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La Llorona, immigrant dreams and an aquatic doc: the San Antonio Current's 10 best films of 2020 

click to enlarge FOCUS FEATURES, A24 AND AMAZON STUDIOS
  • Focus Features, A24 and Amazon Studios

January 4, 2021 marks the 300th straight day I haven't stepped inside a movie theater.



As a professional film critic for nearly 20 years, the cinema has always been a second home to me. Early in my career, I would be at the theater at least three or four times a week, sometimes more. This was before advances in technology allowed film studios to send online screeners to critics, so they could watch a film and review it from home.

This year, after the pandemic hit and studios realized that in-person screenings were not an option, most of them were receptive to making their films available to see online. So, that is how I watched movies in 2020 — exclusively on my laptop, desktop, phone and TV. Did I miss the theater? Sure, but a good movie is a good movie no matter if it’s seen on an old console TV or a towering IMAX screen. I could watch the following movies on VHS and they would still be wonderful films.

With that said, here are the 10 best films of 2020.

10. My Octopus Teacher

Nature documentaries have never been as introspective as when directors Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed went diving with film subject Craig Foster, also a documentarian, to tell the story of the unusual friendship he formed with an octopus off the shores of South Africa during a difficult time in his life. Visiting the mollusk every day for about a year, Foster established trust with the animal and then slowly developed a unique bond with it in its natural habitat. It is an emotional and stunningly shot adventure that is even more compelling because of the enthusiasm Foster expresses for every moment he shares with the exceptional creature. My Octopus Teacher is currently streaming on Netflix.

9. Feels Good Man

No one knows the darkest corners of cyberspace as much as comic book creator Matt Furie. In 2005, Furie created Pepe the Frog as a character for an independent comic he was working on. Before he knew it, Pepe became a popular meme and was eventually hijacked by white nationalists who transformed the frog into a symbol of hate. In the documentary, first-time director Arthur Jones takes audiences to the fringes of the internet where Pepe started his fascinating evolution from carefree cartoon to alt-right amphibian. The true story is bizarre, funny and terrifying, and Jones manages to take all these elements and form something wholly entertaining. Feels Good Man is currently streaming on VOD platforms.

8. Dick Johnson is Dead

Filmmaker Kirsten Johnson turns her camera on her father to record lasting memories during his twilight years and does it with a creative twist. Along with capturing some heartfelt moments, Johnson also eliminates the fear of death by imagining and filming her octogenarian dad, now a retired psychiatrist who is starting to lose his memory, dying in a series of accidents. Using stuntmen and dark humor, she reenacts scenes of her dad tumbling down a flight of stairs and getting struck in the head by a falling AC unit. Her father is game and its wonderful to see them having fun during production. The documentary has a somewhat gimmicky feel to it at times, but when Dick Johnson is front and center, it is hard not to be charmed out of your knee-high socks. We would watch that man eat alphabet soup for hours. Dick Johnson is Dead is currently streaming on Netflix.

7. The Painted Bird

Czech director Václav Marhoul’s film is one of the most disturbing WWII-era films to come around in a while. Based on author Jerzy Kosiński's controversial 1965 novel of the same name, the black and white drama follows a 6-year-old Jewish boy, who is sent by his parents to live with his elderly aunt in a war-torn Eastern European village near the end of the war. It is a visceral nightmare that is brutal and beautifully photographed. Czech cinematographer Vladimír Smutný captures the inhumanity through elegant camerawork and uncompromising violence. The film is about the ultimate suffering of one child who fights for his survival by any means necessary. It is a tragic, soul-crushing experience. The Painted Bird is currently streaming on VOD platforms.

6. The Assistant

Jane (Julia Garner) is suffering in a toxic work environment. She is an entry-level office employee who seems to have a handle on all her daily responsibilities — as mundane as they may be. What she cannot tolerate anymore, however, is the unchecked power of her misogynistic boss, a top New York-based film executive. Her resentment and the shameful aspects of the company employing her makes the film, at times, uncomfortable and nerve-wracking to watch. Taking a minimalist approach, filmmaker Kitty Green guides her drama like she is making an observational documentary about her lead character. The decision to establish the narrative so subtly and with an underlying eeriness makes the film even more compelling. The Assistant is currently streaming on VOD platforms.

