15. Tesla (Michael Almereyda)
Michael Almereyda’s film is the type of beast that sees Tesla (played by Ethan Hawke) break into karaoke of a Tears For Fears song when he’s down in the dumps. In yet another scene, the world’s first international theater star- Sarah Bernhardt- enters backstage with music from a rave playing behind her. To call this film anachronistic is an understatement. But its also deadly serious about its dedication in portraying the torturous moments of the brilliant inventor’s life and stacks an adventurous cast around him, especially in the chilly gaze of Eve Hewson (of The Knick fame) as his enabler and love interest. Tesla is bold, idiosyncratic and compelling cinema.
14. Zappa (Alex Winter)
In a year cluttered with documentaries about musicians (Herb Alpert, The Band, Helen Reddy, The Bee Gees, and Chuck Berry), Alex Winter’s Zappa tackles the most prolific and idiosyncratic of the bunch. Admittedly coming into the charms of Frank Zappa’s music relatively late in life (after being denigrated by older friends and never really giving him a chance until the past few years), the documentary is humane and challenging, refusing to follow a standard chronology of his music. Here was a musician who only had one big hit, changed his band continually, and left behind a vault of music, film and video that truly encapsulates his burning passion to simply create. More of a composer than a musician, I urge anyone with a passing interest in either the man or rock and roll history to give Zappa a chance. Whether that means this film or his music, take your choice.
13. Undine (Christian Petzold)
A wide swath of master filmmaker Christian Petzold’s films deal with identity (both personal and national) and how his characters play-act roles, feelings and the idea of home. His latest film, Undine, tackles all that inside the rosy-colored hue of a fairy tale romance. And I mean a real fairy tale, complete with water nymphs and mythological jabs. Fresh from ending a relationship, museum lecturer Paula Beer meets diver Franz Rogowski and they fall madly in love. It’s a fairly straight-forward film, replete with Petzold’s clean, unassuming framing and visual motifs that spell out the mysterious undercurrents of Undine’s festering sense of self. Alternating between cerebral lectures on the urban developmental history of Berlin (as her job allows) and the carnal relationship the couple embark upon, Beer and Rogowski give quietly devastating portraits of two people connecting into something more than themselves. Petzold clearly loves his national identity, but Undine is even more attuned to the metaphysical ties that secretly bind us to the architecture of the soul.
12. Saint Frances (Alex Thompson)
A talent is born in Kelly O’Sullivan as the writer and star of Saint Frances, a small film about big ideas. Not without it’s lofty strides of humor at subjects as varied as abortion and sinking self esteem, the film reaches the perfect balance of humor and sober heart while following Bridget (O’Sullivan) during an arrested development summer as a makeshift nanny. Everything about this film is nuanced and carefully crafted, right down to its silly emotional finale that still hits like a ton of bricks. Rarely talked about in a summer of lost-in-the-wilderness VOD releases (after getting a very small theatrical release in the spring right as the country shut down) “Saint Frances” is the type of independent film that deserves its good word of mouth.
11. The Assistant (Kitty Green)
The humdrum of making coffee. Answering the phone. Having to deal with her fellow male employees’ casual machismo. All of this is resoundingly captured in Kitty Green’s hermetic drama about said assistant (Julia Garner) going about her day to day chores in an unspecified New York production company with a camera that rarely leaves her coiled shoulders. Underneath it all, however, The Assistant is also a MeToo movement film that subtlety reveals the psychological ramifications of sexism and aggressive behavior, especially when no one will listen.
10. Miracle Fishing (Miles Hargrove)
Culled from endless hours of home video footage by filmmaker Miles Hargrove as his family lived through the international kidnapping scheme of his father in the early 90’s, Miracle Fishing is a heart-pounding personal diary. But more than a high-wire artifact of real life and death, the film is most memorable for the fleeting moments weaved together as his family, neighbors and negotiators bond as a resolute unit working towards a common goal. The large dinners together…. the lighthearted ribaldry…. and the precarious outbursts of emotion all compound into a dynamic portrait of a clustered family just trying to hold it all together.It’s here that the film- and the forethought of Hargrove to observe and document such mundane things- really pulls the viewer into the stratosphere of a lived experience. It’s a film that reveals, especially in our own clustered times, that human resolution can shine through even when its most dark.
