Best Films of the First Half of 2020
by Hope Madden and George Wolf
We can all agree on one thing: 2020 blows. It hasn’t been great for movies, either, what with every major film being pushed back until at least autumn. But, as is always the case, these challenges have created opportunities—in this case, for spunky little movies ready to come into our homes, where we spend so very, very much time now, and help us make it through The Great Pause.
These are our favorite films of the first half of 2020.
You’ve seen Capone on film: films about him, films containing him, films about gangsters reminiscent of him. A lot of these movies have been great – some of them classic. But you have never seen Alphonse Capone the way writer/director Josh Trank sees him?
Wisely, Trank realized Tom Hardy would be able to translate his vision.
The film focuses on the final year of the infamous mobster’s life—the adult diapers and dementia year. Hardy finds the faulty humanity in this character. His depiction of Capone’s confusion is unerringly human, and in his hands Trank’s macabre humor never feels like mockery.
Trank’s loose narrative is less concerned with the scheming, criss-crossing and backstabbing from underlings trying to find some money than it is with Capone’s deterioration, and that’s what makes this film so gloriously odd. No doubt some viewers will be disappointed—those who tuned in to see Hardy play a badass at the top of his game. My guess is that the reason one of the finest actors working today was drawn to Capone was the opportunity to do something just this unexpected.
9. The Lodge
Several Fiala and Veronika Franz follow up their creepy Goodnight Mommy with this “white death” horror that sees a future stepmom having a tough time getting to know the kids during a weeklong, snowbound cabin retreat. Riley Keough is riding an impressive run of performances and her work here is slippery and wonderful as the unwanted new member in the family.
Jaeden Martell, a kid who has yet to deliver a less than impressive turn, is the human heartbeat at the center of the mystery in the cabin. His tenderness gives the film a quiet, pleading tragedy. Whether he’s comforting his grieving little sister or begging Grace (Keough) to come in from the snow, his performance aches and you ache with him.
There’s no denying the mounting dread the filmmakers create, and the three central performances are uniquely effective. Thanks to the actors’ commitment and the filmmakers’ skill in atmospheric horror, the movie grips you, makes you cold and uncomfortable, and ends with a memorable slap.
8. Why Don’t You Just Die!
Given that 75% of writer/director Kirill Sokolov’s Why Don’t You Just Die! takes place in a single apartment—one room of that apartment, really—you might be surprised to learn that it’s an action film.
It’s pretty heavy on the action, actually, amplified by inspired framing, kinetic cinematography, sometimes hilarious but always eye-popping choreography, and blood. Just a ton of blood.
With a sparse script, visual wonder and energy to burn, Why Don’t You Just Die! promises to snatch your attention like a duffle bag of cash and hang on until exactly enough blood is spilled.
That’s a lot.
7. The True History of the Kelly Gang
Planting its flag unapologetically at the corner of accuracy and myth, The True History of the Kelly Gang reintroduces a legendary 1870s folk hero through consistently bold and compelling strokes.
Director Justin Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant – the duo behind the true crime shocker The Snowtown Murders nine years ago – go bigger this time, trading spare intimacy for a tableau of grand visual and narrative ideas.
With a direct nod to the moment when “the myth is more profitable than the man,” Kurzel spins an irresistible yarn that manages to balance the worship of its hero with some condemnation for his sins. And as the road to Kelly’s guns-blazing capture unfurls, the film incorporates elements of both a tense crime thriller and a Nightingale-esqe reminder of savage colonialism.
6. Capital in the 21st Century
New Zealand filmmaker Justin Pemberton has assembled an array of scholars and historians (including Thomas Piketty, author of the source book) for a 103-minute presentation that is so informative, measured and concise it should earn you college credits.
There are graphs, illustrations and pop culture snippets from film and television that Pemberton weaves throughout the lecture material to attract the eye and boost the film’s overall entertainment value. But make no mistake, his mission is about breaking down the 400 years of history that explain the social and economic precipice we’re teetering on right now.
