At their best, movies can offer healing, enlightenment and means to escape. In a year as unrelentingly hellish as 2020, all of the above have been necessary motivators or, conversely, balms for our souls. Despite the isolated year so far with movie theaters closed for the past four months, there has been no shortage of quality films with many reflecting our world today as well as offering a reprieve from reality with color, life, and boundless empathy. Art so far hasn’t suffered, and our list of favorite films of the year so far is demonstrative of that. Our list celebrates the work of filmmakers in the mainstream and independent spheres with voices that don’t always get the same recognition and opportunity as their straight, male counterparts.
With that said, please enjoy our top ten films of the year (so far). Our Film section staff nominated movies newly released in the U.S. between the start of 2020 and the end of the June. Let us know which films has made your own personal lists.
10. Driveways (dir. Andrew Ahn)
Director Andrew Ahn demonstrates an enormity of human spirit in his follow-up feature, Driveways, following his tremendous debut with 2016’s Spa Night. The camera gracefully follows three individuals as they deal with the isolation that comes with growing up, unpacking grief and what happens when you have more time than what you know what to do with and its spent reflecting on a life that seemed to go by in a blink. At its core is the unlikely friendship between Del (Brian Dennehy) and Cody (Lucas Jaye) and both, along with Hong Chau who plays Cody’s mom and is dealing with the death of her sister, deliver tremendous and nuanced performances. It’s a film of beautiful subtleties and immense emotional power. —Allyson Johnson
9. The Assistant (dir. Kitty Green)
So much of the power in Kitty Green’s The Assistant rests on the performance by Julia Garner, who manages to physically personify what a silent scream must look like. A tense and timely look at power imbalances between men and women in the workplace and the culpability of those who work and enable a man who abuses his influence, position, and wealth, The Assistant is an exercise in how long the audience can collectively hold their breath. The result is something so taut, so reflective of our world, and so powerfully acted by Garner that it will leave you breathless. —Allyson Johnson
8. Miss Juneteenth ( dir. Channing Godfrey Peoples) *tie*
Miss Juneteenth undeniably captures the nuanced depth of Nicole Beharie’s talent. The film tells the story of Turquoise (Beharie), a single mother working several jobs to make ends meet. A former pageant queen, Turquoise makes some sacrifices to ensure that her daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) can participate in the annual Miss Juneteenth pageant. Channing Godfrey Peoples’ feature film debut is gentle and tender, a quiet exploration of Turquoise’s pride in winning the pageant in her youth, as well the disappointment and hardships she’s faced ever since, all while uplifting a daughter who wishes to walk her own path. Miss Juneteenth is indescribably poignant and heartfelt, thoughtful and captivating in its portrayal of a layered mother-daughter relationship. —Mae Abdulbaki
8. Shirley (dir. Josephine Decker) *tie*
It is often said that geniuses are tortured souls who rely on their trauma to make their art. In turn, audiences expect authors to churn out their craft while disregarding—or worse, shunning— them as a whole. Similar to her previous film, Madeline’s Madeline, Josephine Decker tackles mental health and art in Shirley and explores what happens when they collide.
Famed author Shirley Jackson (played phenomenally by Elizabeth Moss) is trying to write her next masterpiece while living with her agoraphobia and domineering husband, Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg). After taking in a young couple, Shirley finds an unlikely friendship (and inspiration) in the wife, Rose, a rosy-cheeked passionate woman who is everything that Shirley is not. Shirley is not a biopic. Rather, it is laid out like one of Jackson’s gothic novels: a woman who is losing her sanity in a claustrophobic setting. —Yasmin Kleinbart
7. Onward (dir. Dan Scanlon) *tie*
For animation fans, families, and general moviegoers in search of original stories, Onward isn’t a magic trick. It does the hard work needed to captivate audiences, while also engaging them with thoughtful and resonant notions. If the film’s title is a sign of what’s to come for Pixar as they release more inventive projects in lieu of franchises and sequels, then we can certainly say that Onward moves in the right direction. —Jon Negroni
7. Babyteeth (dir. Shannon Murphy) *tie*
Babyteeth is a refreshing and off-kilter addition to the “teen cancer drama” we have unfortunately seen so many times before. Directed by Shannon Murphy from a script by Rita Kalnejais, this bracingly original Australian film features a core cast of four including Aussie favorites Essie Davis and Ben Mendelsohn with rising stars Eliza Scanlen and Toby Wallace. Scanlen, as Milla, brings her unique screen presence to the role of a dying teenager who falls for an older drug addict who makes her neurotic parents highly nervous. Surprising directorial choices along with the side-stepping of tired tropes and the embrace of unusual family dynamics and highly complicated characters make Babyteeth a funny, romantic, startling, and heartbreaking journey for every viewer. —Beth Winchester
