By Enam Chowdhury
We ‘re four months out from 2020, and given the pandemic conditions that turn life as we know it upside down, the movies are already going on. Okay, some of them are. Theaters might be closed in several states, but over the last month, a limited number of films linked directly to digital or streaming releases (sometimes earlier than expected) have found their way into our quarantines. From a transcendent expose on radical society (Netflix’s Crip Camp) to a topical satire on the dangers of an oppressed body (Swallow) to a mesmerizing portrayal of the female queen bee (Amazon’s Selah and the Spades), here are the best films that Vulture has seen and (mostly) reviewed so far, according to our reviewers Angelica Jade Bastién, Bilge Ebiri, David Edelstein and Alison.
(Reminder on methodology: this list is limited to films that saw their first official release in 2020—so no Picture of a Lady on Fire, which had a short run in 2019—and we will continue to update it during the year.)
Weathering With You
Anime’s King of Emotions Makoto Shinkai dominated the world in 2016 with his body-swap romance Your Name, a huge global success set (of course) for an American remake. So it’s no surprise that he stayed in a similar teen-fantasy-romance territory for his follow-up, a young runaway to Tokyo, and an orphaned girl he fell in love with — a girl with the power to bring out the sun, however briefly. What is refreshing is the feeling of Weathering With You, a love tale for an age of climate change that firmly opposes the notion that young people have to sell themselves on the altar of past generations’ decisions. It’s darker and less deliriously swoony than Your Name, but its emotions are just as big — large enough to change the direction of the future.
Color Out of Space
Look, what you really need to know about this H.P triptych. Lovecraft update is that Nicolas Cage stars as a boyfriend, a daughter, and a future farmer who owns and screams a lot about alpacas. Or perhaps the most important thing is that this horror scare back freak-out is the work of filmmaker Richard Stanley, making a long-lived comeback over two decades after he was famously fired from the disaster Dr. Moreau’s Island. Either way, rest assured that things start going very poorly for the ill-fated family at its center, not to mention their animals, when a meteor crash-lands on their rural property and starts warping reality around it.
The dramatic debut by director Kitty Green portrays a long day in the life of a low-level drone at an undisclosed New York movie studio not unlike the Weinstein Company. Jane (Julia Garner) takes calls and copies and scrubs the body fluids off the couch in her boss’s office, all with the same grim sense of understanding that this is what she has to endure in her dream business. The Assistant acts as a brief and destructive portrait of an dysfunctional environment where the actions of the invisible man at his head trickles down to remind the majority of the company’s power structures and actions. This involves HR, to whom Jane is paying a visit in a harsh spotlight scene this shows what it is like when the only available options appear to be being involved or giving up.
Photo: Vlad Cioplea/Magnolia Pictures
Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu likes to play with protocol and form; he is an perfect director for humorous tales of politicians, cops and other officials in a world still struggling with the decades-long fallout of a communist dictatorship. His films are cosmic comedies shot through moments of ironic tragedy, and this crime comedy-drama could be his strangest yet. It begins as a bizarre tale about a policeman who must learn a “whistling” language used by the inhabitants of one of the Canary Islands to help free a gangster from jail, then twist into a moving meditation on love, loyalty, and self-improvement. Best experienced, without knowing anything in advance; I said too much already!
Photo: Kino Lorber
Russian director Kantemir Balagov’s soul-crashingly powerful and exquisitely mounted historical drama (which this year really deserved at least an Oscar nomination; it was shortlisted but failed to make the final five) follows two female veterans trying to reconnect with life in St. Petersburg after the war. It starts in an unspeakable disaster — the young director is notorious for booby-trapping his films with the sometimes shocking shot or character creation — which generates an emotional and procedural gambit that is stunning. As the characters wrestle with their own trauma, we are also dealing with the implications of what we have seen. What makes it all work — and work so beautifully — is Balagov’s almost supernatural command of the language of film: the elegance of his storytelling, the vivid, symbolic use of colour, the humanism of performances. You should revel in the romantic delights of Beanpole, while tearing your heart to shreds simultaneously.
