Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Surely I am not alone in thinking there is something absurd about making a Ten Best list for the movies of 2020. It was a catastrophic year for many reasons, and the movies were a part of the weirdness: giant releases cancelled or postponed to dribble out on streaming services, confusion about how exactly to see these movies the critics are talking about, Oscar handicapping derailed by questions of eligibility or lack of interest.
Okay, I’m not sorry about the derailing of the Oscar machine. But I find it hard to summon up the glass-half-full cheerleading about what a great year this was for movies anyway, a mode some critics have leaned into. Or is it leaned forward into? I can never keep that straight. There were good movies this year, as scintillating as ever, and yet the year in film still felt sad and frustrating and scattered.
I saw my #1 film at the end of February, on a big screen, and I knew at the time it was my #1, and said so. And while I am far from a see-it-on-a-big-screen absolutist, I feel bad for people who didn’t see First Cow that way, because part of its impact has to do with the delicacy of light, the smallness of details, and the complexity of sound—to say nothing of the spell-casting that comes with being stuck in a dark room with a movie you can’t pause or put aside until later.
I’ve been doing Ten Best lists for publications for 40 years, and although my ability to get paid for exercising this obsession has collapsed, I have no intention of stopping now. Here’s one for 2020, with quotes from my reviews for the films I wrote about, and comments for those I didn’t. A Ten Worst follows, because I lack the rigor to resist doing that.
1. First Cow (Kelly Reichardt). “Tone is an underrated component of directorial art, and the wonderfully sustained tone of First Cow blends gentle comedy and danger, with—we suspect, based on the modern prologue—something mortal on the way. Comedy is closely bound to humanity, and Cookie and King Lu are richly human, thanks to Reichardt’s generosity and the splendid performances by Magaro and Lee. Cookie is quiet, sort of schlumpy, his eyes beaming with a kind of Gene Wilder-like sadness; King Lu is upright, loquacious, with an elegance that remains despite his current lack of advantage in the world. Their friendship is a product of circumstance, and yet it is deep. The movie that clasps them together is similarly profound.”
2. Nomadland (Chloé Zhao). “Frances McDormand plays a modern American wanderer, living in her van, going where the work is, staying in motion. The movie is made up of little bits gathered along the way, some polished, some not, all deliberately chosen.”
3. Gunda (Victor Kossakovsky). Immersive documentary, in black and white, about farm animals, from the director of the mind-blowing Aquarela. The film simply watches, and yet it also argues, and the final sequence is one of the most devastating you will ever see in a film.
4. Fourteen (Dan Sallitt). “So much of moviemaking is the art of selection—what goes in, what gets left out—and Dan Sallitt’s Fourteen is a gem of that art. The film depicts a few years in the adult lives of two longtime friends, the supremely organized and responsible Mara (Tallie Medel) and the unstable Jo (Norma Kuhling). Because there’s a time span involved, it’s all the more important that whatever ends up onscreen over the course of 94 minutes must count.
And it does count, vividly. Sometimes Sallitt chooses to show the aftermath of a big event, sometimes a turning point. It isn’t until late in the film—and the delay is another part of the way ‘selection’ matters—that Jo gets a big scene that perhaps explains a little about her character; a few scenes and a few years after that, Mara has a scene that goes to the heart of their friendship. Putting these kinds of revelations off is not just a shrewd dramatic decision that builds suspense; it’s a crucial part of making the audience involved in the sense of mystery that lurks within a story of friendship.”
5. Lovers Rock (Steve McQueen). A night at a house party, with very little story but an abundance of music, faces, and feeling. This is McQueen’s best film by a long shot, and one piece of his five-part “Small Axe” series.
6. Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman). “Hittman’s style looks fairly grungy and naturalistic, but there’s a lot of selection going on: She leaves out enough information to create a sense of mystery about certain things, yet roots the story in authentic places and situations. This drama is shaped by smart structural devices and repetitions; watch the way Hittman emphasizes hands at key moments in the narrative (including the bewildering and skeezy habit of the cousins’ supermarket manager kissing their hands), so that by the time hands reach for each other in a crucial connection, the gesture is especially moving.”
