Giancarlo Sensebe’s Top 10 Best Movies of 2020

by Giancarlo Sensebe
Best Movies of 2020

2020 was a year that seems will always be remembered as an absolute hellscape; between a tumultuous election year, a widespread pandemic, and economic pressures on a global scale, the world felt as if it was coming to a halt. What I found interesting is how when those daily pressures fade away, and people have time to themselves, many turned to film, television, books, etc. They turn to the arts. It was a beautiful reminder of the inherent, timeless value that film carries. Though I was (and am) saddened that distributors have had to push back big releases, and theaters have had to close due to the lack of business, I was hopeful that the year would provide an opportunity for smaller indie gems to get to shine. While I don’t think that was fully achieved with your average movie watchers, this was a great year for film nonetheless. 

Before getting into my Top 10, here are some honorable mentions that deserve some recognition:

Minari

Labyrinth of Cinema

The Devil All the Time

Collective

Red, White, and Blue

New Order

Shiva Baby 

Dick Johnson Is Dead

The Wolf of Snow Hollow

Bloody Nose Empty Pockets

Swimming Out Till The Sea Turns Blue

Shithouse

Undine

Possessor

Black Bear

#10: A White, White Day

A White, White Day is an Icelandic film centered around an off-duty police officer, whose wife recently died in an accident. Soon after, he begins to suspect his wife may have been having an affair. He struggles with the complex emotions he feels surrounding his wife, which turns to an obsession with finding the truth and he begins to endanger himself and his family. A film about grief and revenge, but told with a unique emotional distance, there is a deliberate coldness to the filmmaking. Accentuated by the foggy, snowy roadways and grass fields of this remote Icelandic town, this stark, quiet imagery is pointedly juxtaposed against our main character (played brilliantly by Ingvar Eggert Sigurdsson) who becomes increasingly volatile and aggressive in his pursuit. This film knows how to quietly, but effectively build tension through its great performances, editing, and use of camerawork. It also benefits from having one of the best scores of the year.

#9: Vitalina Varela

The latest from Portuguese Master of Slow Cinema Pedro Costa is also one of his best. For those who may not know of it, slow cinema is a sort of unofficial term for a certain style of filmmaking. These are films with a deliberately slow pace; there’s a certain level of inactivity, often meditative and observational in nature. To be frank, they’re films many would call boring or pretentious, or both. But there’s a certain magic to this style, and filmmakers like Costa, Chantal Akerman, Lav Diaz, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, (or another certain somebody that might show up on my list later) have all made a name for themselves using this approach. 

Costa’s new film tells the story of, you guessed it, Vitalina Varela, a Cape Verdean woman whose husband abandoned her decades earlier. She’s been reacquainted with him and travels back to Lisbon to see him, only to find he has just died prior to her arrival. The film is essentially about her getting all his affairs in order, but (similar to A White, White Day) it’s really about her coming to terms with the conflicting emotions she’s feeling surrounding her husband and his death. Grief, resentment, regret for the years spent waiting for him, it all comes pouring out of her. You realize she’s saying all the things she wanted to say but never got the chance, and never will again.

Many of these scenes are shot in close-up with Vitalina’s beautifully expressive face speaking volumes. The dialogue also reveals deep vulnerabilities through impassioned declarations and pleas with a poetic grace that is absolutely staggering. The film is filled with a ton of evocative imagery throughout, with crumbling, decaying buildings, sparsely filled passageways, the way the people stagger through these spaces, the use of deep shadows. There is a painterly quality to the visual sparseness in the film that reminds me of Rembrandt or of biblical paintings in general. One of the most quietly powerful and beautifully shot films of the year.

#8: Another Round

The new collaboration between Thomas Vinterberg and Mads Mikkelsen, while not reaching the heights of 2012’s The Hunt, proved again how great of a pairing the two are. Another Round follows Mad’s character Martin, who works as a teacher at the local high school along with his three friends. Martin seems pedestrian; he seems plain or even boring, some might say. He leads and provides a perfectly quaint and acceptable life for himself, his wife, and two children. Until one night, while out with friends, Martin seems to realize something is missing from his life — a certain spark. His friend and colleague mentions a theory that humans have peak performance when they are slightly intoxicated. The four friends agree to test this theory together. The result is a film filled with genuine laughs, great chemistry between the four teachers, and an exuberance that few films could ever capture. 

