The Best Films In The Worst Year

Christopher Fowler
We may well look back on 2020 as the year cinema died. The battle between exhibitors and studios reached a head in the pandemic, especially in America where the cinemas remained closed, and ended with Warners shutting theatrical windows and leading the charge to its loss-leader streaming platform. The major studios decided to bottle up their wares and leave them on the shelf rather than accept streaming's reduced revenue, and if greed doesn't kill the golden goose it has certainly done permanent damage to the traditional industry business model. The biggest problem is studio hubris; when we look at what they had on offer this year it was hard to feel anything but indifference; another Matrix film, another Wonder Woman film, some solid BLM/LGTB+/#MeToo issue pictures, the rest just low-grade brands and franchises. There's very little sense of what the public want to see; we have to accept what the US business model provides. TV offered some surprises, although the lack of intelligent product became noticeable as the year progressed.
Clive James' collected TV criticisms are now available for e-readers, and what astonishes most is how he could review, every single night, a thought-provoking play or fearless documentary on British channels in the seventies, making modern TV look anaemic and impoverished by comparison. There was a lot of rubbish, too, but there were richer rewards.
On film, the absence of Hollywood this year was palpable, leaving us with documentaries, a handful of local films and a few good European films. Bacurau, Summer '85, Mank, People You
El Rein, Midnight Family
and the searing
Collective were in my top 10, but who else saw them? I paid money to see Tenet twice in a cinema purely because it's a truly cinematic piece of gibberish, a Bond film without Bond, or any logic - no matter, for it belonged on the big screen.
And then there was Another Round, a soaring paean to Finland's drinking culture. History teacher Mads Mikkelsen and his three best mates, all teachers, learn that the human body functions better if one's alcohol level stays permanently at 0.05%, so they undertake a scientific experiment to prove it, with catastrophic and often hilarious results. The real montage of various world leaders drunk is a high point, but so is Mads' celebratory dance on the dock. Do seek it out. Midnight Family was a documentary bringing new meaning to the term 'ambulance chasing' as a private ambulance run by one Mexico City family (where there are only a handful of ambulances for millions of residents) attempts to keeps its patients alive even while the family's existence is on life support. Summer '85 was minor Ozon but still enjoyable in its depiction of an eighties summer of love in a French seaside resort. Mank was a smart cineaste take on the writing of 'Citizen Kane', with luminous cinematography that evoked the films of the 1930s. People You May Know deserves an audience but will probably fail to reach those who would most benefit from seeing it. One in four religious Americans is a Far Right Evangelist. Old Etonian digital scumbag Alexander Nix tries to fudge his way out of yet another grotesquely immoral scandal involving his company Cambridge Analytica, in which American evangelical churches misuse data to target the vulnerable and get them to vote for Trump. The US church can now target you if you're likely to divorce or suffering mental problems. If you want to feel truly afraid of where dark money is taking us, catch the facts in this nightmare scenario, which was partly filmed with a camera hidden inside a crucifix by the brave filmmakers. Collective will probably win an Oscar for its sheer you-are-there bravery.In 2015, a fire at Bucharest's Colectiv club leaves 27 dead and 180 injured. Soon, more burn victims begin dying in hospitals from wounds that were not life-threatening. Then a doctor blows the whistle to a team of investigative journalists. The only people who care apart from the traumatised parents are two unlikely hacks working on a sports freesheet. In a year of fine documentaries, Assassins stands out as extraordinary. The brother of Kim Jong-Un was murdered in a crowded airport by two young girls. The defence team unravel what happened as the case takes on global proportions (inevitably the orange-faced one makes an appearance) and how the girls were duped into being murderers will drop your jaw. But there were too many grim low-key tales of death and illness. We need Soul and The French Despatch in our cinemas as soon as possible.  


Rachel Green (not verified) Tue, 22/12/2020 - 12:10

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Does 'Portrait of a Woman on Fire' count as 2020?

Helen Martin (not verified) Tue, 22/12/2020 - 20:52

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

My husband says the only one that appeals is "Another Round" and I almost have to agree with him, although "Midnight Family" might be good for all the wrong reasons.

Rachel, Portrait looks interesting but I see that it is classed as 2019, not that that should stop anyone watching it.

Brian Evans (not verified) Tue, 22/12/2020 - 22:53

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

"Another Round" is the only one I would watch, because, quite honestly, it helps to drink oneself into oblivion to get through the day living in Britain with this government of imbeciles. Not to mention the Brexit morons and their obsession with "Sovereignty". It sounds fun, which we all need at the present.

Admin, I need a bloody good laugh due to the appalling year we have had, and it has been even worse for you. The films you suggest would deprive me of the wish to live. Things are depressing enough without having to sit through the above catalogue of misery. Do you have anything more cheery we could watch?

Christopher Fowler Wed, 23/12/2020 - 07:57

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Yes. Try 'The Prom', with Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman, as camp as a box of wigs.
And Bacarau isn't grim, it's a magical realist fable.

Brian Evans (not verified) Wed, 23/12/2020 - 11:48

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Thanks for the tip, Chris. Will do. btw-love the wig gag!

Paul C (not verified) Wed, 23/12/2020 - 12:33

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Glad to see Clive James mentioned - his collections of essays are masterly and his punchy aphoristic prose is a pleasure to read. A huge book of essays called Cultural Amnesia is superb (despite his tendency to show off : ' I
first read this book in my favourite café in Rio......). I also like his famous description of Barbara Cartland : Twin miracles of mascara, her eyes looked like the corpses of two small crows that had crashed into a chalk cliff.

Working from home alone since March this blog has been a marvellous companion. Thank you all and best wishes for Xmas and 2021.

Helen Martin (not verified) Wed, 23/12/2020 - 18:02

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

We're hearing terrible things about this new Covid variant. You two be really careful, you hear.

SteveB (not verified) Thu, 24/12/2020 - 12:09

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Assassins sounds fascinating. I must try to find that.

By the way, this new Covid variant is probably everywhere already anyway. The UK does as much Covid sequencing as the whole of the rest of the world put together. There was a professor from Cardiff yesterday on the radio, who said "We did as much sequencing in Wales in the last week as France has done in the whole of the pandemic." So of course things will be found in the UK, most other countries just aren't looking. Denmark is an exception, which is why stuff gets found there too.

John Griffin (not verified) Thu, 24/12/2020 - 14:19

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

By last week UK had sequenced 1,777 variants apparently, only 2 of them being of concern. Good odds.

Wayne Mook (not verified) Thu, 24/12/2020 - 21:58

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I enjoyed The Color Out of Space this year, saw it at the pics just before lock down, a meteorite appears in the garden of a family and things go wrong, really wrong. Nicholas Cage's acting fits in well, so you can see how over the top this horror film is. Makes a good double bill with Mandy, psychedelic horror in which Nicolas Cage's acting..... The director is Richard Stanley (The Color Out of Space) who was notoriously kicked off the Kilmer/Brando Island of Dr Moreau. I've still yet to watch that version of Moreau. I have the director cut to watch.