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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

Liberté

30. Liberté (Albert Serra)

As they move inexorably forward in time, Albert Serra’s films don’t crescendo so much as peter out. In Story of My Death, the harbinger on the horizon is the return of irrational, Romantic thinking in the late 18th century, which would effectively smother the enlightened libertinism that the story otherwise wallows in. And in The Death of Louis XIV, it’s the fate promised by the title, to which the film marched with solemn certitude. Serra’s new film, the audaciously perverse and amorphous Liberté, doesn’t give up its game so readily. Nearly without narrative conflict, it homes in on a long night of sexual experimentation among a group of libertines hiding out from the French courts on the Prussian border in the late 17th century, and for much of Liberté’s duration, the only things generating forward momentum are the subtly escalating intensity of the acts themselves and the faint expectation, however ruthlessly exploited, that the sun will eventually rise again. Lund



Nomadland

29. Nomadland (Chloé Zhao)

“I’m not homeless,” Fern (Frances McDormand) says in response to the concerned query of an old friend in Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland. “I’m just houseless.” And she says it in a sharp, guarded, and prideful tone that McDormand expertly deploys throughout the film. I’m fine, her voice and slightly narrowed eyes say, but don’t come any closer. Her standoffishness points to the pride of a van-dwelling and only occasionally employed woman who spurns pity while trying to carve out a place for herself in a society that doesn’t leave space for people not defined by steady careers or well-rooted homes. Using a minimal and improvised-feeling script that emphasizes interaction and happenstance over story, Zhao places Fern and the gorgeous landscapes she travels through at the forefront of the film. There are times when Joshua James Richards’s sweeping cinematography and Ludovico Einaudi’s gently emotive music point to a far more romantic vision than that suggested by Fern’s hard-bitten attitude. But by juxtaposing beautiful vistas filled with promise, a rotted social safety net, and the scrappy itinerant workers navigating the space in between, Zhao generates a gradually swelling tension underneath her film’s somewhat placid surface. In the end, whether Fern roams the desert or returns to housed life, the unfulfilled promise of America will keep pushing her back to the horizon. Chris Barsanti



This Is Not a Movie

28. This Is Not a Movie (Yung Chang)

Yung Chang’s This Is Not a Movie follows indefatigable British writer and journalist Robert Fisk as he delivers what will turn out to be his last dispatches from various conflict zones in the Middle East. Fisk performs his task like an action hero with a Phd. His weapons: a pen, a notepad, and an enthusiasm for bearing witness to tragedy that could be described as anachronic. Watching truth come to life in the age of misinformation, being able to look it in the eye so nakedly, is a strangely euphoric experience. The documentary could have been yet another single-issue doc were it not for Fisk’s charismatic doggedness and Chang’s ability to point at multiple directions at the same time. Like Alexander Nanau’s Collective, this is an ode to journalism, only on a global scale, a nail-biting thriller about the act of writing (its labor and its magic). Among the least boring of history master classes that this critic has ever witnessed, the film’s multivalence exposes the majority of contemporary documentary production as cursory, if not algorithmic, “content” masquerading as cinema. It also outs the rest of us as embarrassingly woke social media warriors at best. Diego Semerene



The Twentieth Century

27. The Twentieth Century (Matthew Rankin)

Comparisons to the work of Guy Maddin are practically inevitable when describing Matthew Rankin’s The Twentieth Century, a hilarious, hyper-mannered fantasia that imagines the early life of Canadian prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King (Dan Beirne) as a psychosexual bildungsroman complete with cross-dressing, seal-clubbing, and cum-spurting cacti. Like Maddin, Rankin approaches his puckish absurdities with a heightened mock-sincerity that draws stylistic inspiration from cinema’s silent and early-sound periods, but Rankin finds a weirdo wavelength all his own, one that’s equal parts Marcel L’Herbier and Kids in the Hall. Shot on luminous 16mm and featuring elaborately chintzy modernist sets, the film is a self-consciously cheap yet uniquely resplendent portrait of the Great White North. Although Rankin slanders King—one of Canada’s most celebrated political leaders—as a spineless, sexually frustrated shoe fetishist, depicts Winnipeg as a squalid little fleshpot, and smears the Quebec independence movement as a starry-eyed cult of personality, the filmmaker’s affection for his homeland is nonetheless obvious. Ultimately, one may not learn very much about Canada’s history in The Twentieth Century, but this sardonic film offers something far richer: a strange, surrealistic, and self-deprecating journey deep into the Canadian soul. Watson



Ghost Tropic

26. Ghost Tropic (Bas Devos)

A street-lit trek through the eerily empty avenues and byways of a city at sleep, Bas Devos’s Ghost Tropic recalls such nocturnal urban odysseys as Martin Scorsese’s After Hours and Josh and Benny Safdie’s Good Time. With an absurdist black humor, those films captured the paranoia of the city night, and Ghost Tropic’s premise—a middle-aged cleaning lady, Khadija (Saadia Bentaïeb), struggles to make her way home through the streets of Brussels after falling asleep on the metro and finding herself at the end of the line—is implicit with a similar air of danger. But in contrast to After Hours and Good Time, Ghost Tropic whips up a mood of pensive, slightly otherworldly calm. Khadija, with her wide eyes and languid mien, seems in no particular hurry to get home. She faces irritating setbacks but takes them in stride, at one point even going out of her way to call the paramedics to help an unresponsive homeless man (Guy Dermul) she encounters. As a Muslim woman from Molenbeek, a neighborhood often vilified as a “terrorist hotbed,” the hijab-wearing Khadija potentially faces prejudice and peril at every turn. But while the film very subtly alludes to issues of Islamophobia, poverty, police violence, and the fear of immigrants, it’s overwhelmingly a work of quiet reflection. Watson



