by InRO Staff Featured Film Year in Review

Top 25 Films of 2020 — 10-1

December 23, 2020

From our Honorable Mentions post: It goes without saying that 2020 was a year like none other in recent history. Significantly, by virtue of living through such times, it’s also a year that retuned minds to see history being made in the present. There are certainly more critical sociocultural institutions whose shape have been permanently altered, but in a year where entertainment was sought (and was, arguably, psychologically essential) more than ever, the film industry’s struggles played out on a grand stage. Streaming services boomed — the less said about Quibi, the better, but TV mainstays like Hulu and HBO Max became major players in the feature film game, the latter especially, with its massive late-year Warner Brothers deal — while theaters remain on life support, and drive-ins boasted an unexpected return to relevance. But the actual slate of films released didn’t bear out the same direness: in the absence of tentpoles and endless money-grubbing sequels (mostly; remember when that new Bill & Ted flick snuck out?), plenty of wonderful art was made available to grace our TV and laptop screens. Not reliant on a huge box office, a number of international auteurs found their latest titles given official 2020 releases in virtual cinemas, if they hadn’t already snuck into theaters in the year’s first couple months, and many reflected the directors’ best work in years (Pedro Costa, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and even a long-held Hong Sang-soo film). Micro-budget cinema thrived (Fourteen, The Vast of Night), Netflix remained a welcoming platform for visionaries (Spike Lee, Charlie Kaufman), and major film experiments saw the light of day (Small Axe, half of DAU). It’s impossible to know what exactly the film industry will look like in a post-COVID world, but if this is to be the end, it could’ve been worse — we were at least gifted some good flicks on our way out. Luke Gorham

The final stop in InRO’s 2020 Best of the Year tour, we bring to you our 10 favorite films of the year. Consistent as we are, we were #TeamTheseFilms from day one, and so for some of these, we were able to excerpt our fawning words from earlier in the year. In other cases, we wrote brand new pieces because we like to write about film. Read our words, watch these films, and let’s hope 2021 proves better. [For full BOTY film coverage: 11–25 and Honorable Mentions]

Credit: Grasshopper Film

10. Fourteen

Audiences aren’t exactly suffering from a dearth of small scale indie dramas these days; after all, there’s a reason ‘Sundance-approved’ is frequently used as a pejorative designation rather than a descriptor. Dan Sallitt‘s new film, Fourteenis a bracing example of this oft-tedious genre done right. As critic Steve Erickson has pointed out, Sallitt has dedicated different films to both Eric Rhomer and Maurice Pialat, and Fourteen represents a kind of synthesis between these two otherwise contradictory influences, simultaneously tender and incisively cutting. Tracing the tumultuous friendship of Mara (Tallie Medel) and Jo (Norma Kuhling) over the course of roughly a decade, Sallitt uses keen, subtle observation and frequent, sometimes brutal ellipses to document the gradual unraveling of the relationship. […] Sallitt’s true gift is in capturing the rhythm of casual, unaffected conversation and how it can obliquely reveal character — the highly stylized writing and directing here is all the more remarkable for not calling attention to itself. It is only gradually that we realize time is marching inexorably forward, as a new boyfriend pops up, someone has a new hairstyle, another job is lost, or a character finds out they’re pregnant. At one point Mara mentions that she hasn’t seen Jo in several weeks, the first real indication of how much time has elapsed with a simple edit. Sallitt makes the viewer retroactively reassess certain scenes, crafting confrontations or revealing new information, and then relying on the audience to make sense of it. The film builds to a pair of emotional climaxes, spaced years apart within the narrative proper. In the first, Jo breaks down and reveals a desperately self-aware understanding of her tumultuous psyche, trying and failing to self-diagnose where exactly her mind betrayed her. In the second, Mara is telling her own young daughter exactly how she and Jo met back in middle school. Eventually, Jo and Mara meet again (a chance encounter that happens all the time in big cities) in an excruciating scene that will be familiar to anyone who’s lost contact with a once-close friend. They exchange pleasantries, then part with promises to get together soon and keep in touch. And while the gesture seems genuine enough in the moment, we know it will never come to pass. As in life, tragedy soon follows, and while it’s not exactly a surprise, it’s still a gut punch. Sallitt ends the film with a tearful apology, turning the film into a portrait of quietly devastating regret. Life goes on, and we carry on. Daniel Gorman  [Excerpted from full review.]

