By Daniel Barnes
DANIEL’S TOP TEN FILMS OF 2020
For over a decade, Kilkenny, Ireland-based Cartoon Saloon has produced under-the-radar animated features for adults and smart kids. With the astonishing Wolfwalkers, Cartoon Saloon gives us a profound and humane movie that should shame Pixar. Set in 17th-century Kilkenny, Wolfwalkers concerns the growing friendship between two girls, one a wolf hunter’s daughter, the other a werewolf.
2. Lovers Rock
The five films in Steve McQueen’s triumphant Small Axe series run the gamut of genres, from courtroom drama to prison movie, but Lovers Rock feels the most personal. Inspired by the reggae house parties of McQueen’s West London youth, Lovers Rock has all the energy and danger of a legendary party, continually spinning on a razor’s edge between ecstasy and disaster.
3. The Truth
Most critics shrugged in apathy or confusion at Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda’s playful and thoughtful foray into cinephilia-fueled Franco-existentialism. However, I could not imagine 2020 without Catherine Deneuve’s marvelously self-lacerating lead performance.
Anti-colonialist fury rendered as psychedelia-tinged exploitation, and with Udo Kier to boot? Count me in. Brazilian writer-director Kleber Mendonça Filho (Aquarius) and co-director Juliano Dornelles deliver this alternately absurd and disturbing tale of a Brazilian village fighting off armed mercenaries.
An equally sad and euphoric story of dance as an expression of cultural and sexual identity. Levan Gelbakhiani does remarkable work as Merab, an ambitious trainee at the Georgian National Ensemble who falls for his top male competitor.
Australian filmmaker Rodd Rathjen made the debut of the year with this harrowing story of slavery at sea. Based on real accounts of human trafficking in the fishing industry, Buoyancy follows the experiences of a 14-year-old Cambodian boy forced to work on a trawler run by a sadistic captain (Thanawut Kasro).
7. First Cow
With this low-flame anti-western, Reichardt recreates the bleakest of dystopias: a world without butter. Into this pitiless frontier floats the region’s first cow, a potent symbol of sweetness in a harsh and cruel existence.
Director Sasha Neulinger pores over video footage from his childhood, where he finds his long-time abusers hiding in plain sight. Rewind is easily one of the most upsetting films of the year, but it’s also a non-exploitative and inspiring story about confronting past horrors.
9. Red, White and Blue
Another Small Axe entry from McQueen, this time the story of an aspiring policeman who wants to change the system, only to find racism and corruption at every turn. In the lead role, John Boyega delivers on his early promise, giving a gripping performance of quiet fire.
10. TIE: I’m Thinking of Ending Things and Tenet
The former title finds Charlie Kaufman in full wormhole-of-the-mind mode, while the latter is Nolan at his most thrilling and semi-comprehensible. Neither of these mind-scramblers fully satisfied on an emotional level, but both films impressed with their aesthetics and ambitions.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Young Ahmed; Emma.; Borat Subsequent Moviefilm; Weathering with You; Another Round
DANIEL’S BOTTOM FIVE FILMS OF 2020
1. 365 Days
Enough people endured enough minutes of this repugnant Fifty Shades knockoff to make it Netflix’s most-watched film of 2020, even though the rampant fetishization of Stockholm Syndrome makes it feel like an erotic rewrite of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
2. The Old Guard
With the new release of every atrocious non-movie, Netflix looks more and more like a front for international money laundering. Starring a half-asleep Charlize Theron, The Old Guard is another of the service’s misguided attempts to launch a blockbuster franchise.
This bomb boasts dozens of insufferable creatures, but none more insufferable than Robert Downey, Jr. Dolittle is a spectacularly ugly exercise in focus-groupthink that tries to please everyone, inevitably pleasing no one.
Disney continues its insufferable series of live-action adaptations of animated classics with the dreary Mulan. The culturally apocryphal dragon from the cartoon is gone because this is painfully serious stuff, but also Mulan has magic powers now because kids sure do love them superheroes. Pick a lane, people.
5. TIE: Da 5 Bloods and The Trial of the Chicago 7
Disturbingly, these cinematic blowhards are both considered major awards contenders. Da 5 Bloods accelerates Spike Lee’s devolution into paranoid incoherence. Chicago 7 almost plays like a parody of Aaron Sorkin-style self-satisfaction, only it’s written and directed by the real Sorkin, so it’s terrible.
DISHONORABLE MENTIONS: Bad Boys for Life; Bill & Ted Face the Music; Birds of Prey; A Rainy Day in New York