Des Moines Film Society: The Top 10 Films of 2020

Let’s face it: 2020 was a crazy year. The coronavirus pandemic upended normal life as we knew it, while racial unrest shed an even brighter spotlight on the deepening political divisions that have defined the last few years.

 

Meanwhile, movies have rightfully taken a backseat, with the pandemic leading to the closure of thousands of theaters and numerous delays of studio blockbusters.

 

And yet, against all odds, 2020 has yielded a number of great films, many of which premiered on streaming platforms or virtual cinemas (you can access the Des Moines Film Society’s Virtual Cinema here). 

 

Whether this trend towards at-home movie watching is a sign of things to come or a stopgap before the return of theaters is still in question. What’s not in question, however, is the tenacity of filmmakers to keep the art form alive and push the medium ahead with bold and original storytelling.

 

Here, we present our list of the 10 best movies from 2020, all of them as bold and original as this year was unpredictable.

 

* Note: Several 2020 award contenders, including “One Night in Miami,” “Minari,” “Nomadland” and “The Father,” had not received wide releases as of this publication date.

 

 

10. “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution” (dir. Nicole Newnham & James Lebrecht)

 

 

Movements and, indeed, revolutions often start out small.

 

Case in point: the disability rights movement, the genesis of which grew out of a sleepy summer camp in the Catskill Mountains of New York. 

 

Camp Jened, as it was called, was founded in the 1950s to offer a supportive and nurturing community for young people with disabilities. By the early 1970s, counterculture and revolution was in the air in America and found its way to Camp Jened.

 

“Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution” tells an incredible true story, recounting how several campers became activists, launched a movement and, ultimately, fought for accessibility legislation. The documentary unfolds with a palpable sense of immediacy and intimacy, which is no surprise given that one of the directors, James Lebrecht, was himself a disability rights activist who attended Camp Jened (filmmaker Nicole Newnham serves as co-director).

 

Newnham and Lebrecht assemble a remarkable collection of archival footage that traces the transformation of the disability rights movement, from camp-set baseball games and philosophical discussions all the way to sit-in demonstrations and legislative appeals. Contemporary interviews with many of the activists guide the narrative, providing a first-person glimpse into the revolution that, at last, affirmed their dignity.

 

 

9. “Mank” (dir. David Fincher)

 

 

Countless words have been written over the years about “Citizen Kane,” but what about the man behind the words of that legendary movie? 

 

That man, formerly disgraced screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), finally gets the attention he deserves in “Mank,” director David Fincher’s illusory ode to Old Hollywood. 

 

On the surface, the film operates as a standard backlot drama, recounting the many controversies and difficulties that plagued Mankiewicz’ development of the script for “Citizen Kane.” But “Mank” proves to be much more challenging, inscrutable and experimental, not unlike its title character’s mythical screenplay.

 

Fincher freely experiments with timelines and tones, playfully introducing new scenes with screenplay scene headings. Several pivotal periods in Mankiewicz’ life are explored, from the construction of the “Kane” screenplay in the early 1940s to his initial encounters with newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) to a 1934 gubernatorial race that revealed the political poison coursing through Hollywood’s veins.

 

All told, it’s a disorienting and dizzying ride into Hollywood’s past, shot through with striking black-and-white photography and densely stuffed with allusions to social, political and artistic upheaval. Oldman internalizes all this and, through his performance, offers a glimpse into a man simultaneously on the verge of self-destruction and creative transformation.

 

 

8. “Sorry We Missed You” (dir. Ken Loach)

 

 

Legendary director Ken Loach turns his socially critical eye to the modern gig economy in “Sorry We Missed You.” The film, a late-career masterwork from the 84-year-old Loach, follows a British family, the Turners, in financial straits and personal turmoil. 

 

The father, Ricky (Kris Hitchen), jumps at the opportunity to work as a “self-employed” delivery driver, only to find that his supervisor is impossibly demanding and overly eager to issue wage-shrinking fines. Meanwhile, Ricky’s wife, Abbie (Debbie Honeywood), toils as a home care nurse, and their son Seb (Rhys Stone) skips school and vandalizes property, which only adds more cracks to the Turners’ increasingly fragile family foundation.

 

In a lesser filmmaker’s hands, this material could easily devolve into either soul-crushing tedium or sentimentalized treacle. However, Loach avoids both these narrative traps, instead leaning into his neorealist tendencies and simply allowing his story to naturally unravel. The actors’ performances, for example, all feel wonderfully unfussy, infused with unguarded emotions and “in-the-moment” choices.

