12 Best Movies of 2020 So Far - Rolling Stone
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12 Best Movies of 2020 So Far

From a war epic from one of the greatest living filmmakers to a doc on hip-hop legends — the halftime highlights of a highly unusual moviegoing year

Elizabeth Moss in 'The Invisible Man', Pete Davidson in 'The King of Staten Island' and Stephen Odubola in 'Blue Story.'

Universal Pictures; Mary Cybulski/Universal Pictures; Nick Wall/Paramount Pictures

Yes, the coronavirus stacked the deck against new movies finding their way to us during the first half of 2020 — but quality still won out. Maybe not in theaters, which are still inching their way toward opening depending on what phase of re-launch your state is in. But even after multiplexes were shut down when the pandemic struck hard in mid-March, audiences found other ways to get their movie fix, thanks to video on demand and such streaming services as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, HBO, Disney Plus. And there were a handful of films who made it into theaters just under the quarantine wire that, months later, we still can’t get out of head.

At the year’s halftime point, the fighting spirit of movies is alive and well — as these winners defiantly attest. From a war epic from one of our greatest living filmmakers to a documentary on hip-hop legends, a horror-movie classic tailored for our current moment to a cutting contemporary political satire, here are the 12 best movies of 2020 so far.

Julia Garner stars as Jane in THE ASSISTANT, a Bleecker Street release.Credit: Ty Johnson / Bleecker Streetr1_g_r709.110487.tif

Ty Johnson/Bleecker Street

‘The Assistant’

What does it feel like to work for a monster? Look to this lacerating, low-budget provocation from writer-director Kitty Green for an answer. Jane, an office assistant played with riveting restraint by Julia Garner, works for a predatory movie mogul who seems a lot like Harvey Weinstein — or really, any employer who uses his position to intimidate. As Jane struggles to survive under the thumb of a toxic boss and the office hierarchy that shields him, Green indicts a broken world in microcosm.

HBO

‘Bad Education’

As a New York public-school superintendent who embezzled more than $11 million from the system, Hugh Jackman gives the performance of his career (sorry, Wolverine). His character, Frank Tassone, is passionate about education — but does this man’s genuine dedication to his job jibe with his self-deception, Botox addiction, and a secret life funded through grand larceny? In Cory Finley’s woundingly funny film, Jackman uncovers the roots of a social rot that finds us all complicit.

Courtesy of Apple

‘Beastie Boys Story’

It only sounds simple to film Michael “Mike D” Diamond and Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz onstage at Brooklyn’s Kings Theatre in 2019, using live talk, music videos, vintage photos, and home movies (along with archival interviews with Adam “MCA” Yauch, who died of cancer in 2012) to tell the Beastie Boys’ story. But their pal, director Spike Jonze, doesn’t do things like anyone else. He takes these fiftysomething hip-hop legends through the fits, fights, and egos of three decades of musical innovation (Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons take their licks) and turns what could have been a nostalgia trip into a visual explosion that indelibly defines an era.

NICK WALL

‘Blue Story’

A London-set crime drama about rival street gangs, this standout first feature from rapper-director Andrew Onwubolu, a.k.a. Rapman, follows Timmy (Stephen Odubola) and Marco (Micheal Ward), friends who go to the same high school but live in different neighborhoods. Class warfare erupts before the violence does. And the West Side Story romance between Timmy and Leah (Karla-Simone Spence) doesn’t soften the blows. Rapman, who interrupts the action with hip-hop commentary, energizes every frame with style and verve.

Netflix

‘Crip Camp’

Subtitled “A Disability Revolution,” this documentary (part of Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground series) is a genuine eye-opener. Camp Jened, dubbed “Crip Camp” by attendees, was a hippie-run haven for the handicapped near Woodstock, New York. Through archival footage shot during the 1970s, filmmakers James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham show us the pleasure these outcasts felt being among their own. It’s that spirit that helped key alumni spearhead the movement for disability rights still being fought today. Now that’s the definition of inspirational.

