Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Clockwise from top left: The Invisible Man (Photo: Universal Pictures), Miss Juneteenth (Photo: Vertical Entertainment), First Cow (Photo: A24)

The best films of 2020 so far

Clockwise from top left: The Invisible Man (Photo: Universal Pictures), Miss Juneteenth (Photo: Vertical Entertainment), First Cow (Photo: A24)
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

A few weeks ago, the Academy announced that it would be extending the eligibility window for next year’s Oscars by a few months. The reasoning behind this decision was clear: With so much uncertainty about when theaters can open again, there’s no guarantee that the kind of big prestige projects that normally dominate awards season will even open by year’s end. In other words, the Academy would rather bend their own rules for the first time in 40 years than risk having to watch and nominate films that don’t fit the normal profile of an “Oscar-winning movie.” Even for them, that’s pretty insulting.

Because here’s the thing: Though nothing’s hit theaters since March, though countless releases have been postponed, and though many promising upcoming titles may be pushed back until next spring or even later, 2020 has still been a pretty damn good year for movies. It’s a weird one, for sure—we should definitely be complaining right now about another week of bloated July sequels, not arguing over which Netflix original comes closest to looking like the blockbuster of the summer. But plenty of interesting and worthwhile films have made it to streaming platforms over this ongoing home-viewing season, to say nothing of the ones that opened in theaters before they closed their doors a few months ago. Imagine if the Academy actually did limit itself to these less massively budgeted options. It’d be the most fascinating Oscar race ever!

Below, we’ve singled out, in chronological order of release, the 25 best films of the year so far. All became commercially available in the States—on a streaming platform, through video-on-demand, or via the ancient practice of projecting a movie on a giant screen in an enclosed public space—sometime after the first of the year. You won’t find too many likely Oscar contenders in this group, not with the studios and mini-majors eyeing that suddenly lucrative early-2021 window for their major award contenders. These are the Oscar nominees that should be—a list that includes radical American indies, foreign-language triumphs, Hollywood monster movies, form-bending documentaries, acclaimed anime, a bona fide avant-garde feature, and one stirring sports/recovery drama starring Ben Affleck. And when applicable, we’ve cited where and how you can watch these films that AMPAS probably won’t.

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Weathering With You

Google Play, iTunes August 4; Blu-Ray September 15

Illustration for article titled The best films of 2020 so far
Photo: GKIDS

In a near-future Japan beset by rising sea levels, a runaway teenage boy meets, helps, and moons over a young woman who has the power to control the weather. Though its setting has sci-fi overtones, this latest animated romance from Makoto Shinkai (Your Name) is more interested in using fantasy to explore the relationships between its endlessly charming characters. As 2020 has pressed on, the fuzziness of the movie’s climate-change allegory looks more and more like a secret strength, allowing Shinkai to focus on his rare talent for drawing out affecting lyricism from a world on the brink of doom. [Jesse Hassenger]


Zombi Child

Criterion Channel, Amazon, iTunes, Fandango, DirectTV, VUDU

Illustration for article titled The best films of 2020 so far
Photo: Film Movement

Bertrand Bonnello, the French director behind teen-terrorist thriller Nocturama, returns with another provocative coming-of-age story, this one overrun by the zombies and ghosts of France’s colonial past. Cutting between two temporalities and locations—an all-girls boarding school in present-day Paris, and a sugar plantation in 1962 Haiti—Zombi Child unravels a Gordian knot of intergenerational trauma, cultural appropriation, and white guilt to the beat of trap music and Jacques Tourneur. Boldly subverting genre tropes and audience expectations, it’s the kind of powerful cerebral punch Bonnello specializes in, just with an extra dose of voodoo surrealism. [Beatrice Loayza]


Beanpole

Mubi, Amazon, Google Play, YouTube, iTunes, Fandango, VUDU

Illustration for article titled The best films of 2020 so far
Photo: Kino Lorber

Early into Beanpole, a young boy suffocates under the weight of a woman paralyzed by seizure. It feels like a warning: Abandon all hope, ye who watch. And yet this stark and painterly drama, set in Saint Petersburg (then Leningrad) in the aftermath of World War II, is too shrewd to simply devolve into misery porn. Its writer-director, the preternaturally gifted Kantemir Balagov, tempers the despair with a focus on the mutating, codependent bond between two survivors trying to find a path forward through the rubble of the old world. Beanpole may see a reflection of national trauma in their struggle, but it never reduces them to symbols; you probably won’t find an onscreen relationship this year more complicated than theirs. [A.A. Dowd]


The Assistant

Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube, Microsoft, Fandango, Redbox, DirectTV, VUDU

Illustration for article titled The best films of 2020 so far
Photo: Bleecker Street

Imagine a version of Jaws that kept the shark off screen entirely, and which focused instead on the inner-workings of Mayor Vaughn’s office, turning a blind eye to the carnage for the sake of money. That’s akin to what Kitty Green accomplishes with her disquieting procedural about a day in the life of an overworked personal assistant (Julia Garner) to a movie producer who never appears on screen or is referred to by name. Maybe it says something that the first American dramatization of Harvey Weinstein’s abuses won’t look at the perpetrator directly. But there’s a moral clarity to his absence; by instead examining the network of enablers the mogul built around himself, The Assistant becomes an indictment of a whole industry—a monster movie about everyone who allowed the monster to keep feeding. [A.A. Dowd]


After Parkland

Hulu, Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube, VUDU

Illustration for article titled The best films of 2020 so far
Photo: Kino Lorber

At a time when so much about politics and the social order seems hopelessly broken, the documentary After Parkland suggests real, positive change may be just over the horizon. Directors Jake Lefferman and Emily Taguchi emphasize the “after” part of their title, following a handful of students and parents in the wake of the horrific 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting, showing how these people quickly converted their grief into anger and their anger into action. The current waves of public protest sweeping across the United States were presaged by the events covered in this moving and energizing film, which charts what happened when the rising generation began demanding more than “thoughts and prayers.” [Noel Murray]


Vitalina Varela

Grasshopper Film, Virtual theaters

Illustration for article titled The best films of 2020 so far
Photo: Grasshopper Film

In the films of Pedro Costa, lost souls wander a mythic purgatory of memories and decaying slums, reciting dreams and life stories. His style isn’t to every taste, but its glacial pacing and dark, Renaissance-meets-noir tableau compositions come close to pure poetry. In his latest, a middle-aged Cape Verdean woman travels to Portugal to bury her estranged husband; all he has left behind is an unfinished house in the outskirts of Lisbon and happy memories of the home they built together years ago in Cape Verde. Vitalina Varela is one of the few Costa films with a readily comprehensible plot, but as always, its meanings are lyrical. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]


The Invisible Man

Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube, Microsoft, Fandango, Redbox, DirectTV, VUDU

Illustration for article titled The best films of 2020 so far
Photo: Universal Pictures

From the ashes of the Dark Universe rose this suspenseful standalone, which re-envisions a classic movie monster as the gaslighting ex-boyfriend from hell. Director Leigh Whannell stages some nifty effects sequences involving his imperceptible menace, but he’s more interested in psychological terrorism—a game of escalating harassment that gives this primo Hollywood thriller the chill of real-world horror. And in Elisabeth Moss, Whannell finds the most emotionally expressive of scream queens, filling in the outline of an invisible threat with her rage and fear. [A.A. Dowd]


The Whistlers

Amazon, YouTube, Microsoft, Fandango, Redbox, VUDU

Illustration for article titled The best films of 2020 so far
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

There’s deadpan and then there’s The Whistlers, the Romanian neo-noir so bone dry that it’s a wonder it has any saliva left to pucker up and blow. That’s not to say this is a dour film; it’s simply a uniquely pitched one, as director Corneliu Porumboiu strips a glamorous story full of exotic locations and paranoid intrigue down to its most mundane elements. The film plays at times like an ironic take on post-Tarantino crime cinema, convoluted in its timeline and shameless about adding in a splashy needle drop because it looks cool. But stay with it and The Whistlers’ withholding femme fatales and unsmiling crooked cops begin to blossom like evening primrose, immersing you in a world that’s pretty damn seductive despite itself. [Katie Rife]


A White, White Day

Virtual theaters

Illustration for article titled The best films of 2020 so far
Photo: Film Movement

