Films of the Year 2020

A strange year for cinema, one whose long-term effects are not yet known. Screenings were largely moved online in most of the world and there’s a strong chance that many of those who got used to watching everything at home will not be moved to set foot inside a cinema again. But this death knell has been rung before, upon the advent of television and home video; it’s quite likely that the communal pull of theatrical exhibition will outlast the new habits people have picked up. Personally speaking, this was the first year since 1990 that I didn’t watch a single film in the cinema, even though there were periodic opportunities to do so here in Hong Kong.

We have not completely exhausted the new releases to watch but, with a slowdown in production, we may reach that point some time in 2021. My list, as ever, is idiosyncratic and very much contestable, and there are a few films in here that will have been seen elsewhere last year. I also notice there are more American films on it than in many previous years; much of that will be because I have watched films with a narrower geographical range than usual this year but also because American films, from both Hollywood and elsewhere, do appear to have been better of late. There were a lot of films I wanted to see but, for one reason or other, I never got round to. If I feel like bending the rules a year hence, they might appear in the 2021 version of this list. In the meantime, here’s the snapshot of my 2020 viewing, in a year that was far from vintage but often interesting.

1. Bacurau – Kléber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles (Brazil/France) 132 minutes

Mendonça’s third feature (this time co-directed with Juliano Dornelles) is the latest in a series of intricately layered political dramas that, in the hands of a lesser director, might have been crude and tough-going. Bacurau is the first of those to turn away from Brazil’s urban middle-classes, portraying instead an impoverished titular village in the sertão––Brazil’s outback––that is beset by faintly dystopian interruptions, including a group of homicidal gringos (led by the brilliantly cast Udo Kier) who appear to be killing to earn points in a game.

What starts off as an offbeat comic drama with slightly Herzogian ethnographic tendencies turns into a Latin Western as the villagers fight back against the outsiders who are possessed of the upbeat beatitude common to Airbnb or Uber enthusiasts, only more heavily armed. Bacurau’s meditation on Brazilian sociopolitics (which may or may not be aimed at the country’s current president, of whom Mendonça is a fierce critic) is leavened, or perhaps ballasted, by the old-fashioned pleasure of seeing the baddies get their comeuppance. It’s probably not quite as sophisticated as its two predecessors but it is still a formidable work and became Mendonça and Tournelles’s first international hit, even as inopportunely timed lockdowns last March threatened to derail it.

2. The Nest – Sean Durkin (United States/United Kingdom/Ireland/Canada) 107 minutes

“Focus on 1 per cent at a time,” says Arthur Davis (Michael Culkin), an old-school London stockbroker whose younger, brasher employee Rory O’Hara (Jude Law) is trying to convince him to sell his company to an American buyer. Sean Durkin, in his second feature, takes a similar approach, building an eerie family drama through an accretion of set-pieces that are as surprising as they are handsomely mounted.

O’Hara has returned to London in the early 1980s after more than a decade in New York, with a reluctant American wife Allison (Carrie Coons) and children in tow. He preaches the new gospel of financial deregulation and untold riches to a still-cautious City and moves the family into a Georgian pile in Surrey in advance of the glory years to come. But he appears to be ahead of his time in his carpetbagging and too quick to live beyond his means. Allison struggles to recreate the equestrian idyll she enjoyed in the US and their son has trouble adapting to school, while their teenage daughter adapts a little too well to new social distractions. The Nest is a sublime technical accomplishment, with scarcely a dull frame in the whole film, but it is also a remarkable portrait of ambition hastily set in motion, shot through with the iciness of the 1970s thrillers of Nicolas Roeg or Claude Chabrol.

Law, an actor who has never been endowed with much in the way of finesse, is perfectly cast here; his yuppie manqué will be familiar from expat communities everywhere––genially mediocre but capable of spinning a new persona in a foreign environment, only to find back home a tougher nut to crack. Coons, for her part, is brilliant as the thrifty suspecting wife who soon goes rogue in social situations. Durkin, whose childhood as a Canadian implant in the 1980s Surrey stockbroker belt mirrors the world of the film, has conjured one of the most unexpectedly persuasive dramas of recent years.

