World of Reel‘s Jordan Ruimy is about to post the results of a Best of 2020 critic poll. (No filmmakers this time — just seasoned dweeb cineastes.) I’m seen the results but will reserve comment until Ruimy posts tomorrow (Friday, 7.10). Was I surprised by the #1 winner? Somewhat but not entirely. Let’s just say that the vote was to some extent political.
In this upside-down year a six-month assessment doesn’t carry the same weight as before. Award-consideration-wise 2020 won’t end until 2.28.21 — or just under eight months hence. A noteworthy percentage of possibly award-worthy films may open in January or February. So determining the best films released between January and June ’20 is merely a start.
Here are Hollywood Elsewhere’s top 2020 films, coming 10 days after the six-month mark. I’m clear on the top five or six, and the rest are surging or fading as the world turns. Oh, and by the way I’m not including Hamilton, good as it is, because it’s not a film but filmed theatre — a whole ‘nother deal.
HE’s top 2020 film is still J’Accuse (aka An Officer and a Spy), which I streamed in late March. My second favorite is still The King of Staten Island. My third, fourth, fifth and sixth favorites are Les Miserables, The Outpost, The Wild Goose Lake and Bad Education.
1. Roman Polanski‘s J’Accuse (An Officer and a Spy): [posted on 3.25.20] “J’Accuse has been crafted with absolute surgical genius…a lucid and exacting and spot-on retelling of an infamous episode of racial prejudice…a sublime atmospheric and textural recapturing of 1890s ‘belle epoque’ Paris, and such a meticulous, hugely engrossing reconstruction of the Dreyfus affair…a tale told lucidly…clue by clue, layer by layer. Pretty much a perfect film.
It’s absolutely criminal that more than 10 months after J’Accuse opened at the Venice Film Festival, this awesome drama can’t even be streamed. There’s apparently no disputing that Polanski behaved odiously with two or three women in the ‘70s, above and beyond the matter of Samantha Geimer. There’s nonetheless something fundamentally diseased about banning great art…about suppressing one of the sharpest and most exactingly reconstructed historical films ever made. The last time I checked many people were capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time. Brilliant film, personally flawed director — simple enough.
2. Judd Apatow and Pete Davidson‘s The King of Staten Island. [posted on 6.8.20] “A well-crafted film with heart and honesty and a relatable personality. And which ends…well, hopefully. You can say it’s too oddball fringe-y, too lower-depths, too submerged on its own weed planet and too caught up in nihilism and arrested development to connect with Joe and Jane Popcorn. Which I strongly disagree with. Because it’s funny and plain-spoken (if a bit dismaying at times) and it doesn’t back off from an unusual milieu and mentality, and certainly from Davidson‘s ‘Scott’, a layabout for the ages.”
3. Ladj Ly‘s Les Miserables (Amazon, opened in January,) [re-reviewed on 12.13.19]: “Ladj Ly‘s film is just as socially incisive as Bong Joon-ho‘s Parasite, and it has no insane story-logic issues. And a much better ending. It would be a major miscarriage of artistic justice if Les Miserables doesn’t at least emerge as one of the Best International Feature Oscar nominees.”
4. Rod Lurie‘s The Outpost [reviewed 3.6.30] — “A U.S. forces-vs.-the-Taliban war flick based on Jake Tapper’s book, The Outpost is a rousing, highly emotional drill into another tough battle that actually happened, and another example of the kind of combat flick to which we’ve all become accustomed — one in which the U.S. forces get their asses kicked and barely survive.”
5. Diao Yinan‘s The Wild Goose Lake. [posted on 2.13.20] “In my humble opinion, Diao Yinan‘s The Wild Goose Lake is one of the most visually inventive, brilliantly choreographed noir thrillers I’ve ever seen. One of them surely. I probably haven’t felt this knocked out, this on-the-floor, this ‘holy shit’-ified by sheer directorial audacity and musicality since Alfonso Cuaron‘s Children of Men.”
6. Cory Finley and Mike Makowski‘s Bad Education [posted on 4.28.20]: “HBO’s Bad Education is a somewhat riveting, fact-based drama about a bizarre heist in plain sight. The focus is the infamous Roslyn embezzlement scandal of the early aughts. But I couldn’t get it up when I tried to write about it. This was because I couldn’t quite comprehend the insanely self-destructive acts of administrative thievery that this film is…well, partly about. It’s also about the generally insane notion that living high on the hog is everything in life, and that all you need to sleep through this kind of brazen flim-flamming is a little vial of denial.”
Approvable with Mild Reservations:
7. Gavin O’Connor and Ben Affleck‘s The Way Back. [posted on 3.4.20] “Last Friday I mentioned something I’d heard about Gavin O’Connor and Ben Affleck‘s The Way Back, a sports redemption drama about an alcoholic basketball coach. The thing that I heard (and that I shared) is that ‘it’s not Hoosiers.’ I saw it the night before last, and it isn’t.
“But you know what? In some ways Brad Inglesby‘s script is as dramatically reputable as Hoosiers — it’s rooted in a real, recognizable, occasionally unfair world of fundamentally decent but occasionally flawed people. And O’Connor’s direction is respectably lean and dutiful, pared-to-the-bone and bullshit-free. And Affleck’s lead performance…well, he certainly knows what it’s like to be a middle-aged drunk, doesn’t he? That authority and experience filter through. The cynicism, the swearing, the hair-trigger eruptions, the lethargy.
“The film itself is definitely decent. Not levitational but sturdy. I’m giving it an eight. Not an eight-point-five but an honest eight.”
8. Spike Lee‘s Da 5 Bloods (Netflix): “A ghost-ridden Vietnam adventure flick, set in the present but tethered to the past, basically a tangle of echoes, memories and associations that are kicking around in Spike’s head. Reviews have been highly favorable. I got it — and It didn’t leave me in an itchy or irritated place. Decent film. No major issues.”
9. Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always. [reviewed on 3.9.20] “A respectable effort — spare, direct, quietly affecting. But it holds back a lot, and is basically buried within itself. That makes it a sad experience on one level, but on another it feels too spare, too closed off. It overuses the less-is-more aesthetic. Hittman tells you what you need to know, but at the same time as little as possible.”
10. Ken Loach‘s Sorry We Missed You. “A sad and straightforward film that addresses the anguish of working-class, gig-economy Brits being squeezed by heartless employers and corporations. I found it merely sufficient.”
11. Leigh Whannell‘s The Invisible Man. [reviewed on 2.6.20] “A reasonably well-made if somewhat rote and occasionally boring horror-thriller with a feminist slant. It’s basically a serving of calculated exploitation aimed at the #MeToo peanut gallery. It’s okay to shrug and call this piece of Blumhouse sausage a half-decent if uninspired genre exercise, but any critic who gives it an enthusiastic hug is being a political suck-up, trust me. Nobody wants to dismiss a B-grade thriller that takes the side of a terrified if resourceful ex-wife (in this instance the sweaty, stressed-out, baggy-eyed Elizabeth Moss) trying to survive a campaign of terror by an invisible ex-husband. The deal is this: If you don’t like it you’re somehow unsympathetic to the cause so everyone ‘likes’ it. Safer that way.”
12. Andrew Patterson‘s The Vast of Night. Interesting ’50s spooker but lacking in story tension and rather slow, and finally underwhelming. Not a bad film but way overpraised.
Remainder: Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles‘ Bacarau (ultra-violent Brazilian social allegory), Kantamir Balagov‘s Beanpole (“How intense is Beanpole? How invested, how richly composed, how well acted, how Klimovian, how Kubrickian, how immersive? ‘Very’ on all counts. A psychological survival tale set in Leningrad just after the ravages of World War II, it’s probably the fiercest and darkest post-war drama made in the 21st Century”). Crip Camp (didn’t see it). The Assistant (ditto). Kelly Reichardt‘s First Cow (watching it now…no comment). And you can have the rest.