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The best movies from the first half of 2020

In what's been one of the strangest years for moviegoing in recent memory, movie-watching has been as wondrous as ever.
Credit: Netflix/BTEAM Pictures/Bleecker Street

Don’t let anyone tell you 2020 has been a bad movie year through five months and change.

Yes, cinemas have largely remained closed – their popcorn machines shut off, their theaters darker than usual – as the releases of big-budget productions remain delayed, but the industry’s temporary (or perhaps not?) realignment of distribution models have ensured new viewing options every week, whether via last-minute Netflix acquisition, the new virtual cinemas network or compromising to strange times by releasing movies on VOD platforms.

The result? A renewed focus on the smaller or otherwise more obscure indie movie/international offering/experimental project that would have struggled for attention alongside the “No Time to Dies,” “Black Widows” and “Mulans” of the world. And even as some of the movies that have released had big-screen aspirations once upon a pre-pandemic time, they’re all now just a click away as the COVID-19 has provided us with many more hours to kill at home. When it comes to accessibility, the digital library of 2020 releases has been just as diverse as exploring the breadth of your favorite streaming service.

As for the movies themselves? A broad spectrum of moviemaking is represented, from early Oscar hopefuls to mindless actioneers, from the thought-provoking documentary to the ambitious directorial debut. If ever there was the time (and if ever we had the time) to absorb new stories and perspectives, 2020 is it. The movie calendar has never been more in flux, but the potential to find a gem has never felt more acute.

So, in spite of everything...don't let anyone tell you that 2020 has been a bad movie year. Here are the eight best films the first half of it has offered, in alphabetical order.

“Bad Education” (dir. Cory Finley) 

Hugh Jackman’s Academy Award-caliber performance as a sultry schemer who just so happens to be orchestrating the turnaround of an upper-class Long Island high school is only part of the appeal in Cory Finley’s devilishly nuanced second movie. At its core, the funny and smart “Bad Education” considers the inevitable temptations of a money-obsessed society, and Finley’s confident direction manages to synthesize what we’d traditionally view as antagonistic forces into avatars of the platonic American capitalist ideal. Wouldn't you stick your hand in the cookie jar?

There’s a Soderberghian energy that’s deployed as we watch our fraudsters realize how knotted up they are in the can’t-harm-anyone threads they decided to tug on juuuuuust a bit, and a triumphant practicality in the true-to-life act of high school journalism that exposed it for all to see.

RELATED: 'Bad Education' Review: A contemplative fraud drama, with extra credit for Hugh Jackman’s stellar performance

“Beanpole” (dir. Kantemir Balagov)

An exercise in excavating seeds of doubt and suspicion from the stormy ambiguity of blank stares and delayed vocal responses, “Beanpole” – a Russian drama following two female hospital caregivers after their time on the frontlines of recently-ended World War II – is a thoroughly captivating work. Unfolding with equal jolts of profundity and intimacy, the film strives to disentangle the paradoxes of war-adjacent drama through the No Man’s Land that separates stillness from eruption. It perfectly captures the widespread shellshock that lingers in the immediate aftermath of world-shaking conflict.

It’s also a film that finds evolved potential in the power of the long take (the kind that doesn’t call attention to itself); once you’ve adjusted to how elastic director Kantemir Balagov insists his scenes to be, “Beanpole” becomes a magnetic thing to behold, with thoughts on salvation and reconstruction that demand to be considered.

“Da 5 Bloods” (dir. Spike Lee)

How appropriate is it that one of our most enduring American filmmakers uses American films’ fascination with war to examine the continuous cycle of trauma and pain the country inflicts on its Black people? Whatever one might expect of Spike Lee’s latest – an enraged, enthralling take on the Vietnam War epic – there’s no expecting how deftly it punctures through to the present moment. The war genre functions as both lens and subject in “Da 5 Bloods,” but Lee ensures there's no overlooking his searing commentary on how a country refuses to reckon with the role Black lives have played, and continue to play, in shaping its history. 

“Da 5 Bloods” isn’t just a rich text; it’s a screaming sermon fueled by bullets and intergenerational pain. It’s a celebration, it’s an education and it’s an indictment. To quote one of the titular Bloods, the film is a Malcolm and a Martin.