“Everyone grieves in their own way” is the adage tackled by this slow-simmering Icelandic drama, in which a widowed cop (a magnificent Ingvar Eggert Sigurdsson) finds roundabout and increasingly violent means of grappling with his feelings. Mirroring his misdirected mourning process, writer-director Hlynur Palmason drifts into mysteriously significant detours, like a sequence depicting a stone tumbling down an embankment for several minutes on end. It’s a bold treatment of a common subject, emotionally indirect until it suddenly, powerfully, isn’t. [A.A. Dowd]


The Burnt Orange Heresy

Additional theaters August 7

Illustration for article titled The best films of 2020 so far
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Based on a book by the eccentric crime novelist Charles Willeford (adapted to the screen by A Simple Plan writer Scott Smith), The Burnt Orange Heresy replicates the experience of reading a slim, literary caper story, filled with flavorful dialogue and dark twists. Director Giuseppe Capotondi keeps the running time short and the set-ups simple, letting sumptuous European scenery and magnetic actors do most of the work. Claes Bang and Elizabeth Debicki play two impossibly sexy sophisticates, drawn into the orbit of an influential art dealer (Mick Jagger) and a famously reclusive painter (Donald Sutherland). Expect lots of quirky, high-toned banter among four folks whose intentions are rarely pure. [Noel Murray]


The Way Back

Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube, Microsoft, Fandango, Redbox, DirectTV, VUDU

Illustration for article titled The best films of 2020 so far
Photo: Warner Bros.

Ben Affleck’s regular pandemic canoodles for the paparazzi only constitute his second-most compelling performance of the year, behind his redemptive turn as a heavy-drinking construction worker making good in Gavin O’Connor’s well-measured drama. Taking a coaching gig for an undisciplined high school basketball team sounds like a tidy and saccharine metaphor, but the conviction Affleck brings to broken-down lug Jack Cunningham bridges the gap between the sentiment of crowd-pleasing Hollywood character studies (of the mid-budget variety we don’t see so much these days) and the grit of real life. This is the ability of a movie star in the classical mold: to coax something true from a night at the multiplex. [Charles Bramesco]


First Cow

Digital services July 10

Illustration for article titled The best films of 2020 so far
Photo: A24

Kelly Reichardt’s latest film is built on two things: An earnest belief in the power of tenderness in the face of overwhelming historical violence, and delicious deep-fried dough. Both come courtesy of the character of Cookie (John Magaro), a mild and soft-spoken drifter in 1820s Oregon whose friendship with unsinkable Chinese immigrant King-Lu (Orion Lee) serves as a stand-in for the American Dream writ large. That’s where the First Cow of the title comes in, as the entrepreneurial duo begins stealing milk from the only cow in the territory in order to build up the pastry business that King-Lu insists will catapult them to wealth and fame. It’s a madcap setup for Reichardt, who infuses First Cow both with the subtle rhythms of nature and a sweet sense of humor. [Katie Rife]


The Wild Goose Lake

Virtual theaters

Illustration for article titled The best films of 2020 so far
Photo: Film Movement

The plot, about a gangster (Hu Ge) who kills a cop and then goes on the lam, barely holds together. But maybe that’s because director Diao Yinan (Black Coal, Thin Ice) sees it more as a clothesline on which he can hang his remarkable sense of style. Pistols, motorcycles, fistfights, rainstorms, seedy hotels with oscillating fans, nightclubs blasting effervescent dance pop—this sleek Chinese manhunt thriller has it all, and bathes whole stretches of its action in bright shades of nocturnal neon. The violence, meanwhile, can be so stylized that it borders on the abstract; one death by umbrella seems to tilt the film into dream logic. The impression is of an ecstatic play on genre. Who needs story when you have this much sumptuous, uninterrupted noir cool? [A.A. Dowd]


Bacurau

Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube, Fandango, VUDU

Illustration for article titled The best films of 2020 so far
Photo: Kino Lorber

Bacurau is one of those films that you don’t want to say too much about, but absolutely must discuss with as many people as possible. It’s two revolutionary calls to arms in one, the first half constructing a socialist paradise in small-town Brazil through low-key indie drama and the second exorcising the demons of colonialism in a juicy explosion of cathartic action-movie violence. As far as agitprop goes, Bacurau is definitely on the more batshit end of the spectrum, mischievously dropping in whimsical sci-fi details in the lead-up to Udo Kier’s appearance as the sociopathic embodiment of Trump-era American entitlement. Throw in Brazilian acting legend Sonia Braga as the town matriarch, and you’ve got an unforgettable film in more ways than one. [Katie Rife]


Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube, Microsoft, Fandango, Redbox, DirectTV, VUDU

Illustration for article titled The best films of 2020 so far
Photo: Focus Features

Abortion is both an everyday phenomenon and a life-changing event, a contradiction that Eliza Hittman’s breakout drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always cradles as delicately as a baby bird who’s fallen from its nest. That same description could apply to Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), a 17-year-old girl in small-town Pennsylvania who knows that she’s not ready to be a mother, but faces a difficult road in getting to New York City to get the healthcare she needs. So she enlists her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) to come along, traveling on cash stolen from their supermarket job and protecting each other from the dangers of moving through the world in a female body. Hittman’s film is understated and at times practically wordless, but the intimacy of its storytelling transcends the need for dialogue. [Katie Rife]


The Grand Bizarre

Mubi

Illustration for article titled The best films of 2020 so far
Photo: Mubi

Over the last decade, experimental filmmaker and animator Jodie Mack has used various materials (fabrics, circuit boards, movie posters) to explore patterns of form and meaning in an age of capitalist mass-production and internet-fueled sensory overload. In The Grand Bizarre, her first feature-length work, a motley array of textiles from across the globe come alive through stop-motion techniques. But even as the film offers up a kaleidoscopic whirl of rhythm and color, its inventive soundtrack continually highlights the (unseen) labor involved in its production. While making a film we can tap our feet to, Mack reminds us that the world we live in is only too material. [Lawrence Garcia]


True History Of The Kelly Gang

Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube, Microsoft, DirectTV, VUDU

Illustration for article titled The best films of 2020 so far
Photo: IFC Films

Lots of movies have been made about the bank robber, bushranger, and Australian folk hero Ned Kelly (including what may be the world’s first feature film). But this fictionalized biography, adapted from Peter Carey’s bestselling novel, finds a fresh angle by sidelining the recounted-to-death details of Kelly’s Outback outlaw days. What emerges in their place is the story of a boy willed into infamy by his upbringing and drafted into a class war by some very bad role models (flavorfully played by Essie Davis and Russell Crowe). Every bit as Shakespearean as director Justin Kurzel’s actual take on the Bard, True History Of The Kelly Gang locates a middle ground between man and legend, suggesting that the “true” history of Ned Kelly may be lost to history. [A.A. Dowd]


Fourteen

Grasshopper Film, Virtual theaters

Illustration for article titled The best films of 2020 so far
Photo: Grasshopper Film

Full disclosure: an A.V. Club contributor makes a wordless cameo in Fourteen. Furthermore, the film’s writer-director, Dan Sallitt, is a film critic himself, with plenty of friends in the profession. So maybe take the praise with a grain of salt. Just don’t skip this uncommonly perceptive drama about the waning, years-spanning friendship between a self-destructive serial monogamist (Norma Kuhling) and her unofficial emotional sponsor (Tallie Medel). Sallitt’s voracious appetite for movies may actually inform his diligent avoidance of cliché, though the fluid way Fourteen skips forward through time—cueing us to each leap with shifts in the central dynamic—feels entirely his own. As for Kuhling and Medel, they’re both superb, conveying all the vagaries of a relationship in flux. You can trust us. Neither of them are critics. [A.A. Dowd]


The Vast Of Night

Amazon

Illustration for article titled The best films of 2020 so far
Photo: Amazon Studios

The Vast Of Night is a film enamored with analog technology and midcentury science fiction, set in a time and place that’s so iconic—1950s New Mexico—it’s unnecessary to state what it’s actually about. That gives director Andrew Patterson and writers James Montague and Craig W. Sanger room to play with form, structuring the dialogue-driven story like a radio play and peppering it with the occasional bit of digitally enabled bravado. But none of these experiments would matter without sympathetic characters, provided here by Sierra McCormick and Jake Horowitz as small-town dreamers whose encounter with the otherworldly takes place against the backdrop of a high school basketball game. All involved are talents to watch, but until then—keep watching the skies. [Katie Rife]


Shirley

Hulu, Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube, Fandango, DirectTV, VUDU

