I believe the most monumental work of art released in 2020 so far — and the one that best speaks to our turbulent times — is Bob Dylan’s astonishing new album Rough and Rowdy Ways. A work of seemingly bottomless depth, it creates a haunting liminal space where past, present and future overlap (it’s no coincidence that the first line of the first song is “Today and tomorrow and yesterday too”). If you haven’t yet listened to it, I would advise spinning it a few times and giving it your full attention — as you would if reading a book or watching a movie. You can listen to the whole thing for free on YouTube here.
Having said all that, I think it’s been a pretty damn good year for cinema so far too (in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic). Below are a list of favorite films that either first screened theatrically in Chicago in the first half of 2020 or that first became available to watch via various “virtual cinemas.” I’ve linked to my original reviews where applicable and added some thoughts on other films that I haven’t yet written about elsewhere. Enjoy.
10. Queen of Lapa (Collatos/Monnerat, Brazil)
“…a tone of quiet authenticity that can only be achieved when an unusually high degree of mutual trust is established between filmmaker and subject. It’s a compassionate and non-sensationalistic look at the inside of a subculture that most viewers will be unfamiliar with.” Read my Cine-File Chicago review here.
9. Fourteen (Sallitt, USA)
“…impressively conveys a sense of the ebb and flow of life as it is actually lived, felt and remembered — and provides a devastating reminder of how time gets away from us all.” Read my Cine-File Chicago review here.
8. Joan of Arc (Dumont, France)
Most Joan of Arc movies, including Carl Dreyer’s celebrated silent film, feature actresses that are too old for the lead role. Otto Preminger remedied that by casting the “age appropriate” Jean Seberg when he made Saint Joan in 1957. But only Bruno Dumont would cast an actress who is far too young for the part (the great 10-year-old Lise Prudhomme), a wacky decision that pays off by conveying a sense of Joan’s “saintliness” in a way that no post-adolescent actress, no matter how talented, ever could.
7. Shakedown (Weinraub, USA)
“…confronts viewers with an exhilarating montage of footage that frequently takes on a rude, hallucinatory beauty, punctuated by a wealth of still photographs and promotional flyers characterized by a cheesy-but-amazing early-2000s Photoshop aesthetic.” Read my full Cine-File Chicago review here.
6. Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Hittman, USA)
This urgent abortion-rights drama features the same slightly moody/dreamy vibe of Eliza Hittman’s previous films but marries it to a much improved narrative sense. Both lead actresses are amazing.
5. I Wish I Knew (Jia, China)
“…the whole of this documentary, a deceptively simple accumulation of personal ‘oral histories’ not unlike a filmic version of Studs Terkel’s interview books about Chicago, ends up being greater than the sum of its parts. Read my full Cine-File Chicago review here.
4. Zombi Child (Bonello, France)
“The way these two stories dovetail in the film’s climax adds up to a critique of racism, ‘othering’ and the commodification of culture that is at once subtle, subversive and devilishly clever.” Read my full Time Out Chicago review here.
3. Bacurau (Dornelles/Mendonca, Brazil)
I feel like this crazy-ass genre mash-up cum anti-capitalist allegory was made just for me.
2. Tommaso (Ferrara, Italy/USA)
Abel Ferrara’s most personal movie, Willem Dafoe’s finest performance.
1. (tie) Hill of Freedom / Yourself and Yours (Hong, S. Korea)
Jean-Luc Godard famously said that all you need to make a film is “a girl and a gun.” Hong Sang-soo might amend that to “a man, a woman and a bottle of soju.” These two delightful features (which originally premiered in 2014 and 2016, respectively) just belatedly turned up in the U.S. thanks to Cinema Guild and Grasshopper Films and they make for one hell of a double feature: They represent Hong at his most narratively ambitious and formally playful. Watch ’em with someone you love.
Honorable mention for short films: Spike Lee’s New York New York and 3 Brothers (both of which I preferred to Da 5 Bloods), Eric Marsh’s brilliant video essay TELEPHONE FOR LIEUTENANT COLUMBO and Jean-Marie Straub’s France Against Robots.