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The disaster movie provides an opportunity to show the experience of, well, disasters from various perspectives. 1970s classics The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno brought together disparate people whose differences proved essential to their survival, a trope also used in Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012. Ric Roman Waugh’s Greenland follows a similar pattern to those of Emmerich, but with a serious tone more akin to those of Irwin Allen. Rather than treating the impact of a comet on the Earth as a rollercoaster ride, Greenland leans into the grim and frightening aspects of the disaster. Part of this comes from the wide scale destruction, but there is just as much horror to be found in the actions of humanity. Structural engineer John Garrity (Gerard Butler) and his wife Allison (Morena Baccarin) and son Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd) are selected for evacuation by the US government. However, no one that they know is selected, and their journey towards safety rapidly exposes the severe triage being enacted on the population. Only those designated as healthy and useful are to be evacuated, and desperation leads to panic leads to violence. There is ample destruction and some jaw-dropping spectacle, but Waugh wisely keeps the focus on the human drama, ensuring that we feel every panic-stricken step of the Garritys’ journey. The film’s commitment to this conceit results in a tense and gripping tale of family, fear and hope, that also succeeds in being emotional and moving.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 has all the features of Hollywood’s grandstanding approach to dramatising history. It’s also really good at it. Writer-director Aaron Sorkin combines a typically razor-sharp script with whip smart cuts, interweaving the story of the 1968 events that led up to the eponymous trial with the 1969 trial. In doing so, Sorkin and his ensemble cast, including Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance, Sacha Baron Cohen, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Frank Langella and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, deliver an impassioned, sometimes grim but also witty drama that uses the courtroom as a battleground between social resistance and state oppression. Courtroom histrionics are used judiciously, while the links between potentially disparate social issues are highlighted in such a way as to demonstrate the need for resistance movements to work together. In doing so, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is not only a powerful drama, but also a deeply relevant tale of our times that, while sobering, also finds the space to be triumphant.
Movie archaeologists have been presented as dynamic adventurers, such as Indiana Jones and Lara Croft. It is, therefore, refreshing to see an archaeologist who is quiet, subdued and very careful, played by that most diffident of English gents, Ralph Fiennes. Fiennes is Basil Brown, employed by Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) in 1938 to excavate a mound on her Suffolk land, a mound that proves to be of historical significance. Director Simon Stone, working from Moira Buffini’s adaptation of John Preston’s novel, follows the characters at an intimate level, allowing us to appreciate the close bond that Basil and Edith, as well as Edith’s son Robert (Archie Barnes), share with the very earth that they interact with. This bond is contrasted with other attitudes to the artefacts, and also interwoven with confrontations that the characters make with serious illness, questions of sexuality and the approaching drums of war. The end result is an exquisite and melancholy love letter to the English countryside, that also meditates upon our relationships with time and with history.
2020 was a train wreck, and not the amusing Amy Schumer variety. Amidst a global pandemic and fluctuating lockdown, riots and contested elections, wretched negotiations and a profound desire to move to New Zealand, one of the great sources of comfort and inspiration was, of course, the movies! But cinemas were closed for months on end, forcing me, for the first time, to include online releases in my review of the year. Is this a Bombshell the scale of which were dropped in 1917? Are the Dark Waters of 2020 inducing Sea Fever beyond The Lighthouse? Or can we find a guiding Tenet or helpful Relic in His House, but watch out for The Invisible Man, he can be quite a Parasite.
The year began with awards season, which included some pleasing variety. The biggest movie news of the season was, of course, Parasite becoming the first international film to win Best Picture, which had me jumping for glee. Not that I necessarily rate Parasite as my film of the year, but it helped give the year a strong start alongside Jojo Rabbit, 1917, Bombshell and Queen & Slim.
The next month and a bit brought literally arty-farty fare, Dickens and Lovecraft adaptations rubbing shoulders with comic book action and horrors both fantastical and real (or not) life. Then lockdown rolled in like The Jesus and streaming became the norm.
