The Best Films Of 2020

by on January 5, 2021

2020 truly showed how film streaming could be a godsend to cinephiles.  Thanks to COVID concerns, theatrical screenings became impractical for most of 2020.  But the pivoting to virtual cinema screenings by San Francisco’s Roxie Theater among others allowed new foreign and independent films to reach interested viewers.  Equally importantly, having film festivals of various stripes offer film streaming opportunities opened opportunities for Bay Area viewers to check out festivals from such other parts of the country as New York City and Washington, D.C.  As a result, this year’s lists of best films include more than a few films that never saw the inside of a local movie theater. 

             The usual caveats apply in what follows.  There are quite a few well-regarded films such as “The Edge Of Night” that this writer lacked either time or access to see and consider for these lists.  The non-appearance of films well-regarded by others but not considered by this writer reflects either his personal idiosyncrasies or a taste in movies that can always use further evolution.

             As a technical note, “Short Films” refer to films with running times of 60 minutes or less.

 Short Films

 1.  The Curve–Nobody’s denying (except idiot right-wing cultists) that the coronavirus proved one of 2020’s great disasters.  But Adam Benzine’s damning documentary shows how the disease combined with the bungling incompetence of the Orange Skull administration’s coronavirus response to create a perfect storm of an American death toll that’s reached 346,000 and counting.  Something is seriously amiss when the country that was once devastated by Ebola does a far better job than the US in controlling coronavirus infections.  (Note: In the interests of full disclosure, this writer contributed to the Kickstarter that made Benzine’s film available on YouTube in the week before the November elections.)

 2.  John Was Trying To Contact Aliens–John Shepherd thought for years that jazz and reggae broadcasts were the key to establishing first contact with extraterrestrials.  Matthew Killip’s Sundance Jury Award winner entertainingly recounts this strange but true story.  The practical reasons why Shepherd’s plan wouldn’t have worked (e.g. interstellar distances) take a back seat to eventually learning the unspoken human needs behind Shepherd’s efforts.  

 3.  Serious Matters In The Middle Of The Night–Perhaps it’s appropriate that Josh Copeland’s short film takes its title from a Philip K. Dick quote.  This film is about the intersection of technology and religious faith in a somewhat near future American South.  Even in a world filled with flying cars, people still have a need to believe in something greater than themselves.  But Copeland’s film intriguingly demonstrates what happens when your deity of choice can be customized like an app.  

 4.  Bertie–Garry Crystal’s offbeat English fantasy boasted an excellent central cast (Alison Steadman, Jemima Rooper, and Arthur Darvill) in this wonderfully ambiguous tale about reincarnation.  Put together a young family (a newborn baby, an easygoing husband, and a Momzilla), the semi-dotty next door neighbor, and her titular pug dog who may or may not be a reincarnated loved one.  Is the dog really somebody’s reincarnation or an emotional Rohrschach blot?  

 5.  A New Leash On Life–Daniel Jeffery’s dark comedy will make viewers glad they never owned a talking pet.  Basketball’s rageholism outweighs his virtues as a talking dog.  But the film’s real fun comes from seeing Basketball using every dog trick known to avoid getting put down by his human.  If this is a one-joke story, it’s a nicely told one.

 Honorable Mentions:  Dieorama, In The Deathroom, Lost Lula, Were You Gay In High School?, Bureau 39: Kim’s Cash Machine 

Documentaries

 1 (tie) Collective  and The Dissident–Is it a blessing or a curse that both of these riveting (in different ways) documentaries about the dark side of politics both appeared in the same year?    Alexander Nanau’s investigation of the aftermath of a tragic nightclub fire may initially spark reformist zeal.  But what happens when the corruption that’s revealed is far more systemic than expected?  Bryan Fogel’s powerful investigation of the brutal murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi shows how culpability for the killing ultimately leads to the front door of alleged modernizer Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.  The Saudi Arabian leader also gets revealed as a major fomentor of illiberalism both internally and abroad.  The revelations in both films are unlikely to prompt its perpetrators to reform their corrupt ways.  But at least “Collective” and “The Dissident” proudly refuse to be complicit via silence.  

 3.  Dick Johnson Is Dead–Director Kirsten Johnson’s film wonderfully twists the personal documentary and the “dealing with a loved one’s impending demise” trope in occasionally mind-bending and even darkly funny ways.  The titular man happens to be the director’s retired psychiatrist father, whose mind is being eroded by Alzheimer’s.  Yet in enacting faked scenarios of Mr. Johnson’s death and even his experience in the afterlife, the lack of knowing when and how Mr. Johnson’s demise occurs give way to a type of acceptance.  Having lots of glitter and fake blood helps too.

   4.  Welcome To Chechnya–Watching David France’s real-life chiller sparks the thought that American homophobes would consider Chechnya heaven on earth.  Homophobia sanctioned by Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov results in unfortunate LGBTs in the country subjected to unpunished street beatings, sexual blackmail, and even forced marriage.  While the underground Russian LGBT activists France’s film follows do what they can to save these persecuted Chechens, the viewer can only feel helpless frustration with the bittersweet nature of even the more successful rescue efforts.  

