10. Promising Young Woman (tie)
(Emerald Fennell, US)
Carey Mulligan’s devastating, desperately barbed performance is at the heart of a thriller that flips the rape revenge genre on its head. Every Saturday night she goes home, fake drunk, with a man, and every night they try to make a move. What results is a messy adrenaline rush of open wounds, the messy beast that is guilt, and a stinging nihilism that all the glittery girlboss ideals in the world can’t quite take down this toxic culture, and neither can one girl trying to teach those that hurt the one she loves a lesson. It leaves a sour taste, and many may not like how it all ends, but it’s a risky burn-it-all-down approach that feels the right way to leave the past two hours of dance-pop needle drops and spiked drinks as chilling as possible.
[Now in cinemas]
10. Slalom (tie)
(Charlene Favier, France)
The teenage sports drama is tense, and not just for the competition reasons that are expected. Quite slow at times, but grippingly honest of what it’s like to be sucked into a relationship with a mentor you are told to look up to, a young girl’s slalom skiing training takes her out of the normal life and into a training regiment where the sport is everything, and pressure increases under the influence of a coach who wants more from her.
(Lili Horvat, Hungary)
High concept, and often suspending disbelief as to its protagonist’s rationality, Hungary’s Oscar submission is heavy on spinning its initial web of hazy desire. Already described as a blend between the styles of Petzold and Kieslowski, brilliant colors and choral interludes punctuate a woman’s longing for the love of her life, who does not know her, a love story only she believes had existed.
8. Lover’s Rock
(Steve McQueen, UK)
This is a sort of placeholder for the entirety of Steve Mcqueen’s Small Axe anthology of films, but the endless motion and initial joy of the opening film, punctuated with hints of reality peeking through the joy of the preparations, and togetherness of a night’s dancing at a house party. The period set is filled with life and color, and hardly a story is needed for it to be a memorable experience, and a celebration of Black joy.
[Streaming on Amazon Prime Video]
(Patric Chiha, France)
A behind the scenes document of experimental theatre director and choreographer Gisèle Vienne’s 90’s rave themed performance ‘Crowd’, the film weaves between what happens onstage, and on the tour between the actors, with their personas melding into an ever-evolving net of desire, with touch becoming a means to communication onstage, and the motions of their bodies giving way to this acceptance of a queer reality offstage.
(Rebecca Zlotowski, France)
After binging all of director and screenwriter Rebecca Zlotowski’s features during quarantine, her breezy, Rohmer-ian latest seems to be a moment of self interrogation of themes present in earlier work. Set in the South of France, a young girl comes of age watching how her older cousin is able to exploit her own femininity to profit off of the wealthy men. The film tries to act as a commentary on the male gaze, and shows how this girl the men around claim to be “easy” knows more than she lets on, but winds up being quite class conscious as to how wealth and power interact with the coveted ideas of beauty in society.
[Streaming on Netflix]
(Justine Triet, France)
There’s really nothing like an old-fashioned psychodrama about actresses and obsession. Jealous rage, psychotherapy, crying in the theatre, and a movie set at sea make the French film perhaps a bit soapy, but the dramatics pay off for an at times farcical film that could serve as a guidebook for how not to be a therapist. Not quite for everyone, but if you find emotional panic, rich-people problems, a cast of this generation’s greatest French actresses playing mind games, and some well shot intimacy to be an enjoyable Saturday night, this is for you.
[Available to rent on VOD]
(Kirsten Johnson, US)
Kirsten Johnson’s surreally comic preemptive memoir of her father’s death acts out deadly scenarios, and allows the man himself to portray this acceptance of where aging must end. The staged fantasies are a bit of movie magic that, in the end, make the film a bonding exercise, and a means to find comfort and laugh at dark times.
[Streaming on Netflix]
(Kim Bora, South Korea)
A young girl who feels like an outsider wherever she goes feels the world grow beneath her feet all in one delicately shot summer. Her new Chinese teacher sparks a curiosity, and a sense of belonging and trust from never before, and these transitory times of being fourteen, still learning what you want from the world, begin to make a little sense. In a 90s South Korea trying to find its identity, our protagonist searches for the same, in a world that commercializes so rapidly, with boys that come and go, and girls that change their minds when autumn comes, all the while family stays steadily dysfunctional.
[Available to rent on VOD]
(Kantemir Balagov, Russia)
Not Pieces of a Woman, but the other intimate film of the year that is set into motion by the devastating death of a baby, this Russian drama uses its bright yet stinging color palette to breathe life in what could easily feel like misery porn. A backwards sort of love story, the trials of grief and surrogacy for two young women, implied to be lovers, in post-war Russia are often hard to watch, but ultimately rewarding for the strength of the performances and their bond.
