Jan 4, 2021

Best Quest Films of 2020


A still from Miss Juneteenth of mom and daughter, Turquoise and Kai.

 My list is quite short this year (fewer films got release dates), but these five depictions of the quest for identity are all outstanding. My criteria for choosing these movies is derived from my latest book Cinematic Quests for Identity: The Hero’s Encounter with the Beast (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015). A key point in my theory is that heroes do not have a “coming of age” or a “middle-age crisis”—these patriarchal ideas are derived from Western literary tradition and so reflect the experience of men. Cinematic heroes embark on quests many times in their lives in order to search for meaning and live a conscious existence. 

Several of the films are proof of that lifelong search for meaning, and chronicle the childhood wounds that so often form the heroic character; these often inform the classic tales of the hero’s journey, in literature and at the movies. We are reminded this year that survival itself is an heroic task: in the wake of 300,000 souls in the U.S. and millions worldwide who have perished in the pandemic, is an ocean of sorrow and longing. Three filmmakers on the list this year, veterans Jean Pierre and Luc Dardenne and relative newcomer Chloe Zhao are returnees; their work is consistently focused on the quest undertaken by largely uncelebrated heroes, disenfranchised by poverty, ageism or racism, or cultures marked by institutionalized violence. 

(Please note that the movies are listed in alphabetical order by title. I try to resist ranking beyond the compilation of this list. Excessive ranking is counter to the aim of film criticism, the purpose of which is to further an appreciation of the art form through a consideration of all movies.) 

House of Hummingbird, Kim Bora (Subtitled) 

This accomplished debut feature set in South Korea centers on Eun-hee, a young woman who confronts class discrimination, an abusive family and other more ordinary teenage woes. Then she suffers the sudden loss of the only person who understands her predicament. The film is not only a beautifully rendered quest film, it is a reminder of the terrifying fragility of youthful individuation. Excellent performances anchor what some may feel is a slow-moving story. Ozu fans will love it. (Scroll down for a longer review on Facebook.) 

Miss Juneteenth, Channing Godfrey Peoples (Appropriate for young audiences) 

The Beast of individuation, the equivocal figure in every hero’s journey, is sometimes a relative or guardian, and in the young, female quest, it is often a loving but overbearing mother. In this unusual film, both mother and daughter are grappling with their identity. Turquoise, the youthful mother, was almost a beauty queen and the recipient of a college scholarship, but now she ekes out a living as a waitress, worried about paying for Kai’s education. Under the delightful female gaze of this African-American writer-director, what emerges is a cinematic quest story in which a girl, on the verge of adulthood, sends her mom on a path to individuation. “Miss Juneteenth” is significant for other reasons, not the least of which is that the characters are Black—and that Turquoise’s nostalgia for her storied girlhood is so often portrayed as the sole province of white women. 

Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Liza Hittman (Appropriate for teens; family viewing to discuss matters of abortion, rape, male aggression) 

This film is ostensibly the story of a 17 year-old girl unable to get a legal abortion in her own state, and the journey she and her friend embark upon to get her to New York City—but Autumn’s tale is centuries’ old. Instead of a single Beast of individuation, Hittman substitutes a hostile environment rife with male aggression, turning Autumn’s rape and her subsequent individuation into an archetypal female quest. The silent acknowledgment that Skylar and Autumn share of the necessity to endure is devastating, and further proof, as if women needed any, of the neverending story of our loss of innocence. Hittman even touches upon the delicate matter of how mothers are sometimes complicit in crimes committed against their daughters. 

Nomadland, Chloe Zhao 

 Like Zhao’s first two films, this one is a conflation of documentary and narrative film, the title and the characters derived from Jessica Bruder’s eponymous book. The underlying political and social commentary in this movie informs all of the young filmmaker’s work, but here there is a certain severity that undermines the narrative. It is somewhat overcome by Zhao’s celebration of an uncommonly old female hero who leaves nothing behind when she embarks on her last adventure. Fern’s late-in-life search for meaning has been a long time in coming; all heroes harbor one terrible childhood wound that is revisited over the years so that they may continue to live consciously. Fern has always lived by her own rules, and now only one path allows her to maintain that independence. The individuation is bittersweet, but then so is senescence. 

Young Ahmed, Dardenne Brothers (Appropriate for teens; subtitled) 

These Belgian filmmakers have been writing and directing quest films for over 20 years; among their most memorable are “la Promesse” (1996) and “Rosetta” (1999) that feature young, working class heroes. “Young Ahmed” follows that tradition, portraying a 13 year-old boy who comes under the influence of an extremist imam. Ahmed goes on to taunt his family with his sudden misogyny and his strict adherence to the imam’s beliefs. When he must pass certain barbarous rights of passage, it becomes apparent that Ahmed is on the path to self-destruction. Male quests for identity are marked by violent transformation because under patriarchy men and boys, unlike women and girls, must prove themselves physically, in playground battles and fields of battle. This film, anchored by a terrific performance, is a potent warning to adults about how easily children are influenced, and often harmed, because their passions are as great as their potential for self-sacrifice.