My Favorite Films of 2020

She Dies Tomorrow (directed by Amy Seimetz)

From my review: She Dies Tomorrow is a profoundly impressionistic film, and writer-director Amy Seimetz is disinterested in conventional explanations or standard narrative structures. This is a mood piece that seeks to explore the ways people process a direct confrontation with their own mortality. Part of what Seimetz is doing is looking at how people choose to spend their time when they know they are going to die. Amy loses all sense of direction or priorities and just wastes away. She mentions being sober for a considerable amount of time but has given it all up now that she believes her life is over.

Brian, a party attendee who becomes infected, goes to the hospital and takes his father off life support, not wanting his old man to suffer any longer. Brian’s girlfriend, Tilly, reveals that she wants to break up with him and was waiting for his father to pass before she did so. Brian accepts this with complete disinterested passivity. Seimetz seems to believe that if people were hit with such a massive shake-up to the foundations of their lives, they would abandon the pretense of shallow relationships and not think twice. This, in turn, forces us to ask ourselves, why do we maintain these empty connections anyway?

The Wolf of Snow Hollow (directed by Jim Cummings)

From my review: There is a brilliantly skilled balancing act happening throughout The Wolf of Snow Hollow that evokes another time in American cinema without feeling out-dated. Cummings finds a way to make his film consistently hilarious while incorporating authentic moments of horror and genuine character drama. It’s no surprise that one of his favorite movies is Joe Dante’s The ‘Burbs because that is the type of film we’ve been presented with. John is a character who refuses to believe that something fantastic is happening in his quiet small town, the murders are bad enough, but he’ll be damned if he’s going to start believing in werewolves. In the form of the other deputies, the comedy relief characters quickly begin speculating about the monster, which draws comic frustration out of John.

Cummings never allows John to become an unnaturally heroic character and leans into the character’s flaws. When we first meet him, John is attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting held in the police station’s basement. The stress of his dad’s health, his daughter’s growing independence, and the murders drive John back to drinking, and we have to witness the cringing, humiliating fallout that comes with that. But, as I said, this is a balancing act, and Cummings still manages to find humor in these circumstances without mocking addiction or the weight of these murders. The comedy comes out of how panicked people get in times of extreme pressure and stress; the silly things we blurt out that sound serious to our ear but to other people are entirely ridiculous. Cummings allows John to become extremely unlikeable but never unsympathetic.

Emma. (directed by Autumn de Wilde)

From my review: Director Autumn de Wilde brings a very unique style to the film, it looks like Jane Austen but feels like Wes Anderson. The cinematography and lighting heighten the comedic elements of the story, and the actors lean into the comedy of it all rather than melodrama. There’s a wonderful balance of comedy near the state that allows in elements of personal character drama in the second and third acts. Actors like Bill Nighy and Miranda Hart are hilarious & mannered, veterans who understand how to deftly bring humor into the text.

Anya Taylor-Joy continues her rise to becoming one of the prominent young actresses of our time. She’s showcased so much skill since The Witch, and here we see her comedic sensibilities are honed nicely. Taylor-Joy understands Emma’s selfish nature and keeps her focus there without stumbling into caricature. The character is exceptionally bright but allows her ego to get in the way, so when Emma hatches some scheme, she will inevitably cause it to fall apart.

Education (directed by Steve McQueen)

From my review: I am not a fan of speech-driven courtroom films as I don’t like the overdramatization of real events. So often, these speech moments come across as Aaron Sorkin-esque liberal fantasies that the justice system actually does work and the bad people are just “a few bad apples.” Here, Darcus must outwit the police by looking at material facts and presenting that to the jury while cross-examining the film’s main antagonist, PC Pulley. Darcus doesn’t use his moment to cross-examine to philosophically pine about the human condition but instead to take apart Pulley’s testimony until his entire credibility is ruined.