Illustration for article titled The best films of 2020 so far
Photo: Neon

Two Elisabeth Moss vehicles appear on this year’s list, and that’s no surprise—she could turn a grocery list into a fascinating psychological study. But her talents are especially well suited to the thorny bramble of a personality that was horror author Shirley Jackson, a woman whose inner darkness was both essential to her creative process and incredibly damaging to those around her. As in her previous film, Madeline’s Madeline, director Josephine Decker blurs the lines between artist and muse, reality and fiction, creativity and self-destruction, creating a darkly romantic portrait of morbid obsession that’s both a character study and an invitation to grab Shirley’s hand and walk with her to the edge of exhilarating oblivion. [Katie Rife]


Tommaso

Kino Marquee, virtual theaters

Illustration for article titled The best films of 2020 so far
Photo: Kino Lorber

Abel Ferrara, the punk chronicler of addictions and inner turmoils, has never made a movie as disarming as this improvised, diary-like character study about an aging American movie director (Ferrara regular Willem Dafoe) who has left New York to start a new, sober life in Rome. Though the subject matter is blatantly autobiographical (with Ferrara’s wife and daughter playing the family of the title character), it’s also deceptive. Gradually, the film reveals the self-destructive impulses that lurk beneath the daily effort of sobriety and the surface of domestic bliss. The conclusions are equally lacerating and ambiguous—a portrait of the addict-artist as wannabe savior and anti-hero. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]


Babyteeth

Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube, Microsoft, DirectTV, VUDU

Illustration for article titled The best films of 2020 so far
Photo: IFC Films

The contours of YA romances have become so familiar that when Babyteeth bends, twists, and hybridizes them, it feels wonderfully alien, even as it imbues potential clichés with humanity. Director Shannon Murphy’s adaptation of the Rita Kalnejais play follows a relationship between screw-up drug dealer Moses (Toby Wallace) and seriously ill good girl Milla (Eliza Scanlen), as her well-to-do parents (Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis) look on with concern. Despite ample opportunity, the movie never succumbs to life-lesson instructions about seizing the day or the power of love. Its emotional, frayed-end messiness (and accompanying sense of humor) makes it more classically romantic, and genuinely unpredictable. [Jesse Hassenger]


Miss Juneteenth

Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube, Microsoft, Fandango, Redbox, DirectTV, VUDU

Illustration for article titled The best films of 2020 so far
Photo: Vertical Entertainment

One of the goals behind elevating Black filmmakers is to bring underseen perspectives to a wider audience, a task that Channing Godfrey Peoples’ film Miss Juneteenth accomplishes with artistic sophistication and genuine heart. Nicole Beharie stars in a rich, subtle performance as Turquoise, a hard-working single mother in Fort Worth, Texas whose attempt to relive her glory days as a beauty queen pushes her relationship with her teenage daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) to a turning point. The film’s mother-daughter dynamic is warm and never overplayed, as is its beautifully shot, lovingly detailed depiction of Southern Black life, lending the film a realism that enshrines even small moments as sacred. [Katie Rife]


Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets

Virtual theaters July 10

Illustration for article titled The best films of 2020 so far
Photo: Utopia

Documentary purists have already balked at this uproarious new project from Bill and Turner Ross, which presents itself as a fly-on-the-wall portrait of a Las Vegas dive bar going out of business but was actually shot in New Orleans, with the brothers casting locals (including one former actor) as the barflies. Yet so successfully does Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets simulate the alternately jovial and antagonistic vibe of a local, legendary watering hole that the circumstances of its production start to seem less than relevant. Once the beer is flowing, a fake bar quickly becomes a real one, intoxication coaxing out the personalities of the “performers.” Which is to say, the environment may be constructed, but the humanity captured within definitely isn’t. [A.A. Dowd]


Palm Springs

Hulu July 10

Illustration for article titled The best films of 2020 so far
Photo: Hulu

Yes, it’s yet another time-warp movie, this one starring Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti as guests at a never-ending wedding, zipped back nightly to the morning of the nuptials. Yet Palm Springs breaks the cycle of bad Groundhog Day imitations. It is, instead, a good Groundhog Day imitation, justifying further recycling of the premise through sheer force of goofy-sweet personality, random bursts of hilariously shocking violence, and a plot that finds a malleable metaphor for relationships in the purgatory of a forever repeating day. Now is either the best or worst time for a film about two people stuck in one place, doing the same thing over and over again. Either way, though, a romantic comedy as charming as Palm Springs is always welcome. [A.A. Dowd]

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