By Dan Bayer
2020, true to form, threw me for a real loop in terms of list-making. So many films that I saw feel like they weren’t even released, two of my favorites of the year got pushed back well into 2021 (I’ll miss you, “Nine Days” and “Shiva Baby”), some opened within the Oscar eligibility window but clearly weren’t either 2020 or 2021 (“Barb & Star Go To Vista Del Mar“), and plenty of foreign films did their usual thing of being eligible for 2020 Oscars but not officially opening until after nominations were announced in the next year. With the mess of the extended Oscar eligibility window, it became increasingly difficult to determine which films belonged in which year. After many, many weeks of agonizing over it, I decided that it would be on mine if it were on Oscar’s eligibility list for 2020. The films that weren’t would have to wait until whenever they actually open. What made this even more difficult is that there were a lot of good movies this year! No matter what your eligibility window, there were plentiful moments of cinematic greatness in 2020. You just had to look farther afield than usual to find them. From the tiniest of micro-indies to the festival sensations, to the traditional big “Oscar Bait” films – and with much love to “Hamilton” and “Lovers Rock,” especially in a year when the line between film and television grew even blurrier than usual – here are the ten that kept my soul fed throughout this crazy year.
10. Two Of Us
Filippo Meneghetti’s film, “Two Of Us,” is not at all what I expected. While I did expect its story of two older lesbians (Martine Chevallier and the legendary Barbara Sukowa) separated by the hallway between their two apartments after one suffers a stroke to make me cry buckets, I didn’t expect the film itself to be as creative in its filmmaking as it is. Sound elements constantly exit the scene just before it ends, leaving tiny pieces of quiet that increase the already emotionally-charged story’s impact. The film begins with a mysterious dream-like prologue whose purpose only becomes apparent in one of the film’s most devastating later scenes, positioning the film somewhere between a fairy tale and a nightmare. And for Nina and Madeleine, it is – they can finally be fully, openly together and live out their last days in peace in Italy if only Madeleine could just regain her faculties long enough to tell her family the truth about her “neighbor.” The leading ladies are everything one could hope for, turning in sensitive, powerful performances that linger long after the film is finished. In a year full of films about people losing their minds, this is the most delicate and the most empowering.
It’s pretty easy to praise the storybook qualities of animated films. Still, for all of those certain individual frames that may have that quality, the actual story rarely has that quality as well. Cartoon Saloon’s latest masterpiece, “Wolfwalkers,” truly earns its storybook bona fides, with a narrative that feels ripped out of a children’s picture book and unspeakably gorgeous animation to match: When young Robyn Goodfellowe follows her hunter father into the local woods near their new home in Ireland, she meets the fiery, rowdy Maebh, who quite literally runs with the wolves as one of the titular folkloric legends – a girl who is human while awake and wolf while asleep. When Robyn inadvertently becomes a wolfwalker, too, her life is turned upside-down even as she gains a new friend who understands her better than anyone else ever could. The story’s metaphor could be taken in many ways and is still open and straightforward enough for children to understand. The lovingly hand-drawn, purposefully rough-around-the-edges animation is some of the most beautiful to be put on screen. Add in a rousing Irish-flavored score and a strong message about the bond between parents and children, and you get a guaranteed family favorite, one that parents will happily watch over and over again with their children as they hit repeat on Apple TV+. The only things missing are the franchised stuffed animals!
Released at the perfect time to capitalize on 2020’s “cottagecore” movement, the coziness of “Summerland” belies how devastatingly emotional it gets in its second half when its grounded, heartwarming story of a cantankerous adult learning to care for a precocious child takes an unexpected turn straight into melodrama. This swerve would trip up most directors, but first-time writer/director Jessica Swale shows a preternatural control of tone that keeps the film perfectly balanced. The maturity of the film’s story of love lost and found in the least likely places and how those acts can change us was especially moving this year when so many of us had to spend so much time away from our loved ones. Gemma Arterton and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, both perpetually underused in film, are among the great screen couples of the year – Mbatha-Raw’s vivaciousness and lust for life can melt even the coldest heart, and watching Arterton go through that process is beautiful to watch. “Summerland” probably shouldn’t work, but it does. Beautifully.
