2020 film summary
When I was at the cinema...
Well, I wavered on offering a Year’s Film Summary because I haven’t been to the cinema since I saw ‘The Color Out Of Space’ at the start of the year before lockdown/s became a thing. At the time, I was semi-joking that I was going to write off the year, but actually I wasn’t being hyperbolic at all, it seems, and I have spent this year in endless lockdown, working from home, Zoomchatting a lot, etc. But this time has happily been punctuated by my “going to” four digital film festivals this year – two FrightFest and two Grimmfest – and I do hope they keep something digital going. Grimmfest is Manchester based, and I was thinking of perhaps attending that as a holiday in 2020. Streaming into my home was great. I missed London Film Festival (which I believe had some streaming) but if this becomes a thing, festivals beamed right into your living space, then I definitely intend to try more digital festivals next year.
But then I decided to write what I could. And so, inevitably, I ramble…
So, first thing I saw at the cinema this year was Jake Kasdan ‘Jumanji: Next Level’, which was thoroughly entertaining but had none of the surprise of ‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’, but there was still a lot of fun and mileage in having actors impersonating other’s mannerisms.
I was pro-‘Jojo Rabbit’, because I have always liked Taika Waititi’s output. But I always consider him agreeably scruffy, so I wasn’t treating it as a perfectly formed and considered diatribe as some wanted. It could be argued on failing to deal with Nazism, but its tone struck me as weighted to the magic realism typical of bildungsroman, and very much towards the mixture of sensitivity and bawdiness of, say, the children’s books of Morris Gleitzman* There was a humanism that radiated through the flaws.
• * Actually, I have just started Gleitzman’s Holocaust-based series ‘Once’, and central to its narrative is the conflict between reality and storytelling: magic realism isn’t on the agenda and it doesn’t pull punches just because it’s ostensibly for a young audience.
I saw Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ at Leicester Square's Prince Charles cinema, complete with interval, and that was great. I hadn’t seen it for decades… Perhaps the last time I had seen it was in the eighties? But I had seen it so many times as a kid and a youth, every time it was on TV for sure, and the experience was so vivid that I felt I already knew it. Which was true too, but as an adult I of course saw so much else to love. I was newly aware of structure and filmmaking and loved it more.
And of course, Boon Jong Ho’s ‘Parasite’ is just great and was in the exactly the right place at the right time. I saw an interview with Bernadine Evaristo asking her about the success of her considerable novel, ‘Girl, Woman, Other’, and she was saying that when it was released, it just happened to capture the zeitgeist with the BLM and #MeToo era: suddenly it was topical in a way it had not been when she started writing. ‘Parasite’ feels the same way, that it captured the zeitgeist, full of division, class conflict, a timely broadening of culture outside of the English language in such a way that it won the Oscar. My friend from Berlin was texting me late last year to ask if I had seen it, so I had to track it down to a rare screening and it lived up to the hype; then it won the Oscar and become a phenomenon (I had a similar experience with ‘Moonlight’). ‘Parasite’ is stylish, surprising, funny, despairing. Boon Joon-Ho hit all the marks with this one.
Sam Mendes’ ‘1917’ was the kind of gimmick I like. The whole “How?” was great, but it was Deakins’ cinematography that I came back for. The scenes set against a city on fire just made my jaw drop. Of course, the issue of the plane crashing right on our heroes’ heads might have reeked a little too much of contrivance, and different points may have struck viewers as such at different times, and perhaps some thought there was too much real-time (but hey, I am one who thinks the walking-walking-walking into Bela Tarr’s ‘Satantago’ incrementally achieves something transcendental), but like ‘Jojo Rabbit’, any flaws seemed obvious and lesser to its overall achievement. From the moment our hero accidentally puts his hand in a rotting corpse in a crater, I was convinced of a decent focus on the more gruelling elements. This isn’t ‘The Painted Bird’ or ‘Come and See’, but it wasn’t shying away from horror either, in the constraints of its mainstream parameters. Our protagonist is slowly being traumatised, steered onwards only by his mission.
Armando Iannucci’s ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’ was bright and delightful, but it’s true triumph was its innovative, FUCK YOU diverse casting. Who would have thought a multi-ethic cast could play the expansive and vivid range of characters of Charles Dickens, that most English of writers? But I mean that with tongue-in-cheek because of course it could and perhaps the question was why it hadn't been presented this way so aggressively beforehand? But then we live at a time where people were still outraged that a Sikh appeared in ‘1917’. But if the diversity of The Muppets can do Dickens…
In ‘Copperfield’s litany of great British actors of all stripes, where everyone seems to know where the line between caricature and pathos should be played, Dev Patel’s natural buoyancy drives a clear through-line. And against such an austere cast, Ravneer Jaiswall more than holds his own and shines out as young Copperfield. The aesthetic verges on the cartoonish, the downbeat, the satirical and despairing, the scatological and the playful – which is all quite in keeping with Dickens. It’s light but smart and a little meta and post-modern. Certainly, you’ll come away entertained.
William Eubank's ‘Underwater’ was the kind of genre fare that is exactly what you think it will be, so it was one where I couldn’t see where the ire of some viewer’s came from. It’s nicely shot, has mild suspense, some fair CGI monster stuff, entertaining in an undemanding way.
‘Uncut Gems’ though, was something else. I saw this upstairs at The Prince Charles Cinema where they were doing one of their regular screenings in the screen below of ‘The Room’ with Tommy Wisseu in attendance for a Q&A. So, when ‘Uncut Gems’ started, I could hear the unmistakable cadence of Tommy shouting goodnight down the microphone downstairs below me.
But to ‘Uncut Gems’: a step up, even, from the Safdie Brothers’ excellent ‘Good Time’, ‘Uncut Gems’ was gloriously punishing, colourful, set at “panic run” pacing, sweating with its own stress and structure, and ultimately surprising and an instantaneous favourite. Adam Sandler – whose output I generally care not for – proved stunning and thrilling as that guy we know who just can’t see or stop himself from himself. I heard the Safdies say (on Mayo and Kermode’s film podcast, if I recall rightly) that they saw in Sandler the ability to play unlikeable protagonists that you can’t help rooting for, and that’s true. It’s exhausting watching a guy talk himself into worsening situations and so fully in denial, running as hard as he can to dig his own grave.
From the moment Roger Eggers’ ‘The Lighthouse’ started it was exactly as good as I thought it would be, basing my expectations on my love for ‘The Witch’. You’ll spend the first watch wondering which way it’s going to turn – What is this? – and it keeps its options open, but what you end up with is a somewhat unique chamber piece with two great actors steeped deep in the black humour and sinking into ranting, psychological horror and hallucinations; blending genre, folklore, form, and throwing whatever it fancies into the black-and-white melting pot. Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography and Damien Vole’s sound design were exceptional. It offered Robert Pattinson moodily breaking down and Willem Defoe hilariously/hysterically barking ornate monologues. I was already a fan of Defoe, even moreso after his performance in ‘The Florida Project', but the way he went to bat on the promotional circuit for ‘The Lighthouse’, where his natural warmth shone, endeared him even more to me.
I had heard Cathy Yan’s ‘Birds of Prey’ was better than expected, and it was. A good comic book film with Margot Robbie just eating up the scenery – as she should as Harley Quinn – but stepping back from pure camp and so surprisingly convincing. While the more high profile were trying to hit the right feminist resonance, ‘Birds of Prey’s bad girls just went ahead and did it, on and behind the screen.
Justin Kurzel’s ‘The True History of the Kelly Gang’ was a fine Australian Western, or anti-Western as some commentators didn’t go for its refusal to aggrandise. This was the genre in the deconstructionist mode, as dreamy as it was dusty and grimy. It was plaintive and set in a world without any heroism.
Richard Stanley’s ‘Color out of Space’ was as much a Nicolas Cage gurning platform as HP Lovecraft. Perhaps I simply wanted something more serious and genuinely creepy. Only the bodies melting together truly struck me as have metaphorical and upsetting power.
And that was my last visit to the cinema in March. I jokingly said to people at the time “I am writing of the next year,” but that turned out to be prophetic. Covid19 has had me in lockdown for a while now. I had friends saying that this was like one of my horror films come to life… well, yep, as viruses and pandemics and failing political systems are the stuff of the genre. Of course, this acceptance of the scenario was followed by comments that the thing the genre hasn’t predicted was a section of population saying, “It’s my right to be eaten by zombies and no one is going to take that away from me!” There were reports that horror fans were dealing with the pandemic better than most. But actually, it was Steven Soderberg’s ‘Contagion’ that I kept thinking of… and that was a film that thoroughly scared me at the time. And here we are. That didn’t predict an infection of deniers either.
And then I moved online…