BY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC While we can all agree 2020 has been a pretty terrible year, the films that have come out thus far actually have actually been pretty good. Because Hollywood’s blockbusters have been sidelined until further notice, smaller, quirkier films — which would ordinarily be trampled under foot by the marketing juggernaut of Big Hollywood tentpoles and superhero franchises — have been given a chance to shine. Here’s my list of the best films released in the first half of 2020 and currently streaming. Hopefully these films will offer a welcome distraction in these dark and dire times.
Critics were divided as to whether director David Ayer’s Suicide Squad (the de facto prequel to Birds Of Prey) was a solid actioner or a hot mess, we can all agree that Margot Robbie’s take on the villainous Harley Quinn didn’t disappoint. Birds Of Prey opens with Harley blowing up Ace Chemicals, announcing, in effect, that her romance with The Joker is officially over. From here on she will have to make her own way in the mean streets of Gotham which will be no easy feat given that every person/superhero she’s ever crossed is after her for retribution. When Black Mask (played by Ewan McGregor at his scenery-chewing finest) offers her a way to earn clemency by stealing a diamond from the police, things get complicated fast. Mayhem ensues.
Photographer Autumn de Wilde’s feature length directorial debut is a new take on the classic that has a very contemporary feel despite its lush period-perfect 19th Century setting, thanks in large measure to Anya’s indelible take on the 21-year-old matchmaker played by Anya Talyor-Joy. When one of her matches goes horribly wrong with the potential suitor confessing his love for Emma, it inadvertently sets the young woman on the path that will ultimately lead her to true love. The film’s dry wit and whip smart humor makes it both a breath of fresh air and instantly re-watchable.
The latest cinematic take on the H. G. Wells classic The Invisible Man, veers away from the source text to tell a much bleaker story, that is as much about domestic violence as it is its titular monster. Set in modern day San Francisco, the film opens with Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) fleeing her abusive husband Oliver Jackson-Cohen, who made his fortune in the field of optics. When he dies two weeks later due an apparent suicide, Cecilia inherits $5 million and the unshakeable feeling that someone is following her. Thrust into a downward spiral of paranoia, Cecilia is stripped of everything she holds dear by a mysterious force she believes is her dead husband, who even in death seems bent on controlling her.
Written and directed by Zoé Wittock, Jumbo is the true story of Jeanne (Noémie Merlant) a peculiar young woman about to start her first day as a night time janitor at a seasonal rural amusement park. We get the idea that she already took this job with ulterior motives in mind as we see her first one-on-one interaction with the new tilt-a-whirl ride at the park, which she has affectionately nick-named “Jumbo.” We witness Jeanne’s trial-and-error discovery of her sexuality, all the while trying desperately not to alienate her mother, who just wants her to meet a nice boy. Because her mother anchors her to reality, the audience never loses its tether to Jeanne in this bizarrely endearing and otherworldly relationship.
Kristen Stewart stars as the French New Wave sensation Joan Seberg, who became the victim of an FBI operation to defame her character and ruin her career thanks to her involvement with the Black Panther Party in the 1960s. The film recounts how the government drove the bombshell actress to madness, and possibly death over her political beliefs and her involvement with activist Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie). Stewart delivers a hauntingly beautiful performance as the star who, after breaking out in Jean-Luc Godard’s film Breathless was set to take on the world, but wound up on the FBI’s hit list because the G-men didn’t like her politics.
Never Rarely is the saga of 17-year-old Autumn’s journey from rural Pennsylvania to New York so she can get an abortion without her parent’s consent. It’s the age old story of Country Mouse and City Mouse, as the two young women arrive in New York City with no place to stay and just enough money to finance a single day in the Big Apple. Upon her arrival, Autumn learns that her appointment has been delayed because she is much further along in her pregnancy than she was originally told by doctors and will require a multi-day procedure. To pass the time, she wanders the streets waiting for the nights to turn into days, with danger and adventure lurking around every corner.
If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like if the guys behind The Lonely Island decided to riff off of Groundhog’s Day, this film’s got you covered. When she hooks up with her sister’s boyfriend Nyles (Andy Samberg) at a wedding, Sarah Wilder (Cristin Milioti) suddenly finds herself trapped in a time loop. Because of some glitch in the time/space continuum, Nyles has been re-living the same day over and over again for as long as he can remember and now she is, too. Despite all odds, a romance blooms as Nyles shows Sarah the ropes of living in an infinitely-repeating time loop and hilarity ensues.
Da Five Bloods follows the surviving members of an all-black Army platoon, nicknamed “Da Bloods” (Clarke Peters, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Norm Lewis, Delroy Lindo), who have returned to Vietnam 45 years after their final tour in search of the remains of their fallen squad leader/mentor, “Stormin” Norman (Chadwick Boseman). What we soon discover is that during the conflict, the five Bloods were on a mission to deliver to the South Vietnamese $14 million in gold. When their plane was shot down in hostile territory, the men buried the gold and reported it stolen by the Vietcong after the crash landing, which also resulted in Norman’s death. Gold tends to bring out the worst in people and it does just that here as the men who never really left the war are now pulled back in for an epic adventure that will test their friendships and push the men to their limits.
This fascinating doc directed by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine (The Overnighters) covers the seven-day American Legion Boys State convention wherein thousands of teenage boys (mostly white and conservative) descend upon Austin, Texas, to build a fictitious two-party government from the ground up. The film follows the path of one very progressive, charismatic, young Mexican-American as he travels to the den of conservative hoping to be elected governor, the highest office in Boys State. The film aptly mirrors the current political landscape in that some of the kids’ campaigns focus on how to better the lives of the citizenry, while others concentrate on tearing down their competition to win. In the end, Boys State manages to leave its viewer with a rare commodity in these troubled times: hope.
Shirley is a “biographical drama” about the life of iconic horror writer Shirley Jackson, who is probably best known for her short story masterworks The Lottery and The Haunting of Hill House. The film follows a young couple who moves in with Shirley and her Bennington College professor-husband, Stanley Hyman, and how their lives are forever changed by their time with the very eccentric couple. Elisabeth Moss gives a stunning performance as the titular Shirley, a horror writer who finds inspiration in a young woman’s disappearance to start her first full length novel Hangsaman all the while battling with depression and agoraphobia. The film presents a stark portrait of Shirley’s troubled relationship with her macabre gift in a time when female horror writers of her caliber were unicorns.