Hollywood Reporter Film Critics Pick the 10 Best Movies of 2020 So Far

6:45 AM 6/18/2020

by THR staff

New gems from Spike Lee and Kelly Reichardt, a stunning drama about an unplanned pregnancy, a winning Judd Apatow/Pete Davidson collaboration and docs grappling with art, sexual assault and the disability rights movement are among faves from the first half of the year.

'Never Rarely Sometimes Always,' 'Da 5 Bloods' and 'Crip Camp'
'Never Rarely Sometimes Always,' 'Da 5 Bloods' and 'Crip Camp'
Courtesy of Netflix

This has certainly been no ordinary year for U.S. theatrical releases, with screens across the country going dark in pandemic lockdown before the first quarter was even done. Some hope has surfaced among studios that theaters in cities like Los Angeles and New York might be operational again in July, salvaging at least part of the summer. But will moviegoers feel safe enough to hit the multiplex with Covid anxiety still running high?

Given the circumstances, there’s been a surprising number of outstanding titles released, even since the streaming/on-demand switch took hold. We’ve rounded up our top 10, but there were easily another 10 or more that deserved to make the cut.

They didn’t fit the requirements of this list, but my two favorite films of the year, hands down, are both less than four minutes long.

One is Spike Lee’s New York, New York, a love letter to the city that never sleeps while it’s actually sleeping. This is a metropolitan portrait by turns melancholy, majestic and resilient that was exactly the booster shot of poignant civic pride many of us hunkering down in a Big Apple that suddenly seemed small and fragile so desperately needed. 

The other is the new animated trailer for Nia DaCosta’s "spiritual sequel," Candyman, co-scripted by Jordan Peele. This is less a promo for an upcoming release than a perfectly self-contained short film about the chilling history of white violence against Black bodies, told entirely using shadow puppetry by Manual Cinema that’s both exquisite and viscerally disturbing. 

While we wait impatiently for that Sept. 25 release, here are our picks for the best of the year to date (in alphabetical order). — DAVID ROONEY

  • 'Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint'

    Kino Marquee, Laemmle Virtual Cinema

    Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

    Halina Dyrschka's exhilarating doc pays tribute to visionary Swedish artist and mystic Hilma af Klint and challenges the boys' club mentality that long denied her the recognition she sought. It's an eloquent contribution to af Klint's rediscovery, which began four decades after her 1944 death — and a cogent argument for why that rediscovery impels nothing less than a rewriting of art history. — SHERI LINDEN

  • 'Cane River'

    Kanopy, Criterion Channel

    Oscilloscope

    Thanks to preservation org IndieCollect, the Academy Film Archive and distributor Oscilloscope, Horace B. Jenkins' revelatory long-lost 1982 debut feature — a modest, Louisiana-set Black romance steeped in local color as well as matters of racial identity — has been remastered in all its charming, exuberant glory. It’s a love story suffused with deep affection for the characters and the rural landscape. — S.L.

  • 'Crip Camp'

    Netflix

    Courtesy of Netflix

    Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht's stirring Netflix doc about Camp Jened (an upstate N.Y. camp for children with disabilities, run by hippies), and the birth of the disability rights movement at large, boasts smart focus, remarkable archival footage and inspiring subjects. Barack and Michelle Obama are among the executive producers, though this is a story that is truly non-partisan — humane, significant and told with impressive emotional heft. — DANIEL FIENBERG

  • 'Da 5 Bloods'

    Netflix

    Courtesy of Netflix

    Spike Lee's ballsy and moving adventure saga about four African American Vietnam veterans returning more than four decades later to follow through on a promise while embarking on a treasure hunt is strewn with pungent commentary on the eternally festering issue of race in America. As the Trump-supporting leader of the quartet — who delivers a series of mesmerizing direct-to-camera arias of madness — Delroy Lindo gives a career-best performance. — DAVID ROONEY

  • 'First Cow'

    A24 to re-release later in 2020

    Telluride Film Festival

    Kelly Reichardt (Certain Women) again goes off the grid in the Pacific Northwest — this time in 19th century Oregon — in her hypnotic, delicately beautiful depiction of male friendship (adapted from a novel by Jon Raymond). Tracing the unlikely bond between a cook for a party of fur trappers and a Chinese immigrant, it’s a superb entry in the narratively spare but expressive filmography of an essential American auteur. — D.R.

  • 'The King of Staten Island'

    On Demand

    Courtesy of Universal Pictures

    Judd Apatow’s latest is a conventional but winning semi-autobiographical vehicle for star/co-screenwriter Pete Davidson: relaxed, generous, suffused with warmth and a surprisingly delicate sorrow. As a 24-year-old Staten Island screw-up in full Oedipal crisis when his mom (a luminous Marisa Tomei) brings home a new beau (Bill Burr, in a richly shaped comic turn), Davidson exudes roguish charm and a fidgety vulnerability. — JON FROSCH

  • 'Never Rarely Sometimes Always'

    On Demand

    Angal Field/Focus Features

    Writer-director Eliza Hittman's latest — her best film yet — is a transfixing, bracingly honest and exquisitely observed portrait of a small-town Pennsylvania teenager who travels to New York to terminate her unplanned pregnancy. Star Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder, as the protagonist's loyal cousin, are impressive young screen discoveries. — D.R.

  • 'On the Record'

    HBO Max

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute/Photo by Omar Mullick

    Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering's emotionally revealing, powerfully haunting doc spotlights women — in particular Drew Dixon — who have publicly accused hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons of sexual assault and misconduct. It's a stunning feat of complexity, both contained and expansive, that lays bare how systemic sexism and misogyny deprive people of their livelihoods. — BEANDREA JULY

  • 'Premature'

    Amazon Prime, Hulu

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    Rashaad Ernesto Green's lovely slice of NYC naturalism focuses on a Black teen (spiky, radiant Zora Howard) and her transformative fling with an older man (Joshua Boone), but it also offers a broader look at Harlem today — both its vibrancy and the entrenched systemic challenges faced by many of its residents. The result is sweet, sexy and quietly wrenching. — J.F.

  • 'The Surrogate'

    Monument Releasing virtual cinemas

    Courtesy of Monument Releasing

    Jeremy Hersh's briskly economical yet intensely emotional first feature revolves around a young woman (Jasmine Batchelor) who agrees to carry the child of her gay best friend and his husband (Chris Perfetti and Sullivan Jones, respectively). It’s a clear-eyed ethical drama, propelled by a performance of stunning psychological insight and raw feeling from Batchelor. — D.R.