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: Jewish prayer song, stolen paintings, graphic novels by John Lewis, and new VCS videos

SONG: “Ahavat Olam”: Back in April the Platt Brothers—Jonah, Henry, and Ben—posted a home-recorded video of themselves singing this traditional Jewish prayer arranged by Gabriel Mann and Piper Rutman. (I know actor-singer Ben Platt from The Politician, which is probably how the video came to be recommended to me by YouTube!)

It stoked a lot of public enthusiasm, so on September 21 they released a studio recording, available for streaming and download from all major music platforms.

A translation of the Hebrew is as follows:

With an eternal love have You loved your people Israel, by teaching us the Torah and its commandments, laws, and precepts. Therefore, Adonai our God, we shall meditate on Your laws when we lie down and when we rise up, and we shall rejoice in the words of Your Torah and Your commandments forever. For they are our life and the length of our days, and we shall reflect upon them day and night.

O may You never remove Your love from us. Blessed are You, Adonai, Who loves your people Israel. [source]

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PIANO CONCERTO: Tomás de Merlo by Xavier Beteta: In February 2014 six religious paintings by the early eighteenth-century Guatemalan painter Tomás de Merlo were stolen from a church in Antigua. Although the thieves have been caught, the paintings have disappeared into the black market and have likely been smuggled out of the country. Wanting to preserve the essence of the paintings in music, Guatemalan composer Xavier Beteta wrote a piano concerto whose three movements, titled after the stolen paintings, are “La Oración en el Huerto” (The Prayer in the Garden), “La Piedad” (The Pietà), and “El Rey de Burlas” (The Mocking of Christ). Beteta said he may eventually compose three additional movements, one for each of the other three lost paintings.

Tomás de Merlo (Guatemalan, 1694–1739), El Rey de Burlas (aka La Coronación de Espinas), 1737

Last year the Camellia Symphony Orchestra in Sacramento, California, premiered the concerto. Listen to excerpts, interspersed with interview clips of the composer by Josh Rodriguez, in the video below—which is itself excerpted from the Deus Ex Musica podcast episode “How Stolen Sacred Paintings Inspired a New Piano Concerto.”

See photos of the other paintings at https://www.soy502.com/articulo/capturan-dos-robo-valiosas-obras-iglesia-calvario.

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DOCUMENTARY: The Painter and the Thief (2020), dir. Benjamin Ree: A story of crime and trauma, love and redemption, this documentary follows Oslo-based Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova as she confronts one of the men, Karl-Bertil Nordland, who stole two of her most prized paintings. A mutual friendship develops, and it’s so beautiful to watch.

What I love about the film is how it captures the rehabilitation of both subjects—in a way that honors the complexity, the nonlinearity of that process—and the role art can play in healing. “Barbar” forgives “the Bertilizer” and helps him on his road to sobriety, and he helps her access deep parts of herself and come to grips with the history of abuse she’s suffered. They become, in a sense, each other’s muses. His stunned, tearful reaction when he sees the first portrait she paints of him melted me—someone sees him for the first time.

With documentaries I always wonder who’s the person making it and why. I had cynically assumed the project was instigated by the artist to try to vitalize her career, but no, the filmmaker, who has had an ongoing interest in art theft, contacted Kysilkova after reading about the gallery break-in in the news. As is true with most documentarians, he had no idea when he started filming that the story would evolve the way it did and shift genres, and even become feature-length. Streaming on Hulu.

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INTERVIEW: In 2016 Adelle M. Banks of the Religion News Service interviewed Rep. John Lewis about the National Book Award–winning graphic novel trilogy March, the role of music and religious faith in the civil rights movement, protest (and getting into “good trouble”) as a form of Christian ministry, the urgent need for the church to be a headlight, not a taillight, and more.

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VCS VIDEO EXHIBITION SERIES: The Visual Commentary on Scripture [previously] is an online, open-access resource for those looking to explore the biblical text through art. For every passage of scripture, an art historian, artist, theologian, media theorist, or other is solicited to select and comment on three art images that illuminate the text in some way. The site’s typical format is written commentaries, but by way of experimentation, the VCS has just released video commentaries instead for four new texts. Ben Quash comments on the story of Lot’s Wife through the lens of an early English stained glass panel, a Flemish Renaissance landscape, and a stunning photograph taken after the Allied bombing of Dresden. For Belshazzar’s Feast from the book of Daniel, Michelle Fletcher is guided by paintings from the Dutch Golden Age and the English Romantic period, which she juxtaposes with a contemporary room installation. But here I’ll highlight the videos for two New Testament passages.

The Burial of Christ, with commentary by Italian Renaissance art expert Jennifer Sliwka [previously], covers Andrea Mantegna’s innovatively foreshortened Christ on a marble slab; an altarpiece painting by Michelangelo, in which Christ’s dead body is held up for display, evoking the presentation of the eucharistic host; and a contemporary Pietà, of sorts, by Swiss artist Urs Fischer, which involves a skeleton and a fountain.

Michelle Fletcher, a feminist scholar and specialist on the book of Revelation, comments on the controversial apocalyptic figure known as The Whore of Babylon, which she discusses as a symbol of a city, as a satirization of the goddess Roma, and as bequeathing a legacy of vilification of prostitutes. Fletcher selected a didactic painting by street evangelist Robert Roberg, an ancient Roman coin, and William Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress.