1. Small Axe
Small Axe is an extraordinary series of 5 films portraying the experiences of residents of London's West Indian community between 1969 and 1982. Originally developed as a miniseries for BBC One, producer/co-writer/director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) ultimately chose to release all 5 segments as individual films, and the resultant collection is downright phenomenal. The series is highlighted in my opinion by Mangrove and Lovers Rock, the former depicting the landmark court case of the “Mangrove Nine” in 1970, while the latter envisions a rousing West London reggae party circa 1980. Rounding out the quintet, Red, White and Blue stars John Boyega as an idealistic young officer in the London Metropolitan Police, Alex Wheatle profiles the titular British novelist imprisoned after the 1981 Brixton uprising, and Education captures the experiences of a young black student railroaded into substandard schooling notoriously earmarked for the "educationally subnormal". Enormously impressed by the entire series, I chose to follow the lead of the LA Film Critics Association and consider them as a single entry—a monumental and historic representation of aspiration, abject systematic racism and profound human endurance.
2. Corpus Christi
Corpus Christi (Boże Ciało) is a highly engrossing Polish drama starring Bartosz Bielenia as Daniel, a young hooligan serving time in a youth detention center for 2nd degree murder. While imprisoned, Daniel has experienced a rapturous spiritual awakening and yearns to become a priest, though his criminal record forbids such ascendency. Upon release from incarceration and assignment to a work-release program at a rural sawmill, Daniel detours to the local village in order to visit the Catholic Church instead—ultimately convincing the resident vicar that he is a newly ordained priest from Kraków. Compelled to leave town for medical treatment, the vicar asks Daniel to govern over the congregation in his absence—an opportunity that Daniel wholeheartedly embraces. The storyline details Daniel’s immersion into the community and attempts to soothe the souls of numerous residents mourning loved ones lost to a deadly automobile accident, while Daniel himself continues to grapple with dark impulses as well as haunting reminders of his sordid past. A 2019 Oscar nominee for Best International Film released stateside in 2020, it’s an enthralling tale of intrigue and adversity serving as a fascinating depiction of arduous spiritual redemption beset by acute moral ambiguity.
3. The Vast of Night
The Vast of Night is a captivating science fiction mystery film about a pair of teenagers in 1950’s New Mexico who identify a mysterious radio frequency that hints at the presence of extraterrestrial life in the skies above. Teenage disc jockey Everett Sloan (Jake Horowitz) and female switchboard operator Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick) clue in to an unusual audio signal emanating over the airways, a sound clip that Everett broadcasts to his listening audience in the hope of identifying its source. A former serviceman named Billy (Bruce Davis) calls in to describe highly secretive work he once undertook in the nearby desert, building an underground bunker designed to house an enormous undisclosed object—with localized radio frequencies broadcasting the same inexplicable signal. When Billy divulges that a secret recording of the modulation exists, the storyline launches off on a race-against-time as the two young protagonists desperately pursue the elusive clip in order to identify its mystifying origin. Co-written and directed by first-time filmmaker Andrew Patterson, The Vast of Night is a wildly enjoyable thrill-ride, aided immeasurably by cinematographer M.I. Littin-Menz’s bold, stunningly evocative camerawork. It’s an ingenious construct, delivered with panache and remarkable acumen—foretelling a promising career ahead for young Patterson.
4. First Cow
First Cow is a measured and rewarding drama about a pair of mismatched transients in 1820’s-era Oregon who collaborate to pursue their own variation of the American Dream. Otis "Cookie" Figowitz (John Magaro) initially serves as a chef to a traveling party of fur trappers, while King-Lu is (Orion Lee) a Chinese immigrant on the run after killing a Russian trapper. Partnering together, the two dream of utilizing Cookie’s experience as a baker’s assistant to sell baked goods to the local community, and are sparked when they learn of the region’s first cow as a source of milk for their recipes. Belonging to a wealthy British trader (Toby Jones) who overshadows the community, the cow soon becomes Cookie and King-Lu’s nighttime source of large quantities of milk which they use to produce biscuits sold at the local market. The biscuits become enormously popular and demand skyrockets, forcing the two men to increase their nightly pilferage despite the looming threat of fierce recrimination if they are caught. Written and directed by Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy), First Cow is an affecting tale of ambition and camaraderie, delivered with a marked sense of casual playfulness. Arguably Reichardt’s most accessible film to date, it’s a surprisingly sincere fable and a highly involving foray into a place-in-time rarely captured so invitingly on screen.
