Todd McCarthy: The Best Films Of 2020 So Far Amid The New World Disorder

There can be no question that, as of its halfway point, 2020 has been the most trying, tragic, lamentable and downright unfortunate year most of us have ever experienced. This fact renders the creation of such ephemera as film and television best-lists even more trivial than usual, especially as cinemas were shutting down by March.

But on the other hand, the staggering amount of filmed material — old and new, foreign and domestic — along with the enforced stay-at-home circumstances we’re all still experiencing has offered up more opportunities to sample all sorts of fare one might never have had the time or inclination to check out before. This is one of the few consolations for, and escapes from, of our present earthly predicament.

Very few people will disagree with my jaundiced opinion of the films that were released in 2020 before the Coronavirus Curtain came down 3 1/2 months ago. Bad Boys for Life, the entertaining box office champ of the year as things stand, was at least a welcome improvement over what Michael Bay used to unload on us. But have you even heard of the No. 2 or No. 3 top-grossing films of 2020, Sonic the Hedgehog and Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn? Did you know that the Robert Downey Jr. fiasco Dolittle stands at No. 4? The year and the films deserve each other.

Perhaps forgotten, as if belonging to a suddenly distant world that no longer exists, is the fact that there were some sensationally good films at Sundance this year (the last film festival any of us is likely to attend for a very long time). I saw seven films there — four features, three documentaries — that were absolutely first-rate, and there undoubtedly were several more I couldn’t squeeze in. Emerald Fenell’s scathingly caustic directorial debut, Promising Young Woman, was due to be released by Focus in April, but audiences will now have to wait indefinitely to behold Carey Mulligan’s way-out-there performance as a psychologically wounded woman who plots extraordinary vengeance.

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A very different sort of feature worth waiting for is Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, a graceful, poignant, keenly observed look at a Korean family’s struggle to resettle in rural Arkansas. A24 eventually will release the film, which enjoys the distinction of having won both the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award in Park City.

Anthony Hopkins startles with one of his most extraordinary performances in French dramatist and director Florian Zeller’s The Father, a sort of modern domestic King Lear in which an old man declining into dementia rails and connives against the onset of his personal night.

Along with The Father, Sony Classics will, when possible, also release the challenging, mystical and mysterious Nine Days, the imposing directorial debut by Edson Oda that would seem to have been significantly influenced by the work of Terrence Malick.

On the documentary side, decisively jumped out from the crowd, two of which involved the murder of journalists. Those were Bryan Fogel’s impassioned and comprehensive The Dissident, about the killing of Saudi political journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey, and Into the Deep, Emma Sullivan’s jaw-dropping account of a Swedish female investigative reporter who was abducted by maverick Danish inventor Peter Madsen aboard the latter’s homemade submarine.

A third documentary stands as absolutely unique in my experience and is a film to be cherished. Kirsten Johnson’s ultra-inventive, novel and funny portrait of her father, Dick Johnson Is Dead. He gleefully cooperates with his daughter’s project, which involves repeatedly depicting his “death” on film. It’s one of the great “all in the family” creative projects on record and wonderfully entertaining in the bargain.

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I’ve previously written about some of the year’s worthy films that, by design or otherwise, are being seen at home, notably Da 5 Bloods; The King of Staten Island; The Invisible Man, which performed well in an abbreviated theatrical run; and The Outpost, which will make a token theatrical debut just prior to its VOD appearance on July 3.

And as for TV, if you haven’t yet discovered the French espionage series The Bureau, now in its fifth season, it’s high time you did. It’s dynamite, one of the best shows ever.

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