My Favorite Films of 2020, Part 1

I’m a big cinephile, but because I’m not sure how to write about films for an Art & Theology audience, you may not know that about me! Anyway, I wanted to share my top twenty films from last year (all released in the US in 2020). For each I’ll give a brief description and comments, followed by the trailer. If they’re streaming for “free” through a subscription service, I’ve noted which one; otherwise, most are available for online rental, or you might also check to see if your local library has a DVD copy. A few are showing in select theaters.

Because so many big-budget blockbuster films had their releases delayed because of COVID (reliant, as they are, on theatrical releases), it has given the chance for smaller-scale, quieter films to come to the fore—which are usually the type I enjoy most anyway. I like films that are character-driven and/or that make me feel something. As I’ve said before, watching films grows our capacity for empathy, as we encounter characters from different backgrounds and in different situations and are given the opportunity to see things through their eyes.  

In this list, which I will complete in a second post tomorrow, the characters include a new member of the deaf community who’s struggling to come to terms with his disability, a Midwestern farmer of Korean vegetables and a pair of entrepreneurial Pac Northwest settlers (new homes, new ventures), a widow who’s out of work and houseless, a survivor of domestic violence, a daughter walking with her dad through a debilitating illness, a London teenager forced to take on adult responsibilities but bolstered up by a strong sisterhood, a crime victim whose forgiveness of her perpetrator initiates healing in multiple directions, a young employee let down by her company and debating whether to make moral compromises to keep her job, a middle school teacher with other career aspirations, a struggling playwright whose race pigeonholes her in the industry, and a refugee couple settling into a new country with a huge weight of grief. Whether the contexts are near or far from our own, we bear witness to these characters’ journeys, attending to their fears and traumas, their stresses and disappointments, their joys and triumphs.

As you’ll see, it’s been a fantastic year for women filmmakers!

1. Sound of Metal, directed by Darius Marder; written by Darius Marder and Abraham Marder: When Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a thrash-metal drummer, loses his hearing, he’s in danger of relapsing into substance abuse, so with the support of his girlfriend (Olivia Cooke), he checks in to a home for deaf people recovering from addiction. Ruben is a fixer and is obsessed with control, and his immediate and persistent impulse upon experiencing hearing loss is to pursue an expensive corrective surgery so that he can return to life as usual. The film’s sound design, which lets us hear the muffled noises Ruben is hearing, helps us better feel his frustration.

The film is about Ruben learning how to be deaf. It’s about disappointment, acceptance, and self-knowledge, and the crucial role community plays in helping us cope with or achieve those things. Against his wishes, Ruben enters a world completely alien to him. He has to learn sign language and how to make new relationships. It’s beautiful to see Ruben’s perspective slowly shift as he learns to regard deafness not as a handicap but as a way of life, a culture.

Stream on Amazon Prime.

2. Minari, written and directed Lee Isaac Chung: In this semiautobiographical film set in the 1980s, a Korean immigrant family moves from California to Arkansas, where the father, Jacob (Steven Yeun), wants to break out of the chicken sexing industry and start his own produce farm. (He says he wants his children to see him succeed at something.) As the Yis put down roots in the rugged Ozarks and prepare and plant the large plot of land they’ve bought, they encounter typical struggles, on top of which is the heart condition of their young son, David (played by the adorable Alan Kim, whose interviews light me up every time!). They end up flying in grandma Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn) from Korea to help with childcare, and David has difficulties connecting with her because she doesn’t match his idea of an American grandma.

The American Dream, biculturalism, marriage, and family are key themes in Minari.

3. Nomadland, written and directed by Chloé Zhao (based on the nonfiction book by Jessica Bruder): When the gypsum plant in the company town of Empire, Nevada, shuts down during the Great Recession in 2011, the entire town is shuttered, its zip code discontinued, and its residents displaced. Fern (Frances McDormand), a recent widow in her sixties, is one of them. She sells most of her possessions and heads west in her van, searching for work wherever it’s available, and finding connection—with people, with the land—along the way.

The film explores the growing subculture of “workampers,” or, as they more commonly call themselves, nomads—people who, either for a sense of adventure or because of deteriorated economic circumstances, lead itinerant lives, following temporary work. It blurs the line between drama and documentary, as most of the cast, including Linda May and Charlene Swankie, are nonactors playing versions of themselves. Their real-life stories heavily informed the script.