9. Sound of Metal (Darius Marder)
Riz Ahmed gives a defining performance in Darius Marder’s drama about shifting identities and the (in)ability to transition from one stage of life to the next when a heavy metal drummer begins to lose his hearing. It’s a sensitive, carefully modulated effort that never forces its expectations. Just watch one of the final scenes when Ahmed meets the father of his girlfriend (Olivia Cook), and everything is said by saying nothing…. just two people talking and reacting. Also featuring a stellar supporting cast including Paul Raci as a deaf camp mentor, Sound of Metal is a film that captures a personal journey that’s confusing, heartbreaking and maddening but also infinitely wise about getting there.
8. Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman)
Filmmaker Eliza Hittman seems especially attuned to the vagaries of adolescent torture- as if this cesspool of emotions and stunted psychology doesn’t get its fair share of examination. But with her latest film, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, she scrapes away at the trauma of a teenager (Sidney Flanagan) not only dealing with a major life choice, but setting her afloat in the concrete jungle of New York with little compass or means besides her cousin (Talia Ryder) who tags along for support. Both young actresses give astounding performances, where confused glances and pursed lips say more about their pained understanding of the uncaring world than any dialogue ever could. Filmed in hectic, handheld bursts whose images seem fleeting but ultimately tell just the right amount of story, Never Rarely Sometimes Always tackles complicated themes without compromising its characters. Like she did for male anomie in her previous (and also wonderful) drama Beach Rats (2017), Hittman has fashioned a lean, acute oeuvre of young outsiders struggling and coping with some heavy stuff. That all her films come off as glancingly honest is the highest praise one can receive.
7. To the Ends of the Earth (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
Master filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa swerves in yet another endearing direction with To the End of the Earth. Essentially a travelogue film about a young TV show host named Yoko (pairing again with K-pop star Atsuko Maeda) and her camera crew slugging around Uzbekistan searching for human interest stories and locales, Kurosawa slyly opens up a nuanced portrait of culture clash and homesickness. Initially a cipher for the direction of her cameraman and producer instructing her what to do and say, Maeda’s Yoko gradually becomes the silent beating heart of the film as she wanders around, gets into trouble for filming a restricted area and faces heartbreaking challenges from back home. And it’s revealed that she, really, only wants to be a singer in life. But for all the film’s stasis during it’s first two thirds (with the exception of a freed goat and its ultimate repercussions), To the Ends of the Earth subtly shatters your heart in its final thirty minutes as Yoko breaks free from the constricted nature of her role and does something for herself. And the final moments are overwhelmingly sweet and hopeful in a film that, up until that point, made the case that leering eyes at outsiders and the inability to clearly communicate are terrifying ways to live day by day. Kurosawa has crafted a magnificent film that not only completely pivots from his other work, but reveals the master still hasn’t lost a step no matter what direction he chooses to go.
6. Portrait of a Lady On Fire (Celine Sciamma)
Magnificent acting and a natural approach to every relationship developed in this tender French drama, Portrait of a Lady on Fire deserves the accolades its been garnering since premiering at Cannes in May of 2019. Working through a sparse narrative- an artist (Noemie Merlant) is hired to surreptitiously paint the portrait of a to-be engaged young woman (Adele Haenel) on a windswept coastline- Celine Sciamma’s film becomes a masterpiece of self discovery as the women form a delicate relationship. Although furtive glances and pregnant silences are the de rigueur images for this type of dramatic unrequited love tale, Portrait of a Lady on Fire deploys them to breathtaking efficiency where the act of seeing and being seen cuts straight into your heart.
5. Mangrove (Steve McQueen)
There’s been much discussion whether Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” series belongs in the film or television category. Far above my payroll, I only know this group of moving images prove his extreme talent and humanity as a filmmaker, and Mangrove encompasses all of that in a two hour runtime. Charting the habitual police harassment and trial of a group of West African people in what came to be known as the Mangrove Nine, McQueen’s film is an alternatively angry and poignant examination of the event. Starring a cast that brings to life the fiery conviction of their real-life embodiments, Mangrove is far more impassioned about personal freedom and less snarky than Aaron Sorkin’s re-enactment of the Chicago 7 that debuted about the same time as McQueen’s film. And I doubt one will see a more fitting image for 2020 than when McQueen trains his camera for what seems like an eternity on a cooking pot gently rocking itself out on the floor after being ejected there from a swift and violent police raid.
