As if it wasn’t painful enough last year to look back on the 2018 filmgoer’s utopia that was Moviepass, 2020 has been considerably more of a struggle—not only can you not get into movies for free with a weird fake credit card anymore, but spending two hours in a theater could actually kill you and/or those around you. We’re lucky, however, that COVID waited until 2020, a year when streaming services’ production companies have caught up to and even surpassed some major studios, with Netflix, Hulu, HBO, Amazon, and Pluses Apple and Disney streaming many of the most talked about films of the year simultaneous to their planned theatrical releases.
As much as we miss sobbing in the dark next to strangers, there was something about the lifted pressure of an empty social calendar that gave streaming a new sense of comfort and guiltlessness, permitting us to binge most of the year’s most hyped releases with the added option of a communal (and remote) watching experience to sweeten the deal. Below we’ve listed ten releases from this year we most enjoyed watching via Netflix Party, as well as those we blew our noses to as we scrambled to prevent Jim Carrey’s Grinch from autoplaying.
10. Boys State
Boys State, the thrilling, political documentary from Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, hit audiences at Sundance nearly a year ago, making waves as an early yet strong contender for the 2021 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. Following four teenage boys at the annual Texas edition of Boys State, a program designed to teach high school juniors about leadership in the realm of American politics, Boys State looks at the effect politics can have on young men, and the decisions they can make in the face of supposed-turned-actual adversity. It inspects ideas ingrained within American politics, mostly withholding judgment on the rights and wrongs older audiences will likely attempt to point out.
Moss and McBaine found four of the most promising young politicians during the program, and the majority of the film’s success comes from its casting, as well as its intimacy and relevance. Looking at the film nearly twelve months later, as a new president takes the highest office in the United States, the documentary continues to reflect the divided state of the country, the impact it has on our youth, and the ways these boys mirror—or hopefully transcend—the politicians that serve us on a daily basis. Boys State becomes an intersection of American masculinity, politics, and groupthink, and a look into how we influence and are influenced by those around us. — Michael Frank
Legendary actors Sonia Braga and Udo Kier stand on opposite sides of a violent conflict in co-directors Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’ thrillingly radical neo-Western. Set in a small rural town that gives the movie its title (named after a nocturnal bird), this Brazilian dystopia epitomizes, in a brutal manner, a socioeconomic divide that’s universally recognizable. Within its stylized fiction, which feels more like a premonition than an unfathomable fantasy, those in power seek to wipe out Bacuaru’s inhabitants for financial gain without remorse. Foreign forces with technological advantages and fascist brutality arrive to eliminate them—and any trace of their existence—but the astute, diverse, and proud locals won’t go down without a pound of flesh (quite literally). Bloodshed ensues.
Mendonça Filho and Dornelles’ shrewd writing takes every opportunity to raise questions about imperialism, a scene evidencing the American and European disdain towards Latin America comes to mind as a strong example. Socially relevant without ever preaching a single platitude, Bacurau operates at once as a savagely entertaining shoot-’em-up and a galvanizing “eat the rich” allegory. — Carlos Aguilar
8. Sound of Metal
To a casual viewer, it may be confusing when critics dismiss films like Birdman as empty gimmickry, signifying nothing. “But I liked it! The single-take style was cool,” this imaginary person may say, failing to realize such stylistic flourishes only succeed when they serve the narrative at hand, rather than just arbitrarily gussying it up. That’s anything but lost on writer-director Darius Marder, whose feature directorial debut Sound of Metal uses the medium’s artifice to amplify a poignant story of loss, change, and acceptance.
The film follows Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed, never better), a rock drummer who discovers his hearing has been irrevocably damaged. This setback not only jeopardizes his music career, his relationship with his bandmate and partner Lou (Olivia Cooke), and his sobriety, but also disconnects him from the world around him, an isolation heightened by the film’s ace sound design. Even before Ruben’s deafness hits, his ability to communicate with others is tenuous at best—dialogue is muffled or hastily hand-scrawled, rendering understanding elusive, and the music that was once his stock and trade becomes violent, with every cymbal crash taking something from Ruben he can never get back.
Marder uses sound to make Ruben’s journey personal: Once Ruben is immersed in silence, so are we; once he understands sign language, so do we; and once vibrations (on a playground slide, in one wonderful scene) mean something to him, they mean something to us, too. When Roger Ebert called movies “the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts,” films like Sound of Metal are what he was talking about. — Scott Russell
I live for a period comedy—the past wasn’t all wars and dying of consumption, you know! Emma Woodhouse is manipulative, haughty, selfish, and envious, but she’s also caring and kind and good, and Anya Taylor-Joy paired with Bill Nighy is simply too delightful to resist. But while the script and performances are strong, it’s director Autumn de Wilde who adds the magic touch.
