A Cineaste’s Picks for the Best Films of 2020

The pandemic has turned the yearly ritual of film awards ceremonies a molehill out of the mountain they once were. With major Hollywood studios shelving multi-million dollar prestige movies, except for Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” that was largely dismissed as a flop, it has been left to less costly and nominally “indie” films such as “Nomadland” and “Minari” to fill the gap. Both had full-page ads in the N.Y. Times usually reserved for films made by Stephen Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, et al, with fawning articles over their stars Frances McDormand and Steven Yeun. Instead of A-listers like Scarlett Johansson or Brad Pitt chatting it up with late-night TV show hosts, we see McDormand and Yeun on the guest sofa.

Having seen these films and others in the same vein (“The White Tiger”, “First Cow”, “The Nest”), my reaction has been lukewarm at best. At our yearly New York Film Critics Online virtual awards meeting, not a single one of these overrated works got my vote. Alongside my arch-contrarian colleague Armond White, my votes went for the far more obscure but groundbreaking films that would have never been the beneficiary of a full-page ad in the N.Y. Times. While Armond tilts rightward, my preference is for films that challenge political or dramatic conventions. My picks below reflect my tastes as well as my critical judgement. If you have found my reviews useful in the past, then I would urge you to check them out. All are available as VOD on Amazon Prime and all the other usual sites.

NARRATIVE FILMS

The Last Tree

The central theme of “The Last Tree” is the loss of African identity that comes with immigration to a country that colonized your ancestors. It tells the story of Femi, a Nigerian boy growing up in a British housing estate who finds fault with both the colonizing country he now lives in as well as its former African colony. On a visit to he meets his father, a wealthy Christian minister with a gold-plated elephant tusk displayed on the ground floor of his mansion. Killing time, he walks over to the tusk and strokes it with a look on his face that says, “Who in the world would have such an ostentatious and wasteful object?” The moments spent in this man’s house and Femi’s eventual trip to the countryside to meet a Nigerian tribal holy man for a ritual that re-establish his identity are as memorable as any scene in an Ousmane Sembene film. Based on “The Last Tree”, I feel confident that director Shola Amoo might be heir to his great legacy.

Made in Bangladesh

A Bangladeshi version of “Norma Rae” with ten times more power. The film is a gritty neo-realist tale of an attempt to form a union in a small garment shop in Dakha, the capital of Bangladesh. Set in an actual sweatshop, it shows the super-exploitation and personal humiliation the 68 women operating sewing machines and irons have to put up with. Written and directed by a woman–Rubaiyat Hossain—it depicts how patriarchy oppresses women both as workers and as wives. Shimu (Rikita Nandini Shimu) is a 23-year old who ran off to Dakha in her teens to escape being married off to a 40-year old man. To help her make it through the first few days in Dakha, she steals her father’s wallet. This is a woman with little regard for patriarchal norms. You will love her.

The Swerve

This was my runner-up choice for best of 2020, a film that depicts the physical and mental breakdown of a middle-class woman. Azura Skye, my pick for best actress of 2020, plays Holly, a woman in perhaps her early 40s who teaches high school English in some unidentified American city. Her husband Rob, who has a floor manager job at a supermarket, is anxious to find something better. Rounding out the family are two teen-age sons who seem normal enough even though their potty-mouth tendencies and their readiness to mouth off to her might be just corrosive enough to explain the pills she takes each morning presumably for her nerves. Could all this be enough to turn her into a killer? Watch it and find out.

Tommaso

Directed by the infamous bad boy Abel Ferrara, this is his best film and my pick of best in 2020. Ferrara never hit it big. His specialty was making extremely violent and sexually explicit independent films that might have satisfied his own aesthetic yearnings but not the Hollywood studios. Like Marcello Mastroianni playing the director in “8 ½”, Willem Dafoe plays Tommaso, an obvious stand-in for the director. Tommaso has emigrated to Rome, the backdrop for the film, to get a fresh start as a director. Tommaso is married to Nikki, a woman 35 years younger, just as is the case with Ferrara in real life. To make the connection to his family even more specific, they have a 3-year old daughter just like the Ferraras. Even more blatantly, mother and daughter are played by Ferrara’s wife Cristina Chiriac and his real-life daughter Anna Ferrara. The film was also made in the couple’s apartment.

Whether or not they are going through the same difficulties as the characters they play cannot be determined but my guess is that such an extreme difference in age leads to the conflicts depicted in the film. Tommaso is far more needy than his young wife who feels dominated by the older and more professionally fulfilled director. Nikki misses her freedom and does not see eating dinner together as a litmus test for a good marriage. More worrisome is the fact that the daughter sleeps in the same bed as the parents and that they have not had sex in months. The tensions mount in the film until its violent conclusion.

Wikipedia states that Tommaso grossed $0 in North America and $27,136 worldwide. Trust me. It is ten times better than “Nomadland” or “Minari”.

Watch List

Despite its innocuous sounding titled, “Watch List” is the harrowing story of a Filipino woman forced to join a police-led death squad in order to have her name taken off a list of suspected drug users targeted for assassination by the very same type of death squad.

Starring as Maria, Filipino-Italian actress Alessandra De Rossi gets my nomination for best actress of 2020. Filmed on location in one of Manila’s poorest, crime-ridden slums, director and co-screenwriter Ben Rekhi maintains the kind of realism rarely seen in films today. In addition to telling a gripping story about a woman’s struggle to protect her family, he lets a Western audience know exactly how it feels to be trapped in a web of economic circumstances that force so many Filipinos to sell drugs.

