A year like no other in film history, 2020 has seen numerous releases and productions delayed, along with worlds of exhibition and distribution needing to rethink their business models. As we near the halfway mark of this tumultuous year, the Oscars and other awards ceremonies have decided to move the marker of eligibility windows to allow more films to be considered but as we look back at the first six months and round up our favorite titles thus far, there’s already plenty of worthwhile films to consider.

While the end of this year will bring personal favorites from all of our writers, think of the below 20 entries (and honorable mentions) as a comprehensive rundown of what should be seen before heading into the back half of the year. As a note, this feature is based solely on U.S. theatrical and digital releases from 2020, with the majority widely available, as noted. (Also, films that received awards-qualifying runs in 2019, like Portrait of a Lady on Fire, did not qualify.)

Check out our picks below, as organized alphabetically, followed by honorable mentions, and a handful of films to look out for the rest of the summer.

The Assistant (Kitty Green)

The silences last a lifetime in The Assistant, written and directed by Kitty Green. Starring Julia Garner as the titular character, the film plays out over one long day at an unnamed independent film studio. Light on dialogue with no real score to speak of, we follow our new assistant as she makes the coffee, cleans the dishes, prints the screenplays, and takes the phone calls for an unrelenting man in the office behind her. Garner is effective, the camera rarely losing focus of her. This is an actress whose animated features tell an engaging story without needing much help. As she slowly accepts this world she’s living in, we relate to the ease with which she settles. – Dan M. (full review)

Where to Watch: VOD, DVD

Bacurau (Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles)  

The school in the fictional village of Bacurau, located somewhere in the desert hinterlands of north-eastern Brazil, bears the name of one João Carpinteiro. If the throbbing synth track that introduces the opening credits, the film’s glorious widescreen photography, and the narrative’s Rio Bravo-indebted premise weren’t sufficiently indicative, Google Translate helpfully confirms that in English the name does indeed translate to that of the author of Assault on Precinct 13. Credit where credit’s due, as Bacurau owes a considerable debt to Carpenter–while also taking ample cues from another half-dozen genre auteurs–but in terms of complexity and ambition, this furious political allegory co-written and directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles (the production designer on Mendonça Filho’s previous features) is very much a case of the students outclassing the master.  – Giovanni M.C. (full review)

Where to Watch: VOD, Blu-ray/DVD

Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee)

Following up his Oscar-winning BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee is in full-on maximalism mode for his Vietnam-set adventure Da 5 Bloods, employing three different aspect ratios, multiple shooting formats, a variety of narrative timelines, themes, and tones, as well as capturing the struggle of racial equality throughout history via archival footage. It’s a thoroughly engaging, entertaining, excessive, and troubling look at how America has cast aside veterans and African Americans alike–and in this case, a group of both. For more, listen to our in-depth, three-hour discussion. – Jordan R.

Where to Watch: Netflix

DAU Films (Ilya Khrzhanovsky)

One of the most ambitious art projects known to humankind was finally unveiled to the world last year. Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s DAU explores the life of Nobel Prize-winning Soviet scientist Lev Landau, but it’s from the standard biopic. With over 700 hours of footage captured with 35mm cameras, the project spanned three years with a massive cast, all living in a working town. Early last year in Paris, DAU was made public to the world as part of an exhibit, which included a selection of 12 films as well as other experiences meant to immerse the attendee in this totalitarian world. A year later, at this year’s Berlinale Film Festival, the first theatrical releases were unveiled, DAU. Natasha and DAU. Degeneration, which our writer Rory O. Connor found to be as astonishing as they were shocking. Now, in a surprise release, they have been made available online, along with more films from the series.

Where to Watch: Official Site

Driveways (Andrew Ahn)

It isn’t easy making a film like Driveways stand out. We have walked these streets so often before. We know the twists and turns. We expect the darker corners. Yet stand out is exactly what Driveways does. The movie is a bittersweet coming-of-age story about the intergenerational, interracial friendship of an 83-year-old veteran of the Korean war and an Asian-American boy just about to turn 9, who arrives into town with his single mother and considerable emotional baggage. – Rory O. (full review)

Where to Watch: VOD, Blu-ray/DVD, Hoopla

First Cow (Kelly Reichardt)

In First Cow, Kelly Reichardt carves out space for friendship and generosity amidst an otherwise selfish landscape. Set in the 1820s Pacific Northwest, a familiar realm for the Oregon-loyal Reichardt, the film’s twin protagonists are atypically sensitive souls, both towards each other and their environments, and yet they remain hyper-conscious of the cruelty that enervates within their community. Reichardt probes at the limitations of self-preservation as a life philosophy, even though it’s basically required to survive such a hardscrabble existence. What’s the purpose of survival if life doesn’t incentivize assisting your fellow man? – Vikram M. (full review)

Where to Watch: TBA

Fourteen (Dan Sallitt)

