K. Austin Collins’ Top 20 Movies of 2020
Any honest accounting of 2020’s year in movies has to start with the resurgence of a 2011 artifact, after Covid-19’s spread to the United States had finally become undeniable among rational people, and Steven Soderbergh’s pandemic movie Contagion became one of the most-rented films on iTunes. You know, the star-studded viral thriller in which a supervirus, borne of an infected bat, starts to spread out of China and eventually conquers much of the planet, including poor Kate Winslet? It’s also a movie in which an international community of hypercapable scientists — the Good Guys — get the unfailing support of their respective governments, which are cooperating with one another in trying to defeat the virus. Which is to say, the appeal of Soderbergh’s suddenly fashionable pandemic procedural as a fantasy could not be clearer.
We turned to movies like this centuries ago, a.k.a. back in March, because we had no expectation that the era would produce movies about the pandemic — movies which would, necessarily, need to have been produced during the pandemic. Documentarians like Alex Gibney would prove us wrong about that with a masked, Covid-proofed, edited-from-home dispatch from the coronavirus front lines (Totally Under Control). But as for Hollywood? The modern dream factory flailed. The story of 2020 at the movies would not be told at the movies, because film sets and multiplexes worldwide were largely shut down, and even a surefire box-office bet like Christopher Nolan’s Tenet would — as if in imitation of its own plot — see its release date bucked and rearranged a thousand times over. Otherwise, if you wanted new releases, you had to go VOD or straight to streamers: Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu. Or maybe the Disney+ streaming app, which had the good fortune to go live in late 2019 and would come to provide a perfectly viable alternative to theatrical releases (assuming you were willing to pay $30 to watch Mulan) once the company finally relented.
But there was also a fleet of virtual cinemas which, developed and hosted by innovative collaborations between local art houses and independent distributors, became a lifeline for smaller fare. Drive-ins, truly the “vinyl collection” of theatrical exhibition, had a resurgence in popularity. The 2021 Academy Awards were delayed, and major festivals like Cannes were tabled. But other impactful events went virtual — from big guns like the New York Film Festival to the inspiringly robust Indie Memphis festival. Despite what you may have heard, because a good many people have certainly been saying it, 2020 was not a year of “no movies,” in which there was nothing new and good to watch.
In fact, it was a great year for movies — as an art form. The business struggled mightily; the industry’s labor force struggled even more. Yet between the clearing out of loud, moneymaking distractions at the multiplex and the renewed urgency felt on the part of smaller distributors to get their films seen (something not really promised by theatrical distribution), 2020 quietly turned into one of the most idiosyncratic and surprising movie seasons in ages. The temptation to historicize this moment in terms of what didn’t get released, i.e., the movies that bigger studios and media advertisers care the most about, would be a grave error.
Covid-19 spurred a massive move to digital platforms — streamers and virtual cinemas alike — that were almost the only movie experience any of us had this year. But the offerings were varied and often rewarding… if you knew where to look. The list that follows — my 20 (really, 23) favorites out of the year’s many worthwhile releases — is an effort to remind us of the ways movies still surprised, entertained, and challenged us in a year that made it difficult for many of us to see beyond our fear, frustration, uncertainty, and grief.
Plus, a few more “honorable mentions”:
Capone (Josh Trank); Collective (Alexander Nanau); Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee); Gunda (Viktor Kossakovsky); His House (Remi Weekes); La LLorona (Jayro Bustamante); Minari (Lee Isaac Chung); Nomadland (Chloé Zhao); Possessor (Brandon Cronenberg); The Wolf House (Joaquin Cociña and Cristóbal León).
Imperfect? Yes. Defamatory? No. David Fincher’s reimagining of the origin story of Citizen Kane by way of its credited co-writer — the jaded, grumpy, alcoholic Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) — lacks the sharp, clean-cut perfection or propulsive thrills of the director’s previous, more popular work. It also makes the apparent mistake of being a splashy piece of fan fiction about a somewhat fraught subject. Arguments against the movie’s integrity are wrong, but understandable; disliking the Mank of this movie is also understandable. But the movie’s actual thrust is also, to my mind, undeniable. This is not a story about who “really” wrote Citizen Kane — a movie which, thanks to the auteurist wars, has long been associated with Welles by the public at large, no matter what detractors and skeptics have said over the years. Mank, a far more knowingly fanciful movie than its been given credit for being, uses that inarguable context to play with history, imagining early Hollywood as a complete ruse: a fantasy factory which, in its ability to make fiction feel real, has the power to stoke the public’s political imagination — for better and worse. The Mank of this movie, noticing as much, writes this into a behemoth, unfilmable, angry mess of a script that we can reasonably assume Welles will carve into something not-behemoth, more filmable, less of a mess. But Welles’ effort isn’t depicted, it’s true. He isn’t the focus. Would a superstar wunderkind like that be able to float through Hollywood’s upper and lower echelons as freely as a nobody like Mank? The argument over the Kane writing credit distracts from the movie’s actual interest. This is a film about Hollywood’s perils, and what a man like Mank might have made of them.
