The Best Films In The Worst Year
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 Know 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.