Film & TV

The Phoenix’s Top Films, Shows of 2020

Graphic by Zack MillerFrom left to right: "Defending jacob" (courtesy of Apple Inc.), "Emma" (courtesy of Universal Pictures), "The Flight Attendant" (courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures), " The Queen's Gambit" (courtesy of Netflix), "Birds of Prey" (courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures) and "First Cow" (courtesy of A24).

If there’s one thing people needed in 2020, it was an escape. While each coped in their own way — from taking walks, mini road trips and making endless calls to friends and family — movies and shows were a go-to source of relief and entertainment. Here are The Phoenix’s A&E staff’s favorite movies and TV shows of 2020.

“Defending Jacob”

When 14-year-old Jacob Barber is accused of murdering a classmate, his parents are left with one question: “Did he do this?”

“Defending Jacob,” an eight-episode miniseries based on the 2012 William Landay novel of the same name, follows the Barber family through an unthinkable situation as their young son goes on trial. As it unfolds, the evidence could go either way.

Chris Evans (“The Avengers”), Michelle Dockery (“Downton Abbey”) and Jaeden Martell (“Knives Out”) give breathtaking performances as the concerned father, stunned mother and moody teenager, respectively, leaving viewers on the edge of their seats desperately clicking “next episode.”

For fans of true crime, this one’s for you. Although it’s not based on real-life events, the deeply emotional writing and directing styles of Mark Bomback and Morten Tyldum get viewers up close and personal with what a family goes through when their only child is put on trial (by both the court and their town) for murder.

One of the year’s best shows deserving wider recognition, “Defending Jacob,” rated TV-MA, is streaming on Apple TV+.

Morgan Ciocca


Jane Austen’s classic romantic comedy gets a lively update in Autumn de Wilde’s “Emma.” Refreshingly witty and deeply heartfelt, the film captures the novel’s spirit without getting wrapped up in the stuffiness that plagues so many period pieces. 

Anya Taylor-Joy perfectly inhabits the famously meddlesome Emma Woodhouse with vivacity and sincerity, while Johnny Flynn lovingly eye-rolls along as her friend Mr. Knightly. Their banter brings the film to life.

“Emma” has a captivating aesthetic beauty, with Isobel Waller-Bridge’s whimsical soundtrack floating over crisp cinematography, sumptuous set design and a confectionery color palette. If you need a touch of spring as we head into a dark winter, “Emma” is the way to go. 

Rated PG, “Emma” is available for streaming on Hulu and Amazon Prime. 

Hannah Duff

“The Flight Attendant”

Cassie Bowden (Kaley Cuoco) is a messy flight attendant who spends a night of opulence in Bangkok with a suave businessman, only to wake up next to his dead body. 

The opening 10 minutes set up the tonal duality of “The Flight Attendant,” a dark-humored thrill ride. A hybrid of prestige TV and the CW, the show creates a wonderfully twisty eight-episode story.

Cuoco sheds her sitcom shell (on the heels of finishing “The Big Bang Theory”), coming into her own as a dynamic leading lady. The character work is captivating and coalesces swiftly with the ongoing murder mystery. 

With a score emulating a sexy “Pink Panther” aesthetic and innovative split-screen editing, “The Flight Attendant” is one of television’s most stylish new shows. That’s not to mention the envious filming locations (Bangkok! Rome! Okay, those two are pretty much it besides New York — but they’re a good two). And Cuoco rocks every pea coat wardrobe handed her way.

“The Flight Attendant” is streaming on HBO Max, rated TV-MA.

Alec Karam

“The Queen’s Gambit”

If there’s one thing people will say about this miniseries, it’s likely, “I know it’s about chess, but it’s so good” (with lots of enthusiasm in their tone). 

Starring Anya Taylor-Joy (of horror movie “The Witch” fame) as Beth Harmon, this seven-episode drama follows the orphaned chess prodigy through her teenage years and rise to international fame during the 1960s. 

From her years at an orphanage to finding comfort in her adopted mom, Beth navigates love, loss, success and substances on her journey to become the world’s greatest chess player. Whether you’re proficient at chess or you go into the show having never played in your life, “The Queen’s Gambit” succeeds at captivating an audience from beginning to end. 

Rated TV-MA, “The Queen’s Gambit” is streaming on Netflix.

Emily Rosca

“Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey”

A post-breakup haircut at 3 a.m.? Check. A soundtrack packed with bops? Check. Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) breaking men’s legs? Double check. In the words of Harley Quinn, “nothing gets a guy’s attention like violence.”

Honestly, what more could you need from a movie? 

“Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)” — released in February — is pure fun, from its confetti bombs to a crossbow-wielding, socially awkward vigilante.

Viewers won’t know they needed to see Ewan McGregor (playing the villain Black Mask/Roman Sionis) decked in a purple satin robe and dramatically tossing throw pillows until seeing this movie. 

“Birds of Prey,” rated R, is available to rent on Amazon Prime and YouTube. (Trust me, it’s worth it.)

Paige Twenter

“First Cow”

Kelly Reichardt’s whimsical tale of nocturnal dairy theft in 19th century Oregon Territory, “First Cow” captures all the romanticism of the early American frontier with surprising tenderness and realism.

Starring John Magaro and Orion Lee as milk bandits Cookie Figowitz and King-Lu, respectively, this genre-defying heist comedy/period drama has a lot to say about both its lead characters and the fabled American Dream they’re both compelled by.   

Using two unlikely friends and their illicit pastry business as her backdrop, Reichardt illuminates the American frontier in beautiful detail.

One of the most purely engaging movies of the year, “First Cow,” rated PG-13, is streaming on Showtime.

Lucas Naber

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