So far, in terms of quality, this hasn’t been the worst year for movies: Even as the COVID-19 lockdown hit much of the world, there were things to watch via streaming services—either original productions or recent theatrical releases—that were as engaging as anything you’d see in a normal year. But it has been the strangest year for movies: Many of the spring’s big releases have been pushed to autumn or beyond, looking ahead to the time we might be able to return to movie theaters. And it’s uncertain what the fall pre-Oscar landscape will look like, especially given the cancellation of one big festival, Cannes, and the as-of-now precarious footing of the two big fall festivals, Venice and Toronto: Even if those events go on as planned, most likely in some limited fashion, is it likely that they’ll feature the usual selection of presumptive Oscar favorites—given that filmmakers, like so many of us, have had to put much of their work on hold? We’ll have to wait and see.

The rest of the 2020 movie landscape is a question mark, though not necessarily a dark cloud. And until the time we can all watch movies together again—on a big screen, as the movie gods intended—we can take solace in the fact that this very weird year has already yielded some considerable pleasures, movie-wise. Here are five of the best releases of the year so far, most of which are available to stream right now.

Emma.

Just when you think you’ve had it up to your empire waist with Jane Austen adaptations comes Autumn de Wilde’s sly and sweet Emma. Anya-Taylor Joy plays flawed heroine Emma Woodhouse, a young woman who thinks she knows everything about making love matches for everyone else but is clueless about conducting her own romantic life. Old family friend George Knightley (played by the raffishly enchanting actor and singer Johnny Flynn) watches, aghast, as Emma butts into everyone else’s business, at first harmlessly enough. Then she makes a cruel remark that demands she reconsider everything she thinks she knows about human behavior, and about herself. Emma. feels both modern and authentic in the best way, inviting everyone, diehard Austenites and newbies alike, into its embrace. [Read the full review]

Watch Emma. on Amazon

First Cow

In Kelly Reichardt’s gorgeously sylvan First Cow, John Magaro and Orion Lee play Cookie Figowitz and King-Lu, two lonely souls in the 1820s Pacific Northwest brought together by a cow. But she’s not just any cow: She’s the first in the territories (the property of a rich landowner played by Toby Jones), and Cookie and King-Lu steal her milk and start a small business, making delish little fried cakes which they then sell to rugged, hungry fur trappers who are tired of eating fried squirrel. Nothing in the Oregon Territory is easy, and entrepreneurship always has its pitfalls, though friendship, at least, prevails. Shot by Christopher Blauvelt, First Cow is one of the most beautiful-looking films of the year, a ripple of visual tranquility. It’s also a dazzling meditation on the idea of tenderness between men, and an affirmation that humans, despite our occasional opportunistic tendencies, still can’t help striving for kindness and connection. [Read the full review]

The Half of It

Everyone who reaches age 20 can boast of having survived teenagerhood. Still, that period of our lives never loses its hold on us. In Alice Wu’s prickly-sweet romantic comedy The Half of It, three high schoolers—shy, nerdy Ellie (Leah Lewis), awkward but sweet jock Paul (Daniel Diemer) and pretty, popular, bookish Aster (Alexxis Lemire) form a teenage love triangle with echoes of Cyrano de Bergerac: Paul has a crush on Aster and asks Ellie to write a love note to her; Ellie obliges, even though she has a crush on Aster herself. In the finale, the ends don’t tie up neatly: When it comes to teenage romance, they rarely do. But along the way, The Half of It maps the complex contours of romance, friendship and the gloriously bumpy territory in between. It’s a movie for the teenager in all of us. [Read the full review]

Watch The Half of It on Netflix

Les Misérables

This French-language drama, the debut feature from Mali-born French filmmaker Ladj Ly, won the jury prize at Cannes in 2019, and was a 2020 Academy Award nominee for Best International Foreign Film, though most viewers weren’t able to catch up with its until its wider streaming release, on Amazon, earlier this year. Les Misérables takes place in the Parisian suburb of Montfermeil, where sections of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel are also set: It’s populated by recent immigrants working hard to get by, and policed by two cops, Chris and Gwada (played by Alexis Manenti, also one of the film’s co-writers, and Djibril Zonga), who keep the peace with an iron fist. Their new partner, Ruiz (Damian Bonnard), doesn’t like what he sees, and when violence erupts, he’s forced to make a choice: protect his partners, or take a stand against their brutality? Les Misérables is thoughtfully directed and attuned to the myriad complexities of city life as it’s experienced by relative newcomers. And like Hugo’s novel, this Les Misérables is also a story of poverty, injustice and revolt, intensified by the hostility of people who have strong feelings about who belongs in a country and who doesn’t—a conflict that’s overheating not just in France but in countries worldwide. [Read the full review]

Watch Les Misérables on Amazon

The Assistant

We all love righteous statements and victorious endings. But there’s no tidy resolution to Kitty Green’s quietly tense workplace drama The Assistant, in which Julia Garner gives an understated yet tightly wound performance as the beleaguered assistant to a Harvey Weinstein-like film executive. The Assistant takes place during one interminably stressful workday: Garner’s Jane arrives at the office before everyone else does, to turn on the lights, make the coffee and tidy up around her boss’s desk. There, she finds a woman’s earring; later in the day, another event causes her to wonder if her boss isn’t taking advantage of an eager young newcomer who hopes to break into the film business. Whether or not Jane takes the proper action in response to her hunch is up for debate. What Green and Garner capture beautifully in The Assistant is the jagged texture of the lives of overworked millennials and Gen-Z’ers, though anybody who has ever been pushed to the point of exhaustion in an entry-level gig will relate. When you’re young, everyone tells you that you have to work hard to get ahead. But how hard is too hard, and what’s unreasonable? The Assistant captures that shaky sliver of youth when you don’t yet know the answer to those questions. [Read the full review]

Watch The Assistant on Amazon or YouTube

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