The 2020 release calendar hasn’t exactly panned out the way most people expected, but that doesn’t mean there has been a shortage of quality movies. Even before theaters shut down and film festivals were canceled, a number of cinematic highlights made their way to U.S. screens. Now, others are finding their way to audiences on VOD. Our running list of the best movies of 2020 so far only includes movies that have received a U.S. theatrical release or have become available on VOD platforms accessible in North America.
Only films that received a B+ or higher qualify for inclusion. Here’s the latest update to the list, which is alphabetical. Check out brief excerpts below and links to the full review.
“Athlete A” (Review)
In 1995, sports journalist Joan Ryan published “Little Girls in Pretty Boxes,” a scathing non-fiction accounting of the myriad of abuses inflicted on young women in the pursuit of athletic glory in the fields of gymnastics and figure skating. Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk’s documentary “Athlete A” never directly invokes the name of Ryan’s book, but it stands as a necessary (and entirely disquieting) followup to the world Ryan uncovered in the course of her reporting. Ostensibly focused on the case against Larry Nassar — a longtime USAG doctor and convicted sex offender who was accused of abusing over 250 young gymnasts during his decades of employment by USAG and Michigan State — the film eventually blossoms into something much bigger. “Athlete A” works as both a meticulous unpacking of the case against Nassar, as kicked off by the reporting of the IndyStar journalists who investigated it, and an emotional unburdening for his many victims. By its end, however, its revelations demand nothing short of the full-scale dismantling of every facet of USA Gymnastics.
Rooted to the bloody tissue of real life and enameled with traces of early Jane Campion, “Babyteeth” is the kind of soft-hearted tearjerker that does everything in its power to rescue beauty from pain; the kind that feels like it would lose its balance and tip right off the screen if it stopped being able to walk the line between the two. And yet, despite a handful of shaky moments and a story that sounds like a supercut of all the worst tropes in contemporary independent cinema, Shannon Murphy’s primal and surefooted debut never falls into either mawkishness or sadism. It keeps you on your toes from the moment it starts, brings together a winsome but wounded group of people who are all struggling to slay the “tiny gods” in their heads, and then forces them through an ordeal that might just break their hearts. And yours.
“Bad Education” (Review)
It’s strange that, as Americans, we still tell ourselves that corruption is usually a symptom of greed, as opposed (or in addition) to something that happens when people can’t afford to question their own worth. It’s a red, white, and blue twist on a universal kind of perceptual asymmetry: When you do something wrong, you think of an excuse — when someone else does something wrong, you think of a motive. The incredible magic trick of Cory Finley’s “Bad Education,” a diabolically smart true-life crime drama that stars Hugh Jackman in his best performance since “The Prestige,” is how it manages to balance that asymmetry in the most savage and softhearted of ways, inviting sympathy for the devil even after it convinces you why he should go to hell.
In some respects, Kleber Mendonça Filho’s “Bacurau” can be seen as a logical continuation of the Brazilian critic-turned-auteur’s two previous features. Much like 2012’s revelatory “Neighboring Sounds,” for example, “Bacurau” is a patient and sprawling portrait of a Brazilian community as it struggles to defend itself against the dark specter of modernity. And much like 2016’s unshakeable “Aquarius,” “Bacurau” hinges on an immovably stubborn woman who refuses to relinquish her place in the world — who won’t allow our blind lust for the future to bury her meaningful ties to the past.
“Beastie Boys Story” (Review)
Part of the appeal of the Beastie Boys has always involved the perception of a punchline that got serious: How did a trio of middle-class Jewish boys from New York infiltrate the ‘90s hip hop scene and become one of its most prominent groups? Ad-Rock, MCA, and Mike D first answered that skepticism with the raucous middle finger of “License to Ill,” started to complicate their sound with “Paul’s Boutique,” and by the end of the decade it was no joke: The Beastie Boys were genuine artists who transcended the limits of any specific musical genre and invented one of their own. “Beastie Boys Story” provides a charming and poignant explanation for how they pulled it off. Perennial Beastie Boys collaborator Spike Jonze directed the live show staged across several nights at Brooklyn’s Kings Theater last year, and takes on the reins in this straightforward recorded version culled from multiple performances.