Another Round does a good job riding the line when depicting alcohol/alcoholism in an honest way that never felt preachy or melodramatic. Showing not only how awful and destructive it is, but also how enticing it can be and how great that feeling really is. The film also manages to balance well between the funnier bits and the deeper emotional core, showing Vinterberg has a firm grasp on the wheel with this material. Though Mads is the obvious star, the other three teachers are great actors and each has impressive comedic chops. Their characters and their histories with alcohol felt fleshed out by the end, which also happens to be one of the best endings for a movie this year.

*To read the site’s review of Another Round, please click here.

#7: There Is No Evil

There is No Evil is an Iranian film from director Mohammad Rasoulof. It’s an anthology told in four parts all centered around their country’s enforcement of the death penalty, and the men who must carry out those orders. Anthology films tend to have an inherent issue with consistency, but the filmmaking and thematic/sociopolitical backbone of this film are far too strong for the film to suffer from that issue.

It’s truly a deep, intense, and personal exploration of men required to do an unspeakable act and how it affects them and the people in their lives. Each part filled with gifted actors, varying expressive camerawork, sharply written, and executed scenes throughout. At first, you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop in a sense; but once it does, it brings the hammer down true. I’m a bit guarded in revealing much about any of the plots for the four stories. But I loved the way the filmmaking shifted in approach when tackling the different material. One portion is high energy and aggressive, which is accentuated beautifully with fast panning, virtuoso tracking shots, and a propulsive score. Or another portion is more quiet, observational, and patient in its locked-down shots and use of wides in its compositions. The result is one of the best shot films of the year. 

This is made all the more impressive considering how many difficulties the director has faced. Rasoulof has been arrested on set in the past for making films that are “too critical of the system”. He has been imprisoned on three occasions and is no longer allowed to even have a passport to leave the country. This film was likely shot in secret. His bravery to continue to put himself at risk for his art is incredible and we’re lucky to have him. There is No Evil is a film brimming with brilliance about moral strength and individual liberty that depicts a cruel, indifferent system and it deserves to be seen by as many people as possible.

#6: Feels Good Man

I can’t tell if I should feel dumb for having this so high. In a year filled with all sorts of great documentaries (Collective, Dick Johnson Is Dead, Bloody Nose Empty Pockets, and more), my favorite of them all is about the Pepe the Frog meme. A concept that seems so conceptually hollow on the surface, actually ended up being one of the most well-told and engrossing films I’ve seen all year. It showcases the humble beginnings of its invention by creator Matt Furie, who made it for a webcomic in the Myspace era, to where it is today, a symbol of white nationalism and ignorance that is registered as an official hate symbol. 

This is a film that carefully tracks significant moments of the internet that aren’t talked about, stringing together a timeline that tracks the rise of internet trolls, the era of internet ironicism and desensitivity, and the concerning nature of its far reach. The movie could have easily coasted by with just a bunch of interviews with the creator (Furie) and his struggles to reclaim his art, but the film is smart enough to know that’s just one aspect of a much bigger story. It goes deeper, interviewing professionals in psychology and behavior who specialize in the new age of internet communication and its effect on us. The result is several illuminating interviews, anecdotes, and observations that begin to paint a picture of the psyche of these people.

This film also could have relied on the fascinating and disturbing underpinnings of the story alone and made something captivating of it, but this story is also accompanied by some really great art and visual representations of what’s being talked about. Paired with some really sharp well-paced editing, Feels Good Man is a very breezy, fun, and informative journey that also treads some more challenging territory and does so smartly. This is an important document of a particular time and place on the internet and its reflection on this subset of people, the tracking of their influence, and the real-world ramifications of this strange new movement we’re all still trying to understand.

*To read the site’s review of Feels Good Man, please click here.

#5: Mangrove

One of the best filmmakers working today, Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series was a breath of fresh air in a much-needed time. While it blurs the lines between television and film more than some liked, it is undoubtedly one of 2020’s great cinematic achievements. People’s favorite seems to vary between this or Lovers Rock (though Red, White and Blue was my personal 2nd favorite), but either way, can you imagine shooting five films of this caliber in such a short amount of time? Truly remarkable that this project came together as strongly as it did and we’re all the better for having it. 

Similar to the rest of the entries, Mangrove follows a community of West Indian residents living in Notting Hill around 1968 who begin to face increasing police discrimination, harassment, and violence. To speak out, the residents organize a march in protest, which lead to the arrest of the “Mangrove 9” who were charged with rioting and inciting violence with the possibility of facing up to 10 years in prison. In an era where we’ve seen these sort of hacky activist biopics that can feel preachy or cliché, McQueen proves there’s still a right way to do it. Though we mainly follow Frank Crichlow (played excellently by Shaun Parkes) the film really operates as an ensemble piece, and it’s a damn good one at that. Every character is given time to feel alive, to be expressive and passionate, which adds to that strong sense of community.

The film expertly shifts from depicting the police harassment and real-world violence that took place, to a sharply crafted courtroom drama. McQueen’s direction is strong, between the sharp visual style, precise blocking and staging, and the many great performances throughout, which comes together for a powerful film that highlights the grim reality for people of color, that police brutality, abuse of power, and the corruption of the system, are all as relevant today as they were 40 years ago. It’s an emotionally charged, powerfully acted, and deeply resonant film that could not be more timely or important.

*To read the site’s review of Mangrove, please click here.

#4: Days

Did somebody say slow cinema? Probably not, it’s probably just me. But here we have the latest film from acclaimed Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang, who much like Pedro Costa, has gained notoriety as part of the slow cinema movement. He’s also an important figure in what’s considered the second new wave of Taiwanese cinema, alongside the ranks of other great filmmakers like Edward Yang, Ang Lee, and Hou Hsiao-hsien. These films are likened to that of Italian neorealism, avoiding the action or melodrama of earlier films, they are known for their realistic, down-to-earth, and sympathetic portrayals of urban (or rural) Taiwanese life. 

Days follows two men, one older and one a bit younger. The older man is played by Tsai’s most frequent collaborator Lee Kang- Sheng, who is a tremendously gifted actor. His character lives alone in a big empty house. The younger man is played by Anong Houngheuangsy, a Laotian immigrant who also lives alone, but in a small apartment. The film quietly highlights the mundanity of their lives and everyday tasks, before slowly shifting into their eventual meeting. This is perhaps one of the more inaccessible films of Tsai Ming-Liang’s career: the film has no dialogue. Not a single line spoken. Which also makes it somewhat difficult to articulate why it’s so great. It’s a film that’s very experiential and internal.

Since this film has no dialogue it can’t rely on it to establish the characters, their relationships, or this world they inhabit, its expression comes from the framing and shot composition, the set design, and the subtleties of the performances. Both actors deserve praise, for being able to still be so expressive without any lines to chew on. It’s really challenging to communicate emotion without words, but both actors manage to display their vulnerability with subtle facial expressions and their physicality. The film beautifully captures a deep loneliness, an emptiness in life. And these slow-moving, long locked-down shots allow for you to share in the characters’ physical, emotional, and temporal space in a way few films ever have.

#3: Nomadland

Likely to be considered the movie of the year, Chloe Zhao’s third feature has received all the critical praise this awards season and I’m happy to report it is well-earned. Zhao has proven she has a real gift working with the non-actors in her films, her previous effort The Rider was also comprised of non-professional actors. What might read as a gimmick to some is actually rooted in a deep empathy, which is on full display again with Nomadland, an intimate drama and character study set against the vastness of the American West. Leading us through this journey is the never-more-brilliant Frances McDormand, who recently lost everything in the recession, and must now live out of her van and travel between states due to economic desperation. We journey with her as she seeks work and meets people in the same situation as her and we hear their stories and their struggles. What adds to this strong emotional anchor is the fact that you know these people are real and they’re sharing this story, this piece of them, with all of us and the experience feels unbelievably special. 

To circle back to McDormand, she truly is incredible in this film. There aren’t many actors that can slip so seamlessly into this nomadic lifestyle that Zhao beautifully depicts. It’s not a big, showy role, nor a quietly morose one either; the way McDormand plays her character internalizing her sorrow and listening to these real-world struggles, is pitch-perfect. This is also one of the most beautifully shot films of the year. It serves as a poetic indictment of the economic system and corporate America, how it fails the underprivileged. There are shades of Kelly Reichardt in here in that respect, and really, what a perfect filmmaker for Zhao to be compared to.

#2: Mank

At first, I found it odd how polarizing the early reactions to David Fincher’s latest were, but after seeing it, I think I understand perfectly. This is a niche film, almost surprisingly so for big-name director David Fincher, and its particular brand (and blend) of historical minutiae and satirical slant may be lost on viewers or perhaps simply rub others the wrong way. The idea is simple enough, a character study of the man who penned the script for the canonical best film of all time. And yet it is the subtext and metatextual elements bubbling beneath the surface that make for this particular cocktail that hits hard but finishes smooth. The film is a rapid-fire mix of American politics, journalism, and a proto “making of” movie for the best film of all time. Featuring an again never better Gary Oldman as the titular Herman Mankiewicz, whose slow unraveling we follow as he pens his magnum opus and meets both new and familiar faces along the way. As is usual with Fincher, the film is a remarkable technical achievement, and the digital black and white still stuns. 

Though Oldman steals the show, there is inspired casting surrounding him throughout the film: Charles Dance, Lily Collins, Tom Burke, and Amanda Seyfried are all standouts. The film is frequently funny, with whip-smart dialogue firing off left and right. Many have been saying Jack Fincher “Out-Sorkin’d Aaron Sorkin”, but I preferred how I and my friend Zach put it — “Jack Fincher Wordplay level: MF DOOM” (which has now taken a new, sadder meaning. RIP DOOM.) This film is sharply directed, and wonderfully acted, as a funny, engaging, cynical look at the intersection of media, wealth, and politics. Imagine a world where David Fincher finally wins an Oscar the same night his father wins a Posthumous Oscar, doesn’t that sound beautiful?

*To read the site’s review of Mank, please click here.

#1: i’m thinking of ending things

Anyone who knows me could have predicted this as my number one. The only way it wouldn’t be is if Michael Haneke had a new film this year. I am an absolute thot for Charlie Kaufman and the way he meticulously builds his worlds and writes his characters. There are many strengths to his writing, but one through-line of note in all his work is how great he is at tugging at these deep internal and interpersonal issues and dynamics but expressing and externalizing them in his own unique way. In a way, all of his films deal with being stuck in your own head, a struggle with identity and meaning, and the intersection where all those thoughts meet. These strengths are on full display with his latest film. We follow Lucy who has been on the fence about breaking up with her fairly new boyfriend Jake. She has agreed to go on a road trip to meet his parents, however, and she ventures off to the secluded family farm. 

That Kaufman brand of what I’ll call “subtle surrealism” slowly creeps in as things begin to seem more and more off about his parents and the house. Kaufman is also great at depicting these smaller social discomforts and intricacies as well, which he plays up to 11 in this film. The film resembles living in a nightmare, but I also found it weirdly comedic. It’s the world’s worst date/meet the parents situation, and you (like the main character) want to escape its punishment. In that way it’s humorous while simultaneously feeling off-kilter and discomforting; that balance gives it a unique personality. The film can be considered alienating to some, with its reference-heavy dialogue and interpretability. However, their inclusion is exactly what makes watching and rewatching this film so rewarding. Kaufman’s meticulous attention to detail, foreshadowing, and reincorporation always breathe new life into the experiences of rewatching his work. 

One could say this film strikes familiar ground for Kaufman: you’ve got your intelligent, verbose, inner monologue-y lead, references and opinions on pop culture being fired off, themes about time and death; the whole shebang. Still, I found myself wrapped up in the performances and actively trying to decode what I was watching. What I found was a film filled with beauty in existential dread, sorrow in moments of bliss, and portrayal of thoughts beyond vulnerable. An incredible film from an incredible filmmaker.

*To read the site’s review of i’m thinking of ending things, please click here.


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2 comments

'Nomadland': Worth Every Ounce of Hype (and More) | MovieBabble March 11, 2021 - 12:11 pm

[…] the end of Nomadland, Chloe Zhao, laying all her cards on the table, tells us what her film is really […]

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Nick Kush January 10, 2021 - 7:13 pm

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