Monday, January 11

Favorite Films 2020

Favorite Films 2020

By: Monte Yazzie


In January 2020 I was in Baltimore, Maryland taking crowded public transit to a packed outlet mall. I was there to sit inside a completely full 250 seat cinema ready to watch Kristen Stewart in the creature feature “Underwater”. The threat of a deadly virus was simply a cautioned whisper at this time, maybe a random tweet found while scrolling through the daily updates. 


A mere two months later would find the entire world changed, with closures, lockdowns, and curfews set in place to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus. The last film I watched before everything closed was Kelly Reichardt’s wonderful “First Cow” at a press screening with fellow movie critics. If I would have known this would have been the last time I went to the movies without social distancing protocols, mask ordinances, and sanitizing stations, I would have ordered more concession food and sat closer to someone to hear them express some kind of emotion while watching the film. 


It would be August 2020 before I found my way back into a movie theater, monitoring the attendance for the perfect scenario when 5 or less people were inside a big enough theater to feel safe sitting and watching the silver screen for 90 minutes. The opportunity came on a quiet Wednesday afternoon with the movie sequel “Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula”, I was more concerned about my safety than the zombie mayhem happening on screen. 


Streaming has become commonplace in my home, looking for something new to come out while revisiting films from the past and rewatching entire seasons of television just waiting for the opportunity to return to the movie theater. If there is one truth found for me in 2020, it’s that cinema and the feeling of going to a theater with people will never be replaced. Movie theaters will forever be sacred meeting places for those that love moving pictures. 


Overall in 2020 I have watched more film than any other year of my life, some 500+ movies ranging from new films, every Jean-Claude Van Damme movie, a curated home film festival of Ingmar Bergman movies, one whole month of Gene Hackman and Elliot Gould, terrible B-horror movies, a wealth of westerns from the 1960s and 1970s, and more than few Jackie Chan films from his early career. I introduced my son to Godzilla movies, watched a ridiculous amount of 80’s action films with my wife, and can recite almost every minute of “The Nightmare Before Christmas” with my daughter. 


Even amidst a lack of films released, with many being rescheduled towards the end of the pandemic, 2020 was still an amazing year from new films. Here are my favorite movies of 2020.


Top Twelve

12. Bacurau

The building of dread in Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles film “Bacurau” is exceptional; it’s a blend of fantasy, horror, history, and culture focusing on themes of colonialism, human injustice, and sacrifice. It’s played similarly to a western in the violent vein of Sam Peckinpah blended within a world modeled after the atmosphere in a Terry Gilliam dystopian future. Add the amazing performances of cult icon Udo Kier to the mix, as murderous leader of a bloodthirsty gang, and “Bacurau” is one of the most unique films of 2020. 


 11. Bloody Nose Empty Pockets

There is something interesting about familiarity. The fact that you could exist in a place, like a dive bar that sells mediocre beer but has a great jukebox, and confide in strangers you call friends in the confines of those scared spaces is a special kind of home away from home. And, for some regulars, it might be the only place they could call home for a few hours a night. “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” lives in one these sacred spaces with a group of regulars on the final night of operation. It’s fascinating and poignant watching people say goodbye, drink and smoke in hand, in their unique ways.

10. Soul

There are two moments in Disney Pixar’s “Soul” that I can still see and hear so clearly. When Joe, our disenfranchised jazz music teacher, freely plays a piece on the piano to a group of young people, showing how inspired and individual music can be. The other moment, when Joe leaves a club after, what he thinks, was supposed to be the defining night of his life. The expression that Joe makes as he exits is so familiar, but it’s an expression that changes the older, wiser, and more experienced you get in life. That’s the power of what Pixar is doing with “Soul”, finding emotions and showing you familiar and different ways to understand all those complicated feelings. “Soul” is bold and ambitious and beautiful storytelling.

9. Never Rarely Sometimes Always

At the heart of Eliza Hittman’s film “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is a story about a pregnant 17-year-old girl who is thrown into the intolerant and controlling adult world, one made more complicated and difficult because of her gender. It’s also a heartwarming story of womanhood shown through two young women traveling across state lines to obtain a safe and legal abortion. Faced with difficulties at every turn, Hittman never forces the political discussion but rather uses character to show how the process is faced. It’s poignant, powerful filmmaking.  

8. The Forty-Year-Old Version

The discovery of 2020 was writer, director, actor Radha Blank. Playing a fictionalized version of herself in the film “The Forty-Year-Old Version”, Blank stuns from start to finish. Forming a narrative that doesn’t settle for an easy Hollywood structure but instead dissects the ups and downs of the creative process, showing how inspiration finds everyone a little different. For Radha, the opportunity to flex her creative style is found with a choice to become a rapper. Photographed in stark black and white, within the mysticism of New York City, “The Forty-Year-Old Version” is exceptional art from a shining star of an artist. 

