Top 25 Films of 2020

20. Rewind 🇺🇸

The good films are like memories: they stick with you. I first watched Sasha Neulinger’s harrowing documentary Rewind at Tribeca 2019, and I’ve never shaken this tale of cyclical child abuse. Rewind is a story about self-healing through self-excavation. Neulinger’s father, with a home camcorder, recorded much of Sasha’s childhood. In the footage we find a vibrant family. There is Sasha’s uncle Howard, a well-known opera star connected with the Jewish church, and his other cheerful uncle Larry. His mother Jacqui seems equally content. Sasha, especially, is a happy-go-lucky child. But something changes in the ebullient Sasha. He begins to lash out at his younger sister Bekah and falls behind in school. Unbeknownst to his parents, he’s been sexually abused. As has his sister Bekah, too. They have been betrayed by the people closest to them. A present-day Neulinger reviews the dire memories of his childhood—sometimes with his mother, sometimes with his father, and sister sitting beside him—and tries to piece together his recorded traumatic nightmares. While Neulinger is intense, the memories he exorcises are equally acute. Rewind is a documentary made up of frightening revelations, but it’s not a documentary intended for those shocks. It’s a brave confrontation with the past. It’s the hurt that swims beneath the image. And it’s an empowering story for survivors everywhere.

Available on Amazon Prime & Kanopy

19. The Assistant 🇺🇸

Every morning Jane (Julia Garner) arrives at the sleepy New York City office of a film company. She makes the coffee, turns on the lights and copier, and cleans her boss’ office of dishes and ummm… stains. Though his name is never revealed, her preying temperamental boss is clearly created in the mold of Harvey Weinstein. To say Kitty Green’s The Assistant is solely about Weinstein, however, ignores how Jane’s story is unfortunately quite common for women in the workplace. Jane must contend with spineless-male coworker who are only her superiors due to their sex, the tirades of her boss whenever his infuriated wife calls, and a complicit HR, in the hopes that if she survives long enough, the line on her resume will lead to her real dream job. She risks that dream when a young woman arrives who she believes will be her boss’ next sexual victim, only to discover just how deep the rot grows in her toxic office. Garner’s performance is as subtle as subtle can get. Still, her weary glances hit as though she’s been transported back to a kind of bunker, and the air raid is still ongoing. The biggest moments in Green’s The Assistant arrive in the silent spaces. And it’s in the silence spaces where even the best lack their conviction.

Available on Hulu

18. Pillars 🇺🇸

Ever since I saw Haley Elizabeth Anderson’s stirring coming-of-age short, among the many other short films at Sundance 2020, every minute of its provocative eighteen has consumed me. It’s so rare to see a brand new voice already so fully formed. Especially when the owner of said voice has only recently graduated from New York University’s graduate film program. In her film Pillars, where a young girl from a devout religious family is caught exploring her inchoate sexuality in the church’s girls bathroom, are narrative shades of Dee Rees’ Pariah and visual odes to Terrence Malick. Certain images stamp into memory. Take the kiss—a vulnerable, intimate communication told through a stream fractured close-ups of each girl’s facial features. The film’s evocative aesthetic—warm dreamlike colors consuming its subjects to the point of pious ecstasy—demonstrate Anderson’s advanced sense of presence. Through very little dialogue she communicates her southern setting and the unbreakable social laws that govern it. Anderson is the type of audacious new voice we’re always yearning for. Pillars is her opening statement.   

Available on Criterion Channel

17. Song Without A Name 🇵🇪

Peruvian filmmaker Melina León’s debut, Song Without a Name (or Canción Sin Nombre), is a minimalistic intimate drama detailing the theft of newborns and the mothers left to mourn without a body. Considering its black and white aesthetic, the political unrest at the center of the story, and its interest in motherhood, the Peruvian film has easy parallels with Roma. Barring the basic narrative comparisons, however, Song Without a Name features a strikingly different emotional tone.  Georgina (Pamela Mendoza), the narrative’s focal point, earns a living by selling potatoes in the town’s market; and calls a shack at the base of a hill, whose walls are so thin the wind might as well be a house guest, her home.  Without money to visit a real hospital, she decides to conceive her baby at a free clinic, only to have her infant daughter stolen by her nurses, and then sold on the black market. She finds little help searching for her until she meets a young taciturn reporter in Pedro (Tommy Párraga, delivering a quietly assured performance). Song Without a Name is a sorrowful elegy, a funeral without the body, and a beautifully wrought lament to the voiceless. 

Available on VOD

16. Mangrove 🇬🇧

I don’t hate Aaron Sorkin’s Trial of the Chicago 7. I just find its comfort in mediocrity to be disappointing. Sorkin had an engrossing true story that chastised police brutality and corruption on the federal level. One which involved both white protesters and the Black Panthers. Yet he zapped the story of its natural heart by offering up maudlin punch the air courtroom antics. Steve McQueen’s Mangrove, part of his five-part film anthology Small Axe, took a different route. Following the Mangrove Nine, a group of West Indian protestors undeservedly put on trial in 1970 for inciting a riot, McQueen drapes audiences in a courtroom battle that’s as much about spotlighting the inherent racism in the British justice system as winning the defendants their freedom. Two powerhouse performances from Letitia Wright as British Black Panther member Altheia Jones-LeCointe, and Shaun Parkes as local restaurant owner Frank Crichlow, propel Mangrove. A film not composed of sweeping soapbox speeches but intricate lawyerly tactics for deceptive depth charges. It’s the far superior example of the oppressed fighting against their oppressors.

Available on Amazon Prime

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