We’ve reached the midway point of the craziest year in recent memory, and like the rest of the world, the American movie industry has yet to return to anything approaching normal. With major theater chains remaining closed until later this month (if not longer), and with blockbusters such as Tenet, Mulan and Bill & Ted Face the Music still figuring out their summer premiere plans, audiences eager for cinematic entertainment have continued to turn to VOD and streaming services. Fortunately, those online outlets keep providing superb offerings of both a fiction and non-fiction variety, thereby making sure moviegoers are reasonably satiated while the pandemic rages on. Now featuring new works from Spike Lee and Josephine Decker, these are our picks for the best films of 2020.
30) Bad Education
Using cheery smiles and go-getter glares to conceal profound depths of resentment, ambition and greed, Hugh Jackman gives the performance of his career as Roslyn, Long Island public school superintendent Dr. Frank Tassone in Bad Education. A dramatic account of the historic embezzlement scandal that engulfed Tassone and his colleagues – most notably, assistant superintendent Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney) – Cory Finley’s film (based on Robert Kolker’s New York Magazine article) is a ruthlessly efficient and even-keeled affair about the intense pressures of suburban academia, where educational-ranking achievements and college acceptance rates are intimately intertwined with real-estate prices. The director lays out the myriad forces at play in this ostensibly picture-perfect milieu in exacting detail, and his preference for longer takes means that the focus remains squarely on his performers. That, in turn, allows the HBO feature to rest on the sturdy shoulders of Jackman, who never resorts to caricature in embodying Tassone as a discontent striver whose eagerness for validation dovetailed with his lifelong deceptiveness, to disastrous ends.
29) The Trip to Greece
Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon follow the path first traversed by Odysseus in The Trip To Greece, once again engaging in the witty banter and dueling celebrity impressions that have become the hallmark of this Michael Winterbottom-stewarded comedy series. For this fourth and ostensibly final installment, the bickering couple (Coogan arrogant and condescending; Brydon cheery and patient) enjoy fine meals and show off their imitative vocal skills, here highlighted by Coogan doing a pitch-perfect Ray Winstone as King Henry VIII. In keeping with its predecessors, the duo’s latest colors its humor with a strain of wistful regret rooted in their thorny feelings about transitioning into middle age. Anxiety about mortality turns out to be more pronounced than ever, particularly via Coogan’s Ingmar Bergman-esque dream sequence, which is related to dismay over his father’s failing health. Nonetheless, the alternately combative and chummy English pair remain in fine, funny form, and their swan song proves to be their most substantive collaboration since their maiden outing.
28) Lost Girls
The true story of a mother’s search for her missing child, Netflix’s Lost Girls is a clear-eyed and moving expose about the many ways in which troubled young women are let down by parents, police and society at large. Using Robert Kolker’s book as her source, director Liz Garbus recounts Mari Gilbert’s (Amy Ryan) efforts to find her oldest daughter Shannan, a prostitute, after she vanished following a house call in a gated Long Island community. At every turn, what Mari discovers is a lack of urgency about, if not outright indifference to, her daughter’s disappearance, even after other bodies are found in the very same area. Ryan’s powerhouse performance as the fiercely determined Mari is the nucleus of this dispiritingly bleak tale, in which there are few concrete answers to be found, but plenty of blame to pass around. That Garbus doesn’t let Mari off the hook for her own mistakes, while nonetheless casting a reproachful gaze at the individual and systemic failings that allow such crimes to occur – and go unsolved – only strengthens her cinematic case for compassion and togetherness as the bulwark against tragedy.
