In a year as bizarre and unusual for cinema as 2020 was, writing my usual year-end post about my favorite films of the year was more of a challenging task this time around. In past years, I’ve written about five or six favorite movies annually. With cinemas closed and new film releases postponed for much of 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, I was able (and also fortunate) to see and determine three favorite new movies this year. Actually, the most challenging part was not being able to watch nearly as many films at the cinema as I normally would. Moviegoing has been a weekly, life-sustaining habit for me for almost three decades now. In a typical year, I’ve seen at least one or two films at the cinema each week, sometimes even more, averaging somewhere around 75 to 100 movies at the cinema per year. With cinemas here in New England open only in the first quarter and final quarter of 2020, I saw somewhere between 25 and 30 movies at cinemas, so only a third of what I’d see in a standard year. To get myself through this year’s midsection, I watched movies at drive-in theaters up in Maine and down on Cape Cod almost every weekend, though only two of those were new releases (Tenet and Bill & Ted Face the Music). Most of the rest were retro screenings of movies that I loved from my childhood and teenage years, and I wrote a few blog posts and poems about several of those this past summer: The Goonies, The Empire Strikes Back, and the original 1978 Superman, among others.
Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow was one of the last movies that I saw before the lockdown began in March, in a special advance screening at Harvard Film Archive, with Reichardt in attendance for a conversation and Q&A after the film. That was on March 9th, and details about the screening changed throughout the day as concerns about the pandemic set in. By the time I arrived for the screening, it was limited to 100 attendees so that audience members could easily distance themselves around the auditorium. I knew while I was watching it that First Cow would be my favorite movie of 2020, even while having no idea at that point that so few new movies would be forthcoming for the remainder of the year. A friend of mine sitting behind me who helps to run the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline expressed concern that a shutdown of only two weeks would make it difficult for the organization to survive, at a moment of uncertainty when we just didn’t know what the rest of the year would have in store. Even Kelly Reichardt voiced some surprise and uncertainty about the future just as the dire global situation had begun to unfold.
First Cow opens with a long shot of a present-day shipping vessel passing through a sound in Oregon, and a young woman (Alia Shawkat) walking her dog in a woodland area nearby. As her dog sniffs around and digs in the tall grass, she soon finds herself silently unearthing by hand the buried skeletons of two men who had lived and died there in the 1820s, during the early settler period in the Pacific Northwest, prior to the start of the California Gold Rush. Because it’s a shallow unmarked grave, we have an early sense that their shared deaths were tragic, as the film gently shifts to the scene of a woodland settlement two centuries before. Of course, the opening is also a metaphor for the kind of archaeological and historical excavation that Reichardt will herself be undertaking as the film’s director (she co-wrote the screenplay with her frequent collaborator Jonathan Raymond, adapting it from his 2004 novel The Half-Life).
The story centers on Cookie (John Magaro, so moving in my favorite performance of 2020), otherwise known as Otis Figowitz, who’s the designated cook for an encampment of itinerant, rough-and-tumble fur trappers. While foraging for wild mushrooms in the forest, Cookie comes across another young man named King-Lu (Orion Lee, quietly magnetic), a Chinese immigrant who’s hiding out in the woods to escape a gang of Russian vigilantes who’ve been pursuing him. The two form a quick bond and devise a plan to make some money together by selling handmade donut-like pastries called oily cakes to the random assortment of drifters who wander through their encampment. To do so properly, they also pilfer milk each night from the first cow to be brought to the settlement, sneaking through the dark to a meadow beside the house of the Chief Factor (Toby Jones). “History isn’t here yet,” King-Lu accurately remarks, encouraging Cookie to take advantage of their window of opportunity to benefit from a timely, well-placed business start-up. The pair’s cakes become an overnight sensation, literally. As their bounty of earnings grows, the narrative expands to include complex themes of colonization and capitalism, specifically the notion of property, embodied in an image late in the film of the first cow (who’s listed in the film’s credits as Evie) eventually encircled by a homely wooden picket fence, after the midnight milk thefts by Cookie and King-Lu go terribly awry and their cover is blown.
The film’s final half-hour is a suspenseful chase driven by the cruel hierarchies of class and rank, one that finds King-Lu trying to escape downriver in a canoe and Cookie healing from an injury under the care of two Native Americans in a tiny shack, which Reichardt said she and her crew referred to as the “ghost hut.” Even this extended chase scene, however, takes on the laidback and tender tone of the rest of the movie (accompanied by William Tyler’s delicate, atmospheric score), as the separated characters move carefully through the autumnal hues of the landscape, with any violence lurking at the periphery yet also held at a deliberate distance. The film’s ultimate focus is the authentic love and friendship of its two central characters, once they’ve been reunited in what will be their final resting place, and I was very grateful to have the movie’s last words, “I’ve got you,” echoing in my mind throughout the months following the screening.
Because cinemas around Boston would then be shuttered almost half the year until around Labor Day weekend, Miranda July’s Kajillionaire was the movie that I looked forward to seeing the most over the next several hard months, though I was unsure of whether or not it would ever actually happen. Fortunately, it was one of the few new films that didn’t get delayed by an indefinitely postponed release. I drove much further north to see it at a cinema in Auburn, Maine, and I was the sole viewer in a gigantic auditorium of about 250 seats on an overcast Saturday afternoon, one of a number of private screenings that I was able to enjoy in 2020, even if seeing movies in empty cinemas became increasingly eerie over time. Miranda July’s previous film, The Future, was my favorite movie back in 2011, and Kajillionaire continues to stake out her distinctive cinematic terrain, where strange characterizations and awkward comedic moments directly confront life’s deeper mysteries and conundrums. From the initial scenes, we know that we’re back in her world, a universe with its own individual terms, parameters, and boundaries.
July’s films are like post-industrial, apocalyptic fables in which enigmatic signs and events arise, ranging from magical to threatening. In The Future, a character is able to stop time and bring the planet to a standstill, while the moon speaks in the voice of an old man who appears elsewhere in the film. Kajillionaire, set in present-day downtown Los Angeles, is disrupted by a series of earthquake tremors that cause the characters to react as everything on the screen trembles and shakes for a few tense moments, culminating in a transformational cosmic blackout later in the movie, during which we the audience members float through outer space as dialogue continues undeterred on the film’s soundtrack. These devices border playfully on a kind of magical realism yet manage to come across as thoroughly integral to the action and movement of July’s films.
The movie follows the Dyne family, with their comically stoic 26-year-old daughter Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood in a manically controlled tightrope walk of a role, including some trans vibes) being taught the tricks of petty crime — a trade in which the family does not excel — by serious contenders for the worst set of parents ever to appear in any film (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger, both alternately hilarious and trenchant in masterful swerves). The trio of small-time crooks con, scam, and steal their way into post office boxes, airplanes, and strangers’ homes in an attempt to keep paying the rent on the tiny office cubicles where they live cramped together in a disused space adjoining a bubble factory, where the rear wall leaks thick pinkish foam that must be scooped up with plastic trash buckets every afternoon at exactly the same time, in order to avoid getting drowned out of their makeshift home.
During a quick detour to New York and back by air, on their return flight the family meets Melanie (Gina Rodriguez, fantastic and perfectly upbeat), who joins their heists based on her love for movies like Ocean’s Eleven and its ensuing sequels. Gradually, Melanie’s position on the team and her genuine affection for the totally resistant, repressed, and (until now) unloved Old Dolio, begin to challenge the authoritative hold that Old Dolio’s parents have had over her entire life and personality. Since her childhood, they’ve split the profits of every con equally three ways, so of course that’s how she inherently views every transaction, a mathematical equation that pays off grandly in multiple ways at the film’s irrepressibly romantic and liberating conclusion. Most importantly, though, the outwardly wacky surfaces of July’s films ironically allow her to get closer to difficult truths than most other artists. For instance, there’s a pivotal scene midway through the film when the Dyne family and Melanie pretend to be the actual family members of a man whose home they’ve infiltrated for a scam and who also happens to be dying alone in his bedroom. He wants to hear their familial sounds out in the living room and kitchen, asking them to watch television and clink silverware, to give him a sense of not being alone during his final moments. As someone who hasn’t had a family for thirty years now, I felt the gravity of that scene keenly, and even if it was beyond sad to witness, I also admire how Miranda July and her actors could pull off the demanding balancing act of evoking an otherwise obscured feeling to put me there in such an immediate way.
Finally, Eliza Hittman’s brave and essential drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always rounds out my short list of favorite films from 2020. (Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland may have made my year-end list as well, but its cinematic release was pushed back to February of 2021, so I haven’t yet been able to watch that one.) I loved the astute realism and grit of Hittman’s previous film Beach Rats when I saw it at the Provincetown Film Festival back in 2017, and her latest movie secures her place as one of our most promising younger American filmmakers. The well-timed and urgent storyline of Never Rarely Sometimes Always concerns the unwanted teenage pregnancy of a 17-year-old woman in high school and her right to choose an abortion, despite her surroundings in conservative suburban (and borderline rural) Pennsylvania, where parental consent is required to terminate the pregnancy that her parents are completely unaware of. Sidney Flanigan’s performance as the sullen and determined Autumn feels naturalistic, precise, and absorbing throughout, anchoring the movie and Hittman’s screenplay in a way that draws viewers directly into her character’s very personal and painful dilemma.
Equally impressive and also instrumental to the narrative is Talia Ryder’s portrayal of Skylar, Autumn’s supportive cousin, who accompanies her on a bus ride to New York City, where the two are shuffled from a Planned Parenthood clinic in Brooklyn back across the river to the clinic in Manhattan. The film becomes a bleak, picaresque journey for the two young women, who are left to fend for themselves over two unforeseen nights in the city with relatively little money (and then no money at all after the balance of the abortion is paid for by cash stolen from their job as supermarket cashiers back home), dragging their bulky rolling suitcase from Port Authority, through the maze of New York’s subway system, and then back again, dodging various potential pitfalls and dangerous run-ins along the way. The story teeters on the verge of becoming a darker tragedy without ever settling there, so that we worry about the characters and their safety almost constantly, without ever feeling that they’re imperiled. We want to try to protect them but realize that they’ll have to navigate the city and the problems that they encounter mostly on their own.
At the movie’s emotional core is the most unflinching scene of any movie from 2020, when the down-to-earth yet sisterly Planned Parenthood counselor at the Manhattan clinic asks Autumn, prior to her abortion procedure, a series of required questions on her relationships. Autumn’s hesitant replies, long silences, and heartbreaking expressions tell us all that we need to know about how her pregnancy came about. The film’s title comes from the four multiple-choice answers that Autumn can give in response to each question. Hittman’s writing and directorial approach in the scene are exactly as they should be, point-blank and matter-of-fact, to the extent that it’s the pivotal fulcrum of the film and Sidney Flanigan’s characterization of Autumn. Up to that point in the movie, we can feel her holding everything back as a way of holding herself together, and this is the key moment when she’s finally able to let go and acknowledge her own level of internal distress, at least as much as she can as someone who’s so afraid at such a young age. Then, the scene gives way to a vision of female solidarity as Autumn undergoes her abortion procedure with the women who work at the clinic by her side.
It’s revealing, then, that the two younger women’s ultimate fearlessness bumps up against the male characters in the movie numerous times, from an uncaring stepfather in Autumn’s home to a truly sleazy boss at the supermarket where they work, from Autumn’s cruel and abusive boyfriend to a leering flasher on the subway. Even Jasper (Théodore Pellerin), a college-aged guy whom the girls first meet on the bus on their way to New York and re-connect with later in the film, turns out to be somewhat sketchy if fairly harmless, exchanging a make-out session against a pillar in Port Authority with the much younger Skylar (who lies and says that she’s twenty), after which he withdraws money at an ATM to pay for their bus tickets back home. Because I’m not a young woman myself and therefore don’t face what they do on a daily basis, I’d never say whether the film’s male characterizations seem too heavy-handed or inaccurate. But I am a gay man, so I can speak to how disappointing and problematic my own relationships with men (and often just men in general) have been over the course of my life, even if I’d hoped that wasn’t always the case, and I still do hold some hope for that as much as possible at age 47.
In thinking back over these three films while writing this post, I realized that they all share in common characters who are on the run at some point in the movie. Although that’s a standard cinematic device that builds tension and mystery and empathy, I felt like it was an appropriate through-line to connect the movies that appealed to me the most in this particular year, which so often felt like a semi-internalized nightmare from which we were all wanting to flee continually, in an attempt to find some form of self-sustaining redemption to make our quiet, solitary lives in quarantine and isolation more meaningful on our own terms. All of these characters on the run in each film come to rest eventually in quite different ways. That this extremely lonely year has finally come to an end, honestly, just makes me want to keep on running even more.