My Favourite Films of 2020

Usually MMC!’s list of its favourite films of the last year is posted notably later than January, normally coinciding with Film Comments deadline for submissions to its reader’s poll. Alas, we are now closing in on a year without this favourite publication and without anything having been done with its reader submissions for 2019. Nevertheless, cinema marches on even in this year unlike most others and 2020 still managed to offer many great films. Those looking for a more expansive collection of MMC! favourites can check out our Top 50 list on Letterboxd which is full of Fantasia International Film Festival screenings as well as titles from HBO, Netflix, Amazon Prime, the Criterion Channel, MUBI, Shudder, AppleTV, and Disney+.

Here are MMC!’s favourite films for 2020! (And for the record, I can’t say why Letterboxd has a listing for Genndy Tartakovsky’s Primal but it does and so it’s on this list.)

1. David Byrne’s American Utopia (Spike Lee)

“Thirty-six years later, we are all in David Byrne’s big, boxy suit and loving it. Crisply and cleverly directed by Spike Lee, American Utopia is triumphant, loaded with call backs and reflections to Jonathan Demme’s brilliant Stop Making Sense. Byrne’s decidedly American qualities continue to resonate profoundly – the diverse musical influences expressing an inherent tolerance and love for diversity, the weirdly optimistic perspective than never quite tips over into irony, the fascination with modern living and consumer culture, the periodic stridency of his artistic vision and liberal view expressed in marching beats and goal-oriented lyrics. Overall, an amazingly deserving bookend to the greatest concert film of all time (apologies to The Last Waltz).”

2. The Wild Goose Lake (Diao Yi’nan)

“A shaggy, meandering, gorgeously decrepit neo-noir manhunt. Fitful in its action and languid in its characterizations, The Wild Goose Lake succeeds most as an atmospheric tone-piece punctuated with brutal, sometimes preposterous violence. Those looking for the Chinese cinema du look have their answer.”

3. First Cow (Kelly Reichardt)

“A quiet exploration of masculinity, authority, race, class, and ambition out in the American frontier through a pair of men, one meek, white, and talented, the other canny, Chinese, and motivated. Something of a revisionist western death trip for contemporary perspectives, told in surprisingly direct but not heavily didactic terms. A sneaky surprise.”

4. Dinner in America (Adam Rehmeier)

“A wonderful, feel-good, punk rock rom-com. Drug-dealing, bio-pimping, antagonist punk Simon strikes up a very unlikely romance with overly sheltered, dim bulb, fashion disaster Patty, leading a few memorable days of young adult hell-raising. Their suburban Michigan environs are enjoyably flat but the pair bring out the nuances in each other that create fuller, even likeable, people. In true punk spirit, there are no engineered misunderstandings, no changes of heart, and no makeovers. There’s just two unusual people who adore each other and are happy to flip off the rest of the world. And a big half star bump for Dinner in America’s key song which is absolutely brilliant and is as impactful outside the film as it is inside the film. This is an aggressively adorkable romance and a surprising demand for punk rock‘s anti-establishment voice. In a just world, there would be a generation of high schoolers and college kids that call Dinner in America a touchstone film.”

5. The Last Dance (Jason Hehir) and The History of the Seattle Mariners (Jon Bois)

“An epic, long form take on one of sport’s great competitors, told in that quintessential 30 for 30 house-style, full of needle-drops, false grievances, and astonishing basketball. From Isiah Thomas’ smirking villainy to Soul Coughing’s ‘Super Bon Bon,’ The Last Dance is 2020’s self-isolating, must-see event. Miss it and the doom of risk offending Black Jesus.”

“The yin to The Last Dance’s yang. Where the Jordan doc had extensive interviews, tons of archival footage, slick editing and graphics, and ostentatious needle-drops, The History of the Seattle Mariners has no first-person accounts, little contemporaneous footage, computer graphics that would have looked dated 20 years ago, and muzak atmosphere. And while The Last Dance tells the story of basketball’s ultimate competitor and the compulsion to win, The History of the Seattle Mariners explores the experience of a team too futile to succeed and too haphazard to become a tragedy. With its janky calendar page master-screen and its endless charts and clip art artifacting at all angles, this epic survey perfecting captures baseball’s obsession with statistics, its endemic boredom, and the strange absurdity that comes to occupy the massive space with competition should reside. By its end, the doc takes an existential turn, judging the team by its embrace of experience rather that its wins or losses or its capacity to translate potential into ultimate victory. In a sense, the Mariners are a positively-viewed prison sentence – terrible but full of interesting people. A weirdly compelling almanac of sports existentialism.”

6. World of Tomorrow Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime (Don Hertzfeldt)

Episode Three launches the World of Tomorrow into a full blown sci-fi series with this extension of the earlier episodes’ existential questionings and introduces a quasi-thriller detective story that crosses intertime and interspace. Claims that this is contemporary cinema’s great sci-fi franchise appear absolutely true.”

7. Collective (Alexander Nanua)

“A staggering document of crusading journalism and the crushing influence of institutional corruption. This film is shocking at every turn, both in its access to the efforts of investigators and reformers and in the staggering depths of a health care system devoid of any concerns beyond that of personal monetary gain. A despairing portrait of greed and futility.”

8. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (Turner Ross and Bill Ross IV)

“Fact or fiction, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is an absolutely captivating portrait of barflies in their natural environment. They drink out of sadness, happiness, loneliness, boredom, or affection and find themselves loving, compassionate, belligerent, remorseful, and morose, and sometimes that all occurs between rounds. Playing as both a celebration and elegy to a local dive bar on its last open day before closing permanently, the film is spellbinding as it mines the various meanings the establishment holds for its ragged band of regulars and observes their processing their grief over the bar and themselves, largely without resolution. It says something to me that I couldn’t stop this and go to bed, that I couldn’t pause my rental to revisit it the next day. I was too engaged by these characters, too absorbed by their interactions to step away ahead of the film’s final credits. Putting aside its categorization, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets was near magic.”

9. Fly Me to the Saitama (Hideki Takeuchi)

“An absolutely nutty tale of regional Japanese rivalry told through the frame of rococo extravagance, period war film tactics and suffering, and outrageous fantasy. Tokyo stands as a sparkling metropolis that treats its neighbours in Saitama as second class citizens, requiring that the hold visas to even step foot in Tokyo. Pretty boy Rei Asami inspires an uprising against these municipal prejudices, leading to a war that starts with air sniffing, transitions to peanuts stuffed into orifices and duels over hometown celebrities, and ends with a cache of gold and the power of unimpressive living. Fly Me to the Saitama is gloriously absurd and decidedly Japanese. High marks for a very funny framing story and a hilarious closing credits punk theme!”

10. It Feels So Good (Haruhiko Arai)

“A sexually explicit liaison between former lovers eventually becomes an Oshima-like 3/11 exploration. Sensual, sensitive, and smart, this casually paced two-hander is a compelling story about love, loss, regret, and second chances.”

11. Mangrove (Steven McQueen)

“With Mangrove, McQueen revitalizes an unfashionable cinematic genre – the courtroom drama. While still popular on television, crusading legal battles have fallen out of favour on movie screens. Here, McQueen takes the conventions of genre and rolls them forward to portray an iconic moment in racial persecution and eventual justice. The courtroom has always been an ideal location for drama as it is both an instrument of power and potential oppression on the one hand (an institution of the ruling power) and a equalizing space on the other (providing a forum for the weak to speak and be heard). Mangrove wonderfully collapses the roles of wrongfully accused victim and hero lawyer into its self-represented justice-seekers. The power of this context is met out less by the skin tone of these figures than by the Caribbean accent and syntax they consistently speak in. That dialect heard consistently in the Old Bailey is revelatory in its situation, being at turns thoughtful, eloquent, unvarnished in its directness, and even profane in its objection. For some, the courtroom is about expressing narratives and those that communicate their version of events most compellingly claim the day, putting those that speak differently at an inherent disadvantage. Mangrove breaks through this barrier, embracing its particular voice as a tool for truth rather than barrier to it. Well-structured and passionately acted, Mangrove hearkens to era of cinema where the legal system was held as a popular setting for drama and a final guardian of justice.”

12. Lovers Rock (Steve McQueen)

“McQueen’s Lovers Rock is Noé’s Climax if it wasn’t culturally bankrupt and devoid any compassion or love for its characters. Like Climax, it takes place largely in a single location, on a single night, and features captivating sequence of dance, conflict, and exhalation, but unlike Noé’s feel-bad stress test, McQueen’s film is a tribute that embraces hope for love, emotion, and catharsis. Wonderfully textural in its ochre-coloured room-turned-dancehall, Lovers Rock is a triumph and may offer 2020’s single best sequence, a prolonged singalong to Janet Kay’s “Silly Games.'”

13. Primal (Genndy Tartakovsky)

“Excellent animation. Phenomenal action. Legitimate tension. Tartakovsky’s unlikely buddy-action-survival series is a blast, not just by its prehistoric fantasy world but by its wonderful reconciliation of loss and trauma. Bring on season 2!”

14. I WeirDO (Liao Ming-Yi)

“Seeing the trailer for I WeirDO, you might be excused for thinking that is merely an adorkable, shot-on-iPhone, Taiwanese rom-com about a pair of young people with OCD fining love, and if it were only that, it would still be a very enjoyable film. In fact, I WeirDO takes on the trope of the manic pixie dream girl and questions what happens when the rom-com ends. What happens when the man is “fixed” by his odd little inspiration, able to once again embrace life and its experiences? How does this unconventional woman figure into his world once he is able to return to it? What happens when he gets a job, gets friends, gets responsibilities that demand a different level of conformity? I WeirDO astutely takes on these questions with some simple but inspired twists. A sneaky smart exploration of a common cinema trope that takes the most out of its performances and its frame ratios. Highly recommended!”

15. Shirley (Josephine Decker)

“Decker’s Shirley draws on various familiar cinema tropes and recognizable films. It revels itself in the suffering and instability of a brilliant artist and finds morbid enjoyment in lifting up the false facade of 1950s purity to find the unseemliness and hypocrisy underneath. It most strongly evokes Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – the generational conflicts, the volatile marriage, the tension of middle class values and high cultural enlightenment, the destabilizing influence of alcohol, the spectres of wealth and pregnancy, and the shadow cast by the imaginary – however the film introduces some unseemly gaslighting, some unconventional romance and some sexual games-playing, and some dreamy/nightmarish subjectivity that has the infectious effect of tilting Shirley’s world into near total madness. Moss is an acerbic force of nature that swings between brutal and compassionate, full of compromising tics and predatory grins. This is a bitter, beautiful pill of a film that would make for a intense triple bill with Moss’s other recent traumatized performances in Her Smell and The Invisible Man. Watch on a first date to enjoy Shirley fully.”

16. The Kid Detective (Evan Morgan, 2020)

“This Encyclopedia BrownBrickThe Long Goodbye mash-up (with the odd dash of The Big Lebowski) is absolute gold. Defeated and weary, yet gloriously, tragically neat in its resolution. That final image/title is perfection – bleakly pointed and hilariously ironic. Big thanks to The Important Cinema Club for putting this little Canadian gem on my radar!”

17. Labyrinth of Cinema (Nobuhiko Obayashi)

“Surely Fantasia’s most audacious, most ambitious, most epic film – a three hour long, metatextual tour through Japanese war cinema with an exceptionally pure, almost naive plea for peace, the type common during the Cold War but that has become unfashionable now. Labyrinth of Cinema is particularly knotty, being about a theatre showing war movies on its final night of operation and a group of young people who watch themselves onscreen as they traverse a variety of filmic contexts all in an effort to save a 14 year-old girl. If that’s not enough, LoC includes a time-and-space traveller visiting the theatre also, the poetry of Chuya Nakahara, a cartoon character, an intermission, a reflexive theatre troupe, and, of course, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It is full of history, music, film, theatre, and fantasy and it is heavy on artifice, particularly by its very clunky CGI, yet the film’s exhausting deliriousness never becomes unbearable. Obayashi manages to keep his plates spinning at all times and prevents interest from lagging no matter how lost the plot feels. The momentum of LoC is staggering and it’s frankly a wonder that a film like this exists to play at any fantastic fest. I can’t pretend this is for everyone (or even most), but those that take Obayashi’s undertaking sincerely will not deny its wonder.”

18. Another Round (Thomas Vinterberg)

“Sure, it’s men behaving badly, reeking of booze and mid-life crisis, but Mads Mikkelsen is utterly magnetic as an emptied-out high school teacher, husband, and father who gets his legs back under him with some liquid courage (along with his three colleagues), only to cut them out from under himself by the same means. It is Europe’s answer to The Hangover and that’s a compliment (I love The Hangover, for the record); it’s smart, charismatic, sombre, and tragic. And there’s magic here – the enlivened lessons of the film’s characters, Specs, and that final dance by Mads. Skål!”

19. Lance (Marina Zenovich)

“A very interesting doc that rarely sidesteps the difficult, hypocritical, and enabling answers of its subject – something for which the 30 for 30 series is occasionally guilty. Listening to Lance talk about choices (where none were intended) from inside his mansions with his fiancée and his children and claiming that he lost everything, I’m reminded that money doesn’t buy happiness but it sure cushions life’s falls. The fact that Lance still gets paid to talk about himself and his sport is completely astonishing.”

20. You Cannot Kill David Arquette (David Darg and Price James)

“A love letter to pro-wrestling thanks to one of its most vilified figures, full of reverence and respect to a wonderfully goofy art form. Arquette is so charismatic as the little wrestling geek who could, overcoming age, health, inexperience, and ill will to become the Rudy of the squared circle. This is a ton of fun and this documentary’s ability to work some pro wrestling heat by its conclusion notwithstanding its inside view up until then is a testament to the film’s success and wrestling’s magic. A very easy doc to root for.”

Notable blindspots: Nomadland (Chloé Zhao), Minari (Lee Isaac Chung), City Hall (Frederick Wiseman), Martin Eden (Pietro Marcello), Emma. (Autumn de Wilde), I’m Your Woman (Julia Hart), Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (George C. Wolfe).

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