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  • Writer's pictureRobyn

Top 10 Films of 2020

Top 10 TV Films Released in 2020

10. The Wolf House

I have never seen animation as transfixing (or, frankly, exhausting) as the expressionist Chilean stop-motion masterpiece The Wolf House (La Casa Lobo). Shot over five years by artist-filmmakers Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña, the Spanish and German-language feature is a grotesque psycho-horror parable about a young woman who takes refuge in an abandoned house after running away from a cult modeled after the Chilean Nazi compound Colonia Dignidad. León and Cociña's canvas is the live-action set itself, which constantly transmogrifies via painting, paper mache sculpture, and protean scale-play to explore the long-lasting effects of trauma. Their techniques are gobsmacking to behold - you must keep your eyes fixed to the screen to take in the ever-shifting details of the mise-en-scene, including the continual switch between 2D and 3D staging. But this also renders the viewing experience cognitively draining. Make sure to build in some break-time so you can pause and reflect on the rich visual storytelling.

9. Pinocchio

Matteo Garrone's appealing dark fantasy Pinocchio lifts straight from its gruesome source material. Carlo Collodi's 19th century children's novel The Adventures of Pinocchio, about a misbehaving puppet, bares only loose resemblance to Disney's happy-go-lucky 1940 animation: Early in the story, for example, our wooden protagonist decides to smash that moralizing cricket with a hammer. Garrone (Gomorrah, Tale of Tales), a virtuoso of the violent and the weird, refuses to dumb down to his young audiences. Instead, he embraces the grim surreality of Collodi's fairytale through the use of prosthetics and practical effects over CGI. Roberto Benigni beautifully resonates as Pinocchio's loving but impoverished wood-carver father Geppetto and eight-year-old actor Federico Ielapi expertly grasps Pinocchio's signature blank naivety. Picaresque stories often struggle with sluggishness; Garrone's Italian-language film is too beguling to bore.

8. The Painter & the Thief

The alternatingly crushing and uplifting Norwegian documentary The Painter & the Thief tells the stranger-than-fiction true story of an unlikely friendship between an artist and the man who stole her masterpiece. Czech painter Barbora Kysilkova is devastated when two junkies abscond with some of her canvases after robbing an art gallery. However, she's soon drawn to the emotional porousness one of the convicted felons and decides to befriend him, eventually creating a likeness of him that forever transforms his self-image. Barbora and Bertil's platonic love for each other is palpable throughout the story, which leaps forward and backward through time to emphasize that recovery from addiction and abuse rarely takes a linear path.

7. Minari

The laughs cut deeply in Lee Isaac Chung's 1980s-set tragicomedy Minari, a semiautobiographical film starring Steven Yeun and Han Ye-ri as an immigrant couple that relocates their children to a Arkansas to start a farm. The Yis work tirelessly to turn their ramshackle property into a home while tensions between the parents mount. Soon, Monica's elderly mother joins them from Korea and disrupts the fragile household for the better. Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) is sly and unrefined, her taste for Mountain Dew, potty humor and professional wrestling instantly endearing her to skeptical seven-year-old grandson David (Alan Kim). Her levity briefly alleviates the strain between ambitious Jacob and practical Monica, but when tragedy strikes, the family's fate in Arkansas is brought into question. Youn and Will Patton, who plays the Yis' evangelical farmhand, craft two of my favorite supporting performances of the year in this soft-spoken feature.

6. La Llorona

We're living in a golden age of prestige horror, and thanks to the absence of major tentpole flicks this year, many of these chillers have been able to stand-out as some of 2020's best cinematic offerings. La Llorona is one of them. Guatemala's macabre and meditative Oscar submission for Best International Feature is first and foremost a political drama, telling the story of an elderly dictator who is finally tried for war crimes decades after orchestrating a genocide against Guatemala's indigenous population. Following the trial, his family remains trapped in their compound while protesters encroach and their fearful staff quit. As his denying wife and questioning daughter grapple with the possibility of General Monteverde's guilt, a silent young indigenous woman arrives to work as their servant. Director Jayro Bustamante is a master of mood, allowing his languorous narrative to steep in the Monteverdes' creeping paranoia. Still, the supernatural elements never overwhelm the story's searing sociopolitical implications.

