It seems almost sadistically ironic that in a year filled with such division, misery and anxiety, we were also denied many of the outlets and diversions that normally help us cope with such strife. When the scope of the covid-19 danger was made most apparent, in mid-March, it also came with the cessation of sports, concerts, theater and theatrical film releases. It was like being told of an impending famine on the exact same day we realized our refrigerator had stopped working and everything in it was spoiled.
In a normal year, my annual close-out piece features films I really adored -- and hated -- attempting to put the best and worst of what I saw in some sort of ranked cohesion, but in a year where many studio films weren't released at all, and theaters -- chains and individual -- closed permanently, it doesn't feel appropriate. Like with so many other things from this past miserable year, we're going to have to adapt to circumstances.
Kicking the industry while it's so beaten down by highlighting its failures feels unnecessarily cruel, and so few films got a chance at real viewership, pretending I have a handle on the year's releases also feels disingenuous. So, instead of the usual end-of-the-year appraisement, presenting devotion and snark in equal proportion, I've gathered up an assortment of details, scenes, and performances that were able to make the most traumatizing year that much more bearable.
Last January, in the Before Times, I attended Sundance up in Park City, Utah, not realizing it was one of the only festivals I would actually be traveling to in 2020. There were the usual melange of indie-treats, but two younger actors really stood out to me. First, 7-year-old Alan S. King, who plays David, the adorable child of would-be farmer Jacob (Steven Yeun), whose South Korean family moves from California to rural Arkansas in Lee Isaac Chung's beguiling "Minari." Sweet-faced and amusingly stern ("I'm not pretty; I'm good looking!"), his relationship to his irascible roommate grandmother (Youn Yuh-jung) becomes one of the film's primary through-lines, and Alan's ability to be enchanting without succumbing to syrupy, goes a long way to give Chung's film its emotional heft.
By contrast, 21-year-old Sidney Flanigan, the star of Eliza Hittman's brilliant "Never Rarely Sometimes Always," offers a completely different kind of oppressed youth. Traveling to New York from rural Pennsylvania with her cousin (Talia Ryder) in order to procure an abortion her own state won't allow without parental consent, the crux of the film culminates near the end, during an elongated intake scene once she eventually arrives at the clinic. Flanigan, taciturn and mostly stone-faced throughout the film, finally allows us into the desperately compartmentalized inner emotional life of her character in a way that strikes with such controlled power, it's as if we're watching a silent supernova off in deep space. It's anything but feel-good, as far as the narrative goes, but so brilliantly executed by filmmaker and actress, it reminds you of the shattering power of art, and in a year where nearly everyone was forced to repress one level of ennui or another, feels absolutely appropriate.
Jane Austen, meanwhile, remains every bit as cinematically viable, in her way, as Stan Lee's ubiquitous MCU creations, but with such a small literary oeuvre from which to choose (only six full novels), like frequent Spider-Man interpretations, we see certain characters and novels over and over again, such that any new elements can offer a welcome change of pace. Thus, in Autumn de Wilde's "Emma.," in the pivotal scene wherein our titular heroine (Anya Taylor-Joy) is being pledged undying love from her Mr. Knightly (Johnny Flynn) near the end, there interposes a surprising nosebleed, which spoils the solemnity of the scene just about perfectly. It's a bit of unexpected (very minor) gore that loosens up the dire grip of the 18th-century British novel, but somehow in a way, we can imagine Ms. Austen herself might have approved.
Sticking with the past, the pair of would-be entrepreneurs (John Magaro and Orion Lee) in Kelly Reichardt's lovely "First Cow," who bring the joy of baked goods to a group of unhappy fur-trappers in the Pacific Northwest, can act as stand-ins for all of us fretting in our kitchens with dubious sour-dough starters, and just-unboxed baking stones, discovering the therapeutic qualities of yeast and flour. The unfettered enthusiasm their "oily cakes" bring to the rough-hewn community is infectious enough to make the viewing audience equally crave their wares (even if they're only, essentially, doughnuts).
Turning from the sublime to the indefensible, in a year in which many of our political leaders (cough), were acting like irresponsible children, denying wrongdoing while shards of the broken vase lie in front of them, watching a fierce teenager call out world leaders for their inexcusable disregard of the environmental catastrophe going on around them also felt importantly therapeutic. As documented by Nathan Grossman in "I Am Greta," the origin story of the superheroic Ms. Thunberg, we watch as she continually dismantles the pomposity and privileged denial of these politicians without regard for her own standing among them. In one of the film's more blistering moments, she puts it straight to a consortium of world leaders: "All you care about is popularity," she growls, "I don't care to be popular." In a year in which so many leaders failed their most basic and fundamental job to protect their citizens, watching them get shamed by this furious teenager, who has no time for their preening fatuousness, was decidedly appreciated.
In thinking back through the year, this otherwise more rhythmically stoic critic also appreciated a handful of dance sequences, from the madcap individual gyrations of Mads Mikkelsen (a former pro) at the end of Thomas Vinterberg's fascinating "Another Round," whose enigmatic closing choreography has led to cheerful critical debate about its meaning; to the perfectly syncopated hand and arm movements of a couple sitting at an outdoor cafe in Paris, listening to an opera over a pair of headphones in Suzanne Lindon's directorial debut "Spring Blossoms," in a fully connective moment of shared wavelength that pushes the boundaries of the bittersweet May-September romance, albeit briefly, into a confection of a much lower cocoa level.
Finally, on many critics' list this year is "Small Axe," Steve McQueen's anthology series of films all concerning the immigrant enclave in West London that become home to an influx of Black people from the West Indies and the Caribbean. The series consists of five separate stories, set between the '60s and '80s, each concerning different characters and situations under a unified exploration of the endemic racism and strife of the era. Despite the more depressing and dour tone of the enterprise, however, there is one film, "Lovers Rock," essentially, the experience of a reggae-infused house "blues party," from setup to tear down, that serves as a counter to the immigrants' misery. In the course of the party, the fuses blow while the house DJ is spinning Janet Kay's "Silly Games," a fan favorite at the time. Undaunted, the guests continue dancing away, singing the lyrics a capella in delirious unison, as McQueen's camera swirls around the living room as if nothing happened. Such a heartfelt moment of unbridled togetherness, putting into distinct bas relief the sense of community we've been denied as a species in 2020, feels like a benediction, an epitaph for the year, and a salve for what we've all been so desperately missing.