Film in 2020: Best and Worst in a Year of Few

The film year during Covid began with a gawk-inducing attempt by Wonder Woman Gal Gadot to bring sunshine into people’s lives affected by lockdown by assembling a star-studded line-up to collectively sing John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, and it ended with Tom Cruise giving a foul-mouthed tirade to a few people who stood too close to each other on the set of Mission Impossible 7 (and damn right he was too). The desperation of the movie industry was certainly outlined in these two incidents, and we now know that making movies for actors is hugely important…or else they will go crazy. The number of films available for release certainly diminished as the year went on, and so did the quality. There were no real blockbusters, with the exception of Tenet and the recently released Wonder Woman: 1984 (both of which I am yet to see). Britain became the saviour of mainstream cinema in my opinion with many productions demonstrating a new direction in diversified casting and quality whimsical re-interpretations of literature landmarks. There were also many offerings from around the world that were worth seeking out. I am yet to see many of these recommended films (Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Wolfwalkers, The Perfect Candidate, Les Misérables, Rocks and Possessor), but for now this is a list of those that I have seen and not yet reviewed, and they are listed from worst to best. Uncut Gems is not included here because I have already reviewed it, but make no mistake about it, this was one of my favourite films in a year defined by very few new films.

Mank (David Fincher) – released in November 2020

A film, it seems, specifically made for Hollywood Golden-era enthusiasts. Which rules many of us out from the get-go. As the story goes, a young and rising Orson Welles co-opts the alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Mank) to write a screenplay for his first film, Citizen Kane. Mank’s insider knowledge of media mogul William Randolph Hearst (the Murdoch of his day) and his relationship with Hearst’s mistress comprise his inspiration. Written by Fincher’s father, Mank is a deliberate fabrication of history. It has a fun, cinematic element to it, and the music and art direction are impressive. But this is heightened pretentious, vacuous nonsense. Gary Oldman’s commanding performance cannot save this picture from disappearing up its own orifice.

On The Rocks (Sofia Coppola) – released in October 2020

Sofia Coppola may go down in history as the queen of mediocre indie-style film-making. With the exception of The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation, she has not offered anything that rises above the average bar since. Here is her latest offering in the comedy-drama canon that attempts to utilise Bill Murray’s star power to elevate its comic status. It fails. Not miserably, but it still fails. It is a film that doesn’t do very much apart from make you shrug and sometimes wince at the boring, self-important world that rich New York-based people like Coppola inhabit. The father-daughter relationship between Murray and Rashida Jones is mildly intriguing but it inevitably falls flat amidst a massively predictable story.

#Alive (Cho Il-hyung) – released in June 2020

Having reached fever pitch with the super-popular The Waking Dead series, the over-excited clamour for zombie movies seems to be waning. But belatedly, the Koreans want to get in on the undead action. Mercifully, the quality of Korean film-making is usually quite high, so when #Alive was released it was worth standing to attention for. And in a year when living in isolation due to a deadly human-spread disease became the norm, a film that bases itself on this premise seemed very timely. However, #Alive is too trendy for its own good. Modern tech is everywhere. The Millennial generation dominate proceedings. One would have expected that this could be combined to make a meaningful comment about society, or even about what the pandemic has exposed about society, but unfortunately the surface is barely scratched. So much potential, but very little heft.

Emma (Autumn de Wilde) – released in February 2020

Jane Austen’s Emma has been adapted for TV numerous times by the BBC, had a high-profile film adaptation with Gwyneth Paltrow, was transferred into a modern-day American setting with Clueless, and was even made in India as Aisha. How many more times do we have to endure this irrelevant 19th Century claptrap about youthful romance in the English upper-classes? If anything, this latest high-budget adaptation from American photographer Autumn de Wilde is worth watching for its smashing set and costume design, and some brilliant acting. The story, however, flounders, the ending is spew-tastic, and the redemption attempted with Emma’s character just doesn’t work. It is a nice film to watch though, and this is mainly driven by lush cinematography from Christopher Blauvelt.

Irresistible (Jon Stewart) – released in June 2020

There was a lot of expectation for Jon Stewart’s latest political satire, particularly in a year when US elections dominated the news around the world. Unfairly, the expectation was on Stewart to deliver a biting commentary on the division and lasting damage that Trump has inflicted on America. Isn’t that bloody well obvious? But with the understanding that he is offering a more sober point of view, and probably so exhausted of invoking Trump’s name (aren’t we all?), this film makes a lot of sense. It’s a clever film with many unexpected character turns. Steve Carrell dominates the screen as a Democrat campaign consultant who travels to the Mid-West to convince a farmer (Chris Copper) to run in the local mayoral elections. There are many humorous side-tracks, and in the end the point made about the broken US electoral system is very pertinent indeed.

