What a bizarre year it’s been so far — including “at” the movies. Scarcely a month after the raucous Korean social thriller Parasite unexpectedly won Best Picture at the Oscars, movie theaters around the world were shutting down due to the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic. In many places — including the US — they remain closed, well into what is traditionally the summer movie season. Film production went on hiatus and film festivals were delayed, canceled, or shifted to digital editions. Highly anticipated blockbusters have been pushed into the fall or next year. The 2021 Oscars have moved to April. And the future of the film industry, this year and beyond, is still very much up in the air.
But in the midst of great uncertainty, excellent films have still been coming out — in “virtual” cinemas, on streaming and digital platforms, and even in drive-in theaters. From dramas and documentaries to comedies and romances, they’ve stood toe-to-toe with critically acclaimed releases from any year, exploring what it means to be human and to connect with one another even in a time of tension and uncertainty.
Below are the 28 best films from the first half of 2020 and how you can watch them. (All but one are available to stream, rent, or purchase on digital platforms.)
It took more than two years since the story of Harvey Weinstein’s history of sexual assault broke for a truly great movie to come out about the case, and Kitty Green’s The Assistant is it. Julia Garner (Ozark, The Americans) plays Jane, a new assistant in the Tribeca offices of a high-powered movie studio executive. The Assistant follows Jane as she makes coffee and copies and also witnesses, to her growing horror, what she thinks might be her powerful boss’s inappropriate behavior. We don’t see the “Weinstein” character directly. Instead, we hear his voice and see his back from a distance; we also see the fear he provokes in his subordinates. He isn’t the point of the story, though. The point, as The Assistant makes blindingly clear, is that he gets away with his behavior because of the people around him. It’s one of the best, smartest, and most gripping films of 2020.
Movies about teen romance, disaffected youths, and dysfunctional families are a dime a dozen, but Shannon Murphy’s Babyteeth is something special. Milla (Little Women and Sharp Objects’ Eliza Scanlen) is 16 and facing a cancer diagnosis. Her parents (Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis) love each other but are starting to spin out of control from the stress. One day, Milla meets Moses (Toby Wallace), a 23-year-old tattooed drug addict with a winning smile and a childlike affect, and she falls for him. A story like this can easily turn maudlin, but Babyteeth (adapted by Rita Kalnejais from her own play) unspools like a series of often very funny vignettes that treat the tragedy and joy of life with similar weight.
How to watch it: Babyteeth is playing in select theaters and on-demand services such as iTunes and Amazon. You can see the full listing at the movie’s website.
It’s challenging to describe the frenetic, confounding Brazilian film Bacurau, which plays out like a particularly wild episode of Black Mirror crossed with a Western. Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho’s film veers from action to horror to dystopian sci-fi to gallows comedy. Centering on a tiny Brazilian village named Bacurau, the film sees a mysterious threat endangering the lives of the residents — who then decide they have had just about enough of being exploited by that threat.
How to watch it: Bacurau is in virtual theatrical release, and a list of participating theaters is available on the Kino Lorber website. (You’ll receive a rental link, and profits help support the independent theater you select on the page.)
Bad Education is a tale of intrigue and larceny in the most drab of locations: a Long Island public school district. And it’s terrific. Based on a true story from the early aughts and directed by Cory Finley (Thoroughbreds), the film stars Hugh Jackman as Frank Tassone, superintendent of the fourth-best school district in the state of New York. Tassone soon finds himself at the center of a massive fraud investigation, thanks in part to reporting by a student journalist (Geraldine Viswanathan). Bad Education expertly traces the effects of the complex pressures placed on administrators and faculty, suggesting that this scandal is unlikely to be the last of its kind.
How to watch it: Bad Education is streaming for subscribers on HBO and HBO Max.
In Beanpole, from Russian director Kantemir Balagov, the struggle never ceases. It’s a period piece about two young women living in Leningrad just after the war. They met in combat and now work in a hospital, and both bear the physical and mental scars of their young, troubled lives. Beanpole tells the story of their stormy relationship as it’s crunched and crushed by life, much like the patients in the hospital. The film — which won Balagov the Best Director Prize in the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard competition last year — is not easy to watch. But it’s achingly beautiful, with unnerving performances.
How to watch it: Beanpole is in virtual theatrical release, and a list of participating theaters is available on the Kino Lorber website. (You’ll receive a rental link, and profits help support the independent theater you select on the page.)
