It was a weird year where I desperately missed watching movies on the big screen, but despite everything there was no shortage of highly rewarding options to view at home. But since 2020 is finally over, here’s a snapshot of what’s at the top of my ever-shifting list of 2020’s films.
10. Lovers Rock (Steve McQueen). Among other things, this year was especially short on house parties; so this 1980s installment in the Small Axe anthology was a welcome escape. Over the course of about an hour, we watch as a multi-tenant brownstone in West London is transformed into an epic reggae dub night. The boys clear out a dance floor and load-in DJ equipment, the kitchen is abuzz with song and food prep, and everyone — whether local or commuting from other neighborhoods — dresses to impress. As the party evolves through women in gemtone silks dancing together, men eventually moving in from lurking with cigarettes at the periphery, culminating in a sweaty bacchanalia, and coming down with a “Silly Games” singalong, McQueen showcases his keen eye for the politics of the dance floor and incredibly acute attention to the intimate details of courtship. The party sprawls through rest of the house and into the garden where family gripes, issues of consent and autonomy, and evolving modern identities are hashed out, and, finally to a coda that brings the twenty-four cycle to a sweet conclusion. Whether you call it a standalone movie, an episode of television, or heady slice of a five-part film, it’s a tremendous example of what a gifted filmmaker can accomplish in a relatively slim package.
(Lovers Rock is now streaming on Amazon’s Prime Video. And if the 68 minutes isn’t quite enough to fill the void of music in shared spaces, Spike Lee’s film of David Byrne’s American Utopia would make a terrific double-feature.)
9. Kajillionaire. Miranda July’s latest study of the strange vibrations that exist between humans introduces a laughably low-level con-artist family (Debra Winger, Richard Jenkins, and Evan Rachel Wood) of the saddest order whose absurd emotionless dynamic is unsettled by the insertion of an vivacious outsider (Gina Rodriguez) into their lives of constant swindles. Their world of desperate scheming is rendered in such hyper-stylized fashion that it barely registers as existing within our reality, but that narrow window of barely is where July thrives, coaxing humanity from caricatures, indelible moments from magic realism, and heart-rending discovery in the most outlandish set-ups and awkward love stories.
Kajillionaire is now available for home viewing on a variety of platforms.
8. The Nest. Sean Durkin films this 80s-set domestic drama like a horror movie because it sort of is one. Right from the get-go, he keeps us at an ominous distance from Jude Law’s performance of the duties of a perfect suburban American father and husband: shuttling the kids to school, kicking the ball around in the back yard, and waking up his wife (Carrie Coon) with a fresh cup of coffee before she heads off for a day with her beloved horse. Soon he’s moved the family (horse and all) to an absurdly spacious country manor outside of London so that he can build their fortunes in commodities trading. The drafty house feels haunted, Carrie Coon’s performance as her isolation and marital exasperation stretch thin is riveting, and it’s kind of fun to see Jude Law take a turn as Mr. Ripley as he spirals and flails to project an image of prosperity. The style ever-so off-kilter and the storytelling is purposely reserved, lending pervasive sense of mystery and a feeling that anything could happen. When it was over, I needed to catch my breath, unsure of exactly what I’d watched. Whatever it was, it found its way under my skin.
The Nest is available on demand through various platforms.
7. Minari (Lee Isaac Chung). Until putting this list together, it didn’t occur to me that the broad strokes of the setup for Minari and the Nest are almost identical — a 1980s American family moves to an unfamiliar setting as part of a father’s career ambitions — but director Lee Isaac Chung’s gentle and humane approach is diametrically different. Steven Yeun plays a devoted father who’s been recruited to an Arkansas factory for his prowess in determining the sex of baby chickens. But his true motivation in making the journey from California, though, is to start his own farm growing traditional Korean vegetables not widely available in the South. When the family station wagon pulls up to their new home — a trailer propped up on cinder blocks in the middle of uncultivated acres — his wife (Han Ye-ri) is flabbergasted, often hilariously, by this new living situation and her husband’s surprising interpretation of the “garden” that he promised. The incredibly cute kids (Alan Kim and Noel Kate), making sense of their new surroundings, will steal your heart, but when Youn Yuh-jung shows up as their grandmother she steals the show.
Minari had a brief virtual run in December and will return to theaters (maybe) or virtual cinemas (probably) in February 2021.
6. Palm Springs (Max Barbakow). If you’d told me back in January that an Andy Samberg wedding comedy was going to be my among my favorite films of the year, I would have never guessed that would be among the least unlikely developments of 2020. Yet, into the midst of the Summer Isolation Movie drought, Hulu flipped the script, skipped a theatrical release for their expensive Sundance acquisition, and beamed the perfect pandemic movie right into all of our homes when we needed it most. With a script from Andy Siara, Max Barbakow’s update of the Groundhog Day premise makes the smart decision of bringing another person (Cristin Milioti, whose addition makes the movie) into an endlessly repeating day. This choice mades all the difference in the world, deepening the emotional and ethical conundrums of making the best of being trapped at a destination wedding for eternity. It’s the kind of film that easily supports a breezy watch, a deep dive into a Reddit rabbit hole of speculation on just how long certain characters were in a loop, or late night discussions about whether J.K. Simmons should’ve invited his wife to the festivities.
Palm Springs is on Hulu, right there waiting for you to stream it for the first or hundredth time.
5. Shithouse (Cooper Raiff). Writing, starring, and directing his debut feature, Cooper Raiff’s closely-observed story of a lonely college freshman could’ve gone horribly wrong in a hundred different ways. Miraculously, though, he dodged all of the potentially painful cliches and self-absorbed landmines with only one glaring misstep: not coming up with a better title. But that’s completely forgivable given how great the film itself is at capturing the profound and life-changing magic that can happen when you venture outside of your cocoon and find someone who’s nice to you, even if it’s only for one night. I adored this movie and can’t wait to see what Raiff does next.
Shithouse is streaming on various VOD platforms.
4. Matthias & Maxime. Xavier Dolan explores the Humpday premise of what happens when two longtime friends get intimate for the sake of art. Here, though, the build-up to their brief make-out session occupies only a few stray minutes early in the film and situates its primary concern in the slow-burning after-effects in the lives of the title characters: Matt, a lawyer settling into domesticity and Max, a bartender on the verge of an uncertain move abroad. It’s a low-fi friendship drama with a killer soundtrack, the vibe of overtalky friend groups, and Dolan’s immaculate decisions about what to show and when to cut. Max’s impending departure is the ticking time-bomb that lurks behind all the action, heightening emotions and giving the film a constant sense of thrumming anxiety, suppressed yearning, brimming nostalgia, and a looming deadline for whether these two kids will grow up and figure it all out.
Matthias & Maxime made its US debut this year on Mubi; it remains available there or on various streaming services.
3. Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman). It’s rare that a character speaking the a film’s title as part of the dialogue comes across as anything other than an occasion for an eye-roll. In this procedural about a young woman who wants to end an unintentional pregnancy, however, the titular phrase unlocks Sidney Flannigan’s guarded performance and breaks the whole movie wide open. Eliza Hittman could’ve easily made a well-deserved polemic about the unequal distribution of women’s essential health care, but instead relies on the grounded performances of her actors and unvarnished attention to the impracticalities of navigating a trip from rural Pennsylvania into unfamiliar New York City to build empathy and quietly simmering rage.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is currently streaming on HBOmax and is rentable on various streaming services. It’s a sobering story, but much less of a tough hang hang than the synopsis suggests.
2. First Cow (Kelly Reichardt). No one assumes I’m serious when I tell them that they have to see this little movie called First Cow. Something about that combination of words sounds like a Very Film Twitter Inside Joke. But while I’d argue that Cooper Raiff should’ve come up with a better title than Shithouse, once you’ve seen this story about friendship and burgeoning capitalism in the Pacific Northwest, you’ll agree that Kelly Reichardt was justified in her title. John Magaro and King-Lu are terrific as an resourceful frontier cook and a globe-hopping sarry-eyed entrepreneur partnering to make their fortune at the edges of a country where “history history hasn’t yet arrived”, but Eve the Cow deserves her name in lights for her performance in the titular role.
First Cow is now available to rent on various streaming services.
1. Nomadland. I can’t think of anyone who makes movies like Chloe Zhao. In her previous films she spun semi-fictional narratives using untrained actors as versions of themselves. With her latest, she inserts Frances McDormand as an avatar into the culture of older Americans traveling the country for work that was chronicled in by Jessica Bruder’s 2017 book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. We meet her character, Fern, as she’s setting off in her white modest-but-efficient converted cargo van, leaving behind the Nevada mining town that she called home for decades. Her first stop is a few weeks of holiday shift work at a massive Amazon shipping facility. From that icy cold parking lot, we follow her crisscrossing this big, sad, desolate mess of a beautiful country to a desert commune that’s a far cry from #vanlife, finding work in an RV park near the Badlands, and on a drive down the Pacific Coast Highway to visit a friend she made on the road. Cinematographer Joshua James Reynolds subscribes to the Every Frame a Painting school of photography, from gorgeous twilights and epic sprawling landscapes to the intimate fireside conversations with real nomads. Downtrodden but rarely downcast, McDormand brings supreme openhearted empathy to her performance, highlighting the voices of people who are rarely heard and centering a movie that’s profoundly moving on every level. If First Cow is an origin story of capitalism in the American West, Nomadland is a clear-eyed look a where it ended up two centuries later. For that, it’s my film of the year.
Nomadland had a brief theatrical and festival run in 2020; it returns to theaters in early 2021 to make a swing at the Oscars.
No list would be complete without some honorable mentions. On the Rocks and Let Them All Talk gave us cool hangs with our favorite celebs (and celebrity directors); Emma. and the Personal History of David Copperfield revisited literary classics with fresh eyes; and Hamilton and American Utopia briefly relieved us from isolation with virtual trips to currently shuttered Broadway theaters. Since I stuck to narrative features for my top ten, I’d be remiss without mentioning some exceptional documentaries that spoke urgently to our recent nightmares. Boys State reflected the dangers of hyper-partisan politics through an annual experiment with civic-minded teenagers, Collective, demonstrated he incredible tenacity of a few journalists to expose deeply-rooted corruption and the futility of government oversight in the wake of a Romanian nightclub fire, and Totally Under Control documented in near-real time the failure of the U.S. government to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. Less conventional documentaries immersed themselves in the subject mater let their engrossing images speak for themselves, from Notturno‘s expressive scenes of life on the edges of multiple middle east war zones, Gunda’s piglet-eyed view of life on a small farm, to Time, which expressed the true cost of the prison-industrial complex through a fusion of home movies and contemporary footage of entrepreneur, mother, and abolitionist Fox Rich as she fights for the release of her husband.
For a year where I felt like I didn’t see nearly enough, this overstuffed list barely scratches the surface. I’ll look forward to a January catching up with everything I’ve missed, especially those championed by my Sunbreak pals on their own top 10ish lists this week.
All of the Sunbreak’s Year-end lists: Josh’s Favorite Films of 2020 | Chris’s Favorite Movies of 2020 | Tony’s Favorite Movies of 2020 | Jenn’s Favorite Films of 2020 | Morgen’s Favorite Movies of 2020