Highlights of this year in film, or a 2020 mood board? You decide.
...we did it.
WE SURVIVED 2020!
Before we get into it, I just want you - yes, you, all of you reading this - to take a second to pat yourself on the back. Congratulate yourself. We just made it through the most socially, economically, physically and spiritually challenging year seen on a global scale in the last half-century. Considering what the news cycle looked like at times this year (not to mention, in our case, some personal tragedies hitting close to home), just getting through this year in one piece, with family, friends, career intact, is one hell of an achievement. Because at times, admit it: just once this year - even for a second - you suspected that perhaps we wouldn't, not this time. Like me, you probably brushed that thought aside pretty swiftly, but the thought did occur.
But, somehow, we all got to the end - some of us rattled, some of us traumatised, some of finding we actually preferred the world to take a breather for a while, all of us disrupted in one way or another - and we might be stronger for it. I, for one, hope the world retains some of the lessons it learned under lockdown or social restrictions: an appreciation of small pleasures, a reconnection to the natural world, satisfaction in solitude, an awakening to the systemic forces that have shaped our world, an acknowledgment of one's unearned privilege, a renewed commitment to learning and fighting for the equal rights of all, a renewed sense of community (even in isolation), a rejection of consumerism for consumerism's sake (despite those cheeky online purchases we all made at times!) and just slowing the hell down. I hope.
Naturally, because of all this, our checklist of creative milestones was a lot skimpier in 2020. However, because I live with and love a creative dynamo, we still got things done: Pez created and wrote Cinema Viscera's first two ventures outside of film and video - the five-part audio sitcom podcast Moving On and the web comic The Others, which is 16 instalments (and two fairytale interludes) into its 19-part run. From the moment Melbourne went into its first lockdown, way back in March, we had a hankering to make a film in iso, with Pez as the cast and me as the crew. I battled with a story concept for weeks upon months for a feature idea, which became a mini-feature, which became a short, which collapsed entirely... and it wasn't until Pez (again) had a wonderful idea for a short film for Halloween, that we finally made something. She wrote Interference in late September, we shot it over four nights in mid-October and released it to our subscribers on October 31st... literally four days after our city's lockdown ended.
A silly spooky horror-comedy short about a medium winding up as the vessel for a decades-dead domestic dispute, Interference is now available exclusively to our Patreon subscribers at all levels. Oh, and we've been working on writing a brand new feature and rewriting another script we've had on the go for years (both horror movies!), and we've penned the first five stories for an upcoming multi-genre anthology feature all set around Christmas, currently titled December, for which we had our first cast read. Oh, and we're in the process of finding distribution and finishing funds for Apparitions, targets toward which we shuffle ever closer, with some good news hopefully on the horizon very soon... (Oh, and I also recorded my very first blu-ray audio commentary as a "film historian"!)
In the midst of all this, we got to see some movies. Some of them were even new. But given the peculiar circumstances of 2020, we got to spend the majority of our year deep-diving into the past, which made this following pre-emptive countdown the hardest yet...
PAUL ANTHONY NELSON'S TOP 20 RETRO REVELATIONS OF 2020
When Melbourne's first social lockdown began, Pez and I saw it as an opportunity, not only to take the chance to see heaps of films we've always wanted to see but never got the chance, or to dive deep for inspiration for future projects, or to finally crack open that awesome Ingmar Bergman Criterion Collection box set, but also (perhaps inspired by screenwriter Daniel Waters' interview on Josh Olson and Joe Dante's excellent The Movies That Made Me podcast) to designate themed movie nights for ourselves every night of the week: Macabre Mondays ('80s slashers and horror in general), TV Tuesdays (working through TV series, two episodes a week), "Why The Fuck Have I Not Seen This?" Wednesdays (long-overdue first-time views of famous, awarded or cult classics), Auteursdays (moving through a particular filmmaker's filmography), Fucking Primal Screen Fridays (our tongue-in-cheek term for the night we allocated for watching films I had to watch to review on Primal Screen, the radio show I co-host on Monday nights on Melbourne's 102.7 RRR FM), the sparingly-used Subculture Saturdays (which could be used for anything from sub-cultures to sub-genres to any thematic link, really) and Supersized Sundays (double-and-triple-features linked by pretty much anything we choose).
Essentially, all this means is, we watched a crap-ton of old movies this year, much, much more than usual.
In all, from the 444 feature films we watched this year, 193 were movies made between 1932 (Thirteen Women) and 2017 (1922) that I was watching for the very first time. Due to the sheer volume this, I very much considered widening my standard Top 20 list of new-to-me discoveries to a Top 30, but I didn't want to keep you all day... so it is with a heavy heart that I had to leave out Elim Klimov's Come and See, Peter Bogdanovich's Paper Moon, Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit, Peter Collinson's The Italian Job, Peter Greenaway's The Draughtsman's Contract, Frank Henenlotter's Brain Damage, John Badham's Saturday Night Fever, Peter Hunt's On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Jean-Pierre Melville's The Red Circle, Nicolas Roeg's The Witches and Ingmar Bergman's Scenes From a Marriage... and another 13 films right behind those!
So without further ado, here are the Top 20 new-to-me older films, made at least three years ago or earlier, that meant the most to me in 2020:
20. Even before the pandemic hit, we had started doing mini-retrospectives of directors' careers and Scottish auteur Lynne Ramsay's work was particularly revelatory to me. I'd loved her most recent film, You Were Never Really Here (which made this very list in 2018) and had never seen her first two films before. I found Ramsay's smashing, beautiful and affecting feature debut, Ratcatcher (1999), immediately established her gift for depicting the subjective reality of her characters, while presenting a Scottish social realist film that both stands in line with and transcends other films of its ilk, with frankness, affection and emotional grace. (Vale, little Snowball.) As for her second film? Stay tuned...
