My Favorite Films of 2020 (8-13)
Despite a raging pandemic, films were indeed released in 2020, and some great ones too. I don't know know what I would have done without movies in general during this trying time, and these movies are just a small fraction of the ones that entertained and thrilled me and even give me hope.
13 My Octopus Teacher (dir. Pippa Ehrlich & James Reed)
This movie has been vilified on film Twitter as being self-indulgent navel gazing. It didn’t get much more love when it won the Academy Award for Best Documentary over Time and Collective, two deserving docs that examine serious issues intelligently. But I will still go to bat for this film because of how well it captures nature through human eyes. There has been criticism that he needlessly anthropomorphizes the octopus, but I would argue that it’s only a natural tendency to do so towards a species that we don’t fully understand and if it helps us respect the creature then more power to Foster. He also makes it a goal to not interfere in the octopus’ life as much as possible and even lets it deal with harm and danger by itself, which doesn’ sound like self-indulgence to me. Ultimately, the beauty of this documentary is the respect it has for nature and that the emotional investment that Foster had towards his subject, which could inspire viewers to take the risk and find something similar in nature to connect to.
Streaming on Netflix
12 Babyteeth (dir. Shannon Murphy)
Babyteeth kept surprising me. Eliza Scanlen transitions from playing one famously sick person (Beth in 2019’s Little Women) to another sick person. This time she is a teen with terminal cancer. Cancer films can be notoriously maudlin and romanticized, but Babyteeth takes a hard left when Scanlen’s character becomes romantically involved with a drug dealer. The story keeps taking hard lefts as the boyfriend actually finds some acceptance with her parents (the excellent Essie Davis and Ben Mendelssohn). Babyteeth manages to be uncomfortable yet funny, especially when we see the normally liberal parents trying to understand their daughter’s pain while being uncomfortable with her reckless actions. Scanlen creates a memorable character in Milla in a movie that is idiosyncratic in its style and storytelling.
Streaming on Hulu and available for online rental
11 Time (dir. Garrett Bradley)
What stood out to me the most about this documentary was the quiet heroism of Sibil Fox Richardson (aka Fox Rich). Seeing how she not only raised her children while her husband was imprisoned for twenty years is a reminder that real heroism takes hard work and a lot of thankless, soul-crushing work. Yet Fox Rich also found time to be an activist against the prison system and an inspirational speaker. Garrett Bradley and her team beautifully interweave old footage taken from Rich’s own home videos with the modern story of Rich preparing for her husband’s return home. The movie is definitely a scathing criticism of the American prison system but it is couched very specifically in a human story about its other, forgotten victims - the family of the imprisoned.
Streaming on Amazon Prime
10 Sorry We Missed You (dir. Ken Loach)
Ken Loach can be as blunt as a sledgehammer, but he is this way about important issues. This searing family drama about a man who works for an Amazon-like company in which he is essentially enslaved to the system despite “owning” his own van is a harsh indictment of the gig economy that modern capitalism has enforced on many people. Despite being so blunt, Loach never forgets the human element and his characters are recognizable people. The son is a troubled teen, but also an artistic one who longs for acceptance. The daughter wants what’s best for her family and hates it when her parents and brother fight. Even the mother knows how underserved her clients are as a visiting nurse. Sometimes, subtlety is overrated and will often go way over the head of its intended audience, so I appreciated Loach’s bracing, harsh movie that still affected me powerfully.
Streaming on Kanopy and available for online rental
9 Sound of Metal (dir. Darius Marder)
If this movie had a bigger star than Riz Ahmed and greater distribution, this very much would have been the Oscar bait movie, with an actor playing a deaf person and voters admiring how bravely he took that so-called risk. Instead, we get a small, yet potent drama about a metal drummer accepting his identity as a deaf man through a long process, supported by a deaf community who manages to live full lives within their very tight and understanding circle. Sound of Metal is made with a profound empathy and love for the deaf community, one that celebrates its difference while refusing to undervalue the struggle Ahmed’s character goes through, which is a combination of some very understandable refusal to accept his loss, but also his addictive personality. It’s no surprise the sound design is so well-done, supplementing Ahmed’s performance and putting us in his shoes and of other deaf people. And Paul Raci, a child of deaf adults in real life, brings a wisdom and firmness to his role that plays beautifully against Ahmed’s impulsiveness and frustration.
Streaming on Amazon Prime
8 Minari (dir. Lee Isaac Chung)
There was no way I wasn’t going to at least connect strongly to this film. My parents didn’t settle in a rural area, but the parents’ scrabbling for years in low-paying jobs while being taken care of relatives whom I resented sometimes is an experience I’ve definitely had. Lee Isaac Chung directs with such empathy and sensitivity that it almost risks taking the harsher edges off some of his characters, but then we get the bracing and wonderful performance of Youn Yuh-jung as the unconventional grandmother at the center. Sometimes there’s a danger of minorities telling the same (important) immigrant story and the struggles with assimilation they face, but Chung brings artistry and beauty to what has become a kind of trite story.
Available for online rental