 5.  City So Real–Steve James’ 5-hour film used the very contentious 2019 mayoral race and its aftermath as a framework for a fascinating multilayered look at life in Chicago, aka America’s third largest city.  It’s a wide-ranging portrait of divergent interests struggling to either shape the city’s future or even have a better personal future.  While the film has its share of serious political moments (e.g. a corruption scandal involving a veteran alderman running for re-election), it also makes time for lighter incidents such as a comical ballot challenge or Chicagoans’ raised hopes for the Chicago Bears’ fortunes.  

 6.  Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution–Who knew a stay at a special Catskills summer camp would lead to a decades-long struggle that eventually changed America?  As James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham’s film shows, Camp Jened’s revolutionary treatment of its wheelchair bound and neurodivergent campers as full human beings would eventually inspire some of its former attendees to fight to change how the wider American society accommodated them.  For those who wonder why the Americans With Disabilities Act matters, here is your answer. 

 7.  Capital In The 21st Century–Who says a film can’t seamlessly blend pop culture and economics?  Director Justin Pemberton does exactly that with this successful synthesis of the central ideas of Thomas Piketty’s titular best-seller.  Beneath the insights of Piketty and Joseph Stiglitz and his use of the Lorde song “Royals,” the director reveals an insufficiently noticed truth.  Rather than an engine of social progress, modern capitalism is currently paving the way for a return of aristocratic classes and their accompanying social regression.

 8.  Mayor–If you thought being mayor of Chicago is a political handful, try the mayoral position occupied by director David Osit’s subject Musa Hadid.  This likable man happens to be the mayor of Ramallah.  Osit’s tragicomic chronicle captures a man caught between trying to provide normal civic services (such as a public Christmas celebration) and constantly dealing with an unfortunately ubiquitous Israeli Occupation aimed at harassing the resident Palestinians out of the area.  If the Israelis truly want Palestinians to “recognize their country’s right to exist,” maybe they could start by abandoning their national cottage industry of finding new ways to screw over the Palestinians.      

 9.  Wojnarowicz: F**k You F*gg*t F**ker–Director Chris McKim’s unapologetic biography of unabashedly political gay artist David Wojnarowicz shows that time has dimmed neither the power nor relevance of Wojnarowicz’ work.  Drawing heavily from Wojnarowicz’ own audio diaries and writings, McKim captures the synergy between the artist’s life and the sociopolitical oppression of the times he lived in.  Perhaps this norm-shattering year has finally made ordinary Americans ready to appreciate the art of a man whose work has the effect of receiving an aesthetic knuckle sandwich.

 10.  Varda By Agnes–This hell year had the small benefit of seeing the posthumous commercial release of the famed French Nouvelle Vague director’s final film.  This documentary can be described as part autobiography, part entertaining film school lecture by Varda about her oeuvre, and overall genial charmer.  For one last time, fans of Varda can enjoy seeing the director talk about beloved late husband Jacques Demy, her love of cats, and even her fascination with heart-shaped potatoes.

 Honorable Mentions:  Irmi, We Have Boots, Love & Stuff, Our Flag Will Never Be Red, Truth To Power: Barbara Lee Speaks For Me

 Features

 1.   First Cow–For those who feel the phrase “America is a land of opportunity” is just a bunch of empty words, Kelly Reichardt’s new film takes viewers to a time and place when that sentiment was actually physically true.  The early nineteenth century Pacific Northwest where her film is set is still wild enough to believe in possibilities.  But for lead characters Cookie and King Lu finding the possibility that will make their fortune proves difficult.  Can the opportunity the duo eventually choose be condemned especially when what they do is far less devastating than what was done to the Native Americans by the white man?

 2.  Bacurau–The title of Kleber Mendonca Filho and Juliano Dornelles’ film is the name of a fictional village in the Brazilian sertao.  While the film starts out as an ensemble drama/comedy, it shifts gears after borrowing the genre trope of Third World village under siege by outsiders.  Filho and Dornelles’ film distinguishes itself by disposing of the trope’s associated plot mechanics.  Equally importantly, it gives a glorious middle finger to the colonialist attitudes embodied by the Orange Skull Jr.s of the world.   

 3.  I Do Not Care If We Go Down In History As Barbarians–The Pacific Film Archive capped its Romanian film series with this Radu Jude dark political comedy.  Theater director Mariana Marin is trying to direct a public recreation of Marshal Ion Antonescu’s notorious World War II massacre of thousands of Jews at Odessa.  But between “Antonescu Was Right” volunteers and a supportive/antagonistic City Hall official, the film’s always intriguing discussions spark the question of who Marin truly wants to benefit from the recreation’s performance.    

 4.  Portrait Of A Lady On Fire–Celine Sciamma’s beautiful and sensuous film might be called a look at nurturing love under impossible circumstances.  The painter/subject relationship between Marianne and Heloise may eventually blur.  But neither woman has the power to have their love withstand the demands of an arranged marriage.  Yet Sciamma shows how each woman manages to establish what Alan Moore called a small inch within which she is free.  

