My top films of 2020
I think the last film I saw in the cinema before they all closed was The Lighthouse. After that weird nautical trip we emerged from The Ritzy in Brixton in the middle of the afternoon, dazed and out of sync with the normal world where people were charging up and down the pavement. The cinema was only a couple of minutes down the road from where I was living at the time; it didn’t seem like a big deal.
A couple of weeks earlier I saw 1917 in the Picturehouse in Dalston. I really loved it. Of course when I got home and read the reviews they were critical, and had good points. The story did seem to be a thin veil over a storytelling conceit that Mendes wanted to try out, or an overly romanticised account of based on the life of his great-grandfather or whoever it was referenced in the end card. At the time though I was totally carried along for the ride. I miss cinema spectacle.
I wish I’d seen Uncut Gems at the cinema. I watched it on Netflix at home and it the usual from the Safdie brothers: watching people make worse and worse decisions until you want to throw up, and generally enjoying the ride. If you’re going to be surrounded by the filmic equivalent of a panic attack it may as well be at cinema scale. After watching that I wanted more punishment so we watched Heaven Knows What. It’s an earlier Safdie brothers movie about a few people bumming around Manhattan, scoring heroin and hurting themselves and one another. The story belongs to the lead actress. The Safdies met her while they were filming something else, and one of them convinced her to write her story down, and eventually to play the lead in their film adaptation of it. I came away needing a shower.
I also wish I’d seen the film of the year in the cinema. I watched Parasite on a laptop in bed, like so many films this year. I really needn’t have; I watched it back in January and the cinemas were still open. For a film that won the Oscar for best picture, it didn’t have a particularly wide cinema distribution, though. Anyway, Parasite was so fun and well-executed from beginning to end. I rewatched Snowpiercer with the realisation that it was Bong Joon-ho. It’s a good ride that bangs you over the head with Bong’s ideas about society; Parasite’s themes sneak up you a little bit more, but are hilariously and outrageously on show by the final scenes. In May, I got round to another of Bong Joon-ho’s films: Mother. It was slower than the other two, but no less tense. It’s about how far a mother with to to protect her son from the world, even as he seems to be doing other people harm.
I think that right before I caught a flight to India, I watched The Farewell at home. It was really fun and touching and it took me way too long to get around to it. The pandemic has made for so many difficult relationships between my peers and their families, and Akwafina’s great performance as someone around my age awkwardly trying to do the right thing amidst death and family keeps coming back to me. On the flight we watched Honeyland, in-flight entertainment systems synced up by hand and headphones in. It’s a documentary, the story of a wild beekeeper in a remote village in Macedonia and the trails and tribulations she goes through. It’s slow TV, and it’s really good.
We got back to the UK just as everything turned to shit. For months we used films not necessarily for their own sake but as distractions. Sometimes I needed a dim distraction, something easy and trashy. Sometimes I felt like I should be using the time locked inside to better myself, watch something enriching.
One of the success stories in the first lockdown was Portrait of a Lady on Fire. It was just a visually beautiful film, a small love story with the some nice pathos. We watched it one night in that house share after watching another briefing from the Prime Minister, back when everybody watched those. Another film we watched as a house during the worst of the first lockdown was Moffie, a film about a South African boy conscripted to fight a border conflict with Angola. The atmosphere around him is violent and threatening, most of all from his fellow soldiers who radiate dangerous, volatile masculinity. In the end, it’s a love story.
On the other end then is the trash you watch to pass the time. I watched Extraction. It stars one of the Chrises as who cares, he’s very good at fighting. Action movies are now so informed by video games that they seem to merge, the impossible tracking shots and first person perspective seem to reinforce the permeability between the two forms, aimed at the same audience. I also watched Emma, totally boring but passable period drama. Chalamet is slimy, Pugh plays a child.