4. Crip Camp (James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham)
A galvanizing documentary about the compassion and collectivism that can arise when people decide to care about something most everyone else discards. Part cultural anthropology of American in the late 60’s and early 70’s and part testimonial to a group of individualistic people, Crip Camp elicits all the right emotions without cowering to its subjects.
3. The Vast of Night (Andrew Patterson)
Blending together Cold War paranoia and true B-movie theatrics, The Vast of Night is so good because it not only dilutes all the hallmarks of 50s cinema, but creates its own warm center through the main performances of its young cast (Jake Horowitz and Sierra McCormick). Taking place over the course of one night in a small New Mexico town, filmmaker Andrew Patterson shows off lots of gee-whiz camera stylistics and narrative bravado, but it works in perfect companion to its far-out idea of alien invasion and innocent Nancy Drew-like story. This is a fun, dashing and serious introduction to an emerging new group of filmmakers and actors.
2. Tommaso (Abel Ferrera)
Tommaso is Abel Ferrera’s most personal film since tearing the sheets from James Russo and Madonna in Dangerous Game (1993) and revealing the existential/psychological hell that is making a movie. And since one of his previous films explored the tortured landscape of legendary Italian filmmaker Pasolini (2014), this time around Ferrara simply re-calibrates the idea as his own tortured landscape. Starring Willem Dafoe, Tommaso portrays a burned-out filmmaker living in Europe with his wife and young daughter (Ferrara’s own wife Cristina Chiriac and Anna Ferrara), filmed in Ferrara’s own home, and refusing to follow any major narrative thoroughfare, instead simply observing the man as he confronts the stasis and paranoia bubbling beneath the surface. There are moments of weakness and infidelities. There are unsubtle bouts of madness. And there’s one especially magnificent scene as Dafoe confronts a screaming homeless man beneath his loft window- and it hardly goes where one expects, creating one of the most absorbing scenes of the year so far. Tommaso is ragged…. unruly…. unconventional…. and a brilliant progression of Ferrara’s frenzied creative output that, hopefully, will continue to eradicate the hypnotic stagnancy put forth in this autobiographical stunner.
1. The Traitor (Marco Bellocchio)
Italian filmmaker Marco Bellocchio has some 40 films under his best. While I’ve seen a good portion of them, he’s certainly a challenging artist whose efforts range from difficult dramas about revolutionary young people to the complicated dynamics of Italian government and surly institutions. With The Traitor, he’s managed to somehow combine all of that into a gangster film. Or maybe its a courtroom drama. Or maybe its a searing redemptive drama that would make for an amazing double feature with Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. Taking place in Italy during the late 70’s and early 80’s, the film initially charts the reckoning of a mafioso war as the ravages from both sides ratchets up, complete with scrolling counter that appears on the edge of the screen, ending on a certain number as the bodies pile up. It’s not only a sobering gambit that factually recalls the terror of its time, but a visual keynote that instills certifiable dread in the viewer as it tumbles towards gargantuan numbers. However, Bellocchio isn’t interested solely in shock value. What this opening third of the film does for the rest of its 150 minute epic length is caste a pallor over its real intention, which is to subtly define the growth of one Tommaso Buscetti (embodied perfectly by Pierfrancesco Favino) from mafioso snitch to plagued nobody, left awash in the gleaming wilderness of neon Miami with a small arsenal and bleary-eyed regrets for the sins of his criminal past. The violence settles, and the remainder of The Traitor observes the circus-like atmosphere of Buscetti’s defining trial and how an entire country becomes embroiled in a civil war of good and bad. It’s Bellocchio’s most accessible film in years, brimming still with aesthetic vibrancy and audible intelligence. But perhaps the most striking thing of all- despite all the unsettling bursts of violence- is Favino’s portrayal of a man who my have turned his back on the organization known as the mafia, but who can’t quite outrun the nightmares of his sordid life. To the film’s credit, it ends with a heartbreaking whimper rather than a loud bang…. and it resonates all the more strongly for it.
Honorable mentions: I’m Your Woman, His House, Finding Yingyin, Time, Borat Subsequent Film