There will be libraries written about the fallout from 2020: memoirs and sociological studies and an entire generation of art forever coded to this collective flashpoint. If the trauma from an event like 9/11 can reshape the discourse for the next decade, how long will the afterimage of the pandemic--of probably 500,000 known dead when all's said and done from wilful mishandling and a lack of financial, medical, and institutional support--linger in the minds of the survivors? How will we, together, come to terms with our current status as a banana republic, vanquished in a non-shooting war by foreign dictators, and on the verge of witnessing the pathetic, ignoble death of our brief experiment? It will go, and we won't even fight.
There are a lot of ways to approach this annual list this year. I'm going to start with the climate in Pre-Code Hollywood circa 1932, when everything was going wrong. We were coming out of a Great Depression, sound had supplanted silence at the movies (necessitating a major technological shift and its attendant expense for the exhibition side), and there was a rising hysteria about the content of motion pictures, resulting in the hard implementation of the Hays Code in two years' time. 1932 is just 14 years removed from our last deadly pandemic, during which scores of proud Americans refused to wear a mask and thousands paid the price for their freedom. As fascism rose in the United States, the Klan securing footholds in major cities and growing proud and bold in the sun, we had a World War to drive them back into their holes, the better to pretend that what is endemic to our character is not so. Here we are again.
I'm not a historian. I don't really know anything. But I am depressed, and my mind tends to wander these days. I can no longer remember the things I want to sometimes. I can't ever seem to forget the things I don't, though.
Warner Bros. has said they will release their entire 2021 slate to their streaming platform HBO Max and on a token number of movie screens simultaneously. Whether they stand fast on this decision once the vaccine becomes widely disseminated remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the announcement sent shockwaves through an industry that has been negotiating (and reducing) distribution windows since the dawn of home video. Since the dawn of television, really, though until consumers could possess physical copies of the media they consumed it wasn't a matter of great concern. Pundits on every side have new cause to wear their "End is Nigh'' sandwich boards. Like most doomsayers, they're years behind the curve. Exhibition is and always was this venal peddling of ephemeral product. Running a theatre is not so different from running a whorehouse or an opium den, although the temptation is great to speak of loftier aims. As long as there's a financial element to exhibition, there will be financiers in charge of it. I had never met more people who knew less about movies than when I worked with people who owned movie theatres.
The practice of block-booking has shaped modern moviegoing since before the Paramount Decree expired. Powerful studios hold their blue-chip product hostage--the ransom is continuing to play their smaller titles for fear of losing the ones that keep the doors open. Lost in most hand-wringing over this stuff is the extent to which exhibitors are complicit with the studios in torpedoing smaller, independent films. There's been a lot of writing and investigation about this, but...but who cares, the end came and went, and this is what Eliot was talking about with all those bangs and whimpers.
I don't mourn our distribution model; I don't celebrate the Studio System's return. Why mourn or celebrate things I can't control when the lines have already been transgressed so completely and often? Now you care? Now it's too late? What I know is that we've been here before, or places like it, and we persist. Art grows from it somehow, and there's a tomorrow one way or another where miraculous things take root, never mind the death and atrocity that's contributed to the richness of the soil. Never mind. Never mind.
The films of 2020 have, for the most part, not had time to incorporate the devastation of 2020, just the more general devastation of the last four years. Sometimes movies are quick to respond, however, and the ones that do speak to the past 12 months more directly, like Steve McQueen's Small Axe cycle or Rob Savage's Host, do so remarkably. This year, music turned out to be fast to respond as well in the release of albums by major artists conceived and recorded amid lockdowns. There's something elemental about the notion of our storytellers--troubadours and acting troupes--singing our dismay, isn't there? Like the entertainers in The Seventh Seal, fiddling while plague and religious wars decimate the population. Maybe those performers are the ones trailing the contagion across the landscape. Maybe we shouldn't have reopened theatres just because people were desperate for a distraction.
