If 2020 was a year like no other, then 2021 was even odder. When I wrote the words below 12 months ago, I was certain that the following year would be different, possibly a return to things as they were before. How foolish. The movies I saw in theaters and in my living room, at festivals in-person and virtual, were a hodgepodge of movies delayed by the pandemic, inspired by the pandemic, and shaded by the pandemic. The past and present collided in odd ways as movies conceived and produced long before COVID butted up against movies made because of COVID. Trying to get a handle on where cinema was and is headed proved as futile as trying to grasp the shifting chaos of the world at large.
Most years have a definite breaking point. 2021 feels like 2020 rounds two through four. Currently, my top 10 list of 2021 contains 17 titles, and positions are still fluid. And there are still movies to be watched and words to be written. Until then, I give you last year’s list. From Boulder Weekly Vol. 28, No. 20, “2020 in movies.”
2020 was the year I watched more but understood less. With a rotating series of crises to consider, rare were the instances where I found myself lost in someone else’s story for two hours. Empathy has its limits: When you’re adrift in your own story, the world talks to you on mute.
And yet, the movies persisted. A few brought joy, while the rest confronted the darkness head-on. But all provided illumination in their own way. Only one did I have the pleasure of seeing on a big screen. The rest I wait with anticipation to revisit on a screen so large I will once again feel small.
Dick Johnson is Dead — A father is dying, so his daughter decides to kill him: again and again and again. Along the way, they conquer the future by immortalizing the past. Heartbreaking and funny, Kirsten Johnson’s documentary/fantasy about her father is one of the most compassionate movies about loss in a long time. And it has an all-timer of a closing shot.
David Byrne’s American Utopia — In a year when we couldn’t go to the stage for live music and bask in live performances, Spike Lee brought the stage home with a filmed document of David Byrne’s 2019 Broadway show, American Utopia. Backed by 12 musicians and dancers, Byrne leads the audience through personal histories, international and philosophical musical styling, a delightful rendition of “This Must Be The Place,” a rousing performance of Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout,” and the joy of making music and telling stories. It’s like a breath of fresh air in a musty room.
Soul — What do you know: another movie about music and death. Both are treated with care and celebration, but of all the ideas buzzing around writer/director Pete Docter’s brain, the reasons for living—pizza, lollipops, trees in autumn—might be the most convincing. It’ll make you want to take a walk, inhale deeply, and live.
First Cow — A rich man loves oily cakes but can’t cook. A poor man can cook, but he doesn’t have the milk to make the cakes. So the poor man steals the milk from the rich man’s cow, cooks the cakes, and sells them to the rich man, who pays good money for the heavenly treat. And while the rich man devours those delectable oily cakes, he wonders: Why doesn’t that cow make any milk? Oh, what poetry Kelly Reichardt finds in the weird roots of American capitalism.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always — The abortion clinic intake questionnaire at the heart of Eliza Hittman’s third feature is so raw, so tender, it’ll crumble any preconceptions you might have about such a place. Sometimes the most intimate portraits are also the most profound.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things — Spending any amount of time in Charlie Kaufman’s brain can be a dicey proposition. It can also be a lot of fun. You’ll find both here, including two excellent performances (Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons) and a dance number that’ll stop the world.
City Hall — If Frederick Wiseman isn’t a national institution, then his documentaries are. He’s spent decades observing governmental bodies at work with curiosity, and his mosaic of Boston’s City Hall is among his best. Plus, the trash-collecting scene might be one of the best things I’ve seen all year.
Nomadland — Fern isn’t homeless; she’s houseless. There’s a difference, and when Frances McDormand says it, you believe it. Based on the 2017 non-fiction book of the same name, writer/director Chloé Zhao drops McDormand into a world of drifters and non-actors and uncovers something from the last recession that might inform the coming one.
Martin Eden — Filmmaker Pietro Marcello takes Jack London’s 1909 novel and sets it adrift in 20th century Italy, and gives us a leading man through and through with Luca Marinelli. Not to mention, the movie was shot on Super 16mm stock, making it the best looking film of 2020.
The Climb — Michael Angelo Covino and Kyle Marvin are old friends and incapable of separating themselves—no matter how toxic one of them is for the other. It’s a comedy, one of the funniest of 2020, and ingenious in its use of long takes.