Sorry We Missed You
Photo: Kino Lorber
We wish we could have been a fly on the wall as Ken Loach, the pioneering dramatic chronicler of working-class insecurity and everyday humanism in Britain, first heard of the contract economy. The idea fits the spiritual dream of a society in which average citizens routinely believe they can outsmart a machine built to kill them right in with the veteran manager. A middle-aged former contractor starts driving a truck making e-commerce deliveries in this infuriating, tragic drama, and learns that his vision of being his own boss is the cruelest of delusions. Meanwhile his aunt, a health-care worker from home, is dealing with her own corner of a so-called expansion market. What makes this one of the best of Loach’s is not only his anger (which is abundant) but his love (which is overwhelming). It provides a poignant cross-section of society, where everyone is trapped inside a gigantic system that discards the poor, feeds on the powerful, and perpetuates itself.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Eliza Hittman’s third feature, exhilaratingly political yet unfailingly personal, is a thriller whose villain is not a human yet a culture bent on treating the main characters’ bodies as common property. Never Rarely Often Always takes place over a few days as a pregnant woman moves to New York City with her mother to have the abortion that laws render her inaccessible in her Pennsylvania home state. The precariousness of their condition, which quickly stretches beyond their limited resource ability, is counterbalanced by the strength of their bond. Newcomers Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder aren’t just magnetic — they express, sometimes without words, what it means to really depend on others.
Photo: Courtesy of A24
The patterns of the hardscrabble 19th-century Pacific Northwest frontier thriller by Kelly Reichardt are idiosyncratic if not inscrutable, which is why you are primed for unexpected revelations or linking sparks. Her emphasis (after some throat clearing) is on the relationship between two morally endearing men: a mild-mannered baker (John Magaro) and an enterprising Chinese immigrant (Orion Lee), who has a scheme to extract milk from the lone bovine (owned by the richest man in the county) of the area every night. The doughnuts that they cook up make them gobs of money while making them vulnerable to street justice and you are torn between elation (take that, rich ass!) and fear. It opens with Blake’s line: “The bee, a nest, the worm, a web, man friendship” an acknowledgement that home isn’t a place or object but a link to someone other than you. This haunting movie transports you to another world — and redefines home.
The Way Back
Photo: Richard Foreman/Warner Bros.
Ben Affleck gets one of his best (and most emotionally resonant) parts as an addicted former high school basketball player who gets an chance for salvation when he’s hired to mentor the failing hoops team at his alma mater. But producer Gavin O’Connor and writer Brad Ingelsby strike a delicate balance between producing the anticipated underdog sports drama and offering a portrait of pain and sorrow that can endure simple solutions. At the heart of all this is the tight, subdued appearance of the star as an emotionally detached man whose tremendous struggles with a few wins can’t really be conquered.
Photo: Courtesy of IFC Films
Haley Bennett is absurdly perfect as a Hudson Valley housewife who sleepwalks through a controlled marriage until she is brought into consciousness by a psychiatric illness. The psychological thriller of Carlo Mirabella-Davis is an examination of patriarchal exploitation and unexamined motherhood aspirations — but it is also her own kind of body-horror novel, as her character finds herself indulging in the desire to consume items that were never meant for human consumption. Such increasingly horrific spectacles are enveloped in a picture that is otherwise hypocritically stunning, like a fantasy that gives way to a nightmare until, suddenly, tossing you back into the land of the living.
Blow the Man Down
Photo: Amazon Studios
This one hasn’t opened theatrically and it certainly wouldn’t have applied for this list yet. But fuck it, we live in exceptional times — and beyond that, this surreal mystery thriller set in a remote fishing village in New England is the kind of artfully built, suspensive little charmer they don’t even create anymore, so it sounds extra rare. Two cash-strapped women, trying to hang onto their house in the aftermath of the death of their mother, find themselves in the middle of what appears to be an intricate, sinister plot involving the town brothel and a gaggle of old-timers with some dark secrets. The great mystery itself is interesting, but the major features here are the colorful supporting cast and the persuasive sense of place that the writer-directors Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy develop.
Photo: Victor Jucá
In this film by Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho, a rural village in the sertão comes under attack. It will be a shame to reveal more about the culprits, but rest assured that Udo Kier is involved. Bacurau is a blood-pumping parody on colonialism and a furious anti-colonialist revolt, a film in which a ragtag, special Brazilian community is proving to be more robust than any cynical dictator or rapacious outsider. With an inadvertent release of coronavirus-era, it also delivers a message that is the right combination between inspiring and unsettling — that people can come together when governments can not, but they need to gain a sense between identity.
Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution
Photo: Patti Smolian/Netflix
The second film to go out under the aegis of Barack and Michelle Obama as part of their Netflix Higher Ground show, it’s an inspirational documentary on civil-rights that sounds like it’s going to be perfect for you more than perfect but turns out to be both. The film, directed by Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht (who was raised with spina bifida and appears on the screen), begins in 1971 at Catskills’ Camp Jened, where teens and 20-something “cripples” (a term common at the time) are packed with liberation to shed their barriers and feel safe. Their camp encounter sets the groundwork for a landmark presentation in which people with disabilities (including commander Judy Heumann) spent more than a week in HEW headquarters. It’s also a snapshot of people willing not to be invisible — only coming to the stage where they could be heard needing a cultural revolution — and a moving remembrance of the counterculture leader who inspired and supported them.
Birds of Prey
Photo: Claudette Barius/Warner Bros.
It’s quick to throw off Birds of Prey at first flush. But this feverish spectacle directed by Cathy Yan and adapted by Christina Hodson is a victory that takes on the usually sluggish superhero genre and injects it with vitality and bravado as it traces the emancipation of Harley Quinn (played by a brilliant Margot Robbie) from the shadow of her friendship with the Joker. What might have been a trifle turns out to be a rich re-imagination of Gotham City as a glittery haven for criminals like Ewan McGregor’s prancing Black Mask and his right hand, Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina stealthily turning into one of the film’s best performances), who are peeking over a lost diamond at Harley’s heels. Apart from the stage, is the storyline. Visceral perception is what matters. Erin Benach ‘s costume style is iconoclastic, drenching Harley in an elegant confetti-and-caution-tape. The supporting actors offer remarkably realized turns, notably Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the clumsy but devoted assassin Huntress on a revenge quest, and Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s fearsome high-kicking Black Canary. What makes the movie sing at the right register of joy is its determination to create some of the most audacious, eye-catching, and bone-crunching action-set bits that overflow with fun and complexity thanks to Chad Stahelski’s stunt coordination and choreography. Before all of this happened, we had to see the film four times in theaters, and with each screening our hearts exploded with more love for this scrappy, crazy, bombastic film.
Photo: Gunpowder and Sky
Before all of this happened, we had to see the film four times in theaters, and with each screening our hearts exploded with more love for this scrappy, crazy, bombastic film. You can smell the grease, sweat, and salt, and hear the engines grind and sailors murmur. This strengthens both our fear and the unsettling, unexpected echo of the film: it should feel uncomfortably familiar to a newly fascinated viewer with the nervous dynamics of illness and exposure and quarantine. Even, the film doesn’t succeed as it was released amid a pandemic, but because Hardiman wisely creates suspense from confusion, when our protagonists are terrorized by the agonizing isolation of the open sea and a nearly unseen nemesis.
Selah and the Spades
Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
The tony Pennsylvania preparatory school where the nimble debut of Tayarisha Poe takes place the call to mind mean-rich-kid chronicles with Cruel Intentions — but it has more in common with Rian Johnson’s 2005 baby-faced neo-noir block. Selah and the Spades is a teen drama in which the distinction between the professional clique and the crime family feels irrelevant, taking place in an enthralling and insular boarding-school bubble, a luxury acting as a kind of diminishing agent that makes daily skirmishes the only thing that matters. And the center of this surprisingly turbulent world is still Selah (Lovie Simone), a character whose desire for a successor wars with her instinct to kill anyone who threatens her position — even if it’s someone of her own choice. It is a convincing portrait of someone who, having made herself the queen of this small empire, as she leaves, finds herself horrified at life.
Photo: Courtesy of TIFF
Hugh Jackman is as nice as ever in Thoroughbred ‘s second film director Cory Finley, a story-based thriller about an early aughts embezzlement fiasco in an affluent public school district of Long Island. Unlike Frank Tassone, if you don’t mind the murders, Jackman plays a thief, a showman, a consummate politician and, in truth, a fairly decent superintendent. It is a role that makes fun use of the inherent dramatic flair that can often make the actor in more scaled-down roles read as fake. Bad Education is slyly rooted in geographical specifics, with Allison Janney as a fellow teacher, co-conspirator, and hesitant fall gal Pam Gluckin being the most delightful of those. But essentially it’s as sad as it’s amusing, a tale about the inherent inconsistencies of public schools that raise and greatly benefit from local funds, all while giving lip service to education as a higher priority.
Photo: Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films
The uninitiated see bull riding as the ultimate proof of useless, futile danger, while the initiated see it in the same way. There’s just no sane reason to try to hold on with one hand to a creature that’s reduced to pure rage and sinew and hates you with the fire of a thousand suns — unless you think life is like that already, and there’s nowhere else you can go to be trampled into dust and cheered simultaneously. Nonetheless, the idea of an empowering, “Go for it” movie based on a 14-year-old girl’s effort to escape her miserable homelife by apprenticing with a mangled ex-bull rider appeared ludicrous to the extreme — until I saw the movie, which isn’t at all that. Bull by Annie Silverstein is not jerking you back. He’s not going for it. It is quieter and more thoughtful than would be suggested by a glib summation (or a trailer) but it never goes soft.
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