In cinema terms, 2020 is an asterisk year, at best. It was certainly not a great year for film — choked in production, constrained and starved in exhibition, and forced to be viewed through the prism of a global crisis that completely alters our reading of the movies and their messages. Most every film released this year was written, shot and edited before anyone had heard of the coronavirus, so their stories pretty much exist in a world that feels divorced from our current lives — escapism taken to the nth degree.
Still, of those films whose releases weren't postponed to 2021 A.V. (After Vaccine), there was a choice selection of movies worthy of a Ten Best Films list — and, thankfully, one great film that, pandemic or no, seems to exist outside of time.
1. "First Cow"
Directed by Kelly Reichardt.
Two enterprising young men in the Oregon Territory of 1820 conspire to steal milk from the first cow brought into the region, in order to sell their tasty biscuits at the muddy trading post that stands in for civilization. Masterfully directed by Kelly Reichardt, "First Cow" is a primal drama of the American dream, and of people living on the periphery of wilderness, who would — in one fashion or another — help define a young nation's character.
John Magaro's tender, inviting performance as Cookie, working his way west in hopes of finding his place in the world, pulls us into the character's conflict with his own sense of shame. How far can he push himself beyond what would be considered the limits of acceptable behavior east of the Mississippi, when encouraged by Orion Lee's entrancing King-Lu, a personification of an American West opening its doors of opportunity to anyone with the brazenness and guts to enter? You feel Cookie's despoilment, and realize there can be no retreat, only a shared sense of commitment owing to their friendship.
And don't be fooled by the film's opening scene: The first several minutes are this gifted director's very effective and haunting demonstration of the impermeable fabric of time, and how some of its mysteries can never, ever be resolved by us.
To watch a trailer for "First Cow" click on the player below:
"First Cow" was selected as the year's best film by the New York Film Critics Circle.
Directed by Chloé Zhao.
In her followup to her 2017 filmdirector Chloé Zhao again blurs fiction and non-fiction, in a story inspired by journalist Jessica Bruder's book "Nomadland," an account of nomadic van dwellers eking out a life amid the fallout of the 2008 economic crash.
Frances McDormand stars as Fern, a widow who shuttles from state to state, job to job, living an itinerate life among other nomadic seniors whose quasi-retirement resides on a razor's edge between personal fulfillment on their own terms, and despair.
The direction by Zhao (which was honored as the year's best by both the New York and Los Angeles critics) is finely attuned to those on the margins, with a cast that includes some of the real-life people documented in Bruder's book.
To watch a trailer for "Nomadland" click on the player below:
After its debut at the Venice, Toronto and New York film festivals and a brief streaming run earlier this month, "Nomadland" will be released on February 19, 2021.
3. "Never Rarely Sometimes Always"
Directed by Eliza Hittman.
An abused teenage girl in Pennsylvania named Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), who discovers she is pregnant, tries to induce a miscarriage but fails. She then travels, accompanied by a cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder), to New York City, where she hopes she can obtain an abortion without requiring parental consent.
The film's trim execution, and Flanigan's almost naive reactions to the life changes she undergoes and the choices she must make, as well as Ryder's machinations when she discovers they are short on cash, dramatize the kind of shared experience that these young people will likely keep as a buried secret forever.
In this scene, as she is questioned by a counselor, the vulnerability of Autumn becomes almost excruciating and saddening to watch:
Flanigan and Hittman were both honored by the New York Film Critics Circle, for Best Actress and Best Screenplay, respectively.
"Never Rarely Sometimes Always" is available via Video on Demand.
4. "76 Days" (China)
Directed by Weixi Chen, Hao Wu, and Anonymous.
From the start, this documentary of frontline health workers in Wuhan Province, China, at the beginning of the coronavirus epidemic is eye-opening — from a hospital employee's heart-wrenching pleas to be with her dying father, to the emotional turmoil of parceling out care to patients. The camerawork puts the viewer directly into ground zero of the virus, and the maelstrom of fear and ignorance about what halting the outbreak entails.
While many viewers may have become numb to the hell that medical professionals have experienced this year as the pandemic worsened, this film's bare-bones immediacy capturing the start of the outbreak reminds us how the lack of information made this new virus even more unnerving.
The most chilling scene in any movie this year records the sad accumulation of the victims' smartphones, bagged and waiting to be disinfected, which ring and vibrate with voicemail messages to the dead.
In this scene, medical staff must contend with a crush of patients in the waiting room trying to force their way into the hospital:
"76 Days" is available to rent via Virtual Cinema screenings.
5. "Beanpole" (Russia)
Directed by Kantemir Balagov.
The deprivations of Leningrad following the end of World War II are portrayed with a grim starkness in this heartwrenching drama — named Best Foreign Language Film by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association — in which two women are joined both by their shared experiences of war, and by a terrible personal tragedy.
The friendship between the statuesque nurse Iya, a.k.a. "Beanpole" (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) and Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), who has returned home from the front, is the focal point in this story of survivors, barely, who try and fail to resurrect the life they had before the war, and instead must pick up the pieces from a worldwide trauma. Both of these first-time actresses are terrific.
In this scene, Masha tries on a dressmaker's frock, and in a shock of color gets to experience a pleasure that years of war have muted:
"Beanpole" is available to rent via Virtual Cinema screenings.
6. "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom"
Directed by George C. Wolfe.
Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman lead a strong cast in this enthralling adaptation of August Wilson's play, about a 1920s blues diva and her backup musicians trying to get through a recording session.
