What I Saw Last Year – Best Feature Films 2020

A year without blockbusters or movie theaters. 2020 was a radically different year for everything, not just movie-going, and 2021 still is. If someone had told me at the outset that theaters would be closed nearly a year later, I don’t think I could have gotten my head around it.

The last film I saw in a theater was Stage Fright at Film Forum on Saturday, March 14. Not a great film, but it was a Hitchcock I hadn’t seen before, and I wanted to check that box. Besides, film screenings had already begun shutting down, such as MoMA and Film at Lincoln Center. Film Forum would close that Sunday, AMC and other multiplexes by Monday. Some theaters across the country have re-opened — I don’t know how many — but film venues in New York City remain closed.

I saw 61 films in theaters before they shut down. Since then I’ve been watching them mainly online via Amazon Prime and Netflix, with some on HBO, Showtime, and from my DVD & Blu-ray disc collection. Even with theaters not open last year, I didn’t see fewer films in 2020, I actually saw more. But get this, of the 392 films I saw, only 95 of them were new films. The remaining 297 were old films, either ones I’d seen before or ones I hadn’t seen that looked interesting. Most of the year I was, in effect, running a random repertory program at home.

But of those 95 new feature films, many of them were excellent, even great. I’ve come up with a top-10 list again this year, to be followed in part two by 18 films that were very strong and deserve to be included. The hell of it is, at the start of the new year I realized that while I’d spent an inordinate amount of time last year watching old films, I’d neglected many of the new ones that were turning up on various streaming services, such as Ammonite, Another Round, and Babyteeth. I intend to catch up in the days to come, and will cover the best of those in a later post. Meanwhile, on to the best of what I saw last year, in alphabetical order.

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Dear Comrades!

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The Assistant (Kitty Green, director & writer)  This excellent, quietly disturbing film stars Julia Garner as a recent hire as an assistant in a film production office. She gets in before sunup and leaves well after sundown. Over the course of one very long day she endures many small humiliations and sexist attitudes that are taken for granted by others in the office. Her boss, never seen but always intimidating and looming via phone and intercom, is what the Me Too movement is all about. The narrative proceeds at a slow burn, an accretion of small details, and often feels like a horror movie. Garner, who we first saw in the great FX series The Americans and more recently on the Netflix series Ozark, is excellent as a wary observer struggling to get her bearings and deal with what’s expected and demanded of her. There are no histrionics or blowups that I recall, but the atmosphere is nonetheless extremely tense. It’s like a grenade waiting to off. This is a small jewel of a film, but no one would call it feel-good. Available on Amazon Prime.

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Dear Comrades! (Andrei Konchalofsky, director & co-writer)  Konchalofsky is a well-known Russian director, but I first became aware of him in 1985 when I saw his English-language film Runaway Train, with Jon Voight and Eric Roberts as escaped convicts in Alaska who end up on a runaway train. That film ends with a powerful, existential image of Voight standing on top of the speeding train in the midst of a blizzard as it speeds through the night. I don’t remember much else, but that scene has stayed with me. Konchalofsky’s new film is based on an actual event that took place in 1962 in a small industrial town when government forces fired on factory workers who were striking to protest higher food prices and lower wages. Many were killed in the ensuing massacre, news of which was officially surpressed until the 1990s. Yuliya Vysotskaya, the director’s wife, plays Lyudmilla, a loyal Communist Party executive. Her frantic search for her rebellious daughter, who took part in the strike, makes up the heart of the film. It’s a great performance in a powerful film. Available via Film Forum/Neon on January 29.

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First Cow (Kelly Reichardt, director & co-writer)  Kelly Reichardt is an excellent director whose previous films have included Wendy and Lucy (2008) and Certain Women (2016). Her new film is quite special in conception and execution. In 1820, Cookie (John Magaro) is the cook for a group of trappers in Oregon territory. He meets King Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese man on the run after killing a Russian. They hook up and set up house in a settlement that’s more or less overseen by a wealthy Englishman called Chief Factor (Toby Jones). Cookie makes biscuits that sell like hot cakes at the local marketplace, but he needs milk to continue to make them. Chief Factor has the first and only cow in the region. Cookie and King Lu begin milking the cow at night, stealing the milk, which works until it doesn’t. This is a wonderful film, filled with unusual detail. At one point, King Lu says to Cookie, “History isn’t here yet. It’s coming, but maybe this time we can take it on our own terms.” I think it’s unlikely that anyone at that time would say something like that, but it gives a great sense of this being a country in the making, and the beginnings of a social order. Available on Amazon Prime.

