The Kind Movies of 2020: Netflix, Amazon, and A24 all made films about joy

In Amazon Prime’s recent movie Sound of Metal, Riz Ahmed plays a punk-metal drummer and

In Amazon Prime’s recent movie Sound of Metal, Riz Ahmed plays a punk-metal drummer and recovering heroin addict struggling with sudden hearing loss. That doesn’t seem like a recipe for a particularly cozy viewing experience. Yet while parts of the film are stressful and emotional, it ultimately champions the resilient kindness of the human spirit. Sound of Metal doesn’t argue that life is easy, but nearly every single character in it is a nice person, which is a rare and underappreciated quality in cinema.

Sound of Metal is what I call a “Kind Movie,” a film that first and foremost centers on compassion. It’s a quality I’ve always been drawn to. (My gold standard remains 2019’s Light From Light, a Jim Gaffigan-led paranormal character study so gentle, it barely has a plot.) I’ve gravitated toward Kind Movies in 2020, when so much of this global year has felt impossibly hard. Mister Rogers famously encouraged kids to “look for the helpers” when scary things happen, and Kind Movies are the cinematic equivalent of that idea. And thankfully, 2020 has been crammed full of them — ranging from the goofy joy of Will Ferrell’s Netflix comedy Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga to the quiet arthouse prestige of Chloé Zhao’s contemporary Western, Nomadland.

Admittedly, the qualities that make up a Kind Movie can be a little hard to define; it sometimes comes down to a feeling more than a strict checklist of requirements. Kindness is a separate paradigm from genre, tone, or even basic ideas of good and evil. For instance, Superman and Captain America are Kind Heroes (at least, outside of Zack Snyder movies), while Batman and Iron Man aren’t, even though they’re all good guys. And Kind Movies are also distinct from comfort food, escapism, or guilty pleasures. Romantic comedies are my go-to feel-good viewing, but they aren’t always Kind Movies. (The Wedding Singer is, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days isn’t.) Kind Movies can feature moments of violence or tragedy, and they don’t necessarily have happy endings. The most important thing is that they view the world through a gentle, empathetic lens and largely center on gentle, well-meaning characters.

A bleach blonde Riz Ahmed in The Sound of Metal crossing his fingers

Image: Amazon Studios

In Sound of Metal, metal-drumming protagonist Ruben looks like the epitome of ripped, tattooed machismo, but he’s actually predominantly defined by his caretaking skills. He wakes up early every morning to make a healthy breakfast for his girlfriend and bandmate Lou (Olivia Cooke). While the duo lives a nomadic touring lifestyle that sometimes seems just on the edge of coming apart at the seams, their partnership is based on an unbreakable sense of loyalty.

In fact, the movie’s first big conflict stems from how much Ruben and Lou care about each other. He doesn’t want his hearing issues to jeopardize the tour that serves as their emotional and financial anchor, while she doesn’t want him to risk his health or sobriety. The tension comes from a place of love and respect, which is also true once Ruben joins a community of Deaf recovering addicts led by prickly but protective Joe (Paul Raci). Without turning any of its characters into villains, Sound of Metal explores the way people who care about each other can simply want different things. Each time director Darius Marder seems primed to deliver a more conventional movie conflict, like a judgmental father or a risky surprise visit, he swerves in a gentler yet no less compelling direction instead.

Kind Movies challenge the unspoken critical hierarchy that places more value on violent, pessimistic, masculine, or “edgy” art. Sound of Metal is proof that it’s possible to be honest without being cynical and optimistic without being Pollyannaish. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that Kind Movies are actually more realistic than the exaggerated gangster movies and violent character studies that so often earn praise for their “gritty realism.”

You can see that same understated realism in two of this year’s other most critically lauded Kind Movies, Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow and Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always, both of which center on intimate friendships during times of strife. The former is a 19th-century frontier story about two soft-spoken men who just want to make a living selling baked goods. And the latter follows two close-knit teenage cousins who travel to New York City so one of them can have the abortion she’s not allowed to have without parental consent in her native Pennsylvania. Both films feature hardships and emotionally brutal sequences. Yet Reichardt and Hittman foreground their characters’ loving central friendships above those harsher elements.