Credit: Film at Lincoln Center

9. Liberté

Albert Serra’s Liberté continues the director’s penchant for placing human rot, literal and metaphorical, within the garish trappings and knowing artifice of re-creation. Presented here are the wanton sexual and violent revels of a brood of exiled French libertines, over the course of a single night, bewigged and powdered bodies splayed amidst dense forestry and within aristocratic carriages. This group is intent on exporting their freethinking philosophy of hedonism to Germany, with the help of the Duc de Walchen (Helmut Berger). But on this night, they’re also just here to party. Serra has long favored elaborate staticism, the baroque frills of late 18th century Europe dominant in his frames, and that remains much the same in Liberté. The director’s approach is painterly; he crafts nightmare compositions of a forest blanketed by night’s dark, the branches like webs, shadows both obscuring and exposing. Silhouettes are glimpsed through bramble, and moon and stars light upon hidden figures and open-air copulations. […] The shots here are undeniably gorgeous, but haunted and sometimes menacing as well. And while retaining the familiar medium and long shots of Serra’s previous films, the camera too takes on a different personality: in a mirroring of its subjects, it often plays voyeur to voyeurs (and likewise invites the viewer into yet another level of such observation), spying on foliage-obscured figures and capturing incomplete images of fleshly entanglements, masochism, and erotic frustrations. That Serra marries his images with Sadeian carousels feels inevitable, his portrait of humanity’s murkiness and inscrutability fittingly set within the similarly mercurial but beautiful natural world. Ultimately, this is more presentation than study: we are treated to both broad and subtle dramatics, with extreme sexual acts captured just as often as fleeting glances of boredom or anxiety, and little else is done to suggest any cogent thesis. But if the freedom implied in the title of Serra’s latest remains unsettled at credits’ roll – and it does, the themes never really parsed out – that feels largely by impish design, and in embrace of that very sovereignty. Luke Gorham  [Excerpted from full review.]

Credit: Mary Cybulski/Netflix

8. I’m Thinking of Ending Things

I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Charlie Kaufman’s adaptation of Ian Reid’s novel of the same name, is an intensely experiential film, so much so that it’s difficult to talk about without getting bogged down in minute specifics. Apart from being remarkably dense, it’s cumulative in a way that makes targeted discussion of any given scene rather difficult, which should be unsurprising given the director-screenwriter’s reputation for psychedelic narrative gymnastics. […] But in adapting this generic puzzlebox setup, Kaufman demonstrates an elegance of vision elsewhere absent from his work — Adaptation is the closest point of comparison, but there The Orchid Thief offered more of a blank aesthetic canvas than does the forceful pulpiness of Reid’s novel — and the result is a film that somehow finds an empathic portrait of broken humanity amid the novel’s lurid morass. […] In [one] scene, the pair debate the quality of John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence, a clear spiritual cousin to I’m Thinking of Ending Things. But it’s the differences between the two films that are most notable. The grim if histrionic realism of Woman is here traded for sensorial abstraction and visual expression of that interior turbulence. Where Cassavetes’ film progresses more or less linearly toward an inevitable endpoint, I’m Thinking of Ending Things constantly spins outward, drawing attention to the present-tense details of its unstable, centrifugal course. It’s in this comparison that it becomes easy to see that Kaufman has always been a bit of a puzzle-piece writer; not in the gimmicky, dime store sense, but in his inclination toward precise storytelling mechanisms and their thrilling sense of gestalt. It’s interesting, then, that he took inspiration from a novel that perverts and simplifies his favored mode. I’m Thinking of Ending Things retains Kaufman’s preferred ornamentations — both the general malaise of Anomalisa’s introspective narrator and the bewildering reality-blurring of Synecdoche, New York are present — but there is a messy expansiveness, even an unguarded quality, to the film’s climax that he has never before embraced. All of this amounts to what is his most tender film: his intricate flourishes are in service of something far gentler and open-hearted than any of his previous work. There’s the sense that, perhaps for the first time, Kaufman’s art and his heart are fully in sync. Luke Gorham  [Excerpted from full review.]

