One of 2020’s most hotly anticipated films from hit-or-miss heavyweight Christopher Nolan was another gimmicky sci-fi affair, this time a convoluted “time inversion” thriller that, while lacking in the cerebral thrills of his finest work (The Prestige), presented a wealth of stunning location photography and a number of stirring action set pieces that played to the filmmaker’s strengths as a visual storyteller, commanding a large budget and putting all that oversized excitement front and center, for all to see.
It’s a shame that Nolan’s glib dialogue and placeholder characters overpopulate this tale (Clémence Poésy exists wholly to deliver exposition, Kenneth Branagh’s cliché-spewing Russian baddie is a one-note joke, etc), but everyone is sporting such fabulously tailored and very expensive looking suits, that Nolan largely gets away with his smoke and mirrors espionage yarn.
The visual spectacle is commendable, this is Nolan’s third collaboration with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (after Dunkirk and Interstellar), and they seem to gel rather nicely. What the film lacks in emotional depth is compensated with lush designs and impressive vistas, and that’s enough, for now.
9. Da 5 Bloods
So many American filmmakers have taken their swing at the Vietnam war that one is easily forgiven for at first brushing off what might seem like a tired exercise from Spike Lee, but what you get with Da 5 Bloods is pure Lee; the Black American experience in the shit with ruthless revisionism in his signature Brechtian style (archival footage blended with recreations; shocking newsreel and documentary footage of atrocities and iconic imagery; fourth wall shattering monologues direct to camera, etc.,).
Undoubtedly one of the best Spike Lee joints around, the film scores extra marks for the numerous Treasure of the Sierra Madre references (though some of these points are cancelled due to too many Apocalypse Now references) and several strong performances, namely Delroy Lindo’s complex, PTSD-addled ex-soldier out for redemption and understanding.
There’s a wealth of reworked tropes here, in what’s essentially an actioner, and the fractured familial relationships, a staple of the Lee oeuvre that goes back to his first film from 1986, She’s Gotta Have It, we also get treated to the filmmakers many other obsessions; his passion for jazz, up-to-the-minute and in-your-face social commentary (the BLM and MAGA movements are part of his occasionally didactic strategy as storyteller).
All told it’s a tour de force that, though forgivably flawed, is also an unforgettable story of fathers, sons, and forgiveness.
As visually spectacular as it is emotionally turbulent, Chilean auteur Pablo Larraín (Jackie) pulls no punches in this exuberant and at times quite galling stress test. Toe-tapping one minute and eye-rolling the next, I think I loved it?
Newcomer Mariana Di Girolamo is the titular Ema, a woman scorned, plotting the reclamation of her adopted son, Polo (Cristian Felipe Suarez), himself something of a pyromaniac. Ema’s world is one that will be hard for the viewer to shake but easy to visually ravish; she’s a phenomenal talent as an interpretative dancer, her sexually fluid provocations and impulsive maternal instincts make her difficult to ignore but her behaviour is impossible to applaud or flinch away from.
Larraín’s film is a messy melodrama spiked with stunning dance sequences, explicit sex, staggering close-ups, metatextual montage and much more that moves from beautiful to bewildering in the bat of a lash. Another unconventional arthouse excitement, Ema’s mad energy will jar you and sway you, as you move to the beat of this decidedly different drum.
Directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, this genre-bending weird Western/horror/thriller has a serious Sergio Leone vibe as it takes on numerous jet-black comic twists, an enormous body count, and a very lackadaisical pace.
Set in the eponymous village of Bacurau, a remote locale in Brazil’s north east, where the residents find themselves up against aggressive, possibly alien forces as this truly singular, “The Most Dangerous Game”-style iteration, unwinds with brio and volcanic splashes of gore.
Starring Sônia Braga and Udo Kier on opposite sides or perhaps each being manipulated by sinister forces, rest assured that all will be revealed to the driving synthesizers of John Carpenter, exposing not only geopolitical gestures, but some truly satisfying and horrific acts of bloody recompense.
However you classify this film is (sci-fi horror western?) it’s a gruesome gem you’ll be raving about and remembering for a long time. Bacurau resonates with brilliance, butchery, cruel delicacy and bizarre beauty.
6. My Mexican Bretzel
Nuria Giménez’s remarkable first feature is an imaginative collage-like diary/essay film conjuration — at times it lands not unlike David Holzman’s Diary, F for Fake or Grey Gardens — one that is magically part mid-century home movie, part spellbinding travelogue, and all while being entirely original and unique unto itself.
While constantly mesmerized by My Mexican Pretzel, this writer admits to not always knowing what elements were real, which were found footage, and which were fiction, nor did I really care. I gazed, blinking, through the looking glass and became ingrained in a colorful daydream that filled my head with sweet sorcery, made my heart beat slow and left my eyes more than just a little wet.
Here is a singular and spectacular little film that takes you places you’ve never been and will have you longing to return.
5. The Vast of Night
The Vast of Night marks the astonishing directorial debut of Andrew Patterson, who illustrates again and again what a confident, resourceful, and exciting storyteller he is. Set in 1950s New Mexico, in the town of Cayuga, home of teenybopper Fay (Sierra McCormick), a switchboard operator who’s overjoyed with her new tape recorder and enjoys cracking wise and chattering endlessly with fellow teen and radio DJ, Everett (Jake Horowitz).
The pair share some suspicions about science and the future and at first it feels like they might embark on a Nancy Drew-like mystery before it becomes more apparent that the pair are more aligned with the likes of Special Agents Mulder and Scully when they intercept a signal that might have extraterrestrial origins.
