The industry may have changed forever, but great art still speaks for itself.
On March 7th, we took the kids to see Pixar’s Onward at the Alamo Drafthouse. There were crafts and special snacks, and we had a great time. Less than a week later, Tom Hanks announced he had COVID-19, the NBA shut down, schools were closed, and 2020 went in an entirely different — and tragic, and infuriatingly preventable — direction. You don’t need me to recap it.
The pandemic’s full impact on the film industry, however, has yet to be determined. Productions around the world were frozen in place, only to cautiously restart under new restrictions; release dates for dozens of blockbusters (Black Widow, Dune) and Oscar contenders (The French Dispatch, West Side Story) were delayed into 2021; studio after studio moved finished offerings to streaming services; theater chains themselves were put on life support, exacerbated by Christopher Nolan and Warner Bros.’ push to keep Tenet on screens for an audience who knew it was wiser to stay home. (I liked it, though.)
With the absence of traditional tentpoles, our home screenings were filled with smaller, more idiosyncratic fare. Emma. Eurovision Song Contest. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. Were our standards lowered, a bit? Probably. Remember when we spent a week taking about Mank? There was still a lot to see, some of it great — you just had to work a little harder, or watch it a different way. I do miss the theatrical experience, or at least parts of it. I miss the electrical charge that passes through the audience at a pivotal moment. I miss not being as easily distracted in a screening as I am on my couch. But anyone who thinks this new studio/streamer arrangement is temporary is kidding themselves; Disney and Warner now know that more people will happily pay a premium for the convenience, and Netflix is still there to mop up the spoils. The paradigm has shifted, and there’s no going back.
Despite all of that, I could make an equally potent Top 10 just out of films I didn’t get to see this year — beginning with two Best Picture contenders, Nomadland and Minari, which aren’t coming to San Antonio until February. Since it’s dumb to delay a year-end list that long, you’ll just have to accept this as as snapshot of what 2020 had to offer rather than anything authoritative. Further apologies to: Collective, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Promising Young Woman, One Night in Miami, Bloody Nose Empty Pockets, and the many, many other films I heard were great but couldn’t get to.
Now for some Honorable Mentions:
- Sound of Metal: A seriously impressive debut from Darius Marder, notable for its astonishing sound design, empathetic portrayal of the deaf community, and a scorching lead performance from Riz Ahmed. Available on Amazon Prime. (Full Review)
- Another Round: Come for the promise of Mads Mikkelsen doing jazz ballet; stay for the crushing melancholy of middle age. Thomas Vinterberg’s story of high school teachers getting buzzed on the job is a kaleidoscope of emotions. Available on VOD. (Full Review)
- Driveways: A low-key gem from Andrew Ahn, refreshingly free of melodrama and cliche. Lucas Jaye shines as a young boy who bonds with his older neighbor (Brian Dennehy, in a compelling final performance). Available on VOD.
- The Trial of the Chicago 7: Look, I don’t have to explain myself to you! Sure, Sorkin’s politics are naive; yes, he takes liberties with the facts; of course, Steve McQueen’s Small Axe: Mangrove is a superior version of a similar story; but it just works for me. So there. Available on Netflix. (Full Review)
- World of Tomorrow 3: The Absent Destinations of David Prime: Don Hertzfeldt’s conclusion to our greatest short-form trilogy defies hyperbole as much as it defies description. The animation is stunning, but the storytelling burrows into your mind like a memory planted by the lover of your future clone. Available on Vimeo.
And awayyyyy we go:
10. Dick Johnson Is Dead
Directed by Kirsten Johnson
From October: “A daughter helps her father prepare for the end of his life.” That’s the logline for Kirsten Johnson’s followup to Cameraperson (one of the best documentaries of 2016, or any year), and from that alone, you’d expect it to be a heavy watch. Instead, however, Dick Johnson Is Dead is a joyful experience — a loving paean to a unique man who, as of this writing, is very much alive. The younger Johnson accomplishes this, hilariously, by “killing” her father over and over again. Dick falls down the stairs; he gets crushed by an air conditioner; he gets skewered by a piece of lumber. Sometimes Kirsten uses stuntmen, or asks her delightfully amenable dad to lie in a pool of fake blood. It’s the kind of thing, she explains, they could only do together now, and have to do before his mental faculties slip away. They already watched that happen to her mother, and Kirsten has precious little footage to remember Mrs. Johnson by. This time she wants to celebrate the man as he was, while he still is. The result is moving, wryly funny, and shot through with love.
