OPINION: Best films of 2020

Counting down the bright spots of this crazy year

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Frances McDormand stars in “Nomadland,” one of the films Bradley Hinkson lists as the best of the year. Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

Bradley Hinkson

Don’t let this crazy year try to fool you — there was no shortage of great films that came out. Though many theaters were closed for most of the year, thanks to streaming, virtual cinemas and virtual film festivals we were all able to get a chance to watch many great films even if we couldn’t get the enjoyment of sitting in a theater. So to hell with all the negativity of this year, let’s talk about some great films (in no particular order).

“Nomadland”

Chloé Zhao has a knack for shooting the wide open spaces of the American terrain, but never loses sight of the intimacy of the people who live in it.

The film follows Fern, played by Frances McDormand who gives a flawless performance, as she traverses around the American Midwest as a nomad after losing her job and house after the recession. Not only does the film serve to empathize with those who live off the land that has abandoned them, played by real life nomads who shine just as much as McDormand, but it also gives an emotional arc of letting go of one’s past and remembering those who have gone. It’s a film about finding comfort despite feeling like you’ve been abandoned. It’s a truly special film.

“Nomadland” has had a limited virtual release and is expected to release theatrically Feb. 19, 2021.


“Lovers Rock”

While many of the films in Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” series are excellent, it’s “Lovers Rock” that stands out the most. The whole series of films focuses on London’s West Indian community, and what makes this film stand out from all the others is the sense of joy that radiates throughout all 70 minutes of it.

Taking place at a party in the early ‘80s, the film focuses on a group of young Black people as they dance to music, find love and for just one beautiful night forget about the underlying forces like the police and young intimidating white people outside of the house.

It’s a beautifully sensual film that finds that beauty and rhythm when bodies come together to the sound and beat of music. All of that culminates in the best scene of the year, which involves the song “Silly Games.” It’s a film that turns joy and ecstasy into a form of protest.

“Lovers Rock” is available on Amazon Prime Video.


“Shirley”

Rather than trying to fully emulate the life of horror writer Shirley Jackson, “Shirley” is more focused on the artist’s mindscape and practice.

The film follows a fictional story centered around Jackson as she writes a new novel as a young couple come to live with her and her husband. Calling this a biopic of Jackson almost feels like a disservice to what director Josephine Decker is doing here. She creates a cerebral and at times hallucinatory atmosphere that truly brings the audience into Jackson’s headspace. It’s a film that shows, somewhat similarly to “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” how women can thrive and even help one another without the presence of men around.

If anything, the film is another showcase for Elisabeth Moss and how she so perfectly can put herself into these unhinged roles. Hopefully someday she’ll get something lighter.

“Shirley” is available on Hulu.


“Sound of Metal”

This is the best debut of the year. “Sound of Metal” could easily fall into so many trappings to make it fail — it could have felt ingenuine in its emotions, or even stigmatized those who are hard of hearing. Thankfully, this film does none of that.

In what feels like a story of addiction framed as a story of hearing loss, heavy metal drummer Ruben, played phenomenally by Riz Ahmed, loses his hearing unexpectedly and must find ways of coping with something he had become so used to for so long.

Not only does the film highlight and empathize with a community seldom seen in film, but invites the audience to see, or in this case hear, the world as Ruben does. The sound design is perfect here, fully immersing the audience by allowing them to hear as Ruben does and really feel that silence in the middle portion of the film when he stays at a rehabilitation center for deaf, recovering addicts and no one speaks.

It’s a wonderfully lived-in film that shows great promise for Darius Marder as a director. A special shoutout to Paul Raci who gives a very human performance in a supporting role.

“Sound of Metal” is available on Amazon Prime Video.


“Time”

Quite possibly, this is the most important and essential film of the year.

Focusing on the two-decade-long fight by Fox Rich to get her husband out of prison, “Time” is less concerned with finding a solution to mass incarceration and prison abolishment, but instead paints a portrait of the effects it has on people.

It’s a reminder that the strongest force is love.

It’s a film perfectly edited to showcase the large amount of time and effort that Rich goes through to fight for her husband. In just 80 minutes, the film paints a portrait of a very American family for better or worse, and shows the audience the real human toil the prison system takes on people.

“Time” is available on Amazon Prime Video.


“She Dies Tomorrow”

This is one of the only few films to perfectly capture what life is like with anxiety, “She Dies Tomorrow” is a horror dark comedy all about the spread of a simple thought.

Even with its strange premise and overall tone, director Amy Seimetz is able to fully lock down what it’s like to be stressed and nervous about everything. She crafts an atmosphere that keeps the audience lost and unaware of what will happen next — you become anxious of what’s to come.

As someone who has dealt with a lot of anxiety issues since a young age, I found it incredible how this film understands what it’s like when a thought pops in your head and eats you up, even if it’s something completely unrealistic. There’s no real explanation for the spread of the thought of dying everyone experiences in this film, but that’s not the real intention of the film — it’s about how a simple thought can go a long way.

“She Dies Tomorrow” is available on Hulu.


“Martin Eden”

This is a film that feels epic in story but intimate in its execution, “Martin Eden” shows the rags-to-riches story of its titular character, but feels so much grander in its themes.

The film shows how the artistic journey can truly destroy a person — not in terms of writer’s block but in terms of appealing to a certain audience. For Eden, it’s the bourgeois he so desperately wants to be a part of. Eden is a man of many contradictions; he knows the struggle of the working class, as he grew up in it, but would rather look good for the upper class girl he likes.

The film interweaves many of these themes and ideas, especially with how it connects Italian history with a classic film style that at times feels reminiscent to classic Italian neorealism films.

All of this wouldn’t have been executed as well without Luca Marinelli, who establishes himself as an actor to look out for. He’s just so damn handsome as well.

“Martin Eden” is available on Kino Now.


“Bacurau”

The less you know about this film, the better. There’s no way to put one genre on “Bacurau.”

What starts off as a Brazilian social drama about a small community slowly takes a turn once their town disappears off of every map. Is this a comedy? An ‘80s action throwback? An alien invasion film? A social commentary on the oppressed rising up against their oppressors? Yes to all of the above.

Even going this much into it feels like I’m giving too much away. It’s always a pleasure to see a film not only do something so unique and exciting, but pull it off so perfectly.

“Bacurau” is available on The Criterion Channel.


“Minari”

Many films have tackled the achievement of the American dream, and most show how unachievable it is. “Minari” never tries to say if it is or is not, but sure does know how to find the optimism in achieving something.

The film focuses on a Korean immigrant family in the ‘80s living on a farm in Arkansas and their ways of assimilating into a much different culture. It’s a gentle slice of life film that works so well because of director Lee Isaac Chung’s emotional touch from an obviously personal story that never becomes cloying or overly sentimental. Its characters are so vivid and real mostly because of its perfect cast, with Steven Yeun and Han Ye-ri being the highlights.
It’s the kind of film that will break your heart in one scene and completely warm it up the next.

“Minari” has started a limited release and will release more widely starting Feb. 12, 2021.


“The Nest”

This film is a nice reminder of how horrifying the institution of marriage is.

Jude Law and Carrie Coon, who are both fantastic, play a couple who move to London as a family on the prospect that Law will be able to support the family financially. Of course, this does not go over well.

What stands out about “The Nest” besides the grandeur of its two leads is how this domestic drama is shot and feels like a haunted house film. It’s so cold and clinical, with an uneasy aura surrounding the whole film. You’re almost expecting some unknown force in their house to hurt this family, but all it is is the greed flowing through Law’s character.

“The Nest” is available to rent or own digitally.

Honorable Mentions (a.k.a. films that could definitely be switched with the ones up here)

-“Never Rarely Sometimes Always”
-“David Byrne’s American Utopia”
-“Da 5 Bloods”
-“The Father”
“I’m Thinking of Ending Things”
“Tenet”