The 2020 release calendar hit a snag with the coronavirus outbreak, but not before 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; we’ll keep it updated as the year continues. Check out brief excerpts below and links to the full review.
“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? The boisterous group of 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.”
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.
“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.)
“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.
“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.
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 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.