Best and Worst 2020
One advantage of home viewing is that smaller films may receive more attention as the line between theatrical release and home viewing becomes increasingly blurred. This year, in addition to films, there were many limited series worthy of attention. I have also included a list with eight of the best.
.1. I’m Thinking of Ending Things: Charlie Kaufman’s latest film begins as an edgy romantic comedy as Jake (Jesse Plemons) drives his unnamed girlfriend (Jesse Buckley) to meet his parents (Toni Collette & David Thewlis) on the family farm. The visit grows increasingly strange and the story turns into a kind of thriller, then a ballet, finishing up via a high school musical. The last episode may (or may not) be a clue to Jake’s melancholy. Given all of the narrative’s time slippages, literary quotes, and bouts of odd poetry, any interpretation is up for grabs. The proceedings are buoyed by Jay Wadley’s marvelous score and brilliant performances, particularly by Buckley, who manages to maintain her equilibrium despite all the surreal goings-on. (Arts Fuse reviews by Isaac Feldberg and Peg Aloi)
2. First Cow: Kelly Reichardt’s evocative historical comic folktale riffs on the American entrepreneurial spirit, fate, and the fleeting nature of existence. In 1820, settlers of the Pacific Northwest hope to build a tolerable life in a wilderness that threatens as often as it solaces. With a gentle sense of humor, the film seesaws between hope and struggle, with plenty of intimations of mortality. Arts Fuse review
3. Nomadland: The Boston Film Critics awarded Best Film, Director, and Cinematography for this story of Fern (Francis McDormand) who, having lost her husband and job during the recession, becomes, by her own choice, a nomad. She lives and travels (in a trailer) around the American West to escape the suffocating confines of traditional society. Director Chloé Zhao (Songs My Brothers Taught Me, The Rider) writes and edits her own films; she immerses herself in the communities she represents.
4. The Assistant: Kitty Green (Casting JonBenet) focuses on a day-in-the-life of Jane, secretary to a film producer reminiscent of Harvey Weinstein. Eschewing melodrama, the film examines the film production world through Jane’s eyes and ears. We are encouraged to imagine the toll that this debilitating environment takes on her psyche. Julia Garner (Ozark) is riveting in the lead role. Art Fuse review and interview)
.5. Emma: Autumn de Wilde’s photography creates imaginary worlds and painterly landscapes. So it is no surprise that her first film is a playful interpretation of the Jane Austen novel, a colorful narrative filled with stolen glances and sumptuous interiors crammed to the brim with beautiful tapestries and extravagant portrait paintings. (Arts Fuse interview with de Wilde and star Anya Taylor-Joy)
6. Never Rarely Sometimes Always: First-time actress Sidney Flanigan won the Boston Critics Best Actress award for her performance as a young woman who travels with her cousin to New York City for an abortion. Director Eliza Hittman (It Felt Like Love) knows how to use spare dialogue, a lean story line, and naturalistic performances to maximum dramatic effect.
7. The King of Staten Island: Saturday Night Live’s Pete Davidson’s semi-autobiographical comedy caught me by surprise. Director Judd Apatow finds a balance between cringe and guffaw with the help of deft comic performances by Bel Powley and Marisa Tomei. Co-written by Apatow and Davidson.
8. Sorry We Missed You: This is the latest slice of working class life from one of the masters of British social-realism, Ken Loach. Kris Hitchen is heartbreaking as a delivery worker in the gig economy. Affronts to his pride, small defeats, and roiling family conflicts are put on raw display. Despite the grim outlook, the fine ensemble of actors delivers a message about survival, forgiveness, and perseverance that is ultimately uplifting.
9. Sound of Metal: Riz Ahmed plays a heavy metal drummer whose career is disrupted when he suffers sudden deafness. He is accepted at a deaf community for recovering addicts, but he is unable to completely abandon his musical ambitions. His mentor, played by Paul Raci, was named Best Supporting actor by the Boston film critics. Arts Fuse review
10. Minari: This film is set in the ’80s and revolves around a Korean family struggling to start a farm in Arkansas. The narrative is based on the experiences of director Lee Isaac Chung — he calls it a Willa Cather story with an Asian sensibility. By focusing on engaging characters rather than natural disasters or social discrimination he creates a quiet and inspiring masterpiece about the perseverance of the American Dream.
Honorable Mention: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Arts Fuse review), Ham on Rye, St. Francis, Babyteeth, Mank, The Father
A scene from The Painted Bird.1. The Painted Bird (Czech) (Arts Fuse review)
2. The Traitor (Italy) (Arts Fuse review)
3. Bacurau (Brazil)
4. The Life Ahead (Italy)
5. Another Round (Denmark) (Arts Fuse review)
6. Buoyancy (Australia/Cambodia)
7. La Llorona (Guatemala) (Arts Fuse review)
8. The Fever (Brazil)
9. New Order (Mexico)
10. To the Ends of the Earth (Japan)
1. Truffle Hunters
2. Coup 53
3. Painter and the Thief
4. Dick Johnson Is Dead
5. My Octopus Teacher
6. Our Time Machine
7. Crock of Gold
8. Crip Camp