19. So, in the 1960s and '70s, actor Anthony Perkins and writer-composer Stephen Sondheim were famed throughout the Hollywood community for devising and organising incredible murder mystery parties for their friends. The two delighted so much in designing these complex mysteries that they decided to write a screenplay (the only produced film script either ever wrote)... and it's kind of awesome. Directed by Herbert Ross, The Last of Sheila (1973) is a brilliantly structured, ridiculously enjoyable mystery confection that also pulls no punches in satirising their Hollywood friends. Consistently funny, fast-moving, thoroughly unpredictable and stacked with an all-star cast in darkly delightful roles (my MVPs: Richard Benjamin and Dyan Cannon). It’s damn near perfect... and would be much higher on this list except for one truly bizarre plot point, regarding a dark secret one of the characters has in their past. It’s crazy how much this secret is hand-waved and not paid off, and it’s genuinely distracting for the last act of the film. It doesn't ruin the movie, but this choice will definitely leave you scratching your head. Ah, the ‘70s...
18. Stage director William Oldroyd's stunner of a feature debut, Lady Macbeth (2016), presents like a period romantic drama, but actually turns out to be the best undercover Film Noir I've seen in ages, with Florence Pugh's Catherine absolutely a femme fatale in the best of ways, in a period I've never seen this kind of thing set in before (could this be Paleo-Noir?); it's all about women strapped into a vile patriarchy much like the corsets they're pulled into, and one woman whose spirit will simply not allow her to settle for this. Shot and designed with brutally beautiful precision (that blue dress of Catherine's is almost a character in itself), rich with dark humour, life and simmering anger, and if you ever needed confirmation that Pugh is among the very best actors working right now, look no further.
17. Speaking of which, they sure don’t make ‘em like Three Days of the Condor (1975) anymore. (Well, the closest they come nowadays is for UK TV in 6-episode seasons, but I digress.) This low-key spy thriller is so subtly crafted, so immersive in the workaday reality it creates, instilling tension and thrills without having to blow a single thing up or tack on overblown spectacle — this is just a man and (soon enough) a woman running for their lives from a country so obsessed with its own power, so paranoid to hold on to it, that it wages war on its own citizens, even its own operatives. So much about the way this shakes out and wraps up feels either remarkably prescient, or reveals how little has actually changed. Stars Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, Cliff Robertson and Max Von Sydow are terrific, and director Sydney Pollack keeps it tight and focused (in a way his later films really aren’t), anchored by Lorenzo Semple Jr. and David Rayfiel’s wonderful script. It’s a great stealth Christmas-set holiday movie, too.
16. The Firemen's Ball (1967) is the very best of director Milos Forman’s early Czech films; a murderously dry, timelessly riotous satire of government institutions and the absolute mess of totalitarian rule his nation was experiencing, seen through the prism of a fire department’s shambolic attempt to honour an esteemed ex-president... which sees a raffle where prizes keep disappearing, a beauty contest the women keep fleeing, and men in charge who can't keep from floundering. Even with the underlying anger beneath it, it never stops being funny and builds to a handful of genuine laugh-aloud moments. One of the best satires of bureaucracies ever made (packed into an astonishing 73 minutes!), from this it’s not hard to see why ‘70s Hollywood would soon greet Forman with open arms.
15. Norman Jewison's seminal Best Picture Oscar-winning police thriller In The Heat of the Night (1967) is the best kind of defiant socially-motivated storytelling, giving audiences a kickass lead character, a compelling detective story where it’s not the responsibility of the oppressed to change the white guy’s mind — Sidney Poitier's Virgil Tibbs drives the story, he just wants to get the case closed and leave this cracker-ass town — and where a character’s changing attitude feels organic and genuine; Rod Steiger's sheriff becomes a sidekick, having his beliefs dismantled just by watching Tibbs be a human being (and a brilliant detective). Tibbs never acquiesces or extends the olive branch; it’s not on him. But while racial politics certainly underwrite every scene and Poitier’s every measured gesture or reaction (and that epic slap), it never overwhelms the nail-biting search for a killer in this festering, overheated town. More than 50 years on, it’s still a landmark in the way Hollywood looked at race on film, the proto-“buddy cop” picture, a police procedural to rival any detective show you're watching right now and “They call me MISTER TIBBS!” still elicits chills.
14. I'd avoided Lewis Gilbert's Alfie (1966) for so long because I'd expected it to be some kind of freewheeling "cheeky chappy" sex comedy... but, girl, was I delighted to be so wrong. Playing like a proto-Fleabag in many ways (although Alfie is much, much less sympathetic), this is a terrific, unexpectedly dark character study, beautifully written by Bill Naughton (based on his play), driven by an electric, layered performance from Caine. Given this looks at a particularly sad kind of toxic "love 'em and leave 'em" male sexuality, Caine's unique charm is essential to making Alfie watchable, believable or darkly relatable; we even feel for him when he experiences a moment or two of clarity. The women drawn into his orbit — played by Millicent Martin, Julia Foster, Jane Asher, and especially Vivien Merchant and Shelley Winters — are all beautifully drawn and feel painfully, defiantly real. I'd like to think that Alfie has learned from these experiences by the story's end, but I've got a grave feeling they will only compound his worldview, which might be the most horribly honest ending of all.
13. The undisputed jewel in the 1970s Pam Grier ‘Blaxploitation’ crown, Jack Hill's Coffy (1973) is a film that has everything: a great sleazy fake-out opening, a continually propulsive narrative, a powerful social conscience, a willingness to get down and dirty, an iconic leading character, kick-ass action scenes, scumbag villains, gritty cinematography and staging... all of which is the cosmos orbiting the birth of a new star. While Grier had presence and beauty from day one, her acting and combat physicality took a few films to follow, but here is where it all comes together, and it’s a sight to see. Watching Coffy wreak her righteous rampage of revenge through this landscape is always thrilling, sometimes funny and sometimes surprisingly emotional, and, as a unit, the troika of Grier, Hill and co-star Sid Haig never hit harder, looked better or shone brighter.
