These are some of the films that I enjoyed from 2020. Because I watched more new releases than is typical in the last few years, I went ahead and wrote capsule length reviews to keep it more manageable. Enjoy!
Minari plays as another perspective on the American Dream. It’s an immigrant story insulated by the family unit. You have a melding of cultures born across a smattering of languages and cultural references from Mountain Dew to the resilient minari plant. I can’t think of anything more resolutely American. Any conflict comes from within and there are real decisions to be made, whether it’s in service of a father’s compulsion to provide for his family or a mother’s commitment to stay together at all costs. Steven Yeun and Han Ye-ri are wonderful, but it’s just as much a story about their children or about the spirited grandma who comes to live with them.
These are living, breathing folks inspired by Isaac Lee Chung’s own experience and colored with the deep affections of personal filmmaking. There’s a tranquility about the film that feels like some sort of balm for the world we live in — if not this entire year — because hardship besets them as it does us. It’s taxing and dire. This is all but inevitable. This is life. Our only true sustenance comes from bringing family together, holding onto our loved ones, and praying for God’s daily mercies as we push forward. Though our experiences all differ, they converge at this one vital crossroad of understanding. Notice there is no “ending” to Minari. The fact that this lowly water wort flourishes, only after hardship, provides a symbolic glint of hope.
There’s a reassuring shorthand that comes with Willie Nelson’s “On The Road Again” familiar to anyone who has ever trekked across America or been on a road trip. Chloe Zhao’s film is cinema, travelogue, and National Geographic all rolled into one with spectacular images of both intimate and indescribable beauty. Because they are snapshots of life imbued with a resolute empathy. What an incomparable and honest treasure Frances McDormand remains fully humanizing this itinerant lifestyle. There’s a striking a cadence between Fern and the flora and fauna of the world around her. It joins the lineage of meditative, hypnotic moviemaking that’s come before it — films collaborating with nature — and thus blending God’s green earth and the human experience. By the end, we come to realize how unified they really are.
Draped in folklore and armed with long-held political division, Tomm Moore’s latest with Ross Stewart is as visually resplendent and verdant as ever with its golden hues of green. The fact that the local city is the picture of Cromwellian drudgery and repression only puts the adjoining forest in sharp relief. The populous is made to fear it and the wolves that live there, but it’s also a space of unimaginable magic.
Myth is effectively brought down to its most relatable and intimate. It becomes a war between worlds and ideologies made tangible through the trials of an intrepid girl and her hunter father. There’s a debilitating fear in the face of the powers that be and religious faith is militarized. Life is man vs. wolf. And yet in the face of this unyielding landscape, something extraordinary is born. Fairy tales become fact. Resurrection is real. Grief is ultimately supplanted by newfound joy.
Sound of Metal
Riz Ahmed proves himself to be thoroughly committed to his role as a drummer who is impacted by a sudden loss of hearing. The premise is immediately intriguing, but he busts the story wide open as it becomes far more than a handy idea. We get so much in the realm of performance and sound, existential weight, and deep wells of human empathy. Olivia Cooke is in a symbiotic relationship with him — his fellow bandmate and lover — and as the movie evolves what a revelatory thing it is to see them both change. He finds a community that he can grow into even as he comes to terms with his hearing and the distant hope of regaining his senses through the latest technology.
She also has facets of her character and background that we only understand when they reconvene overseas. But we also witness how lives can go in different directions, and that’s not always a bad thing — it can somehow be cathartic even in the waves of ambiguity. The same might be said of silence in the face of noise. That stillness can be the Kingdom of God for some people. It’s not a deficiency or a tragedy, but an entirely new beginning. Sound of Metal also featured one of my favorite extended cameos of the year.
Small Axe: Mangrove
I’ve seen In the Name of the Father and I’ve seen Notting Hill, but what Mangrove gives us is a powerful portrait showcasing another facet of this world. That is the rich Trinidadian culture that holds its rightful place in the ecosystem of mid-century London. Steve McQueen’s film makes it more about the world than the words spoken. We have the privilege of existing in a neighborhood, frequenting a local establishment fraught with all sorts of opposition.
Mangrove is a validation that big historical events are not the only way to galvanize — though the movie does evolve into a stunning courtroom drama. Still, this only reaps fruit when the grassroots ambitions of everyday people standing up for what they see as justice, join together as one. Self-representation is a powerful thing indeed and there’s something extraordinary about McQueen bringing to life a world that is so near and dear to his own heart.
