Bacurau (Dirs.: Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, Kino Lorber)

For all of the insipid controversy that delayed the toothless and politically confused The Hunt, the year’s true work of inspired “most dangerous game” satire was the latest from emerging Brazilian master Kleber Mendonça Filho. Keyed in to the militarism and fascist capitalism that has defined Brazil’s Bolsonaro era, Bacurau is situated in a remote village struggling for rights to its own river, forced instead to buy privatized water while not bothering to ask for help from corrupt regional politicians. When a group of wealthy foreign tourists arrive to begin hunting the residents for sport with the full assent of said magistrates and representatives, the film pivots into a lean and nasty yet always blackly funny thriller. Anchored by a fierce, imposing Sônia Braga, this is nonetheless an ensemble picture, one in which even seeming bit-part players get show-stopping action set pieces against the foreigners (a nude villager’s shootout is one of the bravura scenes of the year). At more than two hours, the film could easily have overstayed its welcome, but Filho maintains such a steady sense of rhythm that the material never flags despite its regular pauses. Recently, it’s felt that we’re living in a post-satire era, one in which the absurdities of our mores and institutions have been so nakedly revealed that there are no contradictions left to heighten, but Bacurau shows that there is still leeway for a genuinely incisive, sharply observed social comedy. That it is so bloody only further testifies to its timeliness. – Jake Cole

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (Dirs.: Bill Ross IV, and Turner Ross, Utopia)

For most of us riding out what’s hopefully the last stage of a year-obliterating pandemic, the mere idea of seeing the inside of a bar – let alone whiling away the night over a couple of whiskeys – stands out as total fantasy. This is exactly what makes this the perfect year for Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, which elicits both nostalgia for late nights wasted in questionable settings and dread at ever doing it all again. Presented on the surface as a documentary while concealing something far slipperier underneath, the Ross Brothers’ singular effort covers a single night at the Roaring Twenties, an off-strip Vegas dive preparing to close for good the next day. In fact, aside from a few exterior shots, the entire thing was filmed in New Orleans, at a non-doomed bar of the same name, stocked with a mix of amateurs and actors. Yet the flowing booze, uncomfortable interactions and heartfelt confessions that resulted all feel completely genuine, the fruits of a set-up that serves as an ingenious corralling device, a prelude to a docu-fiction hybrid with a remarkably elegiac tone. Shot way back in 2016, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets strikes exactly the right accent for an overwhelming tragedy of a year, in which the sense that something ineffable has passed us by resonates more strongly than ever before. – Jesse Cataldo

Da 5 Bloods (Dir.: Spike Lee, Netflix)

Released on Netflix in the depths of quarantine during the chaotic weeks of the Black Lives Matter marches that thrust racial justice to the forefront of global consciousness, Spike Lee’s latest drama would have commanded attention no matter when it arrived. The story of four African-American ex-soldiers (and one son) returning to Viet Nam to reclaim lost CIA gold, the film confronts the rotten legacy of generational racism in the age of Trump, including a ubiquitous red MAGA cap as a totem of grievance and bullshit. Bursting with incident, the busy plot explicitly echoes themes from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, cross-cut with 16mm flashbacks in which the actors play their younger selves as they appear in present day–a poignant commentary on the immediacy of the past.

Featuring Chadwick Boseman’s last performance to premiere while he was still alive, the ensemble cast is an engine of camaraderie and conflict. But the real bravura moment comes when Delroy Lindo’s aggrieved character, Paul, strikes out into the jungle to protect his share of the loot. Slashing his way through the undergrowth, he delivers a fire-breathing soliloquy directly into the camera that pins the viewer like a bug. No less powerful is the soundtrack of Marvin Gaye songs functioning as a kind of Greek chorus, commenting on and lamenting the narrative turns, including a thrilling vocals-only version of “What’s Going On” that accompanies Paul’s plunge into his own personal darkness. It’s a distinct register and mood from Lee’s 1989 masterpiece Do the Right Thing, but just as immediate and pointed. An elegant denouement situates the film’s argument for justice squarely in present day, which is both inspiring and sobering. No other film in 2020 quite captured and reflected the zeitgeist like this one. – A.C. Koch

First Cow (Dir.: Kelly Reichardt. A24)

In a year devastated by modern horrors, what better way to escape than to the past? But in Kelly Reichardt’s dryly funny period piece, America, even and perhaps especially for pioneers, was always a land full of equal parts promise and danger.

