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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

The 12 Best Straight-to-Streaming Films of 2020

Powerful dramas, gorgeous animation, twisty comedies, exceptional musicals — 2020's streaming lineup delivered them all.
By Sarah Ward
December 24, 2020
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By Sarah Ward
December 24, 2020
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In this age of seemingly endless streaming platforms, there's never a shortage of things to watch. New movies hit the likes of Netflix, Stan, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+, Apple TV+ and DocPlay all the time, as well as the plethora of other online viewing services that just keep popping up, especially in 2020 — and they're all ready to be viewed and enjoyed by your ravenous eyeballs.

With such an ongoing onslaught of content fighting for everyone's attention, there's always a new highlight. This year has been full of them, in fact, and we've been rounding up the best streaming standouts each and every month. But, with 2020 now almost at a close, we're in reflective mode — so, from a 12-month period that saw us all glued to our screens at home far more than we ever dreamed of back in January, we've picked the 12 very best straight-to-streaming flicks from the past year.  These movies didn't play in local cinemas, even for just a short period, but they're all absolute must-sees.

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SMALL AXE

British filmmaker Steve McQueen hasn't directed a bad movie — and, dropping five new features as part of the Small Axe anthology, that isn't changing now. The director of Hunger, Shame, 12 Years a Slave and Widows gifts viewers a quintet of films that are as exceptional as anything he's ever made, with every entry in this new series taking place in England, in the 60s, 70s and 80s, with London's West Indian community at its centre. The first, Mangrove, tells an infuriating true tale about a police campaign to target a Caribbean restaurant in Notting Hill. From there, Lovers Rock spends time at a house party as two attendees dance into each other's orbits, and Red, White and Blue follows a young forensic scientist who decides to join the force to change it from the inside. Next, Alex Wheatle explores the life of the award-winning writer of the same name, while Education unpacks unofficial moves to segregate children of colour in schools. There's no weak link here — only stunning, stirring, standout cinema that tells blistering tales about Black London residents doing everything it takes to resist their racist treatment. Every film is sumptuously shot, too, thanks to cinematographer Shabier Kirchner (Bull), and the cast spans everyone from Lost in Space's Shaun Parkes and Black Panther's Letitia Wright to Star Wars' John Boyega.

All five Small Axe films are available to stream via Binge.

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MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM

Chadwick Boseman, Oscar-winner. That combination of words is very likely to become a posthumous reality for the late, great actor, thanks to his last screen role. Boseman is just that phenomenal in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. He has earned that term before in Get on Up, Black Panther and Da 5 Bloods, but his performance in this stage-to-screen production is such a powerhouse effort that it's like watching a cascading waterfall drown out almost everything around it. He plays trumpeter Levee Green, who is part of the eponymous Ma Rainey's (Viola Davis, Widows) band. On a 1920s day, the always-nattering, big-dreaming musician joins Ma — who isn't just a fictional character, and was known as the Mother of Blues — and the rest of his colleagues for a recording session. Temperatures and tempers rise in tandem in the Chicago studio, with Levee and Ma rarely seeing eye to eye on any topic. Davis is in thundering, hot-blooded form, while Colman Domingo (If Beale Street Could Talk) and Glynn Turman (Fargo) also leave a firm impression. It's impossible take your eyes off of the slinkily magnetic Boseman though, as would prove the case even if he was still alive to see the film's release. Adapting the play of the same name by August Wilson (Fences), director George C. Wolfe (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) lets Boseman farewell the screen with one helluva bang.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is available to stream via Netflix.

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UNCUT GEMS

The best film of 2020, based on Australian release dates, might only screen on Netflix on our shores. That might seem a big call, but the anxiety-dripping, riveting Uncut Gems is a stone-cold masterpiece, complete with one of the greatest performances of Adam Sandler's career (alongside Punch-Drunk Love and The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)). Far, far removed from his Netflix comedies of late, the actor is all hustle and bustle as Jewish American diamond-district jeweller Howard Ratner. A compulsive gambler who is deeply in debt, about to get divorced and being shaken down by a loan shark (Eric Bogosian) he's related to by marriage, he's always trying to lure in high-profile clientele. When he comes into possession of a rare black opal — the uncut gem of the title — basketballer Kevin Garnett becomes interested, sparking a wild chain of events. Writer/directors Josh and Benny Safdie last worked their gritty, vivid and relentlessly tense magic with the Robert Pattinson-starring Good Time to exhilarating and mesmerising effect, and this uncompromisingly chaotic thriller and all-round exceptional character study is even better.

Uncut Gems is available to stream via Netflix.

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DA 5 BLOODS

A fiery examination of both the Vietnam War and US race relations, Da 5 Bloods is a Spike Lee film through and through. It nods liberally to its influences, such as Apocalypse Now, but only the acclaimed Do the Right Thing and BlacKkKlansman filmmaker could've made a war movie this affecting, incisive, entertaining and politically astute  — especially given its focus on African American men expected to fight and die for the same country that still struggles to treat them equally. Plot-wise, the part combat drama, part heist thriller, part history lesson follows four ex-soldiers (Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis and Isiah Whitlock Jr) who make the trip back to Ho Chi Minh City decades after the conflict. They're searching for buried gold, as well as for the remains of their beloved squad leader (Chadwick Boseman, as seen in flashbacks). In Lee's hands, and with Lindo taking charge as a PTSD-afflicted, MAGA hat-wearing veteran, the results are energetic, passionate, and both intellectually and emotionally stunning.

