Digital Trends Staff Picks: Our favorite movies and TV shows of 2020

Entertainment Top Tech 2020: Lovecraft Country
Digital Trends/Chris DeGraw

There’s no doubt that 2020 was an odd year for movies. Theaters shut down, major releases were delayed or canceled, and all of us suddenly had far more time to watch movies than we ever thought we would.

But despite the curveballs that 2020 threw at the entertainment industry, filmmakers still managed to release an impressive number of excellent movies and TV shows this year. So as 2020 draws to a close and we all settle in for yet another socially distanced holiday, we here at Digital Trends pulled together a list of our favorite movies and TV shows of 2020.

If you’re looking for something good to watch, look no further. We have impeccably good taste.

Lovecraft Country

by Rick Marshall

No one quite knew what to expect from Lovecraft Country when the HBO series was first announced. Was it horror? A period drama? The answer is a little of both, and so much more, as each episode mines pulp sci-fi and horror themes to tell a story set amid the real-world racial terrors of the nation’s Jim Crow era.

Developed by Misha Green and inspired by Matt Ruff’s novel of the same name, Lovecraft Country doesn’t waste any time catching your attention. The series premiere’s opening scene, which evolves from a gritty, archival war reel to a massive, brightly colored homage to some of literature’s greatest works of sci-fi and horror, might be one of the memorable openings to any show in recent memory. And amazingly, the series only gets better from that point as it follows former soldier Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors) and his childhood friend Letitia Lewis (Jurnee Smollett) on a cross-country journey to find Freeman’s missing father.

Few series have managed to mix real-world historical drama and elements of sci-fi and supernatural tropes so effectively, and with each episode, Lovecraft Country raises the bar even higher. The show’s talented cast sells every moment — big or small, joyous or terrifying, real or imagined — with nuance and sincerity, and the series’ stunning visual effects bring one nightmare after another to life throughout the season. There’s a good reason it was one of the year’s most talked-about new shows, and here’s hoping it will give us more to talk about in the future.

Palm Springs

by Rob Oster

Based on its trailer, it would be easy to write off Palm Springs as a Groundhog Day ripoff, but writer Andy Siara, director Max Barbakow, and stars Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti breathe quite a bit of new life into the familiar premise.

We first meet Nyles (Samberg) long after he’s been stuck in a time loop that has him reliving the day of the wedding of a pair of acquaintances over and over again. While he remembers everything that happens each day, the slate is wiped clean for everyone else. On this particular playthrough, he bonds with the bride’s sister, Sarah (Milioti), who ends up stuck in the loop with him after getting sucked into a vortex. She’s not pleased.

Unlike Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day, who spends each day trying to win the heart of a woman he’s fallen in love with in the loop, Nyles has given up trying to escape his fate. He engages in one-night stands — not that he has much choice — gets drunk and generally causes havoc.

As Nyles, Samberg finds some real depth in the type of smartass character he’s played so successfully on Brooklyn Nine-Nine and elsewhere. And he has genuine chemistry with Milioti, whose Sarah isn’t content to roll over and let her current lot in life dictate her fate.

Palm Springs finds a delicate balance between big laughs and weighty themes, making it one of the most enjoyable films in what might be the weirdest year in the history of movies.

We Are Who We Are

by Genevieve Poblano

This is more than a coming-of-age television show. It unravels the complexities that come about with self-discovery and understanding yourself and the relationships you have with those around you. It does so in a unique way, with the use of visual elements and dialogue that almost feels like you are eavesdropping into conversations.

Director Luca Guadagnino (Call Me by My Name and 2018’s Suspiria remake), takes us to an American Army base in modern-day Italy. Many of the characters are isolated from their surrounding location and move a lot. Despite all that is going on in their world, these characters’ own self discoveries are not put on hold.

The show does not stray away from raw moments and interactions that come along with growing up, gender identity, relationships, grieving, and clashing beliefs. As the title implies, characters learn how to accept themselves and who the people around them are. We Are Who We Are is a refreshing take on what it is like to grow up in this decade, which itself might be experiencing some level of self-discovery.

