There’s a great sight gag in Robert Altman’s Hollywood satire The Player, a building on a studio lot emblazoned with a phony but wholly accurate showbiz motto: “Movies … now more than ever.” In the context of a movie made in the early ’90s, this epigram criticized both the nascent direct-to-VHS market and the escalating spectacle of the most expensive blockbusters, literal and spiritual sequels to the special-effects-driven shlock that demolished Altman’s New Hollywood glory days. But the words also perfectly parody the kind of glib, pandering mantras people use to reassure themselves in times of crisis about the enduring importance of their practices and pastimes—in our current case, that the steady stream of VOD offerings we’re watching while waiting out a global pandemic constitute some form of film culture, and that, by extension, the movies still matter now … more than ever.
Maybe they do and maybe they don’t. Or maybe they never will again, at least not in the same way as when moviegoing was a fundamentally collective phenomenon, although we’ve arguably been heading in that direction for a while anyway. The question of whether cobbling together lists of the “best movies of the year” was ever more than an arbitrary inventory juxtaposing A-list titles from big studios with smallers films whose theatrical release dates come months or years after festival premieres is actually not all that different in 2020 than it was in 2019 or 2018. It seems increasingly common that smaller distributors will cut their losses by putting potential niche hits on demand rather than further biding their time for arthouses to re-open (Exhibit A: A24 putting First Cow online this month rather than rereleasing into theaters at a later date). The feeling of a “lost year” has begun to subside … at least for those positioned, savvy, or privileged enough to access (and subsidize) the network of “virtual cinemas” operating in the shadow of Netflix, iTunes, and Disney+.
For those with the desire and the time, the year to date has yielded a strong, diverse slate of movies, and most of what’s on this list can be found fairly easily at this point. Consider our top 25 an opportunity to play catch-up before we find out whether Christopher Nolan’s Tenet will even be released in time to round out 2020’s roll call. —Adam Nayman
To read the rest of The Ringer’s Best of 2020 (So Far) lists, click here.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Directed by Eliza Hittman (Focus)
Where to Watch: Streaming VOD
An experiential, almost methodological look at a young woman’s quest to get an abortion, Hittman’s third feature film never takes it eyes off Autumn (newcomer Sidney Flanigan), a protagonist with a deep reserve of unspoken pain, anxiety, and confusion. This is a movie increasingly rare in mainstream independent cinema—issue-driven but not preachy, empathetic but deeply unsentimental, riveting and disinterested in eventizing its circumstances. Hittman is already known for a patient gaze and what can sometimes seem like ambivalence about plotting. A bus ride from Pennsylvania to New York City plays like the slowest burn second act imaginable. But Never Rarely Sometimes Always takes that impressionistic style and subsumes it in a journey toward freedom, or at least finality, and all the complexities of coping with the end. This film, maybe the best movie released in 2020, feels like a turning point for a major American filmmaker. —Sean Fennessey
Dir. by Kitty Green (Bleecker Street)
Where to Watch: Streaming VOD
The stringent, rhythmic minimalism of Kitty Green’s workplace horror movie is the year’s most adroit and agile exercise in film direction; while not a lot happens in The Assistant, the film’s vision of silent, head-down professionalism as a form of complicity (consider the chilling implications of the title) is indelible, turning what might have otherwise been pegged as a #MeToo fable into something more effectively existential. As the immaculately dressed and styled drone trying to decide whether to tell on her sexually predatory boss, Julia Garner locates the intersection of self-effacement and self-negation; as the company’s concern-trolling HR gatekeeper, Matthew Macfadyen distills his sickly funny brilliance on Succession into a single, insidious sequence. —Nayman