With the closing of movie theaters across the country since March, streaming services provided the bulk of the new movies in 2020.
Films such as Hulu’s “Palm Springs” and Amazon Prime’s “Small Axe” collection provided some high-quality-yet-small-screen respite for those missing the theatrical form. Netflix alone debuted multiple new movies weekly throughout the year. Most of these were forgettable, but the service did contribute at least a dozen films worth watching in 2020.
Near the midway point of the year, I rounded up the Netflix films that had actually received good reviews ― making a statement about how many of Netflix’s offerings to that point had scored embarrassingly low on review aggregation sites such as Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. At the time, pretty much the only movies that had high scores were documentaries.
Netflix thankfully finished the back half of the year with more solid non-documentary films. As such, I decided to exclude documentaries from this list to keep things simpler. I also refrained from including young-adult and children’s movies as I consider those to be a separate category, even if the service had many wonderful offerings in those genres.
A couple of notes about the information below: The “debut date” listed is when the film joined Netflix, as opposed to any date tied to a festival or limited theatrical run. Also, the list is not in any order of ranking.
Read on for the list, and if you want to stay informed about the best things joining Netflix on a weekly basis, subscribe to the Streamline newsletter.
Premise: George C. Wolfe directed this adaptation of a 1982 August Wilson play based on the blues singer Ma Rainey. The story focuses on Ma Rainey and a backing band as they work through a recording session in Chicago during 1927. The musicians share stories and personal dreams as they discuss the highs of music and the ongoing slights of being Black in America.
This serves as Chadwick Boseman’s final performance, given his death in August. It’s particularly heartbreaking that his role is full of vibrancy as a musician with big goals, striving for a bigger slice of the world.
Runtime: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Premise: This drama focuses on an aging Holocaust survivor who provides child care to the children of prostitutes in Italy. A Senegalese refugee child robs her on the street, but in a coincidence, a friend asks her to look after this child too. Bringing the kid into the house upends order initially, but against the odds the two ultimately build a strong, life-affirming bond.
This was Sophia Loren’s first major film role in over a decade (her son, Edoardo Ponti, directed). Her return here provides gravitas to a quiet narrative, allowing the message of welcoming acceptance to shine.
Runtime: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Premise: Will Ferrell co-wrote this comedy about an Icelandic duo with a lifelong dream to compete in the Eurovision Song Contest. In a series of flukes, the duo’s goofy music makes it into the contest. The competition doesn’t go as they always dreamed, and they must decide whether to keep trying or to give up.
In this dreadful year, Ferrell’s best comedic work in years was a salve of levity. The storyline is silly, but the overall movie holds up next to Ferrell’s earlier films. This year was short on laughs, but “Eurovision Song Contest” provided at least a few.
Runtime: 2 hours, 3 minutes
Premise: In this comedy, a Black playwright living in New York City fears she’s an artistic has-been as she approaches her 40th birthday with little tangible work to show for her 30s. Her students don’t respect her artistic output, and she decides to make an active go at creating art again. The playwright switches forms from plays to rapping, a surprising choice that ends up working out.
Although the artist-in-New York City story has been done countless times, “The 40-Year-Old Version” still finds a way to provide a new take on the form. Radha Blank directed, wrote and starred in the movie and established herself as a promising filmmaker who may come to define the 2020s.
Runtime: 2 hours, 3 minutes
Premise: Aaron Sorkin directed and wrote this drama based on the real-life 1968 Chicago protests against the Vietnam War and the subsequent trial of organizing activists. Police fought with protesters during the anti-war rallies, and incoming President Richard Nixon wanted to make an example of the perceived agitators. The trial exposed corruption and systemic failures with the American court system.
Sorkin’s film takes liberties with the truth and has many saccharine, overdone moments. But the script and the acting performances still shine with A+ talent, something much needed in a year with fewer theatrical films than usual. The movie also has much to say about police brutality and systemic inequities in the American legal system, both potent topics in 2020.
Runtime: 2 hours, 9 minutes
Premise: Joe Mantello directed this adaptation of a 1968 play/2018 Broadway revival about a birthday party attended by gay friends in 1968 Manhattan. The host invites a college friend who doesn’t know the host is gay and harbors homophobic feelings, despite having gay hookups in his youth. The group shares stories of lost loves and broken dreams while drinking more and more. Conflicts erupt with the straight friend, who keeps almost leaving. The group eventually begins a game of calling failed romances to express lingering feelings.
Despite strong reviews, this movie kind of came and went in the cultural consciousness, with it not making a mark on Netflix’s public popularity ranking and not really ending up on best-of year-end lists. Perhaps this is because people felt the movie didn’t live up to the play. But in any case, the well-crafted and star-studded film is certainly worth revisiting.
