The 25 Best Films of 2020 We’ve Already Seen
2020 is coming up fast, and we’ve already caught a fair bit of the year’s “new” films on the 2019 festival circuit and beyond — here are the best ones.
While 2019 is nearly over, the next year is right around the corner. Luckily, a fair bit of the highlights from the upcoming 2020 release calendar have already screened on the 2019 festival circuit and beyond. From Kitty Green’s chilling “The Assistant” and Cory Finley’s TIFF breakout “Bad Education” to Michael Covino’s genre-freshening “The Climb” and Armando Iannucci’s unexpectedly warm-hearted “The Personal History of David Copperfield,” next year already has a hefty number of proven quantities to look forward to. (And, if you’re looking for some great films still in need of homes, we’ve got that covered, too.)
IndieWire has curated 25 titles worthy of anticipation and combined them all into a single guide, complete with release dates and review snippets that provide a sneak peak at several movies bound to be a part of the year-end conversation 12 months down the line.
Of note: This list only includes films we have already seen that have a set 2020 release date or have been picked up for distribution with 2020 release dates to be set.
“Bad Education” (TBD 2020)
The incredible magic trick of Cory Finley’s “Bad Education,” a diabolically smart true-life crime drama that stars Hugh Jackman in his best performance since “The Prestige,” is how it manages to balance that asymmetry in the most savage and softhearted of ways, inviting sympathy for the devil even after it convinces you why he should go to hell. Heavy with poisoned humor and as panoramic as Finley’s “Thoroughbreds” was laser-focused, “Bad Education” is in no hurry to reveal the full picture; watching the first hour of the movie, it’s hard to imagine how this seemingly benign story of suburban malfeasance could possibly explode into the biggest embezzlement scandal in the history of the American school system. But the pieces are there from the moment the film starts, buried just under the sand. Screenwriter Mike Makowsky — whose script is a well-calculated masterclass in narrative economy — takes us back to the Long Island high school where he was a student in 2002.
“How to Build a Girl” (TBD 2020)
Johanna Morrigan (Beanie Feldstein) is used to not seeing leading ladies like herself — goofy, a little chubby, academically inclined, friendless, super into dogs — in books or movies. Hell, she’s used to not even really seeing herself in her own life, instead whiling away her time dreaming of an existence where she might have the chance to shine (mostly, that means moving away from the dreadfully boring UK council estate she’s grown up in). A poet, a reader, and a follower of such diverse luminaries as Sylvia Plath, Sigmund Freud, and even the fictional Jo March, Johanna has a spark, but absolutely nothing to fan it with.
While most stories like Johanna’s might get a bump from the introduction of a romantic suitor, Johanna isn’t into that either, and as she announces during the energetic introduction to Coky Giedroyc’s winning “How to Build a Girl,” her philosophy is more evolved: “I do not think my adventure starts with a boy, it starts with me.” She’s right, and what follows is a smart twist on the coming-of-age comedy.
“Sound of Metal” (TBD 2020)
Riz Ahmed is the sort of frantic screen actor who always looks like he might jut out of the frame, and in “Sound of Metal,” he’s trapped. As Ruben, the heavy-metal drummer going deaf at the center of the mesmerizing debut from writer-director Darius Marder, Ahmed conveys the complex frustrations of losing touch with the world around him no matter how much he fights to hold onto it. This devastating conundrum relies on the best use of sound design in recent memory, as Marder immerses viewers within the confines of Ruben’s deteriorating relationship to the world around him, and he sorts through the wreckage to construct a new one. Ahmed’s brilliant performance coasts on a complex soundscape that resonates even in total silence.
“True History of the Kelly Gang” (TBD 2020)
When Australian robber Ned Kelly was executed in 1880 at the age of 25, his last words were reported as “Such is life.” Director Justin Kurzel’s sizzling, violent epic “True History of the Kelly Gang” questions that myth, suggesting that the legendary Australian criminal would never shrug off his fate, since he was a fighter right through to the bitter end. The movie hovers in a curious paradox, coming across as both operatic tribute and horrific condemnation, but it’s never less than a nasty crime drama with plenty of grimy characters to keep the stakes compelling throughout. Imagine “Bonnie and Clyde” in the Australian outback — a disturbing glimpse of criminality that provides a subversive taste of its appeal. Working with his regular screenwriter Shaun Grant, Kurzel has constructed a taut and vivid overview of Kelly’s harsh upbringing and how it transformed him into a vengeful monstrosity, played by George Mackay as Mick Jagger by way of Freddy Krueger.