Available on Netflix
9. Palm Springs
Directed by Max Barbakow
From July: There are films that meet the moment, and then there are films that have the moment thrust upon them. Palm Springs is one of the latter, resonating all the stronger after many of us spent the spring and summer trapped in a loop of daily isolation and boredom, laced with a near-crippling existential dread. Much like Nyles (Andy Samberg), who is well and truly trapped — at a wedding he doesn’t want to attend, with a girlfriend who’s cheating on him, and in an “infinite time loop situation” of undetermined origin that will soon draw in Sarah, the sister of the bride (Cristin Milioti, so winning). It’s quite difficult to find a fresh take on this kind of story. Yet somehow screenwriter Andy Siara has done it: Palm Springs is genuinely clever and a bit mad; Max Barbakow’s direction (his feature debut!) is quick on its feet; and Samberg and the energetic Milioti are delightful together. Even if it didn’t accidentally speak to our Pandemic Age, it would still be the best comedy of the year.
Available on Hulu
8. Da 5 Bloods
Directed by Spike Lee
From June: Somehow, Spike Lee always arrives right on time. In this tumultuous year, the auteur is back with another electrifying historical drama on Blackness in an unrepentant America. Da 5 Bloods combines themes from two of Lee’s favorite films — The Deer Hunter and Treasure of the Sierra Madre — and drops them into a stew containing copious references to classic cinema, archive material, and an an astonishing, sweaty, self-annihilating performance from Delroy Lindo.It’s a travelogue, a treasure hunt, a history lesson, a meditation on guilt and PTSD, a father-son drama, and — ultimately — a harrowing action film. Lee handles all of these shifts in tone and genre with directness. This isn’t a film that’s not sure what it wants to be; it intends to be everything, and though some aspects work better than others, it is vibrantly alive in its contradictions, and demands attention on every front.
Available on Netflix
7. The Vast of Night
Directed by Andrew Patterson
From June: New Mexico, late 1950s. In a series of low, gliding tracking shots, we are introduced to a motormouthed DJ (Jake Horowitz) and a winsome switchboard operator (Sierra McCormick). Then they hear strange noises coming over the airwaves, and Andrew Patterson’s extraordinary debut feature takes off like a rocket. The Vast of Night tells an old story, to be sure — but it tells that story in an exhilaratingly fresh way, with jaw-dropping camera work (a single tracking shot midway through made me gasp, and I rarely do that), uncommon intimacy, and what should be breakout performances for its two leads. McCormick in particular is gifted a nine-minute unbroken take at the switchboard, placing calls around town that keep getting cut off as she tries to figure things out with mounting worry; she and Horowitz both are asked to execute quickly overlapping dialogue while demonstrating actual technical proficiency with decades-old props, and that might be the most impressive thing of all.
Available on Amazon Prime
6. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Directed by George C. Wolfe
From December: Veteran theater director George C. Wolfe presents August Wilson’s 1982 play with raw emotion, a lack of artifice, and an eye for a devastatingly-composed image. Though it takes place in one day at one location — a recording studio in 1927 Chicago — it never feels small, due to the larger-than-life personalities on screen and the thematic depth of the text. Ma Rainey, played by Viola Davis, caked in makeup and sweat, is as unimpeachable as ever, and her liberated, sexually fluid “Mother of the Blues” rules over the session with unquestioned authority. Unquestioned, that is, except by Chadwick Boseman’s Levee, in his incandescent final performance. Boseman takes to Wilson’s dialogue — including a show-stopping speech in which Levee’s worldview is finally laid bare — with almost supernatural force, and only Davis’s immovable object avoids getting blown off the screen.
Available on Netflix
Directed by Tomm Moore & Ross Stewart
From December: Tomm Moore and Cartoon Saloon have done it again. The director of Oscar nominees The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea is finally back with his third feature (co-directed by Ross Stewart), and it’s as gobsmackingly gorgeous as his previous work. Wolfwalkers once again brings Celtic folklore to stunning, hand-drawn life — so personal, in fact, that you can still see the lines of the original sketches underneath the painted characters. The richness of the storytelling, with its themes of courage and love in the face of authoritarianism (and those who would enable it out of fear) is only matched by the film’s visual delights. The colors — seemingly a hundred different shades of green — and subtle lighting effects are marvelous, and the geometric symbolism only grows in power as the film progresses. Most of all, the artists’ passion leaps off the screen. Wolfwalkers is a film to let envelop you, buoyed by spirited voice performances and Bruno Coulais’s sprightly, percussive score. For Moore and Cartoon Saloon, it is a showcase for masters at work.
