Movies provided audiences a therapeutic distraction from their anxieties during the depression era. While motion pictures are no longer at the center of popular culture, cinema still has the power to invigorate viewers. 2020 has been marked by disturbance and disorder; audiences have turned to scintillating tales of joy and pain for catharsis. Read on for a list of my favorite pictures of 2020; films I believe capture with great feeling the spirit of the past year.
Honorable Mention: ARCHENEMY
A drunkard (Joe Manganiello) who claims to be a superhero from another dimension uses his powers to help a teenager (Skylan Brooks) and his sister (Zolee Griggs) escape the grasp of a local gangster. Archenemy is a bit of an uneven affair but it’s just so damn fun. Fueled by stylized violence and an energized performance from Manganiello, it’s an entertaining deviation from the typical superhero fare.
A spirited and captivating portrait of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) and his personal shortcomings while crafting the screenplay for Citizen Kane (1941). Skillfully written and magnificently acted, Mank celebrates the Golden Age of Hollywood while denouncing the corrupt men who managed it. The film is exceptional not only in terms of technical accomplishment, but also in its ability to combine historical observations with commentary on Trump’s America.
Kay (Emily Mortimer) believes a sinister presence is to blame for her mother’s (Robyn Nevin) dementia. A film that wears its allegory on its sleeve (and its pant leg and everywhere else), Relic builds horror via Edna’s physical and mental decay and the range of emotions they cause her family. Director Natilie Erika James uses the labyrinthine layout and flawed construction of Edna’s home to reflect her impaired mind. There’s something deeper dwelling behind the decaying drywall. It crumbles slowly as the movie moves toward a fatal conclusion. It is a masterstroke in expressionist horror that leaves a mark on the brains of viewers.
8. THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7
A group of protesters who stormed the 1968 Democratic convention in defiance of the Vietnam War are charged with conspiracy and crossing state lines with the intention of inciting riots. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is an enthralling reconstruction of the extraordinary legal battle and a poignant paean to peaceful protests. Brilliantly scripted and skillfully acted, it bears significantly upon our current situation in America.
7. DA 5 BLOODS
Four veterans return to Vietnam to retrieve the remains of their fallen comrade (along with buried treasure). Da 5 Bloods is a consummately entertaining adventure tale. It’s also a political tool. It utilizes archival footage, the destruction of the fourth wall and Lee’s lauded camera tricks to examine contemporary race matters in America. It’s a bold, bombastic exercise that manages to remain fun despite its incisive commentary.
A fictional town in Brazil discovers it has been erased from the internet before being besieged by flying saucers and decadent oppressors on motorcycles. Bacurau plays like the fanciful musings of a genre fan. Built on spaghetti westerns and violent exploitationers, it utilizes a kaleidoscopic narrative and grindhouse aesthetic to create a gonzo viewing experience. It’s subversive and batty and unlike any movie released this year.
5. SOUND OF METAL
A punk-metal drummer’s (Riz Ahmed) life is turned upside down when he loses his hearing. Sound designer Nicolas Becker creates an aural world that accentuates Ruben’s sense of helplessness, compelling audiences to substitutionally endure his frustrations. First-time director Darius Marder captures Ruben’s agonizing journey of self-discovery in fine detail. Sound of Metal is mentally exhausting but ultimately emotionally fulfilling.
4. HUNTER HUNTER
When a “wolf” threatens his family’s tranquil existence, Joseph (Devon Sawa) hunts it with hostile force. Director Shawn Linden permeates his survivalist thriller with a palpable sense of dread, developing relatable characters worthy of our concern before delving into more gruesome territory. Richly photographed and finely acted, Hunter Hunter builds toward a shocking climax that can’t be forgotten.
Milla’s (Eliza Scanlen) well-to-do parents (Essie Davis & Ben Mendelsohn) consent to her relationship with a small-time drug dealer (Toby Wallace) following a cancer diagnosis. A sincere yet gritty character study that is intermittently delicate and brutal, Babyteeth exquisitely captures life’s inexorable parts. Its ability to draw a contrast between Milla’s acknowledgement of her pending death and her parent’s refusal to accept it feels like the work of a more seasoned filmmaker.
The semi-autobiographical account of director Abel Ferrara’s life in Rome with his young wife and 3-year-old daughter (played by Ferrara’s real-life spouse and child). Ferrara originally drew the attention of genre enthusiasts (myself included) with the crude slasher, The Driller Killer (1979) and the lurid feminist revenge tale, Ms. 45 (1981). Tommaso employs wisdom and tenderness to reflect on Ferrara’s life as an artist; his faults and virtues as a person. Willem Dafoe plays Ferrara’s alter ego. He is warm and alluring. We love and pity him in equal measure and hang on his every move.
1. NEVER, RARELY, SOMETIMES, ALWAYS:
A maltreated teen (Sidney Flanigan) must travel from her home in rural Pennsylvania to New York City to obtain medical attention when she discovers she is pregnant. Sensitively crafted and powerfully performed, Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always offers raw and heartbreaking insight into the challenges faced by young women today. It’s authentic and crucial and can’t be recommended enough.