Thursday, December 31, 2020

The Best Films of 2020

With the inevitable caveat that I have missed many, many potentially great films this year, here are my favourite movies of 2020

20 – Clemency (Chinonye Chukwu)
This was my return screening following the end of the first lockdown period, and the big screen was definitely best place to appreciate all of the subtle nuances in Alfre Woodard's commanding lead performance. The film is about the way the penal system and the administration of the death penalty chips away at the soul of everyone involved in it, and Chukwu frequently lets the camera rest on the actors' faces as they process their overwhelming, conflicted emotions. Chukwu's direction is austere and clinical, and it's bookended by a pair of extremely powerful scenes. Clemency is obviously most notable as a vehicle for Alfre Woodard – an actress who is too rarely given roles of this substance – but as a man counting down the hours to his death, Aldis Hodge is just as impressive.

19 – Sheep Without a Shepherd (Sam Quah)
I had no idea what I was about to see when I sat down in front of Sheep Without a Shepherd, and I had no idea where it was going in the early stages, as it veered in a few directions before settling down to the main plot. What followed was a nifty, twist-laden thriller about a family trying to cover up a murder, fuelled by the father's encyclopedic film knowledge. Director Sam Quah has a lot of fun layering film references into his picture (The Shawshank Redemption, Psycho, Memories of Murder and Witness for the Prosecution among others) and he uses the ingeniously constructed narrative to explore ideas of subjectivity, memory, class and corruption. It felt like Quah's hand was being forced a little with the soft ending, but up until then it's a sly and engrossing piece of work.

18 – My First Film (Zia Anger)
I had bought a ticket to see Zia Anger present My First Film live at the ICA before the lockdown intervened, but seeing it presented live on my laptop instead seemed oddly fitting. The director is herself sitting at a computer throughout her performance, sharing her thoughts and her story through text that appears on screen as she types it. While this text takes up one side of the screen, the other displays her debut feature Always All Ways, Anne Marie, which was made in 2012 but was rejected by every festival it was submitted to and never released. As well as talking us through her ambitions and disappointments with this project, Anger reveals details of her personal struggles, and the way her thoughts appear on screen – with her often deleting and retyping things as she struggles to find the right words – gives the experience a sense of spontaneity and intimacy that I found very affecting.

17 – Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman)
I didn't really care for Eliza Hittman's previous film Beach Rats, which was beautifully crafted but felt shallow and unconvincing to me, but Never Rarely Sometimes Always feels like a real step up. Hittman has a great ability to evoke the sensation of wandering an unfamiliar city at night, and the way it can simultaneously feel exciting, lonely and threatening, especially from the perspective of two young girls on an illicit journey. The film is so strong on atmosphere and subjective experience and it provides further proof that Hélène Louvart is one of the greatest cinematographers working today. Hittman gets astonishing work from her two young actresses. Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder share a dynamic that feels natural and authentic, with so much between them going unsaid or being communicated through glances and gestures. The scene that gives the film its title – a long take held on Flanagan, who had never acted before this film – is shattering.

16 – Dick Johnson is Dead (Kirsten Johnson)
One of the most touching moments in Kirsten Johnson’s masterful 2016 film Cameraperson involved her mother, who was already suffering from Alzheimer's disease when she was captured by the filmmaker’s camera. Her mother having since passed, Johnson turns her camera onto her father in Dick Johnson is Dead. The title is a lie – Dick Johnson has not yet passed – but both he and his daughter know that the time will come sooner rather than later, and Dick’s dementia is already starting to make its presence felt. Dick Johnson is Dead is an audacious and disarming film about how we confront the inevitable. Johnson involves her father in a series of comical depictions of his own demise, creating a vision of the afterlife and even staging a mock-funeral, with the undercurrent of raw emotion that has been building throughout the film bursting forth at this final event. The film is a reminder to appreciate and celebrate your loved ones while you have the chance, and its message feels more piercing than ever this year.

