Jan. 4, 2021

The Movies That Made My 2020  

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very year, when writing the preamble of my requisite best-of list, I usually hit the same talking points: that I don't really like making these sorts of lists, since a movie can leave a big mark without necessarily being that great; that there are inevitably movies released in 2020 that I didn't catch in time to include on the list that I would have if I'd seen them earlier. All these things are still true for 2020 — a strange year, to be certain — but they have a different tune. I think I was a little more lovey-dovey with new releases in 2020. In a year where so much of "normal" life has been unceremoniously usurped, I often

found myself happy to simply be watching something new. And sometimes I missed stuff not necessarily because it wasn't available, but because some releases this year were exclusively released in theaters — a gamble I wasn't willing to take. As odd as 2020 was release-wise — I don't think I've ever made so much use of video-on-demand before — there was still a lot of terrific stuff put out, and I'm so glad I got acquainted with the movies listed below, in no particular order. (Descriptions are excerpts from reviews I wrote at the time.) For a few hours, they brought joy (and if not joy, then at least an experience I felt fortunate to have) in a year that so often hampered it. 

Emma, dir. Autumn de Wilde 


Emma maximizes the pleasures specific to the era it prettily depicts while predictably minimizing its more oppressive characteristics. It is to remain a bonbon. Was another adaptation of a beloved novel that necessary?  The Emma of 2020 shows us that any sort of retread, when done not only effectively but imaginatively, can suddenly feel urgent — like the world had been waiting all this time for it.


Da 5 Bloods, dir. Spike Lee


There is some victory had at the end of Da 5 Bloods. But it is a victory stamped out with so much bloodshed and loss that it is not meant to feel like a tidy conclusion. It’s an uncertain depiction of forward movement. Lee’s last movie, BlacKkKlansman (2018), connected to the now by contrasting its main narrative with real-life events. It used footage from the violent 2017 Unite the Right protests in Charlottesville, Va. at its end to suggest how little has changed by way of American racial politics. (The movie was predominately set in the 1970s.) By ending Da 5 Bloods with a Black Lives Matter protest, Lee subliminally makes plain that while the Vietnam War might be over, the war, to paraphrase the critic Richard Brody, of being Black in America is not.


On the Record, dir. Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering


Even if Dick and Ziering’s approach has some kinks, this is a persuasive, potent documentary — a case where the effect of a film ultimately trumps the execution of it.


Shirley, dir. Josephine Decker 


The nausea of Shirley’s look and feel turns the character’s anxieties into a sort of a sheen — something not often accentuated in movies seeking to pay tribute to the tortured artist. The feature movingly centers the stories of women who at the time were rendered secondary by the men in their lives. But Decker also actively strives to not merely show some of their sorrow, but also give us the sense that momentarily, we've felt it exactingly.


Miss Juneteenth, dir. Channing Godfrey Peoples 


The movie’s beauty lies in how it appreciates who its leading characters authentically are, with less of an emphasis on what they have accomplished, or how they complement the wants of another. It’s an intimate, lived-in drama.


The Nest, dir. Sean Durkin 


The Nest is writer-director Sean Durkin’s first movie since 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene; it’s an exquisitely tense feature about a family on the brink of collapse. 


I’m Your Woman, dir. Julia Hart 


The movie becomes an even richer viewing experience because of the attention it pays to its supporting characters, and how it brings the emotional repercussions of typically thrilling crime-movie sequences to the fore. That’s in line with the film’s guiding goal: to explore the stories of characters routinely placed on the crime drama’s sidelines. It charts a new path.


Freaky, dir. Christopher Landon 


The comedy in Freaky never renders the expected kill-offs cutesy. They’re as inventive as something you’d find in a straight-laced slasher, gleefully using tennis racquets and table saws as alternatives to the usual assembly of machetes and butcher knives. And the horror never gets so horrible that there comes a point we can’t laugh at the movie anymore. 


I May Destroy You, dir. Michaela Coel 


I May Destroy You will endure as an intricately complicated portrait whether it keeps finding more shades in another season, zooming into little details we didn’t see before, or not. (Note: this is a TV show, but this is my website and I'll include it if I want to.)


Shithouse, dir. Cooper Raiff 


This is a winsome college-set sort-of romantic comedy ripe for comparisons to the Before Sunrise series (1995-2013); it’s observant and disarmingly talky, comprising dialogue that feels either overheard and directly copied and pasted from experience.