The most fascinating character in the story for me is Frank Crichlow, and Parkes gives a fantastic performance helped by McQueen’s masterful direction. Crichlow is simmering with rage that reveals years of oppression at the police’s hands, Pulley in particular. We get some remarkable shots of the man clenching his jaw, eyes searing through his oppressors, just on edge. One scene has Crichlow tossed in a cell when the court officers decide to bully a couple of the defendants. McQueen shoots from a low angle medium-shot, letting the light through the window create a slight haze in the space. He also doesn’t cut from Parkes, allowing the actor to work through the scene, and it’s clear that this isn’t scripted. I was reminded a lot of some of Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in The Master.

Feels Good Man (directed by Arthur Jones)

From my review: This documentary is one of the best I have seen in a long time, jumping back and forth between Pepe’s journey online and how he became a cipher for disaffected, insecure internet denizens and Matt just puttering along sort of amused at his creation’s new life. This is accompanied by some great animated sequences that have the Boys Club characters reacting in their world to the developments in ours. It is impossible not to become frustrated alongside Matt when he sees everything spiraling out of control. Based on the early memes’ popularity, Matt develops a Pepe clothing line only to see the frog become wholly associated with Trump and his brand of hate. This is the ultimate nightmare scenario for any creative type who wants their work to reach the broadest possible audience, but most also contend with the idea that your art can be taken from you.

Black Bear (directed by Lawrence Michael Levine)

From my review: Black Bear is a horror film, and the director communicates that through the tone he sets in the first part. The music, the cinematography all work to build tension. This isn’t a horror film where monsters will show up, or people will get murdered. It’s deeply psychological. For me, this type of horror is even more terrifying because it is about the psyche’s fragility, and the more intimate we become, the more chance there always is of being torn apart. The second half’s events feel almost apocalyptic when they reach their conclusion; we never see any place outside of this property, so it’s easy to believe the world outside is gone, and just these few people remain.

The film is almost Lynchian in its exploration of identity the crumbling of that aspect of a person. Identity is tied to an occupation. Gabe is called a “former musician” by his wife, which he snaps back he still is, that you never stop being that. Allison talks about being an actress who quit because she was labeled as difficult but now frames herself as a writer-director. There aren’t many credits for her to share, and she seems to be stuck in writer’s block. If you don’t produce anything that is exhibited to the public, are you still a filmmaker? In the second half of the film, the line between reality and fiction blurs even further. We watch an actress lose herself in a cuckolded wife’s role while people on the set manipulate her to get a better performance. The movie never offers clear answers about these ideas; it plays with them and challenges us to contemplate the labels we use to name ourselves and how we know those labels are right.

Kajillionaire (directed by Miranda July)

From my review: It’s quite remarkable that Kajillionaire has come out during a time when human contact for many people is a memory until COVID-19 has a vaccine. For myself, married, I have that affection and connection, but I know quite a few people at my work who are single and live alone. For them, this has been an isolating experience, to say the least. Miranda July explores the idea of how essential human connection is from the moment of birth and the effect its absence can have on people as they try to grow and mature. July, as an artist, is also about making connections on an emotional level with an audience. Despite her art-house roots, her movies have always been incredibly accessible by all audiences because they focus on life’s personal and material struggles.

I think Kajillionaire is the most fully-formed work she has produced to date. This is a much more cohesive script, while her previous work could sometimes feel like connected short stories. This is a definite narrative with a great handle on its characters and their relationships. July understands how to balance exposition with character development, and so we never get flashbacks or long speeches that clue the audience in on what happened to Robert and Teresa to cause them to become these people devoid of love. There are some hints along the way, but the moment they both gave up and disconnected remains unknown.

Education (directed by Steve McQueen)

From my review: Education tells a fictionalized account of what one student suffering under this system could have gone through. Kingsley is a student at a London school who has a love for science but great difficulty reading. Teachers openly chastise and mock him in front of the other students, which has led to behavioral outbursts. The school’s headmaster informs Kingsley’s mother, Agnes, that they have decided to transfer Kingsley to Durrants, one of the schools for the “subnormal.” Kingsley quickly catches on after his first day at Durrants that this is a school for deeply disturbed and cognitively challenged students. He just simply needs help reading, and, indeed, he won’t get that here. A chance encounter with Hazel, an activist, posing as a reporter, connects Agnes with a group of parents who have read Coard’s pamphlet and are working against London schools’ systemic racism. Kingsley can attend a weekend school run by a kindly West Indian grandmother and starts to find pride in his people’s history and starts developing as a reader.