I have felt both more myself and nothing at all this year. The Telluride Film Festival is a personal mile-marker that was cancelled in 2020, and the unpatchable space in my heart got bigger. I can hear a great rushing noise when it's too quiet. The exterior has conformed to my interior's paranoid woe, and I wonder who I am when I am no longer strange in the world, but only as strange as the world has become. I like the rows of scars that line the arms of the heroine in His House and the heroine of Sound of Metal, too.
The best films of 2020 are about isolation and division. We will never heal from this.
There are a handful of titles on this list that weren't "officially" released this year in North America, I don't think, but with theatres gone and distribution so splintered, what's official anymore? I try to leave movies that haven't come out yet off these lists and hope I remember to mention them next year or the year after, but in doing my research I'm discovering that stuff like Just 6.5 probably should've been included last year? It's a mess and, you know, I guess I no longer care about those distinctions. If you have an Internet connection in 2020, you can see pretty much whatever you want, whenever you want it. I watched 800 movies this year, about 260 from 2020--movies I never thought I would be able to find in any format are now streaming from a weird Russian YouTube or some alphabet-soup file-sharer. Support creators, of course, but when all else fails, pirate the fucking thing. Steal it.
What I'm saying is that everything is now. Everything is more now than it has ever been before. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. predicted this, as he was wont to do. Maybe that's why there are so many new timequake flicks, too. We're all unstuck in time--a nation of Billy Pilgrims.
Here are the Top 50 of 2020, grouped, as one does, in lumps of five. It seems an extravagance, but there are movies I've had to leave off every year all the same. Maybe that's a Grady Tripp--an inability to stop. If it's a sickness, I got it bad. So it is.
It was a superlative year in film. Oh, and I didn't put any documentaries on here. The best doc I saw this year--despite a few predictably good directors (so predictable that I'm starting to wonder if they're not the product of some "school" where apprentices do the work for the master's autograph) having turned out predictably good films--is Benjamin Ree's incredibly slippery The Painter and the Thief. There's so much going on in it in terms of the dialogue between audience and creator (and between collector and artist) that I was tempted to contort somehow to say, "No docs...except this one." But fair is fair, and if I ever see enough documentaries in a year to do a separate list of them, I can't imagine seeing a better one. Truth is, with most documentaries I find myself at the strange place of becoming a critic of the issues they address rather than the means by which they address them. Going after a bad film with good politics feels...counterproductive? In this climate, it may even be dangerous in that specifically liberal way in which we attack our allies for not being pure enough to share a foxhole with. I don't want to keep doing that, if I ever did. There is the side that burns books and there is the right side. And that reminds me: I wish I had remembered to see Woody Allen's latest before making this list.
Special mention to what narrowly missed this list: The Wretched, Love and Monsters, World of Tomorrow Episode Three: The Absent Dimensions of David Prime, Gunda, Shirley, Anything for Jackson, The Dark and the Wicked, Vivarium, Blood on Her Name, The Haunted Swordsman, and Minor Premise.
Cinematographer Chung Mong-Hong's A Sun is a sprawling Taiwanese melodrama in the tradition of countryman Edward Yang, if more vibrant (and less patient) than Yang's best work. It covers the saga of two sons--one favoured, one flawed--in a family broken when one of the boys goes to prison and the other is consumed by weltschmerz. With emotions writ large, A Sun manages through a sometimes-sordid tale of crime and redemption to land on a lesson of the importance of living absolutely in the moment. It challenges the notion that our paths are set and has the wisdom to suggest that expectations are merely cruel yokes placed on an individual's potential. And it says that while it's possible to judge a book by its cover, the book is continually being revised--and the cover is not.
Telling the true story of the most ill-advised American military outpost in Afghanistan and a deadly firefight that happened there, Rod Lurie's The Outpost falls in with films like We Were Soldiers and Black Hawk Down that show the devastation Americans wreak overseas with their military might and at home with generations of young men torn apart for unknown aims in impossible places. Our wars are forever, and the "essential" workers in them are the young men and women who give their lives as wood to a fire raging out of control.
