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The 50 Best Films of 2020

This year, a pandemic revealed that cinema, like every other facet of society, wants for more democratization.

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The 50 Best Films of 2020
Photo: Icarus Films

I’m Thinking of Ending Things

40. I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman)

Charlie Kaufman’s quest to write his way out of the prison of his own mind entered its fourth decade this year, and the era of enforced social isolation couldn’t have been better suited to his latest exercise in neurotic self-reflexivity. Adapted from a Kaufmanesque 2016 novel by Canadian author Ian Reid, I’m Thinking of Ending Things begins as the story of a young woman (Jessie Buckley) reluctantly driving out to the country with her soon-to-be ex-boyfriend, Jake (Jesse Plemons), to meet his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) at the family farm where he grew up. After staying more or less on the straight and narrow for much of the film, Kaufman violently fractures his narrative: As Jake’s childhood memories start to interfere with the present, we get glimpses of an elderly janitor (Guy Boyd) working at a high school and identities become confused. Lacking any of the high-concept hooks that tended to soften the blows of his older work, the film confronts us with a deep existential bleakness that matches its wintry, desolate setting. With his surreal tapestry interweaving an elaborate dance sequence, an image of a dead pig being eaten by maggots, and an audaciously self-indulgent scene where a character seems to be possessed by a Pauline Kael essay, Kaufman dares to explore the vast gulfs that separate people from each other, and from their own self-perceptions. David Robb



Shirley

39. Shirley (Josephine Decker)

Like Josephine Decker’s earlier Madeline’s Madeline, Shirley concerns the porous boundaries separating creativity from madness and collaboration from exploitation. Adapted by screenwriter Sarah Gubbins from the 2014 novel of the same name by Susan Scarf Merrell, the film focuses on iconic short story author and novelist Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) and her life with her husband, professor and critic Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), in North Bennington, Vermont. Hyman is tenured at Bennington College, and he’s invited a newlywed couple, Fred (Logan Lerman) and Rose (Odessa Young), to live with him and Shirley for a period of time. Over several months, the two couples play escalating mind games as Shirley attempts to write a novel about the disappearance of a local college girl. Even the most daring or imaginative films can get bogged down by moments of unnecessary exposition. By contrast, Shirley doesn’t take any encounter as a given, as every scene operates at a maximum frenzy fraught with subtext—with sexual tension, bitterness, class and gender resentment, and acidic comedy that springs from the intersection of all of the aforementioned pressures. At any moment in this astonishing, frustrating film, we’re alternately in and out of the characters’ wavelengths, and continually forced to reorient our perceptions of the various relationships driving the narrative. Next to Decker’s films, the rigid staging of most cinematic conversations feels prim. Bowen



Donbass

38. Donbass (Sergei Loznitsa)

A region occupied by pro-Russian paramilitary forces ever since the Ukrainian Revolution in 2014, present-day Donbass is a morass of conflicting sympathies and ideologies that director Sergei Loznitsa doesn’t so much seek to clarify with this film as reflect in all its muddy complexity. In fact, Loznitsa goes so far as to call into question the very possibility of the truth of this situation he captures on camera. Whenever reporters appear on screen, they’re portrayed as ineffectual stooges waiting to be chewed out as propaganda peddlers by their political opponents, and Donbass ’s bookending sequences, set at the trailer park of a movie set, build toward a thesis statement on the dubiousness of contemporary reporting with its tendency to stage and reframe reality according to the mandates of whatever affiliation is being placated. Cameras, we’re repeatedly reminded by the mise-en-scène, are violators, as they merely augment the dangerous power of the person wielding them. The film is fueled by collisions between the grave and the comic, a tonal oscillation mastered by Loznitsa in his documentaries and carried over here to support a vision of a society cracking under the weight of its own inconsistencies, corruption and mob mentalities. Less tightly structured than Loznitsa’s preceding fiction work, the film adopts the immersive observation of films like Maidan and Victory Day with a more active, roving camera but a similar degree of durational endurance. Lund