Horror was well represented, from a tedious Psycho ripoff to a timely oceanic contagion, alongside resurrecting Richards and high school purgatory, while people trapped in single locations veered from the sublime to the ridiculous. More wild environments offered scares and snores, some exotic locations and ample gore. FrightFest offered some of the best and the worst of the year, including spaces both spooky and gory, some sinning, banishing and reckoning wobbles and some dreck.
Streaming services provided outlets for action and sci-fi, as well as opportunities for big name directors like Spike Lee and David Fincher as well as Pete Docter. Unexpected gems appeared with interesting names including Koko-di Koko-da and LX 2048, and my last two visits to the cinema gave me spectacle of the inverted and the nostalgic kind. But perhaps the biggest surprise of the year was a savage mockumentary featuring little dolls. Just goes to show, even in a year as restricted as 2020, the medium of film still manages to impress and delight.
Drawn from this cinematic smorgasbord, here are my favourite films of 2020. As always, my top twelve of the year are based on UK release dates, and completely subjective.
On the twelfth day of Christmas
The movies gave to me
Twelve Manky screenplays
Eleven family Relics
Nine Invisible Men
Eight Vasts of Night
Six in His House
Five Kelly histories
Four jazzing Souls
Queen & Slim
and one take through 1917.
An extraordinary, intense, visceral, immersive, brutal yet lyrical and at times eerily beautiful journey through hell on earth.
A meticulously plotted, impeccably directed, ingeniously inventive suspense thriller/dark comedy of social satire, familial loyalty and the interconnections between us all.
3. Queen & Slim
A beautiful, lyrical, heartbreaking, extremely timely and utterly wonderful road movie of growing love, solidarity and community within inequality, oppression and unwanted notoriety.
A gorgeous, ingenious, moving, dazzling and sublime animated meditation on body and mind, music, mortality and the meaning of life.
A jagged, fragmented and striking drama of masculine identity, homosocial bonds and psychopathology in a deceptively expansive and toxic environment.
6. His House
An atmospheric, terrifying, heartbreaking, timely and utterly brilliant portrait of haunting, loss, asylum seeking and the struggle to belong.
An equal parts hideous and grotesque, hilarious and insightful satire on gender, discourse, hegemony and capitalism.
A beautifully assured, enthrallingly paced and wonderfully engaging blend of physical and social period detail, genre homage and innovation, long takes, jump cuts and the power of sound and communication.
A nerve-shredding, gut clenching and deeply affecting horror of gaslighting, terrifying negative space and the oppressive, predatory gaze of toxic masculinity.
A massive, mind-frying, globe-skipping experiential adventure of espionage, ego and eruptions/inversions through space and time, that falters on scale but delivers with exhilarating pace.
An ominous, petrifying and mournful journey into creeping dread, generations, recriminations and acceptance.
A gorgeous, complex, scathing yet affectionate investigative portrait of creativity, conscience, historical artifice and the interweaving of entertainment and politics.
A striking, gripping and urgent tale of toxic masculinity, institutional oppression, the danger and the necessity of speaking out.
A vibrant, beautiful, whimsical and metatastic romp of family, identity and owning one’s story.
A grim, oppressive nightmare of isolation, stark visuals, crashing sound and escalating madness.
A knowingly witty, deliriously scrappy, gloriously silly comic book crime action smack ‘em whack ‘em of breaking free and flipping the bird at convention.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind spliced with Annihilation blended with Evolution and filtered through The Thing equals a haunting, eerie and often terrifying sci-fi horror of family, body, spatial and mind fuckery.
A grim, dour, moodily lit and ominously atmospheric tale of corporate power, public victims and indomitable courage.
A genre-savvy and effectively atmospheric creature feature/infection thriller that uses the familiarity of its tropes to its advantage.
A visceral, intense, bone-crunching, bombastic and blistering bonanza of action, injury and loyalties.
A somewhat disparate and overdone but still powerful, stylish, timely and urgent drama of legacies racial, historical, familial, national, fiscal and traumatic.
An escalatingly sinister, consistently nasty and genuinely terrifying blend of home invasion, folk and body horror, with strong undertones of class and gender warfare.
A beautiful, intelligent and quite marvellous modern fairytale of identifying true love, living happily and the telling of stories.