27) The Whistlers
Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu once again melds his interests in language and genre filmmaking with The Whistlers, a neo-noir about a police officer named Cristi (Vlad Ivanov) who travels to the Canary Island of La Gomera to learn an ancient whistling language that doesn’t sound anything like a human form of communication. This subterfuge is demanded by Cristi’s gangster bosses, with whom he’s both in league with and tasked with nabbing by his law enforcement chief Magda (Rodica Lazar). Cristi’s playing-both-sides predicament is complicated by his relationship with Gilda (Catrinel Marlon), an alluring beauty whose femme fatale status is underlined by her famous noir name, and Porumboiu fractures his narrative so that chronology, like the various dialects employed by his characters, comes across as intricately coded. Repeatedly shouting out to both crime movies and Westerns – even its title and central conceit feel like references to Lauren Bacall’s iconic To Have and Have Not line of dialogue – the director orchestrates his action with slippery subtlety and droll humor, and he continually surprises on his way to an expressively non-verbal finale of light and music.
26) Da 5 Bloods
Spike Lee goes for broke with Da 5 Bloods, tackling historic and modern racism, oppression, guilt, greed and brotherhood through the story of four Vietnam Vets (played by Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Norm Lewis) who, along with the son of Lindo’s character (Jonathan Majors), return to Southeast Asia to both recover the remains of their fallen comrade Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman) and to find the gold they buried years ago. Lee holds nothing back in recounting this sprawling tale, employing different aspect ratios and film stocks, plentiful Marvin Gaye tunes, flashbacks, shout-outs to Black Lives Matter, denunciations of President Trump, and references to notable (but largely forgotten) African-American trailblazers. Throw in nods to Apocalypse Now, The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and you have an epic that’s bursting at the seams, occasionally to its overstuffed detriment. Nonetheless, Lee’s action-movie investigation of internal, domestic and global racial dynamics—and defiance—thrums with timely anguish and fury, and is bolstered by an Oscar-worthy turn from Lindo as a MAGA-supporting man drowning in chaotic rage.
25) Young Ahmed
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne gaze into the dark heart of religious fanaticism in Young Ahmed, a drama that’s all the more chilling for proffering no easy answers. By the time the filmmakers’ story begins, urban 13-year-old Ahmed (newcomer Idir Ben Addi) has already been indoctrinated by a jihad-encouraging imam (Othmane Moumen). No amount of adult counter-programming can affect the kid, and when he attacks a female teacher (Myriem Akheddiou) for her modernist Islamic teachings, he winds up in a juvenile detention center and, then, at a farm where the affections of Louise (Victoria Bluck) complicate his worldview. With a stony countenance and dark eyes that mask his interior thoughts, Ahmed is a chilling protagonist in thrall to a rigid ideology that preaches violence against all heretics. Their handheld camerawork trailing him as he embarks on his cataclysmic rise-and-fall journey, the directors’ aesthetics are as formally rigorous and evocative as ever, capturing the unyielding nature of zealotry, as well as the difficulty of loosening extremism’s terrible grip on individuals’ hearts and minds.
Aviva tackles the multifaceted nature of gender identity in fittingly diverse fashion, depicting the highs and lows of a couple’s relationship via narrative and modern-dance means – as well as by having both a man and a woman play each of its protagonists, male Eden (Bobbi Jene Smith, Tyler Phillips) and female Aviva (Zina Zinchenko, Or Schraiber). That Buñuelian device speaks to the masculine and feminine sides of both characters, whose ups and downs together and apart form the basis of Boaz Yakin’s (Remember the Titans) unconventional semi-autobiographical tale. From email pen pals, to husband and wife, to estranged exes, Eden and Aviva’s love story is told from both external and interior vantage points. The writer/director employs narration, shifts in perspective, flashbacks, and wild dramatic scenes—both male and female Edens and Avivas sometimes share the screen, partying, arguing or having passionate sex—to provide an intimate sense of the desires and fears propelling these conjoined figures forward. Yakin’s sinuous, passionate indie is as entrancing as it is daring.
