Mid-Year Lists | 20 of the Best Films of 2020 So Far

2020 has been a strange year for movies. Its first three months were heaven for Irish cinephiles, with many heavily anticipated Oscar players and acclaimed films that first premiered at festivals in 2019 finally getting their release in the Emerald Isle. Following this, however, Covid-19 essentially put a halt on new movies, aside from the odd worthwhile VOD and Netflix release.

Hopefully, with Irish cinemas set to reopen July 20, there will be more gems to celebrate by the end of the year. Until then, here are some of HeadStuff’s film contributors’ favourites of 2020 so far.

Bliss

If anyone had the audacity to claim an artsy low-budget indie horror revolving around a frustrated painter taking hallucinatory drugs and spiraling into a maddening cycle of blood, sex and murder would be one of the best movies of the year, you’d probably have dismissed it and laughed it off. However, I’m not laughing. This is actually true.

Joe Begos’ Bliss is a kaleidoscopic nightmare of the right variety. Think Tony Scott’s The Hunger with the colours of Dario Argento’s Suspiria and Tenebrae. The seedy vibrant backdrop of Los Angeles paves the way for Begos’ most experimental movie yet with the destructive central character Dezzy (Dora Madison Burge) providing a uniquely interesting approach to a familiar setup, the movie turning any pre-conceived notions from viewers about what to expect upside down. John Hogan

Color Out of Space

The Nic Cage freak out is a powerful tool, often misused. It’s put to its best use when supporting the film it’s in rather than being used as a selling point for the movie. Think Vampire’s Kiss, Matchstick Men or Mandy. Color Out of Space takes its place among the Hall of Fame entries for best Nicolas Cage freak out. The Lovecraftian story of a meteor that crash lands on the Gardner farm and begins to mutate the landscape and people around it is director Richard Stanley’s first narrative feature in nearly a quarter century.

As crazy as Cage gets throughout the film, Color Out of Space never loses touch with the ground. The effects may be grisly and gory but the horror comes from a very human place. Themes of sickness and disconnection change the Gardner family into monsters as the titular colour turns everything a sort of sickly neon pink. Cage, with his Trump impressions and surfer lingo, may be the star of the film but it’s the likes of Madeleine Arthur as his daughter and Elliot Knight as a water surveyor in over his head that stop the film from ever entering the realm of the ridiculous. Part of a proposed trilogy of Lovecraft films, Color Out of Space sets a high bar for cosmic horror and is a welcome return for one of our weirdest working directors. Andrew Carroll

Dark Waters

It’s hard to make a bad version of this film. The fundamental storytelling elements are sitting there, waiting to be moulded into some sort of a cohesive narrative, knowing the viewer will respond. We have the gutsy lawyer, the big evil corporation, the whistleblower, the knowing victims and the unknowing public. We’ve seen films like Dark Waters before and while some deal with similar territory (Erin Brockovich and The Insider for example), the same fundamentals are abundant across the legal thriller genre in general – sub out lawyer for journalist and you have All The Presidents Men, sub out evil corporation for American foreign policy and you have The Report. It’s the underdog story, David and Goliath, and when we see the truth exposed and those guilty held to account, we can sleep that little bit better.

2020 saw the Irish release of Todd Haynes’ Dark Water – the story of Robert Bilott, a lawyer who took on the DuPont corporation and exposed the truth of how they poisoned the town of Parkersburg, West Virginia with a chemical called PFOA. Bilott is played by Mark Ruffalo, who was also a producer on the film and is known for his own fights against social injustice. Clearly a passion project, he portrays the initially skeptical lawyer with depth and honesty. His evolving relationship with the local farmer and victim figurehead, played by the wonderful Bill Camp, adds the gravitas and emotional context vital for the films’ legal and chemical jargon to land. Further supporting players in the superb cast include Anne Hathaway, Bill Pullman, Tim Robbins and Victor Garber. Haynes is an exquisite director and his steady hand gently glides the viewer through these turbulent and infuriating waters with ease.

These horrid stories of death and disease and cover ups and manipulation deserve to be seen, and told, and shared. Dark Waters is another brilliant torch illuminating the horrors of corporate capitalism and one of the best films of 2020 so far. Peter Morris

Ema

In between American projects – 2016’s excellent anti-biopic Jackie and his upcoming Stephen King TV adaptation for Apple TV+ – filmmaker Pablo Larrain returned to his native Chile to shoot the experimental drama-thriller Ema. Featuring extended acrobatic dance sequences, flamethrowers and a whole lot of sex, the end result is a film so exciting, so thrilling that it feels borderline dangerous.