[Available to rent on VOD]
(Amy Seimetz, US)
There’s nothing quite like this one. With a neon glow, Kate Lyn Sheil and Jane Adams are a knockout, both filled with a deep-rooted paranoia that they will die the next day, that spread to each person they tell. While often said to be an unintentional Covid movie, the origin of this paranoia plague appears to stem from Sheil’s character’s toxic ex-boyfriend (played by Kentucker Audley), who is shown in flashbacks. With a focus on these sequences, the film takes on an idea that it is the struggle to exist alone, to come into oneself, to make peace with your home and that life goes on in change. Sheil’s character runs her hand over the walls of her house, caressing them as she builds a relationship with her world in what she believes to be her final hours. Filmmaker Amy Seimetz says that the film is meant to be her own experiences with anxiety, and how she often feels that it is contagious when she expresses her feelings to others. The end result is a rewarding headache of anxiety, a question of whether a promise of death requires anything but one last ordinary day, and a marvel for its use of experimental filmmaking tactics at what could have easily been standard horror on the technical side of things.
[Streaming on Hulu]
As I’ve watched nearly 300 new releases at this point, it’s impossible to do this list without a few honourable mentions. Little Girl is a heartwarmingly cinematic and deeply empathetic documentary about a young girl’s social transition, and relation with her mother through it. Ema is incredibly kinetic, a marriage and family drama with an extra dose of reggaeton and flamethrowers. The Metamorphosis of Birds is an interesting discovery, striking visual compositions used to tell a family story of death, fatherhood, and motherhood, spoken like a poem. Tove, a biopic of Moomins creator Tove Jansson, is charming and breathes new life into the formula with its cheer and focus on art that comes from a place of love. Spanish drama The August Virgin is quiet, yet so atmospheric and gently acted, its meditation on faith and festivities in summertime makes it a serene gem. Lastly, one of the year’s more widely anticipated releases, I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Netflix) is a beguiling mystery within a breakup, and its heart lies in an ever-changing protagonist, and a brilliant performance by Jessie Buckley.
Limited series this year had been particularly strong this year (and as we know, TV is television if it’s bad or middling, a movie if it’s great), with two 2019 imports from France having been released to stream on Topic this year. Directed, produced, and co-written by Rebecca Zlotowski, Les Sauvages (Prime, Topic) is a fantastic political thriller following the attempted assassination and investigation the event of a newly elected Arab president in France, that manages to be both human and insightful about the nuance of France’s racial tensions. Vernon Subutex (Prime, Topic) is an adaptation of the popular series of novels by author Virginie Despentes, telling the story of a former record store owner and the many characters he intersects with in a tumultuous underground of Paris, featuring one of my favorite romantic subplots in a long time. Then, of course, there’s Michaela Coel’s knockout I May Destroy You (HBO Max), brimming with color, humanity, and a tender story of accepting trauma.
The year’s slate of short form films, while often harder to find outside festivals, has been especially strong. In the latter half of the year, Point and Line to Plane was a TIFF standout, playing online for free a few times since, showing grief through the art of Hilma af Klimt. The year’s online Annecy Animation Festival brought us Genius Loci, a beautifully fluid watercolour and block-print animation about loneliness and the chaos of urban spaces. The real best film of the year, however, falls under this category. Just seventeen minutes long, Canadian filmmaker Sophy Romvari’s thesis film Still Processing has a simple premise, letting us watch the filmmaker in real time unpack a box of unseen childhood photographs. The striking architecture around her contrasts the intimacy of reconnecting with a family loss, and placing herself back in, trying to pin every photo to a place, a time, the closest approximation of a memory. The sound of Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends plays as the reality fades, and we are left in this personal state or processing. The film feels too close, as if we should not be allowed to witness this, or know these people in the moment, but here we are, allowed into a moment of remembrance, that feeling of still processing loss all over again.
Now, not every film of last year was particularly accessible to view then, so a few fell through the cracks. A submission for last year’s Oscars, animated short The Physics of Sorrow (Prime) is stunning, made entirely in encaustic painting, truly beautiful usage of light and abstraction to tell the story of displacement and war through the eyes of a young boy in Bulgaria. Brazilian Oscar submission Invisible Life (Prime) was not available past an incredibly limited late December release, but the pitch-perfect heartbreaking tale of two sisters trying to find one another again for years strikes a tender place emotionally. Still not U.S. released with no plans for streaming as of June, French Real Love is available with enough effort and a good VPN (Kanopy or MUBI please get this one more accessible). The debut solo feature of Claire Burger, it’s a semi-autobiographical snapshot of a family from the eye of its youngest daughter, where fatherhood is allowed to be a sensitive role.
Best of 2020 amy seimetz an easy girl beanpole carey mulligan charlene favier christian petzold ema emerald fennell eric rohmer genius loci gisele vienne house of hummingbird i may destroy you if it were love im thinking of ending things invisible life jane adams jessie buckley justine triet kantemir balagov kate lyn sheil kentucker audley kim bora kirsten johnson krzysztof kieslowski lili horvat little girl lovers rock michaela coel patric chiha pieces of a woman point and line to plane preparations to be together for an unknown period of time promising young woman real love rebecca zlotowski she dies tomorrow sibyl slalom small axe sophy romvari steve mcqueen still processing the august virgin the metamorphosis of birds the physics of sorrow tove vernon subutex