“Handsome, clever and rich” is how Emma’s tagline describes its matchmaking heroine (Anya Taylor-Joy), but it’s also an apt summation of director Autumn de Wilde’s Jane Austen adaptation, which is energized by meticulous style, spirited wit and passionate emotions. Hewing closely to its source material, the film charts Emma Woodhouse’s efforts to find a suitor for her doting companion Harriet Smith (Mia Goth) while struggling with her own blossoming feelings for her sister’s brother-in-law, George Knightley (Johnny Flynn). Round and round the romantic entanglements go, not only for these three characters but a host of others that de Wilde and screenwriter Eleanor Catton faithfully delineate in clean, bright brushstrokes. Its studied imagery suggesting a daintier variation on Wes Anderson’s trademark visuals, Emma boasts an aesthetic confidence that’s matched by its performers. At the head of that impressive pack (which also includes Bill Nighy) is Taylor-Joy, whose Emma exudes just the right amount of playful cockiness and ambition – qualities ultimately undercut by her realization that no amount of manipulations can change what the heart wants.
Driveways isn’t simply one of the late Brian Dennehy’s final performances—it’s also one of his finest. In Andre Ahn’s touching indie, Dennehy is Korean War vet Del, who comes to befriend socially awkward young Cody (Lucas Jaye) after the boy and his mother Kathy (Hong Chau) take up temporary residence next door, cleaning out the pigsty that used to belong to Kathy’s deceased sister. All three of these characters are suffering in their own distinct ways, due to a combination of loss, loneliness and fear, and Ahn (working from Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen’s precise script) intertwines their plights with few contrivances and a potent measure of empathy, especially once Del and Cody begin developing an unexpected bond. Be it Kathy going through her sister’s things and cleaning a bathtub soiled by a cat’s corpse, or Del caring for his VFW pal Roger (Jerry Adler), who’s slowly losing his mind, the specter of death—and the memories summoned up by the end of the road—looms large over the proceedings, culminating in a shattering Dennehy speech of irreparable sorrow.
21) The Way Back
Gavin O’Conner (Miracle, Warrior) is modern cinema’s preeminent sports-drama director, a status he maintains with The Way Back, a conventional but deeply felt story about addiction, anger and the rough road of rehabilitation. Reuniting O’Conner with his The Accountant star, the film concerns Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck), a former high-school basketball phenom who, in the wake of multiple familial losses, gets through his construction-work days and wayward nights with a perpetual drink in hand. By means of a job coaching his Catholic alma matter’s struggling team, Jack is blessed with a shot at salvation, turning around the fortunes of his players and, by extension, his own life. Subdued and melancholy, Jack’s journey is a familiar one, and yet O’Conner and Affleck – the latter turning in an expertly modulated, interior turn – shrewdly locate their protagonist’s alcoholism as the self-destructive byproduct of regret, resentment, fury and hopelessness. Also generating pathos from agonized father-son traumas, it’s a male weepy that, courtesy of its well-calibrated empathy, earns its melodramatic tears.
20) The Wolf House
A descendant of Jan Švankmajer and the Brothers Quay, Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña’s The Wolf House is a mesmerizing stop-motion storybook fable about a young girl named Maria who flees her Chilean-situated German colony (based on the notorious real-life Colonia Dignidad, formed by ex-Nazis) and, to protect herself from a predatory wolf, takes refuge in a house in the woods. That domicile is in a constant state of transmutation, as is Maria and the two pigs she finds inside, which she transforms into her de facto children. Maternal love is both a blessing and a curse in this ever-metamorphosizing enclave, and León and Cociña’s stunning imagery—combining hand-drawn, painterly, clay- and paper-mache-based animation—is a swirling wonder. Marked by endlessly rotating, fluid hallucinations of birth and decay, it’s a symbolism-rich fantasia that marries the personal and the political in ways that veer from the sweet to the sinister. There’s gnarly, unnerving texture to everything in this unhinged film, which fragments and reforms like a nightmare born from the darkest recesses of the mind.