Crip Camp starts out as a movie about a place: Camp Jened, an almost magical-seeming “summer camp for the handicapped run by hippies,” as the film’s co-director (and former camper) Jim Lebrecht explains early on. But soon, it becomes a chronicle of a movement, sparked by the young people whose lives were changed by their experience in that place. Crip Camp shows how the vision that young Jened attendees experienced at camp — that the world could be open to them, too — led them to become activists and community organizers. It’s buoyant and inspiring, a tale of people working together through difficulty and opposition to change the world.
How to watch it: Crip Camp is streaming on Netflix.
Da 5 Bloods
Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods stars Norm Lewis, Clarke Peters, Isiah Whitlock Jr., and a magnificent Delroy Lindo in a story about four black Vietnam vets who return to the country, decades after their tours of duty, in search of gold and their fallen buddy’s remains. Da 5 Bloods takes on myriad issues, starting with the Vietnam veterans, a sharply disproportionate number of whom are black and who were left to live with the remnants of a pointless war long past when the rest of us had moved on. Lee weaves that strand of history into the broader canvas of the 1960s and ’70s, from the civil rights movement to the moon landing. Then he extends it into today, all the way to the Black Lives Matter movement. Lindo gives a staggering performance as Paul, whose traumas have turned him into a MAGA-hat-sporting spout of paranoia, to the discomfort of both his friends and his son, David (Jonathan Majors), a Morehouse alum who comes looking for his father after he returns to Vietnam. That narrative choice alone means that Da 5 Bloods, while political to the bone, refuses to be stuffed into partisan pigeonholes. What it means to be black in America does not fit into tidy fables.
How to watch it: Da 5 Bloods is streaming on Netflix.
Driveways is surprising at every turn. It’s a modest and gentle story about a boy named Cody (Lucas Jaye) who feels out of place, and his friendship with the Korean War vet named Del (Brian Dennehy, who passed away in April) who lives next door. But it’s not the film you might expect from that setup. Instead, the shifts that come from Del and Cody’s friendship are muted, almost imperceptible. Del finds something new to live for. Cody discovers a new community. They both gain a little confidence. Driveways is profound in its simple focus on everyday, neighborly life, and it explores, with exquisite sensitivity, the guards we all put up between us and others to keep us protected from the things we fear.
Jane Austen practically invented the romantic comedy, but few adaptations of her books lean into the wicked satire that drips from nearly every page. Emma, helmed by photographer and music video director Autumn de Wilde, gets the balance just right. With a delightful Anya Taylor-Joy performance at its center, this new Emma doesn’t play too fast and loose with the story or its most familiar beats. It instead digs out the absurdities of being wealthy (or adjacent to wealth) around the turn of the 19th century — the affectations, the frills that cover up the crudeness of real life, and above all, the vast, unmitigated boredom.
Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga takes the grand prize for weirdest, funniest, and most delightful comedy of the year so far, hands down. Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams star as Lars and Sigrit, childhood friends whose greatest dream is to win the Eurovision Song Contest and claim glory for their tiny Icelandic hometown. The big problem: They’re not very good. Through a series of unexpected events, they actually end up representing Iceland at the competition, and while there they go on a journey of self-discovery and a whole lot more. Other stars include Pierce Brosnan and a (truly fantastic) Dan Stevens in this sweet-natured comedy from David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers). Best of all, it will give you some tunes to hum all summer long.
How to watch it: Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga premieres on Netflix on June 26.
Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow is set in a 19th-century frontier settlement of tiny houses somewhere in Oregon, near the Columbia River, populated by people who are trying to scratch out a living in the New World, as well as the First Nations people who’ve been living there for generations. Into that settlement, a cow arrives, setting off a chain of events that are both momentous and small. But the film is about much more than just that. First Cow is also a gentle (and gently devastating) tale about male friendship, about finding someone to share your aspirations and dreams with, and, most deliciously, about cooking. And it’s also about the kinds of constructed hierarchies — based on factors like race, class, money, and firepower — that seem to be imposed on the world wherever new civilizations pop up.
How to watch it: First Cow was briefly released in theaters in March. It is awaiting digital release.
