Favorite Films of 2020

As always, “2020” is relative. Many of these titles have a copyright date of 2019 (a few even go back to 2018!) My #1 film received its initial theatrical release in 2019 but did not play my town until last February; likewise, most people won’t get to see my #3 film until it hits VOD and Hulu this February, although I had the fortune to view it at virtual TIFF last September. With exhibition presently and continually being redefined due to COVID, think of this as a list of the best new movies of the past year, including those that I could not have seen any earlier.

1. PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE
Celine Sciamma’s exquisite 18th century romance between two women, an artist (Noémie Merlant) and her subject (Adèle Haenel) gains so much power from taking the slow burn route, deploying all of its accoutrements sparingly, letting the connection between its two leads develop organically so that when it first reaches a crescendo in the astonishing feast scene midway through, one can’t help but be fully engaged in their fate. And, as that actual fate becomes apparent, it’s near-impossible not to feel and absorb the mad rush of emotions practically emanating from the screen, culminating in a simple but profound, powerful final shot.

2. SOUND OF METAL
Ruben, a noise-rock drummer (Riz Ahmed) loses his hearing—a succinct, seemingly clear-cut premise that director/co-writer Darius Marder (in an astonishing feature debut) expands and permutates into a far-reaching but compellingly interior study of losing control and the lengths we’ll go in order to retain it. Anchored by Ahmed’s terrific, immersive performance and buoyed by Paul Raci as his unsentimental counselor, Sound of Metal is a journey whose depth you would rarely find in a studio film; it’s also one of the best ever movies about addiction.

3. NOMADLAND
If anything, an advance on Chloe Zhao’s last film, The Rider, and not necessarily because she’s now working with an Oscar-winning actress (though McDormand is the best possible one for this type of project.) Nomadland retains the earlier film’s willingness to observe and illuminate rather than judge or persuade. Lyrical but not pretty, sorrowful but not miserable, reflective but not static, it may take place in 2012, but it fully embodies an era of American life that’s still with us and continues to unfold.

4. FIRST COW
This has a gentle, gestating narrative that requires patience, but it also rewards those who become invested in the fate of a 19th century cook (John Magaro) and a Chinese immigrant (Orion Lee) as they become unlikely friends and form an impromptu business partnership. What they build is forever precariously hanging by a string due to the titular animal that makes their potential fortune possible. By applying such high stakes to such richly detailed “slow” cinema, First Cow ends up filmmaker Kelly Reichardt’s most fully realized effort in years, possibly ever.

5. BLOODY NOSE, EMPTY POCKETS
The Ross Brothers nearly outdo themselves with their latest documentary, a fly-on-the-wall account of the last day of business for a Las Vegas dive bar. Initially resembling a Frederick Wiseman-directed, much seedier version of Cheers, it eventually reveals the all-too-human behavior of the bar’s assorted patrons, for good and for ill. To divulge anything more would spoil what the Ross’s are actually up to here; I will note that, watching this on November 3rd, it confirmed for me the character and compassion that I know my country is capable of.

6. BACURAU
Defying categorization, this references a variety of classic films but gradually reveals itself as a neo-take on one particular genre (it’s best to come into it not knowing what that is.) A fervent chaos surfaces in often thrilling ways–a drunken speech at a funeral, an unexpectedly brutal death, a certain 80s pop song on the soundtrack (also too good to give away here.) Bold, slightly erratic, gorgeous and, of all things, nearly as tuned into the modern world and its growing social-economic divide as Parasite.

7. AND THEN WE DANCED
This Georgian import focuses on Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani), an aspiring competitive dancer who falls for a new nonconformist male member of his troupe. It owes a lot to Call Me By Your Name, from the intense flirtation that develops between the two to Merab’s sympathetic faux-girlfriend. Fortunately, And Then We Danced easily transcends homage, not only by nature of telling its particular story in a culture where it is still highly taboo, but also in its Georgian dance sequences and in particular, that rapturous finale.

8. DAVID BYRNE’S AMERICAN UTOPIA
Initially thought this was going to be a lesser Stop Making Sense; while any kind of concert ex-Talking Heads frontman Byrne attempts will always live in its shadow, by the end of this, I was overcome by the same adrenaline rush I felt the first time I saw the Demme film. The humaneness and goodwill on display here may or may not resonate as effectively when viewed ten or twenty years from now; presently, it feels immense, a celebration of rhythm as the great unifier.

9. HAM ON RYE
A group of teens converge for a party at a local deli, and that’s arguably the only conventional aspect of Tyler Taormina’s auspicious debut feature. Simultaneously comforting and unnerving, it’s a fully-formed world both carefully resembling and greatly diverging from our own. Nearly as unique as (and far less upsetting than), say, Blue Velvet, it builds towards a ritualistic sequence that filled me with joy while also leaving me with so many questions (What was in those sandwiches? Is this what happens to Mormons?)

10. HOUSE OF HUMMINGBIRD
A working class study blessed by both a great lead performance from Ji-hu Park and writer/director Bora Kim’s nuanced, humanistic approach. Set in the ‘90s, it follows a teenage girl going through some ordinary but substantial issues with her family, friends and school—kind of like a South Korean Eighth Grade, only set in pre-internet/social media times. Mixing Mike Leigh-style class critique and Ozu-esque domestic drama with great finesse, this belongs on a short list of essential coming-of-age films.

11. BOYS STATE
This documentary about a conference of a thousand teenage boys from Texas who come together in state capital Austin to build a mock government complete with elected officials is thrillingly a total microcosm of the current American political climate.

12. COLLECTIVE
Can’t remember the last film (or documentary, no less) where I gasped or whispered “wow…” out loud so many times. This alarming level of corruption took place in Romania, but it could also all too easily happen here (and arguably has.)

13. NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS
As for scenes that explain the title of a curiously-titled film, this is one of the best–certainly the most harrowing and effective in recent memory.

14. WOLFWALKERS
A gorgeous, 2D-drawn fantasy set in 17th century Kilkenny, centered around a conflict between the townspeople and a wolfpack. Forgive me for being sappy, but it genuinely warmed my heart like little else I’ve seen in the past year.

15. KAJILLIONAIRE
Give Miranda July credit for continuing to follow her own peculiar path and not succumb to working-for-hire or diluting her quirks for a mass audience. With a novel hook and a great ensemble, it even resonates in ways one can hardly predict at the onset.

16. STRAIGHT UP
Name-dropping Gilmore Girls in the first fifteen minutes reveals director/writer/actor James Sweeney’s core aesthetic, but he both conceives of and (with his cast) delivers the rapid-fire dialogue superbly without it coming off as secondhand.

17. ANOTHER ROUND
This latest Vinterberg/Mikkelsen pairing nimbly shifts between humor, satire and despair—a funny, sad, engaging and fully dimensional study of male mid-life crises.

18. BLACK BEAR
Aubrey Plaza in this film is not as amazing as Naomi Watts in Mulholland Dr, but she’s really, really close.

19. LOVERS ROCK
So much pure, unadulterated joy in this–certainly more than in any other McQueen film I’ve seen.

20. MR. SOUL!
Stellar, entertaining doc about an old public television show you probably don’t know but should. Ellis Haizlip is an unsung hero of his time; this gives him his due.

ALSO RECOMMENDED:

76 DAYS
BAD EDUCATION
BEANPOLE
CAT IN THE WALL
CITY HALL
CRIP CAMP
DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD
DRIVEWAYS
I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS
MOUTHPIECE
THE PAINTER AND THE THIEF
THE PLANTERS
RED, WHITE & BLUE
SORRY WE MISSED YOU
TIME
THE VAST OF NIGHT

Film Journal: March 2020

First Cow

I used to post monthly reports collecting thoughts (no matter how succinct) about every film I watched. While I still write individual reviews (which can be found on Letterboxd), I thought I’d start doing a monthly summation here as well—at least as long as the COVID-19 pandemic continues and I have time to watch close to twice as much stuff as usual.

Four of the first ten titles here were viewed for Chlotrudis Awards (where I managed to see all but four of the nominated films.) The keeper in this bunch was The Art of Self-Defense, a love-it-or-hate-it indie whose dry, bordering on absurd humor was right up my alley (see also Lemon.) Thankfully, First Cow was one of the last movies I got to see in a theatre before the mass shutdowns (snuck in to the second-to-last screening—full disclosure, I work at an indie cinema); more than a month on, I’m so grateful for this, as Kelly Reichardt’s latest might be her best: applying considerably high narrative/emotional stakes to such richly detailed “slow” filmmaking, it’s also a fine portrait of friendship between two men (a concept still very much a rarity in 2020.)

Most of what follows was viewed on The Criterion Channel, Hulu and Amazon Prime, though not everything—most notably, The Green Fog, which is streaming for free on Vimeo and essential for fans of Guy Maddin and Vertigo (a guaranteed crossover?). Criterion, in particular is an invaluable resource for filling in the cracks in my extensive moviegoing, from Malle’s wistful but never foolish depiction of an anachronism in a changing world to the delightfully anarchic but compulsively watchable Daisies. Also revisited The Swimmer, which I absolutely hated sixteen years ago. Now, in my mid-40s and having consumed seven seasons of Mad Men, I sort of get it, admiring its innate weirdness rather than being repulsed by it.

Also nice to finally see a proper presentation of Teorema (first viewing long ago was a poorly dubbed 16mm print-to-VHS), A Place In The Sun (on my watchlist forever, and maybe my favorite Clift performance, if not the best film he was ever in), first features from the directors of Toni Erdmann and It Follows, and most of all, Glitterbug, a montage of Jarman’s Super 8 work I’ve owned for over a decade (as part of the Glitterbox set) but never got around to seeing until now. Thank you, pandemic?

Films viewed in March in chronological order, with director, year of release and my rating (out of 10.) *Denotes I’ve seen this title before.

Emma. (Autumn de Wilde, 2020) 6
Auggie (Matt Kane, 2019) 3
Wendy (Benh Zeitlin, 2020) 4
The Art of Self-Defense (Riley Stearns, 2019) 8
Horse Girl (Jeff Baena, 2020) 5
A Moment In Love (Shirley Jackson, 1956) 7
The Times of Bill Cunningham (Mark Bozek, 2018) 5
First Cow (Kelly Reichardt, 2019) 9
Little Woods (Nia DaCosta, 2018) 7
Rafiki (Wanuri Kahiu, 2018) 6
Atlantic City (Louis Malle, 1980) 8
Teorema (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1968)* 8
The Myth of the American Sleepover (David Robert Mitchell, 2010) 7
Le Bonheur (Agnes Varda, 1965) 8
Bullfight (Jackson, 1955) 6
The Green Fog (Evan Johnson, Galen Johnson, Guy Maddin, 2017) 8
The Swimmer (Frank Perry, 1968)* 7
Cold Case Hammerskjold (Mads Brugger, 2019) 7
Ad Astra (James Gray, 2019) 6
The Forest For The Trees (Maren Ade, 2003) 8
The Falling (Carol Morley, 2014) 6
A Place In The Sun (George Stevens, 1951) 8
The Skeleton Twins (Craig Johnson, 2014)* 7
Daisies (Vera Chytilova, 1966) 9
Bisbee ’17 (Robert Greene, 2018) 8
Glitterbug (Derek Jarman, 1994) 9