- James Kunovski
Best Films of 2020
Like a lot of things, 2020 had it in for cinema, shutting theatres, halting production and postponing headline titles but for a considerably altered year, the films that did enjoy a release remained considerably solid. Their characters include a prime minister on the brink of potential, a playwright-turned rapper, a diamond dealer and a promising young woman. They cover themes of revenge, resilience, and deep humanity, enshrining a collective excellence that keeps bringing us back to the movies. The following are my ranked top ten standout (fiction) features from 2020.
10. Bad Education
There’s a moment in HBO’s staple film of the year where superintendent Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) and one of the office assistants, Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney) are discussing an evening book club over beef pastrami — on rye, we have to presume. We’re in Long Island after all, where the price of homes (mansions) works in tandem with the prestige of district schools. On the women who attend the book club, Gluckin asserts, “Each one of those women talks to two dozen more.” Even if the viewer is only slightly aware of the true story and “New York” magazine article from which the film is based, we know that whatever these guys have been up to, those misdeeds are going to spread like wildfire. Those misdeeds occurred in 2002, when Tassone and Gluckin, among others, embezzled up to $11 million in district finances from Roslyn High School. That school places fourth in the district and it is Frank’s mission to reach number one, no matter the cost. Jackman is chameleonic in one of his finest turns, playing Frank as status-driven, a bit materialistic, but also accomodating and sensitive. At times he seems preppy, almost as if the books on his office shelf dictate his personality but also quite hip; he drinks flax seed smoothies. At its core, Cory Finley’s film is an exploration of journalism’s reach, institutional misuse of power and the pressure and corruption within the public system. Pretty serious stuff if it weren’t for Finley's side dish of offbeat creative nudges. These themes of social and fiduciary embezzlement have never really gone away and maybe that’s what makes the film resonate. Or maybe it’s the reinvention of familiar faces or its saviour status for the increasingly confused television movie. Either way, like the purloining temptation that caught the attention of our leads, Bad Education's elevated approach to a popular genre is just too good to pass by.
9. First Cow
Less a tale about the unlikely relationship between two nomadic pioneers in 1820s America than a study of the constraints of money, the fringes of society and a forthright dismantling of western and frontier banalities, Kelly Reichardt's First Cow emerges as a definitive indie. We follow soft-spoken Cookie (John Magaro), a chef in the densely forested and unassuming landscape, who befriends King Lu (Orion Lee), an on-the-run fugitive with reclusive and quiet intelligence. Driven by the pursuit for money, they bake and sell “oily cakes” from the stolen milk of the much wealthier Chief Factor (Toby Jones). Their bond and its development do not reflect the conventional push-pull momentum of buddy-flick fanfare and because the melodrama is stripped away, Magaro and Lee’s pitch-perfect portrayal rings much truer to life. Perhaps it has become a cliché of the arthouse genre to frame your characters in a boxed ratio, but through that technicality, Christopher Blauvelt’s phantasmic cinematography is a window into the still surroundings that fill the space between trees and sporadic cabins in this land. Pursue First Cow a little further and the story implicates darker substance but amongst the bookends of this friendship, which an opening quote by William Blake underlines as vital to the human condition, lies a snapshot of human forces against a new society on the verge of swelling capitalism.
8. The Forty-Year-Old Version
New York City once again finds itself a beacon for independent film in Radha Blank’s brilliant and heartfelt debut. A multi-hyphenate talent, Blank, who stars, directs, writes and produced the Sundance-winning Forty-Year-Old Version, takes aim at rendering her own life via a new creative stepping stone — rapping. Feeling like her playwriting career has stalled even if she’s been graced (cursed) with a “most promising 30 under 30” award, she finds herself more drawn into hip-hop; eccentric avenues often spurring inspiration, and reinvents herself as RadhaMUSprime. This plays out by re-imagining the prolific “coming-of-age” tropes we’ve come to expect. Call it a “coming-of-middle-age” if you will. Many viewers will speedily spot inspiration from ‘90s indies, the work of Kathleen Collins & Spike Lee, and films like Manhattan, Frances Ha and She’s Gotta Have It but Blank cultivates a film that stands aware of its precursors but resolutely on its own. The Forty-Year-Old Version is a superb and refreshing debut. While balancing a minute exploration of resolution and rediscovery, ideas feel both urgent and relaxed; sure of themselves even when they seem ambiguous. Though Blank’s film has only emerged now, it hardly feels that she’s just joined the party, rather that we have taken a while to notice her.