Da 5 Bloods is available to stream via Netflix.

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WOLFWALKERS

From FernGully: the Last Rainforest to Moanaand including everything from Studio Ghibli's Pom Poko and Princess Mononoke to Pixar's Wall-E, too — many an animated movie has combined eye-catching frames with an important message about the environment. Irish film Wolfwalkers joins the pile and rockets to the top, thanks to one of the most visually and emotionally enchanting features of the year. Story-wise, it follows young wannabe hunter Robyn Goodfellowe (Honor Kneafsey, The Bookshop). In a tale set centuries ago, she moves to Ireland with her father Bill (Sean Bean, Snowpiercer) when he's hired to eradicate the last wolf pack lurking in the woods. The locals, as overseen by an English Lord Protector (Simon McBurney, The Loudest Voice), want to wipe out the wolves so that they can tear down the forest in the name of progress. But, after sneaking out to go exploring, Robyn befriends a girl called Mebh (feature first-timer Eva Whittaker) who just might be a member of a mythical tribe that's able to shapeshift into the creatures while they're dreaming. As well as a rousing eco-conscious narrative, Wolfwalkers delivers distinctive and delightful animation. Expect earthy, natural colours, with greens, browns, oranges and yellows dancing across the screen. Expect a line-heavy visual style, too, which is almost reminiscent of woodblock prints. And, expect another all-round beauty from co-director Tomm Moore, who also helmed the Oscar-nominated and equally beautiful duo The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea.

Wolfwalkers is available to stream via Apple TV+.

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SOUL

Released earlier in 2020, Onward definitely wasn't Pixar's best film — but Soul, its straight-to-streaming latest movie, instantly contends for the title. The beloved animation studio has always excelled when it takes big leaps. Especially now, 25 years into its filmmaking tenure, its features prove particularly enchanting when they're filled with surprises (viewers have become accustomed to seeing toys, fish, rats and robots have feelings, after all). On paper, Soul initially seems similar to Inside Out, but switching in souls for emotions. It swaps in voice work by Tina Fey for Amy Poehler, too, and both movies are helmed by director Peter Docter, so there's more than one reason for the comparison. But to the delight of viewers of all ages, Soul is a smart, tender and contemplative piece of stunning filmmaking all on its own terms. It's Pixar at its most existential, and with a strikingly percussive soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross to further help it stand out. At its centre sits aspiring jazz musician-turned-music teacher Joe (Jamie Foxx, Just Mercy). Just as he's about to get his big break, he falls down a manhole, his soul leaves his body, and he's desperate to get back to chase his dreams. But that's not how things work, and he's saddled with mentoring apathetic and cynical soul 22 (the always hilarious Fey) in his quest to reclaim his life.

Soul is available to stream via Disney+ from Friday, December 25.

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I'M YOUR WOMAN

Normally, when a criminal's latest job takes a turn for the worst for whatever reason, the film that tells their tale follows their part in the aftermath. I'm Your Woman isn't that movie. It looks like that kind of feature. It resembles one with exacting precision. But that isn't the narrative that's on offer here, and refreshingly so. Directed and co-written by Julia Hart (Fast Colour) with such a supreme handling of style, story and genre, this is a 70s-esque crime affair, but it focuses on Jean (Rachel Brosnahan, The Marvelous Mrs Maisel), the wife of a thief who has gone missing after a big score goes south. The aggrieved gangsters chasing her husband are also unlikely to be kind to Jean and her baby, so she's whisked off into hiding in the middle of the night with zero notice. That's a drastic change that she's unprepared to cope with — but, with help from the her spouse's ex-acquaintance Cal (Arinzé Kene, How to Build a Girl), she also discovers that she's far more resilient than she thinks. Compelling from the moment it opens with Jean clad in a magenta robe, add I'm Your Woman to the pile of movies that serves up a big shift in a familiar genre (see also: Sylvie's Love below), and does so in a spectacular fashion.

I'm Your Woman is available to stream via Amazon Prime Video.

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I'M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS

For much of I'm Thinking of Ending Things two-hour-plus running time, the film's characters sit and talk as discomfort fills the space around them. The movie's protagonist (Wild Rose's Jessie Buckley) and her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) awkwardly chat as they drive through the snow to the Oklahoma farm where the latter grew up. They both endure several seesawing conversations with Jake's erratic and eccentric mother (Toni Collette) and father (David Thewlis) once they arrive. And, steam-of-consciousness narration also provides a soundtrack. But given this feature is written and directed by Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, it was never going to be a straightforward flick about meeting the parents. Instead, it's a purposely ambiguous and complex exploration of identity, choice and the very nature of human existence — complete with sudden ballet dances, strange overnight stops at deserted dessert stands and flashes to an unhappy janitor (Guy Boyd) — and it's a fascinating, challenging, visually stunning trip the entire way.

