So. Where were we?
In the Before Times, pre-COVID, pre-lockdown, one of my last trips to a movie theater was for a series of Frank Capra/John Ford double bills hosted by the American Cinematheque. Their weekend’s programming included two classics from the tail end of the Depression: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington on Friday, and John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath on Sunday.
There can be serendipity in moviegoing, particularly if it’s the kind where a crowd can turn a film from 80 years ago into a live event. And as fate would have it, the screening of Mr. Smith happened on the day that the Senate voted 51-49 to not hear witnesses in the (first) impeachment trial of Donald Trump. Those headlines were not lost on the theater’s MC, who took to the stage before the show to acknowledge the news and assure us that a little Capra would help. Far be it from me to deny that Mr. Smith is a cathartic experience for anyone who’s frustrated and righteous, which I guess is most of us nowadays. The irony is that, to the extent that Mr. Smith has a firm set of real-world politics at all, it’s a very conservative film: anti-New Deal, skeptical of city values and Big Government compromises, and convinced that only the wicked might disagree with its homilies. (The LA crowd did seem appreciative, but I imagine Trumpists would love the sequence of Jimmy Stewart furiously punching random people on the streets of DC after he gets slandered by the Fake News press).
This makes double-billing it with The Grapes of Wrath another kind of serendipity, because the dueling populism of the two films is like a tug-of-war between conjoined twins. Ford’s film supports the New Deal as much as Capra’s film is wary of it, and while it may not be the most outright socialist movie to ever take the Oscar stage, it’s definitely in the running.
I had seen both of these movies years ago, as a student. But that weekend, they no longer seemed so academic. The present-tense urgency of their making—the kind that powers and lacerates both films, threatening to tip their most subtle strengths into hysteria—had grown in resonance.
All of which is to say that how and if “the movies” address the outside world was forcing itself to the top of mind in the Trump era, even in a moment as comparatively innocent as February, 2020.
And then, of course, everything went to hell.
2020 may well go down as one of the most significant years in movie history, and for reasons that have nothing to do with the content of the films themselves. The upheaval of the pandemic effectively pushed film distribution ten years into the future, further from theaters and onto streaming services. But if—as was the case for much of the year—conversations about the return of theaters revolved around Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, and hopes for serious American cinema from a streaming service settled on David Fincher’s Mank, you can’t avoid that both directors delivered some of their weakest work.
I don’t wish to give too much credence to any hand-wringing about the insignificance of movies in times of crisis. In fact, during the pandemic, the protests, the lockdowns, and the election chaos, movies were a source of solace. And as for the longterm cultural cachet of a dying medium, I’d be a lot more concerned if movies hadn’t been “dying” for the entire time I’ve been alive.
But one running theme did emerge in new releases: the way that so many movies made with an eye on 2020 felt, well…not bad, necessarily. But wildly inadequate for what they were up against.
The Trial of the Chicago 7? I appreciate Aaron Sorkin imposing his own hyper-talky brand of order on the chaos of the 60s, doubling for the divided Left of today. But it’s far too clean, too stagy, and too cutesy for 1968. Or for the last election cycle.
Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm? It’s not just that Cohen’s jokes are lazier this time around, but that the landscape has soured them. There was a thrill in the Bush era in catching people say the quiet part out loud. Today, Cohen can go to a MAGA rally, and there’s nothing that anyone will say to him mid-prank that they wouldn’t happily tell CNN.
David Byrne’s American Utopia? I had fun—Byrne knows how to bring music to the stage, and Spike Lee knows how to bring the stage to the screen. But be careful giving it political import as an essential State of the Union instead of a pleasant get-out-the-vote oldies revue.
In that sense, the DOA Oscar campaign for Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy may make it the most significantly insignificant movie of the year: the union of a conservative commentator and a “liberal Hollywood” crowdpleaser that averaged out to nothing.
So where does that leave Nomadland, the Oscar favorite and an eager contender for a definitive movie about America in the 2010s?
It looks likely to have a big night, so it’s worth a moment to acknowledge the dissent. It leans hard on photography over drama or inquiry. Its view of poverty can lapse into tourism. And you could argue that it fits the Academy’s ideal politics: a vital document of our time, done in a way that never really runs the risk of pissing anybody off. But in its best moments, the collation of American landscapes, themes, and narratives beautifully stirs the pot. And at the very least, the late arrival of Oscar frontrunner with enough acclaim to warrant backlash was one of the few aspects of 2020 moviegoing that felt like a return to normalcy.
