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In the unfathomably innocent January of 2020, I saw Sam Mendes’ breathtaking war thriller 1917 on an IMAX screen. I had no idea then that I’d return to a movie theater only twice more all year. And I didn’t realize until much later that a different film from 2019 would be the one that resonated most sharply throughout these months of pandemic and protest. Queen & Slim — Melina Matsoukas and Lena Waithe’s stylish drama about a young Black couple on the run after a violent traffic stop by a racist cop — predicted exactly the ride-or-die, resistance energy we would need in order to survive 2020.
We united in our responsibilities and sacrifices, which included giving up going to the movies en masse, until audiences (and blockbusters) could safely return. The films Hollywood had intended to dominate the cultural conversation, from Bond to Black Widow, slid to the back-burner of 2021 and beyond. So, for the first time in a long time, studio release schedules didn’t dictate each week which tentpole or sequel critics clamored to review.
Audiences were off-leash, in the rare position of choosing for themselves which movie, if any, would be their weekend’s hottest release. Streaming services helped, but moviegoers charted their own path through 2020. Here are the highlights of where my own path led me — and we’ll see twelve months from now if any of these films, like Queen & Slim, captured the zeitgeist of the year that lies ahead.
10. Boys State — Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss capture something special in this gripping documentary of a mock congressional convention attended by 1,000 teenage boys in Texas. Less about politics than the power of personality within the political arena, Boys State lucks out with the four very different, equally compelling personalities who emerge as its stars. René Otero, Steven Garza, Ben Feinstein, and Robert MacDougall — the former two representing one party, the latter two representatives of the opposition — also emerge as stars of the hotly contested election that drives the drama. Not a second of screen-time is wasted as the battle to sway hearts and minds, and, most importantly, votes, swings from noble and inspiring to downright shady at times. Throughout, the film offers a profound lesson in democracy and a vivid reflection of future leaders being shaped by today’s cultural divide. Watch it on Apple TV.
9. Palm Springs — Like big-budget action spectacles, comedies reach their fullest potential when combined with a crowd. Laughing alone just doesn’t feel the same — a theme that pervaded the entire year, and that beats at the heart of time-bending romantic-comedy Palm Springs. Trapped in an infinite time-loop, wedding attendees Nyles (Andy Samberg) and Sarah (Cristin Milioti) attempt to make the best of a bad situation by living each day like it’s their last. Since each day is the exact same day, it’s up to them to find meaning in that repetitive existence, or not. The pair does find love, although the film complicates their Groundhog Day dilemma with reveals and turns that unfurl cleverly upon each subsequent go-round. Produced by Samberg and his Lonely Island cronies, director Max Barbakow’s feature debut hits a sweet spot between funny, smart, and horny that feels deeply emblematic of living a year on repeat. Watch it on Hulu.
8. A Secret Love — Documenting a real-life love story that spans decades, director Chris Bolan’s touching tribute to his great-aunt Terry Donahue and her longtime lesbian partner Pat Henschel channels vital queer history, while also following a riveting present-day familial conflict. The film juxtaposes Donahue’s thrilling career as a star athlete in the ’40s-era All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, with the struggles she and Pat face as an aging couple increasingly unable to live independently in their two-story home. Endearingly specific characters facing universal truths, Terry and Pat are as genuine and lovable as the film is illuminating. Watch it on Netflix.
7. Sound of Metal — In Darius Marder’s sublime drama, Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a rock drummer, has to reorient his life and purpose after suddenly losing his hearing. Marder craftily exploits the tools of the trade to draw the audience into the noises and silences marking Ruben’s rocky road. Amidst exquisite editing and sound design, Ahmed, in a commanding performance, brings vulnerability and charisma, along with two loaded guns to beat those skins. Sex appeal indeed plays a part, as Ruben must set aside his vanity to embrace life anew. In the film’s most powerful scene, Ruben gets schooled by counselor Joe (an award-worthy Paul Raci) on the understanding that deafness is not a defect but a difference. The film, too, transmits a sense of finding grace in those things we cannot change. Watch it on Prime Video.
