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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

The Cordillera of Dreams

10. The Cordillera of Dreams (Patricio Guzmán)

Patricio Guzmán understands the totemic power of the long strip of Andean mountains that runs between Chile and Argentina, effectively severing the former from the rest of the world. But the ruefulness in his voice also gets at something else: that this wall of rock and earth is also a mausoleum. Throughout interviews with writers and sculptors, among others, Guzmán accords to the Cordillera a level of importance that’s nothing short of reverential. And just at the point where it feels you can take no more of his metaphorical heavy lifting, the documentary gives way to an extended survey of the ravages and legacies of Augusto Pinochet’s regime, including the doctrine of neoliberalism that’s brought Chile to its knees in the present day. If The Cordillera of Dreams leaves us on a razor’s edge between hope and futility, that’s by design. Guzmán knows that the day when those looking for the disappeared are themselves lost to time is an inevitability, and it will be as tragic as the day when there are no more images left to depict the story of that search. But the documentary advances the belief that, until then, we will be stronger for exhorting ourselves to reflection and atonement. Ed Gonzalez



Fourteen

9. Fourteen (Dan Sallitt)

The dominant theme of Dan Sallitt’s Fourteen is the relentless march of time and its indifference to personal hardship. Balancing a fine-grained attention to character with placid detachment, the film traces a decade in the friendship of Mara (Tallie Medel) and Jo (Norma Kuhling), former grade-school friends who’ve sustained their bond into young adulthood, where they’ve both managed tenuous livelihoods in the Big Apple. Through his unannounced and often startling leaps in chronology, Sallitt cultivates a feeling of implicit tension, a growing fissure in Mara and Jo’s chemistry that bears itself out in pauses in conversation and in their interactions with a rotating gallery of supporting characters. One of the last times we see Jo, she’s walking away from camera into a busy Brooklyn intersection—perhaps a call back to the earlier long take of the train station, a reminder of a larger network of people whose trajectories we ultimately have no control over. In Fourteen, Mara must come to accept the limits of her ability to influence these peripheral lives, and in doing so prompts an evolution of spirit that’s at once painful and transformative. Lund



Time

8. Time (Garrett Bradley)

Garrett Bradley doesn’t, and perhaps doesn’t need to, trot out statistics to make the case that Robert Richardson’s draconian sentence represents a perpetuation of anti-black racism. She’s got the receipts: years of home-video diaries that his wife, Sibil, recorded for him as she worked tirelessly to support their boys while also trying to secure legal motions for his re-sentencing. All the while, the boys grew up without their father. Time opens with a montage of these home videos, set to Tsegue-Maryam’s whirl-a-gig piano piece “The Mad Man’s Laughter”: Sibil waking the twins for the first day of school; observing them playing in the snow; riding rollercoasters with them; filming them play at a pool party; and giving them lectures on work ethic at school. At the end of the documentary, we see some of this footage again, of the boys at play and growing up, only this time run in reverse. Bradley’s film is about feeling time, about conveying some idea of what 21 years feels like to someone else. In images of the almost imperceptible movement of clouds over New Orleans, Barrett finds a lyrical metaphor for time’s ineffability—as well as for abiding faith in the eventuality of grace (“God looks over the sparrows, Sibil. He’s going to look over us,” Sibil recalls Robert saying to her after his sentencing). Far more than a polemic against the prison-industrial complex, Time reminds us in eminently cinematic ways that behind the numbers and procedures of a court case are actual lives existing in actual, human time. Brown



Lovers Rock

7. Lovers Rock (Steve McQueen)

Anger over racial injustice simmers beneath the surface of the five films in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology, occasionally exploding onto the screen, but it’s the most exuberant entry that leaves the strongest impression. Largely, though not entirely, jettisoning the political anger of the other films, Lovers Rock offers an abundance of sensory delights. Immersing us in a lively mid-‘70s reggae house party, the film is bursting with music, sweat-soaked dancing, and Grenadian cooking that you can practically smell. As reggae and funk tunes fill the air, Shabier Kirchner’s camera glides through the house and weaves through the partiers like a half-drunk participant in the night’s revelries. In a standout scene, the entire crowd on the jam-packed dance floor stops busting a move for minutes on end to sing along in unison to the entirety of Janet Kay’s lovers rock classic “Silly Games.” It’s the pinnacle of pure, unadulterated joy in a series that’s infused with so much sadness and struggle, and its impact reverberates throughout the other four films. Watson



To the Ends of the Earth

6. To the Ends of the Earth (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)

To the Ends of the Earth’s setup could almost be interpreted as a kind of self-aware joke: A Japanese camera crew arrives in Uzbekistan with the purpose of shooting footage for a travel show and becomes increasingly frustrated over not having enough usable material. The film seems at first to position itself as a study on how gender roles inform the different ways that Yoko (Atsuko Maeda), the sole woman traveling with the camera crew, is treated by the countryman with whom she’s traveling, and by the local Uzbeks. But Kiyoshi Kurosawa has only just begun to develop his underlying thesis by this point. As Yoko strikes out on her own, exploring the landscape of an entirely foreign Uzbekistan, she’s guided by both her curiosity and her considerable cautiousness, two poles of her personality that determine behavior in a variety of spaces, from the more sparsely populated residential areas, to the densely crowded marketplaces, to the sprawling plains beyond the city. Just as the Navoi Theater was a catalyst for Japanese prisoners to transcend the horrors of war, the story of its construction at impresses upon Yoko the possibility of liberating herself from her own deepest fears about the world. To the Ends of the Earth isn’t just a meandering film born of an auteur’s plane ticket to a foreign country: If Kurosawa is less interested in narrative dynamics, it’s because he’s focused on an acute understanding of societally and sociologically conditioned behavior. Mac



