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BEST OF 2020: FILM
This is it, we’re at the end. The long year of 2020 is finally coming to a close, and while the future doesn’t look particularly bright just yet, it is a perfect time to kick back – at least for a moment. I saw hundreds of films this year, some luckily in theaters before they closed. Picking just twenty out of them all wasn’t an easy task. Nevertheless, here they are, along with links to their reviews. I hope you’ll find some that you also loved, or new favorites you’ll enjoy in the future. Whatever happens, I wish that I’ll see you next year as Toisto continues into its second year.
Thank you for tuning in.
Released in late January in Finland, LITTLE WOMEN is still my favorite film of the year. A heartwarming, intensely touching story about growing up and holding on to your ideals – even as they, and you, change over the years.
Immaculately written and directed by Greta Gerwig and brought to life by an extraordinary cast, there isn’t a single thing in LITTLE WOMEN out of place. I’ve seen it now in its entirety five times, and even more in bits and pieces, and every single minute spent with the film is a joy. Movies like this are rare and deserve to be cherished by anyone who loves the artform.
After sneak previews all over 2019, PARASITE finally arrived in Finland in early 2020, just in time to sweep the Oscars in a triumphant reminder that even a broken clock gets it right on occasion. Directed by Bong Joon-Ho, PARASITE feels like it came out a decade ago, yet all time and place melds away when you watch it.
The story of an opportunistic and impoverished family, driven to drastic measures by a ruthlessly capitalist society, is a riveting moral fable that continues to impress even after a dozen viewings. A black-and-white version came out this fall, which accentuated the Hitchcockian elements further, but it’s in the original that the luscious paradoxes of the haves and the have-nots genuinely shine.
Lulu Wang’s impeccable meditation on culture, family, and loss snuck into my heart so late in 2019 that it officially became an early 2020 release in my books.
Anchored by a remarkably mature and heartbreaking performance from Awkwafina, THE FAREWELL is the kind of coming of age story that everyone in their 20s and beyond needs to see. Wang handles the nuance of going back home and finding it a strange place imperceptibly well, and her direction mixes melancholy with nostalgia so deftly it’s hard to say which is bitter or sweet.
Kelly Reichardt’s gentle and wonderfully meandering take on friendship blooming in an inhospitable frontier world is one of the most pleasurable indie films of the year.
Tenderly shedding light on compassion in the face of the birth of capitalism, FIRST COW is at once a ballad for friendship as it is a startling dismissal of what our society would become. The scene of two strangers forming a wordless bond through acts of kindness remains one of the greatest all year.
As a depiction of a failed society, no other film this year comes close to Chloe Zhao’s immaculate and heartbreaking NOMADLAND. Led by Frances McDormand’s towering performance, every single moment in the movie feels authentic and honest.
McDormand’s Fern leads a life of isolation, where the seasonal work between major cities is the only way to track the years’ passage. Intensely humane, Zhao’s picture doesn’t judge its subjects, nor does it romanticize life on the road. Instead, like a feature-length Springsteen song, it observes a world of inhumane uncertainty, where not even goodbyes can afford finality.
THE VAST OF NIGHT
Made on a shoestring budget with great ambition, THE VAST OF NIGHT is as stunning a debut as anything I’ve ever seen. Reminiscent of a young Steven Spielberg, director Andrew Patterson leads audiences through a TWILIGHT ZONE-Esque romp across 1950s New Mexico.
Impressively led by a duo of young actors, this dialog heavy, almost radio play styled thriller comes packed with dense monologues and intense thrills. It’s the kind of calling card that should ensure everyone involved in the picture to have long and storied careers in film for the rest of their lives.
NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS
A despondent and bleak road movie brimming with love, NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS is a film that everyone, but most especially young men, should watch to broaden their horizons.
The story of two girls leaving their backward hometown to get an abortion doesn’t make for an easy recommendation or a fun night out. But thanks to note-perfect directing from Eliza Hittman and two astoundingly mature performances from Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder, NEVER RARELY is the kind of film you can’t look away from, even when you’d want to.
