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What did movies matter in 2020? What did anything? I don’t intend those questions in the nihilistic sense of “lol nothing matters.” I pose them open-endedly in the last weeks of a year that put such once foundational concepts as mattering, let alone movies, into question. All the things we lost in the coronavirus pandemic in 2020—our gathering places, our public institutions, our jobs, our sense of a daily shared reality, and for far too many Americans, our loved ones’ lives—put the things we were still able to do into sharper relief. And one of the best things you can still do when holed up at home, as long as you have a home and some means of wiring yourself into the ambient digital matrix we all now exist in, is watch movies.
Without theaters, the cinematic year (like the year year) felt amorphous and hazy. What constituted a “hit” or a “flop” in 2020? Which movies were the virtual-festival darlings, the hyped-up disappointments, or the word-of-mouth successes? Because almost all of our viewing happened in private, and because the big streaming platforms guard their data like Smaug his hoard, it was hard to determine which movies people were talking about or ignoring, hard to choose what to watch, and more and more as this year of entertainment-conglomerate mergers wore on, hard to figure out where to stream it. Watercooler conversation can’t very well drive box office receipts when the only watercooler in sight is your own kitchen sink and the only box office is … Home Box Office. But though there were far fewer opportunities to talk about a movie on the way out of the theater—surely among life’s peak everyday experiences—there were more chances than usual to fall down weird indie rabbit holes and nurture new cinematic crushes.
A methodological note on this year’s list: I have been loose on the parameters as to what constitutes a “2020 movie.” Some of the below titles showed at festivals in 2019, were meant to open theatrically this year, and wound up going straight to streaming instead. Others were released in both formats at different times during the year, and at least one never ended up opening at all but remains on the list as a harbinger of good films to come. This is a record of the movie year as I experienced it: fragmentary, catch-as-catch-can, often out of sync with “the conversation” yet somehow astonishingly timely. No movie on this list could have been conceived after the pandemic shut down film production, yet many if not most of them seem somehow to respond to our current historical moment of cabin fever and barely contained mass rage. If I had to find a thread running through the movies that follow (though imposing thematic coherence on any list this diffuse is a fool’s game), it would have something to do with captivity and freedom. The characters in these films are often escaping, hiding out, lying in wait, fetching the bolt cutters to find their way out of whatever traumatic past has trapped them. While you wait for your own shot at freedom (in the form, it now seems, of that first vaccine injection), here are some great movies to get you through the next few months. In alphabetical order:
Kitty Green’s unassuming but keenly observed first narrative feature follows one terrible workday in the life of an intern of a never-seen movie producer who’s clearly a serial sexual abuser in the Harvey Weinstein mold. Ozark’s Julia Garner is on screen, often alone, for virtually every second of the movie. Her miserably treated character is the only moral center in this austere movie’s cold and self-dealing universe, and she could easily have gone for Cinderella-style sympathy from the audience (if instead of sweeping ashes from the hearth, Cinderella stapled scripts and fielded calls from anxious wives). But Garner rejects the temptation to coast as a suffering ingenue. In a quietly bravura performance that’s dialogue-free for long stretches, she fills in a whole tragic back story just by the way she listens. (Listen to the Culture Gabfest review The Assistant.)
Streaming on Hulu
From its opening image—Brazil seen from space, the fires in the Amazon clearly visible, as a classic Caetano Veloso song plays on the soundtrack—Kleber Mendonça Filho’s genre-splicing thriller has an air of unsettling mystery. The title is the name of a remote village in the country’s hardscrabble northeast, where, for reasons never fully explained, an international team of white supremacist assassins led by the always-chilling Udo Kier descends to wreak brutal and possibly supernatural mayhem. Densely plotted and packed with vivid actors including the legendary Sônia Braga, this ambitious if sometimes inscrutable film takes place in the near future, “a few years from now.” But its merciless vision of global politics as a zero-sum class and race struggle, and its almost comedically grisly final action sequence, feels very much of the present.
Kantemir Balagov’s second feature, about a young woman working as a military nurse in post–World War II Leningrad, is filmed in a palette of impossibly rich greens, reds, and golds—every frame glows with the intensity of a stained-glass window or an illuminated manuscript. That
lush pictorial beauty offsets the extreme bleakness of the story, as the lanky “beanpole” of the title (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) contends with the psychic fallout from her service in the war. In increasingly self-destructive ways, she seeks to expiate her bottomless guilt for what she perceives as a terrible wrong done to a friend, but which the audience, with more compassion for the characters than they can summon for themselves, understands as a wrong done to Beanpole herself by the implacable cruelty of history.
In the fall of 2015, a fire broke out at a packed nightclub in Bucharest, Romania, resulting in the death of 64 people and the permanent disfigurement of more than 100 more. In the years that followed, public outrage over the incident—the club had no functioning fire exits—caused a government to fall and a new activist movement to arise. Alexander Nanau’s intricate, suspenseful documentary tracks the journalistic effort to expose the complex knot of corruption, deception, and negligence that enabled both the disaster itself and the failure of the health care system to do right by the victims after. This is one of the most heartbreaking films I watched in a year already drowning in heartbreak, but also one of the most necessary at a time when the fourth estate is often the last line of defense against a global capitalist system that seems designed to be quite literally homicidal.