Credit: Netflix

7. Da 5 Bloods

Spike Lee is doing pretty great these days, so much so that he’s been recast as a beloved elder statesman in the cultural memory. Not that this positioning isn’t deserved — Lee’s filmography is easily the finest of any contemporary Hollywood auteur after all — but it does disregard the decade-plus timespan in which Lee was a favorite punching bag of the generally racist critical elite. Many who slandered modern masterpieces like Bamboozled, She Hate Me, Old Boy, and Red Hook Summer (while praising the smarmy, liberal weepy 25th Hour, no less) now rush to claim Lee as a #resistance figurehead. This sudden “awakening” to Lee’s formidable artistry has, of course, coincided with the trajectory of American politics over the last few years, and, understandably, the director has seemed content to fulfill this expectation. Yet, the clearest realizations of Lee’s Trump-era reconfiguration, 2018’s BlacKkKlansman and Netflix’s She’s Gotta Have It series, are two of his most compromised works, charmed by the youthful fervor of current day social justice movements, but insistent on redeeming the institutions they seek to abolish. But where these projects appeared to be confounded by the challenge of reckoning past and present, 2020’s Da 5 Bloods sees Lee steering straight in. Indeed, the film is literally about a group of five men recklessly pursuing a shared history: Black American vets returning to Vietnam 60 years after the U.S.’s illegal invasion. Complicated by a treacherous treasure hunt, war-related trauma (embodied by a ghostly Chadwick Boseman), and, maybe most significantly, emblems of Western imperialism, Lee has crafted the rare film that is properly equipped to survey war in totality. Da 5 Bloods addresses the American occupation of Vietnam in a fashion unlike any Hollywood film before it, acknowledging the victimhood of the Vietnamese people without othering, redirecting ire from the participants of the war to its capitalist architects. Da 5 Bloods understands that racism is of a piece with imperialism, and that pushing back on both requires one to truly interrogate the histories fed to us by Hollywood. And Lee does just this, not just using Da 5 Bloods to critique “The Vietnam War Film,” but to investigate his own failings, specifically 2008’s Miracle at St. Anna, a thematically and structurally similar WWII film that lacks this film’s coherency. So precarious a challenge, yet it is rare to notice the mechanism behind Lee’s production, several layers of text wrapped up into a nimbly paced script, sensitive discourse strung elegantly across the 156-minute runtime. Stated simply, Da 5 Bloods is a film of great poignancy, one that is keenly aware of “history” as both a source of trauma and a means of healing it. M.G. Mailloux

Credit: Film at Lincoln Center

6. Yourself and Yours

Yourself and Yours almost slipped through the cracks. Released in 2016, in the space between the long-awaited breakthrough that was the 2015 release of Right Now, Wrong Then and the news-breaking of the scandalous affair between that film’s star Kim Min-hee and her director Hong Sang-soo. While distributors struggled to keep pace with Hong’s prolific output, it’s perhaps understandable that this odd little movie took four years to make it to American screens, and only then as part of a pandemic-induced onslaught of Hong releases, with 2014’s Hill of Freedom (similarly rescued from limbo) and a re-release of the director’s 2008 film Woman on the Beach premiering within the same 30-day window. But rescued Yourself and Yours was, and it’s a good thing too, because it’s arguably the best film Hong has made since 2010’s Oki’s Movie. A man, Young-soo, fights with his girlfriend, Min-jung, because he thinks she drinks to much. She leaves him, and he spends the rest of the movie regretting his decision, seeing visions of her in daydreams and ultimately trying to win her back. At the same time, Min-jung flirts with a couple of men, both of whom insist they know her but which she denies, ultimately asserting that she has a twin sister. Eventually, Young-soo and Min-jung meet up again, and again she insists that she’s never met him before. But he doesn’t care: he loves her anyway. So here we have a simple story (boy and girl fight, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back) complicated by an ingenious twist (how many Min-jungs are there really?), which is the kind of thing Hong’s been doing throughout his whole career, utilizing dreams, film scripts and films, unexplainable temporal warps, and jumbled letters and anecdotes. Yourself and Yours is a kind of inversion of 2013’s Our Sunhi, where every man is in love with the same woman, except none of them are particularly interested in her, but rather their idealized version of her. Min-jung refuses to be abstracted in this way: she demands that the men in her life take her for what she is. Our Sunhi is a kind of screwball comedy, with a flustered Sunhi juggling the demands of oblivious men driven by their basest urges while trying to satisfying her own ends and ultimately leaving them all behind. But Yourself and Yours is pure romance, a woman going to bizarre and baffling lengths to get the man she wants. Call it Hong Sang-soo’s The Lady Eve. Sean Gilman