Pixar’s Soul is the blissful product of a studio finessing its craft to near-perfection and one that lets its thematic maturity grow with its audience. Caught in that burgeoning talent are the eyes of Pete Docter, who manages to create classic after classic, the animation team who have moulded an advanced and refined sense of their own style, and composers Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross who have proven themselves as aficionados capable of more than spells of industrial-electro-rock. At its heart, we follow aspiring jazz musician and middle school teacher Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) who lands a dream gig on the same day his teaching career stabilises. After falling into a manhole, he finds himself, as his soul, in an abstract land between Earth and the Universe that bodes plenty of answers to life’s predicament. There he meets 22 (Tina Fey), an undefined soul waiting for her purpose, and the two embark on a mission vitalised by spirit and passion in Pixar’s most existential film since Inside Out. Doctor and co-director Kemp Power’s purpose (a-ha) is not as cookie-cutter as it seems and although it tackles big philosophy, the approach is never heavy-handed, instead, it offers the audience, young and grown-up, the chance to absorb epiphanies, humour and its gorgeous design. Soul had an unprecedented release, swapping theatres, where families would most likely be enjoying this at a matinee screening, with an at-home streaming release on Disney+. Watching the film in that circumstance struck closer to heart, welcomingly opening the gates to rumination and wonderment. Pixar has undoubtedly created their own archetype for success and Soul confirms that model with a lock for Animated Feature at the upcoming Oscars and a worthy addition to their memorable catalogue.
6. Another Round
Alcohol’s allure, its buzz and its pitfalls have likely never been a bigger star than in Thomas Vinterberg’s searing portrait of middle-aged men, led by Mads Mikkelsen in a tour-de-force turn, their crises and the swigs that hope to re-order lost passion. Those searing cocktails of booze, mid-life maelstroms and Scandinavian sensibility thrust Another Round away from the predictability of alcohol’s cycle into the hallmarks of beloved international cinema. Over a 40th birthday celebration, attended by four friends, all teachers at the same school, the fellows set on pursuing psychiatrist Finn Skårderud’s theory that humans are born with a blood alcohol 0.05 per cent too low, to, as expected, reinvigorate confidence in some departments. Taking a page out of Hemingway’s drinking etiquette book, and haunted by an increasingly stale life, the quartet envelope themselves in the strangest of experiments, one that quickly catches steam and is equally inhibiting and liberating. Vinterberg’s potent aim and accuracy culminate into the year’s most enigmatic, euphoric and downright beautiful ending scenes, powered by Mikkelsen’s complex joy and a sentiment that lingers long after its final freeze-frame.
5. Uncut Gems
The Safdie Brothers have managed to create a surreal and immersive twist on the thriller genre — one that not only has to be the least-romanticised portrayals of New York on celluloid but a film that overflows with palpable anxiety. Scoring lead Adam Sandler in another dramatic course, it follows dishonest jeweller and deflated authority figure Howard in the gritty “missed out on New York’s Disneyfication” Diamond District, as he juggles high-stake bets amidst the throes of a crumbling personal life. The madcap pressure of Uncut Gems begins shortly into the film, and once achieved the Brothers refuse to racket down the tension. Overlapping dialogue plagues most scenes and unsought phone calls and grating voicemails permeate through. There is an intoxicating and grungy richness in colour, similar to the neon-drenched energy of the Safdie’s earlier Good Time. Sandler is a revelation, though, for those paying attention, he always possessed this range (see: Punch-Drunk Love). Howard has a penchant for bad decisions and a predilection for trickling his precious assets around town. That condition will likely stress viewers but the experience is so merciless, that it almost becomes entertaining for that alone. It’s an overactive knee-tapper of a film and one which can be directly related to the unwavering muscle of the Safdie Brothers’ touch as creators.
4. The Twentieth Century
Stylised to the heavens and suspended by a veil of ingenuity, Matthew Rankin’s liberal take on the early political years of Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King combines giddy surrealism with heavy doses of Guy Maddin and David Lynch to champion one of the most unique and nightmarish biopics of our time. While it found success at several Canadian festivals, including at TIFF, it seems this bizarro masterpiece has taken a back seat everywhere else — sort of a shame, or is too early to start calling it an overlooked gem? Simultaneously a dazzling satire of political innuendo and rivalry, and a Monty Python cosplay, full-bodied in the awe of German Expressionism, Rankin does not employ the most subtlety — take the film grain, for instance, there’s enough to feed a continent — and his debut feature is all the more better for it. There is no compromise in Canadian character, and lead Dan Beirne’s interpretation of King is mythical and vulnerable and yet still truthfully political. Rankin has put forth a completely bonkers and sometimes disturbing vision of good-heartedness and political idealism in the face of immoral company — a feast, wrapped in a devilishly weird and hilarious experience like no other.
