pre-marital days, and defies every attempt at having her image painted.
So, Marianne does her best to paint Héloïse without her knowledge or consent. But as she gets to know Héloïse more closely, this task becomes a bit of a challenge. One of the most intense movies of 2020, Portrait of a Lady on Fire was screened at smaller independent theaters near the end of 2019 but got its nationwide release this past Valentine's Day. — Henry T. Casey
Watch Portrait of a Lady on Fire on Hulu (opens in new tab)
Relic stars Emily Mortimer as Kay, a woman whose widowed mother Edna (Robyn Nevin) has gone missing. So, Kay and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) travel to Edna's home together, to try and figure out what's gone wrong. But while Edna eventually is found, the trouble truly begins once Kay and Sam realize that there's something terrifying going on in this house.
Edna's dreary house is filled with a creepy spirit that is making plenty of things go bump in the night (no, it's not a Babadook), and whatever is haunting this family seems to have a disturbing habit of rapidly aging Edna's skin.
Relic, the directorial debut of Natalie Erika James, is at its core a film about fears of growing old and the issues involved with passing off our elders to care services, rather than care for them ourselves. It proves that James will be a force to be reckoned with in the future of horror, especially for movies with a bit of nuance and depth. — Henry T. Casey
Rough around the edges and difficult to endure at social functions, Shirley Jackson (Elizabeth Moss) is an unstable literary genius at the center of this award-winning movie. Shirley is not a biopic of the author of the same name, but instead a story that is about her, and told with the conventions of her Gothic fiction.
Shirley begins, though, by giving us the impression that students Fred and Rosie Nemser may be its actual protagonists. Fred's started to assist professor Stanley Hyman (Michel Stuhlbarg), and the two come to an agreement that Fred and Rosie should move in with Shirley and Stanley. There, they start to buckle of the pressures of both of their hosts, as Stanley manipulates and Shirley is abusive toward all. Shirley gives Moss the kind of difficult character material that she seems to savor in the moment, a rare chance to not be the victim of someone else's torment. — Henry T. Casey
Watch Shirley on Hulu (opens in new tab)
Sonic the Hedgehog
The Sonic the Hedgehog movie isn't one of the best films of the year, but it certainly was one of our favorites. And once we all sat down at the local megaplex near our office, the smiles spread across our faces as the film embraced the joyous and corny nature of the retro game series. But while Ben Schwartz's voice work of the iconic hedgehog impressed, the movie truly thrived because of a return to form from Jim Carrey, who was just extremely extra in every moment.
As Dr. Robotnik, Carrey is constantly entertaining, even turning praise of a coworker's coffee brewing method into a memorable moment. Sonic succeeds as a film because it doesn't take itself too seriously, but its story has enough heart and care that you might find yourself feeling a thing or two about the cool and rad hedgehog. — Henry T. Casey
Best movies of 2020: Honorable mentions
David Byrne's American Utopia (HBO Max (opens in new tab))
The Talking Heads icon gives a sometimes rousing, sometimes meditative performance of his stage show.
I'm Thinking of Ending Things (Netflix (opens in new tab))
Charlie Kaufman is as opaque as ever in this surreal, maddening drama.
Mulan (Disney Plus (opens in new tab))
The animated classic gets a kickass glow-up.
The Sound of Metal (Amazon Prime Video (opens in new tab))
Riz Ahmed delivers a moving performance as a dummer losing his hearing.
- Best streaming devices (opens in new tab) to watch moves