 

As for the film’s social critique, Loach captures the many challenges of raising a family in the 21st century while never losing sight of the systems that encircle and silence the working class.

 

 

7. “Boys State” (dir. Jesse Moss & Amanda McBaine)

 

 

In a year defined by political division, no other movie better illustrated the gamesmanship of modern-day politics than “Boys State.”

 

The documentary, directed by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, follows the Boys State summer leadership program in Texas, where a thousand high school juniors are tasked with building a representative government from the ground up. 

 

The happenings at Boys State is natural fodder for dramatic tension, as the teenagers form political parties, organize campaigns and even engage in fiery debates. Moss and McBaine capture the chaos of it all while maintaining a sharp narrative focus, zeroing in on a handful of students as they navigate the program’s choppy political waters.

 

One of the film’s breakout stars is Steven Garza, a progressive-leaning student set adrift in a sea of conservative teenagers. His unlikely campaign for the highest office of Boys State, “Governor of Texas,” forms the narrative nucleus for the documentary.

 

The story of Garza’s campaign is so naturally dramatic, in fact, that it’s a wonder it wasn’t scripted. The camera truly feels like a fly on the wall, always in the right moment to capture the next dramatic setback, triumph and twist. 

 

By the time election day arrives in the film, it becomes clear that, at least when it comes to politics, sometimes the adults in the room aren’t adults at all.

 

 

6. “Sound of Metal” (dir. Darius Marder)

 

 

Loss is the central theme in “Sound of Metal,” writer-director Darius Marder’s searing debut about a drummer who loses his hearing and must learn to accept his new reality as a deaf person.

 

Riz Ahmed stars as Ruben Stone, a drummer who performs in a metal duo with his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke). Following a seemingly routine gig, Ruben starts to hear a low, piercing sound — signs of his rapidly deteriorating hearing loss.

 

This loss proves to be too much to bear for Ruben, as it also signals the loss of his work and, indeed, his identity. After some significant coaxing from Lou, Ruben begrudgingly heads to a rural community for deaf recovering addicts (Ruben has a history of drug abuse). Once there, Ruben is forced to start over, learning American Sign Language and, eventually, connecting with the other community members.

 

Ahmed delivers one of the most demanding performances of 2020 as the afflicted drummer. The movie rarely features a shot without Ahmed, who Marder often frames in handheld shots and close-ups that visualize Ruben’s feelings of instability and entrapment. 

 

Ahmed doesn’t flinch away from Marder’s scrutinizing camera, either. Instead, his performance only seems to pull the camera in closer, as he embodies the full range of Ruben’s emotional spectrum, from intense outbursts driven by the fear of loss to quiet moments of stillness that speak volumes.

 

 

5. “First Cow” (dir. Kelly Reichardt)

 

 

In the opening scene of “First Cow,” a woman walking her dog discovers a pair of skeletons, buried side by side.

 

The shocking discovery would serve as a signpost for treachery in any other movie. But for writer-director Kelly Reichardt, the corpses elicit pity and wonder, not fear. 

 

From this simple opening, Reichardt launches us back in time, to the early 19th century in the unsettled frontier of Oregon Country. Our protagonist is Cookie (John Magaro), a soft-spoken chef traveling with a group of loudmouth fur trappers. Cookie soon befriends King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant on the run, with whom Cookie forms a bond and shares his dream of opening a bakery. 

 

The two get their chance to fulfill this dream with the arrival of the first cow in the region and, with it, the first source of milk to bake Cookie’s homemade biscuits.

 

On its surface, this story may seem simple and even a bit uneventful (baking biscuits is not often used as dramatic material in the movies). Yet Reichardt beautifully mines the dramatic tension beneath the plot’s surface, uncovering themes of friendship, history and the American Dream.

 

Reichardt conveys all this through her trademark minimalist style. Employing the Academy aspect ratio, she condenses her compositions into their most essential form, achieving a gentle simplicity that echoes a long-forgotten past.

 

 

4. “Da 5 Bloods” (dir. Spike Lee)

 

 

Spike Lee plunges viewers deep into the jungle of generational trauma in “Da 5 Bloods,” the director’s vibrant and violent Vietnam War epic about the balm of brotherhood.

 

The film focuses on a group of African-American veterans (Delroy Lindo among them, in a towering performance), who reconnect in Vietnam in the present day, decades after the dog days of their service. The group is in search of two things: closure, in the form of their fallen squad leader, and long-overdue reparations, in the form of buried treasure. 

 

Lee directs with free-wheeling intensity, oscillating between the present day and the past with visual flourishes that both expand and contract the passage of time. 