Indeed, trying to place any movie near the cultural center of 2020—as opposed to TV binges, social media channels, late night pundits, etc.—feels a little futile, though that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying. Best-of-2020 lists have tended to feel like odds and ends, and that includes the Academy’s itself, due to economics as much as taste. With a lot of big or big-ish studio films delayed, this is a rare Oscar year without a crowd-pleasing blockbuster or large-scale Hollywood spectacle. The Best Picture lineup has no Ford v. Ferrari or Dunkirk or 1917 or Bohemian Rhapsody to flaunt, and the live-action films in that category that went to streaming—Mulan, Wonder Woman 1984—didn’t build anything close to a critical mass of popular support.
Yet none of that quite explains my own personal hodgepodge, which runs out of Academy contenders by the halfway point and unintentionally gravitates towards a certain miniaturism. This could be chalked up to the structural shifts of 2020—a year without a popular sensation, with distribution upended and without the social component of moviegoing. (Absolutely none of the films listed below were watched with an audience).
But it could also be something else: that the only type of big statement worth trusting right now is the kind rooted in smallness. And that’s the closest I can come to unity in the top of the top of a bottomed-out year: the recurring image of a figure at a crossroads, looking in each direction.
My 10 favorites of 2020:
10. Kajillionaire (Miranda July, US)
Miranda July’s best movie is a bit like the performance at the center of it: pickled in affectations, but those affectations cover something resonant, even raw. So while a lot of its “quirky” Sundance-isms would have felt played out even ten years ago, this comedy has an eerie metaphor on its side: a social ecosystem (call it America?) in which payment is treated as a substitute for warmth. And what’s more, the film follows that idea to a place that’s both uplifting and uncompromised. It makes an emotional high amidst fluorescent retail signify as worldly wisdom. A payoff, in every sense of the word.
9. The Father (Florian Zeller, UK/France)
For the third wave of quarantine, a movie that can make a meal out of an apartment. This is Alzheimer’s as a puzzle film, with a touch of the recursion and geometry of Marienbad. So what sounds like an Oscar duty—one of Britain’s finest actors tearing into an incurable disease—turns out to be more cinematic than you might expect. Its biggest visual games are so clearly received that its subtler ones creep up on you. And by the end, it’s done a fine job of deepening from tap-dancing cleverness into tragic soul. Key line, saved for the finale: “We have to go while it’s sunny…It never lasts long.”
8. Soul (Pete Docter & Kemp Powers, US)
Pete Docter (Up, Inside Out) is the most interesting voice to come out of Pixar’s collective identity since Brad Bird, and for tantalizingly opposite reasons. Whereas Bird is interested in the exceptional “incredibles” among us, Docter has stayed steadfastly interested in what one character in Soul summarizes as “regular old living.” In short, his lesson for the tots is that a rich emotional rollercoaster awaits every human being simply by their virtue of being alive. It’s clearer than ever that he has his own formula to stick to, and that it has concessions: talking animal slapstick, somewhat belabored metaphors, and a few fantasyland rules that play fast and loose. But more than most “children’s films”, his are designed to be a wildly different experience when the young-uns revisit them fifteen years down the road. The insight that no, you probably won’t end up being what you want to be when you grow up, but yes, you can be happy anyway, is a heady message to drop on them. Lively animation helps.
7. Minari (Lee Isaac Chung, US)
After forking over $20 to A24 for an advanced virtual screening, I feared that the loveliness of Minari was by nature far too modest to withstand the two-ton slab of awards hype that was about to be dropped on it. But how should one hype such unassuming delicacy, particularly when so much of what makes it special is not its “big moments” (a literal barnburner, say) but the observations that fill in the cracks? Minari doesn’t reinvent the wheel of autobiographical childhood cinema, and it doesn’t need to. Its characters feel real and complete, and it neither lacks dramatic incidents nor unduly forces them. It recalls the narrative flow and it-takes-all-kinds spirit of Renoir in his River/Southerner mode. And god knows that’s welcome now more than ever.
6. Sound of Metal (Darius Marder, US)
The rare movie whose second half is more interesting and complex than its first, and fulfills its themes too. Reportedly, the director was influenced by the lost-in-America classics of the 1970s like Five Easy Pieces. It shows, and the jittery drive that Riz Ahmed conjures up feels instantly recognizable but beyond any stereotype that could pigeonhole his character. A film about being forced to find a new direction, made with the wisdom not to forsake your past or expect anyone to have easy answers for the second act. Especially not yourself.