Ham on Rye

37. Ham on Rye (Tyler Taormina)

Tyler Taormina’s Ham on Rye, in which high school children come of age while moseying around the San Fernando Valley in anticipation of an undefined formal event, comprises a string of melancholic dead ends. There’s a highly self-conscious, stylized, insulated innocence to the film (conflicting details give the impression that the film is divorced from time) that inspires distrust, as we’re invited to enjoy the sort of idyll proffered by many teen movies, yet we know we’re being played with. This archness, which isn’t without sincerity, challenges the sentimentality that marks many a film and real-life ceremony. The elegance and control of Ham on Rye’s aesthetic is breathtaking, especially considering the film’s shoestring production. Underneath the film’s mystery and grandeur is a theme that’s traditional to teen movies: children’s fear of selling out like their parents. Which isn’t to say that Taormina indulges snideness, as he invests a dance during the climax with an intense visual splendor that embodies the naïve, untapped passion, laced with terror, that comes with inoculation into adult rituals. Ham on Rye first shows us a dream, with its intimations of chaos, before then showing us only chaos, with its lingering echoes of the vanished dream. Bowen



Da 5 Bloods

36. Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee)

Da 5 Bloods is a mix of genre film and political essay, and it exudes, especially early on, a lurid, confrontational electricity that’s often been so exhilarating in prior Spike Lee joints. Regarding a Ho Chi Minh City that, with its active nightlife and proliferation of fast food establishments, might be mistaken for a contemporary American city, Eddie (Norm Lewis) says that “they didn’t need us, they should’ve just sent Mickey D’s, Pizza Hut, and the Colonel and we would’ve defeated the VC in one week.” The sly implication is that, one way or another, America got its hands on Vietnam. Minutes later, the Rambo and Missing in Action movies are familiarly criticized for offering a white-man savior fantasy of “winning” the war, while Otis (Clarke Peters) reminds us of a true hero, African-American soldier Milton Olive III, who jumped on a grenade for his platoon, a picture of whom Lee briefly and movingly cuts to. These pop-cultural references make us privy to how war is committed and then sold back to us as an often-exclusionary fantasy—a double dip of atrocity. Bowen



Joan of Arc

35. Joan of Arc (Bruno Dumont)

In Joan of Arc and its predecessor, Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc, Bruno Dumont strips the legend of the martyr who felt driven by God to expel the English from France during the Hundred Years’ War to its agonizing essentials, revitalizing it after decades of being watered down in spectacle-driven mediocrities. Dramatizing Joan’s military maneuvers through intimate conversations and, audaciously, via a Busby Berkeley-style dance sequence, Dumont forces us to grapple with war as a ceremonial, nearly taken-for-granted function of society that’s rationalized in part by the hypocritical church that eventually kills her. This powerfully dialectical film is enriched by macabre touches, such as the lurid robes worn by Joan’s tormentors and the drollery of her executors, and, especially, by beautiful synth songs written and performed by Christophe that express the suppressed stirrings of Joan’s soul, suggesting that the seeds of her devout yearning carry forward in the pathos of modern pop art. Dumont’s masterstroke, though, is his casting of 10-year-old Lise Leplat Prudhomme as Joan, whose found-object intensity shames the polish of stars years her senior. Bowen



The Painter and the Thief

34. The Painter and the Thief (Benjamin Ree)

For The Painter and the Thief, director Benjamin Ree filmed Oslo-based painter Barbora Kysilkova for three years as she befriended Karl-Bertil Nordland, a drug addict who was convicted of stealing two of her paintings from a museum. The documentary initially thrives on forms of misdirection, as Ree allows us to believe that we’re watching a traditional study of contrasts: between an established professional woman and a tormented bad boy. Through skillful chronological scrambling that consistently redefines moments, underscoring the subjectivity of each person, Ree upsets such conventions, offering a moving portrait of two lost souls. In her lifelike yet slightly stylized paintings, Kysilkova physicalizes Nordland’s dreams of stability and respectability, granting him the gift of her attention. The paintings allow Nordland to enter a world he felt beyond him, symbolically rejoining community after years of the semi-isolation that’s fostered by addiction. Little of these impressions are directly expressed, which would dilute the spell, but Ree’s intimate compositions allow us to feel as if we can read the stirrings of Kysilkova and Nordland’s souls. Bowen