And while some of the lessons are not new (i.e. we need a strong middle class), the context here is so vivid and relevant many observations may land with an echo of “eureka!” inside your head.
5. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
With her 2013 debut It Felt Like Love, Eliza Hittman brought a refreshing honesty to the teen drama. At its core, Never Rarely Sometimes Always could be seen as Hittman’s kindred sequel to her first feature, as two friends (Talia Ryder and a stunning Sidney Flanagan) navigate a cold, sometimes cruel world that lies just beyond the hopeful romanticism of first love.
NRSA shows Hittman in full command of her blunt truth-telling, demanding we accept this reality of women fighting to control their own bodies amid constant waves of marginalization.
Just three films in, Hittman has established herself as a filmmaker of few words, intimate details and searing perspective. NRSA is a sensitive portrayal of female friendship and courage, equal parts understated and confrontational as it speaks truths that remain commonly ignored.
4. The Vast of Night
Opening with vintage Rod Serling welcoming us to “Paradox Theatre,” director Andrew Patterson unveils an incredibly polished debut, one that’s full of meticulous craftsmanship, effective pacing and wonderfully engaging storytelling.
Peterson’s commitment to production and sound design results in a totally immersive experience. The period details – from costumes to recording equipment – are more than just historically correct. Paired with the rapid-fire, comfortably lived-in dialog from screenwriters James Montague and Craig W. Sanger, they create a throwback setting that charms without the tell of undue effort.
Peterson also flexes confidently behind the camera, moving from extended tracks to slow pans to quiet stills, all in service of the film’s wondrous tone. With Sierra McCormick and Jake Horowitz leading a stellar ensemble, what could have been a generic sci-fi time filler becomes a smart parable with an eerie grip.
Putting a relevant twist on the classic “horrific mother” trope, writer/director Carlo Mirabella-Davis uses the rare eating disorder pica to anchor his exploration of gender dynamics and, in particular, control.
Where Mirabella-Davis’s talent for building tension and framing scenes drive the narrative, it’s Haley Bennett’s performance that elevates the film. Serving as executive producer as well as star, Bennett transforms over the course of the film.
When things finally burst, director and star shake off the traditional storytelling, the Yellow Wallpaper or Awakening or even Safe. The filmmaker’s vision and imagery come full circle with a bold conclusion worthy of Bennett’s performance.
Director Josephine Decker’s languid style seduces you, keeps you from pulling away from her films’ underlying tensions, darkness, sickness. She specializes in that headspace that mixes the story as it is and the story as it’s told, which makes her a fitting guide for Susan Scarf Merrell’s fictionalized account of this slice of author Shirley Jackson’s life.
Decker manipulates the pacing, melancholy and sensuality of her tale beautifully, drawing a stirring performance from Odessa Young. But my god, what she gets from Elisabeth Moss and Michael Stuhlbarg.
Moss and Stuhlbarg play Jackson and her husband, Stanley Hyman. To witness two such remarkable talents sparring like this, aided by a biting script that offers them ample opportunity to wade into the sickness and dysfunction of this marriage—it’s breathtaking.
The result is dark and unseemly, appropriately angry and gorgeously-told— a fitting tribute to the author.
1. Da 5 Bloods
A heist movie on the surface, Da 5 Bloods is clearly about a great deal more than making it rich. Writer/director Spike Lee has a lot to say about how those in power tell us what we want to hear so we will do what they want us to do.
As is always the case with Lee’s films, even the most overtly political, deeply felt performances give the message meaning. The entire cast is excellent, but Delroy Lindo is transcendent.
Lindo’s never given a bad performance in his 45 years on screen. As commanding a presence as ever at 68 playing Paul, Lindo again blends vulnerability into every action, whether funny, menacing or melancholy. His MAGA hat-wearing, self-loathing, dangerously conflicted character gives Lee’s themes a pulse. This may finally be the performance to get Lindo the Oscar he’s deserved for ages.
It should surprise no one that Lee’s latest happens to hit the exact nerve that throbs so loudly and painfully right now, given that he’s been telling this exact story in minor variations for 30+ years.