Mara (Tallie Medel) and Jo (Norma Kuhling) have been friends since they were 14. Now, as young women in New York, their friendship has endured. But free-spirited Jo is a drain on practical Mara, and the relationship verges on codependent. Fourteen tracks the slow unraveling of the girls’ friendship through a series of scenes and depends on the audience to connect the dots between the events. The result is an engaging and at times heartrending meditation on friendship, growing apart, and what we owe to one another.
How to watch it: Fourteen is in virtual theatrical release, and a list of participating theaters is available on the Grasshopper Film website. (You’ll receive a rental link, and profits help support the independent theater you select on the page.)
The Invisible Man
The Invisible Man seemed eerily well-timed, originally releasing in theaters mere days after Harvey Weinstein’s conviction on two sex crimes charges, including rape in the third degree. Elisabeth Moss stars as a woman trying to escape the clutches of her abusive husband, who has found a way to turn himself invisible. Living inside The Invisible Man for two hours, we get to experience the existential terror of being a survivor of abuse who isn’t believed, as well as witness the many ways that crafty predators can manipulate their prey, making it seem as though they’re the victim and the accuser is the one who ought to be punished. It’s an old, old story, and an all too familiar one.
The King of Staten Island
Pete Davidson co-wrote and stars in Judd Apatow’s The King of Staten Island, a movie about a young man who’s worked his way into a dead-end life. Scott (Davidson) lives with his mother Margie (Marisa Tomei) and his younger sister Claire (Maud Apatow), and while Claire is heading to college, Scott is a textbook case of failure to launch. Scott and Claire’s father was a firefighter who died in a hotel fire when they were children. (In real life, Davidson’s father, who was also named Scott, was a firefighter who died as a first responder in the 9/11 attacks.) But things change when Margie begins dating a firefighter named Ray (Bill Burr). Steve Buscemi, Bel Powley, and Pamela Adlon also star in a sneakily mature movie about growing despite trauma and loving people even when they’re imperfect.
How to watch it: The King of Staten Island is available to digitally rent or purchase on digital and on-demand platforms such as Apple TV and Amazon. For a complete listing of services, see the movie’s website.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is a 17-year-old who decides to terminate her pregnancy. But because she’s a minor, she can’t do it in her home state due to Pennsylvania law. So she buys a bus ticket to New York City, where she can legally get an abortion, and her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) comes along. Writer and director Eliza Hittman (Beach Rats, It Felt Like Love) tells the story sparingly, favoring naturalism rather than polemics and recalling bleak dramas like the 2007 Romanian drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. But Hittman’s view feels more in tune with what young women face in the world, with the fear and difficulty inherent in navigating the labyrinthine medical system. Never Rarely Sometimes Always, which won a prize for “auteur filmmaking” at Sundance in January, focuses on the many obstacles and menaces the girls encounter — mostly from men who feel far more comfortable and safe in the world than women do — and never lets us breathe too easy.
On the Record
On the Record is a bombshell of a documentary, in which a large group of women allege that Def Jam record label founder and “godfather of hip-hop” Russell Simmons sexually assaulted or raped them. On the Record is absolutely damning of Simmons, who continues to insist he did not commit the crimes he’s accused of. Directed by Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick, the film is at its best when exploring the reasons that women in America, and particularly black women, often hesitate to accuse a powerful black man of a crime like sexual assault. It also points to what’s been missing from the Me Too movement: the voices of black women.
How to watch it: On the Record is streaming on HBO Max.
Onward is the charming tale of two brothers on a quest to spend time with their late father, set in a world that was once ruled by magic but is now pretty normal, even boring. The movie’s plot cleverly employs the structure of the sort of campaign you might see in a fantasy role-playing game such as Dungeons & Dragons.
Onward’s fantastical, Tolkien-lite elements are mixed with more banal workaday realities. Yet its true strength is in how it portrays the love between brothers, which brings its own kind of magic. One of Pixar’s most profound abilities has always been confronting the bittersweet along with the purely sweet and funny, in stories that kids and parents can watch together — and Onward delivers on that promise.
The Other Lamb
The Other Lamb (from director Małgorzata Szumowska) is eerie and starkly beautiful. The film melds two familiar territories for horror — cults and women’s bodies — into one dread-soaked Bildungsroman centered on teenaged Selah (Raffey Cassidy). She lives with an all-women cult in the woods, where they raise sheep and live off the grid and serve a man called Shepherd (Michiel Huisman) as their adored, unquestioningly obeyed leader. Selah has been raised in this strange family, but now her beliefs are beginning to shift. What makes The Other Lamb feel fresh is how Szumowska renders her world — in vivid colors and inky blacks, with slow zooms that turn their placid, pastoral lives into something uncanny. The feeling that something very wrong is going on here is inscribed into every exacting, unnerving shot.