Chloé Zhao’s follow-up to The Rider is a profound glimpse into the life of nomads that bask in the open plains under a cool sun and a soaring achievement that carries a quiet and moving message which reverberates over that very landscape. Zhao fixates her camera on Fern (Frances McDormand) who has lost everything in the Great Recession and sets her own eyes upon the American West, living as a van-dwelling nomad. Nomadland works in tandem with its vast setting; often offering ruminative glimpses of its characters against gorgeous backdrops. Zhao does not back down on creating a poetic, albeit grounded approach, something which would make Terrence Malick jump with glee, as she seamlessly blends fiction with a candid documentarian feel. That fly-on-the-wall observation captures a myriad of memorable moments: McDormand’s empathetic visage, especially when she listens, crumbling gravel under Fern’s boots, a steady stream; the winding calmness of a canyon. It becomes a film of moments, rather than traditional storytelling, and it works so well. It all feels deeply radical and groundbreaking but resonates with such honest and restrained reflection. Now and again a film like Nomadland comes along — setting out to express a microcosm of humanity and consequently impressing a meditation of society on its viewers. The audience might take away a feeling of hope and direction but don’t discredit the guts of these people who felt the urge to leave civilisation behind and illuminate a course for their own lives, in good company, well off the beaten track. What Nomadland makes clear is that life is about the present and the process — one nomad craved a retirement gift, like a yacht; instead, she found it in the form of a van in the desert. Zhao’s film is a deeply essential, stripped-down, and moving character study that will traverse the souls of audiences, present, and future.
Lee Isaac Chung’s soulful Minari stands as a modest and charming reflection on an immigrant family’s quest to capture the “American dream,” in whatever form that may be. The Yi family, originally from South Korea, has recently moved from metropolitan California to rural Arkansas under the wish of patriarch Jacob, (Steven Yeun in a compelling and tender foray), to grow and manage their farm. Slice-of-life completely defines Minari’s sensitivity, which often rings as a deeply authentic perspective plucked from Chung’s pool of memories. Relationships take centre stage through a prism of different connections. The relocation creates a clash between Jacob and his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri); discourse in ideals and prosperity underpin their marriage. Intergenerational bonds, even if they have turbulent beginnings, are explored through son David (Alan S. Kim) and his grandmother Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung) and so are the sometimes alienating, sometimes enriching connections the parents form with the townspeople. Chung paints a portrait of immigrant livelihoods as one that is emboldened by a drive for success and purpose; by dignity and will, but Minari truly blossoms when it’s in the riches of family drama. Unexpected symbolic imagery amplifies meaning — yin/yang cards fade into Jacob and the slightly zany local Paul (Will Patton); a drawer that carries spare money injures young David. Those are always highlights, as are the wistful, intermittent montages. The cast is a force of nature, especially Kim who brings forth a realistic and effortless portrayal of a child caught between two cultures, and Youn Yuh-jung, who deserves Oscar recognition, as the film’s multifaceted comic relief. Chung’s feature moulds a sweeping and beautiful tale of the blend between home and family through the conventions of American life, but one that as the title suggests, is inexplicably linked to a truly Korean sentiment.
1. Promising Young Woman
Bubblegum pop meets revenge in Emerald Fennell’s polished feature debut about Cassandra (Carey Mulligan), a top-of-her-class med school dropout, who seeks retribution against the enablers of her friend’s college sexual assault. A genre blend with impeccable awareness, it feels like the rebirth of a genre that Hollywood has abandoned — a skin-crawling sophisticated thriller with dark humour and a whirlpool of shocking, unadulterated twists and turns. Promising Young Woman is a spiritual cousin to Killing Eve, (Fennell was a show-runner on the second season), fusing power with provocative style and a sleekly intoxicating soundtrack. At the centre of this clever, twisted play is Carey Mulligan. She is diabolically good as Cassandra, emoting at the snap of a finger and flourishing through an accomplished range. Mulligan could well receive Oscar attention, a decade following her first and only nomination for An Education, channelling support for an under-appreciated actress, always at top form, and at new heights here. Once in motion and emboldened by an incredible script and lead performance, Promising Young Woman does not rest on its laurels, driving home its precise impact scene after scene, and in the process becomes an instant dialogue creator and hype machine for its impeccable cast and crew. Though a polarising work, Fennell’s triumph already feels like a cult classic and something that reeks of midnight madness phenomena. At least in 2020, it was a pillar of accomplishment for a strange movie year and a timely, thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking masterpiece that will surely linger into the new year and beyond.