Despair, desire, and madness are all entangled in Josephine Decker’s Shirley, about the late horror writer Shirley Jackson’s (Elisabeth Moss) attempt to pen her sophomore novel Hangsaman while dealing with her unfaithful critic/professor husband Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) as well as two boarders, aspiring academic Fred (Logan Lerman) and his pregnant wife Rose (Odessa Young). The director’s follow-up to Madeline’s Madeline is a psychosexual affair about lost women driven crazy by callous, self-serving men, and their resultant fears and needs. As with her acclaimed debut, Decker’s latest recounts its action through expressionistic visuals—smeary, off-center compositions; intense close-ups; dreamy interludes in which fantasy and reality blend together—and a score of jangly, strident strings, rumbling bass and thunderstorm crashes. As the famed author behind The Lottery and The Haunting of Hill House, Moss radiates ferocity and instability, and she’s matched by Stuhlbarg as the creepy, codependent Hyman. It’s Young, however, who holds the hothouse material together as the self-actualizing Rose, whose journey mirrors that of the missing girl Jackson is writing about, and who serves as the beating heart of this slyly furious film.
Dramas don’t come much bleaker than Beanpole, director Kantemir Balagov’s wrenching story about the damage caused by war, and the exceedingly high cost of survival. In a 1945 Leningrad still recovering from the end of WWII, lanky Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), aka “Beanpole,” works as a nurse even though her military service has left her with a condition in which she becomes temporarily frozen. Iya cares for Pashka (Timofey Glazkov), the young son of her frontlines friend Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), and when Masha appears to reclaim her child – only to learn of an unthinkable tragedy – their relationship buckles under the weight of grief, guilt, regret, resentment and need. Cruel blackmail soon proves to be Masha’s means of coping with loss, but healing is in short supply in this ravaged milieu. Shot in alternately tremulous and composed handheld, director Balagov’s long takes place a premium on close-ups, the better to convey the dizzying anguish of his subjects, who are as decimated as their environment. Overpoweringly desolate and moving, it’s a vision of paralyzing individual, and national, PTSD – and, ultimately, of women banding together to forge a new future.
Tom Hardy’s gift for hulking intensity and charismatic growling are in full effect in Capone, a fictionalized account of the last year in the life of the legendary American gangster. Trapped in a palatial Florida estate, his mind deteriorating thanks to neurosyphilitic dementia, Al Capone (Hardy) rants, raves, soils himself and freaks out over hallucinatory visions of people, and events, from his past. Writer/director Josh Trank’s film is a subjective affair told largely from Capone’s POV, so that nothing can be trusted and yet everything speaks, symbolically, to the man’s deep-seated ambitions, fears and misgivings. It’s a headfirst dive into delusion, told with free-flowing suspense and absurd comedy, all of which comes to the fore during a late scene in which Capone opens fire on his friends and family with a giant golden tommy gun while wearing a diaper and chomping on a cigar-like carrot. Part Cowardly Lion, part Bugs Bunny, and altogether ferocious even as his sanity frays, Hardy’s Capone is yet another triumph for the star, who ultimately captures his protagonist less through imposing physicality than via his dark, glassy, lost eyes.
16) Sorry We Missed You
The modern gig economy receives a thorough thrashing by Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You, another sober class-conscious drama from the celebrated British director. Faced with limited professional options, Ricky (Kris Hitchen) gets a job as a delivery driver for a company that doesn’t technically hire him; rather, he’s “self-employed,” meaning the onus for everything falls on his shoulders. That proves to be an arduous state of affairs given that his wife Abbie (Debbie Honeywood) is a home care nurse who works long hours (also for “herself”), and their son Seb (Rhys Stone) is a school-skipping, graffiti-spraying teen who – having seen the incessant, back-breaking toil and anxiety that comes from his parents’ chosen paths – has opted instead for delinquency. As hardships mount, Loach incisively details the major and minor ways in which this contractor-oriented paradigm is fundamentally rigged against workers. His despairing condemnation is all the more wrenching for coming via a deeply empathetic portrayal of an everyday clan buckling under the strain of unjust forces out of their control.