There is an uncomfortable, universal wound being picked at in Dan Sallitt’s latest film, regardless of which of its characters the viewer relates to more. The question is this: can we ever outgrow those close friends we looked up to in our younger years or are we destined to forever carry that complex around? This conundrum is what gnaws at the heart of Fourteen, an acutely observed and quietly expansive little film from the New York director of The Unspeakable Truth (another film with uncomfortable ideas about pseudo-siblinghood). This new feature concerns the alpha-beta (as it is perceived by the characters) relationship of two young women living in Brooklyn as, over the course of a decade or so, the beta friend adjusts to the pains and realizations of growing up and growing apart. – Rory O. (full review)

Where to Watch: Virtual Cinemas

The Grand Bizarre (Jodie Mack)

Jodie Mack’s work is vital, both in the sense that it is an essential cornerstone of modern film practice but also–and more significantly–alive. With a stop-motion style of animation that returns the genre to its oft-forgotten root definition of literally bringing inanimate objects to life, her experimentation with form is refreshingly playful and unpretentious, liberating materials from their settings and placing them in conversation with less colorful aspects of the world at large. Her first feature The Grand Bizarre has been a long time coming, disrupting a loaded filmography of significant, acclaimed short films. With an hour run-time that abstractly chronicles the travels of a group of vibrantly colored, escaped textiles and fabrics, Mack escalates breathtaking aesthetic revery into a stimulating discourse on the global economy. – Jason O. (full review)

Where to Watch: MUBI

Heimat is a Space in Time (Thomas Heise)

How much of our ancestry is tied to the history of the places we call home? While some of us would probably answer “None,” we’d be wrong. Just because your family tree was lucky enough to exist on the periphery of major historical moments as bystanders doesn’t mean you haven’t been impacted by wars, tragedies, inventions, and art in ways that defined your choices and subsequently the choices of your children. Why did my grandfather immigrate to America from Lebanon (then part of Syria) when he did? How did my father not getting drafted to Vietnam influence my sister’s birth and my own? Where does 9/11 fit in as an Arab American who never had an ethnic option on forms to check besides “Caucasian” previously? History defines us. With that said, however, some are embedded much deeper than others. One example is German documentarian Thomas Heise. – Jared M. (full review)

Where to Watch: Virtual Cinemas, DVD

Hill of Freedom and Yourself and Yours (Hong Sangsoo)

This month, a pair of Hong Sangsoo films finally received U.S. releases after many years in limbo. One of his greatest works, Hill of Freedom, is the supreme example of how the director is able to add complexity to a structure that seems simple on the surface: a woman reads a man’s letters about his adventures in Japan, only to have them fall on the ground and therefore the story is now told out of order. The playful conceit of the 67-minute film finds ample room to explore comedy, heartache, cultural identity, and more. Like most Hong films, it feels like a breath of fresh air, and even moreso during this time of immense pandemic-induced unease. – Jordan R.

Where to Watch: Virtual Cinemas

Also finally getting a release is his comedic 2016 feature Yourself and Yours, which one can read Nick Newman’s full review of here from New York Film Festival in which he says, it is “enjoyable the way every other Hong Sang-soo film is enjoyable: funny, relatable and emotionally honest, structurally innovative, and composed with a patient eye that favors the peaks and valleys of conversation over standard get-to-the-point construction.”

Where to Watch: Virtual Cinemas

The Invisible Man (Leigh Whannell)

The innate horrors of the unseen are given fresh life in The Invisible Man, a reinvention of the H.G. Wells’ novel that was first brilliantly adapted by James Whale in 1933. This revamp from Blumhouse and Universal finds writer and director Leigh Whannell altering and evolving techniques he used to great effect in the B-movie mania of his last feature, Upgrade, while also taking a classic story in bold directions. Here, he channels his unique lexis toward a study of abuse, paranoia, and trauma, resulting in a grounded and paced horror film that nevertheless reaches maniacal heights. – Mike M. (full review)

Where to Watch: VOD, 4K/Blu-ray/DVD

I Wish I Knew (Jia Zhangke)

The latest Jia Zhangke film to arrive in the United States is technically not a new film, but rather a director’s cut of his 2010 documentary, I Wish I Knew. While the previous cut made it to festivals, it rarely screened elsewhere. One of cinema’s modern masters, his surge in popularity coming from his latest three masterpieces–A Touch of Sin, Mountains May Depart, and Ash is Purest White–has thankfully meant that an underseen work is getting proper U.S. distribution and hopefully a sustainable way to experience it for years to come. – Logan K. (full review)

Where to Watch: VOD, Blu-ray/DVD

Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman)

In a world where the hot-button issue of abortion has been a divisive point of political pull in which the majority of those in power will never have to grapple with the decision their entire lives, how do we shift our perspective to find the empathy towards those that are directly affected by when, how, and who can undergo the procedure? We can start with Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Eliza Hittman’s deeply moving chronicle of a teenager’s struggle to terminate her pregnancy. By steering clear of overtly political messages and naturalistically centering our perspective solely in the mindset of Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) through this journey, I can’t imagine a soul that won’t be inspired to give more careful consideration to those in similar situations. – Jordan R. (full review)