Patterson’s knack for building intrigue and mounting suspense as we edge closer to revelation is part of what makes the Vast of Night such an audacious and ominous tale. The tease of anticipation is almost more thrilling than the great unveiling. This compelling, technically flashy (one dynamic tracking shot centerpiece really shows off some serious technical skills), and frequently funny sci-fi excitation feels fresh and, as the title suggests, very vast indeed.
Admittedly, David Fincher’s Mank was something of a letdown for us, with its exposition-heavy screenplay, and nostalgia-steeped gimmickry over-saturating the restless and overstuffed story, but where Fincher really came through in his 1930’s Old Hollywood tale is with the vividly detailed design and depth.
The black-and-white cinematography from Erik Messerschmidt, the richly gilded costume design from Trish Summerville, the scrupulous production design from Donald Graham Burt, the era-appropriate score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, all excel, overcompensating for Jack Fincher’s rather didactic, drawing-room hang-ups, and uneven plotting. And of course, Gary Oldman acts up a storm, making it easy to forgive and forget the many letdowns that plague this visually luxurious, emotionally empty, tribute to Tinseltown.
As a spirited throwback with technical flourishes and wistfulness in profusion, Mank moves along just fine, and there’s a haunting ebb to it all that works well, too, just don’t go digging too deeply because Fincher’s latest is destined to disappoint. But the surface charms are affluent and vivid.
3. First Cow
A pensive musing on friendship and survival from American auteur Kelly Reichardt (Meek’s Cutoff, Certain Women), First Cow is a beautifully told tale that feels small but has a vast and very deep heart.
Following a pair of forlorn travellers in the Northwest of the 1820s, one is a shy cook, Otis “Cookie” Figowtiz (John Margaro), the other a Chinese immigrant, King-Lu (Orion Lee), the two devise a business scheme that hinges on a wealthy landowner (Toby Jones), or more specifically, his prized milking cow.
From so simple a premise, and with a tender slow cinema sweep, First Cow unfurls with incessant poise and allure. Aided with her usual cinematographer, Christopher Blauvet and her excellent production designer Anthony Gasparro (their second pairing after 2016’s Certain Women), making for a powerful Americana pastoral setting.
A film that is quintessential Reichardt, it’s a rough-edged gem with a familiar gleam that her admirers will cherish. It’s a tiny but invaluable treasure.
2. Lovers Rock
As intimate as a lover’s caress and as energetic as the most booming music hall, Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock is the most ecstatic and immersive cinematic experience of 2020 and it’s an amorous godsend.
Set almost entirely at a house party celebrating a birthday in West London in the early 1980s, this gorgeously realized, almost heavenly pageant, itself an elated examination of Black joy during the Thatcher era, will make you simultaneously buoyant while gasping for air.
At times the formalist sway to Lovers Rock recalls the free-spirited potency and impulse of mid-90s Wong Kar-wai (a similar romantic spirit to Chungking Express and with the stately restraint of In the Mood for Love) but McQueen is definitely chasing his own muse. His restless camera glides through the dancefloor as people sing and sway, imbibing alcohol and smoking grass in rapturous, almost religious communion.
The film has so many climacteric moments and lingering long takes that it starts to feel multi-orgasmic –– Janet Kay’s “Silly Games” and the a cappella celebration it inaugurates may be the greatest movie moment of the year.
The film works so well during quarantine times as it’s the ultimate birthday bash/house party we all wish we could go to but also as something so much more; as a sanctum of harmony amidst a sea of strife. Lovers Rock will make your heart rise, your eyes wet, your body sway, and most fundamentally, your spirit soar.
With so many films being postponed and pushed on their release schedule I spent a good deal of 2020 joyfully anticipating the latest from Chloé Zhao (Songs My Brothers Taught Me, The Rider), with finger’s crossed it wouldn’t be delayed, and finally Nomadland appeared; a jaw-droppingly gorgeous neo-realist prize that, speaking of prizes, has already netted Best Picture from the National Society of Film Critics and the Golden Lion in Venice. And mark these words, it’s destined for more awards season booty, just you wait.
Unspooling lackadaisically amidst crumbling, disintegrating towns in the American Midwest, Zhao and her gifted cinematographer Joshua James Richards (who lensed Zhao’s previous sterling works) together showcase landscapes and vistas of poetically scant, perpetual sunsets, a magic hour America that carefully communicates the innate dignity of the peripatetic Fern (Frances McDormand, also reeling in the awards in this career-best portrayal). As Fern’s family and friends wrestle to reason with her wandering vagabond lifestyle, the immersive and deeply resonant grandeur that’s become Zhao’s trademark, holds sway. Nomadland will roam around your heart and occupy your mind for a good long time.
Honorable Mention: Ammonite (directed by Francis Lee), Dick Johnson is Dead (directed by Kirsten Johnson), Emma. (directed by Autumn de Wilde), Judas and the Black Messiah (directed by Shaka King), Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (directed by George C. Wolfe), Minari (directed by Lee Isaac Chung), Mulan (directed by Niki Caro), Never Rarely Sometimes Always (directed by Eliza Hittman), News of the World (directed by Paul Greengrass), One Night in Miami (directed by Regina King), Pieces of a Woman (directed by Kornel Mundruczo), Promising Young Woman (directed by Emerald Fennell), Vitalina Varela (directed by Pedro Costa), Zombi Child (directed by Bertrand Bonello).
Author Bio: Shane Scott-Travis is a film critic, screenwriter, comic book author/illustrator and cineaste. Currently residing in Vancouver, Canada, Shane can often be found at the cinema, the dog park, or off in a corner someplace, paraphrasing Groucho Marx. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneScottravis.