Ugh, 2020 was the worst! A year marked by loss and suffering that extended to the movie industry. There’s been a drought in studio output. I haven’t been to a movie theatre since March 14th – the last movie I saw on the big screen was First Cow (call it my #11 film of the year). If it turns out that there are no movie theatres after this, I feel like my final movie choice would be a fine way to mark the end of an era. But cinema will survive. And once the vaccine has been distributed, I will resume my moviegoing habits! Even with my favorite pastime activity being on hold I was able to find comfort in the movies we did get in 2020. The lack of blockbusters allowed smaller films that would have otherwise gone under the radar to garner some attention. The way we see movies may have changed but quality will always matter and there were plenty of great movies to be found this year.
Written and directed by Chloé Zhao. In the aftermath of the late ‘00s recession, a recently widowed woman in her 60s, Fern (Frances McDormand giving one of the best performances of her career) hits the road in a van traveling the American West in search of seasonal employment. As Fern joins a community of similar travelers, Zhao offers us a glimpse into a part of America we don’t see often. The people she meets are non-professional actors, really living the life explored by Nomadland. Roger Ebert described cinema as a machine that generates empathy. Zhao’s lyrical and perceptive ode to people on the fringes of American society reminded me of Ebert’s belief in the power of movies. This movie has only appreciated in value since I saw at this year’s virtual TIFF. Opens in theatres February 19th (but unless the vaccine has been distributed by then, just wait for it to be available for rental).
2. BLOODY NOSE, EMPTY POCKETS
Directors Bill and Ross Turner present a fly-on-the-wall portrait of the final hours of a Las Vegas dive bar called The Roaring 20s as its patrons bid farewell to it. Except a quick online search reveals that the bar is in New Orleans with the narrative woven around an assembly of barflies playing versions of themselves without a script. That this was a curated setup annoyed some documentary purists at this year’s Sundance Film Festival who felt this movie had no business being in the Documentary programme. I don’t much care because this is a magic trick of a movie – a hybrid of reality and fiction that feels genuine despite the artifice. The drinks, the conversations, the outpouring of emotions – they’re all real. Here’s a bold and innovative film with a good sense of humor that has deep compassion for its characters. Available for digital rental.
3. DAVID BYRNE’S AMERICAN UTOPIA
Here’s a perfect meeting of director (Spike Lee) and subject (David Byrne). Okay, it sounds like a weird pairing, but these are two pop culture giants that started their respective careers in New York City in the 1980s and bring a lifetime of experience to this enterprise. I miss live performances so much and American Utopia not only filled that gap by this magnificent capturing of the Broadway engagement at the Hudson Theater but also supplied me with one of the most joyous experiences I’ve had this year. The world wasn’t in a great place in 2020. Yet this communal celebration of personal connection left me with a feeling of hope in a year when that was off limits. This movie transported me to a better place. Streaming on Crave.
4. NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS
The story centers on a17-year-old girl (Sidney Flanigan, excellent) whose pregnancy leads to a journey from rural Pennsylvania to New York City with her cousin to seek a legal abortion. The state laws are such that this becomes her only option without her mother and stepfather knowing that she’s pregnant. Eliza Hittman’s empathetic character study leaves us feeling enraged by the hurdles these girls face but there’s also an incredible amount of support and kindness on display. The title comes from a list of possible answers to a series of questions about the young woman’s sexual history asked by a social worker. The camera stays on Flanigan’s face, her expressions conveying her trauma – I’ll never forget this gut-wrenching scene. Streaming on Crave.
5. THE ASSISTANT
Inspired by the #MeToo movement, Kitty Green’s remarkable directorial feature debut is a monster movie where the monster isn’t even referred to by name. It’s a disquieting procedural about the day in the life of a junior assistant (Julia Garner) to a Weinstein-esque figure. When she brings concerns about her boss to HR, she’s told she doesn’t need to worry because she’s not his type. Her colleagues know what’s happening but look the other way. You see the weight of this system of complicity on her face. The film’s muted approach is perfectly suited to showing this system of silence. The predatory behavior occurs offscreen – the shock value comes from its ecosystem of enablers. Streaming on Crave.
6. MARTIN EDEN
Pietro Marcello directs a brilliant adaptation of Jack London’s 1909 semi-autobiographical novel, transplanting the setting to Naples while remaining untethered to time (even if it echoes a few current day figures). The story follows a working-class sailor (a revelatory Luca Marinelli who has the presence of a classic movie star) who educates himself and achieves success as a writer. Fast-forward to years later and we see that the political ideology he’s adopted leaves him standing alone with nothing but contempt for the working class he emerged from. Gorgeously shot on 16mm, this is a magnificent, sweeping epic – a classic rise and fall story that’s lush, romantic, and deeply absorbing. Available through virtual cinemas.
7. THE 40-YEAR-OD VERSION
I got early Spike Lee vibes watching writer-director-star Radha Blank’s debut. Blank plays a fictionalized version of herself – a playwright in the midst of a crisis. A decade ago, she received the “Most Promising 30 Under 30” award. But now she’s turning 40 and the teens at her day job remind her that this promise has faded into the distance. So she gives up on Broadway to take up rapping! Gorgeously shot in black and white, Blank draws on her own experiences to explore just how Black artists compromise their work for white audiences. And her skewering of the New York theater scene mines humor from a place of soul-crushing exasperation. Streaming on Netflix.
8. DA 5 BLOODS
Leave it to Spike Lee to make two of the best movies of 2020. An in-your-face history lesson filtered through an exciting adventure story about a reunited squadron of Black American soldiers return to Vietnam in search of buried treasure. Rarely has a movie met its political moment like this one – Da 5 Bloods premiered on Netflix in June when Black Lives Matter gained global prominence. Here’s an underrepresented depiction of generational trauma and an indictment of America’s treatment of Black people – you feel anger for a nation that exploited Black lives for war and ignored them at home. Features a career-crowning performance from Delroy Lindo as a pro-Trump, PTSD-inflicted vet. Streaming on Netflix.
This movie about an assassin (Andrea Riseborough, perfectly cast) who works by taking over the mind and body of someone to get close to her targets without suspicion sounds like it comes from the weird imagination of David Cronenberg. But it’s his son, Brandon Cronenberg, who writes and directs, and he does the family name proud with this WTF body-swap horror flick. Possessor is easily my favorite genre movie of 2020. The violence is shockingly gruesome but strip away its nihilistic qualities and you’d be left with a high-minded science fiction picture. It thrills on a visceral level and provides plenty of existential themes to unpack on an intellectual one. Available for digital rental.
10. THE OLD GUARD
The year’s most satisfying blockbuster. Not that there were many this year. But I remain convinced that The Old Guard would have been one of the year’s highlights even if this were a normal year. And even if this is a movie about a band of immortals, the story has real stakes because of its emotional underpinning. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood has a distinctive voice and has made a big budget superhero flick that’s wonderfully romantic and provides its characters with moments of introspection. And the movie kicks ass when it needs to – the combat scenes are very well choreographed and edited for maximum clarity. Charlize Theron doesn’t need your fast cuts! Streaming on Netflix.
Honorable Mentions: Bacurau, Beanpole, Collective, The Disciple, Dick Johnson is Dead, The Father, First Cow, The Invisible Man, Palm Springs, Soul