2020 has certainly been a strange and troubling year with the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting the entertainment industry.
As the film studios and theaters suffered greatly from the mass closures for public safety, the television arm of the entertainment industry saw a boon since they had literal captive audiences eager for any new content.
Even though many films scheduled for 2020 were postponed for the year, there were many other films that either had limited theatrical releases or managed to come out in the early months of the year before COVID-19 created the lockdowns. Hopefully as the now-availalbe vaccines are administered throughout the population, 2021 will see more of a return to normalcy as theaters will be able to safely re-open.
Please note many films that were released solely digitally or through streaming platforms were not considered for this list; a film had to have some kind of theatrical release even if it debuted in few theaters at the same time they were released digitally. Here are the ten best theatrical films of 2020.
Pixar’s other animated cinematic offering for 2020 was an uplifting and fun adventure that took place in a world where mythical and magical beings and creatures exist today. In the film, two elf brothers set out on a road trip across the country to temporarily resurrect their deceased father. As with most Pixar films, the characters and their emotions took center stage as the two realized their brotherly love for one another.
9. The New Mutants
The sole Marvel film of 2020 turned out to be the coda of the Fox X-Men films, which was a surprise given it has been delayed so many times. Fortunately, The New Mutants turned out to be a decent superhero film about teenagers coming to grips with their superpowers and life as the film was tinged with chilling horror elements.
8. The Midnight Sky
George Clooney directed and starred in this introspective sci-fi film based on a book by Lily Brooks-Dalton. Clooney played a lone scientist in an arctic outpost who tries to warn the crew of a returning spacecraft not to come to Earth because it has undergone an extinction-level event. The film was a quiet and captivating character study of the scientist and the spacecraft crew as they struggled to survive in their hostile environments.
Director William Eubanks is perhaps the most underrated director of sci-fi films today and his latest film continued to demonstrate this. Underwater may be filled with the usual tropes of a crew in an underwater research station being hunted by unknown, Lovecraftian creatures, but it was well crafted, claustrophobic and had the right amount of jump scares and unexpected character studies which elevated this film.
Gerard Butler starred in a surprisingly effective disaster film that smartly focused on a single family when cometary fragments crashed into the Earth. By staying with the family as they tried to make their way to safety, Greenland was able to directly show how the catastrophic event affected the family as they grappled with fear, uncertainty and confusion.
5. Sonic the Hedgehog
Who would have thought that 2020 would have given us a winning film based on a popular video game character? It is more remarkable given the negative reaction to the first trailer which led to Sonic being radically re-designed more to fans’ liking. The effort paid off as Sonic the Hedgehog was a fun and endearing road trip/buddy film that delighted many viewers and not just fans. The road trip/buddy aspect of the film may be familiar but it worked as Sonic, the cartoonish alien, experiences life on Earth for the first time.
This South Korean film took a tired zombie/survival trope and reinvigorated it. In the film a young adult gamer is trapped in his apartment during a zombie apocalypse and as he undergoes bouts of loneliness and struggles to keep his sanity, he learns about survival and finding one’s inner strength. This character study made the film very engaging as we found ourselves rooting for the young gamer.
3. Color Out of Space
Nicolas Cage was in rare form in this macabre adaptation of the H.P. Lovecraft short story. This horror/sci-fi yarn was quite unsettling in its first half which told the story of a crashed meteor’s unearthly physical effect in a nearby farm. By the second half, Color Out of Space metamorphized into a vivid and disturbing body-horror ordeal that was literally mind bending and shattering as the meteor’s alien influence transformed all life surrounding it, including the hapless farmer and his family.
2. Love and Monsters
This exciting and more light-hearted post-apocalyptic film was a actually a coming-of-age story about a young man who learned to believe in himself as he set out across the ruined landscape of the U.S. to find his supposed true love. Sometimes it is compared to Zombieland, though that is not entirely accurate. In truth, Love and Monsters focused less on laughs and more on its endearing characters and imaginative, giant mutated animals that the film’s hero and his companion dog had to face during his difficult journey.
Two big films were released on streaming platforms (and had very limited theatrical releases), even though one of them (Wonder Woman 1984) had much more buzz and attention, Soul was not only the better of the two films but the best film of the year. The underlying themes may go over the heads of the younger viewers, though they and everyone else will be delighted by the film’s plot of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), as a struggling musician who dies and refuses to go to heaven. From there, he sets off on a spiritual and metaphysical quest to return to life filled with solid characters and relationships.
Not only is Soul perfectly animated and chock full of visual delights, but like the best of Pixar, it examines the larger questions in life and its script is unexpected. At its heart, Soul is about…life and what one makes of it. However, it also forces the viewer to contemplate and appreciate the simpler and most relevant aspects of life, and in this tumultous year, this may be the most important message of all.
Bill & Ted Face the Music, Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), The Invisible Man, Peninsula, Possessor, Vivarium