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Lithium 16 best movies of 2020, according to Gen-Z critics

Dec. 25, 2020
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I’ve always viewed film criticism—and really, the film industry in general—as behind an impenetrable sheen. The nepotism and sheer inaccessibility of both fields blinked bright red anytime I considered being a part of it, warning that I was entering precarious territory. This elitism trickles down even to seemingly innocent things like end-of-the-year movie round-ups, where in-house critics of well-off publications have a habit of listing festival-exclusive titles that no one but fellow established critics have seen. Many are starting to ask who exactly benefits from this kind of list; after all, even when most festivals went digital because of the pandemic, invites to anyone who isn’t from The New Yorker were scarce. 

While you can’t fight fire with fire, one of the primary ways the inaccessibility of film criticism can be combated is through more film criticism—watch films and write about them, even in smaller online nooks. 2020, with its lack of run-of-the-mill summer blockbusters, shined a light on more independent cinema, and it would be a shame if what is labeled best are titles we can’t see until next year. Here are the best movies of the year, according to Gen-Z critics around the globe, which you can watch now.

Babyteeth (dir. Shannon Murphy)

What it’s about: A teenage girl with a terminal illness falls in love with a small-time drug dealer, to the disapproval of her parents.

What the critics are saying: “From the get-go it asks the viewer, ‘Are you on-board or not?’” says 20-year-old Dimitri Keogh. “It taps into the ubiquitous feelings of youth—want, disinterestedness, hope, insecurity—and offers a surprisingly fresh take. It’s easy to graft your own experiences onto hers and find yourself reliving the high (and low) points of your high school years. It has the best ending of any film this year; if you can get through it without tearing up, hats off to you. I certainly couldn’t.”

Where to watch: Hulu

Bad Education (dir. Cory Finley)

What it’s about: The superintendent of a stunning school district is caught in an embezzlement scheme accidentally uncovered by a student journalist.

What the critics are saying: 17-year-old Lydia Smith favors movies set in high school, and she was particularly thrilled upon seeing a young female journalist bust open a scandal of this magnitude. She says, “Newspaper writer Rachel is barely the intended show-stealer of this star-studded film, but recognizing that the story is a product of her meticulous work makes it all the more rewarding to watch. I felt an intense boost of journalistic vigor in the immediate aftermath of the film that I was able to apply at my own school newspaper.”

Where to watch: HBO

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (dir. Cathy Yan)

What it’s about: Harley Quinn of Suicide Squad fame is back to prove that she is the only salvageable character in the DC Extended Universe by teaming up with unsung heroes to defeat a narcissistic crime boss.

What the critics are saying: “There is no politeness, no forcing women next to each other for the sake of empowerment; there are only complicated and real relationships involving plenty of bickering, anger, and care,” writes 20-year-old Jenna Kalishman, whose writing can be found at Film Daze, Alma, and here at Lithium. “Birds of Prey is a beautiful homage to Harley as a comic book character, seriously capturing the best of her energy and making sure it seeps into every member of the audience.”

Where to watch: Hulu/HBO

Black Bear (dir. Lawrence Michael Levine)

What it’s about: Trust me, you want to go into this blind. But basically Audrey Plaza plays an actress-turned-director who goes to a lakehouse to write a screenplay. 

What the critics are saying: 17-year-old Rosario Asenjo called this movie “tension-filled, gripping, riveting, and highly uncomfortable.” She says, “Black Bear and its leads bring this disruptive, at times bewildering, though deeply fascinating story to life, with incredible performances all around and sharp writing that allows for an intense viewing.”

Where to watch: Prime Video

David Byrne’s American Utopia (dir. Spike Lee)

What it’s about: A filmed version of The Talking Heads frontman David Byrne’s Broadway show that inspects contemporary American life and urges viewers to connect with others as a response.

What the critics are saying: “I’d always been jealous that I couldn’t see the stage production of this, but after seeing the film, I almost feel more privileged than the live audiences who attended,” writes 21-year-old Brighton-based writer and creative Yazz James. “We all understand Lee to be clever and creative with his direction, and his talent only burns through even more here. Without the limitations of an assigned seat, viewers are granted access to all sorts of angles. Whether we’re transported up and over the stage or face to face with Byrne himself, we’re treated to small details that might go missed otherwise.” 

Where to watch: Hulu

First Cow (dir. Kelly Reichardt)

What it’s about: Two star-crossed travelers on the run in the Northwest during the 1820s collaborate on a successful business bound to make them a fortune, except it all relies on the secret use of a landowner’s prized cow.

What the critics are saying: “It takes its time letting you get to know its characters, allowing you to fall in love with them at the same pace that they fall in love with each other,” says 22-year-old Kaiya Shunyata. “The cinematography is lush, its score is slight yet effective, and the performances from John Magaro and Orion Lee are the best of the year. It’s a quiet film, but one of the most effective modern odes to love and friendship I’ve seen.”

Where to watch: Hulu

The Invisible Man (dir. Leigh Whannell)

What it’s about: Cecil’s abusive ex-boyfriend dies, and she suspects it’s a hoax. Soon, she experiences torment from someone she can’t exactly see.

What the critics are saying: Kaiya called this film the best horror of the year, saying, “Whannell meticulously crafts dread and tension, and lets it explode at only the most significant times. Elisabeth Moss is also fantastic, giving a performance I’m convinced could have won her an Oscar if the Academy wasn’t so against horror films.”

Where to watch: HBO/Hulu/Prime Video

Kajillionaire (dir. Miranda July)

What it’s about: Two con artists train their only daughter to join them in swindling and scamming. When they convince a stranger to join one of their heists, things don’t go exactly as planned.