5. La Llorona

The folklore tale of La Llorona has been told countless of times in films and TV shows, but never very convincingly — until now. In Jayro Bustamante's version, the Guatemalan writer and director tells the story of the iconic weeping woman through a political drama that follows a retired Guatemalan dictator, General Enrique Monteverde (Julio Diaz), found guilty of the genocide of tens of thousands of native lxil Mayan people during the early 1980s. The unique, slow-burning, political horror/thriller he has created is ominous, atmospheric and never reduces itself to cheap scare tactics. Bustamante has tapped into something that brims with cultural significance and dread. La Llorona is currently streaming on Shudder.

4. Sound of Metal

Director and co-writer Darius Marder follows heavy metal drummer Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed in an Oscar worthy performance) at the moment he realizes that he is rapidly losing his hearing. Afraid that the devastating news will cause him to relapse, his girlfriend and bandmate Lou (Olivia Cooke) helps him find a sober living home for deaf men where Ruben must cope with his loss. There, he embraces the deaf community to a point but finds it difficult to fully accept that his life will never be the same. Using inventive sound design throughout the film, Marder illustrates the varying vibrations and frightening silences that make up Ruben’s new soundless world. Ahmed is extraordinary in the role as he adjusts to his new reality while holding hope that he is still in control of his fate. Sound of Metal is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

3. The Trial of the Chicago 7

The best script of the year comes from director and Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s (The Social Network) version of the trial of seven anti-Vietnam War protesters charged with conspiracy during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. This courtroom drama is the epitome of what an ensemble cast should be, which includes solid performances by Oscar winners Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything) and Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies) to a scene-stealing Oscar-worthy performance by Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat). Like Sorkin’s past work as a screenwriter, the dialogue in Chicago 7 is smart and witty and the sprawling issues are packaged together in a way that makes the storytelling engaging and well-defined. As far as the film’s parallel to America’s current political climate, it could not be more symbolic and timelier. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is currently streaming on Netflix.

2. Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Authenticity is on full display in this poignant drama about a 17-year-old girl named Autumn (first-time actress Sidney Flanigan), living in small-town Pennsylvania, who sets out with her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) to New York City to have an abortion. Although the film centers on a polarizing topic, it never feels preachy or controversial. Wherever you come down on the abortion debate, there's no denying that options for obtaining the procedure have become severely restricted in recent years. Writer and director Eliza Hittman (Beach Rats) steps in to tell this story in such a personal way, viewers may feel like they are on this delicate journey with Autumn, maneuvering all the roadblocks and coming to terms with her difficult decision. While movies like 2014’s Obvious Child and 2015’s Grandma took on the subject of abortion with a comedic perspective, Hittman’s piece gets to the heart of the matter with realism and sensitivity. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is currently streaming on VOD platforms.

1. Minari

Set in rural Arkansas in the 1980s, writer/director Lee Isaac Chung’s intimate and tender drama follows a young Korean family as they struggle to realize their American dream when they start a farm to raise vegetables and attempt to assimilate within their new community. The hardships the Yi family must confront are relentless, but they struggle together and put their faith in one another, especially father and husband Jacob (Steven Yeun in an Oscar worthy performance), who wants nothing more than to succeed on his own terms and make a living independently. Chung, who based the script on his own upbringing, creates a beautiful and touching dynamic between each of the family members. This is especially true between young David (Alan S. Kim) and his grandmother Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung in an Oscar worthy performance), who he is mostly annoyed with for moving into his room and not doing grandmotherly things like bake cookies. “Grandma smells like Korea!” he exclaims at one point. Minari is reminiscent of an incredibly tense scene in the 2003 masterpiece In America, which is also about an immigrant family, where a father risks everything on the outcome of a carnival game. In comparison, Minari feels like a more subtle version of that scene stretched into a feature film. All eyes are on Jacob as he stakes his family’s future on his own abilities as a provider. It delivers an extremely effective message about love and devotion that is equal parts charming, heartbreaking and humorous. Minari is scheduled for a theatrical release on February 12, 2021.

Also, here are a few Honorable Mentions: Collective, Emma, The Nest, Nomadland, The Painter and the Thief, Shithouse, Small Axe: Mangrove, Soul, Totally Under Control, Wolfwalkers

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