We are coming to the end of the most disastrous year in a century – in a normal year, studios would have had a few disaster movies lined up for release, in which a tough action star eventually saves the world from almost certain ruin. Tellingly in 2020, the disaster movies, and large scale destruction-driven blockbusters, were nowhere to be seen, unless that is, you turned on the news, looked at the internet, or opened the curtains on eerily deserted apocalyptic streets. Hollywood’s worst nightmare is unfolding, a crisis so dangerous that cinemas have had to be shut down. In a year with this level of unrivaled catastrophe, a disaster film would be a hard sell.
The whole year has been a disaster film, and the catastrophes have actually intensified as the year has progressed. The scale and the ubiquity of the disasters in the age of Covid-19 are on such a level that the panic and nightmares unleashed in big budgeted Hollywood doom-marathons, look a little quaint in comparison. You would need a 10 season TV series to explore all the different aspects of the havoc Corona virus has unleashed around the world. There aren’t any muscle-bound heroes coming through to rescue anyone either; the scale of the problems are far too complicated to be solved by simple old-fashioned Hollywood heroics.
Disaster films are not known for plausible plotlines and often feature ill-advised decisions from clueless incompetent governments; in that respect, 2020 is exactly like one of these genre films, but the level of idiocy and staggeringly poor decisions shown by certain world leaders, health governing bodies (you know WHO you are) and the general public, reached heights so alarmingly stupid that if 2020 were to have been written by a Hollywood screenwriter, it might have been rejected as too unbelievable to have been credible to work in even this, the dumbest of film genres. 2020 is a disaster movie then, but if it were to be reviewed, it would be deemed too far-fetched and would probably get a 2 star review for lack of credibility.
Just look at this synopsis:
A mysterious virus emanating from a province in China, spreads around the world, exploiting people’s lack of personal hygiene, and exposing world government’s lack of pandemic preparedness. No cure exists; in this strange new world, hugs are outlawed; people must stay over 2 meters away from each other and those washing their hands whilst singing happy birthday twice are the ones most likely to survive. In a world this messed up, people must: Stay. In. Their. Homes. This would for sure be a box office bomb.
At a time of crisis, you need strong leaders, who understand the scale of the problems, the threat posed and know how to give rallying speeches. You want a president like Bill Pullman from Independence Day in charge. You want someone to inspire great strength and hope with speeches such as this:
We’re fighting for our right to live, to exist, and should we win today the 4th of July will no longer be known as an American President holiday but is the day when the world declared in one voice,
“We will not go quietly into the night. We will not vanish without a fight. We’re going to live on. We’re going to survive. Today we celebrate our Independence Day!”
What we needed was this kind of call for strength and unity in 2020; instead, we got world leaders who were nothing more than cheerleaders for the economy, who have been so inept in self-protecting decision making that they have resembled the mayor from Jaws. World leaders have been torn between their need to look after their people and protect economies, already facing great threats prior to the Covid era. The quickly drafted reactionary policies have exposed the fact that certain types of people are deemed to be less of a priority. To keep an economy alive that has been flat-lining for a decade, highly risky decisions have had to be made. It also started with the very late calls from Western governments to first restrict travel into their countries and then, making terrible calls like going into lockdown too late or reopening economies too early.
By playing down the threat of the killer outside and talking up how the problems are under control, they have looked dangerously like the leader of the fictional town of Amityville insisting that the beaches should remain open even with a man eating shark on the loose. Scientists and experts have increasingly resembled Roy Sheider and Richard Dreyfuss from Jaws, when they countered the mayor’s call to open the beaches, with the angry and exasperated cries to the tune of: ‘WHAT ABOUT THE MAN EATING SHARK OUT THERE?’
2020 has looked a lot like this scene, with world leaders less concerned about the safety of the general public and more concerned with reopening businesses. In Jaws, the mayor got his way, the beaches were reopened and low and behold, there was another shark attack. The lack of concern shown by world leaders during the corona virus has mirrored Jaws to a worrying extent. Jaws isn’t just a film about shark attacks, it is also a film about the disasters of glaring mismanagement. The bad decisions of the mayor in Jaws caused a second shark attack, which would damage the economy further down the road and our world leaders all but ensured a second wave of the virus by reopening too early and trying schemes to stimulate the economy that would cause the spread of infection later down the line.
Richard Dreyfuss counters the mayor in Jaws lack of concern with the line: “Are you really going to ignore the problem until it bites you in the ass?” Boris Johnson and Donald Trump have actually made the mayor in Jaws look credible. Boris Johnson is a prime minister who shook hands with so many people who had the virus that he got the virus himself; Donald Trump is a man who actually entertained the idea of injecting disinfectant as a preventative measure; or how about Brazilian president Jair Boserano? A leader who dubbed the pandemic ‘the little flu’ and implied his ‘athletic body’ would stop him getting the virus – which he inevitably got.
For the Jaws analogy to explain away the level of stupidity we’ve witnessed, you would have to have a scene in Steven Spielberg’s event movie, in which the mayor proves how un-threatened he is by the shark by paddling into the water with a cut on his leg whilst wearing protective gear like say, water wings, or a rubber ring shouting, ‘see? it isn’t dangerous at all. If a shark comes, you can just punch it in its face. Come to our beaches – open all summer.’
In another odd parallel with Jaws, people were flocking to beaches in the summer, despite instructions not to do so, ignoring the fact that a nice afternoon sunbathing might endanger your life, or even eventually kill another person. Exactly like Jaws then.
Having made this satirical comparison to Boris Johnson and the Mayor in Jaws, it turned out that the current UK, Prime Minister, the man responsible for making bizarre calls that caused the virus to spread in the UK, actually named the fictional character as one of his political heroes, back in 2012. Here is the following extract from the London economic to prove it:
The corona virus has exposed what we all know to be true, that the individual doesn’t matter in society as much as the system wants you to believe, and you are of more value to a consumer society desperately fighting off collapse, as a vessel for spending money, than you are as a body preventing the spread of the virus by staying home. This is one of the reasons why governments have been sending out such confusing mixed messages. What we should all be doing is staying in as much as possible, for everything non-essential. But decades of one-dimensional policies have gotten our societies into such a precarious state where there isn’t a long term plan of security by anyone in a position of authority and the system relies on day to day spending perpetually to ensure its survival.
That is why leaders like Boris Johnson can tell you its safe to go to the pub, even though the number of cases and viruses were not falling, and in fact rising. That is why world leaders are tied up in knots, not sure whether they should lean towards the old school policy of democracy, good old fashioned looking after the people, or sticking to their true loyalties, feeding the monster that is big business. It is no coincidence that even in a crisis as system paralyzing as Covid-19, the super rich are making even more money, whilst the majority poor wonder how they are going to pay the rent or mortgage without a job.
This advanced stage of capitalism has started to resemble that old cell phone computer game snake. World leaders are steering the ever-growing insatiable serpent capitalism is becoming as it recklessly chomps down on its food: the environment, working classes and middles classes, its host planet, either narrowly avoiding and totally ignoring potential objects of catastrophe. As the snake gets bigger, its environment becomes a hazard. The game ends when the snake crashes into a wall or eats its own tail. It’s an inevitable at some point that it will do either of those things as, like the beast capitalism has become, it is totally unsustainable in the long term. We have seen that even in a crisis, when really the snake needs to pause, its masters cannot, and thus it plows on forward to its own demise. Right now the snake has hit a wall. Will it be Game Over? Or is there a reset button and we can take the snake back to a more manageable speed?
Moving away from game analogies and back to the main topic of film, disaster movies always feature a crisis sweeping around the world and they denote the movement by using mock news reel footage, of countries whose unfolding humanitarian disasters are recorded as footnotes to those happening in Britain or America. Over the last 20 years, the production designers of disaster films have tried to get their visuals to look exactly like those featured in the news, to give the films a more authentic edge. That has created chillingly real life imitating art imagery. As the corona virus spread beyond the Chinese borders, through Iran, to Italy to other countries, it was hard to know when you turned on the news whether you were watching the news, or the latest Roland Emmerich film.
Given how things have become ever more disastrous in the nine months since the virus spread, the videos that went viral at the times, of Italians keeping up their spirits singing opera and playing instruments, although deeply troubling at the time, look quaint now. We are at a stage of the virus, in which the illusion of a functioning society has been well and truly shattered by the corona virus. Societies particularly, in America and Britain are left examining the internal ill-health of the system and wondering if it is a terminal illness, for advanced capitalism, or if somewhere down the line, there would be a miracle cure, you know, like in the Hollywood films.
if 2020 were a blockbuster, the trailer would look something like this.
In disaster movies, there are often montage news reels, in which the disenfranchised public riot and protest against the ill-conceived decisions of those in charge. Usually, they feature briefly, as a way to ratchet up the tension and hint at the social problems that are unleashed in the event of a crisis. You’ll see a clip of someone throwing a Molotov cocktail or a burning car, or some other vaguely apocalyptic vision.
Really it is a genre of cinema, that is a little too often dismissed as throwaway entertainment, when what is really often happening under the surface, is a river of social commentary, a warning to society of problems being ignored, that are about to blow up in the faces of all those within the film, and maybe us in real society.
This century, films like 2012 and The day After Tomorrow, in their own heavy action-driven entertainment way, were trying to warn of the looming disasters economically and socially of global warning, but that is a crisis that a number of world governments wrongly consider to be a problem to deal with down the road, to the continuing dismay of a science community in near universal agreement, that this is our last chance to tackle the problems. The Bush fires of Australia, that kicked off the years constant stream of catastrophe, and the delayed reactions of the Australian leader Scott Morrison, proved that negligent leadership in disasters movies, reveals a lot about leaders more intent on drafting policies to protect the fossil fuel industry than the planet and the interests of the people.
I guess governments want to deal with one crisis at a time, so all thoughts and resources are currently committed to tacking the corona virus crisis.
Everywhere we look in 2020, the tension that has been broiling under the surface of the thinly held together veneer of civilized society, has been exploding into a volcanic eruption of rage and discontent at the imbalance of Western societies. Usually, people are too busy working longer and longer hours for less and less to ponder or actively challenge the inherent injustices of the system; that has all changed in 2020. It is not a coincidence that in a year in which a disaster has occured, social tensions have bubbled to the surface.
The pace of life is always too frantic for people to actively engage with all the problems that we are facing in malfunctioning capitalist societies in the 21st century; people are too busy, or too distracted to engage. You give people time back to reflect and then it doesn’t take long to realise that growing inequality, stagnating wages, racial injustice, and debt-driven economies and the many other problems we face in society, are outrageously out of control. The powder keg of discontent has been loaded with barrel after barrel of justifiable public anger, it was just waiting for a spark to set it all off. As it happened, that was the senseless and horrific murder of George Floyd.
On some level, it’s hard to believe that just one incident can entirely shatter the illusion of well-functioning multi-cultural societies, but on the other hand, it is usually one isolated incident that ignites the fuse. Hopefully, in the long run, all the social demonstrations will bring about much needed systematic reform. It is always the will of the people that has the best chance of reforming the system, sadly it never comes from those in a position of power, without struggle from those on the outside.
If a scriptwriter were to be penning 2020, it is hard to think of a more poignant line than the words uttered by George Floyd as he fought for his life against evidently racist police officers. ‘I can’t breathe’ speaks volumes about racial struggles, poignantly references all those either fighting or who have lost their lives on ventilators, as well as representing those who have been treading water in this tumultuous period of capitalism, and are now drowning. If 2020 were a disaster movie, ‘I can’t breathe’ would surely be the powerful tagline.
So here we are, a pandemic that has worsened by the day; a tenacious virus that governments have proven to be ill-prepared to deal with, has caused a force that has begun to knock down the dominoes of problems that have been lining up for years due to ill-advised free market systems. All we have is a path of social and economic uncertainty. The public faith in the pillars that people looked to to hold together democracy in the past such as business, government and the media, has clearly been eroded away by an understandably faithless public who are sick and tired after decades of profit mongering policies that have worsened the living standards of the working classes and middle classes. Now a crisis has come, people are no longer willing to trust what the media or the government have had to say, even though, as a life and death matter it has been imperative to do so. But how can you when the state message has been so confused and confusing?
We used to look to science as a guiding light to lead society out of the darkness; now there is a divisive attitude to it, with a growing internet-driven suspicion of science and reason, and wrongful assumptions that science is part of the problem, even though it should be the shining beacon that leads us out of a very dark place. Science is respected when it is providing people with convenient or distracting technology, but when it is delivering inconvenient truths or a message of potential doom, it is rallied against by some members of the public, with all the vitriol of the pitchfork-wielding masses in the pursuit of Frankenstein.
Some sections of the public have proven that they have disturbingly ignorant attitudes to science. In the Covid-19 situation, all science was really asking the individual to do was respect other people by doing something as simple as staying in, or wearing a mask, but even this simple request has brought to the surface misguided political divisiveness and a total absence of collective spirit. Heaven knows what the people out protesting a small cloth mask as something in violation of their civil liberties, would have made of a Second World War gas mask.
As the virus hit a second wave that had been forewarned by health experts like Dr Fauci, the full damage of a reactionary, rather than preventative, form of government, that favoured false optimism over hard facts, began to become apparent. Jaws 2, a film in which the mayor fails to learn by his mistakes, became a better film in 2020. At the time of its release, the idea that this mayor, could be again so short-sighted that he would brazenly choose to ignore the warning that another shark could again kill more constituents, seemed too far-fetched. But now in a year in which dithering politicians have attempted to silence those alerting to the dangers of making the same mistake twice, the plot of Jaws 2 now looks like a warning of the dangers of repeatedly reckless management.
Disaster movies are not known for their strong endings, because Hollywood is always keen to open a Pandora’s box of problems, but the golden rule of big studio cinema, is keep the masses content by springing on a happy ending in which everything works out for the central characters, even though, we have seen depictions of wide spread disaster involving masses of people being killed.
But whilst writing about the ongoing problems of Covid-19 and looking for a place to end in what is clearly still an unresolved crisis, it is hard to end on a downbeat note, even though that may more closely resemble reality. I am a fan of downbeat endings since they chime closer to the uncertainty of real life than a film script. But at this moment of a deepening crisis as we go into 2021, I find myself identifying with the studios that have felt encouraged to find a happy ending, since the one thing you need in an unfolding crisis is a message of hope.
So i’ll try as best as I can to adopt a tone of Morgan Freeman style worthy wisdom: as bad as things are, it could be worse. Animals carry a lot of different viruses, and one thing we have learned is that in just one instance, a virus, an organism driven by its own desire to survive, can mutate when in contact with a human, and it may continue to evolve, which we have now seen with the variant strand in the latter part of this year. This all highlights how lucky we are that, in an age that continues to take even greater liberties with the exploitation of animals and the planet, there is some chance of survival with this virus and that it isn’t a guaranteed killer for most of the human race.
Capitalism is driven by igniting in the individual an insatiable, internal desire to want more; as a result we often don’t value just what we have. We take our position on this planet and our systems for survival for granted. This crisis should reset our perspective on the fragility of our own existence and how easily our systems can be incapacitated. We might have been in a situation where the supermarkets had run out of food, and then we would have seen a level of tribalism erupt worthy of The Walking Dead. Luckily, supermarkets seemed more prepared than governments. For all their ills, they are food-providing Gods and they’ve been there for us when we have needed them. No one is going to turn into the central character from The Survivalist and be entirely self-sufficient on our own gardens. To their credit, some people are trying to live a more sustainable life.
At some point, life will begin to go back to normal, although that will only happen if society puts its divisions aside, and people work for the collective good rather than the want of the individual. The best note of optimism that we could have hoped for was the creation of the vaccine – whether you are for it or skeptical of it, the vaccines are the best Christmas present as it is the only thing that offers a clear light through a very dark tunnel.
The majority of people on planet Earth will eventually survive this pandemic. After the problems of Covid-19 begin to diminish, people will have a renewed value in everything: in a good meal, a meaningful face to face interaction, a nice walk in nature. A well-run and well-staffed health service. We will prioritize the important things of value in life. After all, a crisis is a great time for reflection and hopefully some much needed systemic change aiming towards a fairer world for all. In the meantime, the greatest success is to value what you’ve got. One thing I’ve taken from disaster movies is that the survivors are smiling at the end as they know how bloody lucky they are to be alive.
Keep calm – stay safe – and take care.
This picture taken in California was considered the shot that best sums up 2020 – it is hard to argue really.
Different cultures signal the thawing of grueling winters in weird and wonderful ways. In the Belgium town of Geraardsbergen, they mark the end of the season by drinking live fish in red wine; in other European countries, there are all sorts of eerie and bizarre pagan traditions involving wearing demon masks (Mohács, Hungary) or looking for witches carrying fire wood (Country Meath Ireland), that are so much the stuff of Gothic folklore that they are worth Googling. Also worth googling is the Swiss tradition of bonfires and comically executing a snow man like the British Guy Fawkes November tradition. Then of course famously, there is a rodent smelling the air to see how long winter will continue immortalized in the Bill Murray movie, Groundhog Day, a film that put the small town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, on the map.
Traditionally though, around the world, the first signs of new life springing forward come in the form of blossoming flowers. Back in Wales, I remember the first risings of the daffodils to be as literal a golden moment at the start of a new season as one could experience.
Here in Asia, it is not a golden yellow color that begins to cheer people’s spirits by marking the beginning of spring, but instead a radiant array of pink hues.
The cherry blossom season in Taiwan, in the Yangmingshan Park this year, has been the best Spring season I have experienced in ten years living here. The flowers on the blossom trees here have come out with such strength and confidence, that you would be forgiven for thinking that they have sensed that people, in very difficult times, require the lift of the inner spirit that only radiant flowers can supply. The flowers in Taiwan have been so luminous this year that they could rival that of the more famous Japanese blossoms that you have probably seen in those wonderful pictures of Fuji Mountain.
I first noticed that something special was going on, when a tree in my neighbourhood – that usually just looks like any other tree, with a healthy shade of green suddenly blossomed pink, almost overnight. This was the first bread crumb on the trail, that led us to Yangminshan, in which, many trees like this had hit this sudden moment of awakening.
At any time it is a breath of fresh air to get out of the city and hit one of Taiwan’s easily accessible areas of natural beauty, but with the flowers in full bloom – it was a particularly soul-charging moment of escape into nature.
Pink trees seem the stuff of candy colored dreams, but in Taiwan and Japan, walking through a forest, that had formed itself into a pink pathway back to natural wonders, almost over night, was a welcomed reality and a blissful experience. You can see why so many poets and artists, would want to stroll up to one of the many pagodas – invitingly scattered around the mountains – unlock their inner creative expression and seize the moment as it is oh, so fragile. I am attempting to take a leaf out of their book with my own tribute to the spectacular floral displays this year.
As you walk through this most enchanting of hillside forests, the beauty from each angle opens up with a slightly different feeling – almost as if you can feel the personality of the plants, as so vivid was their bloom that no two seemed the same.
We went back the next weekend to experience the healing properties of the plants all over again, and we quickly realized, that the forest had subtly shape-shifted. Plants that stood center stage during the previous week, had now seen their blossoms fall and had met their curtain call; others that seemed shy and reluctant to capitalize on their budding talent, seemed to take inspiration from the previous trees and were now standing proudly as the main attraction – albeit with a slightly altered shade of color. The impression was as if the breath of life was, moving through the forest, like a life-giving mythical creature; the life baton being passed from the cherry blossoms to the plum.
As well as being one of the most spectacularly beautiful visions of spring you are ever likely to see, the plum and cherry blossom season, seems to have a profound and unmissable spiritual symbolism – it all seems to hint at the relationship between life and death and just how fine the line can be between your finest moment and your demise.
Life is short, we all know this and the more you go through life, the more you become aware of how finite it is and how precious it is – something we all take for granted. The human life cycle is short, but it is longer than most species on planet earth, so it is easy to forget sometimes how brief it is; here, standing in this park watching the pink petals gracefully fall to the ground, you are reminded of the fleetingness of life; the fragility and temporary status of life. The simultaneous sense of wonder and terror when you realize that something is absolutely hitting its peak moment, but will soon fade.
It’s one of the truths about the cycles of nature that the flora and the fauna of the planet seem to accept more readily than humans. What burns brightly must soon expire; it’s the harsh reality that the blossom season in Taiwan seems to most purely symbolize. In this year of great loss, around the world, in which we have had so many reminders of how delicate life is, watching the most vivid blooming season of the blossoms seems to be ever more symbolic – nature has a mercurial way of talking to us, if we are willing to tune into its rhythms.
As natural as the cherry tree blossoming season seems to be, it is far from accidental. Japan colonized Taiwan for 50 years and the trees are an annual glowing beacon that indicate how much Japanese culture has shaped Taiwan. Lots of the various species of trees were brought from Japan. The week to week domino effect of the trees blooming in Spring appears to be a reflection of the wondrous cycles of nature, but the illusion of each species blooming in turn, is actually the result of strategic Asian precision. This doesn’t detract from the sense of wonder of Yangmingshan; to me it adds an extra layer of poignancy; as if people from the past are using nature to convey a message of renewal and optimism that flowers truly symbolize, to future generations. Ancestor worship is a huge part of Taiwanese culture; Taiwanese people burn ghost money and offer food to their ancestors. I like to think that the soul-revitalizing flower displays of Yangmingshan are the ancestors showing a sign that they appreciation the gestures.
As families wandered happily through the park, generations young and old either growing or rediscovering a love of nature respectively, you get a tremendous sense of inner peace and spiritual satisfaction at witnessing the harmony of it all. The only creatures that seemed to be enjoying the displays as much as the families, were the bees and the butterflies. They were buzzing and drifting around the trees in a fervor of excitement, almost with a sense of pride at the masterpiece their efforts have helped to create. This is not an attraction that lasts long – it runs through mid February to the end of April and this season, the flowers have lit people up more inside than the lanterns did at the similarly timed lantern festival. The renewal of hope was visible for all to see – but just for a few weeks.
With the Bond franchise stepping away from launching the usually busy summer season, due to fears of the Corona virus from MGM, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet was nominated as the film to save cinemas. However, it proved to be too confounding to be fully comprehended by most viewers, and even though it was easily one of the most inventive and creative films of the year, its ambition started to count against the film, as for all its ingenuity, it felt too contrived for the viewer to fully emotionally engage.
The only way Nolan’s brain-buster was going to save cinemas was if people who didn’t fully grasp everything that happened on first viewing – myself included – went back for a second viewing experience, which I did. It was a divisive film, that although launched a thousand debates about time travel, didn’t fully satisfy even after two watches. It will be controversial to some that it isn’t on this list, and controversial to others if it had made the top 10, or even 26 as, even though it was the best espionage drama to be released this year, there were far better films in 2020. But Tenet gets a mention here, for being a big talking point in a year tragically lacking in big water-cooler discussion films.