“Radioactive” (TBD 2020)
Rosamund Pike has a penchant for playing determined women navigating oppressive male-dominated environments, from the femme fatale of “Gone Girl” to war photographer Marie Colvin in last year’s “A Private War.” In the latest example, “Radioactive,” Pike delivers a powerful embodiment of another tragic hero named Marie. As pioneering physicist and chemist Marie Curie, Pike delivers a dazzling performance rich with the struggles of a life defined by perilous discoveries and great personal loss. As directed by Marjane Satrapi, this discursive biopic struggles whenever it cuts away from her drama to explore the bigger picture — with peculiar flash-forwards to a nuclear future — but Pike helps fuse it together.
“About Endlessness” (TBD 2020)
The least funny and most tender movie that Roy Andersson has made since building his own studio with the profits he’d saved from decades of enormously successful commercial work, “About Endlessness” adopts the same qualities of life itself: it’s both short and infinite. It’s over in a heartbeat, and yet it feels like it could go on forever. Like a stone-faced Scheherazade, Andersson stops as soon as it’s clear that he can outlast us. Better 76 minutes than 1,001 nights. Fittingly, “About Endlessness” is narrated by a young girl who speaks from an undefined future, and “remembers” each story for us as if she’s blindly reaching for them in the dark. “I saw a man with his mind elsewhere,” she says as we watch a waiter overpour a glass of wine. “I saw a woman who thought no one was waiting for her,” she recalls, as a blonde steps off of a train and looks for the man who was supposed to meet her on the platform.
“Circus of Books” (TBD 2020)
Like any good Jewish mother, Karen Mason has a lot of opinions. Specifically, opinions about why her daughter is making a movie about her. “What are you gonna do with this?” she asks skeptically, as she tosses around boxes of gay porn magazines and DVDs with the workmanlike nonchalance of any small-business owner. Later, when she drops off a donation at USC’s National Gay & Lesbian Archives, she will marvel over a zine display: “You should be doing the documentary about this.” Of course, Karen’s dogged pragmatism, and her complex relationship to the smut that provided her family’s livelihood for thirty years, is why “Circus of Books” is such a rare delight — and a nearly perfect documentary.
“Blow the Man Down” (TBD 2020)
It’s hard enough when Mary Margaret Connolly passes away in the sleepy Maine fishing town of Easter Cove, leaving behind two shell-shocked daughters, a house they can no longer afford, a fish shop no one seems to patronize, and enough secrets to keep the Connolly sisters scrambling for the foreseeable future. And then one of them goes and kills a guy. Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy’s feature directorial debut lays out plenty of familiar beats in their Coen brothers-esque crime comedy, from a bloody murder to a bag of cash, all enlivened by some wonderfully distinct accents, but the pair also find their way to a unique new story that signals their arrival as a filmmaking duo to watch.
“Zombi Child” (January 24)
As its title suggests, “Zombi Child” finds Bertrand Bonello taking that idea to its logical and most literal conclusion. Not only does this time-hopping curio riff on the true-ish story of Clairvius Narcisse, a Haitian man who was said to have been turned into the walking dead, it also threads in a parallel narrative that follows Narcisse’s (fictional) granddaughter as she attends an elite — and predominantly white — boarding school in present-day Paris, where she and her only surviving relative have relocated after the earthquake that devastated their home island in 2010.
Folding history onto itself more explicitly than any of Bonello’s previous films, “Zombi Child” peels back centuries of racist stereotypes to rescue Voodoo from the stuff of black magic and portray it instead as a kind of communion — a communion between spirits, a communion between generations, and a communion between the dislocated joints of an empire. As a horror movie, it all works better in the abstract, but even the most terrifying scenes are rooted in something real.
