This was not a year that would make anybody’s Top 10. But that made drawing up a movie Top 10 fascinating.
Obviously the lockdown, while necessary, has been horrible for filmmakers, devastating for theater owners, and depressing for anyone who loves going to the movies. And yet, for someone who simply loves the movies themselves, there has been a silver lining.
Yes, we’ve lost that marvelous, communal experience of sitting in a cinema. But what has also vanished are dozens of comic-book sequels and special-effects blockbusters soaking up all the oxygen. And we haven’t seen much of those big, pretentious studio dramas that elbow their way into the public conversation and dominate awards discussions.
With them gone, there has been more room for international films. Offbeat documentaries. Movies made by, and about, the often overlooked.
It may have been a terrible year for the Business, but I think it’s been a great year for the Art.
I can’t wait to go back to seeing films the way they’re meant to be seen: in a crowd, in the dark, projected on a silver screen. But in the meantime, here are 10 terrific films from 2020 (and another dozen pretty good ones) that are either currently streaming or opening soon. (Go to justwatch.com to search for online sources.)
“Nomadland.” A story of the perpetual American underclass, told without tears or self-pity by director Chloé Zhao, with star Frances McDormand sensational as a hard-bitten senior with nothing but a beat-up van and a determination to survive. My favorite film this year.
“The Father.” Florian Zeller’s first film (an adaptation of his own play) is a startling bit of drama that explores the story of one man’s descent into dementia by stranding us in his confused mind. Anthony Hopkins is simply heartbreaking in a career-best performance.
“Never Rarely Sometimes Always.” A quiet, minimalist — but no less moving — drama as two teenagers make the scary trek from rural Pennsylvania to bustling Manhattan. The quest? An abortion. Director Eliza Hittman is one to watch.
“Sorry We Missed You.” When it comes to sad stories of the disappointments of the working class, Ken Loach never disappoints. But this, his latest, is particularly acute as it grimly details one British family’s entry into — and destruction by — the gig economy.
“First Cow.” A small and genuinely unique film in which a story set in 1820 Oregon slowly deepens to include reflections on everything from plucky entrepreneurship to forbidden affections. Another moving miniature from director Kelly Reichardt.
“Welcome to Chechnya.” There is a queer holocaust happening in Eastern Europe, with LGBQT people being arrested, tortured, killed. And documentarian David France has captured it in a film that’s a brave and astonishing tribute to those who not only survive, but fight back.
“Martin Eden.” An artful adaptation that moves Jack London’s radical novel to Italy, then gives it the classic cinematic sweep of politically engaged filmmakers such as Bertolucci and De Sica. The result, thanks to director Pietro Marcello, is both nostalgic and new.
“Mank.” As history, it’s a bit dodgy. But as drama — and an illustration of what movies can do — this David Fincher film about the writing of “Citizen Kane” is top-notch. Lovingly made, and brilliantly acted by Gary Oldman as the self-loathing screenwriter.
“On the Rocks.” A comic change of pace from Sofia Coppola, with Rashida Jones as a troubled 30-something Manhattanite and Bill Murray as her endearing, exasperating father. An unexpected salute to an old, eccentric and vanishing New York.
“Da Five Bloods.” Like all of Spike Lee’s films, at times this is too much — too much history, too much style, too much in-your-face gore. But in a year that, when it came to rage, too much was often just enough, this Vietnam-set drama delivered.
That’s my honor roll, although it should be said that Top 10 lists are as unchanging as snapshots taken from the window of a moving car. Ask me on a different day and one or two titles might be replaced by other contenders.
The 12 runners-up? Well, consider these six great double-features:
If you like the fantastic, the Guatemalan “La Llorona” starts like a horror film and turns into a meditation on political violence and unending guilt, while the Brazilian “Bacurau” provides a magical-realist examination of colonialism and culture.
For those who like their fictional dramas rooted in reality, “Mangrove” is a passionate, based-on-fact primer on the Black struggle in Great Britain; “The Assistant” takes a cold, clear look at modern workplace harassment and its enablers.
Marginalized communities move center stage in “Ammonite,” in which Saoirse Ronan and Kate Winslet find love in 1840s England, and in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” as Black blues musicians fight for respect in 1920s America.
Meanwhile, documentary fans will want to check out “Collective,” a sharp look at political scandal and healthcare corruption in Romania, and “The Painter and the Thief,” a fascinating study of a unique relationship and the healing it led to.
Also based in fact, but adding a dark sense of humor, is the high school-set “Bad Education,” while even funnier is “Yes, God, Yes,” as a religious teen confronts hypocrisy and horniness.
And finally, as proof that star power is alive and well, check out the upcoming “News of the World,” with Tom Hanks as an itinerant performer tasked with safely escorting a young orphan across the Wild West, and “Promising Young Woman,” with Carey Mulligan as a fatally sexy, methodically murderous avenger. (And one bright note: These two are planning to open in actual theaters this month.)
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