Never Gonna Snow Again (2020) Directors: Malgorzata Szumowska and Michal Englert
This haunting, meditative movie got under my skin even as I wasn’t totally sure what it was trying to say, and sometimes felt that the filmmakers were also unsure. More often than not, scenes seemed to exist to establish a certain mood rather than to advance a story. But I didn’t care. The images were strange and beautiful, tinged with magic and sci-fi, and posing questions about life after death, the nature of healing, and climate change. Written and directed by Malgorzata Szumowska and her long-time DP Michal Englert, the film was Poland’s entry for the Oscars for Best Foreign Picture. The story centers on a masseuse, Zhenia (Alec Utgoff), a Ukranian immigrant whose work takes him to a gated suburb on the outskirts of a large city. Zhenia goes from house to house carrying his folding massage table and getting an intimate look into the houses that all look the same from the outside, but whose occupants each carry their own specific pain. In its simplest telling, it’s a story about upper-middle class suburban life, with Zhenia as the all-seeing narrator who draws connections between the families’ shared spiritual malaise. But beneath that structure is a darker and more mysterious tale about humanity’s relationship to a dying planet.
Shiva Baby looks and sounds like a comedy but it’s actually a horror movie about being in your twenties, with a surprising vein of emotion. The film centers on Danielle (Rachel Sennott), a college senior whose Gender Studies major makes her parents anxious as it doesn’t seem to correlate with any specific career. They also don’t like — or even totally believe — that Danielle is bisexual. When Danielle joins her parents for the shiva of a family friend, they coach her on what to say about her future prospects and to be on the lookout for potential job opportunities. It’s funny and awkward and soul-crushing for Danielle, who already feels guilty for her lack of ambition. Danielle also has a secret: she’s a sugar baby, a young woman who is paid for her sexual favors. She tells her parents, who support her financially, that she earns extra money by babysitting; she tells her sugar daddy that she needs the money to pay for college. When her sugar daddy, Max (Danny Deferrari), turns out to be a guest at the shiva, Danielle realizes that the lies she’s been telling everyone are about to be exposed. To make things even more complicated, her ex-girlfriend, Maya (Molly Gordon), is also in attendance.
Little Joe (2019) Writer & Director: Jessica Hausner
I was initially turned off of this movie –and maybe you were, too — when it first appeared in the U.S. in late 2019. It got mixed reviews, including a lot of pans, and I lost track of it in the rush of end-of-the-year releases. I was reminded of when it turned up on Pedro Almodovar’s list of the best movies of 2020 and then, when I saw that it was streaming on Hulu, I decided to give it a try, and I’m so glad I did. It’s an eerie story about the ways humans try to control the natural world, and at first it seems like it’s going to be a high-concept commentary on the danger of GMOS. But then it turns into a kind of meditation on the nature of perception and reality. I can see why a lot of viewers would find it frustrating, but I would have watched it for the color scheme alone.
I’ve yet to see Vanessa Kirby on a big screen, but I know she’s a movie star. Over the past year of pandemic home viewing, she is the actor who has jumped off my living room TV. Whether she’s playing a young Princess Margaret (The Crown), a grieving American woman in contemporary Boston (Pieces of a Woman), or a foreign correspondent in 1930s Moscow (Mr. Jones), she is the actor who captivates you most with her resonant voice and direct gaze. She has done it again in The World to Come, bringing a much-needed liveliness to a film that sometimes felt claustrophobic and glum.
John Lewis: Good Trouble (2020) Director: Dawn Porter
My third-grader is writing a report on John Lewis for Black History Month, so Dawn Porter’s Good Trouble was an obvious choice for family movie night. This documentary came out over the summer, just a few weeks before Lewis passed away. Lewis served as a representative for Georgia’s fifth district from 1987-2020, and it was interesting to review his career in this political moment, after Georgia has elected two Democratic senators for the first time in decades. For much of the country, Georgia turning blue felt like a huge surprise, but for Lewis and his supporters, it was the obvious — if not quite inevitable — result of years of grass roots organization to grow the Democratic party and increase access to the polls. Although Lewis is probably best known for his extraordinary example of nonviolent resistance during the marches in Selma, when he and other activists were brutally attacked by state troopers, Porter’s documentary shows how much of his legacy comes from the work he did in the decades that followed the Civil Rights Era, both as a legislator and as a mentor to budding activists and Democratic leaders.
