2020 has been a strange year for movies, as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down movie theaters, paused productions, and shifted the entire year’s movie release schedule. Much of what was meant to have come out by now has either skipped a theatrical release in favor of VOD, or been delayed, either to late 2020 or to 2021.
Even so, 2020 has been full of great movies, and most of them are now available to watch and stream from home. As we reach the halfway mark of the year, we’ve rounded up the best movies of 2020 so far, from a tense indie about harassment and assault in the entertainment industry to the colorful exploits of one Harley Quinn.
Kitty Green’s first foray into narrative features takes place over the course of a single day at a film production office. Julia Garner stars as Jane, an assistant saddled with the most menial and stressful tasks that the other assistants and employees constantly pass off to her. The little insights she gleans about her boss’ sexually predatory nature grow increasingly hard to stomach, especially as a new assistant, a young waitress flown in from Idaho, seems in particular danger. But if everyone else in the office is in on it, how much can Jane do? The Assistant is an intense, stomach-churning experience, and a necessary look at the systems that have abetted sexual misconduct. —Karen Han
The Assistant is streaming on Amazon.
Movies like The Fault in Our Stars and Five Feet Apart have dangerously romanticized stories about teenagers who fall in love while one or both of them are dying, and Babyteeth provides a much-needed breath of fresh air in its straightforward take on how harrowing such illnesses can be. As Milla (Eliza Scanlen), who has been diagnosed with cancer, falls in love, she also struggles with the way her body begins deteriorating, and she wrestles and fights against death rather than demurely accepting her fate. —KH
Babyteeth is available on Apple, Amazon, Vudu, or YouTube.
HBO’s based-on-a-true-story drama mostly serves as a vehicle for Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney to do some capital-A acting. They star as public-school superintendents convicted of embezzling millions of dollars from their district, the largest school financial scandal in American history. As Jackman moves away from playing Wolverine, the role that’s defined his career for the last 20 years, he seems eager to remind the public that he’s not just a charming beefcake who can sing — he’s also a talented dramatic actor.
As superintendent Frank Tassone, Jackman’s charisma takes on a dark edge. That charm covers up some deeply held secrets, and the veneer starts to crack as those secrets are uncovered by a dogged young reporter (played by Blockers’ Geraldine Viswanathan.) And Allison Janney is always a treat, of course. She was perfectly cast as Pam Gluckin, a brassy Long Island broad who served as Frank’s assistant superintendent and co-conspirator. Frank and Pam’s slow descent into self-destruction is like a fascinating train wreck. —Emily Heller
Bad Education is streaming on HBO Max; buy on Apple, Amazon, Vudu, or YouTube
Birds of Prey
Harley Quinn is struggling to find herself now that she isn’t part of a famous tragicomic romance with the Joker, and what better way than to spend some time with her best gal-friends? Sounds like the plot of an wine-and-feels-filled road-trip movie, but instead, Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) delivers fast-paced action and stunts. (Okay, there’s lots of emotion too.)
Each member of the Birds of Prey has a backstory harkening back to a different classical genre, reimagined with vibrant colors and modern stunts. Harley’s Looney Tunes antics, Renee Montoya’s “turn in your badge and gun” cop crusade, Huntress’ mafia-revenge flick, and Black Canary’s callback to blaxploitation cinema all weave together into a seamless superhero action movie, a remarkable feat of cinema from director Cathy Yan.
The fight choreography is as expressive as Margot Robbie’s captivating face, the setpieces are unique and lively, and Yan never takes the action too seriously, with sequences like Quinn’s glitter-grenade assault on a police station. In a cinematic landscape full of grimdark vengeance flicks, it’s a relief to see a movie that remembers how heightened fantasy can mean a fun, wacky time. —Jenna Stoeber
Birds of Prey is available on Apple, Amazon, Vudu, or YouTube
Political documentaries these days tend to be grim polemics with massive stakes, but Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine’s Boys State is the exact opposite — it’s a lively, funny, but fascinating look at a process that technically doesn’t matter at all. An inside look at an annual political-training event where a thousand teenage boys create their own government from scratch, Boys State captures the wheeling, dealing, and endless political discoveries and compromises as the participants unwittingly re-create all the flaws of modern politics. The access is unbeatable, as Moss and McBaine get up close with one year’s leadership and follows their campaigns and clashes. It’s a hilarious and mesmerizing movie, but it’s insightful and revealing, too. —Tasha Robinson
Boys State is streaming on Apple TV Plus.
