It’s The Perfect Time To Catch Up On The Best Movies Of 2020


Without a doubt, 2020 has been a strange year for movies. The upheaval caused by the ever-escalating COVID-19 pandemic has extended to the film industry, shutting down entire productions. In most states, movie theaters have been closed for months. The Oscars have been postponed, and many highly anticipated films have pushed back their release dates — some indefinitely.

But while all of that may accelerate an already existing shift in how we watch movies going forward, it hasn’t stopped creators from putting out remarkable work. In fact, 2020 may go down as a landmark year: Most of the titles on this list were directed by, and center around, women and people of color. This is perhaps not a total coincidence — many of the movies waiting for better days to open to large theatrical crowds are big budget studio films.  And because of Hollywood’s ongoing systemic inequality, they are usually directed by white men. 

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With those movies on hold, streaming and digital releases have given some of these lower profile titles a wider audience than they might have found in a regular theater setting. But the attention is well-deserved. From action films like Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard and Cathy Yan’s Harley Quinn spinoff Birds of Prey; true crime dramas like Liz Garbus’ Lost Girls; noir fishing town scandals like Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy’s Blow The Man Down; beautiful coming of age stories like Channing Godfrey Peoples’ Miss Juneteenth or Alice Wu’s The Half of It; and painful war epics like Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, the talent crosses genres and platforms, proving that against all odds, movies are alive and well. 

Ahead, we share the ones we just can’t stop thinking about. 


Miss Juneteenth

Directed by: Channing Godfrey Peoples
Starring: Nicole Beharie, Alexis Chikaeze

As Turquoise Jones, a single mom and former pageant queen, Beharie once again proves that she’s one of our most overlooked talents. The film follows Turquoise as she grooms her daughter Kai (Chikaeze) to follow in her footsteps and participate in their Texas town’s annual Miss Juneteenth pageant. But as it turns out, Kai has her own vision of what her act should look like. 

I can’t stop thinking about: How Beharie elevates even her most quiet scenes — in one such moment, Turquoise sits on her porch silently contemplating the warm summer night. But in her eyes, we see the dreams she had that never came to pass, and the hopes she carries for her daughter, even as she knows Kai has to forge her own path. 


(In)Visible Portraits

Directed by: Oge Egbuonu

Egbuonu’s directorial debut is an unprecedented visual celebration of Black women. Using  impressive historical footage and new interviews with thought leaders, combined with original art and poetry, Egbuono traces the history of injustice Black women have historically faced in America, while also looking towards the future. 

I can’t stop thinking about: A scene in which a woman who has just shared her experience of working as a housekeeper sits in silence as images of Mammy stereotypes flood the screen in front of her. 


Relic


Directed by: Natalie Erika James
Starring: Emily Mortimer, Bella Heathcote, Robyn Nevin

Relic isn’t the kind of horror movie that revolves around jump scares and sound effects. Rather, James’ film teases out the fears that already lurk in the back of your mind, and gives them form. When Australian matriarch Edna (Nevin) suddenly goes missing, her daughter, Kay (Mortimer) and granddaughter (Sam), head back to their ancestral home to find out what happened. But when Edna suddenly turns up again with no explanation, it starts to look as if something isn’t quite right in the house — or is Edna’s dementia starting to take on a more physical aspect?

I can’t stop thinking about: The creepy candle art!

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Birds of Prey


Directed by: Cathy Yan
Starring: Margot Robbie, Jurnee Smolett-Bell, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rosie Perez, Ella Jay Basco, Ewan McGregor, Chris Messina

Birds of Prey is a rare gem: A movie about women that delights in their imperfections and feels authentic rather than dealing in manufactured feminist tropes. Harley Quinn (Robbie) is no hero, but that’s what makes her mesmerizing to watch. She’s a whirling dervish of sparkly chaos, the dazzling center of a story populated with its share of colorful characters, including McGregor as a flamboyantly suited nemesis. (Villain doesn’t seem quite right here — they’re all villains!)

I can’t stop thinking about: The frenetic single-shot club scene


The Half of It


Directed by: Alice Wu
Starring: Leah Lewis, Daniel Diemer, Alexxis Lemire, Wolfgang Novogratz

Seventeen-year-old Ellie Chu (Lewis)  lives her life on the margins. A loner who lives with her widowed dad, she’d rather watch old movies and read than attend football games with her peers. That is until goofy jock Paul Munsky (DIemer) enlists her help in writing love letters to his crush, Aster Flores (Lemire). The only hiccup is — she’s also Ellie’s crush. Wu’s take on Cyrano de Bergerac is an absolute delight. 

I can’t stop thinking about: The tender, respectful way Wu portrays loneliness, as well as the platonic relationships that can exist between friends. Oh, and Paul and Mr. Chu making dinner together. 


The Old Guard


Directed by: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Starring: Charlize Theron, KiKi Layne, Matthias Schoenaerts, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, Chiwetel Eljiofor, Harry Melling

A lot of action movies are so focused on making cool things explode that they forget about why people are fighting in the first place. Not The Old Guard. Prince-Bythewood’s visions, meticulously edited by Terilyn Shopshire (making them the first Black women directors and editors to work on superhero films), grounds the action in emotion and character-building, which in turn makes the incredibly cool fight scenes matter. Charlize Theron plays Andy, a 6,000-year-old warrior who leads a band of immortal fighters. But after millennia of wielding her ax, she’s tired of watching mankind follow the same self-destructive loop. Enter Nile (KiKi Layne), the latest addition to the immortal army, and a reminder that sometimes, to really refresh an old story, you need a new perspective. 

I can’t stop thinking about: Joe’s (Kenzari) groundbreaking declaration of love to Nicky (Marinelli). 


Swallow


Directed by: Carlo Mirabella-Davis
Starring: Haley Bennett, Austin Stowell, Elizabeth Marvel, David Rasche, and Denis O'Hare

Hunter Conrad (Bennett, who gives a career-best performance) has everything she’s been told she should want to have: a handsome, successful husband (Stowell), a mid-century modern masterpiece with sweeping views of the Hudson River, and now, a child on the way. But Swallow is the nightmare at the end of the fairy tale — during her pregnancy, Hunter develops pica. It starts with her chewing ice during dinner, and slowly escalates, until she’s ingesting marbles, and eventually, thumb tacks and batteries, as a way to regain a sense of control over her body and her life. 

I can’t stop thinking about: Don’t make me relive the thumbtack scene. Instead, let’s talk about that truly exquisite house that I may or may not have looked up on VRBO


Emma


Directed by: Autumn de Wilde
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Josh O’Connor, Mia Goth, Bill Nighy

The movie that got us through those early quarantine days isn’t just one the best Jane Austen adaptations in years — it’s one of the best ever. De Wilde’s directorial debut, which faithfully retells Austen’s story of spoiled rich girl Emma Woodhouse (TaylorJoy) is a feast for the senses. The costumes are pastel wonders, the decor is sumptuous, and the score, courtesy of Isobel Waller-Bridge (sister of Phoebe) is a soft earworm. O’Connor, Goth, and Nighy give solid gold comedic performances, building up the charmingly bumbling atmosphere of the town of Highbury. But the real draw is the smoldering chemistry between Taylor-Joy and Flynn, who quite literally threaten to set fire to the screen simply by glancing at one another. 

I can’t stop thinking about: Knightley and Emma’s spine tinglingly sexy seduction dance. 

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Lost Girls


Directed by: Liz Garbus
Starring: Amy Ryan, Thomasin McKenzie, Oona Laurence, Jemima Kirke

I know it’s early to start prepping Oscars ballots, but Ryan should definitely be on your radar for 2021. As late activist Mari Gilbert, she brings a mother’s fight for justice to life in a searing and often uncomfortable way. In her narrative retelling of Gilbert’s real-life search for her daughter, Shannan Gilbert, a sex worker who disappeared in a gated Long Island community in 2010, Garbus avoids one of the most tiresome true crime tropes. Rather than searching for the identity of the killer – which remains unknown to this day — she focuses instead on the stories of the victims and their families. In doing so, she shines a powerful light on the double standard at play within our justice system, and whose lives are really thought to matter. 

I can’t stop thinking about: Kirke’s eerie rendition of “Beautiful Dreamer” that plays over the opening scenes. 


Blow The Man Down


Directed by: Bridget Savage-Cole and Danielle Krudy
Starring: Morgan Saylor, Sophie Lowe, June Squibb, Margo Martindale

Sorry to The Lighthouse, but my heart belongs to a new nautical noir film. Set in the fictional town of Easter Cove, ME, Blow the Man Down follows two sisters — Mary Beth (Saylor) and Priscilla Connolly (Lowe) — as they attempt to navigate the choppy waters of debt in the aftermath of their mother’s death. With bills to pay, a house that’s about to be foreclosed on, and a fishing business in trouble, Mary Beth and Priscilla are desperate. To make matters worse, they suddenly find themselves in the middle of a murder investigation after a night out goes horribly awry. But in Easter Cove, women have a long history of secrets, and they protect their own. 

