The Top 10 Films of 2020
It was a strange year for film: Movie theaters shut down during the Covid pandemic, blockbuster release dates were pushed back and streaming services took their chance to shine – and did so. The last two films I saw in a theater before the lockdown were press screenings for Kelly Reichardt’s somber Pacific Northwest drama “First Cow” and the liberals’ Trumpian revenge thriller, “The Hunt.” Both screened and opened early in March, just before the shutdown. Since that time I have been to a movie theater just once, to see Christopher Nolan’s time travel brain teaser, “Tenet.” Nolan (“Inception,” “Interstellar”) gambled by insisting on a theatrical-only release, and by bottom-line measures fared fairly well, given not all theaters reopened when restrictions relaxed midsummer (Somerville would not allow Assembly Row to reopen, and Apple Cinemas at Fresh Pond reopened for a few weeks but shuttered due to a lack of commercially viable films to exhibit). Other big fare, such as the “Bill & Ted” updating and “Mulan,” tried hybrid releases with mixed results, while streaming services with studios in the stable (Disney, Netflix and Amazon, the big three) played it any way they could. Smaller releases such as “Ammonite” and “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” seemed to find a hold by playing theaters such as the Landmark’s Kendall Square Cinema (where I saw “Tenet”) for a week before going to their respective (Amazon and Neon) subscription-based streaming platforms for wider distribution. Looming above all that and clearly uninspired by Nolan’s bid, hotly anticipated box office bait such as “No Time to Die,” the latest 007 installment; “Top Gun: Maverick”; “A Quiet Place 2”; and “Wonder Woman 1984” recursively rescheduled their release dates, hoping for that big, unmasked blockbuster payday. The first three still wait in the wings, while Gal Godot’s unfortunate furball hit theaters and streaming platforms last week.
On the local level, repertory theaters normally featured in our Film Ahead section were hit hard. The Somerville Theatre and Harvard Film Archive went into hibernation, while the Brattle pivoted adroitly, opening for private rentals and offering some impressive rediscoveries (“Jazz on a Summer Day,” “Native Son” and “NationTime”) as well as some top new releases (“Desert One,” “Another Round” and “Ends of the Earth”) in a Virtual Screening Room. I can’t wait to get back to these dark spots, and if you feel the same you can still support these critical institutions by buying gift certificates and merch, renewing memberships early and staying active in their virtual communities.
Throughout the pandemic, filmmakers got wise and became creative. From the quirky, barrier-pushing mind of Sasha Baron Cohen we got another “Borat” chapter, something of a Vote! (against Trump) PSA that was shot early during the pandemic summer and played fast and loose with the source of the virus and its naysayers, extremism, and racism alive and well in the USA, ultimately catching Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani with his pants down. Amazon spun up the “Small Axe” series, a collection of five films from award-winning director Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”) about the life and culture of West Indian blacks in London during the racially charged 1970s. The #MeToo/#TimesUp movement got deftly underscored (pay attention, guys) in “Promising Young Woman,” “The Assistant” (a.k.a “A Portrait of Harvey Weinstein’s Abuses”) and even “Wonder Woman 1984” (one of the film’s few redemptions). There was a shift to small, altered awards consideration, too. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences pushed its film fete out by a month, and films in consideration for bests were no longer restricted to the big screen. It created space and opportunity for smaller independent films, probing documentaries and non-English language entires as well – something you should find evident from our list below. (Tom Meek)
Charlie Kaufman, the man who penned “Being John Malkovich” (1999) and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004), delivers this third directorial effort, which feels like something of a follow-up to his trippy yet meandering 2008 debut, “Synecdoche, New York.” Like his animated “Anomalisa” (2016), all deal with psychosis, though it’s more complicated and focused here. Does the strange time- and reality-bending ordeal belong to Jake (Jesse Plemons), the young man bringing his girlfriend home to met his parents in the middle of a snowstorm, or the girl in tow (Jessie Buckley, whose character is never given a name and is referred to in the credits only as “the young woman”)? It’s a highly talk-driven film with emotional barbs, especially diner with mom and dad (David Thewlis and Toni Collette), when Jake’s on needles and shooting daggers from his eyes. Then things start to get weird and distorted. It doesn’t all hold, but it’s 100 percent provocative in a piquant, unsettling way. On Netflix. (Tom Meek)
