2020 was a strange year in the movie business, and it was particularly strange for feature films, since many that would have gotten a big release in the theaters were held over until 2021, and others which normally would have had a theatrical release went straight to VOD. The Academy has its own rules for eligibility, but for the purposes of this list, if a film is being promoted by its distributor for end-of-year awards in 2020, that’s good enough for me, even if it might have, for instance, played a U.S. festival in 2019.
Beanpole, directed by Kantemir Balagov, is a quietly intense film based on Svetlana Alexievich’s book The Unwomanly Face of War. It offers a great corrective to anyone who thinks American life during the COVID-19 pandemic is tough, following two female veterans, Iya (Viktoria Miroschnichenko) and Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina) as they try to rebuild their lives in Leningrad after World War II. Both their own bodies, and their city, have been devastated by the war (in the overcrowded hospital where they work, one patient jokes that a child has never seen a dog because they’ve all been eaten). For all its tragedy, Beanpole is a beautiful film, with carefully composed frames and muted cinematography by Kseniya Sereda.
The Forty-Year-Old Version, written and directed by Radha Blank, is a semi-autobiographical film about a playwright who’s nearing the big 4-0 and has yet to enjoy the success expected thanks to her early promise. Presented mostly in black-and-white, it feels like a documentary at times, capturing both the frustrations of trying to make it as an artist and the daily pleasures and difficulties of ordinary life in New York City. And, thanks to shooting on 35 mm film, Eric Branco’s cinematography looks infinitely better than the digital black-and-white used in films like Mank.
The Half of It, written and directed by Alice Wu, is a delightful high school story set in Washington State and partly based on Cyrano de Bergerac. Ellie (Leah Lewis), the Cyrano-equivalent, is a Chinese lesbian who acts as the adult in her household and writes her classmates’ papers for cash (with the full knowledge and support of their teacher, played hilariously by Becky Ann Baker). Paul (Daniel Diemer), a dumb but good-hearted jock, fills the Christian role, and Aster (Alexxis Lemire), a pastor’s daughter, corresponds to Roxanne, and is the object of both Ellie’s and Paul’s desires. This story has been done many times, yet it feels fresh and new in Wu’s version, which is about a whole lot of things besides unrequited love.
Mangrove, directed by Steve McQueen, is a first-rate historical drama with enough McQueen touches that it couldn’t possible have been directed by anyone else. The subject is the 1970 arrest and trial of the Mangrove Nine, a pivotal event in British civil rights history; the name comes from a restaurant, The Mangrove, which served as a community center for the black residents of Notting Hill, London. Even if the specific events are not familiar to Americans, the pattern of police harassment, trumped-up charges, and a judicial system stacked against non-white defendants should certainly be. Mangrove has an authentic period feel and an outstanding cast including Shaun Parkes as Mangrove owner Frank Critchlow, Malachi Kirby as the activist Darcus Howe, and Letitia Wright as Altheia Jones-Lecointe, a physician and leader of the Black Panther party.
Mank, directed by David Fincher, is ambitious enough to demand attention, even if it has more than its share of flaws. Erik Messerschmidt’s cinematography expertly mimics the style of Citizen Kane, fictional news reports, montages, deep focus, and attention-grabbing camera angles, but even fake cigarette burns can’t disguise how washed-out it looks in digital black and white. Narratively, Jack Fincher’s (David’s dad) screenplay doubles down on hoary biopic conventions, from gratuitous name-checking and quote-dropping to giving the central figure credit for the work of many, while jumping back and forth in time, from the period when Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) was writing the screenplay for Kane to his earlier friendship with the film’s primary subjects, William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). Also portrayed: the 1934 California governor’s election, which was possibly tipped to the Republican candidate by a disinformation campaign, a plot line that feels positively modern.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always, written and directed by Eliza HIttman, illustrates a reality of being female in the United States—abortion may be technically legal, but some states have passed so many laws restricting and complicating access to this medical procedure that in a practical sense is it not available to many women. The central character is a pregnant high school student (Sidney Flanigan) from a small Pennsylvania town, who tries several ineffectual means of self-inducing abortion before heading to New York City with her cousin (Talia Ryder), who stole the money for the trip. It’s a quiet film, never sensational but always serious, that honors the complexity of the protagonist and places the film’s main action in context—restrictions to abortion make sense in a misogynistic society that devalues the needs and experiences of women.
Nomadland, directed by Chloe Zhao, is a beautiful, poetic film based in part on the stories in Jessica Bruder’s 2017 non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. The fictional principal character in Zhao’s Nomadland, Fern (Frances McDormand), provides structure to a film composed largely of small incidents and stories shared by Americans who live on the road, in vans and SUVs, maintaining their independence while finding fellowship among their fellow nomads. For many, like Fern, this wasn’t the life they chose—instead, they’ve been forced into it by economic conditions and personal tragedies, but they’re making the best of it, because that’s what they’ve always done.
The Personal History of David Copperfield, directed by Armando Iannucci, is not your grandfather’s David Copperfield, nor will it prove much use to students hoping to avoid their assigned reading. It’s something much better—an exuberant Copperfield for the 21st century, starring Dev Patel as the titular character, Tilda Swinton as Betsey Trotwood, Peter Capaldi as Mr. Micawber, Rosalind Eleazar as Agnes Wickfield, Hugh Laurie as Mr. Dick, and Morfydd in a dual role I won’t spoil here. The grimmer aspects of Dickens’ novel are not omitted, but Iannucci is far more interested in David’s optimistic outlook on life as his talent and sheer dumb luck foster his development into a noted author not unlike from his creator.
The Twentieth Century, directed by Matthew Rankin, is a pseudo biopic that’s about a million times more entertaining than most “real” biopics. Mackenzie King (Dan Beirne), the longest-serving prime minister in Canadian history, is celebrated in pure mock heroic style, as only our neighbors to the North can manage, with an early title card (caps as in the original) setting the tone for what’s to come: “William Lyon Mackenzie King (1874-1950) was chosen by Destiny to become the Prime Minister of Canada. Our story follows the Obsessions and Bewilderments recorded in the young politician’s Diary, at the dawn of an Extreme Age.” We’re talking German Expressionist sets, wacky animations, drag performances, sexy underwear, Eton collars, silly contests, melodramatic music cues, fake newsreel clips, a boot fetish and a gigantic cactus, all mashed together in a style that’s part Guy Maddin and part Monty Python.
The Wolf House, directed by Joaquín Cociña and Cristóbal León, is a political allegory channeled through the Brothers Grimm by way of Jan Svankmajer. The story is of a young girl named Maria (Amalia Kassai), who ran away from a German religious community in Chile and takes shelter in an abandoned house; in her world, “the wolf is at the door” is not just a figure of speech. After a mockumentary opening, the main body of the film uses a variety of 2D and 3D animation styles, who jointly create a dreamlike world in which everything seems mutable and nothing seems certain. It all starts to make sense when you realize that the community Maria fled is based on Colonia Dignidad, founded in 1961 by accused child molester Paul Schäfer, which harbored former Nazis and assisted Augusto Pinochet in the torture and murder of dissidents.