By Leah Greenblatt
June 29, 2020 at 12:00 PM EDT
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Focus Features; Richard Foreman/Warner Bros.; Netflix; Mark Rogers/Universal; HBO

EW critic Leah Greenblatt breaks down the 10 best movies of 2020's first half. The below films are listed in alphabetical order, and films were considered at a cutoff of a June 16, 2020 release.

**

Bad Education

He’s played a circus showman, a stage magician, and an emotionally tortured Wolverine, but Hugh Jackman may have never been quite as good at being bad as he is alongside the equally great Allison Janney in Bad Education — director Corey Finley’s delightfully barbed satire of a real-life New York school embezzlement scandal. Think Election with illicit facelifts, Long Island accents, and the thrill of knowing that it all (mostly) really happened.

Netflix

Crip Camp

The second outing from Michelle and Barack Obama’s production company — after last year’s excellent American Factory — took home the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance, and it’s not hard to see why: In less than two hours, directors Nicole Newnham and James LeBrecht (who also costars) manage to turn their documenting of a long-gone summer camp for disabled teens into a remarkable, much-larger treatise on disability rights in America. Rich in both archival footage and indelible personalities, Crip Camp is the kind of film that actually makes you say phrases like “triumph of the human spirit” out loud, and mean it.

Da Five Bloods

Vibrant, sprawling, and wildly ambitious, the latest Spike Lee joint serves as both a love letter to classic cinema — everything from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre to Apocalypse Now — and a canny reimagining of its oldest tropes. His tale of four old friends returning to Vietnam some 50 years after their last tour of duty in search of purloined gold and righteous payback couldn’t have landed in a more apropos moment; don’t be surprised to see Delroy Lindo, sensational as a MAGA-hatted veteran still struggling with PTSD, in more than a few awards-show races later this year.

Emma

Famed rock photographer Autumn de Wilde may be only the latest to bring her sense and sensibility to yet another Jane Austen screen adaptation, but she does it with such lightness and verve that it’s hard to resist her take on the familiar tale of the titular heroine (Anya Taylor-Joy), a witty and wealthy young socialite given every blessing in life, save for one: the gift of self-awareness. Her Emma is pure spun sugar with a tart sour-candy center — and some of the best not-strictly-historical costumes since Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette.

Allyson Riggs/A24

First Cow

Like the late, great Lynn Shelton, writer-director Kelly Reichardt has become a sort of lodestar of independent filmmaking in the Pacific Northwest, and her latest — about two misfits trapped somewhere far north of San Francisco in the California Gold Rush — is the kind of quirky, low-key dramedy that blossoms as it goes; a tale of mystery and adventure and male friendship (and also, yes, one very special dairy cow) as winningly eccentric as it is unforgettable.

Invisible Man

How do you fight a bogeyman who’s just…air? That’s the basic premise behind director Leigh Whannell’s jumpy, stripped down update of the classic H.G. Wells tale — though the movie truly belongs to its Visible Woman, Elisabeth Moss; she stars as Cecilia, a Bay Area architect whose supposedly deceased tech-mogul boyfriend seems to have left his earthly body but not his monomania behind. What follows is the best kind of clammy psychological horror: tense, jittery, and all the more freaky for its transparency.

Courtesy of Focus Features

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

A teenager’s quixotic quest becomes a quiet revelation in filmmaker Eliza Hittman’s deliberately bare-boned drama, a verité stunner centered on 17-year-old Autumn (newcomer Sidney Flanigan), who escapes her drab Pennsylvania town for a few days in New York City with her cousin (Talia Ryder) — not in search of adventure, but a legal abortion. It may be third-rail stuff politically, but Hittman (Beach Rats) is far less interested in polemics than in exploring the bruising, complicated truths of adolescence and young womanhood.

Thatcher Keats/Sundance Institute

Shirley

Hell hath no fury like a frustrated novelist. Elisabeth Moss brings both contained fire and simmering psychological trauma to Josephine Decker’s heady reimagining of the marriage between Shirley Jackson — of “The Lottery” and The Haunting of Hill House fame — and her philandering husband (the always-great Michael Stuhlbarg). When a much-younger couple (Odessa Young and Logan Lerman) take up residence in their quiet college town, it sets in motion a series of seductions and revelations; the true gift of the film, though, is in its stylistic flourishes and fierce performances, not least from 2020 MVP Moss.

Bleecker Street

The Assistant

Frame by frame, hardly anything actually happens in The Assistant. Mostly, a diffident young woman named Jane (Ozark Emmy-winner Julia Garner) just goes about her mundane daily tasks at a drably officious New York film-production company: filling out lunch orders, collating copies, answering the phones. But what Kitty Green (Casting JonBenet) is constructing between the seams is something much subtler and more insidious: A quietly devastating indictment of toxic masculinity and professional power structures that go back long before — and will no doubt long outlive — the reckonings of Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo.

The Way Back

Art doesn’t exactly imitate life in The Way Back, but it comes close enough to add affecting resonance to Ben Affleck’s unshowy central performance as an alcoholic construction worker who finds new purpose — and possibly redemption — as the new basketball coach at his high-school alma mater. Like Hoosiers, The Natural, or Friday Night Lights, Way works as both a galvanizing sports movie and a compelling window into the messy, infinitely human game of life.

**

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