John Magaro and Orion Lee wearing frumpy brown coats in First Cow

Photo: A24

Crucially, Kind Movies don’t argue that all people are fundamentally good. In 2020, that would be a hard message to swallow. First Cow has a fairly conventional villain, played by go-to baddie Toby Jones. But what makes First Cow a Kind Movie is where it places its focus. Instead of a traditional good-vs.-evil structure, First Cow asserts that watching people be nice can be just as compelling as shocking betrayals, violent outbursts, and showy actorly fights. Like most of Reichardt’s films, First Cow is slow and observational to the point of being hypnotic. Reichardt luxuriates in the sweet awkwardness of two men tentatively striking up a friendship after an oddly harrowing first meeting. And she finds hope in the loyalty and empathy that can exist in even the toughest places — as characterized by a protagonist who earnestly offers his condolences to a cow who’s lost her mate.

That same sense of quiet empathy rings clear in Never Rarely Sometimes Always’ standout sequence, a Planned Parenthood intake interview where the difficulties of the teen protagonist’s life are finally revealed. It becomes heartbreakingly clear she has a history with domestic violence and sexual coercion. Yet by keeping that brutality off-screen and centering instead on the gentle, saint-like compassion of the Planned Parenthood employee conducting the interview, Hittman balances the realistic darkness at the heart of her film with the equally realistic reminder that there are good, selfless people in the world, too. Never Rarely Sometimes Always’ look at the experience of being a teenage girl is brutally honest, but never hopeless.

Of course, Kind Movies can also be conventional crowd pleasers too. The Bill & Ted franchise is a long-time trailblazer in the Kind Movie genre, so it’s only fitting that its long-awaited third installment finally premiered this year, and that it largely centers on two aging goofballs trying to make their wives happier, en route to making the whole world happy. Over on Netflix, writer-director Alice Wu explored a teen love triangle defined by endearing empathy in her queer coming-of-age dramedy, The Half Of It. Photographer Autumn de Wilde brought fascinating new wrinkles to her adaptation of Emma, the Jane Austen novel with the prickliest protagonist and yet the gentlest world. And the Disney Plus family comedy Godmothered delivered a sensitively modern riff on the idea of “happily ever after.”

Ted Lasso and his assistant coaches lean over a note

Image: Apple TV Plus

But the ultimate embodiment of 2020 feel-good kindness actually came on TV, where the Apple TV+ series Ted Lasso managed to turn a character invented for a commercial into one of the year’s best comedic creations. Like Paddington Bear or Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods (the respective king and queen of the Kindness genre), Jason Sudeikis’ Ted Lasso is defined by the empathy and dignity he extends to everyone he meets. An American football coach hired to lead an English soccer team in spite of his complete lack of experience, Ted challenges the very nature of competitive sports with an approach that puts his players’ happiness and well-being above everything else. He’s a shining emblem of positive masculinity, not to mention one of 2020’s most uproariously hilarious characters. Ted Lasso proves that kindness doesn’t have to be cloying or boring, it can be flat-out entertaining.

Whether Kind Movies (and Kind TV Shows) are delivering zippy escapism or presenting a new perspective on the challenges of life, they shift the cinematic lens in a way that celebrates compassion — and maybe even inspires it, too. And with their wide range of tones and genres, there’s a Kind Movie out there for everyone. This year alone, the family drama Minari, the Ben Affleck basketball drama The Way Back, the Lovers Rock installment of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe miniseries, and even Gina Prince-Bythewood’s R-rated superhero flick The Old Guard all offered at least some element of the Kind Movie formula. Favorites from recent years range from Barry Jenkins’ dreamily poetic If Beale Street Could Talk to Sony’s deliriously fun Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

Kind Movies aren’t a new phenomenon. Director Frank Capra built his whole career around them in the 1930s and ’40s, not least of all in his beloved holiday classic It’s A Wonderful Life. But in a normal year, Kind Movies are often overshadowed by big blockbusters or showy Oscar-bait fare. Thanks to a pared-back release schedule and a delayed awards season, Kind Movies have found a new chance to shine in 2020. And it couldn’t have come at a better time.