Movie Features

The 12 best movies of 2020 from first-time filmmakers

Despite having to search and watch movies differently this year, 2020 has offered a wealth of storytelling in film with independent and often-marginalized voices receiving more time to shine through limited release strategies. It’s allowed for some stunning films to receive the accolades they deserve, such as Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, and Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland. What has been even greater to discover are the superb films directed by first-time filmmakers released this year.

There’s no shortage of variety here, from coming of age stories to some of the most unsettling horror this year. Their respective debuts all have been exciting to watch and gave viewers a group of newcomers worth looking out for in the future. Here are 12 of our favorite 2020 films directed by first-time filmmakers. 

Universal Pictures

Babyteeth (dir. Shannon Murphy) 

Directed by Shannon Murphy with a screenplay by Rita Kalnejais, Babyteeth sees Eliza Scanlen playing Milla, a teenager diagnosed with cancer. She knows that she doesn’t have much time left to live, and falls quickly and very hard for Moses (Toby Wallace), a drug dealer who isn’t exactly the most loyal guy. However, they’re drawn to each other like moths to a flame and their connection sparks a rejuvenated zest for life in Milla. Bolstered by outstanding performances from the cast, including Ben Mendelsohn and a devastating and nuanced performance by Essie Davis, Babyteeth explores the love, frustration, humor, and sadness that is so keenly felt from every family member. Murphy infuses the film with so much humanity, heart, and emotion without it ever feeling manipulative. There is a fair amount of morbid humor that adds a touch of realism amid the somber plot. The film culminates in a powerful, gut-wrenching way that is somehow utterly breathtaking and devastating all at once. —Mae Abdulbaki

BAC Films

Cuties (dir. Maïmouna Doucouré)

Cuties was met with a lot of undeserved controversy this year, mostly because people ridiculously judged a film they hadn’t even seen and ripped it to shreds without understanding its message at all. Written and directed by Maïmouna Doucouré, Cuties explores the identity of Amy (Fathia Youssouf), an adolescent girl who hails from a Senegalese family who have settled into France. Amy is quiet and largely keeps to herself. However, she becomes infatuated with a local girl group trying to win a dance competition, emulating the older women they see in music videos and across social media. Cuties is aggressively focused on the ways in which social media can influence young girls who have yet to explore their own identities and sexuality, as well as the pressure there is to be molded into an identity and gendered behavior long before they’re made to decide for themselves. That is seen in the struggle for Amy, who is caught between heeding the words of her strict, old-fashioned grandmother, and playing into hypersexualized behavior that she doesn’t fully understand. Cuties is a poignant, nuanced exploration and one that deserves to be seen. —Mae Abdulbaki

Focus Features

Emma. (dir. Autumn de Wilde)

Autumn de Wilde isn’t the first director to tackle Jane Austen’s famous work, but her adaptation might be the most visually engaging. A former music video director who worked with acts such as Death Cab for Cutie and Elliot Smith, de Wilde has a keen awareness for capturing the colors and textures—something that is highlighted in the lushly shot Emma. Beyond the ability to create a work where every element of this decadent lifestyle is captured with an eye for craftsmanship, she also demonstrates the ability to hone in on the brevity of intimacy—showing how so little in this style of storytelling, such as a shot of a hand, or a chaste kiss, can mean so much more.  —Allyson Johnson

Netflix

The 40 Year-Old Version (dir. Radha Blank)

Radha Blank announced herself in stunning fashion in the semi autobiographical The 40 Year-Old Version, which won the Dramatic Competition Directing Award at 2020’s Sundance Film Festival. Shot in 35-millimeter black-and-white film stock, the film strikes an immediate visual tone that distinguishes her amongst her peers. She creates space for herself while shining a light on areas of New York that haven’t often been explored in cinema, often playing to how we’ve seen the city lit before, such as in Frances Ha. It’s explosive work and Blank—along with directing the film—also wrote, produced and starred in the film, to create a story that is both enormously singular to her particular vision, yet universal for artists trying to strike the right balance of success and artistic freedom. —Allyson Johnson

Netflix

His House (dir. Remi Weekes)

His House follows a refugee couple—Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) and Bol (Sope Dirisu)—who flee South Sudan and settle in England. They struggle to fit in, feeling like outsiders, forced to be model refugees or risk facing threats of being sent back. Bol wants nothing more than to forget their harrowing ordeal, and welcomes their new home and its people with open arms. Rial, on the other hand, is more resistant to letting go of her culture. At the core of their disagreement and discomfort is the trauma of losing their daughter, and they are haunted by her presence within their new home. Writer-director Remi Weekes explores the psychological effects of losing a daughter on Rial and Bol. Their guilt, anguish, and trauma become a physical manifestation of the remorse they feel and the hurt they can’t contain. It becomes difficult for them to tell what’s real and what isn’t, which is terrifying in and of itself. Weekes’ work is visceral and His House is an impressive feature debut that is psychological horror at its best. —Mae Abdulbaki

Vertical Entertainment

Miss Juneteenth (dir. Channing Godfrey Peoples)