5. Sound of Metal
Sound of Metal is an intense and immersive drama starring Riz Ahmed as Ruben, drummer in a punk metal band alongside his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cook). Touring the country fervently while living out of their shared RV, the duo is clambering to promote their new album when Ruben begins to suffer from intermittent bouts of hearing loss. Deeply distressed, he visits a specialist who informs him that he is suffering from a degenerative condition that will ultimately result in complete deafness. The doctor explains that Ruben must limit exposure to all loud noises and offers up the option of cochlear implants as a possibility—though they are prohibitively expensive. A recovering heroin addict, Ruben is so distraught that Lou reaches out to his sponsor Hector for support, with Hector helping to locate a rural center for recovering addicts beset by deafness. It’s at this center where Ruben meets Joe (Paul Raci), administrator of the program that will serve as the support Ruben desperately needs—though his ultimate fate is far more complex and surprising than one might expect. Written and directed by Darius Marder (writer of The Place Beyond the Pines), Sound of Metal is a deeply empathetic tale of personal reckoning highlighted by an absolutely extraordinary performance by Ahmed. He brings the storyline to full, unbridled realization—a piercingly forthright depiction of self-actualization and hard-fought rejuvenation.
6. The Father
The Father is an extraordinarily compelling depiction of dementia, told through the eyes of 80-year-old Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) as he struggles to discern the basic elements of his day-to-day existence. A complex, often critical and occasionally charming gentleman, Anthony is cared for by his doting adult daughter Anne (Olivia Colman), who visits his London flat daily to tend to his needs. Anthony steadfastly denies that he requires a caretaker, however, despite his increasing bouts of bewilderment and confusion, having already driven off a number of nurses incapable of bearing his irrational mood swings. Anne grapples with her father’s memory loss and inconsistencies while making her own plans to relocate to Paris, and alternates between entertaining a new caregiver named Laura (Imogen Poots), and accepting the possibility of committing him to an assisted care facility. In a brilliant turn, writer/director Florian Zeller has fashioned the storyline from Anthony’s own fractured perspective, creating an immersive and often disquieting experience as identities and locations shift haphazardly, time loops back upon itself and Anthony is often befuddled by the fundamentals of his ever-shifting reality. Highlighted by Hopkins’ utterly phenomenal portrayal of a man lost adrift within his own splintered consciousness, it’s a deeply empathetic and stunningly inventive tale of degeneration, anguish and eternal devotion.
Nomadland is an intimate human drama starring Frances McDormand as Fern, a middle-aged widow who has embraced a nomadic existence, traveling throughout the American West while working intermittently in seasonal positions. Having lost her job at a gypsum plant in Northern Nevada soon after the passing of her long-time husband, Fern has sold most of her worldly possessions in order to purchase a van and travel the country in search of new horizons. After an interim role at an Amazon warehouse in Nevada concludes, Fran sets off for a winter gathering of fellow Nomads in rural Arizona where she first meets and befriends a fellow traveler named Dave (David Strathairn). While spending time in this community, Fern is able to gain training in survival and self-sufficiency, put to good use in the coming months as she ebbs and flows from one community to another, forging meaningful relationships despite her steadfast refusal to put down roots of any kind. Indeed Fern’s story is one of heartbroken dis-attachment, as the pain of loss has driven her down a path of avoidance and escapism—yearning for affinity yet affixed upon her own liberation. It’s a wonderfully bittersweet modern road film courtesy of Chinese filmmaker Chloé Zhao (The Rider), told with patience and empathy—a heartfelt depiction of hard-won self-discovery in the new American West.
Minari is a poignant drama about a Korean family that relocates to Middle America in search of their own variation of the American Dream. As head of the young familial unit, Jacob (Steven Yeun) identifies the ideal location to develop the farmstead of his dreams—an affordable plot of land in rural Arkansas where he plans to grow Korean vegetables. Jacob hopes to capitalize on the growing Asian population throughout the region, and brings his young wife Monica (Yeri Han) and children Anne (Noel Cho) and David (Alan S. Kim) to live in a motor home located on the property—though none of the three are elated over their new reality. Jacob and Monica take tedious day jobs in a chicken processing plant in order to maintain income, while Jacob works with a local laborer named Paul (Will Patton) on the side to develop his agricultural operation. Enter into the mix Monica’s highly irreverent elderly mother Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung), who joins the family from Korea and quickly interjects he irascible spirit into the household, bringing a major dose of cheeky humor to the proceedings. Written and directed by Korean filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung (Munyurangabo), Minari is an absorbing tale of ambition, delivered with remarkable subtlety for a storyline of such broad strokes and dramatic developments. Turning the classic fish-out-of-water concept on its ear and delivering a foreigner’s take on the American experience, Chung has crafted a unique tale of unceasing aspiration beset by the many complexities of every day life.
9. Welcome to Chechnya
Welcome to Chechnya is a groundbreaking and piercingly illuminative documentary that follows a group of activists fighting for LGBTQ rights in modern-day Chechnya, where an ongoing anti-gay purge has seen the imprisonment, torture and murder of hundreds of citizens under Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. Focused on the efforts of the Russian LGBT Network to rescue persecuted individuals and assist in their escape from the country, the film showcases a series of tense efforts to retrieve and house victims in underground safe houses as well as the complex bureaucracies they must navigate in pursuit of proper visas for departees. In order to capture these endeavors on film, director David France (How to Survive a Plague) subsumed himself within the rescue efforts, capturing much of his footage using hidden cameras and masking the identities of his subjects using facial replacement techniques popularized in modern “deepfake” video productions. The effect is nearly seamless in delivery, with volunteers offering their own likenesses for superimposition upon the victims’s faces–each of them desperate to conceal their true identities in fear of recrimination from Chechen authorities. Culminating in Chechen victim Maxim Lapunov’s appearance before the European Court of Human Rights, thereby revealing his true identity to the world at large for the sake of international awareness, it’s an extraordinarily revelatory viewing experience—and an urgent call to action, the world over.
10. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a harrowing yet stunningly absorbing drama about a pair of teenage girls who travel from rural Pennsylvania to New York City to seek out medical assistance in the face of unwelcome pregnancy. First learning that she is 10-weeks pregnant at a crisis pregnancy center in her hometown, 17-year-old Autumn Callahan (Sidney Flanigan) is stymied by state law requiring parental consent for an abortion—deciding instead to attempt the grisly act herself. What that fails miserably, she has no other recourse but to recruit her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder), who steals cash from her workplace in oder to buy a pair of bus tickets to New York City. Hoping to have the procedure performed at a Planned Parenthood clinic, the two girls must navigate the big city while remaining woefully naive about the depth of their undertaking, ultimately falling on the mercy of a young man named Jasper (Théodore Pellerin) whose intentions for Skyler are far from pure. Deriving its title from a medical form questioning the incidence of physical abuse in her relationship, Autumn’s candid response further discloses the abject misfortune that she has endured—adding a piercing level of empathy and compassion for her tumultuous plight. Kudos to writer/director Eliza Hittman, inspired by Cristian Mungiu’s celebrated Romanian drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (with which it shares many similarities) yet paring the storyline down to it’s most basic elements, and delivering a gut-wrenching tale of profound human deliverance.
Another Round (Druk) is an invigorating Danish comedy-drama starring Mads Mikkelsen as Martin, a middle-aged teacher who has become disaffected by the grind of day-to-day existence. Celebrating the 40th birthday of their fellow teacher Nikolaj (Magnus Millang), Martin, Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen) and Peter (Lars Ranthe) discuss the research of Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skårderud, who concluded that humans commonly suffer from a blood alcohol deficiency of .05%. While the group initially dismisses the notion, the increasingly depressed Martin decides to test Skårderud’s hypothesis—imbibing daily while carefully monitoring his BAC levels. His three comrades soon follow, with the results proving monumental as they discover a remarkable increase to their levels of happiness—Martin finding particular favor in his newly invigorated marriage. Neither a cautionary tale nor promotion of unmitigated alcohol intake, it’s rather a fresh and open-hearted depiction of midlife crisis and the often desperate pursuit of happiness. Courtesy of Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration), it’s a unique escapade highlighted, in fact, by one of the most utterly delightful closing dance sequences in cinematic history.
Tenet is an extravagant science-fiction action thriller starring John David Washington as an unnamed government operative recruited by a mysterious organization identified as “Tenet”. Barely surviving a failed mission in Ukraine, the protagonist is awakened in Tenet’s care and furtively educated in the discipline of inversion, an advanced means of harnessing entropy in order to reverse the flow of time. Pursuing the source of inverted bullets, believed to originate in the future, the protagonist is aided by a fellow Tenet operative named Neil (Robert Pattinson) as he tracks a Russian oligarch named Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh). Ultimately identifying Sator as the mastermind behind a complex scheme to destroy all of mankind, the protagonist launches off on a globe-spanning pursuit of a mysterious artifact key to Sator’s machinations. It's a blistering and stunningly intricate tale of time reversal intertwined with high-grade espionage, replete with outrageous set pieces and a plot-line so complex, it’s sure to demand repeat viewing. The brainchild of Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight), Tenet is perhaps his boldest accomplishment to date—an audacious thrill-ride enfolded within a stunningly elaborate cinematic puzzle, destined to both confound and exhilarate.