Michael Angelo Covino and Kyle Marvin's The Climb follows a friendship over decades. Osgood Perkins's Gretel & Hansel details a different sort of lifetime commitment in a retelling of the fairytale where a brother and sister get hopelessly lost in the wicked wood. They not only find a house of tempting aromas, of course--they find themselves adrift in what is perhaps the single-most visually arresting film of 2020. It's an inversion of the witch mythos, a subversion of gender roles, and another showcase for young Sophia Lillis, who can do anything. In Bad Boys for Life, another pair, supercops Mike and Marcus, resurfaces after a long hiatus for their third outing together (their first without Michael Bay, good riddance), this one directed by the team of Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah. It's a fantastic essay on mortality and growing older and seeing your mistakes reflected in the next generation. I was as surprised as you are.
Da 5 Bloods
A Good Woman is Hard to Find
The Mortuary Collection
Spike Lee is the most important living American director and we're blessed to be alive with him. He alternates, it seems, between poetry and didacticism; his true masterworks blend the two, but here in Da 5 Bloods, find more of the latter than of the former. I wish this would be remembered as Chadwick Boseman's final film: As the doomed "Stormin' Norman," he embodies a wounded heroism that stands for not just the plight of African-Americans immemorial who've fought for the preservation of a country that hates them, but also Boseman himself, who kept the extent of his suffering secret until the end. Delroy Lindo is magisterial here as the embodiment of how capitalism has driven men mad in a system where slavery never truly ended. This is Lee as emotional history professor, and his anger is as galvanizing as it is at times alienating. I can't help pairing Da 5 Bloods with the similarly-pitched HBO series "Lovecraft Country"--entertainments that have a lot on their mind and rage to burn while suffering from a particular desire to bludgeon. Still, even a minor Lee is bound to be among the best films of a given year.
Abner Pastoll's A Good Woman is Hard to Find is a sort of spiritual sister to Julia Hart's I'm Your Woman centring on a widow (Sarah Bolger) with two young kids who finds herself pulled into the world that got her husband killed. Pushed, harassed, Sarah finds some steel and proves herself to be formidable in the face of escalating atrocity. I wonder if we, the people, will ever find the same kind of steel to push back. Dogme95 vet Thomas Vinterberg returns with Mads Mikkelsen to produce the on-the-surface farcical Another Round, in which a group of aging buddies decides to perform a social experiment positing that people are only at peak performance when they're a little tipsy. Things get dark, however, even though for a while the experiment seems a magical elixir curing all the ailments of a mid-life crisis. Mikkelsen's effortless performance nudges him farther into Cary Grant territory as someone who won't be recognized for the actor he is because he doesn't appear to be trying.
For ages I've been waiting for a feature from Ryan Spindell, director of fantastic-in-every-sense short films like The Root of the Problem. What does he do but deliver one of the great horror anthologies in recent memory? The Mortuary Collection ends with his excellent short The Babysitter Murders but expands its conceit into something like a framing story for other tales of love gone horribly wrong. The craft is apparent, the energy is infectious, and through it all is this organizing intelligence and joy. I love this movie because although it has real horrors (don't look in the oven, parents), it also has an irrepressible sense of playfulness and craft. I'll watch anything Spindell does.
Finally, disgraced shrink Dr. Klimova (Oksana Akinshina) is recruited into a secret government facility to interview returned cosmonaut Konstantin (Fyodor Bondarchuk) in Egor Abramenko's Sputnik. Konstantin, somewhere in his interstellar travels, has become the host to a monster. It's a wonderful science-fiction/horror executed brilliantly, but even better is the development of the two characters (the doctor and the patient), and how their traumas force them to confront their choices, in their separate ways, before forging paths forward. It's a film about coming back changed to discover all the elements of yourself that are unchangeable.