The biggest release of the year is not in my top 10, but there are plenty of other outstanding pieces of cinema here. In a year in which the industry was brought to its knees, after many devastating blows, 2020 still provided a lot of quality films. Cinemas are hanging by a life-line and are in danger of going the way of blockbuster video, but despite all the doom and gloom, great films continued to emerge from one place or another consistently through this most difficult year. Here are my top 10 films of 2020.
It is impossible to do a story about a group of people mentally unraveling in the jungle without evoking Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Lord of the Files, or Apocalypse Now. The spectre of those three ‘madness in nature’ stories lurked in the background of this edgy, nervy and quite formidable drama, but Monos managed to do something new with this well-trodden territory. There is just something about a group of people left in the harsh realities of nature, discovering the more base of the primal instincts of man that is an evergreen story; it may be something to do with the fact that nature reveals something of the human condition when civilization fades to memory and people can see what their level of survival is and what extremes they are prepared to go to.
With that in mind, following this group of feral child and teenage soldiers somewhere on the edge of the Columbian jungle as they are drilled into units for war, made for a gripping, raw and earthy experience. The first thing you notice is the breath-taking organic cinematography of the jungle; the film takes place at a high altitude on a mountain deep in an Andes jungle; sweeping shots of the clouds gently swirling in the valleys below created such a calm atmosphere and a beauty that contrasted the stark depiction of the rigorous regimes the soldiers were put through. You could almost experience the thinness of the air at the high altitude for real; and the unusual high altitude setting clearly stirred something in the minds of the characters.
On some level, it is reminiscent of another recent film about the dehumanizing effect of being a child soldier: Netflix’s somewhat overlooked early feature: Beasts of No Nation. Another recent film Monos has cross over with is Embrace of the Serpent, which is a geographically and thematically apt reference point, since both films are set in South American jungles. Some of the action was as raw and unflinching as Apocalpyto too, there were lots of influences then, but Monos with its own sense of dreamy terror, was very much its own beast. Mica Levi is one of the most notable composers around now, and here she provides a score that subtly shifted the mood to darker, more ethereal places as the characters went further into the jungle and deeper into the heart of darkness.
9. A Personal History of David Copperfield
One of the many joys of this bold, inventive and outrageously amusing take on Charles Dickens classic story, was trying to detect which lines were courtesy of the sharp wit of top political satirist Armano Ianauci, and which were lifted straight off Dickens pages. Both writers have an offbeat, colorful charm to their dialogue style – even though on the surface they are worlds apart – certainly in terms of eras anyway. The two styles fused brilliantly well, which allowed this to capture the spirit and time of the Victorian era, but at the same time feel quirky, fun and modern, but not so much as to unsettle or displace the drama.
The first striking thing about it was the inspired casting choice of Dev Patel in the role of David Copperfield. He has an honest face and likable persona, that you can’t help will to success; he always has an every man quality, playing regular figures who are just trying against odds to do the right thing and make good choices; just see Slumdog Millionaire or the deeply affecting Lion for evidence of this. That as it turns out was the perfect quality to have in a figure who is trying to exert some control over his own narrative with varying degrees of success. Obviously, Patel is of Indian background, which alone allows this old Victorian set story to stride into the 21st Century as a starting point.
Whenever societies become ever more polorized economically as they are now in the 21st Century, the work of Dickens, with its focus on two tier societies – the have and the have nots – becomes worryingly relevant. In Dickens’ stories, David Copperfield particularly, what drives the drama is that those with social aspirations to climb the slippery pole of success, are never far away from sliding down into the worst pit of poverty conceivable. That was as true in Dickens’ times as it is in the modern world; Iannuci playfully and humorously steers the story into different sections of society, from the rich to the poor. His intention, as it so often is inspired, satirical sideswipe at absurdity in society, so it lightheartedly pokes fun at potential pathways into poverty, but at the same time keeping a sense of the tragedy and senselessness of it all. Iannucci is great at facing dark subjects head on, not shying away from the grimness and finding black comedy gold among the dirt. He did it with Soviet atrocity in The Death of Stalin and he does it again in the harsh times of a Dickensian world.
The ensemble of kooky characters all played with a wild charm livens up proceedings to no end. Ianuncci regular Peter Capaldi is particularly excellent as the hapless, but charming Mr Micawber, a clear inspiration for Dickens’ own debt-burdened father. The ever excellent Tilda Swinton provides laughs a plenty and Hugh Laurie was on top comedic form.
A Personal History of David Copperfield was a delightful hoot from start to finish. Armando Ianucci is one of the sharpest comic writers around, but it is no small achievement to take an Old Dickens novel and make it this funny, relevant and amusingly told.
8. I Lost My Body
Imagine a film with as deranged a premise as a disembodied hand trying desperately to get back to its former body. Such a seemingly bizarre idea would suggest a tone of wacky comedy. The stroke of genius of this beautifully soulful, elegantly melancholic Netflix-produced French animation is that it takes this novel idea and makes it into a drama with considerable emotional power and gravitas. It’s an oddly serious film, as you realize that the central boy who has lost his irreplaceable appendage, was living a life of sorrow and disconnection before the loss of his hand, so now he is in an even more distressed state of mind. If one were unlucky enough to lose a hand, it would be an agonizing prospect, and the film tenderly allows you to ponder this. As the film creates a tone of sad realism, audiences are seduced by this mournful mood into believing the fantasy element of the story: that being, the journey of the hand in pursuit of the body.
Fantasy is often far more persuasive than live-action in bringing magic to the absurd and that is certainly the case in this release. The great thing about animation is that it is the gateway to secret worlds and here, that secret world is that of a hand trying to navigate the tough back streets of Paris. This is where the film finds a considerable amount of enthralling action adventure. The hand encounters all manor of perils as you would as a lively small thing navigating a pathway – it recalls to mind the poor little rabbits trying to make their way back to the burrow in Watership Down. The great thing about hands is they are so silently expressive, and full of gesture. The animators use that to bring a great deal of personality to the hand, at many points in the film, you would believe a hand can think. Ultimately the premise proves the ultimate metaphor for disconnection and alienation that increasingly defines modern, technologically driven urban life – the film has lots of imagery that captures the displacement that a lot of lonely people are feeling in the modern world in such a soulful, contemplative and artistic way. If you were on your own in lockdown, this would have been the perfect film to stumble across on Netflix.
7. The Invisible Man
The eponymous character was re-invented as a ‘Me Too’ movement menace in a surprisingly deeply unsettling reinterpretation of H.G. Wells’ classic story. After The Mummy performed so badly in cinemas that it sank Universal’s much talked about Dark Universe series, The Invisible Man crawled free of the wreckage and found its way to hit and miss modern horror factory Blumhouse. The decision to make the central monster a domestic abuser was genuinely an inspired move that allowed this to be the first film that successfully plants one of the old monsters in a new context.
If you think about it, there could be nothing more frightening than being attacked by someone who you can’t actually see. The film really makes you home in and reflect on the terror of this. In previous versions of The Invisible Man, he is a ranting megalomaniac – in this version, he says nothing. As we all know, it is the quiet types who are the most dangerous – and that was certainly the case here.
It’s a well known rule of horror, that what you can’t see is more frightening than what you can; a silent Invisible Man has such an advantage in regards to the element of surprise too, so his sudden ‘appearances’ were like a gut-punch to the belly after the film managed to fully capitalize on long periods of ratcheting up the tension. The character was able to terrorize Elisabeth Moss as a tortured and long-suffering ex-spouse within an inch of her sanity. The impressive special effects sequences – that see the central victim have full on ferocious fights with someone who isn’t actually rendered on screen – would have counted for very little, if it wasn’t for Moss’ extraordinarily convincing performance as an abused woman. It’s the fear and anxiety etched into her face, that act as the only sign-post for the Invisible Man’s unannounced vicious attacks. Her face managed to tell the audience immediately that this is a woman who has been both mentally and physically abused, but who is going to believe her if there is no physical imagery of her abuser?
She is far from a damsel in distress though, with a face that veers from under pain and exhaustion to someone who can fearlessly wrestle back control. It is one of the finest female performances of the year and the most anyone has convinced an audience that a character who you can’t see is actually there since James Stewart made people believe in six foot invisible white rabbits in Harvey. This came from literally nowhere to be the year’s best horror film. It renders you at such an uncomfortable psychological state of mind, that once it actually goes for the jugular, in easily the year’s scariest sequence, you will be convinced that you have been attacked. It provided the most visceral shock of the year – from absolutely nowhere.
Australian director Leigh Whannel stripped the Invisible Man of its black comedy heart and made him a silent but violent misogynist that makes you reflect on all the women out there locked in a domestically abusive relationship. A thought-provoking reinterpretation then that totally finds the dormant horror lurking within the concept of invisibility. Even the title itself typified the film’s clever way of finding new levels: is the title a reference to the female character’s lack of power in her relationship? Or is it even a reference to all those men out there whose attitudes to woman change when the front door is slammed behind them? Either way, just how good this remake of the Invisible Man was, was impossible to see coming.
6. The Farewell
Saying a final goodbye to a beloved family member is one of the hardest things one can do in life. But if you happen to be an ex-pat estranged from this family member, then the emotional strain is far worse. American-Asian actress Aquafina – you’ll remember her as the sassy comic character in Crazy Rich Asians – won herself plaudits and an Oscar nomination to boot early in 2020 for her sincere and anguished turn in this tonally perfect drama that was both poignant and brilliantly observed. It was a rare opportunity for an Asian female writer and director – Lulu Wang – to make a film about Asian families but in the English language. She clearly used her own experience of being in an Asian-American family to draw on inspiration for this deeply moving tale.
Terminal illness is not an easy thing for a family to discuss in any culture, so the method the family came up with in this based on truth drama – that is to tell a little white lie to the patient that everything is going to be alright – is an interesting way of dealing with a tough reality. The film prompts debates about whether doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, to protect or maybe even help someone whose health is fading is a collective option and honourable thing to do.
It understands the Asian mindset of being stoic, hiding emotion and saving ‘face’ brilliantly well. The film is an extraordinarily perceptive window into the collective psyche of an Asian family. The central concept creates a strain between the lie and the truth behind this reality, and it makes for some beautifully subtle, delicate performances as a weariness and tension between the characters becomes increasingly gripping. The actress who portrays the grandma Zhao Shuzen is absolutely adorable, a positive, radiant, little ray of sunshine – it becomes understandable why the family do not want to risk damaging her mood. She’s got such vulnerability and innocence without knowing the power of these virtues.
You can’t help but feel deeply sorry for the Aquafina character; she has been brought up in the far more emotionally open American culture and struggled to adjust to the Asian mindset of locking emotions up tightly within. She clearly loves her grandma more than anything, so the strain of having to perform when around her, created a natural emotional tension that was genuinely affecting.
The peculiar way the family choose to deal with grief creates a drama of real weight and substance, but at the same time there was humour and a lightness of touch that keep the film surprisingly funny for a film about the end. If you are an Asian person who has grown up in a Western culture, but has family connections in the East, and you watched this is 2020, then it must have been exceptionally poignant as The Farewell totally understood the melancholy and anguish of being detached from your culture and uncertain of your identity.
5. Uncut Gems
The Safdie brothers have a track record of making gritty, somewhat nihilistic dramas, with a distinct edge such as A Good Time and Heaven Knows What. With that in mind, it seemed a bemusing choice to build a film around Adam Sandler. That said, Sandler can go from meek to menacing in the blink of an eye – there is far more tumultuous emotion lurking under the surface with him than his constant appearances in knock-about comedy suggest. If the underlying psychosis of the Sandler persona was good enough for Paul Thomas Anderson to explore in Punch Drunk Love, then it is good enough for the Safdie brothers to again mine in what was a nerve-destroying, unbearably tense drama.
Sandler’s performance in this was a revelation – what makes the film is his ability to switch from passive to aggressive at the drop of a coin. He has a charisma that holds the screen, making you believe that he would be a success in his profession as jewelry salesman; yet at the same time, you see that he is a man, who has a pathological desire to pursue that next big gold rush no matter the consequences if the deal doesn’t go down in the way it should.
The film itself is perhaps hard to get into since it is shot in a deliberately chaotic way to capture the milieu and energy of the New York subculture of fast and loose high goods trading and a character rapidly careening out of control.
Characters talk over each other and move in and out of scenes – everyone is talking with cross purposes, in pursuit of their own selfish agenda. Sandler’s central character is reckless to the point of unlikable; although you might not be rooting for him or sympathizing with his increasingly rash decision making, you can’t help but be gripped, probably with your hands clasped to your head through tension, as you witness his character digging himself a deeper and deeper hole.
The considerable energy of the plot revolves around the exchange of a gem stone; the main drama kicks in when the preciousness of the stone is recognized by Kevin Garnett, proving anything is possible by playing a version of himself that is easily the best performance by a basketball player in cinema history – although that is of course a low bar to pass. Anything is possible could well be the life philosophy of Sandler’s character, who was never one to let a bit of cold, hard sobering reality get in the way of the chase of a good deal.
Uncut Gems has a feel of early Martin Scorsese, with the back-street vibe of Safdie’s New York hustling rings bringing back the spirit of Mean Streets. There is more than a passing resemblance between Sandler’s character and De Niro’s Johnny Boy – both films revolve around a free-wheeling borderline maniac of a character – you wouldn’t want to know the type but probably do, they are the ones whose impulsive decision making creates tension-laden drama at every wrong turn. You wouldn’t want this guy in your life, but boy, do his car crash decisions make for an exhilarating viewing experience. Uncut Gems was a complete character study of the destructive nature of obsession.
4. I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Charlie Kaufman wrote three films about fractured identity and characters with tortured mindsets, coming up with a unique style in three truly original films, Being John Malkovich; Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. His output since then, and his move from scribe to director – Synecdoche New York, Anomalsia – has seen him deepen the sense of angst and melancholy, and although it hasn’t worked for everyone, the films were both inventive. His first film in five years, and second as a director, provided everything you wanted in a Kaufman release: it is mentally challenging, it meanders away from reality in inventively confounding ways, it is weird and offbeat and has enough layers to stimulate hours of post-film discussion as to what it all means.
The film is loosely based on a novel written by Iain Reid about a relationship that isn’t quite functioning as both parties would like; here is where the similarities to the novel end as Kaufman takes the idea and totally refashions it, into a film that reflects on the fear of ageing, the fear of disconnection and the fear of floating through life engulfed in a cloud of alienation.
Kaufman is like Lynch in that he has a license to play fast and loose with narrative logic and instead take the viewer into a world of dreamlike fantasy, mystery and illusion. Fans of his by now should be prepared and even crave those sudden turns into surrealism. What Lynch is to the dreamworld, Kaufman is to the subconscious mind; lots of scenes have a visual style that hints of the neurosis that one of the central characters is beginning to experience.
For two characters who are supposedly not connecting, the vibe between the always interesting Jessie Buckley and Matt Damon lookalike Jessie Blemons, is surprisingly mesmerizing, with the two of them exchanging philosophical musings not seen on a screen since the Before Sunrise series.
Contrasting the themes of internal struggle, and the ruminative mood of the film is a near quirky comedy of awkwardness, most clinically seen in the sometimes poignantly tragic sometimes chuckle-some performances of Toni Collette and David Thewlis.
One man’s artistic, allegorical ingenuity is another man’s pretentiousness, I’m Thinking of Ending Things was not for everyone, but for those who connected with it, you were rewarded with a bittersweet, charming, lyrically surrealist, totally original film that reflected on ageing and alienation with a disorientating strangeness that was Kaufman-esque and then some.
3. A Portrait of a Lady on Fire
There has been a lot of talk about this consummately crafted French film being a rare example of the female gaze. Whether you know the difference between the male and female gaze soon becomes irrelevant as even though you might not be able to verbally articulate the difference, it soon becomes apparent. The force of intensity that these two beautifully developed female characters use to look at each other is immediately striking. They are evidently mesmerized with one another and this in turn is mesmerizing to behold for the viewer. This is a French art-house film set in the 18th century off Brittany.
Naturally, at this time there were very few options available for women other than to marry into a wealthy family. One of the women in the film, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) is bound for such a fate; the other woman, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) has been hired as a professional artist to make a portrait for the other’s wedding. Portrait painting in this exquisite and sumptuous film is expressed as a window into the soul. Tellingly, the husband to be is never seen. This is purely a story about love between two women. Her artistry unlocks a depth of emotion that simmers under the surface of both Héloïse’s portrait and her actual demeanor.
It is not giving much away to say that these women embark on a passionate, complex and soul-stirring romance. When romance is done well in cinema, and a director and actors are willing to display all the beauty and all the pain that might come with an elicit, spirit-awakening affair, the result is something quite thrilling to witness.
This is absolutely the case, A Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the French version of Brief Encounter. The setting and time period suggest that the conventions of the age would make this is an illegal relationship. Yet through this delicately told story, we see that they are two souls that are deeply intertwined. There is nothing like a connection to bring light and life into an otherwise lonely and dreary existence. A Portrait of A Lady On Fire expresses this emotionally and spiritually truly to life. Easily, this is the year’s most beautifully moving, intoxicating, melancholic, poetically told romantic drama.
If this extra-ordinarily hard-hitting drama about the soul-gnawing torment of all those connected to the long, drawn out process of death row came out in any other year, it would be soul-stirringly important cinema; the fact that this came out in a year in which the Black Lives Matter movement raised greater awareness that the American judicial system is built around systemic racism, makes this film even more passion-stirring and deeply poignant.
Interestingly enough though, despite it being about a black man on a mentally harrowing slow walk to the death chair, it is not directly about race. And it not being about race directly gives the film even greater credence as very important in the debate around the American death penalty and how that relates to both the African-American and Hispanic communities, whose young male populations are obviously being fed into the private American prison system. The film is not making any grandstanding claim on these issues, but instead showing the slow-burn emotional torment that the entire process is privately inflicted.
Bernadine, the central character (Alfre Wooddard), is a tough, uncompromising prison warden, who has the final say on whether clemency can be granted to the condemned men. You soon realize through the tremendous subtly of her performance that the face of strength and ruthless composure she presents to the world is masking a woman whose soul is being torn apart by the emotional agony of having to carry the burden of ending the lives of those who have been sentenced. In a year of incredibly strong female performances, this was the most powerful and the fact the film got entirely overlooked at the Oscars, was criminal.
From an outside perspective, the fact the she is black probably makes the procedure from the outside look a lot less racially motivated than if a white female or white male was in charge of the operation; whether these issues are causing an even greater burden on her soul though, will have to be deduced from the viewer reading her face as this is a woman whose desire to not verbally convey everything she is feeling inside is beautifully captured by the actress and female director Chinonye Chukwu. Her camera and the empathetic acting captures a woman’s sensitivty for observing how the agony of emotional pain can be the pathway to destruction of the spirit.
The death row inmate and Bernadine are literally on two sides of the system, and as a result are seen to not be able to communicate directly, both emotionally and spiritually. The genius of the drama is that it captures that they have a tremendous amount in common, that they will never really know, as their mental plights mirror each other, and are both lost in a prison of the impossibly cruel situation they are both trapped within. The richness of the character development was unmatched anywhere in film this year.
Whether the central male character is guilty of the crimes he is serving a sentence for is left open to interpretation. Your verdict on him may even reveal something about yourself the film wants you to reflect upon privately within your soul. The point is to show how the process brings about a lingering pain that is actually worse than the sobering reality that is to come.
The performance of Anthony Woods as the condemned man Aldis Hodge is astonishingly sympathetic – as though he is reaching out mentally to all those men who have walked in these shoes for real and are no longer here to tell their story. He has a chance to tell their nightmarish emotional story and he does so with absolute conviction of that which is difficult to convey in words, the physicality of his performance, is the best body language acting you will see all year. Again, another person who was shamelessly overlooked at the Academy Awards.
Usually prison warden types are portrayed in side-lined loose characterisation as often compassion-free white assholes who fully believe in the retribution being dealt. Seldom has the psychological price of this profession been studied with such acute emotional observation as in Clemency. The racial element in the subtext adds even more weight to the considerable heft of the drama. The film is written with the emotional, and political understanding of James Baldwin and is as good at capturing the real world plight of those in a state of agony as Baldwin was with If Beale Street Could Talk.
The plight of both the warden and the condemed man are seen as two sides of the same coin, a dehumanizing process, that strips you of everything you need to function in a normal psychological state. The characters are both portrayed as being so emotionally hollowed out by reflections of the final decisions to come that they are broken down and feeling removed from any sort of hope. Whether she believes with the absolute conviction necessary that he deserves his punishment is one of the many questions the film creates an emotional knife-edge around. It all leads to a powerful ending that will leave you experiencing every inch of what the characters are feeling.
Cinema is the best medium we have for reflecting on things that are hard to verbally articulate, like people feeling extreme disconnection to those in their lives. Clemency is a wonderful example of a film capturing the isolating effects of emotional distance as a result of distressing internal trauma.
The powers to be in the American judicial system want to hold the modern day lethal injection up as the least barbaric option for a penalty that a lot of people believe in, but often the difficult questions around state-sanctioned retribution are ignored. Clemency answers them, and it answers them with haunting emotional reactions with some of the most sincere performances you will see all year. How it was overlooked for awards consideration is a crime in itself. It is one of the most damning films about the death penalty ever made and really, you can’t even have a serious debate with anyone who believes that the death penalty is a righteous course of action in the current evidently skewed American prison system until they see this meaningfully agonizing film.
Ultimately, reflecting on your own powerlessness to prevent your own death, or reflecting on a death sentence that you are meticulously planning to carry out, may be a lingering mental torment worse than death itself.
Film of 2020: 1917
Sam Mendes’ tribute to his great-grandfather, started like a conventional World War I film: we join two unnervingly fresh-faced young men, who seem naive and unaware of what horrors await across no man’s land. But then they are asked to cross into this territory alone, on a remarkable covert mission. Mendes immediately built the tension around this gut-wrenching request. Nobody ever crosses No Man’s Land – that is why it is named so bluntly. But here we were, resting uncomfortably in our chairs as we walked with these soldiers as they embarked on what has forever been portrayed in war films as a pathway to certain death.
This was literally unknown territory – Mendes did an extraordinary job of putting you in the mud-caked boots of these boys as they face the terrifying unknown. Cinema has been clambering to offer the viewers of the next generation, fully-dimensional experience with novelty 3-D and 4-D versions of films that often, ironically, do more to take you out of the illusion. Nothing has come close to 1917 for immersing you in a tough reality and making you experience for real how relentlessly harrowing it would be to walk through a war zone.
Of course, having state of the art, easy to maneuver lightweight cameras and the industry’s now Oscar-bestowed best cinematographer Roger Deakins helped Mendes a great deal in realizing his phenomenally involving experience. Strangely enough, as did taking clear inspiration from first person video games. We never leave the side of main character ( played with an indomitable spirit by the versatile George McKay) – and the effect on the audience is to feel a spiritual, emotional, even painful connection with this man and his friend as they valiantly attempt to inform another general that the mission has been aborted. The shrewd simplicity paired with an extraordinary visual trick that the film appears to be one uninterrupted continuous take, made the film resonate in a rare way.