6. Wander Darkly — Writer-director Tara Miele’s twisty psychological drama so evocatively depicts new mom Adrienne (Sienna Miller) coming undone following a traumatic accident, that you might feel certain that the filmmaker must have experienced similar life-changing events. And, in fact, like Adrienne and her partner Matteo (Diego Luna) in the film, Miele and her husband were involved in a horrific car crash. Fortunately, Miele and her husband survived. In the movie, Adrienne and Matteo might have survived, or they might have been killed. The problem is, Adrienne can’t be sure which, as the film ripples between memories of the couple’s past, visions of their future, and the truth of what really happened. Miele and editors Tamara Meem and Alex O’Flinn do marvelous work keeping the mystery on track, while Miller delivers one of the year’s knockout performances. Rent it on YouTube.
Da 5 Bloods — Spike Lee guides a murderers’ row of knockout performances — including the late Chadwick Boseman — in this stirring and deceptively sensitive tale of war, greed, and male camaraderie. Sprawling, sweaty, roiling with rage and regret, the film plunges into the heart of darkness that was the Vietnam War, while exploring the relatively uncharted cinematic landscape of Black vets in search of their buried past. Tense action set-pieces and tight ensemble acting, captured with kinetic brilliance by cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, steer the treasure hunt plot. But the real treasure here is the ferocious turn by Delroy Lindo as a veteran epically damaged by the violence he saw and inflicted in combat, and who, in one electrifying monologue, rises to the ranks of cinema’s most memorable rogues. Watch it on Netflix.
4. Soul — Let’s talk about Terry, the relentless (and hilarious) accountant of the spiritual realm in Pixar’s delightful Soul. A modest curlicue of line and color, Terry embodies the universe’s inexorable tendency towards balance, the assumption that what goes up must come down — or else feel Terry’s wrath. Given the lofty assignment of maintaining order in the count of souls on earth, Terry is right to be upset when the soul of jazz musician Joe (Jamie Foxx) flies off-track. Voiced by Kiwi actress Rachel House, scene-stealing Terry might just have run off with Soul if the movie weren’t steadily anchored by a witty script, inventive animation, and an adventurous approach to life’s great mysteries. The filmmakers wed bold imagination to insight, resulting in a timeless and timely tale of souls seeking their passion in a world wracked by chaos and disorder. Watch it on Disney+.
3. Welcome to Chechnya — Not often do you watch a documentary wondering how it got made without someone losing their life. But such is the dangerous and horrifying reality for members of the LGBTQ community living behind the Iron Curtain of homophobia in modern-day Chechnya, that concern for the film’s participants registers with nearly every scene. Director David France (How to Survive a Plague) shared in an interview with Metro Weekly that while he didn’t always fear for his own safety, he and his crew were vigilant about protecting the lives and identities of the queer Chechens and Russians who share their experiences confronting the nation’s notorious state-sanctioned purge of LGBTQ people. Several of them attempt daring escapes to the West, which the film follows with the pacing of a thriller and the purpose of true advocacy. Watch it on HBOMax.
2. First Cow — Kelly Reichardt’s observant frontier fable gathers like a storm over the unlikely friendship of Cookie (John Magaro), a gourmet cook from Maryland, and King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant, who meet in the Oregon Territory in 1820 and team up to make their fortune. The film instead foreshadows the duo’s misfortune, gently planting seeds of a coming reckoning. A rich adaptation of the novel The Half-Life by frequent Reichardt collaborator Jonathan Raymond, First Cow springs to life in bursts of violence or pursuit, and echoes rhythms of life in its attention to nature and quietude. Strangers become brothers, their friendship makes a home, and in the end, not even death can divide them. Rent or purchase on Amazon, or watch it on Showtime.
1. Promising Young Woman — Carey Mulligan regularly knocks it out of the park playing diminished but determined women, but she triumphantly extends her range even further as determined, once-promising Cassandra, the heroine of Emerald Fennell’s darkly comic gut-punch of a thriller. Perspectives might differ on whether Cassandra’s mission is a pursuit of justice or revenge. She postures as a cunning vigilante, ensnaring men who would readily take advantage of her if given the chance. Yet, her righteous dedication clearly spills over into reckless obsession. She might be a clarion voice for women who’ve been disbelieved when speaking up about sexual assault and demonized for doing so. But she’s also a danger to herself, and might be deadly to someone else. Fennell and Mulligan have the audacity to make Cassandra flawed and funny, while following her to the shocking lengths she’ll go in order to fulfill her mission, ultimately proving herself to be both an angel of vengeance and justice. Currently in theaters, where open.
Finally, in honor of the 100-plus other new feature releases I saw this year, here ten more that almost made the final list:
The Trial of the Chicago 7
The Forty-Year Old Version
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
The Old Guard
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