My Favorite Films of 2020

1. First Cow

‘First Cow’ opens with a woman and her dog uncovering a curious find in the forest – two skeletons buried in the dirt, nestled beside each other. Under Kelly Reichardt’s affectionate direction, these images don’t evoke fear or disgust, but a sort of warm nostalgia. This is the jumping off point for a tender and gentle film about friendship, set against the very early stages of capitalism in America. The film will eventually come full circle to that opening, and despite the inevitable, crushing doom that faces us all, despite the grinding away of the machinations of society, the most precious thing of all, what remains, is human connection. This is a great film, and I found myself lost in its quiet, serene poetry. It’s also one of the MOST Pacific Northwest movies I’ve ever seen, with cinematography that perfectly captures the green forest, running water, mud and wood. Like all of Reichardt’s films, there’s a sense of humanity working perfectly in tune with nature. This is a film that feels like you could reach out and feel and touch and smell everything. In a year that felt like being pummeled by a great, soulless machine, ‘First Cow’ reminds us of the enduring nature of our hopes and dreams, and our ability to connect with each other despite –  or maybe because of – the harsh realities of the world. 


2. Dick Johnson is Dead

It can’t be easy to make a movie about death that isn’t depressing, that’s full of love and joy and wonder, but Kirsten Johnson has done just that with ‘Dick Johnson is Dead’. Using the documentary format, Johnson crafts a loving tribute to her father who suffers from Alzheimer’s, but it’s also something more: a comedy about death, a fantasy of the afterlife, and a celebration of life even in the face of doom. Yes, you will cry. I cried a lot. Probably more than in any movie I’ve seen recently. But a movie like this, with its warm observations about family and its charming DIY spirit, can never be depressing. This is a film that reminds us of the power of cinema – the power of art – to make eternal what can’t last, and there may be no greater gift. 


3. Sound of Metal

Riz Ahmed gives the best performance of 2020 as a man who has to adjust to a completely new way of life after losing his hearing. At every step, ‘Sound of Metal’ refuses to be a movie that holds your hand through this character’s transition. There’s no grand statements, no larger-than-life monologues, and the movie’s treatment of addiction, seen through Ahmed’s powerful performance, is one of the best I’ve seen. It understands that despite the specificity of this character’s addiction, the experience can be universal. ‘Sound of Metal’ can also lay claim to having the best sound design of any movie in recent memory, as it’s designed to make the audience immersed in the feeling of isolation and loneliness that comes from this character’s experience. At the end of the film, there’s hope. Not the grand Hollywood happy ending kind, but a quiet understanding that we adjust and move on.


4. Promising Young Woman

I found that most of the movies I enjoyed this year were slow, lyrical, contemplative, and quiet. 2020 was loud with the sounds of chaos and agony, so I gravitated toward films that were, well, nice. ‘Promising Young Woman’, however, is not a nice film. It’s a full on attack of the senses, an incendiary provocation and a candy-colored B-movie exploitation picture that’s actually something much deeper. Carey Mulligan is ferocious and endlessly watchable as a woman who, devastated by a traumatic event in her past, bar hops at night pretending to be drunk so that men will take her home, then reveals her true intentions. Sometimes we’re not even sure of those intentions. Writer/Director Emerald Fennell deliberately keeps us in the dark about what exactly Mulligan’s character is doing to these men instead of indulging in the audience’s expectations of lurid revenge fantasy. This is a film that is constantly subverting expectations, and despite there being virtually no actual on screen bloodletting, ‘Promising Young Woman’ feels like one of the most violent films in years. The ending, which feels almost like a betrayal before its eventual catharsis, will leave many people angry, wondering why they weren’t given something more palatable. I think it’s the right path for this movie. 


5. Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Sometimes a film only has to observe a situation to make its point. Any grandstanding would only hinder the effect and make us question the intention. Eliza Hittman’s ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’ is that kind of movie. It observes, without judgment, a couple days in the life of a teenage girl as she travels to New York to get an abortion. Sidney Flanigan, a total newcomer, gives one of the best performances I’ve seen in 2020, and it’s sort of remarkable how much is said by her face, her wordless stares, her short answers. Watch as a social worker asks her invasive questions about her sex life, the camera lingering on Flanigan’s face. There’s an entire history behind this performance. We’re witnessing a fully fleshed-out human being with hopes and dreams and desires and fears. Behind any politicized topic are humans just trying to live their lives, and I think we can forget that. ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’ reminds us of the individual caught up in the political spectrum.


