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Cinemas might've been closed, but this year was still a great one for movies
Clockwise from top left: Lovers Rock, First Cow, Nomadland, Residue, Minari and Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
Funny thing about the best movies of 2020: I watched almost all of them at home. So will you, probably.
I miss going to the movies. I miss watching something play to a crowd, the electric feeling that runs through a darkened auditorium when 500 people respond to the same experience in 500 slightly different ways. I have seen exactly one movie in a theatre since 2020 went fully to hell – Tenet, at a press screening at the Ontario Place Cinesphere – and I would give anything to know when I’ll be able to see the next one. But until then, I’m fortunate enough to be able to watch movies at home – and I’ve been doing that literally every night since this started. And here’s the best of what I’ve seen, with the caveat that even in a year as scattered and chaotic as this, it remains impossible to see everything that’s out there. Also, Josephine Decker’s Shirley – one of the films I was most excited to see in 2020 – still hasn’t made it to Canada. So that’s annoying.
(Full disclosure: I haven’t seen the five features that make up Steve McQueen’s Small Axe, because Amazon Prime Video botched their Canadian release so badly that I wasn’t able to catch up in time. I know Rad loves them, though, and I’m looking forward to watching them over the holidays.)
Frances McDormand in Nomadland
Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland – which will be available to Toronto audiences in the new year – is a thoughtful, empathetic drama that features what might be the performance of Frances McDormand’s career. As Fern, a walled-off woman who travels the American West in a white panel van, McDormand has to play someone who keeps people at arm’s length while working to draw her scene partners (most of whom are non-professionals playing versions of themselves) into the moment. And as Fern moves through a world of trailer parks, garages and gas-station washrooms, the narrative of Nomadland comes into focus. This is a story about the end of the American dream, but we needn’t interpret that as a negative thing. After all, what happens when a dream ends? You wake up.
Set in the mid 80s, Chung’s autobiographical drama – opening in Toronto in February – follows a Korean family trying to start a farm in Arkansas. Named for the Korean vegetable that flourishes in even the harshest of conditions, Minari is an unhurried, beautifully observed drama that invites us to live and breathe alongside its characters as they put down roots, worry about each other and find their way through a culture utterly alien to them. Steven Yeun is flinty and charismatic as the driven father; newcomer Alan S. Kim is a natural charmer as the young, impulsive David, who’s our guide to most of the drama. And while Chung doesn’t flinch from the darker aspects of this story, he always makes sure to show us where the light is.
I was debating whether to include Sciamma’s masterwork, about an 18th century painter (Noémie Merlant) falling for her unwitting subject (Adèle Haenel), since I’d included it in my 2019 honourable mentions. But it didn’t open until Valentine’s Day, and it’s just so damn strong that I can’t let it go. Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is an exquisitely realized love story, a period piece that feels immediate and alive, thrilling to the possibility of its lovers’ connection. What a sumptuous, splendid, devastating film.
Nanau’s documentary about a team of Romanian journalists uncovering monstrous corruption within the country’s health-care system – and the untested patient advocate tasked to save that system, or at least staunch the bleeding – relates a complex narrative with remarkable efficiency, building a moral indictment alongside the legal cases taking shape in front of us on screen. It’s horrific, immediate, essential filmmaking, and if you don’t see the parallels to the slow-motion disaster of Ontario’s public health situation, you just aren’t paying attention.
Riz Ahmed is electrifying in writer/director Marder’s first feature (reviewed here), a powerhouse character study about a noise-metal drummer whose career is derailed by sudden hearing loss. Who is this person, if he’s not a musician? Marder explores by pushing closer and closer into Ahmed’s face. The assaultive, near-experimental sound design goes a long way towards putting us in Ruben’s head, but Ahmed’s performance makes us understand his character with a clarity that eludes Ruben himself. It’s a hell of a thing to see – and to hear – and while it’s a shame viewers don’t have the option to be truly overwhelmed by Sound Of Metal in a big, dark theatre, the movie works just fine at home.
Hittman’s spare, small, emotionally loaded drama about a teenager named Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) trying to obtain a safe, legal abortion in America was supposed to open in theatres the week the planet went into lockdown; you almost certainly missed its VOD window, when it was drowned out by flashier studio pictures rushed to the home arena. But it’s one of the best movies of this miserable year, with tremendous performances from both Flanigan and Talia Ryder as Autumn’s resourceful cousin Skylar. Don’t miss it.
