Small Screen Berkeley: Favorite Films of 2020 and ‘Through the Night’

Here are the films that made the greatest impression on Berkeleyside movie writer John Seal in a year when cinema provided a much-needed distraction.

Buoyancy. Photo: Courtesy Kino Lorber

It’s the time of year when I normally start to experience warm, nostalgic feelings for the previous 12 months. Conversely, as  New Year’s Day draws near, a feeling of dread descends: surely the next year will be unimaginably awful, making the previous one look like the proverbial garden party in comparison.

Boy, I hope I’m wrong about 2021, because in 2020 the only garden party of note was the super-spreader event celebrating Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court. It’s hard to imagine a worse year than the one we’re about to leave behind … but at least we had some good films to distract us from the pandemic, the President, the lightning siege and the rest.

My usual caveats: this is not a list of the films I consider the ‘best’ of the year, the are the ones that made the greatest impression on me. And of course, there’s only so much time in the day, so if I overlooked your favorite, I’ll probably catch up with it next year.

1. Buoyancy: This drama about slave labor in Southeastern Asia surely wasn’t a fun night out at the movies, but it was unflinching and utterly compelling. Stunning cinematography and a memorable score elevated Buoyancy to the top spot of this year’s list.


2. Bloody Nose Empty Pockets: In July, I suggested that this semi-improvised ensemble piece shot in Las Vegas was “the best film of the year”, and in the end it almost made it to the top. Heck, if I watched it again right now, it might wrestle the number 1 spot away from Buoyancy – but whether ranked first or second, it’s an incredible piece of film-making.

3. Never Rarely Sometimes Always: I missed this one when it was initially released (I caught up with it on HBO), so there’s no review to link to. Written and directed by Eliza Hittman, it’s the story of a teenage girl (Sidney Flanigan) from rural Pennsylvania who travels to New York City to get an abortion. Never preachy or overly dramatic, Never Rarely Sometimes Always (not to be confused with Sometimes Always Never, which I also enjoyed but which didn’t quite make the ‘favorite films’ cut) is an impressive showcase for newcomer Flanigan, who could be the next Jodie Foster. Really, she’s that good.

4. Bacurau: I disposed of Brazil’s Bacurau with a single sentence back in April, but it deserved a full review. Now available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber, it’s a violent, hard to pigeonhole, magic realist tale of neo-colonialism starring screen veterans Sonia Braga and Udo Kier.

5. The Turn of the Screw: I raved about this one last week, and here it is at number 5.

6. Miss Juneteenth: Great acting and a fine screenplay are the calling cards of this multi-generational family drama, the auspicious directorial debut of newcomer Channing Godfrey Peoples.

7. Suspension: It’s a documentary about a bridge! But it’s really good! Trust me!

8. Sorry We Missed You: This was the last film I reviewed that opened in theaters prior to lockdown number one. You probably missed it as a consequence, but it’s an excellent slice of social realism from left-wing cinema stalwart Ken Loach.

9. The Antenna: A creepy Turkish horror flick with political overtones with a memorable performance from Ihsan Önal.

10. Guest of Honor: I’m a huge David Thewlis fan, and he didn’t let me down in this Atom Egoyan-helmed drama about an obsessive health inspector. Is ‘obsessive health inspector’ an oxymoron? Probably. Hopefully.

My Dog Stupid. Photo courtesy Roxie Theater

11. My Dog Stupid: Wry humor from France, featuring the best animal performance of the year from the shamefully uncredited pup playing the title character.

12. Mr. Soul: This hugely enjoyable documentary celebrates the life of Ellis Haizlip, host of a groundbreaking PBS series celebrating African-American culture.

13. The Painter & the Thief: Another documentary, and one I touted as a highlight of the year back in May, The Painter & the Thief provides useful lessons in the power of forgiveness and rehabilitation that the world’s largest carceral state would do well to learn.

14. Heist of the Century: A good old fashioned caper flick from Argentina; great fun from start to finish.

15. Corpus Christi: A skinhead with scary eyes passes for a priest in this unsettling Polish drama.

16. CREEM: America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine: Lester Bangs, Suzi Quatro, and ‘Metal Machine Music’ all in the same rockumentary — what more could you ask for??

Late breaking mini-review: ‘Through the Night’

Through the Night. Photo: Courtesy Natalie Mulford Media

I’ve just had the opportunity to screen Through the Night, a documentary about a 24-hour day care service in New Rochelle, New York. Streaming via the Virtual Roxie, it’s a heartwarming tribute to a selfless couple who’ve dedicated their lives to the care of working-class children. Highly recommended!