I can’t stop thinking about: The sea shanties that punctuate this engrossing and moody movie. 


Lucky Grandma


Directed by: Sasie Sealy
Starring: Tsai Chin

Lucky Grandma begins with a nod to Agnes Varda’s Cleo From 5 to 7. Like the blonde singer in the classic 1962 French film, Grandma Wong (Chin) is having her cards read when she’s told that she’s about to experience a windfall. Since Grandma makes her own luck, she takes this as a cue to pack up her cigarettes and head to Atlantic City, where she bets big on a game of poker. She loses. But then, in an unexpected twist, her seatmate on the bus home dies, leaving her with a bag full of cash. Here’s the thing though: it belongs to a Chinatown gang, and now, Grandma’s their latest target. Sealy’s well-paced film puts a refreshing twist on the gangster movie, and captures a vibrant New York City neighborhood at a time when we need to be reminded of what we’re fighting to keep alive. 

I can’t stop thinking about:  Andrew Orkin’s dramatic noir score. 


Buffaloed


Directed by: Tanya Wexler
Starring: Zoey Deutch, Judy Greer, Jermaine Fowler

Peg Dahl (Deutch) is a scammer. Desperate to escape her hometown of Buffalo, she’ll do anything to make money — even if it’s on the sketchy side of legal. When that flexible sense of right and wrong lands her in jail, Peg feels like she’s stuck in a rut. But her years spent dodging debt comes in handy when she starts a new career as a debt collector, and vies to corner the market. Once a hustler, always a hustler. In this crime caper that’s best described as Wolf of Wall Street meets The Big Short with a dash of The Sopranos, Deutch proves once again that the real felony is just how underrated she is as a performer. 

I can’t stop thinking about: Peg’s array of men’s suits in shades that range from puce to maroon, which she repurposes as a power uniform. 


Never Rarely Sometimes Always


Directed by: Eliza Hittman
Starring: Sidney Flanagan, Talia Ryder

At a time when abortion rights are constantly under siege, Eliza Hittman’s film is a gutting reminder of they’re so important. When 17-year-old Autumn (Flanagan) realizes she’s pregnant, her first stop is her town’s local pregnancy crisis center. There, she’s made to listen to the fetus’ heartbeat without prior consent, and told that she has no other choice but to deliver. After that, she can look into adoption if she still feels she’s not ready to be a mom.
As a minor living in rural Pennsylvania, Autumn can’t get an abortion without obtaining her parents’ consent. Out of options, she and her cousin Skylar head on what they think will be a one day round trip to Planned Parenthood in New York City. Hittman takes us through the frustrating and stressful process in a journey that shows the mundane as well as the deeply emotional aspects of abortion. 

I can’t stop thinking about: The quiet solidarity of Autumn holding Skylar’s hand across a column in Penn Station as the latter gets unwanted male attention. 

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Shirley


Directed by: Josephine Decker
Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Odessa Young, Michael Stuhlbarg, Logan Lerman

Anyone can make a biopic about a famous author. With Shirley, Decker goes beyond the superficial biography of horror scribe Shirley Jackson, and instead delves into her psyche, creating a movie that feels like it could have been written by Jackson herself. The result is a truly original take on the creative process, that doubles as a cry for women to be taken seriously as artists — on and off camera. As Shirley, Moss gives her most intense performance yet, playing off Stuhlbarg in a toxic dance of cat and mouse fueled by booze, self-loathing and jealousy. It’s a whole mood. 

I can’t stop thinking about: Shirley looking her nemesis in the eye as she deliberately poors a full glass of red wine on her silk upholstered couch — pure chaos. 


Da 5 Bloods


Directed by: Spike Lee
Starring: Delroy Lindo, Isaiah Whitlock Jr., Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis), Chadwick Boseman, Jonathan Majors

Lee’s film about a group of Black Vietnam vets returning nearly 40 years later in pursuit of their fallen comrade’s body (and the gold buried along with him) takes a hard look at America’s failures in upholding its ideals of freedom, both at home and abroad. Running just over two and a half hours, it’s a challenging movie to watch at times — less accessible to the casual viewer than say, BlackKklansman — but one that’s more than worth the emotional commitment. There’s nothing easy about unpacking the tangled web of an oppressed minority perpetuating colonial hegemony on another people, all in the name of an ideal that has almost never included them. 

I can’t stop thinking about: Lindo’s Shakespearean fourth-wall shattering monologue.
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