Newcomer Mariana Di Girolamo sets the screen and her surroundings in Valparaíso on fire as the titular free-spirited pyromaniac dancer. Reeling from a bitter split with her choreographer husband (the always great Gael Garcia Bernal) after an adoption attempt went array, Ema goes to some drastic lengths to reunite her family.

Ema is a movie that in some regards breaks the rules. Its screenplay is very “tell, don’t show”. Its characters are unpredictable and hard to empathise with and understand. Yet, those qualities are what make the movie feel so exhilarating and freeing. Ema is less a drama than a sensory experience, one which bombards viewers with a pulsating score from Nicolas Jaar, stunning visuals and bold physical dance sequences.

The real pleasure though is reserved for the film’s final act. Here, the twisty screenplay finally unravels, melding perfectly with the movie’s daring style, leaving viewers with an ending that will make them want to restart Ema from scratch. Stephen Porzio

First Love

Japan’s most prolific cult director Takashi Miike never likes to give his audience an easy viewing experience and his latest is no different. First Love tells the story of a boxer and a young girl, who in usual over-the-top Miike fashion, become involved in a drug-smuggling operation. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Takashi Miike movie without bucket loads of bullets, nauseating violence and traumatic subplots and that’s exactly what we get here.

Recalling the filmmaker’s previous works like The City of Lost Souls or Ley Lines, First Love slowly builds to an utterly mesmerising final third that strongly showcases everything that has made Miike such an undeniable cinematic force over the years. In truth, First Love has everything – romance, comedy, action, unrelenting violence and gripping drama – solidifying once again that the director is the king of Japanese cult cinema. John Hogan

Greed

The first of two films released by prolific English director Michael Winterbottom this year (the other being the fourth part of his franchise The Trip), Greed doubles as one of those angry sweary dark comedies about unlikeable people the British do so well and a gripping expose on the division of wealth in the world today. Steve Coogan, complete with ludricrously white teeth, stars as billionaire high-street fashion mogul Richard ‘Greedy’ McCreadie. The film centres on him planning a lavish birthday on a Greek island – where, much to his chagrin, some Syrian refugees are camping – while flashing back in time to the thuggish unscrupulous ways he made his fortune.

Greed is often laugh out loud funny. Peep Show’s David Mitchell is his lovably awkward self as McCreadie’s biographer shadowing him. Various celebrities make cameos and seem admirably willing to take the mick out of themselves. The movie’s parody of reality shows like Made in Chelsea exposes them for how silly they truly are. That said, what’s impressive about Greed is that the comedy never seems to dull its writer-director’s rage about how selfish the one per cent can be, how cruelly migrants are treated in Europe and how unfair it is that high-street fashion moguls make their money off the back of female sweatshop workers in Africa and Asia on 12-hour shifts earning barely any money. Stay for the end credit stats which are truly shocking. Stephen Porzio

Jojo Rabbit

I went into Jojo Rabbit looking forward to the smug moral superiority that would come from hating it. I still have doubts about the appropriateness of this particular brand of satire, where Nazis are presented as zany goofballs. Taiki Waititi camps it up as Hitler and Sam Rockwell plays a sort of loveable, rogueish Hitler Youth Captain – it’s all a bit tasteless and seems about 90 years too late. It also jars against the parts of the film that try to be darker and more affecting.

Unfortunately, laughter is an irrational, uncontrollable thing, and I found myself giggling like a loon at an awful lot of Jojo Rabbit, particularly at Waititi’s flamboyant Hitler, and li’l Archie Yates’ magnificent supporting performance as Jojo’s wide eyed, unquestioning friend Yorki. I also welled up at the ending, so I can only conclude that inexplicably, Jojo Rabbit was both supremely effective as a knockabout screwball comedy set during one of the bleakest periods of the 20th century, and also as a moving human drama. I’m as disappointed as you are. Jack Stevenson

Parasite

Bong Joon-ho’s seventh film has already gone down in history by becoming the first ever South Korean movie to take home the Academy Award for Best Picture at this year’s ceremony. Parasite is untamed, unpredictable and undeniably crafted to such a precise meticulous level with the director truly at the top of his craft. The film is a tale that cuts deep into the bone of the inequality between social classes in South Korea as told from the perspective of the poor Kim family. They hatch a plan to pose as unrealted individuals seeking work for the far wealthier Park family.

