2020 was an odd year for movies. Cinemas closed; festivals were canceled; an entire world of film shifted virtual. Almost every anticipated production to be released in 2020 was halted, such as Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch and Denis Villeneuve’s Dune. Toward the end of the year, Warner Brothers made the decision to release all of their upcoming movies on HBO MAX, alluding to the slow downfall of the cinema. But it wasn’t all that bad. Large blockbusters were delayed until 2021, opening the window for a slate of smaller indie films to compete in awards season. Filmmakers found creative ways to keep the cinematic soul intact. This article outlines several American films released this year which have been missed by many members of the public.
David Byrne’s American Utopia (Spike Lee)
The theater was one of 2020’s many victims. As a result, many theater pieces found their way to streaming services, with the global phenomenon Hamilton being the catalyst. But Hamilton overshadowed the musical and artistic brilliance of David Byrne’s American Utopia. David Bryne, a leading member of the legendary band “Talking Heads,” stars in this wonderfully childlike and joyous musical expression. Shot through the keen eye of the equally legendary filmmaker Spike Lee, there is not a moment of American Utopia that doesn’t inspire dance.
First Cow (Kelly Reichhardt)
A pioneer in contemporary slow cinema, Kelly Reichardt returns to the 19th century with an engaging economic innocence. In First Cow, the rivers, the yellow mushrooms, and the tiny geckos feel as integral to the story as the characters. It is a critical subversion of the myths that pervade the American Western, all while treating its subjects with gentle care. It contrasts blazing saddles and clanking spurs with lush landscapes and the quiet pleasures of domestic life.
Minari (Lee Issac Chung)
Despite what the Golden Globes might have you think, Minari is an unabashedly American movie, despite most of the dialogue being in Korean. Basked in a dreamy haze and a spellbinding score, Minari disguises itself as a movie about the American Dream. Rather, it is a tender examination of the impact that illusion has on a family. The way the film composes Arkansas, but more essentially America, is both poetically harmonious and quietly berating.
Nomadland (Chloe Zhao)
Chloe Zhao understands how fragile the line is between documentary and fiction. A meditation on the American southwest and an exposition of financial apathy, Nomadland finds its cast in RV parks instead of Juilliard. Frances McDormand, one of the two established actors in this otherwise humble film, gives the performance of her career. She plays Fern, a widowed drifter who roams around Nevada not out of wanderlust, but an earnest detachment to any place.
Soul (Pete Doctor)
The beautiful thing about Pixar is that it grows up with us. Toy Story is undeniably a children’s movie. But Soul, Pixar’s latest venture into contemplative existentialism, feels like a movie for people who grew up with the studio. It’s clever and mature, an ode to the smaller things—to jazz, pizza, barbers, and ginkgo leaves. After Inside Out, Up, Monster’s Inc., and now Soul, there’s no denying that Pete Doctor is among the greatest directors living today.
Time (Garrett Bradley)
Told over 20 years, composed in a combination of super 16 home video and professional digital footage, Time tells the story of Fox Rich’s fight to raise her 6 kids and bring her husband home for prison. It is inherently a work of abolitionist cinema, Garrett Bradley shoots the American prison system as an object of modern-day slavery. Unlike most documentaries on mass incarceration, Time is interested in the personal repercussions of systemic inequality. It is sincere and bittersweet, with the movie repeatedly cutting back to a black and white image of Fox and Robert Rich, two criminals, kissing free.
Honorable Mentions: City Hall (Frederick Wiseman); Palm Springs (Max Barbakow); Mank (David Fincher); Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee); Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman); Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (Jason Woliner)