Images courtesy of Netflix, Amazon Studios, IFC Films, Neon Pictures

The best movies of 2020 that you can stream online

Because what else are you gonna do?

by Douglas Greenwood
|
08 December 2020, 10:13am

Images courtesy of Netflix, Amazon Studios, IFC Films, Neon Pictures

2020 was all set to be another illustrious year for the movie industry. Film festivals were geared up to go ahead; we had blockbusters coming out of our ears; Timothée Chalamet had two big projects — The French Dispatch and Dune — that were set to solidify his mainstream stardom. Then the coronavirus arrived and everything recalibrated. Films destined for success fell off the face of the earth. Everything (well, most things) pushed back their respective release dates to 2021.

But some films did arrive this year, and despite making do with short cinema releases or heading straight onto streaming services or VOD, they were very much deserving of your attention. So, if you’re stuck inside because the weather sucks, and you want to catch up on all of the great movies you didn’t watch in 2020, now’s the time. Trust me, these are some gems that will restore your faith in art after a garbage year.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always was the first cinema release of 2020 to bowl over critics and those who saw it. Then, the day it was slated for wider release, cinemas in the US started to close. It was, in many ways, the first real movie victim of the coronavirus pandemic, but it has resilience at its core. The story of a girl seeking an abortion in a state that forbids it without parental permission, it’s a gorgeous parable on the strength of young women, and a damning artpiece on the heinous, oppressive policies of modern America. Rent it on YouTube now

Ammonite

There is a biting coldness to Francis Lee’s Ammonite; a film billed as a love story that, in reality, is about something much more queer than that. Set in 1800s England, it sees Kate Winslet play palaeontologist Mary Anning, a woman grown hardy by the circumstances of her career and economic set-up. Then, in walks a lonely, melancholic geologist (that’s Saoirse Ronan) who upends her life. There is little in the way of fluttering, hearty feelings here, but what Francis Lee (of God’s Own Country fame) does here is craft a beautiful study of the many ways in which excavation creeps into, and shapes, our lives. Buy or rent it in the US from 4 December

Soul

Disney is known best for their saccharine kids movies and cash cow franchises, but they do have a tendency to create something truly special once in a while. Case in point: Soul. This Pixar film, originally slated to premiere earlier this summer, is perhaps their best in a decade. In it, we see a high school jazz teacher getting the big musical break he’s always wanted in life, only to die and pass over into what appears to be the afterlife. But a twist of fate leads him to the Great Before: a place in which souls become whole before entering the world. Here, he meets a lost one whose never quite made it, and the pairing makes for a genuinely touching and intelligent fable about our individual purpose on earth. It’s ambitious but brilliant. Stream it on Disney+ worldwide from Christmas Day

Time

How easy it would be to frame Time as a film about the anger that stems from injustice, rather than a slow rumination on how our fates should never be written for us. This moving documentary about incarceration in America focuses on the experiences of entrepreneur Fox Rich, who has spent decades fighting for the release of her husband, who was been sentenced to 60 years in jail for a crime they both committed, but that he received an overly harsh sentence for. Part ode to the brilliance of a man with so much to offer, part indictment of the unfairness of the American judicial system, this is a masterful documentary that will convince the most conservative of thinkers to reconsider their stance on how prison changes people. Stream it on Amazon Prime now

5. Mank

David Fincher’s first film since the juicy AF Gone Girl is a decidedly more low-key affair; one that, on paper, doesn’t exactly suggest compulsive viewing. But that’s not really the point of Mank, the cult director’s long term passion project that’s finally come to life. Instead, this story of a down-and-out screenwriter’s last chance at success (by writing the script for Citizen Kane) is a fascinating, gorgeously realised black-and-white ode to old Hollywood, sticking a knife in the side of right-wing politics, and the power of the underdog. Come for Fincher, stay for Amanda Seyfried giving the performance of her career so far. Stream it on Netflix from 4 December

Relic

Produced by Jake Gyllenhaal and with a Sundance premiere under its belt, a traditional year might have seen Relic explode into movie theatres and become a sleeper cult hit along the lines of The Babadook. A psycho-thriller set inside of the country home a woman shares with her elderly grandmother, it’s an allegory for dementia dressed up as a horror film; genuinely scary but never relying on genre tropes. Instead of mad box office success, this received a short cinema release at the same time it hit video on demand services. You need to see. Rent it on YouTube now

I’m Thinking of Ending Things

Charlie Kaufman is the king of weird, existential cinematic storytelling, and he really ramped up the oddness for I’m Thinking of Ending Things. This twisted film about a relationship spiralling out of control, growing more and more incoherent, was perhaps the most audacious project Netflix have commissioned in their entire Originals collection, but by God we’re glad they did. Jessie Buckley, as the film’s strangely spectral central force, owns it. Turn your phone off and focus for this one. Stream it on Netflix now