Da 5 Bloods
Spike Lee’s latest film, Da 5 Bloods, would be devastating even if its address of racial politics in American history didn’t seem so prescient. As four Vietnam veterans return to the country under the pretext of retrieving the body of their fallen commander, they must wrestle with the ways in which America has consistently failed its Black citizens, and how the resulting resentment can warp a person’s heart. Lee also doesn’t hold back in condemning America’s actions in Vietnam, and though it’s a bloody film, it ultimately ends on a note of hope. —KH
Da 5 Bloods is streaming on Netflix.
David Byrne’s American Utopia
Translating what is meant to be a live experience into a filmed one is no easy feat, but director Spike Lee manages it with the film version of David Byrne’s Broadway show American Utopia. As Byrne sings songs old and new with the help of an ensemble of dancers and musicians, he builds a message of hope, encouraging the audience to take action to help change the path of the future. Lee’s direction also takes the show to some unexpected places, getting up close and personal with Byrne and his ensemble as well as, during a key number, adding some imagery that wasn’t a part of the original show. —KH
David Byrne’s American Utopia is streaming on HBO Max.
Dick Johnson Is Dead
Death is inevitable, yet it’s always difficult to face. Filmmaker Kirsten Johnson does her best to tackle it in her new work Dick Johnson Is Dead: as her father Dick battles dementia, the two of them stage and film different versions of his death. The resulting documentary is remarkably tender, especially as Johnson captures very real moments of heartbreak amid these fantasies. It’s not just a tribute to Johnson’s father, it’s a reminder to cherish your loved ones while they’re still alive. —KH
Dick Johnson Is Dead is streaming on Netflix.
Prior to directing Emma., Autumn de Wilde was a photographer who directed commercials and music videos, and her eye for detail — how to set a scene, how to direct actors, how to draw the gaze — is on full display in this film. This relatively faithful adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma stars Anya Taylor-Joy in the title role, and de Wilde seems to derive great pleasure from simply telling the story well. On top of that, it’s simply gorgeous to look at; every costume and set is packed to the brim with color and detail. —KH
Emma. is on Apple, Amazon, Vudu, or YouTube.
Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
Netflix’s Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga isn’t perfect (and perhaps has the advantage of being a deliriously light film in the middle of a bleak year), but it’s still a delight. As Lars and Sigrit, would-be Eurovision contestants, Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams give it their all. Rather than making fun of the legendarily gaudy competition, the film is a loving homage. A fondness for the real-life contest is tangible throughout, not least in the incredibly catchy songs. The film defies ironic enjoyment, and so it goes on this year’s best-of list without any further quantification, too. —KH
Eurovision Song Contest is streaming on Netflix.
The best word to describe Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow is “sublime.” The film’s plot — two men in 1820 Oregon steal milk from a cow in order to make and sell cakes — may seem slight, but Reichardt packs it full of tenderness. Small moments such as a character sweeping a floor clean or a prolonged glance strike straight to the heart, and the tale of connection between two men in the middle of the American West becomes a bigger tale about the American Dream as a whole. It’s a marvel, and perhaps the very best of what 2020 has to offer. —KH
First Cow is on Apple, Amazon, Vudu, or YouTube.
The release of Thomas Kail’s recorded version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical smash Hamilton prompted the usual hand-wringing over how it should be classified — is it technically a movie? Is there enough artistry and creativity in the direction to justify calling it a film? To which we say, does it matter? It’s filmed entertainment that tells a story, and it’s a thrill to watch. It’s also a document of an enormously talented cast (including Miranda himself, plus Daveed Diggs, Leslie Odom Jr., Phillipa Soo, and Jonathan Groff) who’ve largely gone on to other things. This hip-hop retelling of the life of Alexander Hamilton is musically complex, catchy, winning, and full of unforgettable performances. Let’s not quibble about categorization, let’s just all watch Groff smarm his way through “You’ll Be Back” one more time.