A photographer with experience in shorts and music videos, de Wilde created a candy-colored playground in her feature debut, reminiscent of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette or Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, and I’m not just saying that because I’m convinced Anya Taylor-Joy is the next Emma Stone, even though she is (and Florence Pugh is the next Jennifer Lawrence—mark my words). That said, if you’re looking for the next Little Women, it’s Emma., and it’s lovely. A romantic comedy without unnecessary confusion, and just enough social commentary to not spoil the fun. — Lizzie Logan
Shirley, the fourth feature from director Josephine Decker, isn’t exactly a biopic. An adaptation of the novel Shirley by Susan Scarf Merrell, it’s less attached to specific facts about author Shirley Jackson’s life than it is to capturing the way her work makes a reader feel, which is “thrillingly horrible,” as Odessa Young’s Rose describes in an early scene.
Untethered from the confines of historical accuracy, the film sets up a fictional scenario in which the lives of Jackson—at work on her 1951 novel Hangsaman—and her husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) are upended by the arrival of a young couple (Young and Logan Lerman) who come to live with them for an extended period of time. As the couples’ lives intertwine, with increasingly twisted power dynamics, Decker pushes to examine what kind of mind could have birthed the dark material present in Jackson’s literature, and how the expectations of the era might have influenced her. The answer, the film suggests, is a woman stifled, and perhaps driven mad, by feminine domesticity and outcast by her refusal to acquiesce to it.
As Jackson, Elisabeth Moss recalls—and tops—her performance in Her Smell, masterly embodying every inch of a brilliant woman unraveling. She’s often knowingly cruel and manipulative, at times savagely witty, and frequently seductive and beguiling. But Moss is not alone in her great performance; her supporting cast all keep the film running at a constant level of unnerving tension: Stuhlbarg’s Stanley is equal parts smarmy and charismatic; Lerman’s Fred reeks of the particular kind of privilege afforded to mediocre white men; and most impressive of all, Young executes an exquisite dance between embodying both Shirley’s predator and prey. Like Jackson’s stories, Shirley is a difficult film to shake when it’s over. — Carrie Courogen
5. Palm Springs
Palm Springs arrived at just the right moment. The “stuck in a 24-hour time loop” plot has played out before, in romance (Groundhog Day) and horror (Happy Death Day) and drama (Before I Fall) and existential weirdness (Russian Doll) and science fiction (Edge of Tomorrow), but this summer, when the audience, too, was confined to the same narrow set of experiences day after day, it hit different. Finding herself reliving the day of her sister’s wedding over and over, fuck-up Sarah (Cristin Milioti) cycles through phases we’re now all too familiar with: end-of-days hedonism, complete despair, regret in trusting the wrong man, and desperation for a solution, first in salvation, then from science.
By the final act, the screenplay has dipped away from exploring these questions to build a metaphor about relationships and commitment, but whether or not it works doesn’t matter: we’ve learned our lessons, and Sarah’s learned hers, too, and of course we’re rooting for her to stick with Nyles, because he’s Andy Samberg. There are just enough Inception-y loose threads to keep viewers theorizing after the credits roll (though things mostly tie up nicely), and after watching this movie I started a DM group on Twitter just to talk about the questions I had. Maybe another year I wouldn’t have dove so far into the Palm Springs mythology, but what else was there to do? — Lizzie Logan
4. Da 5 Bloods
Ever since Terrence Malick and Steven Spielberg capped off the twentieth century with their respective WWII epics, it feels like the American war movie has gone the way of the Western. There’s been little compelling innovation brought upon by the most recent chapter of our endless occupation of the Middle East, with pictures conforming more to the school of Reifenstahl than Coppola in their treatment of it. Leave it to Spike Lee—perhaps the filmmaker of his generation most adaptable to the dissolution of genre—to not only present a war film like we’ve never seen it, but to do so with the international conflict that’s imbued American cinema with the most clichés.
Rather than CCR populating the score, though, it’s Marvin Gaye who soundtracks each of the pivotal scenes in Da 5 Bloods’ landmine-embedded narrative of four present-day Vietnam vets (and one unfortunate son) returning to the country to recover a lost treasure, as well as to properly bury the remains of a fallen friend. Where Scorsese shelled out on de-aging software, Lee’s flashbacks to the war feel much more realistic, with the Bloods essentially remembering themselves the way they look now in their late sixties, and the fifth Blood—Chadwick Boseman in a Blackstar-like haunt—appearing the way he looked when he was killed in battle. With the flashbacks (and Boseman, unfortunately) receiving relatively little screen time, the story feels considerably more rooted in the present day, explicitly ingraining BLM and MAGA into its time-traveling (and timeless) parable of two exploited peoples being mercilessly pitted against each other by the U.S. government. — Mike LeSuer
Footage spanning several decades pieces together the story of a Black family torn apart in director Garrett Bradley’s stirring documentary Time. Resolute in her fight, Fox Rich, a businesswoman, speaker, and mother, has dedicated herself to freeing her imprisoned husband serving a punitive sixty-year sentence for a crime in which she was also involved. Through an intimate portrait of one woman, the director speaks to the larger issues related to the incarceration of Black Americans.