In some ways an origin story of American gumption, crime and cupcake wars, First Cow charts the relationship and enterprise of two unlikely friends: Cookie (John Magaro), a foraging chef who prepares meals for a group of trappers, and King Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant seeking his own fortune on the new frontier. The pair strike out with milk they’ve taken from a cow that belongs to wealthy landowner Toby Jones, but the purloined dairy product inevitably gets them into trouble.

In other hands this material might fuel a heist movie, or something akin to a two-part episode of “Little House on the Prairie.” But Reichardt’s films have always had a distinct, patient rhythm: artful, accessible and subtly comic. And despite the deception at the heart of their business model, the friends are trusting in a way that is foreign to the current climate. First Cow happens to be the last movie I saw in a theater before the pandemic struck, and although it’s not exactly an optimistic film in its portrayal of early Capitalism, there’s some comfort that its lessons from the past resonate even today. — Pat Padua

Fourteen (Dir.: Dan Sallitt, Grasshopper Film)

It is likely we all have a friend like the one in this stunningly observant, richly woven, deeply humanistic study of relationships from writer-director and longtime film critic Dan Sallitt. Mara (Tallie Medel, a likable and utterly naturalistic presence) and Jo (Norma Kuhling) are practically inseparable at the film’s start, yet there is a curious tension between the two that is instantly recognizable. They are opposing personalities – Mara is more fastidious in hashing out her immediate priorities, while Jo is flakier and something of a loose cannon – yet one can tell that something connected them from the get-go: Mara needs to protect, and Jo needs someone to protect her.

This connecting point is the object of study for Sallitt, who strips away nearly all of the melodramatic incident of such a set-up – exemplified in Kuhling’s performance, which is expertly balanced but a shade heightened in the context of the surrounding ensemble – for a simple but never simplistic and perceptive but never navel-gazing examination of the ties that bind and the gradually shifting priorities in one’s friendships. Sallitt’s screenplay follows this friendship over many years, although one of the film’s surprises lay in the significance of the title, which for the record, is not the period of time that elapses but in reference to another kind of milestone.

Through relaxed pacing and an emphasis upon characters over situations, Sallitt’s careful direction reveals layers over the course of a tight runtime: only 90 minutes, minus credits. The movie’s quiet insistence upon honestly understanding its complicated, entirely human characters is a beautiful thing, indeed. Fourteen is the definition of an underseen gem. – Joel Copling

I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Dir.: Charlie Kaufman, Netflix)

Rodgers & Hammerstein don’t really know shit about Oklahoma. But as our lead couple—an unnamed young woman and Jake (from a kind of state farm)—drives through the snowy wasteland of the Sooner State, it seems like the legendary songwriting duo was on to something. “The floor creaks, the door squeaks/ There’s a field mouse a-nibblin’ on a broom,” go the lyrics of “Lonely Room,” the song from Oklahoma! that Jake (Jesse Plemons, never pastier) performs at the film’s end. Even before the couple arrives at Jake’s parents’ house, you can almost hear, in the passing scenery, the frozen wind raking through wood-plank walls of deteriorating houses and maggoty field mice gnawing away at the broken-down surroundings…

