We’re concluding a year so fraught and demoralizing that “2020” has become a pejorative—a meme unto itself. As businesses continue to shutter, as the federal government is mired in petty infighting ahead of millions of Americans losing their unemployment benefits, already gargantuan corporations like Amazon have been adrenalized by our new, despairing shut-in culture, offering the salves of delivered goods and streaming distractions. In this context, the increasingly common sight of Amazon delivery trucks on the streets has grown eerie, reminiscent of the dump trucks in Phillip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which subtly signified the death of the individual and the rise of a new monolithic culture.
In such a wrenching year, fashioning a list of one’s favorite films feels like an almost indecent act of indulgence. Yet little pleasures can help us maintain equilibrium in times of crisis, and movies can reflect our larger reality back to us in ways that are both purposeful and inadvertent, not to mention nourishing.
This was an astonishing year in particular for documentaries that explore the legacy of institutional racism (Garrett Bradley’s Time), as well as broader notions of community, as evinced by the deliberations of a city’s government that Frederick Wiseman catalogs throughout his masterful and mammoth City Hall and the camaraderie that’s poignantly fostered at a dive bar in Bill and Turner Ross’s doc-fiction hybrid Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets). Most viscerally, movies this year offered a simulacrum of vanished pleasures, such as merely sitting in a public place or standing in front of someone and talking to them without the interference of a mask. Where network television is already catching up to reflect our post-Covid-19 reality, movies this year pleased and tormented us as ghosts of connectiveness and simple, un-freighted casualness of being.
With franchise tent poles either postponed or rerouted to streaming, and with film festivals largely conducted “virtually” (i.e., also streaming), original, idiosyncratic films were discussed, and hopefully seen, more attentively this year. And this development underscored the pervading issue that small films aren’t only marginalized by the tent poles, which do have a habit of sucking the oxygen out of the pop-cultural room, but by distribution practices that render them unseeable by people who aren’t either critics or city dwellers.
Virtual arthouse cinemas, introduced out of desperation in lockdown, should become a standard supplementary model—an initiation that might serve to embody, in a tiny yet resonant way, an effort to connect our ever-divided rural and urban communities. You don’t have to be a New Yorker to appreciate the wrenching beauty of the films on this list, or to enjoy the festival conversations that were until this year mostly only available to people with the means to travel and buy various tickets. Which is to say that Covid-19 revealed that cinema, like every other facet of society, wants for more democratization. Chuck Bowen
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50. On the Rocks (Sofia Coppola)
Sofia Coppola’s On the Rocks opens with a series of gestures that establish the film’s entire emotional framework. In a voiceover against a backdrop of darkness, a man tells his daughter—playfully but with an unmistakable edge of seriousness—that she will always be his, even after marriage. As Laura (Rashida Jones) becomes convinced that Dean is having an affair, her father, Felix (Bill Murray), eases back into her life after returning from a trip to Paris. Laura and Felix work their way through New York, with a side trip to Mexico, in order to find out if her husband, Dean (Marlon Wayans), is cheating on her—a screwball adventure that Coppola invests with richly unresolved, contradictory undercurrents. Their adventure is dotted with lovely curlicues, such as Felix prattling on while recklessly driving a sports car around New York until he’s pulled over by police offers whom he readily charms with his hail-fellow-well-met routine. Coppola, Jones, and Murray capture how such charm is both real and fake, affirming and demoralizing all at once. Bowen
49. She Dies Tomorrow (Amy Seimetz)
Conceived and filmed long before the Covid-19 pandemic, Amy Seimetz’s She Dies Tomorrow became an unwitting movie of the moment upon its release, and it will hopefully be remembered as the perfect encapsulation of our anxieties during this time. Kate Lyn Sheil gives one of her finest performances to date as a woman whose paranoid belief in her impending doom becomes a transmissible ailment. The source of the film’s horror is people’s sudden awareness of their fragile existence, which manifests as a wave of anxiety so profound that its victims can no longer function effectively. It’s an already potent premise that felt more changed in a year in which even the most cynical among us have been caught off guard by the ease with which our sense of normalcy and security can be upended. Throughout, Seimetz stresses stillness and generates suspense by surrounding her characters in negative space, making it seem as if some assailant could jump into the frame at any moment. Yet the film’s most arresting moments may be in the abrupt, kaleidoscopic play of colors that communicates how the characters become certain of their impending deaths—moments that the actors play with slack-jawed fear but also tinge, unnervingly, with a hint of ecstatic rapture. Jake Cole