3. Uncut Gems – Josh and Benny Safdie (United States) 135 minutes

After the frenetic chronicle of a balls-up that was Good Time, the Safdie brothers kept their foot on the pedal for their mainstream breakthrough film, a relentless celluloid coronary. Adam Sandler plays Howard Ratner (surely an ingenious H. Samuels reference?), a New York City jeweller who has equal confidence in a rare Ethiopian black opal and a six-way parlay on a Celtics game clearing his gambling debts, owed to his loan shark brother-in-law (Eric Bogosian). The trajectory of the film can be guessed but that doesn’t make it any less thrilling.

Sandler is so much better doing drama than comedy––and, in a well-ordered universe, would have been rewarded with an Oscar for this––though his comic background is vital to his straight roles. Here he is a grinning cocksure sleaze ball who somehow never once reckons with the worst coming to the worst. The Safdies offer up a dyspeptic delight, replete with a brilliantly immersive portrayal of the grittier side of Jewish New York, which has been strangely underserved by the movies. You think they might give the Cassavetes-on-speed approach a bit of a break on their next outing but I wouldn’t bet on it.

4. The Assistant – Kitty Green (United States) 87 minutes

Australian director Kitty Green’s #MeToo-inflected drama probably would have had few American producers willing to take it up just a few years back, given its subject matter. This tale of a young blue-collar assistant growing aware of the depredations of her boss at a New York film production company bears more than a passing resemblance to that most notorious of contemporary Hollywood predators––Harvey Weinstein. Julia Garner plays Jane, a young college graduate who has been whisked from her mundane blue-collar existence in Queens to what was once presumably a dream job in SoHo.

In addition to the familiar greyness of office life (filmed with Akermanian precision by Green) Jane’s new position is also seemingly the mother of toxic workplaces, a web of self-preservation and scheming where even the rare expressions of sociability come laced with acid. The assistant makes the mistake of thinking there is something untoward about her boss’s red-carpet treatment of a pretty young, barely legal green-horn, who is visibly unqualified to even answer phones. Greene’s film is all the more depressing for how believable it is and Weinstein’s fall does not in any way mean such environments are a thing of the past.

The Assistant has the particular genius of riffing on two of the best contemporary American TV shows––Garner has a similar resourcefulness to her Ruth Langmore in Ozark, while Matthew Macfadyen’s glacially passive-aggressive head of HR is what you suspect his character Tom Wambsgans in Succession might have been had he not married so well. A brilliant examination of the embedded power structures that keep everyone in their place until it all comes tumbling down, or, given everyone’s knack for covering their arse here, maybe it doesn’t.

5. First Cow – Kelly Reichardt (United States) 121 minutes

First Cow probably had more material impact on my life than any other film released this year because it got me making clafoutis again after a lapse of more than two decades. The rustic cherry flan plays a key role in Kelly Reichardt’s Western, when a frontier governor (Toby Jones) asks the local baked goods sensations Otis “Cookie” Figowitz and King-Lu to rustle one up for him so he can impress a tiresome metropolitan visitor, who never shuts up about the fashions in Paris. The fact a dessert of such humble standing in French cuisine is a culinary nonpareil in the Oregon Country outpost is reflective of the fineness of detail in Reichardt’s film, adapted from her regular screenwriter Jonathan Raymond’s 2004 novel, the third time his writing has served as a basis for her work.

Cookie and King-Lu, migrants from Maryland and the Qing Empire respectively and whose relationship may or may not be altogether chaste, have hit pay dirt selling doughnut-like confections called “oily cakes”, which prove irresistible to the finery-deprived frontiersmen. But they have managed to do so only because they have access to milk, surreptitiously harvested from the first cow to arrive in the territory, and which is owned by the sweet-toothed governor. They plan to abscond to San Francisco to open a hotel with their earnings but the temptation remains to––both metaphorically and literally––milk the cow for all its worth.

