Like most people, I tried more new things in 2020 than I would’ve in a normal year. I didn’t learn to make sourdough or play a new instrument or anything constructive like that, but my wife and I did successfully create a valid alternative to the movie theater-going experience – an absolute must for people with Cinemagic loyalty cards faded from constant swiping. We invested in a projector and a great big screen, and screened our favorites in the backyard all summer long.
Looking back on the year in movies, I’m struck by the achievements of new directors, who ignored their expected career narrative and made fully realized cinematic statements right out the gate. When the 93rd Academy Awards kicks off on Sunday, it will be celebrating several instances of people trying something new – almost half of the Best Picture nominees came from first-time filmmakers.
My list of 2020’s Best Pictures has an even higher batting average – seven of the 10 movies below are debut features. Perhaps this is just a coincidence. But then again, as the world shifts into formations we would’ve found unthinkable two years ago, maybe there’s some science behind it. As humanity wrestles with grave new threats, we need new voices to give us hope for a future that, for all its challenges, won’t be lacking in stories that inspire us.
Here are my 10 favorite movies from the year we all tried something new.
First-time director Romola Garai helms this patiently gruesome horror-morality tale, where a troubled former soldier named Tomaz (Alec Secareanu) almost dies in a fire, only to be rescued by a kindly nun (Imelda Staunton, with a mischievous twinkle in her eye) who offers him an opportunity to get back on his feet – he can move into a place rent-free, as long as he helps a woman named Magda (Carla Juri) keep house while she cares for her sickly mother. Of course, this opportunity is too good to be true, but not in the way you might expect. Garai takes her time jumping between ominous flashbacks of Tomaz’s military past and prolonged shots of the stained, moldy structure he now calls home, begging the viewer to wonder what must be lingering in his memory and crawling behind those walls. All of this pent-up anxiety explodes in a scene that had me raising my hands to protect my face, my lizard brain temporarily forgetting that I was safe at home. This would be a feat on its own. But Garai has more monsters to unveil. And not all of them look scary at first.
This anti-colonialist gonzo Western pits the mysteriously disenfranchised residents of the titular Brazilian village – its water supply has been cut off, and it’s vanishing from GPS maps – against an enemy who would seem cartoonishly barbaric, if it wasn’t for all the clear parallels to white nationalists and the politicians who enable them. Directors Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles do an exquisite job of setting the stage, patiently introducing us to the colorful characters of Bacurau, who convene at the funeral of a town matriarch. While there is clearly something off about village life, we do get a look at what it might be like if allowed to proceed organically, its night air alive with music after another productive, sunny day. Once Udo Keir appears on screen, sporting that casually sadistic look he’s perfected over the decades, the body count rises and the action crescendoes to one final, immensely satisfying showdown. For fans of spaghetti Westerns, John Carpenter synth sounds, antiracist movements, and that battered old concept of justice.
In 50+ years of acting on screen, Anthony Hopkins has tackled his share of psychologically complicated roles, including a charming psychopath, an emotionally stunted butler, and a corrupt U.S. president. But none of these performances delved into the inner workings of the human mind as effectively as his work in The Father. The 83-year-old pours his entire self into the role of a proud, frustrated man who shares his name, depicting his struggle with dementia with fearless vulnerability. And he’s paired with a director who is equally bold. Florian Zeller adapts his stage play to the screen with great respect for the afflicted, so much so that the narrative isn’t built from the outside looking in. We see the world through Anthony’s eyes, and are as confused as he is when the story stops traveling down a linear path. Editor Yorgos Lamprinos builds sequences like unsolvable puzzle boxes, looping back to revisit scenes from different perspectives, utterly disorienting us. In the midst of it all, Zeller is able to convey the toll it takes on Anthony’s daughter and caretaker Anne, simply by casting Olivia Colman, who doesn’t need any dialogue to show us that she is on the brink of clinical exhaustion. Where typical Oscar-bait would be content with documenting all of this misery with a sense of remove, The Father asks for empathy. As we walk in the shoes of a former engineer who obsesses over watches as he loses track of time, a sad story evolves into a heartbreaking achievement of shared humanity.
I recently saw my first John Wayne movie, the gorgeously shot 1948 cattle-drive drama Red River. While it had some important things to say about masculine friendships, they were more of the “I’m not gonna say I love you even on my death bed” variety. Which left me wishing I was watching First Cow instead. Kelly Reichardt’s gold rush period piece charts the friendship of two characters who would have been Red River extras at best – Cookie, a soft-spoken Oregonian chef who gets bullied by fur trappers, and King-Lu, a quick-witted Chinese immigrant on the run after allegedly killing a Russian man. When Cookie stumbles across a naked and starving Lu in the woods, he clothes, feeds and hides him. It’s the opening salvo in a sweet, realistic depiction of male friendship, played with tenderness and verve by John Magaro and Orion Lee. The pair go into business together, selling Cookie’s mouthwatering “oily cakes” in town with promising results. Thing is, those cakes require milk, and the only source is a cow that was imported by the town’s richest man (Toby Jones, believably weird flexing). The scenes where Cookie milks the cow in the dead of night, whispering his gratitude to the animal as Lu sits up in a tree looking out for them both, are stunning tableaus of love and support.
The Forty-Year-Old Version
Radha Blank’s debut film is such a profound, hilarious achievement, it might make you wonder how on earth she hadn’t gotten the green light to make one before now. For the answer, all you have to do is watch. The writer, director and star plays a lightly fictionalized version of herself in The Forty-Year-Old Version, a slumping NYC playwright who pays her bills by teaching theatre to disinterested teens. She never stopped writing plays, but they’ve all been rejected by Broadway producers who are more interested in Harriet Tubman musicals and an “all-male Steel Magnolias.” Blank deftly pairs this push-pull between art and commerce with the warring priorities in her character’s psyche as she approaches middle age. She avoids calls from her brother so she doesn’t have to come to terms with their mother’s death. She fights with her manager/best friend, who is asking her to compromise. And she invents a new persona, the rapper RahdaMUS Prime, who finds a producer on Instagram and spends hours in his booth, spitting unfiltered rhymes about her reality. Shot in glorious black and white and edited in the rhythms of real life, The Forty-Year-Old Version is an engrossing character study, a biting satire of cultural appropriators, and an open-hearted ode to struggling artists everywhere.
Judas and the Black Messiah
In 2007, a movie called The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford received a pair of Oscar nominations, thanks to its luminous cinematography and understated performances. But in reality, Jesse James was the coward – a violent white supremacist who kept fighting for the Confederacy long after its defeat. In 2020, we got another period piece about betrayal, with a title that pits its two leads against one another. Except this time around, the historical figures are Black, and it’s the bravery that the history books have omitted. Judas and the Black Messiah depicts the rise of Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Illinois Black Panther party in the late 1960s. Daniel Kaluuya plays the 21-year-old Hampton with the intensity of a comet, streaking down the streets of Chicago to summon people to his cause, aware he will be extinguished and all the more committed because of it. His Judas is FBI informant William O’Neal, who is bullied into divulging more than his conscience can handle. He’s played by Lakeith Stanfield, who makes us feel ulcers of guilt with his facial expressions alone. Director Shaka King and editor Kristan Sprague set a tone that is the anti-Jesse James, stuffing scenes with rapidly delivered soliloquies and infectious, kinetic motion. Making us believe that when an idea catches fire, no number of men with guns can truly kill it.
Promising Young Woman
Imagine a story where a male character gets his girlfriend drunk, brags “I could violate her 10 different ways if I wanted to,” and then hands her unconscious body over to his buddy with these skin-crawling instructions: “Have fun.” Sounds like a Law & Order: SVU villain who will surely get his comeuppance, right? Nope. This is a scene from Sixteen Candles, the 1984 John Hughes teen comedy that an entire generation saw as an ideal representation of romantic love. It is scenes like this that inspired the British actor Emerald Fennell to start writing what would become her directorial debut. Promising Young Woman wrests narrative control from men like Hughes, investigating the cascading traumas rapists inflict on their victims and the people who love them. Her hero is Cassie (Carey Mulligan), a woman seeking revenge for the rape and eventual death of her best friend Nina, feigning drunkenness in clubs as a way to shock and shame the men who inevitably try to take advantage of her – a steely-eyed nocturnal crusader doing more to protect women than Batman ever has. And the rapists aren’t the only villains to be exposed. Several characters, including so-called love interest Ryan (Bo Burnham), speak of Nina’s assault like it was an unpreventable, unprosecutable act of God, when her rapist is a guy named Al who is still out there, guiltlessly living his life. Both a deft genre experiment that absolutely skewers romantic comedy tropes and an unblinkingly brutal condemnation of rape culture, Promising Young Woman cuts any apologist off at the knees before they even have a chance to mewl, “not all men.”