If you’ve ever watched a family member succumb to dementia, the first half of Natalie Erika James’s debut feature “Relic” will feel all too familiar: Mother Kay and daughter Sam (Emily Mortimer and Bella Heathcote, respectively) arrive at grandmother Edna’s (Robyn Nevin) house after receiving a call that she hasn’t been seen in a while. They search for her and stay in the house overnight until she suddenly reappears one evening, only saying that she must have gone out and is wondering why everyone is so worried. As mother and daughter stay to take care of her, and Edna’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic, it becomes clear that she didn’t just imagine that a sinister presence had entered the house. But what that presence is, and where it has gone inside the house, is saved for the film’s nightmare of a final act, one of the most potent visual metaphors for dementia ever committed to screen. Drenched in dread and soaked in one of the strongest sound mixes of the year, “Relic” may not be scary in the traditional sense. Still, it has an unnerving, otherworldly quality that somehow makes its incredibly sad ending even more human and tender than if it had told a more straightforward, less supernatural version of its story.
6. I’m Thinking Of Ending Things
Has there been a single image that sums up 2020 better than that of Jessie Buckley monologuing about reality while endlessly climbing up and down the same set of stairs like an extremely depressed MC Escher drawing? Charlie Kaufman’s long, slow descent into madness, “I’m Thinking Of Ending Things,” is the most bewitching film of the year, constantly throwing us off-center with its editing and making us question our own sanity with subtle costume and production design changes between shots. Buckley and Jesse Plemons are stunning, swimming through reams of dense dialogue as Kaufman’s twisty screenplay hypnotically spirals downward into the depths of loneliness and insanity. The last act is particularly maddening, with an out-of-nowhere dream ballet and absolutely savage “A Beautiful Mind” parody that combines to form something almost unbearably sad. It’s a brilliant film that all but requires multiple viewings, and boy howdy is it not for everyone, but even after several watches, I still find myself unable to look away from it.
By far, the most memorable movie-watching experience I had this year was watching Brandon Cronenberg’s latest on Christmas Eve, after an “enhanced” cookie. The most intense, disturbing horror film I’ve seen in a long time, “Possessor” is viscerally upsetting in ways that few films dare to be. It may have gotten its reputation from the fantastically gory body horror (the practical make-up effects are absolutely killer), but what really sticks with you is the brutality of what is happening in the protagonists’ heads. Andrea Riseborough’s Tasya Vos is an elite corporate assassin who makes a living by taking over other people’s consciousness, using their bodies to do her job, after which she has them commit suicide. Her unsteadiness in her own mind and body is a fantastic introduction to the themes Cronenberg is working with, but once she gets in the head of her next mark, Christopher Abbott’s Colin Tate, and he starts to fight back, all bets are off. Abbott is absolutely phenomenal, managing to play two people at once with frightening clarity. The story told behind his eyes, of not one but two people losing their minds, one inside the other, makes the body horror hit even harder. Add in some avant-garde, a heavy metal mish-mash of brightly colored distorted images to double down on connecting the physical and mental trauma, and well, pardon my French, but there’s just no other way to put it: “Possessor” FUCKS.
4. Promising Young Woman
Weaponizing the feminine aesthetic for all its worth, Emerald Fennell’s debut feature is the most compulsively watchable film of the year. Considering the dark AF places the film goes, especially in its last act, that’s quite an accomplishment. Some credit for that obviously should go to Carey Mulligan, blazing through the role of Cassie like a wildfire with perfect line readings and subtle but intense power behind her eyes. But this is Fennell’s film, through and through. As Cassie desperately tries to overcome her guilt after her best friend Nina kills herself after getting raped, causing the two of them to drop out of medical school, Fennell constantly toys with audience expectations, offering up potential catharses only to rip them away, just like the justice system has done to countless women like Cassie and Nina. No one is safe from Fennell’s scathing satire nor from Cassie’s righteous anger – not the self-described “nice guys” who feel a deep “connection” with girls too drunk to know what’s happening, not the women complicit in propping up existing power structures at the expense of other women’s health and happiness, and perhaps least of all the society that is still largely unable to see women as anything other than a virgin or a whore and forces heteronormative romantic fantasies down little girls’ throats at every turn. The audience isn’t exempt from any of this either, and Fennell stages every near-perfectly-written scene for maximum effect, staring the audience down and forcing them to reckon with their own complicity and biases. As the passionate discourse surrounding the film suggests, “Promising Young Woman” is the most vital film of the year, an exquisitely-designed atom bomb of female rage deftly lobbed at a system designed by and for men.