Miranda July’s family scammer comedy Kajillionaire is as idiosyncratic and warm as the director’s best work, and just as quirky, though in ways that people find off-putting for the wrong reasons. Hers is an off-kilter, disconcerting world, to be sure, with foam dripping from the walls, and personalities that are almost too abundant to be true — all of it with a purpose, all of it frustrated by the arbitrary constraints that the rest of us only-too-happily live by. In this movie, that constraint is family. Evan Rachel Wood, Debra Winger, and Richard Jenkins — a dream trio — play a family of small-time con artists, with Wood as the mid-20s late bloomer Old Dolio, whose late blooming is a clear result of her unusual upbringing. Throw a talkative, faux-chipper Gina Rodriguez into the mix and — well. As expected, we get the unexpected. July’s work has always stood out for its sensitivity to spontaneous feelings and their built-in potential for failure, its affection for the instincts and impulses in her characters that defy the ways some of us probably prefer to imagine ourselves. I value July’s movies for how dedicatedly they portray people who want to be set loose — and for the pleasure of watching July run freely through the aviary of her imagination, opening each of their cages, one by one.
‘Borat Subsequent Moviefilm’ and ‘The Forty-Year-Old Version’ (tie)
Sacha Baron Cohen resurrecting Borat in time for the tail end of Trump’s first term, during a pandemic no less, makes about as much sense as Don DeLillo writing a novel about 9/11 — so, a lot of sense. Though it’s been accused of being a less-funny, overly scripted, more obvious retread of the timeless original, and furthermore of again picking at low-hanging fruit, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: 1) made me laugh a lot, 2) takes aim in more directions than is generally acknowledged. Once again, the thread holding Borat’s schtick together is the pure and simple fact of American susceptibility: to misinformation, to ignorance, and — damningly — to pandemics both biological and ideological. Cohen again proves to be a master of smart-stupid humor, concussive hijinks that hurt the more you think about them. But even better, this time around, is his Bulgarian co-star, Maria Bakalova. To say that she goes for it is an understatement.
The same must be said of Radha Blank, the star, writer, and director of the wonderfully funny The Forty-Year-Old Version, a self-deprecating but triumphant New York story about a washed up playwright and teacher who renews her life as an artist by turning, unexpectedly, to hip-hop. In its ode to black artists and black New York, in its deep love for black culture, in its satirical and intelligently detailed take on the art scene, and age, and black womanhood, Blank’s movie is as vibrant and loose as it is gut-bustingly funny. It is also incredibly wise — and moving, in no small part thanks to its supporting actors: Osmin Benjamin, Imani Lewis, and many others.
I’ve seen Kitty Green’s The Assistant get called “the worst drama ever” online and, pending your expectations of drama, that’s an easy enough reaction to understand: So much of what Kitty Green wants us to see, so much of the “drama,” is actually happening offscreen. It’s felt and residual, rather than directly observed — a choice that amounts to a powerful argument. The titular assistant, played with extraordinary intelligence by Julia Garner, works for a man who remains unnamed and unseen, but whose likeness to Harvey Weinstein is obvious. All we get of the man himself is an angry voice over the phone, a silhouette, and a series of messes — couch stains, organizational errors — that Garner’s character, a relatively new hire still learning the ropes, learns to take care of. And so she does. She’s a one-woman clean-up crew in an office full of people (men and women both) who’ve already learned how to play the game of compliance, who are already following the behavioral script that this man demands of them. The Assistant is no Bombshell; it’s no rah-rah rewriting of history in which people speak truth to power, even terrifying power, with comparatively little hesitation. What Green gives us is much more akin to watching someone drown in quicksand, with all the slow-moving helplessness this implies. A tense, terse, even heartbreaking work.