The Wild Goose Lake
Neasa Hardiman's Sea Fever is precisely the kind of science-based horror film I like. It's smart, that's a given, but it's also principled in its foregrounding of Siobhan (Hermione Corfield) as the hero. She's a little neurodivergent, uncomfortable with small talk and not the best at connecting with her shipmates on the fishing trawler where she's bought herself passage, the better to complete her Ph.D. in marine fauna. Because the trawler is desperate for a good catch, they chase fish into a cordoned-off zone--and, of course, that zone is there for a reason. Siobhan figures it out. She conducts tests, goes through the scientific method, tests again, and draws a conclusion that no one wants to hear. Appearing at the start of our pandemic, Sea Fever proved prescient about the lengths people will go to avoid inconvenience. No one listens to Siobhan, but she persists.
Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart's animated feature Wolfwalkers tells a similar story about a young woman--two, in fact--no one listens to when they speak of the things that men must do to benefit the greater good. It's 17th-century Ireland, and young Robyn, daughter of the fiercest wolf-hunter in the land, discovers that the wolves, and shapeshifter Mebh (who is a wolf as well as a young girl), are benevolent and looking for a new home. The film tackles the intrusion of Christianity, the struggle between man and the nature he seeks to possess, and even issues of identity and gender. A heady brew in the service of what is simply a gorgeous and kinetic piece of art.
Diao Yi'nan's Chinese neo-noir The Wild Goose Lake is a neon-drenched rumination on form that recalls the nouvelle vague in its critique and imitation of the first generation of colour noir. All its surfaces are wet, all its heroes are cool, all its femmes are fatale; The Wild Goose Lake is an exercise in visual rapture that carries with it a surprisingly unromantic commentary on Chinese materialism and the destruction of the social ties that have traditionally bound the centre kingdom. Joe Marcantonio's Kindred attacks a different traditional social structure in its story of a pregnant young woman (Tamara Lawrance) who learns upon the accidental death of the baby's father (Edward Holcroft), the son of a once-wealthy British family of letters, that it's easier to become the heir to white privilege than to escape it. Tense and terrifying, it has garnered comparisons to Rosemary's Baby and Get Out and, unlike most of the movies compared to those landmarks, deserves it. Sean Durkin's The Nest, meanwhile, is another perspective on white wealth from a couple, superbly played by Jude Law and Carrie Coon, who desperately want to be considered amongst the larded gentry. At least he does, and the lengths to which he'll go speak to the sickness of privilege. Both Kindred and The Nest are cautionary tales: the one about getting in, the other about trying to.
Natalie Erika James's Relic uses the house as an extended metaphor for how a family copes with the progression of dementia in its matriarch. It's a wrenching treatment of a subject coming into vogue now that so many Boomers are dying--and their dreams of a great society with them. Edna (Robyn Nevin) goes missing one day, spurring her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) to return to the family demesne in search of her. What they find instead are spaces in the walls where they get lost, Edna's shade (or is it Edna herself?) acting peculiarly and calling to them from impossible places, and a creeping black mold that's connected somehow to the nightmares of decomposition Kay wakes from every night. Relic's final third is a funhouse of warped space leading to an epilogue that is, for all the horror and disgust of what's come before, actually beautiful in its reconciliation. Such is dying, I think, and death at the end.
La Llorona has a different relationship with shades as a family comes to terms with the sins of the father. Siberia is the first of two Abel Ferrara films starring Willem Dafoe making the 2020 list, this one casting Dafoe as a bartender at the arctic end of the world who, confronted with the unborn child of his Russian lover, embarks on a Jungian trip through his subconscious, revisiting past traumas and perhaps predicting future ones along the way. It's a mysterious, experimental work that plays with the fabric of film time in the same way that Max Barbakow's smart Palm Springs does for a pair of young lovers (Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti) caught in an endlessly-rebooting wedding night--not their own. Groundhog Day for 2020, yes, but with that comes a payload of existential crises as Nyles (Samberg), a long-time veteran of the time loop, accidentally ensnares a couple of companions to share in his eternal suffering. Tight, well-written, with a certain doom-laden quality that makes its ending either legit or an Ambrose Bierce misdirection suggesting the bittersweet conclusion to Steve De Jarnatt's Miracle Mile. I didn't love Palm Springs the first time I watched it--distracted, I think, by other films like it I knew better. The second time through--a time-loop in itself, watching movies more than once--I fell into its rhythms of melancholic attraction and self-destruction.
