And at last we come to my top films of the year. For me personally, I also like to highlight documentaries and special releases as there are more than enough dramatic films to fill multiple lists.
My favorite special release of 2020:
Black is King
This stunning “visual” album by Beyonce is an imaginative take on the familiar The Lion King story told with plenty of references and the subtext of real life struggle and social context. Plus, I don’t really have anwhere else to slot it. Black is truly queen here, and while I imagine and hope this will inspire plenty of young minds out there who need to hear the message of this film, for someone like me, an older white male, becoming familiar with the story behind the story is a big part of what makes this film imporant “as” a documentary.
My top 5 favorite documentaries of the year:
1. The Mole Agent
Beautiful, sobering, heart wrenching, powerful, funny, entertaining, memorable. What more could I ask for in my favorite documentary of the year.
What this film is about though unexpected lessons that emerge for the mole, an aging man looking for something to occupy his time, as he takes on this uncoventional opportunty for work, an idea that gives him a reinvigorated sense of life. Where it goes hits, and hits HARD. Especially for someone like me now firmly in the second half of life.
Using home camera footage, Time constructs this story about a modern day matriarch and abolitionist in a way that is spellbounding and deeply affecting. It’s part love story, part social commentary, part liberation story, and all heart.
3. Robin’s Wish
It’s not exactly the most well constructed documentary out there. On a purely technical level it’s not even the best of the year. But for fans of Robin Williams and for anyone interested in his story and who he was, this tribute hits all the right marks. Be forewarned, it will make you cry.
A heartbreaking look at sexual abuse. In following one young man’s endeavor to uncover their family story, the film looks to bring light to an all too often unspoken reality and the processes by which victims can begin to find healing.
5. Dick Johnson is Dead
A powerful depiction of alziemers and an even more powerful rumination on death. Be assured though, in the midst of both of these things life and the invitation to live is on full display, especially as it brings it ever so subtly into the realm of faith.
And finally, here is my official Top 20 Films of the Year:
20. Baby Teeth
19. The Assisant
18. The Nest
17. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
16. The Dark and the Wicked
15. Black Bear
13. Charm City Kings
11. Small Axe Anthology
10. The Personal History of David Copperfield
The Personal History of David Copperfield is one of three films this year that genuinely felt they were made just for me (the others being Wendy and Summerland). I love unconventional storytelling and less than linear narrative structures, and the way the Director experiments with different visuals to engage with these methods brought this story to life for me in a very real way. The frenetic pacing features a mix of all kinds of emotions, moving from very real joy to deeply felt sadness and back again, and the way the story is told finds a way to take a personal story and turns it into a universal truth regarding what it means to feel like you belong in this world. It brings together themes about the releationship between art and artist, and how this plays into the telling of our human stories in a meaninful way. And coming off of one of my worst films of 2020 (I’m Thinking of Ending Things), a film that left me depressed and angry and bitter, this film landed in a very timely sernse, helping me to reclaim that sense of life and wonder and hope that I felt had been stripped away. So very imaginative and for me so very welcome.
Summerland is a story about childhood wonder set against the cynicism of the grown up world. In other words, this was made for me. It’s a wonder-filled story that uses myth, history and culture as a way of digging into the the truth of its very human concern and story. As it says, stories come from somewhere, and these stories reflect that shared need for hope amidst the darkness. The film parallels this same idea with the tendency to set modern ideas in conflict with ancient truths, challenging us to consider that just as growing up threatens our ability to believe, so do things like progress and the enlightenment. As this film posits though, to think that we have solved the mystery of life is not only misguided, its short sighted, and to have the world opened up for us again as a place of hope and wonder and imagination requires a necessary humility and a willingness to see again, to see anew.
8. On The Rocks
As cozy as a warm, comforting fire on a cold, fall/winter day, On the Rocks is the perfect tonic for these trying times. So glad to have the gift of Coppola and Murray gracing the big (and small) screen again. A special kind of combo that proves how much of a treasure both of them really are. But while we’re at it, let’s not undersell the chemistry between Murray and Rashida Jones. They are a match made in heaven.
7. To The Stars
This film swept me up, had me under its spell, and never let me go. The small town charm, the simple Oklahoma backdrop, the well drawn characters, the gorgeous camera work. It all deserves mention here, but really it’s the performances and the script that elevate this to something special. This is a film about friendship, bit even more than this it is a film about friendship in a particular place and time.
To the stars holds layered meaning here, both in the sense of the secluded place that holds the unfolding friendship in sacred hands, and in the more symbolic notion of inner dreams, longings and struggles. These are characters who are trying to escape their circumstances, but maybe even more so themselves.
