The best films of 2020 — a year when we couldn't go to the movies

click to enlarge Martin Eden. - Kino Marquee
Kino Marquee
Martin Eden.

It’s no secret that the film industry this year — and film coverage with it — has been upended by the same foul events as just about everything else. The good news is that many a smaller distributor has risen to the challenge, making works available both directly and in partnerships with countless theaters’ Virtual Cinema programs, among them the DFT, Cinema Detroit, and Hamtramck’s own Film Lab.

Gaps in both coverage, theatrical viewing, and tentpole-fixated discourse have created a space for both international and independent releases, allowing works as far-ranging as Bacurau and First Cow to gain traction in the early days of widespread lockdowns, with many more to follow.

What all this means is that most of the best work wasn’t seen — or seen much — in actual theaters, caught via other distribution modes at home, splintering messaging, viewership, and word of mouth. This partial evening of the playing field helped to underscore the startling number of works available (which may not persist into next year, given the many halted productions). While lists such as these can never be comprehensive and any writer’s feelings could shift by the day, what follows is a loosely ranked list of the best works available locally or online that yours truly caught this year.

Honorable Mentions:
Bacurau; Born to Be; Never Rarely Sometimes Always; On the Rocks; The Truth; Zombi Child

10. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets

Directed by Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross (available at $0.99 on Amazon, other rates elsewhere)

While the Ross brothers pluck the heartstrings of many a bar-sick viewer with this almost-documentary, charting the final night of a Vegas dive bar in a way that’s at once credible, affectionate, and unforgiving, they also succeed where many have failed. Films like Waiting, Waitress, and Support the Girls have struggled to depict the “real” service industry as either gooily chummy surrogate families or crass, back-biting, and lacking varnish. Bloody preserves what they don’t, capturing an offbeat milieu’s surprisingly inclusive air, getting but not gilding the stew of bickering, bonding, and spontaneous conversation so many have been missing.

9. We Are Little Zombies

Directed by Makoto Nagahisa (on Kino Marquee)

Following a cult-favorite band composed of four depressive, orphaned kid gamers, Nagahisa’s vibrant style proves florid but incisive, suggesting sharpened experience and heightened vulnerability through flattened, gleaming colors and whirlwind cutting and effects. No mere head-trip, Zombies is psychologically acute, seeing what its young stars miss as they stumble through their grief — looking after them like the attentive ghosts of the ones they’ve lost.

8. Tommaso

Directed by Abel Ferrara (on Kino Marquee)

Willem Dafoe stars in Ferrara’s recent bildungsroman, capturing the day-to-day of a sober expat filmmaker in Rome: walking, working, and grabbing gelato with his wife and daughter. Despite a surface idyllic cast (smiling chatter, acting workshops, breathing exercises predominate), Ferrara’s darting, sensitive camera betrays underlying struggles destined to come to the fore.

7. Possessor

Directed by Brandon Cronenberg (on most streaming platforms)

Brandon Cronenberg’s violent, body-swiping, high-horror premise — which sees subjects surveiled and then “possessed” by corporate operatives for various forms of ill-won gain — is massaged via techniques of effect, framing, and performance that recall Jonathan Glazer or David Lynch as much as the director’s father’s in terms of consideration and taste. Boosted by a splendid cast (Andrea Riseborough stars) and fine-grained plotting, Possessor’s more than earned the right to be taken on its own terms.

6. Young Ahmed

Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (on Kino Marquee)

Despite what seems a suspect, nightmare premise (a young Muslim teen is radicalized by his local imam toward violence), this Belgian social drama succeeds by portraying Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi) as misguided and vulnerable, if not quite innocent, both subject to forces beyond himself and an outlier within an exceedingly well-drawn and ideologically diverse community. Concerned, like Ahmed’s peers and mentors, with hope for his future instead of political alarmism, Young Ahmed treats him with the care and attention those around him sometimes fail to, declining to offer easy answers nonetheless.

5. The Wild Goose Lake

Directed by Diao Yi’nan (Free on TUBI, available elsewhere)

A sinuous, airtight Chinese neo-noir that insists on constant reinvention, Diao Yi’nan’s newest delivers terrific action, sly character work, and the local textures of Wuhan’s underworld, while keeping viewers constantly off-balance.

4. First Cow

Directed by Kelly Reichardt

Subjects on the margins of America’s own early margins form the subject of Reichardt’s witty and touching small-scale western, with John Magaro and Orion Lee starring as impoverished frontiersmen looking to get ahead. While suspense, genre revisionism, and subversion of expectations are key drivers in the film’s examinations of class and social structure, it’s Reichardt’s attention to daily rhythms, emotionally grounded performance, and the textures of workaday life — all specialties of hers — that really makes things stick.

3. Lovers Rock

The second installment of Small Axe, written + directed by Steve McQueen for Amazon

With its stunning reggae soundtrack, nearly all-Black cast (populated by many newcomers), and styles that make the most of its 1980 setting, Lovers documents what might be a mundane house party, yet feels like nothing else, its broader themes belying its close scale. While posing questions about community, culture, and how they integrate into society’s broader whole, the film’s confined largely to under 70 minutes at a single setting nonetheless. Privileging aesthetic texture, feeling, and experience above all else, viewers will find Lovers better and richer for doing so.

2. City Hall

Directed by Frederick Wiseman (available for now at the Loft Cinema’s website)

Scenes from City Hall more touch fingertips than they do join hands, but a steady thematic current moves between them nonetheless. An eviction board meeting butts up against construction of a new apartment building, the film’s grand social questions mirrored by its over-four-hour length and broad scope. Matters of what makes a city, how and for whom we build societies, and of what we owe one another are ones Wiseman’s more than up to examining, with Boston’s leadership, citizens, and institutions witnessed as they manage to serve and fail each other. Perhaps best of all, Wiseman never presents effort or intent as granters of a free pass. Every city deserves a film like this, though this could stand for most.

1. Martin Eden

Directed by Pietro Marcello (on the Film Lab’s Virtual Cinema and Kino Marquee)

Transplanting a Jack London novel to Italy, Martin finds an ever-tense Luca Marinelli as the titular sailor and eventual writer, engrossed first by romantic longing and then by interwoven struggles of class, distinction, and self-regard. Cleaving romance from nostalgia and splitting narratives of individualism from their colonial resonances (partly by making the film’s temporal setting pointedly ambiguous), Marcello takes no prisoners while comically, movingly digging into how we see ourselves in an attractive, inventive, and constantly inquisitive work — finding in an individual keystones to the many forces that move our world.

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