I'm Thinking of Ending Things is available to stream via Netflix.

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HAMILTON

If you haven't been lucky enough to catch Hamilton on the stage — and, let's face it, most of us haven't — a filmed "live capture" version of the popular hip hop musical here to fill the gap. The story, for those who aren't intimately acquainted with US revolutionary history, chronicles the Caribbean-born eponymous "bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman" from his arrival in New York in the early 1770s. As the informative opening number explains, Alexander Hamilton will go on to become "the ten-dollar Founding Father without a father", with the production charting how he "got a lot farther by working a lot harder, by being a lot smarter and by being a self-starter". And, as shot on Broadway back in 2016, the results really are as phenomenal as we've all been hearing for the past five years. The entire cast, including not only creator, writer and star Lin-Manuel Miranda but Tony-winners Daveed Diggs (Snowpiercer) and Leslie Odom Jr (Murder on the Orient Express), Mindhunter's Jonathan Groff and Waves' Renee Elise Goldsberry, is superb, as is every element of the production. Infectiously exuberant from its first moments, and not only lively but frequently funny, Miranda's rich, dense but always accessible words and songs interrogate US history with passion, intelligence and energy. They'll also become firmly lodged in your head, too, so don't say we didn't warn you.

The filmed version of Hamilton is available to stream via Disney+. Read our full review.

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PALM SPRINGS

It wasn't the first movie to play with temporal trickery; however, Groundhog Day has a lot to answer for. Films about folks stuck in a loop, repeating the same day or events over and over, now almost comprise their own genre — but, wearing its allegiance to the aforementioned Bill Murray-starring comedy on its sleeves, Palm Springs is one of the best of them. Here, Brooklyn Nine-Nine's Andy Samberg plays Nyles, who has ventured to the titular location with his girlfriend Misty (Meredith Hagner, Brightburn) to attend a friend's nuptials. He gets drunk, makes a speech and a scene, befriends fellow wedding guest Sarah (Cristin Milioti, Modern Love) and disappears into a cave, warning the latter not to follow. When dawn breaks, it's the same day again. Then variations on the same events happen once more, and they just keep repeating over and over. Also featuring an initially intense JK Simmons (21 Bridges) as another ceremony attendee, Palm Springs has a wealth of fun with its concept, and becomes one of the year's most enjoyable movies in the process. Produced by Samberg alongside his Lonely Island colleagues Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, directed by feature first-timer Max Barbakow and written by Lodge 49's Andy Siara, it  also finds its own way to grapple with the time-loop genre's usual elements — the repetition that feels like being stuck in purgatory, and the existential malaise that comes with it — in a smart and funny rom-com that boasts particularly great performances from Samberg and Milioti.

Palm Springs is available to stream via Amazon Prime Video.

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DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD

Mortality is no one's favourite subject. Confronting the certainty of our own demise is so difficult, we all just generally carry on as though it won't happen. And the reality that everyone we know and love will die, including our parents, is just as tough to deal with. Facing not only the fact that her father is advancing in age, but that he's suffering dementia — meaning that she'll lose him mentally before he passes away physically — cinematographer and documentarian Kirsten Johnson (Cameraperson) conjured up a playful and poignant project. In Dick Johnson Is Dead, she stages her dad's death over and over. He's very much alive and he takes part, with the father-daughter duo bonding during what time they have left together in the process. While it might sound morbid, this moving movie is anything but. As well as the scenes that give the film its title, it also provides an insightful chronicle of the Johnsons' lives. Tender, thoughtful, personal and intimate, and driven by both Dick and Kirsten's presence, the result is perhaps the most affecting feature of the year — and a very worth winner of the Special Jury Award for Innovation in Non-Fiction Storytelling at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

Dick Johnson Is Dead is available to stream now via Netflix.

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SPACESHIP EARTH

When it premiered at Sundance in January this year, Spaceship Earth wouldn't and couldn't have seemed as topical as it does at present. The documentary's subject: Biosphere 2, the biodome in the Arizona desert that played host to eight inhabitants for two years in the early 90s — all isolating themselves from the world by choice, in the name of science, to see if a closed-off, fully self-sustaining vivarium could work if/when humanity ever ventures beyond the earth. It sounds like pure sci-fi, but this is 100-percent reality. With the help of a treasure trove of archival material as well as present-day interviews from many of the folks involved at the time, filmmaker Matt Wolf takes viewers through the unusual and fascinating experiment. While it would've been very easy to play up the outlandishness of the whole project (indeed, as seen in media clips from the time, many an onlooker did), this doco approaches Biosphere 2 and the passionate people who made it happen with thoughtfulness and appreciation, in what proves a supremely mesmerising, engaging and intelligent film.

Spaceship Earth is available to stream via DocPlay.

Published on December 24, 2020 by Sarah Ward

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