DA 5 BLOODS
While not quite the earth-shattering experience that was BLACKKKLANSMAN, Spike Lee’s latest opus proves that he’s still one of the most unique and startling voices in cinema today. With towering performances from Delroy Lindo and a cast of brilliant character actors, DA 5 BLOODS is a modern-day TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE that builds on the cinematic legacy by unearthing the unspoken trauma of Vietnam veterans.
Brilliantly told through flashbacks where those who’ve died remain young, while the survivors age even as their souls remain in the past, Lee uses every trick in the book to eviscerate audience expectations of how a war film should look and feel.
I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS
I’m an anxious and depressed person by nature. My brain chemistry is faulty that way. There isn’t a single moment in my past that I can look at without imagining a thousand alternatives they could have gone. So there’s a gentle comfort in seeing how Charlie Kaufman feels the same way, as otherwise, I can’t imagine he could communicate so eloquently how regret and longing feel like on screen.
Told through a story of a collapsing relationship making a last stab at normality by a visit to meet the parents, Kaufman’s film transcends time and space as it quickly turns inward. By the time the world starts to make sense, it’s already too late. In the end, all we have is a past we want to exist, and a future we dread to encounter.
No other films this year had it as bad as DARK WATERS. Directed by Todd Haynes and featuring a stellar performance from Mark Ruffalo, it’s a film with all the hallmarks of a great American classic, yet nobody saw it. Initially scheduled for a Finnish release in early March, it was postponed due to COVID19 to midsummer, after which it disappeared from theaters. A UK DVD exists, and a US-only blu-ray made the rounds earlier in the year, but it might as well be as if the release never happened.
Which, ironically, is surprisingly apt for this film. A legal thriller featuring a David and Goliath style battle for basic accountability, DARK WATERS features one of the most horrifying true stories to come out of corporate culture run wild. Ruffalo kicks ass as the hangdog attorney fighting for decades to get DuPont, one of the largest chemical companies globally, to own up to their actions that killed thousands. As every being on the planet becomes a carrier of poisonous Teflon (including you), DuPont escapes responsibility, as everyone shrugs and ignores the horror before their eyes. You owe it to yourself to see this film.
I’m cheating a bit, but hear me out. No other actress starred in better pictures than Essie Davis, and nobody else stood out like her. From the heartbreaking BABYTEETH to THE TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG, with a quick sojourn into a globetrotting adventure in MISS FISHER AND THE CRYPT OF TEARS, Davis once again solidifies herself as one of the great actors currently working. She’s a radiant presence no matter the part, easily walking away with any role she takes like nobody’s business.
LA BELLE ÉPOQUE
This year saw the release of three time travel films, none of which are technically time travel pictures. Yet it is LA BELLE ÉPOQUE, from Nicolas Bedos, that stole my heart. It’s the story of Victor, a technophobe at the twilight of his life, who yearns a return to simpler times of his youth.
The chance finally arrives in the form of an old student specializing in extensive role-playing scenarios, where the customer is transported to a perfectly recreated set of their choosing, free to enjoy a weekend in make-believe-history. While others enjoy slapping Hitler or pretending to be a great explorer, Victor chooses to go back to the late summer of his twenties, where he met the love of his life. As his yearning becomes overpowering, Victor finds himself unable to leave the comforting fiction of his memories.
Astute, poetic, melancholy, funny, and ultimately uplifting, LA BELLE ÉPOQUE is a brilliant reminder that our personal histories are rarely truthful.
WHY DON’T YOU JUST DIE!
Directed by Kirill Sokolov, WHY DON’T YOU JUST DIE is one of the best debut features since Tarantino stormed Sundance with RESERVOIR DOGS. Sokolov calls it an apartment-western, and it’s an apt description for the insanity contained in the ruthlessly efficient 100 minutes.
With shocking and beautifully choreographed violence, superb comic timing, and an elegant understanding of genre expectations, Sokolov’s feature debut is an essential blueprint for all filmmakers to study. It’s maddening how good it is.
