By Alex McPherson
2020 was a good year for movies, despite everything! Here are my top 10 films of the year, with 11 honorable mentions. There’s still some movies I need to watch, of course, including “Soul” and “Palm Springs.”

  • “Red Penguins”

Director Gabe Polsky’s documentary, “Red Penguins,” focuses on an American-Russian partnership that quickly spirals out of control. Shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, two managers of the Pittsburgh Penguins and an eccentric marketing executive try to revive Russia’s national hockey team in cooperation with the team’s general managers. The tactics they deploy are, suffice to say, quite out-there. Live bears serving beer on the ice? Huh? 

Despite garnering international attention, problems soon arise. Poor decision-making among all parties creates a situation with life-and-death consequences. Featuring energetic editing that constantly keeps viewers on their toes, and interviewees who illuminate all sides of the story, “Red Penguins” is alternately hilarious and horrifying — a cautionary tale told in a harrowing fashion. More people need to watch this film.    

  • “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”

Few films this year provide the raw emotional impact of director Eliza Hittman’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always.” The film centers around a young woman in rural Pennsylvania named Autumn (Sidney Flanagan) who contends with an unintended pregnancy. She wants to get an abortion, but the state requires that she gets permission beforehand from her parents, with whom she has an uneasy relationship. This leads her to travel to New York City with her cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder), to seek out the procedure. Confronting not only the faults of America’s healthcare system but also the casual injustices faced by women on a regular basis, Hittman’s film is bleak, intense, yet absolutely essential viewing, with a suitably powerful ending.   

  • “Da 5 Bloods”

Director Spike Lee’s latest effort, “Da 5 Bloods,” is an ambitious exploration of war, trauma, friendship, and family. A group of four Black Vietnam War veterans return to Vietnam to locate the remains of their fallen squad leader, Stormin Norman (soulfully played by Chadwick Boseman), and find the treasure they hid together all those years ago. What follows is a timely, genre-blurring creation that only Lee could provide. Featuring excellent performances — especially by Delroy Lindo, playing a complex, mentally tormented individual — one of year’s finest scores, and a narrative that twists and turns unpredictably, Lee’s film is mesmerizing and packed with meaning.    

  • “Another Round”

“Another Round,” the latest effort from Danish film director Thomas Vinterberg, is a compelling and darkly comedic ode to appreciating the roller coaster of life. Martin, a depressed high school history teacher, takes part in an experiment along with three other colleagues to see what happens if they maintain a blood alcohol content of 0.05, which supposedly provides enhanced creativity and social skills. Unsurprisingly, even though the experiment begins with promising results, the four gentlemen soon get in way over their heads. At some points disturbing and heartbreaking, “Another Round” also contains moments of levity — capturing these characters’ struggles and triumphs through superb acting and dialogue. And that ending scene, oh boy. I could rewatch the film’s finale on repeat for an entire day and not get bored.

  • “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”

Borat’s second feature-length outing feels like a slap-in-the-face to Trumpers — always a positive in my book — and has real heart beneath the outrageousness on display. Borat Sagdiev (Sacha Baron Cohen), a fictional journalist from Kazakhstan, finds himself on a mission to deliver his daughter, Tutar (Maria Bakalova), to Vice President Pence, in order to strengthen the nation’s standing with the United States after the fallout from the original film. Containing all the shocking, laugh-out-loud sequences that one expects from a “Borat” film — including an infamous interaction with the leaky vampire himself, Rudy Giuliani — the sequel is also about Borat’s relationship with Tutar, and Tutar’s journey from ignorance to enlightenment about how the world really works and her own ability to make an impact. All in all, “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” is “Very Nice!”

  • “Driveways”

A gentle, beautifully acted story, director Andrew Ahn’s “Driveways” is a perfect film to start the New Year with. Ahn shows how simple acts of kindness can have far-reaching rippling effects, and how friendships can form between people with starkly different life experiences. The heart of the film lies in the friendship between eight-year-old Cody (Lucas Jaye) and a widowed war veteran named Del, played by the late Brian Dennehy, who lives next door. Although the film’s plot remains predictable, Ahn’s film truly shines through its refreshingly low-key, nuanced approach to the material — cementing itself as one of 2020’s absolute gems. We can all learn something from “Driveways.”

  • “Sound of Metal”

Director Darius Marder’s “Sound of Metal” is a hard-hitting character study that makes use of cinema’s immersive potential. When a punk-metal drummer named Ruben (Riz Ahmed) starts to lose his hearing, his life is upended. He must reckon with his frustration, heartbreak, and feelings of hopelessness for his future. Though at times hard to watch, “Sound of Metal” is oh so moving, depicting Ruben’s journey in an uncompromising fashion. The film’s powerhouse performances and realistic narrative, combined with sound design that simulates the effects of Ruben’s hearing loss, creates a film whose visceral qualities are matched by thought-provoking, deeply human themes. 

  • “First Cow”

Set in 1820s Oregon, “First Cow” follows two travelers — a soft-spoken, introspective chef named Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro) and King Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant on the run from vengeful Russians — as they form a friendship and attempt to make a living in unforgiving conditions. Their business involves stealing milk from the only cow in the region, owned by the repugnant Chief Factor (Toby Jones), and baking popular, supremely delicious biscuits. Director Kelly Reichardt builds a quietly suspenseful tale exploring the American Dream, with three-dimensional characters, stunning cinematography, and an impeccable atmosphere that transports viewers to the time period. The film’s slower, more deliberate pace might turn off impatient viewers, but for everyone else, “First Cow” is first-rate. 

