Entertainment

The best movies and TV shows of 2020, and how to watch them

Want something to watch this weekend? Here are the best films and shows of the year, and how to watch them at home.

Micheal Ward as Franklyn and Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn as Martha in "Lovers Rock" from the "Small Axe" film series.

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 retreated for a time into rewatching some of my favorite shows in their entirety, like “Parks and Recreation,” “Community,” 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 is a bit excessive.

It’s easy to understand why someone would eschew the new and settle in with an old standby after a stressful day spent entirely in your home: Movies and TV shows have always offered an escape into a world beyond our own, something we needed more desperately than ever in 2020.

While there’s no overarching theme to this year-end round-up, my list of favorites leans heavier than usual on titles that offered nostalgia, laughter, community, and comfort. Movies that make you want to dance, TV shows that you simply had to discuss with your coworkers on Zoom, and a docuseries throwback to the ’90s that dominated online conversations for a solid month.

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Missing from this list are delayed blockbusters set to arrive (maybe) in 2021, festival darlings that could contend for Oscars but haven’t been released nationwide yet, and inevitably, your favorite movies and shows. (Please let me know what I’m missing down in the comments. I’ll be reading and responding when I can.)

Here are the best movies and TV shows of 2020.

Movies

“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 stream for Criterion Channel and Kanopy subscribers, and 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.

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

“Black Bear”

Whether she’s playing a lovable grouch in “Parks and Recreation” or a dangerous obsessive in “Ingrid Goes West,” Aubrey Plaza regularly plays characters who push buttons and boundaries. In “Black Bear,” Plaza does both, playing a filmmaker who seeks inspiration by spending a weekend in the Adirondacks with a couple played by Sarah Gadon (“Enemy”) and Christopher Abbott (“It Comes at Night”). What follows is a film that dances between funny, uncomfortable, and alarming as Plaza’s filmmaker blurs the line between fiction and reality and drives a wedge between the couple in pursuit of artistic fulfillment.

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How to watch: “Black Bear” is available to stream for Spectrum subscribers and available to rent on various platforms.

“City Hall”

Thanks to movies like “Good Will Hunting,” “Mystic River,” “The Departed,” and “The Town,” the “Boston movie” is such a well-worn sub-genre that has descended into self-parody. Frederick Wiseman’s “City Hall” offers a different vision of the city, with a Boston-ness that outpaces every one of those aforementioned movies. Simply put, it’s a four-and-a-half-hour documentary about the city of Boston and the civil servants who make it run. You’ll see plenty of Mayor Marty Walsh, but you also see 311 operators solving problems for the city’s residents, veterans talking about their memories from wars past, and meetings that might put you to sleep if you were in them but are fascinating when seen through Wiseman’s lens. In a year when politics seemed irrevocably broken, “City Hall” offers an antidote right in our own backyard.

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How to watch: “City Hall” is available to rent through Coolidge Corner Theatre’s Virtual Cinema and will air on Tuesday, Dec. 22 at 8 p.m. on GBH.

“David Byrne’s American Utopia”

Spike Lee’s other 2020 film, “Da 5 Bloods,” could easily be on this list as well, but instead, I’ll highlight his David Byrne concert film. Byrne’s Talking Heads were already the subject of one of the greatest concert films of all time, Jonathan Demme’s “Stop Making Sense.” Like its 1984 predecessor, “American Utopia” is an artistic explosion of joy, a sonic journey that feels like a communal experience in a time when there are none to be had.

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How to watch: “American Utopia” is available to stream for HBO Max and HBO subscribers.

“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 streaming on Showtime and available to rent on various platforms.

“Lovers Rock”

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As one of five short films produced by Steve McQueen (“12 Years A Slave”) for BBC’s “Small Axe” anthology series, “Lovers Rock” could technically qualify as a TV episode, showing how streaming platforms can blur the lines between TV and film. Regardless of how you categorize it, the 68-minute movie, about a Jamaican-British woman who connects with a young man at a 1980s West London house party, is the kind of movie we need this year. McQueen forgoes plot in favor of mood as the couple and their friends groove to disco hits and embrace the infinite possibilities of a night out at a house party with strangers.

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How to Watch: “Lovers Rock” is streaming on Amazon Prime.

