By Sean Boelman
2020 has been an unprecedented year for the film industry, with theaters forced to close as a result of the pandemic and the industry mostly grinding to a halt. Still, thanks to some new at-home viewing options (virtual cinema has proven particularly effective in maintaining some life in the indie market), and the lucky few releases that got their chance on the big screen before the shutdown, there were some pretty noteworthy titles released in the first half of the year. Without further ado, here are ten of the best films of 2020 so far, in alphabetical order.
Note: This list does not include films that have not received some sort of public release between January and June 2020, including festival showings, virtual or otherwise.
Kitty Green’s quiet and meditative drama The Assistant, a direct reflection of the “TimesUp” era, came out right before Harvey Weinstein was convicted in February, and while there have been significant changes since the first allegations against him broke in 2017, there’s still room to go. This portrait of a young assistant facing sexual harassment in an unnamed production company is absolutely harrowing, using restraint as a tool to creep under the viewer’s skin. Julia Garner’s performance here is unforgettable, and Matthew Macfadyen also gives a memorable bit turn as the unwelcoming HR rep. This may be the most underseen pick on this list, and that needs to be fixed.
While the initial premise of a terminally ill teenager falling in love with a drug dealer might sound messed up, Shannon Murphy’s darkly funny directorial debut Babyteeth is also surprisingly sweet. Although Murphy’s visual style and the script by Rita Kalnejais are both great, it is the performances here that make the film stand out the most. Hot off her star-making turn in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, Eliza Scanlen proves that she is a force with which to be reckoned, bringing a lot of humanity to her role. Character actor Ben Mendelsohn is also as great as ever here, with one of the most demanding performances he has had to give to date.
The sophomore effort from Thoroughbreds director Cory Finley, the crime comedy Bad Education was bought by HBO out of TIFF last year and made its way to the pay network earlier this year. This story of public school embezzlement is almost so crazy that it’s hard to believe. Aided by great performances from Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney and vivid direction from Finley, the script by Mike Makowsky is the MVP here. With witty dialogue, killer pacing, and some surprisingly good characterization, expect this one to make a big splash at the Emmys when they are able to occur this year.
One may wonder why they should care about some random dying mall in Alabama, but Bradford Thomason and Brett Whitcomb’s documentary Jasper Mall makes an impressive statement with this seemingly local interest story. Exploring the shortcomings of the consumerist tendencies of America, this film has an unexpectedly human touch to it, especially as it explores the story of the endearing manager trying to keep his mall afloat. The film definitely cashes in on the nostalgia that a lot of people have for their days of shopping at the mall being a formative social activity during their youth, but it’s also very much a product of the moment.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Out of all of the films on this list, the one most likely to achieve year-end success (with critics and awards voters alike) is Eliza Hittman’s character drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always. A timely exploration of the issue of abortion, it’s an emotionally devastating watch, but an important one at that, and it has been connecting with audiences of all ages as a result. Sidney Flanagan’s leading performance is absolutely amazing, but the gorgeous visual style that Hittman brings to the film is probably the biggest highlight here. It’s a restrained and low-key film, something of which the film industry is constantly in need.
On the Record
Following up their groundbreaking film The Hunting Ground with another exposé on sexual abuse, Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s new documentary On the Record is one of the most hard-to-watch films of the year so far. After picking up some controversy when Oprah Winfrey and Apple TV+ dropped the film from their slate just prior to its Sundance debut, new streamer HBO Max gave this movie about the damning allegations against record producer Russell Simmons a new home. Incorporating elements of a music doc but packing a huge emotional punch, this doc isn’t one you’ll soon forget.
Sorry We Missed You
Although some would argue that British filmmaker Ken Loach may have peaked with his Palme d’Or winning The Wind That Shakes the Barley, this year’s Sorry We Missed You proves that he still has it as long as his writing partner Paul Laverty has something to say. This time, Loach and Laverty conquer the issues of the modern gig economy with the heartbreaking tale of a delivery driver father and his struggling family. Like much of Loach’s best work, this is an absolutely draining watch, but its examination of how the economy is taking advantage of the lower class couldn’t be more timely than it is now.
Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s feature debut Swallow is the best horror film of the year, offering a socially-conscious entry into the body horror genre, Mirabella-Davis’s script is both disturbing and darkly funny. Following a young housewife with a (shockingly existent) condition that compels her to swallow increasingly dangerous objects, this is a bizarre film, but one that you can’t spare to look away from. Haley Bennett impresses here, finally being given the opportunity to do something other than to be eye candy. Mirabella-Davis’s visual style is also very idiosyncratic, particularly his use of color, cementing him as one of this year’s big talents to watch.
Weathering with You
Although his last film Your Name. got much more widespread acclaim, Makoto Shinkai’s newest anime feature Weathering with You is extremely impressive. Although it admittedly can be a bit of a tear-jerker at times, the tremendously beautiful animation and sense of fantasy and wonder that flows through it make up for its shortcomings. Even more shocking is the fact that this is the rare anime where the dubbed version almost works better than the subbed version, with an English voice cast including Allison Brie, Riz Ahmed, and Lee Pace (although the original language cast is great too). Sadly, the unusual release patterns of anime in the United States makes this the only entry on this list that is not currently available to watch in some form.
A White, White Day
Hlynur Palmason’s Icelandic thriller A White, White Day is very different from any entry on this list. It’s both a meditative drama about grief and a revenge thriller showing a man hunting down the person who has wronged him. Unlike most films of the genre, the violence is not the focus here, brutality only used in short bursts to accent the emotion, with more emphasis being placed on the characters and their feelings. Palmason challenges a lot of conventions, but his compelling story, cold but picturesque cinematography, and a brilliant performance from Ingvar Sigurdsson make this one of the best films of the year yet.
While some of the most anticipated films of 2020 were delayed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, with theaters hopefully reopening in August, many of them should make their way to the big (or small screen) by the end of the year. Still, one can expect some of these great pictures to repeat on that later list.
The Snake Hole
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