Bong has never been one to shy away from social commentary, made evident with his previous two films Snowpiercer and Okja. However, what makes Parasite so compelling and engaging is how it brilliantly leads the audience down one narrative rabbit hole only to make a swift and unexpected detour into the next. The result is that rare hybrid of film that is both immensely enjoyable as a thriller while also being something that demands further dissections and analysis with each viewing. In short, it’s what cinema was made for. Sean Moriarty

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

One of the last, great viral moments for cinephiles in the ‘before times’ came at the 2020 Cesar Awards. Convicted sexual abuser Roman Polanski had just won the Best Director prize for a lukewarmly received film when Portrait of a Lady On Fire star Adele Haenel and filmmaker Celine Sciamma stormed out in protest. That palpable rage against injustice is something that consistently seethes under the surface of their magnificent period piece as well.

Portrait of a Lady is a film that hisses at an oppressive society governed by men but it does so by centering three female characters and marginalizing the patriarchy as far away as it possibly can. It is set on an isolated island off the coast of Brittany, after all. In the late 19th century, painter Marianne (Noemie Merlant) has been commissioned to portrait Heloise (Haenel), who is promised to a nobleman she must marry out of economic necessity. Slowly, simply and almost resolutely against their better judgement, the two fall for each other.

Their repressed desires erupt delicately in piecemeal fashion then passionately when they realise the world’s not watching. In a love story for the ages, Sciamma gives new meaning to the idea of a female gaze, both through her camera and her characters’ eyes.

Every second frame could be its own neoclassical masterpiece and with every stare caught in the act we feel an infatuation deepen. We want them desperately to never leave that island, the tragedy is the mainland never left, and they knew it long before we did. There are no perfect films, but they would probably look like this. Mark Conroy

Sea Fever

Part epidemic thriller, part creature feature, Neasa Hardiman’s Sea Fever is a great little experiment in claustrophobia. Set aboard a fishing trawler called the Niamh Cinn-Oir as it comes into contact with the possibility of new undiscovered marine life, the film blends the psychological isolation of The Thing, the thalassophobia tendencies of Jaws and the fear-inducing epidemic plot of Contagion to devastating effect at times.

Hardiman does an incredible job creating a situation we fear just as much as our main characters do. You truly care for the main protagonists here and as the central situation progresses negatively, so too will that sudden itch under your skin.

Before you know it, Sea Fever will have your undivided attention as that itch becomes too much to bear with the film cementing itself as an extremely solid slab of body horror. By its conclusion, viewers will find themselves questioning what might be in that water they’re drinking. John Hogan

The Hunt

The Hunt feels like screenwriter Damon Lindelof used all his leftover ideas from his acclaimed Watchmen sequel on HBO and packed them into a Most Dangerous Game riff. The end result is a sly, gleefully violent shoot-up, one given extra heft by exploring the political divide in the US and exaggerating it to a demented degree.

Hilary Swank plays the villain, a scorned liberal elite who kidnaps a group of ‘deplorables’ in order to hunt them with her cronies on her manor. However, one of the captives – Crystal (Glow’s Betty Gilpin) – fights back. Cue various timely jokes referencing crisis actors, cucks, free speech, snowflakes and one hilarious untimely joke referencing oft forgotten Bruce Willis vehicle Tears of the Sun.

While overall The Hunt’s politics are a tad muddled, the film more than excels as a blackly comic action thriller. This is thanks to a tight running time, a string of well-executed set-pieces – where unlikeable figures on both sides of the movie’s central argument have their heads explode and bodies riddled with bullets and stab wounds – and a wonderful lead turn by Gilpin.

Playing a mostly silent war veteran, with a wonderful to the ears Southern accent, Gilpin’s apolitical Crystal feels like a new form of female action heroine. Already prior to being kidnapped struggling to bottle her pent up rage, the real pleasure of The Hunt is watching that anger being purged on some evil over-the-top villains. Stephen Porzio

The Invisible Man

Director Leigh Whannell’s version of The Invisible Man filters the simple original premise – what if a man could become invisible – into a gripping, tense and visually stunning exploration of the seemingly inescapable nightmare of an abusive relationship. While that sounds like a daunting watch, its razor sharp, compelling execution makes it one of the year’s best. Without spoiling anything the film builds beautifully – the early scenes all delicately observed, slow-build dread; the latter absolutely wild, mind gnawing terror.

