The best films of 2020: part one

For all the ways 2020 sucked, and I won’t enumerate those ways here, modes of distribution at last reflected the reality of filmgoers, in which I include critics and reviewers. It took a pandemic to force studios to realize we consume our media at home, preferably on our TVs and sometimes on phones, though the latter is one insult too many. Now distributors didn’t have to sit on Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor or Tsai Ming-liang’s Days, not when a quarantined or lockdown-ed audience could stream them on their service of choice. Problems persist, and when we start feeling comfortable enough or vaccinated enough to visit theaters — I’ve no intention of eschewing a lifetime’s habit of sitting in the back row for a 10;15 a.m. screening — the good ol’ modes of distribution will get another look. Plus, the ease with which global behemoths like Disney, Netflix, et. al. serve as providers and distributors of content brings out the anti-monopolist in me. Ask me again in August.

I did note a dispiriting sameness to many top twenties. You will see many of the year’s most acclaimed films on my list too. I hope I’ve included enough international obscurities you should see amid the gloss. Rest assured, nervous readers: The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Mank will not trouble your sleep.

Happy viewing.

20. The Vast of Night (dir. Andrew Patterson).

“To suggest a character’s relation to their environment, directors like Max Ophuls and Robert Altman used the tracking shot with a surveyor’s accuracy. Simultaneously intimate and suffused with a twice-told tales distance, The Vast of Night is an impressive debut for Andrew Patterson. The film is a rare thing: a period piece suffused with dread, not nostalgia. Even rarer, it uses allusions to 1950s UFO films for a seriousness expected from a Spielberg but without his sense of grandeur.”

19. Workforce (dir. David Zonana).

“When a construction worker named Claudio falls to his death on the site of a chi-chi new Mexico City home, his brother Francisco (Luis Alberti) hopes the insurance companies will show mercy for the sake of his pregnant widow; instead, they learn Claudio was drunk, or at least they claim he was drunk, therefore they’re absolved of liability…Attuned to the sudden absurdities of which life is composed, writer-director David Zonana and editor Oscar Figueroa Jara (The Crime of Father Amaro) carve a film as oblique and attuned to quiet ironies as Jia Zhangke or Tsai Ming-liang.”

18. Time (dir. Garrett Bradley)

Persuading Americans to consider the brutality of our carceral state is one thing; persuading Americans to consider the justice behind the sentencing of a guilty Black man is quite another. Time makes no excuses, hence its power. Garrett Bradley’s documentary follows the labyrinthine course of Sibil Richardson, who with her husband Robert robbed a Louisiana credit union in September 1997; she got copped a plea on her twelve-year sentence and was out by three; Robert received 65 years without parole. With the aid of home videos and pillow shots of the neighborhoods and landscapes in which Sibil raised her adult twins twins Justus and Freedom, Time makes good on its title: this documentary, barely eighty minutes long, evokes the passage of the years: fleeting in the abstract, burdensome day by day.

17. The Traitor (dir. Marco Bellocchio)

The Traitor begins with a nod to The Godfather and ends with an amused wink to the audience. Director Marco Bellocchio’s film has the verve of Prizzi’s Honor, another mob movie by an octogenarian putting everything he’s learned about editing, performance, and visual design. In a career spent pondering the psychology of the Italian male, Bellocchio (China is Near, Vincente, Dormant Beauty) in some sequences outdoes himself. The Traitor is a courtroom drama, mob thriller, and portrait of a capo who insists he’s just “a simple soldier” – and based on a true story.”

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