The coronavirus continues to wreak havoc on the world at large, including the movie industry. With theaters closed indefinitely, blockbuster release schedules have shifted—we’ll have to wait another year for Fast & Furious 9, Ghostbusters: Afterlife and other high-profile films—while other studio and indie offerings have now opted for VOD debuts. Though it’s unclear what may still come out this year (the fall and winter are currently anyone’s guess), online distribution services have provided cinephiles with a variety of options to keep them busy while they wait out the pandemic from the comfort of their own homes. As a result, there are still plenty of great new cinematic works for viewers of all tastes, and at the top of everyone’s lists should be these fine fifteen features: the best movies, so far, of 2020.
The modern gig economy receives a thorough thrashing by Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You, another sober class-conscious drama from the celebrated British director. Faced with limited professional options, Ricky (Kris Hitchen) gets a job as a delivery driver for a company that doesn’t technically hire him; rather, he’s “self-employed,” meaning the onus for everything falls on his shoulders. That proves to be an arduous state of affairs given that his wife Abbie (Debbie Honeywood) is a home care nurse who works long hours (also for “herself”), and their son Seb (Rhys Stone) is a school-skipping, graffiti-spraying teen who—having seen the incessant, back-breaking toil and anxiety that comes from his parents’ chosen paths—has opted instead for delinquency. As hardships mount, Loach incisively details the major and minor ways in which this contractor-oriented paradigm is fundamentally rigged against workers. His despairing condemnation is all the more wrenching for coming via a deeply empathetic portrayal of an everyday clan buckling under the strain of unjust forces out of their control.
“Handsome, clever and rich” is how Emma’s tagline describes its matchmaking heroine (Anya Taylor-Joy), but it’s also an apt summation of director Autumn de Wilde’s Jane Austen adaptation, which is energized by meticulous style, spirited wit and passionate emotions. Hewing closely to its source material, the film charts Emma Woodhouse’s efforts to find a suitor for her doting companion Harriet Smith (Mia Goth) while struggling with her own blossoming feelings for her sister’s brother-in-law, George Knightley (Johnny Flynn). Round and round the romantic entanglements go, not only for these three characters but a host of others that de Wilde and screenwriter Eleanor Catton faithfully delineate in clean, bright brushstrokes. Its studied imagery suggesting a daintier variation on Wes Anderson’s trademark visuals, Emma boasts an aesthetic confidence that’s matched by its performers. At the head of that impressive pack (which also includes Bill Nighy) is Taylor-Joy, whose Emma exudes just the right amount of playful cockiness and ambition—qualities ultimately undercut by her realization that no amount of manipulations can change what the heart wants.
Gaslighting gets the monster movie treatment in The Invisible Man, a 21st-century take on Universal’s classic unseen specter. Helmed with playful menace by Leigh Whannell, whose camerawork and compositions constantly tease subtle action in the corners of the frame, this slick genre effort finds Elisabeth Moss trying to convince anyone who’ll listen that she’s not crazy, and really is being hunted by her supposedly dead abusive boyfriend. Since said predator isn’t visible to the human eye, however, that’s not an easy task. Hot-button issues emerge naturally out of this basic premise, thereby letting Whannell sidestep overt preaching in favor of orchestrating a series of finely tuned set pieces in which lethal danger might materialize at any moment, from any direction. Avoiding unnecessary diversions or italicized politics, the filmmaker streamlines his tale into a ferocious game of cat-and-mouse, with Moss commanding the spotlight as a woman tormented both physically and psychologically, and determined to fight back against her misogynistic victimization.
Gavin O’Conner (Miracle, Warrior) is modern cinema’s preeminent sports-drama director, a status he maintains with The Way Back, a conventional but deeply felt story about addiction, anger and the rough road of rehabilitation. Reuniting O’Conner with his The Accountant star, the film concerns Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck), a former high-school basketball phenom who, in the wake of multiple familial losses, gets through his construction-work days and wayward nights with a perpetual drink in hand. Via a job coaching his Catholic alma matter’s struggling team, Jack is blessed with a shot at salvation, turning around the fortunes of his players and, by extension, his own life. Subdued and melancholy, Jack’s journey is a familiar one, and yet O’Conner and Affleck—the latter turning in an expertly modulated, interior turn—shrewdly locate their protagonist’s alcoholism as the self-destructive byproduct of regret, resentment, fury and hopelessness. Also generating pathos from agonized father-son traumas, it’s a male weepy that, courtesy of its well-calibrated empathy, earns its melodramatic tears.
Dramas don’t come much bleaker than Beanpole, director Kantemir Balagov’s wrenching story about the damage caused by war, and the exceedingly high cost of survival. In a 1945 Leningrad still recovering from the end of WWII, lanky Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), aka “Beanpole,” works as a nurse even though her military service has left her with a condition in which she becomes temporarily frozen. Iya cares for Pashka (Timofey Glazkov), the young son of her frontlines friend Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), and when Masha appears to reclaim her child—only to learn of an unthinkable tragedy—their relationship buckles under the weight of grief, guilt, regret, resentment and need. Cruel blackmail soon proves to be Masha’s means of coping with loss, but healing is in short supply in this ravaged milieu. Shot in alternately tremulous and composed handheld, director Balagov’s long takes place a premium on close-ups, the better to convey the dizzying anguish of his subjects, who are as decimated as their environment. Overpoweringly desolate and moving, it’s a vision of paralyzing individual, and national, PTSD—and, ultimately, of women banding together to forge a new future.
