Time has come to wrap up a cinema year like no other. That’s true even for me, with my break of cinema-going of only around 4 and a half months being yet another reminder of how lucky I’ve been in terms of pandemic life. There’s certainly something of a different vibe to the list, even smaller scale than usual. The drought of big releases actually resulted in digging deeper and a broader consideration of what constituted a new release. Both good things I think. Ended up watching about 110 films from 2020. Here’s thoughts on my favourite 10(ish).
As always, we take a deep breath and start with the honourable mentions: in a year uniquely bereft of the superhero film the cerebral Superman: Red Son and not-cerebral Bloodshot gave us a different take on the tired genre; plus despite its major flaws Wonder Woman 1984 took the very fun route with a huge property in a way that was refreshing. Twas a great year for the rom-com with The Love Birds, The Broken Hearts Gallery, Emma (rom-com right?) and yes Holidate all brought me joy. Keeping with the seasonal theme, The Christmas Chronicles 2 was an excellent follow-up that I seemed to like lots more than other folks. Horror was good as always – the small scale and creative Sweetheart, haunted dress film In Fabric, bombastically mainstream and relevant The Invisible Man and the clever fairy tale reimagining Gretel & Hansel all really worthwhile. Just Mercy and The Way Back were bloody good takes on dramas we’ve seen before and Spike Lee’s super bold Da 5 Bloods was one we haven’t seen before. And I’ll close with one I think I’m in the minority on: Downhill was tops, excellently performed and I liked it more than the film it’s based on.
10. Sea Fever
Textural, regional aquatic horror trading in superstition and creeping fear. Appreciated the way in which it weaves in faith and Christian iconography, the impact of those when combined with labour, and overlaid with a setting as mythological as the open seas. One of those films that took on a new meaning in this pandemic age even if filmed beforehand. Love how the unknown, natural danger is subtly introduced. Shocking turns of events abound. Features very strong performances from Hermione Corfield, Dougray Scott and Jack Hickey amongst others. Really quite emotional and ends fantastically. Super atmospheric stuff.
Utterly absurd and pretty fantastic. Capone is a mythic figure, and rarely has one of those been explored onscreen in a manner such as this. There’s something almost unhinged about the filmmaking choices here. The gross elements that you probably heard about are some of the weakest, as they mask an intelligent and poignant examination of a man getting old and losing their faculties. There are subtle horror elements too – Capone is essentially decaying, losing what once made him great and feared. Tom Hardy’s Al Capone vigorously defending The Wizard of Oz to Matt Dillon is maybe the funniest and most inspired scene of the year. All in all this is a fever dream of weirdness and excellence. Evocative and rocking a fab Tom Hardy performance.
8. Queer History
We still need loads more, but it feels like every year there are a greater number and a greater variety of stories of LGBTQI history showing up on screens. These two excellent films serve as a tiny example of that variety.
Ellie and Abbie (and Ellie’s Dead Aunt)
The history in this one comes from the titular dead aunt. Having a lesbian aunt giving love advice to a teenager just coming out from beyond the grave is a choice that could have gone either way. But it is one of the strongest elements of this excellent Australian comedy and is also used to shed light on LGBTQI history in this country. And brings the generational differences between queer people to life in a playful way. Super funny, with a delightful tone. Specifically it contains the optimal level of awkwardness for a teen film. And it’s super well performed throughout.
Circus of Books
A chronicle of the role a gay bookshop plays in early(ish) gay history and the surprising owners of the store. Elevated by the relationship between filmmaker daughter and parent subjects – exchanges such as “well mum you’re not someone who makes documentaries” “well neither are you!” and “I don’t like all this filming …. I don’t know what you’re going to come up with from all of this” really change the vibe. Fascinating and sharply made history. Weaves in a lot. Interviews with siblings. Unique and maddening perspective on the AIDS crisis. Portrait of people who are both strait-laced and fuckin radical at the same time. Complex people, extending to their hostility and struggles in response to their son coming out.
7. The Lighthouse
What a strange film. The unfamiliar sound design and intriguing visual style are immediately immersive rather than distancing. It all feels really finely crafted but is not pretentious about it. Both Robert Pattinson and particularly Willem Dafoe handle the tough material fantastically well. The horror elements, though designed to be mysterious rather than invoke terror, are folded into the landscape and vibe seamlessly. Has a strange quality where it feels meandering but is actually meticulously constructed. Singular stuff. A daft masculine pissing contest the likes of which we have rarely seen.
6. The Assistant
It’s not often that a film that is pulled from the headlines topical (focusses on sexual harassment in a studio office) is as methodical as this. Initially focusses on establishing office minutiae and general rudeness of a self-importance work environment. Snippets of meaningless camaraderie that don’t really mean anything humming in the background. Then it moves into laying bare the power and structure of the machine that is used against people in this situation. It’s a very clever expose on dynamics, brutal bullying and how they are enabled and excused. Kitty Green is excellent in a tricky lead role. An intriguing, tough experience of death by a thousand cuts.
