With movie theaters closed worldwide for most of the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 was the year online streaming platforms took center stage as we all had to get our movie fixes from the safety of our own homes. 2020 also will be known as the year of the good documentary. There were a whopping eight that scored reviews in the A range, and of those, three made our Top 10.
Because of the pandemic, the usual deadline for Oscar contenders has been pushed back, meaning several Oscar caliber films that typically would make our Top Ten won’t be released until January. Regardless, here are The Reelness 10 Best Movies of 2020:
It is fitting that in this U.S. Presidential Election year, we get this outstanding Amazon original documentary detailing the shameful history of voter suppression in America. It also includes some shocking tactics which most Americans are not even aware. Much of the film focuses on Democrat Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost the 2018 governor’s race to Republican Brian Kemp. As then Secretary of State, Kemp purged hundreds of thousands of voter registrations and held up 53,000 NEW registrations prior to Election Day, then sent a shortage of voting machines on Election Day to predominantly black neighborhoods. Kemp won the election by only 55,000 votes. This film should enrage us all.
Clouds is the inspiring Disney+ tearjerker based on the true story of Zach Sobiech, a terminally-ill Minnesota teenager who pursued his dream of making an album in 2013 after he found out that his rare bone cancer had spread, giving him only months to live. To his surprise, his song “Clouds” became a viral music sensation. There so much authenticity, heart and sob-inducing moments in this gut-punch of a film – not just from star Fin Argus, but also from an excellent supporting cast, which includes Neve Campbell (Scream) as his mom.
Issa Rae (Insecure) and LaKeith Stanfield (Uncut Gems, Atlanta) star in this romance about a New York museum curator who receives two letters from her estranged mother, a famous photographer, shortly after her death from cancer. The contents send her on a revealing journey into her mother’s youthful past with her first love, a fisherman from her hometown in rural South Louisiana, in a story reminiscent of the Nicholas Sparks classic, The Notebook. That bus station scene – wow.
A badass neuropsychiatrist in 1983 Soviet Kazakhstan finds herself in the midst of a living nightmare in this sci-fi/horror, when she is asked to diagnose a cosmonaut who has returned to Earth infested with a deadly alien creature. Sputnik is one of those rare, cerebral horror films that satisfies on multiple levels, with a legitimately realistic and terrifying monster, chilling moments, and a surprisingly believable, cleverly constructed story.
Following Romania’s deadly October 2015 fire at the Collectiv nightclub in Bucharest, dozens of people mysteriously died of preventable bacterial infections at hospitals throughout the country. This film follows investigative journalists as they uncover the horrifying corruption scheme that led to those deaths, and even more shocking revelations about the rotten underbelly of Romania’s healthcare system. The overriding message is critically important: investigative journalism is a necessity in maintaining a functioning democracy, as is having government officials with the courage to root out corruption when they find it.
Ben Affleck channels his own real life struggles with alcoholism and depression in this redemption drama about an alcoholic, former high school basketball star who reluctantly accepts a job coaching the struggling, undisciplined basketball team at his alma mater. Just when it looks like we are headed for another sweet, inspiring, run-of-the-mill Hoosiers-styled sports cliché, the film takes a surprising left turn into something completely different – something that is actually pretty awesome.
Ammonite is a romantic drama set in 1840s England, a fictional love story between the accomplished, yet at that time unheralded, real life fossil hunter Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) and upper class woman, Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan) in West Dorset, England. Much of Winslet’s exemplary performance in this subtle, slow moving saga is done without words – via furtive glances, brief expressions of disgust or arousal, or a slight touch – and the onscreen chemistry and graphic sex between Winslet and Ronan has a raw and unmistakably authentic quality, capturing the oppressiveness of the era, without feeling gratuitous.
Kevin Costner and Diane Lane star in this 1960s-era Western crime thriller, about a retired Montana sheriff and his wife who travel to North Dakota to rescue their toddler grandson from the violent, lawless family of the man who married their dead son’s widow. Writer/director Thomas Bezucha’s minimalist screenplay conveys his characters’ complex relationships in subtle, realistic ways, blending tender, poignant moments; a building sense of dread and frustration; and shocking brutality, as the story builds to a thrilling climax. It is an unforgettable tale of loss and self sacrifice.
Things get super weird in this clever psychological horror/thriller about a young fiancée (Riley Keough) snowed in with her unwelcoming, soon-to-be two stepchildren in a remote cabin in the middle of nowhere. Written and directed by the duo behind 2015’s relentlessly disturbing Goodnight Mommy, the film keeps its characters, and us viewers, guessing, as the lines blur between fact and fantasy, right up to the film’s dreadful, horrifyingly plausible ending.
This Netflix documentary chronicles the life of Terry Donahue, a WWII-era, pro baseball player (the league was featured in the 1992 film A League of Their Own), and a secret she and her lifelong friend and roommate Pat Henschel kept for decades – that they were secret lovers. Director Chris Bolan weaves a tender, beautiful tribute to his great aunt and her partner, incorporating interviews into an amazing scrapbook-like array of nostalgic home movies, photos and archival footage. While the Ryan Murphy production touches briefly on the secret lives that lesbians and gays had to live during the 1940s, 50s and 60s, much of the documentary is focused on the personal challenges that the aging couple faces in their golden years as declining health forces them to rely on family members who, until just years before, had not even been aware about the depth of their relationship. Prepare to bawl your eyes out.