Babyteeth

A word-of-mouth hit that’s been on everybody’s lips since its summer 2019 premiere at Venice Film Festival, Australian drama Babyteeth is a stellar coming-of-ager that sees Eliza Scanlen continue her strong reign of knockout performances. But after years of being a supporting star, she gets her breakout moment here. This is a bittersweet story of a gravely ill teenage girl falling for the wrong guy, and embracing her freedom and youth for what could be the last time. Bring the tissues. Buy or rent it online here / (UK release: 7 December)

Bad Education

Barely a blip was registered on the movie radar when Bad Education arrived earlier this year, a straight-to-TV project courtesy of HBO that, to be frank, is a big slice of gossipy entertainment that deserves to be seen and loved by more people. Based on a true story, it follows a beloved New York state high school superintendent as he simultaneously wins over his staff and students, while also being at the centre of a gigantic embezzlement cover-up. Hugh Jackman kills it in the lead role, while Alison Janney is a legend as always as the queen of grand larceny, Pam Gluckin. Rent it on YouTube now

Lovers Rock

Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series is inarguably the most illustrious project to hit British TV in decades. But while it kicked off with a monumental, feature-length movie Mangrove, its real gem — one of the best films of the year — is the succinct, warm, necessary Lovers Rock. In 1980s West London, a house party takes place for those who get turned away at the doors of nightclubs nearby: Black teenagers and twenty-somethings. They have a penchant for the romanticism of blues, and spend a night kissing, dancing and caressing each other to the sound of it. Featuring perhaps the best scene you’ll see all year, it’s a blissful depiction of Black joy unfettered by the oppressiveness of white presence. A masterpiece. Stream it on BBC iPlayer or Amazon Prime now

Wolfwalkers

Childlike escapism that isn’t mind-numbing is a hard thing to come across right now, but Wolfwalkers, the latest movie from Oscar-nominated Irish director Tomm Moore is an animated wunderkind. Set in a fictional Ireland where magic and superstition is rife, it tells the story of a young hunter who’s taught that wolves are the source of all evil, and that they lurk within the woods around her town. But when she confronts a young native girl in those woods, she’s led down a path of enlightenment, discovering the true power of the creatures she’s long feared. Stream it on Apple TV from 11 December

Matthias & Maxime

Xavier Dolan’s much maligned brand of confrontational drama has split critics for a long time, but the world seemed unified when it came to Matthias & Maxime. A deeply moving, well thought out drama, it follows two childhood friends at different points in their lives — one deep in the mundane structure of a pleasant relationship and a good job with the possibility of progression; the other moving to the opposite side of the planet to start anew, escaping chaos. But they are brought together, questioning their relationship, when they kiss on camera after losing a bet from a friend. What ensues is a magnificent movie about the seismic shift that stems from seemingly insignificant moments, and what childhood companions mean to each other as they grow up. Stream it on MUBI now

Rocks

Films like Rocks are rare: accessible, moving, valuable stories that are made for the people. In a year that’s seen the most ostentatious blockbusters be pushed back, it’s a blessing that films like this could step into their place. This British production, directed by Sarah Gavron and consulted on by the first-time actors who starred in it, is a story of an East London schoolgirl’s journey as she balances all of the fuckery of coming-of-age, raising her younger brother and going through life after her mother leaves them both behind, orphaned. Powered by an electric central performance from Bukky Bakray, it’s a stark reminder of the voices that are often overlooked in the cinematic landscape, and the excellence we get when they’re rightly put at the forefront. Stream it on Netflix now

Summer of 85

The year 2020 should have forced us to develop an aversion to anything threatening, but Francois Ozon’s new thriller romance Summer of 85 hit the sweet spot. Set, as the title suggests, during a Normandy summer in the 1980s, it follows a teenage boy falling hard and fast for a lad a few years his senior; one more handsome and mysterious than he. Together, they embark on a delicious love story, but as we know from the beginning, it all will end tragically. For those who thought Call Me By Your Name was lacking a overpowering morose streak, here’s what you’re looking for. Rent or buy it from Curzon Home Cinema now

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Chadwick Boseman was a rare talent that, just as he was reaching what felt like a career crescendo, sadly passed away. His final project, one he’s tipped to win a posthumous Oscar for, was Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: a biting and rhythmic adaptation of an August Wilson stage production about a single afternoon session with one of the most prolific blues singers (a queer one, at that) in musical history. It’s a sharply executed film, hugely entertaining, that also has a hugely important message in its backbone: that the successful art of white creators is almost always co-opted from a Black creator who did it first. It’s a sentiment that still needs addressing today. Stream it on Netflix from 18 December

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