What the critics are saying: “The reason I love movies is for a singular, split-second feeling—one that cowers at the intersection of a gasp and a sigh, simultaneously occupying and expelling breath. A safe level of panic. With Kajillionaire, that feeling endured for over a hundred minutes,” says 20-year-old Saffron Maeve, whose work can be found at Little White Lies, Girls on Tops, Screen Queens, and here at Lithium. She called it “the perfect balm for a year that makes zero fucking sense,” adding, “Nothing about this should feel normal, but it does because the film’s directress had a strong vision and a stronger will to affect it. I’ll briefly snatch a fitting E. Alex Jung headline to say that this is Planet Miranda July and we’re all just lucky to be here.”
Where to watch: Prime Video

Never Rarely Sometimes Always (dir. Eliza Hittman)

What it’s about: A teenage girl and her best friend travel from rural Pennsylvania to New York City to get an abortion for her uninteded pregnancy.

What the critics are saying: “Seeing your own personal, intimate reality on screen can really make a difference. Suddenly, it’s not just you that’s having to deal with this pain, this affliction,” writes Rosario. “I’m reminded of Obvious Child and all other types of poetry that has contributed to a hyper-specific subgenre that is not quite as hyper-specific as it is virtually universal, to either know someone or be someone making that choice,” Lydia agrees. Saffron adds, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film depict the beauties and horrors of being a teenage girl with such precision. There’s a moment in the film when Skylar fixes Autumn’s makeup in a public restroom after an argument. Somewhere in the quiet 16mm grain there are two specters growing under the skin, both circling the same heart.”

Where to watch: Prime Video

Possessor (dir. Brandon Cronenberg)

What it’s about: An elite corporate assassin uses brain-implant technology to take over other people’s bodies to terminate high-profile targets.
What the critics are saying: “Christopher Abbott and Andrea Riseborough shine as two people trapped within each other’s minds, with both actors giving some of the most calculated performances of the year,” Kaiya says. “It’s a beautiful yet gross exploration of memory and morality, and the perfect film to sum up this hellish year.”
Where to watch: Prime Video

Rocks (dir. Sarah Gavron)

What it’s about: A teenage girl and her little brother are left to care for themselves. 

What the critics are saying: “When I first saw this film I was just in awe that I’d seen something that depicted Black teenage girls without brutalizing or sexualizing them,” Yazz writes. “A perfect documentation of that confusing ‘transitional’ period between child and young adult, Rocks is a beautifully honest portrait of what life might look like for a working-class London kid.”

Where to watch: Netflix UK

Shirley (dir. Josephine Decker)

What it’s about: A horror writer finds inspiration in a young couple that she and her husband take in.

What the critics are saying: The film “shakes with strangeness as Shirley haunts her own house, drifting in and out like a shade, burrowing beneath her blankets and sheets as the walls creak around her,” Jenna says. “I loved this film, loved its hallucinatory nature and the way it so interestingly examined an artist-and-muse relationship between two women, loved watching it during a time spent so buried in my own head.”

Where to watch: Hulu

Small Axe: Mangrove (dir. Steve McQueen)

What it’s about: The true story of the Mangrove Nine, Frank Crichlow, and the trial at the Old Bailey in 1970.
What the critics are saying: “As a Black Brit, I feel like I’ve been denied access to my own history my whole life. Mangrove puts us on the big screen and tells it as it was (and sadly still is),” says Yazz. “Despite the cruel truth behind the film, there’s warmth throughout. Not only is it about police corruption and the systemic racism that’s still so evident in the UK today, but it’s about community too. Coming at the end of a year that’s seen a traumatizing and exhausting amount of brutality, loss, and pain, Mangrove reminds us to keep fighting, keep educating ourselves, and keep supporting each other.”
Where to watch: Prime Video

Summerland (dir. Jessica Swale)

What it’s about: During World War II, a reclusive writer warms up to an evacuee left under her care after initially wanting to get rid of him.
What the critics are saying: Summerland feels like a fairytale, a tapestry of memory and fantasy and romance and unexpected parenthood,” writes Jenna, who was left crying after watching. “I think what struck me most was seeing such a sweet sapphic film end with a kind of happiness that felt like closure. There are plenty of well-ended sapphic films out there, but this one felt so right, peaceful, and heartfelt.”
Where to watch: Prime Video

Sound of Metal (dir. Darius Marder)

What it’s about: A heavy metal drummer begins losing his hearing and must now confront a future of silence.

What the critics are saying: “As loud as loud gets, Sound of Metal is a sincere, unique, and incredibly potent piece, which feels even more relevant when observed next to everything we have lived through since March,” writes Roasrio. Lydia, on the other hand, took interest in the ending, saying, “It’s not until the final minute of the movie that Ruben finally accepts that change has occurred, and it’s not necessarily a bad change. I took away with that ending a wish to obtain a frame of mind of present satisfaction, a will to look at seemingly cursed events as the gateway to a silver lining.”

Where to watch: Prime Video

Uncle Frank (dir. Alan Ball)

What it’s about: In 1973, a gay literature professor takes a relunctant trip home with his teenage niece for his father’s funeral.

What the critics are saying: “This film is just…nice. The film has heart in spades, and the [sincerity] of the emotions and joy and fear tapped into what I was feeling at the time. Just thinking about it, I’d love to watch it again,” says Dimitri, who spent Thanksgiving alone and watched this movie in lieu of a turkey dinner.

Where to watch: Prime Video