Films of 2020 (yeah, I know)

So, cinemas eh? The last film I saw before lockdown at the cinema was Birds of Prey. I then managed to pop to see Unhinged in the brief 5 minute window where cinemas were open again, before we went into local, then national, then sorta lockdown again. So, it’s. not going to be a bumper crop and some of the films I wanted to see eg Saint Maude, haven’t come out on streaming yet and I am too old to bother with torrents.

Here are ten films then that were released this year, which I managed to see and weren’t terrible:

The Hunt – the old people are kidnapped as hunting sport for rich folk storyline, given a modern social media twist. The hunted are conspiracy theorists and the hunters the liberals whose jobs were lost when they thought they’re jokes about The Hunt were real. Not sure if it was a parody on both-sideism, a piss take of the liberal elite, a cautionary tale about giving social media theorist credence, or a messy, having its cake and eating mess of all of them. But it was a lot of fun.

Host – conceived, shot and delivered in lockdown, this short horror about friends performing a Zoom seance and invoking a vengeful spirit was a taught POV thriller and will also serve as a time-capsule entry.

1917 – the last big ‘cinematic’ film before lockdown. Given the fate of cinemas since, and the move to direct streaming, who knows, Sam Mendes ‘one-take- romp through the WW1 trenches might be the last big cinema event for a while, perhaps ever. It was certainly an impressive technical feat to end on.

Birds of Prey – getting the tone right for this film was a difficult task. There are so many tensions that could have gone the wrong way: the psychotic – sympathetic character; sleazy trash aesthetic – sexualisation; independent strong female – connecting to Joker’s universe. That Cathy Tan got the balance right on all of these and made it an absolute ball, is no mean feat – this is perhaps best exemplified by the glitter shotgun raid on a police station. Quinn needs to be kickass and an outlaw, but she can’t actually kill cops. The famous hair tie scene encapsulated aspects that a female director brings to action movies in one neat line.

Mank – there’s a clip on social media of Gary Oldman dancing to James Brown while wearing his Winston Churchill makeup (inbetween scenes in the Darkest Hour). That sense of Oldman just having a blast with a character is what pervades Fincher’s tale of Henry Mankiewicz. Seyfried is almost as good as Marion Davies, continuing the reclamation of Davies’ reputation as a great comic actor that was destroyed by the depiction of Suzan Kane in Welles’s film. But it’s the mix of politics and parties of old Hollywood that make this such a treasure.

Parasite – I think this was still this year, right? I mean it seems so long ago. Bong Joon Ho’s savagely funny account of a family of loafers and chancers who claim the identity and house of a rich family seems to have hidden interpretations. It started out as a critique of capitalism, then when Trump reacted against its Oscar became a barometer for racism, and when the pandemic struck became a parable of living in lockdown.

Queen and Slim – the eponymous heroes are two professionals out on a first date when they are stopped by a racist cop, practised in all the skills of escalation. That encounter goes south and they go on the run. The rest of the film details their getting to know each other in sweet detail. But more importantly what it portrays are the small ways that they begin to take control of their own narrative. From the moment the cop stops them, they are, like so many POC in the US, powerless to control the narrative – regardless of what they do, things will change irrevocably for them from this point on. As they grow to know each other on the run, they find ways to reclaim this and frame their own story.

The Vast of Night – set over the course of one night in the late 50s, this centers on Sierra McCormick’s switchboard operator and Jake Horowitz’s Radio DJ as they seek to uncover strange occurrences. It is an affectionate, but entirely sincere throwback to the 1950s’ sci fi era of Twilight Zone, and the Day the Earth Stood Still.

Da 5 Bloods – while not quite as successful as BlackkKlansman, Spike Lee continued to demonstrate how he is right at the top of his game and can combine different entertainment genres with cutting racial politics. And Chadwick, farewell Chadwick.

Color Out of Space – this year’s bonkers Nic Cage movie was a Lovecraftian affair with a meteor mutating the lifeforms around a farm. It uses colo(u)r to portray alien sense and features some strong Nic Cageisms, who as his son notes “I think the freaked-out-abductee look suits you pretty well.”

Overall though I think in 2020 I wondered more than ever, what is a film anyway? Is it just length? In that case does Host count or is it just a one-off programme? Is it having a cinema release? Evidently not as most of these were made for streaming services. Perhaps movie and TV series are artificial divisions now. Empire magazine for instance, spends more time covering the Mandalorian than Tenet.

I didn’t watch that many films strangely enough, and tended to prefer entertainment over meaningful. I think when I became concerned about the lives (and livelihoods) of people running the local cafe, or the delivery guy, or the checkout woman at the supermarket, or the staff in the pub then I probably had a care deficit to devote to fictional characters. In this respect the best movie wasn’t a movie, but a limited series on Netflix: The Queen’s Gambit. It hit the perfect tone of entertainment, care, hope, strength and style without leaving me angry and frustrated. That’s what I wanted in 2020.

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