The first half of 2020 has been one of the most tumultuous periods in the century-plus history of the motion picture industry, as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire activity of theatrical movie-going for the first time since… well, since the last pandemic, back in 1918. As rules have been (literally, in some cases) rewritten, high-profile releases have been delayed, rescheduled, and delayed again, in an increasingly desperate and depressing game of Kick the Can. 

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And while some of those films may have been worth talking about, the kind of big franchise pictures deemed necessary for big-screen viewing (and theatrical revenue) aren’t usually the bread and butter of a list like this anyway. Streaming originals and small-scale indies have, for years now, told the kind of intimate, character-based stories that no longer interest major studios; plenty of those films have made their way to viewers over these peculiar months, perhaps even landing with more impact than they would’ve, were they forced to share finite cultural shelf-space with their big-budget brethren.

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So let’s take a moment to recognize these fine films, all available (in some form or another) for home viewing, and appreciate their ability to provide a moment’s joy, introspection, or even just distraction in this very weird time. 

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“The Assistant”
Kitty Green’s characters never utter the name “Weinstein” in this dramatization of a day in the life of the assistant to a film executive who’s also a monstrous sexual predator, though she’s not just being coy – it’s clearly inspired by not only his documented instances of sexual harassment and assault, but the legends of his bad behavior that vibrated through Hollywood and New York for decades before his fall. Yet it’s non-specific because it’s not a roman à clef; this could be about any number of people in that industry or any other one. Green’s perceptive screenplay and stylishly alienated direction capture all the microaggressions, humiliations, and power plays of a toxic workplace; her agonizing visit to HR (in the form of Matthew Macfayden, in a turn that makes Tom Wambsgans seem comparatively professional and compassionate) is like a keenly observed one-act play on corporate intimidation. Yet the film also understands the Weinstein mindset, burrowing into how men like this one charm, humiliate, and manipulate those around them (“I’m tough on you because I’m gonna make you great”). Julia Garner, so good on “Ozark” and in “Grandma,” is astonishing in the title role, pushing the tension between her calm line reading and her expressive eyes to the limit. It’s a performance of quiet but undeniable rage; same goes for the movie. [Review]

“Bacurau”
Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Cannes Grand Jury Prize winner is a thrilling exercise in WTF-ery, incongruently intermingling heavy doses of neorealism, surrealism, and class commentary to tell a story of… well, frankly, one of the film’s true pleasures is the degree in which it withholds that information, letting the viewer surmise, deduce, and head-scratch without seeming to just jerk our chains. Let it be said that its portraiture of an off-the-grid, off-the-map (literally) Brazilian village and its invasion by tourists does, with breathless wit and high style, what the lumbering “The Hunt” could not. The cast is uniformly excellent – performance highlights include Sonia Braga as the town’s most colorful character and Udo Kier as (what else) an evil mastermind – but writer/directors Dornelles and Filho are the real stars here, displaying a merciless storytelling sense, a sure hand with tone, and an admirable ability to make a deeply political film without bludgeoning the viewer. [Review]

“Bad Education”
Director Corey Finley (“Thoroughbreds”) spins a complicated web of embezzlement, theft, and corruption, and the wildest part is, it’s all true; it happened in the Long Island school system back in 2002. Hugh Jackman plays the school superintendent at the story’s center as something like a local rock star, a smooth operator with great hair and great teeth who knows exactly what parents and school board members want to hear. He’s the kind of guy whose affable demeanor and razzle-dazzle persona can hide shocking secrets, and Jackman’s career-best performance takes pleasure in slowly and carefully unpeeling those layers. It’s the kind of handsome, slick, charming con man that Richard Gere has similarly made a specialty, and Jackman plays these notes with wit and grace. Standouts in the enviable ensemble include Ray Romano as a feckless yes-man, Allison Janney as a wry partner in crime, and especially Geraldine Viswanathan as the school newspaper Woodstein who is not to be underestimated. Comparisons to “Election” abound, and it doesn’t quite measure up on those terms. But it’s a razor-sharp and ruthless satire, and it’s a particularly appropriate time for a story of public servants as shameless grifters, isn’t it? [Review]

“Beanpole
At Cannes last year, first-time filmmaker Kantemir Balagov won the Un Certain Regard section award for Best Director Award and the FIPRESCI Prize for Best Film—not bad for your directorial debut. There’s a reason for this: because “Beanpole,” a post-WWII movie set in Leningrad, is absolutely devastating and absolutely crippling look at the enduring post-traumatic horrors. War may be over for the citizens of Leningrad in 1945, but in Balagov’s film, everyone is just beginning to grapple with the physical, emotional, and psychological burdens of their demolished city and lives left in tatters. Through the broken emotional rubble of this framework emerges a story of a traumatized woman returning from war (Vasilisa Perelygina) to retrieve her son from her best friend, the slender and tall Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko)—recovering from her own post-traumatic syndrome when she was discharged from war years earlier—and discovering a new horror and trauma awaits. “Beanpole” then transforms into a heartbreaking and empathetic tale of morality, guilt, PTSD, that is fantastically performed and gorgeously directed. There’s a lot of great directorial debuts on this list, but this searing drama about surviving a siege and then living with the wreckage that remains is bracingly potent and one of the most bruising debuts we’ve ever witnessed. [Review] – Rodrigo Perez

Beastie Boys Story
In 2012, rapper Adam “MCA” Yauch died of cancer, and the iconic Brooklyn hip-hop group, The Beastie Boys, effectively died with him on that very day. But the spirit of Yauch—a hyper-creative, adventurous, generous, ever-evolving man who grew from problematic B-boy stereotypes into a socially conscious Buddhist—and the Beastie Boys live on and have aged well in the era of toxic men. As the remaining Beasties wrote a book about their career and exploits, and how they grew and evolved as men, how that affected the art and vice versa, they took the book to the stage for a brief concert tour. Who better to bring the experience to the screen than Spike Jonze (“Being John Malkovich”), the filmmaker who also launched his career by directing some of the Beasties most zany, wild, and iconic music videos. This ensuing live-concert documentary, “Beastie Boys Story” is an affectionate love-letter to the Beasties, their friendship, music, and of course, Yauch, the leader whose growth as a human being became the band’s guiding light. But the doc is also a moving coming of age tale. Sure, there’s rags to riches unexpected overnight success narrative elements to it, but the crux is really a Boys To Men story—teenage best friends who got lost in the haze of overwhelming superstardom, crashed and burned with their jerky antics fast, but made their way back on their own terms, and evolving into thoughtful, sensitive men and artists that time has demonstrated were always worth the fuss about in the first place. [Review] -RP

Blow the Man Down
Another directorial debut from a sharp writer/directing pair to keep an eye on Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy’s “Blow The Man Down” is a distinctive, funny, and insightful black comedy that has just the right amount of Coen Brothers influence mixed with their own quirky sensibilities. Starring Morgan Saylor (“White Girl“) and Sophie Lowe (“Beautiful Kate“), and set in a Maine fishing village, “Blow The Man Down” cleverly uses the ideas of sea shanties—as the title suggests— to tell a twisty crime story about women who accidentally kill a predator which leads them to unravel a whole series of sex-work network conspiracies in their seemingly sleepy, docile fishing town. What ensues, is Coen-esque in its offbeat look at the strange transgressions taking place behind closed doors of “ordinary” small-town America. Margo Martindale co-stars and this one is a hoot that is also incredibly well shot, with formalist rigor and distinctly observant directorial eyes. These two are ones to watch. [Review] – RP