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Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman, director & writer)   Autumn, played by Sydney Flanigan in her debut film role,  is 17 years old and pregnant. She lives in a small town in Pennsylvania, where her options are limited, to say the least. She and her cousin Skylar (played by Talia Ryder) take a bus to New York City where she plans to terminate the pregnancy. They don’t really know what they’re doing, and while paperwork and finances get sorted, they spend two nights in and around the Port Authority Bus Terminal, which becomes a character in its own right. I was reminded of how stressful and uncomfortable bus stations can be, always transient, and how lonely at 2:00 am. Sydney Flanigan’s performance feels very authentic and completely natural. This film is an example of what we’re seeing more and more, narratives that don’t advance in traditional ways, that are less dramatic and less plotted. Stories develop more indirectly. Not having everything mapped out and spelled out can feel fresher and more real. That’s certainly the case with this film. Available on HBO Max.

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Nomadland (Chloé Zhao, director & writer)  Zhao’s previous film, The Rider, was one of my top three favorite films of 2018. I absolutely loved it. Nomadland is a worthy followup, and then some. Nomadland has been almost universally praised. Traditional storytelling falls away and it feels like you’ve discovered something totally authentic. This is due in part, I think, to Zhao’s method of casting real people as close versions of themselves who use their real names and experiences, as she did in The Rider. A difference this time is that Zhao employed a big-name actor, Frances McDormand, to play the lead character, Fern. This undoubtedly raised the profile of the film. Zhao also cast the quietly outstanding David Strathairn as Dave, who Fern encounters at various times on the road. Fern has lived all of her adult life in a Nevada mining town. With the death of her husband and the closing of the mine that effectively closes the town, even eliminating its zip code, Fern packs up and goes on the road, taking seasonal work where she can get it. She becomes part of a community of transient older Americans living in RVs and vans. They are fiercely independent and frequently on the move — nomads.

Zhao based the film on a non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder published in 2017, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. Many of the people profiled in the book are characters in the film. As it did in The Rider, this lends a strong documentary aspect, a kind of non-fiction fiction, if you will. Nomadland was filmed over four months on locations in Nebraska, South Dakota, Nevada, Arizona, and California. These people were living their lives as the movie was being filmed. You get a sense of their dignity and self-sufficiency, which is exemplified by Frances McDormand’s fearless performance. At one point, when concerned friends back in Nevada offer Fern a place to stay, she says, “I’m not homeless, I’m just houseless. Not the same thing, right? Don’t worry about me.” Scheduled to be available for streaming February 19 on Hulu.

Note: In what feels like a cognitive disconnect, Chloé Zhao has signed to direct Eternals, a Marvel superhero film expected later this year (pandemic permitting). Her distinctive and very specific sensibility should yield very interesting results, though it’s a little like hearing that Ozu had directed a Mad Max film. Actually, that’s a movie I’d like to see.

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Sorry We Missed You (Ken Loach, director)  Ken Loach is a great director whose films reflect committed humanist, social, and political concerns. These include Kes (1969), Land and Freedom (1995), My Name Is Joe (1988), The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006), and I, Daniel Blake (2016). Loach is nearly 85 years of age, and Sorry We Missed You is strong evidence that his craft, skill, and sensitivity have not diminished in the least.

As in many of his films, the characters in Sorry We Missed You are everyday people, working class, the common man (and woman). Sorry We Missed You was filmed in Newcastle, as was I, Daniel Blake, and concerns a family struggling to make ends meet and get by. Ricky (Kris Hitchen), a somewhat hapless character, has just started working for a package delivery company managed by an abusive boss. His wife Abbie (Debbie Honeywood) works as a home care nurse. Ricky pressures her to sell the car she uses to get to her clients in order to have the down payment for the van he has to buy to make deliveries. Abbie then has to take buses and cabs. Their teenage son Seb skips school to be with his small crew of graffiti taggers around town, and is just generally contrary. Their young daughter Liza Jane (Katie Proctor), is stressed out by the constant bickering between her father and brother.

Working with his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Paul Laverty, Loach has created a deeply heartfelt film, sad and tragic, an essential statement. Available on Amazon Prime.

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Sound of Metal (Darius Marder, director & writer)  Riz Ahmed, who was great in the HBO series The Night Of (2016), here plays Ruben, a heavy metal drummer who suddenly loses his hearing. Ahmed’s performance sharply conveys his confusion, anger, and fear as he struggles go adjust to his new reality. Members of the deaf community portray characters in the film, which adds a level of authenticity that you can feel. Available on Amazon Prime.