In the 1840s, two men (John Magaro, Orion Lee) launch a snack business in the Oregon territory, the success of which depends on one very valuable ingredient: milk from a cow that neither of them owns. From Old Joy to Certain Women, Reichardt makes movies about relationships that contain entire worlds; in this one, she also shows us how economics and politics determine everything that happens to her little-guy heroes, even before they get started.
Lee’s movie of David Byrne’s American Utopia is a glorious thing. It takes Byrne’s stage show – a gently political jukebox musical that reshuffles four decades of the ex-Talking Heads frontman’s music into a new narrative about despair and compassion in today’s America – and amplifies it into cinema through clever camera placement and sharp, rhythmic cutting. And just when you find yourself thinking, “this is all very proficient, but I wonder what drew Spike Lee to this,” Lee shows you exactly what that was, and it lands like a haymaker. In a year where people somehow became even more divided, here’s a movie that literally begs us to remember who we are to one another.
The Ross brothers (Tchoupitoulas, Contemporary Color) bend the documentary format with this look at the last day of operations at a Las Vegas dive bar called the Roaring Twenties, as bartenders and regulars gather to drink, talk and salute the place. Except that isn’t quite what we’re watching, because the Rosses shot this in New Orleans, with real people playing themselves without a script. The alcohol they’re drinking is also real, and so are the emotions that come out over the course of the film, and Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets pulls you into its artfully manufactured unreality with the confidence and grace of a masterful theatre piece.
Veteran cinematographer Johnson follows her brilliant 2016 docu-memoir Cameraperson with another thoughtful, structurally ingenious look at her life and family. This one focuses on her father Dick, who’s recently been diagnosed with dementia – and who enthusiastically helps Kirsten imagine his own death (and afterlife) with little movie shoots that let dad and daughter deal with the impending loss in alternately absurd and heartbreaking ways. Set aside the impressive artistic accomplishment and it’s a story about a daughter finding a way to give her father the chance to go out on his own terms, even though – having lost Kirsten’s mother to Alzheimer’s a decade earlier – they’re all too familiar with what’s really coming.
Honourable mentions to Louise Archambault’s dying-of-the-light drama And The Birds Rained Down, Kitty Green’s harrowing, Weinstein-adjacent drama The Assistant, Jan Komasa’s religious parable Corpus Christi, Spike Lee’s furious Vietnam drama Da 5 Bloods (featuring a blistering turn from Chadwick Boseman, and a heartbreaking one from Delroy Lindo), Aaron Schneider’s WWII procedural Greyhound, Alice Wu’s tender YA Cyrano update The Half Of It, Ladj Ly’s nervy sociopolitical thriller Les Misérables, Heather Young’s despairing character study Murmur, Max Barbakow’s time-loop romance Palm Springs (on Amazon Prime Video December 18), Armando Iannucci’s whirligig adaptation of The Personal History Of David Copperfield, Galder Gaztelu-Urruita’s horrific class-war parable The Platform, Paddy Breathnach’s anxious Dublin drama Rosie, and Brian Duffield’s splatteriffic teen romance Spontaneous (reviewed here), which frankly blindsided me with its sensitivity, its storytelling and Katherine Langford’s megawatt charisma. Keep an eye out for that one.
A scene from First Cow
The COVID-19 pandemic forced us to seriously consider universal basic income and whether capitalism was actually a bright idea. Some of 2020s most fascinating movies had similar concerns. Mank and Nomadland are the latest to explore the value of people, their labour and the political and industrial machinery built to crush spirits and idealism. The best of such movies in 2020 is Reichardt’s First Cow.
The tender and poetic emo-Western is about two enterprising men in the mid-19th century stealing milk from the region’s only cow to make a fortune selling “oily cakes.” They feel out the benefits and limitations of capitalism. Meanwhile, the film milks this foundational American story for every ounce of humanity it can muster.
Lovers Rock is a warm invitation and embrace. But it doesn’t make concessions. McQueen trusts the audience to just groove with the second film in his remarkable Small Axe anthology, which enjoys a certain freedom by being relatively plotless. Lovers Rock isn’t tasked with telling a specific history or biography about Britain’s West Indian community pushing back against racism, as other Small Axe instalments.