Swallow is a fascinating and deeply unsettling psychological drama starring Haley Bennett as Hunter, stay-at-home trophy wife to Richie (Austin Stowell), a wealthy capitalist poised to become CEO of his father’s corporation. Hunter lives a life of frustrated isolation in their rural home, constrained socially and unduly scrutinized by the often callous Richie. One day she discovers a marble in her home and impulsively swallows it, experiencing a profound sense of personal satisfaction—and proceeding to swallow additional objects such as thumbtacks and batteries over the coming days. When Hunter becomes pregnant, however, a routine ultrasound identifies foreign objects in her abdomen and she is rushed into emergency surgery—the doctors ultimately diagnosing her with Pica, a psychological disorder characterized by a yearning to consume inanimate objects. Her newly disclosed ailment horrifies Richie, with great concern for his unborn child, and he recruits a Syrian immigrant named Luay (Laith Nakli) to serve as her personal caregiver—though Hunter’s condition remains far from alleviated. Written and directed by first-time filmmaker Carlo Mirabella-Davis and highlighted by Bennett’s absolutely flawless performance, it’s an utterly hypnotizing depiction of mental illness, repression and tenebrous personal liberation.
The Mole Agent
The Mole Agent (El Agente Topo) is a delightful and affecting Chilean documentary that follows the adventures of 83-year-old retiree Sergio Chamy, who is hired by an investigative firm to infiltrate a retirement home in Santiago. When lead investigator Romulo Aitken is contracted by an unnamed woman to secretly inspect her mother’s extended care facility to determine if she is being robbed and/or mistreated, he places a classified ad in the local newspaper is search of an elderly gentleman who is discreet and capable with modern technology. Of the many applicants, it is Chamy’s intelligence and astute demeanor that ultimately earn him the job—sending him undercover as a new resident within the facility armed with a variety of spy cameras. Chamy begins a careful probe of the numerous residents in search of his target, secretly reporting his findings to Aitken while inadvertently tempting several of the female residents inadvertently. Indeed Chamy is a wonderfully kind and empathetic soul, and his investigation slowly transforms the film from a fundamental mystery story to a contemplative reflection on aging and human affinity. Tip of the hat to Chilean filmmaker Maite Alberdi (The Grown Ups) for crafting such a unique and moving film—it’s an undeniably charming docu-drama and one of my top sleeper picks of the year.
Soul is a fresh and appealing animated fantasy from Pixar Studios that follows the adventures of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a middle-school music teacher in modern-day New York City. Always dreaming of one day making it big in the jazz music world, Gardner receives a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to audition for legendary jazz musician Dorothea Williams (Angela Basset), and is ecstatic when Williams invites him to join her band. Enraptured by his this sudden stroke of good fortune, Joe is so distracted that he inadvertently falls through an open manhole cover and dies instantly. Ascending to the “Great Beyond”, Joe is unwilling to relinquish his life and resists the pearly gates—thereby falling into a celestial zone known as the “Great Before”. It is here that Joe encounters “22” (Tina Fey), a sardonic unborn soul disinterested in actual life—invoking a partnership that will carry them both to Earth, though 22 is inadvertently assigned to Joe’s body while Joe inhabits a random therapy cat. This comical twist of fate sets the stage for a rambunctious adventure story laced with existential reflections and adult-oriented ruminations on purpose and meaning. Directed by Pete Docter (Up) and Kemp Powers, it’s a dynamic and thoroughly delightful escapade bursting with humor and creativity, poised to enchant youngsters and older viewers alike.
My Octopus Teacher, Premature, Driveways, The Assistant, Beanpole, David Byrne’s American Utopia, Bad Education, Lost Girls, Boys State, System Crasher, Saint Maud, The Nest, The Trial of the Chicago 7, Babyteeth, Young Ahmed, Saint Frances, Time, The Invisible Man, Promising Young Woman, Proxima, Martin Eden, Possessor, Palm Springs, Rewind, Bloody Nose Empty Pockets, Fourteen, Waiting for the Barbarians, Mank, The Way Back, La Llorona, I’m Thinking Of Ending Things, Dick Johnson is Dead, Sorry We Missed You, Save Yourselves!, A White White Day, Ema, I'm No Longer Here, Let Him Go, Sputnik