“Fourteen” (dir. Dan Sallitt)

One of 2020’s most captivating dramas unfolds through blissfully frank vignettes of a years-long friendship increasingly on the rocks. In one minute, we’re watching Mara and Jo (Tallie Medel and Norma Kuhling, respectively, and both excellent) wax poetic about stumbling through life as busy twenty-somethings in New York; the next, we’re swept up in the ferocious tides of time progressively chipping away at a bond while magnifying the consequences of its inevitable end. Writer-director Dan Sallitt doesn’t fetishize the ugliness of his story, nor does “Fourteen” distractedly explain where its devastating power will eventually be rooted in. This isn’t capital-D Drama by any means, and it makes everything we’re seeing feel profound in its mundanity. The filmmaking is on par with the ebb and flow of life itself.

RELATED: 'Fourteen' Review: A quietly powerful portrait of a slowly splintering friendship

“I’m No Longer Here” (dir. Fernando Frias) 

The second feature from Mexican director Fernando Frias thrives, or rather simmers, on the juxtaposition of cultural celebration and geographic displacement while spectacularly subverting the immigrant narrative. A story that rebounds through time, the Netflix offering “I’m No Longer Here” follows the young leader of a tight-knit Monterrey street gang as he navigates the streets of Queens after being forced to leave for the U.S., finding some remnants of comfort in the cumbia style of dance he’s always cherished but which seems alien to the New Yorkers he dances in front of thousands of miles from home.

The mesmerizing camera work of Damian Garcia and seamless editing of Yibran Asuad puts a magnifying glass to the melancholy stitched into every moment of Frias’s film. The American Dream in “I’m No Longer Here” isn’t about finding success in America; it’s about finding a way home, and desperately hoping it has remained unchanged. The movie’s blend of subject matter and form suggests an emerging master of lyrical storytelling.

 

“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” (dir. Eliza Hittman)

The best of writer-director Eiza Hittman’s movies about adolescent reckoning, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is a minor miracle of an abortion drama that doesn’t look to indict, preach, vilify or politicize. Instead, Hittman finds a new kind of urgency in her straight-faced, disarmingly affecting filmmaking, centering on two teenage girls who communicate and lift each other up through sheer empathy. The movie is a subtle acknowledgement of the limits of the U.S. healthcare system and an even more subtle nod to perseverance not as a level of personal capability to aspire to, but as a platform to force ourselves onto as the ground gives way underneath.

As Autumn, first-time actress Sidney Flanigan’s stunning performance translates the desperate practicality and quiet contemplation of thousands of girls’ real-world stories. There is no storytelling deception or narrative fakeouts deployed by Hittman in “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”; its ideology is reality.

RELATED: 'Never Rarely Sometimes Always' Review: A stark, straightforward story of seeking an abortion

“Shirley” (dir. Josephine Decker)

A fever dream of extreme close-ups, psychological spontaneity and another unpredictably madcap performance from Elisabeth Moss, “Shirley” is no more a biopic than it is a Kaufman-esque thriller. In its exploration of artistic vulnerability and personal enlightenment, Josephine Decker’s latest is a cousin to her last enigma of a movie, “Madeline’s Madeline,” and also no less challenging to untangle. There’s often no telling if what we’re seeing is real or through whose perspective we’re witnessing certain events, but that ambiguity and occasional frustration goes a long way toward inserting ourselves into the head of the titular 20th century horror writer, and toward understanding the toll of the expectations her audience had of her—even those who lived under her own roof.

RELATED: 'Shirley' Review: Elisabeth Moss powers bewitching psychological drama about an author and her muse

“The Assistant” (dir. Kitty Green) 

Kitty Green’s excellent, exacting movie is a quietly disquieting thriller for the #MeToo era, literalizing the monster of workplace systems designed to keep suspicious actions hush-hush while suffocating the agency of female employees. It’s the slowest of slow-burn stories as we follow Julia Garner’s Jane over the course of one day at work; Green pays hair-raising attention to the details that are as monotonous as they are threatening, and employs sound design that cuts to the core like a gust of freezing arctic air—all of it adding up to a hyper-specific narrative that deftly translates how women in the workplace can be caught between a rock and a hard stare from an HR superior. It’s as vital as anything that’s come out this year.

RELATED: 'The Assistant' Review: A biting look at abuse of power and a workplace looking the other way