‘Ham on Rye’
Spoiling the odd event at the center of Tyler Taormina’s dreamy debut feature probably wouldn’t really spoil anything; it wouldn’t tell you how the film got there, nor why, and — frankly — no amount of description will properly convey how unexpected and inexplicable it is. If it even really happens. Ham on Rye is, to my mind, a movie about the mysteries of growing up, and pain of being left behind, the uncertainty of the future, and the way adolescence seems to practically fly by, to the point of evaporating before your eyes. But that’s just one interpretation of a movie that’s all the more valuable for leaving our understanding somewhat to chance. Roving gangs of teens, a mysterious dance, the Thing that happens — recounting the plot won’t get you anywhere. But dwelling in the feelings and moods sustained by it all, with pretty unbelievable verve for a first time feature, just might.
‘She Dies Tomorrow’ and ‘I Was At Home, But…'(tie)
German filmmaker Angela Shanalec’s I Was At Home, But… takes a recent widow, two years on from her partner’s death, and deals her another hard blow: her son’s weeklong disappearance. The movie starts when the boy returns. Yet what follows is not the hothouse of emotions this description probably portends, but rather a viscerally intellectual portrait of a woman whose feelings are hard to pin down, captured by a movie whose intentions are at times equally evasive. The woman at the film’s center is finding her own way through the muck of incredible grief, largely through a seeming repression. Predictably, she reaches a breaking point. The filmmaking mixes scenes from her life with those of other people, including a children’s production of Hamlet, focusing overall on the stifled aggressions of everyday life and art. The movie’s blank, stagey images would seem to submerge those feelings. But in a way, they do the opposite, stoking and giving rise to them.
Amy Seimetz’s She Dies Tomorrow is easier to grab hold of in some ways and deviously, cleverly frustrating in others. The premise is spooky: Kate Lyn Sheil stars as a woman who portends, all of a sudden, that she will die the next day. The effect of this is somehow viral — it spreads to other people. The effect is to dramatize a sense of dread that has no one source but is no less unsettling for defying explanation. The dread, it seems, is the point. Seimetz pulls off the rare feat of getting at a feeling, an unnameable something, through the most elliptical of means. If the movie has a clear literal meaning, it’s not the most exciting thing up its sleeve. It’s what can’t be named, the specific, peculiar sense of an emotional spiral, that sticks with me. A film that’s come to mind quite often for me, this year.
‘Vast of Night’
A welcome shift in movie culture of late is an increased unwillingness to take the virtuosity of young male directors at face value. The skepticism is healthy and, in plenty cases, merited. So I haven’t minded fielding complaints about Andrew Patterson’s talky, spooky sci-fi debut, which is certainly the work of a show-off. The tracking shots are indeed winding and accomplished, abundant in their desire to be admired; the writing, which catapults a switchboard operator (Sierra McCormick) and a radio DJ (Jake Horowitz) into a small-town encounter with the unknown, mimics the snap and fizz of fast-talking films of old. This is all pleasurable. But the real appeal of Vast of Night, to my mind, is in the sincerity of its mysteries. Those mysteries do not include the fact that the movie is about aliens; a film set in New Mexico in the late 1950s, which opens with an overt nod to the Twilight Zone, isn’t hiding anything — from the audience, anyway. But the central pair’s frightened but persistent path toward discovery, the stories and histories they unbury in the process, the ways Patterson makes it all tingle with the pleasurable suspense of a radio mystery — all of this proves charismatic and thrilling. This is a movie that derives power, rather than falsehood, from its showy design. It’s true feat is the eerie poignancy it derives from its web of known unknowns.
‘Dick Johnson Is Dead’
Kirsten Johnson’s father, Dick, isn’t dead, as the title claims. But his mind is slipping. And so — in the morbid but adventurous series of gags the director has devised with her father, all of them jokes about the man’s inevitable death — is Dick himself: down the stairs, on the sidewalk, and in so many other surprising, unsettling ways. I did already say it was a little morbid, as concepts go. But the film is a joy: A love letter between father and daughter, a chance to capture the spirit of this singular, wonderful man with the intimate attention of a home movie, through the eyes of a daughter who knows the end is near, and who also knows — who seems to have learned from her father — that there is much more to life than living in dread of death, even when you sense it just around the corner.
Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’s Brazilian neo-Western takes a funky premise, an abundance of style, and pushes them both as far as they can possibly go. A small village disappears — literally vanishes — from the map. That’s the first bad sign. Next come the weird pair of tourists whose intentions, though unknown, are immediately suspicious. And then, and then, and then. The matriarch, a woman in her 90s, has died; the local politicians have utterly failed to serve the people, to the point of depriving them of water and resources; a local gangster — a hero to the people of this village — is on the run. Which is to say nothing of the strange sightings in the sky and the bloodbath to come. The movie bears its allegorical weight proudly; it is, for all its shenanigans, defiantly political. And so are the people at its center, who fight back, tooth and nail, against enemies both known and not. The result is uproarious and fun and hard to describe in terms that don’t feel damningly literal. A scathing, entertaining piece of work.
Michael Almereyda’s curious, stimulating study of Nikola Tesla, starring a semi-charismatic, brooding, unpredictable Ethan Hawke, is a great man picture in which the man’s appeal isn’t his greatness, nor his grace under fire, nor even his misanthropic genius. Tesla is a bit more invested in the battles between one’s genius and one’s means; it has a keen eye on the business and competition between men like Tesla and Thomas Edison, which is a race, not only toward scientific discovery, but toward being remembered as the discoverer. A patent is a stamp on the pages of history. You get the sense that a man like Tesla could just as easily be unknown, today, if not for small interventions of fate. In the first place, what is it to be known? The movie makes something a joke — a pretty serious one, ultimately — of wedding Tesla’s accomplishments to the larger historical scope demanded of biopics through Powerpoint presentations on Apple computers and other fanciful anachronisms. It’s more than winking and cute — computers run on electricity; the very telling of these biographical bullet points is an act that Tesla helped make possible — but it’s also humorously self-aware and overt. None of that would appeal quite as much as it does if not for the power of Hawke at the film’s center, in a career-high performance as a man you both want to know and don’t, who intrigues as handily as he repels — whose skeptical frustration at his own place in history is the stuff more biopics should be made of.
Merawi Gerima’s accomplished debut feature takes the pressing problem of gentrification in the director’s native Washington, D.C. and renders it in extremely personal terms. Jay (Obinna Nwachukwu), the main character, is, like the director, a D.C. native who’s gone off to film school across the country and come back after a year, in part to mine his home life for material to use in a script, only to find that the place has changed. It’s a little whiter, and noticeably more hostile — even among the people he knows. Inquiries about one of his childhood friends only draw suspicion from other former friends; events in the present spark memories and reevaluations of the past. Residue is poignant, personal, and often fearsome — a call-out by Jay’s childhood friend Demetrius, played by a standout Dennis Lindsey, remains a high point of the year, for me. It’s a film that’s asking the right questions. And it’s smart enough to burrow beyond the obvious answers.
The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship: So reads the epigraph, courtesy of William Blake, that opens Kelly Reichardt’s warm, troubled, unexpectedly intimate tale of frontier friendship between two men: Cookie and King-Lu, played by the wonderful John Magaro and the equally wonderful Orion Lee. One man saves the other man’s skin. They become friends and share their ambitions with each other: Cookie’s wish to become a pastry maker, King-Lu’s to become a businessman. So begins a no-good scheme involving a rich guy’s (gorgeous, wonderful, iconic) cow and a delicate, complex tale of class, commerce, manhood, and so much else. In Reichardt’s hands — and thanks in large part to her steady co-writer, Jonathan Raymond — none of this feels forced, even as the filmmaker drums up suspense and affection. There is much delight here: in friendship, in the artisan’s craft, and, most of all, in the rich histories that only a storyteller as wise and sharp as Reichardt can help us imagine.
Dan Sallitt’s intimate study of a fraught friendship across the years is one for the ages. Norma Kuhling and Tallie Medel play a pair of childhood friends whose ties to each other feel tenuous at times — because they are. One of these women is mentally ill, though the film is too sensitive to pathologize her outright or make a point of rooting out everything that’s “wrong” with her. Its interest, instead, is in the ups and downs, the jealousies and inequities, the bouts of bad luck, the boyfriend problems — and most of all, the sense of duty and care that bind you to a person, even someone you’ve continued to love despite not liking them very much. Fourteen catapults us through time with little warning or transition, to magnificent effect. The friendship shapeshifts before our eyes; time slips through our fingers. Made for under $100,000, accomplished but low-key, the film feels slight. But you can’t put a number on an emotional canvass this large, nor on performances so searching as these.
