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15 Best Movies of 2020 – Best Films of the Year and Where to Watch – Harper's BAZAAR

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In a year of delayed blockbusters and more at-home streaming, the best films were humanistic indie releases.
In a year that threatened to collapse film for good, Hollywood gave us an abundance of offerings that challenged that fear and the means we take to consume great content. For the first time in too long, independent cinema wasn’t just something those in the know experienced. It was something everyone with a Wi-Fi connection could watch, discuss, and recommend.
As a result, the movies we collectively—and often simultaneously—engaged with were more humanistic, exploring the extraordinary minutiae of our lives. With few grandiose special effects, the films largely came down to raw, unflinching stories about humanity that became increasingly more crucial at a time of social unrest and rampant demands for empathy.
From a mother and daughter struggling to find their identities while tethered to the confines of a beauty pageant, to two young women framed in a high-profile murder scheme, to five veterans clinging to their withering pride, movies turned their gaze inward to reveal the most stripped-down versions of ourselves. Though there are no superheroes or caped crusaders on this list in the traditional sense, the characters and subjects in these films beg us all to listen more openly and be honest about who we really are.
We are victorious. We are vulnerable. We are messy. We can recognize love. And we need each other to survive. These films show that just as much as they compel us to reconsider those we’ve uplifted and sanctified, even those we think we know best. These movies expose the reality of humankind—the good, the heinous, and the devastating. They are contributions about people, for the people.
Few other #MeToo films have dared to confront the insidious culture of silence embedded in the Black community than this searing documentary from directors Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick. Weaving interviews with notable female survivors in Black media and the hip-hop world—including Drew Dixon, Sil Lai Abrams, and Jenny Lumet—with the long history of misogyny and sexual violence by Black men, On the Record addresses how Black women’s loyalty to the culture is too often preyed upon. Though music pioneers Russell Simmons and L.A. Reid are specifically accused, Ziering and Dick rightfully shine a spotlight on how Black women are routinely sidelined in this urgent dialogue.