Small Axe: Lovers Rock
It feels like such an unassuming picture. We’re accustomed to blockbusters or Oscar hopefuls with often gluttonous runtimes. Lovers Rock is nothing like that. It’s lithe and exuberant in all the best ways, identifying this universal sense of burgeoning romance. And yet it plays as such a full-bodied, deeply engaged, and present evocation of a specific moment. This specificity is key, supplying its vital life-blood and culture while allowing it to be a fitting ode to a bygone era.
However, director SteveMcQueen also allows time to flow at its own pace, capturing the vibes in a room alive with black joy and a myriad of a cappella voices. It’s so easy to get lost in it as if we are in that very room experiencing the tremors and pulses making their way across the dance floor. Far from being a mere jukebox movie, it has a kind of real-world substance about it that feels genuinely pure and honest. For the uninitiated, it’s a pleasant surprise and no doubt worthy of future viewings.
Kitty Green’s film shies away from sensationalized drama and settles into a far more harrowing and morose sense of powerlessness. I’ve had the ability to stay well outside the film industry so it’s never been able to fully envelop me. But here there is no place to hide. We imbibe the weight of depression and helplessness piled on Julia Garner. One particularly excruciating scene with an HR rep turns painfully cruel. However, this is not only a film about sexual harassment — although this is a crucial piece — it’s indicative of a toxic culture and mindset from the top down.
Still, in showing her plight and the network of similarly situated co-conspirators, it doesn’t so much provide them greater agency as it shifts the story away from the bosses. It also provides some much-needed empathy. In the quiet rhythms of an oppressive job, undertaken by aspirational people who feel like they’re trapped and their dreams have turned into a nightmare, suddenly we’re there with them. It’s a powerful film just as it is pressing. It speaks into our cultural moment not with a blaring megaphone, but a whisper we would do well to heed.
This Romanian documentary exposé lays out the groundwork for the story ahead of us so there is no initial confusion. That comes later when we are enveloped in a harrowing world that feels akin to the “follow the money” moments in All The President’s Men and even takes cues from the dirty black marketeering immortalized by Orson Welles’ charismatic cad Harry Lime in The Third Man.
Here everything is current and fresh happening in front of us. First, a horrible fire and then incompetence throughout the national health system that leads to greater human tragedy. The aftermath brings out shockwaves of negligence within the government and more sinister intentions with national implications. It’s worthy of righteous anger from us all, but what’s greater and more profound is this pursuit of veracity in the face of deception. Transparency and truth are still powerful instruments for good.
The movie begins with the kind of opening shot that makes you hold your breath. Long takes can be boring, but they can also imbue scenes with such a greater understanding. Farewell Amor is about a family living in the transitory state as immigrants reunited after many years apart. It becomes increasingly apparent that they must now cross another great divide. It’s no longer geographical but beholden to cultural differences and lost time. A husband and wife hardly know one another. Religious faith does not hold the same import in their lifestyles.
Meanwhile, a daughter must acclimate to a father who she has not seen since her youth. Through its Rashomon structure, we are privy to three empathetic points of view, and it makes for a powerful experience. How lives can be outwardly connected — sharing the same space — and somehow disengaged and aloof. You have three people living in their own worlds, coming to terms with what it means to be a family again. There’s such care and sensitivity, when it falls apart it galls me. There’s not so much a Pollyanna happy ending to the movie. Rather it’s a vow to abide and share each other’s burdens. After all, that’s what families are meant to do.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
The film title remains effectively obscured until a pivotal scene where the submerged depths of the iceberg are unearthed and human frailty is made fully known to us. But until that point, the movie is defined by this overarching bleakness — a high schooler’s slice of life — inundated with the numbing rhythms of work and school. Sidney Flanigan brings so much to the young woman even as she bends away from us. A pilgrimage to New York with her cousin to take care of an unwanted pregnancy makes us come face to face with her innate wounds.
Suddenly the movie unravels and becomes one of the most emotive empathy machines of the year. It breaks your heart. It’s so vulnerable. But the bottom line, the song she sings, is “Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying.” The very same issues at the core of this film are full of emotional baggage in both religious and social spheres, but here they are allowed to be fully human, and I won’t say anything more for the time being. Broken people deserve dignity. This film looks to extend them this basic courtesy even as we can still grieve the outcomes.