15 – Blizzard of Souls (Dzintars Dreibergs)
It's easy to see why Dzintars Dreibergs' film was an enormous box office hit in its native Latvia. An adaptation of Aleksandrs Grīns' first-hand experiences of the Great War - a conflict that claimed half the Latvian population at the time - it taps into a sense of national trauma and patriotism. As the teenage Artūrs (Oto Brantevics) experiences the horror of warfare, Dreibergs creates and sustains a sense of tension, fear and claustrophobia, both in the rat-infested trenches and in the fog-shrouded wilderness, where the troops fire at an unseen enemy and are picked off by snipers. Death is everywhere, and Dreibergs spares us nothing in the way he presents this brutality, but it never feels gratuitous, and he finds vital moments of humanity and even humour amid the carnage. There's enough variety in the staging and logistics of each battle to keep it visually interesting. An involving and powerful film that deserves to audience outside of Latvia too.

14 – Jeanne (Bruno Dumont)
I have seen so many versions of Joan of Arc's story over the years, but I've never seen anything like Dumont's two films on the subject. His 2017 film Jeannette was a head-banging musical that covered Joan's childhood and adolescence, with this more straightforward follow-up focusing on the battles and her trial. Although she was replaced by the older Jeanne Voisin in the second half of Jeannette, 10-year-old Lise Leplat Prudhomme reclaims the title role here, and this choice pays off brilliantly. Her youth emphasises her innocence and underscores the power imbalance in the trial scenes, but her confident and passionate performance makes her more than a match for the pompous men berating her. The rest of the cast consists of Dumont's usual collection of amateurs and oddballs, and some of them have great moments - I particularly enjoyed the torturer lamenting the demise of his trade. Taken together, these two films constitute one of the most surprising and distinctive cinematic depictions of Saint Joan’s story.

13 – The Traitor (Marco Bellocchio, 2019)
Marco Bellocchio packs a lot into The Traitor's two and a half hours, and he rattles through his decades-spanning narrative at a fair clip. His film is the story of Tommaso Buscetta, the Cosa Nostra turncoat whose testimony led to hundreds of Mafia convictions in the 1980s, and while the storytelling can be erratic and abrupt, it's rarely dull. Bellocchio has a lot of fun with the lengthy trial sequences, with a host of colourful characters hurling insults across the room, and he stages some brilliant set-pieces, including a stunning recreation of the murder of Giovanni Falcone. In a way that’s reminiscent of The Irishman, Bellocchio accentuates the essential emptiness of these lives: from haunting nightmares to endless circular marches around a tiny prison cell and a paranoia that lasts until your final day. It's riveting, impressive filmmaking, and Pierfrancesco Favino's commanding lead performance is quietly mesmerising.

12 – The Wild Goose Lake (Diao Yinan)
Diao Yinan delivers on the promise of his 2014 film Black Coal, Thin Ice with this dazzling thriller. Set in rainy nocturnal Wuhan, lit primarily by streetlamps and neon signs, The Wild Goose Lake is a sleek neo-noir with a sly sense of humour. The plot – which is kickstarted by a spectacular brawl and an even more spectacular decapitation – is perhaps overly convoluted, but this is more of an exercise in style and an attempt to toy with genre conventions, and on those fronts it exceeds thrillingly. Almost every scene in this film is an aesthetic wonder; Yinan stages elaborate long takes, high-speed chase sequences and artful static compositions with equal confidence and flair. He also makes brilliant uses of unexpected props – an umbrella, a prosthetic leg, a pair of light-up trainers. I’m keen to check out the films Diao Yinan made before breaking through with Black Coal, Thin Ice, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

11 – Marshawn Lynch: A History (David Shields)
A breathlessly edited and densely packed collage film that pulls from an astonishing array of sources. We get NFL highlights, news clips, mobile phone footage, TV commercials, talk shows, The Cat in the Hat and even Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk - and all of this serves to tell the story of Marshawn Lynch's silent protest. But beyond Lynch's own story, which is compelling enough, the film is fascinating as a study of American sport, celebrity, media, injustice and race. Shields uses repetition and witty juxtapositions incisively, and even if the film can sometimes seem scattershot, it's a provocative and completely riveting examination of an unconventional and uncompromising black star in contemporary America.

10 – Time (Garrett Bradley, 2020)
Fox Rich is an incredible subject for a documentary, and Garrett Bradley's Time does her justice. Fox spent two decades raising her children, succeeding in her career, and fighting for her incarcerated husband Rob's freedom, and Bradley has condensed her story into a rich and moving 80-minute film. Cutting between recent footage shot by Bradley and home videos compiled over the course of twenty years, Time is a model of intelligent, disciplined and empathetic editing, and it captures a number of poetic moments as it builds to a superbly crafted and cathartic climax. Time is a tribute to this family's enduring love - as Rob puts it, "Life's Only Valid Emotion" - and a portrait of lives ruptured by America's cruel and unjust prison system. Their story is remarkable, but it's just one story among millions.

9 – Tommaso (Abel Ferrara)
The two-decade collaboration between Abel Ferrara and Willem Dafoe reached its apotheosis in Tommaso. There’s no mistaking the deeply personal nature of the film; starring as a recovering addict living in Rome, Dafoe acts alongside Ferrara’s wife and daughter, in scenes that take place in the director’s own apartment. The film consists of mundane incidents that feel snatched from real life – we see Tommaso doing everyday things like buying groceries and coffee, or attending his Italian class, or playing with his daughter – but moments like this are blended with the introspection and self-doubt of the recovering addict. This is a film about survival, forgiveness and love. It’s a film about a man who has changed his life and wants to understand the mistakes he made in the past in order to avoid repeating them. The film is loose, improvisatory and completely disarming. It’s Ferrara’s most open-hearted picture, and Dafoe – as ever – is magnificent.

8 – Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee)
Although it was enormously satisfying to watch the great Spike Lee enjoy critical and commercial success and receive an Oscar for BlacKkKlansman, that film didn’t trouble my Best of 2018 list and it wouldn’t crack a list of my favourite Spike Lee joints. I prefer Lee when he’s being a bit messier and more provocative, when his passion and anger bleeds through every frame of the film, and Da 5 Bloods is the kind of movie that grabs you by the throat immediately and doesn’t let go. It feels caught between the worlds of classical Hollywood filmmaking – explicitly referencing directors like Huston, Fuller and Coppola – and the essay film, with Lee incorporating photographs and archive footage to explore America’s history of war and racial division. It’s propulsive, overstuffed, thrillingly idiosyncratic filmmaking. Delroy Lindo’s towering presence in the lead role put me in mind of monstrously great performances like Nick Nolte in Q&A or Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will be Blood, while the use of music from Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On alongside Terence Blanchard’s score is inspired.

7 – Amanda (Mikhaël Hers)
Amanda is a beautiful film, not only thanks to Sébastien Buchmann's warm and intimate 16mm cinematography, but due to the incredible sensitivity displayed by both the filmmaker and his cast as they navigate this tricky material. Mikhaël Hers understands the private and unpredictable nature of grief, with emotions abruptly sneaking up on these characters at numerous points in the film, and each individual has to try and process their devastation in their own way even as they try to support each other. The pace is unhurried and little in the film feels forced; we are just invited to spend time with these characters as they try to put their lives back together. There are some exquisitely judged and emotionally complex moments here that feel so specific and authentic. The film broke my heart many times over, and the way the ending called back to one of the earliest scenes really wrecked me.

6 – A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Marielle Heller)
After three films, it’s clear to me that Marielle Heller is something special. The pictures she has made so far are all films that I could easily imagine being mediocre and overfamiliar in the hands of another director, but she directs with such intelligence and empathy, and she makes so many bold and subtly subversive choices. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is her most impressive accomplishment so far, transforming a potentially staid biopic about a national treasure into a perceptive film about kindness and forgiveness, and the hard work that goes into both. The film is full of smart touches that elevate it, like the framing device of Mr Rogers introducing us to Lloyd's story through his television show or the use of miniature models in establishing shots, and she is patient enough to let us sit quietly for a moment to consider our own emotions as the characters work through theirs. It's a film made with a compassion and wisdom that's so rare in today's studio filmmaking.