15) Crip Camp
Historical changes often have humble beginnings, as was the case with the American Disabilities Act (ADA), whose origin is Camp Jened, a 1970s summer getaway for disabled men and women in New York’s Catskill mountains. James LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham’s documentary is the story of that quietly revolutionary locale, where disrespected and marginalized handicapped kids were finally given an opportunity to simply be themselves, free from the judgement of those not like them. What it instilled in them was a sense of self-worth, as well as indignation at the lesser-than treatment they received from society. Led by the heroic Judy Heumann and many of her fellow Jened alums, a civil rights movement was born, resulting in the famous San Francisco sit-in to compel U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Wellness Joseph Califano to sign Section 504 of 1973’s Rehabilitation Act, and later, the ADA. Intermingling copious footage of Camp Jened and the movement it produced with heartfelt interviews with some of its tale’s prime players, Crip Camp is a moving example of people fighting tooth-and-nail for the equality and respect they deserve – and, in the process, transforming the world.
14) The Painter and the Thief
Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova responded to the theft of two prized paintings by befriending Karl-Bertil Nordland, the drugged-out gangster behind the crime. Benjamin Ree’s intriguing The Painter and the Thief tells the tale of their unlikely relationship from both of their perspectives, charting its ups and downs with formal astuteness and inviting intimacy. Beginning with Kysilkova’s decision to paint Nordland’s portrait (peaking with one of the year’s most stunning scenes), their bond is forged by underlying similarities: traumatic and abusive pasts, as well as their habit of risking their lives for their addictions – in his case, drugs; in hers, painting. Ree reveals such connections through subtle juxtapositions that emerge naturally from his subjects’ day-to-day travails, which eventually involve financial hardships and a near-fatal car crash for Nordland. In private moments alone and between the two, the director illustrates how the act of seeing each other – truly, and without prejudice – is key to their shared affection, thereby turning his documentary into a tribute to the transformative power of empathy.
13) The Invisible Man
Gaslighting gets downright monstrous in The Invisible Man, a 21st-century take on Universal’s classic unseen specter. Helmed with playful menace by Leigh Whannell, whose camerawork and compositions constantly tease subtle action in the corners of the frame, this slick genre effort finds Elisabeth Moss trying to convince anyone who’ll listen that she’s not crazy, and really is being hunted by her supposedly dead abusive boyfriend. Since said predator isn’t visible to the human eye, however, that’s not an easy task. Hot-button issues emerge naturally out of this basic premise, thereby letting Whannell sidestep overt preaching in favor of orchestrating a series of finely tuned set pieces in which lethal danger might materialize at any moment, from any direction. Avoiding unnecessary diversions or italicized politics, the filmmaker streamlines his tale into a ferocious game of cat-and-mouse, with Moss commanding the spotlight as a woman tormented both physically and psychologically, and determined to fight back against her misogynistic victimization.
No matter that her characters are plagued by malevolent supernatural forces, Natalie Erika James’ directorial debut is a thriller with grimly realistic business on its mind. Called back to their rural Australian childhood home after matriarch Edna (Roby Nevin) goes temporarily missing, Kay (Emily Mortimer) and daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) discover that the past refuses to remain dormant. The specter of death is everywhere in this rustic residence, whose cluttered boxes and myriad artifacts are reflections of its owner’s mind, and whose creepy wall rot is echoed on Edna’s aged body. Edna’s vacant stares and strange behavior are the catalyst for a story that derives considerable suspense from unnerving set pieces and, more pointed still, the question of whether everything taking place is the result of unholy entities or the elderly woman’s physical and mental deterioration. That balance is key to Relic’s terror as well as its heart, both of which peak during a claustrophobic finale set inside a literal and figurative maze, and a coda that suggests that there’s nothing scarier, or kinder, than sticking with loved ones until the end.
