Peter Howell's Top 10 for 2020: Finding human connections in a socially distant year
In a year when movie-going became movie-streaming and blockbusters became basement shakers, one question gnawed at the minds of cinema lovers: What exactly is a film?
Is it still defined as essentially a big-screen viewing experience, projected into a darkened room filled with convivial strangers? Does it really matter what size the screen is and how many people are watching?
The arrival of COVID-19 and subsequent restrictions on public spaces has hastened the advance of streaming technology and dealt a blow to traditional movie theatres, likely a fatal one to some.
However you choose to define film, the year’s many harsh realities and disappointments didn’t stop a lot of great cinematic achievements from reaching our eager eyeballs.
As I prepared my annual list of Top 10 films of the year, I noted how many of my favourites included key scenes of people seeking some kind of personal connection, often by a hand gesture — one extended to offer consolation, two others clasped in friendship and love, multiple fists pumped in ecstatic joy to the spinning records of a house party deejay.
Here are my 10 favourite films of 2020, plus 10 runners-up. Where possible, release dates and viewing platforms (theatrical and/or streaming) are included:
The winner of the People’s Choice Award at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival is also my pick for the best film of 2020. Frances McDormand stars as a defiant wanderer of the American West — “I’m houseless, not homeless” — who balances grief and resiliency following personal and economic devastation. Writer/director Chloé Zhao (“The Rider”) draws the role and story from real life. She dramatizes Jessica Bruder’s urgent journalism in a 2017 book about rootless and van-residing Americans seeking paycheque gigs and cheap lodging, with some of Bruder’s interviewees playing themselves in the film. Yet “Nomadland” somehow feels like classic fiction: Jack Kerouac meets John Steinbeck. The result is an awards-season stunner. (Opens April 9 in available theatres, also streaming on Disney+ platform.)
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
The largest truths are often told with the quietest of voices. This award winner from the Sundance and Berlin film festivals, written and directed by Eliza Hittman (“Beach Rats”) is one such shining example. Sidney Flanigan is Autumn, an introverted Pennsylvania teen whose unexpected and unwanted pregnancy, plus the desire for no parental involvement, prompts a bus ride to New York to seek a legal abortion. Autumn is travelling with her cousin and best pal Skylar (Talia Ryder), and everything from money troubles to bureaucratic hassles threaten to thwart them. The humanity of their situation, and Hittman’s clear empathy, make this a story of devotion rather than desperation. (Streaming on Google Play and iTunes.)
Small Axe: Lovers Rock
Mercury Sound! British writer/director Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”), normally a dramatist, gets on the good foot with this musical second part of his five-film “Small Axe” series, drawn from his life growing up in London’s vibrant West Indian community. It’s set in a single day and night, and based around a blues party where the DJ-spun sounds of reggae, disco, ska and dub — the “lovers rock” of the title — literally shake a houseful of revellers. Some are looking for romance, others for trouble. Yet everybody is of like mind when the crowd spontaneously starts singing along with Janet Kay’s falsetto-rich “Silly Games.” Chances are you will, too. (Streaming on Amazon Prime Video.)
David Fincher’s fact-inspired backstory on the writing of Orson Welles’ cinema masterpiece “Citizen Kane” comes as a corrective of sorts to “Kane” mania. It likewise boasts dazzling formal rigour, with similar deep-focus B&W cinematography and Expressionist austerity. Yet unlike its Wellesian touchstone, which was also partially rooted in fact, the film presents a more human portrayal of its flawed central figure, “Citizen Kane” screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz. Gary Oldman seizes the title role, setting the silver screen ablaze with an awards-worthy performance of a brilliant mind and wit hindered by booze, betting and hubris. Amanda Seyfried’s Marion makes for a fascinating foil. (Streaming on Netflix.)
There’s nothing wrong with complicated or even obtuse plots, as long as the filmmaker makes us feel invested enough to want to figure them out. Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet,” titled for a code word given to John David Washington’s world-saving spy guy, certainly succeeds on that score. I wanted to watch the film again as soon as it faded to black, to better understand what I’d just seen. It distorts time, space and grey matter in ways reminiscent of writer/director Nolan’s earlier mind-benders “Inception,” “Interstellar” and “Memento.” But the Byzantine plots of those films seem like dress rehearsals for this one, a thriller that blows the mind to the max. (VOD rent/purchase via AppleTV and Google Play; also available on DVD/Blu-ray.)
