Top Ten Movies of 2020 — Number Two

With a level of patience and care that’s become her clear trademark, writer-director Kelly Reichardt crafts a warm, shrewd cinematic story that explores a distant American past to offer pertinent, strangely moving commentary on the present. Set in the first half of the nineteenth century, First Cow follows Otis (John Magaro) and King-Lu (Orion Lee), two men whose outsider status leads to an unlikely friendship. Being boxed out of opportunity also prompts some sly scheming. The twosome launch a modest but prosperous business selling oily cakes in the nearby frontier community, an ongoing concern made possible by the free milk they get from the cow owned by a wealthy neighbor (Toby Jones). In her carefully constructed narrative — based on a novel by Jonathan Raymond, who helped Reichardt adapt it for the screen — the director clearly illustrates the way confident moxie is the longstanding fuel of U.S. capitalism, and makes it yet more clear that only those who start from privilege are truly allowed to see their confident moxie go unchecked. Reichardt charts the insidious ways privilege is asserted and maintained, including all the methods of hustling certain citizens into a permanent status of disdaining otherness. At the core of the film, giving the commentary a special poignancy, is a kind, giving friendship between two men, the prime fascination Reichardt brings to the film. In a story about people being cut down, Reichardt is mostly concerned about the those who seek and give mutual support, generously celebrating an approach to life that, if practiced widely, could make everyone better. First Cow depicts a tough, challenging existence and somehow makes it look like a way of being that’s worth aspiring to.

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