Usually, when I put together my ten favorite movies lists each year, I try to avoid seeing any other critics’ lists until I’ve made my choices. It always seems to me that when top ten lists come out, there’s a kind of lockstep quality to them, the same movies appearing on lists over and over. I’ll admit, that might be because the movies are that good, but I’m guessing critics have been comparing their notes with each other and reading each other’s reviews, too. Maybe a movie that a critic wouldn’t have thought of including suddenly does after hearing a convincing argument for the film’s worthiness.
Because I’m not a reviewer, I see a fraction of the films they do, which puts me at a disadvantage. I pick and choose what I see as the films come out, so I have no sense of the range of quality that actually exists in any given year. A film I think has some debilitating problems might look a little better had I seen a dozen movies like Hillbilly Elegy, or even Hillbilly Elegy itself for that matter. But since no one’s paying me to see garbage, I usually don’t waste my time.
On top of it, I read film criticism and reviews throughout the year, so it’s not like I’m unaware of what stoked critics’ passions. Still, when I go over my list of the movies I’ve seen in any give year, I try to pick one that featured something that stuck with me, that had something in it I couldn’t shake or that came to vivid life as I remembered them.
Since I wasn’t planning to put together a ten favorite list this year, I’ve already looked at a number of lists and was happy to see some of my personal favorites on them. Many are films that most people have heard of, so I thought I would discuss some of my favorites released this past year that I’ve seen that you might be unfamiliar with and that appear on other lists. If you are familiar with them, I hope you enjoyed them as much as I did.
Kelly Reichardt’s latest film has been on almost every, if not every, list I’ve seen this year. Yet, I wonder, how many people have even heard of it? It’s not free on any streaming platform that I know of, which for me means that I would have to have read about it to even know it existed. Luckily, I did. It’s a great movie. Set in what is now Oregon in the nineteenth century, First Cow tells the story of a young chef, “Cookie,” whose somewhat refined chow is not appreciated by the men who hired him as the camp cook, and Chinese immigrant King-Lu, who—after what, if this were a romantic comedy, might be called meet cute in the Oregon wilds—go into business together. That’s where the cow comes in. What’s at stake in the film is so prosaic as to be almost laughable but is also why it becomes the stuff of life-or-death drama. I saw it in on Amazon Prime for a very affordable fee.
This is the last film that I saw in a movie theater in 2020, so part of my fondness for the film might lie in that fact. Even if it does, Beanpole is my kind of movie. Sad, disturbing even, surprising, and a bit lumpy in its telling—and by that, I mean it doesn’t have a well-crafted narrative arc, though the movie does offer a series of stinging revelations about the characters. Set in Leningrad in 1945, it centers on two young women scarred in their own ways by the war, who support one another as they try to shape their lives in a country still recovering from its wounds. There’s a scene in the back seat of a car between Beanpole and a hopeful suitor that one might see in any number of American coming-of-age films until it turns into something as harrowing as it is funny. This is a rich, haunted movie that is also in my top five favorites of the year.
To the Ends of the Earth
Yoko is a twenty-something woman from Tokyo who hosts what seems to be a travel show aimed at a young audience. Her latest assignment brings her to Uzbekistan. What she encounters there is sometimes boring, sometimes magical, and sometimes frightening. Feeling a bit adrift in her life, her adventures in Uzbekistan bring her closer to at least some degree of clarity, even if they don’t really resolve anything for her. The movie is quirky without being twee, and there are no great epiphanic moments—it’s not entirely clear just what Yoko gleans from all she experiences, but we can tell that something is starting to sink in.
This may be the most well-known film on my list here because it was aired on PBS this past December. Still, clocking in at about 4 ½ hours in length, it’s not a movie most people will probably have seen. Made by the masterful, veteran documentarian Frederick Wiseman, City Hall is a portrait of the various workings of city hall in a major U.S. city, Boston in this case. Seeing government working—not always working well, mind you, but still working—with engaged citizenry, is inspiring in the dispiriting Trump era. City Hall seems to me to be a counterpoint to Wiseman’s previous film, Monrovia, Indiana, which featured a non-engaged population going through the sometimes-difficult stages of life often as if just going through the motions, fending off darkness with the pleasing safety of greasy food, alcohol, and guns. One of things I love about Wiseman’s movies are their long-cinematic form, which I actually find immersive as Wiseman hones in on the minutiae of what he’s filming.
Two more movies. These movies didn’t make any other lists that I know of, and you’re as unlikely to have heard of them as the movies above, but I like them.
Fire Will Come
A beautifully shot movie set in the Galician countryside that’s about family, community, nature, twenty-first century economics, and belonging. It tells the story of Amador, who is returning to his elderly mother on their impoverished family farm after he has served two years in prison for having set a fire that is said to have set a whole mountain on fire. The storytelling is minimal, fitting for a movie whose main conflicts are rooted in what is left unsaid.
Coincoin and the Extra-Humans
I saw this in the few days that I realized the Minneapolis Public Library had briefly subscribed to Kanopy, a streaming service that has some pretty incredible films on it. Coincoin is among the strangest films I saw this past year, but in a good way. A sequel to Li’l Quinquin, one of my favorite movies of 2015, the film, again set in the same small town in northern France, also focuses again on Quinquin, now called Coincoin (I’m not sure why), and Commandant Van der Weyden, who I aptly described in 2016 as “the rumpled, Clouseau-esque detective whose extensive arsenal of facial tics creates an ever-shifting, comical nothingness against which the savage meaninglessness of life is hurled.” Bruno Pruvost, the non-actor who plays Van der Weyden is remarkable. You can’t take your eyes off him. The film concerns the puzzling doublings of townspeople, in what seems to be director Bruno Dumont’s take on Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The ending isn’t quite as jolting as Li’l Quinquin’s, but it’s worth waiting for.