The Painter and the Thief
The Painter and the Thief is a stunning film about young Czech painter Barbora Kysilkova and Karl-Bertil Nordland, the thief who stole two of her paintings from an Oslo gallery. He says he was so high at the time that he can’t remember why he did it — or what he did with the paintings. Kysilkova’s less interested in the thief himself than in where he took her paintings, but eventually she meets him and decides to paint his portrait, after which they form a friendship and creative partnership of sorts. The Painter and the Thief actively challenges what we think we understand about its characters based on their appearance, class markers, or behavior. It highlights the way artists of all kinds, from painters to filmmakers, turn reality into something that’s at least a little fictionalized in order to make their work, and how everyone conceals the truth a little.
The Platform’s opening moments establish it as more of a conceptual thought experiment than a story; it’s an allegory about inequality, and it borrows on some concepts that have been used before. People on the top levels of a prison-like building, euphemistically called the “Vertical Self-Management Center” by the bureaucrats who run it, are more comfortable than those at the bottom, whom they despise. And while those at the top believe they’ve earned the right to be there by their wits and work, the movie suggests the systems that put them there also traffic in chance and fortune. Directed by Spanish filmmaker Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia, it’s a cross between sci-fi and horror, brutal and disturbing and sometimes flat-out gross, but undeniably imaginative and thought-provoking.
How to watch it: The Platform is streaming on Netflix.
Selah and the Spades
Both deliciously wicked and perceptive about the battle of just getting through the day when you’re a teen, Selah and the Spades follows Paloma (Celeste O’Connor), who is the new girl at Haldwell School, a prestigious boarding school. When she arrives, she’s taken under the wing of Selah (Lovie Simone), a sophisticated upperclassman and the leader of the most powerful of Haldwell’s “factions,” the Spades. Selah and the Spades mixes the classic tropes of mobster movies with the cliques and concerns of high school films, but with a twist that’s all director Tayarisha Poe’s. It’s the multitalented artist’s first feature film, and it signals a strong voice and vision for filmmaking — one that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
How to watch it: Selah and the Spades is available on Amazon Prime Video.
Stylistically, director Josephine Decker (Madeline’s Madeline) is a perfect match for Shirley. It’s a period psychodrama about a young woman named Rose (Odessa Young) who moves with her husband Fred (Logan Lerman) to Bennington, Vermont, after he picks up a teaching post there while finishing his dissertation. His supervisor is professor Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), whose wife is the sardonic and brilliant author Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss); her short story “The Lottery” has just been published in the New Yorker, and she’s starting work on the novel that will become 1951’s Hangsaman. Shirley is a thoroughly engrossing, sometimes disorienting tale that plays out like a mystery, the kind where you’re never quite sure where reality ends and delusion (or maybe the truth) begins.
How to watch it: Shirley is streaming on Hulu and available to digitally rent or purchase on platforms including iTunes, Amazon, and others. You can also watch it through a “virtual theatrical” release at theaters around the country — see the Neon website for more details. (You will receive a link after buying a virtual ticket, and part of the proceeds will support a local theater.)
Sorry We Missed You
Sorry We Missed You is an angrily searing piece of social realism set in modern-day Britain’s gig economy. Director Ken Loach specializes in realistic dramas built atop roiling class-based anger, movies about the ways ordinary people’s lives are disrupted and upended by systems that leave them powerless to change even as they try everything in their power to change. Sorry We Missed You is the story of a working-class English family trying to scratch out a living any way possible, and of the indignities they experience within a system of short-term contracts and gig work. Ostensibly, employees get to be the “masters of their own destiny” (to paraphrase an employer in the film), but in truth, companies are just trying to remove any responsibility the employers might bear. It premiered at Cannes in summer 2019, but it feels even more devastatingly, bitingly urgent now.
How to watch it: Sorry We Missed You is in virtual theatrical release, and a list of participating theaters is available on Zeitgeist Films’ website. (You’ll receive a rental link, and profits help support the independent theater you select on the page.)
