Top 25 Films of 2020

15. I’m Your Woman 🇺🇸

Julia Hart’s I’m Your Woman is predicated on a simple premise: What if the women, who are usually dashed to the side in a 70s crime thriller, offered their own story? Jean (Rachel Brosnahan) is the oblivious wife to the underworld con man Eddie (Bill Heck). She lives a pampered self-contained life until Eddie, to the surprise of Jean, first adopts a baby, then goes missing. Aided by Eddie’s associate Cal (Arinzé Kene) Jean departs on the lamb with her baby away from the men who are hunting her husband. Hart is truly one of the more underrated directors out there; while I’m Your Woman is a cinematic entrée of chic costumes, glamorous hairstyles, and heart-pounding chase scenes. One sequence in particular, which involves a herd of clubbers running back and forth through a hallway, and then out to a traffic laden city street is absolutely enrapturing. Hart is so aware of the gangster subgenre, and so nimble in her subversions. She’s especially brilliant at writing black characters: Marsha Stephanie Blake as Teri avoids the pitfall of merely becoming a black friend. Instead, she’s totally autonomous. And I’m Your Woman is thrilling till the very end.

Available on Amazon Prime

14. Sound of Metal 🇺🇸

I first saw Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal, a film concerning a metal drummer losing his hearing, at TIFF 2019. I remember not only falling in love with this unique character study, but worrying that Amazon would be acquiring it. To me, Sound of Metal was meant for a theater, and I didn’t know what Amazon’s release strategy would be. But I’m now glad they did acquire it. If not, the brilliance of Riz Ahmed as Rueben, a man whose world is shattered by his hearing loss, wouldn’t be known. The harrowing performance of Paul Raci as Joe, a community leader working with the Deaf, who mentors a shaken Rueben, wouldn’t be recognized. And the breathtaking sound design, which so eloquently captures a different world, and engenders it with a fulfilled experience, would still be a well-kept secret. A story told through English, American Sign Language, sound, and the lack thereof, while featuring the best performance of Ahmed’s career, is one of the films, if there’s only one film you do watch from this list, that you absolutely should watch.   

Available on Amazon Prime

13. John Was Trying to Contact Aliens 🇺🇸

On its face, Matthew Killip’s John Was Trying to Contact Aliens is a documentary about the kooky Michigan space-DJ John Shepherd, and his search to discover extraterrestrial life from the confines of his snowy rural home. But this 16-minute short doesn’t solely concern how John made his grandparents’ home into a high-tech communication center fresh out of an 80s b-movie. Or how his radio station played afrobeats and other non-commercial music into the ether for aliens to pick up. No — Killip’s subject concerns a lonely man looking out into the boundless space for company. It’s a portrait of how postmodern life has witnessed humans finding comfort in technology and in the exploration of existence’s unknowable confines so that life on earth might feel much more fuller. And after Killip’s film takes a sudden turn, what emerges is love. A love that’s as powerful as any galaxy. I’ve watched John Was Trying to Contact Aliens five times since its Sundance 2020 premiere. The way it connects the beauty of the beyond with the gorgeousness of the immediate is wonderful. And John is equally as pure.  

Available on Netflix

12. The Platform 🇪🇸

Far too many films have been proclaimed “pandemic cinema.” To the point of rendering the phrase meaningless. One of the first, and one of the few examples to deserve the title, is Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia’s dystopian thriller The Platform. The Spanish language film (I’d recommend switching the language over to Spanish rather than relying on English dubs) is predicated on a unique thesis: There is a large, tower-style jail known as a “Vertical Self-Management Center,” wherein those on the upper floors receive the most food and those on the bottom receive the least. The residents are also switched between floors every 30 days. The days inside these bleak concrete cells are filled with monotony: The residents sleep, wash, read, and eat. That is, if they’re on an upper floor. Because on the lower levels are bloody, cannibalistic fights for survival. Amid the violent tumult, in The Platform, Gaztelu-Urrutia critiques post-capitalist decadence, apathetic rulers, and materialism to invoke how communities disintegrating into selfishness might lead to senseless death.

Available on Netflix

11. Babyteeth 🇦🇺

If you wanted a teary-eyed coming-of-age double-feature, you’d have a pretty good one by pairing Me and Earl, and the Dying Girl with Shannon Murphy’s Australian romance Babyteeth. Milla Finlay (a devastating Eliza Scanlen) is a 16-year old girl, who while battling terminal cancer, crosses path with the 23-year old vagabond Moses (Toby Wallace). The former is trying to live the last days of her life to the fullest, from drinking to partying, while the latter runs prescription medication on the side. Their relationship, barring the stark age difference, is completely symbiotic. They’re shattered characters hoping to heal one another the best they can. Equally as affecting are Essie Davis and Ben Mendelsohn as Milla’s concerned parents. Mendelsohn usually plays exaggerated villains, but here, his grounded performance is heartbreaking. The beach scene, where he and Davis take a picture together, translates grief into a thousand words. Murphy’s Babyteeth isn’t as YA as Me and Earl, and the Dying Girl. And not nearly as melodramatic. But every ounce of its anguish is felt just as acutely. 

Available on Hulu

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