Enter: Director Autumn de Wilde’s lavish but loyal “Emma” (stylized “Emma.”), an indulgent movie about indulgent people that dares to imagine how — on a long-enough timeline — the whole of human existence might be no more important than a straw hat shaped like a fortune cookie, or a navy blue shirt popping against a mustard peacoat, or the romantic misfortunes of an unsophisticated teenage girl as they reverberate through a vain pocket of the English gentry.
“First Cow” (Review)
Few filmmakers wrestle with what it means to be American the way Kelly Reichardt has injected that question into all of her movies. In a meticulous fashion typical of her spellbinding approach, “First Cow” consolidates the potent themes of everything leading up to it: It returns her to the nascent America of the 19th century frontier at the center of “Meek’s Cutoff,” touches on the environmental frustrations of “Night Moves,” revels in the glorious isolation of the countryside in “Certain Women,” and the somber travails of vagrancy at the center of “Wendy and Lucy.”
“For They Know Not What They Do” (Review)
If the words “Forgive them father, for they know not what they do” don’t rush through your mind in Lauryn Hill’s powerful tenor, you probably know your scripture better than this Jewish sodomite. If that’s the case, you may know some folks who could benefit from seeing Daniel Karslake’s urgent and powerful film on religious families with LGBTQ kids, “For They Know Not What They Do.” The feature-length documentary expands on Karslake’s landmark feature, “For the Bible Tells Me So,” which premiered at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival before making that year’s Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary.
After spending more cash than Alexander Hamilton himself would know what to do with, Disney planned on releasing the “Hamilton” video in theaters next fall. But pandemics — like wars — have a funny way of creating new opportunities to compensate for their collateral damage, and the company had no intention of throwing away its shot. Seizing on “these uncertain times” in order to bring the show straight to its still-embryonic streaming platform (where it will be the biggest marquee draw since “The Mandalorian”), Disney has traded the Fathom Event of the century for a revolutionary moment in online distribution. Watching “Hamilton” on Disney+, it’s clear that even for a king’s ransom the Mouse House got its money’s worth. And so have we.
If the only way filmmakers could process life in quarantine was scripted Zoom conversations, the art form might be screwed. “Homemade,” a wondrous and mostly satisfying anthology of 17 short films made over the past two months around the world, proves the opposite. A dense collection of inquisitive, unpredictable and often life-affirming responses to the pandemic from some of the most astute directors working today, “Homemade” is pure filmmaking talent in bite-sized pieces that doubles as a lively, scattershot collage of the world in 2020.
“House of Hummingbird” (Review)
A warm still life about a teenager’s struggle to find herself in a country that’s racing to do the same, Kim Bora’s “House of Hummingbird” so patiently contrasts its contemplative coming-of-age story against the backdrop of South Korea’s hyper-modernization that even its stillest and most tender scenes can feel like an optical illusion.
“(In)Visible Portraits” (Review)
Producer-turned-filmmaker Oge Egbuonu’s remarkable directorial debut, “(In)Visible Portraits,” was always going to debut during a fraught time in history. Three years in the making, the “Loving” and “Eye in the Sky” producer’s first documentary has been entirely crafted in the wake of numerous recent traumas inflicted on the Black community, from the continued killings of Black men by police to the deep pessimism and fear surrounding the current presidential administration, and that was before the historic protests of the last few weeks. Now, the documentary seems wildly prescient and urgent, providing a lucid look at both the past and the present that seems as if it could only be made during such pressing times.
“The King of Staten Island” (Review)
Judd Apatow’s work bears any number of personal signatures, but it boils down to the two things he loves most of all: Overlong movies about overgrown man-children, and helping commercially unproven comedians become huge stars by making films and HBO shows in which they embody lightly fictionalized versions of themselves. So while an 140-minute dramedy in which “SNL” breakout Pete Davidson essentially plays Dete Pavidson might sound like a risky gamble for a major studio to release at the height of the summer movie season (such as it is this year), Apatow would sooner cast Ivanka Trump as Paul Rudd’s next wife than miss out on the chance to work on a semi-autobiographical origin story with a tabloid-famous 25-year-old stoner who once bragged on national television about how he still lives with his mom. It would be like the Safdie brothers passing up an offer to direct the Pizza Rat biopic, or Nicolas Cage saying no to literally anything that his agent sends him. If Pete Davidson didn’t exist, Judd Apatow would’ve had to invent him.
Catalan director Albert Serra rejoices in oddball period pieces, from the outré Casanova biopic “The Story of My Death” to the slow-burn “The Death of Louis XIV,” which delivers exactly that for two hours straight. Yet Serra’s work has a poetic charm percolating beneath its provocative exteriors, as if the very idea of merging the formalities of the past with vulgar flourishes registers as a grand historical punchline: Serra gives us the semblance of an old Eurocentric world as it likes to remember itself, but tosses in sex and bodily fluids that make it resonate in more immediate, visceral terms. His filmography amounts to an alternately gross and kinky history lesson. To that end, “Liberté” is the movie he’s been building toward for the better part of a decade. Serra’s blend of elegant visuals and provocative subject matter reaches his apex with a lush, haunting movie almost exclusively comprised of wall-to-wall orgies in the woods, and it’s almost certainly the most explicit drama about the 18th century ever made.
“Lucky Grandma” (Review)
If last year’s massively successful “The Farewell” taught the film industry anything, it’s that American audiences have an appetite for stories that haven’t been seen before. Where Lulu Wang’s Nai Nai was sweet and naive, the Nai Nai in “Lucky Grandma” is a grizzled, cantankerous chainsmoker — and a total badass. The feature debut of filmmaker Sasie Sealy, “Lucky Grandma” is a wickedly entertaining dark comedy, steeped in the colors and characters of New York City’s Chinatown. This is precise and confident filmmaking, and if there is any justice in Hollywood, Sealy’s name will soon be as ubiquitous as Wang’s. Co-written with Angela Cheng, Sealy’s dynamic script is deeply funny, heartfelt, and with plenty of twists and turns to keep you on your toes.
“Miss Americana” (Review)
Taylor Swift needs your approval. She always has. As an artist and a woman, she’s been conditioned to do the right thing since she was a child. To live for applause. To measure her worth in pats on the head. “My entire moral code is a need to be thought of as ‘good,’” the mega-famous musician confesses at the beginning of Lana Wilson’s “Miss Americana,” a safe but sincere and enormously winsome documentary about Swift’s long road to self-acceptance. And yet, for someone who’s “built their whole belief system on getting people to clap for you,” a single murmur in the crowd can be enough to tilt their world off its axis.
“Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always” (Review)
Focus Features / screen cap
Three films into her career, filmmaker Eliza Hittman continues to prove herself as one of contemporary cinema’s most empathetic and skilled chroniclers of American youth. Hittman’s trio of features — “It Felt Like Love,” “Beach Rats,” and “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” her first studio effort — have all zoomed in on blue-collar teens on the edge of sexual awakening, often of the dangerous variety. Hittman’s ability to write and direct such tender films has long been bolstered by her interest in casting them with fresh new talents, all the better to sell the veracity of her stories and introduce moviegoers to emerging actors worthy of big attention. With “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” Hittman continues her traditions with her most vivid work yet, one all the more impressive for its studio pedigree. (This is not the kind of film many mainstream outfits would support and make, and more power to Focus Features and Hittman for endeavoring to bring it to the masses.)
“The Old Guard” (Review)
Being a superhero isn’t an easy gig, an idea that has inspired recent cinematic explorations ranging from the sublime (“Logan”) to the ridiculous (Tobey Maguire going goth in “Spider-Man 3”). That same concept also drives Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “The Old Guard,” a Netflix-produced take on Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernandez’s 2017 comic book miniseries of the same name, but her version is as fresh as any comic book movie made since superhero mania swept the multiplex.
“Saint Frances” (Review)
The shape of Alex Thompson’s winning “Saint Frances” is familiar enough: a disaffected and unattached millennial finds purpose and meaning in an unexpected connection with a spunky kid who forces her to grow up and face the real world in all its terrifying glory. Cute kids are easy outs in modern cinema (“do you know that the human head weighs eight pounds?”); so are ennui-laden young adults more adept at scrolling social media than carving out a career, but Thompson and “Saint Frances” writer and star Kelly O’Sullivan turn their premise into something wise and witty.