 5.  Never Rarely Sometimes Always–Obtaining an abortion may be the primary aim of protagonist Autumn.  Yet Eliza Hittman’s drama focuses less on the politics of abortion and more on the politics of trying to carve out opportunities for personal agency in the face of societal barriers.  Autumn’s stealing money from her workplace to fund her trip to get an abortion may be wrong.  But it’s hard to argue that either the local Crisis Pregnancy Center’s misinformation or her parents’ probable opposition to any abortion is ethically superior.  

 6.  The Trial Of The Chicago Seven–The titular trial and the events that led up to it become in director/writer Aaron Sorkin’s hands a notorious precedent for the Orange Skull’s ongoing abuse of democratic power.  Sorkin argues the only real crime Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, and the others were guilty of was daring to challenge The Man.  Admittedly, presiding judge Julius Hoffman could only have magnified the kangaroo court nature of this trial by magically teleporting the courtroom to Australia.  Yet even in this grim set-up, the director/writer shows how odd moments of humor and even a moral victory can be eked out.  Incidentally, Sacha Baron Cohen memorably creates a wonderfully canny Abbie Hoffman.

 7.  Martin Eden–Pietro Marcello’s adaptation of local writer Jack London’s semi-autobiographical novel may have changed the story’s time period and geographical setting.  But that alteration doesn’t undercut the story’s sweep as it follows the title character’s struggle to rise above his proletarian roots to write well enough to convey the world he came from to others.  Marcello ultimately challenges the viewer to consider what popular success is worth when it’s severed from political commitment or even class consciousness.  

 8.  Da 5 Bloods–Trust director Spike Lee to goose the old colonialist adventure plot of “Americans go to a foreign land to extract treasures unclaimed by the country’s inhabitants.”  By making the setting present-day Vietnam and his lead characters an all-Black quartet of Vietnam vets, he brings in the political contexts that such “adventure” stories typically sweep under the rug.   The gold these vets are secretly seeking turns out to be a McGuffin.  The film’s real treasure comes from its working in such subjects as Black Lies Matter or fighting for a country that considers you a second-class citizen.

 9,  Owners–This Czech dark comedy from director Jiri Havelka adapts his play “The Society Of Owners.”  It follows the HOA meeting from Hell, as an increasingly frustrated chairwoman tries to get her fellow owners to agree on making some much needed repairs to their building.  What makes this tragicomedy so unfortunately relevant is showing how sticking to petty agendas undermine democracy’s effectiveness.

 10.  Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom–Performances by Viola Davis as the titular mother of the blues and Chadwick Boseman in his final screen performance as ambitious trumpeter Levee have rightfully drawn the most talk about this film.  But George C. Wolfe’s adaptation of this August Wilson play also finds ways to foreground the societal racism that’s an undercurrent in the material.  By the film’s end, viewers will appreciate how Rainey’s being “difficult” is a form of rebellion.    

 11.  The Heist Of The Century–One of the best heist caper movies of recent years re-tells the true story of Argentina’s Banco Rio heist.  Ariel Winograd’s treatment mixes comedy, inventive suspense, and tons of 1960s-style cool.  Admittedly, the film emphasizes entertainment over such political issues as the antagonistic relationship between ordinary Argentinians and banks.  But at least the “crime does not pay” message proves far less important than expected. 

 12.  A Shaun The Sheep Movie: Farmageddon–Directors Will Becher and Richard Phelan unleash the titular rule breaking and mischief-making sheep on various science fiction tropes.  The incredibly entertaining result is hilarious dialogue-free chaos.  Between some great visual puns and references to “E.T.” and “Doctor Who” among others, the viewer might wind up watching future science fiction films with a heavy slice of giggling.   

 13.  Kajillionaire–Evan Rachel Wood’s Old Dolio turns out to be 2020’s poster child for the effects of toxic parenting.  To her con artist parents, showing their daughter any personal affection is less honest than working her into yet another low level scam.  What could have been the stuff of tragedy gets transformed by director Miranda July into rueful off-kilter humor.

 14.  Residue–Mission District residents priced out of their ‘hood by privileged white asswipes will relate to Merawi Gerima’s debut film.  Gentrification has turned aspiring filmmaker Jay’s childhood Washington, D.C. neighborhood of Eckington into emotionally foreign turf.  The unfortunately ever-present white newcomers act as if they possess greater entitlement to live there than its longtime Black residents.  Plot matters less than Gerima’s charting of Jay’s steadily alienated mental state. 

 15.  The Old Guard–Director Gina Prince-Bythewood successfully took a cinematic sledgehammer to the walls of the superhero movie boys’ club with this tale of a team of near-immortal soldiers.  Having the female soldiers be the team badasses as well as giving the team an openly gay male couple goes farther than anything Marvel or DC has done representation-wise with their movies.  Thank the script by Greg Rucka (who adapted his titular comic book series) and another great action star turn by Charlize Theron as the group’s leader. 

 Honorable Mentions:  Murmur, Alice, Special Actors, Jumbo, Bleed With Me, A Sun, Labyrinth Of Cinema, Monsoon

 2020’s Oddest Feature Film Title:  Jesus Shows You The Way To The Highway

 (Many of the films listed are available on Netflix or other video streaming services)

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