The best movies and TV shows of 2020 (so far), and how to watch them

Want something to watch this weekend? Here's the best films, shows, and specials of the year.

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti in "Palm Springs."

If you’re anything like me, 2020 has been the year of comfort viewing. Instead of broadening my horizons and embracing the endless bounty of new movies and TV shows released during the coronavirus pandemic, I’ve retreated into rewatching some of my favorite shows in their entirety, like “Parks and Recreation” and “Veep”. I’ve rewatched my favorite movie of the past decade (“Mad Max: Fury Road”) three times this year, which even I can acknowledge might be a bit excessive.

It’s easy to understand why someone would eschew something new and settle in with a favorite TV show after a stressful day spent entirely in your home. Nevertheless, 2020 has offered viewers plenty of fresh entertainment options choose from, even with movie theaters closing their doors due to the pandemic. Movies that played at film festivals in late 2019 or early 2020 never got a theatrical release, instead parachuting directly into our living rooms. TV shows that might have faded into the background, like Netflix’s “Tiger King,” were suddenly the topic of everyone’s Zoom meetings.

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On this list of 10 movies and 10 TV shows/specials, you’ll find critical darlings (movies/shows rated 90 percent or better on Rotten Tomatoes), local connections (movies/shows that are not only good, but have a specific tie to Massachusetts as well), and personal favorites (recommendations from Boston.com staff). Some titles even fit all three categories.

Here are the best movies and TV shows of 2020 so far.

Movies

“Babyteeth”

Eliza Scanlen, who held her own in the deep ensemble cast of “Little Women,” plays an ill teenager who falls for a low-level drug dealer, much to her parents’ frustration. Anchored by strong performances and a refusal to play to audience expectation, “Babyteeth” took home several awards at the Venice Film Festival, and is now available to rent. 

How to watch: “Babyteeth” is available to rent on various platforms.

“Bacurau”

Back before virtual film festivals became the norm, “Bacurau,” a Brazilian film that defies precise genre characterization, won the Cannes Jury award. A small village in Brazil, already besieged by corruption and a lack of drinking water, is suddenly faced with a bizarre series of events, including the disappearance of the village from any online maps and UFO-like drones chasing residents. A satirical look at colonialist attitudes that blends western and sci-fi genres, “Bacurau” is worth the price of a rental.

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How to watch: “Bacurau” is available to rent on various platforms.

“Bad Education”

It’s always a joy to watch veteran actors who seem like they’re having fun on screen. That’s what you get with “Bad Education,” based on the true story of two Long Island school administrators who will stop at nothing to ensure their school is the top-ranked in the country. Superintendent Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman, “X-Men”) and his deputy Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney, “I, Tonya”) are a formidable pair, and you’ll be rooting for them even as their quest to be the best turns criminal.

How to watch: “Bad Education” is available free to HBO subscribers and for rent on various other platforms.

“Crip Camp”

The winner of the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, “Crip Camp” travels back in time to 1971 to visit Camp Jened, a summer camp in New York for teens with disabilities. What begins as campers finding kinship with each other morphs into a full-fledged political movement for disability rights.

How to watch: “Crip Camp” is streaming on Netflix.

“Da 5 Bloods”

Spike Lee’s newest film is bypassing theaters and heading directly to Netflix this month. Four Black Vietnam War veterans (Delroy Lindo, “Get Shorty”; Clarke Peters, “The Wire”; Norm Lewis, “Scandal”; Isiah Whitlock Jr., “Cedar Rapids”) return to the country to search for the remains of their dead squad leader (Chadwick Boseman, “Black Panther”) while also seeking buried treasure. Along the way, they face forces of man and nature and must confront their roles in the immoral conflict.

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How to watch: “Da 5 Bloods” is streaming on Netflix.

“First Cow”

Kelly Reichardt’s latest film never got a proper theatrical run before the pandemic, but you can catch the film now on on-demand services. Tune in to see the story of a cook who teams up with a Chinese immigrant to make a fortune in the Oregon Territory thanks to the only milking cow in their makeshift frontier town. The story moves slowly but deliberately, and the larger messages — about capitalism, environmentalism, and masculinity — resonate long afterward.