We are used to seeing such amazing visual effects that they sort of just wash over you, but in 1917, the sheer intensity of the action and the sense that what you are seeing is genuinely coming at you, created an interactive experience for the viewer that was sensationally real. One of the sequences, reached a Lumiere brothers-type moment, in which you felt like leaping back over the chair to get away from what is threateningly unfolding – it was both stomach-churning and thrilling.
The lack of narrative complexity allowed for a purity of experience that felt totally unique. You feel like you are walking through this war zone and feeling every inch of the threats posed; and the unrivaled immersive effect almost turns the film into the most interactive horror film of all time. You feel at one with this character – this is your experience as much as his. It hits home hard about the mindset you would need to be in to survive a war film and gives you at the end a very vivid impression of what PTSD must feel like.
This was a completely realistic war movie released at the start of year in which the world would be gripped by a fight against an invisible enemy. The central character is subjected to a relentless barrage of threats and attacks – in a way the film now seems, abstractly and indirectly at least, a metaphor for the grueling realities people, particularly health workers, must have faced this year at the front line of the war the world has been facing. The threats posed by a virus of course contrast from those of an enemy army, but it seems like a strange omen, and oddly fitting that in a year in which so many people faced an endless barrage of threats and problems, the year’s best film is designed to put you in a mindset to understand the mental exhaustion of what it is to experience a reality in which you cannot for a second rest, or be complacent. It adds another level to what is the year’s best cinematic experience. In a year in which the big blockbusters could not be released, Mendes provided one of the most realistically felt action-driven war films of all time.
Thank you for accompanying me on this journey through cinema in 2020. What were your favourite films of 2020?
The story of cinema in 2020 reflects the year’s story as a whole: a state of absolute crisis brought on by the worst pandemic in 100 years. Sitting alone in the dark with a room full of strangers suddenly became the most dangerous thing you could do in 2020. Thus, cinemas became a major casualty of lockdown, with theaters either being mothballed, or closed down for good. Sadly in the UK alone, over 45,000 people were suddenly facing redundancy.
The studios, never one for a bit of risk, held back their big franchises until governments cleared a safe pathway back. Unfortunately, the virus ripped through the U.S. and the U.K., meaning the road back for cinema moved further and further into the distance. James Bond, having dominated the cinema for 50 years as an image of strength and daring, seemed to be the most nervous about being the first film out of the gate. The very name: No Time To Do Die, created a horrible irony in a year in which death rates were spiraling out of control. The multiplexes, brought to their knees by plummeting revenue due to closure, pleaded with MGM to release it.
Bond had a chance to stride onto the scene and save cinemas in the summer, but the studio, already losing money with a delay, decided it was too risky, and in doing so caused a film called No Time to Die, to give a near death-nail blow to the cinema industry. Bond scurried off to be auctioned by the top streaming bidding – currently Apple TV stand to land it at over $400m, but Daniel Craig’s last Bond still sits on the sideline as one of the many lost releases of 2020, as the decision of what to do with all these big juggernaut films now parked up – Maverick, Dune, Black Widow, Wonder Woman and Soul to name just a few – continues to be undecided, or to put it movie-friendly terms: to be continued…
The streaming platforms, becoming ever more powerful, circled the dying cinema carcass like vultures over a wounded zebra; Disney being the one most obviously motivated by self-interest, pulling their big release Mulan and charging extortionate prices for it on their newly launched Disney Plus streaming service. The cinema industry has been facing unprecedented challenges for years from the growing power of the streaming platforms, the rise of piracy, and other threats; but contrary to all the troubling warning signs, cinemas were booming in 2018 and 2019 with box office actually hitting record highs. It was impossible for the industry to see what was going to blow up the blockbusters, but now that it has happened, it has raised a lot of questions.
The Corona virus crisis has done to the cinema industry what it has done to society as a whole: exposed the precarious imbalance and made bare the inequality between different financial ranks. The studios have been pouring ever more money into their biggest films over the years, while giving less money to smaller releases that have in 2020 kept the industry ticking over. As a result, it has made the biggest films into such high risk endeavors that any failure could result in catastrophe. Usually they can rely on the global reach the industry has to recall their multi million dollar budgets, but this year, that gravy train ground to a grinding halt. What the studios will do with these parked up giants, remains an unanswered question.
A deepening health crisis means longer lockdown periods, which will be catastrophic for cinemas. The streaming platforms are rubbing their hands together at the prospect of the playing field being leveled, but cinemas are in crisis and need a helping hand to get their doors open again. One thing is for sure, if they go for good, we will miss them when they disappear. I know I will. Despite all the obvious advantages of home viewing, there is nothing like sitting in the dark, staring up at that giant screen and being totally transported into another world. Despite all the problems, there have still been enough quality films about for it to be a decent year for film. If you are prepared to go beyond marketing strategies and do a bit of research, you will find interesting, thought-provoking cinema even in a year as difficult as this.
This is where the streaming platforms do have to take credit, since they have been investing in productions and taking risks with material that the cinema studios have been unwilling to take for a long time. Now, increasingly they are creating some of the best works of cinema, with Netflix yet again leading the charge. They have landed a massive – and hard to rival – advantage over cinemas: even during a societal catastrophe, in which it has been impossible to go out of your house, the streaming platforms’ format, means they can literally pipe their films into your house. What this means for cinemas, is an agonizing cliff-hanger that has to be pushed into 2021 and beyond.
But for now, let’s reflect on some of the excellent films that came out in 2020:
26. Little Joe
Plant-based horror is usually done with a certain degree of tongue-in-cheek humour, since the idea of an attack launched from trees and flowers is an idea that is perhaps hard to take straight. Hence the best examples of the genre – Little Shop of Horrors and Day of the Triffids – have a sense of their own ridiculousness. Austrian female director Jessica Hausner then does an admirable job of making a plant vaguely sinister in an unusual psychological horror film that, although takes its obvious inspiration from the two aforementioned films, manages to find its own ways of making a flower somewhat insidious. The story follows red-headed female scientist Alice Wood (an excellent Emily Beecham), who has bio-engineered a ruby-red flower, that has one helluva secret power. It’s is a plant that is set to do for emotions what Prozac was once billed to do: one sniff can lift your mood. But like pharmaceuticals, there is a lot more than meets the eye to a quick mood lift…
The tone is played straight, somewhere in the ball park of a Brave New World meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It has that understated, unsettling atmosphere that you would find in an episode of The Twilight Zone. A nerve-jangling soundtrack is used to supply the plant its sinister aura. The film’s subtext plays off a modern day apprehension a lot of people have with the idea that GMO flora may one day backfire on us; and the idea that scientists’ constant tinkering with nature might be far less under their control than they would like us to believe. Little Joe has an interesting look to it. Brightly lit labs are the main setting, which creates a sterile environment that accentuates the striking colors of the plants.
You can feel the film straining for a sense of ambivalence that it doesn’t quite reach: Is there something actually happening with the plant, or is this entirely in the mind of the characters? This is the question the film wants you to ponder for its duration. Actually it seems fairly obvious what is going on. It doesn’t quite have all the layers that the director intended, but nevertheless this is a really ambitious attempt to freshen up and make far more serious the idea of a plant-based threat to humanity. Fun and fragrant.
25. Sea Fever
This taut and haunting Irish horror thriller earns itself a place on this ‘best of’ list for being remarkably relevant for a film release in 2020. It features both the unleashing of a new deadly virus and a plot involving a lot of tension around quarantine and potential exposure to something lethal. If you have struggled with lockdown this year, how do you fancy doing that on a ship stranded in the ocean?
Despite being unbelievably apt in the year 2020, it is in a genre of horror that we have seen done quite often: that being the mysterious creature feature. That said, it is a reworking of old themes involving parasitic monsters, with a tone closer to something like Gareth Evans’ atmospheric slow-burner Monsters rather than any in your face post-Aliens B-movie. Sea Fever draws on the idea that there are lifeforms out there in the deep that we don’t understand. What the film did well was extract the vulnerability of the crew trapped within this nightmarish scenario. There is a helplessness and desperation to the central characters’ situation that does not lend itself to heroics and thus a sense of dread and doom built up to unpin the film’s initial beguiling encounter with the creature. It all builds to something quite gripping and affecting in a The Thing sort of fashion.
One of the themes of 2020 was just how many exceptionally strong and intelligent female characters there were to drive stories forward with subtle moments of mental inspiration and ingenuity. The flame-haired Siobhan (Hermione Corfield) had an understanding of biology that became integral to the story.
Overall Sea Fever was far more cerebral and thought-provoking than a viral monster movie has a right to be. There is just something primarily terrifying about being stuck on a boat with an unidentified creature that the film found a way of capitalizing on. A new-ish spin on an old ideas, but for all the eye-catching sci-fi effects, it was the conversations about quarantine rules and regulations that really chilled with a release like this in this virus-infested year.
With one quick stab of an enchanted blade, movie magic happened and two genres – the body swap comedy and the slasher film – rose from the dead. Splicing together two genres that would seemingly mix uneasily in the same skin worked spectacularly; they merged in both haunting and hilarious ways. On paper, it shouldn’t have worked. Throw in a hit and miss comedy actor like Vince Vaughn in and you would say that this Blum House production looked horrifying for all the wrong reasons. It’s one of the reasons Freaky surprised as one of the most riotously funny films of the year. The script had wit as sharp as the central serial killer’s blade; there was ingenuity in the simple set up: a serial killer stabs a high school girl and finds that they have switched bodies. It’s simple, but that genre mash-up hadn’t been done before and boy, did it work.
You have to give credit to Vince Vaughn – he is at his best when he is playing a smooth, dry-witted, slightly slicker than average every-man. For the premise of Freaky to be as well-executed as it is, it required Vaughn to totally lose himself by hamming it up as a young teen girl – which he nailed with all the physical comedic energy of a Will Ferrell or Jim Carrey type. In a way, it was one of the bravest and boldest performances seen all year, as if it went wrong, the critics would be the first to have, um, put the knife in and an ailing career might well have been put to death. But instead, a star is resurrected. Kathryn Love Newton was an absolute star too, totally nailing both the sweet and dangerous personas that she had to play. Freaky was a weird surprise – a subversive teen horror comedy, with a clever spin on the genre not seen since Scream – surprisingly, this Halloween release was one of the funniest films of 2020.
23. Da Five Bloods
Spike Lee has been one of the most prominent figures speaking up for the rights of black people in America for decades, so in a year in which the Black Lives Matter movement gained major momentum in exposing and challenging systemic racism inherent within the American system, you would have expected Spike Lee to have a few things to say about the tense political climate. The fact that he had a grenade of a film ready to drop into this heated racial climate was remarkable timing. This came out just under two weeks after the horrific murder of George Floyd, and asked some very deep questions that suggested the Vietnam War was once to the African American male what the prison system is today.
The journey that ‘Da Five Bloods’ go on – four of them retreading the ground they once fought over in the Vietnam War – created an engaging, issues-driven plot, which reflected on the African American involvement in America’s senseless War with Vietnam. The film asked challenging questions about why a race, that clearly has never been treated equally or fairly in the America system, would be motivated to fight against another race they have no reason to fight, for a country that had already betrayed them.
The ageing vets go off into the jungle in pursuit of a version of the American dream: a ‘get rich quick’ scheme to find lost gold – it gives the film an element of adventure, which balances out the weight of the contentious racial issues. Spike Lee plays it craftily as to whether it is a fool’s gold mission or a deserved reward for the hard sacrifices they had made. The film’s major strength was the really well-observed examination of PTSD, as one vet whose psychological damage is clearly on the surface, becomes increasingly uneasy about being in country again. He was the major catalyst for the drama, via a powerhouse and edgy performance by Delroy Lindo.
There seemed to be no end to the film’s uncanny timing, as in the wake of the deeply saddening passing of Chadwick Boseman this year, the many scenes in which his character is framed so spiritually as to be a messiah figure, almost make you wonder if Spike Lee was aware that he was making one of the actor’s final films. It adds an extra layer of poignancy to a story-line that was beautifully and sensitively handled by Lee.
Twice now, the New York-based director has managed to make indirect but searing comments on modern racial tensions, by taking stories with historical context. Although Da Five Bloods is not as ingenious or as well-executed as Blackkklansmen, and is prone to making, sometimes literally dramatic missteps that are so overly signposted, you feel like shouting instructions at the screen, the film stirs up some long-dormant ghosts of the Vietnam War, and finds an original way to reflect on questions that America does not want to raise about the past. It perhaps had a viewpoint of Vietnam and its people that has more in common with American films about the Vietnam War than modern Vietnam itself. It wasn’t without problems then, but Da Five Bloods was an interesting balance of action adventure and righteously angry politically-driven social commentary.
Spike Lee uses the language of cinema to show that wounds from past oppression, are still open in the present – an uncanny achievement considering the same thing was happening on streets all across America this year.
22. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Abortion has become a taboo word in the ever more right-wing political climate of America, so it has been interesting to see two powerful films in 2020 stir up much needed debate about the controversial topic. The first, Saint Francis – would launch a conversation about both sides of the pro-life v. pro-choice argument. There could be no doubt however about which side of the debate Eliza Hitman was on with this provocative, damning, but astonishingly subtle and sensitive portrayal about where modern attitudes to abortion leaves women in desperate circumstances.
It focuses on a young 17-year-old girl going through the usual teenage difficulties of struggling to connect with family and peers and wondering where she fits into the world, but with a world-changing woe of finding out that she has an unwanted pregnancy. Despite efforts to change her mind, she has no doubt that she is not in a fit state to be a mum, but her efforts to receive the necessary treatment in a convenient location, are thwarted by a system clearly putting obstacles to deter women from making pro-choice decisions. The central performance of Sidney Flanigan gives a masterclass performance of physical acting in conveying her troubled character’s traumatized state of mind. She is not in a position to tell anyone about her difficult situation, so the audience has to pick up visual clues to hint at the impact this is all having on her mental well-being.
This is the best film about abortion since the 2007 film 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days. That was a film that was set in communist-era Romania. It says something about the state of America in small towns, that the story that unfolds for the young girl, seems to have parallels with a film about how poverty and a difficult political climate made abortion a dangerous, almost impossible to seek option. We accompany 17-year-old Autumn as she makes a journey that she can’t afford to receive something that she is mentally sure about. It is a sensitively handled, but harsh portrayal of what knock-on effects policies enforced by the Trump administration are now having on young girls.
Alongside a female director – who seems to have brilliantly observed what it is to be in the state of mind of the central, sympathetic character – the film has a main team of female makers involved in the production. It makes no doubt that the pro-life favouring system America has implemented, is almost a double-edged sword of male oppression on the female body and spirit. Autumn can feel the level of judgement that the system is subjecting her to, but tellingly, the lad who has got her in this condition and the men in positions of power quick to pass judgement on women with unwanted pregnancies are conspicuous by their absence.
There is no doubt in the film that the mental trauma women are subjected to get medical treatment they require, is unnecessary and a form of state-driven abuse. It makes you walk a mile in the shoes of a person in this situation. It is empathy-inducing and everyone in the Trump administration who has been quick to pass judgement on limiting the choices of women should be made to watch the powerful film that is Never Rarely Sometimes Always. How the film pivots to reveal just what that title refers to, stirs the heart and soul in a way that reverberates in the brain for days after the viewing experience has truly sunk in.
21. The Assistant
This is one of those films in which the extent of just how insidious a reality the central character is subjected to is done in such an understated manner, that it might not become fully apparent until you get to the final scenes. The lead actress, Julie Garner, who proved to be so full of surprises to viewers of Ozark, has landed a job as an assistant in an unnamed New York studio. It is a position that could be a potential launch point for a career as a producer, providing she can carry out the overwhelming number of tasks she has to do for her largely absent boss.
On the surface, the film appears to be a critique of how office drudgery erodes the soul and the will of those determined to forge a lucrative career path, in the race to the bottom economy we now have. It is possible to watch most of it and think that it is entirely a film about a character stuck in a soul-crushing prison of tedious tasks. But there were other levels for the viewer to discover if you were prepared to be keen-eyed in picking up the clues to the nature of the film’s invisible power system. The under-the-radar nature of The Assistant allowed the viewer to be a sort of office detective, picking up clues, as the central character does, about how the system of power works. It was possible for those clues and the character’s mood at the end of the film to percolate in the mind, and plague the consciousness for days after.
Australian female director Kitty Green’s film had a slow burn power that entranced long after the credits had rolled. The tone and the silent angst of the central character brought to mind that of a quietly powerful film from a few years back called Martha Marcy May Marlene. Both films were about vulnerable women, stuck in an abuse system that is dark in a way that is initially hard to comprehend. The Assistant captured the surreptitiously manipulative power webs, with a visual suggestion that this is possible in the the film industry – it’s a quietly whispered message, which launches a stimulating debate about who the hidden figure pulling the strings might actually be.
No country has more of a right to make a film about what life forms could be uncovered in the great unknown void that is space than Russia does. After all, Russia – or in the era the film is set in – the Soviet Union, was of course the first nation to take the great journey into space and the craft that made that first journey of course provides the title of this film. While there have been many American films that have explored the terror of what could be unleashed from space exploration, to my knowledge, there have been very few from Russia. Their most prominent space film is the very cerebral Tarkovsky opus Solaris. A film about an extraterrestrial life form that hails from Russia was an intriguing concept and this tense horror-thriller did not disappoint.
The American film industry has covered the idea of invasive ET to such a point, that you would assume all that is left is a bunch of worn-out cliches and genre conventions. At the early stages, you see signs of those cliches, but to director Igor Abramenko’s credit, he finds new ways to inject new life and twist old ideas around until they morph into a exhilarating new take on the genre. The fresh spin on old B-movie lifeforms, means that the film goes off in a different direction to what you expect and keeps itself lively and inventive with many an unexpected turn. What helps to ground the far-out sci-fi elements of the story in reality is just how believable the central characters are and how much character development occurs within the narrative.
You have an astronaut who is anxious to get out of quarantine – another film here with an oddly topical reference in 2020 – but at the same time, aware that the powers to be of the Soviet Union will not let him emerge anything less than the hero image they have designed for him. You have a tough, but somewhat open-minded general, who realizes he needs to think outside the usual box if he is to make progress with the film’s central dilemma and you have an exceptionally well-written female character, whose intelligence and initiative are the catalysts for the film’s spark, and the force of will behind the considerable momentum of the story.
Sputnik manages to find a balance between the B-movie creature feature special effects perhaps unusual in a Russian film and the more art-house character-driven, and psychological aspects of the drama – which is more of a staple of Russian cinema. It also manages to examine the mechanics of power in the Soviet era, with a view to looking at their space program. It is not as revealing about the mentality of the Soviet power that say, Chernobyl was, but then again that was Western made and this is a Russian production and considering that, this is quite a brave film.
It’s like the director took a long look at Alien and The Thing and thought: I know how to do this story a different way. It’s a credit to him that Sputnik is a worthy Russian counterpart to the best extraterrestrial films America has made. At times it is rather icky and scary, drawing on body horror in quite unusual ways. If David Cronenberg was Russian and wanted to make a story about aliens, then it might look something like Sputnik.
The output of Pixar of late has been so emotionally rich that you start to suspect that someone within the Pixar team has gone through some difficult emotional loss and continues to have creative epiphanies of how to deal with heartache through inventive and magical family story-telling. While Onward is not as devastatingly powerful as Inside Out or Coco, it found a way of creeping up on you emotionally and burrowing into your heart until you reach a finale that was beautifully devised and yet again genuinely moving, in a soul-cleansing way that is pure Pixar.
The film planted an interesting idea for dealing with loss, that at first was more of a curiosity and an oddity: two boys who love magic and are struggling to deal with the death of their father, find a way to bring him back, but only half of him, and the bottom half at that. He can walk, but he cannot talk. The film took this bizarre and initially both intriguing and perplexing idea and – er – ran with it, into a gauntlet of light-hearted caper comedy involving the kind of slapstick humour you might expect from a film in which a central character does not have an upper body. The backdrop of the film is set in fantasy folklore, with gags arising from old fairytale characters, being transported into the modern world with all its mundane domesticity.
The film recalled to mind the satirical tone of fairy tales as seen in Shrek; plenty of comedy mileage was generated from seeing characters like dragons limited to being frustrated restaurant managers. The thing is about fairy tales is that they are now more fun with little post-modern updates and that is something that seems understood by both children and adults. Paired with the comedy was a colorful adventure story as the two elf brothers at the center of the story raced through an adventurous and wildly entertaining quest in the hope of saving their dad. It was fun, frivolous and charming, but emotionally disarming.
Pixar know how to generate a great deal of fun in the films, but at the same time, depict emotional truths and poignant moments that tug at the heart-strings in both sad and uplifting kind of ways. The latter element in Onward almost came as a surprise as you unaware that the film was working on that emotional level. Yet again, they know how to sincerely press the right emotional buttons and elevate what could have been something that was a fun but forgettable swashbuckler into a story that packs a thought-provoking emotional punch that leaves an imprint on your soul. Not Pixar perfect, but close enough to leave a broad smile on the face and a tear on the viewer’s cheek.
18. Baby Teeth
How do you do a story about a troubled young girl who is battling cancer, without it being too mawkish or sentimental? Debutante Australian director Shannon Murphy provided the answer this year, with her subtle, visually stylish film centered around a fascinating female character, brilliantly played with such assurance by Essie Davies. The film gained its slow-burn power by focusing on the undercurrent of emotional reactions of all connected, but dealing with those in an understated, indirect way.
The characters seemed in a state of loss and confusion as to how best deal with the central drama; there was a sense that the family don’t know how to connect, talk to each other, or fully comprehend each other’s varying perspectives on the trauma they are suffering; such issues are of course not an easy thing for a film to capture, so plaudits for Murphy as she grappled with difficult issues in an orthodox and powerful, highly individualistic film-making style.
Babyteeth took place in the back suburbs of Sydney, where Murphy captures a sense of a side of the city you wouldn’t expect to see. Here middle class suburbia is mixed with a more gritty side of the backstreets, and a character who proves to be the main catalyst for the drama, a drug-addicted charming street punk, who strikes up an interest in Essie’s aura. The two had a chemistry that is quite unusual, and a natural and believable affection began to stir between the two.
He’s a guy who troubled teenage girls trapped in stifling families look for, and parents live in fear of their daughters dating. But at the same time, he had an irresistible edginess. The rebellious male lead is played by Toby Wallace with a mix of James Dean or Brando chemistry with a Justin Beiber-type punk-ishness – and a hidden tenderness that made the audience understand why he is such a comfort to a girl feeling isolated. Murphy re-spun the girl going for the risky guy cliche into something quite inspiring and genuine.
Underpinning the drama was a social commentary about our over-medicated society and dependency on chemical comfort to ease emotional pain. The parents would like to judge the street guy, but they themselves are also using drugs to numb the pain. This aspect of the drama leaves the film not a million miles away in message at least from being an Aussie Requiem for a Dream. Essie was a mercurial figure, using a series of wigs to both gain empowerment, and a sense of daring independence. You never quite knew what she was thinking; at times she seemed lost in a fog of her own confusion about what her condition means for her life; at other times she seemed admirably together and accepting of her condition. She was like nothing you would expect from a cancer patient and that is the major strength of the film.