Where to Watch: VOD, DVD

On the Record (Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering)

Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s conventional but powerful new documentary On the Record is as much about the personal struggle of Drew Dixon and others in telling their stories of horrifying sexual misconduct at the hands of hip-hop legend Russell Simmons as it is about how the voices of black women have been marginalized throughout history, leading to a reticence to speak out, especially in these last few years. It’s an emotional gut-punch of a film that will have one appalled that Simmons continues to thrive in the industry and enraged at the systemic limitations endured by black women, resulting in a lack of career advancement and a fear of societal rejection if they go against their own culture. – Jordan R. (full review)

Where to Watch: HBO

Shirley (Josephine Decker)

After getting attention on the festival circuit with her back-to-back first features Thou Wast Mild and Lovely and Butter on the Latch, director Josephine Decker deservedly expanded her audience with Madeline’s Madeline, a genuinely thrilling, endlessly imaginative look at the creative process as well as how mental illness influences artistic expression. With Shirley, she returns to similar themes in an entirely different era while continuing the same inventive, breathless style, even if this time around the narrative arc is a bit more straightforward. – Jordan R. (full review)

Where to Watch: Hulu

Tommaso (Abel Ferrara)

The eponymous character of the great provocateur’s latest is a North American director living in Rome with his younger wife and their 3-year-old daughter (played, notably, by Ferrara’s own wife and daughter, Christina and Anna Ferrara). Tommaso attends A.A. meetings and Italian lessons, practices Buddhist meditations, and fantasizes about screwing the woman who works in the local cafe (amongst others). Throughout the movie he is seen working on a metaphor-heavy script about an explorer who faces a bear attack somewhere in Siberia. – Rory O. (full review)

Where to Watch: Virtual Cinemas

Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa)

A dark back-alley drowned in shadow; towering concrete walls on either side; on the top right a row of headstones overlook; the glimmer of a walking stick emerges in the distance, and then a funeral procession. 15 minutes later a women disembarks from an airplane and is greeted not by family but by the airport’s cleaning staff. “There is nothing for you in Portugal, Vitalina,” they say. Welcome—or perhaps welcome back—to the world of Pedro Costa, the austere Portuguese director behind Colossal Youth (2006), In Vanda’s Room (2000), and other haunting works with which to grapple. – Rory O. (full review)

Where to Watch: Virtual Cinemas

The Wild Goose Lake (Diao Yinan)

“Ever thought of running away?” “Where to?” This exchange comes late in The Wild Goose Lake, the latest film from stylish Chinese genre filmmaker Diao Yinan (previously awarded with Berlinale’s 2014 Golden Bear for his art film-inflected neo-noir Black Coal, Thin Ice), and within the film’s noir milieu the line fits. It’s shared between a gangster on the run and the call girl companion he’s been forcefully entwined with, however a strange combination of filmic tools means it comes tinged with a unique, near-cosmic portent, revealing even more so than his last film a much richer, wounded existentialism about two lonely, desperate people simply surviving in a dilapidated, contemporary Mainland China. – Josh L. (full review)

Where to Watch: Virtual Cinemas, Blu-ray/DVD

Zombi Child (Bertrand Bonello)

Bertrand Bonello’s last film, the terrorism-themed thriller Nocturama, hit headlines as it was released in the wake of Islamic State terror attacks in France. Supposedly it was the reason the film didn’t debut in competition at Cannes that year and with the compelling Directors’ Fortnight premiere Zombi Child, the director has again swerved away from official selection. Where Nocturama pointed to a seething social tension that Bonello believed present in the undercurrent of contemporary France, this is a genre-blending horror satire on the country’s racial divisions that delves into the country’s post-colonial heritage and the myth of Haitian zombie legend. – Ed F. (full review)

Where to Watch: The Criterion Channel, VOD, DVD

Honorable Mentions

And Then We Danced…
Babyteeth
Bad Education
Beanpole

Beats
Color Out of Space
Corpus Christi
Joan of Arc
The King of Staten Island
Liberté
Miss Juneteeth
The Other Lamb
The Painter and the Thief
Pahokee
A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon
Sorry We Missed You
The Surrogate
Swallow

Take Me Somewhere Nice
To the Stars
The Traitor
The Trip to Greece
The Vast of Night
I Was at Home, But…
The Way Back
Weathering with You
Welcome to Chechnya
The Whistlers
A White, White Day
The Wolf House
You Don’t Nomi

Coming Soon

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (July 10)
Palm Springs (July 10)
We Are Little Zombies (July 10)
Saint Maud (July 17)
Yes, God, Yes (July 28)
Sound of Metal (August 14)
Boys State (August TBD)
Time (August TBD)

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