Da 5 Bloods
In retrospect, Chadwick Boseman’s sudden, tragic, and, for everyone but those in his most intimate circle, completely unexpected death of colon cancer in August makes this Spike Lee joint about a group of Black veterans returning to Vietnam all the more moving and urgent. But Da 5 Bloods would have been one of the best movies of the year anyway. Boseman’s role is small but pivotal: His climactic encounter with the older vet played superbly by Delroy Lindo is a scene of transformation and healing that fully justifies the rush of cathartic tears it brings. In addition to being insightful about Vietnam War trauma and the complications of modern Black masculinity, Da 5 Bloods is a rollicking buddies-on-the-road comedy, full of earthy humor and jovial trash talk. The early scene when the four old soldiers, tropical drinks in hand, boogie their way to their table at a real-life Ho Chi Minh City disco called Apocalypse Now is one of the year’s great depictions of an experience so many of us missed over the course of this homebound year: goofing off on the dance floor with friends. (Read the review.)
Da 5 Bloods
Streaming on Netflix
Kelly Reichardt’s seventh feature, a stripped-down Western about the tender friendship between two lonely men in a Pacific Northwest pioneer town in 1820, was the last film I saw in a theater in 2020, at an early March press preview surrounded by colleagues, some of them longtime friends. That whole night had an unusually celebratory feeling; First Cow had blown away everyone I spoke to about it, but the feeling it left in its wake was a quiet, subdued kind of dazzlement, the sneaking suspicion that, early in the release calendar though it still was, we had probably just watched one of the most original and accomplished movies we’d see all year. Afterward, in the lobby, there was a little reception with a waiter serving “oily cakes,” the sweet fried-dough pastry that figures crucially in the movie’s plot. Munching them, it was easy to see how this confection, a rare delicacy in the movie’s hardscrabble setting, could have caused the high-stakes competition for scarce resources that the movie chronicles. But though First Cow is all about finding a way to survive in an environment of scarcity, this contemplative, compassionate drama is a miracle of filmmaking abundance, with incandescent performances from John Magaro and Orion Lee and the curiously calming presence of Eve, the prettiest on-screen bovine since Buster Keaton fell in love with a heifer in the 1925 silent Go West. (Listen to the Culture Gabfest review First Cow.)
Let Them All Talk
As I was finalizing this list, it occurred to me that one of the most crucial functions of movie viewing, especially in a year like this (has there ever been a year like this? Maybe 1918?), was sadly underrepresented. Sometimes all you need is some stylish escapism, a low-stakes hangout film where likable characters pursue sparkling or snarky conversations over flutes of Champagne in rooms with flattering lighting. To the rescue just in time came Steven Soderbergh’s latest comedy, about an egocentric novelist (Meryl Streep) who invites two long-estranged friends (Candice Bergen and Dianne Wiest) and her devoted nephew (Lucas Hedges) on a trans-Atlantic cruise to collect a literary prize in Europe. At first the generically titled Let Them All Talk seemed like it was going to be a Nancy Meyers–style rom-com about frisky codgers on a boat—not that there would be anything remotely wrong with that. But by 20 minutes in, it was clear this was pure Soderbergh, a multicharacter caper film in the mode of his Ocean’s movies, Out of Sight, or Magic Mike. The difference: Instead of winning a striptease competition or robbing a high-security bank, this crew of oddballs—three strong-willed middle-aged women, an awkward young man, and the various colorful characters they cross paths with on the ship—is simply seeking to come to terms with the undone work of their own lives: the longtime friendships in need of repair, the romantic connections not yet made, the books left to write. (Read the review.)
Let Them All Talk
Streaming on Hulu with HBO Max subscription
Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical film follows a Korean immigrant family in the 1980s as they attempt to turn a recalcitrant piece of land in rural Arkansas into a working vegetable farm. The story is seen mainly through the eyes of 7-year-old David, played with movie-stealing aplomb by the tiny but utterly self-possessed first-time actor Alan S. Kim. (His petulant delivery of “I’m not pretty! I’m good-looking!” may be my single favorite line reading of the year.) But Steven Yeun, in a marvelously understated performance as his stubborn but fiercely devoted father, gives the kid a run for his money. Minari is a drama about immigrants that doesn’t try to make grand statements about the immigrant experience in America. Rather, it tells the specific story of one family, dysfunctional and troubled in its own particular way, but held together by a powerful bond of love. (Read the review.)
Jessica Bruder’s 2017 book on retirement-age migrant workers living out of their RVs provided the source material for this lyrical portrait of a widow (Frances McDormand) who takes to the road after a mine closure eliminates the small company town she’s lived in her whole life. I don’t know how to add to what I already wrote in my review, and what so many others have said: Nomadland is a miracle of a movie that somehow transmutes painful experiences like homelessness, loneliness, and systemic exploitation by a pitiless labor market into a poetic meditation on freedom, friendship, and the passage of time. (Read the review.)
This is the only movie on the list that hasn’t yet been released at all. I saw it in late February, the week before the coronavirus started to shut down in-person press screenings, and my lovestruck review of it is still waiting in the can to published, although the headline—calling it “The First Great Horror Film of 2020”—will have to change by a digit. But I leave it on the list in anticipation of great films to come. The English director Rose Glass, making her debut feature, serves up a gory brew of body horror and spiritual cinema in the tradition of Robert Bresson. Jennifer Ehle and Morfydd Clark are spellbinding as a terminally ill choreographer and her fanatically religious young caregiver. Are the ecstatic visions that ravish Maud in her sordid bedsit the work of the divine, the demonic, or her own mental and emotional instability? It’s the rare movie that delves this deeply into the experience of personal faith and (Lord, that final shot!) scares your pants off to boot.
Plus five runners-up:
Dick Johnson Is Dead
Read more of Slate’s coverage of the best of 2020.