If there are young teen girls out there under immense emotional pain and strain from illness, then the character in Baby Teeth‘s quietly dignified way of handing the troubles, would be inspiring and of great comfort. It all builds to one of the most powerful endings in a film all year – a finish that makes you want to watch and look for hidden clues about this young girl’s state of mind.
17. Dark Waters
Indie director Todd Haynes elevated what could have been a routine sub-John Grisham legal thriller into something that was a damning, provocative and passion-stirring depiction of the horrors that late stage capitalism are inflicting on small town America. There is a scene in which a valiant lawyer – earnestly portrayed by Mark Ruffalo – is seen absolutely dwarfed by a room full of boxes of litigation – which frame in a single image, absolutely just why the little guy can no longer compete with the all-powerful corporate giants.
The film goes on to provide reasons why justice is no longer blind and is instead staring wide-eyed and invitingly at money and power. Gone are the days in which an Erin Brokovich type could undermine a legal campaign with a snappy putdown; now you need to be chipping away at the paperwork day and night, to make any inroads for a potential defense of entire towns that have been blatantly wronged. And that is just what Ruffalo’s lawyer does: painstakingly taking on the Dupont empire in a heart-stirring David V Goliath battle, he’s the one left defiantly standing, taking on evil at the end game of capitalism.
Mark Ruffolo is fast rivaling Tom Hanks as the modern day actor who most epitomizes that James Stewart air of an honest, decent man doing his best to fight for the powerless. There are shades of Mr. Smith Goes to Washingston, as his character puts everything on the line to fight for what is right. We’ve seen it done before for sure, but the fact that Dupont is actually named by name, means this is entirely based on a true story, an audacious attempt by them to totally avoid any accountability of heinous corporate wrong-doing.
Depictions as ruthless as this should be too far-fetched to be believed, but everyone now has a sense that the power of corporate America is dangerously out of control. When you have a political and legal climate this outrageously unfair, you need films like this to expose the horror within the system, and that is where director Todd Haynes comes in. He wasn’t a director who ever looked like he would be interested in a hard-hitting legal thriller since he tends to direct highly stylized art house dramas; but here, he depicts a town with a color scheme that captures a dark sense that the life is literally siphoned out of the place by the DuPont empire.
It makes the film both sinister and unsettling. It should be over the top that a legal thriller can move into the realm of full-on horror film, but it’s a sad state of affairs that it seems real: corporate America has become a monster feeding on the towns that America was founded upon. In a capitalist system this devoid of compassion, lawyers have become the foot-soldiers for companies twisting the legal system for their own advantages. This taught and gripping legal thriller exposed just how insidious the modern system is and in Ruffalo, you got a depiction of a spirit-renewing portrayal of a good man working tirelessly and selflessly on the side of the righteous. That made Dark Waters a cathartic experience for anyone who feels the system is toxic.
The demise of Harvey Weinstein and the subsequent rise of the Me Too movement opens up a question which is explored in both an unsettling and quietly affecting way in Bombshell: was Weinstein a one-off, or are sexually predatorial instincts at the base of male dominated power systems? The plight of three generations of women working in some capacity as journalists at the misogynistic Fox News network, is used to scrutinize the different forms of institutional abuse that the system seems to either endorse or turn a blind eye too.
The title has a rather clever double meaning, as it both refers to and passes commentary on how women need to look in order to front a Fox News program, but also captures the shocking way key subject Meagan Kelly was harassed, by certain people having dared to speak out about a powerful individual. It is also a film that captures the film’s tone, which was a lot more bold, daring and shocking than the glib trailer seemed to suggest. A lot of the film’s drama arises through nervous dialogue exchanges in corridors by frightened, threatened, women uncertain about what creeping revelations would mean for their careers in an industry that blatantly employs misogynistic smear-campaigns.
Here, Bombshell seems to find another meaning as if what these women said could go public, then it would create major drama; but here the film is doing just that, exposing the Fox News network’s horrific sexual and psychological abuse systems in an almost fly on the wall, under the radar, style. Okay, so it is already public news what has happened to the film’s main targets: Roger Ailes – portrayed in a sly sinister way by John Lithgow and the other Bill O’Reily. So you could argue it is fishing for fish that have already been caught, but tune into the level the drama was working on, and you can completely understand the difficult state of mind these three women – sympathetically played by Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, and Margot Robbie – are driven to. You look at the genuineness of those performances and they seem to say something quite profound about how deep the trauma of male abuse reaches within a system currently under the microscope.
15. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
It is easy to look at children’s television and assume that what is happening within the format is too basic to really benefit adults. While children’s television is made for those new to the world, there is something about taking everything back to its most primary that can strip away all the confusing complications of messy adult minds and lives, and be something quite soul-cleansing. Perhaps, that is true of children’s television to varying degrees, but in the case of U.S. national treasure, the red cardigan-clad Fred Rogers, it is certainly valid. This fascinating window into the man’s pure heart and soul reveals a hidden truth that adults often miss: understanding and dealing with one’s emotions is the key to a clearer perspective.
There is no better actor to play Fred Rogers than Tom Hanks. There is something thoroughly decent about Hanks that could do justice to playing a beloved, kind, and benevolent figure. Lots of television figureheads from the past have fallen from grace, so there is something a little uneasy about putting such a pure soul as Fred Rogers under the microscope. In these cynical times, innocence can potentially be misunderstood. The film plays off this potential tension, with the central protagonist Lloyd (Welsh actor Mathew Rhys). He is a broken down, hard-nosed freelance journalist who trades in murky reveals of the heart of darkness behind the celebrity world. He relishes the chance to find a grubbier side to Mr. Rogers, with the slyness of a child poised ready to kick down a hardworking kid’s sandcastle. The two opposing characters look ready to clash and the film sets them up to do so.
The clever direction allows the tone to showcase both light and dark. Lloyd is a troubled individual with a wounded soul encountering a man known for looking into TV screens into the eyes of children with a view to helping them make sense of the cauldron of emotions bubbling inside of them. Children release their emotions, while adults tend to bottle them, and have them shaken up and left for a messy explosion like a soda erupting from a can. The bottom line is that everyone has emotions and talking about them rather than denying them is the key to understanding.
Hanks plays Rogers with an almost ethereal innocence – but instead of the character coming off as out-of-step with adult life in a surreal way, he comes across as a guru for the soul; a rare person in television who got into the business not for money and fame but for the medium’s capacity to heal and help. Far from being seen as simplistic, his interactions seems based from a man who has a deep insight to both spiritualism and psychology and knows how to apply the right words to sooth. The relationship that ensues within A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood was one of the best depictions of how much a true friendship can be transformative you will ever see.
Irish animated studio Cartoon Saloon are doing to their Celtic folklore what Ghibi did for Japanese mythology: that is, turning ancient tales of enchantment into magical and even spirutal animated classics.
If you saw the studio’s utterly magical Song of the Sea back in 2014, you would have experienced just how well Celtic mysticism works in animated form. Wolfwalkers shares a lot of the DNA with Song of the Sea, and both have in common tales of shape-shifting creatures that are completely transfixing to both children and adults. While Wolfwalkers is a very different beast to their previous film, there are literal beasts hidden within these Irish forests of yore; it’s a bewitching tale that reinvents the lore of lycanthropy in a totally new, interesting, and entirely immersive style.
The wolfwalkers of the title are forest-dwelling wildlings who have a unique connection to nature and possess the power of the wolf in an unusual and unseen way. One of the many pleasures of the film is discovering just how the film makers – Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart – play off werewolf mythology, with glorious, spine-tingling visual flourishes that have a sense of just how sacred the natural world is. This is a fresh and beguiling animation that is glistening with ancient magic.
The film has a period setting, a time where farmers toil away on land in fear of a rampant wolf population ripping their cattle to shreds. Wolves are established as a threat within the opening, a vicious beast that the villain of the film – noticeably in an Irish film, a power hungry English lord – known as the protector, wants to symbolically subdue. The film uses anti-wolf mythology of fairy tales like Little Red Riding Hood as a lure, before seductively morphing into something with a very different contrasting take on wolves and their pack mentality.
The film leaves no doubt to who the real beast is, as it weaves a bewitching, entrancing, emotionally engaging story – that leaves its audience young and old, wishing to run out into the forest, in the night sky and let out all their worldly troubles by standing on a rock and with full gusto, howling at the moon. There is a sense that taming the wild nature inside you, is a pathway to loss and emptiness of who we really are – it’s a great animated wake-up call to the current culture we have of stifling and over-protecting children, and entirely cutting them off from the power and wonders of nature.
Are we protecting children by taming them? The film has a message buried within its beating heart – a message that will be understood by the young watchers of Wolfwalkers, and perhaps even provoke thought in their guardians, at how best to raise their offspring – the feral nature of the flame-haired Irish wild-ling child is passion stirring. She wants to protect the forest from townsfolk intent on destroying that which they don’t understand, it is a timely message. If Cartoon Saloon are becoming the Ghibli of Ireland, then this is no doubt their Princess Mononoke.
13. Little Women
This was the first of two sparky literary adaptations of age classic novels that made it back to the big screen in 2020. This latest adaptation of Little Women was made with love, affection, passion and a great deal of understanding of how well-written this matriarchal family of characters were and how complex their relationships become. For many young girls, the range of female characters propelling Louisa May Alcott’s seminal story, were a massive leap forward for how girls of the time could imagine themselves.
The challenge for a Little Women adaptation coming out after an age in which women’s liberation has advanced is how to get a sense of why these characters were special and why they have inspired so many women in the many years since the novel’s 1868 release. Framing it like this, means that it is not just a costume drama trotted out for awards consideration – it had the heart soul and understanding of why these characters mean so much to so many people. It helped a great deal that in both the role as adapter and director was Greta Gerwig; she has proven herself to have a great deal of understanding of how to put female characters on the screen with all their wonderful depth and complexity intact – most recently in the excellent Ladybird.
She rose to this new challenge, finding a way to tell a story familiar to a lot of people with brio, vim and vitality, but also a sense within the story of how trailblazing these female figures once were. It had just enough of a modern eye to feel like a fresh take – but not too much of a leap that it felt like a total reinvention of the material. You can feel both her and actress Saoirse Ronan’s affection and respect for the central character Jo leaping off the screen in such a rousing way.
Jo is a firebrand, fiercely intelligent, talented and uncompromising, and undeterred by the constraints that a patriarchal society are willing to put on her. 2020 has been a particularly good year for female directors, but usually the industry doesn’t do enough to support female writing talent, so to see such a perfect vision of a character in Jo, breaking down the door for other female girls to come in the century that follows, felt like such a glowing tribute.
Gerwig managed to capture that rose-tinted nostalgia for an age long since passed – the film created a warm fuzzy glow, with exquisite costumes and sumptuous visuals, but also captured a sense that underpinning that was a tone of unease, conflict, rivalry as these women are living real lives with all the drama and messy problems that arise in life, whatever the century. That duality made this version of Little Women so wonderfully satisfying.
There are very few stories in which female characters are entirely in all the main roles, and male counterparts, take a more peripheral role. That alone makes Little Women a special story and the nuanced ways these characters develop, bond and clash, through the good times and the bad was genuinely enchanting and engrossing for those who love the story and total newcomers as well.
There is a feeling within the film world that directors take too much credit as the architects of great visions, and the true inspiration lies with the blueprint designer: the writer. It is certainly true that they don’t get enough acknowledgement, as without them, there would be no ideas. Director David Fincher takes this lead, with a sumptuous black and white tribute to the old Hollywood systems, that casts a long forgotten background figure, Herman Mankiewicz into the limelight and re-examines the origin story of, in my opinion, the greatest film ever made: Citizen Kane. Orson Welles is hailed for his achievement of writing, director and starring in a film at the ridiculously young age of 25, that is considered one of the greatest masterpieces of all time.
Interestingly, in a film which Kane is discussed as a work-in-progress, he is largely absent, not being the first man, second man, or even third man, in what is actually a story about the conception of his greatest cinematic baby. He is conspicuous by his absence, only really appearing in fleeting scenes that show how ego-driven the man might have been. Other than that though, Fincher isn’t concerned with him, instead he quietly goes about building a case that Citizen Kane could have only really come about as Mank had a personal, emotionally driven and complicated relationship with the real figure behind the film that being William Randolph Hearst – mercurially played in this by Charles Dance.
At this point, in the true spirit of the film, it is important to not pay tribute to the director, but the writer, who in this case is Jack Fincher, aka David’s father. Fincher Jr. has stated that his dad, who was a somewhat unsung journalist, sympathetic to the plight of Mank, had written the screen-play way back in the early nineties. It might explain why the film seems so determined to credit the unsung, which must be really special for Fincher to pay tribute to both his Dad and Mank within the same picture.
On the surface, the film looks like an ode to the stylings of old Hollywood, but actually what it is doing is using the peripheral Hollywood figure of Mank – a writer who is seen as being too outspoken to ever really break into the industry – as a torchlight to illuminate some seemingly lost forever pieces of how the old studios functioned behind the curtain, and showing how this osmosis effect of proximity to power is the reason why Kane feels so candid.
If you are discovering this film casually as the latest Fincher or film released by Netflix, then the level the film is working on maybe entirely lost; it pays to have at least a passing knowledge of who Hearst was and what he represented in California at the time, being basically the thirties answer to Rupert Murdoch. To really appreciate the ingenuity of Mank, you have to have at least watched Citizen Kane once, at least that way the exquisite visual references that Fincher subtly uses his camera to homage will not be lost. It pays to know that Hearst despised Kane, and stood at the front of the queue of detractors wishing to bury the film, so just how natural the scenes between him and Mank do arise does not fully announce the drama that would ensue, but if you know, it makes this examination of their relationship fascinating.
There is also a bold characterization of Louis Mayer the last M in the MGM studio logo, who leaves an impression in every scene he is in. Watching sparks fly between the three figures is transfixing, showcases the film’s main strength which is a brilliant ability to capture the feel of the time in a way that is a worthy tribute to the worth of a writer. Gary Oldman does enough to suggest that he may be in contention for back to back acting awards too. If Mank does go on an awards run, and it is made beautifully enough to suggest it will, then this is a remarkable late chapter to a story that you would have thought would have been lost to time. It’s the film that Orson Welles wouldn’t want you to see. Kane famously reinvented how you could tell a story and Mank finds a whole new way of shining a light on old Hollywood.
11. The Lighthouse
Two men cut off in isolation from the world find their mental state taken to the brink of insanity by the torments of the soul a sustained period that isolation can ignite. Director Rober Eggers could not have envisaged that this moody, atmospheric psychological horror film would end up being an extraordinarily prescient metaphor for how 2020 was actually going to pan out for the world.
If you’d watched the film on its January release, you would have found its story about these two wikkes – the keepers of the lighthouse beam – trapped in a bubble of their own despair to be weird, twisted, unnerving and unusual. By the time that lockdown had dragged on, no doubt people had begun to experience just how mentally taxing isolation can be. It was quite remarkable that the most insightful story about the mental disintegration of being stuck with someone in total isolation since The Shining, came out in a year in which people all over the world ended up experiencing a parallel scenario, remarkably experiencing the kind of dread and fear as seen in this nervy, unsettling and claustrophobic mind-bender.
To drown out the long periods of boredom the characters have in the film, they indulge in copious amounts of alcohol. You wonder how much method – or should that be methanol – was in the madness of the two wild-eyed, performances from Willem Dafoe and Robert Patterson, as the two actors seemed to have spiraling into a place, in which an insanity of the soul was released for real. If you were brave enough to watch The Lighthouse whilst in lockdown, for the love of god, I hope you didn’t try to play a little drinking game and match the spirit(s) within the film for if you consumed as much alcohol as the pair appear to have drunk in the film, then you would have no doubt seen your liver burst at a most inconvenient time.
William Dafoe takes a salty sea dog cipher and uses alcohol to unlock layers of vulnerability he throws his heart and soul into the role and remarkably, Patterson goes on the same journey with him, holding his own both in liquor consumed and the standard of performance given. The booze-soaked story takes many demented turns into horror of the mind, twisted comedy and pathos-loaded dialogue exchanges. Worth the price of admission for Dafoe’s wrath of (sea) God monologue alone – the salty, acerbic script was something to savour.
Ultimately, indulging in too much soul-baring alcoholism when experiencing a period of never-ending isolation comes across as ill-advised in Eggers’ deranged follow up to his astonishing horror debut The Witch. Don’t try this at home folks – but then again, you probably had no choice. In 2020, The Lighthouse was either a brave choice to watch in lockdown, or an apt cautionary tale about the dangers of mental implosion as a result of being lost in exile. Either way, it was a chillingly apt release.
Top 10 coming tomorrow… Please bear with me, these take a really long time to write, edit and produce.
Over the last 20 years, as zombies seemed to proliferate popular culture in a number that they had not amassed in before, keen-eyed viewers started to wonder if there was some significance to this. Were 21st century fears of a changing society being reflected in the zombie movie? Was television and Hollywood trying to reflect a growing sense that our capitalist society was about to undergo cataclysmic disruption?
Was the zombie a metaphor to reflect on a growing feeling that we were dumbing down as a society and the zombie was indeed us, living in ever more, passionless, detached, apathetic technology-deadened states in ever more issue-threatened 21st century societies?
Whatever the reason, people started to feel that a viral zombie outbreak was increasingly a possibility. From time to time, what one would do in the event of a zombie outbreak arose in idle pub conversations. Although, I’m sure no one ever answered with: hunker down for months on end at home by government orders. Those who answered, ‘head down to the Winchester and wait for all this to blow over’ , were also wrong. That, as it turned out could not only kill you, but many others too.
The more extreme in some American societies even prepped food, some supplies, and lots and lots of weapons with the thought that a zombie outbreak was possible.
The latter group looked like crazed, paranoid extremists, but considering what has happened in 2020, they don’t seem so deranged anymore. Given their tendency for preparation, they were probably one of the few groups of people who didn’t need to flock to stores to desperately purchase food. As this outbreak began to take hold of the West, ‘the preppers’ were probably sitting at home with smug, self-satisfied grins that can only come when you find out you are at least a bit right, as they dug into their long-stored tins of peaches, safe in the knowledge that they might not have to risk their lives to panic buy toilet paper.
2020 – the year the term virally infected went from a term thrown around in the most nightmarish of horror films, to a term defining the biggest news stories around the world.The Corona virus and the unprecedented disruption it has caused to regular life is as close to a zombie movie that the world has come yet, at least for a hundred years since the Spanish flu, or the horrendous plagues of the medieval periods.
It is the right time to reflect on zombie movies to see how much they got right. Lots of what has happened has already been uncannily similar to stuff that has happened in zombie ficiton before. Therefore a lot of the films are useful now – almost as pandemic homework – for understanding how a society collectively deals with a viral outbreak.
Some people look at zombie movies and consider them overly violent pulp trash; but to take this viewpoint dismisses a lot of the exploration that is going on in these films. The first point about a zombie movie is that the zombies are never the point. They are merely a catalyst to cause our system to be disrupted. And nothing has disrupted our system more than Corona has. Zombies usually shuffle about menacingly in older films and hurtle speedily in the newer ones, but this hides the fact that they can often be carrying graceful poetic metaphors to reflect on society.
The director largely considered to be the blue-print designer for zombie movies made two films that were really ways to explore how racial tensions in society are stirred (Night of the Living Dead); and the nature of zombies to consumerism and shopping (Dawn of the Dead) – both of which have been contentious issues in relation to Covid-19, making both films very relevant to what is happening now.
The first act of a zombie movie is massively relevant to what has happened in 2020. Obviously they vary from film to film, but the sheer number of them that start when a virus is randomly and suddenly released by contact with an infected person or animal, is staggering. There are a lot of unanswered questions about this virus, but we do know that it has mutated by leaping from animal to human. This makes certain zombie movies, bang on.
The subsequent primal fear that these films then explore is how swiftly a virus can sweep across countries and continents, causing utter devastation. 28 Days Later even lists in its title a time frame for how quickly a virus can ransack a society. It’s a time frame that isn’t too dissimilar to how quickly Covid-19 spread around the world. In regards to predicting the sheer speed of infection, zombie movies have been extraordinarily prescient. London has been the worst affected city in Europe, so the scenes at the beginning of 28 days later, in which Cillian Murphy stumbles around a deserted London, are remarkably similar to how London currently looks.
What always happens in zombie movies is that regular daily routines orientating around consumer-driven society are terminally disrupted. Those lucky enough to survive the first wave of infection are left in a changed world in which money, status and old world hierarchies are ended. Those ordered to stay home under lockdown in so many countries are experiencing this re-evaluation, wondering if it will be a temporary hiatus from the usual system or a prolonged period of change. In a zombie movie, there is no such uncertainty – zombies ultimately kill capitalism and those people fortunate enough to survive look to use what objects they can find from the old world to ensure their survival in the new one. Hopefully, this is an area in which the Covid-19 pandemic and the movies will differ.
Since, eventually, we will all be able to go back outside, and reflect on how lucky we are to still have things that we once took for granted (hopefully next year), like the freedom of a fearless walk, in which you don’t have to do a Matrix-like backbend every time you see a pedestrian walking the other way. Valuing the little things is something we will all have renewed interest in when this is over, just like Jessie Eisenberg’s character has in Zombieland. Other rules for survival on that character’s lists that are relevant to our own crisis are, ‘beware of bathrooms’ and ‘when in doubt, know your way out’.
Characters in zombie movies are usually left in a state of mourning for the world that once was, so we should be grateful that one day, lockdown will end.
Often abandoned cars serve as background metaphors for the seizing of the old system. It is another telling image that zombie movies have gotten right, for currently all over the world, there has been a lot less traffic around and so many cars are parked, meaning the visual metaphor in zombie movies is spot on.
Supermarkets have played an important supply role in this pandemic, this creates an interesting parallel, as there is usually a scene in a zombie movie in which the characters stumble across a deserted supermarket, shelves still intact. This is usually a rare moment of optimism, since the characters can reap supplies free of the burden of other shoppers or money. This aspect of the zombie movie has played out in this pandemic, although, in a darker starker contrast. The supermarket scene has been an area of the zombie movie that has been far grimmer in real life. Far from skipping down the aisle to plunder what you want (like in the zombie films), customers have had to wrap themselves in hats, masks and gloves like they are braving a snow-drift in a different kind of apocalyptic film and risked their lives, to procure supplies, only to find that the shelves have been stripped by other panic buyers. Supermarkets represent a safe haven in a zombie movie; in real life they have been a living nightmare. We should be grateful that the supermarkets have got the infrastructure to store food and supply to their branches; if we had run out of food like we did toilet paper, we would have seen scenes of fight-to the-death violence occur that would even be too graphic for the Italian zombie directors.
