I will spare you the introduction that I am sure you knew would begin this piece. You know it all already, because we lived it together. This year just wouldn’t end. The real world was literally nightmarish for millions of people. If any movies gave you solace, I’m glad to hear it. Here are the top 10 that found their way into my heart.
10. “Wasp Network”
Let me be frank: I do not understand why Netflix revealed the mid-film twist of Olivier Assayas’ latest in their preview blurb. If you were to start watching “Wasp Network” after reading that, all of the tension of the film’s first half evaporates, which is an incredible disservice to an ensemble that is committed to maintaining the film’s deliberate layering of its many characters and their contrasting motivations. Yes, the film is based on real events, but that’s no reason for giving it all away! Jumping back and forth between Miami and Havana in the 1990s, “Wasp Network” follows a group of Cuban ex-pats who have fled Fidel Castro’s regime and relocated to Florida. The defectors, in particular Édgar Ramírez’s René González and Wagner Moura’s Juan Pablo Roque, are pilots who become involved in activist groups committed to overthrowing Castro’s regime, actions that shock their families back in Cuba, in particular René’s wife Olga Salanueva-González (Penélope Cruz). The cast keeps growing—Ana de Armas and Gael García Bernal show up in highly impactful supporting roles—and the questions Assayas asks about nationalism, patriotism, and service get more and more complicated. But “Wasp Network” is unwavering in its suggestion that certain kinds of loyalty are admirable even if you don’t agree with the accompanying political aims, and the lingering image of the film is Ramírez’s René calmly saying as an explanation for his actions, “Their morals are not mine.” It’s a stunningly uncomplicated declaration made even more respectable by Ramírez’s unfussy performance, and both he and “Wasp Network” deserved more attention this year.
9. “The Assistant”
There were many excellent horror movies released this year (“His House” and “Possessor Uncut” are floating in my top 20, I swear!) but the film that chilled me the most was Kitty Green’s “The Assistant,” a thinly veiled imagining of how the Harvey Weinsteins of the world are enabled and protected. The film follows Julia Garner’s titular assistant Jane as she navigates an office culture of barely veiled fear, feigned ignorance, and thorough complicity. Every day is a barrage of micromanagement, undermining, and abuse by her film producer boss, but this job could open doors for Jane. Everyone else can deal with it. Why can’t she? Green slowly ratchets up the tension by adding in characters and subplots that certainly seem like warning signs—a pretty young woman with no experience arrives at the office, telling Jane she’s there for a job interview; Jane overhears a joking conversation about what happens in the producer’s office after hours—and also increases the claustrophobia and paranoia by surrounding Jane with doubters and nay-sayers. The scene where Jane tries to appeal to the company’s HR department, led by Matthew Macfadyen’s openly mocking Wilcock, is infuriating, traumatizing, and utterly believable. As a portrait of how individual conscience is worn down by relentless exploitation and manipulation, “The Assistant” is the most unsettling film of the year.
8. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”
Sure, Roe v. Wade made abortion legal in the United States. But a sustained culture war by conservative Republicans and evangelical Christians over the past 40 or so years has steadily attacked that right. In today’s America, there are numerous states where it’s nearly impossible for a woman to find an abortion provider and where women are tricked by alleged health care centers that try to convince them to carry to term, and that’s not even mentioning the relentless cruelty—and violence—shown by supposed “pro-life” protestors toward these women and their doctors. Nia DaCosta’s “Little Woods” started a conversation about the continued relevance of this widespread shortcoming in women’s health care in the U.S., and Eliza Hittman’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” continues it. Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder are magnetic together as Autumn and Skylar, respectively, cousins who scheme to flee their small Pennsylvania town for New York City so that Autumn can secure an abortion. During this odyssey, Autumn and Skylar try and stick together, even as they run out of cash and are forced to rely on the very same objectification and sexualization that got them into this situation in order to scrape together enough money to share a small meal, have somewhere to sleep, and eventually get back home. Much praise has been leveled at the film’s titular scene in a Planned Parenthood clinic, where Autumn answers questions about her sexual history and whether she has “never,” “rarely,” “sometimes,” or “always” been subject to abuse, coercion, or violence. Flanigan’s performance in that scene is exceptional, flittering between strength and fragility, and she deserves all the praise in the world for it. But the moment that keeps popping up in my memory is when Talia, realizing that the guy who hit on her during their ride to New York City will pay for her and Autumn’s meals and tickets home if she effectively treats it as a date, follows him into an abandoned corner of a train station. Talia knows she has to offer the guy something in return for his spending, and as Autumn sneaks up to see them kissing, Autumn extends her hand to Talia, clasping their hands together as Talia makes this sacrifice for them both. That gesture of solidarity in a horrendously compromised situation captures so much of what “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is saying about the transactional nature of heterosexual relationships and the camaraderie of female friendships, and it is simultaneously bittersweet and heartbreaking.
7. “True History of the Kelly Gang”
Director Justin Kurzel imagines infamous Australian outlaw Ned Kelly as a rangy George MacKay wearing a lace dress, smeared in black paint, and donning homemade body armor before using guerrilla-style warfare against British soldiers—or, as Kelly calls them, “English oppressors.” Do I need to say much else? Like Kurzel’s version of “Macbeth” starring Michael Fassbender, “True History of the Kelly Gang” is beautifully shot, visually evocative, and simmering with a kind of slow-boiling rage that eventually festers into a deeper kind of decay. The supporting crew is aces—Russell Crowe, Essie Davis, Nicholas Hoult, Charlie Hunnam, and Thomasin McKenzie are all memorable as various figures in Kelly’s life—but this is MacKay’s bag, and the smirking swagger he brings to the character makes for a thrillingly unpredictable film.
6. “Miss Juneteenth”
The poster of Channing Godfrey Peoples’s “Miss Juneteenth” captures the film’s most telling moment, a perfect distillation of the deferred dream that plagues its main character: Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie) was the winner of the Miss Juneteenth pageant in her teen years and became a local celebrity as a result. She was beautiful and poised, passionate, and ambitious, and then she got pregnant. Her tenure as Miss Juneteenth was cut short, her ability to attend college on a full scholarship was taken away from her, and 15 years later, Turquoise is still struggling to make ends meet as she raises her daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze). But every so often, Turquoise goes into her closet. She pushes aside the gown she’s kept from that winning day. She takes down her hatbox. And she wears the tiara that was part of her crowning moment, an accessory that seems in contrast to her current life as a bartender but that also serves as a reminder of what’s possible. The impact of “Miss Juneteenth” is found in the many ways Turquoise struggles to maintain her own autonomy against countless others who prefer that she become someone else: an ex who wants her to be less outspoken about her needs, a mother who still can’t believe how Turquoise turned out, a suitor who doesn’t understand why Turquoise doesn’t use her beauty to secure a different life. When she puts that tiara on, Turquoise centers her own desires and her own dreams, and Beharie’s alternately weary and vibrant performance underscores how thoughtfully Peoples crafts “Miss Juneteenth” into a character study of the type we rarely see about Black women.