And then, Guns Akimbo. Which got bullied into inconsequence. For a film about the genuinely dangerous practice of online bullying, it was an ironic fate. Or maybe the opposite of ironic. Samara Weaving, if she's not already, is going to be big.
The Wolf of Snow Hollow
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
La casa lobo
Director Brian Duffield has had a good year thanks to Spontaneous and his script for the better-than-it-should-be Underwater. Spontaneous is a typical YA romance that metamorphoses into something infinitely more bizarre as high-school kids, in the middle of their senior year, begin to spontaneously explode. The cops think it's a brand of terrorism; the scientists and doctors believe it's a virus and try developing a vaccine; and the guidance counsellors think it's bullying. Spontaneous is the first film since Heathers that approaches that movie's caustic brilliance. It gets there not by inventing a new language, but by using the possibility for sudden, inexplicable death as the metaphor for any number of Gen-Z maladies. A scene late in the film where kids are running through the halls of their school as their mates explode is a queasy trigger for our untreated epidemic of school shootings--and it doesn't hurt that the love story at the centre of it all is sweet, smart, and real.
Jim Cummings's The Wolf of Snow Hollow follows his breakthrough Thunder Road with another film about broken men and the world-weary women forced to deal with them, framed this time by a spate of probably-werewolf-perpetrated murders in the tiny winter town of Snow Hollow. My favourite moment comes when Detective Julia Robson (Riki Lindhome) gives our hero, Deputy Marshall (Cummings), the best look when he finally realizes that maybe the world is an awful place for women. Cummings is a unique voice, a vital force in independent cinema. He makes the movies he wants to make, and I can hear him loud and clear through every frame. I'd be remiss if I didn't also single out the late Robert Forster, who's magnificent as a perpetually-addled sheriff.
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets charts what we've lost through a series of interactions, seemingly random and probably improvised, between a Vegas dive's regulars and the bartenders who switch gears on different shifts. It finds real humanity in this ritualized confluence of lost souls, of people in decline and in search of a connection to anchor themselves to a time and place. (The bar is about to be closed for good.) I realized that a memory I had of eating corned-beef hash out of a can heated on a kerosene stove with my dad is shared only by my dad and me. And he's dead. And I will be, too. And that memory will be gone. The film is a gossamer reminder of Wordsworth's small, unremembered acts that together comprise the richness of our lives. Everything is so awfully brief. Everything is forever.
Kitty Green hits it out of the park with The Assistant. Jane (Julia Garner), a young woman four months into her job as an executive assistant for a powerful, unnamed Hollywood executive, begins to feel like something's wrong. She works long hours, she does menial labour, and she suffers looks of sympathy or disdain from co-workers and visitors. One day, she sees an earring on the floor of her boss's office and places it in her drawer. It becomes a thing that nests there, a contagion--and the illness of the culture permeates every corner of every cubicle. The power dynamics of The Assistant are instantly recognizable. We never see the boss, but we do see the kinds of men who wheedle and plot to be the next one--and the young women, mostly, who are made to do the shit work, take the blame, and craft humiliating apologies for asserting themselves. Jane does everything right, including bringing her concerns to HR. I've grown fond of telling people who work for me that you should consider long and hard who signs the paychecks of the people you seek out for support. Shit's broken. The Assistant made me feel sick and sad.
Ditto Joaquín Cociña and Cristóbal León's La casa lobo (The Wolf House), which honours Jan Svankmejer's legacy of twisted stop-motion fables in a telling of a shameful chapter in Chilean history that saw a cult led by an unapologetic serial pedophile (who sheltered amongst others Joseph Mengele) allowed to flourish under the Pinochet regime. Connections to our flirtation with dictatorship in the United States are dangerous to ignore. The surfaces of the film are made horribly pliant, with our young heroine Marie's pigs morphing into children and the walls of her paper sanctuary growing literal eyes. Initially portrayed as trailing the ephemeral light of innocence, Marie is corrupted with the consumptive weight of experience. This is a hard film about a hard subject: the human capacity for atrocity, sure, but also the easy acceptance of atrocity by everyone else, so long as it doesn't affect them. Timely.