5. Lovers Rock (Steve McQueen, UK)
As movies and TV get more difficult to tell apart, no piece of 2020 “content” was more valuable in that debate than Amazon’s/Steve McQueen’s Small Axe. The creator himself calls it a TV series, though its parts are discrete, and they diverge in cast, plot, runtime, aspect ratio, and setting (all in London in the same era, but jumping between years). But the idea of separate films viewed as one is essential; it’s necessary to Lovers Rock that it both feels like such a small snapshot and that it has the context of far more fraught scenarios. Because if, from Hunger to 12 Years a Slave, McQueen tends to succeed and provoke more as a director of experiences than plots, here his primary experiential mode isn’t suffering but a shot at jubilance. And he proves that, with the right lens, affirming life can be just as political as studying its struggle.
4. City Hall (Frederick Wiseman, US)
For a country that too often hates the idea of government, documentarian Frederick Wiseman heads back to Boston and delivers a gargantuan tribute to local civil service. It sounds like propaganda, and in a sense it is—or it would be, if it showed any interest at all in accommodating an audience. Instead, it observes its subjects on their most titanically quotidian terms, and its placid brand of Direct Cinema—which insists that we spot the significance of its filmed moments ourselves, or else shut them out entirely—matters as much as what’s on camera. Which, if you can handle the runtime and see the unity of its individual pieces, is about how, whether you value the Right’s ideas of tradition or the Left’s ideas of change, society is a complex work in progress. And not to be taken for granted.
3. The Woman Who Ran (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)
Possibly one of Hong Sang-soo’s best films, although in a body of work so hand-crafted and so prolific, such distinctions may be meaningless. Each film from South Korea’s beguiling puzzlemaster feels like a status update, or a different house on the same street. His style can be mysterious or elusive, teasing you with where he might be heading. But his sense of mathematical structure—of scenes that rhyme, of sudden camera movements that push the everyday into the uncanny—goes well with what is at heart a simple story. In fact, one of the most thoughtful stories about the life of a married woman to come along in some time. Other point of inspiration: showing just how basic the ingredients of a rich film are. There seems to be no reason that people anywhere and everywhere at any time couldn’t make it themselves.
2. Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa, Portugal)
The cinema of Pedro Costa can be as frustrating as it is invigorating, and over the years, his most widely acclaimed films—docu-fictions about the slums of Lisbon—have left me feeling less enlightened about poverty, addiction, and diaspora than what a clever director can do with digital video. So I didn’t exactly run-don’t-walk to his latest when it dropped, but in the end I left feeling that its quiet arrival on streaming services (where I still hope that niche movies like this can find their audience) was one of the cinephile events of the year. Either his particular mastery is reaching new levels of emotional directness and narrative clarity, or I’m finally getting used to him. Either way, this is a prime example of movies as their own art form, as images whose astonishment can carry an emotional weight beyond just gobsmacking you. The dialogue roots you, but then use your eyes: a dirge through the darkness towards daylight.
1. The Assistant (Kitty Green, US)
Some may say that this is a movie where not much happens, especially compared to Never Rarely Sometimes Always (another extended ordeal for a heroine) or Promising Young Woman (a high-concept machine built to provide catharsis, generally at the expense of sensible storytelling or coherent messaging). The difference with the former is that The Assistant is not about the hardest day of one’s life, but a day like any other. And its difference with the latter is that providing catharsis is the last thing on the film’s mind. It’s the best movie yet about the MeToo era, a withering gaze at life as a film-worker, and a potent look at arriving in an environment where everyone chillingly refuses to name the obvious. I suspect future films will tackle the subject with a grander, more robust style—The Assistant‘s approach is as pared down as can be. But the film’s sheer lack of sensationalism qualifies as a real triumph. The sober, determined control proves you don’t need it.
The Honor Roll: 15 more films that made movie-going worthwhile this year:
Another Round (Thomas Vinterberg, Denmark)
David Byrne’s American Utopia (Spike Lee, US)
Dick Johnson is Dead (Kirsten Johnson, US)
I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman, US)
The King of Staten Island (Judd Apatow, US)
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (George C. Wolfe, US)
Malmkrog (Cristi Puiu, Romania)
The Nest (Sean Durkin, Canada/UK)
Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman, US)
Nomadland (Chloe Zhao, US)
Notturno (Gianfranco Rosi, Italy/France)
Palm Springs (Max Barbakow, US)
Time (Garrett Bradley, US)
Undine (Christian Petzold, Germany)
The Wild Goose Lake (Diao Yinan, China)