The second feature in Steve McQueen’s altogether wonderful Small Axe, a five-part collection of novella-like films, has widely been celebrated for being the 70-minute-long dance party you didn’t know you needed. And that rings true — to a point. The director himself has called the film “a fairy tale.” A fairy tale in which the mechanics of plot take a backseat to the pleasures of communing with people who are family, whether or not they are blood. The movie gives us some of the finest moments seen on-screen this year — multiple, spontaneous, a capella renditions of Janet Kay’s “Silly Games,” for example, that have a way of making us feel as alive to the moment as the people we’re watching. Still, this describes only one aspect of what McQueen accomplishes here. Small Axe, writ large, details the lives of Britain’s West Indian immigrants from the Sixties through to the Eighties, and never loses sight of the violence of that transition — including the forced closure of black social spaces by the British government, a prohibition that made covert gatherings such as the one depicted in Lovers Rock not only possible, but necessary, not only contagiously joyous, but defiant. This isn’t any old party. It’s history unburied.
Frederick Wiseman’s four-hour study of Boston politics isn’t as bouncy or ironically charismatic as this year’s more popular Boys State, but it’s a hell a lot more honest and interesting, not least because — in the director’s trademark style — it delivers a wide range of ideas through long-brewing associations, hangs back instead of leaning forward, encourages us to think without telling us how to feel. To watch any Wiseman movie is to watch people at work: His is a style that constructs long scenes out of bureaucratic meetings, and interludes out of tours of the city, and drama out of the needs and expressions of real people. The ability of the institution in question to support those needs is, here as elsewhere in this director’s work, rendered into a question; Wiseman answers that question by zeroing in on the institution at work, in all its sprawl. The view of local government that we get in this movie, by way of likable and good-hearted mayor Marty Walsh, is complicated and contingent. For every convincing bit of political speech, we’re given a sense of the government’s limits; for every success, we’re witness to the inherent failures.
‘Red, White and Blue’
The third film in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe stars John Boyega as Leroy Logan, a real-life black British police officer who joins the force with the best of intentions, and in many ways as a result of his experiences growing up as the son of immigrants in a country that Logan and others of his ilk feel unwanted. McQueen’s film is a bold study in misplaced optimism, told with an analytical visual precision that feels cold until you realize just how sorrowful and angry the film is, as torrent of feelings as convincingly masked by the movie as they are by the hyper-capable, hardworking, idealistic (but not wholly naive) Logan himself. This wasn’t, on first watch, my favorite among the five films in this series. But it’s the one I’ve returned to and contended with most often, not least because of how eerily it paints Logan’s fate as an outcome of many immigrants’ necessarily survivalist logic: do and be better in a nation that sees you, always, as less. McQueen does not caricature Logan’s devotion to this idea. Nor does he avoid the tragedy of it. And nor could he have done any of the above without the singular John Boyega, who, in his best performance to date, proves (not for the first time!) to be the genuine article: a one-of-a-kind, bona fide star.
‘Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets’
In Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, a dive bar in Las Vegas, the Roaring Twenties, is closing, and with it, the community of regulars assembled there, perhaps even living there, is about to get thrown asunder. But before that: a conflicted, ironic, bittersweet party is in order. The party starts at 11am and ends when it ends. And in the interim, we meet a believable crew of dive regulars, the grime of personal baggage heavy on every shoulder. Bill and Turner Ross meld improvisation and artifice with the painful familiarity of a real scenario: the disappearance of a hangout, the erasure of a last stronghold for lost people. All of which plays out among frequent reminders of Las Vegas and its excesses, a city that’s growing as this one nook is on the verge of becoming a footnote. That sounds heavy for a movie about a crew of likable drunks brushing shoulders, bumping heads, getting on each others’ nerves, arguing and relating and reminiscing across their differences. But such is the nature of this particular group of people, a found family of sorts, but also — somewhat painfully — a false one (not least because these people are, in fact, strangers). Whether the movie itself counts as “non-fiction” or not is a productive thing to debate. But the movie itself lands on feelings and tensions whose truth can’t really be denied. Toward the end, an older man — the closest thing we have to a main character — advises a younger man to get out of the bar and pursue his art, to avoid becoming that guy in the bar who used to be something. In a moment like this, the blurry distance between fact and fiction feels as immediate as it is moot. The man is speaking from experience. The movie speaks through him.
‘Fire Will Come’
Oliver Laxe’s exceptional character study, set in the far-flung hills of Spain, stars Amador Arias as a man who, fresh out of prison, has returned home to find something less than comfort. There’s the fact of why he was in prison to begin with: He’s a known pyromaniac. This has a way of making a guy suspicious to even the people who once loved him. Whereas, to Amador, his home village has itself become suspicious: developers are moving in, tourism seems to be just around the corner, and a disease seems to have overtaken the trees populating his beloved surroundings — or so Amador says. Laxe’s film opens and ends with destruction, a point-counterpoint that cuts a moral backbone clean into the heart of the film with terrible beauty. What’s at stake is, as grandiose as it seems to say, no less than a man’s soul. The film’s seeming simplicity, its lean understatement, speaks volumes.
