Features

The 50 Best Films of 2020

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

Photo: Icarus Films

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.

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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.

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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

Click here for our contributors’ individual ballots.

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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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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



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

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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



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

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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



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

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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



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

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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



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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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



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

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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



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

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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



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

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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



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

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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



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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20. Zombi Child (Bertrand Bonello)

Restlessly shuttling between 1960s Haiti and present-day France, Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child roils with colonialist tensions. But as with the director’s prior Nocturama, this quixotic, slow-burn genre film is political largely in the abstract. While there are moments here where a history of exploitation informs the relationship between the French, lily-white Fanny (Louise Labeque) and Haitian refugee Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat)—classmates at an all-girls school established by Napoleon Bonaparte—Bonello’s interests go much deeper than race relations. The dialectical relationship between past and present has become a central organizing principle of Bonello’s artistry, evident in his anachronistic soundtrack choices and his unmooring of characters from their period settings through decidedly modern behaviors or situations, but here he approaches that dialectic in a crucially different manner. Instead of overlaying modern-day signifiers on a period piece setting, as he did in House of Pleasures, Zombi Child suggests two temporalities that exist parallel to each other. Sam C. Mac



19. Yourself and Yours (Hong Sang-soo)

With Yourself and Yours, Hong Sang-soo has effectively constructed a narrative in which every character is conceivably culpable of committing an act that adversely effects those around them, and without just cause. More impressive, these unresolved sources of blame allow for a reflexive empathy. It’s possible that either—though not both—Min-jung (Lee Yoo-young), a controlling artist, or Young-soo (Kim Joo-hyuk), his live-in girlfriend, hasn’t explicitly wronged the other, so the moments in which they escape from whatever vice or cruel coincidence might be keeping them apart resonate with a quietly harrowing sense of romance, charged as they are with the gravity of what they may have done and the possibility of their own individual blamelessness. By the end of the film, neither Min-jung nor Young-soo seem particularly concerned with the details of their estranged circumstance, nor even their given roles in this story. Instead, they merely want to accept each other for who they themselves feel they need to be. And this, in fact, seems a natural progression of the ideas in Hong’s cinema: Neither culture nor film can define the world for you—that’s up to you and yourself alone. Mac

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18. Tommaso (Abel Ferrara)

Many films have dealt with the highs and lows of addiction, even the challenges of recovery. Less common are films about living at length with sobriety, about the peace it can bring and the lingering absence that an addict in recovery must learn to accept. Abel Ferrara’s Tommaso is about that precise feeling of living with an itch unscratched, which the protagonist manages with a life of fetishistic interiority. Ferrara’s collaborations with Dafoe are studies of privilege, power, fantasy, and loneliness. They’re also surveys of Dafoe’s remarkably suggestive presence and physicality, as well as flirtations with European artiness. Tommaso is erotic in a manner that’s unusual for American films, suggesting that Ferrara has truly gotten Italy into his bloodstream. Almost every encounter here is freighted with the promise of sex—the kind that’s understood to be possible primarily because of Tommaso’s success and station. These wandering, episodic films are politically conscious, yet they’re also about the lurid pleasure of being a man with a certain degree of reputation. In Tommaso, Ferrara both rues and enjoys his protagonist’s power and insularity, which scans less as hypocrisy than as an honest admission of the difficulty of navigating the divide between accountability and temptation. Bowen



17. Collective (Alexander Nanau)

On October 30, 2015, a fire breaks out during a free rock concert at the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest, Romania. The club has no fire exits. Twenty-seven people are killed right away and 180 are injured. Dozens more die soon after, many of them not because of the severity of their burns, but from bacterial infections contracted while in intensive care—and this after the Romanian government assured the victims that they would receive the same medical care that they would receive in Germany. The government’s attempts to save face begin to crumble and mass protests spread across Romania. In Collective, Alexander Nanau trails investigative reporters exposing the astonishing offshore fraud scheme involving hospital disinfectants which led to dozens of avoidable deaths in the wake of the fire. In the documentary, the sleuthing aimed at restoring the integrity of a community, however belatedly, is the work of reporters undaunted by the potentially lethal consequences of speaking truth to power, through reportage, press briefings, and TV appearances. Collective reminds us that without investigative reporting there’s no democracy, and that traditional expectations around impartiality and objectivity may be untenable in the face of horror. It proves that journalistic integrity is achieved not through neutrality, but by pledging fierce allegiance to the public’s interest. Semerene

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16. Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman)

Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a bravura depiction of the social barriers that get in the way of women asserting their agency. Eliza Hittman’s dreamy coming-of-age stories at times suggest something from the Larry Clark school of provocation, where a certain penchant for transgression comes at the expense of verisimilitude. But the strength of this film is that its transgression comes from the shock of how the abortion system works. How each thing that ostensibly keeps people safe is harmful in a different way. Use your invaluable health insurance, and the procedure will show up on your parents’ statement. Spend the stolen cash to pay for it instead and you can’t buy a ticket home. This approach might be didactic at times, but Hittman’s screenplay manages to capture the interlocking effects of wider, separate issues with impeccable precision. Medicare for all, toxic masculinity, the working class, pro-lifers, homelessness, and privatization of public space—all are gestured to without moralizing or pontificating. It’s all in service of character. Flanagan