“Beanpole” (January 29)
Inspired by Svetlana Alexievich’s book “The Unwomanly Face of War,” Kantemir Balagov’s frigid “Beanpole” tells a glacially paced but gorgeously plotted story about two women — two best friends — who grow so desperate for any kind of personal agency that they start using each other to answer the unsolvable arithmetic of life and death. The chipped green paint of Iya’s apartment walls, the sour white light that soaks the hospital windows, and the 600 meters of period-perfect set that Balagov’s “Roma”-caliber production team built for the transportive exterior scenes all cohere into a vivid snow-globe of space-time in which everything is believable, but nothing feels quite real.
“The Assistant” (January 31)
Kitty Green’s first fiction feature following the innovative true-crime documentary “Casting JonBenet” feels like a natural extension of her earlier work. Built out of immaculate research into the working conditions under Weinstein and how they affected many of the young women on its payroll, the movie unfolds as a gradual accumulation of intricate details, mapping out the character’s exhausting routine until it becomes her own private Twilight Zone.
“The Assistant” adopts such a gradual pace that it sometimes works against the stunning performance at its center, but there’s no doubting the hypnotic power of a movie that digs inside Weinstein’s harrowing reign and observes the mechanics that allowed it to last so long. A quiet work with major ambitions, “The Assistant” is a significant cultural statement in cinematic form.
“Premature” (February 21)
It’s a compelling concept for a coming-of-age story, but the final act of “Premature” switches gears into more traditional twists, as Ayanna (co-writer) Zora Howard)must deal with surprising news without Isaiah’s (Joshua Boone) help. It’s a story that has been done before, and the way it unfolds isn’t original or unexpected, but Howard’s performance and poeticism gives it gravitas. And while Green’s refusal to tie it all up in a neat bow rankles at first, it eventually scans as a refection of a world beholden to questions that don’t have answers. When will Ayanna grow up? Soon, right now, even as you watch.
Locarno Film Festival
“Vitalina Varela” (February 21)
The mystery and wonder of Pedro Costa’s filmmaking defies any specific category other than his own unique blend. The Portuguese director conjures dark, dreamlike visions of post-colonial neglect and yearning that hover somewhere between fantasy and neorealism, horror and melodrama, spirituality and desperation. “Vitalina Varela,” Costa’s fifth journey into the shantytown Fontainhas outside of Lisbon, once again showcases Costa’s masterful ability to mine cinematic poetry from a unique environment and the mournful figures who wander through its murky depths.
The Costa Expanded Universe stems back to 2006’s “Colossal Youth,” when Costa first began exploring the Cape Verdean residents of Fontainhas by casting members of the immigrant community as themselves. Costa’s ravishing blend of light and shadow captures the characters as they wander the claustrophobic interiors of their ramshackle homes and muse about their wandering lives. Costa’s dour, humorless aesthetic takes time to settle in and certainly requires a degree of openness to his approach, but “Vitalina Varela” is a perfect distillation of the rewarding nature of that process.
“The Whistlers” (February 28)
Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu makes playful movies with a lot to say. That proclivity grows even stronger with his entertaining noir “The Whistlers,” a polished mashup of genre motifs that suggests what might happen if the “Ocean’s 11” gang assembled on the Canary Islands. That’s right: One of the directors tied to the so-called Romanian New Wave of the aughts, when dreary masterpieces like “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and Two Days” and “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” generated global acclaim, has made a bonafide commercial movie. But Porumboiu, a cerebral director whose narrative style always comes equipped with a prankish spirit, imbues this slick ensemble piece with a wry agenda.
“Burden” (February 28)
If Mike Burden didn’t actually exist, and writer and director Andrew Heckler created a fictional character, it wouldn’t work. But as it happens, Mike Burden was a KKK member who left the Klan because of the love of a good woman, eventually aligning himself with an African-American minister he was once prepared to assassinate, all while laboring mightily under the, get this, burden implied by his surname. It sounds too neat, too crazy, too scripted. But he is real, and so is Heckler’s decades-in-the-making biopic “Burden,” which isn’t neat, crazy, or too scripted. Instead, what Heckler — a first-time filmmaker finally getting to make his passion project after nearly 20 years — offers is a hard-won redemption story that doesn’t cut corners and or look for easy answers.