Education is my favorite of the Small Axe feelings, which likely comes from my bias as a teacher. While I don’t think education in the United States is this dire any longer, there is still a deep current of systemic racism running through much of the country. Seeing Kingsley’s profound turmoil over his inability to read when Agnes finally catches on and asks him to try in front of her struck a chord with me. I have seen so many students who were underserved by a system that is designed to have many students fail. It’s the poison of capitalism seeping into something that should be centered around enriching human beings to be their best. Instead, education has been forced into that same “winners & losers” dichotomy as our economy.

The Personal History of David Copperfield (directed by Armando Iannucci)

From my review: The movie opens with adult David Copperfield (Dev Patel) on stage, giving a reading of his life’s story. The curtains open behind him to reveal his childhood home of Blunderstone. Copperfield turns around and walks through this projection into the actual estate, and he narrates his birth. Iannucci immediately sets a tone of inventive & silly storytelling. The characters speak the word of author Charles Dickens but deliver their lines in a manner that matches with modern comedic sensibilities. Copperfield’s mother remarries to Edward Murdstone, and the boy is sent to live with housekeeper Peggety in Yarmouth, where he lives in an upside boat turned house and revels in the life of working-class people whom he has an affinity to.

Iannucci chooses to transition Copperfield back to his home by having the cruel Murdstone reach through the ceiling of the boathouse, suddenly transforming into a paper diorama, then becoming a drawing of the child’s that his stepfather is crumpling up and discouraging. Throughout the film, Iannucci chooses to transition through moments of the protagonist’s life in cinematic ways that serve to both rush past portions of the book for time’s sake but also to remind us we are in a performed story. There’s a sense that the filmmakers are spryly refashioning this classic novel, continually thinking, “What is a more interesting way to see this moment?”

Mank (directed by David Fincher)

From my review: If you are familiar at all with David Fincher’s filmography, you will immediately be struck by how jarringly different Mank is on the surface level from his previous works. This is very much an exercise in style for part of the film; Fincher has attempted to recreate the way movies looked, sounded, and felt in the period it takes place. He has even had digital cue marks on the film where the reel change would have been signaled to the projectionist. Fincher is known for his technical detail and has even compressed the sound to achieve the quality you would have heard in theaters in the 1940s. The musical score was recorded on older microphones, so it “has a sort of sizzle and wheeze around the edges.” These could be seen as unnecessary minutiae, but I would argue that it needs to feel like one of those pictures of its era in a movie about making movies.

The story is very much a defense of the writer. Citizen Kane was famously steeped in controversy as Mank would argue that Welles wasn’t around when the film was written. Welles shares the writing credit, which was a point of contention between the two men until Mank died. Through this man’s eyes, we see Hollywood not freshly but many years into the business and thoroughly pickled with alcohol. Pitching script ideas is done with little effort to studio executives who don’t trust you but can’t afford to lose you. We watch Louis B. Mayer sadly inform his studio employees of their 50% pay cut due to the Great Depression and come to tears over the matter. As he walks off stage, his demeanor returns to his cold, harsh tone, and Mank notes the phoniness of everything around him.

Possessor (directed by Brandon Cronenberg)

From my review: Cronenberg delivers what would be one of the best films of the year, even if the slate for 2020 wasn’t so sparse. It is so good to see a movie with such intelligence and quality put into a year that feels bereft of good new cinema. I think my favorite creative decision Cronenberg made was to never deliver scenes of exposition where characters explain how possession works. Instead, he shows us rather than tell us. We see the surgeries and the procedure of setting things up. When the actual possession happens, it is beyond what we can understand in the physical world, so the visuals are incredibly trippy and mind-bending. We see into one consciousness as it takes over another; there really isn’t a visual foundation to build off, so we feel understandably disoriented.