Hamilton is available to stream on Disney Plus.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Charlie Kaufman’s latest film, an adaptation of a novel by Iain Reed, is just as strange as we’ve come to expect Charlie Kaufman’s movies to be. Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons star as a young woman and her boyfriend who head to his parents’ remote rural house for dinner. She’s thinking of ending their relationship, but as the night wears on, stranger and stranger things start to happen. Can he hear what she’s thinking? Why do his parents seem to change in age every time they leave and re-enter the room? The questions only multiply. —KH
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is streaming on Netflix.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
The title Never Rarely Sometimes Always doesn’t initially roll off the tongue, but Eliza Hittman’s film is powerful enough to counteract that. What makes the movie difficult to stomach is its realistic depiction of how far out of reach proper medical care can be for young women, especially those raised in more conservative environments. Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), a teenager with an unwanted pregnancy, has to travel from her hometown in Pennsylvania to New York City to obtain an abortion, and even then, she has to jump through more hoops. Luckily, she’s accompanied by her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder), who proves to be an invaluable support. —KH
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is on Apple, Amazon, Vudu, or YouTube.
Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland has all of the thoughtfulness and realism that the director became known for with her films Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider. Frances McDormand stars as one of just two recognizable famous faces in the film, which focuses on a community of middle-aged people who travel and live in their vehicles and call themselves nomads. Slowly, Zhao teases out what led McDormand’s character to adopt the nomad lifestyle, using her as a window into an often-overlooked part of America.
Nomadland is currently slated for public release on Dec. 4.
Time-loops — better known as “a Groundhog Day thing” — have been thoroughly explored since the 1993 Bill Murray film. But somehow, filmmakers keep finding new angles for the stuck-in-a-single-day format. Palm Springs is the latest film to tackle the sci-fi concept, and it’s an exceptionally sweet and optimistic interpretation. It’s also just really freaking funny.
Palm Springs stars Cristin Milioti as Sarah, a foul-mouthed, hard-drinking misanthrope just trying to get through her maid-of-honor duties at her sister’s wedding in — you guessed it — Palm Springs. She hits it off with a wedding guest, Nyles (Andy Samberg), but before they can hook up in the desert, a series of events pulls Sarah into the same time-loop Nyles has been stuck in for an eternity.
That’s a clever way to skip the whole explanation to the time-loop concept that the audience doesn’t really need, but it also sets up a fun dynamic between Sarah and Nyles. He’s given up on finding a way out, but she’s convinced she can. She thinks there must be a reason that they’re stuck, and tries to break the cycle by trying to improve her behavior every day. Ultimately, though, it’s a story about personal responsibility and the terrifying but exhilarating risk of committing to something or someone, so the solution isn’t quite so magical. —EH
Palm Springs is on Apple, Amazon, Vudu, or YouTube.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Céline Sciamma weaves a remarkable love story in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which focuses on Marianne, a painter (Noémie Merlant), and Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), the young woman whose portrait Marianne has been commissioned to paint. Héloïse is initially resistant, as the portrait will be sent to the man she has been arranged to marry, but as the two women grow closer, she agrees to sit for a painting. The story of Orpheus and Eurydice’s doomed love affair surfaces again and again as the two women, who know their affair must end, fall in love. It’s a gorgeous, bittersweet romance, and all the more singular for the fact that there are no men on screen in the film. —KH
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is available on Apple, Amazon, Vudu, or YouTube.
She Dies Tomorrow
What would you do if you knew without a doubt that you were going to die tomorrow? That’s the central question of She Dies Tomorrow, an experimental horror film written and directed by Amy Seimetz. Kate Lyn Sheil stars as Amy, a woman who’s convinced that it’s her last day on earth. Her friend Jane (Jane Adams) tries to convince her that she couldn’t possibly know that, but Jane can’t stop thinking about what Amy said, and is soon convinced that she, too, will soon die. That conviction spreads like a virus to character after character, including people played by Chris Messina, Katie Aselton, and Josh Lucas. There isn’t much plot after that. Seimetz just follows these characters as they deal with the grief, fear, and sadness of knowing they’re about to die.
She Dies Tomorrow would be harrowing at any time, but the fact that it dropped in the middle of a devastating global pandemic just exacerbated the fear. That anxiety is familiar to all of us living through the COVID-19 crisis, and Seimetz nails the feeling of isolation that it breeds, even if its characters aren’t literally quarantining. —EH
She Dies Tomorrow is available on Apple, Amazon, Vudu, or YouTube.
If you’re looking for a straightforward Shirley Jackson biopic, Shirley isn’t for you. Based on the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, which itself takes significant liberties with the events of the famed horror writer’s life, director Josephine Decker uses Jackson’s allure to paint a messy, moving portrait of the ways lonely women find each other, love each other, and eventually, leave each other behind.