Instead, the musical is about a cross-section of Jamaicans jamming at a house party in London. For the most part, the white gaze is left at the coat check, as the film scans the scene, feels out the relationships and tensions, picks up the tremors in voices and glances, and zeroes in on the community’s joys, drama and trauma.
Rattling around Gerima’s haunting and lyrical debut about a gentrified neighbourhood in Washington D.C. are ghosts from the past. The film’s protagonist (Obinna Nwachukwu), a filmmaker returning to his old home, searches desperately for old friends in a Black community whose scars, history and kinship are spackled over by the new resident yuppies. Emotional memories from the community come at you like a flood. And so too do the influences of Spike Lee, Charles Burnett and the young filmmaker’s own father, Sankofa director Haile Gerima.
An astonishingly naturalistic Frances McDormand shows us what it means to be hushed and humbled by the alternately beautiful and harsh American landscape in Nomadland. Zhao’s film is delicate and almost zen-like as it honours the lives lived on the road. But it’s also mindful of the economy that put them out there. In an early scene, McDormand’s Fern works at an Amazon plant to afford a life with no fixed address. The bitter irony that she prepares packages she could never herself receive is especially felt during the pandemic. Amazon is getting richer. Small businesses are shuttering. And the precarious housing situation means more and more people are wondering where they are going to rest their head.
You’ve never seen the world from the perspective of a one-legged chicken before. Kossakosky’s achingly beautiful black-and-white documentary is ground-breaking and wondrous for its intimacy, getting unbelievably up-close-and-personal with farm animals showing off their personalities. Among them are a mother pig and her litter who feed, frolic and tug at your emotions in ways you may not be able to handle.
Charlie Kaufman writes movies about getting lost in people’s heads (remember Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind). His adaptation of Canadian author Iain Reid’s surrealist novel about about a woman going on a road trip to meet her boyfriend’s parents might be the purest expression of that. I can’t pretend to have a grasp over the strange and baffling places this movie takes us to. But its intoxicating confusion fits the narrative’s dream logic, which is alternately hilarious, thrilling and nightmarish and always revealing.
A family grows while waiting for their incarcerated patriarch to be released from a 60-year-prison sentence for robbery. Beautiful, patient and inspiring, Bradley’s experiential doc captures how much life happens while you sit around waiting for justice and empathy.
The reporters in the urgent and necessary doc Collective occasionally go on a stakeout. They use a massive zoom lens to photograph perpetrators in a massive Romanian health scandal from afar. I couldn’t help but wonder if these reporters, who actually work for a sports magazine, were using the cameras they usually employ for photographing soccer players on the field. The tragedy and unrelenting thrill in Collective is that it falls on sports reporters to do a job that no one else would: expose a network of corruption between the government and pharmaceutical companies that turns out to be, as they prove, deadly.
Gavron’s coming-of-age drama about an abandoned teen caring for her little brother escapes the trauma porn trap by focusing on the hopes, strength and sisterhood among her diverse characters. The cast led by Bukky Bakray and Kosar Ali are unbelievably charming and infectious. In a just world, these rockstars would become household names.
Celebrating a narrative about American founding father Alexander Hamilton in a year that had us interrogating capitalism and speaking out (yet again) against anti-Black racism is a strange thing. Hamilton is the architect behind American capitalism and was recently revealed to be a slave owner. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway experiment, which appropriates AmeriKKKa’s past with a diverse cast, had to do a lot more ideological heavy lifting in 2020, when it premiered on screen. It’s worth it.
Hamilton’s stirring remix of American history doubles as a tour through hip-hop history. The musical’s influences venture from Run DMC and Das EFX, to Biggie, Mary J. Blige and Beyonce. I can’t tell you how many times since July I’ve re-watched Satisfied. In a single song, Renee Elise Goldsberry shows off a range between Monica’s vocals and Lauryn Hill’s rhyme skills. Goldsberry drops the most exhilarating performance I’ve seen all year.
The best movies of 2020 dished out equal amounts anxiety and comedy. These suddenly extra-extra-timely films attempted to make visual the underlying forces shaping society, yet they were shot and conceived before the pandemic laid everything bare.
These are movies about drinking and dancing; the people, places and images informing our personal values; and the differences and similarities between generations. While many of these filmmakers are reacting to trends and attitudes in culture, they avoid being reactionary or moralizing. Some do it through deceptively “light” stories, and others through more inventive experimentation. Either way, the best movies of the year trust the audience.