Credit: NYFF

5. Lovers Rock

Lovers Rock is, at its core, a dancehall film, capturing the swaying bodies and small human dramas that occur across a single night during a 1980s house party. While other Small Axe films (notably, Mangrove) open up into more expansive cultural interrogations, it’s the microcosmic intimacy here that marks the most tangible aesthetic shift for McQueen. The director resists the urge to overtly contextualize his small story — though cursory knowledge of the (declining) anti-imperialist Rastafari culture and resurgent racism of Thatcherian Britain help define the particular milieu of Lovers Rock — and leaves the soapbox at home. Small Axe places much emphasis on the space afforded Black communities, and while other entries deal explicitly with the frictions that occur when white hegemony meets movements for minority equality, Lovers Rock instead offers something of a respite from this explicit confrontation. Rather than dwell on traumas, McQueen allows the men and women here to dissolve into warm hues and bouncy reggae rhythms, blanketed in the safety of community and reveling in willful, fleeting ignorance of the world outside. The dance floor, a modified living room space bathed in artificial amber lighting, is a brief haven where bodies abut and connections are made; young women practice dance moves beforehand, and young men, festooned in their best (period-ludicrous) dress, attempt suavity. […] And that’s the best thing about Lovers Rock; despite a few blips, it’s largely animated by joy rather than directorial affect. Instead of disrupting the refuge of the dance floor, these narrative intrusions accentuate the necessity of it. For one night, the darkness that weighs down on this community is set aside in a way that larger dangers cannot so easily be. For the first time in his career, McQueen leans into sweeping romance, on both a character and communal level, and the resulting film, still tinged with veiled peril, marks an apogee for the director. So even if past films (and other Small Axe efforts) suggest Lovers Rock is little more than a lovely aberration, viewers can find respite in its moving, delicate rhythms. Luke Gorham  [Excerpted from full review.]

Credit: Allyson Riggs/A24

4. First Cow

First Cow is a film of beginnings and endings — and, thusly, also of returns. Kelly Reichardt‘s second period film marks the return of the 4:3 aspect ratio, once again opening a dialogue with silent cinema to invoke a style of photography long since departed from mainstream film productions. It’s a work of densely textured images, of moss-covered trees and thickets that steep this 19th-century portrait of Oregon in vegetation, in untamed land apathetic to the plight of every man and woman that suffuses the frontier. Loosely based on the novel The Half-Life by frequent collaborator Jon Raymond, the story follows the friendship of Cookie, an innocuous man hired as a cook for a group of trappers, and King Lu, a Chinese immigrant found hiding from a band of hostile Russians in a bit of undergrowth. […] Thematically, [the film this setup bears out] could be considered familiar ground for Reichardt, yet here we can see the opening up of her minimalist style to allow it to bespeak wider historical processes that push forward in spite of individuals desperate for a piece of the pie. The film’s beginning is instrumental in this, serving as both a prologue and epilogue, in addition to acting as a conjunction of capitalism’s vector within Oregon Territory and the fate of her two protagonists. But where this really excels can be seen in the endearing instances of domesticity where Cookie and King Lu take lodgings together and form a bond that contrasts strikingly with the mercurial attitude of the boorish fur trappers; indeed, it comes as no surprise that the masculinity of the latter men is something represented as ultimately self-destructive and segregated from the ability to communicate — so vital to success. Considering the quite blunt inference of the prologue, success is not something the audience will necessarily expect of their protagonists. Thus, as the narrative enfolds, it becomes clear that the conflicts which comprise the film are only of importance inasmuch as they’re the driving forces which remind Cookie and King Lu of the exigencies of life, so that finally they may return to the earth, together. Sam Thomas-Redfern  [Excerpted from full review.]

Credit: TIFF

3. Martin Eden

A deeply idiosyncratic survey of 20th-century political and social mores, director Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden transplants Jack London’s 1909 novel from the American West Coast to a liminal version of Italy situated somewhere in a limbo between the turn of the century and the two World Wars. Like the novel, Marcello follows the titular uneducated sailor (played with maximum swarthy charm by Luca Marinelli) on his journey from illiterate laborer to striving autodidact and ultimately to decadent, corrupted intellectual. After rescuing a young nobleman from a beating, Martin is introduced to the man’s family as a thank you. It is here that Martin catches a glimpse of how the privileged class lives, falling in love with both wealthy scion Elena (Jessica Cressy) and that great cultural signifier Baudelaire. Determined to join the ranks of the great writers and earn enough money to marry Elena, Martin traverses the ideological minefield of modern political philosophies, in time rejecting collective action for solipsistic individualism. Far from a dry, academic exercise, Martin Eden is a voluptuous, invigorating experience. Marinelli is a charming, inviting presence, a romantic dreamer whose transformation becomes tragic instead of ironic. Marcello infuses the material with a jittery immediacy, shooting in grainy Super 16mm with its deep, velvety blacks, and utilizing various forms of film stock and archival footage, clips from silent films, as well as new footage that’s been manipulated to look old and worn. It gives the film an essayistic quality, placing Martin Eden the film and Martin Eden the man into a kind of dialectic with the broad trajectory of the post-WWII movement from the New Deal towards neoliberalism. Marcello skips weeks, months, and eventually decades with a simple edit, and we eventually find Martin successful in his quest for upward mobility. Now older, with decrepit teeth, and a wild shock of unkempt hair, he finds that fame and fortune have come at the cost of his soul, and as the film closes we are left with a poetic elegy for a simpler past, albeit one that might only exist as the fantasy of a man driven insane by the world. Daniel Gorman 