The Vast of Night

33. The Vast of Night (Andrew Patterson)

The wisftful The Vast of Night, which abounds in tracking shots and big, soft, beautiful Scope images that are clearly indebted to John Carpenter’s pyrotechnical style, pivots on a rather friendly vision of localized culture, decades before corporations would unify most radio into a detached, impersonal stream of advertisements. Andrew Pattersont’s film, a homage to genre shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, features several long monologues in which older people tell a local radio DJ, Everett (Jake Horowitz), and a high school student, Fay (Sierra McCormick), of their experiences with clandestine military projects. Informed with a hushed intensity, these monologues allow various political resonances to seep into the narrative. For example, one caller (Bruce Davis) to Everett’s radio show doesn’t expect anyone to believe him because he’s black and elderly, a suspicion that he acknowledges with a poignant matter-of-factness. And as Everett and Faye hear increasingly odd stories, you may find yourself reconsidering that tracking shot at the start of the film, which captured a breadth of community from which Everett and Faye largely exclude themselves. They’re uncovering the sadness lurking under a small town—the racism, communist paranoia, and heartbreaks that cause people to yearn for a supernatural explanation as a way of evading their sense of helplessness. Bowen



Possessor

32. Possessor (Brandon Cronenberg)

Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor is obsessed with tensions between mind and body, and old and new technologies. An analog man in a digital world, Cronenberg invests a narrative along the lines of his father David’s eXistenZ and Christopher Nolan’s Inception with psychedelic imagery and jolts of gouging, bone-splitting, unambiguously in-camera body horror that rival anything in modern cinema for tactility and pure outrageousness. In the process, he imbues Possessor with a disturbing irony: The film’s violence serves as a kind of relief for its perpetrators, who’re displaced by technological doodads and come to long for tangibility, corporeal terra firma, no matter how perverse. Cronenberg represents new-school displacement via old-school effects, refuting the everything-digital flim flam of more polished, “respectable” tent-pole productions. In Inception, mental violation is equated arbitrarily to levels in a video game, signifying Nolan’s ongoing effort to render subjective elements of human life tediously objective. Cronenberg also physicalizes subjective terrain, but in a manner that nevertheless preserves the mess of neuroses. If Nolan is a classical violinist, Cronenberg is a punk drummer, thrashing away, fashioning images that suggest what might happen if Ingmar Bergman’s Persona were run through the filter of splatter-punk horror. Bowen



Another Round

31. Another Round (Thomas Vinterberg)

The suspense of Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round has little to do with whether or not its main characters will “prove” if day-drinking boosts livelihood. Rather, it’s derived from the question of how long it will take them to recognize this idea for the rationalizing cry for help that it is, and how much damage will be done in the meantime. In 1995, Vinterberg and Lars von Trier co-founded the Dogme 95 movement as a resistance to the bloat of studio productions. Today, Vinterberg’s films still reflect the movement’s ideology, favoring handheld, docudramatic camerawork and few overtly expressionistic frills, which has often seemed prosaically “realistic” in the past. But this aesthetic serves a masterful purpose in Another Round, as his characters are calmly, objectively regarded as they drift further into alcoholism. Their debauchery is clearly pleasurable in the moment, as benders with friends can be, but Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s camera is mercilessly attentive to the toll the booze takes—to the confusion, the staggering, the babbling, and especially to the existential pain of a massive hangover after days of being at sea. Overt formal fireworks might’ve glorified this behavior (think of Mike Figgis’s Leaving Las Vegas, which equated a prolonged suicide-by-liquor to a stylish, woozy jazz concert), whereas Vinterberg honors the lure and the danger of drinking simultaneously. Bowen

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