Small Axe, dir. Steve McQueen 


McQueen’s latest venture — a formidable, five-part-long “anthology” series — feels unmistakably like a new chapter for the filmmaker.


Black Bear, dir. Lawrence Michael Levine 


In both of Black Bear’s vignettes, we anxiously wait for things to explode; by the time each has had its requisite blow, we notice how emotionally caught up we’ve gotten in the stakes of these disparate scenarios in a relatively short amount of time. Even though we’re never not aware of what the movie is doing — really it’s just a couple of speculative mico-dramas we presume stem from Levine’s own creative/romantic fears — it’s consistently in-the-moment-involving. 


Birds of Prey, dir. Cathy Yan 


Suicide Squad was comprehensively joyless — in hindsight among the worst movies of the decade, so mechanical and forcedly fun that one couldn’t be sure if it was directed by David Ayer or a robot with David Ayer's namesake. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found out that Suicide Squad’s first follow-up film, the long-windedly titled Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), was its opposite — pretty comprehensively joyful and one of the more invigorating DC-sanctioned superhero features in a while.


Cuties, dir. Maïmouna Doucouré


Cuties, though sometimes missing the mark, confirms the arrival of a new, exciting voice.


Never Rarely Sometimes Always, dir. Eliza Hittman 


Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder, both making their film debuts here, do sensitive, lived-in work. They're heart-rending as young women making a succession of high-stakes decisions with little support, many of their mistakes rooted in misinformation and extensions of their general naïvete.


First Cow, dir. Kelly Reichardt 


Like all of Reichardt’s previous movies, the narrative of First Cow unravels slowly and patiently. Scenes teem with quiet. But, typical for the filmmaker, slowness and patience never devolves into boredom. She has a way of transfixing the viewer, using space — here protracted by the vastness of the film’s setting — as further means to pull us in.


Relic, dir. Natalie Erika James 


The various ambiguities started to click for me as I neared the finale. Relic would undoubtedly make for a satisfyingly escapist horror movie if it would just come out and say that there are spirits in the house, that there is a family curse, and/or that that family curse is in part exacerbated by those spirits. But the film’s co-writer and first-time director, Natalie Erika James, smartly harnesses the power of uncertainty. If you’re going to venture to make a horror movie that is partially capitalizing on the anxieties surrounding a disease like dementia, what makes more sense than making a film just as difficult to fully understand and contend with?  


Possessor, dir. Brandon Cronenberg 


Like his father, Cronenberg has a gift for turning his anxieties about the capitalistic exploitation of powerful technology (see 1981's Scanners or 1983's Videodrome) into smart, unsettling horror. Agonizing as it can be to sit through, it's an exciting kind of confrontation.


The 40-Year-Old Version, dir. Radha Blank 


You get immersed in the world of The 40-Year-Old Version, for all its pain and pleasure. I hope that Blank, who has made one of the year’s most original and engaging movies, continues to expand on it. 


Time, dir. Garrett Bradley 


Unless someone in your immediate circle has been incarcerated, what exactly the ramifications can feel like to those secondarily affected can remain foreign. Time, shot in unvarnished black and white and clocking at just 81 minutes, gives its central plight three-dimensionality and immediacy.


On the Rocks, dir. Sofia Coppola 


On the Rocks is Coppola’s most nonchalant, straightforwardly entertaining movie. For most of its length it resembles a caper movie, built on a charming rapport between two actors at the top of their game. 


La Llorona, dir. Jayro Bustamante


La Llorona, while classified as a horror movie, is not a film that adheres to expected genre flourishes. There are no jump scares, no gnarled, ghostly faces that go “boo!” an inch away from the camera when we want to see them least. It’s subtler, more slow-burning than that; it’s more a drama buttressed by a horrific subject matter and the possibility of supernatural interference. 


Dick Johnson is Dead, dir. Kirsten Johnson 


No cinematic experiment can mitigate the pains of losing a loved one, but Dick Johnson is Dead makes us appreciate life a little more — its own sort of tonic. It encourages us to do everything we can to avoid being the person who doesn’t realize what they had until it’s gone. 


Sylvie’s Love, dir. Eugene Ashe 

Akin to Douglas Sirk and descendants of his like Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Todd Haynes, Ashe is working with the classic soap-opera form pointedly. He’s a Black filmmaker directing an almost entirely Black cast in a film harkening back to a white-dominant style of moviemaking, where Black actors and stories were usually put in its margins if included at all.