7. Ammonite (Francis Lee). “In Ammonite, the act of hitching up one’s skirts has a variety of purposes. One is to allow a lady-scientist of the 1840s to clamber over rocks and muddy bluffs to access the fossils hidden there; another is to allow sexual access when two women aim for communion amid the mass of petticoats and bustles. It’s typical of this movie’s tactile nature that we really feel how its women must swim through these bulky hindrances to find each other.”
8. Beanpole (Kantemir Balagov); Promising Young Woman (Emerald Fennell). These two films have almost nothing in common, except suffering, death, and ferocious women. They are also somewhat overdone, I think, but in interesting and often exhilarating ways. In Promising Young Woman, Carey Mulligan plays an avenger set on settling an old crime against a friend, a process rendered in an incredibly tricky black-comic tone. From my Beanpole review: “Along with the movie’s fascinating visual scheme, in which Iya and Masha’s trauma seems to have affected our own way of seeing the world, Balagov has a case-closing weapon: his actors. The beanpole Miroshnichenko is a unique presence, so towering next to her co-stars that she seems to float through the story, which is not a bad way to depict her profound distraction. And Perelygina is an astonishing presence, supremely and scarily “on” in the manner of an Amanda Plummer or a Mercedes McCambridge, but with softness and humor emanating through her piercing eyes. It’s the first film for both actresses, and that alone surely marks Balagov as some kind of gifted demon-director.”
10. French Exit (Azazel Jacobs). Here I’m just picking one of a half-dozen movies that could’ve taken the last slot, but I liked the droll comedy and the Preston Sturges-like ensemble (led by Michelle Pfeiffer and Lucas Hedges, as mother and son frittering away the last bits of a fortune in Paris). Also, Tracy Letts is played by a black cat, or vice versa.
Very close to making the last spot: Major Arcana (a real sleeper, not much mentioned at year’s-end), And Then We Danced, The 40-Year-Old Version, Babyteeth, Bacurau, Sound of Metal, The Assistant, The Invisible Man, La Verite, Vast of Night, Collectiv, Sorry We Missed You. And I’m sorry I missed a bunch of films that might otherwise have made the list, but—it was a weird year.
Worst? Because I wasn’t reviewing on a busy basis after March, I no longer saw every damn thing that came down the pike. So just a few stinkers and/or disappointments.
Like a Boss. The first movie I saw and reviewed in 2020, and yes, I am now convinced it was an omen. Good people onscreen, a director I generally like (Miguel Arteta), and pretty much the antithesis of what a movie is. “Instead, this laughter-free opening sequence is an accurate harbinger of things to come, a movie in which the dead air that follows bad jokes sometimes threatens to swallow its actors whole.”
Bad Boys for Life. Smith and Lawrence return: “Their office is a giant high-tech room that looks like it came out of Minority Report, or possibly a James Bond picture. Now we know where the budget for the Miami police department goes, because it certainly isn’t committed to training — based on what we see, Smith and Lawrence are truly terrible at their jobs.”
Mulan. “The best I can think of for an explanation about the overall slogginess here is that the concept of Mulan really, really needs songs and talking animals. We miss the comedy and the silliness; we miss the deft way music can illuminate character. And there’s nothing to take their place, just the super-slick state-of-the-art effects that dominate Disney’s world these days.”
On the Rocks. “As tired and formulaic as its title. The premise has some possibility as a Manhattan comedy, but Coppola lacks the metronome that would keep this kind of thing going. Bill Murray looks uncomfortable, except in a couple of splendid moments when he’s singing, but then everybody looks uncomfortable.”
And in the category of movies that other people liked but I found wanting, if sometimes interesting: Shirley, Relic, Mank, The Nest, Emma, and Martin Eden.
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.