During a year of heightened isolation, it’s no surprise that stories of empathy and hope had the most resonating impact on me. So many of these films feature people who want to see change, people who look at the world around them with hope for something better around the corner, people who are discovering or regaining identity. Smaller films and debut features shone bright in 2020; with the shutdown of theaters, it’s been great to see a lot of these gems find an audience during festival rounds and in virtual cinemas. Here are my top favourites!
Nomadland is a stunning character study and a moving portrait of learning to live with grief. Writer-director Chloé Zhao and Frances McDormand are a match made in heaven as they explore the healing power of nature in gorgeous American landscapes. The beautiful score by Ludovico Einaudi gives melodic reminders that underneath the protagonist’s stoic exterior is a search of life after loss among a community of grieving people. Zhao tells a timeless story about self-sufficiency, unshared emotions, and the lonely ache in finding a sense of belonging during times of isolation.
Lee Isaac Chung writes and directs a deeply personal love letter in Minari, a beautifully told story about a Korean-American family of immigrants on the move in search of a fresh start in the 1980s. Chung’s storytelling is a remarkable reflection of the entire family unit at the heart of this film. Everyone’s perspectives are seen and heard with such clarity. They instantly feel like a family from the very beginning, which also speaks to an absolutely beautiful ensemble of actors. The performances gel like magic, and make it so easy to get completely lost in this story where intricate family dynamics play at the core.
Emma Seligman’s stunning debut feature Shiva Baby is a funny, invigorating, fully realized pressure cooker. Seligman blends comedy with drama and hints of horror, while exploring a woman coming-of-age, self-worth, anxiety, interfering family dynamics, conflicting pressures, power shifts in relationships, and traditions. The characterization is outstanding. The screenplay is quick witted. The sense of humour is a delight, providing constant laughs and lines so great you must keep up because you won’t want to miss them.
Wolfwalkers is a magical Irish saga of love, friendship, and women empowerment. Directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart's mature storytelling bring environmental and philosophical themes to a beautiful fairytale adventure. The delicate watercolour animation and intricate swirling lines are gorgeous. Characters flow into and out of frames like magic. There’s a beautiful fluidity to movement and a fantastic embrace of seeing the world from the wolves’ eyes, through scent. With gorgeous animation, heartfelt voice work, and a resonating story, Wolfwalkers is the best animated film of 2020.
The Forty Year Old Version
The Forty-Year-Old Version is a funny and passionate film about a playwright at a mid-life point where she’s being “rediscovered,” even though she’s been here all this time, working and writing. Writer-director Radha Blank, who also stars in the film, is an incredible storyteller with a clear vision about artistic expression. At the heart of this story, beautifully directed in black and white, is an authentic voice who needs to be heard. The 40-Year-Old Version is a compelling film with a brilliant lead performance by Blank and a pitch perfect supporting cast, who altogether make a memorable mark.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Often times it’s the smallest everyday interactions between people that leave the greatest impact. Never Rarely Sometimes Always, the latest film by writer-director Eliza Hittman, evokes so much power and empathy in the quietest of moments. The story follows a few days in the life of two teenage girls who seek out medical help after an unintended pregnancy. At the heart of the film is a remarkable debut performance by Sidney Flanigan as Autumn, a realistically portrayed teenager who finds herself in a worrying situation.
Sound of Metal
Riz Ahmed delivers an astonishing performance as a drummer who begins to lose his hearing in Darius Marder’s film Sound of Metal. What makes this story so beautifully resonating is that it’s not about fixing hearing loss or portraying deafness as a weakness. The film addresses an abundance of love and acceptance within the deaf community. We see Ahmed’s character Ruben adapting to a new way of life with the guidance of community leader Joe (the great Paul Raci). The talented cast, also including Olivia Cooke as Ruben’s girlfriend Lou, bring so much empathy to this story of hope and understanding. Sound of Metal is a powerful and emotionally absorbing film to discover.
Promising Young Woman
Review coming January 11th.
One Night in Miami
The love and care that director Regina King brings to her film, One Night in Miami, is riveting to watch. This is an outstanding stage-to-screen adaptation led by vulnerable, brilliant performances that take a leap of imagination. Screenwriter Kemp Powers brings his original stage play to the screen with depth, humour, and urgency. Kingsley Ben-Adir (Malcolm X), Aldis Hodge (Jim Brown), Leslie Odom Jr. (Sam Cooke) and Eli Goree (Cassius Clay, who’d soon take the name Muhammad Ali) each step into iconic roles of cultural significance with career defining performances. The film is dialogue-driven and shines when the four men are brought together for one night, where layered conversations of inner conflicts carry the pace.
