All the Way to City Hall

Frederick Wiseman’s City Hall (2020)

In the week since listing season began, Frederick Wiseman’s City Hall has fared extraordinarily well among critics’ selections of the best films of 2020. Wiseman’s four-and-a-half-hour exploration of Boston’s municipal government tops the list of ten voted up by the editors of Cahiers du cinéma, a typically eclectic set that includes two films by Hong Sang-soo, The Woman Who Ran and Hotel by the River. City Hall also places second on both Manohla Dargis’s and A. O. Scott’s lists in the New York Times. Dargis calls Wiseman “one of America’s greatest, most generous chroniclers,” and for Scott, City Hall is “a symphony of process, a demonstration of how democracy abides in the absence of drama.”

Wiseman’s documentary ranks tenth on Richard Brody’s long list of thirty-six films in the New Yorker. “2020 has been, against the odds, a wonderful year for new movies,” writes Brody. “The absence of tentpole-type films—superhero spectacles, familiar franchises, star vehicles—had the welcome effect of thrusting independent films to the foreground.” Even so, “at a time of emergency, in which the very survival of Americans and American political institutions has been in question, the impotence of movies to make a difference is an inescapable aspect of watching and thinking about cinema.”

Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson places Sean Durkin’s The Nest, the story of a family that leaves behind a comfortable lifestyle in the States and moves into a hulking English manor in the 1980s, at the top of his list. “At times,” writes Lawson, “The Nest feels like it might become a haunted house movie, or maybe a marital thriller involving murder, or maybe a stark coming of age tale. Instead, Durkin and his cast—led by Jude Law and a towering Carrie Coon—do something subtler, less easily defined.”

For Entertainment Weekly’s Leah Greenblatt, Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, with Frances McDormand as a widow who loses her home and sets out across the country in a van, is the #1 film of the year. “That the movie manages to serve as both a grim reckoning of our nation’s frayed safety net and a celebration of a sort of middle-aged manifest destiny is certainly a testament to Zhao’s deceptively spare script,” writes Greenblatt. “But it’s the dreamlike, richly textured soul of her story that stays; a new kind of cinematic classic, painfully made for these times.”

McDormand’s turn in Nomadland is one of ten outstanding performances of the year, argues Michael Schulman in the New Yorker. “Not many Oscar-winning movie stars could slip so seamlessly into the ‘real’ America, but McDormand had not a speck of vanity to shed, her craggy face melting into the wild, inhospitable landscapes captured by Zhao,” he writes. “She also didn’t play Fern as a social cause incarnate. As in Fargo, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and everything else she touches, McDormand harnessed the full power of her conviction, her eccentricity, and her earthy, ornery soul.”

Writing about the standout performances of 2020 for the NYT, Wesley Morris selects three from The Queen’s Gambit, Scott Frank’s widely admired Netflix series based on Walter Tevis’s 1983 novel about an orphaned chess prodigy in the mid-twentieth century. She’s played by Anya Taylor-Joy, who “looks like Emma Stone as reimagined by Tim Burton,” writes Morris, and he imagines Beth Harmon “wasn’t an easy performance to make work: cunning, stupors, and stratagems—how do you act all of those?” The other two are Marielle Heller, the writer and director (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood) who plays Beth’s mother with astonishing subtlety and empathy, and Moses Ingram, who is “so good,” writes Morris, “that I even put up with her triple-stereotype part (pickaninny; Black best friend; Morgan Freeman at the end of The Shawshank Redemption). Her galactic charisma and physical incandescence turned a stock role into a three-course dinner.”

The Queen’s Gambit comes in at #7 on Willa Paskin’s list of the best television of the year at Slate, and fans of the series will be pleased to hear that Frank and Taylor-Joy plan to reunite for an adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark. Paskin’s #1 show is I May Destroy You, in which series creator Michaela Coel plays Arabella, a young woman who is drugged and raped in the very first episode. The series “explores consent in various permutations,” writes Paskin, “but it also digs deep on Arabella, a charismatic, talented, tempestuous, brilliant and undisciplined writer, friend, goof, lover, drug taker, social media influencer, and artist in the making. In a year when people prized escape, I May Destroy You offered something tougher and more hopeful: the possibility you just might be able to wring something meaningful out of the awful past.”

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