5 – Lovers Rock (Steve McQueen)
There’s no question that Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology is one of the year’s most significant artistic achievements. The five films he made for the BBC all felt personal, lived-in and culturally specific in a way that freshened up familiar narratives (just compare his courtroom drama Mangrove to Aaron Sorkin’s anodyne The Trial of the Chicago 7), but the one that stood out for breaking all narrative conventions was Lovers Rock. For 68 minutes, we are invited to a house party in 1980s London. There are characters to follow, but the storytelling mechanics are invisible here; McQueen wants us to feel the rhythm and go with the flow as his camera drifts through the bodies squeezed into these cramped, sweaty rooms. The confluence of Shabier Kirchner’s intuitive camerawork with the music and gyrating bodies invests Lovers Rock with an electric, transcendent force, and the cut to two lovers on a bicycle in the morning sunshine after spending an hour inside was so perfect it took my breath away and moved me to tears. This is McQueen’s best film since Hunger.
4 – First Cow (Kelly Reichardt)
There’s an real sense of tenderness at the heart of Kelly Reichardt’s films, even if she is making a film about harsh times and unforgiving environments. In First Cow, Reichardt (reunited with her great collaborator John Raymond) is telling a story of pioneers in 19th-century Oregon, but as in her masterpiece Meek’s Cutoff, she subverts our expectations and avoids any clichés. This is a film about a friendship between two gentle men (wonderfully played by Orion Lee and John Magaro) and the business they create together, which gradually takes them into dangerous territory. A prologue gives us a vague sense of where this story will lead us, but even then Reichardt manages to surprise with the way she reveals her perfect final shot. She has an impeccable command of tone, aided by Christopher Blauvelt’s painterly use of light, and the measured pace she establishes through her nimble editing lulls the viewer deeply into this story. 

3 – City Hall (Frederick Wiseman)
Following his recent studies of disparate communities In Jackson Heights and Monrovia, Indiana, Frederick Wiseman’s City Hall shows us how such a community might and perhaps should be governed. Returning to his native Boston for his 45th feature, Wiseman splits his time between meetings at the Mayor’s office, public events, community outreach meetings and street-level encounters, cutting fluidly between them and, over the course of four-and-a-half hours, creating a multi-dimensional view of a city. Wiseman’s films are big-picture portraits carefully constructed through a series of individual vignettes, and there are some fascinating and poignant standalone scenes here: an emotionally charged Veterans Day meeting; Mayor Marty Walsh addressing his elderly residents' healthcare concerns; a pest control visit to a lonely man’s rat-infested apartment; and perhaps most unexpected of all, a riveting scene of garbage collection. The business of city governance can be slow and difficult, but Wiseman’s clear-eyed depiction of it is completely engrossing, and in the end quite hopeful.

2 – The World of Tomorrow Episode 3: The Absent Destinations of David Prime (Don Hertzfeldt)
Don Hertzfeldt’s stick figures remain as minimal in their design as ever, but the world he builds around them continue to grow in complexity. Not only does World of Tomorrow Part 3 add new layers of colour and richness to Hertzfeldt’s visual palette, but the story he tells folds in on itself, intertwining with the first two episodes in surprising and ingenious ways. There are some fantastic gags here, such as the pop-up advertising or the constant ‘memory full’ warnings, but as the shape of the narrative begins to reveal itself it becomes a profound and moving meditation on time, memory, love and regret. Hertzfeldt’s latest extraordinary short has more ideas and imagination packed into its 34 minutes than any feature-length film released this year, and his World of Tomorrow series stands as a singular achievement.

1 – Days (Tsai Ming-Liang, 2020)
Before Days begins a title card appears on screen saying "This film is intentionally unsubtitled," but there's hardly any dialogue spoken during the course of its two hours anyway. We just watch as two men silently drift through their daily routine: one preparing food, the other getting treatment for a back injury. Both men appear to live very isolated lives, until they gravitate towards a single sexual encounter together, and the way Tsai's camera emphasises their loneliness during the long, slow build-up heightens the intensity and intimacy of their meeting. Days certainly isn't for everyone, but I found Tsai's rhythm calming and entrancing, and after the months of lockdown, the experience of seeing this kind film on the big screen was a particular treat. It was exactly the kind of meditative and immersive experience that I had been craving all year, and a valuable reminder of how uniquely transporting the darkness of the cinema space can be.