Written and directed by Kitty Green, The Assistant needs to be heard loud and clear. This is an urgent depiction of human conflict and complicity, featuring incredible exposition and a stunning lead performance by Julia Garner. So much of the story is centered on the tense urge to say something, do something, without a safe space to do so. The film is incredibly grounded in its depiction of culpability. Green is showing us a realistic approach; we see just how easy it is for people to look the other way and knowingly contribute to a toxic environment that protects abusers.
Another Round leaves a lasting impression about the lengths that people dare go in order to pull themselves out of a midlife crisis and feel something again. Mads Mikkelsen gives a remarkable lead performance in a thoughtful film that follows four high school teachers who start a drinking experiment to liven up their lives. As much as the film plays out its dramatic beats, it’s also a celebration of life, which lays the foundation for a totally joyous ending sequence that comes out of nowhere but still feels completely in place.
The Donut King
Alice Gu’s fascinating documentary The Donut King incorporates one intriguing perspective after another in its blend of historical and economic threads. The documentary follows how Ted Ngoy built a multi-million dollar donut empire. Ngoy, a refugee who escaped Cambodia in 1975, sponsored hundreds of refugees coming to America and gave them opportunities by teaching them how to run a donut business. By the late 70s, Cambodian-owned small donut shops cornered the pastry market in Southern California. This is a heartfelt story about survival, success, and the rise and fall of a mogul.
I’m Your Woman
Julia Hart’s hypnotic new film, I’m Your Woman, brings a compelling character study to life in the 1970s world of crime. With an intriguing perspective and precise attention to detail, Hart explores themes of regaining identity and discovering newfound motherhood. The stylish opening sequence and simple recurring piano score lend sophisticated qualities to a story that stirs in moments of eerie stillness. I’m Your Woman adds a refreshing point of view to the crime boss genre and pairs Julia Hart’s directorial skill with a marvelous Rachel Brosnahan to craft a satisfying slow-burner.
On the Record
The devastating story of music executive Drew Dixon is the subject of On the Record, a gripping documentary directed by Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick. In the wake of the Me Too movement founded by Tarana Burke, often missing from all discourse were (and are) Black women’s experiences which are necessary to be heard. This documentary follows Drew in the moments leading up to her decision to come forward and accuse Russell Simmons of sexual misconduct. With focus on Drew and her story, we see the emotional toll on her as well as what was lost over the course of several years.
The Invisible Man
Tense storytelling and a fully committed performance by Elisabeth Moss make The Invisible Man an anxiety-inducing experience from start to finish. Writer-director Leigh Whannell combines fantastic elements of horror, thriller, sci-fi, and drama. Through lingering camerawork and a mesmerizing lead performance, there’s a constant feeling of dread that fills empty spaces and follows the protagonist Cecilia everywhere she goes. Where the horror comes from (her frustration and hopelessness that she’s not being believed) is what resonates most.
Writer-director Kelly Reichardt has a knack for telling such quietly resounding stories. Hypnotic from the first frame, First Cow captures the tenderness and simplicity of two people who find a strong connection in unexpected ways. The story is a melancholy look at a skillful cook and a Chinese immigrant who collaborate on a business, the success of which relies on a wealthy landowner’s milking cow. Their newfound bond is brought to life with great performances by John Magaro and Orion Lee as two characters in search of fortune in life.
Writer, producer, and director Sujata Day tells an incredibly charming story in her debut feature film Definition Please. Her debut excels as a comedic and dramatic character study that comes from a place of authenticity. Day, who also stars in the film as Monica Chowdry, flexes her many talents both in front of and behind the screen. With love, she highlights family ties and bottled up conflicts that arise, which gives all the characters a sense of urgency. The film also has a refreshing representation of mental health, as Day engages in open conversation about characters in healing.
Writer-director Eugene Ashe stimulates love at first sight in Sylvie’s Love, a gorgeous sweeping romance that exudes charm in every frame. An incredibly talented cast, featuring Tessa Thompson and Nnamdi Asomugha in the two lead roles, soar at bringing a heartfelt narrative onto the screen with compelling fluency. Lush costumes and detailed cinematography, paired with dreamy music, depict a glamorous 50s/60s setting in Harlem. With passion, a rekindled love story is told through changing times and newfound professional heights.