Perhaps surprisingly, a global pandemic did little to tamp cinematic creativity: 2020 was easily the best year in film since I’ve been a voting member of the Florida Film Critics Circle. Moreover, it has been the strongest year—probably ever, frankly—for American women filmmakers, who this year claim four out of the top five spots.
10. Young Ahmed
The ninth feature from Belgium’s Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne is a devastating account of religious fanaticism’s iron grip on pliable young minds. When we meet the title character (Idir Ben Addi), a formerly mild-mannered biracial teenager, he has recently begun his radicalization by the neighborhood imam (Othmane Moumen), with his secular teacher a knife’s edge away. Filmed, as always, in rigorous, unbroken takes, the directors craft scenes of unbearable tension, a mood that does not subside until the end credits. Ben Addi’s heartbreaking performance anchors the film, projecting a sense of glassy-eyed, calculated sociopathy with faint glimmers of doubt and kindness—enough to suggest that redemption is not impossible.
9. David Byrne’s American Utopia
When is a concert film not just a concert film? When Spike Lee directs it. The renegade auteur finds a kindred artistic spirit in the pop iconoclast David Byrne, filming his ecstatic Broadway concert “American Utopia” from angles and perspectives that exceed even the experience of being there. As much as the performance itself is a groundbreaking expression of sonic innovation and ambitious choreography, the documentary is a master class in sound design, cinematography and editing. The presentation of Byrne and company’s disarming cover of Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout,” accompanied by fast dollies into the surviving family members of Black loved ones lost to police violence is, for Lee and for us, the soul of this monumental adaptation.
8. Sound of Metal
Centering on a rock drummer’s (Riz Ahmed) internal and external battle with deafness, “Sound of Metal” is about the difficult transition from one paradigm to another—and the stages of grief that weigh down the journey. The movie’s precise and immersive sound design weaves first- and third-person perspectives into an aural tapestry, creating a new kind of city symphony—one scored, perhaps, by John Cage. In spirit, it’s one of 2020’s most year-defining films, as well as one of its most zen, with a conclusion that is deceptively simple: Only by accepting the silence can we put an end to the noise.
A wordless, black-and-white, narrative-free study of the everyday interactions of animals on a European farm, Viktor Kosakovsky’s uncompromising zoological documentary is pure cinema at its finest. Piglets ravenously feed on the teats of their enormous mother; a one-legged chicken tests the boundaries of its enclosure, considering a world outside its own; cows assist each other by using their tails as fly swatters. You wait for the David Attenborough voice-over that never arrives, because “Gunda” isn’t that kind of cinema. Stylistically, it’s also the anti-“Babe,” though it shares some thematic DNA with that subversive rejection of animal agriculture: an appreciation for the rich inner world, the bonding rituals and the tragic sense of loss endured by the animals we eat.
6. First Cow
Kelly Reichardt’s mesmerizing cautionary tale has already scooped up truckloads of Best Film of the Year honors, and I found myself no less bewitched by its depiction of pioneer entrepreneurship and cross-cultural friendship in untamed Oregon Country ca. 1820. Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro), an unhappy chef splitting from his group of fur trappers, forges a bond with lonely Chinese fugitive King-Lu (Orion Lee). Together, they hatch a plan to steal milk from the local chief’s imported bovine to make primitive doughnuts that become dangerously popular. Supplemented by lived-in performances, a lovely acoustic score and agrestic, tactile cinematography, Reichardt offers a sly treatise on income equality and the pitfalls of avaricious capitalism, filmed with the clarity of a timeless fable.
5. Divine Love
Writer-director Gabriel Mascaro’s “Divine Love” is a vivid vision in fluorescence and pastel, in service to a profound parable about faith, doubt and the unexplained. Set seven years into the future, where many Brazilians have embraced the religious movement of the title—a mixture of borrowed Christian dogma, cult-y self-development rituals, sexual experimentation and electronic dance music—the film suggests a world of drive-thru church services, gargantuan walls of electronic data, and increasingly invasive social control by the state. Its ultimate critique, of how hidebound religious organizations cannot appreciate miracles that fall outside of their paradigms, is as eternal as those found in Dreyer and Bergman.
4. Dick Johnson is Dead, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, She Dies Tomorrow
I know, I know—I’m cheating by pairing three films together, and I hate it when other critics do this rather than make difficult choices. But damn it, it’s 2020, and I’m doing what I want. These, after all, all three of the most 2020 films of 2020, two features and one documentary that explore looming mortality with an experimental approach to form. In her personal and profound “Dick Johnson is Dead,” documentarian Kirsten Johnson uses cinema itself as a ludic coping mechanism to confront her father’s accelerating twilight. Charlie Kaufman’s audacious “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is a free-associative box of puzzle pieces tumbling out of a demented mind in its final throes. In Amy Seimetz’s “She Dies Tomorrow,” death spreads among groups of people with the invisible ruthlessness of a virus, infecting everyone with an eerie sense of logic and rationality. It is uncomfortably real, and uncomfortably now, and that’s why it sticks.
The third feature from writer-director-editor Chloé Zhao may just be the quintessential U.S. film of its time, a movie about the shattered fragments of the American dream that’s as peripatetic as its rootless characters. Zhao’s extraordinary docu-fiction hybrid stars a world-weary Frances McDormand—in her most defining performance since “Fargo”—as a widow forced to live in her RV and survive on unsteady temp work following the economic devastation of the Great Recession. She soon becomes addicted to the nomadic culture, striking up relationships with real-world vagabonds playing themselves, as Zhao, a master observer of human behavior, lets the story find itself. Its wisdom is of a rugged, poetic, universalist and antimaterialist stripe—as transient and shifting as the American economy.
In imagining the vast metaphysical bardo of a jazz musician, director Pete Docter has helmed Pixar’s finest entry since “Inside Out”—and perhaps the studio’s headiest movie to date. “Soul” is brilliant from the outset, visualizing music, for jazz pianist Joe Gardner, as its own evanescent out-of-body experience. It only grows richer after he falls through a manhole, “Looney Tunes”-like, and abandons his human vessel to navigate a complex (and, in spiritualist circles, well-researched) eschatological architecture. Just when you’re beginning to grasp it, Docter surprises us again, shaping “Soul” into a transmogrified buddy movie. Quick-witted, smart and enormously moving, “Soul” is, finally, a down-to-earth fantasy about learning how to love corporeal life in all its banality.
1. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
This cumbersomely titled but profound third feature from writer-director Eliza Hittman is an admittedly joyless odyssey through the bumpy byways of a teenager’s reproductive rights, as 17-year-old Autumn (a revelatory Sidney Flanigan) finds herself pregnant from likely non-consensual sex. In its steadfastly understated way, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is an indictment of the nation’s inconsistent patchwork of abortion laws. To obtain the procedure, Autumn is forced to cross state lines into New York with her sister, and Hittman captures a palpable sense of New York City as a gaping sewer of restlessness and lasciviousness. Hovering over every action, though, is a sobering, slice-of-life tutorial on abortion in the 21st century, presented less as a political lightning rod than as a legal, if sometimes unobtainable, medical procedure. The film’s most enduring benefit may be its refusal to pass judgment on anybody, cutting through ideology to the human core we all share.