First Cow (2020), Dir. Kelly Reichardt
In 1820, on the Oregon frontier, a cook for a group of fur trappers named Cookie (John Magaro) meets King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant on the run. With the arrival of the first and only cow in the territory, Cookie and King-Lu hatch a plan to steal its milk in the middle of the night and use it to make sweet, donut-like biscuits called oily cakes. As the cakes’ growing popularity brings financial success, it also increases the likelihood that their secret will be discovered.
First Cow was well-received by critics upon its release, but did not catch the eye of awards voters or the general public in the same way. Such a reception is not entirely surprising. With its straightforward plot and 4:3 aspect ratio, First Cow is, quite literally, a small film — gentle, quiet, and unassuming in its premise and characters. Deeply in conversation with the natural world, First Cow explores the inverse relationships and inherent conflicts between human expansion and nature’s flourishing, between greed and contentment, between individual profit and reciprocal companionship. That the film manages to convey all this with its relatively sparse dialogue and simple story is a testament to Reichardt’s direction, the visual richness of each shot, and Magaro and Lee’s nuanced performances. Like its protagonists or the oily cakes they bake, First Cow contains much more than may appear at first glance. – Emma Ward
Vampires Vs. The Bronx (2020), Dir. Oz Rodriguez
With the Bronx as this movie’s backdrop, a group of community-minded teens decide to take back their neighborhood from gentrifiers, well vampires, but in Vampires Vs. The Bronx, they’re one and the same. Miguel (Jaden Michael), whose neighbors refer to him as “Lil’ Mayor,” along with his best friends Bobby (Gerald W. Jones III) and Luis (Gregory Diaz IV) uncover a deep-running plot by vampires to buy up property across the Bronx and use the borough as their feeding ground. The boys find unlikely allies in the fight to save their neighborhood, such as Miguel’s crush and vampire expert Rita (Coco Jones), and local influencer Gloria (Imani Lewis). Vampires Vs. The Bronx showcases the power of community in a heartfelt and hilarious take on social commentary. Plus, the Blade (1998) references are pretty great too. – Nicole Sanacore
David Byrne’s American Utopia (2020), Dir. Spike Lee
CW: Mention of police brutality
My favorite moment in a 2020 film comes from David Byrne’s American Utopia. The first is the “Born Under Punches” sequence. David Byrne and his band play one of the greatest songs of all time, the opening song to the Talking Heads’ essential Remain in Light album. He introduces each member of the band, as they start to play each element of the song, one by one. Every piece of unique percussion is heard as Byrne continues to introduce them, the groovy, bone-rattling bass by Bobby Wooten is added to the mix, and then that blissful funky guitar played by Angie Swan comes in, and I realized that this song has not aged a day in terms of sound.
David Byrne has not lost an ounce of energy as he’s gotten older. While he can’t run laps around the stage as he once did in the legendary concert film Stop Making Sense (1984), he still is laughing, singing, and dancing with the same electricity as he had then, and every band member has that same joy and excitement for the music they are playing as Byrne does. Spike Lee’s direction showcases that as well, with brilliant camera placement, showcasing the best of the blocking on the Broadway stage, never making the stage feel cluttered. The film’s smooth editing and cuts alongside the camera placement help showcase the movement of the performers, never once treating them as an afterthought or losing them in the film, they’re just as important as Byrne is.
American Utopia showcases why David Byrne is still beloved as an artist, and the affecting cover of Janelle Monae’s anti-police protest song “Hell You Talmbout” showcases some of Spike Lee’s strongest moments as a director, paying tribute to the innocent Black people such as Emmett Till, Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin, and Breonna Taylor who died at the hands of police. One of the best concert films I’ve seen of the past few years. – Jakob Sanchez
Bacurau (2019), Dir. Kleber Mendonça Filho, Juliano Dornelles
Released to UK audiences in March 2020, Barcurau is a bizarre and hypnotic quasi-western set in the Brazilian backcountry. Strange events plague the small town after the passing of an elderly matriarch, building to a brutal and bloody ending. Bacurau draws on present-day Brazilian politics and anti-colonialism in this genre-blurring drama, masked by twists and ambiguous nods to drug-induced hallucinations, the supernatural, and aliens. Bacurau is an epic viewing experience, one that will leave you dazed and confused. – Charlotte Little
“What the f-ck is going on in this town?”
Babyteeth (2020), Dir. Shannon Murphy
Shannon Murphy put herself on the map with directorial debut Babyteeth, a refreshingly insightful terminal romance film that does everything to separate itself from its predecessors. Milla (Eliza Scanlen), a 16-year-old recently diagnosed with cancer, quickly develops a relationship with 23-year-old drug addict Moses (Toby Wallace) much to her parents’ displeasure. In a story that could so easily bathe in the sorrow of the situation, Babyteeth instead captures the joy of life, adventure, and youth. Murphy doesn’t seem interested in the tiring endurance of terminal illness nor the grand moments of “living life to the fullest”; instead Babyteeth celebrates the earnest joys of first love and is all the more life-affirming because of it. – Conor Murray