The Ten Best Films of 2020
It’s hard to believe this monstrous year is finally drawing to a close. For a while it felt like the all-encompassing awfulness had bent time to its will creating a purgatory where both the pandemic and the election never end. In reality, 2021 will come soon enough, bearing its own challenges and nightmares, but before it does, let’s tour the 2020 film-world one last time. Bolstered by the absence of blockbusters after Tenet’s mid-pandemic faceplant, indie films took up more space in the conversation than ever as virtual screenings brought them to a national audience craving something to watch from home — a joyous but bittersweet silver lining that speaks to the uncertainty of the future of big screen cinema.
Nevertheless, this avalanche of excellence made whittling this list to just ten a huge headache, as I struggled over leaving Babyteeth, Gunda, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Bloody Nose Empty Pockets, and To the Ends of Earth, in the honorable mentions column. All the while films like Da 5 Bloods, Martin Eden, Emma, His House, Sybil, Jezebel, and Possessor, stayed in mind reveling in an idiosyncratic brilliance all their own. That said, I’m thrilled with the ten films that form this motley crew. In them you’ll find a barrage of stories: a fairy tale about fascism, adventures with milk thieves, a delirious London dance party, and so much more. So let me get out of your way, and lead you right to number 10 on the list: a eulogy for a living man.
10. Dick Johnson Is Dead
It’s clear from the opening salvo where she drops an air-conditioner on her father that Kristen Johnson is making a different kind of documentary. Of course, she isn’t actually killing him, but by the very nature of time, she happens to be filming his death regardless. Her bait and switch is a thing of beauty, the absurdity of watching this lovely and genial man die repeatedly softens the behind the scenes blow of his decline. To quote Cocteau: look in the mirror and you’ll see death at work like bees in a glass hive; Johnson is on that wavelength, pulling us into her vortex with a film that rattles at conventions, finds love in the eulogy, and laughs in the face of death.
9. The Assistant
There’s a lucid precision to the cold tones of Kitty Green’s The Assistant, which target the everydayness cloaking workplace sexual harassment and assault. The emotional abuse inflicted on Julia Garner’s Jane, while working as an assistant to a Weinstein-type producer, is understood as a fragment of what is left off-screen. Green is concerned with Jane’s complicity propping up the culture, and shepherding others into it, even as the alienation eats her up inside. There have now been a number of films that have reassessed and tackled toxic office culture in the wake of #MeToo, but none have captured its smothering banality quite like this.
8. Lovers Rock
Lovers Rock finds Steve McQueen shifting away from the overt politics of the other Small Axe (his BBC series) films in favor of capturing a pure slice of life – a chance romantic encounter at a house party. It’s a delight to see McQueen, known for his severity in works like Hunger and 12 Years A Slave, capture such joy and lightness. Meanwhile, the centerpiece dance sequence set to Janet Kay’s Silly Games is a show-stopper of unprecedented power and simmers with erotic energy. Yet, Lovers Rock is more than a light aside, it’s a foundation for the rest of Small Axe, a stark reminder of the love, culture, and community that fuels the fight for justice.
7. Sorry We Missed You
The merciless realities of the gig economy are laid bare in Ken Loach’s withering drama. His clean documentary filming style builds such bracing realism that you’re liable to miss the top-tier performances by Kris Hitchen and Debbie Honeywood while immersed in its grip. The confrontational thrust of Sorry We Missed You stands in contrast to the postcard sentimentalism of festival-favorite Nomadland, and while the latter has pretty vistas and sing-alongs, it lacks the moral clarity and raw power of Loach’s sobering gut-punch.
The brilliance here starts with the title, within which Garrett Bradley tethers prison-time served to the general idea of time hinting at the powerful machinations at work. Bradley broadens the scope of her portrait of Sybil Fox Richardson’s decades-long battle to free her husband from a racist criminal justice system to the very fabric of time itself. In doing so, Bradley elevates her subject, an everyday hero, to the stature that Fox Rich deserves, and simultaneously builds a powerful treatise on endurance in the face of grave injustice, told over decades and culminating in one of the most heart-rending final shots of the year.