Stream on Hulu.

4. Dick Johnson Is Dead, directed by Kirsten Johnson: A joyous and uplifting documentary in which the filmmaker confronts the impending death of her father, who has dementia. I wrote about it here.

Stream on Netflix.

5. First Cow, directed by Kelly Reichardt; written by Jon Raymond: I’m not typically a fan of westerns, but this one hooked me. Set in the Oregon Territory of the 1820s, it follows Otis, known as Cookie (John Magaro), a lowly cook for a band of trappers, and King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant wanted for murder. The two meet at a trading post, and a friendship develops, which constitutes the core of the film. (Its epigraph is a quote by William Blake: “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.”)

The film is also a subtle critique of capitalism. When a local official buys a cow, the first in the territory, the enterprising King-Lu hatches a plan for him and Cookie to steal milk from it each night so that they can make “oily cakes” (fried dough) to sell. It’s either exploit or be exploited, King-Lu reasons.

6. Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always, written and directed by Eliza Hittman: At the beginning of the film, seventeen-year-old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) learns she is pregnant, but she can’t obtain an abortion in Pennsylvania without parental consent. So her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) accompanies her to New York City, where the abortion can be performed without that restriction, to support her through the trauma.

When Autumn is interviewed by a counselor at the Planned Parenthood clinic in New York about an hour into the film, it’s one of the first times we see her, usually so reserved, exhibit emotion—and laudably, Flanigan plays this moment without an ounce of melodrama. “Has a partner ever refused to use protection?” “Has a partner ever been violent?” “Have you ever been forced into a sexual act?” (She is asked to respond to each question with one of the four answers in the film’s title.) Here we learn how little of her sexual history has been in her control.

Though reviews of and promotions for the film have tended to focus on the importance of “a woman’s right to choose,” you don’t have to be an abortion supporter (I’m not) to appreciate this film. It’s not very polemical. It’s simply a portrait of one girl’s experience, and it’s painted with such tenderness and realism.

Stream on HBO Max.

7. The Painter and the Thief, directed by Benjamin Ree: A documentary about the unlikely friendship between a Czech artist and the man who stole two of her paintings and then lost them on the black market. I wrote about it here.

Stream on Hulu.

8. The Assistant, written and directed by Kitty Green: One of several to come out in the wake of the #MeToo movement, this film is uncomfortable from start to finish—intentionally so. It’s a different kind of thriller, the dread building every banal scene after the next as Jane (Julia Garner), a recently hired assistant to a Hollywood studio executive, goes about her daily work routine and starts discovering some serious abuses of power in the company that target young women. The monster boss, who is never seen, is clearly modeled after Harvey Weinstein. Not much “happens” in The Assistant, but it succeeds in conveying a sense of being trapped in a corrupt system of misogyny, and it reveals how easy it is for those who witness particular offenses to keep quiet in order to protect their careers.

Stream on Hulu.

9. Emma, directed by Autumn de Wilde; written by Eleanor Catton, based on the novel by Jane Austen: “In 1800s England, a well-meaning but selfish young woman meddles in the love lives of her friends”—and learns a lesson. I loved the 2009 film adaptation of this classic novel that stars Romola Garai (she is still my favorite Emma), and the 1996 version with Gwyneth Paltrow is also much celebrated, so I didn’t think there was need for another attempt. But I thoroughly enjoyed this, with Anya Taylor-Joy (of The Queen’s Gambit) playing the title role. Austen was a humorist, and her comedic flair comes across with great effect here. A few things that stand out to me when compared to previous adaptations are the excellent soundtrack (which includes English folk hymns) and the likability of Harriet (Mia Goth), who is given a little more dimensionality than usual.

Stream on HBO Max.

10. Rocks, directed by Sarah Gavron; written by Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson: A celebration of young female friendship that’s tested when one in the group, nicknamed Rocks (Bukky Bakray), is abandoned by her mother, her only parent, leaving her to care for her little brother. Rocks struggles to take care of meals, bills, apartment upkeep, and childcare while still attending high school, and she also struggles, initially, with letting anyone in, with accepting help. She eventually confides in her best friend Sumaya (Kosar Ali), and she and others then rally around Rocks to offer support, though they disagree on what is best, and it leads to some fallout. The film shows the resilience of the plucky and determined Rocks and the immense value of having friends to see you through hard times. The relationship between Rocks, a Nigerian Christian, and Sumaya, a Somali Muslim, is especially poignant; the actors’ chemistry is a joy to watch.