12. It’s a shame writer-director Matthew Bright’s career ran into a Tiptoes-shaped iceberg because his directorial debut, Freeway (1996), is a clever, surprisingly faithful, very-1990s National Enquirer-style reinvention of the Little Red Riding Hood story that has SO much going for it: a genuine affection for its characters, subverting those characters and the film's genre conventions at every turn, a wonderful lead who is as surprisingly sweet as she is fierce (I dig Witherspoon in this even more than in Election) and a boldly confident command of tone that struts the line between camp and cool. Please come back, Mr. Bright, all is forgiven!* How had I never seen this before??
(*Caveat: I’ve not seen Tiptoes).
11. With the true-life adaptation Fruitvale Station (2013), director Ryan Coogler makes a bruising, beautifully composed debut, following young Oscar Grant (brilliantly played by Michael B. Jordan) along what will be the last day of his brutally abridged life. Cooler goes for a lived-in verité feel and largely achieves it, despite some coincidences and contrivances (some of which, like the moments on the train before it's stopped, are speculations upon what might have happened) which leave it feeling a bit writerly at times, but the performances, cinematography and behaviours depicted within these events make it all feel so relatable, so heartbreakingly and, in the end, terrifyingly real. An airtight, moving portrait of how systemic racism and overzealous policing cut far too many young lives short.
10. Shoot The Moon (1982) blindsided me. An unjustly obscure drama from the late, weirdly underrated Alan Parker — arguably the best director to emerge from the British advertising scene of the late 1970s — and penned by Bo Goldman (no slouch himself), the two put a lot of themselves, honest and terrible, into this drama of a couple whose divorce after 15 years of marriage wreaks emotional havoc upon them and their four daughters. One of the very best films ever made about divorce, like most of Parker's films it's naturalistic 95% of the time and explosively heightened for the other 5%, capturing the simmering furnace of emotional violence that divorced couples hold within as the process upends their lives... or, more aptly, what they thought their lives would be. Diane Keaton and Albert Finney deliver career performances, but it's Dana Hill, as their eldest daughter, who slices your heart to bits. The way it lulls you into a sense that, just maybe, everything's going to be okay... and then slaps you open-handed with one hell of a wild (but earned) ending, is something that absolutely leaves a mark. One of the great American dramas of the 1980s.
9. Ingmar Bergman was almost a decade deep into his career as a film director, but relatively new to comedies, when he wrote and directed Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), the film that would make his name on the international stage: an enduringly brilliant battle-of-the-sexes comedy that could go toe-to-toe with any Hollywood screwball comedy Howard Hawks or Ernst Lubitsch could cook up. Gunnar Björnstrand and Eva Dahlbeck had already formed a terrific duo in Bergman's previous stab at comedy, A Lesson in Love, so he has the good sense to deploy them here as a divorced couple still engaged in emotional combat. Staggering in its emotional maturity, openness and willingness to tackle subjects like partner-swapping, sexual freedom, divorce and infidelity with such a frank, jocular, non-judgmental gaze, it plays like Swedish Billy Wilder. It may not be immediately apparent from its period trappings or, well, Bergman's reputation for chilly emotional gravity, but this is one of the most purely enjoyable films I saw all year.
8. The very definition of a good story well told, albeit one written and directed by giants (David Mamet and Sidney Lumet), The Verdict (1982) stars Paul Newman as a drunk, down-at-heel attorney deciding to fight a negligence case against a foe with resources as bottomless as their arrogance, because it's the right thing to do, and it's never too late to make your life worth a damn. Newman gives one of the all-time great performances, but Jack Warden — one of the very best supporting actors there ever was — almost matches him. Lumet's rep as an "invisible" director makes me watch out for his directorial choices more keenly; Newman having trouble getting his coat on during an argument -- leaving him perfectly split in two visually with his black overcoat on one half, lighter suit on the other -- or the way certain scenes are lit to highlight seemingly inconspicuous spaces, or the choice of that one crane zoom. The choice to follow its deeply satisfying ending with an odd coda (which itself ends abruptly) seems unnecessary, not telling us anything we didn't already know. Other than that one small gripe, this is perfect dramatic cinema.
7. The feature debut from French New Wave star director Jacques Demy, Lola (1961), follows a quintet of romantic souls through the city of Nantes, all holding some kind of unrequited desire for someone else. Anouk Aimée is magnetic as the titular character, but everyone's great; their interactions so natural, affecting and even amusing, shot in ravishing dusky black-and-white. Sealing the deal, though: I don't often relate this strongly to film characters, but the life of the male lead, Roland (Marc Michel), reminded me so much of my own twenties it was scary; always running late for barely tolerable office jobs, constantly falling for women who weren't interested in the same way, briefly thinking awfully of them before quickly realising that I was the problem, and never missing a chance to melancholically wander the city, hoping for an artistic adventure to emerge. (Let's just say I'm very grateful my thirties happened.)
6. While I am only a recent convert to the broken, intoxicating booze-poet reportage of Charles Bukowski, after seeing the all of his works adapted to film, Barbet Schroeder's Barfly (1987) is, by far, the closest anyone's come to capturing it on screen. Taken from the only original screenplay Bukowski ever wrote (which combines elements from his life, novels and poetry), this film nails the qualities that make his writing leap off the page, that make his work transcend masturbatory gutter-gazing to become darkly hilarious truth and punchily poetic outsider art, with the same economy and spirit. Mickey Rourke is terrific as Bukowski's alter-ego Henry Chinaski, as is an admirably de-glammed Faye Dunaway, who throws herself into this character in a way we barely got to see after the '70s ended (reminding us what a brilliant actress she could be when she's on song). From the circular loop of its opening and closing scenes, to the genuinely dingy apartments and bars, to the raucous, mordant humour, this gives you everything you'd want from a Bukowski story on film without having to live it: the freedom that comes from rejecting modern capitalist society's rules and dogma, alongside the sadness of spiralling into substance abuse and dependence. Friggin' loved this.
