Our favorite movies of 2020

1. Days- Two men sit on the edge of a hotel room bed. The camera is positioned at a remove, with one man angled toward it and the other facing away. They are looking at each other after a scene where a massage turned into an ecstatic sexual encounter; now, one man, the one facing the camera, gets a music box and hands it to the other.

This moment in Tsai Ming-liang’s Days cemented it as my favorite film of the year. The simple, nearly wordless exchange between the men (played by Lee Kang-sheng and Anong Houngheuangsy) is somehow more intimate and powerful than what preceded it. Before (and after) the two drift together, Tsai observes them apart, building a profound and disorienting sense of isolation as the men do things like seek treatment for back pain, clean and cook at an apartment, and wander the streets alone. The quiet, deliberate rhythms he builds in these various spaces are transfixing and linger in the mind long after the film concludes.

2. Fourteen- Dan Sallitt’s film is an astonishing portrait of a friendship flailing across decades. Mara (Tallie Madel) and Jo (Norma Kuhling) have known each other since childhood, but the movie is focused on the diverging paths they take as young adults. Told from Mara’s perspective, Fourteen centers on the conflicting impulses to grow into her own life and be there for Jo, who is becoming increasingly unstable amid struggles with mental illness and addiction. It proves to be an impossible situation, and as the years slip by and their connection fades, life relentlessly, and devastatingly, moves on.

3. First Cow- “I taste London in this cake.” This memorable line from Kelly Reichardt’s film comes from a wealthy Englishman in a 19th century settlement in the American Northwest. He is the only one in the area with enough money to have an actual house, and has also recently acquired the area’s first dairy cow. Little does he know, the cake he is eating that reminds him so much of home was made possible by milk stolen from that new cow in the dead of night. Much of First Cow operates as a world-weary heist film involving two men (a cook played by John Magaro and a fugitive played by Orion Lee) who bond on the outskirts of the settlement in between stealing the milk and selling popular baked goods in town. As with her other work, Reichardt’s latest tale of survival and loss is imbued with finely calibrated details of performance and landscape that lend the movie a quiet melancholy.

4. Kajillionaire- It’s good to have Miranda July back. Kajillionaire, her first film since 2011’s excellent The Future, is a marvelously surprising story about a family trio of low-stakes con artists. The two parents (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger) and their daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) scrape by on the margins of Los Angeles by stealing mail from PO boxes, trying to claim rewards for lost or stolen things, and entering random sweepstakes. When an outsider (the exceptional Gina Rodriguez) unexpectedly joins their ranks during an airplane luggage scam that they’re trying to pull off, it creates an unexpected fissure in the group. At first the movie, with a main character named Old Dolio who lives in a house overwhelmed by leaking pink foam, might seem a little too whimsical for its own good. But just beneath that veneer is a long-simmering neglect and desire for connection that is overwhelmingly moving.

5. Charlatan– This was my first experience with the work of director Agnieszka Holland, and after this expansive biopic I’m eager to see more. Charlatan tells the history-spanning story of Jan Mikolášek (a terrific Ivan Trojan), a self-professed herbal healer in early 20th century Czechoslovakia who diagnoses patients by quickly examining vials of their urine. There are several strangely beautiful images of him holding vials of piss up to the light, a yellow glow cast on his furiously determined face. Less a story about the effectiveness or validity of his medical practices, Charlatan is more interested in dwelling in Jan’s many contradictions. Holland and Trojan relish in the messiness of the character; he is blunt and often cruel, yet dedicates his life to what he believes is a spiritual calling. Beneath his veneer of calm detachment is a man both alive with purpose and deeply emotionally repressed.

6. Vitalina Varela– The title character of Pedro Costa’s film exits a plane in Lisbon and is greeted by a group of people who tell her to leave, that there is nothing left for her there. The husband she was coming to reunite with has passed away, but she silently pushes on. This is a good summation of what happens in much of the rest of the movie but is totally inadequate in describing the haunting, shadow-drenched beauty of it. Vitalina Varela is a reality-blurring odyssey haunted by ghosts. A semi-autobiographical portrait of its star, Vitalina’s wide, wounded eyes, seem to contain oceans of unfathomable feeling.

7. Da 5 Bloods– Spike Lee had quite a year. In addition to this Vietnam War drama, he also released a David Byrne concert movie and a moving short film about Covid-19 and New York. I hope to catch up with the Byrne documentary someday, but even if the only thing Lee had done this year was Da 5 Bloods it would be plenty to mull over. This sprawling epic is a story of unfinished business involving four black servicemembers who return to Vietnam to find the remains of their fallen squad leader (Chadwick Boseman) as well as a hidden cache of CIA gold. That gold, as noted by K. Austin Collins in Vanity Fair, “has all the sparkling qualities of long overdue reparations.” Featuring an incredible ensemble, including an astonishing performance by Delroy Lindo, Da 5 Bloods is not a story of old wounds reopening as much as it is about wounds that never healed and never will.

8. Mank– It has been too long since David Fincher released a movie. After wrapping 2014’s Gone Girl (one of the best films of the last decade), he has largely been devoting his time to Netflix programs House of Cards and (the much better) Mindhunter. His new film, about the writing of Citizen Kane, is a personal passion project for Fincher that was written by his father, Jack. The Mank of the title is Herman J. Mankiewicz (played here by Gary Oldman), the boozy screenwriter who won an Oscar for cowriting Orson Welles’ legendary drama. Beyond battle over writing credit, though, is a potent vendetta and incisive political battle involving the inspiration for Kane, the business tycoon William Randolph Hearst. This is the true heart of the film, a Hollywood insider drama where what’s inside is cold, calculated manipulation.

9. On the Rocks– Sofia Coppola reunites with Bill Murray for this sly, rambunctious father/daughter caper. Murray plays Felix, a globetrotting womanizer who takes a sudden interest in helping his daughter Laura (Rashida Jones) find out if her husband (Marlon Wayans) is cheating on her. Felix uses his own myriad experience as an unfaithful husband to goad Laura on, but she remains skeptical of him and his attempt to reinsert himself in her life. Coppola is an expert at conveying the unspoken bonds between people, and in On the Rocks she finds more strain in that silence than anything.

10. City Hall– Frederick Wiseman’s latest documentary is an epic chronicle of Boston city government. He captures a remarkable democratic tension that emerges between residents and the various institutions amid everyday meetings and hearings about housing, racial justice, and business licensing. Though these discussions form the core of the movie, City Hall is filled with intriguing and sometimes quietly moving digressions that show everything from parking ticket disputes to the city’s eviction prevention program.

Runner-ups:

Shirley

Let Them All Talk

The Woman Who Ran

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

The Assistant

Dick Johnson Is Dead

Malmkrog

Minari

She Dies Tomorrow

Time

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