Stream on Netflix.

Read part 2 of my top-twenty list.

Roundup: Jesus as Dancer, The Daily Prayer Project, ethnoarts in Indonesia, and more

BLOG POST: “Jesus as Dancer: Jyoti Sahi’s ‘Lord of Creation’” by Victoria Emily Jones: I wrote a guest post for the Sojourn Arts blog about a gouache I own by Indian artist Jyoti Sahi, which shows Jesus leading the dance of new creation. On one side he pounds a drum, and on the other he emerges from a lotus. The painting brings together Jyoti’s interests in Christian and Hindu theologies and folk symbolism.

Sahi, Jyoti_Lord of Creation
Jyoti Sahi (Indian, 1944–), Lord of Creation, 1982. Gouache on paper, 14 3/4 × 20 in. Collection of Victoria Emily Jones.

Sojourn Arts is a ministry of Sojourn Church Midtown in Louisville, Kentucky, that seeks to support artists and build up the church through the arts. They have organized and/or hosted numerous exhibitions over the years and have commissioned temporary installations for their sanctuary, as well as coordinated community art projects. Visit www.sojourn-arts.com.

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THE DAILY PRAYER PROJECT: This fall I joined the team at the Daily Prayer Project as curator of visual art. The Daily Prayer Project is a periodical that covers every season of the Christian year with robust, rooted, and cross-cultural liturgies for use in congregations, households, workplaces, small groups, or other gatherings. Released in seven editions per year, it features daily morning and evening prayer guides for the week, which include Psalm, Old Testament, and New Testament readings; short prayers sourced from around the globe and from different eras; specific prayer prompts; and songs (including lead sheets). In addition to the cover image, there is a mini-gallery of two art images inside, reproduced in full color, to serve as visual prompts for further contemplation and prayer. There is also a section called “The Practices,” with two page-long seasonal reflections by staff members or guest contributors.

The Advent 2020 issue of the DPP, covering November 29 through December 24, was released last week. It features prayers by African American civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer, the tenth-century English saint Ethelwold, and others; a Hebrew folk song, a Taizé chant, and an Argentine hymn by Federico J. Pagura; a striking cover image by Hilary Siber, which shows heaven coming down to earth; Charles White’s Prophet I, which resonates with passages from Isaiah; and an apocalyptic paper collage by Nicora Gangi.

The periodical is available as a physical booklet or as a PDF download. Visit the website for more information. If you are an artist and are interested in having your work considered for publication in a future prayerbook, email team@dailyprayerproject.com.

DPP Advent 2020 interior

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VIDEO: “Local Riches: Ethnoarts and Sumba”: A workshop for churches on the island of Sumba in Indonesia, led by Yayasan Suluh Insan Lestari in July 2019, reinforced that God is best honored, and the global body of Christ built up, when people worship God using their unique cultural and linguistic gifts, bringing their whole, authentic selves before him in praise. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

For centuries many Christian missionaries to other countries brought with them Western hymns and images, presenting them as definitive—as forms that alone are good and pleasing to God. (For example, a woman in the video mentions how she had previously thought that worship songs had to be based on Western scales and performed using certain instruments to be acceptable.) But in the last fifty or so years especially, at least from what I’ve noticed, many missionaries have recognized the falsity of this line of thinking and seek to undo negative conditioning by promoting the use of indigenous artistic expressions (sometimes called “ethnoarts”) in Christian worship, be it dance, drama, music, storytelling, carving, or what have you. I found it interesting that the interviewees seem to suggest that now it’s the forces of modernism that most threaten the survival of traditional cultures, whereas it used to be that the church was largely blamed (missionaries did undeniably play a large part, banning this and that, though in every era there were exceptions to the rule). Now the church is at the forefront of trying to preserve not only traditional languages but also traditional art forms.

“Everything we have was created by God, and we need to return to it with gratefulness because this is how God made us!” says Rev. Herlina of the Christian Church of Sumba. “With whatever we already have, we can be a blessing to our people.”