5. In what must be one of the greatest film directorial swan songs of all time, Hollywood legend Joseph L. Mankiewicz's stunning two-handed whodunit Sleuth (1972) pits the greatest version of late-career Laurence Olivier versus the greatest version of straight-outta-Swinging-London Michael Caine, seeing them verbally (and occasionally physically!) slugging it out in a potentially deadly tennis match of psychological gamesmanship, inside a gloriously overstuffed mansion with enough creepy automatons to haunt anyone's nightmares, slinging brilliant dialogue at each other from the poison pen of Anthony Shaffer, who never stops springing surprises... some of which you'll see coming, some you really won't, and others you'll just delight in seeing roll out, taking some pretty fun shots at masculinity all the while. Sure, it clocks in at a hefty at 138 minutes, but never, for a second, does it lack story or momentum. It seems amazing that this is from the same director as 1951's All About Eve, yet, upon reflection, it makes absolutely perfect sense — the two would make a fascinating (but lengthy!) double. A delight.
4. Ah, to disappear from your own life. This ever-tempting notion lies at the heart of Lynne Ramsay's elusive, intoxicating second feature Morvern Callar (2002), as Samantha Morton's title character finds her boyfriend dead at Christmas and, almost unconsciously, little by little, burns her old life down and transitions into a new, wildly unpredictable one, driven by grief, anger, unrealised dreams, youthful exuberance and pure sensation. One of the more fascinating explorations of rage and reinvention I've seen, underscored by a glorious mixtape of a soundtrack, as every scene pulsates with Ramsay's exquisite skill with capturing her characters' subjective reality. Track this one down.
3. A flat-out wonderful debut from Wes Anderson, Bottle Rocket (1996) shows his command of filmmaking craft from the jump, but is clearly still finding his voice, even though traces of it are here: a young man trying to impress a larger-than-life father figure, affectionately funny portrayal of people who think they have all the answers but don’t, and a Helvetica title card! More than anything, this film struck me as a comedy version of Mean Streets – let’s call it Mild Streets – so I was delighted to be reminded afterwards that this was one of Martin Scorsese’s favourite films of the 1990s. It unleashes Luke and Owen Wilson (the latter co-wrote the script with Anderson) onto an unsuspecting world, taking the shape of a sub-genre that so many young ‘90s filmmakers kicked off their careers with (the post-Tarantino caper film) and bending it to Anderson's own oddball will. Even if a few key moments of the plot are seemingly discarded (was there really no blowback whatsoever to those first two robberies?), this was a pure delight.
2. Like seeing Network for the first time, nothing prepares you for how horrifyingly prescient Elia Kazan's A Face In The Crowd (1957) is about the world and political culture we live in today. Griffith is brilliant on debut as a hee-hawing maniac who all too happily transforms into a demagogue before our very eyes, as is Patricia Neal, as a local radio gun who gradually realises she’s unleashed a monster, and a low-key, smart-aleck Walter Matthau, terrific as the film's conscience. Director Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg nail this in every way, from the manipulative dogma disguised as folksy wisdom, to the anti-intellectual “common man knows best” patter to the news media, TV industry and ad buyers being completely seduced by Rhodes’ confidence and popularity. Then, as now, psychopaths succeed. The ending suggests Kazan and Schulberg may have given the American people a little too much credit (to be fair, they needed to live another 60 years to see Trump in action to witness how much shit the US public will willingly take) and, if they were saying this six decades ago, why haven’t we learned never to trust a vainglorious lunatic?!
1. Astonishingly, even in its cut form and watched on VHS(!!), Ken Russell's controversial classic The Devils (1971) is still an outstanding, provocative masterpiece of cinema, where each department seems to top the next in terms of boundary-shoving excellence to tell an endlessly compelling, infuriating historical story, one which sadly never loses its relevance. Both the parts and the whole are stunning, from its attention-snatching opening pageant with its gender-fuck aesthetic, to the horrifying finale where the authoritative forces of corrupt religious piety do their damnable worst. Oliver Reed has never been better, Vanessa Redgrave has never been more detestable (or pitiable), Derek Jarman's all-white design of Loudon tells its own story, making for a dramatic future-past backdrop that signals a utopia but also foreshadows and barely keeps out the dread and hypocrisy beyond its walls. Everything about this film just works in one ecstatic concert. It's now one of my missions in life to see this fully restored and on the biggest, loudest screen possible. Even in this broken form, it's braver, more powerful, critical and painful than all but the greatest of films.
PAUL ANTHONY NELSON'S TOP 20 FILMS OF 2020
Given Melbourne cinemas closed in March and didn't open again until November, it may have seemed at one point like we wouldn't see too many new release movies... however, due to a lot of complimentary tickets to the online version of this year's Melbourne International Film Festival (I was part of their short film judging panel) and films being moved to streaming and Video-On-Demand platforms such as YouTube and AppleTV+, I wound up seeing 90 new release films in 2020 -- less than 2019's 115 but, somehow, more than 2018 (85) and 2017 (85) and only slightly less than 2016 (97)! So it was actually quite comparable to recent years, no Bell Curve required.
As always, for this list, I define a "new release" as a feature film (60 minutes and over) intended for theatrical, streaming or home video release which had its premiere paid public release (via cinemas, streaming, VOD, home video, festivals or galleries) in Australia during 2020.
Amazingly, I loved 30 of the 90 new films I saw this year, every film mentioned here received four stars or more from me (only the top 4 received four-and-a-half stars), and only 16 of 90 received two-and-a-half stars or less. Given the clustercuss the rest of this year was, I'm as shocked as anybody that 2020 was actually a terrific year for cinema.
So... let's jump in, shall we?
30. Dark City Beneath The Beat (seen at MIFF 68 1/2) - Vibrant, poignant and invigorating collage of life in the Baltimore projects, from the point of view of black folks who use music as a way to not escape from their socioeconomic plight but to transcend it, to enrich their neighbourhoods and give people young and old an outlet and a future. Lots of colour and movement against a backdrop of courage, defiance and love, all packed into an economical 65 minutes, with pumping beats and thrilling dance (especially the crazy-legs stuff).
29. Palm Springs (seen on Amazon Prime Video) - Nyles (Andy Samberg) and Sarah (Cristin Milioti) meet at a wedding, when a detour to a mysterious cave suddenly finds them repeating the same day, over and over again. While this may sound familiar, this candy-coloured, hugely affable, consistently funny rom-com spins the Groundhog Day idea in clever directions, acts as a showcase for its two likeable leads, makes a decent metaphor of the idea of true love and long-term relationships as a repeating time loop, while even more successfully -- if inadvertently -- feeding into the 2020 zeitgeist of time loops and scarily similar days. Surprisingly robust story logic, too! Lots of fun.
28. Farewell Amor (seen at MIFF 68 1/2) - Full of experience, truth and love, and often light of heart despite the subject matter, about a man who, after 17 years, is finally able to afford to bring his family from Angola to his new home and life in New York, only to find his wife absorbed in religion and his now-grown daughter a stranger. The best kind of indie movie, exploring huge themes on a small canvas, where conflict arises from the differing expectations they all have from one another. There are no villains here, just humans trying their best under difficult circumstances.
27. Emma. (available on VOD) - This pleasantly surprising new adaptation reminds us that, while the rom-com finds its roots in Shakespeare, Jane Austen is the grandmother of the form. Autumn De Wilde makes a strong feature directorial debut, pitching the wit, farce, entanglements and poignancy at just the right levels, while empowering her costume and set design team to go full Wes Anderson, with colour-blocking, floral prints, wallpaper and picture frames all integral to illustrating the story, which often, charmingly, makes it all look like a graphic novel in motion.
26. Shiva Baby (seen at MIFF 68 1/2) - Emma Seligman's film might play like a maxi-sized bottle episode of a sitcom, but it’s a brilliant, breathless one, ratcheting up anxiety as it hurls a delirious amount of minute-to-minute challenges at its (excellent) lead, who remains at this shiva like it's The Exterminating Angel, bound by the duty and fear of being a good daughter to her Jewish family, something at which she already feels like she fails daily. At 77 minutes, this whips through twice the plot and complications of two-hour Hollywood comedies, but never skimps on fleshing out its characters. Mazel tov!
25. For Sama (seen on VOD) - A first-person documentary of life, birth and death during wartime in Syria, shot with blunt honesty, defiance, profound sadness and confusion and even the odd touch of gallows humour. It is frequently upsetting, but a necessary, matter-of-fact look at a part of our world that suffers grave inhumanity inflicted upon its people on a daily basis; where children casually rattle off names of bombs, makeshift hospitals built from rubble see 300 patients a day and nobody flinches at the sound of explosions. Probably avoid if you're feeling emotionally fragile.
24. Disclosure: Trans Lives On Screen (seen on Netflix) - Sam Feder's documentary about the history of transgender representation on screen is Exhibit A as to why we need to share the mic around to all artists who wish to express their authentic truth. Pretty much every major trans actor and filmmaker is featured here, taking us on a journey through American cinema history to see just how thoughtless, damaging and transphobic portrayals of trans characters have been; seeing trans artists describing having to sit through all this, what they've been taught to think about themselves, or the portrayals that meant the most to them, or what inspired them to blaze their own trails, is poignant, inspiring, sometimes even very amusing, stuff. It's almost entirely Hollywood-centric, ignoring some terrific portrayals of trans experiences outside of America (only 2017's A Fantastic Woman is mentioned), but is essential viewing nonetheless.
23. Birds of Prey, or the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (seen in cinemas) - Director Cathy Yan fires all the glitter cannons of style and bombast at this, a winning DCEU take on sisterhood and solidarity, and Margot Robbie clearly relishes playing Harley, her brand of adorably brutal anarchy now down to a tee. Ewan McGregor and Chris Messina make hilariously douchey/creepy villains, Mary Elizabeth Winstead's badass, delightfully awkward Huntress is glorious and Yan and Second Unit maestro Chad Stahelski (John Wick) orchestrate the most breathlessly kinetic, bone-snapping action scenes I've seen in a major studio film in ages. The best DCEU film so far, by a huuuuuge distance.
22. Boys State (seen on Apple TV+) - Every year, a thousand 17-year old boys from Texas gather to form a mock government from the ground up, to educate themselves about the political process or, in many cases, to kick off nascent political careers. The kids directors Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine choose to follow are superbly picked; the charismatic Bush-like kid ready to play to the crowd, the budding political operative relishing the opportunity to use any means necessary to get his guy across the line, the eloquent public speaker who may be better utilised in defence of social justice, and the thoughtful young left-wing candidate who might beat the odds in this hive of Deep South conservatism. It's primarily a fascinating character study; politically, it confirms what we already know but shows in stark relief just how easily the dirty tricks, smear campaigns and obfuscating semantics our politicians indulge in come to these kids. If you're looking for hope in the system to improve on its own accord, you won't find it here. (Also, apparently there's a Girls State that happens in parallel to this every year, and now I want to see the doc about that.)