How to watch: “First Cow” is available to rent on various platforms.

“Never Rarely Sometimes Always”

When Autumn (newcomer Sidney Flanigan) discovers she’s pregnant, she knows she wants an abortion. Unfortunately, Pennsylvania doesn’t allow her to get one without parental consent, so she travels to New York City with her cousin (newcomer Talia Ryder) using the last of their saved money in order to get one. A powerful drama about weighty issues, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is a tough but rewarding watch,

How to watch: “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is available to rent on various platforms.

“Palm Springs”

In many ways, “Palm Springs” is “Groundhog Day” for the millennial set. Instead of Murray, the comic actor who got his start on “Saturday Night Live” in “Palm Springs” is Andy Samberg, who ushered the variety show into a new era with his digital shorts. Samberg plays a drunken, detached thirtysomething who is stuck attending the same wedding over and over. This time, however, the protagonist manages to rope another person into his time loop, snagging the sister of the bride, played by Cristin Milioti (“How I Met Your Mother”).

How to watch: “Palm Springs” is streaming on Hulu.

“Selah and the Spades”

If you’re looking to escape reality for 90 minutes, “Selah and the Spades” will fully immerse you in the vision of first-time writer-director Tayarisha Poe. Set at the fictional Madewell boarding school (played in the film by the Academy at Penguin Hall in Wenham), “Selah” centers around Selah Summers (Lovie Simone), the 17-year-old leader of one of the school’s five underground factions who supplies the wealthy student body with booze and drugs. “Selah” doesn’t necessarily break new ground in terms of subject matter, but the film is a stylish one, and Poe makes you genuinely care about the characters and the pressures of high school hierarchy many of us long ago left behind. Along with Wenham, “Selah” was filmed in Hamilton, Peabody, Marblehead, and Newton.

How to watch: “Selah and the Spades” is streaming on Amazon Prime.

“The Way Back”

“The Way Back” is a movie we’ve all seen before: A down-on-his-luck protagonist is paired with a youth sports team in need of inspiration. But the film rises above its formula thanks to a strong performance from Ben Affleck, who drew from his own experiences with alcoholism to play Jack Cunningham, a washed-up former high school hoops phenom who returns to his alma mater to coach a team in need of direction.

How to watch: “The Way Back” is available to rent on various platforms.

TV Shows/Specials

“Better Call Saul”

Perhaps it’s no surprise that one of the best shows of the last 20 years, Vince Gilligan’s “Breaking Bad,” gave rise to one of the best shows of the last five years with the spinoff “Better Call Saul.” Nevertheless, it feels like the Bob Odenkirk-led drama has flown under the radar during its five-season run, with big-budget epics like “Game of Thrones” or maximalist Netflix shows like “Stranger Things” defining the cultural zeitgeist. The AMC drama was operating at peak performance in its penultimate season, pushing Odenkirk’s Jimmy McGill further down the path toward becoming the sleazy attorney Saul Goodman we saw in “Breaking Bad.”   

How to watch: The first 4 seasons of “Better Call Saul” are streaming on Netflix. Season 5 episodes are available on demand with a valid cable subscription, or to rent on Amazon.

“Cheer”

Even if you know nothing about or have zero interest in competitive cheerleading, “Cheer” will make you care deeply about the subject by the time its six-episode run concludes. The show focuses on a nationally ranked cheer team from Texas as it strives to be the best in the sport. Beyond the very real human drama, “Cheer” gives audiences a look at how cheerleading evolved from a side-show into a billion-dollar industry.

How to watch: “Cheer” is streaming on Netflix.

“Devs”

Director Alex Garland was responsible for two of the best — and most thought-provoking — sci-fi films in the previous decade with “Ex Machina” and “Annihilation,” so it’s no surprise that his FX miniseries “Devs” wades into the deep end of sci-fi from the start. The show begins with Lily (Sonoya Mizuno) working at a computing firm run by Forest (Nick Offerman, “Parks and Recreation”) when her boyfriend dies under mysterious circumstances. What follows is a mind exercise on the nature of free will and determinism seen through the lens of Silicon Valley.

