This article is part of our 2020 Rewind. Follow along as we explore the best and most interesting movies, shows, performances, and more from this very strange year. In this entry, we have a laugh (and often a cry) with the best comedy movies of 2020.
In a year that needed comedy more than ever, some reliables kept it coming (e.g. Andy Samberg, Sacha Baron Cohen, Steven Soderbergh, Miranda July) while several new parties stepped up to the plate (e.g., Radha Blank, Shannon Murphy, Kelly O’Sullivan, Michael Angelo Sorvino), albeit in a 2020 fashion: real, dark, and absurd.
That is to say, the comedies particular to this year reflect this year. It’s almost mystical when you think about it. Most of these were written and filmed long before the pandemic struck. Yet 2020 ended up having a preternatural sense of what was to come. Then again, people have been miserable and alone and hurting for some time now. The stark, sobering reality of 2020 is only thematically unique in its intersectionality (pandemic-meets-election-meets-revolution), global onset, and near-constant escalation.
So maybe it should be less of a surprise that 2020 echoes a comedy of suffering. We make light of the darkness as a means of acknowledging and coping with reality. It’s therapeutic. That said, comedic scenarios range from apocalyptic death curses to getting an abortion to time-looped weddings to the loss of creativity in isolation to Borat again, but most of them address serious issues and real fears head-on. Toxic family behavior might be the most common theme at work, spotlit in films like Kajillionaire, Babyteeth, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, On the Rocks, and several others. And rightfully so. We’ve been stuck inside together for too long.
Like any year, though, 2020 had a lot to offer, meaning there’s something for everyone on our list. The lighter fare ranges from colorful period pieces to cheesy holiday romances, father-daughter adventures to big name studio comedies. We weren’t concerned with sticking to a dogma of comedy; rather, compiling a diverse list that represents the best consistent laughs 2020 had to offer in film. Without further ado, as decided by me and Christopher Campbell, here are the 20 best comedies of 2020:
20. Happiest Season (2020)
Maybe the most conventional and mainstream-friendly comedy on this list, Happiest Season has mostly received attention for being a rom-com centered on a lesbian couple. Yes, that is the focus, with a plot even concerned with the fact that the main characters are gay, but its overall familiarity in premise, structure, and tropes normalizes the details so it’s not necessarily thought of as queer cinema as outside of some box.
It’s just another good Christmas movie with a mix of joys — such as Kristen Stewart‘s “straight-man” (we need a new term for that and not just for gay comedies) anchoring the story of her character going home to meet her not-yet-out girlfriend’s family during the holidays — and faults, like almost everything that happens plot-wise in the third act. Despite its issues, there were hardly greater blessings in comedy film this year than the wittiness of Dan Levy, the hilarious scene-stealing of Mary Holland (who co-wrote the movie with director Clea DuVall), and one of two performances that had us all falling in love (again?) with Aubrey Plaza. – Christopher Campbell
19. The Forty-Year-Old Version
Radha Blank is a name you’ll become familiar with soon if you’re not familiar with it already. The Brooklyn-based playwright-turned-rapper-turned-filmmaker is a quadruple threat on set: writing, directing, producing, and starring in her first feature, The Forty-Year-Old Version, which is loosely based on Blank’s life as an artist. Her excavation of life for meaning and necessary change is imbued with a dry sense of humor that allows us to laugh at ourselves and the droll absurdity of life along with her. It’s a calming, welcoming sense of humor that makes life feel a little bit lighter and is as sharply written as it is directed (in stunning black and white cinematography). Blank wasn’t awarded Sundance’s US Dramatic Competition Directing Award in January for nothing.
18. The King of Staten Island
Judd Apatow is one of the few big names in comedy on this list, and yet his latest, The King of Staten Island, doesn’t even always feel like a comedy. For more of a laugh-out-loud performance from leading man Pete Davidson, check out Big Time Adolescence, which also released this year, a few months earlier. The King of Staten Island proves the former Saturday Night Live cast member has some dramatic chops, though, even if they presumably come easy in a story based on his own life and loss.
Like Davidson, his character, Scott, is coping with his firefighter father having died on the job when he was just a kid (for Davidson it was at the World Trade Center on 9/11) and his maturity is stunted as a result. Meant as a showcase for Davidson, The King of Staten Island does its job in that regard, but he’s still upstaged by the always-charming Marisa Tomei, a remarkable romantic performance from Bel Powley, and a surprisingly endearing turn from Bill Burr. – Christopher Campbell
17. Saint Frances
Kelly O’Sullivan broke onto the indie film scene in 2020 with her performance as Bridget in Saint Frances, for which she also penned the screenplay. Heartfelt, tear-jerking, and hilarious, the film follows a woman with nothing much going for her as she stumbles carelessly into a difficult nannying job that transforms into a blossoming family affair. O’Sullivan’s screenwriting is just the right amount of self-aware to capitalize on being simultaneously self-flagellating, and, thus, relatable. It’s also the kind of movie where sad tears regularly, yet suddenly, transform into happy tears after a perfectly placed piece of comic relief brings some lightness of being to heavy topics like abortion, marital connection, suffocating responsibility in adulthood, and child-rearing.
16. Save Yourselves!
If you love the TBS/HBO Max series Search Party, then you’ll really enjoy Save Yourselves!, a sci-fi comedy that features a few actors from the TV show and tonally is on the same level except that the movie lacks the annoying decision-making of Search Party‘s main character. Save Yourselves! could have included more than just a few minutes of screentime for Search Party favorite John Early, but actually in his absence, John Reynolds‘ comedic timing and physicality shine much brighter than they do in the series.
But let’s forget about the Search Party connection for a moment since there’s surprisingly not an official connection between the show and movie (and too few of you watch the show anyway). Save Yourselves! follows a millennial Brooklyn couple (Reynolds and Sunita Mani) who decide to detox from their addiction to the internet and devices and spend a week in an isolated cabin upstate. Of course, at the same time, cute-and-fuzzy-yet-very-lethal aliens invade Earth and the couple doesn’t hear about it — isn’t that just always the case, that something big happens every time you try to ignore Twitter for a few hours?
The plot is so simple and obvious, and its ending is a bit too easy, but Reynolds and Mani have excellent chemistry romantically and comedically, and they play so well to every situation, before and after they discover what’s happening around them, that it’s a consistently enjoyable watch. Like many of this year’s best comedies, Save Yourselves! starts out as a funny rom-com that takes a turn towards tragic or at least horrific events, but unlike most of the others, Save Yourselves! sticks to one tone, filled with a broad wit and fast-paced and over-the-top silliness. – Christopher Campbell