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Wednesday, Jan 19, 2022

A film critic’s favorite films of 2020

<span class="photocreditinline"><a href="https://middleburycampus.com/staff_profile/sarah-fagan/">Sarah Fagan</a></span>

With one exception, almost all of my favorite films released last year were hauntingly prophetic in the ways they tackled our country’s contemporary struggles. It is hard to believe, for instance, that “The Trial of the Chicago 7” and “One Night in Miami’ were shot long before the coronavirus pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, the end of the 2020 election and the storming of the United States Capitol. This was a turbulent, brutal year whose films deftly reflected the anxieties of our everyday lives. 

At the same time, however, none of the movies on my list sacrificed the pleasure principle — the axiom that stories are meant to delight and instruct. Bluntly, I learned a lot about RVs in “Nomadland,” and some parts of Christopher Nolan’s time-travel thriller “Tenet” could even be described as fun, albeit after a beer or two. 

But, to paraphrase Matthew 16:26: For what is a movie profited if it is well-made, but has lost its own soul?

Without further ado, the ten best movies of 2020. 

“Emma” dir. Autumn de Wilde

Autumn de Wilde’s take on Jane Austen’s “Emma” is my favorite film of the year. Bathed in dappled duds and emerald hillocks, the film’s direction channels Wes Anderson as much as it does the elegantly dense early 19th century novel on which it is based. Following the matchmaking schemes of protagonist Emma Wodehouse (Anya Taylor Joy), the film recounts the ways love misdirects itself. 

All of the novel’s main players are perfectly adapted to the screen, but it is Anya Taylor Joy’s understated, blankly camp portrayal of Emma Wodehouse that puts this film in the top spot. How Joy details her character’s vanity through small moments astounds — a quick poke which opens up a carriage window, a sob after a nosebleed, the gnawing of a strawberry to express mild amusement. These are all perfect embodiments of Jane Austen’s most irritating and all-too-human protagonist. 

I could go on about why I love this movie. Let’s give the last word to our leading man Mr. Knightley, instead: “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.”

“Martin Eden” dir. Pietro Marcello

“Martin Eden” is adapted from one of the seemingly few Jack London novels that doesn’t feature dogs, but there is a hunger in the titular protagonist’s sneer that certainly suggests something wolfish beneath his good looks. Luca Marinelli plays Martin Eden, a down-and-out sailor with a talent for social climbing in 20th century Italy. He falls for Elena, a débutante from a prominent Naples family. After Elena convinces Eden that he must become educated, Eden soon finds himself addicted to literature, eventually getting some of his own poems and short stories published. 

Every 10 minutes or so in “Martin Eden,” a black-and-white vignette flashes across the screen: two children fox-trotting, bathers jumping off cliffs, the rolling of a train into a crowded station. But when we leave these fragments to return to the main story, director Pietro Marcello sometimes shifts the time period we’re in. Some moments suggest Italy in the 1950s or 60s — Eden watches cartoons with his nephew and later picks up a woman at a discotech. 

Equally disturbing is Eden’s growing disillusionment with socialism in favor of something more sinister. He uses his talents as a writer to propose a political path forward for Italy that rejects “slave mentality” and — more explicitly — “usury.” Something is rotten in the state of Italy, and the sweet visuals and compelling love story at the center of “Martin Eden” never undermine the loss of its protagonist’s moral compass. 

“One Night in Miami” dir. Regina King

 “One Night in Miami,” directed by Regina King, recounts a party hosted by the civil rights activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir). The three other guests: Cleveland Browns fullback Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), soul singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom, Jr.) and a certain boxing champion named Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), whose ruminations on a possible conversion to Islam (and a new name that floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee, etc.) take center stage in the film’s first act. 

The four men meet in a motel. They enjoy vanilla ice cream. They drink. The party ends. Credits roll. 

But, of course, “One Night in Miami” is really about its characters’ words, words, words. Equally deft when discussing politics and pop culture, King’s movie is the rare film based on a play that, like Malcolm’s party of four, doesn’t overstay its welcome.

“News of the World” dir. Paul Greengrass

 Tom Hanks is, in many ways, the 21st century’s Cary Grant. In a career now spanning four decades, Hanks’ performances have been consistently likable, thoughtful and outright conscientious, even though they don’t necessarily flaunt their genius. He’s great, as usual, in “News of the World,” Paul Greengrass’s Western about itinerant former Civil War veteran Jefferson Kyle Kidd, who makes a living reading newspapers aloud to crowded town halls in Reconstruction-era Texas. By chance, one day, Kidd is asked to safely deliver an orphan named Joanna to her relatives. A story about the trauma of war, “News of the World” also functions as a meditation on the nature of storytelling in an era of fake news. 

My other six favorite movies released in the U.S. during 2020, listed in no particular order, are “The Personal Memoirs of David Copperfield,” “Mank,” “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” “I Care a Lot,” “Les Misérables” (not the musical), and “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.”


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