6. Birds of Prey (dir. Cathy Yan)
Harley Quinn makes it clear that this is her story to tell, but she also obscures the fact that this story — of her leaving Mr. J and, in turn, finding more women in need of leaving toxic men — is as entertaining as a bejeweled hummingbird high on ACE-spiked nectar. Beyond that, Birds of Prey offers a confident introduction to the badass belles out there in the world — of DC’s own (Black Canary, Huntress, Renee Montoya, Cassandra Cain), of filmmaking (in director Cathy Yan and writer Christina Hodson) and of music (Houston artists leading the killer soundtrack, baby!). Don’t buy into the reactionary grievances of the film, especially those from basement-based DC experts and gossip-mining journalists — this is 109 minutes of mood-lifting material that freshens the filmic Gotham and, for once, diversifies its populace. OK, who’s up for a post-breakup breakfast sandwich? —Nguyen Le
5. The Half of It (dir. Alice Wu)
The Half of It, written and directed by Alice Wu, stars the wonderful Leah Lewis and Daniel Diemer as Ellie and Paul. Ellie is an introverted but incredibly gifted writer, Paul is a simple but sweet football player. The pair develop an unlikely friendship when Ellie agrees to help Paul write love letters to a fellow student, Aster Flores. This story about all the complexities of love, about the different types of love, is one worth watching. The magic of this coming of age story that once again cements Wu as a filmmaker who understands the intimacies of relationships (following her 2004 Saving Face) is how she depicts the beauty and essential bonds between family, friends and romantic interests alike. —Melissa Linares
4. Never Rarely Sometimes Always (dir. Eliza Hittman)
Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a quiet exploration of friendship, forgiveness, and bravery. A surprise pregnancy leaves 17-year-old Autumn and her cousin Skylar navigating the waters of conservative medical advice, prompting them to hop on a bus to New York so that Autumn can get an abortion. The journey takes up most of the film’s run time as the two friends keep having to extend their stay in New York. Low on funds and nowhere to stay, they find ways to pass the time in arcades and bowling alleys. Light with dialogue, the film finds its compassion in the presence of someone to lean on, the strength it takes to admit your closest kept secrets, and the forgiveness offered freely by those who love us. —Katey Stoetzel
3. The Invisible Man (dir. Leigh Whannell)
The Invisible Man announces its tone immediately with it setting an uncomfortably tense atmosphere from the start. The story follows Cecilia (played by the talented Elizabeth Moss), who escapes an abusive relationship and is told that her now ex-husband took his own life in the days following her escape. As time passes, she is trying to face her fear of this horrific man that is gone, but still feels strangely close by. When inexplicable things begin to happen to and around her, Cecilia believes that her ex-husband is somehow invisible and tormenting her in plain sight. No one believes that he could possibly be alive or somehow invisible, and yet the incidents become more violent and terrifying. The plot twists and turns into a nail-biting final act that keeps the tension and suspense high until the very end. This is definitely a movie that will keep you engaged and on the edge of your seat until the credits roll. —Tyler Carlsen
2. Emma. (dir. Autumn de Wilde)
Jane Austen film adaptations, and British period romances in general, are a dime a dozen. It is becoming exceptionally harder for films in this genre to stand apart from its predecessors. Lucky for us, director Autumn de Wilde succeeds in her adaptation of Austen’s romantic comedy, Emma. Along with the lavish costuming and sets, all of which present such a visceral yet pleasing aesthetic, de Wilde establishes a world where Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) is not the film’s only complete character. The cast of characters—played by Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Mia Goth, Bill Nighy, and Josh O’Connor to name a few— brings so much renewed energy to Emma., earning its spot on this list and many other lists of best Austen films to come. —Gabrielle Bondi
1. Da 5 Bloods (dir. Spike Lee)
In an age of civil unrest and protests, it is only fitting that Spike Lee releases one of his most politically charged efforts to date. Lee’s most adept work is when he disrupts our perceptions of what we’ve been taught throughout history. Da 5 Bloods challenges the assertion that war is something that brings honor and pride to one’s life. Throughout its lengthy runtime, Spike Lee’s characters experience the trauma from their experiences in the Vietnam war. PTSD, anxiety, paranoia, and more rear their heads in this tale.
More importantly, Lee exposes the tragic irony of the war through one of its central characters, Paul, played with acridity by Delroy Lindo. Black soldiers believed that by fighting for their country that they would acquire the same level of respect as their white companions. They were fighting for rights that would not even be afforded to them. Da 5 Bloods stands toe-to-toe with not only the films in Spike Lee’s filmography, but other war films that prop up the white soldier as some sort of diety. It is discoveries like this, alongside a story of brotherhood and exploration, that makes Da 5 Bloods one of the best films of the year. —Mark Wesley