9) Crip Camp
Historical changes often have humble beginnings, as was the case with the American Disabilities Act (ADA), whose origin is Camp Jened, a 1970s summer getaway for disabled men and women in New York’s Catskill mountains. James LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham’s documentary is the story of that quietly revolutionary locale, where disrespected and marginalized handicapped kids were finally given an opportunity to simply be themselves, free from the judgement of those not like them. What it instilled in them was a sense of self-worth, as well as indignation at the lesser-than treatment they received from society. Led by the heroic Judy Heumann and many of her fellow Jened alums, a civil rights movement was born, resulting in the famous San Francisco sit-in to compel U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Wellness Joseph Califano to sign Section 504 of 1973’s Rehabilitation Act, and later, the ADA. Intermingling copious footage of Camp Jened and the movement it produced with heartfelt interviews with some of its tale’s prime players, Crip Camp is a moving example of people fighting tooth-and-nail for the equality and respect they deserve – and, in the process, transforming the world.
The darkness is all-consuming, as is despair over a lost past and future, and a purgatorial present, in Vitalina Varela, Pedro Costa’s aesthetically ravishing true tale of its protagonist, a Cape Verde resident who returns to Portugal mere days after her estranged husband’s death. Vitalina wanders through this dilapidated and gloomy environment, which Costa shoots almost exclusively at night, the better to convey a sense of ghosts navigating a dreamscape of sorrow, suffering and disconnection. Each of the director’s images is more ravishing than the next, and their beauty—along with an enveloping soundscape of squeaking beds, sheets blowing in the wind, and rain pattering on crumbling roofs—is enchanting. Conveying its story through fractured plotting and dreamy monologues, the Portuguese master’s latest is a series of tableaus of lovelorn grief concerning not only Vitalina but also an aged priest in spiritual crisis and another young man poised to endure his own tragedy. The film’s formal grandeur—its compositional precision, and painterly interplay of light and dark—is overwhelming, as is the majestic presence of Vitalina herself.
In the fictional northeast Brazilian town of Bacurau, residents are puzzled to discover that their home has disappeared from all GPS maps, and their cell service has ceased. Stranger still is the 1950s-style UFO zooming around the sky—perhaps the byproduct of the psychotropic drugs the townsfolk have ingested? Or is it a tool of other sinister forces preparing to strike? Teaming with his former production designer Juliano Dornelles, director Kleber Mendonça Filho (Neighboring Sounds, Aquarius) delivers an allegory of zonked-out weirdness with Bacurau, which quickly has locals engaging in a do-or-die battle with a pair of interloping São Paulo bikers and a group of murderous Western tourists (led by a hilariously peculiar Udo Kier) who’ve traveled to South America to partake in a variation of The Most Dangerous Game. Stylistically indebted to both the Westerns of Sergio Leone and the thrillers of John Carpenter, and yet imbued with an out-there spirit all its own, Filho and Dornelles’ film takes a gonzo scalpel to geopolitical dynamics.
As with his prior Black Coal, Thin Ice, Chinese director Diao Yinan’s The Wild Goose Lake has a coiled intensity that amplifies its romantic fatalism. Diao’s neo-noir follows a gangster named Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge) who, after killing a cop in a criminal enterprise gone awry, partners with a “bathing beauty” prostitute named Lu Aiai (Gwei Lun Mei) in order to reunite with his estranged wife Yang Shujun (Wan Qian), all so she might collect the reward on his head. Rife with betrayals, manhunts and shootouts, the auteur’s narrative is constantly taking sharp, unexpected turns, and the same is true of his breathtaking direction, which reveals unseen figures, and twists, via precise camerawork and expressionistic flourishes that are married to a realistic depiction of rain-soaked Wuhan and its lawless lakeside communities. Hunted by police captain Liu (Liao Fan), Diao’s protagonists are engaged in a deadly game that’s played in silence because they all inherently know the rules, and their sense of purpose is echoed by the film itself, which orchestrates its underworld conflicts with bracing precision. Plus, it boasts 2020’s most gruesomely inventive use of an umbrella.
Few directors are as attentive to the rhythms of nature—human and otherwise—as Kelly Reichardt, and the filmmaker’s formidable skill at evoking a sense of place, thought, emotion and motivation is on breathtaking display in First Cow. Adapted from Jonathan Raymond’s novel The Half Life, Reichardt’s slow-burn drama focuses on a nomadic 1820s chef named Cookie (John Magaro) who, after arriving at a Pacific Northwest fort, befriends and goes into business with on-the-run Chinese loner King Lu (Orion Lee), baking and selling popular “oily cakes” made with milk stolen from a dairy cow owned by wealthy Chief Factor (Toby Jones). Cookie and King Lu’s attempt to rise above their socio-economic station through a criminal scheme, and the potential disaster that awaits them, is the suspenseful heart of this tranquil quasi-thriller, which—awash in redolent faces, gestures and customs—imparts an understated impression of the forces propelling its characters, and the pioneering nation, forward. Framing characters amidst forest greenery or through constricting cabin windows, and setting its action to the serene sounds of its rural environment—snapping twigs, chirping birds, running water, human breath—it’s an empathetic vision of profound male friendship and perilous capitalist enterprise.