The Vast of Night

by Drew Prindle

The Vast of Night is my favorite movie of 2020 because it’s basically a low-budget filmmaking flex. It doesn’t have any crazy visual effects or big-name actors, and it largely flew under the radar this year because its shoestring budget didn’t leave much money for marketing. But what the movie’s creators lacked in financial resources, they made up for — multiple times over — with style. This flick absolutely oozes cinematic swagger and creativity.

The story takes place in the late 1950s in small-town New Mexico, and follows the plight of a telephone switchboard operator and radio DJ who discover a strange audio frequency coming in over the airwaves. But the story itself isn’t really what makes this movie exciting — it’s how the story is told. Long uncut takes, fast-paced dialogue, and a tightly written screenplay give it an exhilarating, almost theater-like quality that keeps you on the edge of your seat and makes you feel like you yourself are in the film, investigating a mystery right alongside the movie’s heroes.

If you’re not convinced it’s worth a watch, just check out this awesome 4-minute long take from the film (don’t worry — it’s spoiler free!).

The Outsider

by Brandon Widder

It’s ironic that the best Stephen King film adaptations are, arguably the ones in which he’s least involved. Alongside The Shining and the 2017 rendition of It, The Outsider is one such example. The moody HBO miniseries that takes few liberties with the source material, yet still manages to craft something entirely unique.

In premise, The Outsider is little more than a supernatural crime drama centered on the murder of an 11-year-old boy in small-town Georgia. But the way the series deftly examines how one might cope with the unbelievable renders it more than your run-of-the-mill procedural. It’s a brilliant character study at heart, filled with shape-shifting doppelgängers and spirits that feed on grief and despair, and buoyed by standout performances from Cynthia Erivo, Jason Bateman, and Ben Mendelsohn in one of his few cracks at playing something other than a villain to date.

Make no mistake, it’s a slow burn and an even darker adaptation, but screenwriter Richard Price is no stranger to atmosphere, having contributed to The Wire and The Night Of, as well as other blue-ribbon HBO properties. Plus, who doesn’t like a little noir thrown in for good measure?

Weathering with You

by Patrick Hearn

Makoto Shinkai has released a lot of films in the United States, but never gained more than a cult following until 2016’s Your Name. The critically -acclaimed animated film introduced millions of Americans to this storytelling phenomenon. Weathering With You is no different. The film follows Hodoka, a 17-year-old runaway from rural Japan, and Hina, a mystical “weather girl” who can clear the clouds by praying.

Tokyo has been the subject of unseasonable weather and torrential rainfall. Hodoka convinces Hina to take jobs clearing the sky for weddings and other special events, but neither realizes the toll Hina’s powers take on her body. Little by little, each use of her power pushes her toward a point of no return, where she must sacrifice herself to save the world from drowning.

Weathering With You is a fantasy romance that illustrates a world-shattering love between two people, where the phrase “I love you” is not needed — the actions of the characters scream it to the rain-soaked skies.

First Cow

by Giovanni Colantonio

Ever since her 1994 directorial debut River of Grass, Kelly Reichardt has consistently been one of the most essential voices in American cinema. Her quiet films touch on a broad range of topics, including economic anxiety (Wendy and Lucy), human intimacy (Old Joy), and environmental dread (Night Moves). First Cow ties all of the ideas she’s tackled over the past 25 years into one succinct package.

Set in the 1820s Northwestern frontier, the film revolves around two men who start a successful baking hustle by secretly taking milk from a landowner’s cow at night. It’s a quiet story about the age-old quest for the American dream amid the competitive landscape of capitalism. At the heart of those lofty themes is an intimate portrait of friendship in the face of economic struggle that’s anchored by a subtle breakout performance from Orion Lee.

Hollywood

by Dan McKenna

A Ryan Murphy limited series about racial and sexual minorities in Golden Age Hollywood that involves a male prostitution ring based out of a gas station? Let’s just say I’m on my way to dreamland.

Set in an alternate history, Hollywood follows the stories of a group of folks striving to leave their mark on the world of show business while being a woman, not white, gay, or some combination of the three. Obviously, in the 1940s, none of these people would be able to openly take their shot without being deep in the closet.

