It's been an unconventional year for cinema, to say the least - but there were still gems out there for those who knew where to look. Arts & Culture Editor Milo Farragher-Hanks reflects on 2020 in film and counts down his five favourite releases of the year.
If narrowing down a short list of the year’s best films is hard in any year, then it’s positively Sisyphean in 2020. Examining the year in film, you are confronted with both too little and too much. With cinemas closed for much of the year, most of the scheduled “event” movies fled to 2021, leaving Bond and Marvel-shaped holes in the release calendar. The films that actually did come out, meanwhile, are largely scattered over an abundance of streaming services, some better publicised than others, or still confined to festivals, yet to be screened for much of the general public even as they accrue award nominations and best-of-the-year nods. Don’t believe anyone who says this year was a “cultural void”; if someone thinks cinema is dead because a few franchises took a year off, that says far more about their limited taste than the state of the medium. Yet I’d be wary of any undue optimism about the present and eventual post-pandemic future of the medium, too. Quite apart from the uncertain future of cinemas themselves, I was also struck this year by how quickly even ostensibly major films departed the cultural conversation – the sheer glut of content (the vomitus word major corporations have us all using to degrade the arts) in all directions means that a film as ill-received as Hillbilly Elegy and one as lauded as Soul met essentially the same fate – a few days of reviews, takes, and memes, and then collective forgetting. The pandemic-induced fragmentation of media culture this past year was only accelerating a now-now-now, onto-the-next-thing status quo that had been developing for years, and I’d be lying if I said I think it’s a good thing for film culture, or likely to be easily solved.
Yet, when it comes down to the wire, any discussion of the state of cinema must ultimately hinge on the quality of films being produced. And for all my misgivings about how they’re being seen and thought about (or not), 2020 produced a cadre of remarkable offerings in spite of it all. Below is a list of what I would consider my five favourite new releases of 2020, in lieu of the top ten I would usually submit to the paper – in such a compromised year, I naturally saw fewer films of any kind, yet alone truly great ones. There are certain releases I am sad not to include on this list. In some cases, this is a matter of availability – I am aware that Another Round, Days, First Cow, Nomadland and Promising Young Woman are allegedly very good, but sadly remain unavailable to British audiences. In others, it’s simply because the films in question did little for me. I’ve developed a slight sneaking respect for the sheer disrespect Christopher Nolan showed for the rules of blockbuster storytelling in his not-quite-cinema-saviour Tenet, but was ultimately left cold and baffled by its mile-a-minute exposition and hyper-edited sensory-overload set pieces. Netflix’s presumptive Oscar front-runners The Trial Of The Chicago 7 and Mank also underwhelmed me. The former displayed all of Aaron Sorkin’s characteristic strength in crafting sharp, intelligent quick-fire dialogue and directing heightened but not cartoonish character turns, but also highlighted his irksome tendency towards didacticism, sentimentality, and empty triumphalist endings, and his complete lack of cinematic sense behind the camera; the latter is an impressive exercise in period detail with some strong performances (especially from Amanda Seyfried), which nonetheless emerges as a joyless slog through historical footnotes, with precious little of the visual drama and nasty, nihilistic energy that animates David Fincher’s best work. I should also add recommendations for Sofia Coppola’s melancholic screwball comedy On The Rocks and Steve McQueen’s revelatory, lyrical Small Axe cycle.
- Saint Maud
Rose Glass cemented herself as the strongest new voice British cinema has seen in years with this deeply unnerving, visceral psychological horror as reminiscent of Dostoevsky as De Palma, centred on a haunting performance from Morfydd Clark as a devoutly Catholic private care nurse spiralling further into fanaticism.
- Da Five Bloods
Whatever you do, don’t call Spike Lee’s latest “timely” – if its exploration of political division, national trauma, and the complexity of Black identity in the shadow of systemic racism seemed uber-relevant in 2020, that’s because Lee has been pointing his camera at those subjects long before many were willing to. It’s a fearless film alive with formal, emotional, and intellectual energy, riffing on decades of Hollywood politics and aesthetics, and slipping from stark realism to hazy 16mm flashback and a chilling to-camera monologue from Delroy Lindo’s Paul. Chadwick Boseman, meanwhile, in his last film released in his tragically short lifetime, gives a magisterial performance that serves as fitting tribute to his iconic status and inimitable screen presence.
Awash in vibrant reds and greens and with its camera almost constantly clinging to its protagonists in moments of intense physicality, the second feature by 29-year-old Russian director Kantimir Bagalov brings post-WWII Leningrad to astonishingly sensuous life. Alternating painterly images of the city with hyper-intimate shallow-focus close-ups, Beanpole is informed by mid-century European masters such as Bergman, Tarkovsky, and Klimov but has its own emotional power, with two fully-felt performances from Viktoria Miroshnichenko and Vasilia Perelygina at its heart.
- I’m Thinking Of Ending Things
Audiences have rarely seemed so boringly fixated on the “rules” of narrative filmmaking as they are at the moment – a time when CinemaSins can wrack up millions of views by writing off any little bit of subtext or subtlety as a “plot hole”, and a Star Wars movie lightly deviating from formula still prompts online temper tantrums years after the fact. As such, I found something deeply cathartic about writer-director Charlie Kaufman’s sheer contempt for the comforts we demand from our popular art, which has perhaps never been so palpable as in his adaptation of Iain Reid’s horror novel. Ostensibly following a young woman (Jessie Buckley) as she visits the family of her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons), the film slowly pulls apart all the mechanisms of immersion and identification that we’re used to, before its final minutes plunge us into a horrifyingly absurd abyss of existential emptiness.
- The Woman Who Ran
Not long after Parasite unexpectedly and delightfully swept the Oscars, there was another international triumph for South Korean cinema as the Berlin International Film Festival awarded the Silver Bear Award for Best Director to this superb effort from the magnificent realist Hong Sang-soo. It was a victory well-deserved; following Gam-hee (Kim Min-hee) through conversations with various important women in her life, The Woman Who Ran is a quiet miracle. Hong’s staging is simple but sublime, laying out conversations in meticulous but unfussy conversation, and emphasising not with cuts but with judicious camera movements, making the screen-filling images of nature which serve as ellipses to each section startling in their vibrancy and scope. And if the evocation of the peculiar pleasures of the cinema auditorium in its final moments would have moved me at any time, it almost ruined me at the close of a year where we were all forced to leave it behind. All that, and the year’s best performance by a cat.