To be raised Catholic is to learn to be suspicious of your own body. Lust and gluttony are deadly sins, and to atone for them you must pray to the mutilated man hanging on your wall. While Saint Maud isn’t the first film to explore the unhealthy nature of this divine celebration of violence – the prayer closet in Carrie featured a statue of a wild-eyed St. Sebastian, arrows sprouting out of him like eyes from rotten potatoes – it’s the first I’ve seen that never enters the supernatural realm, positioning the church’s demented morals as the worst kind of poison for its delusional, mentally ill protagonist. Maud is a mild-mannered-at-first hospice nurse sent to care for a once-famous dancer dying of cancer. Played by Morfydd Clark with the nervous energy of a wallflower about to step on the dance floor, Maud is clearly unstable from the start. Yet unlike Carrie White, Maud isn’t bullied or shamed. Her patient takes pity on her, indulging her flights of spiritual fancy. An old nursing colleague appears and offers kindness, even though she’s aware of some awful, shadowy thing from Maud’s past. Director Rose Glass depicts Maud’s mental breakdown with methodical inevitability, filling the screen with stunning, apocalyptic visuals that act as portals into her madness. She’s who Carrie would have been, if she believed every lie her mother told her.
Vampires vs. the Bronx
As a fantasy novel dork, I’m a sucker for stories that pit groups of kids against seemingly unstoppable forces of evil – because their ability to wholeheartedly believe in myths and legends ends up being the key to their triumph. And while Vampires vs. the Bronx is rooted in this tradition (Attack the Block, Stranger Things and The Monster Squad are clear forebears), director/writer Oz Rodriguez adds a layer of social commentary that gives these horror-comedy tropes a new lease on life. This is the story of Miguel Martinez (Jaden Michael), a boy whose passion for preserving his Bronx neighborhood has earned him the nickname “The Mayor.” As the shadowy Murnau Properties starts buying up buildings and turning them into hipster magnets, the stage is set for the showdown promised in the title. While the gentrification allegory isn’t subtle, Rodriguez’s experience as a director for Saturday Night Live gives the film a brisk, banter-heavy energy that makes sure we’re never being talked down to. He fills his streets with wise-cracking characters sitting on stoops and streaming live updates on their phones, successfully portraying the Bronx as a vibrant, diverse community being drained of its lifeblood by the pale, privileged classes. Kids have battled vampires on screen before, but the stakes have never been this real.
The Vast of Night
If you’re a director angling for a bigger budget these days, a word of advice – don’t let your producer see The Vast of Night. This exquisitely haunting sci-fi period piece features the kind of ambitious single-shot sequences, undulating cinematography and pitch-perfect period detail that can convert a viewer from a skeptic to someone who searches the night skies for odd clusters of light. And first-time filmmaker Andrew Patterson made it for just $700,000 (or .00196% of the budget of Avengers: Endgame). The story unfurls across a single evening in 1950s Cayuga, New Mexico. Fay (Sierra McCormick) and Everett (Jake Horowitz) are friends and fellow audiophiles who we meet killing time at a high school basketball game before their respective shifts start – Fay is a phone operator and Everett is a radio DJ. When Fay hears an odd noise interrupt Everett’s broadcast, and then overtake one of her phone lines, our heroes are in the thick of a mystery as American as Area 51. Patterson and cinematographer M. I. Littin-Menz make the most of their decision to shoot in black and white, thickening the shadows until it feels like anything could creep out of the murk. Yet The Vast of Night is not a horror movie. This is hopeful, character-driven, studio-nerd sci-fi – a loving homage to audio technology. If it can carry our voices through wires, and beautiful music through invisible airwaves, who’s to say what other miracles could be there waiting for us, just a twist of the dial away?
Honorable mentions: The Assistant; Barb & Star Go To Vista Del Mar; Becoming; Bill & Ted Face the Music; Borat Subsequent Moviefilm; Da 5 Bloods; The Empty Man; Happiest Season; His House; The Invisible Man; Mangrove; Minari; The Nest; Never Rarely Sometimes Always; Nomadland; Run