In film, as in every other area of life, 2020 was a year like no other. However, despite festival cancellations (beginning with SXSW), shuttered multiplexes, and postponed blockbusters, 2020 still yielded a number of noteworthy new films—so many in fact that Museum Films has broken from tradition and selected twenty rather than the customary ten in the post below.
While there is a conspicuous absence of Hollywood product on the following list, American movies make a strong showing, including an indie highlight from one of Oklahoma City’s very own, and films by not one but two former OKCMOA Film Society guests. 2020 also posted strong showings by mid-career and especially emerging female filmmakers from both the U.S. and abroad. This year’s list also displays a great deal of geographical diversity—appropriate for a time in which great cinema can and does come from just about everywhere (making the above lamented lack of Hollywood films far less consequential).
Another notable trend was the quiet resurgence of 16mm film, represented on our list by Fire Will Come, Ghost Tropic and The Two Sights (as well as 2019 pick Martin Eden and 2020 honorable mention The Twentieth Century, currently streaming in our virtual cinema). Long associated with small-scale personal films created outside the commercial industry, this analog medium lends a distinctive grain and luminosity that is evident even on the small screen.
So, in spite of everything, 2020 was a good year for new movies, and that’s not even including a number of 2019 world premieres that appeared on Museum Films’ list from one year ago (viewable here). The moviegoing experience may certainly have lacked for many viewers, but the quality of films did not.
The Assistant (Kitty Green, USA, 2019) Available to stream free via Kanopy with a Metropolitan Library Card.
Ms. Green’s captivating Sundance and Berlin favorite presents the quotidian daily acts of an entry-level film industry employee as she is forced to contribute to a system that makes Weinstein-types—chillingly unseen in the film—possible.
Atarrabi and Mikelats (Eugène Green, France, 2020)
With his signature mix of elegant visuals, naïve performance and cheeky anachronism, inimitable expat auteur Eugene Green draws on Basque mythology to tell the richly textured tale of humble Atarrabi and his wicked brother Mikelats.
Beginning (Déa Kulumbegashvili, Georgia, 2020)
Déa Kulumbegashvili is definitely one to watch after her formally audacious debut, complete with one of the most impressive first takes in any feature filmmaker’s career: a sudden act of violence shakes a religious congregation minutes in to an ordinary worship service.
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (Bill Ross IV & Turner Ross, USA, 2020)
Far more complex than initially meets the eye, this shape-shifting fiction-documentary hybrid from brothers Bill and Turner Ross transforms a real-time chronicle of a Las Vegas dive bar’s final service into a fond and melancholy elegy for a vanishing America.
City Hall (Frederick Wiseman, USA, 2020) Available to stream free via PBS.ORG.
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh emerges as a Wiseman rarity in this surprisingly brisk, nearly-five-hour documentary portrait of big-city governance: a compelling human subject who anchors an archetypal American institution.
The Calming (Song Fang, China, 2020)
There is something quite special in Song Fang’s quiet critical breakthrough, where a surrogate for the female writer-director models our own viewing experience as she passes alone looking at and listening to a succession of richly detailed poetic landscapes.
Days (Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan, 2020) Coming to OKCMOA in 2021.
A high point of this year’s Berlin Film Festival, Tsai Ming-liang’s (Stray Dogs) sublimely sensual, nearly wordless long-take reverie follows Kang (played by the director’s perennial surrogate/muse Lee Kang-sheng) as he seeks physical and emotional solace in the company of a young masseuse.
Deerskin (Quentin Dupieux, France, 2019)
One of the purest, loopiest comedic pleasures of the virtual cinema era, Quentin Dupieux’s Deerskin is elevated by the deranged charisma of Jean Dujardin (The Artist) as a recently-divorced oddball whose killer suede jacket begins to exert a troubling hold on his sanity.
Fire Will Come (Oliver Laxe, Spain, 2019) Available to watch at home in OKCMOA’s Virtual Cinema.