Don’t confuse Dan Sallitt’s austere low-budget aesthetic with the likes of a slipshod anything-goes mumblecore. His portrait of a friendship fraying over time is a piece of finely tuned machinery, revealing layer after layer as it builds to its surprising and hard-hitting crescendo. Fourteen is like an inverted Frances Ha, it’s a film from the perspective of the stable friend, the one who’s got her life together, watching the drama and the wreckage from the outside-in. Sallitt’s slow-paced build and unobtrusive style sets a perfect stage, but its Tallie Medel and Norma Kuhling who bring these characters to vibrant life.
4. City Hall
In a year marked by profound loss and a near-implosion of American democracy, Fred Wiseman pulls a serene beauty from the placid institutions of Boston’s city government. This city tour has a formidable four-hour runtime, but through marvelous editing feels spry nevertheless. Wiseman whisks us along from call centers, food banks, and meeting rooms, and with quiet juxtapositions creates an empowering portrait of the community within which the mayor and the sanitation worker stand on even ground as servants of the city. Set aside a Sunday afternoon to sink into its hypnotic rhythms and watch as Wiseman unearths the sublime humanity hiding just below the staid institutional surface.
3. Fire Will Come (O Que Arde)
Oliver Laxe constructs a somber mood piece telling the story of Amador, a man returning home to his tranquil Galician village, after serving time for arson. The mysteries of the past remain murky as he begins to rebuild a life he once knew. Laxe ruminates on the flow of time and the way we fall to the mercy of a world outside of our control. Fire Will Come hangs in the air like a daydream, but its elegiac peace is in constant danger from its prophetic title, a promise that threatens to realize itself in an explosive rupture at any given moment.
2. First Cow
With her latest, Kelly Reichardt channels a sweetness and humor hitherto unmatched in her piercing films on poverty and life on the margins. This return to the Western genre, which she already once subverted with the withering Meek’s Cutoff, finds her adopting a more playful tone that glides through the story with delicate abandon. Two friends from different backgrounds find themselves on an adventure stealing milk from the only cow in town and baking cakes. Reichardt’s realist undercurrents are there, and her searing anger lurks just below the surface, but she breathes such overpowering empathy and love into this one that it swells to the point of bursting.
1. The Wolf House (La Casa Lobo)
Despite the specificity of its Chilean setting, no film this year has spoken so vividly to the general horrors of escalating fascism worldwide. This fevered fairy-tale tied to the story of Colonia Dignidad – a colony turned torture camp under the Pinochet regime – is propelled to jaw-dropping heights by its staggering stop-motion animation, but its the grim message underneath that gives it raw power. Its evocation of walls closing in hit a raw nerve earlier this summer as the election was winding up and cops were brutalizing protestors daily. But even now, its sly parable on fascism and colonialism hangs heavy and carries a vicious bite you won’t soon forget.
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Noah Hutton’s sci-fi satire Lapsis may stumble at times, but its punchy riffs on the gig economy make it worth a look.
A staggering work that uses clips from over 400 films to tell a personal story about cinephilia, alienation, and loss, while speaking directly to our anxious moment. Read my review in The Quietus.
A Sylvia Plath poem comes to life in this meditation on loneliness, infatuation, and love as it exists in our inner worlds. Read my review at Ultra Dogme.
Equal parts Errol Morris and David Lynch, this oddball journey through the world’s largest retirement community reveals a startling portrait of American alienation. Read my review at In Review Online.
Aubrey Plaza shows off her considerable talents and range, overcoming a messy script to once again prove her mettle as a formidable dramatic lead.
Pablo Larraín’s latest might lack a substantive core, but it makes up for it with delirious exuberance and a breakout performance from Mariana Di Girólamo.