3. The Father
On the Broadway stage, “The Father” was like a magic trick, starting out as one thing before revealing itself as something else as soon as it hits the point of no return. On film, not only does first-time director Florian Zeller (adapting his own play, no less!) manage to repeat that same trick, but he manages to do so in a different way, replacing some (but not all) of the theatrical conventions of the play with cinematic conventions to achieve the same ends. It all starts so innocently, in the way of so many arid British prestige pictures about families falling apart, only for Zeller to drop the bottom out from under you, trapping you inside the deteriorating mind of his protagonist, a British senior citizen in the throes of dementia. And what a protagonist – this is the crowning achievement of Anthony Hopkins’s illustrious career. This part allows him to embrace his worst tendencies as an actor only to turn them inside out at a moment’s notice, in increasingly unsettling ways. And with Olivia Colman’s brilliant performance as Anthony’s daughter, the film pulls another magic trick, functioning equally well as a story about watching a loved one deteriorate from the inside out. When the inevitable end finally comes, it’s impossible not to feel just as broken as Anthony is. With genius use of production design and editing to shepherd his fantastic play to the screen, Zeller has created the most devastating mindfuck imaginable, using the cinematic art to dramatize an experience none of us can ever fully know in a way that only a film can.
Surely the least-seen title on this list, Boaz Yakin’s film is a relationship drama like no other you’ve seen. Making internal debates thrillingly external, our central characters are each played by two people – one man and one woman – each representing different sides of their personality. The performers switch out between and within scenes, sometimes even speaking amongst themselves as they do so. While this could feel schematic and intellectual, once you acclimate yourself to what the film is doing, it becomes a viscerally emotional experience. We get to experience a relationship in a way we never have before, from within and without each individual, lending scenes that would feel basic in other films a uniqueness that makes us feel the drama’s total weight. And as if that wasn’t enough, all four leads are dancers, and much of the story is told through dance, choreographed by star Bobbi Jene Smith. The dance sequences vibrate with energy, like an electric current flowing between the screen and the audience. “Aviva” is like nothing you’ve ever seen before, and the risks it takes pay off far more often than they don’t. Watching it is thrilling in a way that only something experimental can be and cathartic in a way that only something deeply in tune with our shared humanity can be.
1. Quo Vadis, Aida?
Writer-director Jasmila Žbanić’s gut-wrenching dramatization of the 1995 genocide in Srebrenica is a near-perfect braiding of the personal and the political. The great Jasna Đuričić stars as the titular Aida, a UN translator attempting to untie the Gordian knot of global politics, military strategy, and event logistics at a UN compound where thousands of locals are seeking safety before Bosnian Serb army leader (and convicted war criminal) Ratko Mladić arrives and surely kills them all. At first, Aida just does her job, and she pulls what strings she can to ensure the safety of her husband and sons, but as the inevitable happens and the UN proves useless against Mladić and his forces, she begins to risk more and more. As she becomes increasingly desperate to do something, anything, to save whomever she can, Žbanić’s no-frills direction steadily tightens, increasing the intensity of Aida’s situation as we can only sit back and watch, knowing that she cannot change history. In the film’s haunting epilogue, Žbanić offers a grim reminder that tragedies like what happened in Srebrenica are not just points on a historical timeline but also events with consequences that continue to ripple outward for years, even generations. The film is harrowing and heartbreaking but always watchable because it focuses on the human element of all sides of the situation at hand, allowing us to understand and empathize with nearly everyone. “Quo Vadis, Aida?” is the year’s towering achievement, a visceral, unforgettable piece of visual storytelling about the importance of our shared humanity in times of crisis.
What do you think of my list? Let me know what you think in the comments section below or on our Twitter account. Be on the lookout for more of our Top 10’s for 2020 and check out our Editor In Chief Matt Neglia’s Top 10 list here along with Daniel Howat’s, Josh Parham’s, Casey Lee Clark’s & Cody Dericks’. The annual NBP Film Community Awards are currently live and can be voted on until March 31st. The winners will be announced on the Next Best Picture Podcast on April 4th and the winners of the internal NBP Film Awards will be announced the following week on April 11th.
You can follow Dan and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @dancindanonfilm