The Wolf House

25. The Wolf House (Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña)

So much of The Wolf House feels like a hallucinatory, out-of-body experience for the way the camera slides in and out of a the point of view of a girl who flees a mysterious colony in Chile, mimicking a single take. Directors Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña use an entire house as a canvas for their astonishing artistry, mingling sculptures and paintings with life-sized objects. They portray a state of existence that seems to be in constant flux, as Maria melts in and out of the wall or pigs adopt entirely different appearances. The titular house’s interior is ambiguous, appearing quaint and inviting in some scenes yet dirty and disused in others, the table set with blackened food that doesn’t match Maria’s narrated description while eyes appear on the walls. The Wolf House functions as a fascist parable, portraying a growing strain of isolation and the shifting whims of those in power through allegory and an eerie, ever-shifting art style. Indeed, it abstracts the terror of Colonia Dignidad and Augusto Pinochet’s totalitarian regime, historical context that remains unspoken beyond the opening minutes that frame the film as propaganda. The outside world is to be feared and the colony to be valorized according to the framing device, though we soon recognize that the horrors of Maria’s home in the Chilean wilderness equally represent life under dictatorship. Steven Scaife



Welcome to Chechnya

24. Welcome to Chechnya (David France)

David France’s Welcome to Chechnya follows a network of activists as they try to get LGBTQ+ individuals out of Russia in the midst of what the press, in its brief outrage over the affair, called the “gay purge.” Throughout, France’s camera is a self-effacing and peripatetic presence, as some of the targets of the violence flee to Canada or “somewhere in Eurasia,” even if it means they must stay indoors for months on end until they’re granted asylum. All routes of flight go through a secret bunker somewhere in Chechnya, where victims are briefly holed up until activists make the appropriate arrangements for their escape. The shelter suggests a kind of post-nightmare anteroom to freedom, or so one hopes. France’s most remarkable accomplishment emerges from an aesthetic commitment of a very particular kind, as he has many of his subjects wear a digital mask. Welcome to Chechnya warns us that “people fleeing for their lives have been disguised” for their safety. This disguise consists of a digital alteration of people’s faces with an amalgamation of the faces of various activists, and the effect is nothing short of uncanny. A sole transformation of the digitally altered face of one of the documentary’s subjects, who suddenly unmasks himself to reveal his real identity, is mind-blowing. The “Grishan” we had learned to root for and even love across the film is finally allowed to become Maxim Lapunov again, the only man who dared to lodge an official complaint against the state-sanctioned slaughter. Semerene



Sorry We Missed You

23. Sorry We Missed You (Ken Loach)

It’s difficult to imagine a more socially engaged or powerful condemnation of the exploitative gig economy than Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You, which places us on the ground with an English family trudging through the muck left behind by the erosion of workers’ rights in Europe. Its characters, each wearied by the constant stress of this economy, are played with an understated realism that’s startling in the context of the typical melodrama through which poverty and social crises are usually addressed. To Loach, social problems cannot be distilled into melodrama’s abstractions, as the dignity in labor and life slipping out of the characters’ worlds stems from their material conditions, not from inner psychological states or idealist values. One could describe Loach’s depiction of the disintegration of this working-class family unit as emotionally devastating—and it is—but to leave it there would be to miss the point. The film sounds a clarion call, an enraged outcry for action against the morally bankrupt forces that have robbed the working classes of their hard-won rights. Brown



The Whistlers

22. The Whistlers (Corneliu Porumboiu)

Mercilessly efficient and righteously cynical, writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Whistlers is nested with twists that place a corrupt Bucharest policeman, Cristi (Vlad Ivanov), further and further from discovering who’s manipulating the byzantine plot he finds himself enmeshed within on La Gomera, the “pearl” of the Canary Islands. Cristi’s inability to make sense of his place in the very case he’s investigating is just one of the film’s cruel, quite funny jokes. Another is Silbo, a whistled register of the Spanish language that inspires the film’s title. Composed of a half dozen notes that each represent certain letters of the Spanish alphabet, the ancient language has been used by natives of La Gomera for generations. Throughout, Porumboiu largely handles The Whistlers’s persistent strain of artifice masterfully, hurtling his narrative ahead even as he’s jumbling timeframes and lingering in moments of ironic menace. Though the film is sometimes too liberal in its arsenal of references, Porumboiu executes his plot with a persistently low-key swagger, coaxing his actors into memorable but perfectly blank performances. Christopher Gray



Tesla

21. Tesla (Michael Almereyda)

Tesla filters the professional life of Nikola Tesla (Ethan Hawke) through a series of postmodern conceits that intensify the mystery of the inventor and futurist. The film is concerned with what specifically drew writer-director Michael Almereyda to Tesla, namely what the filmmaker doesn’t know about his subject. These concerns conjoin into a governing idea: the media’s legacy of insidiously shaping our knowledge. Tesla is hosted by Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), daughter of wealthy industrialist J.P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz), and she underlines the difference between the perceived facts and legends of Tesla’s life, as well as the flights of fancy that Almereyda indulges for dramatic effect. Most evocatively, she compares Google entries about Tesla and a few of the major players in Tesla’s life, particularly his brief employer and rival, Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan), who has twice as many searches as Tesla. With Anne’s self-conscious hosting, with jarring breaks in “period” detail, with stylized blow-ups and backdrops that alert us to Tesla’s identity as a simulation, mixing elements of truth with mythology, Almereyda reinvigorates the biopic. It’s freeing to see a film like this concerned with gaps in knowledge, which allows for existential role-play that’s more dramatic, chaotic, and very much in the moment, than the canned homilies that often lard more typical scenes in the genre. Bowen

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