“Selah and the Spades” (Review)
Full disclosure: In her filmmaking debut, Tayarisha Poe’s witty, wicked “Selah and the Spades” doesn’t quite stick the landing. However, all is forgiven: Not only will those bumps likely be rectified when Poe and Amazon (which acquired the film at Sundance 2019) unveil an Amazon Studios series adaptation of the high school drama, but Poe has built a rich world that’s equal parts “Rushmore,” “Heathers,” and “The Godfather,” with all the unpredictability that teenage behavior can possibly engender. Set at the lush Haldwall School, Poe takes high school tribalism to a new level, crafting a boarding school hierarchy in which five factions rule the campus and provide its citizens with plenty of necessary vices.
“Spelling the Dream” (Review)
Since the late ’90s, young Indian Americans have dominated the prestigious Scripps National Spelling Bee, which offers a competitive spelling stage each spring to hundreds of bright young minds, all 14 and younger. Over the years, the bee has broken into mainstream consciousness, thanks to wild winner stories (in 2019, the bee awarded top honors to eight contestants) and a growing interest in its competitive nature (since 1994, ESPN has televised its later rounds into millions of homes). In 2002, Jeffrey Blitz’s Oscar-nominated documentary “Spellbound” meticulously chronicled all the drama of the 1999 competition, unknowingly setting the stage for its inspiring followup, Sam Rega’s “Spelling the Dream.” While Rega and his talking heads — including Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Fareed Zakaria, and Hari Kondabolu — only briefly grapple with overt racist backlash to the bee’s biggest stars, “Spelling the Dream” is about what happens when immigrants are welcomed into a country that values letting them shine.
“7500” takes a familiar scenario and doubles down on its claustrophobic potential to make it fresh. Pitched somewhere between “Air Force One” and “United 93,” director Patrick Vollrath’s feature debut transforms the hijacked plane scenario into an unnerving real-time thriller set exclusively within the confines of the cockpit. The result overcomes the reductive premise and archetypal characters through its adrenaline-pumping pace, dexterous camerawork, and a frantic performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt that ranks as one of his subtlest turns.
“A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon” (Review)
Fans of 2015’s winsome “Shaun the Sheep Movie” would be forgiven for worrying that its sequel might betray the simple pleasures of the original (and the long-running TV series that inspired it). After all, the previous film was about a mischievous sheep traveling to the big city in order to find his missing farmer, and the new one is subtitled “Farmageddon.” But anyone bracing for the stop-motion equivalent of a Michael Bay movie — anyone convinced that Aardman Animations has abandoned the workaday joys of “Wallace and Gromit” in order to chase the hectic spectacle of most contemporary kids’ cinema — has had the wool pulled over their eyes.
“Shirley” is no more of a biopic than “Bright Star,” “An Angel at My Table,” or “Shakespeare in Love.” Adapted from the Susan Scarf Merrell novel of the same name, Josephine Decker’s characteristically sawtoothed and delirious new film is set in the same latent space between fact and fantasy — a story and its telling — where she located all of her previous work. There are long passages and dark pockets of the movie in which you can feel Decker fighting the rigid structure of Sarah Gubbins’ screenplay to a stalemate, but also others in which the film’s relatively straightforward nature only makes it that much easier to appreciate how Decker is bending the walls to her will. As Jackson wrote in “The Haunting of Hill House”: “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.” As Jackson, Elisabeth Moss — comfortably inhabiting all sorts of haggard makeup that she wears like a layer of cobwebs — embodies the author as an irritable grandma who’s been cooped up for long enough to haunt her own house.
“The Surrogate” (Review)
As Jess, Jasmine Batchelor (the film marks her first starring role in a film, the actress also produced it) turns in one of the year’s best performances, profound work that twists an already propulsive concept into a riveting character study. Jeremy Hersh’s first film confronts thorny questions and seemingly unanswerable dilemmas, which makes for a thought-provoking, well-crafted watch.
Anyone watching “Tigertail” because of writer-director Alan Yang’s role in creating “Master of None” may be surprised to find that there’s nothing funny about it. With time, however, “Tigertail” develops a case for its modest aims. A slow-burn immigrant drama with visual polish to spare, the movie molds the leisurely plot into a lush, moving portrait of American dreams undercut by harsh reality checks. Yang infuses his earnest, semi-fictionalized story (inspired by his own father’s experiences) with the evocative narrative traditions of modern Asian cinema, from Wong Kar Wai to Edward Yang, resulting in a rich and intimate atmosphere at every turn. While the movie doesn’t achieve the narrative mastery of its influences, Yang’s first feature has a touching emotional through line grounded in authenticity.