11) The Cordillera of Dreams
The mythic quality of the Cordillera – the towering eastern stretch of the Andes mountains that serves as both a protective and isolating barrier for the city of Santiago – is harmonized with the grand, destructive illusions of Chile’s Pinochet regime in The Cordillera of Dreams, documentarian Patricio Guzmán’s personal rumination on his homeland’s tumultuous history, and his relationship to it. From vast sights of the snow-capped Andes, to grainy on-the-street video footage of Pinochet tyranny, to introspective interviews with fellow artists, Guzmán’s film (the third entry in a trilogy that also includes Nostalgia for the Light and The Pearl Button) examines the catastrophic upheaval of 1973’s coup d’état, and the lingering scars it left on him and the country’s citizens. In vistas of the ancient and immovable Cordillera, close-ups of cracks lining the hardscrabble soil, and gazes into labyrinth-like patterns found on junkyard car doors, Guzmán (who also serves as narrator) evokes a poetic sense of imposing mysteries and unrepairable fissures, which spread through him – and economically unbalanced Chilean culture – like the solemn valleys that course between the Andes’ peaks.
Autobiographical tales of trauma don’t come much more wrenching than Rewind, director Sasha Neulinger’s non-fiction investigation into his painful childhood. A bright and playful kid, Neulinger soon morphed into a person his parents didn’t recognize – a change, they soon learned, that was brought about by the constant sexual abuse he (and his younger sister Bekah) was suffering at the hands of his cousin and two uncles, one of whom was a famed New York City temple cantor. Its formal structure intrinsically wedded to its shocking story, Neulinger’s film reveals its monstrous particulars in a gradual bits-and-pieces manner that echoes his own childhood process of articulating his experiences to others. Not just a portrait of Neulinger’s internalized misery, it’s also a case study of how sexual misconduct is a crime passed on from generation to generation, a fact borne out by further revelations about his father’s upbringing alongside his assaultive brothers. Most of all, though, it’s a saga about perseverance and bravery, two qualities that Neulinger – then, and now – exhibits in spades.
9) Gretel & Hansel
Oz Perkins is a horror lyricist fixated on grief and female agency, and both factor heavily into his atmospheric reimagining of the classic fairy tale. In a countryside beset by an unknown plague, teenage Gretel (It’s Sophia Lillis) refuses to work as an old creepy man’s housekeeper, and is thus thrown out by her mother, forced to take her young brother Hansel (Sam Leakey) on a journey through the dark woods to a convent she has no interest in joining. Beset by hunger, the two come upon the home of a witch (Alice Krige), whose feasts are as mouth-watering as her magic lessons for Gretel are simultaneously empowering and unnerving. Perkins sticks relatively closely to his source material’s narrative while nonetheless reshaping it into a story about feminine might and autonomy, and the potential cost of acquiring both. Drenched in ageless, evil imagery (full of triangular pagan symbols, pointy-hatted silhouettes, and nocturnal mist), and boasting a trippiness that becomes hilariously literal at one point, Gretel & Hansel casts a spell that feels at once ancient and new.
8) Vitalina Varela
The darkness is all-consuming, as is despair over a lost past and future, and a purgatorial present, in Vitalina Varela, Pedro Costa’s aesthetically ravishing true tale of its protagonist, a Cape Verde resident who returns to Portugal mere days after her estranged husband’s death. Vitalina wanders through this dilapidated and gloomy environment, which Costa shoots almost exclusively at night, the better to conjure a sense of ghosts navigating a dreamscape of sorrow, suffering and disconnection. Each of the director’s images is more ravishing than the next, and their beauty – along with an enveloping soundscape of squeaking beds, sheets blowing in the wind, and rain pattering on crumbling roofs – is enchanting. Presenting its story through fractured plotting and dreamy monologues, the Portuguese master’s latest is a series of tableaus of lovelorn grief concerning not only Vitalina but also an aged priest in spiritual crisis and another young man poised to endure his own tragedy. The film’s formal grandeur – its compositional precision, and painterly interplay of light and dark – is overwhelming, as is the majestic presence of Vitalina herself.
