Shannon Murphy’s directorial debut has gone widely unseen in what turned out to be a great year for film, despite the odds. It just goes to show how many autonomous creatives are operating at such a high level in the industry. However, Murphy is among the cream of the crop, Babyteeth a firm expression of her singular approach in the director’s chair. It’s the kind of movie that leaves you sore afterward, both because it whomped you with some of the most devastating moments you’ve ever witnessed on screen and charmed you with a smooth sense of humor that, ironically, captures the familial mess on the thematic forefront.
Eliza Scanlen is perfect as the terminally ill, coming-of-age Milla. Toby Wallace toes the line between lovable and awful as the swindling new half-boyfriend who doesn’t realize he’s falling in love. Essie Davis and Ben Mendelsohn nearly steal the show as affluent, drug-addled parents who don’t know how to deal with their daughter’s inevitable demise. Music is scant, but when it lands, it lands with a thud, courtesy of Sudan Archives or tUnE-yArDs, the latter of whom soundtracks a moment of profound humanity that unfolds at a house party, the likes of which I have thought about at least once a week since I saw it last September. (Luke Hicks)
34. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
It’s a struggle to think of two larger, or more powerful, titans squaring off against each other in 2020 than Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. They electrify the screen, and the sensation leaves your eyeballs cracked wide and bloodshot. Director George C. Wolfe yanks you out of your seat and plants you at their feet. These performances stomp on your brain and kick even deeper into your stomach and bowels. Your body quakes under August Wilson’s screaming drama. This is how stage plays should feel when adapted. There must be no escape. Your life becomes the work. (Brad Gullickson)
Kajillionaire starts as a rollicking low-stakes crime story. Old Dolio Dyne (Evan Rachel Wood) concocts a luggage scam so her family can maintain residence within a soap-flooded office. A chance encounter with the seemingly more balanced Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) poisons not only the scheme but the dynamics between mother, father, and daughter. Questions of purpose and place that were never asked before begin to percolate. It’s time for Old Dolio to strike out on her own.
Miranda July adores oddity, but don’t be fooled by her infatuation. She presents characters who appear ripped from a realm slightly askew from ours, but as you live with them, you realize they’re very much the products of our world. The weirdos are no weirder than the environment they’re imprisoned inside. Their behavior the logical result of crushing, universal anxiety. (Brad Gullickson)
32. Martin Eden
One of the liveliest period movies in recent memory comes by way of Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden, an adaptation of Jack London’s novel about class, ambition, and individualism that transposes the action from Oakland, California, to Naples, Italy. Exactly when it takes place is never clear — the soundtrack is ‘80s Italo-disco, while the costuming and inserts of black-and-white archival footage seem to suggest the film is set closer to the turn-of-the-century — but this ambiguity only frees Martin Eden from the dusty confines of history, deepening its sense of immediacy.
Luca Marinelli’s performance as the titular character similarly blends the best of cinema’s different periods, as he transfigures himself from a Golden Age Hollywood dreamboat into something resembling the kind of cynical antihero that tended to populate screens during the Vietnam War era. All these elements combine to create a sumptuous masterpiece fizzing with life; this is a movie that reminds us just how exciting literary adaptations can be. (Farah Cheded)
31. Bad Education
Playwright Cory Finley followed up his debut feature, the clinical comedy Thoroughbreds, with this equally sharp, pitch-dark film based on the true story of the biggest embezzlement scandal in American public school history. As the two administrators who successfully siphoned millions of dollars from their school district to fund secret beyond-their-means lifestyles, Hugh Jackman and Alison Janney are in superlative form. Janney’s Pam is the wickedly acerbic counterpart to her co-star’s Frank, an impeccable superintendent whose deft steering won their district a coveted spot amongst the country’s top ten.
As the film systematically uncovers the depth of their deception layer by layer, Bad Education similarly reveals Frank’s uber-polished façade to be just that, and gradually draws out a career-best performance from this great showman in the process. Neither Finley nor Jackman ever let Frank slide completely into odiousness; Jackman floats a hint of desperate vulnerability under Frank’s guilt so that, even by the end of the film — when we know the full, ugly truth — we don’t entirely withdraw our sympathy from him. It’s a shrewd performance, one that echoes the uneasy question posed by the film’s narrative: to what extent are we willing participants in our own deception? As much about tacit complicity as corruption, Bad Education is an irresistibly absorbing study of self-interest and an impressive showcase for its director and stars. (Farah Cheded)