“To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You” (Review)
Fans worried they won’t remember the big beats of the first films needn’t worry, as “To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You” opens with a kicky recap that only adds to the burgeoning franchise’s episodic feel. Original director Susan Johnson has been replaced with cinematographer-turned-filmmaker Michael Fimognari (who also helmed the upcoming third feature in the franchise, “To All the Boys: Always and Forever, Lara Jean”), who expands out the reach and emotions of the story to make a sequel that’s bigger and better than its delightful predecessor.
“Valley Girl” (Review)
MGM / UAR
Everyone knows the beats of the original “Valley Girl,” a neon-colored gem of teen-centric ’80s moviemaking that should be remembered in the same breath as “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and “Sixteen Candles” and yet has remained oddly hard to come by in the nearly four decades since it was released. Like most great high school-set love stories, it’s a Romeo and Juliet tale, this time configured around a pair of decidedly period-appropriate lovers: a high-ponytailed Valley Girl and a tattooed Hollywood punk. Martha Coolidge’s original film, which starred Deborah Foreman and a young Nicolas Cage, might not seem like the most obvious choice for a remake, but Rachel Lee Goldenberg’s clever homage finds a new way into the material, by turning it into a lively jukebox musical.
“The Vast of Night” (Review)
“The Vast of Night” is set in the 1950s in a small town in New Mexico, and if you know your UFO crash-site geography, you might be able to guess where this story is headed. But still, director Andrew Patterson’s spooky and very charming debut about two outsiders who bond over the course of one strange night is packed with nifty surprises. This is a thriller nostalgic for the days of letterman jackets, rotary phones, Cold War-era conspiracy theories, and when everybody, even kids, smoked. With his retro, lo-fi, low-budget first feature, director Patterson should easily expect Hollywood to soon start throwing plenty of higher-concept genre fare at him, and on the basis of the supreme confidence of “The Vast of Night” alone, he’s ready for it.
“The Whistlers” (Review)
Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu makes playful movies with a lot to say. From the chatty historical inquiries of his debut “12:08 East of Bucharest” to the deadpan musings on the language of justice in “Police, Adjective” to the ethics of filmmaking in “When Evening Falls in Bucharest or Metabolism,” Porumboiu has managed to mine compelling ideas out of slow-burn narrative techniques loaded with unpredictability. With 2015’s heartwarming father-son story “The Treasure” — in which the roving narrative builds to sentimental payoff — he started to enrich his style with more approachable methods. That proclivity grows even stronger with his entertaining noir “The Whistlers,” a polished mashup of genre motifs that suggests what might happen if the “Ocean’s 11” gang assembled on the Canary Islands.
The lyrical whimsy of 2012 breakout “Beasts of the Southern Wild” owed some measure of influence to “Peter Pan,” so it’s no surprise the classic tale of a boy who won’t grow up provides the foundation for director Benh Zeitlin’s long-awaited followup, “Wendy.” Seven years have passed since “Beasts” became a surprise cultural phenomenon, blending evocative visuals and an imaginative swampy backdrop with complex emotional themes. It seems Zeitlin has been trapped in a Neverland of his own making all along, because “Wendy” feels as if no time has passed at all.
“The Wolf House” (Review)
It might be hyperbolic or unhelpful to label Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña’s “The Wolf House” as the darkest animated movie ever made, but merely describing this stop-motion nightmare should be enough to explain the impulse. A grimmer-than-Grimm fairy tale inspired (and ostensibly produced) by Colonia Dignidad — the cult-like Chilean enclave founded by German fugitive Paul Schäfer, an insatiable pedophile who raped the members of his community, provided shelter to Nazi war criminals like Josef Mengele, and tortured Pinochet’s enemies in exchange for his support — “The Wolf House” takes the age-old story of the Three Little Pigs and filters it through the warped mind of a profoundly traumatized little girl until it no longer resembles a fable so much as it does the final minutes of “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me.”