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Unhinged (Derrick Borte, director)  This film is the wild card of the bunch. When I first saw Unhinged I was totally turned off. I thought it was irresponsible and gratuitous. Here’s what I had to say on Facebook one day after my initial viewing:

“Why, after a career that includes films as good as Gladiator, L.A. Confidential, A Beautiful Mind, and Master and Commander, would Crowe choose for his latest something as useless and empty as Unhinged. He plays a character as ugly and irredeemable as any I’ve seen in a long time. I was relieved to learn that he was wearing a fat suit and hadn’t actually gained 200 pounds for the role. His character is completely nuts from the start when he charges into a house, brutally kills a guy and then burns the house down. No spoilers here, this is the very first scene. The film seems to exist just to exhibit a whole lot of car crashes and Crowe savagely killing a whole lot of innocent people. I tend to like violent movies, but not when they’re as gratuitous as this one is. It’s very well made, but so what? Something else is that Unhinged was touted as the first film to play in reopened theaters since the pandemic lockdown began in March. If this film reflects the times and the mood, we’re in more trouble than I thought.”

Given that, you might well wonder how it is that Unhinged is on my Best Features list. Well, a day or so after posting those sentiments I was still thinking about the film. I wanted to better understand why I’d had such a visceral reaction, so I watched two interviews with Russell Crowe (these will be included in the Best Films Supplemental post in a day or so). He talks about his initial reluctance to play this kind of basically irredeemable character, and he breaks down how he thinks the film works. He’s very articulate and insightful. What he says basically turned my head around and gave me a new way to consider what I’d seen.

What’s most disturbing about Unhinged is that there’s absolutely no rationale, justification, or explanation for what his character does. Simply called “The Man” in the credits, he’s road rage personified and that’s it. He’s unstoppable, he’s a Terminator. Invariably, in the wake of murders, mass shootings, and violent events, there are always “experts” who attempt to explain and understand what has happened. We don’t want to accept that sometimes there are no answers. That’s hard to deal with. But there’s more than road rage is going on here. Crowe’s character is a darkness that just is.

Unhinged is very well made and it’s a rough ride. The narrative is single minded, unrelenting. It winds tighter and tighter. There are no distractions or relief, comic or otherwise, to ease the tension. It’s our worst nightmare. There’s an Itchy and Scratchy level of violence, except it’s not a cartoon. Unhinged is an example of transgressive cinema. It crosses the line, goes way over.

Unhinged is not a film I plan to see again, but probably will, if only because I don’t want to. And at the same time, I do. That may not make any sense, anymore than I can explain why it’s on my list of Best Films. Like Russell Crowe’s character, it just is. Available on Amazon Prime.

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The Vast of Night (Andrew Patterson, director)  I love this film. I’ve seen it four times and it holds up strongly. If anything, it just gets better. I wrote about it last summer, which can be accessed here. Available on Amazon Prime.

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Working Man (Robert Jury, director & writer)  It’s great to see Peter Gerety finally get a leading role after many years of solid supporting work, mainly in TV series such as Homicide: Life on the Street (1996-1999), The Wire (2002-2008), Sneaky Pete (2015-2019), and Ray Donovan (2019-2020). Like Nomadland and Sorry We Missed You, this film takes place in a working class environment with everyday people. Gerety plays Allery Parkes, who has worked for 30 years in a factory in a Rust Belt town. When the factory shuts down, Allery isn’t ready to stop working. He finds a way back into the plant and continues to go in, day after day, doing his work. That he’s not supposed to be there and is not getting paid is beside the point for Allery. How this plays out in his life and in the community is very interesting and touching. Talia Shire, known for The Godfather and Rocky films, plays his wife, Iola. Billy Brown, who my wife recognized from the series How to Get Away with Murder, plays Walter Brewer, who joins Allery in working in the closed factory. It’s a feel-good scenario, but Working Man has some bite and a few twists along the way. Available on Amazon Prime.

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That wraps up the first part of my annual survey of the feature films I liked the best from last year. Supplemental materials for these ten films will follow in a day or two. In the meantime, Happy Inauguration Day! Stay safe. — Ted Hicks

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About Ted Hicks

Iowa farm boy; have lived in NYC for 40 years; worked in motion picture labs, film/video distribution, subtitling, media-awards program; obsessive film-goer all my life.
This entry was posted in Books, Feature films, Film posters, History, Home Video, Streaming, TV & Cable. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to What I Saw Last Year – Best Feature Films 2020

  1. David M Fromm says:

    Thanks for this blog. It is a great start on what to catch up on.

  2. Kimball Jones says:

    A good list. I’ve only seen two: First Cow and The Vast of Night. Loved both of them. I look forward to seeing some of he others, especially The Assistant (but I think I’ll pass on Unhinged).

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