The Assistant - Kitty Green's film is a series of "no big deal" moments that are strung together to make a powerful portrait of sexual harassment. Jane, played wonderfully by Julia Garner, works for a Weinstein-like movie producer. She begins to notice that behind closed doors the boss, who in a brilliant move is never seen, is clearly abusing young actresses. She tries to bring it up to HR but is ignored. Not much else happens but what is created is a portrait of how complicity eats away at someone. The film will sadly be relevant for decades because of how honest it is about the realities of abuses of power.
Bacurau - Channeling Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah with a dash of John Carpenter, co-directors Kleber Medonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles create an inventive and wild Brazilian western. The perfect blend of pulpy violence and subversive political commentary, the film is unlike anything this year. Genres are bent to their will as we follow a remote rural village as it fights back against a bunch of heavily armed wealthy white blood-sport enthusiasts. They never expect the townsfolk to rise up. It is a joy seeing them do so in this unpredictable, unique film.
The Climb - A wonderful comedy about two friends who manage to remain friends even when one is a complete asshole. The opening scene is one of the year's best scenes. As the two are biking up a steep hill in France, Mike (director Michael Angelo Covino) decides to confess to his best friend Kyle (Kyle Marvin) that he's been sleeping with his fiancée. It is an uncomfortable but funny scene all done in a single extended shot. These friends spend a decade falling in and out of each other's good graces but what remains is an honest friendship. Warm and funny, The Climb is an insightful look at male intimacy.
The Forty-Year Old Version - Writer, director and star Radha Blank burst onto the big or small screen here playing a fictionalized version of herself. She plays a playwright who is struggling to recapture the promise of her career that seems to have peaked years ago. The film has the energy of an early Spike Lee film, capturing New York with a vibrancy not seen in 2020. The film is also incredibly funny and joyful. Blank gives one of the year's best performances in this thrilling debut.
Gunda - One thing that needs to be said about this inventive and powerful documentary, it is not a Vegan message film. Instead, it is a nature documentary, a wholly original one, that so makes you respect the lives of the animals it follows that you might think twice about eating them. From the striking black and white cinematography to the observations on the mundanity of farm life, no film had a stronger emotional impact on me this year. It seems to reinvent the nature documentary.
Lovers Rock - However slight the run-time is of Steve McQueen's best film in his Small Axe anthology, it is packed full of ideas. Plotless but poignant, the film captures a sensuous reggae house party in London in the 1980s. The communal experience around music, dancing, and flirting ends up being a microcosm for the black community in Britain at the time. The amazing soundtrack carefully traces the history of lover's rock, a subgenre of reggae popular at the time. McQueen gives us romance and drama at the party but never lets viewers forget of the racism and oppression lurking just outside of the house party.
Minari - The American dream is explored through the eyes of a boy and his father in writer-director Lee Isaac Chung's emotional film. Steven Yeun is exceptional as a man who must learn how to acclimate to Arkansas and the farm he moves his family to. But what makes the film stand out is that he must also learn how to acclimate to his family, who is at odds with his American dream. The film's details of Korean families only makes the film richer and more specific as it subverts the myth of America while still finding hope in the dreams it inspires.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always - Not the only road trip movie this year surrounding an abortion but certainly the best, Eliza Hittman's film is an empathetic exploration of the realities of living in America as a woman. Two women have to travel across state lines in order for one to obtain a safe, legal abortion. As a teenage girl in this situation, the film's protagonist is faced with a mountain of obstacles. The film could easily have been harrowing, and it is at times, but Hittman finds so many beautiful moments to remind us that there are kind people out there.
Nomadland - This is a marvelous adaptation of nonfiction from writer-director Chloe Zhao. Using Jessica Bruder's book of the same name as a jumping-off point, Zhao paints a sensitive portrait of nomadic workers searching for employment across the American West. Frances McDormand gives a vulnerable performance as Fern but it is the people she meets along the way that sticks with me the most. Using non-actors who seem to share their lives on camera, Zhao makes a film that is authentic and humbling.
Soul - Pixar continues to impress in making unique, original stories. Soul may hit some similar notes that Inside Out did but it has its own purpose and energy. The story follows a middle school music teacher in New York who gets his big break to play piano with a jazz legend only to die before the show. The way Pete Doctor visualizes souls and the afterlife is something to behold. Tina Fey hasn't been this funny in years. The score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is great. The whole thing screams peak Pixar and the only reason it might not land as deeply with some is that they keep delivering the existential goods.
Da 5 Bloods
David Byrne's American Utopia
I'm Thinking of Ending Things
The Invisible Man
The Sound of Metal
The Twentieth Century
The Vast of Night
The Wild Goose Lake