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My Top 10 Films of 2020 (from The Film Stage)

Yes, 2020 will forever be known as the year with an asterisk etched next to it. This strange 12-month span saw a pandemic grip the world, cinemas shuttered, tentpoles delayed, and the advent of new, potentially devastating streaming models. Even so, there were numerous masterful films and dynamic performances––as well as more VOD dreck than ever before.

On a personal level, the move to virtual festivals gave me the opportunity to cover a number of festivals from home: Toronto, New York, AFI, and Chicago. Several of the entries on my top 10 (and five honorable mentions) list were festival selections, and the memory of watching them on my sofa next to my snoring terrier is rather surreal, and also rather wonderful.

Two additional notes: My initial hope was to have all five Small Axe films at number one, but given Steve McQueen’s preference for the five entries to be seen as individual films, I decided instead to go with my two favorites in spots No. 1 and 2. (Mangrove and Red, White and Blue are certainly in my top 20, with Alex Wheatle someplace in the top 30.)

I would also like to mention my favorite first-time-for-me of 2020, Dennis Hopper’s explosive and shattering 1980 drama Out of the Blue (which I watched through AFI Fest). In addition, my pick as finest re-edited film is Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone. I’ve long felt that The Godfather Part III, while flawed (the absence of Robert Duvall still seems, to me, an almost insurmountable obstacle), is deeply underrated. Coda goes a long way toward restoring its reputation. That’s a beautiful and rather unexpected 2020 development.

Now, on to my list––and then on to a better 2021.

Honorable Mentions: 76 Days, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, The Assistant, Time, Minari

10 Emma. (Autumn de Wilde)

Full disclosure: For me, rewatching Autumn de Wilde’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma stirs some sentimental feelings, as I vividly recall watching it with my wife — IN AN ACTUAL MOVIE THEATER — just days before COVID necessitated a lockdown. We had little idea of what was to come, and emerged from the cinema with smiles plastered on our faces. For Emma. is a genuine delight, a film of wit and warmth that is lovingly directed by de Wilde and performed with brilliance by Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, and Bill Nighy, among others. This is not “just another” Austen adaptation. Do not sleep on 2020’s sweetest romantic comedy. 

9. The Twentieth Century (Matthew Rankin)

Can a film become a cult classic after its festival premiere, and a year before its actual release? In the case of Matthew Rankin’s The Twentieth Century, the answer is a resounding yes. The absurdist historical comedy won the Best Canadian First Feature Film prize at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, and it is easy to see why. Playfully artificial, dramatically dubious, and hilariously anarchic, Rankin’s feature debut is unlike any other film in memory. And while it can safely be classified as a comedy, it is limiting to think of The Twentieth Century as simply a joke. We become genuinely invested in Mackenzie King’s quest to become Prime Minister of Canada, even as the film reaches new heights of absurdity. 

8. Another Round (Thomas Vinterberg)

I caught the latest collaboration between director Thomas Vinterberg and star Mads Mikkelsen near the end of September’s Toronto International Film Festival, and by that point I was a little movie’d out. Still, I enjoyed it, and hoped for a re-watch. That opportunity came a couple months later, and this time Another Round absolutely knocked me out. This very sharp, very funny look at maturity, marriage, and heavy drinking is a daring and wise look at the disconnect between age and behavior. (As someone who turned 40 in 2020, let’s just say it seemed especially resonant.) Round is anchored by Mikkelsen at the peak of his powers, never more so than at film’s end. The final (dance) sequence is both joyous and profound — just like Another Round.

7. Promising Young Woman (Emerald Fennell)

Thank goodness the calendar year included the release of Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman, a provocative, startlingly resonant revenge drama. And while the twisty script and smart direction from Killing Eve writer Fennell is noteworthy, Carey Mulligan is just as crucial to the film’s success. Strong one minute, wounded the next, but always fiercely in control, Mulligan’s performance is the finest of 2020. From jaw-droppingly fresh musical cues (if you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about) to an ending that is both laugh-out-loud funny and breathtakingly sad, Promising Young Woman is the emotional grenade this year desperately needed. 

6. I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman)

A few minutes into Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, I was thinking of ending things. Specifically, the film itself. It seemed dull and off-putting––and had barely begun. A few minutes later, during one of the many long stretches of roadway dialogue between Jesse Plemmons’ Jake and Jessie Buckley’s Lucy (sometimes?), I was mesmerized. This feeling of wide-eyed interest subsisted through the end of Kaufman’s adaptation of Iain Reid’s novel, and long after. Yes, it is a tense, even stressful view. But it is also a deliriously engaging puzzle. Things is certainly Kaufman’s finest work as a director to date.