There is certainly a lot that zombie movies have gotten right about this outbreak, but it is also worth reflecting on how much they got wrong.
For a start, you can’t shoot the infected. Although no one seemed to tell that to the many Americans who fragrently violating social distancing laws, lining up to purchase fire-arms after the Federal government inexplicably deemed them to be an essential purchase item, even in lockdown.
No – you can’t shoot the infected, which means all those narratives where gun-toting action heroes come to the protection of the weak, are irrelevant. As we’ve learned, the real heroes of a viral outbreak, are the frontline doctors and nurses, who have valiantly risked their lives to help the infected. Frontline workers that have been given far less protective equipment than you would need when fighting a deadly medical war. We have learned from viral outbreak movies like the Andromeda Strain, that nothing short of airtight Hazmat suits can protect you in the event of a viral outbreak, and even then you lose some people, so watching health workers desperately trying to fashion makeshift protective equipment out of stuff lying around, has been both horrific and blackly comic, but mostly horrific.
As we have learned, It is not firearms you need in the event of a viral outbreak, it is respirators and as it has turned out, they are in massively short supply. Tellingly, the superheroes, sold to our children as heroes, have been carefully packed away by the studios, who don’t want to risk losing profits, by releasing their protected brands in closed cinemas. In their absence, the real and rightful heroes of society have been revealed. Perhaps this will inspire Hollywood to make some movies about the value of doctors and nurses in a time of a heightened medical crisis. And maybe this will lead to them getting a pay grade they have proven they so richly deserve.
Another way in which this pandemic has differed from those seen in zombie movies is that the dead don’t reanimate. If 2020 were indeed a zombie movie it would probably be called something like, The Dead Stay Dead. This means that scenes of roaming undead have been replaced by far more grim scenes of hospitals struggling to know what to do with the rising numbers of Covid-19 deaths, and harrowing scenes of mass graves being filled, which has been a sobering scene far more disturbing than anything seen in a zombie film.
Zombies have been everywhere in popular culture this century, popping up in films tv and video games like Resident Evil and Left 4 Dead. As we have seen, there is a great depth of symbolism to this most metaphorical monsters. It represents humanity’s darkest fears of society being turned on its head; and capitalism ending to give way to a Darwinian tribalism. There have been so many existential challenges to society this century and it can’t be a coincidence that as problems with our consumer-driven globally interconnected systems have intensified, the number of zombie-related popular culture offerings have amassed like the hordes of undead roaming around cityscapes in post-apocalyptic films. The following graph from Vox shows evidence for just how sharp a rise there have been in zombie films;
It wasn’t just tin-foil hat wearing, gun-toting lunatics that suspected something like a zombie outbreak might be on the cards this century. Staggeringly, back in 2011 the Center for Disease Control and prevention infamously released a publicity generating campaign entitled: Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse. The health organization thought that the only way people would take an interest in something as dry as epidemic prevention measures was to tap into the modern trend of zombies. It was tongue-in-cheek at the time, but now it looks both shocking and exceptionally forward thinking. The campaign was marketing genius; the CDC’s director Ali S Khan said at the time of its release: ‘you might be laughing now, but if a zombie apocalypse happens, you’ll be happy you read this’. CDC literature and guidance has been a manifesto for survival in 2020; this was funny at the time but it is no laughing matter now.
Tyler Durden said in Fight Club that we are the great middle generation of history. We have no great wars to define us – well we have a great war defining us now; some are emerging as great members of society, lots are proving that the concept of society is now a lost notion. It has all changed in 2020 as this pandemic is a generation defining moment. We have an event that can lift us out of the spiritual and psychological crisis that Durden was talking about. Unfortunately though, it has created other spiritual and psychological crisis an inability to endure long and sustained periods of lock-down, a mass epidemic of cabin fever. It’s not a zombie movie of course but we have seen what being trapped inside can do to the mind in films like The Shining – which disturbingly enough is another horror film that becomes a greater point of reference as more and more places head-back in to a total, soul-destroying and morale sapping new lockdown period.
These are unprecedented times; we have not seen a pandemic like this and when we look back in decades to come this moment will be defined in history as one that has created new lines of division, to the point of the kind of tribalism that former civilizations often descend into in zombie movies. In the grand scale of things that could occur in an increasingly unstable world, a lock-down to prevent the spread of a virus is not the worst thing that could happen. After all, previous generations have been sent off to perish in terrible wars.
But, with months of lockdown already endured and a second wave of infections causing another firebreak emergency lock-down, the thought of long and sustained periods inside, often for some people completely alone becomes an ever-more testing prospect.
There has never been a scene in a zombie film in which a character decides that this zombie stuff is all a load of old overblown nonsense, and if there were such a character in a zombie film, they would not last very long. Although the brain-dead have certainly played a huge part in our inability as a society to beat this virus. Ultimately, those who endure the new reality the longest in zombie movies are the ones who continue to survive. After a while in zombie conditions, it is complacency that becomes the biggest killer. Those who stay aware, stay vigilant, endure the frustrations of a more limited life and take the threat the most seriously, are the ones that survive the longest. I hope that you are one of those taking the threat very seriously. Cooperation with others is what gets people through a zombie film. It is clear in the bad, overly long zombie movie that is 2020, the only thing that is going to get us through this crisis is a society fully understanding what it will take to beat this virus, which sadly means keeping apart from one another.
Unfortunately, our ever more polarized society has played a massive part in the inability for us to collectively overcome this pandemic. What should remain a comfort though, is that as long as you stay in your home – you have relative safety from the virus; that often is not the case in zombie movies; as those hiding away in their homes are often the first to be taken out be a zombie coming through a window to snag the unsuspecting. At least we can take a little solace that your home will not be turned into a deathtrap like in real zombie movies. In the bad zombie movie that is 2020, there is no place like home.
Life has a strange way of imitating art and in 2020 that has gotten a whole lot stranger, as the last cinematic genre that most people would want to come true, the zombie movie, has been of extraordinary value in sussing out the unprecedented madness that has been 2020 so far…
The unprecedented events of 2020 have been eerily familiar to fans of horror cinema. In fact, so much of what has happened is so disturbingly similar to plot points in the extreme of cinema, that horror aficionados would be forgiven for thinking that 2020, is not actually a year at all, but some twisted experiment, in which the most outlandishly minded, writers, producers and directors, have gotten together to do some sort of twisted anthology opus in tribute of their collective oeuvres. It is like all these sinister creative minds have manipulated the months of this year, like some old testament god, ruthlessly controlling events, like Ed Harris’ cold helmer does in The Truman Show. It is not a question of whether 2020 is like a horror movie, but which horror movies is it most like? Or how many horror movies exactly are the great directors paying homage to here? Ideas I intend to explore in this three part blog series comparing 2020 to cinema.
The most obvious comparison between 2020 and cinema is Steven Soderberg’s once underappreciated Contagion. If there was an Oscars category of which horror film is 2020 most like, the bookies would have stopped taking bets on Contagion winning. It probably wasn’t even considered a horror movie when it was released in 2012, but it certainly is now. There are many good reasons why it has been shooting back up in the charts – it has brought a second layer of meaning to the term, ‘a virally trending movie’ on streaming platforms for one. It is impossible to watch even the first five minutes of the film now, without being chilled to the bone by just how disturbingly similar 2020 has been to this movie. From the beginning of the film, as people start getting suspiciously high temperatures in parts of Asia, the film makes you break out in a cold sweat. The subtle way that Soderberg directs the camera to focus on the sheer number of objects that the newly infect touch as they stagger about, desperately trying to get home, probably flew under the radar on its release, but now it is impossible not to see the power of those scenes. The film subtly reveals that the real sinister force of a virus, is the invisible trail left on communal objects like handrails in the public space. If you were perplexed at why this Corona virus spread so quickly, one viewing of Contagion will disturbingly eliminate the mystery – plus it will have you running to the bathroom to wash your hands like you had just seen an eighties advertisement for Domestos cleaning products. Hand-shaking is artfully setup as a weapon in this film; you can destroy whole cities, without knowing, just by a friendly introduction.
an eighties style advert for cleaning products
Contagion is so uncannily similar to what has happened, that if you stumbled across it, you would think that you have found a portal to five years in the future, in which Hollywood tries to make sense of all that has happened. However, there is a good reason why the film seems so accurate, Soderberg and the script writer Scott Z Burns did their homework. Sars and Mers, has given us enough evidence for how quickly, and from what sources a virus can emerge. If you have been living in Asia for ten plus years, Contagion already made for potently unsettling viewing, as it has a real sense that this could happen, and the origin is most likely to be somewhere on this continent.
It understands how and why a virus spreads; it understands how globalization could backfire on us as a species if new, hard to detect, viruses emerge. Corona virus is the word that has replaced Brexit as the most uttered now, at least in the UK, but this is not the first Corona virus. It seems that Soderberg had been paying far more attention to the global threat posed by a pandemic, outbreak than Western governments, who have been threating over the short term health of their economies, with all the obsession of Golum with his ring in LOTR, so much so, that they failed to see a future threat to the only thing they deem precious: money.
Contagion gets everything right – it was an un-recognised warning sign, of a pressing 21st century danger. It even has the words social distancing; it even has a character, sleazily played by Jude Law, who represents the distrust in the institutions there to supposedly protect society, and the desire for people to look for answers in alternative, dubious sources on the internet. It even has a suspiciously self-serving high ranking member of the WHO, who, puts his own self-interest ahead of the general population. The last five minutes, after a film of astonishing accuracy to this year, sees the film sign off with a non-human scene, that is so worryingly, and breathtakingly close to the inception of this virus, that you will momentarily forgot Dr. Fauci’s medical, advice and full-on clamp your hands on your face in amazement at how spot-on the film is. You won’t be failing a temperature test after this, as your blood will run cold.
The mid-nineties Dustin Hoffman pandemic blockbuster Outbreak, would also argue it could rival Contagion for predicting this would happen and what’s more that came nearly 25 years before Covid-19. It’s quite audacious and scathing at the system, so might have looked like Hollywood nonsense by the many critics unimpressed by it at the time of it’s 1995 release. How the virus spread in that film; how idiotic the U.S government’s response in the face of the science was, might well have looked like far-fetched nonsense back then, but watching the film now, it doesn’t seem so silly. In fact, it seems like an early alarm signal at how incompetent institutions allegedly there to protect society can be when struggling to contain a pandemic. In 2020, this film seems to almost have a Kubrickian eye for noticing incompetence in power. Like the great master’s Dr Strangelove.
In Outbreak, the disease expert passionately portrayed by Dustin Hoffman, tries valiantly to fight both the virus, and government officials, who have been ignoring the coming threat in order to serve their own agendas. Hoffman’s character is in an increasing state of outrage at just the level of ignorance he has to try and fight. Sound familiar?
The film hits on so many points that have arisen in 2020. In Outbreak, the medical officials realize that a lockdown, at least in one town is necessary, and this is enforced by the military. It highlights the inherent danger in only half-halfheartedly advising on a lockdown. There is one scene in which some small town folk, who don’t really fancy this lockdown ‘nonsense’, try to ride away in a van, only to be met by an armed military helicopter; it was probably throw away action at the time, it looks hilariously satirical in the wake of some public reaction to the lockdown. Peterson suggests that nothing more than the threat of military action is going to get people to obey the curfew rules, it’s a scene that makes a mockery of the insipid advice given by our governments.
The film begins with the following quote
“the single biggest threat to man’s dominance on the planet is the virus“
Joshua Lederberg PH.D
Nineties blockbuster entertainment seems to understand the potential power a virus has for bringing down our systems more than our current governments, who in the early stages of Covid-19, still didn’t comprehend the threat a virus possesses, despite having clear warning signs from SARS, MERS and Ebola.
President Trump even got rid of the pandemic department two years before this happened.
I think German director Wolfgang Peterson, managed to critique the American government policy in a blockbuster from within Hollywood, in the same way that his Dutch peer Paul Verhoeven did in Starship Troopers. Therefore Outbreak, should be given the same acknowledgement for subversion from within that Verhoeven’s film did. It is another essential film to watch in 2020.
There are two lines of science surrounding Covid-19 that are of the utmost importance to understand in 2020, one being that the virus can have an incubation period of up to 10-12 days and that you can be a carrier, without showing symptoms. Sadly, this bit of science seems beyond the comprehension of anyone who has breached the lockdown to take a ‘nice’ day trip to the beach, or in some states of the U.S, actively protested it.
It has also meant that we have been forced to perceive each other, friends, family and certainly people we don’t know, in the same way as the characters do in John Carpenter’s The Thing, in that brilliantly tension filled moment in that film when they are all sitting in a circle and realize the nature of the beast they are up against. Like in the Thing, we are fighting an invisible enemy. The Corona virus has been so impressive at hiding in the human biological system that the creature in The Thing, would probably clap in admiration of how efficient a job this virus has done at being undetected, providing The Thing could keep the form of a creature with hands.
In The Thing, the characters are forced into increasingly stressful states of paranoia, as it is impossible to tell who is a carrier of the Thing and who isn’t. Bizarrely, we are in exactly the same situation as those characters in this chilling film, as you just can’t tell whether the bloke walking down the road, is carrying a monster that could kill you, or if you and he are both in the clear. Human contact in The Thing can unleash a hellish horror, with parallels to the nightmarish scenario you could find yourself in, if you had close contact with a carrier on the virus in 2020. Some people think that Covid-19 is on a par with the flu, when really it is a new virus that hides more surreptitiously and is a more efficient killer of people than the fricking Thing.
Horror cinema in 2020, offers a survival guide to how to cope with and understand what is happening in this strangest and scariest of years. The world and the Universe have always been a far more terrifyingly hostile place to humanity than people like to believe. People who don’t like horror movies, have probably never considered the great worth they have in dealing with the frightening things that could happen in the world.
I personally love horror cinema, not because I am a sadistic gluton for punishment, but because those type of films give you a sense of what terrors could be unleashed on an unsuspecting people. If you are familiar with the threat that one day could come, you are in a better place to know how to act to ensure survival and even cope with the anxiety resulted from traumatic changes in the world. Fear can keep you alive; horror cinema can make you understand fear, or at least the causes of it. Horror films, particularly those dealing with viral outbreaks, often give you a rounded perspective of how the public, institutions and authority react when a sudden threat is unleashed. Often in horror cinema, both the good and the bad are brought out in people’s nature; which is another truth that has been revealed in this corona virus nightmare. Some people act out of purely self interest, some people try to help others in need, it has been as true in real life as it is in the movies. Perhaps that is the ultimate dichotomy of the human condition. We are all characters in a horror movie now – and how we act, on some level determines our chances of our own survival. Horror films give a good idea, of how to act and how not to act in a time of crisis.
Through scenes of social horror, cinema has been warning of the lurking threats that interconnecting travel networks could bring. How many times have you seen a film start with a virus spreading over a map, to illustrate the role aviation industry would play in spreading viruses? Take this chillingly close to the new reality scene from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to illustrate the point. It seems to me that pop-culture had more of a sense of a coming pandemic than politicians.
There are other viral horror films that make for interesting viewing in 2020, they include the period set The Masque of the Red Death and The Devils. Also, both The Road and Children of Men, have an apocalyptic feel that are reminiscent of scenes we have witnessed in this most cursed of years.
In the second part of this series, I will look at which zombie movies have crossover with all that is going on in this most cinematic of years. Thanks for reading, I hope to see you return for part 2 – coming soon…
One of the hardest things about writing a Top 25 Films of the Year list is making the difficult decision of which quality selections are going to be left out. What often perplexes me when people inquire about my annual end of year ‘best of’ tradition, is that people are surprised that there are enough good films out in a year to warrant such an extensive list. The reality is exactly the opposite. The hard part is not getting to 25, but highlighting only 25 films. Anyone keeping a list of the best films of the year,often finds that come November, the list of praise-worthy cinema is ever lengthening.
Ranking the best cinema has to offer is inherently flawed, since you are trying to numerically quantify pieces of art that have affected you in widely differing ways. Still, it is the best method of introducing people to films that may otherwise entirely stay off radar. A film critic has a better chance of enticing people to discover a film when it is on an end of year best of list, than they do as a stand alone review.
With that in mind, films that have stayed with me, and at least deserve an honorary mention are included here:
Birds of Passage. How the drug trade got started in Northern Columbia, offered a poignant and ruminative portrait of how greed tears through communities. It was a great follow-up and companion piece to director’s Ciro Guerra’sEmbrace of the Serpent. Both films were inspired reflections of the legacy of destruction down in South America at the hands of outside influence.
Arctic was a tense and taught survival film with an authentic and sympathetic performance from Denmark’s Mads Mikkelsen.
Other really good films that didn’t make the list include: Destroyer; Climax; Three Identical Strangers; Burning; The King; Booksmart; Brightburn; Wildlife.
Release Date: May Taiwan
10. Free Solo
Imagine scaling America’s highest peaks and only having a few ropes to safeguard you in the event of a fall. Now imagine climbing them without the ropes. This is the point in which you enter into the seemingly deranged sport of free climbing. This eye-opening documentary gripped tighter than a free solo’s fingers to bare faced rock. It’s possibly the only sport in which just one tiny mistake in a whole career would result in certain death. The imagery of a man on a ledge thousands of feet up, with the same safety equipment a young boy might have used to climb trees, i.e. none, was the most jaw-dropping footage it is ever possible to commit to celluloid. It is so extraordinary that the people who provided it are in the film as characters, representing the fear and anguish that everyone except the climber himself seems to have. They are aware of the delicacy of the situation, so they are worried that the intrusion of their cameras may increase chances of a grave mistake. It’s a feeling of apprehension that the audience can relate to far more than the mentality of the subject.
You winced, squirmed and shifted uncomfortably in your seat watching him, in a way you would think would be reserved for only his family members had he used safety equipment. But the sheer terror of knowing that just a slight slip of the fingers would bring about his demise, made Free Solo one of the most tense and nervy films of the year.
The mind boggles about what it takes to have such an unshakable sense of believe in yourself to take on such a death-defying quest. What sort of level of self-confidence in one’s own abilities do you need to possess to be so assured that you will not make even one mistake on a climb of a few thousand feet? The character you meet at the center of Free Solo defies every preconception that you have before watching the film. The conclusion the film made about how its subject had such composure in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, was as surprising as the challenge itself, leaving the audience plenty to reflect on post-credits after one of the most extraordinary documentaries you will ever see. Those who saw Free Solo on the big screen this year, got a taste of what it is to cling to rocks thousands of feet up. Hearts were in mouths and audiences reacted with the same sense of awe as if a miracle had been witnessed, and in a way, the sport in Free Solo, if it isn’t totally mad, is miraculous.
Release Date: January Taiwan/UK
9. Cold War
In his debut Ida, director Pawal Pawlikowski made a fascinating film, shot with moody black and white cinematography about a Polish girl journeying into secrets that change her identity. His second feature has lots of parallels with his debut: sumptuous black and white cinematography, a narrative probing under the surface of period-set Polish life and characters carefully rendered from real life observations. The film is loosely about the relationship he perceived of his parents. The two films have made him a rising name in World Cinema; Cold War crossed over to the West, fueled by across the board critical appraisal, which allowed it to run the gauntlet of awards recognition. Ida and Cold War have lifted his profile and put Polish cinema back on the map.
The striking poster of a couple warmly embracing contrasts the icy depiction of the relationship within. There is more than a hint in the title of how the director has depicted this marriage. The director is not interested in surface sheen, he is interested in capturing the complexity of how their relationship is affected moving from their native Poland, rural an impoverished, to the ritz of the Parisian playboy worlds of lavish parties.
Cinema loves romance, but it has always struggled to capture the multi-layered complexity of relationships, both the bitter and the sweet that develops over years and years of shared experiences. And that is one of the many reasons why Cold War was such a refreshing depiction of a relationship. Set over many decades, it captured how decisions made over a long and shared journey together can strengthen, distort and perhaps even strangle. There is no doubt that the two characters in Cold War love each other enough to endure together as life partners. Their relationship is something of a double edged sword: they enhance each other, have mesmerizing chemistry and a mutually complementary air of sophistication, but their enduring love for each other has a dark side, with a suggestion that their bond is actually also corrosive. Such an unusually complex and deep character dynamic resonated throughout, leading to a finale that was among the boldest endings to a film in cinema in 2019.
Release date: January Taiwan/ UK
8. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse
Another Spider-man origin story seemed about as fun as and as welcomed as being bitten by a poisoned arachnid. Filmmakers Phil Lord and Chris Miller – the hottest property in American animation outside of Pixar – were self-aware of this over-saturation point for Spidey and flipped it on its head, feeding Spider-man into a prism, with a knowing wink and finding that with some twists and distortions to the formula, a colorful stream of Spidey-related ideas streamed out the other side. In this universe, your friendly neighborhood Spider-man could be anyone in the neighborhood: a guy in his thirties; a detective; a girl and most notably a black teenager. It was a genesis of an idea, far-out and wildly adventurous, proving this story could be spun in more ways than one.
Visually, the film resurrected and reshaped a comic book format, abandoned since Ang Lee’s The Hulk, and fused it with a street-art style punk-ish vibrancy. It was an imaginative animated style that really made for an eye-popping spectacle. Filmmakers have always worried too much about distancing their visual form away from the hyper-stylized worlds of comics, so to see Lord and Miller fully taking on this challenge of making a comic book film celebrating comic books, in a fast–paced kinetic style, was really thrilling.
Phil Lord and Miller have a fresh snappy comic style all of their own, and their humour applied to the Spider-Man Universe worked wonders in freshening up well worn material.
You would think that far-out theories of the quantum realm would be too weighty to work in a superhero movie, but it was the connective spark that made this film so outlandishly from a different realm of the imagination.
In the end, there was a sense of inspiring another generation to think creatively about one of America’s most enduring superheroes. Thanks to Into the Spider-verse, you were free to subjectively stylize Spider-Man to whatever you wanted him to be in 2019.
Release date: Taiwan June UK February 2020
The ever growing disparity between the way the affluent and the poor are living is now so wide that it is possible to live in different worlds even when you reside in the same city. All around the world this is happening and at least three films from Asia in 2019 reflected these social issues. Shoplifters, from Japan, was a bittersweet, underplayed drama showing how the poor band together on the fringes of Japanese society to survive and support each other – it scooped last year’s Palme D’or for its beautiful depiction of the galvanizing flip-side of poverty. We also had two films from South Korea which captured a brewing social discontent under the surface of society. Burning gained a simmering tension as the film quietly and subtly commented on the dangers of alienation; and Parasite used the wealth gap for an extraordinary vision of two families, from different classes living massively contrasting lives.
South Korean director Boong Ju Hun has been one of the most prolific directors of the decade. Furthermore, he has done something that only a handful of Asian directors have done, in that he has crossed over from making Eastern films, to Western films and then back again to make films in Asia.
