5. “David Byrne’s American Utopia” (Spike Lee)
The Spike Lee-directed “David Byrne’s American Utopia” is 135-minutes worth of absolute bliss. Lee, who’s always possessed an underrated eye for capturing song and dance, studies the show’s sparse sets and grey-suited yet ethnically diverse band of musicians with an inventive lens. His compositions aren’t solely attracted to David Byrne, rather Lee will notice a musician’s kinetic dancing feet or the inherent symmetry present in the show’s staging. More than a jukebox of familiar hits, Byrne’s Broadway show sees the singer-songwriter connecting the spirit of his music with prescient subjects like voting rights, immigration, and Black Lives Matter. While “Road to Nowhere” and “Once In a Lifetime” are notable performances that capture the show’s euphoria, it’s the startling cover of Janelle Monáe’s protest anthem “Hell You Talmbout” which combines Lee’s penchant for messaging and Byrne’s musical prowess to unparalleled activist heights. Many films have laid claim to the title of “the movie we need right now,” but it’s “David Byrne’s American Utopia” which has come the closest to earning that distinction. – Robert Daniels
4. “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” (Charlie Kaufman)
It’s not that Charlie Kaufman‘s dazzling mindfuck is inexplicable. It’s just that any explanation takes longer than the film, due to a TARDIS-like construction you can get lost in for days, in which pushing any little narrative button or thematic lever reengineers the whole mechanism. Lucy/Louisa/Lucia/Ames (a staggeringly great Jessie Buckley) drives out with her boyfriend (Jesse Plemons) to see his parents (Toni Colette and David Thewlis), but things get weirder, funnier, sadder, and scarier as identities elide (hail the kismet that is the similarity of Plemons and Buckley’s first names), time expands/collapses and a whorling snowstorm of dread sets in. Is it all a massive, shaking, shaggy dog? A product of a genius or insanity? An empty showoff collision of high and low pop culture? A symphony of synapses firing chaotically perimortem? And was Pauline Kael right about “A Woman Under the Influence?” This ain’t a film for people who like short answers, but in case you do, they are Yes, Yes, No, Yes, No – just not necessarily in that order. – Jessica Kiang
3. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” (Eliza Hittman)
There are myriad ways that “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” could have gone wrong. Stories about underage pregnancy often draw from a number of cliches, ranging from finger-wagging to implausibly celebratory. But Eliza Hittman’s quietly wrenching drama about Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), an expecting teenager from Pennsylvania who takes the bus to New York with friend and co-worker Skylar (Talia Ryder) to get an abortion (the only local clinic proves to be an anti-choice front), presents a series of dilemmas that take the story in unexpected yet well-earned directions. Their journey, presented with sparse rigor compared to Hittman’s woozily seductive “Beach Rats,” has echoes of innocents-in-the-city melodramas from the past, complete with the Port Authority arrival, threats posed by untrustworthy strangers, and ratcheting tensions between the two strangers in a strange city. But Hittman’s focus on the financial, bureaucratic, and emotional hurdles of the process itself—the girls barely have the cash for the procedure, much less to pay for a room for the night—brings a sharp docudrama intensity. Rarely have the gaps in the American social safety loomed larger. – Chris Barsanti
2. “First Cow” (Kelly Reichardt)
Tenderly examining the bones of the transactional relationships on which America is built, Kelly Reichardt’s “First Cow” is so complete and consummate as a work of cinema that it already feels like a classic frontier novel. A neorealist Western in the vein of something like “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” or “The Ballad of Little Jo,” Reichardt’s film often tells an entire story with only a single frame. Following the economic exploits of a talented baker nicknamed Cookie (John Magaro) who partners with Chinese Englishman, King Lu (Orion Lee) in pilfering milk from the region’s first cow (cue Leo-pointing meme), the film observes the pair finding tentative economic stability cooking delectable delicacies for local trappers and fur traders, though that relative prosperity will also soon make them a target. A slow-cinema tall-tale on the origins of our promised land, “First Cow” is a serene display of precise pacing, control, and seasoned storytelling aptitude, reflecting on companionship’s constructive capacity to combat man’s most primal tendencies. – Andrew Bundy
1. “Nomadland” (Chloé Zhao)
In the opening scene of “Nomadland,” Frances McDormand finds a coat. It’s a small, quiet, and (at that point) unexplained beat, but she turns that simple moment into the most evocative act; we don’t know anything about this woman yet, but she’s just told us everything. McDormand is an actor who thrives in complicated dialogue, yet her most powerful moments in Chloé Zhao’s marvelous drama, only her third after “Songs My Brother Taught Me” and 2017’s tremendous “The Rider,” are entirely wordless – minute-long monologues cannot tell all the stories she tells, in her face and her eyes. The alchemy of this casting had to be just right; the wrong actor might overplay these scenes and outplay the real people Zhao surrounds her with, or drain away too much personality and end up condescending to the material. But both McDormand and David Straithairn find just the right notes, blending with their surroundings and co-stars to create a moving, affecting portrait of a fascinating yet rarely dramatized subculture. – Jason Bailey
Honorable Mentions and Further Recommendations
Let it be known that Steve McQueen‘s “Mangrove” finished, per our proprietary algorithm, on the same tally of points as “Mank,” but appeared on fewer lists, so that’s how we broke that tie break. Still, it’s great and you should watch it.
Also just missing the cut were “Driveways,” “Promising Young Woman,” “She Dies Tomorrow,” “The Vast of Night,” “Time,” “Bad Education,” “Bloody Nose Empty Pockets,” “Pieces of a Woman,” “Collective,” “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” “An Easy Girl,” “Kajillionaire,” “The True History of the Kelly Gang,” “Black Bear,” “The Wild Goose Lake,” “To The Ends of the Earth,” and “Relic,” while Andrei Konchalovsky‘s “Dear Comrades!” and Philippe Lacôte‘s “Night of the Kings” were both announced for December 2020 release too late for enough of us to watch them for consideration, but those of us who have, strongly recommend them.
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Lists contributed by: Christina Newland, Warren Cantrell, Rodrigo Perez, Ella Kemp, Kyle Kohner, Oli Lyttelton, Greg Ellwood, Griffin Schiller, David Pountain, Christian Gallichio, Beatrice Loayza, Brian Farvour, Jonathan Christian, Mike DeAngelo, Lena Wilson, Ally Johnson, Kimber Myers, Kambole Campbell, Brian Tallerico, Roxana Hadadi, Robert Daniels, Jessica Kiang, Chris Barsanti, Andrew Bundy, Jason Bailey, Ryan Oliver, Tyler Casalini, Ted Silva, Nicholas Laskin, Bradley Warren, Chance Solem-Pfeifer, Charles Barfield, Cory Woodroof, and Nikola Grozdanović.