The first movie I saw in the theaters in 2020 was Tom Hooper’s Cats, and the last one was a 70mm print of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. And then March happened.
What a strange, awful year.
I didn’t watch as many movies in 2020. My attention span was shot. I watched more YouTube than film or TV, and read more essays and journalism than fiction or poetry. I cooked more than I wrote, walked more than I ran, listened to more podcasts than music. In December I finally returned to my normal habits. Apparently it takes about nine months to become accustomed to the unending languor of the pandemic.
In time, I’ll have a better understanding about why these five particular 2020 films spoke to me so much. For now, I think they all have their share of anxiety and loneliness about them, and a longing for connection, and an acknowledgement of human frailty and vulnerability. A mix of strangeness and warmth go a long way too.
Honorable mentions go to these other notable 2020 releases:
- Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, George C. Wolfe’s adaptation of the August Wilson play, featuring another stellar showing by Viola Davis, and a career-best final performance by the late Chadwick Boseman.
- Remi Weekes’ His House, a ghost story about Sudanese refugees in the UK that explores the immigrant experience and survivor’s guilt.
- Leigh Whannell’s unsettling spin on The Invisible Man, featuring an unnerved performance by Elisabeth Moss as a woman dealing with the specter of an abusive partner.
- Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’ Bacurau, a charged artsploitation thriller about collective action in the face of colonialism, capitalism, and white supremacy.
- Regina King’s directorial debut One Night in Miami, a moving adaptation of Kemp Powers’ play about Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke grappling with their responsibilities as prominent black men during the civil rights movement.
I love a story that takes a weird conceit into absurd yet undeniably human territory. In Swallow, the feature film debut of writer/director Carlo Mirabella-Davis, an affluent housewife in upstate New York begins to swallow common household objects. She passes them through her body (even sharp objects), and then displays these trinkets on a desk like trophies. This case of pica is a means of asserting control over her choices and her own body while other people impose their wills on her. The compulsive swallowing takes on more meaning as we learn about this lonely character’s internal life.
Haley Bennett is remarkable, conveying so much hurt in her withdrawn glances and muted line delivery. Swallow switches between pitch-black comedy and psychological horror, and at times feels a little bit like Todd Haynes’ Safe by way of John Cassavetes. Yet the movie might best be considered a morbid character study about female agency and trauma. Movies like Swallow cannot be easily resolved; they are something to chew over.
4. First Cow
Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow opens in present-day Oregon with the discovery of two skeletons laid side by side. We flashback, leaving the dead of winter for mushrooms the color of sunshine that a man picks from the ground. The artful match cut is Reichardt in full control of her craft, and we get more and more of her careful attention as the film chronicles the friendship between a baker from back east and a Chinese immigrant on the run. They try to make a living together by milking someone else’s cow to cook and sell biscuits.
There’s such an easy camaraderie between co-stars John Magaro and Orion Lee. Their characters are not the traditional manly men of the frontier and have to be craftier to get by. The subversion of traditional pioneer masculinity lends the hint of queer subtext to First Cow, yet maybe our two heroes are just doomed bosom chums. We sense their fates from the start of their relationship, which makes every moment they’re together that much more tragic and beautiful.
3. Lovers Rock (Small Axe)
The world seems to have slept on Steve McQueen’s Small Axe. While this five-film anthology focuses on London’s West Indian community from the late 1960s through the 1980s, each movie feels like it’s about 2020. We get explorations of systemic racism in law enforcement, the necessity of anti-racist activism, the ways community shapes identity, and the importance of seeing yourself as a protagonist in or author of history. Small Axe is one of the best cinematic accomplishments of the year, and Lovers Rock is a full-on celebration of black ingenuity and black lives.
McQueen’s made a gloriously lived-in house party movie in a year where house parties weren’t advisable. What a gift to live vicariously and to recall gatherings past. Cinematographer Shabier Kirchner brings a new sense of vitality to McQueen’s filmmaking, and hopefully this signals the beginning of a long collaboration. There is so much texture and flavor in Lovers Rock, and it also contains one of the most sublime moments of spontaneity in any film released in 2020.
Cartoon Saloon can do no wrong. Nora Twomey’s The Breadwinner was one of my favorite movies of 2017, and I have a deep affection for both Song of the Sea and Secret of Kells. But Wolfwalkers feels like next-level animation and storytelling. This fable about a city girl who befriends a feral child wears Hayao Miyazaki’s environmental conscience and Genndy Tartakovsky’s linework and dynamism. Yet this beast is its own animal and charts its own daring course in exploring the hopes and emotions of these girls.
The art style varies with purpose, rendering the city dwellers with thick, woodcut lines while the animals of the wild still bare the remnants of pencil tests. Co-directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart even vary the landscapes these characters inhabit, and play with two-point perspective to evoke a time, a place, and a feeling. Rather than clash, the discrete styles all function as a whole. This is a magical, breathtaking work of animation, and one of the rare family films that features a song (a new version of Aurora’s “Running with the Wolves”) that absolutely slaps.
1. Dick Johnson Is Dead
Kirsten Johnson’s non-fiction collage Cameraperson is one of my favorite movies of the 2010s. Dick Johnson Is Dead feels like a thematic follow-up to that documentary, continuing her focus on a parent with dementia nearing the end of their life. In Cameraperson, it was her mother, and here it’s her father. To cope with the impending loss of her dad, she stages fake deaths for the camera, as well as a fake afterlife. In one scene, Dick Johnson is crushed by a plummeting air conditioner as he walks down the street; in another, Jesus washes Dick Johnson’s feet.
Rather than a Sebaldesque assemblage like Cameraperson, Dick Johnson Is Dead comes across like a cinematic lyric essay rife with miracles and audacity. Johnson embraces artifice in order to explore fears of dying and grief. In the process, she taps into a familiar desire to cling harder to those we love when it’s clear they won’t be with us much longer. Maybe this movie hits harder at my age, with my parents their respective ages, or maybe it was just the right thing that we needed in 2020. Dick Johnson Is Dead is an extended ugly cry of a film, as much about death as it is about the joys and sorrows of loving the living.