Set in the context of post-WWII Russia, more so than almost any other country, you feel like these people know what hardship and tragedy engenders. There’s a matter-of-fact immediacy to everything that happens to these people — two young women who fought in the antiaircraft during the war and now serve the wounded as nurses. Of course, they have their own wounds both physical and emotional. Written on the page, moments of grief, pain, and blackmail feel like high drama, and yet here they are distilled into something both mundane and vulnerable. What a beautiful cast of characters they are and by this I mean in a way antithetical to conventional Hollywood glamor.
They feel real and honest with bodies and features that take on almost classical dimensions. Eyes say so much as do silence or an uninhibited, frenzied twirl in a dress. Against the rigidness and the jadedness of the world, there are these tiny acts of rebellion and by that I mean humanity. What does it mean to try to condone their behavior? Far more than that, it starts with beginning to understand even an iota of what they have experienced.
One Night in Miami…
There are four men at the center of Kemp Howard’s reimagination of a fateful meeting: Malcolm X, Muhammid Ali, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown. It’s sobering to acknowledge that only one of them is still living and only two lived into old age. It’s talky and stagy, for good reason, but it’s also a film about those core issues at the very fabric of America’s tumultuous heart. There’s a moment late in the movie where Leslie Odom Jr. as Cooke sings “A Change is Gonna Come.” It signals a change in Cooke’s ambitions as an artist — more in the vein of a Bob Dylan perhaps — but I wasn’t thinking of that. I was nearly moved to tears. It’s moments like these I turn out to movies for — to be moved in unexplainable ways — but what is this emotion if it doesn’t lead to a visible change in my own life?
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Denzel Washington has shouldered a sacred mission to introduce the works of August Wilson to the uninitiated such as myself. What Ma Rainey has to offer has much to do with performance and a dialogue with heady topics, nevertheless carried out in a kind of cajoling, free-flowing style brimming with life, laughs, and animosity. It’s a film born on the stage and as such, it utilizes a limited, intimate space to navigate the cultural climate of the Jazz Age for black folks in particular. Conversations of cultural clout, the arts and ambitions of blacks in a white man’s world remain pertinent to this day.
While Viola Davis feels like the obvious standout as the eponymous, irascible, unfathomable Ma Rainey, it’s equally easy to be entranced by Chadwick Boseman. His spiritual anguish is probably one of the most affecting and terrifying cinematic experiences of this year. Oftentimes we are quick to heap praise or christen a posthumous performance a triumph, and yet in Boseman’s case, it feels true. He tears through his role with relish, alive with an irrepressible vitality and plagued with the kind of demons that make the film burn with a fire far greater than its simple premise. It’s the kind of characterization that sears into your mind’s eye, not soon to be forgotten. The same might be said of him.
News of the World
Paul Greengrass hardly feels like a director of westerns, but here he helms one that takes the grand, blustering landscapes of the West and somehow makes them feel slight and less consequential. Try as I might, this is meant to be a compliment. Because at its center is Tom Hanks and a perfect riding companion Helena Zengel. Although, as the modern generation’s Jimmy Stewart, I would love to see Hanks dip into his vengeful side out on the range, his steady candor provides a disarming uprightness.
He need not revise the West just as he doesn’t rewrite his persona. Aside from his trade, he’s no Herculean gunslinger, and there are few grandiose moments, but the bits of characterization give us something to be relished for their universal humanity. Sometimes all you need is an actor set against a cinematic panorama and being rapt up in the moment is enough. It’s not quite John Ford and hardly Anthony Mann and yet it’s still a distinct pleasure to have a western again.
On The Rocks
What a light and marvelous film this is because it’s not trying to be anything more. It’s about the mid-life malaise, it’s about a wife’s (Rashida Jones) suspicions of her ambitious husband (Marlon Wayans), and fathers and daughters, but it never aims for anything sordid. The streets of New York feel out of reach to me, but they are magical, and Coppola looks to be in love with the world as she is with Bill Murray. He has that same winking charm, older now (aren’t we all); always incorrigible, but real and honest. When he and Jones whistle “Laura’s Theme” in the back of a limo, I knew I was invested in the ride. It’s not Lost in Translation, and I’m thankful for that.
Recommend: Driveways, I Used to Go Here, The Personal History of David Copperfield, I’m Your Woman, Boys State, Athlete A, Apocalypse ’45,