Sweet, soulful, and an expertly told story about generational divide, union, and what internal burdens we pass on to our children, Miss Juneteenth is an exemplary demonstration of quiet storytelling. Channing Godfrey Peoples, who both directed and wrote the film, makes sure to never demonize the mother or daughter—the heart of the film—for their own individual dreams or, in the case of Nicole Beharie’s Turquoise, her want to force her deferred dreams onto her independent daughter. Despite no reliance on flashbacks, Peoples imbues Miss Juneteenth with a palpable sense of nostalgia, the visual language of the film in harmony with the melancholy of Turquoise’s ongoing want for more. —Allyson Johnson

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IFC Midnight

Relic (dir. Natalie Erika James)

Natalie Erika James’s feature debut, Relic, is a horror film about a very real terror: dementia. The film follows Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter, Sam (Bella Heathcote), as they try to save the family matriarch, Edna, (Robyn Nevin) from a sinister force. Atmosphere is everything in James’s haunting film as she explores Edna’s descent into madness. From the dark lighting to the brilliant sound design, Relic invokes a sense of dread in every frame. And while some may be concerned that a real disease is being used as a horror trope, James goes to great lengths to ensure that it is not being exploited. The final product is a narrative that is both scary and heartbreaking. —Yasmin Kleinbart

IFC Films

The Rental (dir. Dave Franco)

While mostly being your typical cabin-in-the-woods horror story, The Rental is an interesting directorial debut for Dave Franco. The characters leave a lot to be desired, but the build-up to the heart-pounding third act works in great tension building and catharsis. Even if the characters were difficult to relate to, you still root for them to get away from the serial killer terrorizing them, and feel for them when they don’t. But it’s the last two minutes of the film where Franco dapples in world-building, showing off something that goes a bit beyond the typical horror trappings of his setting. Those last two minutes are realized enough to look forward to another Dave Franco-helmed feature. [Katey Stoetzel]

Amazon Studios

Selah and the Spades (dir. Tayarisha Poe)

Written and directed by Tayarisha Poe, Selah and the Spades is unlike most teen films in its exploration of power, the unrelenting pressures to be the best at any cost, and the loneliness that stems from putting up such high walls to keep people out. Selah (Lovie Simone) is one of five faction leaders at Haldwell School, an elite boarding school, and the most feared of all. That’s the price she pays to stay on top, subscribing to the notion that a true leader does not grow attachments so long as she is respected. Selah has a small circle of friends, but she goes to great lengths to keep her position when it looks like a new student, Paloma (Celeste O’Connor), might usurp her position. Simone is a force, portraying Selah as a complicated young woman who holds so much inside. Meanwhile, Poe’s camera choices complement Simone’s performance to masterfully convey her interiority. Selah and the Spades is a fantastic feature that shows off Poe’s skills as a compelling storyteller, one who knows how to capture emotion and elicit drama in a meaningful way. —Mae Abdulbaki

Amazon Studios

The Vast of Night (dir. Andrew Patterson)

Alien conspiracies and the rise of technology in 1950s New Mexico make up the backdrop of Andrew Patterson’s directorial debut, The Vast of Night. The film is definitely one of this year’s sleeper hits after hitting the festival circuit last year. Patterson uses multiple long takes to introduce us to this small town full of secrets, as well as to create an atmosphere of conspiracy — the low camera tracking our two main characters as they talk various conspiracy theories makes it seem like something’s lurking in the shadows, be it aliens or Big Brother. There’s more tension in scenes featuring phone calls or a character telling us their story than in any other big science fiction blockbuster today. With clever dialogue and brilliant performances, The Vast of Night is a great first turnout for Patterson. —Katey Stoetzel

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Oscilloscope

We Are Little Zombies (dir. Makoto Nagahisa)

Makoto Nagahisa made quite the entrance with his feature debut, We Are Little Zombies. Nagahisa turns his film into a real video game, complete with 8-bit scenes, significant items, and a chiptune score that is straight out of the NES days.  Four children—Hikari, Takemura, Ishi, and Ikuko—meet at a crematorium during their parents’ funeral. They don’t seem to be especially sad about their loss and adults keep berating them for not showing any emotion. They find solace in each other by starting a band, which shoots to stardom when their song is secretly recorded. Compare this film to Scott Pilgrim as much as you want. We Are Little Zombies may have a similar pizazz, but its narrative is 100 times more sincere. —Yasmin Kleinbart

Vertical Entertainment

Yes, God, Yes (dir. Karen Maine)

All of the awkward moments and thrills of burgeoning sexuality are explored with humor and grace in the charming Yes, God, Yes, directed by Karen Maine and starring Stranger Things actress Natalie Dyer. So much of the film’s charm and empathy for the plight of the teenage girl can be seen through the titular character’s attachment to a particular, steamy scene in Titanic. It might seem like a small detail to many, but to young women who aren’t exactly taught to embrace their sexuality like their male counterparts, it offers a welcomed glance into the past where even the most innocuous scenes could seem scandalous. Heartfelt, compelling, and totally eager to show the story of so many girls and their curiosity, Yes, God, Yes is an ode to all the teen girls who learned by way of the internet. —Allyson Johnson

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