Available on Apple TV+
4. Boys State
Directed by Amanda McBaine & Jesse Moss
From November: When Texas’s 2017 Boys State controversially ended with the high schoolers voting (ironically?) to secede from the union, that got the attention of filmmakers Jesse Moss & Amanda McBaine. If these are our future leaders, is this a sign of a national fracturing to come? Or are they capable of showing us a better way forward? The story of the 2018 program, documented here, finds those answers elusive. While immersing us in this world, Moss and McBaine choose their protagonists wisely, showcasing a racially and ideologically diverse group of Gen Z-ers. Yet there are plenty of signs that most of them are just going along with what they think everyone else thinks, and if they could all just figure that out, it wouldn’t just change their experience here, but the future of American politics. In that way, Boys State is an incisive document of our time — comparisons to Hoop Dreams are appropriate — but also an indictment. In a year of fantastic documentaries, this was the cream of the crop.
Available on Apple TV+
3. The Assistant
Directed by Kitty Green
From July: The Assistant is not about Harvey Weinstein — at least in the sense that the character clearly based on him is neither named or actually seen on screen, only as a husky, often threatening voice on the telephone. Kitty Green’s searing drama is tightly focused on Jane (a brilliant Julia Garner), a studio employee who realizes over the course of a single day just how much of a monster her boss is, and struggles in vain to find the courage to actually do something about it. The film’s visual style is minimalist, the dialogue is more about what goes unspoken, and no one is spared culpability for the systems they maintain — through daily humiliations — to protect the powerful. Succession’s Matthew Macfadyen is chilling in his single scene as a HR man dissuading Jane from “throwing away her career” with the gentleness of a bottom-feeding shark. As a portrait of soul-death by a thousand cuts, The Assistant is a vital film, and one of the year’s very best.
Available on Hulu and VOD
Directed by Pete Docter & Kemp Powers
From December: Pixar has taken us on some extraordinary, often beautiful journeys in past few decades, but no one has done it like Pete Docter — and Soul is the studio’s most existential yet. It’s also their first with a black protagonist in Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a gifted jazz pianist whose dreams have been dashed enough times to resign him to his fate as a middle school band teacher. Just after the chance at a life-changing gig renews his spark of purpose, Joe falls down a manhole, and the film’s real story begins. That phrase — “spark of purpose” — is the key to Soul, and perhaps the key to Everything. Despite what a lifetime of movies about giftedness and dream-chasing have taught us, those two concepts aren’t necessarily the same thing. Soul pulls ingredients from different schools of spiritual thought — a little Fr. James Martin here, a little Desert Mysticism there — that coalesce into something deeply poignant. Similarly, the animation toggles between photo-realism and the abstract with breathtaking ease, perhaps the most visually inventive effort by a studio that never stops inventing.
Available on Disney+
1. First Cow
Directed by Kelly Reichardt
From July: Kelly Reichardt’s transcendent new feature operates on several elegiac levels: First Cow is a buddy movie, a frontier fable, a slow-motion heist, a uniquely American Dream, and a reminder of the countless stories that lie undiscovered beneath our feet. Adapted from Jonathan Raymond’s 2004 novel The Half-Life, the film begins slowly. So slowly, in fact, you’d be forgiven for thinking you weren’t watching a film but through a window in time; it draws you in with its eerie verisimilitude and exacting authenticity, assisted by a nostalgic aspect ratio and William Tyler’s simplistic score.
Cookie (John Magaro), a talented but restless baker, and King-Lu (Orion Lee) a Chinese immigrant with a mind for business, hatch a plan to pilfer milk from the territory’s lone bovine milk in the dead of night. The two partners, despite their means of production, are fundamentally decent. The land around them is uniquely beautiful, full of possibility, simultaneously ancient and brand-new. But humans are going to do what humans do; the forces of capitalism, even in infancy, stand in brutal contrast to the unvarnished and decidedly finite bounty around these settlers. Long after its foreshadowed, grimly poetic conclusion, First Cow haunts like a Biblical parable. Even in a “normal” cinema year, it would be expected to at or near the top of many best-of lists. I have no qualms about putting it atop mine now.
Available on VOD