20. Passing 🇺🇸
“I’m beginning to believe that no one is completely happy, free or safe,” says Irene (Tessa Thompson), the Black housewife in Rebecca Hall’s exquisite adaptation of Nella Larsen’s same-titled novella, Passing. For a Black woman living in 1929 America, Irene lives an ideal life: An advocate of racial causes, she resides in Harlem with her dashing physician husband Brian (André Holland) and their sons. Irene could pass for white if she wanted. She does so in the film’s anxious opening sequence to escape the day’s oppressive heat. Similar to the weather, here, a pressure chokes the air: the Great Depression is nigh and the lynchings and murders of Black folks fill the headlines. Irene desperately tries to protect her sons (and herself) from facing these dangers. But the arrival of Claire (Ruth Negga), an old friend (or flame?), passing in a marriage with a white racist husband, dispels such misbegotten hopes. Like a game of jacks, attraction bounces between their eyes, only for the stringent structures of their environment to snatch their wants away. Both Thompson and Negga offer complimentary performances, possibly the best of their respective careers, in a black and white film, shot lushly by Eduard Grau, that not only exercises the medium in graceful strokes. It walks on the shards of more than a few touchy subjects without flinching.
Available to stream on Netflix
19. Summer of Soul 🇺🇸
The best music documentaries — Standing in the Shadows of Motown, Searching for Sugar Man, Don’t Look Back — take their subject past their individual celebrity to tell a story of a moment, an era, or a movement. Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), recounting the historic 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which took place mere months before Woodstock, moves with a similar grace. With Summer of Soul, Thompson asks two simple questions: What was the festival and why did it disappear in the national consciousness? The first answer is simple: Over the course of several weeks the event displayed the best Black musicians — from The 5TH Dimension to Mahalia Jackson to Sly and the Family Stone — of the period. The why speaks to the all-too-common erasure of Black history. Thompson uncovers the vital past of Harlem’s Black and Afro-Latinx melting pot, of a generation transitioning to Black power, through vibrantly restored footage of these singular performances to incite a religious fervor and an intoxicating spirit that give voice to a people whose echoes can still be heard over the reverbs of time.
18. Nine Days 🇺🇸
Good world building doesn’t always mean you have to account for every detail or explain every component (the first Star Wars, for instance, is incredibly light on details). It means you’ve created a world where the emotions of the characters feel real in their fantastical setting. Edson Oda accomplishes such a feat in his directorial debut Nine Days. A holdover from Sundance 2020, whose emotional resonance during the pandemic has only grown in importance, it follows Will (Winston Duke), a bitter spiritual arbiter in control of what souls are allowed to live. Duke, in his meatiest role yet as the broken Will, who often takes his frustrations out on perspective souls such as the empathetic Emma (Zazie Beetz) or his best friend Kyo (Benedict Wong), displays a vulnerability built upon loss, grief in the absence of closure, and the harshness of a selfish world. His final soliloquy, a recitation of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, is as towering as the man, and as powerful as his grasp on the human soul.
17. The Rescue 🇬🇧/🇺🇸
You wouldn’t think Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi could match the anxiety-inducing tenor of Free Solo, and yet their newest film, The Rescue, also about a different kind of athlete, proficient in a skill few in the world could understand, somehow caused me to bite my nails down to their studs. It’s edited by Bob Eisenhardt like a thriller, akin to Rob Cohen’s Daylight. Instead of a ripped Sylvester Stallone, however, Chin and Vasarhelyi turn their gaze to the four older, seemingly average white British cave divers who traveled to northern Thailand to recover a boy’s soccer team entrapped in the flooded Tham Luang Nang Non cave. To recreate the story, the directors combined on the ground footage with amazingly accurate reenactments to put viewers directly in the point of view of those searching for these kids. A story depicting tall odds, ordinary folks elevated to unlikely heights, and the determination of the human spirit, The Rescue is one of those few films that should be watched on the biggest screen possible.
16. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy 🇯🇵
Some filmmakers fashion stories packed with immediacy. Others sculpt tales that continue to gnaw at you, burrowing so deep in your mind they kiss your brain stem. Ryusuke Hamaguchi makes the latter, and his omnibus masterwork, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is one of his two works that wormed their way into me. Each part in Fantasy, there are three, embraces missed connections, and the tiny turns in life that take us over unknowable cliffs. The stories include a love triangle with two women, a woman grad student roped into a plot for revenge against a professor, and two women mistaking each other for other impactful women from their respective pasts. Hamaguchi works with uncanny patience, the kind where, upon closer inspection small details, such as the seemingly innocuous connections we make with other people who can alter us in ways that feel incomprehensible but are no less truthful or dynamic, build to large hills.