21. Atlantis (seen at MIFF 68 1/2) - Shot in a static tableau style with the actors masterfully blocked within the frame — only a handful of shots move, and there are only 28 in the entire thing — this examination of the scars left by war, where corpses are continually dug up and identified, now-useless industries abandon their workers and special military skills are now only good for shooting at immovable targets or one’s own brain once the PTSD depression gets too overwhelming. The story and its characters are revealed in a beautiful, observational style, and it might be the bleakest movie with the most believably (relatively) hopeful ending I’ve seen in a while. It’s not always subtle (an intimate sex scene in the back of a truck filled with cadavers speaks volumes) but, for all the quiet grim purpose this film moves with, it does have a steady momentum and perfectly composed ugliness that is weirdly beautiful.
The Top 20
#20: Tigers Are Not Afraid
(seen on Shudder)
Terrific, haunting magical realist horror drama centring a generation of Mexican children who have lost parents and families to the rampant cartels who rule many parts of the nation. Director Issa Lopez creates a strong metaphor, seamlessly blending ghostly presences with real-life horrors as a sense of loss and futility pervades every frame, achieving a perfect balance of terror, sadness... and hope, at the last vestiges of innocence these kids have left. She elicits terrific performances from the kids and the creepy moments are highly effective. Smart, moody, impressive work, even moreso given Lopez was previously known as a director of comedies! Seek this one out.
#19: Born To Be
(seen at MIFF 68 1/2)
Transgender people are heroes. Regardless of what stage of transition they are in, the territory they traverse emotionally, psychologically and physically every single day is positively Herculean. This documentary is such a beautiful illustration of this, a fly-on-the-wall look at the brave people awaiting, undergoing or recovering from gender affirmation surgery at the recently established Mount Sinai Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery, and Dr. Jess Ting, the brilliant, quirky surgeon who spearheads the unit. Aside from his genius innovations in the field, Dr. Ting also serves as a gentle avatar for cis audiences perhaps unfamiliar with the transgender community's lives and struggles, guiding us through his awakening and affection for his patients, who are lovely, generous, candid and often disarmingly funny. Tania Cypriano's film is never exploitative nor reductive, it is admirably discreet and avoids platitudes; a portrait of people navigating a journey toward their true selves and some measure of happiness. A wonderful film.
#18: Dark Waters
(seen in cinemas)
Riveting real-life David & Goliath story of former defence attorney Robert Bilott’s battle to hold the Du Pont Corporation accountable for its dumping of toxic chemicals into a small town’s water supply... except, every time David scores a blow, Goliath wallops him back and David has to keep dragging himself up again and again, his ultimate victory as pyrrhic as it is rousing, given the capitalist giant’s near-bottomless pockets. While Bilott’s fight for justice was an incredible act, director Todd Haynes and writers Mario Correa & Matthew Michael Carnahan don’t play it as a hero’s journey — the victims are always within sight, always urging Bilott to finish what he started. Mark Ruffalo embodies Bilott as a once-blind Everyman who learns to see over the course of the movie, then sees so much it damn near kills him. Haynes and his crack DOP Ed Lachman shoot it on 35mm film and throw the odd flourish in here and there (that crash zoom!), but overall, it's the real-life horror story it tells that burrows into your head, told unfussily but emphatically.
(seen at MIFF 68 1/2)
I don’t know enough about Shirley Jackson’s life to know how closely this reflects her truth, but otherwise this is a belter, with director Josephine Decker moving towards a more narratively clean character study without losing an inch of the haunting, fragmented, powerfully subjective style she’s established so firmly over her career thus far, in a biopic which could well be titled Who’s Afraid of Shirley Jackson?, given its resemblance to a certain film and play. It gives Jackson’s story the psychologically fraught tone of her stories, shows the rush of creativity while visualising it in interesting ways, its characters (especially Shirley and Stanley) are complex and contain multitudes, anchored by crackerjack performances (Moss and Stuhlbarg are mesmerising) and — true to form for Decker — there are a handful of moments here where you’re not sure how the actors are going to react next, feeling thrillingly alive. Beautiful, uncomfortable and darkly amusing, it makes you want to rush out and inhale Jackson’s back catalogue of novels and stories.
#16: Sound of Metal
(seen on Amazon Prime Video)
Films this beautiful, thoughtful and tender aren't normally this nervy, punchy or visceral, but first-time feature director Darius Marder pulls off quite a feat with this searching character study of a metal drummer and former heroin addict who suddenly loses his hearing, forcing him to reluctantly seek help at a remote institute for recovering deaf addicts, where he must face what terrifies him most: silence, and his own thoughts. Marder wrote the story with Derek Cianfrance, director of Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond The Pines, with whom Marder shares a restless indie energy, attention to character detail and rich humanity. Riz Ahmed has been carving out one of the best careers of any actor of the last decade, but this might be his finest work so far, and Olivia Cooke gives an intelligent performance. It's a film that has a huge sensitivity to, and involvement of, the people it portrays, which only makes the drama deeper, more specific, and more affecting. Keen to revisit this in a cinema, as the sound design and visuals are something else.
#15: The Assistant
(seen on VOD)
Spare, intelligent, asphyxiating observational drama that recalls no less than Michael Haneke in style, and tackles the topic of toxic workplaces and abusive management in a smart, quietly fearsome, non-didactic way that’s seriously impressive, especially given it’s Kitty Green’s dramatic debut. Julia Garner carries the film like a champ; her weariness, detachment, terror, bruised confidence and fearful complicity is all there, in small, cumulative gestures. This is a real grower, which lingered darkly in my brain for weeks afterward.
#14: The Platform
(seen on Netflix)
Smashing sci-fi allegory for the way we build societies, the ways we're incentivised to screw each other over, made with vision, style, brutal efficiency... and heart. Extols the virtues of social activism but isn't rose-coloured about its ability to change a damn, either, which felt truthful in this messed-up capitalist casino we find ourselves in. Loved trying to unpack the world of this (even though it may not all completely hang together), but even outside of this, it's a gripper. Just take what you need, folks. The thing you love most is right there, after all.
