The 2020 release calendar hasn’t gone exactly as planned, but that doesn’t mean there’s been a shortage of excellent films. Even after multiplexes shut down because of the coronavirus, a number of cinematic highlights have made it to VOD, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and elsewhere. Cinema nerds and the movie critic community are all focusing on Christopher Nolan’s Tenet and when exactly it will come out and how (the latest news suggests some AMC theaters will be open by its September release; we’ll see). In the meantime, consider our top ten films of the year (so far) as maybe just as deserving of excitement and potential contender status come awards season.
10. Sorry We Missed You / VOD
Like every title on this list, Ken Loach’s class-conscious drama lingers in the mind long after you see it. The movie follows Ricky (Kris Hetchen), a middle-aged builder who starts making e-commerce deliveries and discovers that being his own boss is an illusion. Meanwhile, his wife (Debbie Honeywood), a self care worker, works in another corner of the gig economy. Despite the tears, turmoil and long hours, they push back against mounting debts and looming tragedies. How? A sense of humor and a good heart go a long way. These attributes also work for the film, which details how contract work is often rigged against laborers with a honest and human point of view.
9. Father, Soldier, Son / Netflix
In 2010, journalists Leslye Davis and Catrin Einhorn began filming the Eisch family, a process that they annually repeated until 2019. The result is an epic that tracks Brian Eisch (a platoon sergeant serving in Afghanistan) over the course of a decade. In 100 intimate, deeply moving minutes, Father, Soldier, Son conveys the sweep and quotidian detail of life.
8. Emma / VOD
Remember when going to movie theaters was still a thing? Images seemed so much more vibrant back then. Case in point: Autumn de Wilde‘s take on Eleanor Catton’s adaptation of Emma. When seen on the big screen, the Jane Austen classic’s rich colors and rolling hills spring to life like flower trees in Spring. Watching it on a TV isn’t quite the same, but it was still good fun (the film opened just as theaters closed so that’s how most got to see it). The subtlety of de Wilde’s vision complemented by cinematographer Chris Blauvelt’s framing -the rosy blush on Emma’s (Anya Taylor-Joy) cheek when she sets up her best friend, Harriet (Mia Goth), with handsome boys- is all the more alluring the larger it is. That’s not to say Emma’s matchmaking doesn’t work on the average TV, but these visuals deserved an Imax auditorium and we hope it will get to come back in one some day. In any case, the beauty of this film won’t soon be forgotten.
7. Vitalina Verela / VOD
Pedro Costa’s dark, anguished drama follows a woman who discovers that her husband is dead. Upon arriving in Portugal, she is forced to reckon with their broken relationship and his unfinished home, located in the slums of Lisbon. Her path to reconciliation isn’t conventional in the narrative sense, but can be seen in Costa’s interplay of light and dark, his purgatory of sorrow, regret and loss. Each frame recalls the paintings of Rembrandt, where rooms, clouds and entire neighborhoods are engulfed in the shadows of the soul. Is it possible for Vitalina to find a new life here? Can she possibly understand why her husband left her for this Godforsaken place? There are answers. You just have to squint to find them.
6. The Painted Bird / VOD
Based on Jerzy Kosinski’s feather-ruffling novel, The Painted Bird is one of those films you don’t simply watch, but witness. Like Elem Klimov’s Come and See, the camera follows an orphaned boy through a war-torn landscape composed of leafless trees, inky shadows and long, wintry silences. Along the way, he is beaten, raped, and worked to death in scenes that make Schindler’s List look like a Disney movie. While that may sound unbearable, director Vaclev Marhoul focuses on the poetry of his surroundings (snow melting on a stream, sunlight flickering on a pond) in order to show nature–and the boy–as innocent bystanders. But as WWII takes its toll, the beauty fades and innocence is lost, just as we know it will.
5. Welcome to Chechnya / HBO Max
Very few films leave you as breathless David France’s indictment of mass persecution, in which the filmmaker shows a steady hand in the shakiest, most dangerous of places. Embedded in Chechnya, Russia, France follows a rescue team as they save LGBTQ citizens whose lives are threatened by an “anti-gay purge,” something Chechnya’s government somehow endorses. These operations are as thrilling as a spy thriller and as tactful as France’s direction, using hidden cameras, archival footage and deep-fake technology, Welcome to Chechnya is ultimately a cry for help and a call to arms, and we can all lend a hand by donating on their website, welcometochechnya.com.
4. Hamilton / Disney +
The room where it happens is your living room, if you subscribe to Disney +. The film version of the Broadway play “Hamilton” is currently streaming and since it debuted, it seems everyone has had something to say about it. Thankfully, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rap-opera about our ten-dollar founding father, Alexander Hamilton, plays with the same verbal and visual fireworks as the stage version, and you don’t have to sit in the rafters to afford tickets. The roving Steadicam puts us on stage with the actors, experiencing their blood, their sweat, their tears. And the music? The soundtrack contains one gem after another, including personal favorites “Alexander Hamilton,” “The Room Where it Happens” and rap battles between Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, all of which speak to greater issues on race, identity and immigration, and remind us that all voices matter.
3. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets / VOD
The Ross Brother’s documentary-fiction hybrid’s belief in the comforts of community–regardless of where that community is– makes it one of the best American movies about human connection. This fly-on-the-wall portrait of a Las Vegas bar going out of business was actually shot in New Orleans, with the brothers casting local actors as barflies. But once the beer starts to flow and the dialogue spills over, the fake bar becomes a real one; actors drop their guard (and a few even drop their trousers). The result is a funny and rowdy movie about companionship that you’ll want to hang out with again and again.
2. Driveways / VOD
Driveways is a warm embrace in troubled times. The man doing the embracing is Del (Brian Dennehy), a Korean War veteran who befriends a socially awkward Cody (Lucas Jaye) after the boy and his mother Kathy (Hong Chau) take up residence next door, cleaning out the home of Kathy’s dead sister. Del’s kindness is so pure that it can only be expressed in a minimalist style, with the camera observing from a distance and the characters speaking in simple yet profound monologues. The final one features Dennehy at his best. The actor died earlier this year, and he couldn’t have gone off on a lovelier note.
1. Crip Camp / Netflix
There’s still five months to go in 2020. That means a number of film festivals, dozens of Oscar contenders and hundreds of movies are still on the horizon. But as it stands, no film this year comes close to the bone chilling, tear-jerking power of Crip Camp. Directed by Jim LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham and produced by Barack and Michelle Obama, Crip Camp follows a group of disabled teenagers fighting for equal rights, first in 1971 at a summer camp, then at protests over the lack of handicap access to public buildings. It isn’t a spoiler to say they succeed. Streets wouldn’t have wheelchair ramps if they didn’t. But what is surprising is how animated the kids are, as seen in a treasure trove of old interviews and archival footage. They laugh, dance and roll for joy. They play baseball, make out, break up, smoke weed and listen to Richie Haven. The flower power vibe is contagious in Crip Camp, and its message of inclusivity is no less powerful today than it was in the 1970s. In its depiction of activism undertaken by those who are treated poorly by society, this moving and inspiring documentary is essential viewing for every American.
Honorable Mentions: Bacurau, Beanpole, Birds of Prey, Bull, I’m No Longer Here, First Cow, Shaun the Sheep: Farmageddon, The Invisible Man, The Truth, The Wolf House