Every once in a while I encounter a film that feels like it was made just for me. This was one of those films. An interpretative take on the familiar Peter Pan story, Zeitlin, the Director of the equally imaginative Beasts of the Souther Wild, gives us an inspired and emotionally gripping examination of childhood lost and reclaimed. Wendy is a reminder that no matter how big the struggle, no matter how much “grown up” life has stolen, hope remains and the adventure continues.
5. First Cow
Kelly Reichhardt returns to the screen with one of her most reflective and introspective works to date. Here she returns to Oregon, this time set in 1820 and telling a singular and particular story adapted from author Jonathan Raymond’s book, The Half Life. At the same time it also manages to be a universal story about what it means to not only co-exist, but to persist within the trappings of the great American Dream. It’s simple and spacious, but also bursting with imagery that looks to evoke a sense of time, a kind of vision of an expectant modernity that looks backwards and forwards at the same time, uncovering history and anticipating from within its present landscape of diverse peoples and weighted nature some idea of an uncertain future. There is a beauty in the way she captures this functioning society in its innerworkings, but also a solemn reminder of what it so often becomes in its rush towards progress.
This stunning, animated feature from the studio that gave us the likes of The Book of Kells and Song of Seas is a love letter to Irish culture. Capturing a time in its history where they were under the control of Cromwell and the British colonizers, this intricately drawn portrait of a people forced to lose sight and let go of their spiritual identity comes alive in its efforts to reclaim its buried and forgotten past. The animation is nothing short of brilliant, using its 2D hand drawn format to play around with different kinds of filming, shifting between split screens, aspect rations, different blends of colors and different kinds of images to evoke this sense of two worlds contrasted alongside one another in a working tension. Equally stunning is the music, both the soundtrack and score which help give this film its transcendent quality, especially as it blends with themes that run through elements of friendship, family, the oppresion of woman and the strength of the woman’s voice, the darkness of these kinds of colonizing powers, and ultimatley the power of the spirit that brings together the human and the divine. These are weighty subjects for a children’s film, but it is wrapped up in a story that any child will be able to resonate with.
3. Sound of Metal
Talking about Sound of Metal will inevitable lead to its impressive sound design and its memorable lead performance, both of which represent this film’s greatest strengths. For me though it is the narrative that caught me off guard. As someone with a large degree of hearing loss, the way this film opens up that world for those who do not and cannot otherwise understand this experience is humbling and inspiring. It never treats it as a disability, but rather sees it as someting one must learn to adapt towards. To this end, the main characater arc in this film is underappreciated I think for how it navigates this journey from someone who can hear to someone who cannot, and the ways in which this changes his everyday life. What is truly stunning about this film aside from the many things I have alredy mentioned is how all of the supporting characters in this film feel fully fleshed out and absolutely necessary to the story even when they are in the film for only a very short time. This is a testament to the film’s script which never loses a step along this incredibly nuanced and complex journey.
2. The Truth
When this new film from the ridiculously talented Hirokezu Kore-eda came out it inspired some lengthy reflection from me on its themes and its characters. This is Kore-eda’s most accessible film to date, and is described as his first film made for Western audiences. The question that frames the story’s journey is, “what will you say when you get to Heaven”, with the truth having layered meaning as it digs into the life of our main character. There is a film within a film narrative device at play here that is incorporated with vision and purpose, and it provides the bridge for us to see our main character’s professional life from the lens of her family context. Here the Director is also able to use this film within a film device to cleverly imagine this quesiton from the perspective of these generations, bringing in discussions about the passage of time drawing lines between what it is to consider what is performance and what is truth, and gradually bringing us to a point of necessary self reflection. It’s a powerful journey, and one that is both shared and deeply personal.
As the caption for this film says, “is all this living really worth dying for?” Not exactly the kind of existential question you might expect to find in a children’s animated film, but Soul proves to be the most adult film Pixar has made yet. This film is everything that we need right now during these gouth times, and its abiblity to break through all the clutter and the noise of different emotions and feelings with a message of hope is a true gift.
In navigating questions about complex emotions, with topics like purpose, meaning and personality on its mind. It weaves these things into its jazzy script that takes the time to lay out its foundation through a world building process before giving itsself over to improvisation. In establishing this concept of the great before and the great beyond, what the film can then begin to explore is the present. The regular living. The spiritual awakening. And what this film does is invite us into this process of dying to ourselves so that we can gain perspective on what it is to live again, to truly live, to find that spark that carrires us foward. A perfect film to not only end the year on, but to begin a new one.