#13: DAU. Natasha
(seen at MIFF 68 1/2)
As European as cinema gets, this first look at Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s bizarre, sprawling, Synecdoche New York-style cinematic experiment (this chapter co-directed with Jekaterina Oertel) is reminiscent of experimental theatre of the 1960s and ‘70s, with a bit of Lars von Trier thrown in, but it’s also a mad, darkly funny, confronting and always engrossing character study — think of plays like Genet’s The Maids — that also serves as a first-hand trip through the asphyxiating mindfuck of just living day to day in a totalitarian society ready and all-too willing to destroy you at any moment. Natalia Berezhnaya as Natasha is outstanding; from one of the funniest and most uneasy fight scenes I’ve seen in ages to an extended, very graphic, very real sex scene to a horrifying interrogation scene, I can’t imagine how challenging this must have been to film. Looking forward to exploring more nooks and crannies that the world of DAU has to offer.
#12: One Cut of the Dead
(seen on blu-ray; available on Shudder)
For over two years, I'd heard so many great things (and precious few spoilers) about Shinichiro Ueda's film from US movie podcasts and review sites, and the wait has been maddening. Finally, it became all too much for me, so I bit the bullet and bought the limited edition UK blu-ray... and I'm delighted to say it fulfilled all my expectations, and then some. What starts out as an amusing -- if ever-so-slightly shambolic -- one-shot zombie movie set inside a factory in Japan becomes something entirely different once the director calls cut on that half-hour take... it becomes something thrilling, hilarious, wonderful, even big-hearted. I won't go too deep into it here, but if you've ever worked on a film set, even one day in your life, you need to treat yourself to this film. Even if you find the action of the first half-hour overly familiar, please stick with it: you will be rewarded with one of the most disarmingly charming movies you'll see this, or any, year.
#11: The Gentlemen
(seen in cinemas)
Guy Ritchie returns to his familiar stomping ground of London gangsters, dealers and chancers with this tremendously enjoyable bucket-full-of-scorpions puzzle-box of a crime flick, as various low-lives and high-society-lives vie for the crown of English-American drug lord Mickey Pearson's (Matthew McConaughey) empire of hydroponic black sites. It's a slippery, twisty, frequently funny blast with an irreverent attitude to the here and now (as well as the tabloid press), with all-star cast relishing the chance to bite into their flashy, villainous rogues gallery of characters.
The Top 10
(seen on Shudder)
Everything about the pitch, "a bunch of young adults get haunted over a Zoom call" screamed "RUN AWAY!" to me... but then, an increasing amount of horror connoisseur friends started recommending it, so I gave it a shot... and much to my surprise, loved this! It's genuinely scary, tightly constructed and well cast, but, more than anything, this is an alarmingly agile work, conceived in March, picking up on and utilising the tropes of Zoom calls and COVID-era living arrangements we've had months since to get used to, weaponising virtual backgrounds and face filters to terrifying (or even darkly funny) effect and distilling it all to the runtime of an extended Zoom meeting. What's more, director Rob Savage had to direct his cast to stage their own practical effects and stunts due to social restrictions and the film was completed from conception to release in twelve weeks. Even without all this background, it's a banger of a little horror flick, but with it? Seriously impressive. Kudos to all involved.
#9: Welcome To Chechnya
(seen at MIFF 68 1/2)
One of the more distressing, truly frightening documentaries of recent years, exploring the waking nightmare of the state-sponsored, socially encouraged “gay purge” that LGBTQ people living in Chechnya are living under today, and the brave souls determined to help them escape to the safety of other countries. Told intimately and matter-of-factly — it could’ve leaned so much harder on what are likely scores of video recordings of public beatings; instead, the filmmakers surgically deploy a handful to illustrate how horrifyingly commonplace it is — with an innovative use of Deepfake VFX technology and dubbing to disguise its subjects’ identity without obscuring their humanity, we see and hear every painful expression (and it leads to one particularly dramatic reveal late in the film). Hundreds of people donated their faces and voices to the film so the film’s subjects could bravely bring their urgent, harrowing story to the world, adding a grace note of beauty to an otherwise thoroughly upsetting film.
#8: La Llorona
(seen at MIFF 68 1/2)
(No, not that La Llorona.) Given Jayro Bustamante's film employs the tropes of the horror genre to examine guilt and justice in regard to the genocide of thousands of native Mayans in Guatemala’s “Silent Holocaust” of 1981-93, using the legend of the Weeping Woman, La Llorona (which shares a name with the site of one of the regime’s earliest massacres), one may expect something heavy on politics and light on chills... but guess again. While it builds steadily and is not a horror film for multiplexes, it does maintain an increasingly asphyxiating sense of dread, exquisitely shot with shadows and hazy light and beautifully acted and staged, as testimonies of real-world horrors slowly blend seamlessly into the horrors of myth, witchcraft and vengeance. (One also wonders how much Stockholm Syndrome is at play with the women who populate the dictator’s home.) When things do get a bit ghostly toward the end, it’s genuinely creepy, resonating with the loss and anger of generations of people. Told with elegance, economy, atmosphere and rage, this is an intelligent work of horror that resonates.
#7: She Dies Tomorrow
(seen at MIFF 68 1/2)
Quietly stunned by Amy Seimetz's second feature, a stylish micro-budget indie that finds its cast of characters (played by an Ocean's Eleven of post-New American Indie Cinema actors) increasingly afflicted with the sense that their end is very fucking nigh, which invokes many reactions — from thrashing fear to benign acceptance — of the oblivion they feel is to come. An American indie cousin to Lars von Trier's Melancholia in some senses, Seimetz's film is surprisingly funny, quietly enthralling and, as others have said, feels very much prescient of the current COVID-era mood of many — lots of staring out windows, contemplating one's life and whether this really might be the end of all things — but it's also a damn fine reflection of the time between waking up and reading the news (or, worse, social media) each morning. (The moment where multiple characters arrive at the same realisation at once is damn near transcendent.) Already feeling like this might become one of the most rewatchable films about apocalyptic dread ever made. All hail Jane Adams.