DA 5 BLOODS (L to R) JOHNNY NGUYEN as VINH TRAN, CLARKE PETERS as OTIS and DELROY LINDO as PAUL in DA 5 BLOODS Cr. DAVID LEE/NETFLIX © 2020

DAVID LEE/NETFLIX

‘Da 5 Bloods’

Spike Lee delivers a righteous, unforgettable epic about four Vietnam vets known as “Da Bloods” (played by Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, and Isiah Whitlock Jr.), who return to their former battleground to bring home the remains of the fifth blood (Chadwick Boseman) and recover a buried treasure. That’s just the plot. What simmers beneath is Lee’s fury about how the heroism of black soldiers has been written out of history — not just in Nam, but from the American Revolution to the Trump era.

FIRST COW_11.12.18_AR_0623.ARW

Allyson Riggs/A24

‘First Cow’

This new masterwork from director Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy, Meek’s Cutoff), set in Oregon during the 1820s Gold Rush, pits a cook named Cookie (John Magaro) and a runaway Chinese immigrant (Orion Lee) in a fight for survival. Their deliverance comes in the form of a crime and a cow, whose milk they steal undercover from her blowhard Brit owner (Toby Jones) to make oily cakes. The baked goods then become a hit on the wild frontier. In her minimalist way, Reichardt takes on the toxic roots of capitalism and the healing effects of friendship. Profound? You bet.

Mark Rogers/Universal Pictures

‘The Invisible Man’

Elisabeth Moss and film-maker Leigh Whannell raise the bar on the 1897 H.G. Wells classic by making the smart and timely decision to shift focus from the title character — a wealthy optics innovator (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) — to his architect girlfriend (Moss), whom he keeps controlling and abusing even after his alleged death. The spotlight is now on the empowered woman who decides she’s not going to take a minute more of his toxic masculinity. It’s a work of socially conscious horror that doubles as a #MeToo revenge story.

(from left) Scott Carlin (Pete Davidson) and Papa (Steve Buscemi) in The King of Staten Island, directed by Judd Apatow.

Mary Cybulski/Universal Pictur

‘The King of Staten Island’

SNL favorite and Staten Island native Pete Davidson had a firefighter dad who died on 9/11. Davidson — the film calls him Scott (his dad’s name) — was just seven when tragedy struck. With invaluable input from director and co-writer Judd Apatow, the comedian uses just enough of his own story to play Scott as a twentysomething train wreck. Still living at home with his nurse mom (Marisa Tomei), he’s more into smoking weed than pursuing his career — not as a comic, but a tattoo artist. It’s challenging to build a raucous fun house tinged with grief and depression, but Davidson shows subtle acting chops as he shapes his life into something funny, touching, and vital.

4151_D003_00014_CSidney Flanigan stars as Autumn and Talia Ryder as Skylar in NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Angal Field/Focus Features

Angal Field/Focus Features

‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’

There were bigger, showier movies in the first half of 2020, but none took a more direct path to the heart than Eliza Hittman’s quiet stunner about a Pennsylvania teen named Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) and her trip to Manhattan for an abortion. With only her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) to lean on, Autumn faces harrowing obstacles. But it’s less an issue film than an intimate profile in courage. Hittman stays so close to her heroine that we can practically feel her nerve endings.

‘True History of the Kelly Gang’

Director Justin Kurzel’s revisionist Western about Aussie outlaw Ned Kelly (a stellar George McKay) is looking for a deeper truth about the legendary rock-star bank robber and his 19th-century gang of cross-dressing bandits, who fought against British colonial rule in the name of the rural poor. Trained by bushranger Harry Power (Russell Crowe, fully deranged), Ned becomes Australia’s Robin Hood. It’s a transgressive take on history — and a blast.

Amazon Studios

‘The Vast of Night’

First-time director Andrew Patterson’s low-budget, wildly inventive take on vintage “look to the sky” science fiction is just the mind bender we need for the virus-fed paranoia of our troubled times. A small town in 1950s New Mexico may or may not be the first stop of an alien invasion. Who says a teen radio DJ (Jake Horowitz) and a switchboard operator (Sierra McCormick) can’t save the world? Getting lost in the vastness of Patterson’s vision would be a highlight in any year.

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