1917 (Sam Mendes) – released in January 2020

One wonders if the increase in British breast-beating war films over the past few years is related to an emboldened conservative Governance of the country and by way of that, the ghastly Brexit scenario. You would have expected more from Sam Mendes, a man who has spent many years making quality films outside of Britain (latest Bond films aside). But Mendes does have a grasp of cinematic power, and this is evident in buckets in 1917. It is his grandest cinematic achievement yet, and is a personal story based on his grandfather’s experiences in the World War I trenches. With experts like cinematographer Roger Deakins and editor Lee Smith, Mendes has created an astounding, and seemingly one-take, spectacle of a young soldier’s journey to deliver a paper message to a General on the other side of the Front Line. The only problem is that the marvellous technical spectacle overwhelms the viewer and distracts us from the realities of war.

The Personal History of David Copperfield (Armando Iannucci) – released in January 2020

Another British literary adaptation, but this time with the king of razor-sharp wit, Armando Ianucci, in command of direction. The recent re-imagining of Charles Dickens’ Victorian-era novel is certainly fresh, lively and whimsical. It splashes a great deal of comedy and colour to the otherwise bleak surroundings of Dickensian London and its surrounds. And it soars in a message of hope and prosperity, embracing aspects of diversity and multi-culturalism that permeate as a divisive notion even in this current day (why, I will never know). If you look at the casting and embellishment of the source material, you may get bogged down in the technicalities. But the wonderful world of Copperfield seeps into your heart very early on when we are introduced to the titular character as a young man. Dev Patel is in complete control of the role, and he is enabled with superb support from the very brilliant Hugh Laurie and Tilda Swinton.

Misbehaviour (Philippa Lowthrope) – released in March 2020

On paper, a topical crowd-pleaser with Keira Knightley in the lead role does not exactly tickle my fancy, but after giving it a chance I believe this is one of the mainstream triumphs of the year. Based on actual events surrounding the 1970 Miss World competition in London, the film relevantly puts the scope on sexism, gender equality and the women’s liberation movement. It is a clever, well-played, enjoyable romp that powerfully establishes the central point of the #metoo movement – the societal norms of women suppression. Jessie Buckley is the feminist heart of proceedings tugging at Keira Knightley’s more conservative viewpoints, while Gugu Mbatha-Raw is extraordinary as Miss Grenada attempting to triumph as the first black woman to win the hugely popular televised competition. There is a lot of stories and subplots going on here but Lowthorpe does a marvellous job keeping it all together, and it never falls into the trap of being too formal.

Vivarium (Lorcan Finnegan) – released in March 2020

There are full-on horror films, and there are psychological horror films. Vivarium principally falls into the latter, but it also creates its own little niche (some say it is science fiction, but it is only that on the surface). Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg play a young couple in the market for their first home. They travel with a realtor to view a housing estate in the suburbs of what appears to be an Irish city, and a Kafkaesque nightmare ensures. It is an endlessly intriguing treatise about the pitfalls of young love and the (sur)realities of mind-numbingly boring modern living. There is much dread throughout and it carries a sinister edge, but Finnegan manages it all with style and a perfect dose of humour (often verging on hilarity). Poots and Eisenberg never over-act and are utterly believable as the hapless pair striving to make sense of this terrifying suburbia. Watch out for the Desmond Decker classic ‘Shanty Town’.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman) – released in September 2020

The film of the year in polarising critics and, I assume, audiences, Charlie Kaufman’s latest mind-twister is one of his most obscure yet. But I absolutely loved it. I have enjoyed his previous films too – Adaptation and Anomalisa in particular. They are definitively odd and unique and clearly possess a healthy degree of inquisitiveness about the human condition. Some charge Kaufman with pretentiousness, but I disagree. I think he utilises the medium of film to throw things at us that he himself cannot fully elucidate. We end up being the unwilling participants in his experiments, and I am okay with that. And I certainly enjoyed partaking in this massively intriguing journey. Jessie Buckley (is there anything this woman cannot do?) is spell-binding as the perpetually confused protagonist mulling over her relationship with her boyfriend (Jesse Plemons) as they head out into the country during a snowstorm to visit his eccentric parents. Strange things happen in a Lynchian way – identities change, time becomes blurred, reality and dreams are interchanged. Sometimes the references come quick and fast that it is hard to keep up with it all, but this all leads me to want to watch it again. I was chuffed to have picked up on the ‘A Woman Under the Influence’ references having watched it recently, but I presume a lot of other stuff went over my head. But whatever about the elusive nature of the plot, this was still an extremely compelling film.

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