LUZ: THE FLOWER OF EVIL
LUZ stands out as one of the most effective and haunting horror films in recent memory in a year of outstanding debuts. Directed with a graceful traditionalist streak by Juan Diego Escobar Alzate, LUZ looks like a painting of paradise, complete with the darker underbelly buried away in the picturesque landscape.
With Yuri Vargas and Conrado Osorio’s blistering performances, LUZ is a classic dreamlike nightmare, where emotion overrides logic and madness creeps in from every frame. The pacing is deliberate, which means that by the time Alzate unleashes the intense finale, the waking nightmare is so strong it proves impossible to break free.
QUEEN & SLIM
Directed by Melina Matsoukas from a powerful screenplay by Lena Waithe, QUEEN & SLIM is similar to NOMADLAND. They’re both like modern folksongs about people caught in a broken system. Following the tragic runaway of two strangers out on a date gone wrong, Matsoukas’ evocative and heartbreaking feature captures modern-day America’s unfair and inhumane conditions.
As told by Waithe in one of the best-written scripts of the last decade, QUEEN & SLIM is intense viewing with little reprieve. But it’s also soulful, eloquent, vibrant, and one of the great voices in communicating how it feels to be under the oppression of a system others call normal.
THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD
Updating Charles Dickens is something every filmmaker seems to want to do, yet it’s a rare few who truly succeed. So imagine the surprise when Armando Iannucci comes along, announcing he’ll not just rewrite portions of the classic Dickensian novel but turn it into a meta-fiction about the power of stories we tell ourselves. Surely that kind of an attempt will amount to nothing more than an ambitious trainwreck? But not so here, as Iannucci seemingly effortlessly brings the classic to life with wit and warmth to spare.
Dev Patel is a revelation as Copperfield, easily pulling off the highwire act of a man trying to please everyone as he seeks for his true self, and the cast of British acting royalty certainly doesn’t hurt. The result is one of the best adaptations of the master writer’s work.
MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM
As much a stellar reworking of the August Wilson play as it as a final farewell to a life cut short, MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM is heartbreaking viewing no matter how you look at it.
Wilson’s sharp prose translates to the screen like the music the band plays, and it’s with immense sorrow we watch as Chadwick Boseman delivers his final and best performance on screen. It’s one of those films that we should treasure to have but would easily trade away if it meant we could have the man back instead.
This unexpectedly sweet and daring romcom turned up from nowhere, upending the cliché that only GROUNDHOG DAY can do the time-loop thing correctly. Andy Samberg elevates his manchild act into something more profound, but it’s Cristin Millioti that is the revelation.
She’s already been the best thing in everything she does, but PALM SPRINGS finally gives her material that is on her level. And while the film doesn’t quite stick the landing, the journey is so rewarding that I didn’t care. There’s too much to love here, not least the bravery in using a slapstick comedy to deal with the trauma of an entire generation stuck in limbo. Bravo.
MANK is David Fincher at his most surprisingly sentimental. It’s a hero worship biopic that doesn’t care about the truth in the least, yet somehow works even through these failings. Based on a Pauline Kael essay that’s widely debunked by now, MANK is downright fawning at the feet of Herman J. Mankiewicz, one of the screenwriters of CITIZEN KANE.
This is Gary Oldman’s show, who plays gaudy boisterousness like none other. But he’s also remarkably subdued, carrying on his shoulders the kind of regret and self-loathing that only creatives can muster. There’s also a bunch of industry lingo and history that should keep film fans happy, just don’t go in expecting a lot of it to be entirely true. But ignoring that, MANK is one of the most efficiently creative films of the year and a technical wonder born from a love of yesteryear that I didn’t think Fincher had in him.
BIRDS OF PREY
If there’s going to be a superhero film on this list, then by god, it will be BIRDS OF PREY. Essentially the first good DC film since DARK KNIGHT RISES, BIRDS is an absolute riot from beginning to end, finally doing something new and exciting with the sagging franchise.
The cast is a hoot, the action inventive, and it’s such a joy in watching something else than a bunch of middle-aged men in latex try to out-emo each other while pretending like this is high art. Screw that noise; give me Margot Robbie hitting people with an oversized mallet any day.