Elisabeth Moss plays Jackson as depressed, volatile, and deeply vulnerable. Her husband, Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), treats her with a mixture of contempt and pity. When one of Stanley’s former students, Fred (Logan Lerman), comes to stay at the Hyman house while he’s serving as Stanley’s teaching assistant, Fred’s wife Rose is stuck at home with Shirley all day. These two women start off as foils — Rose is a good “little wifey,” as Stanley calls her, while Shirley is a self-proclaimed witch — but as their initial hostility toward each other gives way to curiosity and then to intimacy, Decker allows them to start intertwining. That relationship is the heart of the film, and turns what could seem at first glance like a weird, trippy play on a biopic into a much more universal story of intense female friendship and desire. —EH
Shirley is streaming on Hulu; buy or rent on Apple, Amazon, Vudu, or YouTube.
The lush, gorgeous cinematography in Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ solo directorial debut is a smart counterpoint to its ugly emotions and grotesque behaviors. Squashed under the expectations of her perfect husband and perfect life, Hunter (Haley Bennett) gives in to a psychological syndrome that pushes her to eat inedible and increasingly dangerous objects. The more her husband and in-laws try to control her behavior, the more of their abuse and expectations she has to swallow, the more she symbolically swallows thumbtacks and batteries as well. It’s a wide-eyed, placid kind of horror film about asserting different forms of control, and it turns into a vicious defense of female bodily autonomy, without ever losing its poisonous visual beauty. —TR
Swallow is on Apple, Amazon, Vudu, or YouTube.
The Trip to Greece
The final installment of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s Trip series serves as a fitting end to their journey. Over the course of four films, the comedians have traveled the world, playing exaggerated versions of themselves, with each new movie honing in a little more closely on the anxieties and crises that come with age. This time, they travel through Greece, retracing Odysseus’ steps as they ponder what it means to leave a legacy behind. It’s a touching tale, and one left open-ended so viewers can reach their own conclusions, too. —KH
The Trip to Greece is on Apple, Amazon, Vudu, or YouTube.
The Vast of Night
Andrew Patterson styles his directorial debut, The Vast of Night, as a late-night episode of a Twilight Zone/Outer Limits-esque science-fiction TV show, but his film is both more expansive and more character-intensive than those shows ever were. As leads Jake Horowitz and Sierra McCormick investigate a mysterious signal striking their small, rural 1950s town, Patterson treats the material more like a campfire ghost story than an SF story, lulling viewers into a hypnotic wonder with long, quiet storytelling segments. It’s unconventional and idiosyncratic, but the terrific sound design is immersive, and the leads are charismatic and sparky enough to carry the story directly from playful banter to awed fear. —TR
The Vast of Night is included on Amazon Prime Video.
Weathering with You
Makoto Shinkai’s anime followup to his international hit Your Name is strikingly beautiful, both on a visual level and an emotional one. Weathering With You centers on a “sunshine girl” named Hina, a teenager touched by the weather gods and given the gift to dispel the clouds and bring the sun back. But she’s also marked by fate, which doesn’t sit well with teen runaway and proto-journalist Hodaka, who falls for her. It’s a film intensely concerned with climate change and the consequences adult behavior and rules have on young people who just want their freedom, but it’s also a lush sensual experience, full of sunlight so bright that the audience can feel the warmth, and gorgeously rendered storms that make the whole world feel sodden. It’s immersive and absorbing in the best ways. —TR
Weathering With You is on Apple, Amazon, Vudu, or YouTube.
What the Constitution Means to Me
Heidi Schreck is a force of nature in What the Constitution Means to Me, the play she wrote and has been starring in on and off for the last three years. In it, she revisits the Constitutional debates she participated in as a teenager, and uses that framing to revisit her family’s fraught history. The experiences of the women in her family all underline the Constitution’s failings — namely, that it wasn’t created with the rights of anyone but straight, white, cis men in mind. The play, now in film form courtesy of director Marielle Heller, confronts those failings as well as what the future may hold. —KH
What the Constitution Means to Me is streaming on Amazon.
Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Whistlers is a masterclass in mixing seemingly incompatible elements. The film’s plot is that of a hardboiled thriller — a corrupt detective becomes involved in a money-laundering scheme after falling for a mysterious woman — but its central device is a (real) whistling language, and colorful interstitial cards break up the action with a more Wes Anderson-esque flourish. Improbably, it all works, resulting in one of the most inventive thrillers in recent memory. —KH
The Whistlers is on Apple, Amazon, Vudu, or YouTube.