This article is part of our 2020 Rewind. Follow along as we explore the best and most interesting movies, shows, performances, and more released in this very strange year. In this entry, we name Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow as our Movie of the Year for 2020.
Despite the unfortunate rift that the pandemic put on movie releases in 2020, this year has given us plenty of phenomenal films. Without theaters, we enjoyed more movies from the comfort of our own homes. We turned to filmmakers for solace during this tough year, creating a new appreciation for how much movies mean to us. Picking the best movie that came out this year was not easy to discern. We needed a movie that helped us cope with the intense loneliness of isolation by providing a great story and impressive visual artistry. It also needed to be one that didn’t ignore the imperfections of our society. Kelly Reichardt‘s First Cow achieved all of this, earning the title of Movie of the Year.
First Cow begins with a prologue scene showing a woman and her dog coming across two skeletons nestled in a grave together. We then travel back to frontier Oregon when settlers were flocking to the West for gold and beaver pelts. Trapping crew cook Cookie (John Magaro) doesn’t fit in with the callused and aggressive trappers. He’s delicate and stoic, more in touch with nature than the people around him, but he longs for a friend. One night while foraging for mushrooms, he comes across King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant on the run from some Russian trappers. Cookie hides King-Lu and keeps him safe until he can escape and evade capture. Just as it seems Cookie is on his own again, he meets King-Lu a second time at a tavern in a settlement, and they reconnect. The very first cow (Evie) in the territory also arrives at the settlement for the Chief Factor (Toby Jones), creating quite a stir. King-Lu convinces Cookie to milk this cow at night and build a business selling oily cakes to settlers. Stealing this milk is not without risk, and the men soon see how the cards of American capitalism are stacked against people like them.
Reichardt is known for her slow, meditative explorations of American society outside the usual city settings. She has a knack for tapping into the strife and struggle of everyday people. First Cow is not a deviation from the signature style, and it stands out from the rest of this year’s releases thanks to that. Through King-Lu and Cookie, Reichardt pulls apart the myth that America hasn’t always been as unfair, righteous, and greedy as it is today. These issues follow wherever the camera goes, uncovering the origins of American imperfections that have been here since the first settlers. King-Lu and Cookie are not respected and never will be in the ways that the Chief Factor and his associates are. They do not come from wealthy backgrounds and being Jewish and Chinese ostracize them even more. We see the effects of this in how King-Lu navigates the frontier. He has long accepted the fact that in order to make it here he has to do whatever he needs to survive, even if it means stealing. He’s lost the hope in humanity that Cookie still clings onto, and everything that happens to them in the film proves King-Lu’s outlook isn’t just a cynical view of the world.
As the settlers aim to gain capital from the Oregon frontier, they overtake the land from the Indigenous population. Native Americans still reside in the area, adapting to the new settlers, but not completely. The Indigenous Chinook people clearly understand the area much better than those who are trying to own it. The treatment of lower-class settlers and the Indigenous people is nothing new to us as we watch the movie today. We’ve seen how the rich have failed working-class Americans in crisis this year and how people of color have suffered even more. In First Cow, the ideal frontier life often depicted in Westerns is absent and the issues America still grapples with are realized in a subtle but not understated way.
Amongst the backdrop of hard frontier life, Cookie and King-Lu’s relationship becomes even more comforting than it would be in a traditional Western. King-Lu’s motivation may be to make money, and he knows Cookie is essential to do that, but there is definitely a bond between them that goes beyond that. The domestic scenes between them in King-Lu’s small shack are some of the most tender between men in film. Very few words are spoken, but the company they provide for each other makes navigating the landscape of the frontier easier than it would be alone. They share their hopes, dreams, and past lives with one another, something we don’t see the characters do with anyone else. As they get into trouble, King-Lu and Cookie always reunite with each other, proving their relationship is not just concerned with their business. Their interactions are pure and fulfilling to observe as many of us lacked that kind of human connection for much of the year.
Beyond the beautiful story, First Cow is a masterclass in filmmaking as well. The images of the Oregon Territory seem to be just capturing the area as it is, without manipulation. However, Reichardt works hard to stay out of the way of the natural beauty provided by the setting. She’s unafraid to allow shots to get dark, where many filmmakers would pump artificial light so that you catch every detail. Instead, she opts for still-life framing that gives us time to search the shot for details that build Cookie and King-Lu’s world. Reichardt normally opts for no score at all, but William Tyler‘s composition brilliantly underscores the feelings characters carry with them in each scene. The artistry behind creating a different era from scratch is always impressive, but especially when the filmmaking amplifies the natural setting rather than overpower it.
First Cow didn’t have an easy release this year either. This was meant to be Reichardt’s biggest release yet thanks to the involvement of A24. Reichardt’s film first did its rounds at festivals in 2019, gaining significant critic buzz and anticipation for a wide release. A limited release began in early March, with showings in large cities. Just as a wider release was approaching, though, all theaters shut down in the middle of that initial run. A24 chose to delay a VOD release in hopes that a new theatrical push would be possible later in the year. That continued to look unrealistic as time wore on, and First Cow was finally available to purchase on VOD on July 10th.
As Reichardt mentioned in her interview with IndieWire in June, this was never how the film was intended to be seen. The quietness and stillness is best enjoyed without the distractions that come from watching movies at home. She recognized that was not possible in the world we have inhabited this year. First Cow undoubtedly deserved a full theatrical run and the marketing effort that accompanies one. The fact that it reached so many people and touched viewers like it did without that is telling of the talent involved. Even if the Academy doesn’t recognize the true brilliance of First Cow like so many critics hope for, that hasn’t stopped Reichardt from moving on to even more impressive projects in the past. We’ll remember First Cow as it was, the movie we didn’t know how badly we would need in 2020, but we were lucky to have.