November 26, 2020 8:00 AM EST

There’s no subtle way to put it: 2020 has been a truly strange year for movies, a mini-epoch that has forced us to reckon with what movies can be and mean. It’s not just that we watched movies, for the most part, on a small screen at home. We also watched them with anxiety roiling within us, and sometimes with tragedy unfolding just outside our door. We watched them as a way to unwind after a long day of re-creating our work routines at home, perhaps with the additional stress of caring for (and teaching) kids unable to go to school. Some of us watched them after long days or nights spent outside the home, as necessary workers—in that context, a bright spot of entertainment means even more than it would in a normal year. In all ways, this year was unlike any other. But the one thing we can say is that the movies didn’t let us down. So what if we didn’t get our usual fall complement of big-ticket Oscar movies? This new, temporary normal allowed smaller movies—films that might otherwise have been lost among glitzier releases—to grab the spotlight for once. In terms of accessibility and quality, it was still a year of riches. Here are 10 of the very best.

Also read TIME’s lists of the 10 best fiction books, nonfiction books, YA and children’s books, podcasts, songs, TV shows and video games of 2020.

10. Bill and Ted Face the Music

 

In an unequivocally terrible year, who didn’t need a crazy, ebullient, deeply gratifying burst of optimism? Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves reappeared in the roles they originated some three decades ago: then, they were goofy but open-hearted teenage guitar obsessives from San Dimas, Calif., who changed the world via a time-travel phone booth. Today, they’re husbands and dads facing all the insecurities that come with middle age—and yet, in some ways their story is just beginning. Through their daughters, they’ve laid the groundwork for another act of world-saving derring-do, a reaffirmation that our collective dreams are our true strength. This work of ramshackle earnestness and generosity lit a path through a very dark summer. You can’t ask for more from a comedy.

Read TIME’s full review here

9. Miss Juneteenth

 

In an America so divided that it sometimes seems each inhabitant is the sole citizen of his or her own stubborn country, writer-director Channing Godfrey Peoples’ debut feature is a balm. Nicole Beharie gives a marvelous performance as a former pageant winner who tries to project her own dreams onto her teenage daughter, though this story is universal as well as personal. Set in Fort Worth, a city with a long tradition of celebrating the day in 1865 when Texas slaves finally learned they’d been freed, Miss Juneteenth is a tapestry of a whole community, a reminder that this country is much bigger—and richer, and more diverse—than we tend to think.

Read TIME’s full review here

8. Nomadland

What’s the meaning of home? Is it the dwelling we live in, or a spirit that dwells within us? That’s the question Chloé Zhao explores in the radiant and perceptive Nomadland. Frances McDormand gives a sterling performance as a widow who sells off her house and takes to the road in a van kitted out with the essentials for living, picking up seasonal work where she can. Though she’s on her own, she’s never fully alone. The people she meets in her travels have their quirks, but it’s compassion and generosity that guide and unite them.

Read TIME’s full review here

7. Wolfwalkers

This beguiling animated delight from Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart tells the story of an English girl in 17th century Ireland who longs to become a wolf hunter like her father—only to befriend a mysterious forest-dwelling punkette who carries the secret of the wolves within her very being. Wolfwalkers is brushed with the mystical spirit of a Kate Bush song, rendered in a dazzling midcentury-modern design scheme. Its spell is irresistible.

6. Emma.

Though Jane Austen has never been exactly obscure, her career as a superstar of mugs and cloth tote bags is a fairly recent development. Autumn de Wilde’s bright and lively adaptation of Austen’s 1815 novel gets back to basics, reminding us why her work has endured. Anya Taylor-Joy plays the eponymous meddlesome heroine; Johnny Flynn is the family friend who watches in horror as she makes one misstep after another. These two are wonderful, together and separately, in a work that feels both modern and authentic in the best way. It invites everyone, diehard Austenites and newbies alike, into its embrace.

Read TIME’s full review here

5. Lovers Rock

This is the shortest of the films in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology, but its hypnotic beauty is immeasurable. In London circa 1980, West Indians—often denied entrance to clubs—would host their own house parties, swaying on the dance floor as all manner of amorous possibilities played out, or failed to. Lovers Rock captures the energy and promise of just one of those nights, as well as what it means to find solace and solidarity within the larger, colder world. It captures a universe of time in just 68 poetic minutes.

4. David Byrne’s American Utopia

This grand and glorious filmed record of David Byrne’s hit Broadway show, directed by Spike Lee, is a work of great joy and expressiveness, a tower of song with room for everybody. As performed by Byrne and his troupe of 11 musicians and dancers, the numbers—some of them recent Byrne compositions, others drawn from his body of work with Talking Heads—feel fresh and familiar at once, inclusive but also mildly explosive. Lee captures perfectly the urgency of Byrne’s intent: to live in any meaningful way, we must stay connected. It’s a principle so glaringly simple that it’s radical.

Read TIME’s full review here

3. The Trial of the Chicago 7

Aaron Sorkin details the half-circuslike, half-somber drama of an intense pocket of American history, during which a group of anti-war activists were tried for conspiring to incite violence at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The result is a lively work attuned to civic responsibility and small-d democratic ideals, a movie as simultaneously entertaining and galvanizing as anything you’ll see this year.

Read TIME’s full review here

2. Collective

Alexander Nanou’s Collective, which follows a team of Romanian journalists as they uncover a health-care scandal whose tentacles reach deep into a corrupt government, is that rare documentary that plays like a political thriller. But It’s also a deeply moving testament to both the power and the necessity of investigative journalism—in any country run by a government that strives to distort the truth to serve its own goals.

1. First Cow

In the verdant Pacific Northwest of the 1820s, two settlers—a baker and a Chinese immigrant with an entrepreneurial streak—start a business selling fried cakes made with the purloined milk of a local cow. The enterprise takes off, as their friendship deepens. Both tranquil and dazzling, Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow is a song of this weird, rough-edged stretch of stolen land we call America, a place where tenderness is still the most precious commodity.

Read TIME’s full review here

Honorable mentions:

Martin Eden, On the Rocks, The Assistant, The Old Guard, The Half of It, Relic, Mangrove and The Jesus Rolls

Read the rest of TIME’s best-of 2020 coverage:

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