In the fictional northeast Brazilian town of Bacurau, residents are puzzled to discover that their home has disappeared from all GPS maps, and their cell service has ceased. Stranger still is the 1950s-style UFO zooming around the sky – perhaps a hallucination invoked by the psychotropic drugs the townsfolk have ingested? Or is it a tool of other sinister forces preparing to strike? Teaming with his former production designer Juliano Dornelles, director Kleber Mendonça Filho (Neighboring Sounds, Aquarius) delivers an allegory of zonked-out weirdness with Bacurau, which quickly has locals engaging in a do-or-die battle with a pair of interloping São Paulo bikers and a group of murderous Western tourists (led by a hilariously peculiar Udo Kier) who’ve traveled to South America to partake in a variation of The Most Dangerous Game. Stylistically indebted to both the Westerns of Sergio Leone and the thrillers of John Carpenter, and yet imbued with an out-there spirit all its own, Filho and Dornelles’ film takes a gonzo scalpel to geopolitical dynamics.
6) Saint Maud (July 17)
Hell hath no fury like a religious zealot scorned, as demonstrated by writer/director Rose Glass’ feature debut, which concerns a young hospice nurse named Maud (Morfydd Clark) who comes to believe that her mission from God – with whom she speaks, and feels inside her body – is to save the soul of her terminally ill new patient, famous dancer Amanda (Jennifer Ehle). What begins as a noble attempt to share pious belief and provide comfort for the sick swiftly turns deranged, as Maud is possessed by a mania impervious to reason, and enflamed by both the slights she receives from Amanda and others, and her own mortal failings. The sacred and the profane are knotted up inside this young woman, whom Clark embodies with a scary intensity that’s matched by Glass’ unsettling aesthetics, marked by topsy-turvy imagery and pulsating, crashing soundtrack strings. A horrorshow about the relationship between devoutness and insanity, it’s a nerve-rattling thriller that doubles as a sharp critique, punctuated by an incendiary final edit that won’t soon be forgotten.
5) The Vast of Night
Andrew Patterson’s The Vast of Night is a marriage of the old and the new, blending effects-aided cinematic showmanship to old-school radio drama. In the director’s sterling feature debut (written by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger, and framed as an episode of a Twilight Zone-ish show called “Paradox Theater”), two 1950s high schoolers – confident radio DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz) and telephone operator Faye (Sierra McCormick) – stumble upon a strange signal that, they come to suspect, originates from the stars looming above their small-town-USA home. Like Orson Welles’ classic 1938 The War of the Worlds broadcast, the film is a tale of potential invasion that plays out over radio waves, and Patterson thus naturally focuses on intently listening faces, and the spoken words that captivate them, as a means of generating anticipation, mystery and suspense. At the same time, his centerpiece sequences are models of formal precision and depth, as protracted shots across sprawling fields, through crowded gymnasiums, and in and out of cramped buildings create pulse-pounding tension while simultaneously conveying the propulsive flow and binding, interconnected nature of narrative storytelling itself.
4) Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Putting a poignant face on a contentious social topic, Never Rarely Sometimes Always tells the story of pregnant Pennsylvania 17-year-old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), who with her loyal cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) by her side, travels to New York to procure an abortion. As envisioned by writer/director Eliza Hittman (Beach Rats), Autumn’s with-child circumstance leads to a harrowing ordeal of uncomfortable doctor visits, financial anxieties, and incessant indignities suffered at the hands of men, be it sexually harassing classmates, her drunk and uncaring father (Ryan Eggold), or a boy (Théodore Pellerin) she and Skylar meet on the bus to Manhattan. Forced to navigate a chauvinistic world that treats them as disposable sexual playthings, denigrates them as whores when they attempt to fulfill that role, and then thwarts their desire for agency – and independence – at every turn, Autumn’s saga is all the more heartbreaking for being so ordinary. Drenched in silence that expresses the loneliness of its heroine, and speaks volumes about the tacit understanding and compassion shared by women, it’s a sobering study of perseverance in the face of individual, and systemic, oppression.