Credit: Grasshopper Film

2. Vitalina Varela

Winner of last year’s Golden Leopard at the Locarno Film Festival, Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela immediately asserts itself as an artistic and conceptual distillation, if not culmination, of a career that has folded portraiture, theater, anti-colonial politics, and class solidarity into a cinema that understands itself as a work that persists under, if not against, ‘the cinema.’ While refining Costa’s artistic and conceptual sensibilities, this latest film may be most notable, at least to those familiar with the director, for its changing of the temporal rules that have up until now defined the occupants of Fontainhas. Since 2000’s In Vanda’s Room, many names and faces have recurred in Costa’s cinema as it has taken the aforementioned community as its object, with the spatial and temporal progression between that film and 2014’s Horse Money being decidedly linear; all of it a witness to an abiding sameness of material and mental degradation in the throes of poverty and the violence of history. […] “It’s all about the work”, remarks Costa, and fittingly, for those words are not just emblematic of this production itself and the director’s wider philosophy — which is actively challenging cinema and its means of operation and the ends they are directed toward — but of the very themes of the film: the attempt to not only stand with time but to return agency and free a person to build again. Vitalina Varela will rightly be celebrated for the beauty of its claustrophobic Vermeer-esque, Lewton-inspired compositions; methodical editing; and languorous shooting rhythms. But it is the denouement that confirms the film as a work of extraordinary conceptual and humanistic vision: a movement of character out of frame and a cut that connects a rejection of present isolation with the joy of a Cape Verdean past. Matt McCracken  [Excerpted from full review.]

Credit: Film at Lincoln Center

1. To the Ends of the Earth

Kiyoshi Kurosawa has been here before. Not to Uzbekistan, where his newest film is set — and which is indeed new territory, geographically speaking — but to this border zone openly contested by opposing modes, genres, and moods. To the Ends of the Earth begins as a kind of travel film, or more precisely, as a document of a TV crew failing to produce one: The host, Yoko (Japanese pop singer Atsuko Maeda, now a regular Kurosawa collaborator), can’t muster the pep required to perform her role as world ambassador for audiences back home, who are conditioned to believe that foreign lands uniformly provoke wonderment and irrepressible perkiness, when in fact disappointment and displacement prevail. Feeling lost, and in the face of escalating, if minor, production troubles, Yoko abandons the shoot, strikes out on her own, and penetrates, with mounting dread, ever more uneasy terrain. She might have some reason to be afraid given her tour guide, though Kurosawa’s reputation as a J-horror pioneer remains frustratingly overblown: More often than not, he journeys to different destinations altogether, where fear — of the other, of the self —  is merely a byway on the path to transformation. A midway sequence that suspends Yoko in the dizzyingly alien halls of Uzbekistan’s national opera, and concludes when she emerges from this thicket of arabesques into an empty theater, where she takes the stage and pierces the tension with an aria, is the film’s trajectory in ornately crafted miniature. At this point, her sojourn only half completed, Yoko has discovered that suspension — between home and abroad, trembling and ecstasy, the horror movie and the musical — leaves a person, or a work of art for that matter, restless, uprooted, and potentially quite alone. But she has farther to go before she will learn that such feelings are the iron upon which explorers are made. Kurosawa learned this long ago, of course, and To the Ends of the Earth allows the director to once again test his mettle in risk-filled territory, territory that he alone seems willing to hazard — no one else is making movies like this. The final moments do, however, grant him the gift of a fellow traveler: as Yoko crests a hill, she finds herself folded into the natural splendor of an ancient mountain chain, and, suddenly, the sound of an adventurer’s spirit, newly forged, rings out clarion across the range, reaching — the film along with it — a previously unknown summit. Evan Morgan  [Excerpted from full review.]