Reichardt assembles the drama in her usual low-key way, with no showiness or fuss, and there’s a wryness to the portrayal of roughnecks softened and their pockets emptied by the promise of roughly hewn pastry. The film’s conceit is so brilliant and finely etched, you regret that the Western lost popularity while its mundane domestic possibilities were still so vast. First Cow is her second venture into the genre, after Meek’s Cut-Off, and you hope she’ll continue making them.

6. The Border Fence (Die bauliche Maßnahme) – Nikolaus Geyrhalter (Austria) 112 minutes

Geyrhalter, director of handsomely ruminative non-narrative documentaries, takes to the Brenner Pass on Austria and Italy’s Alpine border for this look at migration and European responses to it. There are more interviews than usual in his films––with border police, hikers, local aubergistes and migrants––but all are presented without much in the way of commentary. Diegetic television news reports provide what context and background there is, and the discursive world of the film is pliant and open to numerous interpretations. Though hardly fully representative of the debates prevailing in Europe today (if anything, Geyrhalter’s interviewees are too humane and level-headed to be a typical cross-section), it is a splendidly watchable observation of an important cultural phenomenon.

7. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) – Céline Sciamma (France) 120 minutes

Céline Sciamma’s fourth film is, in a way, an 18th-century Carol––an account of the secret love between a young noblewoman soon to be married off against her will (Adèle Haenel) and the young woman hired to paint her portrait (Noémie Merlant). It is also a film that, not unsurprisingly, has a painterly bent; the scenes are in themselves elegant tableaux and the work of artist Hélène Delmaire to produce the paintings is reminiscent of Jacques Rivette’s La Belle noiseuse. But Portrait of a Lady on Fire also has a deeply moving story, simply told, at its core––one that manages to resolve the problem of telling a tale that is at once political (as all historical gay romances perforce are) while also universal in its sentiments. Claire Mathon’s cinematography is a shimmering low-light wonder and the two leading ladies, in particular Haenel, are superb. The film gave Sciamma a well-deserved international breakthrough, and I wouldn’t say no to more period films from her.

8. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets – Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross (United States) 98 minutes

The second film by Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross purports to be a blend of documentary and fiction and it’s often hard to see the joins. This ambiguity makes Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets a piece of profane apocrypha compared to the sacred fact of the Frederick Wiseman school of American documentary filmmaking but it has a similar knack for capturing the warmth of ordinary people and the comforts, however fleeting or illusory, of community.

The film is set on the last day in business of a Las Vegas dive bar, with a typically incongruent name, The Roaring 20s. We are told little about the history of the joint (judging by the decor, it goes back at least to the 1960s) or the circumstances that have forced its closure. Instead, we just get to listen in on the conversations of its oddball regulars, a mix of fallen corporate salesmen, army vets and barroom philosophers. The exchanges are by turns bland, briefly lucid, illogical, belligerent and largely inchoate and will be familiar to anyone who has nailed their social colours to the mast of a watering hole at any time in their life.

There’s pathos and sadness underpinning it all, of course (and you wonder if the bar’s more functional patrons––there must be some––declined to participate) but it’s all very moving, all the more so given how recognisable it is. In a year when many hostelries the world round went to the wall because of the pandemic, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets serves a Hogarthian purpose, and is fascinating in its observation of broken, though not necessarily miserable, lives.

9. Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin – Werner Herzog (United Kingdom) 89 minutes

Documentaries about writers rarely rise above the run-of-the-mill TV aesthetic, so it was just as well this BBC doc about the late Bruce Chatwin was entrusted to the great Werner Herzog. It also helps that Herzog and Chatwin were friends––Herzog adapted Chatwin’s novel The Viceroy of Ouidah as Cobra Verde––and the German is not the sort of person to deliver empty eulogies, even to those he holds in esteem.

Nomad captures Chatwin as traveller (and, tangentially, as travel writer), spurred by his childhood fascination with a giant sloth found in Patagonia. He was as much of a polymath in his travelling as he was in his precocious career as an art historian at Sotheby’s––his interests and travels spanned the globe, leading him to write about Australian aborigines, the Nazca Lines in Peru and, probably most famously, Patagonia itself. Herzog leaves the portrait deliberately half-sketched––it’s interesting he opts not to use any of what you imagine would be plentiful archive footage of Chatwin––and instead leaves us with someone known only at second-hand, through the testimonies of those that knew him (as is repeated in the film, members of the same and opposite sex were wont to immediately fall in love with him). The film is ultimately a personal quest for Herzog, who is reunited with the shooting script for Cobra Verde he gave to Chatwin, who was at the time seriously ailing; even so by his own admission, the director is no closer to the man as a result.

10. The Dead Don’t Die – Jim Jarmusch (United States) 103 minutes

Few filmmakers have run for so long on the critical fumes of a brilliant early career as Jim Jarmusch. Not since Dead Man had there been anything in his filmography that kept me interested for longer than half an hour, and I didn’t expect a great deal from The Dead Don’t Die, not least given the subject matter, zombies, isn’t what you would call, pardon the expression, the freshest. Even though Jarmusch doesn’t do much to shake the genre up, he does at least turn out something ineffably Jarmuschian that also has the benefit of being unusually entertaining.

The film assembles a cast that is practically a best-of of Jarmusch’s to date, with Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Rosie Perez, Steve Buscemi and Eszter Balint all involved. A small town in Western Pennsylvania is suddenly beset by zombies, providing an unwelcome headache for the local police (Murray, Driver and also Chloë Sevigny) and the patrons of the only diner in town. There’s not a lot to report, nor much in the way of surprises, but it’s all good fun along the way, and Driver, despite having the most monotonous delivery this side of Tim Henman, is shaping up to be the most versatile actor in Hollywood. The critics, so often indulgent of Jarmusch, weren’t so impressed with this, but maybe I just like dumb shit.

Most mysteriously overrated film of the year

Da 5 Bloods – Spike Lee (United States) 156 minutes

Just as they did with Almódovar a couple of decades ago, critics have been over-compensating for having underrated Spike Lee’s mid-career work by being more indulgent of some of the more unexceptional of his later films. Da 5 Bloods is a case in point––a film that would have been greeted with mild enthusiasm only 15 years ago, but which is now garlanded with praise and tipped for a sheaf of Oscar nominations. The fact it premiered on Netflix and was seen by a lot more people than probably would have caught it in cinemas probably has a lot to do with this, but for all that it doesn’t pass muster as a great film.

Then again, the critics are probably doing no differently than they have done for past “Vietnam” films––there are few subgenres of film so routinely overpraised as Hollywood’s movies about what Vietnamese people call “the American war”. By focusing on African-American veterans, Da 5 Bloods clearly intends to subvert those predecessors, and there are numerous asides, familiar from Lee’s other work, that circumscribe the ambiguity many black American servicemen felt. But the film is as uninterested in the country where the war takes place as those films it aims to critique were. There are occasional glimpses, such as the mixed-race child Otis (Clark Peters) never knew he had, raised in Saigon by his old flame Tiên (Lê Y Lan), which raises the matter of racism in post-war Vietnam but this is summarily put to one side––another intriguing question left unexplored is how Tiên went from being despised pariah to the wealthy businesswoman she now is.

