15. Black Bear
Writer/director Lawrence Michael Levine‘s Black Bear is a terrifically funny and frequently intense gem that cracks open the creative mind in fascinating ways. It’s a story told in two ways, each informing the other, each reflecting the other, and while its format will leave some cold the intricate nature of it all speaks my language. An excellent Aubrey Plaza headlines with a character who — shifts — while dealing with personal issues, and the whole succeeds in exploring the choices we make even as it dissects the creative process of storytelling itself. And even better? Christopher Abbott gets to laugh.
14. The Vast of Night
All movies work to transport viewers to some degree into their world, but few manage it so smoothly and effortlessly as co-writer/director Andrew Patterson‘s feature debut. We’re dropped casually into small town America in the 50s as a young switchboard operator picks up an odd frequency that just might be some kind of otherworldly communication. Or it’s not. The mystery grows, though, when she pulls in a local DJ for help which leads to questions and answers alike. The dialogue is fast and real to the point where it almost mesmerizes, much like the frequency they’re chasing, and the camera follows the pair all over town — including via some beautifully crafted one-take wonders. Turn off the lights, and settle in for an old-fashioned tale told with modern techniques, sharp writing, and strong performances.
13. Sound of Metal
Sound design is an often under-appreciated element in filmmaking, but co-writer/director Darius Marder‘s Sound of Metal offers up a pitch perfect example of its importance and value. The film follows a drummer who begins to lose his hearing at an alarming rate. Panicked, embarrassed, and too broke to pursue the medical assistance he craves, Ruben (a terrific Riz Ahmed) checks into a group home designed to heal the broken mind and not the broken body. Viewers hear the shift from “normal” sounds to what Ruben hears, from the muted voices to the metallic crackle that comes later, and combined with Ahmed’s performance it works to immerse us in the experience. His ups and downs, which also includes navigating past addictions and a lover with her own issues, becomes the heart of the film as he fights the inevitable. The film touches on a subculture in the deaf community that looks down on medical/mechanical intervention, but while that’s sure to stimulate conversation it’s a reminder that this is someone else’s journey.
As evidenced by another YA film below, movies ostensibly aimed at young adults aren’t automatically less worthy due simply to their target audience. Writer/director Brian Duffield — who by the way had a stellar 2020 having also written Underwater and Love and Monsters — adapts Aaron Starmer’s novel about teens who inexplicably start exploding in showers of blood. Did I mention it’s also a romantic comedy? The laughs are frequent, but its seriousness and heart land with equal strength as the film becomes an exploration of grief and uncertainty among younger generations. There’s a metaphor here involving the horror of school shootings, with one sequence in particular nailing the terror, but such tragedies are just one element at play as teens move into an unclear and uncaring world. We only have each other, until we don’t. (But again, it’s also very funny!)
11. The Platform (Spain)
You’re probably all sick of me praising this dystopian gem, but I’m not sorry. An enormous tower stands tall as a uniquely designed prison with one cell per floor and two prisoners per cell. A hole sits in the center of each, and once per day a platform filled with the most amazing feast is lowered down — but what starts as a delectable delight is picked at, consumed, and destroyed the lower it goes until nothing is left. As a metaphor for society and class it couldn’t be more on the nose, but that awareness doesn’t dampen the effect of its message in the slightest. Director Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia creates a stark, menacingly designed world with people out for themselves and giving no thought to those below, but what happens when one man stands up with the vision of a better system? Carnage, catharsis, and chaos can’t be far behind.