Ten best international films of 2020, from Sound of Metal to I'm Thinking of Ending Things
Sound of Metal, I'm Thinking of Ending Things, Swallow, Ema, La Llorona — If one of your New Year's resolutions is to watch all the great movies you missed in 2020, you have come to the right place.
If not for the virus that shan't be named and if the year had gone according to plan, we would probably be talking about Dune right now. The movie may even have featured in this year-end list, alongside the likes of Bergman Island, Memoria, The Green Knight, and The French Dispatch. Of course, this is not a list of what could have been.
Despite these notable absences, 2020 was still a pretty great year for cinema. Indeed, the absence of high-profile films and blockbusters shook up the economy for exhibitors. Theatres were shut down for a large part of the year. On reopening, most moviegoers were (and are) still hesitant to risk their lives, and understandably so. Thereupon, Hollywood scrambled to save all their best superheroes and nostalgia-bait for 2021. The only studio which dared to release a film amid a pandemic was Warner Bros, and Tenet's box-office failure meant they had to explore alternative revenue-generating possibilities. Boy, did they come up with a disruptive model.
But the absence of tentpoles allowed the indies to make their mark and new filmmakers to emerge. Accordingly, this list features plenty of first-time filmmakers. There wasn't just one definitive standout. The love was spread around. So, if one of your New Year's resolutions is to watch all the great movies you missed in 2020, you have come to the right place.
Note: The following titles were screened on a streaming or festival platform in India. You might notice some conspicuous absentees like Beanpole, Pain and Glory, Parasite, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Though they released in the country this year, they have been excluded because
1. everyone's celebrated them enough since Cannes 2019, and
2. they were already considered for last year's list.
10 | Babyteeth
On paper, Babyteeth sounds like just another entry in Hollywood's cancer tearjerker industrial complex. You know: a boy and a girl fall in love, the girl suffers from cancer and will die before the credits, but not before serving YOLO-type lessons. Only, this isn't a Hollywood treatment. Aussie debutant filmmaker Shannon Murphy distances herself from the overly sentimental incontinence of these stories by eliminating the explicit presence of the disease. Milla (Eliza Scanlen) isn't lugging around her oxygen tank with a tube up her nose. Like Murphy, Milla wants to break the mould. She does it by bringing a little chaos to her overprotected life. The chaos goes by the name of Moses (Toby Wallace). Their love is an ode to the euphoria that comes from losing control. Fleeting, yes. But sublime too. Just like the movie.
9 | Sound of Metal
Another debut. Another equally resonant drama. Darius Marder follows a metal drummer and a recovering addict who slowly begins to lose his hearing. Ruben is a man trying to fight his battle silently from within. So, it's as much a battle to take control of what's between his ears. Riz Ahmed finds the rhythm of this melancholy in a perfectly calibrated performance, which deepens the sounds of silence. The film is also an excellent showcase for Nicolas Becker, whose sound design injects a real echo to the drama.
8 | A Sun
A Taiwanese family tries to rebuild their lives following the arrest of their youngest son and the death of their oldest in Chung Mong-hong's new feature. It is a story of how same motives can provoke different choices. In these choices are a larger, more powerful comment on the socio-economic realities of a middle-class family, told with a Kore-eda-like sensitivity. Mong-hong's use of lighting illuminates a story full of contrasts, between violence and tenderness, grief and joy, fear and courage, sin and redemption, and love and tragedy.
7 | La Llorona
Former Guatemalan dictator Enrique Monteverde, recently acquitted of genocide, is haunted by the vengeful ghosts of his victims. Jayro Bustamante's retelling of the Latin American legend is told from the perspective of all the women who have had to suffer for Monteverde's sins, from the native Mayans to his wife, daughter, and granddaughter. Hiding from the masses of protestors demanding justice outside his home, Monteverde's guilty conscience manifests within dreams and visions. Things take a supernatural turn on the arrival of a mysterious new maid. The slow and sinuous camera movements convey the unspoken and unseen, enhancing the atmospheric horrors.
6 | Ema
Pablo Larraín transforms a domestic drama about a young dancer (Mariana Di Girolamo) and her choreographer husband (Gael García Bernal) into a sensory experience about female empowerment. Torn between the freedom of youth and the responsibilities of adulthood, Ema devises a plan to reunite with the child she hastily abandoned and rebuild her family in her own way. The film captures the pulse of a woman's rebellion with the rhythms of reggaeton. Impromptu orgies and flamethrowers also make an appearance in her liberation anthem. Fire becomes a symbol of redemption and purification: a way to destroy the world to rebuild it.
5 | Bacurau
In a remote Brazillian village, residents begin to mysteriously disappear. The remaining population becomes targets for a group of hunters on some kind of a human safari. Packaged in an edgy Western setting, Bacurau is enthralling from start to end, as even its most brutal scenes are undercut with satire. Kleber Mendonça Filho's follow-up (co-directed by Juliano Dornelles) to Aquarius is a razor-sharp critique of American hegemony. Though it was filmed before Jair Bolsonaro came into power, it is hard not to see it also as a denunciation of the nationalist excesses that characterise his regime.
4 | Swallow
When a bored young housewife (Haley Bennett) becomes pregnant, she begins to consume dangerous objects. In Carlo Mirabella-Davis's debut feature, an eating disorder embodies the anxiety of a woman trapped in the suffocating routines of an insidious patriarchy. Similar to cannibalism and coming-of-age in Raw, pica in Swallow signals a way for its heroine to assert her agency by challenging the limits of her own body. As described in the Firstpost review, "Each object she swallows empowers her, gives her a sense of ownership. They get bigger and sharper because she seeks physical pain to cushion her increasing psychological torment. When she swallows the object, it and that moment belong to her. They're the only things she can call her own, that she can control.”
3 | About Endlessness
A priest with a crisis of faith has a recurring nightmare of being crucified. A couple fly over a city in ruins. Adolf Hitler and his loyal deputies spend their final days in a bunker. A father ties his daughter’s shoes. Roy Andersson, the master of lo-fi absurdist cinema, presents another assortment of tragicomic vignettes about life, love, existence and death. And he hits the mark yet again in another riveting study about the eternal paradoxes of the human condition. Though they're all painted in his Nordic scepticism, they are never without hope.
2 | Time
Filmmaker Garrett Bradley reflects on the meaning of time in the context of crime in the year's best documentary. In 1997, Fox Rich and her husband Rob were arrested for trying to rob a bank. Though she was released in less than four years, Rob received a far harsher sentence of 60 years. As she begins a dogged campaign to get him out of prison, she also records home videos of their six children. These videos not only fill the void left by their father, but also bear witness to their mother's crusade against a flawed justice system.
1 | I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Like Roy Andersson, Charlie Kaufman too is perpetually obsessed with lonely souls and existential ills. Their differences lie in form. If Andersson uses static frames and a rigid format in the absurdist vignettes of About Endlessness, Kaufman pushes the boundaries of narrative storytelling in I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Adapted from a novel by Ian Reid, the new film from Kaufman abandons linearity for mood and atmosphere. Jessie Buckley plays a young woman who joins her boyfriend to his parents' secluded farmhouse. It's the entry point to a vertigo of anxieties, as Kaufman constructs a world both familiar and nightmarish. It's a mindfuck that truly belongs on Netflix, because we get to rediscover its magic again and again, and discover things we missed the first time.
Honourable mentions: A White, White Day, Blow the Man Down, Dick Johnson is Dead, The Forty-Year-Old Version, Mank
Films worth seeking out on DVD/Bluray: First Cow, Kajillionaire, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Possessor, Shirley
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