Instead, Lee reignites the flame with a fatuous caper, where the old platoon members look for the gold they once buried in a minefield and try to sequester it out of the country with the help of a dodgy French arms dealer played by Jean Reno. Vietnam, as ever in these films, is little more than a backdrop and its people have no agency (even the notion that Americans searching for gold would go unremarked by the government of a modern authoritarian state is fanciful) and there is no mention of the fact that Vietnam’s communist government, far warier of China’s regional influence, is now an ally of Washington’s. Whatever ambiguity there might be in Da 5 Bloods is concentrated firmly on the American side, in the character of Delroy Lindo’s Paul, a vocal Trump supporter. A huge missed opportunity was his possible interaction with the locals, many of whom share an enthusiasm for the accursed US president. A little more research might have unlocked this detail for Lee and his screenwriters.

There is a good film to be made about African-Americans in the Vietnam War but Albert and Allen Hughes’s overlooked Dead Presidents (1995) is far closer to it than Da 5 Bloods is. But, given that hundreds of thousands of lives in Western countries were lost this year to a deadly virus because of a stubbornly chauvinistic refusal to learn from Asian countries such as Vietnam, it is not surprising to see a film and those who praise it labour in a fog of ignorance and cultural solipsism.

Also worth a look

American Factory – Steven Bognar, and Julia Reichert (United States) 110 minutes

Bad Education – Cory Finley (United States) 108 minutes

Blow the Man Down – Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy (United States) 91 minutes

Dark Waters – Todd Haynes (United States) 126 minutes

Dick Johnson Is Dead – Kristen Johnson (United States) 89 minutes

Dolemite Is My Name – Craig Brewer (United States) 116 minutes

Downhill – Nat Faxon and Jim Nash (United States) 86 minutes

Generation Wealth – Lauren Greenfield (United States) 106 minutes

High Life – Claire Denis (France/Germany/Poland/United Kingdom/United States) 110 minutes

If Only (Magari) – Ginevra Elkann (Italy/France) 104 minutes

I’m Thinking of Ending Things – Charlie Kaufman (United States) 134 minutes

Knives Out – Rian Johnson (United States) 130 minutes

Little Joe – Jessica Hausner (Germany/Austria/United Kingdom) 105 minutes

Little Women – Greta Gerwig (United States) 135 minutes

Mank – David Fincher (United States) 131 minutes

Midsommar – Ari Aster (United States/Sweden) 148 minutes

Possessor – Brandon Cronenberg (United Kingdom/United States/Canada) 104 minutes

Sea Fever – Neasa Hardiman (Ireland/Sweden/Belgium/United Kingdom) 95 minutes

Shirley – Josephine Decker (United States) 107 minutes

Sorry We Missed You – Ken Loach (United Kingdom/France/Belgium) 100 minutes

The Souvenir – Joanna Hogg (United States/United Kingdom) 119 minutes

Tesla – Michael Almereyda (United States) 102 minutes

The Banker – George Nolfi (United States) 120 minutes

The Bare Necessity (Perdrix) – Erwan Le Duc (France) 102 minutes

The 40-Year-Old Version – Radha Blank (United States) 129 minutes

The King of Staten Island – Judd Apatow (United States) 136 minutes

The Laundromat – Steven Soderbergh (United States) 95 minutes

The Little Stranger – Lenny Abrahamson (Ireland/United Kingdom/France) 111 minutes

The Personal History of David Copperfield – Armando Iannucci (United Kingdom/United States) 119 minutes

The Plagiarists – Peter Barlow (United States) 76 minutes

The Tree House (Nhà Qây) – Truong Minh Qy (Vietnam) 84 minutes

The Truth (La Vérité) – Hirokazu Kore-eda (France/Japan) 106 minutes

The Vast of Night – Andrew Patterson (United States) 89 minutes

The Whistlers (La Gomera) – Corneliu Porumboiu (Romania/France/Germany) 97 minutes

Velvet Buzzsaw – Dan Gilroy (United States) 113 minutes

Vivarium – Lorcan Finnegan (Ireland/Denmark/Belgium) 97 minutes

Young Ahmed (Le Jeune Ahmed) – Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Belgium/France) 84 minutes

Where’d You Go, Bernadette – Richard Linklater (United States) 109 minutes