Anchored by a emotive and empathetic performance from Elisabeth Moss, the film whisks you into her anxiety-ridden life. The scene that opens the movie instantly immerses you in the films’ atmosphere – oppressive, dangerous, yet utterly compelling.

Whannel’s previous film Upgrade was a giddy blast, and the skills he displayed then have continued to evolve in a fresh and exciting way. One of Upgrade’s best traits was the almost muscular, instinctive camera work which gave the fight scenes a gripping urgency. The watchful eye of the camera is just as vital in The Invisible Man – but this time it’s the steady pursuit of Moss’ protagonist that propels the story. The camera alerts us to the feeling of a watchful, uninvited presence, gliding into the empty space of a room, lingering just a little bit too long, our wariness slowing metastasising into bubbling anxiety that reaches a roaring crescendo as the story goes on.  Jesse Melia

The Lighthouse

I’m not sure how keen I would be to rewatch The Lighthousebut seeing it for the first time, at least, was an astonishing cinematic experience. It is one of the most exhausting, batshit, unrelenting films I’ve ever seen. Carried along by depraved performances from Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson (I never thought a movie with Pattinson’s bare arse in it could be so unsexy), The Lighthouse revels in just ramping up the intensity and the weirdness to levels previously thought impossible by scientists.

I didn’t find it as outright enjoyable as The Witch, which I think is one of the best films of the 21st century. But I did respect it equally as much, for its style, for its refusal to compromise with the audience, for how utterly unnerving is. You have to at least try it. Jack Stevenson

The Personal History of David Copperfield

When attempting refreshing adaptations of classic literature, the typical predictable method by filmmakers is to set the old tale in modern times. This often doesn’t work as it disregards the societal particularities of the original era in favour of clunky commentary on the contemporary world. Think 1998’s Great Expectations starring Ethan Hawke or 2000’s Hamlet starring uhh…Ethan Hawke. 

Director and satirist Armando Iannucci favors a more novel approach. His adaptation of Dickens instead takes modernity to the Victorian age. The supremely talented, diverse players may be a tad anachronistic (no more so than mostly white versions), but the colour-blind casting actually adds emphasis to the novel’s ruminations on class inequality and social mobility.

Dev Patel is endearingly bumbling and sweetly sincere as the titular hero. Tilda Swinton brings new meaning to irrepressibility as Betsy Trotswood and Hugh Laurie delivers his best work in years in his warm touching depiction of a confused Mr. Dick whose thoughts are muddled but company is always worth keeping. Benedict Wong, Aneurin Barnard, Ben Whishaw and Rosalind Eleazar are anything but “making up the numbers” here as well. 

Iannucci’s ingenuity goes beyond just his choice of actors. He brings playful, postmodern flourishes to one of the archetypal Bildungsromans and allows a broader comic feel than we might traditionally see in these adaptations. All this adds to the one of the most inventive takes on Charles Dickens seen this side of David Lean. Mark Conroy

The True History of the Kelly Gang

Justin Kurzel’s new take on the well-trod tale of Australia’s most famous folk hero is more about the myth than the gunslinger himself. George McKay shines as Ned Kelly, a sinewy ball of rage who seeks to resist the criminal role ascribed to him since birth. A vortex of abuse, immiseration and persecution swirls all around, pulling him toward an inescapable fate.

Nicholas Hoult turns in a stand-out performance as the decadent Constable Fitzpatrick, avatar of the colonial administration, who taunts and seduces Kelly into a fatal reaction. Elemental violence flows through a hallucinatory final act as a deranged Kelly sets out to pre-emptively avenge his own death in an explosion of tragic fury.

Kurzel’s latest is messy and often jarring but this is basically part of the charm. True History is an intensely angry with film, with all the excesses that go along with that. The ‘truth’ alluded to in the title is less a measured retelling of fact and more like the shock found at the wrong end of a sucker punch. A rotten world finds its rotten hero in the madness of McKay’s Kelly. Mark Sheridan

The Wild Goose Lake

If one very specific genre is having a moment it’s the Chinese neo-noir. Ever since Diao Yinan’s snowy and stunning 2014 Berlinale winner Black Coal, Thin Ice other directors have stepped up to take their shot. The likes of Jia Zhangke’s Ash is Purest White and Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night have shifted and skewed the genre to fit their own themes but Yinan’s sweltering followup The Wild Goose Lake brings things back to basics.

Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge) is a small time crook in Wuhan in 2012. After a scuffle over territory leaves a cop dead he flees to the Wild Goose Lake, an unincorporated territory popular with criminals. Chased by a massive police contingent led by the merciless Captain Liu (Liao Fan – Best Actor at the Berlinale for Black Coal, Thin Ice) Zhou runs to prostitute Liu Aiai (Gwei Lun-mei) for help. Constantly soaked in sulfurous yellows, blood reds and lime green neon The Wild Goose Lake dances a razor’s edge of capitulating to censors while also questioning brutal police tactics. Powered by a trio of icy cool yet desperate performances Yinan’s latest assures that his Berlinale win was no fluke. Andrew Carroll

Uncut Gems

Howard Ratner is the role Adam Sandler was born to play. That might sound like a platitude, or basic observation, but it’s too profoundly true to disregard. The world the Safdie Bros create in Uncut Gems – as they did in their previous film Good Time – is a world of desperation, where a low broiling anxiety propels our protagonist forward.

But while Robert Pattinson’s Connie in Good Time was a hapless yet swaggering ne’er do well, Sandler’s Ratner is a whole different creature. He’s happy at home in the musky city underworld where he operates, constantly wheeling and dealing, trying to find the next viable angle, the next hustle, the next deal, while ceaselessly shooting himself in the foot in an attempt to placate his insatiable gambling habit. There’s always one more bet.

Sandler is just perfect as Ratner. His natural combination, whiny and aggressive boyishness, filtered through a reptilian streetwise charm, brings the character to life. He immerses us in this feverish high stakes rollercoaster ride. Thanks to his career-best turn, Uncut Gems is a singular cinematic experience – a unique, almost abrasive, yet utterly addictive film. Jesse Melia

VFW

Have you ever wondered what John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 would look like if it were fused with the ultra-violent stylings of a modern survival flick like Green Room? If the answer is yes then Joe Begos’ latest may be the movie you have been waiting for.

VFW focuses on a group of extremely likable war veterans holed up in a Veterans of Foreign War post as they fight for survival against a horde of punk psychopaths. An ode to the grindhouse-esque exploitation flicks that dominated 80’s cinema, it’s nasty, brash and gloriously entertaining. Sprinkle some synth spiciness into the mix. along with some beautifully vibrant colours, and you have a solid homage to the likes of Carpenter.

With Bliss already featuring on this list, Joe Begos is making quite an impact in the horror scene at the moment. VFW may be his crowning achievement. John Hogan

Vivarium

Lorcan Finnegan’s sci-fi thriller Vivarium depicts through a surrealistic allegory the horror of finding yourself stuck in suburban life and parenthood. It tells the story of a young couple looking for a house who become prisoners in an isolated loop, not ready to have children, yet forced to raise an alien to adulthood in order to be released – like a cuckoo in the nest.

Between the boxes of tasteless meals representing a lack of lust for life and the plastic reality of the central setting, the film abounds in bold inventions and dark humour. The nihilistic vision of the movie leads the characters to find their freedom in bleak ways as the fostering mother develops maternal feelings for the creepy creature while the father compulsively digs his own grave.

The Irish director excels in building a disturbing atmosphere, similar to a Black Mirror episode, one which hits its peak at the climax when the female protagonist literally falls into a whole new level of claustrophobic nightmare. Charline Fernandez

Waves

A24 has become embedded in our little cinephile lives as of late. Year on year, the production company has defined, redefined, and subsequently formed new genres. When that iridescent logo emerges on our screens, we’re in for a treat.

One of A24’s latest offerings, Waves is a heart-rending redemption parable about two siblings’ competitive struggle against parental expectation and isolation. At its core, the film depicts the cruel reality of conforming to those toxic beliefs and disguising your pain – mentally, physically and emotionally – coupled with the ruthless repercussions that follow such a spiral.

The tragic, self-destructive protagonist – this time in the form of star student, golden boy, Tyler Williams – is ever-present, brilliantly portrayed by Kelvin Harrison Jr. His unchecked behavior sends his loved ones – and the viewer – on an emotional, at times spiritual, journey that they must overcome together or be undone by crippling tragedy.

Waves is a beautiful film, both aesthetically and metaphorically – the warm, pulsating saturation spilling into each sequence conveys a dreamlike ambience, emblematic of American suburban privilege. It clearly resembles Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight and though less ambitious, it still snakes through similar themes and experiences. Despite its often unrelenting high drama and grievous misfortune, the characters exude a tenderness that transcends the innate sorrow and delivers a movie full of heart and intelligence.  Jenny Murphy Byrne

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