#6: First Cow
(seen at MIFF 68 1/2)
Lovely, sensitive frontier drama (and low-key heist film!) about two gentle men finding friendship in an emerging America already ruled by brutes. Because it’s directed by Kelly Reichardt (Certain Women), characters are developed subtly through small gestures and shared moments, and her and co-screenwriter/novelist Jon Raymond have created two wonderful people here in Cookie (John Magaro) and King-Lu (Orion Lee), who can’t help but earn our affections almost immediately. Between its sweet central relationship, class commentary, painterly compositions, surprising suspense and lasting poignance, this is among Reichardt’s very best work in an already strong career. Oh, and that cow is adorable.
#5: Bad Education
(seen on VOD)
Playing like something Michael Ritchie might have made in the 1970s, director Cory Finley and screenwriters Mike Makowsky & Robert Kolker explore political corruption through the microcosm of a Long Island school district that was the site of America’s largest embezzlement of public school funds. In keeping with its ‘70s New Hollywood ethos, the film takes an impressively non-judgmental approach to the tale’s vainglorious felons, digging into their complexities and contradictions and engendering empathy for them even as they rip everyone off and set their own lives on fire. The entire cast are wonderful, but this represents a new high watermark for Hugh Jackman, astonishingly good, weaponising his charm to bring a humanity to his true-life character, Frank Tassone, sensitively handling his double life and relationships even as it skews his outrageous sense of vanity and capacity for deception as he's hoisted on his own petard. Oh, and did I mention it’s shot on grainy 35mm film? Loved this.
#4: A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood
(seen in cinemas)
Beyond general pop culture knowledge, I had little experience of Mr. Rogers (I hadn't yet seen the 2018 doc Won't You Be My Neighbour?), so I was terrified this would be sentimental dreck... but director Marielle Heller had other plans. She's crafted a lovely, touching and wise film, one full of smart directorial and screenwriting touches, such as the way it's structured like an episode of Mr. Rogers' Neighbourhood (with miniature exteriors), or the way it treats Rogers as an antagonist to its lead (an underrated Matthew Rhys, playing a fictionalised version of Esquire journalist Tom Junod), or the pivotal scene where Mr. Rogers asks us to stop for a minute. It's full of heart and humanity, but too smart to cop out for easy answers; everything feels earned. In a world as angry, shouty and divided as the one we find ourselves in today, Heller's film is a clear-eyed, big-hearted reminder that it doesn't have to be like this. We all were children once, that broken people of all stripes can find a way towards repair, and perhaps we should all ask ourselves daily: "What would Mr. Rogers do?" (Obviously, I cried. A lot.)
#3: Uncut Gems
(seen on Netflix)
When it comes to filmmakers chronicling the evolution of New York on screen, have Josh and Benny Safdie become the millennial answer to Sidney Lumet? A study of the chaos of hubris, ego, hope(lessness) and narcissism in our late-capitalist world, brilliantly orchestrated by the Safdie Brothers, who show visible growth in conception and control from film to film, and sensationally embodied by Adam Sandler, an outwardly unlikely yet strangely perfect avatar for the brothers’ style. Julia Fox also makes a huge impression on debut as Sandler’s character’s mistress, who grows from an apparent cliche to the living, beating heart of the movie. A breathless two-and-a-quarter-hour anxiety attack that’s also enormously thrilling, and a great modern New York City movie, which are too few and far between nowadays.
#2: Promising Young Woman
(seen in cinemas)
Emerald Fennell conjures a miracle debut as writer-director, writing compelling characters, managing tonal shifts with astonishing skill befitting a veteran (albeit with a young director's confidence) and has the bravery to go thematically where others fear to tread. Carey Mulligan has never been better, and the casting of affable male character actors as self-proclaimed "nice guys" behaving horribly as well as genre/comedic actors in dramatic roles (especially Clancy Brown & Jennifer Coolidge as Mulligan's parents) is brilliantly canny. Perfectly illustrates the the sexual landscape women must navigate daily simply for being themselves, craven young men who hide behind niceness to take advantage of vulnerable women (and tell themselves otherwise) and people of both genders who keep these systems in place, whether through convenience, profit or fear, but does it all through a thrilling, funny, horrifying and exhilarating genre ride. Forget those pose-throwing, surface-level, subtext-free agenda pieces you've seen of late: this film, and Fennell, are the real deal.
...which leaves us with...
#1: The Lighthouse
(seen in cinemas)
With astonishing control of atmosphere and two remarkable performances from Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, writer-director Robert Eggers follows up, and somehow bests, his stunning 2015 debut The Witch with this minor miracle of a movie — seriously, how did this get financed in today’s landscape? Bless you A24 and Regency — giving us a feverish, hilarious satire of all sorts of modes of masculinity, luscious 4:3 black-and-white cinematography, the most bewitching atmosphere of dread this side of David Lynch and Carl Theodor Dreyer (with a splash of Buster Keaton?) and the most bracingly convincing cinematic descent into madness seen in years. No film this year was more immersive, more otherworldly and more appropriate for the enforced cabin fever and elastic experience of time most of us would experience in the year to follow. It's the cinematic trip of this last year, and one I look forward to revisiting.
...and that's all, folks! If you've gotten to this point, thank you for patiently reading my voluminous nonsense for another year.
From us at Cinema Viscera, we wish you all a MUCH happier, healthy, safe and prosperous New Year.
Love and cinema,
Paul Anthony Nelson
What fresh hell is this?
A semi-regular blog exploring films, popular culture, current or future projects and (more often) year-end wrap-up and opinions from CINEMA VISCERA's co-chief, Paul Anthony Nelson.