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What a year. The long drought since the first lockdown in mid-March, at least for those of us in cities like New York and Los Angeles, has meant nine months without the pleasure of settling into a darkened movie theater and being transported away from our mundane concerns. Which were not all that mundane in 2020. So it’s almost miraculous that such a stellar crop of standout films emerged, even if we consumed most of them on our home screens.
The relative dearth of big studio releases turned out to be a blessing in disguise in some ways, focusing greater attention on the kind of smaller-scale work that often gets overlooked in the commercial shuffle. But any year in which films I savored as much as Emma, Mangrove, On the Rocks, Sorry We Missed You, Sound of Metal, The Trial of the Chicago 7 and The Vast of Night get bumped out of my top 20 seems a signal that vital, creative filmmaking is alive and well.
The profusion of excellent documentaries this year was so ridiculously robust that by rights they should fill out their own separate top 10. So rather than choose just one or two, I’ll list a handful of the nonfiction stunners that stayed with me. They include the inspiring story of a marginalized community, Crip Camp; the intimate account of a tireless personal campaign against America’s broken justice system, Time; the bittersweet reckoning with mortality, Dick Johnson Is Dead; the all-too-real Orwellian thriller, Coded Bias; and the searing sexual assault investigation, On the Record. Plus there were shocking exposés, of Romania’s corrupt health care system in Collective and a horrific government-sanctioned purge of LGBTQ citizens in Welcome to Chechnya. Politics was inescapable in this exceedingly acrimonious election year, and strong docs on our flawed system ranged from Boys State to All In: The Fight for Democracy.
Finally, the natural world spawned two captivating vérité documentaries in The Truffle Hunters, about the dying breed of crusty Italian eccentrics and their dogs that sniff out prized aromatic tubers; and Gunda, a mesmerizing black and white farm hangout, featuring a sow and her piglets, a one-legged chicken and a few cows, which is an adrenaline shot of the purest movie magic.
Read on for my top 10 of the year plus 10 more alphabetized honorable mentions, followed by those of my rock-star colleagues Jon Frosch and Sheri Linden. — David Rooney
1. David Byrne’s American Utopia
OK, so I snuck in one doc. Whether Spike Lee’s thrillingly immersive record of this sui generis theatrical concert is the best film of 2020 is open to debate. What I can say with absolute certainty is that the hyper-kinetic hymn to community and connection in a politically divided, environmentally ailing world is by far the most therapeutic time I had at a movie in this trying year of isolation and anxiety. Byrne’s show was already something special on Broadway, with the silver-topped, professorial art-rocker flanked by a hard-working multicultural troupe of 11 virtuosic musicians, dancers and backup singers. Lee and nimble DP Ellen Kuras achieve miracles by somehow heightening that joyous experience, putting us right in there among the performers in a concert film that stands proudly alongside Jonathan Demme’s landmark in the genre, the Talking Heads jam, Stop Making Sense.
2. First Cow
There’s been some online discussion of whether the tender friendship between John Magaro’s diffident baker Cookie and Orion Lee’s entrepreneurial Chinese immigrant King-Lu can be considered in a queer space. In my entirely subjective opinion I’m going to say the line between companionship and romantic love all but vanishes in this fine-grained miniaturist Western set on the Oregon Trail in the pioneer days of the 1820s. Kelly Reichardt, independent film’s poet laureate of the Pacific Northwest, nods back to her earlier Old Joy in her reflection on the bonds that bloom between men in the wilderness. But the divine golden-brown heifer that provides both the title and the plot driver for this lyrical drama pushes it over the top to make this arguably the finest work of the director’s career.
3. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
On paper, Eliza Hittman’s delicate chronicle of a Pennsylvania teenager’s trip to New York City to terminate an unplanned pregnancy sounds like an issues movie, particularly at a time when the freshly stacked Supreme Court represents a renewed threat to women’s reproductive rights. But the raw intimacy of this probing portrait of female friendship and solidarity both acknowledges and transcends the political with its candid snapshot of an ordinary adolescent taking control of her body and finding a safe space to reveal her trauma. The performances of screen newcomers Sidney Flanigan in the central role and Talia Ryder as her unquestioningly supportive cousin are models of restraint, yet heartbreaking in their unguarded authenticity.
Francis Lee burst onto the scene three years ago with God’s Own Country, a gay love story of stunning emotional candor and uninhibited carnality, played out against the rugged farmlands of the writer-director’s native Yorkshire. He follows with this equally austere but ravishing female companion piece set on the rocky Dorset coast. In slow-burn fashion without a trace of melodrama, it chronicles a fictionalized romance between a gruff mid-19th century working class paleontologist and a well-heeled younger married woman, equally constrained by the prescribed gender roles of the period. Kate Winslet gives the performance of her career in the former role, her character’s brittle exterior cracking to reveal a molten core of yearning and desire; and Saoirse Ronan, with her coltish grace and ever-alert eyes, is lovely as the woman who breaks that shell.
