By Andrea Thompson
2020 was a complicated year to the say the least, one I can’t imagine feeling nostalgic for or wanting to repeat. But silver lining? A whole lot of films that may not have ordinarily got enough attention didn’t just get the buzz they deserved, they were front and center in the film conversation. Now if only movie theaters could safely open up…right, right, focusing, focusing. Anyway, this could be the year when indie films actually get their due. Below are the films, indie and otherwise, that I feel represent the best of cinema in 2020.
10. The Half of It
The last time Alice Wu directed a film was in 2004 with the groundbreaking lesbian romcom “Saving Face,” so it probably explains why “The Half of It” is bursting with creativity, with references ranging from “The Philadelphia Story” to Sartre, Camus, Kazuo Ishiguro, and plenty more. And it’s all courtesy of a love story that unfolds after the teenage Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) agrees to write a letter to Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire) on behalf of jock Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer), only to start falling for Aster herself while also forming a friendship with Paul. As “The Half of It” warns, no one may get what they want, but the film is also a tribute to artistry which blooms in a less than welcoming environment, where those who seem to have nothing in common have a tendency to find what they need nevertheless.
9. Dick Johnson Is Dead
What do you do when the father you adore begins to show signs that he’s nearing the end of his life? In the case of director Kirsten Johnson and her father Dick Johnson, you make a documentary about it. And you stage his death, multiple times and in many creative ways for the benefit of the camera. Believe it or not, the sum total of this endeavor by a supremely lovable father and daughter duo for the ages is a beautiful tribute to their loving, close-knit relationship, even as they both acknowledge that a force stronger than both of them will soon lead to a very final parting of the ways.
8. Da 5 Bloods
The impetus for the group of Vietnam veterans to reunite in the country once torn apart by war is supposedly a treasure hunt, but there’s far more than buried gold awaiting them in the jungle, where land mines still lie in wait for unsuspecting victims. Especially refusing to be ignored is unfinished business with the leader they all revered, Stormin’ Norman, indomitably played by Chadwick Boseman, who failed to survive the war. Spike Lee refuses to look away as each man grapples with his demons and other, no less dangerous forces in one of his most urgent films in his long career, which shows no sign of slowing down.
7. The Assistant
There’s blood in the water at the toxic, sexist workplace Jane (Julia Garner) navigates daily, but it’s mostly just another day as she works with little notice or reward…until she is faced with the reality she can no longer ignore. Kitty Green’s study of a system that enables predators is less about the men who do the most damage, in this case completely off-screen, than the people who look the other way, some far more willingly than others.
What exactly is lost when a loved one is imprisoned? The title makes it seem obvious, as Fox Rich struggles to free her husband, who remains jailed for a robbery they both committed out of desperation, but the documentary takes a surprisingly poetic turn as it explores what is taken and what remains despite everything. Director Garrett Bradley takes it for granted that the Rich family deserves compassion rather than condemnation as it juxtaposes Fox’s present reality with the many moments her husband misses as their children grow up without their father and she faces the indifference of a system which disregards the humanity of those caught in the grips of it.
The American Dream never seems to remain anything less than tantalizing for being out of reach. Whether or not the Korean family will achieve a version of it after immigrating to 1980s Arkansas almost seems beside the point, so tenderly does Lee Isaac Chung portray each and every family member and their struggles. We respect patriarch Jacob’s (Steven Yeun) unflinching drive even as we worry it will tear his family apart, and we likewise feel nothing but compassion as they all struggle to adapt to a place so different from what they’ve known. On-screen love has seldom been so complicated, and so worth watching.
The firestorm that “Cuties” inspired is the kind of press no one would want, but tragically lost is the fact that Maïmouna Doucouré made an incredible film about a girl who is caught between extremes. For 11-year old girl (Fathia Youssouf Abdillahi) named Amy, obedience and hellfire are the watchwords at home, where she and her mother are preparing for her father to return home from Senegal…with his second wife. Faced with her own impending womanhood, she is drawn to a dance team comprised of girls her own age, and is soon leading them in increasingly provocative dance routines. Doucouré refuses to condemn Amy as she fumblingly attempts to find her own way towards true freedom, with some glimpses of magical realism on the way.
Merawi Gerima’s criminally underrated directorial debut follows a neighborhood under siege by a growing, hostile force: gentrification. Seen through the eyes of director surrogate Jay (Obinna Nwachukwu), he returns to his childhood home to find it nearly unrecognizable and his best friend missing. The truly chilling part about “Residue” isn’t just the literal erasure and renaming of a place to suit the needs of the affluent, it’s the sheer entitlement of those who demand such things…then tell you to have a nice day.
2. Miss Juneteenth
For her feature directorial debut, Channing Godfrey Peoples went bold by giving us characters and a premise we thought we knew and upending both. Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie) is a single mother and former beauty queen who pushes her clearly reluctant daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) to take part in and win the beauty pageant of the title. The result is a loving depiction of a mother-daughter bond despite their differences and a tribute to unconventional community leaders and the communities they nurture.
1. First Cow
The words original sin is tossed around a lot when discussing“First Cow,” and Kelly Reichardt’s masterpiece does indeed call out much of the inherent evil of America’s origins, which promises a fresh start to those who believe in its promises, only to rob them of a chance before they can even begin. The story may not change, but “First Cow” would rather hold on to the epic friendship and love some manage to find despite an environment that rewards apathy at best, and cruelty at worst.