Newcomer Sidney Flannigan shines in Eliza Hittman’s sorrowful yet never hopeless “Never Rarely Sometimes Always.” Flannigan plays a teenage girl having to travel out of state for an abortion in this taut and honest drama depicting the still prevalent horrors women face in what should be their basic rights. Talia Ryder as her loyal cousin is similarly impressive. Perhaps Hittman’s strongest work to date following her films “Beach Rats” and “It Felt Like Love,” “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” moves with deliberate swiftness until the key scene of the film, which gives the title its context, grinds it all to a severe stop, reminding everyone of the insidious traumas that trap young women in cycles of abuse. As infuriating as the story and the reality it draws from can be, there’s a sense of hope in the girls’ ride-or-die companionship that gives the audience just the right amount of warmth. On HBO Max. (Allyson Johnson)
Since her debut feature, “Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” director Chloé Zhao has demonstrated a keen eye for wonders not seen by the masses and the lives that fill in the seams of America. Her follow-up, “The Rider,” continued her ability to find magic in real stories while capturing the natural beauty of wide open spaces. In “Nomadland” she merges her natural pull toward lives forgotten or overlooked – but this time with the star power of a commanding Frances McDormand. Capturing so much of the world in magic hour and endless night skies as the skyline bleeds into the landscape, cinematographer Joshua James Richards and Zhao depict this pocket of the world as it is in all its beauty and tragedy. Contemplative and rooted in unshakable melancholy, Zhao strips the story of romanticism and offers facts set against stunning imagery. “What’s remembered, lives,” says one character, an ideology that permeates through all of Zhao’s effective work. Not currently available. (Allyson Johnson)
Fantastic performances abound in this somber tale of acceptance and personal transition. Riz Ahmed delivers one of the very best male performances of the year (along with Mads Mikkelsen and Anthony Hopkins in “The Father”) as a drummer in a metal band during its waning days. He’s also losing his hearing and a recovering addict, and because of such must take a break from the swan song tour and his relationship with Lou (Olivia Cooke), lead singer and girlfriend, and check into rehab for the hearing-impaired. Riz’s Reuben wants his hearing back and to get back on stage, but the facility head (Paul Raci) has a different path. The film, shot mostly on the North Shore, is a slow, internal burn not too far off in texture and locale from “Manchester by the Sea” (2016). Ahmed, Raci and Cooke are all award worthy. Raci already won the Boston Society of Film Critics’ Best Supporting Actor honor. On Amazon Prime. (Tom Meek)
Director Kitty Green’s “The Assistant” explores silent despair, and few performers this year have alluded to so much with strained glances and pursed lips than Julia Garner – extraordinary as a young woman having to cope with an unforgiving career path that both devalues her work while making her complicit to workplace horrors. Shot with stale colors within claustrophobic spaces, where we watch Garner’s character continue to find herself in increasingly tough predicaments,“The Assistant” is perhaps the most tension-filled film this year that isn’t an outright thriller. A timely evisceration of toxic workplace environments, “The Assistant” acutely demonstrates how deafening silence really can be. On Hulu. (Allyson Johnson)
First-time feature filmmaker Autumn de Wilde crafts a delectable feast for the eyes in “Emma.,” the latest Jane Austin adaptation. Anya Taylor-Joy delivers a winsome and biting performance as the titular character, who is equally charming and infuriating in her meddling ways. She and Johnny Flynn share palpable chemistry, while the rest of the extended cast, from Mia Goth to Bill Nighy, are similarly superb. Handsomely dressed, the entire production is rich in textures and colors, a true example of how expressive period dramas can be in the right hands, eschewing expectations of buttoned-up rigidness and instead offering glimpses at the lives behind so much billowy lace, ruffles and polite conversation. It’s as strong a debut as any, and suggests a vivid imagination in Wilde, one that “Emma.,” with all its wit and eye for detail, is able to thrive in. Not all Austen adaptations have this much fun, and Wilde’s “Emma.” reasons that maybe they should. On HBO Max and on demand. (Allyson Johnson)