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No matter what you think you already know about the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, director Ryan White’s compelling storytelling and astounding access in his documentary will make your jaw drop. Assassins digs beyond the already incredible true story of how two young women—Siti Aisyah of Indonesia and Đoàn Thị Hương of Vietnam—were tricked into killing Jong-nam under the guise of a prank show. Detailing everything from Aisyah and Hương’s humble upbringings and desperation for money, to Malaysian journalist Hadi Azmi’s relentless pursuit for the truth, to a corrupt political agenda pointing to Jong-un’s family dynasty, White’s film is a remarkable achievement on every level. Assassins also hauntingly takes the universal allure of viral videos and fame, and turns it into a complex booby trap.
Watch Online Starting January 15
The story of an immigrant family’s American Dream isn’t exactly a new concept in Hollywood. But writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s earnest drama inspired by his own childhood tells a story so rich with colorful texture and heartfelt prose that it’s impossible to overlook. Steven Yeun’s brilliantly understated performance as the determined patriarch of a newly emigrated Korean family and owner of an Arkansas farm anchors a narrative filled to the brim with fantastic acting. From Yeri Han’s delicate performance of a mother trying to hold onto hope even when all seems lost, to Yuh-jung Youn’s portrayal of the amiable grandmother, to the wide-eyed curiosity that emboldens the young children (Noel Cho and Alan S. Kim), Minari is grounded in the fierce belief that love and devotion will save us all.
In select theaters December 11, with a wide release on February 12.
Single mom-and-daughter movies have long been underappreciated, but Channing Godfrey Peoples helms a narrative so moving and vital that Miss Juneteenth is impossible to ignore. Merging the oft-forgotten history of Juneteenth—when Black slaves in Texas were read the Emancipation Proclamation—with the audaciousness of Black girls, the debut feature filmmaker highlights a past that has given way to a fiercely independent approach to Black beauty. The eponymous beauty pageant serves as the backdrop to the story about a former beauty queen (a breathtaking Nicole Beharie) struggling to reclaim her own life as she tries to steer her trap-music-and-boy-obsessed daughter (Alexis Chikaeze) toward the path of tradition. It results in a stripped-down, cross-generational reflection of Black female freedom.
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This era of horror, which has grabbed the attention of even the most timid viewers, has often shied away from jump scares to focus more on the human condition. But with Relic, writer-director Natalie Erika James has done both. Sensitively examining mental decay brought on by dementia, the filmmaker immerses the audience in a familial story that is both devastating and horrifyingly claustrophobic. We meet Edna (Robyn Nevin), an elderly woman struggling with her grip on reality when her worried daughter (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter (Bella Heathcote) pay her a fateful visit. They are consumed by the frightening deterioration of the house, as well as everyone—and everything—in it. James kicks the haunted house genre to a chilling and emotional new level.
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It shouldn’t be that a film merely showing Black people in love is considered a Christmas miracle, but that seems to be the entertainment climate in which we’re living. But writer-director Eugene Ashe’s remarkably charming and intimate romantic drama should be regarded as more significant than a faint subversion in Hollywood offerings. Ashe delivers a story rooted in love, both with oneself as well another in 1950s Harlem. Tessa Thompson shines in Phoenix Mellow’s gorgeous costumes as a woman who loves TV and records, and longs to work on the small screen one day. Her ambitions don’t shift when she meets Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha), a saxophonist. Rather, both their aspirations texturize a love story complicated by circumstance, desire, and their own separate paths—like any classic romantic tale. Sylvie’s Love is a luscious, warm, and sweeping saga that is the perfect footnote in a horrendous year.
On Prime Video starting December 25
Director Spike Lee’s masterful film is an unflinching look at Black veterans’ trauma from the Vietnam War, in which they were scammed to serve under the presumption that battling a nation of other people of color may finally win them acceptance in white America. It is propelled by an exquisite performance by the always-great Delroy Lindo as Paul, a Trump-supporting veteran utterly brainwashed by white supremacy and obsessed with his lost reparations. But the film opens a longtime scab as it revisits an unpopular war through the eyes of four Black soldiers—superbly played by Lindo, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, and Isiah Whitlock Jr.—who grapple with forgiveness, empathy, and betrayal for themselves, as well as others.
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A movie about an old man looking back on his life may not immediately compel audiences to press play, but writer-director Alan Yang’s luscious tribute to his parents’ strained journey from Taiwan to America is exceptional. Tzi Ma anchors the film as an aging father reflecting on the choices he made since sacrificing a first love, a bond with his mother, and his own identity to make a new life for himself in the United States. Rather than an expected tale of tearful regrets—including his estranged daughter (Christine Ko)—Yang makes his fictionalized protagonist a flawed yet sincere man not looking for redemption but rather a sense of peace. That comes by way of finally allowing his daughter a peek into his life. Tigertail is a gorgeously shot (shout-out to cinematographer Nigel Bluck), heartrending meditation on love lost and regained.
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Writer-director Emerald Fennell’s startling dramedy isn’t the female revenge film it’s been talked about as, which might be its boldest subversion in a narrative chock-full of them. It’s the erratic, sometimes happy though tragic story of Cassandra (a fearless Carey Mulligan), a woman once on the fast track to become a doctor until her best friend’s rape. Promising Young Woman details Cassandra’s downward spiral as a woman struggling to navigate her blind rage and trauma, which she channels into a misguided mission to chastise the plague of toxic men around her. Though Fennell keeps her message curiously ambiguous, which will undoubtedly frustrate some viewers, the film compels us to consider how we appreciate the concept of revenge considering what we now know about mental health.
In theaters December 25.
Director and co-writer Alice Gu’s interesting documentary has less to do with the sweet pastry and more with the gluttony of the eponymous Ted Ngoy, who famously tainted his own moniker and empire by gambling. With thoughtful precision, Gu tells the story of the entrepreneur’s journey from war-torn Cambodia with his wife, Suganthini Khoeun, to America, where he opened his own doughnut franchise and helped employ their kids and relatives through the sale of intoxicating delights. Just as smoothly as Gu and co-writer Carol Martori captivate us with the American Dream fulfilled, they pivot to tell the other side of Ngoy’s story: greed. His increasing fame and casino visits tanked the livelihood of his family as he spiraled downward in the same spectacular nature that he ascended. The Donut King is an astonishing portrait of a man who brought joy to many by working hard to achieve the success yet fell prey to celebrity. Few things are more American than that.
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Director Sam Pollard examines the FBI pursuit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in this documentary that unbinds newly declassified files interrogating the legacy of the late icon, and the motives of his stalker, through a story about politics, sex scandals, and the pop culture glorification of law enforcement. Out January 15.
Coming Home Again
A young man (Justin Chon) returns to his Korean home to take care of his dying mother (Jackie Chung), and realizes how hard it is to let her go in director Wayne Wang’s poetic drama about love, food, and what we leave behind. Get tickets for virtual viewing
Finding Yingying
In this wrenching and compassionate documentary, director Jiayan “Jenny” Shi traces the real-life murder case of 26-year-old Yingying Zhang, a 26-year-old Chinese student studying in the United States. Through interviews with Zhang’s loved ones, Shi tells a resonating story about hope, race, and the justice system. Watch in virtual theaters
Writer-director Maïmouna Doucouré’s uncompromising coming-of-age drama dares to tell a story about the sexual awakening—and cultural brainwashing—of a tween (Fathia Youssouf) in France directly through her eyes. Watch Now
Another Round
Director Thomas Vinterberg’s sloshy Danish dramedy about day drinking has no right being as poignant as it is. Anchored by Mads Mikkelsen’s spirited portrayal of a teacher struggling with middle-aged obsolescence, Another Round is a surprisingly sobering reflection of life through a hazy gaze. Out December 18.


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