6. I’m Thinking of Ending Things

Here’s a film I’ve been afraid of revisiting because to experience it again is to experience all the frustration and dread that comes along with it. And yet, I admired the way it flows, like a collection of memories and ideas fighting for relevance. There’s a story here, in a sense: A woman goes on a road trip with her boyfriend to meet his parents, but it’s really just a setup that is quick to dissolve into a kind of nightmare. What the film captures so vividly is an unshakeable dread. The pervading sense that something is very wrong. Beneath the formalities and the rituals and the mundane social norms of life, there is an undercurrent of melancholy. What does it all mean? Why are we here? What’s the point of my existence? What if it all just… ended? Writer/director Charlie Kaufman, known for writing ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’, ‘Adaptation’, ‘Being John Malkovich’, and ‘Synecdoche, New York’, finds himself in typically esoteric directions here, and what I love about his work is that it’s not bound by a plot but by the slippery nature of the mind. 


7. The Assistant

If you’ve ever worked an office job, you’ll probably recognize the very real horrors of Kitty Green’s ‘The Assistant’. Julia Garner is pitch-perfect as the assistant to a powerful studio executive who we never see. We never even hear his name. He’s simply “the boss”. Green is certainly drawing parallels to Harvey Weinstein and the abuse suffered by the woman working under him or sucked into his vortex, and on that level, it is terrifying stuff. But ‘The Assistant’ works on broader, more universal terms as well. It is about nothing less than the structural abuse trickled down through the workplace hierarchy. We don’t know much about Garner’s character except what she deals with on a daily basis at work, and that’s part of the point. We exist in a society that is almost entirely defined by our corporate identity, and our humanity is beside the point. The title is perfect in that it depicts exactly what everyone above her thinks of her as – an assistant, nothing more. She may as well not even have a name. 


8. Soul

The great joy of Pixar’s latest work of art is that it seemingly answers the biggest question of all – what is our purpose on earth? The answer? Well, to live. It’s almost the antithesis of a movie like ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’, which runs these deep existential questions through the prism of our minds, desperately trying to understand. ‘Soul’ makes it much more simple. Just live, it tells us. But make no mistake, this is not a dumbed down message movie, and it makes the point that to simply live is sometimes not good enough to accept. ‘Soul’ would make an excellent double feature with ‘Inside Out’, as both movies imagine the inner workings of our human development. I might argue that ‘Soul’ is even more illuminating and reflective, and it’s a story I can see myself coming back to time and time again. One of the biggest lies we’re told as kids is that we can be anything we want to be when we grow up. Then we grow up and feel defeated that we didn’t succeed. ‘Soul’ tells us that life isn’t about succeeding at that ONE thing we think we’re meant to do, and that existing in the moment, finding beauty in a fallen leaf, loving our family and friends – these are the things that matter.


9. The Invisible Man

Leigh Whannell’s ‘The Invisible Man’ is a rather flawless example of how to take an existing property and remake it for our times. It’s a classical thriller told with patience and skill, with a performance by Elisabeth Moss that puts us through the ringer. This is a movie I think Hitchcock would have loved. Every shot is perfectly calibrated and designed to make the audience wary of anything lurking just out of frame or in the background. Whannell is really able to get under the audience’s skin by suggesting the threat of violence at almost every turn. When the movie actually hits us with a shock moment, it works because we expect danger but are lulled into a false sense of security. Take, for instance, a sequence at a busy restaurant. We expect bad things to happen to characters in an empty house in the dark by themselves, but Whannell gives us the movie’s best scare in the last place we’d expect. It’s superb filmmaking in a movie that is timely, intense, slick, and very scary. 


10. Collective

‘Collective’ is a documentary that uncovers corruption in Romania after a nightclub is burned down in 2015 and the deaths that occurred because of unsanitary conditions in the hospitals. I wouldn’t call it fun stuff. But it’s a necessary look at how people need to hold their government accountable or their government will stop treating them as human beings. The parallels to America in 2020 are startling, as we’ve continuously seen how our government has little to no interest in the lives of its citizens. There are shocking, outrageous things uncovered in this movie that made my blood boil, but it’s not hopeless. If anything, ‘Collective’ shows the power of the people to hold corporations and government accountable, and to care for individual lives when the powers that be overlook them or stop caring. 


Honorable Mentions

Driveways

His House

Palm Springs

Da 5 Bloods

Lovers Rock

Host

Kajillionaire

The Trial of the Chicago 7

The Swerve

Borat: Subsequent Movie Film

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