Before festival season shakes things up, here are the best films of 2020 so far, as chosen by the Seventh Row editorial team.
With Venice underway and TIFF and NYFF on the horizon, we want to look back on the year of movies so far, before festival season shakes things up. 2020 has been… rocky. But if you look close enough, the movies have offered up some absolute gems. Here are 20…
20. Fanny Lye Deliver‘d (dir. Thomas Clay)
Thomas Clay’s Fanny Lye Deliver’d delivers a smart, complex, central character in a film that understands the challenges of her patriarchalworld. The film is a home invasion narrative centred around Fanny Lye (Maxine Peake), the miserable wife of a puritanical abuser (Charles Dance, exquisite). She eventually liberates herself from multiple forms of male oppression. The catalyst for this is a couple (Freddie Fox and Tanya Reynolds) on the run who arrive nude at their house, as if out of the garden of Eden. They stay first as their guests and then as their captors. As forward-thinking young people, they open Fanny’s eyes to new ideas about sexuality and women’s rights. But even they have their own agenda that Fanny must deal with
19. Swallow (dir. Carlo Mirabella-Davis)
While it’s easy enough these days to relate just about any cultural artifact to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, Swallow is the rare film that is eerily predictive of our current self-isolated moment, concerned as it is with a woman’s lonely alienation and her invisible illness that keeps her distant from others. Director Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s solo feature debut is an energetic thriller that uses genre tropes to burrow into harrowing subject matter. As Hunter, a traumatised housewife who develops pica (the compulsion to consume non-edible objects), Haley Bennett gives an exquisitely detailed performance that shows a perfect facade cracking a little more in each scene… READ MORE
18. Corpus Christi (dir. Jan Komasa)
When I saw Corpus Christi at TIFF, I called it the “Vicar of Grantchester meets Suits, only darker because this is Poland.” Little did I know that impersonating a priest was not just a fictional flight of fancy but an actual phenomenon plaguing Poland, which was the starting point for the film.
The film opens in a juvenile detention centre where we meet Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia), who agrees to stand watch while fellow prisoners violently attack one of the other prisoners. We soon learn that this seeming ‘thug’ desperately wants to be a priest, but has his hopes dashed when the centre’s priest informs him his criminal record will prevent him from ever becoming a man of the cloth. When Daniel gets out of prison, heading toward a job at a sawmill, he stops at the local church where he claims to be a priest. Before he knows it, he’s being asked to take charge of the local parish… READ MORE
17. Ema (dir. Pablo Larraín)
Pablo Larraín’s Ema is a bizarre, colourful, pulsing, bonkers, and utterly invigorating cinematic experience. Part melodrama, part dance film, it defies categorization and even explanation: like dance itself, it has to be experienced to be understood. The film mixes the high emotions of Jackie with the looseness of The Club, and occasionally, the wry humour of Neruda. Ema deliberately embraces a kind of freedom in the way the film was written, made, and told, playing with both structure and your head… READ MORE
16. Lungs (dir. Matthew Warchus)
The Old Vic relaunched their 2019 production of Lungs, directed by Matthew Warchus and starring Claire Foy and Matt Smith for Old Vic: In Camera. The In Camera series staged the play with actors remaining two metres apart on stage and limited to 1000 tickets per livestream (the capacity of the Old Vic). Lungs ran from June 28 to July 4. Lungs, written by Duncan Macmillan, is about a young middle class couple considering the impact of having a family in a world facing environmental crisis.
15. Kuessipan (dir. Myriam Verreault)
Myriam Verreault’s Kuessipan (which was co-written by Innu author Naomi Fontaine) follows teenagers Mikuan (Sharon Ishpatao Fontaine) and Shaniss (Yamie Grégoire), who grew up on a reserve together. We open on them as young girls, mischievously sneaking out at night. Mikuan comes from a loving family, Shaniss a broken one; we see the girls’ unbreakable bond in action when social services briefly send Shaniss away and Mikuan walks miles and miles to see her. They promise to be friends forever. Verreault’s and Fontaine’s film then explores the extent to which a bond of friendship can be pushed, and how the process of ‘finding yourself’ can leave such friendships neglected. The bulk of the film takes place when the girls are older teens: Mikuan is an academically promising student, and Shaniss a young mother with an abusive boyfriend… READ MORE
14. I Used to Go Here (dir. Kris Rey)
Between Unexpected (2015) and I Used to Go Here (2020), writer-director Kris Rey has quickly distinguished herself as one of our smartest chroniclers of the female experience — especially when it comes to stories of women in their 30s who don’t fit into conventional stereotypes. I Used to Go Here is the story of a woman, Kate (Gillian Jacobs), in her 30s who isn’t pregnant or married when all of her friends are both.
I Used to Go Here begins just as Kate has published her first novel but had her press tour canceled. So when she gets an unexpected invitation to give a reading at her alma mater in Carbondale, Illinois, from David (Jemaine Clement), a professor she used to crush on, she jumps at the chance. She arrives thinking she’ll be spending time bonding with Dave, but when she discovers he’s married, she ends up left to her own devices… READ MORE
13. Our Lady of the Nile (dir. Atiq Rahimi)
Several films have been made about the 1994 Rwandan genocide, when the marginalised Tutsi people were murdered en masse by the Hutus, most famously Hotel Rwanda (2005). Our Lady of the Nile stands apart: less a factual retelling of the atrocities and more a poetic, dreamlike exploration of how prejudice brews and corrupts innocence. Rather than trying to tackle the state of the entire country, we see the makings of the genocide play out in the microcosm of an all-girls boarding school. The school slowly transforms from an innocent utopia that allows the girls to flourish, to a place of hate-mongering and violence… READ MORE
12. Crystal Swan (dir. Darya Zhuk)
From the very first frames of Crystal Swan, your eyes are transfixed by protagonist Velya (Alina Nasibullina). She walks onto the bus with swagger, scowling at the world, clad in bright clothes and a garish blue wig. She’s on her way to a party where she’ll DJ House music — a passion that is her only escape from an oppressive life in 1996 Minsk. Velya is so charismatic, so cool, and so resolute; it’s easy to buy (and root for) the desperate measures she goes to in order to get what she wants.
Velya is so determined to get an immigration visa (so she can follow House music all the way to Chicago) that she tracks down the fake number she put down on her visa application to a distant country town. She must convince a family of strangers to let her sit by their phone for a week, waiting for the call. It’s a seemingly impossible mission, but one that Velya accepts with ferocity and fearlessness: this is what it takes to get the life she believes she deserves, so she’ll do it, whatever the cost… READ MORE
11. Saint Frances (dir. Alex Thompson)
In the vein of Obvious Child, Saint Frances is a dramedy about an aimless, thirtysomething woman who gets unexpectedly pregnant after a one-night stand and chooses to have an abortion. Bridget (Kelly O’Sullivan, who wrote the screenplay) is also navigating a new relationship and a new job as a nanny to a wealthy lesbian couple’s young daughter, Frances (Ramona Edith Williams). The film, therefore, isn’t about Briget’s abortion; abortion is refreshingly normalised as part of a larger story about a woman trying to figure out what she wants in life.
10. Never Rarely Sometimes Always (dir. Eliza Hittman)
Eliza Hittman’s third feature, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, is a quiet drama about seventeen-year-old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), who lives in rural Pennsylvania, and must travel to New York City for an abortion. With the help of her cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder), Autumn heads to the big city only to discover that the procedure will take longer than expected, and she can’t afford a hotel or food. Hittman follows the two girls over a few days as they deal with the process of getting an abortion. Along the way, they meet a creepy boy on the bus (Théodore Pellerin) who uses them and whom they use in return for money they desperately need.
9. First Stripes (dir. Jean-François Caissy)
First Stripes begins and ends with the same military graduation parade. A Steadicam shot marches along the ceremonial procession of solemn-looking army recruits, their movements stiff, their faces expressionless. But once the young men and women pass beyond the curtain separating them from their family and friends, their bodies take on a whole new shape. Plasticity returns to their limbs and emotion to their faces. This is where Jean-François Caissy’s verité documentary takes us: behind the curtain, behind external appearances, to follow a group of Québécois recruits to the Canadian armed forces through the 12-week basic training boot camp. The film reveals how training designed to equalize recruits is yet another machine that reproduces a conservative set of norms… READ MORE
8. Sorry We Missed You (dir. Ken Loach)
Sorry We Missed You, Ken Loach’s most recent film, focuses on the exploitation of the gig economy as seen through the lens of one working class family’s struggle to meet everyday expenses. While Loach’s previous film, I, Daniel Blake, was moving, angering, and meticulously researched, it fell back on tropes by making its hero uncontroversially the Deserving Poor without challenging this concept. Sorry We Missed You is more complex. The mother, father, son, and daughter in the central family each have their own challenges, and the stresses of the gig economy impact their relationships as well as their wallets. In this case, Loach is not afraid to make his heroes unlikeable at times while still steadfastly maintaining that they deserve a stable income.
7. My First Film (dir. Zia Anger)
Zia Anger’s My First Film was the kind of thoughtful, engrossing, intimate experience we needed when we saw it a few months ago, deep into lockdown. It’s not exactly a film, nor a piece of theatre, but an exciting new hybrid of the two mediums. The piece was originally performed to live audiences, but Anger has artfully adapted it for the livestream format. During performances that can only be caught live, Anger shares her desktop screen with ticket holders watching from across the world.
Over the course of the livestream — it could be 80 minutes or two hours — Anger reflects on her own filmmaking career and asks us to reflect on ourselves, too, introducing interactive elements that feel so deeply intimate despite how physically distant the viewers are from each other and from Anger. It’s best to go in blind. You can only watch My First Film at livestreamed, ticketed performances: Anger isn’t currently performing the piece but if she does any additional performances, a good way to find out about them is by following her on Twitter.
6. Spinster (dir. Andrea Dorfman)
Spinster has been marketed as an “anti rom-com,” because even though it’s a heartwarming comedy about a woman’s relationships, the script steadfastly maintains that heroine Gaby (Chelsea Peretti) doesn’t need romantic love to be happy. The film begins on Gaby’s 39th birthday and ends on her 40th; in between, we watch her realise that romantic love isn’t the be all and end all of her existence, as romantic comedies so often paint it to be. At first, Gaby is actively seeking a man, even after a series of thoroughly disappointing dates. But throughout the film, she learns that by working on strengthening the non-romantic relationships in her life, she can find joy outside of romantic love… READ MORE
5. The Assistant (dir. Kitty Green)
Kitty Green’s film chronicles how insidious, powerful men like protagonist Jane’s (Julia Garner) Harvey Weinstein-esque boss (who is never seen on screen and only referred to as “him” or “he”) infect every aspect of office life, even mundane tasks like photocopying and printing. Green lingers on these banal tasks to draw out suspense and to draw us into Jane’s subjectivity. “I was interested in tasks that anyone in any entry level position would do,” Green explained. “A lot of photocopying, filing, coffee, mail, that sort of stuff. I tried not to focus on the things she [Jane] was suspicious of. I wanted to make sure the balance felt right. Maybe seven or eight tasks that were banal went by, and then the ninth one was a little worrying. Otherwise, the film wouldn’t have had as much weight.”… READ MORE
4. No Crying at the Dinner Table (dir. Carol Nguyen)
No Crying at the Dinner Table, from Canadian filmmaker Carol Nguyen, was not just one of the best Canadian shorts at TIFF19, but one of the very best films we saw at the festival. In the film, Nguyen separately interviews her sister and her parents — both Vietnamese immigrants — about family secrets and traumas: her mother discusses the lack of physical intimacy she shared with her mother; her sister shares how, growing up, she felt closer to her grandparents than parents; and her father tells a traumatic story from his past in Vietnam.
When she gathers the family to listen to the recordings, it’s cathartic, and we sense — and Nguyen confirmed in our interview — that it will change the family dynamics dramatically for the better. At just 21, and a recently graduated film student at Concordia University in Montreal, Carol Nguyen is already poised to do great things in the future… READ MORE
3. The Perfect Candidate (dir. Haifaa Al-Mansour)
The Perfect Candidate sees trailblazing filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour in her element, working with non-professional actors, and telling a story rooted in home. It’s a highly political film about a small-town doctor, Maryam (Mila Al Zahrani), who almost accidentally applies to run for local office. It’s extremely rare to see a woman in politics in Saudi Arabia, so Maryam initially has drawbacks. She goes ahead only because winning would mean she can fix the road in front of the hospital, which is currently so damaged that ambulances aren’t able to reach the entrance. Through the process of her campaign, Maryam finds there’s more and more she’d like to change about the way her community is run, and she becomes excited at the idea of gaining power and having her voice heard… READ MORE
2. First Cow (dir. Kelly Reichardt)
Kelly Reichardt’s latest film about the myth of the American West, First Cow, follows two men searching for a better life elsewhere that’s always just slightly out of reach. Cookie (John Magaro) and King-Lu (Orion Lee) are outcasts in 19th-century Oregon. A friendship between humans instead of human and animal is a rarity in Reichardt’s films, so this story of genuine friendship is particularly lovely. They’re an odd couple: Cookie, the quiet and homely one; and King-Lu, the charismatic entrepreneur. But they’re bonded by their outsider status: King-Lu is a Chinese immigrant being chased by Russians for theft; Cookie is Jewish and rejects conventional masculinity. Yet in Reichardt’s world, even the most modest of dreams — to have an income, a home, a friend — are just out of reach for those without means or social power. At least it was sweet while it lasted… READ MORE
1. Proxima (dir. Alice Winocour)
“The idea of the separation from Earth resonate[s] with the idea of the separation from the little girl,” Alice Winocour told us, regarding her outstanding new film, Proxima. Eva Green plays Sarah, an astronaut in training who is chosen to take part in a space mission, something all astronauts dream of but many never get to do. There are complications: namely, Sarah’s young daughter, Stella. Sarah will be away from Earth and from her daughter for a whole year. But this isn’t a film about whether or not Sarah decides to leave; there’s never any doubt that she will go. Sarah adores her job, she’s fantastic at it, and the film never judges her for wanting to do what she loves. Winocour tracks the emotional separation between mother and daughter while also showing how inspirational Sarah’s mission is to Stella… READ MORE
Download a free excerpt from our Reichardt ebook
Roads to nowhere: Kelly Reichardt’s broken American dreams is an ebook that will take you on a journey through Reichardt’s filmography.
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