For some time, I’ve put together a quick zip through the year’s films for a few cinephile friends and posted it on Facebook. La Cieca suggested offering it up here this time, so voilà! You’ll quickly realize my tastes run to arthouse fare rather than superheroes or romcoms.
In the past when I’ve read through the scads of year-end best lists, there have always been a few titles that I just didn’t “get” but there were more than usual in 2020. Since I love watching movies on a big screen, I wonder if my less-than-impressed response to some stemmed from my having seen just one film in a theater before the shutdown in early March?
Unlike Zhao’s wonderful The Rider, her visually splendid Nomadland proved an uneasy, ultimately unconvincing amalgam of fiction and nonfiction though Frances McDormand was exceptional as its fiercely anti-social central figure.
The lovely Minari, on the hand, through delicate humor and pathos dug more compellingly into the current zeitgeist.
Fincher’s long-awaited Mank was name-dropping manna for old Hollywood film fans but anyone not intimately familiar with Citizen Kane may have found it confusing. The director’s late father’s overly intricate decades-old script recalled Pauline Kael’s notoriously discredited Kane essay and didn’t merit the expensively sumptuous fuss.
The pointlessly loquacious car conversations that bookended Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things were so maddening that I felt sorry for actors Jessie & Jesse. The film’s loopy central family visit at least provided a welcome respite. Bloody Bacurau stood out as a chaotic, shallow spaghetti western sputtering to say something important about Brazil.
I liked McQueen’s powerful Mangrove and Red White and Blue episodes of Small Axe much more than the wildly heralded Lovers Rock which evoked a seductive party atmosphere while remaining otherwise dramatically inert and uninvolving.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always made its case about abortion effectively but seemed more like a documentary than a drama, unlike, say, The Assistant which made its potent points about sexual harassment more subtly thanks to an astonishing Julia Garner in the title role.
I saw some remarkable films at the 2019 New York Film Festival that weren’t generally released until this year: Costa’s hauntingly beautiful Vitalina Varela, the gorgeously stylish The Wild Goose Lake, the devastating Beanpole, Porumboiu’s sly thriller The Whistlers, and the crackerjack Jack London update Martin Eden which unfortunately fell apart during its labored epilogue.
But the best of NYFF57 may have also been 2020’s ultimate best: Reichardt’s lovely, unexpected, sui generis First Cow.
I usually skip documentaries but enthusiastic critical consensus convinced me to check out the exceptional Time, as well as Dick Johnson Is Dead whose wealthy and privileged central figure struck me as less fascinating than his daughter-director clearly intended. The Truffle Hunters, though picturesque, spent way too much time trafficking in cute old men conversing with their dogs!
Checking out John Waters’s #1 movie may not have been the best idea: Butt Boy began with a perversely ingenious premise but spent way too long playing it out—with gross-out results. However, his second choice—Swallow—explored its similarly distasteful plot with cool visual elegance seconding a mesmerizing performance by Haley Bennett.
Babyteeth’s characters were far too eccentric to care about though they weren’t as repellent as Kajillionaire’s, but I only lasted through 20 minutes of the latter. My aversion may not have been a surprise as its director had participated in the recent loathsome Madeline’s Madeline. I also gave up on MM director Decker’s newest, Shirley.
I preferred Larraín’s occasionally loony Ema to Emma (although it’s an entertaining Jane Austen adaptation), and though sci-fi isn’t really my thing The Vast of Night showed impressive micro-budget ingenuity. Striking black-and-white visuals set apart the occasionally turgid English fishing drama Bait. 40-Year-Old Version featured some primitive filmmaking but you couldn’t take your eyes off charismatic writer-director-rap star Radha Blank.
Knockout performances by Carrie Coon, Riz Ahmed and Invar Eggert Sigurdsson elevated excellent films The Nest, Sound Of Metal and White White Day to altogether higher levels.
Aubrey Plaza and Christopher Abbott nearly accomplished the same for Black Bear though its two discrete sections never added up. Extraordinary work by Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis couldn’t rescue Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom from its awkward staginess further exaggerated by Wolfe’s frenetic editing.
I was weak and broke my vow to never watch another Hong Sang Soo film, and sure enough The Woman Who Ran made me regret that lapse and re-swear my oath. Unfortunately, Kore-eda stumbled badly with his French debut The Truth in which Catherine Deneuve skirted self-parody as an annoying diva.
On the other hand, a few past masters again produced very fine films: Petzold’s buoyant romance Undine,
Honoré’s One Magical Night, Lacôte’s Night of the Kings, and A Sun by the shockingly under-appreciated Chung Mong-hong. Almodovar’s The Human Voice’s dazzling design and incendiary Tilda Swinton were compulsively watchable but it’s a decidedly minor effort.
On the other hand, Coppola’s laughably bad On The Rocks dismayed a past fan, while Kurosawa’s To the Ends of the Earth eventually turned trivial.
The year’s essential rediscovery was the gorgeous restoration of the fascinating 1976 Iranian film The Chess Game of the Wind.
One of the very best films I saw in 2020 will be released sometime in 2021: the spellbinding Beginning by Georgian director Dea Kulumbegashvili. MoMA will be showing it this month during its virtual The Contenders series.
I still need to check out Relic, Palm Springs, Two More Episodes Of Small Axe, Gunda, Jeanne D’arc, The Personal History of David Copperfield, Promising Young Woman and The Father among others.
I hadn’t planned on looking at 2020’s LGBTQ films separately, but I feel compelled to after reading several recent godawful surveys in usually respectable publications. Those will follow in a few days.
Image from The Wild Goose Lake: Film Movement