South Mountain is the wise, sometimes bitter, sometimes overwhelmingly emotional tale of a woman learning to fall out of love. Lila (Talia Balsam) and Edgar (Scott Cohen) live in the Catskills with their teenage children. Life is tranquil there — but when that sense of tranquility is suddenly shattered by a revelation, Lila is forced to reckon with both what she believes about herself and how she plans to live now. South Mountain is a bit like a coming-of-age film for middle age, and each scene feels vibrantly alive. Director and writer Hilary Brougher has crafted a world in which nothing is cleanly resolved, but a future is still possible.
The Surrogate, the debut feature from Jeremy Hersh, has a premise that sounds almost like a thought experiment. Jess (Jasmine Batchelor) has offered to be a surrogate and egg donor for her two best friends, Josh (Chris Perfetti) and Aaron (Sullivan Jones). They’re elated when the pregnancy test is positive, but a medical consultation reveals that the fetus likely has Down’s syndrome. Immediately, the situation becomes much more complicated, given the array of options they must suddenly choose from. Will they terminate the pregnancy? Carry the child to term? Who would be involved in the child’s life? And whose choice is it to make? Without preaching solutions or offering answers, The Surrogate’s gentle empathy lets us feel the dilemmas each of the characters experience. It recognizes that the sheer array of choices available to us today is part of what makes the situation so difficult.
How to watch it: The Surrogate is in “virtual theatrical” release at theaters around the country — see the film’s website for more details. (You will receive a link after buying a virtual ticket.)
The Trip to Greece
The Trip to Greece is the fourth (and maybe final) in a series of films in which actors and comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon head off somewhere for a week to eat extravagantly, tour the countryside, and have some fun. Ostensibly the pair are there to “review” the restaurants, but the food and wine and comedy bits are really part of a tale of discovery and, at times, disquieting reflections on life, love, and regrets. In The Trip to Greece, Brydon and Coogan follow in the steps of Odysseus, from Troy to Ithaca, spouting Greek mythological trivia alongside jokes about “The Poetics, by Ari Stottle” and dueling impressions of everyone from Marlon Brando and Dustin Hoffman to Werner Herzog. Of all four installments, The Trip to Greece — while certainly snort-through-your-nose funny in places — plays the most like a drama. The whole series, taken together, is a meditation on middle age and mortality, on how our irrevocable life choices, even when they’re the right ones, will haunt us all our lives.
The True History of the Kelly Gang
In The True History of the Kelly Gang, director Justin Kurzel tells the bloody story of his homeland’s most famous outlaw, Ned Kelly, who’s either a folk hero in Australia or a villainous marauder, depending on whom you ask. Kelly (played by 1917 star George MacKay) retells his own story, a harrowing tale of abuse — from the English soldiers who took advantage of the family, to other thieves and robbers, to men sniffing around his mother’s door. Kelly learned to fight back and fight hard. Kurzel favors stylized images and the occasional anachronistic metal track to provoke a mood more than faithfully recreate history. And his approach works well in this film, bolstered by a strong cast featuring MacKay, Russell Crowe, Nicholas Hoult, Charlie Hunnam, Thomasin McKenzie, and Essie Davis. It’s a brutal watch from beginning to end, but one that shows how violence begets violence.
How to watch it: True History of the Kelly Gang is available on a wide variety of digital and on-demand platforms. See the film’s website for more details and links.
The Vast of Night
At the start of The Vast of Night, set in a midcentury New Mexico town, a Rod Serling sound-alike intones to set up the film as a Twilight Zone-style tale about a mystery located in “the frequency caught between logic and myth.” Fay (Sierra McCormick) is 16 and operates the town switchboard and is also interested in newfangled recording technologies; her friend Everett (Jake Horowitz) is a DJ for the radio station in their small town. One night, both are at their respective jobs while everyone else is at a basketball game at the local high school. Listening to Everett’s show, Fay hears a strange noise. She calls him to tell him about it, and the two start to investigate it, initially with the help of a stranger who calls in to Everett’s show. What’s great about The Vast of Night isn’t the story so much as the way it’s told; there’s nothing flashy about The Vast of Night, no spectacle, but it’s showy in a way that’s delightful to watch. And in the end, The Vast of Night aims to remind us that the mysteries of the universe go far, far beyond what we’ve begun to comprehend.
How to watch it: The Vast of Night is streaming for subscribers on Amazon Prime.
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