LISTFUL THINKING: The Top 10 Movies of 2020

31 12 2020

What a year, huh?

I began 2020 with grand plans of jetting off to the Venice Film Festival in September and instead learned to love the virtual film festival. I traded New York’s repertory theaters for pop-up drive-in cinemas, AMC A-List for a parade of streaming premieres. In a year that I will mostly remember for revisiting comfort films as WFH background noise as well as catching up with some long-postponed classics, I still managed to see over 185 new releases in 2020. Here are my ten favorites, a crop notable for being half non-fiction films and finding unique ways to grapple with all manner of issues transpiring off-screen.

(P.S. – I tried something a little different for 2020 and originally published my top 10 in zine format, alongside some writing I did earlier in the year about each film. The reflections here are new and exclusive to this list. For more information about how to read the zine, drop me a line somehow and I’ll arrange a view for you.)

Directed by Victor Kossakovsky

No film opened my eyes and expanded my brain to the very nature of the natural world quite like “Gunda” did. In a year spent largely indoors or confined to small pockets of outdoor space, movies from “Nomadland” to “The Nest” and “First Cow” to “Bacurau” helped provide a close approximation of what it means to feel connected to the spirit of the land. But none but Victor Kossakovsky dared to ask us to meet the animal kingdom on their own terms, adapting and observing life at their pace and by their own rules.

Like 2020 itself, the runtime of “Gunda” feels paradoxically a blink of the eye and a lifetime. It’s remarkable how the documentary’s patient glance at farm life brings us in line with the biological clocks of pigs, chickens and cows. We’re both scraping by for dear life and soaking in the day with little regard for the dark fate that lies ahead.

Directed by Pete Docter (co-directed by Kemp Powers)
Written by Pete Docter, Mike Jones and Kemp Powers
Featuring the voices of Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey and Graham Norton

Leave it to Pixar – and Pete Docter, specifically – to distill the essence of our humanity into a poignant narrative and stage it in an unfamiliar, exciting setting to make the lesson feel new again. 2020 was full of high-concept movies like “Another Round” and “Sound of Metal” testing characters to discover what really matters in life. But none did it quite like “Soul,” at once reverting us to a state of childlike wonder and discovery while also penetrating some of the deepest, most mature parts of the psyche.

The journey of Joe towards a more holistic sense of self-actualization finds a way to simply sell the concept of altruism without falling into platitudes. And though it is by no means the film’s primary intent, “Soul” proves a moving corrective to the cultural narratives of singularly obsessed artists. There’s an interplay of purpose and passion in each of our lives, and it’s on each of us to find that sweet spot of nourishing ourselves while also tending to others in our lives.

“City Hall”
Directed by Frederick Wiseman

City Hall in Boston is a building. “City Hall,” Frederick Wiseman’s sprawling documentary, uses the structure as metonymy for what the people who take their directives from that building do out in the community. It’s a staggeringly comprehensive look at how the gears of local government grind. From the front-line defenses serving immediate needs to the patient employees who take the time to listen to concerned citizens all the way to Mayor Marty Walsh’s leadership by example, the film earns its gargantuan runtime.

Our experience of the public sector in 2020 has been one largely filtered through the lens of rhetoric and electoral politics. “City Hall joins the ranks of a quiet few docs from this year such as “Collective” and “Mayor” that take a ground-up view of politics through its function. The government can work – not perfectly, but satisfactorily – when placed in the hands of people who believe it can be used to benefit the lives of the people it serves.

Directed by Garrett Bradley

In a year during which concerns over criminal justice hit new highs, Garrett Bradley’s stirring documentary “Time” arrives at, well, the right time. She translates the institutional nature of America’s prison-industrial complex into personal terms as she introduces us to the indomitable spirit of Fox Rich, a woman fighting to get clemency for her incarcerated husband. Though Fox rails against a cruel system that has affected every portion of her life, her message is one of grace.

There were no shortage of “issues” docs this year that sought to enrage, inform and perhaps inspire. None managed to cleave their stories away from hot-button discussions and capture the fundamental human truth that puts fire in the bellies of activists devoting their lives to a cause quite like this one. “Time” is a story about something we all seek: the durability of the ties that bind us over the strongest forces so that we might share a merciful reunion with the ones we love.

“Dick Johnson Is Dead”
Directed by Kirsten Johnson

“It would be so easy if loving only gave us the beautiful,” says Kirsten Johnson in the boundary-eradicating documentary “Dick Johnson Is Dead.” Embedded in loving someone is the knowledge that we will one day lose them, a hard truth Johnson decides not to take sitting down. Utilizing the full power of the cinema, her films brings the death of her father Dick to life – providing the two of them some sense of agency over the natural process as Dick’s dementia begins to take hold of his mind.