5. Ema (Pablo Larraín)

It is a shame that Pablo Larrain’s wild, ambitious story of a dancer, her on-again, off-again significant other, and the child they adopted but gave up seems to be flying under the end-of-year radar. Admittedly, many critics caught the film long ago, during its fall 2019 festival run. (Home viewers had an opportunity when MUBI premiered it for free, one day only, in May.) For me, its impact has lingered. Larrain’s latest effort is often deliberately shapeless. Yet this feeling of messiness creates a hypnotic hold on our minds and emotions. Mariana Di Girolamo gives a performance that deserves to be considered iconic as Ema, an enigmatic character whose passion, flaws, and fire are ever-intriguing. Ema is a beautifully dizzying concoction that will be ripe for re-discovery in the years to come. 

4. Sound of Metal (Darius Marder)

I had been hearing about this one ever since the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, and my goodness, the buzz was warranted. Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal is, quite simply, unforgettable. Riz Ahmed is note-perfect as Ruben, a drummer rapidly losing his hearing, and he is almost matched by Olivia Cooke as his bandmate and girlfriend, Lou. Just as strong is Paul Raci as Joe, a warm but straight-talking Vietnam vet running a community for deaf recovering addicts. There is a conversation late in the film between Ruben and Joe in which the former is asking for help — help that we know Joe will not provide, and that Ruben is ashamed to ask for. It is a riveting and utterly devastating scene. And in typical Sound of Metal fashion, we feel sympathy for both parties. The film culminates in an ending that is one of the smartest and most audacious of the year, and the type of morally complex conclusion most films avoid. All told, Sound of Metal is a harrowing, heartbreaking, immersive experience. 

3. David Byrne’s American Utopia (Spike Lee)

There is a palpable sense of joy in every second of David Byrne’s American Utopia. Spike Lee directs this document of the former Talking Heads’ frontman’s Broadway show with vivid energy and ingenious physicality. Utopia might be the greatest concert film since Stop Making Sense — electrifying, funny, and genuinely moving — but it is also a thematically apt exploration of who we are now. Or, who we were, pre-pandemic. While 2020 was in many ways the year of no-celebration, Utopia brought to the (small) screen a feeling of true jubilation. That is no small feat.

2. Lovers Rock (Steve McQueen) & 1. Education (Steve McQueen)

Each of the five full-length films in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe is, in its own way, extraordinary. Each felt like its own self-contained piece. And yet all three shared common traits and feelings. Above all else, Small Axe is driven by empathy for its heroes and heroines — and appropriate outrage at the world they inhabit. All told, Small Axe is 2020’s finest artistic achievement — and Lovers Rock and Education are its standouts. While Lovers Rock, a captivating dive into an all-night house party (and what comes before and after), is the most joyful, it is Education that hits hardest. It is startling to see a film about a young person that is so believable, so harrowing, and so true. Perhaps not since Truffaut has a filmmaker exhibited such a deft understanding of youth. Education is a triumph, as is Lovers Rock. All five entries in Small Axe demonstrate the pungent, lingering effects of institutional racism. Lovers Rock and Education, especially, are films about the way forward. This is radical, fearless filmmaking — and more than deserving of classification as the finest of 2020. 

From The Film Stage.

Christopher Schobert’s Top 10 Films of 2016 (for The Film Stage)

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It’s always exciting to see my personal top 10 list for 2016 posted at The Film Stage. But it’s always difficult to call it “finished.” Here’s how things stand … at the moment.

Ignore any suggestion that 2016 was not a fantastic year for cinema. Moments linger (the campfire dance in American Honey, the final encounter in Certain Women, the Tracy Letts–Logan Lerman debate in Indignation, the first ten minutes of High-Rise, both “Camelot”-soundtracked sequences in Jackie, any scene that featured Ralph Fiennes in A Bigger Splash) and performances resonate (everyone in Moonlight, Emma Stone in La La Land, Kate McKinnon in Ghostbusters).

Choosing ten favorites and five honorable mentions is nasty business; I wish I could have included Warren Beatty’s Rules Don’t Apply, a ridiculously underrated film that does not deserve to be remembered as a flop. But it just missed the cut. (Also, I was unable to see Silence in time for end-of-year consideration.) What these fifteen films have in common is the ability to surprise, confound, and delight in equal measure. Let’s see 2017 top that.