Parasite continues his trend of reflecting socio-political themes in his films, in fascinating and unique ways. His films seem designed to stir up reflection on social issues swept under the carpet in society. In Okja, he reflected on the hidden mechanics of the meat industry and in Snowpiercer he made a film about how the rich and poor are kept in separate spaces. In Parasite, the barrier between the rich and the poor’s lives is lowered in a series of astonishing and shocking plot developments. One family, living in dire conditions, seeking out a living folding pizza boxes, cunningly engineered a way of gaining employment at a rich family’s estate, first in an impressively crafty way, and then in an increasingly more desperate and dubious style. At first, the film played rather lightly, as a black comedy, capturing how the only jobs left in these difficult economic times are those in humble service to the extremely wealthy. There was a catalyst about midway through, a game-changing moment, that was impossible to foresee, which, started a chain reaction of incredibly tense and involving events unfolding, that gripped in an enjoyably agonizing way.
One of the many great things about South Korean cinema is that it is anything but predictable. There are usually tone and mood shifts that come out of the blue, which totally change the dynamics of storytelling. Protagonists are often suddenly treated coldly, as if they are being directed by old testament gods, rather than someone who cares for their plight. It is an entirely different attitude than how mainstream American films treat protagonists, which means the films often have sudden unpredictable moments of cruel drama or that adhere to the narratives of reality rather than fantasy. Parasite was another great example of how enjoyably ruthless South Korean cinema can be.
The stage the film was largely set on was a beautifully designed, airy and spacious house with a garden; contrasting this we saw the dire dwellings of the main characters, who were all huddled together in damp, messy conditions. Both spaces were integral to what happens in the story and both send a message of how these circumstances shape personalities and lives. The poor yearn for what the rich take for granted and the rich amble through life oblivious to the suffering of the underclass. What is nice about the film, is that it makes its point about society without having to demonize the rich. The evil is the disparity between the two families. You have to buy into the rich family as naive but amiable, in order for the story to work. The unawareness of what was happening in front of them, made for a massively suspenseful plot as well as quietly projected its message that the rich do not see the human cost of these changes to society. How this message is done was brilliantly inspired, with almost every scene having a visual poetry to capture its themes of inequality. There was a lovely duality to the film – even the title Parasite could work in connection for how both families are living their lives if you reflect on it. The film was rich in lyrical metaphor about how the poor are almost unknowingly pitted against each other when jobs are scarce in society.
As the poor continue to grow in numbers in big cities around the world, it is interesting how they seem to be ignored to the point of invisibility. How Boog Ju Hu uses this point as the touchstone for a gripping, satirical, dark, blackly comic, twisted screenplay, is ingenious. Parasite followed in the footsteps of Shoplifters as a totally deserved winner of the Palme D’or. See it now before an inevitable – but understandable – Hollywood remake and before it gets deserved Oscar buzz in the foreign language category.
Release Date: Taiwan August UK January
6. Blinded by the Light
Have you ever had a transformative experience when a song lyric just speaks to you at the right moment in your life? The music of Bruce Springsteen reflects the plight of the working class struggle so perceptively that it has provided many people in such circumstances with this kind of epiphany. The twist in this film was that the working class boy is the second generation of a Pakistan family, adapting to life in the kind of small town people may strife to break out of – like a character in one of The Boss’ songs. This isn’t the Badlands of America though, this is Luton in the 1980s; the Thatcher-driven threat of unemployment unsettles in the background and a racial tension could be lurking around the corner – there is darkness on the edge of town. The boy in question (named Javed) felt poetry in his soul and a desire to be a writer; against the will of his father, who wanted him to pick a more lucrative field. He needed a mentor, which he found when a peer of his handed him an album by The Boss.
The way the film visually represented the creative awakening the boy had is done so well by Indian female director Gurinda Chadha. A personal internal moment of connectivity Javed had when he realized Bruce’s lyrics perfectly capture his own plight, prompted a number of magical, infectious sequences. Lyrics were projected onto walls, as a burst of expressive energy was released from a working class hero homing in on his potential.
Music speaks to people who feel isolated in a way that friends, family and peers may not grasp. Blinded by the Light illustrated that connectivity better than anything I’ve seen before.
There is a body of work that captures the struggle of being Asian and trying to find your place in British society. Films such as East is East, Chadha’s own Bend it Like Beckham and even last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody have captured the struggles of trying to reconcile Western-influenced ambitions in an Eastern subculture. Blinded by the Light shines brightly alongside these films at illustrating the young Asian’s internal conflict: How do you adapt, grow and find the individualism required to succeed in the West, whilst still not betraying the values of the culture you hail from? There is a tension in this paradox that creates great drama in Blinded by the Light and the aforementioned films. Globalization has created many opportunities, but it has simply ignored the fact that people from different parts of the world have opposing attitudes to conservatism and liberalism.
We are living through an age where celebrity culture is oversold to us. This film reminded us about what an inspiration artists can provide if their poetry connects to your soul.
If you want to be a writer, or you are someone with a dormant creative inner persona, this was one of the year’s most essential films.
Release date: January Taiwan/ UK
5. The Favourite
Yorgos Lanthimos has been experimenting with weird, irregular, disorientating and strange cinema for a while now ever since his debut The Lobster, but this was the moment that his style clicked to become something quite special. From the outside, the period setting, and lavish costumes made The Favourite look like a traditional royal drama. But Lanthimos, had great fun subverting expectations by taking the oddball monarch of Princess Ann and slotting her into a mesmerizing three way character-driven power struggle between three really textured female characters. The script, the dialogue and the power play between the three leads, was very offbeat, surreal and modern for what looked like a costume drama. The Greek director continued to distort already unconventional storytelling with off-kilter, fully barbed dialogue exchanges, bizarre shots using fish-eye lenses and a wry satirical tone. It’s unconventional in itself to see a film driven by three strongly written, multi-layered female leads. But to take a female character story and plot it with this much edge, this much wry-fascinating, complexity was something that was stand alone unique.
The film fully explored the depth of the premise, with a game behind the throne involving power play and manipulation. The twists and turns and shifted dynamics between Oscar winning Olivia Coleman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz. Any stuffy white male film execs who think three women cannot carry a film should watch The Favourite and see what unpredictable story-telling is possible if one is willing to imagine female characters as something more than objects to be exchanged between male counterparts.
Release date: Taiwan June Uk May
4 . Rocketman
A sequin-suited, towering sparkly demon barges into rehab – a poetic visual metaphor for the soul of Reg Dwight aka Elton John was born! The musical biopic is trending in cinema lately, but Rocketman managed to get under the skin of its subject far more successfully than others in the genre.
Elton John is a colorful character with a checkered life. His considerable flamboyance lends itself to spectacular musical fantasy sequences and boy did Dexter Flectcher conjure some tributes to do justice to the man. The opening set-piece, of Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting, burst away from the responsibility of telling the backstory of Dwight’s youth, and had audiences buzzing with excitement, to such a level that they could barely stay contained in their chairs. Rocketman took off from there. Every subsequent set-piece was peppered with Elton’s shimmering magic.
One of the reasons why Rocketman surged above other films of this ilk, is that it had an original idea at its core, which validated the many colorful flights into fantasy the film took. The idea was not that this was Elton’s life, but that it was Elton recalling his own view of his life, from the crisis point of rehab. The rules were established in the first five minutes, which gave the film creative license to play around with blurring the lines between reality and extravagance.
Stars struggling to contain the fallout from a meteoric rise to fame are a stable of biopic cinema. A descent into a hellish world of drugs and depression has been the fate of many stars, of which Elton John was one of the most prominent. But Rocketman actually provides an explanation for the source of the damage, which movingly works out the Elton John conundrum, whilst offering a rare insight into why so many stars launch a journey into self-destruction.
The way Flectcher dexterously told the story between the struggles of Elton’s working class upbringing and the heady stage show act he escaped into, was beautifully woven. You get a strong sense that if you don’t have an emotionally satisfied inner core, then fame and fortune are just window dressing that do not disguise a tortured soul. Lots of people see the wealth and fame of stars and wonder why they are not happy with everything. Rocketman actually provides a personal explanation. A fantastic performance from Taron Egerton is the vehicle for which the vibrancy of Elton shines through. Elton himself was so pleased with his portrayal, that he actually invited Taron on stage to perform with him. That is probably a higher honour than receiving any award recognition. Rocketman filtered the essence of Elton through a kaleidoscopic fantasy that sparkled and excited whilst also telling the Rocketman’s poignant, personal tale.
Release Date: Taiwan/Uk October
DC comics’ most iconic super villain was transformed into a Scorsese-style anti-hero and transported into a Gotham that resembled the means streets of a gritty seventies film. The result was the year’s most controversial film. Genuinely rattling the establishment before its release, Joker went on to both divide and strike a chord with audiences, who helped make it into the top 10 biggest grossing films of 2019. It was an R-rated firecracker of a movie, which sticks out as a welcomed anomaly in a top ten grossing films of the year that is otherwise totally dominated by Disney.
The detached mania of previous Joker portrayals was replaced by a more tragic sense of personal trauma, with Joaquin Phoenix tapping into the depths of his tortured soul to capture the dangerous vulnerability of the character. The Joker is rarely given a back-story, which gave The Hangover director Todd Philips a unique calling card; the central premise was all about how much personal tragedy a lonely outsider has to endure before his mind snaps.
Turning the Joker, aka Arthur Fleck, into a sad, pathetic, put-upon figure was a risk, and you can see how it sat uncomfortably with some of the DC core fan base. The Joker is the clown prince poster boy for madness, but you never really get a chance to analyze the psychosis behind the mania. That all changed in Todd Philips’ probing depiction. Who knew The Joker could be so sympathetic? At first Phoenix’s portrayal had an innocence and purity: Fleck was a man who genuinely wanted to succeed at being a clown. The ruthlessness of the society he was in meant this spirit got chewed up and distorted, and like a dog that’s been badly treated, he became a threat. There was nothing funny about his plight; the infamous laugh, being turned into a tension lifting, chiming bell, sounding the alarming indicator of hidden pain. The punchline was the pathos. Heather Ledger’s terrorist Joker just wanted to see the world burn, in this, it is the Joker’s soul that was burning. It would seem the character’s colorful madness can stand up to multiple reinterpretations, but few have been as affecting as this one.
Through all this pain and suffering, the character got chewed up by the cold, grinding machinery of society. The film seemed to try and pin-point the mental moment, when a person who has been constantly victimized decides to take a stand.
The Joker was re-imagined as a martyr for the huddled masses who have been neglected and mistreated by society. In doing so, it shone a mirror to show the plight of the marginalized who have been wronged by the rigged games of capitalism in our actual societies. And that is the real reason why it seemed to spook the media. And perhaps is the reason it got so much traction with the public for so long. In this world, the entitled are the real villains, the corporate establishment, which includes – tellingly and cleverly – the Wayne empire, are the real menace to society. Phoenix’s Joker becomes the hand grenade thrown into the the powder-keg of discontent stored under the surface of society. One look at the news today will show you that it is a powder-keg that is under the surface in society for real. There is a simmering discontent in the real world, which Phillips tapped into; that made it the most anarchic film since V for Vendetta; it could be re-dubbed J for Vendetta. Joker transcended its comic book roots to say something powerful about the state of society.
Release Date: Taiwan/UK April
2. Avengers: Endgame
The finale of Infinity War was arguably the biggest cinematic cliffhanger of all time as the fate of half of the iconic franchise-fronting characters was left literally in the air. Fans had an agonizing wait of a year to see whether there was any actual jeopardy in the apparently bold move, or whether it was the biggest demonstration of emotional manipulation in cinema history. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo struck a tone of melancholy and reflection at the start of End Game, that suggested they were willing to commit to the seemingly ruthless storytelling that stunned viewers at the Infinity War climax. Marvel heroes were left adrift, either physically or emotionally, creating a further sense of sadness for the fallen heroes. How End Game opened was actually like the saddest ending you could conceive of to a film, rather than a beginning, being all the more dramatically rich and emotionally textured for it.
Superheroes who usually find a way to save the day, were seen grappling with emotions of helplessness that were far more familiar to us regular folk than superheroes. Marvel confronted a superhero’s darkest nightmare: what sense of despair is unlocked if you can’t save the people of the world or even yourselves? Heroes have never been depicted with such vulnerabilty. The emotional fallout was authentic, and deeply satisfying.
The film created a quite thrilling sense that there would have to be a humdinger of a metaphysical, time bending plot-line, to have any chance of overturning the damage inflicted by Thanos. And boy did they come up with one. The story managed to find a way to incorporate all of the remaining characters, in a complex way, that seemed reasonable, at least in the physics-defying Marvel cinematic Universe. Furthermore, it was a plot-line, all-encompassing enough to revisit 10 years of Marvel films, creating the thrilling impression, that each of those films, had been thought out to lead to this last one – the End Game. That is probably a beautifully constructed illusion, but what it did was reward loyal viewers, who had watched and bought into the mythology of every film. The more you had invested in this ever-sprawling opus of a franchise, the more deeply satisfying End Game was. It was like every film was a separate thread, that the directors had vision to weave into a stunning, intricately stitched tapestry.
The constant expansion of the Marvel cinematic universe to encompass more films and more characters is enticing but creates certain narrative problems: how do you come up with a narrative with enough scope to give everyone something to do? How do you create a villain who is credible to match such an incredible display of power? How do you keep a story that shifts from earth to various parts of space, cohesive? Questions such as these were emphatically answered in End Game, and to a certain extent, Infinity War.
This was the Russos’ crowning achievement: juggling all the various narratives in a fashion that kept the momentum of the storytelling. In Thanos, expertly played by Josh Brolin, the Marvel films have come up with one of the most thought-provoking super-villains of all time. He’s not some egocentric megalomaniac. His mission to give balance to the universe by removing 50% has an internal logic to it, that is outside pure evil and more Darwinian in nature. Really, he’s a man who wanted to use a glove to give nature a helping hand. The glove and infinity stones he sought, perhaps created the impression that he was another villain interested in personal pursuit of power, but his story arc, had a sense of self-sacrifice that was also reflected into the superheroes’ various plot-lines. Where we find him at the start of End Game told us more about his interesting detachment and humility as a character. On a planet such as ours in which rampant population growth goes on unmitigated, without assessment of damage, the points Thanos raised, were lots of fuel for reflection. Following his character and skewed philosophy were fascinating.
Tonally, the film was also expertly done. The spectrum of emotions the film moved through was extraordinarily wide. It’s a film that had to tribute fallen comrades, but at the same time delivered the snappy one-liners and gag-a-plenty script that Joss Whedon long ago established. The ease in which the film moved from heavy to light was impressive: DC, watch and learn!
As it all moved to an inevitable but absolutely epic final battle sequence, there was still so much up in the air. The clashes were spectacular and finally power seemed to be matched on both the good and evil side of things.
Infinity War had thrown a gauntlet down, suggesting that at least some of Marvel’s cinematic franchise would have to meet their end. That sense of peril ran right up into the final battle sequence, which showed the sense of risk was not fake.
As the curtain came down on Endgame, audiences were left rightfully feeling bittersweet. Underpinning that sense was a satisfying feeling, that this insanely epic first opus for Marvel was actual closing. It closed in an emotionally, spiritually, and beautifully conceived manor that contrasted wonderfully the sense of uncertainty at the end of Infinity War. Thanks Marvel.
Release Date: Taiwan March
1. They Shall Not Grow Old
There have of course been many documentaries about the First World War, but few, if any, have gripped the heart, mind, and soul as much as Peter Jackson’s astoundingly stirring They Shall Never Grow Old.
It starts out like any other War documentary; grainy footage and reflections; but, there is a moment in the first third that was the most world-shakingly impactful moment I have ever experienced in a cinema. The moment Jackson, forever a technical pioneer, used the full force of the impressive technological advancements, to take the audience up close and personal to those who sacrificed everything for crown and country during the First World War. In this moment, the grain faded away, the footage remarkably turned to color and the horrifying sounds of war were momentarily drowned out by jaws hitting cinema floors.
Footage nearing a hundred years old has been restored in this film, to such a pristine level of clarity that you would have been forgiven for thinking that it had been shot the day before. It was like the mist we usually look at old footage through completely cleared, leaving us staring into the eyes of people who made the ultimate sacrifice for future generations.
Using technology in this way seemed miraculous – like Jackson’s technology was seeing the seemingly unseeable – imagery that was surely lost to time forever was now crystal clear. With the haze removed, we could see and feel, in a way we could not before, that the soldiers were just young lads, in jovial spirit, not fully mentally equipped for the horrors that were about to be unleashed on them. In this moment, Jackson’s technique allowed us to be transported back to the beginnings of a war that would shape the century; we could step in muddy trenches, and almost walk through the torments in their boots. 3D cinema tries to be this immersive and fails. The emotional impact of this new technical approach to the old was immeasurably powerful.
Children born in the latter part of the 20th Century in the UK are told stories by their grandfathers of the Second World War, who in turn pass on stories that their fathers told them about the First World War. There is always a grave tone underpinning these stories, with a message about how close the UK came to succumbing to invasion.
We are told to value our freedom because of the sacrifices previous generations made. ‘We shall never forget’ is a message the young must learn. They Shall Not Grow Old personalizes this in a profoundly moving way. Jackson has managed to retrieve an extraordinary amount of footage of life in the trenches – it was so vividly delivered that you felt you could smell the stench of mud and gunpowder permeating the air. It was gritty and hard-hitting, giving a fully formed picture of what day to day life was like in the trenches, never fully knowing whether you were about to have you last day on earth.
Old men, who have gone through tough times as younger men are the best storytellers. Jackson paired the hard-hitting footage, with many old, well-restored sound recordings of elderly men reflecting on a youth shaped by combat in the First World War. It has been over a hundred years since the war, so these men have also long since passed – it’s like hearing ghosts recall tragic times of life on earth. The sound editor must have gone to extraordinary lengths to pair the right story with suitable imagery, to give the film its full, vivid impact. Each voice acts like a sonar system, filling in the blanks in the picture of the war in your mind’s eye. All those first hand testaments, combined with heart-stirring imagery created an effect that felt like finding a time machine to a First World War battlefield. Anyone who saw this in the cinema, was shook up to their very core; feeling the horror of war in a way that was not possible before. Hearing the firestorm of explosions and machine gun fire, haunted the spirit to all those who experienced it.
They Shall Not Grow Old was harrowing enough to ensure that the message of ‘we shall never forget’ will be forever printed in the minds of anyone who saw this profound piece of cinema.
Once upon a time, the tent-pole franchise movies used to be erected by the studios, during the summer months, in time for the arrival of the blockbuster circus. Nineteen years into the modern century, big franchise releases, usually in the form of sequels to established brands, come thick and fast for all 12 months of the year. With tent-pole movies obscuring the horizon all year long, it can be harder to find the smaller, more story, or character driven cinema, or to even know they are there. But they are there.
Despite the threats to the industry from studio brands, quality cinema is still being made all year long. For all the domination of superhero vehicles and action films, there is still wonderful cinema being made each month of the year. If you dig deep on the scheduling and do some research, you can plot a course into cinema,that peers past the tent-pole films, into a world of narrative, character and connectivity with real issues.
There is nothing wrong with watching the big studio releases, indeed some of them have made my best of the year list, but what is worrying is that the sheer dominance of sequels has changed audiences’ appetites. There was always a feeling that mainstream audiences crave the familiarity but that has intensified in recent years. People seem far less inclined to seek out something original than they used to be and would rather watch returning themes, regardless of whether there is story variation or not. Statistics back this up. This has led to a perception shift in cinema, with even film fans starting to feel that the silver screen is a place of action-driven escapism only.
But there is still nothing like the feeling of being out there in the dark, and connecting to a well-written character, or taken on a new journey or feeling a film resonate in a profound way. If more film fans could convince audiences that the smaller, less action heavy cinema also have merit, we could restore a balanced diet of cinema and prevent people exclusively gorging on purely commercial offerings.
The studios know that audiences right now are craving more of the same, and they will continue to finance a fourth or fifth installment of a franchise than an original idea. That is a shame, and at some point, audiences might understand they they are being fed more of the same and demand a more nourishing cinematic offering. For the time being though, things seem unlikely to change.
If you are one of the people who feels there is nothing new or good out there, then do a little research, each week, and you will be rewarded. Coming to my blog is a step in the right direction and at the very least I hope you leave here discovering a film or two that you missed during the year. Here is a list of films that will stay with me after the dust settles on 2019. The list is a mixture of UK and Taiwan release dates.
(released July UK/ Taiwan)
25. Once upon a time in Hollywood
The Charles Manson murders have haunted the Hollywood psyche for decades, since they represent a moment in which people in the L.A. film industry realized that their fame could also make them targets. When Tarantino announced that his ninth film was going to delve into the Manson murders, it unsettled a lot of people, who worried that Tarantino’s love of violence was what attracted him to the story. Perhaps it was, but the Pulp Fiction director, was obviously aware at how people would consider him to approach the material – it is safe to say that he totally subverted expectations with this love letter to a lost age of Hollywood.
Tarantino is sometimes mis-characterized as the poster boy for a more violent style of filmmaking. He loves violence, but he loves suspense, character development and tension-building just as much. All traits that are often absent from mainstream cinema, but were on display in this film. You either took to its slow-burn, meandering style, and adjusted to the company of his lovingly crafted characters, or you took against it and lost patience with how long it took to get to its point. Two-and-a-half-hours to be precise. Sure, there was no doubt that many scenes had the hallmark of a typically Tarantino level of indulgence, but few filmmakers love the craft of cinema as much as he does, and his passion for his project shone through every scene. The director even went as far as tracking down actual broadcasting clips of the now defunct L.A. radio station KHJ, to give it an authentically easy, breezy, sun-kissed sixties mood. The clever and canny script played off both what audiences know about him as a filmmaker and what people know of the infamy of the Manson Murders.
Scenes would not have had to be as long and drawn out, if this was, say his second film. He is aware that people were bracing themselves for shocking ultra-violence in his films, so he played that expectation to his advantage, by allowing scenes to drift, often without ending with the blows and blood baths expected. To Tarantino, violence is like punctuation, breaking up a style of film making prose that loves to make poetic tributes to classic cinema. In Once upon a time in Hollywood, the sentences had never been longer – some people though, needed more punctuation.
What he gained from a more languid approach, was a sense of spending time with some players in Hollywood who are aware of how short lived their time will be there.These characters seemed real as they were letting their guard down – letting us into a secret world of insecurity and vulnerability. It gave the film a thrilling sense of intimacy, that is if you are interested in how Hollywood works behind the scenes. No modern pr puff pieces here – this was characters letting you see into their inner torment. Whether it was Di Caprio’s character, unsettled by an awareness that his star was diminishing; or Pitt’s stuntman – further along the road to accepting he is heading out of the industry; or Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate – basking in the light of a screening of one of her films, seizing a moment of pride that the audience knows will be short-lived for her. The goodwill didn’t extend to Bruce Lee however, whose portrayal was a shocking, disrespectful caricature. Thanks to Tarantino a new generation are going to think that one of Asia’s most interesting screen presences, was a whiny weakling.
