Top 25 Films of 2020

5. Night of the Kings 🇨🇮

Sourcing its title from the Shakespeare play Twelfth Night, Ivorian Coast director Philippe Lacôte’s Night of the Kings, is that rare moment when ambition and quality both reach fantastical heights. A young kid (Bakary Koné) arrives at the MACA prison in Abidjan, only to be proclaimed Roman (a storyteller) by the deteriorating prison boss Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu). In an ode to Arabian Nights, the Roman must tell enough stories to last night, or suffer death. Lacôte dissolves the boundaries between reality and fantasy, past and present, to deliver a spellbinding story of murder, African folklore, and Ivory Coast history. Emphasis on story. Because Night of the Kings is an ode to storytelling, in all its forms: from theatrical to cinematic to oral. Mystifying staging, Greek choruses, and beautiful costuming weave together the disparate tales Roman offers, to scaffold the bewildering power structure of this jail with the historical political civil war that engulfed the Ivory Coast a few short years ago. Making the fantasy a parable for the recent reality. Lacôte’s Night of the Kings is the type of swing for the fences filmmaking that connects. And how far it goes is a marvel to watch. 

4. First Cow 🇺🇸

I had never watched a Kelly Reichardt film before I watched First Cow at NYFF 2019. After my viewing, I tore my way through her filmography and she’s now among my favorite filmmakers. I love that First Cow doesn’t play into familiar Western tropes. There are no shootouts. No bandits. No sheriffs or town drunks. Rather it’s a brutal far-flung outpost located far from the reach of genre. Humanity, however, in the form of Cookie (John Magaro) and King-Lu (Orion Lee) — two wanderers who find friendship in poverty — does find this muddy watering hole. Reichardt loves telling stories about desperate outsiders chasing the American dream. People who do not occupy the fringes. They inhabit the fringes of the fringes. And when Cookie and King-Lu learn of the first cow to arrive in the region, they hatch an audacious plan involving sweet succulent oily cakes, so they might take from the rich and give to themselves. Cookie and King-Lu discover domestic bliss in one another, in a film where homosocial bonds between men engender real unquestioned love. That love is made all the more palpable by way of Magaro’s gentleness and Lee’s bravado. While First Cow’s most devastating shot is its first, and the aftershock isn’t felt until the final minute, the journey in between is as scrumptious as Cookie’s oily cakes.   

Available on Hulu Premium

3. One Night in Miami… 🇺🇸

There aren’t many people who waved the flag for Regina King’s One Night in Miami higher than I have. Adapted from Kemp Powers’ play of the same name, and loosely based on a true event, the film follows the four most prominent black cultural figures of the 1960s—Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr), and Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir)—meeting in a Miami hotel room after Ali’s 1964 victory over Sonny Liston. The historical dramedy isn’t King’s first time as a director, she has previously helmed episodes of Insecure and This Is Us, but her first time directing a feature film is greatly aided by her past experiences. For one, she knows how to craft the type of seamless momentum required for such a snappy script. For another, as an actress, she’s adept at culling grounded performances from her tight-knit ensemble. Both Goree and Ben-Adir, for instance, are tasked with following-up previously Oscar-nominated portrayals of two sacred black historical figures, while Hodge and Odom Jr resonate as the low and high-end of the film’s emotional spectrum. Each actor delivers rollicking barbs while avoiding heavy artifice. And the dialogue they deliver regarding the pathways for black liberation are as heartfelt as they are powerful. With One Night in Miami, King makes us wish for a second night.   

Available on Amazon Prime

2. Nomadland 🇺🇸

There are two great American Westerns on my list: The aforementioned First Cow and director Chloé Zhao’s follow-up to The Rider Nomadland. Adapted from Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction novel Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, Zhao’s intimate character study follows Fern (Frances McDormand), a widowed woman floating on the outskirts of life following the erasure of her hometown’s gypsum plant. There’s no exaggeration behind the sentiment that Nomadland features one of the best performances of McDormand’s decorated career. She uses all the tools a lifetime has garnered her to portray a quiet charming traveler who first finds some financial stability as an Amazon factory worker, but locates greater freedom traveling the expansive American west in her trailer-home. Majestic purple skies and soothing desert horizons adorn her journey. And along the way she forms close bonds with a circle of equally independent women, and shapes a tight friendship with the gentle rover David (David Strathairn).  Meditation  

1. David Byrne’s American Utopia 🇺🇸

For 135-minutes I forgot how much the world sucked. Which is ironic considering the obvious political themes at the center of my number one film — the Spike Lee-directed David Byrne’s American Utopia. The best concert film since Jonathan Demme captured, in Stop Making Sense, the Talking Heads’ 1983 performances at Hollywood’s Pantages Theater, American Utopia records Byrne’s recent Broadway show of the same name. Lee, who’s always possessed an underrated eye for capturing song and dance, studies the show’s sparse sets and grey-suited yet ethnically diverse band of musicians with an inventive lens. He mounts his camera behind the set’s chain-linked curtain, rarely uses crowd shots, and takes as much interest in the musicians’ fanciful dancing feet as he does Byrne. Euphoric renditions of “Once in a Lifetime” and “Everybody’s Coming to My House” are more than toe-tappers. They lift the listener from their seat, as though they were present in the same theater, to join along in the joy they bring.  

Byrne is equally as on the ball as Lee. The show sees the singer-songwriter connecting the spirit of his music with prescient subjects like voting rights, immigration, and Black Lives Matter. His cover of Janelle Monáe’s protest anthem “Hell You Talmbout.” which visually combines Lee’s penchant for messaging and Byrne’s musical prowess to unparalleled activist heights, reminds one that BLM isn’t a timely issue. It’s concurrent. And by the time the shuffling melody to “Road to Nowhere” parties with the audience, and Byrne with his train of musicians marches through the rows of seats, one can’t help but be giddy. American Utopia doesn’t fix the world. It reminds one of how fulfilling a collective experience can be, such as a concert, and the comfort we derive from knowing that all is not dark. Where there is music, there is an echoing light at the end of the tunnel.

Available on HBO Max

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