It’s very likely that James Sweeney’s Straight Up would still have been the best film of the year even if the COVID lockdown had not devastated film culture. It’s not a default win. Little of what occupied lockdown viewing, whether home-streamed Hollywood releases or suddenly embraced television product, could match Straight Up’s ingenuity, emotional substance, and visual delight. Those qualities have been swapped for the conceptual laziness of derivative streaming content.
2020 pushed cinema to a crossroads — not to a precipice threatening the art form’s survival but to a point where viewers and critics are forced to discern real cinema from faux cinema. We need to hold to the same verities of a classic-movie year rather than acquiesce to digital convenience and banal TV aesthetics.
When we give in, as most reviewers do, we risk — to be straight-up about it — normalizing Hollywood’s increasingly politicized dreck. Again, the Better-Than List offers necessary alternatives to the yearly pretense of overhyped delusion.
Straight Up > Nomadland, First Cow, The 40-Year-Old Version, and I’m Thinking of Ending Things
James Sweeney’s screwball comedy (dazzlingly acted by himself and Katie Findley) reveals today’s romantic uncertainties — the spiritual crisis underlying gender dysphoria. It crushes the “topical” trend from filmmakers who employ PC distractions — respectively, feminism and wealth-redistribution (Chloé Zhao), race (Radha Blank), and pseudo-cerebral hipster psychosis (Charlie Kaufman). Ingenious honesty vs. all kinds of crazy self-righteousness.
On a Magical Night > Mank
Christophe Honoré’s dreamlike farce tracing a couple’s emotional and sexual footprints makes no excuses, unlike David Fincher’s unconvincing attempt to mythify cruelty among friends and colleagues in Hollywood.
True History of the Kelly Gang > First Cow
Justin Kurzel’s Ned Kelly legend boldly reimagines the pathos of Australia’s white Western tribalism, while Kelly Reichardt condemns American capitalism as racist and homophobic. A rousing cultural lesson vs. a didactic history lesson.
Vitalina Varela > Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Pedro Costa brings Rembrandt richness to his vision of Portugal’s colonized blacks, but George Wolfe’s adaptation of the August Wilson play reduces black American blues art to an agnostic monstrosity.
2020: The Movie and The Plot Against the President > Time
Two documentaries (PowerTie’s Hollywood satire and Amanda Milius’ political cliffhanger) rectify the damage done to America’s self-image. The due process denied President Trump vs. the brainwashing of black Americans.
The Traitor > Mangrove and The Trial of the Chicago Seven
Italian master filmmaker Marco Bellocchio examines a modern mafia trial with verve and audacious complexity, but Steve McQueen and Aaron Sorkin use con-game tactics in their respective courtroom dramas that speciously equate contemporary politics with bygone grievance.
Capone > The Glorias
Josh Trank treats the Al Capone legend like Coppola’s The Godfather III, the necessary reckoning for gangster-movie machismo, while ringmaster Julie Taymor titivates Gloria Steinem’s womanly wiles in a fantasy celebrating privileged feminism and cultural thuggery.
Joan of Arc (Jeanne) > Soul
Bruno Dumont’s musical do-over on saintliness, faith, and its mysterious human guises defeats Pixar’s existential-philosophy-for-children and its hackneyed digital cuteness, this time in a Black Lives Matter guise. The profound vs. the trite.
Corpus Christi > Sound of Metal
Jan Komasa’s story of a rogue Polish priest tests modern world devotion, but that struggle gets lost in Darius Marder’s story of a self-absorbed, jet-setting American musician devoted to his own ex-junkie narcissism. Neo-Bresson vs. hipster Bresson.
French Exit > Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Azazel Jacobs’s insouciant, almost mystical road movie explores motherhood (Michelle Pfeiffer in the year’s best performance), mother-love, and wealth, a fresh conceit unlike Eliza Hittman’s latest working-class exploration, a teenager road movie that is also a Planned Parenthood commercial. Pro-Life vs. Pro-Propaganda.
Tommaso > Da 5 Bloods
Abel Ferrara and his muse Willem Dafoe confess the private ambivalence of white male artists. Their film-maven tour de force bests Spike Lee’s phony Vietnam movie that divides the black male cliché amid a jumble of Hollywood genre rip-offs and anti-Trump hectoring.
The Truth > The Assistant
Hirokazu Kore-eda lets Catherine Deneuve’s aging diva mock her own legend and film-industry sanctimony while neophyte Kitty Green concocts an obvious yet feeble Harvey Weinstein rumor for the #MeToo movement.
Ladies in Black > Promising Young Woman
Bruce Beresford’s empathetic Australian “woman’s picture” features Julia Ormond’s striking comeback as an immigrant fashion doyenne from Slovenia, a Melania figure overlooked for the antics of Emerald Fennell’s misandrist comedy designed for Christine Blasey Ford believers.
Aviva > Hamilton and Lovers Rock
Boaz Yakin, a topical hack, does his best and most surprising work — a movie-musical exploitation film on role-playing gender fluidity. More cinematic than Hamilton and not patronizing like Steve McQueen’s reggae exploitation flick Lovers Rock. A personal dance movie vs. political and cultural posturing.
Deerskin > Tenet
Quentin Dupieux’s outrageous satire about filmmaking mania stands in perfect contrast to Christopher Nolan’s latest dull obsession with misapplying overwrought film technique to misunderstood social experience and political power. Satire vs. self-parody.
Creem: America’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll Magazine > David Byrne’s American Utopia
Scott Crawford’s documentary on Creem, Detroit’s working-class monthly devoted to egalitarian rock-music culture, revived the golden era of rock-music journalism while Byrne’s rock concert succumbed to Spike Lee’s trendy BLM racism. Lee’s smug result: a Rolling Stone movie.
Despite devolving cinema standards and the year’s intellectual lockdown, Strand Releasing (Straight Up, On a Magical Night, Aviva) is MVP for diverging from what passes for substance in the majority of 2020 films.