But the movie doesn’t really take place in Oklahoma, and that’s sort of the point; I’m Thinking of Ending Things is about how the portrayal of a thing infects the way we see it, to the extent that the portrayal becomes that thing. So even as the woman (Jessie Buckley, a perfect blend of sneering, compassionate and anxious) recognizes that she is trapped, she fills the roles she’s been provided: girlfriend, physicist, painter, waitress, poet, wife and—since it wouldn’t be a Charlie Kaufman film without a splash of meta—a Charlie Kaufman character. The movie brilliantly highlights the lonely terror of such a life by leading us down weirdly specific tangents where banal middle American life and urbane intellect begin to resemble one another.
Poetry or platitude, what does it matter? I’m Thinking of Ending Things finds the absurdist humor in both, daring to intimate (in the end, of course) that thinking endlessly is the scariest kind of fun. – Jeff Heinzl

The Invisible Man (Dir.: Leigh Whannell, Universal Pictures)

The key to the genius of The Invisible Man is revealed right from the start: with minimal dialogue but much breathless tension, we realize that Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) must find a way out of her toxic relationship with the emotionally and psychologically abusive Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cooper, terrifyingly still in his brief appearance). We are not treated to a half-hour of backstory regarding the relationship, as lesser filmmakers would do. All we need is that opening sequence, in which Cecilia finds her way to her sister Emily’s (Harriet Dyer) car and out of Adrian’s life. Of course, it isn’t that simple. Adrian later kills himself, leaving much of his inheritance to Cecilia with the stipulation of passing a psychological examination.

Writer-director Leigh Whannell’s update and overhaul of the classic H.G. Wells novel (and, by proxy, James Whale’s great film adaptation) is all about that final twist of the knife from the supposedly dead boyfriend. The rest of it is an elaborate scheme to gaslight, terrorize and (if he has his way) kill the woman who would dare leave him by devising a way to become invisible – which, when revealed, is a stroke of mad genius and impressively brought to life by way of the year’s cleverest visual effects wizardry. This ensures that no one – not Harriet nor her policeman friend James (Aldis Hodge) nor his teen daughter Sydney (Storm Reid) – will believe her.

It’s sneakily devastating stuff, both a thriller of exceptional economy and a parable, in our #MeToo times, about believing survivors of abuse. Moss’s performance is an extraordinary balancing act of selling both the total lucidity of Cecilia’s frame of mind and the terror of a terrorized woman. It doesn’t have to anchor The Invisible Man, really, but it somehow manages to do so anyway. – Joel Copling

Lovers Rock (Dir.: Steve McQueen, Amazon)

Steve McQueen is nothing if not a striking filmmaker and one of the most striking things about his work is its versatility. Each of his features has explored a different milieu, always with the same attention to detail and intimacy of understanding. He’s a rare filmmaker in that his grasp on form and technique is matched by his compassion; indeed, that grasp seems only so well honed in order to best express his compassion. Even across his BBC/Amazon anthology series Small Axe, exploring the experiences of black Britons in the second half of the 20th Century, McQueen has subtly diversified his approach to best fit each individual scenario.

Lovers Rock is the second episode, screened at various film festivals in recent months, blurring the lines between cinema and TV. In style and duration, it’s unequivocally cinematic, yet could there be a more appropriate screening location for this beautiful film than one’s own home? Set largely over the course of a single night, largely in a single West London house, it’s a sweet, sexy love story embedded within a brilliant, almost pure-cinema expression of a specific cultural niche at a specific time.

Indeed, Lovers Rock is really just that: a specific, deeply felt cultural expression. It’s not so much about music and dance and the connection between likeminded people as it is about specific music, specific dance, connections between people with a specific shared cultural experience. McQueen dispenses with dialogue (typically the weakest element of his films) to allow his characters the freedom to communicate through gaze and movement, something more primal, less calculated. It feels more real and more authentic than just about anything else on any screen this year, big or small, public or private. Sublime! – Paddy Mulholland

Mank (Dir. David Fincher, Netflix)

