Top 15 Films of 2020 – Allen’s Picks
The themes of Never Rarely Sometimes Always cut deeply. Eliza Hittman’s story is a small one, but it encapsulates such honesty and unflinching truth that we walk away feeling raw. Seventeen-year-old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) – accompanied by her cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder) – travel from Pennsylvania to New York City to have an abortion. Along the way, we see their bond deepen, not only because they have to make their way through an imposing metropolis but must remain steadfast against a misogynistic world. The very people that would judge Autumn for her unexpected pregnancy are the very same people that would turn around and plead with her not to terminate it. The issues and conversations that the film generate are not easy ones to confront, but they are necessary and important to have. It asks tough questions and doesn’t settle for easy answers.
4) First Cow
In a time where quarantining and social distancing has kept us away from friends and family, the need for human connection ran high. Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow exemplifies this through the friendship of a cook (John Magaro) and a Chinese immigrant (Orian Lee) in the late 19th century Oregon territory. Both outsiders, the two join forces to help each other survive and prosper in the harsh northwest wilderness. They devise a scheme to milk the cow of a local landowner (Toby Jones) and use it to make and sell oily cakes. Methodical in its approach but meaningful in its messaging, First Cow highlights the relationship between two individuals who came from opposite sides of the world but found common ground. Despite the unrelenting environment these characters live in, you’ll be hard pressed to find another film this year with as much warmth and humanity.
Nomadland is the story of America, of those who live on the fringes but who are very much part of this country. The characters we meet – who live on the road out of their cars, vans, and RVs – have broken away from the shackles of common society for whatever reasons they may have. As a result, they have found their own sense of freedom. Among them is Fern (Frances McDormand), a middle-aged woman who makes her journey to either escape her past or to find a more prosperous future. Like a great novel, the film (written/directed by Chloe Zhao) is all about the details. The people Fern meets, with their different personalities and backstories, creates a rich texture. It is a tapestry of human life that allows us to better understand this community. The best movies are the ones that puts us in the shoes of people unlike us, with Nomadland being a perfect example.
Steve McQueen’s collection of five separate films (titled Small Axe) might very well be his magnum opus, with Lovers Rock being the best of the bunch. Set during a single night in 1980s London, McQueen’s film covers a house party centered amongst a black/West Indian community. No other film in 2020 brims with as much joy, life, and vibrancy as this does. Characters dance to thumping reggae music – twisting their bodies, stomping their feet, and pounding the walls with contagious exuberance. McQueen fills the screen with sensual imagery, from the crowd moving in musical unison to sweat dripping down the walls. People meet, fall in love, get into fights, and everything in between, and yet the common thread is the sense of heightened reality when a favorite song gets played. McQueen doesn’t ignore the fact that just outside the building is a world filled with hate, racism, and discrimination, but for this one moment of time, these characters can escape reality into their own sense of personal elation.
It is so quiet, so understated, and yet Driveways contains such pitch perfect execution that it operates as the quintessential counterpoint to 2020. It is the story of understanding, compassion, and empathy. These are people that we pass by everyday – who may have something to share if we allowed ourselves to listen. It is a credit to Andrew Ahn’s direction, Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen’s writing, the performances of the cast, Jay Wadley’s music, Ki Jin Kim’s cinematography, and the rest of production to make a work that is so tender and kindhearted. In a time where we often focus on the things that separate us, here is a movie that reminds us that generosity and goodwill are the very things that make us human.
A young boy named Cody (Lucas Jaye) and his mother Kathy (Hong Chau) travel to her recenty deceased sister’s house to tie up loose ends. The neighbor is Del (the late Brian Dennehy), an elderly veteran. Despite their differences in age and backgrounds, Cody and Del strike up a friendship. They are two lives at opposite ends of the spectrum: one just beginning and the other winding down. Cody and Del find in each other a person willing to hear and respect what the other has to say. When everything else around them seems to spiral out of their control, they act as pillars of support for one another.
A good film may have one great scene, a great film might have two or three. Driveways is made up of nothing but great scenes, culminating in a monologue by Dennehy (his final onscreen appearance) that is filled with such love, pain, and self-reflection that it plays as though both the character and Dennehy himself are looking back on a life fully lived. It is perhaps the single best piece of acting in all of 2020.
Driveways is one of those films that lives with you, grows old with you, and holds your hand along your journey like a trusted friend. And that’s why it’s the best film of the year.