5. Film History We Finally Got
Documentary film about film is a tough medium. The lazy (though on occasions merited) critique that it feels like a DVD extra is right there. But when the subject is fascinating and care and creativity are injected into the filmmaking, it can spark. Such is the case with these two, that finally made their way to wide release in Australia this year.
Varda by Agnes
I’ll caveat this one by saying this choice speaks to my adoration of the life and career of Varda. It’s probably not the best place to start if you are new to her work. But for those of us who held Agnes Varda so dear, it is the perfect ending point, showing so much of the passion and personality that made her one of cinema’s most essential directors. Varda seems almost wearied here, summarising her life’s worth. In that sense it’s a fitting follow up to Faces Places. She has always been a filmmaker totally attuned to the world around her, and the way she looks back in this film shows that has always been the case. An artist to the end, a great film about filmmaking that closes on a profound note.
“We’ve always loved horror… unfortunately horror hasn’t always loved us.” Stark filmmaking, invested in history both filmic and real life. Examines the horror genre through a wholly African American lens. Helped along by a perfect selection of talking heads. The personal impact of specific films articulated in a range of ways. The breaking down of tropes and their clear explanation is almost academic at times. But in a good way. Plus it has Jordan Peele talking about People Under the Stairs so it’s worth it just for that. The arrival of this film was the undoubted high point of Shudder’s first year in Australia.
4. Dark Waters
Sometimes when things have been done well a shitload before, we forget to acknowledge when they are done exceptionally again. That feels like the case here as Todd Haynes helms this incredible Mark Ruffalo led film based on real life lawyer vs corporate conspiracy drama. Ruffalo absolutely stars in this, but it is really well acted across the board. The failings of self-regulation is not exactly a foolproof recipe for sterling cinema. But it is elevated to the moon in the hands of Haynes. Even the long stretches of exposition are somehow delivered with a light touch, even coming across poetic at times. A great score. Storytelling that ruthlessly exposes the evils of industrialisation and capitalism. It’s also a human tale – the pursuit of justice overwhelms the life of Robert Bilott (played by Ruffalo), but he performs inarguable good. But where is the balance there, both for Bilott and his family?
3. ‘Elevated Action’
There’s a certain segment of people who frustrate the rest of us by referring to horror they deem worthy of legitimate consideration and criticism as ‘elevated horror’. I dislike the term for many reasons, so the name of this entry is somewhat tongue in cheek. I love straight action films and quite a few of them have appeared on these end of year lists. But these two films stand out for me because of the non-action elements that differentiate them a little.
The Old Guard
The script and clever ideas being examined set this one apart. It also features loads of kickarse violence, with Charlize Theron doling loads of it out. A couple of high concept set pieces stand out (a chase and a sequence in a plane) but every piece of action is smartly shot, easy to follow and kind of beautiful. Super interesting mythology built up here – focuses on immortal beings who are not really superheros. An action script that engages with themes and ideas very well. Concept of being incredibly incredibly old is far from a new one but it’s very cleverly presented and explored here. Can tell Gina Prince-Blythewood has been at it for a very long time because this is put together so well, particularly in the use of music and cleanness of the shooting.
Chris Nolan’s silly, awesomely overwrought time travelling riff on James Bond shenanigans is utterly fab. Right from the beginning, the large-scale action is electric. Narratively it builds up a mystique, and some of that is definitely confusing. But that never took away from my glee. The vagueness and archness of the dialogue could be off-putting and it’s a film that probably takes itself too seriously. Still loved it though. It’s an incredibly smooth film. The lead performers suit the vibe of the thing really well. This is whacky in a way that I would not have expected from the director involved.
This film covers familiar ground – teenager facing both terminal illness and young love. But there’s something about how it presents this material that we’ve seen before which works so well. At its best when working at the level of change and emotion, there’s a radical disinterest here towards narrative beats that feels revelatory. The doomed pairing at the heart of the film is nicely complex for a teen relationship. And the interest of director Shannon Murphy here is not so much on the relationship itself but on the impact of it on the terminally ill Milla’s soon to be grieving parents. However the result of this unique buildup is that when the emotions are examined in a more straightforward way, the effect is almost unbearable. And at the heart of this is a performance by Ben Mendelsohn that is almost certainly the best of his career.
1. A Hidden Life
This was one of those years where my #1 film was not a close thing. Terrence Malick is one of the three most essential filmmakers to my journey of loving film. A Hidden Life may be his best. Slightly more narrative focused, but really it’s just a clarity of theme which drives the film, one containing lashings of his artistry and poetry. Takes some of that unique montage style of his and spreads it over three hours. That thematic clarity makes for crushing impact as the film crescendos, a tale of personal integrity in the face of evil that has rarely been presented with such purpose. But it’s a more complex hero story than that suggests. Shows the isolating impact of the main character’s choices on those he loves the most. That ostracisation is a real focus of Malick here. Some of the greatest war films have shown that war is hell. But this film tells us that even opening yourself up to the possibility of war is. A stark, sad even harsh film that totally wrecked me.