15. Bacurau (Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles)

Kleber Mendoça Filho and Juliano Donnelles’s Bacurau assembles a vibrant and eclectic collage of reference points. It’s a wild neo-western that pulls into its orbit UFO-shaped drones, elaborate folklore, limb-flaying and head-exploding gore, and Udo Kier as a villain who shouts in a mockingly high-pitched voice, “Hell no!” The Bacurau of the film’s title is a fictional town in Brazil’s northeastern interior, depicted here at some point in the not-too-distant future. The citizens live in a relatively undisturbed harmony—until Bacuaru is literally wiped off the map (GPS no longer can locate the backwater), local cell service is jammed, and the people find themselves hunted, A Dangerous Game-style, by gringo infiltrators. Mendoça Filho is one of contemporary Brazilian cinema’s most sharply political filmmakers, and Bacurau solidifies his commitment to rebuking Brazil’s current administration and its willful erasure of the country’s culture and heritage. Mac

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14. The Wild Goose Lake (Diao Yinan)

Diao Yinan’s The Wild Goose Lake is a crackerjack genre exercise, but it’s up to a fair bit more than it might at first seem. Diao joins other contemporary Chinese filmmakers like Vivian Qu (Trap Street) and Xin Yukun (Wrath of Silence) in recognizing that genre movies offer a kind of smokescreen for a form of sociopolitical engagement that the Chinese censors likely wouldn’t otherwise approve. Which is to say, the heightened violence and ugliness of a crime film seems to allow for a kind of depiction of Chinese social life that wouldn’t be acceptable from a “realistic” drama. Diao takes this all a bit further, however, utilizing the sprawling geography of what’s essentially a chase film to deep-dive into the sordid underbelly of a Chinese society where lawlessness trumps order. The Wild Goose Lake’s masterstroke is that its fugitive antiheroes are framed by an environment that reflects their criminal lives back at them, seemingly no matter where they turn. Mac



13. Space Dogs (Elsa Kremer and Levin Peter)

The dogs that took part in the Soviet Sputnik program—most famously Laika, a Moscow stray who became the first living being in space—are still heralded as heroes in Russia. The Kubrickian opening of Space Dogs—an abstract vision from the perspective of a Sputnik capsule re-entering our atmosphere, in which the Earth’s rim is subsumed by a wild purplish flame that suggests damaged photographic film—effectively puts an end to canine space-faring romanticism. Though anti-romantic, the film isn’t averse to wonder, which finds root on our Earth, in the exterior facts of life and impenetrable inner lives of Moscow street dogs. Imaginative and playful but drawing us through its play toward darker, too-seldom-considered sides of human and doggy nature, Space Dogs fulfills the implicit cinematic mission of bringing us to places we otherwise could never go. In the novel world it uncovers, the film finds new lines of questioning, if not necessarily answers. When the “hero” dogs were orbiting the Earth, the narrator observes, “No one had wondered what they might have dreamt about in their space capsules.” Speculating about the dreams of other humans is challenging enough. Perhaps we need a kind of intellectual launching pad to reflect on the inner life of what is, after all, an alien form of being. Which is just what Elsa Kremer and Levin Peter’s film provides. Brown

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12. American Utopia (Spike Lee)

“Thank you for coming. Thank you for leaving your homes,” David Byrne says when first addressing the audience in Spike Lee’s filmed version of the musician’s world-tour-turned-Broadway-show American Utopia. What was an ironic statement in 2019 has been inadvertently cast in a radically different, altogether more earnest light a year later. Byrne and Lee not only reckon with the legacy of Stop Making Sense, they find ways to update its rich undercurrents of social commentary. Byrne’s dance moves in Jonathan Demme’s concert film subtly incorporated parodies of ‘80s excess, from exercise-video-craze dances to the use of a too-big suit as a metaphor for the hollow promise of Reaganomics. Here, the robotic movements of Byrne and his performers, in their matching gray suits, become a kind of interpretive dance about gentrification, homogenizing an international, diverse roster of performers for a show performed on Broadway. But despite this satirical undercurrent, American Utopia doesn’t wallow in cynicism, and the closing stretch breaks through Byrne’s many layers of postmodern impunity for a stirring, openhearted plea for a better world. In a year in which the coronavirus pandemic has devastated both the theatrical and live-music industries, American Utopia feels as much like a balm as it is a surprisingly direct call to political action and social betterment. Cole



11. Martin Eden (Pietro Marcello)

A deft collapsing of both history and time that packs an allegorical wallop, Pietro Marcello’s ingenious adaptation of Jack London’s 1909 novel of the same name is set in a version of 20th-century Italy that captures the pop fizz of the 1960s alongside the ruin of the post-war era and the foreboding of the decade before, as Benito Mussolini rose to power. Luca Marinelli, infusing Eden with a watchful determination and charisma, is an avatar of the country’s shifting identities, and the film traces his evolution from an itinerant worker who becomes, after his first taste of wealth and beauty, a self-educated polemicist who only finds fame late in his career, when his idealistic politics have curdled into a selfish and dangerous strain of libertarianism. As a film about the life of the mind, Martin Eden is an intoxicating seesaw of romance and disillusion, but it’s more bold and disorienting as a film about the eternal recurrence of self-devouring populism: Liberated from time (Marcello incorporates a wealth of local archival footage of labor movements alongside his more gauzy and glamorous image of Italian social life), it doesn’t hurtle its protagonist through history so much as it finds a singular means of depicting his free fall into his own self-regard. Gray

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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



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

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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



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

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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



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

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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



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

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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



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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