As Burden, Garrett Hedlund astonishes in a nuanced portrait of a man resistant to change, until he finally comes to understand that hatred is literally killing him. It’s a timely story, of course, but it’s also a universal one that delivers a necessary message without shirking from the realities of breaking free from a lifetime of evil indoctrination.
“The Wild Goose Lake” (March 6)
An invigorating, poetic, and discretely brilliant Chinese noir that adds up to less than the sum of its parts, Diao Yinan’s “The Wild Goose Lake” can’t help but feel like a mild comedown from the director’s Berlinale-winning 2014, “Black Coal, Thin Ice.” To some degree, that disappointment may have been inevitable, as Yinan’s five-year-old masterpiece tapped into the kind of dark magic that’s difficult to conjure twice. Alas, it doesn’t necessarily help that Diao’s first feature in five years treads similar territory as his previous work, as he once again steers his bleak genius towards the bitter indignities of China’s “second-tier” cities, weaving a sibylline crime story of life and death through a world that’s moving too fast to keep tabs on such things.
“First Cow” (March 6)
Mostly, though, “First Cow” unfolds like “Old Joy” in the Oregon Territory. Once again, Kelly Reichardt has crafted a wondrous little story about two friends roaming the natural splendors of the Pacific Northwest, searching for their place in the world. The appeal of this hypnotic, unpredictable movie comes from how they find that place through mutual failure, and the nature of that outcome in the context of an early, untamed America has rich implications that gradually seep into the frame. Reichardt excels at communing with natural beauty and humankind’s complex relationship to it, but “First Cow” pushes that motif into timeless resonance.
“Bacurau” (March 6)
In some respects, however, “Bacurau” marks something of a departure for its director (who shares his credit here with Juliano Dornelles). Whereas “Neighboring Sounds” relies on acoustics to weaponize the 21st century against its characters, this film opts for actual weapons. And while “Aquarius” is a grounded character study about a retired journalist who refuses to sell her Recife apartment to a predatory development company, “Bacurau” is a gloriously demented (and lightly psychedelic) Western that starts in outer space, ends with Udo Kier being hunted by a ghost, and spends the rest of its runtime blending everything from “Seven Samurai” to “Hostel” into a bloody and unapologetic “fuck you” to anyone who thinks that cutting edge technology entitles them to see the world as their own personal slaughterhouse. So… yeah, maybe it’s also a slight change of pace.
“Swallow” (March 13)
There’s something fitting about the fact that Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ “Swallow” — a provocative and frequently brilliant thriller about the patriarchal control over female bodies — is set in a purgatorial stretch of upstate New York that’s roughly equidistant from both Jeanne Dielman’s home at 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels, and the arid San Fernando Valley that almost suffocates Carol White to death in “Safe.” While he might not possess Chantal Akerman’s visionary patience, or exhibit Todd Haynes’ singular talent for mining horror from metaphor, Mirabella-Davis has crafted a sharp and surprising modern fable around a woman whose environment has been weaponized against her since birth.
“The Truth” (March 20)
Filmmaker Kore-eda Hirokazu once predicted that his Palme d’Or-winning “Shoplifters” would come to represent a major turning point in his career — the end of one phase, and the beginning of another. As it turns out, “The Truth” is inevitably a bit more complicated. The first movie the Japanese writer-director has made since winning the film world’s most prestigious award is also the first that he’s ever shot in another tongue or country, and that fact alone is enough to make Kore-eda’s latest feel like an outlier in any number of obvious ways; a foreign organ transplanted into an otherwise cohesive body of work. On the other hand, this wise and diaphanous little drama finds Kore-eda once again exploring his usual obsessions, as the man behind the likes of “Still Walking” and “After the Storm” offers yet another insightful look at the underlying fabric of a modern family.