At the start of Portuguese director Pedro Costa’s latest, most haunting film, Vitalina Varela — the film’s star, as well as (in a fictionalized rendering) its heroine — arrives in Lisbon only to find that she is too late. The man she’s come to see, whom she hasn’t seen in over two decades, is already dead. He was her husband. This sense of delay, of having just missed the chance at reconciliation, hangs over everything that follows, as Varela tours the shanty of Fontainhas, contending with every secret Varela comes to know, every bit of discovery that feels touched, still, by the man’s shadow. It all plays out in vividly sculpted tableaux that are gorgeous in the dankest possible sense, with shadow always winning out, beautifying what it obscures to the point that much of Vitalina Varela feels as if it takes place in the wake of nuclear fallout. Emotionally, spiritually, maybe there’s something to that. Costa is a known (though, in the U.S., underseen) chronicler of Portugal’s more impoverished corners, a director who uses non-professional actors (this is Varela’s second time starring in his films) to chip away at grime, character, and aesthetic pretension in equal measure. The result, in this case, is spectral, ambitious, and singular, even for Costa.
‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’ and ‘Time’ (tie)
I want to imagine a world in which every coming-of-age story is as curious and sensitive — as attuned to being young, alive, curious, fallible, and vulnerable — as the films of Eliza Hittman. What’s long stood out in Hittman’s work is her skill for rendering stories we know, or think we know, in terms that feel unusually spacious, resistant to easy conclusions. Where so many films insist on answers, Hittman’s provoke questions, many of them uncomfortable. She’s rare in her understanding of the ways that near-adulthood — the “coming-of” aspect of coming-of-age — is a specifically contingent time in one’s life, particularly young women’s lives. Each of her features and short films to date is bracingly honest about, among other things, sex and sexuality. Yet without ever making us feel that the characters themselves are being punished by the fictional scenarios of her films, Hittman manages to startle us with her candor.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is an urgent case in point. It stars Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder in what is, essentially, two teenage women’s quest to secure an abortion for the older of the pair (played, sensationally, by Flanigan). The movie is unabashed in its sympathies: It is frustrated over the near-impossibility of this task, particularly given the circumstances of the pregnancy, revealed in the startling scene that gives the movie its title. Never Rarely is nearly procedural in the care it takes to document every hurdle, every roadblock; it is harrowing in the care it takes to make us understand the ways things could go wrong for these young women. The depth with which these women emerge as people is a wonder: not as heroically stylish fantasies, not as downtrodden tropes, but as flesh-and-blood people, vulnerable, capable, and real.
Garrett Bradley’s Time is an equally stunning, humane portrait of a woman — Sibil Fox Richardson, known as Fox Rich — who’s been fighting for almost 18 years to get her husband, Robert, paroled and out of prison. When the film starts, he’s serving a 60-year sentence for a non-violent crime that the pair committed together when they were young, newly married, and desperate. By the time Bradley caught up with Rich, in the process of making another film, the woman had recorded years of video letters to her husband, documenting the raising of their kids, the changes in their lives, and the mundane everydayness that comprises a home life. This is the stuff Robert has missed while in prison. And it serves as the bedrock for Bradley’s movie, which combines excerpts of Fox’s video diaries with present-day footage of the last leg of her fight on behalf of her husband.
The result is something uncanny, a fluid, uninterrupted merging of past and present, Rich’s self-recorded footage and Bradley’s more recent documentation of her fight. So much happens in the interim. We, too, see the kids grow; we see Fox Rich grow, too. This isn’t the true crime documentary many people seem to want it to be; some responses too frequently ape the prosecutorial proverb “Do the crime, do the time,” as if delving into the the specifics of this particular crime, in which no one was hurt, will somehow justify Robert’s imprisonment. The prison sentence and what it does to this family is, of course, precisely that Bradley’s film encourages us to question — not the crime itself, which no one denies. In Time, Fox makes a case against this logic; she preaches forgiveness, fairness. And Bradley’s extraordinarily intimate film — which has a climactic scene that, sincerely, took my breath away — cedes ground to Fox, her voice and her effort, to make a case for the value of her husband’s life, which is to say, her own life. There’s nothing quite like this movie.