“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 streaming on HBO Max and 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,” it’s 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”).

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

“Sound of Metal”

Filmed in Boston, Ipswich, and other area towns in 2018, “Sound of Metal” is a drama about a metal drummer (Riz Ahmed, “Venom”) whose world begins to unravel as he starts to lose his hearing. A hit at the 2019 Toronto Film Festival that was delayed due to the pandemic, “Sound of Metal” is a must-watch both for its incredible sound design and for Ahmed’s performance as a man whose response to his hearing loss is to seek short-sighted relief in substances and ear-shattering music.

How to watch: “Sound of Metal” is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.

TV Shows/Specials

“Better Call Saul”

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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.”   

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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.

“Big Mouth”

“Big Mouth” is a ribald animated comedy about puberty that features cartoon genitalia, masturbation jokes, and literal “hormone monsters.” It’s also extremely funny, and offers more honesty and compassion about sex education than you’ll find in most public schools. Season 4 brings the tween cast to summer camp, where anxiety rears its ugly head. Featuring a deep cast that includes Nick Kroll (“Sausage Party”), John Mulaney (“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”), and Nahant native Jason Mantzoukas (“The League”), season four also marks the departure of Milton native Jenny Slate (“The Secret Life of Pets”).

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How to watch: “Big Mouth” is streaming on Netflix.

“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.

“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.

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

“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.

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

“Pen15”

Much like Bo Burnham’s coming-of-age film “Eighth Grade,” Hulu’s “PEN15” gives viewers a taste of what middle school was really like, pimples and all. Actresses Maya Erskine (“Wine Country”) and Scituate native Anna Konkle (“Rosewood”) play fictionalized versions of their 13-year-old selves in middle school in the early 2000s. Once you get through the instant laughs of watching two thirtysomething women play middle schoolers opposite the rest of the age-appropriate cast, you’ll be struck by how natural (and funny) their performances are — leaving you feeling genuine empathy when a cruel boy plays a trick on a fully grown woman, for example.

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How to watch: “PEN15” is streaming on Hulu.

“Ted Lasso”

A TV show based on a commercial does not sound like a recipe for success, with the short-lived show “Cavemen” based on those Geico ads being the most memorably bad example. But “Ted Lasso,” an Apple TV+ series based on a Jason Sudeikis character created to advertise the English Premier League on NBC Sports, is a heartwarming exception. As an American football coach who knows nothing about the sport of soccer, the (fictional) football club AFC Richmond he’s hired to coach, or the British way of life in general, Sudeikis’ Ted Lasso works overtime to win over his skeptics. His relentlessly sunny attitude not only rubs off on his co-stars, but it reaches audiences as well, with showrunner Bill Lawrence (“Scrubs”) creating a perfect 10-episode season for 2020.

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How to watch: “Ted Lasso” is streaming on Apple TV+.

“The Great”

The aristocratic show of choice right now is Netflix’s “The Crown,” with season four’s focus on Princess Diana setting records for the streaming giant. But if you’re looking for a less staid royal series, Hulu’s “The Great” is a wonderful alternative. While Netflix has to issue statements about the validity of each minor aspect of “The Crown,” “The Great” merrily rips up the tale of Russian Empress Catherine the Great and invents new storylines whole cloth, giving Catherine (Elle Fanning, “Super 8”) and deranged emperor Peter III (Nicholas Hoult, “Mad Max: Fury Road”) new ways to undermine each other in their tumultuous marriage.

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How to watch: “The Great” is streaming on Hulu.

“The Queen’s Gambit”

Back in the early days of quarantine, the nation collectively turned its attention to Joe Exotic and the cast of weirdos on “Tiger King,” a documentary that will soon be remembered as little more than a cultural oddity. The Netflix hivemind got it right this fall, however, with “The Queen’s Gambit,” a miniseries starring Anya Taylor Joy (“The Witch”) as chess prodigy Beth Harmon, a woman whose meteoric rise through the chess ranks is nearly derailed by her substance dependence and emotional issues. The show has brought about a renewed interest in chess, but more importantly, it has introduced the world to Taylor-Joy, one of the great young actresses working today who will undoubtedly ascend to A-list status if she so chooses in the years to come.

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How to watch: “The Queen’s Gambit” 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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