Days is one of the more Warholian of the director's feature-length works with Tsai emptying his film of faces and especially bodies (and backpain) of all but the most minimal of narratives—unfolding over exceptional durations and deeply repetitive gestures. It is also a film of profound loneliness and the desire for human touch, premiering just before the world shut down.
Wife of a Spy (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan)
One of the most constant investigators of Japanese identity, Kurosawa's first attempt at period drama provides a confrontative portrait of its former war atrocities. Progressing through a series of sharp, character-powered reversals, Kurosawa's mastery is present in full force—as is his deep knowledge of film history (as we see in a pitch perfect film-within-the-film that doubles as plot commentary).
3. The Calming (Song Fang, China)
There is something quite special about Song Fang’s quiet critical breakthrough, where a surrogate for the female writer-director models our own viewing experience as she passes alone looking at and listening to a succession of richly detailed poetic landscapes. The Calming is the most Japanese of contemporary Chinese films.
4. The Woman Who Ran (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)
The Woman Who Ran ingeniously finds yet another way of retelling the same story in the space of a single feature—in this case relying on Hong axiom and muse Kim Min-hee to tell friends and acquaintances what’s been going on in her life (when she’s not re-watching the same movie twice in a brilliant self-reflexive aside).
Undine (Christian Petzold, Germany/France)
This bewitching Berlin highlight by the mid-career Petzold is a film of layers and of depths—literally of the historical strata of the Berlin cityscape that mythic heroine Paula Beer brings to life and the murky deep that her human lover Franz Rogowski dives. A film of exquisite mystery from one of giants of contemporary storytelling.
6. The Salt of Tears (Philippe Garrel, France/Switzerland)
At this point an old master who has been experiencing a long, late-career renaissance (since at least 2013's extraordinary Jealousy/), the post-New Wave Garrel returns with one of his most purely entertaining tales of romantic coupling and parting—complete with a liberated heroine who turns the table on the film’s noncommittal male.
Lovers Rock (Steve McQueen, United Kingdom)
The consensus peak of British director Steve McQueen’s powerful five-film historical portrait of London’s West Indian community (Small Axe), Lovers Rock rhythmically unfolds over the course of an underground blues party, culminating in an epic singalong to 1979 hit “Silly Games.” A group of films defined by McQueen's long narrative pauses.
City Hall (Frederick Wiseman, United States)
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh emerges as a Wiseman rarity in this surprisingly brisk, nearly-five-hour documentary portrait of big-city governance: a compelling human subject who anchors an archetypal American institution. We are living in the midst of one of Wiseman's greatest periods—as he blows past his ninetieth birthday.
Malmkrog (Cristi Puiu, Romania/Serbia/Switzerland/Sweden/ Bosnia and Herzegovina/North Macedonia)
Occluded framings through open doorways—in the manner of Aurora—and a philosophical torrent of words (Sieranevada) made for one of the year’s most singular viewing experiences. Introducing a resurrection of sorts into its conversational structure, Puiu's dense text is literally one to read and re-read for all but the film's native speakers.
10. Beginning (Dea Kulumbegashvili, Georgia/France)
Director Kulumbegashvili is definitely one to watch after her formally audacious portrait of religious persecution in former Soviet Georgia. And "beginning" is the operative word: a sudden act of violence shakes a congregation minutes into an ordinary worship service in one of the most stunning first shots in any director's debut film.