2020 will be remembered as the year when the inevitable happened: Streaming officially became a flood. Netflix and other video on demand (VOD) platforms had made their presence as disruptors felt long before this year, posing as existential threats to the business model of movie studios, TV networks and cable providers, but the pandemic and the attendant lockdowns hastened their ascendancy.
VOD is praised mostly for its convenience, but one look at the torrent of content flooding your Netflix homepage makes another effect apparent almost immediately: Never has an entertainment medium been so positioned to be everything for everybody. There’s a Hallmark Channel-like Christmas movie jostling for your attention next to a true crime documentary mini-series, while a Filipino film that got neglected at the cineplexes last year now sports a Top 10 ribbon next to a Hollywood blockbuster that cleaned up at the Oscars two years ago.
That means, just as the pandemic has forced us to isolate from each other, VOD has made it easier for us to retreat into different silos of interest. As CNN film and TV critic Brian Lowry wrote in an analysis piece: “Host a dinner party now (OK, a virtual dinner party), and the odds are pretty good you won't have heard of most shows that other people enjoy, much less watch them. The information superhighway, as it was once called, has led to a digital Tower of Babel.”
That makes formulating a list of the best movies of 2020 an even dicier proposition. At their heart, year-end best-of lists proceed from a premise of shared cultural touchstones, a common standard of what makes for excellent storytelling. But once those touchstones become more and more fragmented, and we can’t even agree on what interests us, how are we supposed to agree on what is excellent to us?
And so, this list comes with a variety of caveats: 1) Each recommendation comes with its own push notification, an identifier of whose interests gel with each title; 2) only movies are covered in this list, so you won’t find splashy zeitgeist avatars like The Queen’s Gambit, thoughtful long-form narratives like Unorthodox or crowd-pleasing, multi-episode docs like The Last Dance here; and 3) the items on the list only come from VOD or over-the-top platforms readily available to Philippine consumers. No pirated or VPN-enabled recommendations—some ethical standards need to remain writ in stone, after all.
➢ For horror movie aficionados: The Invisible Man and His House.
The best horror movies combine real-life fears expressed in stark allegorical terms with sleek technical know-how. These two titles did just that, all while tackling topical, of-the-moment subjects. Title notwithstanding, The Invisible Man is actually the story of Cecelia (a reliably superb Elisabeth Moss), an abused woman who first escapes from and then gets tormented by her technological wizard of an obsessed boyfriend (The Haunting of Bly Manor’s Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Leigh Whannell’s unexpectedly sensitive script and shrewd use of negative space make The Invisible Man the most successfully realized entry in Universal’s rocky efforts to lay a foundation for a universe of movies encompassing the classic monsters in its vaults. (The Invisible Man is available to rent or buy on Apple TV.)
If The Invisible Man is a fable for this #MeToo moment, His House is a terrifying metaphor for the refugee experience. Sope Dirisu and Wunmi Mosaku play Bol and Rial, a couple who escaped genocide from their native South Sudan, only to encounter the banal terrors of bureaucracy, racism and substandard housing in their adopted nation of England. As if that weren’t enough, their generic, government-issued apartment soon plays host to escalating hauntings from ghosts that refuse to be left behind in Africa. As the couple’s marriage crumbles and their house deteriorates, writer-director Remi Weekes uses his story to excavate the nature of trauma and explore the inherent dread of starting life in a foreign land, arriving at a deeply haunting parting shot: The ghosts of the past never really leave us. (His House is available to stream on Netflix.)
➢ For students of Old Hollywood: Mank.
David Fincher’s latest may not be for everyone. In chronicling the life of screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (a grandiose Gary Oldman) and the story of how his script for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane came to be written, Mank demands a fascination with Hollywood’s golden age, a passing knowledge of Depression-era politics in California, and a high tolerance for Fincher’s finicky artistic flourishes. At times, Fincher’s clinical aesthetic and the film’s rarefied milieu threaten to overwhelm Mank. But the script by his father Jack—given an uncredited polish by producer Eric Roth—keeps the focus squarely on the humanity of its flawed hero and the sad relevance of its Establishment machinations to today’s politics. The result is Fincher’s warmest and most urgent film in a long time. (Mank is available to stream on Netflix.)
➢ For fans of cute animal videos: My Octopus Teacher.
It’s easy to fall in love with frisky puppies or fluffy kittens…but what about slimy octopuses? A burned-out filmmaker named Craig Foster retreats to South Africa and soon develops a fascination for a cephalopod living in the kelp forest off the coast near his home. If Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed’s documentary only listed this mollusk’s alien-like physiognomy (apart from possessing one of the largest brains among invertebrates, an octopus has separate brain impulses in each of its tentacles), My Octopus Teacher would never have risen above its National Geographic template. But as the film traces Foster’s deepening bond with his smart and ultimately courageous octopus, it hits unexpected depths of emotion and heart-filling grace notes. My Octopus Teacher leaves us with the lesson that only in communing with nature can we really get in touch with ourselves. (My Octopus Teacher is available to stream on Netflix.)
➢ For those who want to investigate why Black Lives Matter: All In: The Fight for Democracy, Time, and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
This past year saw not only the ravages of COVID, but a reckoning with race that started with the murder of George Floyd and resulted in the repudiation of a divisive American presidency. Institutional racism is an issue with international repercussions, and it is high time we Filipinos educate ourselves about it.