Lee Isaac Chung semi-autobiographically tells of a Korean family that transplants from L.A. to a rural Arkansas farm in the 1980s. It’s a quiet tale of American idealism as Jacob (Steven Yeun, of “The Walking Dead” and “Burning”) finds 50 acres to grow Korean vegetables, as well as racism. The ensemble here, while not the flashiest – that would be “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “The Trial of the Chicago 7” and “One Night in Miami” – is the most empathetic and identifiable (real character vs. copies of icons tend to do that) with Alan Kim as the 7-year-old David, Chung’s younger self; the mother, Monica (a fiery Yeri Han), greatly displeased by the move; Will Patton as an overly religious out-of-work farmer who throws in with Jacob; and Youn Yuh-jung as the grandmother who one of the children says “smells like Korea.” Youn won both the Boston Society of Film Critics and LA Film Critics’ Best Supporting Actress honors. Not currently available. (Tom Meek)
“And Then We Danced” captures the bliss that comes from artistic expression by focusing on a Georgian dancer, Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani – a true find), who harbors the secret of his sexuality from a society where violence against the LGBTQ+ community still runs rampant. Director Levan Akin never sugarcoats the reality of the conservative environment Merab lives in, but is tender in capturing moments of intimacy between Gelbakhiani and Bachi Valishvili, sharing tension-filled chemistry, as well as intoxicatingly rapturous dancing sequences. The fear of being known yet joy of being seen, as well as heartache and defiance in the face of cultural conformity, perfectly demonstrate how the merging of two art forms for the sake of telling one’s truth can result in something explosive. On Amazon Prime and on demand. (Allyson Johnson)
Thomas Vinterberg’s dark contemplation flips between the glorification and pitfalls of routine alcohol consumption as four friends, schoolteachers and fathers, make a pact to test Norwegian psychologist Finn Skårderund’s intoxicating hypothesis that humans need booze to thrive. Things begin well as nips between classes dull inhibitions and allow Martin (Mads Mikkelsen), the quartet member Vinterberg’s camera hangs on, to connect with his charges. Of course, the practice has consequences, as one of the friends constantly wets his bed, blames it on his 2-year-old and is too drunken to drive to school the next day. The four leads have a genuine chemistry and depth, and Mikkelsen – best known as Hannibal from the TV series – knocks it out of the park, especially in the final scene, which you should rewind multiple times. Available as part of the Brattle Theatre’s Virtual Screening Room. (Tom Meek)
Václav Marhoul’s adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s novel is a dark episodic saga of WWII Europe, told through the journey of a young Jewish boy (Petr Kotlár) from a Slavic medieval village to the West, encountering along the way sadistic opportunists, marauding Cossacks, the war front and, of course, Nazis. Marhoul’s epic scale – the sets and the stagings are awesome, when you step back and think about them – sense of composition and use of opulent black and white photography makes for a master class in filmmaking. The young boy’s Job-like ordeal (sexual perversions, abuse, regular violence and genocide) reflect that of the war-torn continent. The incredible supporting cast includes Harvey Keitel (who made the similarly themed “Ulysses’ Gaze” in 1995), Stellan Skarsgård, Julian Sands and Udo Kier. On Hulu. (Tom Meek)
Few films this year have delivered as full a story in two scenes as “First Cow” does with its opening and closing, bookends to what is both a fresh take on the American dream as well as an understated tragedy. The heart of the film lies in the relationship between Cookie (John Magaro) and King-Lu (Orion Lee), outcasts who form a bond and a business partnership to try to achieve a sense of purpose and success. Scored with delicate precision by William Tyler and shot beautifully by Kelly Reichardt and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, the film is an ode to lost souls who don’t quite make a mark on the world but, rather, on one another, through acts of compassion and companionship. “First Cow” may be leisurely paced and hypnotic in its visual poetry, but it remains emotionally arresting; by the time that closer happens, tying everything back into the modern-day set opener, we’re left to feel as if the winds have been knocked out of us. On Fubo, Showtime via Amazon Prime and on demand. (Allyson Johnson)