DOCUMENTARIES

Born To Be

“Born to Be” profiles Dr. Jess Ting of Mount Sinai’s Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery (CTMS). Ting, who is also a Julliard trained bass player, was the first doctor to join the department, mostly as a result of being the only one on staff willing to take a chance on performing surgical procedures generally shunned by his colleagues.

After having reviewed at least five films about the transgender community since 2017, this is the first one that hones in on the so-called “transition surgery” that turns a biological man into a woman and vice versa. Almost a cinéma vérité, it follows Ting, a Chinese-American, on his daily rounds meeting with or performing surgery on a number of his patients.

Given the unfair dismissal of transgender identity from J.K Rowling and some even on the left, this film is a compelling argument for accepting people on their own terms. Imagine how you would feel if tomorrow you woke up and your body magically became transformed into that of the opposite sex but your mind remained that of your sexual identity at birth, a plot of some comedies. In reality, it would be no joke as the plight of Dr. Ting’s patients make so clear.

Epicentro

Around fifty years ago I saw “I am Cuba”, a documentary made by a Russian director. Nothing I ever saw since then came close to it except “Epicentro”.

Directed by Hubert Sauper, it allows the Cuban people to speak for themselves and boy do they do. Among the stars of the film are various 10 to 14 year old Afro-Cuban girls who hold forth on the bombing of the battleship Maine, Teddy Roosevelt, imperialism and why they have self-esteem despite being poor. When I used to visit Nicaragua in the late 80s, I was struck by the things I heard from teens who had a better grasp of American politics than 90 percent of the idiots living in this country.

The word utopia gets discussed quite a bit in the film. It has dual meanings, both as a perfect world and as no place. Cuba is utopian in a dual sense. As the world’s remaining socialist society, it embodies the hopes of a better world despite the poverty. It is also no place since its enemies regard it as a country that does not deserve to exist.

Ghost of Peter Sellers

Peter Medak is an 82-year old director who went through the harrowing experience of working with Peter Sellers in a comedy titled “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” in 1974. Like Ishmael quoting Job in the final page of “Moby Dick”, his latest film about this fiasco could have ended with the same words rolling across the screen before the closing credits: “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”

Titled “The Ghost of Peter Sellers”, Medak’s documentary reunites all the survivors who went through this experience with him. They exchange atrocity tales about working with Sellers on a movie that never should have been made in the first place. Octogenarians like Medak, they bring a wealth of experience about filmmaking over long careers. If “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” was a colossal flop, you can credit it with one of its redeeming features. It inspired a documentary that will be of keen interest to anybody who loves film. It will make you appreciate the efforts that go into a film production that is difficult enough in the first place. When your star is a complete madman like Peter Sellers, it turns into a ticking time-bomb.

The Pollinators

Although I have been reading any number of articles about the honey bee decline in recent years, this deeply informative and politically urgent documentary contained many new revelations, starting with the fact that most pollination taking place today is not done by “free range” honey bees but by commercial firms that transport truckloads of hives to customers, mostly in California, who pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to make sure that their almonds, apples, apricots, etc. can bear fruit.

However, since fruit orchards tend to face any number of threats to the trees even reaching the point of bearing flowers, including insects and fungus, they rely on chemicals to ward them off. If you’ve been following reports on the demise of honey bees, you are probably aware that neonicotinoids, a class of insecticide, are seen as likely cause. What the film reveals is that they replaced organophosphates that were so harmful to farmworkers. Unfortunately, they are much worse for the bees since they only begin to degrade after a couple of years while organophosphates degrade within days.

The last half-hour of the film is devoted to the coverage of regenerative farming that seeks to reconnect the main pillars of pre-capitalist farming, including a diverse combination of crops, the restoration of native grasses, livestock, and bees all working together to create healthy food.

As someone who has seen and reviewed well over 25 documentaries on ecology for the past twenty years, I would put “The Pollinators” at the top of those I consider essential.

Public Trust

Despite having been made by a partnership between Robert Redford and garment manufacturer Patagonia, “Public Trust” is not the typical liberal feel-good documentary about the environment. It is a hard-hitting investigative report on how public land has becoming increasingly privatized on behalf of ranchers, miners and energy corporations.

“Public Trust” covers two of the key battlefields involving privatization. One is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in northern Alaska that is the homeland of the Gwich’in Indians, who have the same relation to the Porcupine Caribou that the Lakota and Blackfoot had to the Bison. They fear that a pipeline connecting their land to the Prudhoe Bay port 800 miles eastward will destroy the ecosystem that the Caribou have lived in for thousands of years, just like them. We hear from Bernadette Demientieff, who is Executive Director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee.

The other battlefield San Juan County in southeastern Utah, where the Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument are found. These are holy lands for the Indians whose artwork can be seen on walls throughout the region. Like the Gwich’in Alaska, they have lived there for thousands of years. The Navajos, Hopis, Utes  the Zunis, all have ancestral ties to the region. You get an idea of what they are up against when you hear one Republican official saying, “I’d drill for oil in a cemetery if there was oil”. This is literally what the Indians are up against.

 

Louis Proyect blogs at Louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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