- Amazon Pictures
- The Vasrt of Light
We're just over the halfway mark in a year that seems like it can't possibly end fast enough. Among the many bizarre qualities of 2020 has been a nearly four-month hiatus in new theatrical releases—but that doesn't mean we haven't had new movies worth giving your attention. Here in no particular order are a handful of the year's best so far, whether from theater screens, streaming services or virtual cinemas.
The Vast of Night: Director Andrew Patterson and screenwriters James Montague & Craig W. Sanger wear their influences baldly on their sleeves, but the result is a nifty low-tech sci-fi tale. The framing sequence positions it as an episode of a late-1950s Twilight Zone-esque series, where over the course of one evening, New Mexico radio station deejay Everett (Jake Horowitz) and switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick) become aware of a strange radio transmission that may portend world-changing events. The first act terrifically re-creates Eisenhower-era small-town life, while establishing an easy chemistry between the cocky Everett and gee-whiz Fay. That prologue also provides a solid context of this story in a time where people are fascinated with the futuristic technology (like phones people can carry around with them!). Once the plot kicks in, Patterson plays with his direction in engaging ways, and while it's hard for the payoff to match Twilight Zone for a thematic kick, The Vast of Nightlargely evokes an era of curiosity and anxiety.
- Grasshopper Film
Fourteen: Tales of dysfunctional/codependent relationships are tough to nail down, which makes writer/director Dan Sallitt's film even more of a heartbreaking triumph. Over the course of around 10 years, Sallitt follows Mara (Tallie Medel) and Jo (Norma Kuhling)—friends since grade school—as Mara copes with the volatility of Jo's personality. Sallitt's directing style tends toward long takes, which can lead to the deceptive early impression that this story will be chilly and formalistic. But here it allows the characters and performances a chance to shine—both Medel and Kuhling are low-key fantastic—capturing a relationship filled with a weight of history. AndFourteennails the dynamic that complicates this friendship: Mara's frustration that she's always picking up the pieces of Jo's messy life, and Jo's despair that "there's no thing that happened" to offer an easy explanation for her mental-health rollercoaster. Parceling out information with patience and delicacy, Sallitt builds a remarkable portrait of how it feels to care deeply for someone you might not ever be able to "fix."
- A24 Films
- First Cow
First Cow: Many of director Kelly Reichardt's favored themes—the power of companionship, simple survival, economic uncertainty—coalesce in yet another beautiful exercise in filmmaking restraint. Working again with writer Jonathan Raymond, Reichardt visits the Oregon Territory circa the 1820s, where itinerant cook Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) and Chinese immigrant King Lu (Orion Lee) begin a business collaboration built on stealing milk from the only cow in the region, owned by a wealthy local landowner (Toby Jones). In some ways this is a suspense tale set in an unforgiving time and place, yet the modern-day prologue also removes a bit of that tension in favor of fatalism. What remains is both an economic parable and a tale of unconventional friendship, where capitalism collides with basic decency. Magaro's pitch-perfect performance becomes the ideal representation of that dynamic, conveying what happens when somebody who is fundamentally kind and gentle faces the realities of a cutthroat world. With quiet confidence, Reichardt and Raymond offer a sweet and sad reminder of the violence behind our national mythologies of self-made men.
- Universal Pictures
- The Invisible Man
The Assistant and The Invisible Man: Two of this year's finest offerings were both tales of women trying to survive the threat of a predatory man. Kitty Green's The Assistant casts Julia Garner as the newly-hired personal assistant to a clearly-Harvey-Weinstein-esque movie industry bigwig, as she tries to navigate the realization that he might be sexually assaulting young would-be actresses. A brilliant scene with a useless human resources director emphasizes the structures set up against any sort of accountability, while Garner's performance captures how easy it is to stay silent. Meanwhile, James Wan's latest incarnation of the H.G. Wells story pits Elisabeth Moss against her abusive ex, a tech millionaire who develops a way to stalk her without being seen. The set pieces allow for a terrific mix of visceral shocks and simmering paranoia, accentuated by a ferocious central performance by Moss. It might be a perfect movie for 2020 in another sense too: It's about feeling crazy that you need to convince people that an obvious threat is real, even though it's one you can't see.