Hailing from the remote mountainous Spanish region of Galicia, this understated and evocative 2019 Cannes prize winner—beautifully shot on 16mm and bathed in misty green-blue—watches as a middle-aged arsonist returns to his steadfastly loving mother and skeptical rural community.
First Cow (Kelly Reichardt, USA, 2019)
A beautifully realized portrait of friendship and hard-won survival in early-19th century Oregon, this career-best breakthrough from Museum Films favorite Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy) is a moving microcosmic exploration of the American dream.
Ghost Tropic (Bas Devos, Belgium, 2019) Available to watch at home in OKCMOA’s Virtual Cinema.
One of 2020’s most luminous and warm-hearted hidden gems, this slight but exquisite 16mm marvel follows a Muslim cleaning woman on a nocturnal odyssey across Brussels after she misses her stop on the last bus home.
House of Hummingbird (Bora Kim, South Korea, 2018) Available to stream free via Hoopla with a Metropolitan Library Card.
A delicate coming-of-age drama set in 1994 Seoul, Bora Kim’s extraordinary debut feature lends an epic sweep to the unseen epiphanies and heartbreaks of an introspective fourteen-year-old girl, played with quiet assurance by Ji-hu Park.
Lovers Rock (Steve McQueen, UK, 2020)
The unequivocal peak of British director Steve McQueen’s powerful five-film historical portrait of London’s West Indian community (collectively entitled Small Axe), Lovers Rock rhythmically unfolds over the course of an underground blues party highlighted by an epic singalong to 1979 hit “Silly Games.”
Malmkrog (Cristi Puiu, Romania, 2020)
Occluded framings through open doorways and a philosophical torrent of words made for one of the year’s most singular viewing experiences in this epic, currently undistributed latest from the Romanian New Wave’s most formidable auteur, Puiu (Sieranevada).
The Salt of Tears (Philippe Garrel, France, 2020) Coming to OKCMOA in 2021.
At this point an old master who has been experiencing a long, late-career renaissance, France’s Garrel returns with one of his most purely entertaining tales of romantic coupling and parting—complete with a liberated heroine who turns the table on the film’s noncommittal male.
Tommaso (Abel Ferrara, Italy, 2020) Available to stream free via Kanopy with a Metropolitan Library Card.
Personal filmmaking of the most expansive and uncompromising variety, the latest from American iconoclast Abel Ferrara stars Willem Dafoe as a lightly fictionalized version of the director struggling to adjust to domestic life with his wife and young daughter as he develops a new film in Italy.
The Two Sights (Joshua Bonnetta, Canada, 2020) Coming to OKCMOA in 2021.
An enchanting work of found-folklore from acclaimed documentarian Joshua Bonnetta (El Mar La Mar), The Two Sights juxtaposes ethereal 16mm images taken in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides with carefully curated soundscapes and the voices of longtime island residents who tell haunting tales of phantom visitors, deathly premonitions, extrasensory perceptions and other strange encounters.
Undine (Christian Petzold, Germany, 2020) Coming to OKCMOA in 2021.
This bewitching Berlin highlight by mid-career German master Petzold is a film of layers and of depths—literally of the historical strata of the Berlin cityscape that mythic heroine Paula Beer brings to life and the murky deep that her human lover Franz Rogowski dives.
The Vast of Night (Andrew Patterson, USA, 2019)
An exhilarating masterclass in low-budget independent filmmaking, the acclaimed debut of Oklahoma City-based filmmaker Andrew Patterson offers an elegant, cerebral and snappily written long-take twist on the classic sci-fi B-movie.
The Woman Who Ran (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea, 2020) Coming to OKCMOA in 2021.
The Woman Who Ran ingeniously finds yet another way of retelling the same story in the space of a single feature—in this case relying on Hong axiom and muse Kim Min-hee to tell friends and acquaintances what’s been going on in her life (when she’s not re-watching the same movie twice in a brilliant self-reflexive aside).