5. Never Rarely Sometimes Always

There are few words of dialogue in Never Rarely Sometimes Always, but star Sidney Flanigan (in an astounding feature debut) says everything we need to know with just her jaw and eyes. Eliza Hittman's quiet coming-of-age drama follows a teenager who crosses state lines with her cousin (Talia Rider) to seek an abortion. With nowhere to sleep during the long days and a giant suitcase weighing them down, the girls succumb to exhaustion as they're shunted from NYC clinic to NYC clinic trying to schedule the procedure. Hittman's ultra-realistic details astonish you from the constant threat of sexual pests to the girls' ever-dwindling cash reserves. We learn little concrete information about Autumn or how she ended up pregnant. But the fluid communion between Flanigan and cinematographer Hélène Louvart at the film's climax, during which Autumn completes a counselor's verbal questionnaire, reveals with imagery alone some of the horrors she's faced in her brief 17 years. A the camera homes in on Autumn's face, we see right through to her wounded core.

4. Emma.

Emma. was the last film I saw in theaters before the pandemic shutdown and I'm eternally grateful I got to see it on the big screen. Autumn de Wilde's directorial debut is a wry and talon-sharp take on Jane Austen's Regency classic. The joy of the film is in its silent moments — a bemused glance between servants or the honeyed snarls across Anya Taylor-Joy's mouth — but the film is also lush period comedy awash in azure walls, emerald lawns, and rosy-pink confections. This adaptation is slightly more acidic than any we've seen before, Clueless included: Taylor-Joy's Emma Dashwood isn't just a clever if bratty matchmaker here, but a snot who learns a little much-needed humility. Co-stars Mia Goth and Miranda Hart particularly shine as flighty friends of the protagonist who get snagged by her sharp edges. Unlike other Austen adaptations, Emma. deliciously plays with modes of gender among the gentry. For example, costume dramas are typically rife with images of noblewomen being dressed and refined by others. Here, we see how noblemen are also treated as passive bodies. I gobbled this film up like a dessert.

3. Palm Springs

In the foul-mouthed, time-looping, and life-affirming screwball romantic comedy Palm Springs, Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti play a pair of cynics who find themselves stuck re-living the same never-ending wedding weekend. Black-hearted time-loop comedies in the vein of Groundhog Day are all the rage right now, with Netflix miniseries Russian Doll and slasher franchise Happy Death Day among the buzziest screen debuts of the last few years. But Max Barbakow's Palm Springs is the first of its kind to speak directly to my soul. Dark, fresh, and zippy, Andy Siara's script succinctly (and self-consciously) updates the genre with a touch of Millennial nihilism. Samberg is in top form, sharing effervescent chemistry with co-lead Milioti (and supporting player J.K. Simmons, for that matter.) I wasn’t bored once, thanks to the witty writing and energetic direction and editing. Palm Springs leans into silliness without ever over-extending its high-concept founding principles.

2. Crip Camp

From start to finish, Nicole Newnham and James Lebrecht's simultaneously hilarious and moving documentary Crip Camp centers the process by which political power can arise from community cohesion. The film begins as an intimate account of the mid-century summer oasis Camp Jened, a hippieish Catskills camp designed for young people with chronic disabilities. Interviewees lovingly recount their most memorable anecdotes, describing awkward firsts, psychical challenges, and cockamamie schemes. Most importantly, they share how vital it was for them to finally connect with other kids like them in a free-spirited setting. But what at first appears to be a cute and fun story of finding oneself at camp quickly transforms into something more profound. Those teens didn't just bond at summer camp in the late 60s and early 70s: They grew up to be the disability rights leaders that revolutionized legal access throughout the second half of the twentieth century.

1. Nomadland

In Chloe Zhao's illuminating neo-Western epic Nomadland, we follow Fern (Frances McDormand, never better), a 60-something widow who loses her home and livelihood when her Nevada mining town shutters during the Great Recession. Fern buys a used van and sets off to traverse the American West, scrounging up seasonal migrant work as an Amazon warehouse associate, a campgrounds coordinator, and anything else she can find along the way. What could have been mere Oscar-chasing misery porn instead embraces the contentment and humanity of solitude, especially thanks to Zhao's detail-driven editing and Joshua James Richards' sweeping camerawork. We come to understand that Fern wasn't necessarily forced into this life, but specifically chose it. And her choice to feel free instead of trapped guides us through this stunning portrait of a hidden American subculture.

Best Older Films I saw in 2020:

1. Topsy-Turvy (1999)

2. Streetwise (1984)

3. The Women (1939)

4. 3 Women (1977)

5. Girlfriends (1978)

6. Secrets & Lies (1996)

7. Airheads (1994)

8. Rebecca (1940)

9. The Return of Martin Guerre (1982)

10. Once Around (1991)


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