Possessor is most certainly not for squeamish viewers. As intense as the body horror and violence get in his father’s films, Brandon Cronenberg goes even further. The film is being released with the subtitle uncut, and it truly is something that would not fly in most theaters. Simulated sex looks very real, with multiple erections on-screen during the movie, even a mind-twisty moment where Vos sees herself as the one having sex with Tate’s girlfriend. The murders are brutal, with gallons of blood, but still realistic. Part of the story is that Vos is not making quick clean kills; she appears to be taking pleasure in the sensory elements of taking out her targets. She lets her fingers play in the blood of one man’s she’s turned into swiss cheese with a knife. This is not gratuitous, though, and it actually is a crucial element to her character’s arc as it becomes clear that Vos either was a sociopath before taking this job or because it disassociates her from herself, she has become one.

The Nest (directed by Sean Durkin)

From my review: What I love most about Durkin’s films is the way he builds mood while still communicating vital information about his characters in subtle ways. There’s a sense of the ominous from the first shot of the picture, Rory looking out a window in the house while making a phone call that sounds like a bridge is being burnt. He’s already focused on the possibilities rather than securing the present. When they arrive at the house in Surrey, we can see that this manor house will be a terrible place for the family. The son rushes down hallways at night, afraid of the dark corridors between his sister’s room and his own. Allison’s horse arrived from the States behaves erratically, refusing to follow commands portending some horrible events to come.

These are richly complicated characters that most audiences aren’t going to love immediately, but we should all relate to them. Rory comes from a background of poverty and is hungry to become someone whom others are impressed by, but the schtick has gone on for so long he’s looped back around to the people he first played. They don’t buy his phony bravado for a second, and we see him crack. Allison loves the hunger in Rory but also understand it will destroy them. Early on in the film, we see she has a box where she keeps thousands in cash. Later we find out Rory knows about this, but the understanding is she keeps its location a secret so that when Rory inevitably overleverages things and starts writing bad checks, she can swoop in and protect him.

I’m thinking of ending things (directed by Charlie Kaufman)

From my review: Charlie Kaufman has taken great artistic license with Iain Reid’s novel of the same name, adding more references to movies and changing up the original ending, which resembled trashy, slasher fiction into a balletic metaphysical tragedy. Those third acts are wildly different but lead to the same ultimate conclusion. I’m not sure which I prefer more because both have their merits and work in their respective mediums. I think the novel has a greater chance of really tearing up the reader’s heart with the way it’s tragic conclusion hits. Kaufman gives us something visually interesting and intellectually appealing, but I don’t feel my emotions as strongly with the film version.

The acting is some of the best I’ve seen in 2020. Jessie Buckley, whom I previously reviewed in Beast, can take a nameless character who has to shift personalities and deliver dialogue that isn’t the most naturalistic and turn her into a profoundly relatable, nuanced person. Jessie Plemmons continues his trend of playing enormously complicated, neurotic people, able to showcase how quiet and without tears, depression can be in real life. Toni Collette and David Thewlis have the roles of Jake’s parents, and their part in this story is to further the surreal horror Kaufman is establishing. As a result, they get to be much more over the top and ludicrous. Colette and Thewlis remind us what great supporting character actors they are alongside their skill as leading players.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always (directed by Eliza Hittman)

From my review: Throughout every frame of the muted, washed-out colors of this film, we’re presented with contemporary life from the point of view of an older teenage girl. We start in the rainy, crumbling streets of small-town Pennsylvania and end up on the crowded flowing sidewalks of New York City. The world is vast, a background smudge of light, a maze being navigated by two young women nervous and afraid. They want to pass through a moment in their lives so they can move on, but it’s unclear if the world after will be better […]

This is a movie absent of melodrama when it so easily could have slipped into the realm of the maudlin. The film is told in a minimalist style, a handheld camera for many shots, and lots of close-ups of faces. Writer-director Eliza Hittman chooses key moments of when to move the camera and when to linger on her actors’ faces, letting them perform in the space. There’s a scene where Autumn is being asked a series of questions by a worker at the clinic, and through her face, we’re told a story. The questions center around her sexual history and any possible abuse. Autumn’s speed or lack of in answering these queries, her shifting in her seat, her asking a question in return are all captured with no camera movement. That moment is almost like a short film unto itself.

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