This last-day-in-the-life of a Las Vegas dive bar was prescient in a year of non-stop anxiety. A group of regulars gather for one last night at a familial watering hole, a place where patrons can let loose – for better or worse. At a time where people are isolated on many levels, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is a tribute to randomness and unashamed messiness, full of memorable characters, conversations and pop hits that keep coming despite an uncertain future. The movie’s surreal emotional apex, crafted around Sophie B. Hawkins’ early 90s hit Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover, is perfect.
Imagine a world where depression is a contagious disease that overcomes even the most high-strung members of society. That’s the simple yet surprisingly hilarious premise of this extremely dry comedy, which uses clever shifts in perspective to heighten the tension. The movie often feels like it is taking place underwater and is comprised of long, loaded pauses that give us lots of time to drink in Kate Lyn Sheil and Jane Adams’ subtly expressive performances.
A coming-of-age drama set in the south of France, An Easy Girl is as breezy as you want it to be or as deep as you want it to be. Working-class teen Naïma (Mina Farid) is figuring out what she wants to do with her life when her hedonistic cousin Sofia (social media influencer Zahia Dehar) sashays into town for a summer they won’t forget. Director Rebecca Zlotowski has fun both subverting and indulging in gender stereotypes (and classic French cinema references) to tell a story about personal values that is never moralizing.
Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock is one of the best dramatic movies about club culture. Part of the filmmaker’s Small Axe anthology series, the movie methodically shows us the collective energy and labour that goes into throwing a blues party in 80s London and then ditches us in the middle of the dancefloor – and the drama – like a fairweather wingman. It’s a short, deliberately paced and richly atmospheric film that enjoyably elucidates how dancing can be a form of rebellion, personally and politically.
The Hand That Rocks The Cradle meets millennial narcissism in this joyously nasty and sharply written satire about privileged creative types upended by the breakdown of traditional gender roles – who then manipulate each other’s glaring insecurities to benefit a movie they’re shooting. Two thirds of the way in Black Bear suddenly turns into a slapstick comedy. The ever-inscrutable Aubrey Plaza delivers the most archly calibrated and unpredictable performance of the year.
Ephraim Asili’s debut feature takes a loving and critical look at radical collectivism and different forms of activism. Mixing experimental storytelling techniques from his suite of shorts about African diaspora with more traditional narrative arc, archival footage and filmed performance, The Inheritance is a funny, poignant and energizing film that explores, in often blunt terms, what can happen if you choose to live your life in resistance the animating forces of society.
Radha Blank announced herself as a major triple-threat by writing, directing and starring in this acerbic cringe-comedy about the struggle between self-fulfilment and material needs in middle age. She plays a once-buzzy playwright who moonlights as a rapper to rekindle her creative spark while selling out on Broadway. Shot in romantic and intimate black-and-white, The 40-Year-Old Version is packed with one-liners and great musical sequences. Though the lead character is highly cynical, the movie takes a refreshingly uncynical view of the generation gap.
Zaddy issues meet daddy issues when a well-to-do New York writer (Rashida Jones) turns to her womanizing father (Bill Murray) for help because she thinks her hot workaholic husband (Marlon Wayans) is cheating. The gag is dad is happy to validate her worst instincts, and the two set out on caper-like adventures to catch her partner in the act. Sofia Coppola seems to be interrogating her own predilection for father-daughter stories in On The Rocks, but is shrewd enough to avoid coming to easy conclusions. It’s a smart comedy about the things we inherit from our parents despite generational differences.
Maïmouna Doucouré’s unsentimental and empathetic debut feature plugs into the fury of an 11-year-old who rebels against her polygamist father’s impending nuptials by secretly joining a hypersexual dance troupe. Similar to An Easy Girl, this is a French film about a young girl struggling to define her values in the face of social media pushing one-dimensional notions of femininity. The trust the director puts in her audience is like a rebellion in and of itself. A movie about childhood that isn’t afraid to confront the messiness of childhood.
A culture war classic, Feels Good Man is a biography of comic character Pepe the Frog, who took a wild journey through the dark web meme machine and came out the other side a literal hate symbol. Director Arthur Jones’ brisk-yet-thorough doc comes at the story from all angles to demystify this strange tale as one of Machiavellian political calculus. The movie also raises thorny questions about what is counter-culture, what is mainstream and the nature of artistic ownership, as Pepe creator Matt Furie vainly attempts to regain control of this out-of-control narrative.