Surging color that all but leaps off the screen is not something you expect to find in a drama about two young Leningrad nurses scarred by the psychological, physical and emotional ravages of war. But this audaciously unconventional survival tale from Kantemir Balagov, a wunderkind talent not yet 30, is no ordinary slice of Russian miserablism; its striking visual aesthetic and unexpected shards of acrid humor alone make it unique. As the battlefield comrades trying to scratch out lives for themselves in the devastated aftermath of World War II, transfixing newcomers Viktoria Miroshnichenko and Vasilisa Perelygina — both of them plucked out of acting school — draw a complicated friendship that swings between warmth and ferocity, hope and desolation in an environment of grotesque suffering, where PTSD hangs in the air like a dense fog.
Asian American assimilation dramas generally unfold in coastal cities. So there’s an invigorating freshness to Lee Isaac Chung’s exquisitely observed Reagan-era story of a Korean immigrant family struggling to get ahead as self-made farmers transplanted from the West Coast to rural Arkansas, a plot inspired by the writer-director’s own childhood. That breath of authentic experience, a sharp eye for family dynamics and an attention to seemingly small details enliven every frame of this gentle pastoral piece about hard work and hard luck. With performances of aching sensitivity from Steven Yeun as the stubborn father who dreams big for his family and is reluctant to concede his mistakes, and Yeri Han as the wife whose frustrations well up in anger, this is a heartfelt work whose delicacy lingers long in the memory.
7. Promising Young Woman
Nothing Carey Mulligan has done before can prepare you for her avenging angel with scuzzy wings and messy lipstick in writer-director Emerald Fennell’s knockout debut. This tense thriller — each scene composed with needling precision yet bursting with unexpected danger and laced with the darkest shades of sardonic humor — puts its own provocative spin on the #MeToo narrative around issues of consent and women whose trauma remains unheard. Where Mulligan’s bruised badass Cassie fits into the sad history that sparked her revenge spree remains a teasing mystery until well into the film. Even when I was unsure where it was headed as it teeters between satire and sexual assault drama, this remained a white-knuckle ride through to its startling conclusion.
In her poetic and arresting first two features, Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider, Chloé Zhao established a spiritual connection to the wide-open landscapes of the American West, using nonprofessional, mostly Native American actors playing versions of themselves and their own stories. Into that seamless blend of documentary-like realism and structured narrative she ushers a major star for the first time, with Frances McDormand as Fern, a widow whose life is uprooted when her mining town home is literally erased. Indistinguishable from the real-life nomads with whom she shares the screen, McDormand adds another indelible character to her gallery of tenacious women, refusing to be a casualty of economic hardship as she discovers both the struggle and the rewards of transient living.
9. Lovers Rock
During a year in which human contact became a fading memory with anyone outside our immediate circles, there was no more pleasurably tactile escape than this swoon-inducing, sensual dive into a 1980 house party fueled by the slow-groove romantic reggae subgenre that supplies the title. The sole fictional entry in Steve McQueen’s powerful Small Axe anthology of five films about West Indian experience in London over two decades, this dreamy, free-flowing narrative keeps the racial hostility of white Britons on the margins even if the intrusion of macho predation from within threatens to break the spell. (Airing on Amazon, Small Axe will be eligible for the Outstanding Limited or Anthology Series Emmy, though McQueen has said he considers each installment a film.) A scene in which Janet Kay’s 1979 hit, “Silly Games,” plays out on the turntable and the people crammed into a suburban living room continue singing … and singing, is a moment of sheer musical rapture and liberation.
There are whispers of Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah and Walter Hill in co-directors Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’ bonkers Brazilian Western, a formally inventive, epic blend of pulpy violence with sly absurdism and subversive sociopolitical commentary. This genuine genre-bender flips the usual script on innocent tourists at the mercy of crazed off-the-grid yokels, instead dropping in a bunch of heavily armed white First World blood-sports enthusiasts to prey on remote rural villagers, the disenfranchised poor seen as disposable. But the thrill-killers don’t bargain on an underclass rebellion from townsfolk already pissed about a crooked election, Sonia Braga’s boozy flame-haired doctor included.
Honorable mentions: The Assistant, Da 5 Bloods, The Forty-Year-Old Version, The Invisible Man, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, News of the World, The Old Guard, One Night in Miami, The Surrogate, Wolfwalkers
Jon Frosch’s Top 10
1. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
3. An Easy Girl
5. Promising Young Woman
6. The Forty-Year-Old Version
7. The Climb
9. The Surrogate
10. Da 5 Bloods
Sheri Linden’s Top 10
3. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
4. Promising Young Woman
5. One Night in Miami
7. 76 Days
8. First Cow
10. The Forty-Year-Old Version
Honorable mentions: Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, Crip Camp, David Byrne’s American Utopia, La Llorona, My Darling Vivian, The Painter and the Thief, The Surrogate, Tesla, The Truffle Hunters
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