“Deerskin” (March 20)
The odd twist of Quentin Dupieux’s “Deerskin” is its deceptive simplicity. Anyone familiar with the French director’s loopy, surrealist comedies — the killer tire saga “Rubber” and Kafkaesque noir “Wrong” among them — knows that his zany, paranoid characters speak in baffling monologues as their worlds melt around them. “Deerskin” follows suit, but reduces the style to a minimalist curiosity, resulting in a 78-minute stunt with one appealing hook: Jean Dujardin, hilarious and unhinged, as a psychopath so infatuated with his new jacket that he decides it should be the only one in the world. It’s hard to shake the feeling that Dupieux’s outré premise would have worked better as a short, as the unusual narrative struggles to make the scenario palatable even at the bare minimum for a feature-length treatment. But a hilarious Dujardin performance and the filmmaker’s inspired fashion conceit yield an enjoyable diversion from a filmmaker with nothing to prove.
“The Climb” (March 20)
The premise of “The Climb” has been told so many times it’s a small miracle that this one works at all: Two lifelong buddies test the boundaries of their friendship when a woman comes between them. Yet Michael Covino’s absorbing directorial debut confronts that challenge with stunning cinematic ambition, resulting in a brilliant reinvention of the buddy comedy. Testosterone-fueled dude movies have occupied every facet of the filmmaking landscape in recent years, from the Duplass brothers to “Step Brothers,” but “The Climb” transforms that trope into a fresh vision of boozy showdowns and awkward laments, resulting in a winning tragicomic vision of its own design.
The starting point for “The Climb” goes back to a 2017 Sundance short film, with a clever scenario so economical it never could have hinted at the grand design to follow: Longtime pals Mike (Covino) and Kyle (co-writer Kyle Marvin) bike up a steep hill as Mike, the fitter of the two, speeds ahead, while confessing that he’s been sleeping with Kyle’s fiancé. In seven tight minutes, the short envisioned a pair of dopey, breathless man-children whose tight bond is tested under the silliest of circumstances. Where could it possibly go from there? As it turns out: Many exciting places, as this sharp two-hander veers from caustic to sweet with acrobatic filmmaking to spare.
“Saint Maud” (March 27)
A slender but unholy cross between “First Reformed” and “The Exorcist,” Rose Glass’ taut and trembling “Saint Maud” transmutes a young woman’s spiritual crisis into such a refined story of body horror that genre fans might feel like they’re having a religious experience. Of course, even the most overzealous viewers will find there’s always room for doubt — and that’s where the Devil gets in. A palliative care nurse in a dreary town somewhere along the British coast, the intensely devout Maud (a divine Morfydd Clark) is doing her best to seal the area around her soul. That seems to be one hell of a struggle. Soft-spoken but vibrating with serial killer intensity, Maud seldom opens her mouth when she’s not talking to God inside her acetic little apartment, reminding her lord and savior that she was meant for something greater.
“The Personal History of David Copperfield” (May 8)
Armando Iannucci has been the reigning king of filmed satire for years, but with “The Personal History of David Copperfield,” he trades zingy political satire for a messy assemblage of whimsical conceits. On its own terms, Iannucci’s warm-hearted adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic has good intentions to spare, from an inspired color-blind cast led by Dev Patel in top form, to a cascade of playful scene transitions that mimic the kaleidoscopic overview of the Victorian narrator’s bumpy life. With everything from “Veep” to “The Death of Stalin,” the writer-director has transforming dense bureaucratic processes into snappy and sardonic showdowns. With “David Copperfield,” he applies that same skill to literature, transforming Dickens’ sprawling first-person opus into a blithe mid-century romp. But it’s hard to shake the sense that this acerbic storyteller has softened his bite.
“Ema” (Summer 2020)
An anarchic, liberated, and contagiously alive character study that feels like it was born out of a three-way between “Amélie,” “Oldboy,” and Gaspar Noé before maturing into a force of nature all its own, Pablo Larraín’s “Ema” doesn’t always dance to a clear or recognizable beat, but anybody willing to get on its wavelength will be rewarded with one of the year’s most dynamic and electrifying films. Which isn’t to suggest the movie — Larraín’s first since the one-two punch of “Neruda” and “Jackie” in 2016 — doesn’t grab you from the moment it starts, only that it keeps you on your toes for a little while before you can figure out the steps, and it never lets you take the lead.