Here’s the second half of my top-twenty list of 2020 films; view part 1 here.
11. The Forty-Year-Old Version, written and directed Radha Blank: Radha plays a fictionalized version of herself in this feature debut of hers, a thoughtful blend of comedy and drama that’s intricate and fresh. Her character is a New York City playwright who, desperate for a breakthrough before turning forty, decides to reinvent herself as rapper RadhaMUSPrime. The film addresses the arts industry’s sometimes stifling expectations of Black artists, which has in its mind what the Black experience (as if there were only one) needs to look like. Producers, for example, want Radha’s Black characters to talk and act a certain way and to fit into a particular storyline, and they try to convince her to make adjustments to her writing to make her plays more palatable to white audiences, who comprise the bulk of ticket sales.
With humor and insight, Blank explores this struggle along with, more broadly, middle-age Black womanhood, which includes for her, in addition to navigating career roadblocks, the experiences of losing a parent, finding human connection, and learning a new art form.
Stream on Netflix.
12. Promising Young Woman, written and directed by Emerald Fennell: I have mixed feelings about revenge thrillers, which ask viewers to root for vindictive outcomes. But this one, though it takes up certain tropes of the genre, subverts others. “We’re used to the idea of a violent journey, but I wanted to look at how a real woman might take revenge, and I had an idea that it would be kind of tricky and malevolent and existentially threatening, rather than something more run-of-the-mill and AK-47 based,” said first-time writer-director Emerald Fennell (who I know as Patsy from Call the Midwife, and you might know as Camilla from The Crown!).
Having dropped out of medical school following the rape of her best friend Nina, Cassie (Carey Mulligan) has developed a compulsive desire to teach “nice guys” who take advantage of women a lesson. She feigns drunkenness in clubs on a regular basis, and when a man inevitably takes her back to his home and gets handsy, he is in for a harrowing confrontation. A critique of rape culture, in which having nonconsensual sex with drunk women is normalized, trivialized, and excused, the film shows how not all rapists are obvious creeps; a lot of them are “normal,” seemingly caring individuals who are thus almost always given the benefit of the doubt over their accusers.
13. Soul, directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers; written by Pete Docter, Mike Jones, and Kemp Powers: Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) is a part-time middle-school band teacher in New York City who does side gigs as a jazz pianist. Music is his passion. At the beginning of the film, though, he dies suddenly and then inadvertently stumbles off the skyway escalator to the Great Beyond, landing in the “Great Before,” where preincarnate souls are waiting to be born. There he’s enlisted to mentor an ornery soul named 22 (voiced by Tina Fey), who doesn’t want to go to Earth, which she imagines is just all dirty and bad. But when she mistakenly ends up in Joe’s body and lives his life for a day, she finds such wonder in it—a fresh haircut, twirling maple seeds, the smell and taste of pizza, the thrill of riding the subway or of putting on a sharp-looking suit, laughter and camaraderie. I’m reminded in some ways of Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire (1987), in which an angel longs to experience life in the physical world.
Soul is a celebration of the inherent goodness of life, despite its challenges and disappointments; it’s about finding joy in the ordinary, and purpose wherever we’re at. It subverts the cultural narrative that every human being has a single defining “purpose in life,” that each one is “born to (fill in the blank).” Instead, it acknowledges that passions can evolve and change (for example, the barber Dez used to want to be a veterinarian), and that several can coexist alongside one another. And while passions can fuel us, they alone are not our reason for living.
Stream on Disney+.
14. Another Round, directed by Thomas Vinterberg; written by Thomas Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm: In this dramedy from Denmark, four middle-age men who teach at a high school test the hypothesis that maintaining a constant blood alcohol concentration of 0.05% will improve their quality of life by making them more relaxed, self-confident, open, fun to be around, and better at their jobs. But when their experiment gets out of hand, there are consequences on marriage and career.
Though centered on intoxication and male friendship, this is no slapstick buddy comedy, nor is it a one-note cautionary tale against the perils of excessive drinking. It both celebrates the joys of losing yourself in drink and also shows how punishing regular overindulgence can be. Still, the finale is amazingly exuberant and life-affirming—and gives a chance for Martin’s (Mads Mikkelsen) “jazz ballet” to finally come out!
Stream on Hulu.
15. Driveways, directed by Andrew Ahn; written by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen: I’m a sucker for the “unlikely friendships” genre, and this one is so well done. When single mom Kathy (Hong Chau) and her shy eight-year-old son Cody (Lucas Jaye) move into the house of her recently deceased sister, Cody befriends an elderly white war veteran and widower named Del (Brian Dennehy), who lives next-door. They bring each other out of their shells.
Stream on Showtime.
16. The Invisible Man, written and directed by Leigh Whannell: The Invisible Man is based loosely on the classic H. G. Wells sci-fi horror novel of the same name, in which an optical scientist invents chemicals capable of rendering bodies invisible and then uses this discovery to execute a reign of terror. Whannell brings the story into our present time and centers it on the terror of domestic abuse and its machinations—financial, physical, and emotional control—and especially of not being believed about said abuse. In Whannell’s version, Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) finally succeeds, it would seem, in escaping her abusive live-in boyfriend, multimillionaire tech genius Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). She then learns of his suicide and feels immense relief but soon starts to suspect it is a hoax. Her suspicions are confirmed when she is repeatedly stalked and tormented by an “invisible man.” Because the police and even her friends and family think she’s crazy, she’s forced to take matters into her own hands.
Stream on HBO Max.
17. Blow the Man Down, written and directed by Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy: Set in a New England coastal town, this dark comedy crime thriller follows sisters Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor) and Priscilla (Sophie Lowe) Connolly in their attempt to cover up a gruesome run-in with a dangerous man. Along the way they are exposed more and more to the town’s underbelly, which includes, as I heard one reviewer refer to it as, a “beauty parlor mafia”!
Stream on Amazon Prime.
18. Mank, directed by David Fincher; written by Jack Fincher: I’m a huge fan of Citizen Kane, so this drama about the writing of its first draft by the witty Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) was really enjoyable for me, not least because it’s full of visual references to Kane! Orson Welles is officially credited as cowriter of Kane, as he heavily revised Mankiewicz’s script, but Mank argues that Welles’s screenwriting contributions were negligible, and that Mankiewicz deserves more credit for the success of Kane than he has typically been given.
The film gives a glimpse into the 1930s Hollywood studio system in all its glamor and corruption and shows the real-life inspirations for the characters of Charles Foster Kane and Susan Alexander Kane: newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and his young mistress, the actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried).
Stream on Netflix.
19. His House, written and directed by Remi Weekes: This haunted-house film uses the supernatural to explore the specters of the refugee experience. Married couple Bol and Rial Majur (played by Sope Dirisu and Wunmi Mosaku) have made a harrowing escape from war-torn South Sudan, but they struggle to adjust to their new life in England, as ghosts have followed them there.
Stream on Netflix.
20. Young Ahmed, written and directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne: Under the influence of a radical imam, a Belgian teenager (Idir Ben Addi) embraces an extremist interpretation of the Quran, which spurs him to a heinous act. He is taken to a rehabilitation center, where staff try to loosen the grip of his zealotry and help him develop a truer, healthier practice of Islam.
Stream on Kanopy.