3) The Assistant
Kitty Green’s The Assistant is the first great #MeToo film, a scathing look at the mundane day-to-day ways in which gender-imbalanced abuse and unfairness are built into workplace systems. Though you won’t hear Harvey Weinstein’s name uttered once, his presence is palpable throughout this clinical story about Jane (a sterling Julia Garner), whose position as the low woman on the totem pole at a film production company necessitates enduring mistreatment of both a subtle and overt sort. Whether being chastised by her boss (who’s only heard in hushed phone calls), or sharing quiet, pointed glances with her female colleagues, Jane is a victim of both exploitative men and, just as severely, a corrupt institutional structure that perpetuates itself by fostering cutthroat ruthlessness and alienating silence. Epitomized by Jane’s meeting with a cruelly calculating human resources rep (Succession’s Matthew Macfadyen), whose threats are all the more harrowing for being both implied and logical, it’s a portrait of sexism’s many insidious forms.
2) The Wild Goose Lake
As with his prior Black Coal, Thin Ice, Chinese director Diao Yinan’s The Wild Goose Lake has a coiled intensity that amplifies its romantic fatalism. Diao’s neo-noir follows a gangster named Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge) who, after killing a cop in a criminal enterprise gone awry, partners with a “bathing beauty” prostitute named Lu Aiai (Gwei Lun Mei) in order to reunite with his estranged wife Yang Shujun (Wan Qian), all so she might collect the reward on his head. Rife with betrayals, manhunts and shootouts, the auteur’s narrative is constantly taking sharp, unexpected turns, and the same is true of his breathtaking direction, which reveals unseen figures, and twists, via elegant camerawork and expressionistic flourishes that are married to a realistic depiction of rain-soaked Wuhan and its lawless lakeside communities. Hunted by police captain Liu (Liao Fan), Diao’s protagonists are engaged in a deadly game that’s played in silence because they all inherently know the rules, and their sense of purpose is echoed by the film itself, which orchestrates its underworld conflicts with bracing precision. Plus, it boasts 2020’s most gruesomely inventive use of an umbrella.
1) First Cow
Few directors are as attentive to the rhythms of nature – human and otherwise – as Kelly Reichardt, and the filmmaker’s formidable skill at evoking a sense of place, thought, emotion and motivation is on breathtaking display in First Cow. Adapted from Jonathan Raymond’s novel The Half Life, Reichardt’s slow-burn drama focuses on a nomadic 1820s chef named Cookie (John Magaro) who, after arriving at a Pacific Northwest fort, befriends and goes into business with on-the-run Chinese loner King Lu (Orion Lee), baking and selling popular “oily cakes” made with milk stolen from a dairy cow owned by wealthy Chief Factor (Toby Jones). Cookie and King Lu’s attempt to rise above their socio-economic station through a criminal scheme, and the potential disaster that awaits them, is the suspenseful heart of this tranquil quasi-thriller, which – awash in redolent faces, gestures and customs – imparts an understated impression of the forces propelling its characters, and the pioneering nation, forward. Framing characters amidst forest greenery or through constricting cabin windows, and setting its action to the serene sounds of its rural environment – snapping twigs, chirping birds, running water, human breath – it’s an empathetic vision of profound male friendship and perilous capitalist enterprise.
Nick Schager is a NYC-area film critic and culture writer with twenty years of professional experience writing about all the movies you love, and countless others that you don’t.
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