  • “Bacurau”

Impossible to pin down to a single genre, “Bacurau” is one of 2020’s most brutally satisfying films. Set in a fictional Brazillian village of the same name, the film depicts a tight-knit community working together to combat a threat that seeks to literally wipe them off the map. This crazy film works on multiple levels — as an allegory for struggles within contemporary Brazil, and as an emotional roller coaster with sympathetic heroes, sadistic villains, a cathartic conclusion, and revolutionary ideals. I’ve watched “Bacurau” four times and can’t wait to rewatch it again. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart, but any and all cinephiles should appreciate the film’s striking vision.

  • “Small Axe Anthology”

Yes, I realize that some people might classify director Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe Anthology” as television; however, I don’t care. This collection of five films is brilliant from start to finish, depicting the experiences of some West Indian immigrants in London during the 1960s and 1970s — including the 1971 trial of the Mangrove Nine and inequality within the schooling system. The films are unflinching, empathetic, and expertly crafted — depicting their subjects without reducing or simplifying their struggles for pure entertainment value. “Small Axe” encourages viewers to reflect on how far we’ve come, how much has worsened or stayed the same, and the heights we could achieve in terms of racial equality. Full of moments of joy, grief, struggle, and human connection, these films are achingly resonant, and they shouldn’t be missed.   

Honorable Mentions: “12 Hour Shift,” “American Utopia,” “Bad Education,” “Beasts Clawing at Straws,” “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets,” “Dick Johnson is Dead,” “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “My Dinner with Werner,” “The-Forty-Year-Old Version,” “The Vast of Night” 

By Lynn Venhaus
The highly anticipated sequel to 2006’s “Borat” is similarly equal parts offensive, outrageous and hilarious.

The original mockumentary was so shocking and different that it earned an Oscar nomination for screenplay and a Golden Globe for Sacha Baron Cohen as Best Actor in a Comedy.

This time, however, we’re in on the joke. The film’s original title: “Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to the American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” has been finessed.This is a follow-up centering on the real-life adventures of a fictional Kazakh television journalist. But this time it is more political as he travels across the South, first starting in Texas.

Baron Cohen is recognized during his antics in character, so he dons wigs and fat suits to play rednecks and American dads — and even puts on a “McDonald Trump” costume to disrupt a Mike Pence speaking engagement at CPAC.

With eight screenwriters — including Baron Cohen and some familiar names going way back to his “Da Ali G Show” days, the episodic journey is scattershot. Even at 95 minutes, director Jason Woliner’s style is choppy and uneven.

The intrepid reporter Borat, trying to redeem his honor in his country of Kazahkstan, picks too easy targets in devout Christian, flag-flying MAGA hat-wearing country, where people think the coronavirus is a hoax, they bring guns to picnics and they give this foreigner the side eye.

Always shedding light on anti-Semitism, Borat has a cake decorated with “Jews will not replace us.” That is his satirical way of taking on bigotry.

In the credits, Baron Cohen honors Holocaust Survivor Judith Dim Evans (1932 – 2020), who is in the synogogue scene but died shortly before the film’s release. “I feel obligated to be a good person and to bring good to the world. We owe the dead,” he quotes her saying.

As a “gotcha” journalism parody, the film skewers sacred cows and excesses in American life. The crude and lewd content is designed to make us squirm.

As with the other film, I’m uncomfortable when he is making fun of ordinary people who aren’t in on the joke, but I’m OK when people who deserve it get their comeuppance. And this time, there are some regular folk who can barely contain their smile at being part of a Borat film, so we know they are willing participants.

Baron Cohen is fearless, and he loves to stir things up. The jaw-dropping scene where daughter Tutar (aka Sandra Jessica Parker Sagdeyev), poses as a reporter for a conservative TV show, “Patriot Reports.” is now the much-talked about “shirt-tucking” incident with Trump attorney Rudy Guiliani.

I can’t unsee what I saw, and Guiliani shamelessly flirts with Tutar (Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova) during the interview, and then when she asked “Shall we have a drink in the bedroom?”, he follows her into the room. Borat, dressed in skimpy under-garments, saves the day.

That is only a fraction of the film, but it’s the one making headlines during this election cycle.

Baron Cohen, whose versatility as a supporting performer is obvious — Thenardier in “Les Miserables,” Pirelli in “Sweeney Todd” and recently, Abbie Hoffman in “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” delights in being as silly as possible in his own character creations. 

Actually, the movie becomes a female empowerment statement near the end, and Bakalova and Baron Cohen work well together as daughter and father duo.

In a bizarre year, the fact that Baron Cohen can’t make up stuff that is more absurd than reality really says something.

“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” is a comedy directed by Jason Woliner and written by Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Dan Swimer, Peter Baynham, Erica Rivinoja,Dan Mazer, Jena Friedman, Lee Kern . It stars Sacha Baron Cohen, Maria Bakalova and others as themselves.
Rated R for pervasive strong crude and sexual content, graphic nudity and language, run-time is 1 hr. 36 min. Lynn’s Grade: B