Fortunately, VOD can help with that too. As a primer, I would suggest starting with All In: The Fight for Democracy, the documentary that uses Stacey Abrams’ failed run for governor of Georgia in 2018 to illuminate her advocacy for voters’ rights among minorities. Directors Lisa Cortes and Liz Garbus don’t reinvent the formula of the talking head, but what All In does spectacularly is link the history of depressing the minority vote to the corruption of modern politics. Spanning the inclusion of the 15th Amendment in the Constitution which granted African-American men the right to vote followed by a century of Jim Crow laws, the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, to the efforts of the modern Republican Party to suppress the votes of blacks, Asian-Americans and Native Americans, All In shows us that history isn’t so much a straight line as a cycle of forward leaps and frustrating backslides. (All In: The Fight for Democracy is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.)
From All In’s expansive survey of Black oppression in America, Time tackles the struggle in deeply personal—and through director Garett Bradley’s approach, profoundly poetic—terms. Over a delicate piano score, this documentary bears witness to decades in the life of a Black family as matriarch Sibil Fox Richardson battles the six-decade-long prison sentence of her husband for a botched bank robbery and raises six sons on her own, with each making strides to fulfill their potential as young men with bright futures. Time eschews talking heads and explanatory title cards, resisting the urge to decry the legal and bureaucratic hurdles that Sibil confronts. Instead, it takes every chance to focus on her face—her struggle to rebuild her life as an entrepreneur, to compel her sons to engage with the world and never settle for less, to hold on to her declaration that “Success is the best revenge!”—all the better to see the unchanging fire in her eyes. Time is purpose melded with lyricism, inspiration fused with poetry. (Time is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.)
Those two non-fiction entries frame and deepen Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, playwright August Wilson’s 1984 imagining of a recording session with real-life Blues singer Ma Rainey on a muggy afternoon in 1920s Chicago. “White folks don’t understand about the Blues,” says Viola Davis in her lusty portrayal of the music pioneer, her eye shadow and lipstick slathered like grease paint across her face, her neck and cleavage glistening with sweat. “They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there. They don’t understand that that’s life’s way of talking.” And while life talks, Ma Rainey is at loggerheads with everyone around her: the white manager (Jeremy Shamos) and producer (Jonny Coyne) who want to undervalue her talent to line their pockets; her breeze-shooting band; and in particular, her swaggering trumpet player Levee (Chadwick Boseman in a poignantly charismatic, posthumous portrayal), who has all of her bluster but none of her experience. Director George C. Wolfe can’t entirely escape the stilted mounting that comes with Ma Rainey’s theater origins, but Wilson’s musical dialogue sings to the brutal cost and elemental necessity of art. These three films scratch the surface of a rich mother lode of Black stories; it’s time we Filipinos pushed past our indifferent racism and tapped into it. (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is available to stream on Netflix.)
➢ For those who prefer their documentaries fake: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.
Who knew that there were still ways to lampoon a society bent on lampooning itself? And who knew that it would take bringing out a fake Kazakh journalist from a 14-year retirement to do it? In 2006, when Borat first exposed the ugly extremes of American society, having the Kazakh bumpkin and his obese sidekick brawl naked through a packed convention seemed like the height of high-stakes hilarity. But things have only gotten uglier in America since then, which has given Borat’s creator Sacha Baron Cohen an opportunity for a sequel replete with more trenchant satire and riskier stunts. And as if that weren’t bold enough, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm offers an emotional payoff too: In a harebrained scheme to deliver his daughter Tutar (breakout Maria Bakalova) to VP Mike Pence as a conciliatory gesture—culminating in that infamous prank that left buffoonish Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani having to explain what his hands were doing inside his pants—Borat shows that there is space within his lunacy for an actual character arc. (Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.)
➢ For those who like gritty indies: Never Rarely Sometimes Always and Sound of Metal.
If Eliza Hittman had not written and directed Never Rarely Sometimes Always, it would have made for an earnest after-school special—you know, one of those message movies they used to show after class: A teenage girl (Sidney Flanigan, her darting eyes betraying a composure barely held together) sneaks off with her cousin (Talia Ryder) to New York City from rural Pennsylvania hoping to get an abortion. As it stands, Hittman’s clear-eyed treatment of her heroine only serves to amplify the suspense of each Kafkaesque obstacle thrown her way—from the reproachful anti-abortion video shown to her at her local clinic to a misdiagnosed pregnancy timeline that forces the two girls to rethink their plans—and her grim determination to see her plan through. It’s a quietly harrowing odyssey, and a tearful sequence halfway through in which the title is repeated with implacable regularity speaks volumes as to how alone a young woman can feel today. (Never Rarely Sometimes Always is available to rent or buy on Apple TV.)
Riz Ahmed’s wide eyes serve him in good stead as Ruben, the thrash-metal drummer who is going deaf at the center of Darius Marder’s assured debut Sound of Metal: It’s as if his eyes were taking up the slack for his other failing sense, frantically trying to find ways to keep hold of a world inexorably drifting away from him. And we are right there along with him, as co-writer and director Marder employs supporting actors like Paul Raci (the offspring of deaf parents) to deliver lived-in performances and an immersive sound design that plunks us in the middle of every stage of Ruben’s sorrow. By the time we reach Sound of Metal’s heartbreaking yet oddly uplifting climax, we really do feel like we have been on a journey—one that resonates all the more for the muffled heartbeat at its core. (Sound of Metal is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.)
Photos from IMDB