The best screen version of "Hamlet" for my money is Michael Almereyda's, and he reunites here with his Melancholy Dane of choice, Ethan Hawke, for this expressionistic biopic of Nikola Tesla. The picture is more interested in the interior projections of our hero than in the outward mythologies that the film suggests have been perverted by a rival, arch-fiend Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan); many of the historical details are conveyed via an omniscient narrator using Google from some nether time and space. Almereyda staged Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy in the "action" aisle of a Blockbuster, busting through the text to find a contemporary metatext. He asks Hawke to do something similar again as his Tesla, deep into the decline of his fortunes, breaks from the film to sing, in character, Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule the World." It's exhilarating, freeing, a conceit that tells the tale and deepens the character. Honouring its subject, Tesla is a work of unconventional genius.
Steven Soderbergh docks with an ensemble piece in which Meryl Streep gives her most natural performance in years, partnered with Dianne Wiest and Candace Bergen, each doing yeoman's work as a trio of friends taking a voyage on the QE2 in which old grievances are rehashed and the nature of friendship (and memory) is challenged. At play is the act of creation and whether an artist has a right to use the lives of their loved ones in their art--and what portion of that art is due in return to their inspirations. Largely improvised yet meticulously metered, Let Them All Talk is a masterclass in performance, direction, and, well, screenwriting, in that every word is made to have meaning. It's a gift that pairs well with Sofia Coppola's newest chapter in her continuing cinematic memoir, On the Rocks. Her films are only ever about aspects of her development, snapshots of her state of mind. She's an auteur, and her revelations are intimate and familiar.
Hlynur Pálmason's A White, White Day tackles how time in the mind of grieving policeman Ingimundur (Ingvar Sigurdsson) allows dark thoughts to sprout, then thrive, before eventually erupting as something strange. His wife has died in an accident, but unable to accept life's vicissitudes, Ingimundur, in his stolid way, starts investigating... something. His probing eventually reveals what he thinks is evidence that his wife was having an affair and, purpose renewed, he seeks to uncover this man's identity and why his wife may have strayed. He sacrifices his present and his future (represented by his eight-year-old granddaughter, Salka (a remarkable Ida Mekkin Hlynsdottir), whom he adores and who adores him in return), and in all the methodical details of Ingimundur's Spartan life, we get a stark portrait of the sterility of grief and the capriciousness of existence.
Then there's Reed Morano's The Rhythm Section. In addition to being about something, it's the best action movie of the year.
The Kid Detective
Alex Thompson and Kelly O'Sullivan's Saint Frances is an entirely unsentimental story of a young woman making bad decisions who befriends the spunky little girl she's nannying for. It's in many ways a body comedy, as our Frances (O'Sullivan) can't seem to stop spotting after an abortion--a constant reminder of how she hasn't found a place for herself in the world. But it's not preachy at all, Saint Frances, which is something like a miracle, given how the spunky little girl's parents are a multiracial, bourgeois lesbian couple. There's a genuineness to the picture that overcomes its conventions, along with a willingness to address topics like postpartum depression and how precocious kids can be emotionally troubled, that elevates the film into one of the best surprises of the year. It's the abortion movie this year that's about something.
Beanpole is also about lost children, in its way. A veteran of the Russian Front, Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) is peculiarly childlike in her affect and given to random fugue states where she chirps like a damaged cuckoo clock while staring off into the far distance. She's broken like her friend Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), who has entrusted Iya with the care of her young, frail son while she, Masha, is off affecting "vengeance" on her mate's murderers. Masha is vengeance in Beanpole, quite mad it seems, but only by the standards of a society that has not been destroyed by a devastating war and its lingering indignities and privations. In some ways a science-fiction film about mutants and metaphors lurking in a blasted post-apocalypse, Beanpole is of course perfect for our own end days.
