Sunday, April 25, 2021

The Best Films of 2020

Luca Marinelli portrays the title character in Pietro Marcello's brilliant Martin Eden.
There are a lot of ways to be confused about the past year in movies. First, just seeing a film in a theater was impossible for much of the year. Then, with massively delayed releases, there's the question of whether a given movie counts as being from 2020 or not. Finally, there's the whole streaming thing - not that I really care what the source of a great film is, or what the Academy has to say about it, but there is still that old divide between cinema and TV ... never to be the same after Netflix, Amazon, et al.

So I will construct the following list with the knowledge that a few of the films are considered to be 2019 releases, but never made it to a local theater, and seem to have been left stranded in terms of Oscar consideration, whether last year or this year.

Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins star in The Father
As for me, despite the extraordinary challenges of 2020, and my own stubborn resistance to cable TV and all other subscription services, I managed to see a lot of great movies in the last year (five of the eight Best Picture nominees among them). This included actually going to the theater (an excellent option as venues have adopted safety guidelines and more people are vaccinated every day); paying for the occasional one-time stream at home; watching with trusted friends who have those monthly subscriptions; and borrowing DVDs from the library (due to the pandemic, some films that would otherwise have been screened at local theaters ended up being available on DVD first).

The following list is mostly non-hierarchical, and will include movies everyone has heard of as well as some more obscure titles. In the end, it turns out there were a lot of really good movies made or released in the last year or so, from all over the world. It will be interesting to see if that trend can continue, as I think it's safe to assume production schedules were completely whacked out for most of 2020 - and that the movie fare of 2021 may suffer for it. Let's hope not, but let's also celebrate the great ones we've got now.

  • Martin Eden - One of those 2019/2020 crossovers, this Italian-language film became my top pick early on, and stayed there with little serious competition for a long time. Adapted from a 1909 Jack London novel to a non-specific time in 20th-century Naples, Martin Eden tells a story of the class struggle from a very personal perspective, with superb acting by the very charismatic Luca Marinelli. It garnered a lot of praise at Cannes and elsewhere, but nothing from Oscar. Paying $12 to view it at home seemed like a great bargain.
  • Beanpole - The other nearly perfect film I saw last year that crossed over from 2019 and also was ignored by Oscar, Beanpole ("Dylda" in Russian) reveals the history of post-WWII Russia that we never learned in school, seen from the viewpoint of a shell-shocked young woman and her beloved, a traumatized female soldier. Every actor in this film is outstanding - but, even more impressive, the flawless direction and gorgeous cinematography are the product of a team of twenty-somethings. Amazing!
  • Judas and the Black Messiah - One of my two top picks among the Best Picture nominees, this is a beautifully crafted history lesson that resonates with our current turbulent times. Ensemble acting so good, they couldn't find a lead actor to nominate, though Daniel Kaluuya could have been it.
  • The Father - My other favorite among the Bests, powered by a masterful performance on the part of Anthony Hopkins, and equally great support from Olivia Colman. The film puts you inside the mind of a man with dementia, while painting a touchingly deep portrait of the life he lived before his decline. Both actors would be well served if they were to win a statuette tonight. [Note: Hopkins won.]
  • Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always - A perfect example of why I love indie films: Character-driven, non-name actors who bring the goods, original story, loose ends. It's a lot harder than you may think to make a movie about an economically and socially challenged teen seeking an abortion without sliding into melodrama or sentimentality, but Never, Sometimes makes it look like a breeze. Writer-director Eliza Hittman is worthy of Oscar attention, but hasn't gotten it - yet.
  • Orion Lee and John Magaro star in First Cow
    First Cow - An elegiac step back in time, this is the kind of film you need to allow to take its time, and then it will work its magic on you. Set in the early boom Northwest, it provides a most unusual take on the buddy movie, slowly, quietly, sadly, and beautifully. Underappreciated director Kelly Reichart deserves more notice than she's getting for this one.
  • Nomadland - Yes, it's a very good movie, and Frances McDormand is superb as always, as are the rest of the people who essentially play themselves throughout her character's odyssey. But it's also the most overrated film of the year. Try checking out the template (I've no doubt Chloe Zhao has done so multiple times), which I did by sheer coincidence on DVD the same week I caught Nomadland in the theater. That would be Agnes Varda's 1985 film Vagabond. So similar, but much better.
  • Minari - The second-most overrated film of the year. Yes, it's still very good, with excellent acting ... but it's also marred by a grotesque, unnecessary, stereotyped magical Christian character, as well as just being kinda small. Films like this can - and in the right hands do - tell the intimate story while evoking the grand; but Minari never transcends its subjects' limited lives.
  • Sasha Baron Cohen leads the ensemble in Chicago 7
    The Trial of the Chicago 7 - Brilliant ensemble acting takes this history lesson to another level. It's a perfect companion piece to Judas (and possibly to One Night in Miami as well), but stands on its own as it evokes eerie parallels to our current times. Though I lived through the Viet Nam era, I was too young to know many of the details of these events in which our justice system was manipulated by the government to demonize black people and anyone who would challenge the status quo. Sound familiar? 
  • My Octopus Teacher - Nominated Winner for Best Documentary Feature, this is so much more than a nature film, as it shares a deeply personal human story enrobed in an octopus's brief, luminous lifespan. Indeed, it is a relationship movie. You'll never see seafood the same way again.
  • The Life Ahead ("La vita davanti a se" in Italian) - Sophia Loren directed by her son, Edoardo Ponti. Need I say more? Actually received an Oscar nomination for best original song (which I don't recall) but had a lot more going for it than that. Loren pulls off a great performance in a difficult role.
As in prior years, there are films that I haven't seen yet, but intend to, that possibly would have made this list. They include Sound of Metal, One Night in Miami, and Mank (and, perhaps, Promising Young Woman). But, first, I've got to catch up with tonight's film - a retro-futuristic Brazilian Western called Bacurau. Oscar will have to wait.

Ibrahima Gueye and Sophia Loren star in The Life Ahead

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