The world of Possessor is a cold and dark vision of a future when assassins take over people’s minds and the concept of identity breaks down. In Brandon Cronenberg’s latest feature film, Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) is a highly-trained assassin whose job consists of infiltrating the minds of those close to a target. But something is changing. Tasya is losing touch with reality and her consciousness seems to meld with her latest body, Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott). In a stunning sequence, Tasya’s face melts into his and it’s difficult to tell where he begins and she ends. In a sea of viscera and violence, Cronenberg tells a story about the fear of losing yourself and becoming someone you barely recognize.
While Possessor is a futuristic film, it doesn’t avoid creating a tension between new and old technology, such as the mind machines controlled by old school knobs instead of the expected touchscreens. Cronenberg is constantly disorienting the viewer, never letting them get comfortable in the story. Nothing is as it seems, and just when the viewer knows where the story is going, Cronenberg subverts expectations. It is an exciting piece of sci-fi/horror that solidifies Cronenberg as one of the best working genre filmmakers. (Mary Beth McAndrews)
4. Lovers Rock
For the way it reminds us of how much we’ve been missing during the pandemic — nights out, physical touch, collective musical rapture, and exhilarating chance encounters — Lovers Rock is surely the most cherishable movie of the year. From Shabier Kirchner’s immersive visuals, which plunge us right into the party’s euphoria, to its transcendent acapella scene, the second film in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology is an intoxicating antidote to 2020: delicious medicine that gets to work on you right away.
Lovers Rock is only loosely framed by a plot, with the film instead committing its considerable energies to craft a cathartic vibe and meticulously invoking a particular aspect of Black British history. Set during a blues party — ticketed functions that sprang up in people’s homes in response to nightclubs’ racist door policies — Lovers Rock acknowledges not just the sense of community at the heart of these events, but also the real dangers that their attendees faced both inside and outside of the venue’s walls. With ambidextrous mastery, McQueen has made a film that is as much a devoted testament to the resiliency of London’s young British Caribbean communities in the ‘80s as it is a sublime substitute for a real night out in 2020. (Farah Cheded)
Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari is delicately told, but it packs a mighty emotional wallop. Perhaps that should be “because” — not “but.” Maybe it’s the very fact that Minari is so understated and free of emotional manipulation that gives it such poignant potency. Based in part on Chung’s own childhood, the film charts the linked experiences of first- and second-generation immigrants through the prism of a multi-generational Korean-American family’s attempts to set down roots in unfamiliar Arkansas in the ‘80s. It’s imbued with both the childlike wonder of its seven-year-old lead and the clear-eyed hindsight of its director, with these diverse outlooks mingling to create an astonishingly vivid and contemplative perspective.
Minari’s ensemble reflects these qualities: the cast is bookended by Alan Kim’s adorably precocious David and Youn Yuh-jung’s gloriously immature grandma, and every performance contained within is similarly superlative. Poetic cinematography and an ethereal score are the sublime icing on an already-immaculate cake. This feels like a landmark film in American cinema; one to be cherished by generations for the quiet honesty of its storytelling and the transcendent artistry of its filmmaking. (Farah Cheded)
2. First Cow
An old adage tells us not to cry over spilled milk. With all due respect to the mom who came up with that one, First Cow provides us with some milk that is most definitely worth crying over. Kelly Reichardt’s film centers on an unlikely friendship forged in early 19th century Oregon Country and an ensuing dairy heist. Cookie (John Magaro) and King-Lu (Orion Lee) are two outcasts who settle in a small emerging town, mostly surrounded by fur trappers. When a wealthy landowner brings a cow to his estate — the first in the area, naturally — the two men hatch a plan to collect milk and bake biscuits, selling the pastries in the market for enough money to leave and head elsewhere.
The film is beautifully tender, with a heart as big as the Pacific Northwest. The cinematography is lush and rich, with gorgeous, earthy browns complementing the warmth of Reichardt’s characters. Though finely attuned to the natural world and working with subtle nuances of plot development and thematic resonance, First Cow is also a film with searing insight. As much as it’s a film about baked goods, it’s also about prejudice and aspirations, settler narratives and young men going west, and the need for humanity and kindness in a world lacking both. The film is deftly invested in questions of what stories get left behind in the writing of history, while also asserting that perhaps goodness, remembered or not, matters for its own sake. Someone clean up this milk before I start crying again. (Anna Swanson)
Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland is utterly cinematic in two senses. It’s not only awash with the kind of jaw-dropping widescreen visuals that warrant seeing the film in the most immersive way possible, but it’s also flooded through with what is arguably the primal spirit of cinema: empathy. What’s so remarkable about Zhao’s movie is the way that it entwines the two: Nomadland applies a Malickian sense of wonder not just to Joshua James Richards’ stunning shots of swallows’ nests and badlands sunrises, but also to the invisible bonds of human togetherness that weave together to give the film its narrative.
Frances McDormand’s Fern is our portal into the real-life phenomenon of elderly nomads, part of the transient working class forced to roam around America in search of seasonal work. Surrounded by genuine nomads like Linda May, Bob Wells, and the unforgettable Charlene Swankie, the role demands a career-best performance of the kind this anti-star has made her name on: hardy, intelligent, and unglamorous portrayals of everyday resiliency that nevertheless strike us with their warmth. True to form, McDormand’s Fern fits perfectly amongst the real residents of the moveable villages with whom she shares the screen.
The rawness of every performance, non-fictional or otherwise, imbues the film with a sense of immediacy that gives rise to irrepressible anger. Nomadland is both a portrait of a woman and a tableau of a nation, one that exposes its rampant institutional cruelty and pays testament to the kindness of the communities that spring up in resistance to it. What’s important is that it never excuses the former for the latter. Nomadland simply honors the very best of humanity while simultaneously questioning why so much of Fern’s life, and the lives of those like her, must be spent endlessly proving their resilience in the first place. (Farah Cheded)