15. Faya Dayi 🇪🇹
Set in Ethiopia, Jessica Beshir’s abstract, anthropological directorial feature debut, Faya Dayi, concerns the populace’s dependence on the region’s biggest cash crop — a leafy green vegetation known as the khat plant. Faya Dayi is a gorgeous freeform black and white picture that slowly reveals its subjects through careful poetic study. Through a series of lyrical vignettes capturing folks either lulled into ennui or given to spiritual ecstasy, Beshir simultaneously tracks the plant from harvest to marketplace, from field to dealer. In the pirouetting hookah smoke, the sprinkles atop smushed food, and the slender branches fit to chew, she mystically weaves in and around several nameless individuals to demonstrate the plant’s all-encompassing social, economic and psychological presence in her subjects’ daily lives. Beshir’s spellbinding observations, a kind of walking dream, are gorgeously composed as a loving invite to not only learn about the people and the country, but as a spiritual odyssey that gives an African nation a story not wholly written by outsiders looking for war-torn stories.
14. Shiva Baby 🇺🇸
Between Janicza Bravo’s Zola and Emma Seligman’s hilariously awkward, painfully intense dark-comedy, Shiva Baby, a destigmatization of sex work has permeated independent cinema this year. In Shiva Baby, Danielle (a deliciously sharp, withering Rachel Sennott) earns money through liaisons with older Jewish men. Following her appointment with her sugar daddy, Danielle attends a claustrophobic shiva observance with her nutty parents (Fred Melamed and Polly Draper) and an old flame (Molly Gordon) only to run into her client and his wife and newborn baby. Cut like a horror film by Hanna A Park, Seligman’s film features an unnerving cacophony of sound that puts us on pins and needles while awaiting the next shoe to drop in a series of panicked events stemming from a vilification of sex work.
13. Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn 🇷🇴
I don’t think any plot summary or spoiler could prepare you for Radu Jude’s subversive, erotic comedy Bad Luck Banging or Looney Porn. I could tell you that you should take the film’s title literally: This Romanian movie opens with a very real, very long mostly unsimulated porn. Past the opening scene, a spitfire of vignettes, featuring a wandering gaze (Jude loves settling on objects in the frame that feel like worlds apart from the film’s main character), sees Emi (Katia Pascariu), a teacher trying to get a sex tape taken off the internet before it destroys her job. Working in conjunction with the main narrative, Jude fashions a montage, using documentary techniques, to alphabetically define objects and topics, ranging from the French Revolution to sex, as a way to critique Romania. No film this year has better weaved the pandemic in its dramatic arc. The film’s ending parent-teacher conference, whose absurdist humor welcomes shades of Dr. Strangelove, leverages the space required for social distancing to create a ping pong of sexists attitudes, toxic nationalism, Romaphobia and antisemitism to the foreground for an explicit interrogation of the plights affecting our contemporary world.
Now playing in theaters
12. The Green Knight 🇺🇸
A visual masterpiece, The Green Knight, David Lowery’s adaptation of the legendary 14th-century 2,500-line poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, is a vast reframing of the gallant Arthurian myth for a modern audience. Opening during a Christmas celebration, a magical knight made of tree bark, vines, and armor arrives to play a game – whoever lands a blow against him must venture to the Green Chapel one year hence to receive an equal blow in kind. The young plucky nephew to King Arthur, Gawain (Dev Patel), takes the challenge and, one year later, travels to face the supernatural foe. A test of his honor, his pilgrim’s progress over bleak rolling hills and foggy orange-smeared valleys is a series of run-ins with tricky apparitions and quiet giants, and through Lowery’s precise research, recreates the myths and religious influences that would’ve existed during the writing of the poem for a film that’s just as much concerned with literary accuracy, not assuming the work existed within an ahistorical vacuum, as it is about Patel swinging a big sword (I said, what I said).
11. Identifying Features 🇲🇽
Fernanda Valadez’s feature directorial debut Identifying Features, is a bleak, heartbreaking meditation on the dangerous travails for migrants hoping to cross the border and the violent cartels that operate like landmines along the way. Valadez’s textured narrative, smeared with aged interiors and oblique, magically realistic fragments of fire and devils, follows a worried mother, Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández), searching for her disappeared son across Mexico weeks after he left for the United States. In the background to her quest is Miguel (David Illescas), who’s returning to Mexico in search of the family he left behind. I adored cinematographer Claudia Becerril Bulos’ chilling compositions, whose shallow depth of field allowed for my eyes to search for any hint of safety or danger. Through Valadez’s delicate precision, Identifying Features avoids outward cliches and tasteless voyeurism to deliver a shocking, tragically blunt assessment of the many ways interminable bureaucracy foments a never-ending systematic trail of violence against those simply seeking a better life.