Remi Weekes's hyphenate debut, His House, details the absolute horror of refugees in a "civilized" state as the guilt of their survival and noisome passage manifests a witch in their government-provided tenement flat. Evan Morgan's The Kid Detective continues a string of post-modern L.A. noir flicks, starting with Altman's The Long Goodbye and continuing through Anderson's Inherent Vice and David Robert Mitchell's Under the Silver Lake. In it, the detective in question, Abe Applebaum (Adam Brody), is the grown-up version of a Hardy Boy/Encyclopedia Brown/Jupiter Jones who, having failed to locate a missing girl in his last case, lost the trust of the small town that had begun to rely on him. Existing on past glories, Abe is pulled back into action only to realize that the good old days weren't as good as he thought, and that his present, as depressing and filled with unfulfilled potential as it is, looks different freed from the trap of expectation. Breezy until it's not, The Kid Detective's alternate universe will be familiar to anyone raised on serialized mystery stories that were the only YA option outside of Judy Blume once upon a time.
Then there's Host, our Blair Witch Project in that it's doomed to be imitated but never replicated. It's a zeitgeist in a bottle, and Rob Savage--whose short film Salt is one of the best horror/fantasies of the decade (clocking in at around 2 minutes)--remains a talent to watch.
The Vast of Night is the single finest adaptation of Ray Bradbury's burnished, nostalgic, somewhat sinister brand of breathless prose there has ever been. Andrew Patterson's film locates a certain quality of the night that only appears for a little while when you're that old and only that old and no older. You always remember the texture of it, the more because you know you'll never experience it again. It's about a small town's radio-station DJ, a ham radio, a teenaged girl wise beyond her years, and the night the Martians come calling. The Vast of Night is written in the precise cadence of hiraeth nostalgia, and I recognize everything in it as something I have experienced, in truth if not in fact. Nights under the blanket with a flashlight, reading Dandelion Wine, where I dreamt of being a hero for a girl who thought I was brave. And I looked up into the night sky in dread and wonder.
Veronica Chen's High Tide is the type of sex thriller the United States routinely cranked out at the end of the 1980s but seldom has since. Lawless, terrifying, sexy to boot, it has the added benefit of clarifying the sharp divide between the haves and have-nots. It's an amoral film with an unerring moral compass. There are no easy answers here. Ditto Regina King's elegiac One Night in Miami, which speculates what happens when Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) gather to celebrate Clay's defeat of Sonny Liston (Aaron D. Alexander) for the heavyweight belt. February 25, 1964. The fight carries over between the four men, one an A-list entertainer, one already a first-ballot Hall of Fame football player, one a rising activist in the Black community, and one about to become Muhammad Ali. They speak of who they were before fame, who they hope to be after it, and the responsibility they each have to carry the flag for their people. Over it all hangs our knowledge that two of these men will be murdered before long--and that the hopes of the burgeoning Civil Rights movement have brought us to this point in 2021 where voter suppression is rampant and the statement "Black lives matter" is somehow controversial.
So is, and for many of the same reasons, Steve McQueen's Small Axe quintet, whose individual segments work together to tell one multifaceted story of race in the same way Kieslowski's Dekalog deconstructed modern faith and belief. These pictures, protests in themselves, slide from historical incident to capturing the vibe, the freedom, of being outside of spaces defined by whiteness. Each entry, in its way, depicts either the struggle to preserve such spaces or the representation of the same, ending with a piquant summation of the battle that offers that the fight, whether won, is still worth the fight. There's value of varying degrees in each instalment (the second, Lovers Rock, is easily the highlight of them), but taken as a whole there emerges a picture of a filmmaker, already lauded, finding a voice true and uncorrupted by an imposed form.
The same could be said of Abel Ferrara, who at this moment in his iconoclastic--hell, punk--career of provocation and poetry produces Tommaso with his literal neighbour Willem Dafoe. It's about addiction, disappointment, love, and art. It's a diary of failure and frustration, and its wisdom is hard-bitten.