Back here in the real world, in the midst of many social justice movements, seeing Hollywood’s heroes being able to live openly and proudly while supporting each other is bittersweet. While it is satisfying to see hatred, bigotry, and discrimination be openly repudiated on screen, it doesn’t take much to remember that this is a work of fiction and that we face many of the same challenges outside the bounds of the silver screen.

Bill and Ted Face the Music

by Adam Doud

Bill and Ted Face the Music is the highly anticipated closing chapter to a most excellent trilogy that we didn’t really know we needed. I’m not a movie critic, but I do play one on a podcast, so I can’t tell you about the story or the character arc or the ultimate ending to an Excellent Adventure turned Bogus Journey. But I can tell you three things about this movie.

First, I preordered it the day I could do so. Second, I watched it within minutes of it becoming available. Third, I very, very thoroughly enjoyed it — more than I thought I would, to be honest. The Bill and Ted movies tied things up pretty well at the end of Bogus Journey and I was nervous that any additional “adventure” might seem desperate, heavy-handed, or both. Fortunately, I was proven wrong.

Neither Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure nor Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey were cinematic masterpieces. Face the Music isn’t either. But the best part about Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) is they don’t have to be. They can just be fun. Bill and Ted Face the Music has the right amount of new and nostalgia, fitting tributes to all previous characters, and it even neatly fills a plot hole from the second film. Is this the best movie of 2020? Certainly not. But it might just be the most fun.

The Invisible Man

by Jeremy Kaplan

As if we didn’t have enough reasons to love Elisabeth Moss, The Invisible Man showcases how versatile and engaging this actress at the top of her game really is. A psychological horror flick sorta-maybe-kinda based on the H.G. Wells novel, The Invisible Man tells the story of a woman haunted by her ex-husband, and Moss’ performance is reminiscent of Julia Roberts’ turn in the 1993 film Sleeping With the Enemy. She’s simply dynamic in it: Relatable, empathic, funny — you just can’t tear your eyes from her. Moss upended Mad Men and turned The Handmaid’s Tale into must-see TV, and it’s her presence that makes this film.

I told my mom about The Invisible Man the other day, and somehow she hadn’t heard about it. “Is there really an invisible man in it?” she asked me? You’ll have to watch the film to find out, and it’s every bit worth your time to do so.

The Boys Season 2

by Simon Cohen

When was the last time a TV show gave you a thrill, a laugh, and a shock all in the same episode? Such is the joy of The Boys, a genre-bending take on superheroes. Take my advice: Ignore the trailers and the posters for this Amazon Prime Video series. They have a tendency to make the show look like a mere parody of famous DC and Marvel characters like Superman, The Flash, and others. The Boys is certainty satirical, but it goes way beyond parody.

It probes the very real question of whether absolute power corrupts absolutely, and what happens to those who attempt to stand in the way of that power, and to those who would discard their own morality in order to profit it.

All the while, we’re treated to some deliciously over-the-top performances from veteran actor Karl Urban and Antony Starr, who plays the sociopathic Superman stand-in, Homelander.

There’s only one warning you should heed before starting the show. Within the first 10 minutes of episode 1, we witness the bloody demise of a non-superhuman. If exploding heads, severed limbs, and all of the accompanying gore make you queasy, grab some Gravol, or avoid this show — blood and guts are a thematic element that’s never far from making an on-screen appearance.

Tehran

by Arif Bacchus

What happens when 24 meets House of Cards meets Designated Survivor meets Mr. Robot and also goes international? You get Apple TV’s original series Tehran.

This Hebrew-language Israeli espionage show is one of the most unique in Apple TV’s lineup of series. It follows Tamar Rabinyan, a Mossad hacker agent who goes deep undercover on a dangerous mission in Iran’s capital city, Tehran.

From the first episode to the last (there are eight in total), you’ll be on the edge of your seat, wondering what happens to Tamar as she embarks on her journey. There’s plenty of computer hacking, character development, drama, and conflict along the way, too. Not to mention, the series examines the long-running Iranian and Israeli conflict through a unique lens: The lives of government agents and their families and friends.

You’ll have to watch it to be the judge. Just be sure to grab the popcorn, and get ready to binge-watch. It’ll be hard to resist watching all eight episodes at once.

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