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NEW ART SERIES: “Organic, Sunrise Gradients Mask Front Pages of the New York Times by Artist Sho Shibuya”: Since the lockdown started in March, Brooklyn-based artist and graphic designer Sho Shibuya has been painting color gradients in acrylic over the front pages of the New York Times, inspired by each morning’s sunrise. He calls the series “Sunrises from a Small Window.” I love how he’s able to express gratitude for a beautiful new day and to access calm amid dire news cycles. Shibuya is still reading those headlines and articles; he’s just putting them in a larger perspective. (As for myself, call me escapist, but I’ve found that actually blocking out the news—turning down the noise—for certain periods can be a helpful spiritual practice.)

Sho Shibuya, Sunrises from a Small Window, June 22–28, 2020. Acrylic on newsprint.

“I started . . . contrasting the anxiety of the news with the serenity of the sky, creating a record of my new normal,” Shibuya says. “Their front page has always been a time capsule of a day in history, so it made sense to use history as the canvas because the paintings are meant to capture a moment in time. . . . The spirit of the project is that maybe, even after the pandemic subsides, people can continue some of the generosity and peace we discovered in ourselves and that the sky reminds us of every day with a sunrise through a small window. If one thing the news has made clear, we need generosity and peace for all people now more than ever.”

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TWO FILMS: “Death on Netflix: I’m Thinking of Ending Things and Dick Johnson Is Dead by Mitch Wiley: I really liked both these cinematic reflections on mortality, but they’re completely different, as this short Gospel Coalition article bears out. Dick Johnson Is Dead is the more “Christian” of the two because of its hopeful perspective—the human subject of the film is a Seventh-Day Adventist, so death for him is not a final end. After her father was diagnosed with dementia, filmmaker Kirsten Johnson asked her dad if he’d be interested in a collaborative film project where, to help them both face the inevitable, she would stage his death in inventive and comical ways. Relishing the opportunity to spend more time with his busy daughter, he enthusiastically agreed.

The documentary shows them preparing and carrying out these stunts but also interacting in other contexts—birthday parties, trick-or-treating, looking through old photo albums, cleaning out Dick’s office, Dick’s being asked to give up driving, and so on. It made me laugh and cry—films that can do both tend to rate highly on my favorites list. There’s so much love and warmth and heartache and whimsy in it as father and daughter confront death together, talking very openly about it, which I found, strange as it may seem, refreshing. Oh, and the heaven sequences just may be the best I’ve ever seen.

For a more cynical take on death, here’s the trailer to I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman isn’t for everyone, but I’m still thinking about this movie after watching it a month ago, which means it made an impression!):

Seeing and Believing, a Christ and Pop Culture podcast, covered Ending Things and Dick Johnson in episodes 264 and 266, respectively, as have most other film podcasts and reviewers, with Dick Johnson being uniformly lauded as one of the best movies of the year.

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SONG: “Hodu” (Give Thanks), performed by the Platt Brothers: The Platt Brothers [previously] singing scripture to me? Yes, please. The text of this song is Psalm 118:1–4, and the music is by Debbie Friedman (1951–2011), a Jewish singer-songwriter whose songs are used widely in Reform and Conservative Jewish liturgies in North America. Friedman’s “Hodu” was originally released on her 1981 album And the Youth Shall See Visions. (Find sheet music here.)

In this video from earlier this month, Henry, Jonah, and Ben Platt sing “Hodu” to a guitar accompaniment by Al Seller.

Hodu l’Adonai kitov
Ki l’olam chasdo, ki l’oam chasdo
Yomar na, yomar na, Yisraeil
Ki l’olam chasdo, ki l’olam chasdo
Yomru na, yomru na veit Aharon
Ki l’olam chasdo, ki l’olam chasdo

Let all who revere G-d’s name now say
Ki l’olam chasdo
Give thanks to the Lord for G-d is good
Ki l’olam chasdo

The first time the Platt Brothers performed in public as a trio was this April, when they appeared in a virtual Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration at the request of the Jewish Federations of North America, singing “Ahavat Olam.” Ben and Jonah are musical theater performers: Ben originated the title role in Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen and won a Tony for it, and Jonah is best known for playing Fiyero in Wicked on Broadway from 2015 to 2016. Henry is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, where’s he’s a member of the a cappella group Counterparts.