 

Vietnam war-era flashbacks are shot in the boxy Academy ratio with accented film grain, for example, while present-day scenes are framed in spotless widescreen compositions. Meanwhile, the same actors who portray the film’s middle-aged heroes play their younger selves with no makeup or de-aging effects whatsoever.

 

These scenes take on an uncanny effect at first but ultimately prove to be supremely moving. That’s because they break down the romantics and heroics of war, instead zeroing in on the psyches of soldiers and the trauma they carry long after they come home.

 

 

3. “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” (dir. Charlie Kaufman)

 

 

If there was an award for “weirdest” film of the year, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” would certainly take the cake. 

 

The darkly absurdist movie opens innocently enough, as a young woman sets out with her boyfriend to visit his parents on their secluded farm. The woman, played with a disarming mix of awkward charm and despair by Jessie Buckley, has doubts about her relationship, which balloon into existential dread during the trip. 

 

Identities, timelines and reality itself start to collapse in on the young woman’s subconscious, which writer-director Charlie Kaufman conveys with shifting visual textures (including inexplicable costume changes) and ethereal sound design. 

 

The human psyche is familiar territory for Kaufman, who has won acclaim in the past for such mind melters as “Being John Malkovich” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” In “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” however, Kaufman seems most interested in the idea of ideas themselves: Where do our ideas come from, and how much of our thinking is actually our own? 

 

These questions manifest themselves through several crucial scenes, in which dialogue is intentionally lifted from other sources. Kaufman’s characters regurgitate allusions to art, literature and, especially, other movies, to the point that their original selves cease to exist. Kaufman may be arguing that our own minds undergo the same psychological rewiring during the moviegoing process. 

 

Then again, he could just be messing with our heads.

 

 

2. “Soul” (dir. Pete Docter)

 

 

Pixar has never been afraid to address complex themes in its movies, but the animation studio took things to a new level with “Soul.”

 

The movie, directed by Pete Docter, focuses on a middle school music teacher named Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), who finally catches his big break as a jazz musician. On the day he is poised to play the gig of his dreams, he has a near-death experience that separates his soul from his body.

 

Joe soon finds himself in the “Great Before,” a place where unborn souls are given personalities before they enter the world. Here, he is assigned to help a soul named 22 (voiced by a wonderfully wry Tina Fey), who holds a cynical view towards life and is hesitant to experience it.

 

“Soul” is certainly one of Pixar’s most ambitious and visually experimental movies to date. The movie includes mind-bending representations of hypothetical landscapes like the artist’s “zone” and an inter-dimensional escalator to the “Great Beyond.”

 

Still, “Soul” remains sharply focused, grounding its grand ideas in a simple story of personal transformation.

 

Buoyed by an evocative soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (with jazz compositions by Jon Batiste), “Soul” is a moving tribute to the transformative power of music and a thoughtful meditation on the spark that lights our lives.

 

 

1. “Small Axe” (dir. Steve McQueen)

 

 

To say that an anthology of made-for-TV movies is the best film of the year may seem unusual, but 2020 was an exceedingly unusual year.

 

Simply put, “Small Axe” transcends cinema and, yes, television. Set during the 1960s and 1970s, the anthology (or miniseries, as some have called it) focuses on the lives of West Indian immigrants in London, spotlighting racial unrest and discrimination, as well as lived-in moments of exquisite beauty and cultural specificity.

 

Ranging from courtroom drama to romance to police procedural, each of the five films in “Small Axe” is wholly unique and could certainly stand alone. However, when taken as a whole, the sum of “Small Axe” becomes greater, forming a richly layered mosaic of human experience, giving voice to a community that had largely been overlooked by history.

 

The cohesive strength of “Small Axe” can be attributed to Academy Award-winning filmmaker Sir Steve McQueen, who directed and co-wrote all five films in the anthology. 

 

Working with cinematographer Shabier Kirchner, McQueen brings each story to life through a vibrant yet unobtrusive visual design, planting us in the middle of a highly specific moment in time with highly specific visual and sonic textures.

 

A London-born son of West Indian immigrants, McQueen evidently borrowed from his own life experience and the experiences of others to create “Small Axe,” which often takes on the intimacy and introspection of auto-ethnography. 

 

By the end of “Small Axe,” it becomes clear that McQueen didn’t just want to tell these stories; he needed to tell them. Letitia Wright, one of the films’ cast members, recalled that McQueen had said he embarked on this project because “the window for our elders’ stories to be told is closing.”

 

The fact that “Small Axe” wedged that window open at all is an unlikely triumph of the highest order.

 

— Clinton Olsasky