I’m calling it: Herself is the first movie of the Biden Era. It’s empathetic, kind, and emotionally direct. It’s the kind of movie where characters say things like, “you impress me so much.” It would not have been out of place for anyone to remark, “Here’s the thing about life: there are some days when we need a hand and there are other days when we’re called upon to lend one.” Set in Ireland, Herself centers on a single mother, Sandra, who needs help starting over after leaving an abusive marriage. Her employer, friends, and acquaintances quickly come to her aid, volunteering to help her build a house for her and her two young children. It sounds corny, but isn’t in the least, because director Phyllida Lloyd makes room for the complexity of abusive relationships, as well as the lingering psychological and physical trauma. This isn’t a story where everything is okay in the end, but it is one where people are decent and kind to one another, and do their best to fix what is broken and heal one another.
Identifying Features (2020) Director: Fernanda Valadez Writers: Astrid Roundero & Fernanda Valdez
When two boys head out alone into the world, leaving their mothers behind, you know you’re in the realm of fairy tales. What makes Mexican filmmaker Fernanda Valadez’s new drama so powerful is that she marries the stark emotions and visual imagery of myth with the harsh reality of illegal border crossings between Mexico and the United States. The story centers on Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández), who searches for her teenage son, Jesús, who has gone missing after leaving his rural Mexican hometown with a friend to find work in the U.S. Within the film’s first five minutes, we learn a crucial piece of information that sets Magdalena on her journey. Normally I would feel fine about spoiling that plot development, but the opening scenes of Identifying Features were so immediately compelling that I don’t want to dilute their power.
Beyond The Visible (2019) Director: Halina Dyrschka
In the winter of 2018, I was part of the record-breaking crowds that swarmed the Guggenheim Museum to see Hilma af Klint’s mystical and enigmatic paintings. Like most museum visitors, I had never heard of the Swedish artist before her retrospective at the Guggenheim. Although af Klint is one of modernism’s pioneers, with abstract works that predate Kandinsky and Mondrian, she barely exhibited her work in her lifetime. According to the instructions in her will, her artwork was to be kept out of the public eye until at least twenty year after her death. She also stipulated that they could never be sold. Af Klint died in 1944 at the age of 81, and when her paintings were finally examined in the 1960s, the art world didn’t know what to do with them. Stockholm’s Museum of Modern Art turned them down, not understanding their value. Beyond The Visible argues that the blindness has to do with the fact that af Klint was a woman making explicitly spiritual works. Her genius couldn’t be seen because it wasn’t male.
For the past couple of years I’ve compiled an annual list of movies that are directed or written by women. This year is hard to predict, but here’s a preliminary list to get 2021 off to a good start. I’ll be updating every few weeks. Judging from how much the dates have changed in just the past few weeks I’m guessing these will move around a lot over the course of the year.
This was a good year for female directors. The cynical part of me wants to say that’s because the studios were more likely to release movies made by women in a year of cutting losses. But it may also be the result of efforts to boost equity in the wake of the Weinstein revelations, which occurred in late 2017. If a lot of female-directed/produced movies picked up for distribution after premiering at 2018 and 2019 film festivals, the majority of those titles would start coming out in 2020.
When I was writing this list, I wasn’t sure what should count as a 2020 movie, since the Academy Awards have been pushed back to April. Ultimately, I decided only to include movies that were available via VOD in 2020, so this list doesn’t include some big titles like Regina King’s One Night in Miami and Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland, although I plan to catch up with them when they are released later this month and in February. This list is a reflection of my year, and what I was able to watch on streaming platforms, “virtual” cinemas,” and via screening links. It’s probably a little quirkier than my previous best of lists in 2018 and 2019, but this was an odd year, and I’d guess that the next couple of years are going to continue to be unpredictable as Hollywood figures out what movie-going looks like in a post-COVID world.