Chris Dashiell presents his favorite films released in 2020.
Among the dreadful costs of our shared global disaster, one of the least important was the shutting down of movie theaters. Count it among the many losses of “normality” required for the public good. New films were released, and we watched them at home via streaming platforms. I believe that movies are best experienced on a big screen with an audience, but that wasn’t possible for most of last year, so my list of favorites is largely taken from films I saw on a smaller screen. And fittingly, my top pick, in contrast to my usual “hit me like a freight train” kind of choice, is a modest low key work that nevertheless represents, in my view, the highest standard of excellence.
With apologies for being late, but I have an excuse.
FIRST COW (Kelly Reichardt).
Reichardt is commited to portraying people and their environments with a quiet, patient attention and persistence. Here her frequent collaborator—novelist Jon Raymond—has provided the source material and teamed up with Reichardt on the screenplay. First Cow tells the story of a young man, Otis (John Magaro), who is working as a cook for fur trappers in the Oregon Territory in 1820. Otis, nicknamed “Cookie,” meets a Chinese immigrant named King-Lu (Orion Lee), who is on the run after killing a man. Lu hides out with Cookie, and they become friends. Eventually they learn that a milk cow, the first in the region, has been transported to the area by a rich English landowner (Toby Jones). They secretly milk the cow in order to make biscuits to sell to the local trappers and settlers, and the biscuits become quite popular, since they taste so much better than the food people are used to in that wilderness region. The film becomes a drama about private property and the threat of violence that enforces it, while Reichardt stays close to the limited point of view of her struggling characters. Her precise focus stays small in order to intensify the reality, and in First Cow she transports us to a past we can’t forget—one that profoundly reflects the present.
I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS (Charlie Kaufman).
The bizarre creative vision of Charlie Kaufman emerges again in his fourth film as director. Jessie Buckley plays Lucy, a self-conscious intellectual whose inner voice questions the meaning and value of everything in her life, including her new boyfriend Jake (played by Jesse Plemons) a young man whose saturnine moodiness conceals a wide range of literary knowledge. They drive through a snowstorm to visit Jake’s parents, and throughout the story, we are confronted with questions as to whether or not what we’re seeing is real or imagined, who our point-of-view character really is, and in general, the mysteries of self and other, loneliness and relationship. Time shifts menacingly about, along with ages, attitudes and memories. The movie’s entire texture, and especially the dialogue, is surging with ridiculous paradoxes and slippery metaphors. This unbalanced sense of reality can be very funny, but it’s also scary as hell. I confess that I love puzzle films about consciousness and identity, and this one hooked me in, but also shook me. The ultimate meaning will become apparent when you think back. In the meantime, I’m Thinking of Ending Things has left your mind blown.
PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE (Céline Sciamma).
A remarkably intimate and elegant drama about a woman artist in the 18th century who is hired to surreptitiously paint the portrait of a countess’s daughter to help facilitate her marriage to a nobleman. It all takes place on a windswept island off the coast of Brittany, and the film is so beautiful and vibrant that it seems like a painting in motion. The painter and the lady, in a time when romantic relations between women were never openly acknowledged, find themselves in love, but their brief paradise is of course temporary. Consolation comes from their belief that happiness lies not in the amount of time together, but in cherished memories.
NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS (Eliza Hittman).
A 17-year-old girl named Autumn discovers that she’s pregnant, and that she can’t get an abortion in Pennsylvania without parental consent. Her cousin Skylar gets them bus fare and goes along with her to New York City. The movie shows their long and arduous ordeal, going through red tape and various setbacks in Autumn’s quest for an abortion. The film is notable for assuming an unambiguous “pro-choice” stance, instead of trying to treat it as a “both sides” issue like most films have done. The hesitancies and difficulties in expressing how the two cousins feel are moving and utterly true to life. Here’s a film that quietly allows the experiences of young women to speak for themselves.
HONEYLAND (Tamara Kotevska & Ljubomir Stefanov).
The most beautiful documentary of the year profiles Haditže Murotova, a Macedonian beekeeper who lives in a hut, cares for her bedridden mother, and practices her livelihood in a traditional, ancient manner. When a family moves in nearby and tries to imitate her, motivated only by profit, their methods threaten the wellbeing of her hives. The filmmakers spent three years on location to give us this masterful portrayal of a dying tradition.
SORRY WE MISSED YOU (Ken Loach).
Loach, 83 years old, has striven tirelessly since the 1960s, to portray the lives of working people in his dramas. This is one of his best, about a couple with two kids in northern England, trying to get by—he with a UPS-type delivery company, and she with home care clients. The stress and overwork threatens to destroy their family. The film is marvelously written (Paul Laverty) and acted. It’s real, emotionally honest, and full of courage.
HAPPY AS LAZZARO (Alice Rohrwacher).
A community of peasant families toils as sharecroppers in central Italy, sometime in the 1980s. Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiola) is one of them, a young man so innocent and trusting that he is considered simple-minded. The film’s first half contrasts the exploited with their exploiters. But in the second half, we are transported through time into a symbolic fable about the fragility of goodness.
BLOODY NOSE, EMPTY POCKETS (Bill & Turner Ross).
What to call this: a simulated documentary? The Ross brothers assembled the most interesting and voluble barflies they could find, gave each of them a story arc, then let them loose to improvise on a set that stands in for a fictional Las Vegas dive bar on its last day before closing its doors for good. The result is the most genuine depiction of life in a neighborhood bar I’ve ever seen.
SHIRLEY (Josephine Decker).
I’m convinced that Elisabeth Moss can do almost anything. Here she plays the fiercely eccentric author Shirley Jackson in 1950, living with her sinister husband (Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor in Vermont; her creative process revealed through the eyes of a young fictional couple staying with them. The film is not perfect, but Moss is mesmerizing.
MLK/FBI (Sam Pollard)
The story, as gleaned from recent Freedom of Information Act research, of how J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI tried to destroy Dr. Martin Luther King. Essential viewing for anyone who cares about civil rights history, or anyone else, for that matter.
I usually call the following “B-sides,” but truth to tell, they could all easily be put in the “A” category:
Dick Johnson is Dead (Kirsten Johnson)
The Whistlers (Corneliu Porumboiu)
The Traitor (Marco Bellocchio)
Mank (David Fincher)
Time (Garrett Bradley)
Martin Eden (Pietro Marcello)
Collective (Alexander Nanau)
Beanpole (Kantemir Balagov)
Tesla (Michael Almereyda)
The Wild Goose Lake (Yi’nan Diao)
And I wish you all a healthy and happy cinematic rest of 2021!