We're running Top 10 features from our critics for the rest of 2020! You can follow them all here.
2020 was a wild year for cinema. The blockbusters couldn’t open without the butts to fill theater seats safely, and wild independent features roamed the VOD landscape to become our primary cinematic delights this year. We should, of course, celebrate smaller, non-studio productions every year, but this year especially highlighted some of the amazing work being done on films without lavish budgets to spend.
I won’t say that this list is entirely incongruous with some of my critical brethren. Sometimes great is great and we are all correct in recognizing it. But there are a few films listed here that I feel aren’t getting their due in this year’s accolades, so here’s hoping my small contribution can get some of you to see the films that I will be revisiting a lot in the years to come.
Runners-up: Birds of Prey, Color Out of Space, Palm Springs, Swallow, Why Don’t You Just Die?
10. We Are Little Zombies
We Are Little Zombies struck me like a bolt out of the blue. Telling the story of four children who find themselves orphaned by a variety of circumstances, this is a film that pits these kids against a world that cannot deal with their lack of outward expression of grief. Bathed in the aesthetic of retro video games, filtered over the world as one could imagine a gamer child would conceptualize reality, the film explores the disconnect between ritualized mourning and the emotional process of coming to terms with loss, evolving into a wicked condemnation of an entertainment industry hellbent on exploiting people who are different for their commercial novelty. Filled with catchy original music and some truly impressive cinematography, We Are Little Zombies should not be missed.
9. The Blood of Wolves
I first saw The Blood of Wolves in 2018 at Fantastic Fest, and I eagerly awaited its US release until it was unceremoniously dropped on Shudder earlier this year. If you follow my social media, you know I’ve been shouting the praises of this film to anyone who will listen, and that’s for good reason. This yakuza thriller is not just a stylistic throwback to the gangland movies of the 1980s with some great misbehavior gags and some gnarly violence. It’s also a potent character study of a bad cop trapped in a world more corrupt than he is and a good cop who needs to reckon with the ineffectiveness of his own idealism. The Blood of Wolves is much smarter and meditative than it first appears, and its transition from outlandish spectacle to philosophical introspection sneaks up on you so subtly you hardly notice it in the moment. Don’t sleep on this one.
8. Sound of Metal
Sound of Metal is a film that one versed in the history of Oscar bait should rightly be wary of, as its premise of a man learning to cope with his new deafness just begs to be folded into the tradition of people shooting for a gold statue by portraying a physical difference. But Riz Ahmed’s performance does a lot more than just emulate a lack of hearing. It highlights the discrimination the deaf community receives from an outside perspective looking in and gradually folds him and the audience into the deaf community. Through this journey, we learn about a culture that does not view their difference as a disability or as something that needs fixing; we see them as people with lives and ambitions. Throw this together with a potent story of chasing an old normal as a form of addiction, a powerful supporting performance from Paul Raci, and a devastating third act, and Sound of Metal overcomes the doubts the rational skeptic might have toward it.
There could not have been a more perfect year for Spontaneous to come out. As we’ve all been collectively trapped in isolation while many in this country died from a virus that our government was incredibly ineffectual in responding to, a story founded on survivor’s guilt and communal helplessness feel all too apropos. But it’s also a fiercely funny, romantic, bloody, and all-around charming teen movie, with loveable characters and a closing monologue for the ages, a giant middle finger to a world that strives to drive us into the dirt under its heel. It’s the kind of catharsis a lot of us need right now, and it will remain one of the most impactful viewing experiences I remember from this year.
6. The True Adventures of Wolfboy
The True Adventures of Wolfboy is the kind of film I wish I’d had more of growing up. It’s a modern fairy tale about not just accepting the differences between people, but about accepting ourselves for our own differences. It’s a journey of self-discovery that doesn’t pander to children as blank slates to be educated, but as fully realized identities that have the potential to find the beauty in themselves through mutual support and kindness. With a satanically villainous turn from John Turturro, a transformative lead performance from Jaeden Martell, and a scene-stealing feature debut from Sophie Giannamore, this is a film that could change the lives of young people who are without a visible community of people like them.
5. Black Bear
Black Bear appeals directly to the part of me who is a messy bitch that loves drama. It’s a wild, unruly film that relies on unreliable narration, a shotgun splatter of motifs and themes, darkly comic cynicism, auteurist solipsism, and a mind-blowingly intricate pair of lead performances from Aubrey Plaza. Do I claim to entirely understand what Black Bear is about or what it specifically wants me to take away from it? No, but anyone who claims to know is straight-up lying to you, because the film is actively working against you in that vein. But the purposeful impenetrability is what’s so fun about watching it. It’s a puzzle box without a solution, a storytelling experience that is self-commentating to the point where you can interpret it in any number of ways. Just let this movie wash over you and then spend the next month thinking about it. You won’t regret doing so.
This one film will eventually force me to cave and get an Apple TV+ subscription. Cartoon Saloon has produced one of the most gorgeously animated films in recent memory, and they crafted a story that melds a typical coming-of-age tale with the complexities of culture clash, the historical reality of religious imperialism in Europe, the terrors of realizing the faults in one’s society, and the jubilation of meeting someone who shows you the path to your truest self. Wolfwalkers could easily have been a reductionist reinterpretation of Disney’s Pocahontas with a coating of Hunchback’s Count Frolo slapped over its villainy, but Wolfwalkers is such a deeper and richer experience than that description implies. It was not my intention to pick three films with Wolf in the title this year, but Wolfwalkers is simply too good to ignore.
3. Saint Frances
In a year full of explicitly feminist filmmaking, Saint Frances stands out for being just as full of joy as it is serious issues in need of discussion and normalization. From abortion to post-partum depression to anti-queer discrimination to the struggles of childrearing, this is a film about women finding and supporting each other with humor and a complete lack of grace. It’s a movie about the power of empathy and the humanity we share through shouldering each other’s burdens and building connections that last lifetimes. Kelly O’Sullivan delivers a star-making performance in a script she wrote herself, and if her career continues to shine as brightly as Saint Frances, we have a lot to look forward to.
2. Da 5 Bloods
Say what you will about Spike Lee, but the man will throw everything into his films as if it’s the last film he’ll ever make. Da 5 Bloods is an intricate tale that uses the tropes and pastiches of the Vietnam War films to act as a direct commentary on American imperialism, the promises made to Black Americans to participate in that imperialism, the American failure to follow through on those promises, and the harm to the psyche of an entire generation unable to reconcile their sacrifices with their lack of gains. It’s a vehicle for some career-best performances from Delroy Lindo and the late Chadwick Boseman, and it will stand the test of time as an exceptionally impressive film in an already exceptional filmography.
1. I’m Thinking of Ending Things
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is like a magic trick where you watch every move the magician makes but you’re still unable to figure out how the trick was done. Jessie Buckley’s considerable acting talents are on full display in a film where the reality of her circumstances is always in question and the simplicity of a trip to a boyfriend’s family’s farm is a gateway to a much more emotionally powerful psychological analysis. Writer-director Charlie Kaufman is always idiosyncratic, but this finds his self-reflection blasting on full and leaves you pondering its quietly powerful finale for months after the credits roll. I said in my review that this is one of the year’s best, and time has only reaffirmed its greatness to me.
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