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. IndieWire spent much of 2019 reviewing films on the festival circuit prior to their release dates, and some of them finally made it to theaters this year. Others simply materialized over the last few months, and we’re all the better for having them.
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. Films that received a B+ or higher qualify for the list. We’ll keep it updated as the year continues. Check out brief excerpts below and links to the full review.
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.
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.
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“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.”
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.