The film is opened up slightly from the stage, but not enough to overwhelm or dilute this very intimate character drama. If anything, the new scenes give depth to the discourse about racial injustice, exploitation, and cultural appropriation. But they also give added excuses for music, which is appreciated.
In his last film appearance, Boseman is strong as the cocksure trumpeter Levee, whose brash attitude masks deeper insecurities and a propensity for violence. He and Glynn Turman were named Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. Davis (who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for another Wilson adaptation, "Fences") is terrific as the imperial Ma Rainey, whom you never want to make wait for her cold Coca-Cola.
In this scene, Levee confronts his fellow band members Cutler (Colman Domingo), Toledo (Turman) and Slow Drag (Michael Potts) about how to work with Whites in the music industry:
"Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" is currently streaming on Netflix.
7. "Wolfwalkers" (Ireland)
Directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart.
The filmmakers behind the 2009 animated movie "The Secret of Kells" return with this ornately decorated fable of a creature — half wolf, half human — and her friendship with the daughter of a huntsman ordered to kill all the wolves in a nearby forest.
This story of love and loyalties tested, mixed with humor, myth, and overtones of politics, make this a memorable, visual treat.
"Wolfwalkers" was named the year's best animated feature by both the New York Film Critics Circle and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.
Watch a trailer for "Wolfwalkers"
"Wolfwalkers" is currently streaming on Apple TV.
8. "Sound of Metal"
Directed by Darius Marder.
Riz Ahmed gives a haunting performance as Ruben, a musician whose loss of hearing precludes his loss of identity. As he struggles to accept that his hearing may not be recoverable, he risks alienating both the community of deaf who seek to help him, and his singer-girlfriend whose career, he believes, may be compromised by his disability.
Director Darius Marder, who collaborated with Abraham Marder and Derek Cianfrance ("The Place Beyond the Pines," "Blue Valentine") on the story and screenplay, is extremely creative in dramatizing the auditory imbalance that Ruben experiences as his ears fail him more and more.
In this scene Ruben goes for a hearing test, grasping to understand what is being said:
"Sound of Metal" is currently streaming via Amazon Prime Video.
Directed by Pete Docter; co-directed by Kemp Powers.
With such recent successes as "Inside Out" (which explored the makeup of personalities), "Ratatouille" (sensory delight) and "Coco" (travels to the afterlife), the Pixar animation studio returns to familiar territory for a story that pulls from all three. While "Soul" seems similar, it has a bracing and inventive narrative, about a middle-school music teacher, Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx), who dreams of a successful jazz career. When Joe has an accident on the very day of his most promising gig, his soul leaves his body, and is desperate to find a way back.
Being a Pixar film, "Soul" is filled with humor and wondrous production and character design, in this case representing a dimension where new souls acquire their personalities before they are shipped off to Earth. There is also blissful music, from the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross ("The Social Network") to the jazz compositions and arrangements by Jon Batiste.
In this scene Joe is introduced to a new soul, 22 (Tina Fey), who isn't ready for transit to Earth (and, we dare say, Earth may not be ready for 22):
"Soul" is available to stream via Disney+.
10. "Lovers Rock" (U.K.)
Directed by Steve McQueen.
This short feature (packaged by Amazon as part of a series of films by McQueen, titled "Small Axe") recreates the atmosphere of a 1980 house party of West Indian immigrants in London. We see the preparations, almost smell the food cooking, and witness as men and women congregate, dance, and enjoy reggae music — and each other.
There is no real script per se, and the characters do not cut deep, but there is a tactile feel for the period, through the clothes, music and décor, expertly captured by cinematographer Shabier Kirchner, while the male-female tensions are timeless.
To watch a trailer for "Lovers Rock" click on the video player below:
"Lovers Rock" is available to stream via Amazon Prime Video.
Special mention: "Hamilton"
Directed by Thomas Kail.
This stunning recording of the Broadway stage sensation was slated to have a theatrical release in 2021. But when the pandemic shuttered movie theaters — and postponed the summer release of the film version of Lin-Manuel Miranda's "In the Heights" — "Hamilton" was instead streamed on the Disney+ channel.
Having the revolutionary musical on our home screens, while reductive, made the story of the founding father more intimate, and the closeups of the actors capture their artistry in all its grandeur. At least, you didn't have to hope for a lottery win to score tickets to be in the room where it happens.
Clip: "The Room Where It Happens" featuring Tony Award-winner Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr.
But "Hamilton" also prompts a discussion of what exactly a movie is nowadays. With cinemas closed and many productions released straight to video-on-demand, what separates a "film" from the "content" that clogs our scrolling Netflix feed is becoming increasingly blurred. While the preferred method to watch a film will always be to gaze up at images projected on a giant blank wall, where you can give yourself over to the story without distraction, a laptop will have to do if you don't want to chance spreading the infection to yourself or others. No movie (not even the Imax-sized "Tenet") is worth that risk.
With regard to "Hamilton," there is little in the way of adaptation to a standard movie musical format, as Hollywood typically does; rather, it preserves the original Broadway cast, staging and costumes, as contained on the stage of the Richard Rodgers Theatre, for which future generations can be grateful. But just as the show was a touchstone in musical theater, perhaps this recording of "Hamilton" will become a touchstone in a new kind of filmed performance, with no allegiance to realism or naturalism (as we have come to expect from movies, even fantastical ones). True, "First Cow" and "Nomadland" would be nowhere if they didn't travel where they did, but do we always need all the world as a stage, when you have ... a stage?
- RIP Ennio Morricone. Listen to by the Italian composer.