I finally watched Bohemian Rhapsody after avoiding it for years and it was so awful. The dialogue is ham-fisted, the structure meandering and directionless, the editing absolutely bizarre. Malik’s Mercury is pretty good but he’s got nothing to work with. His queerness is incredibly sanitised. It’s one of two films I saw this year that I found aggressively bad. The other, which took itself far more seriously, was Only God Forgives. I get that it was trying to be a violent mood piece but it just came off as self-important and vaguely racist. Gosling is a good action hero, but this is a boring project.
Christopher Nolan has spent most of the year howling for his film Tenet to be shown in cinemas, and he did get his way. In the intervening period between lockdowns I went to see it at the local Picturehouse. It was rubbish, really. The central idea was quite fun, and there was some good spectacle but overall the thing didn’t hold together. I’m glad I saw it in the cinema, but even there I couldn’t hear what the hell anybody was saying, the dialogue was mixed that badly.
When I’m hungover I like to lie on the sofa under a duvet and watch bad and relentlessly male movies. I watched 21 Bridges, one of Chadwick Bozeman’s final projects, where he plays a cop killing crooked cops. I don’t know if it was good, I suspect it wasn’t, but that’s hardly the point with films like that. It feels inspired by Training Day, which I also watched while I was hungover this year and is arguably better but much more problematic in its treatment of the Criminal Underworld. Then there’s Greyhound, in which Tom Hanks tells an all-grey war story about some boats. I’m pretty sure it was bad, but it passed the time while I waited for the nausea to pass. Green Room helped me to understand people who are afraid of dogs, getting your face eaten by a Rottweiler looks like a hell of a way to go. Moneyball, which I saw this year for maybe the third time (an indefensible use of my free time) is so boring but I somehow love half-watching it.
On The Rocks was a cosy watch. Hanging out with Bill Murray is always the point of any movie he’s in, and it never disappoints. The story is small, and most of what you get out of the film is that peripheral stuff: how cool everybody is, how nice all the places and things are. Watching it got me on a peel of watching Sofia Coppola films I’d missed. I get that Somewhere was supposed to feel stale, but it was too much. A Very Murray Christmas is a good time and I am happy to defend it.
When a film is so hyped it often takes the dazzle off the actual experience of watching it. If Beale Street Could Talk is so beautiful and tender and everything I was told it would be, but the thing is it’s been a few years of people telling me. I wish I could go back in time and just get on with watching it in cinemas in the year of release. I’ll keep listening to the soundtrack for a long time.
The best case scenario is taking a chance on something and being pleasantly surprised. Perhaps the best example of that was Rams, an Icelandic film ostensibly about two estranged brothers who defy a governmental order to destroy their flock of sheep during an outbreak of foot and mouth disease. It’s really a story about authority, community, and brotherly love. I loved it and I think about Gummi and his rams a lot.
Another case of a punt paying off was Rocks. Mercifully released on Netflix, it tells the story of a poor girl in London whose mother abandons her and her younger brother, for whom she has to care while keeping it together at school. It all feels very real and relatable to me, and Rock’s downfall is all the more painful to watch for it. The shining light of this movie is the supporting cast of Rocks’s friends, all teenage actors putting in great performances.
The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 is the best documentary I’ve seen this year. Of all of the documentaries being passed around while Black Lives Matter protests played out on Twitter, this is the one I watched that stuck with me. The film has interesting origins. A bunch of young Swedish filmmakers travelled to America in ‘67 to document the unfolding cultural revolution and captured an incredible collection of interviews with civil rights leaders at the beginnings of their careers. Stokey Carmeical interviewed with his mother, Angela Davies before her trial. The footage sat on a shelf for decades, and then was re-edited together in the modern moment.
That’s it, I don’t have a conclusion. Watching films at home has become a way bigger part of my life this year. Honestly I’m hoping next year I’m back to watching fewer films, more of them being at the cinema, and spending more of my time doing stuff with friends instead. In the meantime, I’m glad for the distraction.