The Invisible Man dropped before our first shutdown, and rewatching it during those early weeks made its story of an invisible murderer stalking a woman trapped in her home curiously prescient in a different way. A masterclass in employing negative space and housing perhaps the single best performance of the year (Elisabeth Moss), it is everything a film should be: meticulously crafted, socially responsible, morally upstanding. Wildland similarly focuses on a young woman forged in the fires of a horrifying environment heavy with monsters--the sacrifices of the self we perform to win the security offered by a tribe.
Sound of Metal houses the other best performance of the year (Riz Ahmed) in one of many films on this list exposing how who we are frequently butts up against who we're expected to be. I left another day job this year, this one in the service industry, where I've occupied every level over three decades and have even found some measure of financial success. Not that it meant anything. Indeed it's meant less than nothing, as it's been disastrous for me in terms of my mental and emotional health. Capitalism is slavery and I was paid well to crack the whip. I can't ever do it again.
There's a speech that lays it all out delivered by delivery depot manager Maloney (Ross Brewster) in Ken Loach's devastating Sorry We Missed You. Therein, he says the only thing that matters to the consumer is how quickly they get their package: all the lives spent in getting it to their door are less than anonymous--they're valueless to the customer. There are nets, you know, set up around the perimeter of Apple's Chinese manufacturers, because so many of the human beings making these products were killing themselves. The message about the dehumanizing evil of capitalism was never more current than it is now.
Lastly, Andrew Ahn's lilting, dulcet Driveways. A beautiful swan song for Brian Dennehy, who made a career of playing the heavy. He arrives here as a guy at the end of his life, widowed, lonesome, having made plans for his last act when a new wrinkle presents itself. It's a kind, winsome film, hopeful about who we might become, should we survive long enough to become it. A curative for this season of woe. I saw it as part of the San Diego Asian Film Festival curated by Brian Hu and his extraordinary team (hi, Cristina Ree!), where I was asked to serve on their jury in 2019. I had never before been in a room of Asian film intellectuals. I wondered if white people feel like that all the time. Anyway, Driveways is pure.
The obvious anomaly of this group is Julia Hart's ode to '70s crime thrillers I'm Your Woman, the watching of which provided for me the most hopeful two hours I felt all year. I saw it right before the Presidential election, and it, like Dr. Strange in 2016, reassured me there was maybe good left and that good people were left to tell its tale. Hart foregrounding miscarriage as a definitive event is icing on the cake; it made me feel seen. So did Minari. Lists like this function as roadmaps, you see, of interiors. Minari is my childhood and somehow my dotage. It is so intimate, it feels invasive almost. (Ditto I'm Thinking of Ending Things.)
In truth, the real outlier in this group is True History of the Kelly Gang, both the best western since The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (and for many of the same reasons) and a fascinating deconstruction of gender roles hailing from Australia, in my imagination the most masculine English-speaking country in the world. The feeling that there is something abominable embedded in the very landscape reminds me viscerally of The Night of the Hunter--as does a certain elegiac quality to its eruptions of violence and the lengthy ruminations that, fuse-like, tie the explosions together in an inexorable chain towards oblivion. Such is the foundation of every nation's romantic mythologies.
But my favourite film of 2020 is Brandon Cronenberg's supremely discomfiting Possessor. It's about a certain slipperiness of the self and a specific mistrust of others. It's about, too, the corporatization of identity, and so it owes a portion of itself to The Parallax View and the other masterpieces of the New American Paranoid cinema. Its biggest debt may be to Cronenberg's father's body of work, to coin a phrase, dealing with issues of the flesh and its surprising malleability. Blood as the lubricant, flesh as the disease, and sex, of course, in the equation of violent penetrations with the penis, forever engorged, stupid, mute, and enraged. To say I loved Possessor is not quite right. Closer to the point, it haunts me. It's not that it's infected me so much as it's diagnosed me. The best art can do that.
Possessor, confounding and death-struck and existentially horrific, is the definitive film for this lost year.