Runtime: 2 hours, 1 minute
Premise: Alan Yang directed and wrote this drama about a man who leaves his home of Taiwan and gives up on the possible love of his life to move to America in the hope of greater prosperity. The film jumps to also tell the story of the man at an older age as he shares his regrets about leaving Taiwan while talking to his daughter, a child he had with a woman he settled for. Together, the father and daughter try to find a renewed love for life.
This movie debuted right as the country was realizing that COVID-19 wouldn’t be going away anytime soon. I imagine this didn’t help the small-budget movie break through as it needed to at the time. But now is a perfect time to revisit it.
Runtime: 1 hour, 31 minutes
Premise: Tina Fey and Robert Carlock wrote this interactive comedy about the television show character Kimmy Schmidt going on an investigative adventure as her wedding day approaches. In the story, Schmidt has become a successful author and is about to marry a prince, but finds out the reverend who locked her in a bunker for much of her life may still have other women trapped. The viewer can make choices for Kimmy as she tries to have it all in saving the day and saving her day.
The movie expanded the “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch” experiment in providing a choose-your-own-adventure story for Netflix subscribers. Given this is a comedy, making it this truncated, slowed-down style could have been a disaster as the rhythm of the jokes could have been off. But Fey’s background in improv seems to have paid off as the movie maintains its comedic energy all the way through.
Runtime: 1 hour, 20 minutes
Premise: In this horror thriller, South Sudanese refugees seek asylum in England. They receive the opportunity to stay in a shabby house for the time being, where they worry about their status and mourn a loss that occurred during the flight from their home country. The refugees begin to experience horrific oddities in the house and must figure out the terrifying mysteries of their circumstance.
This movie earned a rare 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, an incredibly impressive feat given 92 critics weighed in. The film hasn’t made many year-end lists and seems to have been forgotten since its Halloween debut. But if you’re a fan of movies like “Get Out” that blend horror with social commentary, this is a must-watch.
Runtime: 1 hour, 33 minutes
Premise: Charlie Kaufman directed and wrote this psychological drama loosely based on a 2016 novel of the same name by Iain Reid. The story ostensibly follows a woman as she goes on a snowy road trip with her new boyfriend to visit his parents in their remote farmhouse. The film devolves into a unique madness as the characters age and de-age, cite long passages as if they’re reading the referenced materials and see mystical visions.
The movie is kind of a mess, and it’s hard to argue against the criticisms that Kaufman just made a self-indulgent, weird-for-weird’s-sake project here. But while it can be excruciating at times to stick through to the end, there is a magical payoff. The film ultimately is better as an intellectual exercise than a “fun movie” with much to say about the value of memories and a life well-lived. Just go into it knowing this won’t be a narrative thrill ride.
Runtime: 2 hours, 14 minutes
Premise: Spike Lee directed and co-wrote this action drama about Black Vietnam War veterans who return to Vietnam in hopes of finding the remains of their former leader along with a treasure trove of gold they buried together during the war. The country provides a strange welcome of both interest in their American money and lingering resentment. “Da 5 Bloods” balances the thrills of the dangerous treasure hunt with an examination of how the military treated Black American soldiers as disposable.
Lee’s movie masterfully blends fourth-wall-breaking social commentary with high-budget action sequences. Adding so much style and intentional messiness to a film in the action genre is incredibly rare. Sometimes the choices land a bit flat, but the inventiveness and steady craft carries this to the climactic, violent end.
Runtime: 2 hours, 34 minutes
Premise: David Fincher directed this drama about 1930s and 1940s Hollywood screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz. Fincher’s father wrote the original script before his death in 2003, based on a 1971 New Yorker article called “Raising Kane,” which argued Mankiewicz should get more credit than Orson Welles for the writing of “Citizen Kane.” That argument has been mostly debunked, so David Fincher steered the story to focus more on Mankiewicz’s inspiration for his first draft of “Citizen Kane.” This means the story follows “Mank” as he becomes jaded with the Hollywood studio system and the American political process.
It’s ridiculous that “Mank” isn’t topping, let alone earning inclusion in, many end-of-year best-of lists from the nation’s top critics. Perhaps it’s because a Fincher film in black and white based on a piece of film criticism about arguably the greatest movie in Hollywood history feels too force-fed. That the movie didn’t even last one week in Netflix’s public popularity ranking feels especially cruel. But this movie is well-worth revisiting as it somehow pairs a fun, zippy narrative with a rich text of historical references, political calamities, and surprising existential demise amid an ostensibly cheery setting of Hollywood glamour. Perhaps like Fincher’s at-the-time-underappreciated “The Social Network,” “Mank” will just take some time to find its deserved audience.
Runtime: 2 hours, 11 minutes