48. Heimat Is a Space in Time (Thomas Heise)
Documentary cinema’s most popular formal device is the so-called Ken Burns effect, that famous slow-motion slide across an archival photo until the camera settles on the main subject of the image. Heimat Is a Space in Time abundantly indulges this device but never quite in the way you might expect. Instead, filmmaker Thomas Heise’s photographic material creeps across the screen as if it were a tectonic plate, indifferent to the camera documenting it, which often only catches human faces for a brief moment before dwelling in negative space. All this time spent contemplating blown-up grain and blur might seem counterproductive in a film that, at least on paper, is a survey of 20th-century German history through the lens of Heise’s own genealogy. But the emphasis on the micro over the macro extends to every facet of this sprawling four-hour work, which seeks to excavate real human thought and feeling beneath the haze of larger political structures. Carson Lund
47. Boys State (Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss)
A disconcerting mix of a Boy Scouts outing and Model U.N., the Boys State program, based on the evidence presented in Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss’s documentary, appears to be less an educational tool or a communal gathering of like-minded youth, and more an indoctrination into a cultish fetishization of American power politics. Throughout, McBaine and Moss capture the way teenagers can be adept at obliviously, even innocently articulating the subtext of the politics of corruption. Boys State initially looks askance at all this naïve politicking, mixing a sympathetic view of the teens with ironic commentary, delivered by judicious cuts to interviews or metaphorical images that undermine the sentiment of the prior scene. After the purportedly left-leaning Steven Garza, uncertain of his political platform, nervously rises to the occasion with a primary debate performance that’s surprisingly fluid and honest-sounding but absent of detailed policy proposals, there’s a cut to a racoon outside the debate hall diving headfirst into a trash can. Point taken. Even if it sometimes emphasizes the individualized drama of a political contest over more critical matters, Boys State presents a fittingly dire microcosm of American politics, suggesting that our political system as an exclusionary and essentially contentless popularity contest functions for no one but those jockeying for power. Pat Brown
46. Red, White and Blue (Steve McQueen)
A conspicuous gray pall hangs over the images in Steve McQueen’s Red, White and Blue, as if a storm were brewing just over the characters’ heads, ready to burst into an angry rain at any moment. But that downpour never comes, nor does the gloom ever lift. The ‘80s-set true-life story of a black London Metropolitan police officer who attempted to push for the organization’s reform from the inside, the film depicts Leroy Logan’s (John Boyega) struggle as lonely, enervating, and ultimately naïve. A model cop, Leroy succeeds in little more than becoming a PR tool for the force’s campaign to enlist Afro-Caribbean recruits, meanwhile alienating himself from his friends, community, and family—particularly his father (Steve Toussaint), who suffers a beating at the hands of the police at the same time his son is endeavoring to join their ranks. Though just as formally conventional as McQueen’s Mangrove, Red, White and Blue exerts a much greater emotional pull thanks to its greater attentiveness to the details of its characters’ lives and Leroy’s simmering rage. If Mangrove illustrates the joy of collective action, Red, White and Blue offers a bitter lament for the futility of fighting alone. Together, the films proffer a simple yet powerful theory of change, one captured in these lines from the old union anthem “Step by Step”: “Drops of water turn a mill/Singly none, singly none.” Keith Watson
45. The 40-Year-Old Version (Radha Blank)
With many films emphasizing the strife of living in America as a person of color, the sheer funky pleasurableness of writer-director Radha Blank’s The 40-Year-Old Version scans as subversive. Blank’s political vision is announced with the film’s title, which obviously mirrors Judd Apatow’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin, implying that a middle-aged black woman, played by Blank herself, can have the same trivial wants and hang-ups as one of Apatow’s prototypical white slackers, and needn’t be solely an avatar of systemic racism. In fact, a certain strand of message movie, designed to make white liberals feel better about their own complacency with their racist society, is one of the central targets of Blank’s comic fury. Following the on-screen Radha as she attempts to maintain her play’s vitality in spite of the meddling of literal-minded white producers, Blank fashions sharp, emotionally charged moments that are simultaneously sexy, crude, erudite, hilarious, and even boldly disreputable. Blank beats Apatow at his own game, then, while fashioning deeply intimate black-and-white images that suggest a bridge between white romantic comedies like Woody Allen’s Manhattan and black character studies like Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep. By the film’s end, Radha’s embrace of rap as a way to purify her artistry comes to movingly parallel The 40-Year-Old Version’s existence as an announcement of Blank’s own considerable talents after years of stasis and frustration. Bowen
44. I Was at Home, But… (Angela Schanelec)