Stories of a fresh start in an unfamiliar landscape don’t come more affecting than this family drama by Korean-American filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung, which won two top prizes at Sundance 2020. Steven Yeun (“Burning”) is Jacob Yi, an immigrant to America from South Korea who yearns to become a farmer in Arkansas, growing the fruits and vegetables of his homeland. Jacob and his wife Monica (Yeri Han), along with their two children (and soon to be joined by a loveably gruff grannie played by Yuh-jung Youn) find the culture and the agriculture a lot tougher than they’d expected, almost “Grapes of Wrath” tough. What emerges is the year’s most poignant tale of family togetherness. (VOD rent/purchase on Cineplexstore.)
The Trial of the Chicago 7
The epochal Chicago 7 court case of 50 years ago was famous for disruption and populated with enough players to fill a Russian novel. The saga finds form, substance and wit in writer/director Aaron Sorkin’s resonant account of the politically motivated conspiracy trial of 1969-70, featuring anti-Vietnam War protesters who had clashed with baton-wielding cops outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In word and image and with a crackerjack cast led by Sacha Baron Cohen as Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman, Sorkin replicates the rat-tat-tat-tat feel of this media-savvy legal showdown, which inflamed the past yet feels so much like Donald Trump’s America. (Streaming on Netflix.)
Think of it as the ancestor to the buddy outlaw esthetic of “Easy Rider.” Kelly Reichardt puts her long-take meditative style to seriocomic purposes in this sublime tale of wilderness bonding and American ingenuity, set in the Pacific Northwest of the 19th century. Two drifters — itinerant baker Cookie (John Magaro) and his friend King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant — hatch a plan to steal the milk of the first bovine to arrive in the Oregon Territory. They use it to make “oily cakes” (we’d call them doughnuts) which sell like hotcakes to local fur trappers and woodsmen. Another fan is wealthy trader Chief Factor (Toby Jones), owner of the cow, who doesn’t realize that his beast is being milked and he’s being fleeced. (VOD rent/purchase via Cineplexstore and other platforms.)
Sound of Metal
A rock drummer’s sonic plight might seem the opposite of a sensitive story. But that’s exactly what writer/director Darius Marder delivers with his dramatic feature debut: an all-encompassing portrait of thrasher Ruben, played by the awesome Riz Ahmed. While touring with his bandmate and girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke, also superb), Ruben discovers that his noisy profession has nearly destroyed his hearing. A stubborn man of extremes — he’s also a recovering heroin addict — Ruben at first won’t accept his doctor’s harrowing verdict. He reluctantly joins a deaf community, led by Vietnam vet Joe (Paul Raci, another casting coup), with the intention of remaining an outsider to a silent world he won’t accept. The film’s superb sound design draws us into Ruben’s dilemma, beckoning us towards understanding and empathy. (VOD rent/purchase via Cineplexstore.)
Anne at 13,000 ft
Whether she’s jumping out of planes or in emotional free fall, the title character of Kazik Radwanski’s potent third feature is an absolute force of nature. Deragh Campbell, winner of the 2020 Jay Scott Award for emerging artists from the Toronto Film Critics Association, gives a breakout performance as the airborne Anne, a Toronto daycare worker who tends to leap before she looks. She’s great with kids, much less so with adults, including her harried co-workers and her impatient new boyfriend (Matt Johnson). Writer/director Radwanski’s in-your-face style serves this story well, but Campbell’s riveting performance as a woman on the verge of vertigo is a sight to behold. (Streaming on digital TIFF Bell Lightbox.)
Runners-up (in alphabetical order): “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” “Collective,” “Da 5 Bloods,” “David Byrne’s American Utopia,” “The Father,” “Hamilton,” “Mangrove,” “One Night in Miami,” “Possessor,” “The Vast of Night.”
(This story was originally published in the Toronto Star.)