Vitalina Varela

5. Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa)

As in Horse Money, shadows blanket Vitalina Varela, with slivers of light only illuminating people and whatever objects writer-director Pedro Costa wishes to call attention to. This yields images that are arresting on their face but also hint at richer meanings, as in a shot of Vitalina (Vitalina Varela) in silhouette folding the safety vest of a construction worker who stands in a doorway in the background, also in shadow, with only the reflective green-yellow of the vest giving off any light. The sight of immigrants obscured from view as a symbol of their menial labor glows in the foreground speaks volumes to a way of life that consumes the characters. Yet the film is no polemic. It raises delicate questions about postcolonial immigration, such as whether breadwinning vanguards should gamble on the allure of the unknown to make way for a possibly better life or settle for the hard but known life they already have. The film’s oblique nature elides any simple interpretations, and the irresoluteness of the social commentary mingles with Vitalina’s personal ruminations over her life. The film, like Colossal Youth and Horse Money, is a ghost story. Cole



The Grand Bizarre

4. The Grand Bizarre (Jodie Mack)

A film that’s constantly on the move, Jodie Mack’s The Grand Bizarre is a brilliant bonanza of color, texture, and globe-trotting good vibrations. With extensive use of time-lapse photography, stop-motion animation, and quick-cut montages, Mack creates a sense of boundless energy and constant movement, of people and things (but mostly things) in an endless flow around the globe. Mack takes fabric—vibrant, beautifully crafted swatches and scarves from a range of different cultures—as her central image, seeing them on trains and planes, popping out of suitcases, on the beach, in rear-view mirrors, and in dozens of other configurations that present them not as objets d’art to be admired in some folk art museum, but as products moving in the international stream of capitalism. The Grand Bizarre is a rumination on human creativity, and it’s so idiosyncratic and highly personal that it ends with the director’s sneeze. It’s also one of the most purely enjoyable works of avant-garde cinema made this century. Watson



First Cow

3. First Cow (Kelly Reichardt)

If it’s true, as Balzac had it, that behind every great fortune lies a great crime, then perhaps behind every minor prosperity lies a misdemeanor. In Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, that petty offense is the theft of some cow’s milk, which gentle-hearted chef Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) and his friendly yet opportunistic companion, King Lu (Orion Lee), use to build a successful enterprise selling delicious fried honey biscuits in a small, not-quite-established town in 1820s Oregon. Like most of Reichardt’s work, the film is a deceptively diminutive affair, an intimate, almost fabulistic story told with the warmth and delicacy of a children’s picture book. Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt’s images honor the verdant lushness of the Pacific Northwest, making us feel as if we’re seeing its Edenic beauty through the soulful brown eyes of Eve, the titular bovine who’s been brought to this new land by her owner (Toby Jones) as an ostentatious display of his own wealth. But the film’s boxy 4:3 aspect ratio serves as a constant reminder that Cookie and King’s lives (not to mention Eve’s) are ultimately constrained by forces greater than themselves. Even here, at the far distant edges of civilization, the film pensively suggests, the machinery of industrial capitalism is tragically inescapable. Watson



City Hall

2. City Hall (Frederick Wiseman)

Frederick Wiseman never steps in the same river twice, though the methods of this prolific, preeminent documentarian are, with rare exception, unchanging. So it is with City Hall, Wiseman’s formidable and incisive exploration of local government in Boston, Massachusetts. Non-diegetic score and identifying on-screen titles are eschewed throughout, while the film’s duration is well past the feature-length norm—in this case, four-and-a-half engrossing hours. The camerawork, courtesy of Wiseman’s longtime collaborator John Davey, is mostly fly-on-the-wall, swish-panning between or settling for extended periods on a given scene’s subjects. Mundanities that many other artists would turn away from are manna to Wiseman. He gets as much poetic and provocative mileage out of a budget meeting that projects the fiscal year to come as he does a glass skyscraper reflecting a magic-hour sunset. The film’s provocations can seem savage at a glance, but they emerge from an observational tranquility that is uniquely Wiseman’s own, and which leave room for individual interpretation. What each of us sees is what each of us gets. But how do we arrive at our respective ideological terminus? City Hall isn’t an incitement, so much as an invitation to serenely reflect on and think through systems of power that are, like the people who labor within them, constantly evolving—for better and for worse. Keith Uhlich



Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets

1. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (Bill and Turner Ross)

Imagine Robert Altman and John Huston adapting a Charles Bukowski novel together in the 1970s and you’ve got an idea of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets’s wild mixture of comedy, streetwise grit, and pathos—though not even Bukowski ever fashioned a portrait of barfly life this exact and clear-eyed. As people wander in and out of a Las Vegas dive bar named the Roaring 20s and shoot the shit, flirt, argue, and fight over the course of a long day and night, brother filmmakers Bill and Turner Ross patiently allow us to acclimate ourselves to each patron’s particular rhythms, recognizing that their tics and gestures should be telling the story here. What gradually emerges is a realization that many of these individuals are addicted not only to booze, but to the bar itself, which imparts these wounded, self-conscious outcasts with a sense of control and kinship that softens the crippling, alienating pain of their alcoholism. These people are trapped by dependency, but they share moments of rapture—a dance session in the parking lot, jokes with an old friend, a heartbreaking warning from an old man—that they otherwise would’ve have experienced. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is an ambiguous and empathetic portrait of a community-slash-prison, then, and, in this awful year, the bar’s closing comes to inadvertently reflect the losses that we’ve had to endure, both of life and of the casual little communities that spring up from our routines. To watch this film during a pandemic lockdown is to be put in the strange position of nearly envying people who’re partying themselves to death. Bowen

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