Best Films of 2020 (So Far)
The summer of 2020 has had a menacing Hollywood air to it. Watching the nightly stream of cops brutalizing protestors, deploying tear gas, breaking cameras, and detaining journalists has the bone-chilling quality of a dystopian film in the same way that the 9/11 footage eerily resembled shots from Independence Day. As America grapples with its homegrown storm troopers, Trump’s campaign manager refers to his operation as Death Star in a queasy reminder that the election, the ultimate nightmare of 2020, still lurks on the horizon.
And then there’s COVID, which was peaking as American governors gleefully rushed to reopen leading to a spike so bad that the EU is considering a ban on travel from the US. The big movie chains are no better, cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are spiking as theaters ready for the release of Tenet and Mulan in July. The negligence is so bad that AMC had to be shamed before doing the very bare minimum in requiring masks for these screenings.
While the pandemic has led to many big releases being pushed to 2021, it left space open for independent films to thrive through virtual premieres hosted by art house theaters. There’s been such a steady stream of great films that I was forced to keep out a number of my favorites. The Assistant, The Painter & the Thief, A Russian Youth, and On The Record were all on my mind as I was pulling this list together.
Unlike the AMCs and Regals which are on a trajectory to be bought up by Apple and Amazon anyway, art house theaters face a devastating challenge to stay viable through this year and beyond. Help keep these venues alive by renting the films below directly from your local independent theater’s website whenever possible.
(dir. Shannon Murphy)
What is it: Raw coming of age drama with a biting cynical wit, killer soundtrack, and heart-rending core.
Who it’s for: Ben Mendelsohn obsessives, beleaguered parents everywhere.
DA 5 BLOODS
(dir. Spike Lee)
What is it: Spike Lee’s bombastic renegotiation of America’s war in Vietnam.
Who it’s for: Fans of trenchant political satire, and those who love both Lee’s Malcom X and Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
(dir. Kelly Reichardt)
What is it: Bittersweet tale of friendship, baking, and survival in the frontier-era pacific northwest.
Who it’s for: Fans of revisionist westerns, alternatives to toxic masculinity, and cows in general.
(dir. Dan Sallit)
What is it: Story of two old friends slowly growing apart over the years.
Who it’s for: Anyone who has that one close friend who is a bit of a mess, fans of Andrew Bujalski.
(dir. Numa Perrier)
What is it: A beautiful ode to sisterhood and a wry exploration of sex work as labor.
Who it’s for: Those looking for positive and empowering depictions of sex workers, fans of Girl 6 and Support the Girls.
(dir. Josephine Decker)
What is it: Stylish and psychologically intense drama centered on literary horror icon Shirley Jackson.
Who it’s for: Fans of meaty theatrical performances, particularly Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
(dir. Eliza Hittman)
What is it: Gripping portrait of a teenager and her best friend travelling to New York for an abortion.
Who it’s for: Those who left small close-minded towns to come to New York, fans of raw documentary style filmmaking.
THE WOLF HOUSE
(dir. Joaquin Cocina, Cristobal Leon)
What is it: Powerhouse stop-motion nightmare tackling both fascism and colonialism through fairy-tale.
Who it’s for: Those who like their films intense and unapologetically strange, fans of Svanjkmajer’s Alice.
On The Horizon
It may seem worlds away, but Sundance was just a few months ago and premiered a number of intriguing films that should be released in the second half of the year. The following three are high on my watchlist: Minari, which won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award is a story about a Korean family adjusting to life in Arkansas. Jumbo, meanwhile, stars Noémie Merlant (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) as a shy woman who develops a relationship with an amusement park ride. Finally, Zola, from director Janicza Bravo (Lemon), is based on the legendary twitter thread by Aziah King about an epic misadventure during her time as an exotic dancer.
Without Cannes this year, there will be no Palmes d’Or winner, however, the festival did release a list of films which will bear the logo and be considered part of the 2020 Official Selection. Of particular note is the Steve McQueen (Hunger, 12 Years a Slave) double header of Lovers Rock and Mangrove. These two feature films are part of a larger set of five called Small Axe which is a BBC produced drama anthology focused on London’s West Indian community. Mangrove, starring Letitia Wright (Black Panther), feels tailor made for the moment detailing the historic trial of the Mangrove 9 who were Black activist leaders put on trial for protesting police brutality in London.
Two more films from the Official Selection worth keeping an eye on are Francois Ozon’s Été ’85, a gorgeous looking ode to an adolescent summer that immediately draws to mind parallels to Call Me By Your Name, and Pascal Plante’s Nadia, Butterfly, which looks to be an intense and intimate portrait of a champion swimmer facing retirement. Finally, looking past Cannes, there is no more appropriate way to close off this hellish year than with some pure horror, and one particular entry to keep an eye out for is the Candyman remake, director Nia DiCsota (Little Woods) promises to further plum the depths of the original film’s searing commentary on race in America.
Noah Hutton’s sci-fi satire Lapsis may stumble at times, but its punchy riffs on the gig economy make it worth a look.
A staggering work that uses clips from over 400 films to tell a personal story about cinephilia, alienation, and loss, while speaking directly to our anxious moment. Read my review in The Quietus.
A Sylvia Plath poem comes to life in this meditation on loneliness, infatuation, and love as it exists in our inner worlds. Read my review at Ultra Dogme.
Equal parts Errol Morris and David Lynch, this oddball journey through the world’s largest retirement community reveals a startling portrait of American alienation. Read my review at In Review Online.
With 2020 finally drawing to a close, lets take one last look at the wonderful films that came out in this otherwise devastating year.
Aubrey Plaza shows off her considerable talents and range, overcoming a messy script to once again prove her mettle as a formidable dramatic lead.