How to watch: “Devs” is streaming on Hulu for those with a valid cable subscription.

“Hamilton”

Live theater may be a tough thing to come by during the pandemic, so your best bet may be to watch a 2016 filmed production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash hit “Hamilton,” which arrived on Disney Plus earlier this month. Even theater fans who saw the Boston production of the musical should tune in to see the original cast. Standouts include Leslie Odom Jr.’s Aaron Burr and Phillipa Soo’s Eliza Schuyler, but the cast is nearly note-perfect from top to bottom.

How to Watch: “Hamilton” is streaming on Disney Plus.

“The Last Dance”

Famed documentarian (and longtime New Hampshire resident) Ken Burns may not be a fan, but “The Last Dance” was a huge hit for ESPN this spring, becoming the most-watched documentary series in the company’s history. There’s no denying that Michael Jordan being both the subject and a producer of the documentary raises some ethical red flags. But the material is fascinating in its own right, regardless of any possible personal bias.

How to watch: “The Last Dance” is streaming on Netflix.

“Little Fires Everywhere”

Based on Cambridge author Celeste Ng’s book of the same name, “Little Fires Everywhere” chronicles the journey of the Richardson family and its matriarch, Elena (Reese Witherspoon, “Legally Blonde”). When mother-daughter duo Mia and Pearl Warren (“Scandal” star Kerry Washington and newcomer Lexi Underwood) move into the Richardson’s rental property across town, the two families are irrevocably changed.

How to watch: “Little Fires Everywhere” is streaming on Hulu.

“Mrs. America”

Another limited series worthy of your attention is “Mrs. America,” the FX drama that examines the fight to pass the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s and the culture war that resulted. While elements of the story are fictionalized, the show is based on real-life women, including feminists like Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne, “Bridesmaids”), Jill Ruckelshaus (Pittsfield native Elizabeth Banks, “The Hunger Games”), and Brenda Feigen (Boston native Ari Graynor, “Whip It”) who face off against movement conservative Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett, “Carol”). No fewer than four members of the main cast have local roots, with Boston natives Uzo Aduba (“Orange is the New Black”) and John Slattery (“Mad Men”) joining Banks and Graynor.

How to watch: “Mrs. America” is streaming on Hulu with a valid cable subscription.

“Never Have I Ever”

Co-created by the Cambridge native and Lang Fisher (“The Mindy Project”), “Never Have I Ever” is a coming-of-age comedy, partially based on Kaling’s own childhood, about the life of Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), a first-generation Indian-American teenager living in California. Many of the show’s story beats concern traditional coming-of-age fodder — adolescent crushes, family arguments, social embarrassment — but the show also deftly deals with heavier issues: Devi’s father recently passed away, and the protagonist, in her grief, lost the use of her legs for three months. With a winning supporting cast and fun narration provided by former bad-boy tennis champ John McEnroe, the 10-episode first season has been a hit with audiences and critics alike.

How to watch: “Never Have I Ever” is streaming on Netflix.

“Ozark”

If you’re looking for a show to binge-watch this summer, “Ozark” is a worthy candidate. With 14 Emmys under its belt, the crime drama starring Jason Bateman (“Arrested Development”) and Laura Linney (“The Big C”) as a married couple who relocate to the Ozarks in order to outrun their criminal past has become a fan favorite on Netflix. The show is three seasons in, which is perfect for those seeking great TV to consume, but consider a seven-season show too daunting of a viewing challenge. If you need further persuasion, the third season is probably its best so far.

How to watch: “Ozark” is streaming on Netflix.

“What We Do In the Shadows”

Before he hit the big time with the likes of “Thor: Ragnarok” and “Jojo Rabbit,” director Taika Waititi created the riotous 2014 mockumentary “What We Do in the Shadows” with fellow New Zealander Jemaine Clement (“Flight of the Conchords”), which chronicles a household of vampire roommates. Clement hasn’t missed a beat adapting the film to the small screen for FX, following new plotlines and bringing new undead bloodsuckers into the fold in what is one of the most consistently funny shows of 2020.

How to watch: “What We Do In the Shadows” is streaming on Hulu.

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