Death was never far from mind in 2020. We can neither change nor stop what is coming for all of us eventually. But “Dick Johnson Is Dead” illustrates that we can change our relationship to it. Kirsten Johnson’s film is vibrant proof that the idea of death can be more healthily managed when contextualized as part of the cyclical nature of life, not some scary event in the distance. We cannot control it, but we can control how we respond to it – and that can make all the difference.

“Palm Springs”
Directed by Max Barbakow
Written by Andy Siara
Starring Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti and J.K Simmons

I suspect more than most 2020 releases, “Palm Springs” might wear the label of “pandemic movie” more like an albatross around its neck than a badge of honor. Nonetheless, it served a valuable purpose at a time in which our collective sense of time felt like an interminable loop of sameness. The film spans a wide range of emotions from hedonistic cynicism to earnest sincerity and sells them all with conviction. (This is especially true for Andy Samberg, stealthily brilliant as a sardonic but sweet leading man.)

I spent a ton of effort breaking down the smallest details of “Palm Springs” in what will likely stand as my most deranged act of journalism for a long time. The task made me appreciate the level of detail baked into the film, sure. But it also served to further endear me to the film’s charming broad strokes as well. Perhaps now I’m locked in a cycle of my own: appreciating and revisiting “Palm Springs.”

Directed by Andrew Ahn
Written by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen
Starring Lucas Jaye, Hong Chau and Brian Dennehy

Posing a vision of America that is at once wholesome and realistic is a tall task in contemporary cinema. But Andrew Ahn pulls it off both convincingly and compellingly in “Driveways,” a story of how we make unlikely communities in the midst of unfavorable situations. Ahn proves particularly skilled at capturing the guileless innocence of youth through pint-sized protagonist Cody. His journey from being another piece of baggage for his stressed-out mother Kathy to worry about to becoming a valued companion to his grizzled neighbor Del is heartwarming to behold.

“Driveways” celebrates the micro-moments of our young selves that form our identities and make us who we are. Ahn acknowledges the humanity and decency of everyone on screen, even if they have off-kilter ways of expressing their feelings. It’s a brief but warm embrace by the impressionability of childhood that wraps us up with thanks for what we’ve gained, not nostalgia for what we might have lost.

“Never Rarely Sometimes Always”
Written and directed by Eliza Hittman
Starring Sidney Flanagan, Talia Ryder and Théodore Pellerin

Female reproductive health had quite the year on screen with “Saint Frances,” “The Surrogate” and “Unpregnant” all adding striking dimensionality to an issue that is frequently rendered with little more than didactic preaching to the choir. But in her clear-eyed and dispassionately rendered procedural look at what it takes for a minor to make a decision for her own health, Eliza Hittman’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” provides one of the most compassionate looks at a system that strips women of humanity and agency. It’s tough to watch if only because it makes us comprehend, step by step, just how tough this bureaucracy is to navigate.

Don’t mistake “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” for an instruction manual, however. Clinical though its contents and narrative might be, detached from humanity it is not. Hittman’s film also doubles as a powerful story of female friendship persevering through a dehumanizing institutional maze. Above all else, the film demonstrates the need for people to support each other when systems are not designed to protect us.

“Boys State”
Directed by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine

There were no shortage of films that bottled up the political mood of the year, but none so seamlessly demonstrated how the tone set at the highest levels of government permeates so thoroughly through the body politic quite like “Boys State.” This documentary, as pulse-pounding and propulsively involving as any movie released in 2020, contains both the present and future of American democracy within its two-hour confines. As Texan teenage boys scrap together a mock government of the people, we can plainly see the lessons they’ve internalized from their elders – and where they might break from orthodoxy when left to their own devices.

Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine’s observational documentary spans a wide gamut of emotions as it dives head-first into a battle of personalities … and, occasionally, some ideas as well. What they see through the eyes of the boys they follow provides revelatory, surprising insight into struggles that are both age-old and newly generational. “Boys State” compresses the rollercoaster journey of a political campaign into feature-length format, the perfect amount of Steve Kornacki energy to ingest out of an election cycle.

“The Assistant”
Written and directed by Kitty Green
Starring Julia Garner and Matthew Macfadyen

Like my favorite movie of last year, “Her Smell,” I saw “The Assistant” in the previous calendar year of 2019. I recognized its tremendous power at the time, and nothing could dislodge it from the top of my favorites for all of 2020. This masterfully executed and singularly focused work by filmmaker Kitty Green moves the conversation about #MeToo beyond simplistic labels of predators, enablers and survivors. It’s a vivid, detailed look at how toxic workplaces are perpetuated through cultures of fear and silence.

None of it would be possible without the compliance of well-meaning but tentative employees like Julia Garner’s titular aide Jane. She’s empowered by the courage of her convictions and the depth of institutional knowledge she possesses but cowered by the lack of support she commands as a young woman trying to work her way up a greasy Hollywood ladder. Each of her cautiously calibrated but effortlessly natural gesture lands like a sonic boom no matter how quiet it appears to her colleagues.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: