10 of the best films from 2020

In 2020, Covid-19 had a devastating impact on the film industry and turned thousands of American theaters into dark, empty spaces that no longer generated income or sustained jobs. Last week, Warner Bros. released the superhero film “Wonder Woman 1984” simultaneously in theaters, which have since closed again, and on its streaming service HBO Max, where it is presumably helping attract subscribers.
Almost immediately after theaters were forced to close by the pandemic, many of them, the historic Coolidge Corner in Brookline and Brattle in Cambridge included, offered new releases in “virtual screening rooms” on their websites. If you watch films offered through these venues, the theaters receive a percentage of the ticket sales, helping keep them alive. HBO, Amazon and Netflix filled the gap by offering new releases such as “Mank,” “I’m Your Woman” and “Let Them All Talk” to their subscribers. Foreign-language and indie films migrated to VOD.
But nothing compares to sitting in a large, if not enormous space full of enthusiastic strangers and sharing the experience of seeing a film on a genuine, if not supersized movie screen. I want my IMAX back. In spite of all the turmoil, some great films opened this year, a few before the pandemic hit. Here are 10 of them.
“Mangrove” The first installment in Academy Award-winner Steve McQueen’s five episode “Small Axe” series of films on Amazon, “Mangrove” is based on the true story of the Mangrove Nine, a group of Black British men and women unjustly tried for inciting a riot in the Notting Hill area of London in 1970. The film is anchored by a brilliant and fiery turn by Shaun Parkes (“Lost in Space”) as real-life restaurant owner Frank Crichlow, whose establishment is both a West Indian community landmark in 1970s London and a target for constant, racist police raids.
“Mank” David Fincher’s silvery black-and-white adaptation of his father Jack Fincher’s screenplay is a love letter to “Citizen Kane” and its legendary scribe Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), a genius and alcoholic who took on one of the country’s most powerful men, newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), the real-life basis for the “fictional” and deeply flawed Charles Foster Kane. The film is a tribute to Hollywood at one of the greatest times in cinema history. As Marion Davies, Hearst’s movie star mistress, Amanda Seyfried has never been better.
Amanda Seyfried and Gary Oldman in the movie “Mank.” (Netflix/TNS)
“The Father” French novelist and playwright Florian Zeller makes a stunning directing debut, adapting his own stage play to the screen with the great Anthony Hopkins in the title role. “The Father” is a dark and terrifying portrait of a mind succumbing to dementia. Hopkins turns the film’s protagonist, a father who sometimes imagines people and things and has trouble remembering details, into a modern-day King Lear, railing at family members and the indignities of old age. Academy Award-winner Olivia Coleman shines as this film’s Goneril. As “Variety” observed, it’s “The Shining” by Harold Pinter.
“Beanpole” Thirty-year-old writer-director and Cannes award-winner Kantemir Balagov, a student of Aleksandr Sokurov (“Russian Ark”), delivers a staggering sophomore-effort with this post-WWII Leningrad-set tale of people struggling to survive and coping with tragedy. “Beanpole” is a descent into the real-world madness of war, a place where life is cheap, a city has been ravaged and a hospital is another circle of hell. The only flicker of light in the film’s darkness is a bond between two severely damaged young women.
Viktoria Miroshnichenko in a scene from ‘Beanpole,’ courtesy Kino Lorber
“City Hall” Boston’s nonfiction filmmaking wizard, the legendary Frederick Wiseman, 90, turns his cameras on the city of Boston and Mayor Marty Walsh, and after a four-hour marathon of watching the daily business of the city, one realizes what a miracle it all is. Everything from the mysteries of housing, parking and sanitation to the mayor’s state of the city address at Symphony Hall is recorded. “City Hall” is a portrait of democracy in action at a time when democracy itself is in peril.
Mayor Marty Walsh in Frederick Wiseman’s ‘City Hall’
“Pinocchio” Italian filmmaker Matteo Garrone takes Carlo Collodi’s classic story of a wooden puppet (Federico Iellapi), who yearns to become a real boy, and forges a darkly brilliant picaresque tale of a flawed child’s constant struggle in a notably cruel world. Academy Award winner Roberto Benigni is worth his weight in gold as Geppetto. The choice of foregoing CGI and using prosthetic make-up pays dividends. “Pinocchio” recalls the art of book illustration at its most magical.
“Minari” A classic drama about a South Korean immigrant married couple (Steve Yeun and Han Ye-ri, both excellent) in the American Midwest facing the challenge of raising crops and two young children while trying to keep their relationship alive under trying circumstances, the autobiographical film “Minari,” written and directed by Colorado-born Lee Isaac Chung, might be the most American film of the year. And yet the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has designated it a foreign film. Anyone who’s had a grandma who spoke another language will adore award-winning Youn Yuh-jung as Soonja.
“Shirley” Directed by Josephine Decker of “Madeline’s Madeline,” “Shirley” is an examination of the troubled marriage and dark and frightening life and work of the American author Shirley Jackson (“The Haunting of Hill House,” “The Lottery”). Based on the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, the film features a spellbinding Elisabeth Moss in the title role of an artist married to the philandering literary critic Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), who was also her editor. Moss is far better in this than in the absurdly overrated “The Invisible Man.”
Michael Stuhlbarg and Elisabeth Moss in ‘Shirley’
“First Cow” A unique American frontier tale from Kelly Reichardt of “Wendy and Lucy” fame, “First Cow” starts with its ending in the present and travels back in time to when the first cow was introduced to the American West in Oregon and two young men (a wonderful John Magaro and Orion Lee), one a cook for fur trappers, the other a fugitive, are thrown together by fate and make a life together, selling street food in an American military outpost. “First Cow” is like a Washington Irving tale re-written by Raymond Carver.
This image released by A24 Films shows John Magaro in a scene from “First Cow.” (Allyson Riggs/A24 Films via AP)
“The Wolf House” Also the weirdest film of the year, Chile’s Spanish-language “The Wolf House” is a stop-motion animated variation on a Brothers Grimm-John Carpenter-David Lynch theme based on the true story of a post WWII Nazi cult in Chile, where the Pinochet regime sent political prisoners in the 1980s to be tortured and murdered. In a reverse Circe, two pigs morph into humans and a girl named Maria finds refuge in a sentient house that responds to her thoughts and desires, while a wolf lurks somewhere in the shadows. “The Wolf House” is the the stuff of nightmares in a nightmare year.
“The Wolf House”
(Runners up: “Collective,” “The Assistant,” “Wolfwalkers,” “The Nest,” “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” “Da 5 Bloods,” “Nomadland,” “Another Round,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”)

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