There were definitely things that were misjudged, which is why this isn’t further up the list.
Still, if you liked the characters, the repartee of understanding between Pitt and Di Caprio, the affectionate portrayal, and the mood of nostalgia, then Once upon a Time in Hollywood connected; if you came expecting a snappy, more action-driven film, then you were no doubt left bewildered.
After all, it felt like the whole film was one big set-up up to a crafty, cheeky wry play on a notorious chapter in film history, to soothe Hollywood’s damaged psyche.
released July (UK/Taiwan)
Anyone who takes on the tropes of pagan horror movies risks standing in the ominous shadow of The Wickerman. Ari Aster boldly went back into this territory, slowly walking down a path through weird sexualized cultish oddness. Horror afficionadoes, knew where it was all going, but for a new generation, the unconventional horror style of Ari Aster really terrified people.
In his last film Hereditary, Ari Aster, really managed to upset people. He is very good at luring you in with the prospect of a thrilling horror film, only to greet his audience with a gut-churning sense of trauma, that really wires you up to the central character’s fragile emotional state of mind. When such a character is then taken into an environment in which, strange insidious threats rest under the surface, audiences really get to feel a potent sense of unease. Both of his films thus far have done this in an emotionally nerve-shredding way. His films take a vice-like grip of your soul, your psyche and your heart.
Florence Pugh conveyed the pain of her character in a poignantly affecting manner. Her wailing of emotional agony at the start of the film got main-wired into your veins. You just wanted to wrap your arms around her at the start of the film, unfortunately, her boyfriend, uncertain of an emotional commitment, was not so sure. Yet, he did anyway. The weakness in their relationship was pivotal to the heightened sense of tension in the horror and drama. Midsommar worked even better as an example of a relationship crumbling under emotional strain than it did as a horror movie. You will have to dig very deep into the past of cinema to find an example of such a well-observed unraveling of a relationship.
The setting, a Swedish rural village, merrily celebrating a summer solstice, on the surface seemed an unlikely place for horror. Those privy to the potential for subversion that these tropes hold, were perhaps less surprised when the reveals of hidden danger came. The sign posts were clear to see: here sunlight was sinister; fertility posed a threat and the cycle of life and nature created a sense of foreboding.
Fans of modern jump scare horror did not know what was happening to them. Astra likes to suspensefully build an underlying threat for maximum impact. Some of the best scenes, in which the horror really twisted the knife, launched debates about cross-culture clashes towards life and death and how these things are not universally perceived.
For all the heavy emotional blows the film landed, it had a comedic lightness of touch generated from the culture clash scenarios of foreign travelers meeting strange customs. The wry humour was perceptive for anyone living in fear of upsetting someone in a foreign land.
To get maximum impact from Midsommar, you would have had to have been a guileless sacrificial lamb with no knowledge of cinema history. That said, even for those who suspected what was coming, it was a head-trip of a horror film, that unsettled the nerves and played with the senses. Like The Wickerman, it was nerve-searing enough to set your soul on fire.
(release date: January Taiwan/March UK)
A strange border security guard at a docks has an uncanny knack for sniffing out characters who are up to no good in Sweden. This is the starting point for the most beguilingly weird film of the year. There is a lot of strange mystical mythology hailing from the past of Scandinavia that has been explored in film before. However, this film hid a lot of its strange fantasy behind a surface of domestic modernity, which made it all the more enthralling when the audience started to get a hint at the unconventional fairy-tale that is being told underneath. The film began to reveal a series of jaw-dropping twists, which both subverted its far out folklore, as well as grounding the film in an oddly believable logic.
Underneath all the many layers of art-house irregularity- was a story about how the emotional border in the modern world is loneliness gained from a feeling there is no one in this world an isolated individual can connect to. Border went through a metamorphosis as the film took you deeper into the secret world of its central characters – each secret shocked and fascinated. In the surprisingly packed screening I was in for this, there were a series of audible gasps as the surprises were unveiled.
The very original retelling of its folklore served as a clever metaphor for the nature of identity in the modern world. There is a need for people to wear a mask and hide who they really are to fit into accepted social norms. This film playfully took on that idea, and ran away into a fantasy land with it. It had an organic magic to it that both charmed and unnerved. Border was absolutely worth its Oscar nomination for best foreign film. Some of the techniques used in the film were totally trailblazing. It is worth googling the actors who played the two central leads, as the transformation into the roles they play in Border were absolutely phenomenal enough to earn the film a best hair and make-up nomination at the Oscars.
Following on from The Square last year, and Aniara this year, Border shows how Swedish cinema is going through a fertile period of creativity.
release date: Taiwan December/ UK October
22. The Peanut Butter Falcon
A young man with Down syndrome, broke out of his nursing home captivity, and headed out on the road in pursuit of his dreams to be a wrestler – this simple premise provided the basis for one of the feel good films of the year. The strength of will the film summoned in the audience to wish this character to success was an unrivaled force in cinema this year. Cinema often doesn’t feel inclined to make mentally disabled characters protagonists; unless portrayed by actors on the hunt for awards, so Zack was something of a renegade, challenging outside notions of how people perceive him. His ambition had a symbolic significance, he seemed to be carrying an Olympic-style torch for any person who has been told their disability should curb their ambition.
The film had an organic feel and an easy, breezy free-wheeling charm. The tone was the bittersweet comedy of Alexander Payne meets the natural adventures of Mark Twain. In fact, one of the characters seems to openly acknowledge they are on a Huck Finn style adventure, as sweeping cinematography through the heartland of the American landscape further makes the comparison.
A never more likable Shia La Beouf seems to be continuing his reinvention in indie movies; this is the second film – after American Honey – that sees him portray a salt of the earth outsider. He channels Jack Nicholson’s Randle McMurphy from One flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as a rogue outsider who champions the cause of a guy whose condition has him institutionalized, but whose spirit is wild and free. The chemistry he has with Zak, is smile-inducingly charming throughout; their buddy/mentor dynamic infused the film with real heart. Zack Gottsagen was a force of nature; on his debut, he had perfect comedy timing and charisma that lit up the screen. In the film, his character is inspired by a character called The Salt Water Crocodile (Thomas Haden Church), who he idolizes, and is inspired by. In a film that is all about following through on inspiration, Gottasagen will surely inspire other aspiring young disabled actors who see this film to pursue their own dreams. In these dark times, we need life-affirming indie gems like The Peanut Butter Falcon to confirm there is hope for humanity yet.
TS4 release date: June Taiwan/UK Lego Movie2: February -Taiwan/Uk
21. Toy Story 4/ Lego Movie 2
These animated sequels both proved that there was plenty of life in the various secret life of toys premises. A fourth Toy Story posed the bigger risk, since, where Andy signed off from his beloved toys in the third film, was the most beautiful finale to arguably the most perfect trilogy of all time.
Woody and his gang found themselves massively out of their comfort zone in a fourth outing, encountering all new manner of threats and life lessons, when being a long way from the comfort of Andy’s home. The characters in the Toy Story franchise have had more character development than most live action counterparts; in this peril aplenty adventure, the characters, particularly Woody, were given even greater challenges of selfless sacrifice than before. Woody had to accept and respond to being further down the line for a child’s affection, than a hilarious, suicidal piece of ‘trash’ sentient spoon. The new characters freshened up the formula, and deepened the sense of foreboding that has always underpinned the colorful story telling in the Toy Story films. Toy Story has always managed to shift gears between light and dark in deeply involving ways and this one found some new ground to keep audiences enthralled and entertained. The highlight was the vintage toy shop, in which the tone darkened, and Woody got to see an even deeper level of horror that can besiege the heart of a neglected toy.
There seemed to be a narrative shift from the other films, with the toys far more comfortable being away from their owner, strengthening their resolve of being out in a wild world, totally unforgiving to sentient plastic. These toys know how to deal with real world threats now, but it is always exciting to see the spirit of adventure that being in the real world unlocks for our favourite gang of toys. They were less concerned with being played with and more concerned with actually living. That sense of independence, seemed to acknowledge that the children who were all enthralled by this franchise when it launched Pixar in the mid-nineties, are all grown up now, mentally stronger and no doubt have children of their own. Having an animated series cover nearly thirty years, and a few generations is very unique – it brings a whole different level of meaning to family film, and with story telling as funny, dramatic and as lively as this, kids of all ages will be happy to see the gang return for a fifth film.
Lego Movie 2 kicked off with an amusing, pastiche of apocalyptic movie tropes, showing that Phil Lord and Chris Miller still new how to put an inventive, satirical new spin on, what could have easily been a soulless toy promo had they not stayed with the project.
The two Lego movies have both captured a sense of just why the little bricks and yellow figures have have such longevity with generations of children. They also have demonstrated that the company really understands which buttons their product presses to launch a child’s imagination. The way the visual sequences, were used to enter into not one, but two children’s minds was ridiculously inventive. If anyone stopped to reflect on just how nimbly the story weaved between the two separate imagined worlds of rival siblings they would see that the story-telling in Lego Movie 2 was actually quite ingenious. The two directors proved that they are an exciting box of tricks both visually and with story-telling. They directed this with a sense of verve and snappiness that made it up there with the most entertaining films of the year. Why on earth they were fired from The Han Solo film, when they have a tone so fresh and exciting is such a mystery. They are the only directors this year (or any other year- bar Steven Speilberg) who are capable of making two films fresh enough to make the best of the year lists. They had another animated feature out this year that was even more inspired than Lego Movie 2, which is really saying something about how talented they are.
release date: UK May
20. High Life
If cinema has taught us anything about deep space travel, it is that it takes a heavy toll on the mind, body and soul. This year there have been two excellent films that captured the corrosive effect of deep space inertia, and neither of these films were Ad Astra. Clare Denis’ atmospheric, uneasy and contemplative film, had a haunting mood, which seeped into the brain. The premise had something of the underrated Alien 3 about it, in that it explored the idea of a system of incarceration in space. The story, about a fertility experiment on convicts in deep space, was fresh, though-provoking, and set up a lot of potential for interesting development, which the French female director fully explored.
It is quite easy to make judgments about prisoners serving a space sentence. Does the punishment of indefinite space travel match their crimes on earth? Clare Denis direction, carefully moved from telling their backstory on earth, the past in space, and the present/future. Piecing together what happened to the crew on board, was part of the intrigue; the more we saw, the more Robert Pattinson’s character grew. Scenes inflected with an air of doom, decay and melancholy, were juxtaposed with other scenes with a sense of hope as new life was encountered.
There were influences in style and mood, Tarkovsky’s Solaris, and Silent Running being both major touchstones, but it had a darkly soulful mood all of its own and a simmering tension that forced audiences to contemplate the disquieting inner turmoil of drifting endlessly and aimlessly in deep space.
release date: April UK
19. Eighth Grade
A quick glance at the worrying rising anxiety figures among young people, is an indication that the kids are not alright. The social pressures that come with the difficult high school years, in which your adult identity is beginning to form, are evidently being intensified by the over use of technology and social media.
With that in mind, the young, troubled acutely vulnerable teenager at the heart of this quietly powerful film, used technology, as a surprisingly, cathartic vessel to channel her inner turbulence.
Kayla Day (a beautifully fragile turn from Elsie Fisher), uses her own YouTube channel, to verbalize her inner angst and confusion, at her inner changes, and the perpetual veil of awkwardness she appears to be cloaked in, when she is around, her peers, friends and even her dad. Her entries are remarkably insightful and made all the more intimate and therefore, personal, by not going viral.
The film was extraordinarily perceptive at understanding the teenage syndrome; if you are a troubled teenager and you stumbled across Eighth Grade, it would have no doubt powerfully connected to your inner, hidden mindset. If you were a parent of such a child, it would have given you plenty to ponder over and a more tactful way to interact with your child. And if you have been a troubled, closed off teen in say, the last twenty years, it would have given you this thrilling feeling of a film articulating perfectly, the unique troubles of what goes on in a young person’s critical stage of development. It is not easy, being a teenager, we all know it, but that is difficult to put it into words, especially when you are going through that physical and mental change of not being a child anymore, but also not having the life experience to know what exactly being an adult is. Bo Burnham’s film massively shed light on the mysteries of a teenage mind.
There have been lots of films that rightfully delve into the 21st century horrors that the explosion in new technology have released. There have been far fewer that reflect, a new mode of expression they represent.
The film shows how social media platforms have offered young people, a way to vent inner feelings. There is a sense to the film that this stuff can be to teenagers, what confession can be to Catholics: a means of expression that unlocks, potentially destructive inner emotions – talking about what is inside is is often the hardest thing to do. Seeing YouTube used as a means of therapy, is something that was very thought-provoking. If you’ve got a troubled teen in your life, get them a copy of Eighth Grade. It was essential viewing in 2019 – and perfectly captures the way cinema can form a spiritual, intimate connection with viewers, yearning to see a depiction of life-experience that in some way reflects their own.
release date: June UK
There is a school of thought led by Elon Musk and other thinkers that colonizing Mars is the only way to safeguard the future of humanity. Musk and co, must have had their interest piqued by this progressive Swedish sci-fi film, as this is one of the first films to try to envisage what a mass-migratory journey to Mars may look like and what sort of vessel a country would need to keep travellers on a multi-year journey content.
Aniara took as its starting point an ever worsening climate change crisis: we glimpse a world of unbearable temperatures visible as scarring on some of the passengers of the Aniara spacecraft.
A potentially smooth journey takes a turn for the worse, when a technical malfunction knocks the colossal craft off course. The film then became about the mental, physical and spiritual effect that has on an individual and a travelling civilisation.
The film raised some fascinating questions about the relationship between humanity and this planet and then answered them in startling ways. How long can people last without a real connection to nature? What effect does being estranged from the earth have on the spirit? Can we really exist without Planet Earth? These are the kind of philosophical, existential questions the film journeys into.
There was a sense of slow burn dread and claustrophobia building up as their journey continued indefinitely. A vital piece of A.I. at the heart of the film gave the characters sanctum, allowing those on board a soul-replenishing immersive vision of the natural world they are physically removed from. This later became a clever plot devise, which intensified the drama and grew a sense of tension between the characters.
The film was like a far more nightmarish version of Wall-E. Swedish cinema can often be unerringly bleak and dark – Aniara adheres to the tone of Swedish cinema. Such a tone applied to a range of characters stuck together on a spaceship aimlessly drifting through space, heightens tensions and builds a sense of disquiet. By the time the film takes a turn into space-induced madness, you already feel like a passenger on board the Aniara for real. It has a startling and dispairing mood that really uneases. Afterwards, you may want to skip barefoot through a forest and be thankful that the Earth isn’t quite in the state it in this bold and sobering Swedish sci-fi. A space film that makes you grateful for the Earth is timely heading into an increasingly uncertain future for the planet.
release date October (Netflix) Taiwan/UK
17. The Irishman
One of Martin Scorsese’s chief desires as a filmmaker is to tell all the Mafia stories that Francis Ford Coppola didn’t cover with The Godfather series. Accusations that his main vessels for portraying mafioso figures Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci were now too old to play imposing crime characters, were somewhat overcome by state of the art technology, that allowed them to subtly de-age before our very eyes. With Al Pacino joining the band, the promise of a new super-group to tell an organized crime story previously unseen was a tantalizing prospect. Netflix thought so – backing Scorsese to the tune of 175 million dollars – a sum of money that would probably fill Mafia bosses with a sense of pride.
The argument should not be whether The Irishman is up there with the first two Godfather films or Goodfellas and Casino, but to see them all as puzzle pieces that overlap and intertwine with each other, to give the audiences an even more vivid sense of how the Mob got its power on the flipside of American Capitalism.
If the historical truth in The Irishman can be contested – it is based on I paint houses, Frank Sheeran’s highly controversial memoir – surely the emotional truth cannot. This is the Citizen Kane of gangster movies in that in had a deep sense of longing and regret about how the past has led the central character to his lonely melancholic, isolated position.
Underneath it all there was a sense of confusion as to whom exactly gained anything from all the cold-hearted ruthless mafia decision making. There was an observation that one decision leads to another, setting in motion a machine that no one figure is fully running; As Pesci’s top don reflected, ‘it is what it is’. And What The Irishman was, was an impeccably observed painstakingly detailed account of five decades of tough decision-making and the knock on effect this has in the inner workings of the Mafia. It’s a legacy of regret that focuses, not on the glory and power, but on the physical and emotional destruction. In short, it was the movie that Scorsese needed to make and only he could do this with such personal understanding to otherwise unknowable mob members.
full review here
Release Date: January Taiwan UK
16.Stan and Ollie
Stars who burned bright in the golden age of Hollywood often found that the backdoor out of Tinseltown led to the modest British theater circuit. It may not have been so glamourous as what they had before but it gave them a chance to keep the money coming in and perhaps even connect with some of the people who made them stars in the first place. This happened to many a Hollywood star, and this bittersweet biopic explored what happened when the tragi-comic iconic pairing of Laurel and Hardy saw their lives begin to look tragi-comic for real. It’s at first quite eye opening to see a comedy pairing, whose slapstick antics still endure today, falling on harder times. But the film begins to build a quietly poignant character study into the pairs’ multi-faceted relationship, and how some bad decisions at the height of their fame led to a fracturing of the relationship behind the scenes.
One of the things the film did really well was to show how the on screen personas vastly contrasted with their real life personalities. If anything, it was closer to a total flip, with Laurel, the clueless fall guy on screen, being the brains of the operation behind the scenes and Hardy being the bumbling unaware character, whose actions keep landing them both in another fine mess.
There was a naturalistic tone that seemed to give the film a degree of truth. It seemed less concerned with turning out the usual biopic tropes and much more eager to show that the onscreen tension between these two peculiar men, started to manifest in their relationship for real.
The casting choices of John C. Reilly as Oliver Hardy and Steve Coogan for Stan Laurel seemed both a wise and risky choice. On the one hand both are adept at blurring the lines between comedy and tragedy, but on the other hand, they are so recognisable in the roles that they play that you may thing it would be hard for them to morph into characters as iconic as Laurel and Hardy. To both actors’ credit, they filled the big shoes convincingly. Their voices, mannerisms and emotional observations were so impeccably observed that it was pretty early doors that you stop seeing Reilly and Coogan and start seeing Laurel and Hardy. They had comic chemistry and rapport, but they also have the ability to be spiky and acerbic. There was an undercurrent of resentment that they have toward one another; they are practically the embodiment of can’t live with him, can’t live without him, which could also be said of their on-screen personas, in one of the many life-imitating art styles of poetry the film reflects on.
release date, RO: November Taiwan/UK RON: October Taiwan/ UK
15. Knives Out / Ready or Not
There were two films in 2019 that took us to strange, secluded, opulent country mansions, to take swipes at the increasingly ruthless sense of entitlement and detachment of the ultra rich.
The first, a cleverly satirical horror comedy, Ready or Not, saw a sassy newly-wed bride, encounter a range of cold-hearted in-laws with a penchant for some dangerous games. It was an unexpected delight, managing to do a cinematic juggling act of keeping the horror tense, the comedy laugh-out-loud funny, and the satire razor-sharp.
The derision of the ultra wealthy continued in Knives Out, which re-tooled the tropes of an Agatha Christie housebound Who done it?, until it was an entirely more lively post-modern cinematic puzzle.
Director Rian Johnson, is a cinematic tinkerman; who loves to take genre conventions and entirely re-jig them into something new. He did it with film-noir in Brick; with time travel in Looper and, (Luke Skywalker infatuates look away now), he even managed to reinvent Stars Wars, in The Last Jedi.
Cliches in murder mysteries are so well-worn that you don’t have to be a super revered crime detective to sniff them out. How could Johnson possibly find new ground in a genre so well covered? With guile and cunning, he managed to present everything you think you know about the ‘Who done it?’ And before you could say, ‘give us a Cluedo Rian’, he had nimbly refashioned all the cliches into something that seemed exciting, tense, involving and new.
Come the middle of the film, that smug sense of knowing how this story goes dissipated, to be replaced by a thrilling new sense of uncertainty; as audiences everywhere, threw away their pre-conceptions and went along for one of the most entertaining cinematic rides of the year.
The master plan of Johnson’s self-penned screenplay, contained so much twisty narrative chicanery, each further left-field turn or double back maneuver, deepened the sense of intrigue. This was a crime mystery that was far from elementary.
The ingenuity of the film extended further than just the plot mechanisms too; the film tapped into the ever-divided socio-political mood of America. Underpinning the complex plot, was a bubbling political tension, as certain characters, unknowingly reflected the emboldened right-wing attitudes that have infiltrated society in the last ten years. Some of the dialogue actually seemed to be a middle finger up to Trump and offered a mirror of reflection to all who support his anti-immigrant rhetoric. The comedy in Knives Out subtly pierced the casual racism hidden in pockets of America; in the firing line here, was the affluent – the film often rivaled Get Out for observational smarts.
How the plot and the social commentary, cleverly merged to deliver – a gobsmacking final reveal, with a wonderfully satisfying, strangely hopeful message – was one of the cinematic conjuring acts of the year. Few casts have been as eclectic as this and few casts have probably had as much fun transforming their archetypes as the Knives Out ensemble; Jamie Lee Curtis; Michael Shannon, Toni Colette and Chris Evans, were all great, particularly Evans, playing against his clean-cut Captain America reputation as a smarmy trust-fund kid. Special mention must go to the usually dead-pan Daniel Craig, who had a lot of fun creating an outlandish southern detective, Benoir Blanc with an eccentricity level to rival Holmes or Poirot. Knives out was razor-sharp, outlandish cutting edge fun – an absolute hoot!
release date: November Taiwan/ Uk
14. Marriage Story
There are so many films dedicated to blossoming love, but far fewer dedicated to what happens when love breaks down and the shark-like divorce lawyers begin to circle. In Marriage Story, director Noah Baumbauch, an actor’s director, who favours a naturalistic tone, captured the heart-wrenching tragedy when a formally strong relationship begins to be dismantled piece by piece Baumbauch is no stranger to this territory since he took a probing look at how divorce affects the children caught in the middle in the stirring The Squid and the Whale.Marriage Story was somewhat of a companion piece to his previous divorce-based film. It took a detailed, balanced, and objective look at how emotionally tumultuous going through a divorce is, particularly when there is a child to consider – but this time it examined the strain put on the adults when agreeing terms to see their children.
One may expect such a portrait to be driven by characters brewing a hatred for one another. What was beautifully surprising about Marriage Story was how much love and respect can remain between two people whose lives and hearts were formerly deeply connected.
The film wrong foots its audience expecting something acrimonious from the start, as both Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson’s characters affectionately capture why the two fell in love in the first place. It was a film about divorce with one of the most genuinely romantic scenes of the year as a starting point. What this did was make you root for both characters and what they had built together.
These love letters to each other, serve as something of an anchor as the film begins to steer us into increasingly unsettling emotional waters.
Unlike the divorce lawyers, Baumbauch wasn’t interested in making his audience pick a side. The film quietly observed, the tension that was put on both characters as they begin to go through the physical process of starting lives without each other, and the long, agonizing process of letting go of someone who was formerly your entire world. The performances from Driver and Johansson were so realistic, and emotionally committed that you entirely bought their history as a couple and their complex emotional perspectives on themselves and each other. You feel the full force of every painful blow that lands as both are so finely tuned to their characters and the intricacies of their relationship.
Baumbauch deconstructed the long, slow-burn process of a divorce in forensic detail. The film was wonderfully well-rounded and comprehensive in covering this painful subject. At the start of their separation, the couple vow to find a way to part amicably; we saw the two talking through the aftermath of their relationship with a maturity, respect and a desire to minimize the effect on each other and process the emotional fallout. There was a suggestion that as soon as you put this through the divorce system, it becomes a much crueler game; There was a much more clinical coldness to the film, whenever the divorce lawyers turned up; strangely though, the divorce process also provided some of the film’s more dry-witted scenes with both Ray Liotta and Laura Dern in fine supporting turns, as lawyers playing the angles for their clients advantages in uncomfortably subjective ways. They are both looking for ways to strategize their history, using mistakes each have made as weapons against the other. The film captures the stark tragedy of dying love in an honest and bittersweet, involvingly organic style. If you are going through a divorce, or have had a divorce, Baumbauch feels your pain.
Release date: Taiwan May February UK
13. The Kindergarten Teacher
In this fast paced modern world, fewer people have the time, or the inclination to search inwards in the hope of finding a creative or artistic depth. They leave that for the retired or unemployed. But what if you do search inward for a deeper pool of creativity and find that the well of inspiration is rather dry? Maggie Gyllenhaal’s kindergarten teacher was such a character. She yearned to express a poetic side, but her endeavours were deemed hackneyed by her Latin poetry teacher (Gael Bernal Garcia). She seemed to discover a life-vein of poetic inspiration from one of her kindergarten students, as he inexplicably and randomly seemed to reflect on the world in profoundly expressive way. Or was she over reading him, projecting her own artistic desires onto the random murmurings of a kid in his own world?
As you can imagine, such a premise aimed for a sense of ambivalence between the two perceptions. Was she over-reaching, or had she discovered a prodigy? It kept that sense of balance throughout the film, in a tantalizing, intriguing and entirely unique style.
We saw the story unfold completely from the perspective of the Gyllenhaal character, and her desire to first produce and then nurture poetic talent was rather noble in these overly commercial times. We understood her intentions towards her subject were pure and non-exploitative. The world has changed though, protection of children is understandably heightened, so any extra-curricular interest in a child could be deemed questionable nowadays. Her increasing obsession with her subject was itself, quite difficult to express. The tension built up between an audience, who understood her motivations and the surrounding characters, who were less aware of what desires she was trying to fulfill.
The film was a clever study of the mercurial nature of inspiration; and the corrosive effect of obsession. You were never quite certain one way or the other whether she was right to champion the boy’s cause. There was an element of a beauty pageant mom about her, as she pushed her student into uncomfortable poetry readings in front of inebriated adults. She was clearly looking for a vessel to express her unfilled potential – which was unhealthy. But there was just something about the boy’s poems that made you think she had a point. The film moved subtly between endorsing her quest and her potentially overstepping the line, but in doing so captured the ebb and flow between a healthy interest and a destructive obsession – it is not always a clearly defined line.
That is where the film got its oddly unsettling mood from. Gyllenhaal was outstanding, appearing meditative and reflective, a character looking for a creative spark to alleviate the monotony of daily life. She had a melancholy due to spiritual anguish that made her sympathetic. She telegraphed what she was feeling internally, and we were on her side. Why she had a deeper desire to connect with someone on a creative level, was put across very well by filmmaker Sara Colangelo. The film was about a flash of creativity and unlike its protagonist, it absolutely found it.
Release date: February Taiwan/UK
12. Fighting With My Family
Bartin Fink was once dismissive of doing a wrestling picture, inferring that they are silly and dumb. Perhaps that is true of the sport, but as a film subject there have been some good ones in the modern era. The Wrestler was good enough to land Mickey Rourke an Oscar nomination and this year, The Peanut Butter Falcon and Fighting With My Family showed again, that wrestling scenes make great cinema. This true-life story of a British wrestling family and their bid to be W.E. federation megastars, was another heavy hitting wrestling picture.
There was a fairy-tale aspect to the film that was mirrored in how the film got made in the first place. The story has it that Dwayne the Rock Johnson, was flicking through the TV channels in a British hotel after a hard days blockbuster promoting, when he stumbled across a documentary of a family from Norwich and their infectious passion for a subject close to his heart. He made a few phone calls, which must have been a Cinderella moment to the real family behind Stephen Merchant’s film. The Rock appears in the film several times as himself, and his star appeal really adds a comic spark. Alongside The Rock, you have the perfect casting choice of the always loveable and hilarious Nick Frost as the Dad, and Lena Headey, shedding her aloof Game of Thrones image, to play a feisty Mum who also throws down in the ring. The film was carried by the very capable shoulders of Florence Pugh in her second big role of the year after Midsommar. As all out hilarious as the film was, it worked down to the organic nature of Pugh’s performance and the sometimes surprisingly edgy dynamic with her aspiring ring star brother, played emotionally honestly by newcomer Jack Lowden. The central dilemma the film had was strangely poignant, as the siblings hailed from working class backgrounds, and the carrot of stardom that is waved in front of them, should they succeed in their goal of breaking into the American Wrestling world, is their ticket out of the mundane – this setup creates a cracking amount of tension, conflict and drama.
You can see why the studio, with Dwayne the Rock Johnson attached, decided to go for it. There was a plucky underdog story at its heart, which is a continuously a successful sports movie formula. Director Stephen Merchant nimbly side-stepped the cliches that come with the territory, raking some surprisingly hard-hitting turns to the drama. On paper, the story looked conventional, but thanks to Merchant, there were a lot of turns done with sincerity and heart with pathos that gave the film some weight and heft.
After a career directing Ricky Gervais comedy, Merchant is adept at finding humour in situations, so Fighting with my Family is one of the funniest films of the year. What he does really well is the Anglo-American cross-over, with such natural observation humour on both sides of the pond. Perhaps this is due to the man having one foot in Hollywood and one foot in the dry British comedy scene. Vince Vaughan has been a diminishing star of late, but his dry-punchy delivery here as a W.E. wrestling coach, adds a lot of humour and spark.
The film, made for a modest 12 million, went on to smash it at the U.S box office – doubling its money there. It’s great to see a plucky underdog story done with such authenticity. Fighting With my Family was top level amusement, with some meaty drama an affectionate film about wrestling that was anything but fake.
Release Date: Taiwan February/UK January
11. Mary Poppins Returns
On the one hand, returning to a character so highly revered as Mary Poppins, perched so high on a pedestal by Julie Andrews, as to be considered untouchable, was a massive risk. On the other hand, with children, staring into the void of their technology, Poppins’ influence is needed now more than ever. It turned out that Mary Poppins made a timely return in 2019.
First up, the casting of Emily Blunt was spot on; her portrayal of the character was practically perfect in every way. She had the stern but kind vibe as captured by Andrews, but there were some new traits in there too, a cheeky humour and an even greater desire to live life with maximum imagination.
Musical maestro Rob Marshall, was the right man to bring the eye-popping musical sequences to life. The quality of the material was worthy of holding a candle to the original, particularly the showstopping Shine a Little Light sequence. It must have been intimidating to attempt to write songs as perennially catchy as the soundtrack to Mary Poppins, but they pulled some magic out of a Mary Poppins style bag with a soundtrack of quality memorable Poppins style tunes.
What was really spine-tingling about this long awaited sequel to a family classic, was that it blended fantasy and reality in inspiring ways with sequences crafted not just for the eyes, but with the intention of fueling audiences’ imaginations. Mary Poppins was leading the charge of the return of the musical fantasy, which was a theme in 2019.
Thanks for reading! Come back on New Year’s Day for the Top 10!
One of Martin Scorsese’s chief desires as a filmmaker is to tell all the Mafia stories that Francis Ford Coppola didn’t cover with The Godfather series. Accusations that his main vessels for portraying mafioso figures Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci were now too old to play imposing crime characters, were somewhat overcome by state of the art technology, that allowed them to subtly de-age before our very eyes. With Al Pacino joining the band, the promise of a new super-group to tell an organized crime story previously unseen was a tantalizing prospect. Netflix thought so – backing Scorsese to the tune of 175 million dollars – a sum of money that would probably fill Mafia bosses with a sense of pride.
The argument should not be whether The Irishman is up there with the first two Godfather films or Goodfellas and Casino, but to see them all as puzzle pieces that overlap and intertwine with each other, to give the audiences an even more vivid sense of how the Mob got its power on the flip-side of American Capitalism.
In many ways it represented the biggest ever gamble for Scorsese since the film is about one of the most hushed mysteries in gangster history, focusing on a trio of characters, who were real and highly controversial figures: top Don Russell (Joe Pesci), Frank (the wall painter) Sheeran, (Robert De Niro) and sixties trade union president Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). The film is definitely stirring the pot of debate, around Hoffa, as well as raising old questions about the JFK-era America in which it is set.
Perhaps time has diminished the importance of certain things that The Irishman chimes in on, but to see a filmmaker of the stature in this field as Scorsese, wade in with suggestions about some of the biggest questions in sixties America, was scintillating. After watching The Irishman, it is worth going down the rabbit hole and researching the Mafia’s relationship with Cuba and the political reality of the era it captures; the film is remarkably close to the bone. Scorsese’s caveat for doing this though, is that how much of an unreliable narrator De Niro’s character is, is up to audience interpretation.
If the historical truth in The Irishman can be contested, surely the emotional truth cannot. This is the Citizen Kane of gangster movies in that it has a deep sense of longing and regret about how the past has led the central character to his lonely melancholic, isolated position. It has Citizen Kane’s same sense of mournful reflection. In another parallel with Kane, given it is based on the heavily contested memoir of Frank Sheeran called I Paint Houses, it is possibly to the truth of what happened between sixties mobsters and affiliates as to what Citizen Kane is to the Randolph William Hurst figure. It also shares some of the DNA of James Cagney’s Angels With Dirty Faces in that it reflects on the legacy of destruction left in the way of a violent-driven gangster life. There is no glory or romanticism here – only the sense of futility at all the senseless, overly paranoid, ironically family-destroying, decision making at the heart of the Italian American Mafia mentality. It may have all the stylistics of a Scorsese film, but tonally it is closer to the mournful sense of regret, of The Assassination of Jesse James, by the Coward Robert Ford. Both films have a slow, steady meditative pace to reflect on violence as something that doesn’t bring glory but only sorrow and isolation. Perhaps the slow pace of both films frustrate some viewers, but connect to both films and you will feel the full force of the poignancy in a message, that does the opposite of glorifying violence.
At its heart, it is a story about the blurring of lines between loyalty and betrayal. All of the characters are aware of the world they are in and the threats that come with it; what they are less certain about is the position of power they perceive themselves to have. That is where the film gets its tension from. Hushed chats between confidants in corridors are the catalysts for the stark, shocking moments that follow.
From a technical perspective, this was the tried and tested Scorsese method: slick, concise, fluid yet highly detailed story-telling, which sweeps you up into the grave dilemmas of its characters; it’s a tribute to how confident and assured at telling such a complex intricate story Scorsese has become over a lifetime in the industry that at the end of the three and a half hour running time, you want to go in and see how the story plays out a second time. After all, the devil is in the details with Scorsese. The more you understand the background, the names and all the surrounding stories in a Scorsese film such as this, the more satisfying and thought-provoking the film is.
The prospect of Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci being reunited, then Al Pacino added too, is as mouthwatering of a billing as you could hope to assemble. All three are doing the edgy thing they are known for – but at the same time broadening and deepening it, to effect their changing stature and advancing years. All three are in their seventies now and due to game-changing technology, this is less of a problem than it should be. The technology may at first take some adjusting to, to steer audiences out of the uncanny valley territory the film seems to enter into. De Niro particularly looks artificial at first, but it is a watershed moment here that Scorsese can tell a story unfolding, enriching and becoming more agonizing over many decades, and age or de-age, rather convincingly as he chooses. These are new film-making tools that he is first to craft with. You get a stronger sense of how past decisions leave a destructive emotional legacy, partly due to the technology. There is somewhat a problem with the physicality of the actors though; the technology doesn’t seem to be able to shift weight off as easily, so the movement of the characters isn’t as fluid or as visceral as it needs to be at times – which has understandably broken some people’s suspension of disbelief. Scorsese had to shoot each scene using three differently angled cameras to get his shots; one wonders how many cameras he would need to use to get the actors’ body masses to match that of the characters. If it was a choice between leaving their weight to match their actual age, or telling a 76-year-old De Niro to get in the gym and shift a fair few pounds, then I can see why Scorsese went with the former option.
The updates to the iconic actors’ performances are worth reflecting on. Take Pesci for example: his character is now further up the chain of mob command than previous figures he has played, he is in effect playing one of the off-screen Mafia puppet masters, we often glimpse in films of this ilk, but here there is more focus on one of these hidden figures. A quiet nod of the head from him here, is just as menacing as one of the psychotic outbursts he played in his younger days; you know just what such a gesture signifies. Pesci gives you a sense of the power and the burden of being the decision maker.
De Niro too has changed; his character is steel-eyed, and committed to unwavering obedience to the guy that gave him his break, but there are just the subtle hints of deeply hidden emotion that tells a story of the sense of loss his decisions have prompted. There are changes for Pacino too as his impassioned grandstanding outbursts, seem tweaked by both him and Scorsese as a hint of vulnerability unusual for Al character’s is present.
De Niro and Pacino have been peers since the seventies, and their family connection in The Godfather films gives the impression sometimes of a shared career. They did not appear onscreen together until Michael Mann’s Heat in ‘95. We perhaps won’t appreciate the fact that Scorsese has given us a film with so many cracking scenes between them, with also an out of retirement Pesci, and Harvey Kietel in the mix, until a few decades when all of them will be no longer with us. Scorsese was the leader of a dream team here, who all combine to provide some missing pieces of the mysterious puzzle that is the Mafia story in America.
In the age of heightened awareness of a lack of balance between male and female characters, Scorsese has come in for some flack for often sidelining the female perspective. The female characters here are marginalized, but that is because the characters Scorsese focuses on would be unlikely to seek council from the women in their life – despite being better off if they had done so. It is true that the females don’t have much of a voice in The Irishman, but that doesn’t mean they are not communicating. Anna Paquin, in a handful of scenes with next to no dialogue, conveys everything you need to know about how she feels about her father, and it is gut-churning for both him and the audience.
Underneath it all there is a sense of confusion as to whom exactly gains anything from all the cold-hearted ruthless mafia decision making. There is an observation that one decision leads to another, setting in motion a machine that no one figure is fully running; As Pecsi reflects, ‘it is what it is’. And What The Irishman is, is an impeccably observed painstakingly detailed account of five decades of tough decision-making and the knock on effect this has on this world. It’s a legacy of regret that focuses, not on the glory and power of the mafia, but on the physical and emotional destruction. In short, it is the movie that Scorsese needed to make and only he could do this with such personal understanding to otherwise unknowable mob members.
After a night sleeping at an airport and a 6:50 am flight, I arrived in Fukuoka, dazed and disoriented, not quite ready to engage the brain and navigate a path through a new Japanese territory. Friendly Japanese staff took the pain out of the experience by directing me to the right bus to Beppu. Wearing a Welsh T-shirt had proven a good idea, since I was greeted by staff who knew exactly why I had arrived in Fukuoka. It was comforting and surreal to arrive in Beppu and see, a sea of red rugby shirts, with Welsh people seemingly out numbering the locals, in preparation for what would be a fierce battle with Fiji, in the neighbouring town of Oita. The Welsh had taken over this quaint little traditional Japanese town. The dragon was flying, by both Welsh and the Japanese, who have taken a liking to our dragon, as it evokes the myths of the East.
For many of the Welsh people here, this would be their first taste of the hospitality, friendliness and warm welcoming spirit that defines most Asian countries that I have experienced in ten years living in Asia. For me, being away from home for so long, it was wonderful to see the bubbly Welsh people, having a few beers on the eve of a massive World Cup game. Welsh accents from varying regions filled the air. Japan had been turned into Cardiff on match day – I was home.
I chatted to a few Welsh people as living in Asia for ten years, this is a rare opportunity, before making my way to meet my compatriot, Andrew Leakey, in a traditional Japanese hot spring hotel. Beppu is a patchwork of fervent hot springs with plenty of places to stay. On the morning of the game, plumes of steam majestically billowed out of the ground, Strangely this Japanese region with its sloping mountains and its deceptively industrial looking environment made it look like the heart of the Welsh industrial age: like a Blaenavon or Port Talbot when industry was thriving. It must have been a strange sight for so many older Welsh men to come thousands of miles to the East to find an environment oddly similar to the Welsh valleys. But these are not industrial chimneys, they are steam vents to underground caverns – pools of bubbling water, the smell of sulphur permeating the air. Hot Springs range from warm and inviting to steaming hellfire to turn the skin red, not for the faint of heart. On the day of our big Welsh game, I looked out the window in the direction of Oita, and imagined that the steaming vents symbolized the stirring of sleeping dragons ready to roar out of the ground.
Beppu itself was a compact street of restaurants and little bars, very near to the coast, with little Japanese touches like lines of lanterns to add a little bit of a traditional Asian atmosphere. In another surprising parallel to Wales, it was oddly similar to Swansea.
There were many signs that the Rugby World Cup party had rolled into this remote part of Japan, but the one that gave me a lovely warm glow was provided by absent school children who had all put their own little spin on the Welsh flag and our rugby spirit with many little boards of pictures providing the best welcome Welsh people could ever hope for. Welsh children celebrating St. David’s Day could not have depicted Welsh culture with as much passion, care and artistic value as the Japanese children have done in Beppu.
The Japanese have done everything they can to ensure that foreign visitors to the country get a warm welcome and do not run into the language barrier induced culture shock that often can arise when you are in a bewildering new land. The Japanese are a tremendously forward thinking race. Rugby fans can merrily swig back beers, getting lost in the anticipation of a tantalizing rugby battle safe in the knowledge that when they step out of the bar, there will be a host of smiling, gracious faces, ready to guide them to their next point of call. There were thousands of cheerful volunteers on the streets of Beppu and Oita – some there to guide crowds to essential bus stops and meetings places, others there to simply cheer on the crowds and stoke the atmosphere.
In a typical act of Japanese consideration, they had anticipated that it may be a taxing experience for rugby fans in various states of inebriation to travel about thirty minutes down the road on Japanese public transport, so their solution was to put on fleet after fleet of coaches to get rugby fans to the ground, all for free.
The magnificently futuristic Oita stadium, built in 2002 for the football World Cup, was in a remote area, removed from both Oita and Beppu. The approach was rather surprising as it was a rural forested area, that would be tranquil if it wasn’t for the 15,000 is so Welsh fans, excitedly approaching the ground. A red army marched in, dragon flags flying, Welsh songs filled the air. Japanese volunteers offered encouragement in the form of hi fives, in over-sized novelty foam hands and shouts of ‘Go Wales!’. Everyone in Japan seemed to perk up at being in some way involved with the Rugby World Cup.
Outside the stadium Welsh fans were in full voice, while Japanese fans enjoyed the positive, wild energy, smiling vociferously. There were little pockets of Fijian fans, who broke out in the soul stirring style of harmony, that they greet you with when you visit their islands. Welsh fans danced with them and shook their hands respectfully. Wales and Fiji are two nations that are far apart geographically, but so connected in spirit. It is singing and unbridled passion for rugby that flows through the veins of people from both Wales and Fiji.
In the stadium, the atmosphere was building. Two Warrior nations were twenty minutes from a pivotal World Cup battle. Fiji, already out of the competition after an unexpected, hurtful defeat against plucky Uruguay, had pride to play for. Wales, feeling confident after a historic win against Australia, were looking to top the table, but very wary of Fiji a nation who love to play Wales and had success against us in 2007.
After stirring renditons of both anthems, the game got underway. Within the first ten minutes, the Fijians flew at the Welsh defense, breaching them twice with tries from the left and the right. The Welsh crowd fell silent. 15,000, Welsh hearts sank into 15,000 Welsh stomachs. From inside the stadium, it looked as if you could drive a coach through the gaps in the defense. The gaps do not look that big on television, I thought to myself. The Fijians seemed like a towering force, a perfect balance between power and speed. Was my first ever time watching Wales in a competitive match in thirty years of watching rugby going to end in a shock, humbling defeat?
This Welsh side has a resilience that Welsh sides of the past did not possess. As soon as we entered into their 22, it was us that look the more threatening, and a cross field kick to Josh Adams resulted in a first Welsh try to calm the nerves and lift the crowd back up. The battle went right on until the sixty-seventh minute, when the game finally looked to have been won by Wales.When star man Jonathan Davies, slipped a clever pass to our prolific try scoring winger Josh Adams, the Welsh win looked sealed. But it was a game not for the faint of heart, which tested the nerves of all the Welsh in the stadium.
We watched both teams come over and clap for the traveling support and we all clapped back in a mutual show of respect for each others efforts. Leaving the stadium, the Welsh were recovering their excitement and energy, singing and cheering as they made their way back to another fleet of convenient free buses. The Japanese fans who attended, smiled, and clapped respectfully in appreciation of the atmosphere built by both sets of fans.
When we arrived back in Beppu, there were lots of beer tents open to provide a place for the Welsh fans to celebrate, but I had to leave early as I was looking at just a few hours sleep before I needed to get up to catch a bus in the middle of the night/early hours of the morning.
It was five am. It was dark, but luck had worked in my favour, as in fortuitous circumstances we discovered, the bus stopped right outside of the hotel. When it arrived in typical Japanese perfect timing, I boarded in a similar state to how I had arrived: dazed and feeling sleepy. About an hour into the bus ride back to Fukuoka airport, I looked across the sea – in the distance I saw Japan again live up to the billing of being the land of the rising sun, as a splendid sunrise began to reveal itself. You could tell it was going to be a calm clear day in this part of Japan. It was hard to tell that somewhere out there, typhoon Hagibis was charging towards Japan, set to be the biggest typhoon Japan had seen in decades. The typhoon would end up causing havoc at the rugby World Cup, threatening to eject Scotland from the competition and actually cancel some of the games. But what put that in perspective is that it would cause so much destruction and tragically kill 70 people. Japan and its people had done such a great job of helping people that they really deserve better than being smashed by a big typhoon, when the eyes of the world are on them, but it is a hazard of living in this part of the world.
I got to the airport, feeling relieved and satisfied since the early morning bus trip after a day of rugby and drinking was the part I was most worried about. My flight was delayed as the typhoon was just a day away. I felt pleased and satisfied that all the plans had come together. I had been in Japan for only one full day, but finally going to the rugby World Cup was so worth it. It will be an experience that I will remember for the rest of my life.