In a typical year, Mank would feel like that specific type of Oscar-bait that consists of a navel-gazing Hollywood reveling in stories about its own Golden Age. But David Fincher’s film about Herman Mankiewicz, which focuses on the acerbic, alcoholic cowriter of Citizen Kane, arrives in a very unusual year. It would seem that the politically polarized, pandemic-drenched American public is especially primed for stories involving the rise of fascism, the demonization of socialist ideals, the struggles of economic downturns and even simply the practice of day drinking in one’s pajamas
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As a result, the self-absorbed Mank, released by Netflix, feels strangely cathartic at times, a kind of idealistic purge exemplified by an inebriated Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) speaking boozy truth to power during a formal dinner at the Hearst mansion before vomiting onto the floor. Oldman is enthralling as the clever, wise-cracking title character, and Fincher’s decision to shoot the film in stark black and white befitting the era certainly adds aesthetic flourish. The dubious claims made in the film—among them that the aging, booze-addled Mankiewicz was solely responsible for the script with no help from Orson Welles, a claim revived in the ‘70s by famed critic Pauline Kael—are far less interesting than Oldman’s performance and the film’s unmistakable sociopolitical parallels to the acrimony of the modern day. – Josh Goller

Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Dir.: Eliza Hittman, Focus Features)

Some of the greatest films about life are simply about process. What we do, how we do it, and how we feel while doing it. There’s a lot of process happening in Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always, which tells the story of Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), a pregnant teen, and her cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder). As the two venture across state lines to New York City as Autumn seeks an abortion she can’t get back home, Hittman zeroes in on and makes the miniscule moments absolutely monumental, showcasing just how harrowing of a journey this will be. The long bus rides. The lugging around a suitcase, unsure of where they’ll spend the night. The leering men around every corner. The bustling city, unaware of what this young girl is going through. The young girl, checking off boxes on applications and undergoing multiple ultrasounds and answering tough questions, all leading to a major scene where the title comes into play and brings Flanigan into the spotlight as a newcomer worth watching.

There’s so much strength throughout all of Never Rarely Sometimes Always, which never waivers in its unflinching portrait of friendship in the face of the fraught circumstances, and this concentrated intensity owes all its power to Hittman’s story and direction, as well as Flanigan and Ryder’s performances. The searing honesty rips a hole in you and leaves you hurting, but it’s a valuable pain that leaves a lasting, empathetic impression. There are moments in this film that haven’t escaped me all year. – Greg Vellante

Nomadland (Dir.: Chloe Zhao, Searchlight Pictures)

In addition to upending the movie industry fiscally, scattering release dates and shuttering exhibitor doors, this year the pandemic also placed several films produced and conceived before this global morass within a new thematic context. A Groundhog Day-style time loop comedy like Palm Springs becomes a grueling simulacrum of routine-as-death-spiral monotony of quarantine. The transcendent exuberance of Steve McQueen’s Lovers’ Rock turns into a stirring virtual reality experience for touch starved homebodies isolated by the virus.

But few films grew as exponentially more resonant than Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland, a patient and tender film set in the wake of the last big recession, newly and painfully relevant for viewers living through the next one. It’s a film only Zhao, with her preternatural gift for casually merging fact and fiction, drama and documentary, could pull off. Some might see its narrative aimlessness as a negative, a common critique of anything not plot-driven, but its lyrical quality and drifting spirit is a feature, not a bug.

Surrounding Frances McDormand’s Fern, a newcomer to the nomadic lifestyle that many left on the margins of America society have adopted, with non-actors who are actual nomads, Zhao is able to observe and capture such rich detail. McDormand plays a woman who has lost everything but still chortles at the slightest provocation, forever in awe of the world around her, and the people who inhabit it. In a marketplace perverted with indulgent poverty porn, it’s refreshing to see a film with such compassion and respect for its principal characters. As we wind down a year this wrought with loss and struggle, a beautifully photographed ode to the inherent beauty of humanity reality hits the spot. — Dominic Griffin

Palm Springs (Dir.: Max Barbakow, Hulu)

For a film about time loops, a mystical cave with magical powers and the same tacky, overpriced wedding on repeat, Palm Springs ultimately resolves into a fairly banal little film. At its core, it is just a romantic comedy. But, for at least two reasons, it’s much more than that.

First, whereas Hollywood used to pump out romantic comedies like Toyota does Corollas, the genre has fallen out of favor, along with basically every mid-budget, middlebrow film intended for adults. Romantic comedies are still made, of course, and even good ones (hello, Columbus), but they are produced on shoestring budgets and rarely get noticed unless they can make a splash at a festival or two.

On the other hand, for all its rom-com trappings, Palm Springs is a flashy, high-concept movie, with studio-level bells and whistles. Characters losing their sanity because they are stuck in an infinite time loop repeating the same day in Palm Springs over and over is not your everyday romantic comedy premise. Throw in a serial murdering grudge-holder, a suicidal love interest and way too much time spent in a seedy trucker dive bar and Palm Springs begins to stand out within its genre.

Palm Springs is not headed for canonization any time soon, but it is the sort of ultra-amusing, cleverly-crafted movie that will garner repeat viewings for the next decade. And that is the sort of movie that Hollywood simply does not make much anymore. – Ryne Clos

Possessor (Dir. Brandon Cronenberg, Neon)

In Brandon Cronenberg’s (literally) mind-bending Possessor, thematic focus on the influence of technology on our psyches is made explicit. These are themes Cronenberg’s famed father, David, exploited to great effect in his early career, most notably in Videodrome, but the next-generation doesn’t simply follow in his father’s footsteps—he breaks new ground with this cerebral horror. Possessor revolves around Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) an elite assassin from a shadowy syndicate with the technology to implant their agents’ consciousness inside the brains of others in order to carry out these contract kills. As Tasya wrestles with the psychological havoc such unnerving work exerts on her own mind, her control of her marks is slipping. She begins to struggle to remove herself from others’ minds after the assassinations are carried out, just as, in her own life, she wrestles with cutting herself off from her estranged husband and young son in order to fully immerse herself in her perilous vocation.

Intense as always, Riseborough’s performance offers just the right balance of vulnerability in a disorienting and ultraviolent film. Cronenberg’s nimble use of surrealist imagery recalls Altered States as Tasya’s mind melds with her hosts—and threatens to become subsumed by one in particular (Christopher Abbott). Tense and unnerving, and dripping with grey matter and viscera, Possessor burrows into the viewer’s brain. Good luck getting it out. – Josh Goller

She Dies Tomorrow (Dir.: Amy Seimetz, Neon)

After years spent out of the limelight, Kate Lyn Sheil roars back to the top of the heap of the finest actresses of her generation in She Dies Tomorrow. Playing a woman possessed of an overwhelming, paralyzing surety of her impending death, Sheil conveys panic in Amy’s eyes but otherwise has an unnervingly sedate body language that suggests resignation. Amy Seimetz’s film takes the protagonist’s condition and turns it into a viral plague, capable of infecting anyone who hears her descriptions of prophesied doom. Conceived and shot before the coronavirus pandemic, She Dies Tomorrow nonetheless nailed the wildfire spread of malaise that has come to define 2020, particularly the mixture of panic and defeatism. Most troubling are the moments when Amy and other characters, experiencing colorful hallucinations of some kind of cosmic vision, look at terrified as they are content, as if the prospect of oblivion held a certain amount of comfort. Seimetz’s earlier films have gradually accelerated into more traditional horror-thrillers, yet here things only seem to get even more sedate as the story builds in urgency, capturing the sense to which the characters increasingly surrender in the face of a fate that is too real to them to question or resist. – Jake Cole

Sound of Metal (Dir.: Darius Marder, Amazon)

Like the steady throb of a kick drum, Riz Ahmed’s clear-eyed and coiled performance gives Sound of Metal a solid heartbeat. As Ruben, a noise-metal drummer who is suddenly and irreversibly losing his hearing, Ahmed channels the existential shock and denial of an artist faced with losing both his craft and his reason for living. The early, brief scenes of his band’s live performances with his guitarist girlfriend (Olivia Cooke) depict the kind of raw expression of rage and aggression which are mostly absent from his reaction to his terrifying diagnosis, lending his character a smoldering intensity that promises to ignite at some point. As much a story of recovery from addiction as a study of loss and acceptance, Ruben’s hardest task is not to manage his altered faculties but to learn to live with himself as a deaf person.

Written and directed by Darius Marder from a story by Derek Cianfrance, the film’s remarkable sound design plunges the viewer into Ruben’s near-silent experience of his surroundings. Of course, his frustrations center on the threat to his music career, but it’s the soundlessness of his daily life which really drives home the depth of his loss: the coffee maker dripping without a sound, his girlfriend speaking without a voice. Jarring ambient noise intrudes in objective shots, building towards a revelatory idea: the silence that enveloped him so suddenly might just be a refuge. – A.C. Koch

Tenet (Dir.: Christopher Nolan, Warner Bros.)

A technically-breathtaking action spectacle. A sci-fi thought experiment realized through understated practical effects. A spy film, a heist film, a war film, and a high-concept brain-scrambler, all while a few notable faces in suits are whisked towards another set-piece by Nolan’s breathless riptide of a plot.

Tenet is Nolan at his most clinical. For every exposition beat delivered through visuals, there are minutes of dry explanation and set-up that lack Interstellar’s awe or Inception’s intrigue. That John David Washington’s character is simply credited as “The Protagonist” is the level of humanity at which Nolan is operating. The performances are strong but stagnant; Washington’s operative and Pattinson’s roguish ally stand out through sheer personality rather than arcs or dialogue. Considering that Dunkirk mined a great deal of humanity and empathy from its characters while still remaining distant in its multi-tiered scope, this narrative shallowness seems like two steps back for Nolan.

However, Tenet’s corresponding step forward lies in its action, special effects and realization of a wildly complex premise. Dropping us into a sprawling opera shootout, the film globe-trots between huge sequences with the slick confidence of a Bond film and the technical boldness of Inception. An intense kitchen fight highlights Nolan’s improved handle on fight choreography. A plane crashing through a building is both a stylish caper and a Herculean display of practical stuntwork. Eye-popping moments of “inversion” explode into extended sequences of forwards-backwards interplay that made this sci-fi fan grin with delight. – Christian Valentin

The Wild Goose Lake (Dir.: Diao Yinan, Film Movement)

Keeping an even pace with America’s own rapid descent into dystopia, China’s burgeoning surveillance state has gathered more steam in recent years. This includes the introduction of a social credit system that intends to shove malcontents to the perimeter, depriving them of access to fundamental aid and services. Such a fate is indirectly illustrated in Diao Yinan’s splashy, haunting The Wild Goose Lake, a noir-inspired thriller that maps out the means by which the net of authoritarian overreach is gradually drawn. Following a gangster (Hu Ge as Zhou Zenong) who, despite his adherence to criminal codes, has mistakenly run afoul of the law, the film tracks his fugitive status as the walls close in around him. His hopeless situation intersects with that of sex worker Liu Aiai (Gwei Lun-Mei), whose entire local industry is being drummed out of business. In both cases, the scrubbing away of vice serves less as a function of public good than a prelude to corporate sanitization, a process the film itself resists through a stylized program of lurid color and fatalistic ambience. An aquatic rejoinder to 2014’s frigid, stygian Black Coal, Thin Ice, The Wild Goose Lake moves the action from the country’s far northeastern corner to the humid corruption of Wuhan’s lagoon-dotted landscape, yet finds the same thing at its core, a dark splash of nefarious rot steadily spreading outward. – Jesse Cataldo

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