Honorable Mentions

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10. The Nice Guys (Shane Black)

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The finest film of summer was Shane Black’s non-blockbuster The Nice Guys, a wildly funny, seriously involving slice of 70s noir. Ryan Gosling, Russell Crowe, and (soon-to-be-a-megastar) Angourie Rice are perfectly cast, and somehow the plotline seems fresh. It is such a satisfying viewing experience, in fact, that I found myself desperately hoping that it would kick off a franchise. That’s not to be, but that’s OK — we have The Nice Guys to enjoy forever.

 

9. A Bigger Splash (Luca Guadagnino)

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From start to finish, A Bigger Splash is beautifully disorienting. This tangled web of relationships and insecurities is highlighted by Tilda Swinton’s (voice-resting) rock star, and, of course, by Ralph Fiennes. He is a delightfully gyrating force of nature who is somehow not a lock for an Oscar nom. You’ll never hear “Emotional Rescue” again without picturing his moves. Even when offscreen, Fiennes’s aging record producer feels deeply involved. Clearly, Splash cements Luca Guadagnino’s place on the list of the world’s most exciting filmmakers.

 

8. Sing Street (John Carney)

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Like La La Land, the best moments of John Carney’s Sing Street felt charged by an almost relentless sense of positivity. What makes that accomplishment so remarkable is that much of the film is rooted in poverty, heartbreak, and sadness. That sadness, however, is balanced by some gobsmackingly fun music. And in the “Drive Like You Mean It” sequence, Sing Street truly achieves emotional liftoff. The film also takes the crown for must-own soundtrack of 2016.

 

7. American Honey (Andrea Arnold)

American Honey

Where did American Honey come from? It’s hard not to ask that question while watching Andrea Arnold’s film, an almost indescribably exhilarating teenage road movie. A cast of unknowns (and a never-better Shia LaBeouf) excels at making this crew of magazine-hawking teens seem startlingly real. It’s a long journey — over two and a half hours — but never drags. In fact, Honey seems to fly by, so intoxicating is its mix of fiction and (quasi) reality.

 

6. Paterson (Jim Jarmusch)

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In Paterson, Jim Jarmusch makes the everyday riveting. And much of the credit has to go to Adam Driver, whose bus driver-poet is quite unlike any artist we’ve seen onscreen before. The same can be said of his wife, Laura, played by a luminescent Golshifteh Farahani. It’s the most effortless film of Jarmusch’s career, and certainly the most moving. It also features the most unexpectedly heartbreaking scene of the year, involving Driver, Farahani, a poorly behaved dog named Marvin, and a book of poems.

 

5. The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook)

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The Handmaiden is pure cinema — a tender, moving, utterly believable love story. It’s also a tense, unsettling, erotic masterpiece. There’s a palpable exhilaration that comes from watching this latest film from Park Chan-wook. From its four central performances and twisty script to the cinematography of Chung Chung-hoon and feverish, haunting score by Jo Yeong-wook, The Handmaiden is crafted to take your breath away. It’s hard to imagine a 2016 film with a better look, feel, and sound.

 

4. 20th Century Women (Mike Mills)

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Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women is wise, funny, and wholly original. This is the family drama reimagined, in visually intoxicating fashion. The performances stand out, especially Annette Bening and Greta Gerwig. Yet it’s Mills’ script that resonates strongest; there are a few lines from Bening that seem to capture what it truly feels like to be a parent. Interestingly, it seems 20th Century Women is already underrated.

 

3. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)

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Watching Moonlight is a wondrous experience. This coming-of-age drama following a young African-American male through three complex stages of his life never strikes a wrong note, and it always surprises. Barry Jenkins has crafted something extraordinary here, and it will be fascinating to see what he does next. In the meantime, let’s rewatch Moonlight, a film to be treasured and analyzed for years to come.

 

2. Jackie (Pablo Larrain)

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Pablo Larraín’s Jackie upends the traditional historical drama with bold storytelling, note-perfect performances, and a piercingly smart, emotionally probing script. The film belongs to Natalie Portman, but the entire cast stands out, especially John Hurt. With Jackie (and his other late-2016 release, Neruda), Larrain has deconstructed the film biography, and it’s thrilling to watch. It’s difficult to imagine a film about a recent historical figure that feels as emotionally affecting.

 

1. La La Land (Damien Chazelle)

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Damien Chazelle’s Los Angeles-set musical lives up to the the fall festival hype. And my goodness, that’s saying something. Wonderfully unrealistic, even its flaws (and there are a few) are endearing. The songs, the performances from Gosling and Stone (the look on her face when the Messengers’ burst into life in concert might be the most perfect reaction of 2016), and that opening are unforgettable. But these are all topped by its dazzling final sequence, which sees La La Land practically explode with a mixture of joy and melancholy. The result is a film that leaves the viewer in a state of bliss — high on the feeling that comes from great cinema.

My top 10 films of 2015: Carol, Phoenix, The Force Awakens and more

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It was a strong year in cinema, so strong, in fact, that I could not include many of my 2015 favorites on my top 15 list. Consider a few of the films that did not make the cut: The Duke of Burgundy, What We Do In the Shadows, ’71, While We’re Young, Eden, Paddington, Saint Laurent, It Follows, When Marnie Was There, Timbuktu, Love & Mercy, Brooklyn, Sicario, Creed, The Martian, Inside Out, Tangerine, Amy, The End of the Tour, Mistress America, Goodnight Mommy, Breathe, James White. (If I’d seen The Revenant in time, it’s possible it would have made my top 10. At the very least, it’d be in the top 15.)

Here’s what did make the cut — my top 10 list as submitted to The Film Stage, along with five honorable mentions. My top 15 films are followed by the write-ups I contributed to the site’s top 50 list: The Look of Silence, Clouds of Sils Maria, and Phoenix.

Individual Ballot:
Honorable Mention: Ex Machina, 45 Years, The Tribe, Straight Outta Compton, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
10. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
9. Anomalisa
8. Clouds of Sils Maria
7. Room
6. Son of Saul
5. Mad Max: Fury Road
4. The Look of Silence
3. Phoenix
2. Spotlight
1. Carol

Top 50 write-ups:
19. The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer)
Calling Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence the year’s finest documentary is not inaccurate; the film certainly deserves that crown. Yet it’s hard not to feel like such a classification does Silence a slight injustice. The film is, after all, an overwhelmingly emotional modern classic. Like Oppenheimer’s 2012 masterpiece The Act of Killing, this stunning follow-up features the actual perpetrators of the Indonesian killings of 1965–66. With shocking openness, these men discuss and even demonstrate how they killed. Killing was one of the most powerful films of the last decade, but The Look of Silence is even stronger. This time, Oppenheimer narrows his focus to one man’s tale: an unidentified (for safety reasons) Indonesian eye doctor who talks to the men responsible for the horrific death of his brother. He and the audience discover terrifying truths together. The result is extraordinarily upsetting and startlingly moving. – Christopher S.

8. Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas)
Full of mystery and unforgettable imagery, the wondrous Clouds of Sils Maria finds three individuals – director Olivier Assayas and stars Juliette Binoche & Kristen Stewart – at the peak of their powers. As the cocky, wise-beyond-her-years assistant to a veteran actress, Stewart is more compelling, enigmatic and utterly relatable than ever before. Meanwhile, Binoche is typically enchanting as star Maria Enders. With its attention to character development and simmering emotional complexity, Clouds of Sils Maria is Assayas’s best film to date. At the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, where Clouds made its North American debut, Assayas called the drama “a reflection on the past,” one written as an homage to Binoche. As Maria states near film’s end, “I think I’m lost in my memories.” Rarely has a film about memory and its role in the creative process seemed so breathtakingly human. And rarely has one film featured performances as strong as those of Binoche and Stewart. – Christopher S.

4. Phoenix (Christian Petzold)
There are at least three moments in the stunning, unforgettable post-World War II film Phoenix that will quite literally take your breath away. Two occur near the midpoint of director Christian Petzold’s story of a concentration camp survivor’s attempt to reconnect with the (non-Jewish) husband who believes she is dead and learn whether he betrayed her to the Nazis. Another is the film’s overwhelmingly emotional final scene. When the latter moment occurs, the greatness of Petzold’s achievement is cemented. Phoenix is one of 2015’s finest films and a gloriously complex conversation-starter. Its focus on the intersection of identity and memory brings to mind a number of very good films, from Hitchcock’s Vertigo to Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In, but this tackles the concept with its own ingenuity, emotion, and verve. For stars Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, and Nina Kunzendorf, Phoenix is a triumph. And for director and co-writer Petzold (here scripting alongside the late Harun Farocki), it is a masterpiece, one that elevates him to the upper echelon of international filmmaking. – Christopher S.