Rich herself captured a significant portion of the black-and-white images that comprise the film, partly as a way to document her children’s milestones and as a video diary in which she speaks directly to the man she’s loved for many years in absentia. In the present, as portrayed through Bradley’s attentive gaze, we witness Rich reckoning with guilt and building herself back from the pain in order to raise her boys and withstand the justice system’s continuous setbacks. As we watch her life unfold, a devastating truth becomes apparent: even though she had the foresight to treasure all those fleeting moments on video, the years lost can’t fully be regained. Time can’t be replenished once gone. It’s a must-see. — Carlos Aguilar
2. First Cow
Kelly Reichardt’s films are gentle, roving visions of Americana, populated by citizens living firmly below the poverty line but doing so with an earthy, enviable kind of dignity. Her last proper buddy film was 2006’s Old Joy, set in the verdant woods of contemporary Oregon; in her latest, the director returns to the Pacific Northwest by way of the nineteenth century, in search of an unusual novelty: the first cow who set foot in the Beaver State.
Cookie (John Magaro) and King Lu (Orion Lee) meet as frontier travelers and agree to begin a food business together, a prospect necessitating the thievery of milk from said cow, who is owned by some wealthier men. The American Dream was always corrupt at the core, but in Reichardt’s universe capitalism started off with pure intentions, shared between friends against a backdrop of damp yellow leaves and the rush of streams not yet polluted by chemicals. The other fur-trappers delight in cakes baked with the cow’s stolen milk, and the new friends turn a profit. “History isn’t here yet,” King-Lu tells Cookie. “It’s coming, but maybe this time we can take it on our own terms.” On this side of 1820, we know it didn’t quite work out that way—but isn’t it pretty to imagine things had turned out differently?
Before the release of First Cow, a YouTube commenter wrote beneath A24’s trailer for the film, “they’re all just vibing wtf just having a good time.” That comment now feels like a last glimpse of something—an innocent assumption about a movie with ultimately dark undertones, that was screened for critics in February and so became one of the last features many of us saw on the big screen. Before the world went dark. Before we collectively came to grips with our country’s history as not only flawed beyond repair, but as the clear precedent of a modern day culture of capitalism so cruel, it makes primitive life seem civilized by comparison. — Anya Jaremko-Greenwold
1. Dick Johnson Is Dead
My parents are only in their sixties, but it’s still horrifying to see them fall—slipping on ice, misjudging the number of stairs, stepping over the foul line while bowling and slipping into the gutter. It happens, and there’s always a fear of this being the time they’re finally unable to help themselves back up, or their laughter and quick recovery this time masking worrisome, long-lasting physical pain. This is the exact horror which inspired Kirsten Johnson to repeatedly kill off her own biological father in the cameraperson’s second directorial feature Dick Johnson Is Dead, a production that ranges from highly intimate familial moments to surreally staged dance numbers starring the title character in its brief ninety minutes.
By no means am I exaggerating when I say that the scenes of Johnson’s elderly father unsuspectingly being bludgeoned by a falling in-window AC unit, or struck by a construction beam—skillfully edited to trick the audience into thinking it’s the real deal, even after we should and probably do know better—are among the most anxiety-inducing moments in documentary film, let alone staged fiction. There’s a scene where even the boom operator is visibly shaken, acting as a surrogate for the audience when a stuntman donning the same bright yellow jacket as Dick takes a dramatic fall on the sidewalk. While it was undoubtedly conceived as a therapeutic project for Johnson, it’s shockingly easy to impose our own friends and family onto the role of her father, a point that’s confirmed when we put ourselves in the shoes of the family friend struggling through a mock-eulogy in one of the movie’s devastating final scenes.
When your emotions aren’t overwhelmed by these staged death scenes or the interspersed candid father/daughter talks that generally end in tears from both parties, they’ll likely be overwhelmed by Dick’s support for his daughter’s work—even to the point of severe discomfort while he stands on a street corner covered in fake blood. Needless to say it’s rare that a year’s most morbid film is also its most wholesome. — Mike LeSuer