7. The Relic 

“Relic”, from first-time feature director Natalie Erika James, is a film that still lives in my mind nearly half a year after watching it. The haunting imagery, the beautiful performances, and the use of genre to tackle the devastating health condition of memory loss and dementia. “Relic” is a great conversation horror piece for adults, one that displays why the genre of horror can be so fluid in how it tackles subject matter both simple and difficult, using monsters and scares to portray an understanding of real-life trauma.  

6. Minari

It’s been said that a good story should feel universal. For director Lee Isaac Chung the story about a Korean American immigrant family who move to Arkansas to start a 50-acre farm is as familiar as it is unique. That’s the beauty of what Chung is doing with the film, displaying the theme of “the American Dream” but through a perspective of a family who comes from a different culture and looks different than those who practice the same craft. Steven Yuen and Yeri Han give exceptional performances as the married couple struggling to understand what they want out of life and how they will survive the many obstacles that persist through their life. It’s an intimate portrait of family dynamics but also a film that displays how hard it was, and still is, for non-white people to assimilate into America.


5. Another Round

Oh the joys of day drinking! Director Thomas Vinterberg may relish in showing a group of middle-aged men drink and dance, all who are educators at the same school, but these men concoct a semi-scientific plan to drink during their school day to see if a low intoxication will make their work day habits and skill better. It’s silly, plain and simple, but it’s also completely committed to the joke. And, in occupying this premise, the film wanders into something more personal, both for the viewer and the director. It becomes a film about coming to some kind of terms with adulthood, understanding the unease and anxiousness of aging, and the joy that growing older allows you to find in simple pleasures like good music, great food, or drinks with friends.  

4. Small Axe: Lovers Rock

There is a moment in Steve McQueen’s superb “Small Axe: Lovers Rock” when a group of house party attendees slow dance/grind to the song “Silly Games” by Janet May. The room of people, dripping hot with the sound of pattering footsteps finding its own unified rhythm, sway and glide around, next to, and into each other. The music slowly fades away and the entire room begins to sing the song, each of them dancing, singing, and fading into the ecstasy of the night. It’s one of my favorite movie moments of 2020. At a tight 68-minute run time, “Lovers Rock” is beautifully acted and incredibly photographed. It’s an ode to romantic reggae music, to a moment in time in London, and for the freedom found by Black youth at house parties from the discrimination waiting down the street. McQueen crafts an exhilarating story with a loving and soaring spirit.

3. Nomadland

Writer/director Chloe Zhao crafts a melancholy tale of a woman who loses everything in the recession and makes the move into a van to explore the American West in “Nomadland”. The minimalistic approach to the film composes some affecting emotional moments of isolation, both beautiful and bleak, and a loneliness that echoes more pertinent in the midst of a pandemic. With the exception of Frances McDormand and David Strathrain, “Nomadland” is supported with a cast of nonprofessional actors. This adds an authenticity that allows the viewer to sink deeper into the meditative rhythm Zhao narrates with the meandering yet contemplative structure. It builds and unfolds beautifully, painting a portrait of independence and peace found in a solitary existence. 

2. I’m Thinking of Ending Things 

Charlie Kaufman’s horror film? Seems too easy of a definition for one of cinema’s most wildly original filmmakers. Still, there is an unconventional use of genre elements employed throughout this film; you can feel the unease of the unknown, the creepiness of coincidences, the fear of discovering hidden intentions within others and, specifically, yourself. It’s all there, shaped and molded in a way that is distinctly Charlie Kaufman.  “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is a fascinating and complicated film. All the feelings produced throughout the film challenge one another: it’s interesting and infuriating, sometimes at the same time. But altogether it is simply pure cinema, another highlight in the career of Charlie Kaufman.

1. First Cow

Director Kelly Reichardt crafts minimalistic films centered around specific emotional relationships; the auteur has an undeniable ability to make the most simplistic stories feel overwhelmingly complex yet also richly textured. “First Cow” creates this same quality, one focused on the relationship between two unlikely friends. It’s a beautifully structured composition that is assisted by two actors, John Magaro and Orion Lee, who provide nuanced and natural performances. “First Cow” may serve as the perfect example of the kind of art Kelly Reichardt creates; emotional, historical, personal, and deliberate stories about relationships. It’s one of the director’s finest works



Honorable Mention
A Sun
The Assistant 
A White White Day
Boys State
The Climb
Da 5 Bloods
David Byrne’s American Utopia
The Invisible Man
The Nest 
One Night in Miami
Palm Springs 
Possessor Uncut
Small Axe: Mangrove
The Sound of Metal
The Twentieth Century
The Vast of Night
The Wild Goose Lake


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