A dog excitedly chases a rabbit; the camera catches the rabbit initially running, and then seeming to give up, panting on a rock. In the next shot, the dog is greedily pulling apart the rabbit carcass in its den, a dilapidated building it appears to share with a donkey. What does this prologue have to do with the remainder of Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But…, which concerns a woman, Astrid (Maren Eggert), and her children’s flailing attempts to process the grief of losing their husband and father? This quietly masterful film never even comes close to connecting these threads for us. We’ll see a foot being bandaged, but not the event that caused the injury, and characters dancing to entertain someone in a hospital bed, but not the person in the bed. These still, vignette-like scenes elliptically narrate Phillip’s (Jakob Lassalle) week-long disappearance and return. Infused with the profound pain of grief and with the consciousness that such pain is both inescapable and futile, a universal tragedy that has played out innumerable times, each scene in I Was at Home, But… could stand on its own. Assembled together, they comprise a story told between the lines. When Astrid theatrically collapses in front of a headstone, lying silent and immobile like a stage corpse, we don’t need the camera to show us the name on the grave to let us know which tragedy she’s currently performing. Brown
43. The Assistant (Kitty Green)
With The Assistant, Kitty Green offers a top-to-bottom portrait of incremental dehumanization, and, on its terms, the film is aesthetically, tonally immaculate. The narrative is set in a film mogul’s Tribeca offices, but it could take place in a branch of any major corporation throughout the world without losing its resonance. This is a pseudo-thriller composed entirely of purposefully demoralizing minutiae, and it’s designed so that we feel as starved for rudimentary human emotion as the young woman, Jane (Julia Garner), at its center. No names are uttered throughout (the name Jane, which brings to mind the anonymity of a Jane Doe, is only stated in the credits), while the mogul is only evoked via male pronouns. Increasingly unsettling details seep into this deadening atmosphere, and after a while it becomes evident that we’re watching—from the perspective of a powerless yet ultimately complicit person—a parable about rich, insulated predators like Harvey Weinstein, and Green’s grasp of Jane’s indoctrination into this perverse world is impeccably believable. Bowen
42. The Invisible Man (Leigh Whannell)
Perhaps as a result of it being one of the last films to open before the coronavirus pandemic shuttered most movie theaters around the world, The Invisible Man inevitably took on new meaning in quarantine. Leigh Whannell updates H.G. Wells’s 1897 science-fiction novel to focus on the trauma inflicted on a woman, Celia (Elizabeth Moss), after she escapes her violently possessive boyfriend’s (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) clutches and attempts to begin a new life. Across a series of expertly mounted set pieces, Whannell and cinematographer Stefan Duscio recharge the haunted-house genre. Precise camera pans force viewers to anticipate the horrors lurking just off screen, pushing us to examine each corner of the frame for the movement of objects possibly being guided by the invisible man’s unseen hands. In a high-intensity performance, Moss captures the profound agony of her character’s emotional and physical abuse, and the suffocating feeling that Celia is being watched at all times. Whannell’s film cleverly ties form and theme: The surveillance state is literally manifested into an abusive partner, and the further the film leads Celia and, by extension, the viewer down the conspiratorial rabbit hole, its set pieces become increasingly more imaginative. As we went deeper in our own isolation, The Invisible Man felt as if it was embodying our shared anxieties. Ben Flanagan
41. Pahokee (Patrick Bresnan and Ivete Lucas)
Early in Patrick Bresnan and Ivete Lucas’s documentary Pahokee, there’s a landscape shot that’s an eloquent synecdoche for the film as a whole: On the left side of the frame, a school bus hurtles toward a distant horizon, while on the right, smoke from an everglades fire wafts menacingly in the air. Though the road bifurcating the middle of the frame creates a separation between the bus and the fire, there’s an ominous feeling that the right side is encroaching on the left. And in this warmhearted tribute to the youth population in a small South Florida town, the sense of possibility emanating off the screen is repeatedly soured by the kind of ambient threats—economic uncertainty, gun violence, racism—that menace so many lower-income communities in America, and particularly those like Pahokee that are predominantly non-white. In capturing the joys and sorrows of Pahokee High School’s senior class over the course of a year, Bresnan and Lucas balance a Wiseman-esque study of the rites and rituals of a prideful, precarious, football-loving community with the crisscrossing arcs of a handful of students on divergent but often overlapping trajectories: cheerleading, academic ambition, early fatherhood, and athletic devotion. Far from a misguided act of charity reportage, Pahokee is a documentary made from within and marked by deep compassion, a feeling especially evident in the passages of selfie video sourced from the students themselves. Lund
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