An intermittently funny and nasty if blunt satire and thematically confused chase horror of mixed politics, creative kills and the dangers of social media.
A handsomely mounted and efficient if rather jarring and unconvincing transnational neo-noir/psychological horror.
The Dead Ones
A discordant, jarring and rather tasteless teen horror of adolescent angst, cyclical violence and convolution for the sake of convolution.
A limp and uninspired home invasion/surveillance horror of generic cliches, tiresome backstories and obvious recriminations, sorely lacking tension or relevance that literally falls off a cliff.
A garish, confused and awful muddle of genre tropes, wretched people and nonsensical ideas around fame, recriminations and stupidity.
A potentially grim and gory survival slasher mushed clumsily inside an overly convoluted plot and stilted execution.
Turkey of the Year
An incompetent, joyless, clumsy, obvious and thunderingly stupid slasher that ruins possible homage with laboured and nonsensical plotting, inert direction, slopping editing, stilted dialogue, clunky transitions and an utter lack of tension, menace, scares and even a sense of fun.
Certainly a surprising year, and strangely more films than in previous years that I thought were pretty bad. But the good outweighs the bad, and bring on 2021 and all its movies, whenever they may arrive.
Disney have perfected the art of branding, first by establishing a brand and then consistently and skilfully deconstructing it. 2020’s direct to Disney+ release Godmothered demonstrates the House of Mouse’s understanding of their back catalogue, as an idealistic heroine seeks to achieve her destiny, and in doing so encounters ideas and beliefs different to her expectations thanks to the modern world, and yet still sprinkles enchantment wherever she goes. Our heroine is Eleanor (Jillian Bell), a trainee fairy godmother who seeks to grant wishes, and in doing encounters Mackenzie (Isla Fisher), a single mother who gave up on fairy tale endings long ago. Godmothered is essentially Enchanted with a fairy godmother instead of a princess and, like the earlier film, is filled with knowing humour, sparkling intelligence and buckets of charm. Director Sharon Maguire beautifully blends modernity with magic, offering new and relatable versions of true love and living happily, as well as the importance and practice of telling stories.
The Midnight Sky is a sleek, shiny film that could be cold and distant. However, it is also an emotional and moving drama about isolation and connection. Director George Clooney takes influence from his longtime collaborator Steven Soderbergh, with the design, editing pattern and pacing of The Midnight Sky often reminiscent of Solaris. Clooney plays Augustine, a scientist alone in a polar research station in the aftermath of an unidentified global catastrophe. His only hope of communication is with the Aether, a space vessel returning from Jupiter’s moon K-23. The crew of this vessel Sully (Felicity Jones) along with Adewole (David Oyelowo), literally and unknowingly carrying the future of humanity with them. Clooney’s focus upon these isolated groups of characters are the film’s strongest elements, as Augustine’s mind and body start to fail him yet he pushes on. Despite their rigid protocol, the crew of the Aether are never less than warm and human. Some flashback elements as well as final act decisions make the overall result messy and uneven, but the film’s emotional core maintains a powerful grip throughout.
With Onward, Pixar demonstrates their ongoing combination of visual inventiveness with humour and emotion. Director Dan Scanlon weaves a literally mystical world, stacked with loving references to fantasy tropes such as perilous paths, elves and mages. But it is a far cry from The Lord of the Rings, as unicorns scavenge from dustbins and a manticore runs a family restaurant. Furthermore, it is a touching tale of two brothers learning about themselves and each other. Narratively, it’s pretty much stuff we’ve seen before, but is handled with such precision and élan that it never fails to delight. The film is ravishing in its visual design and there’s always something fun to pick out. If there’s magic to be found, it might look something like Onward.
Queen & Slim is one of the most beautiful and nuanced films about heartbreaking subject matter of recent years. Beginning with Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) and Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) on a dull first date, events spiral out of control as soon as these two black people encounter a white police officer. The racial politics are threaded throughout the narrative, director Melina Matsoukas ensuring that the film never comes across as preachy. Rather, as our protagonists continue on their impromptu road trip, the people and scenarios they encounter express personal and social pain and inequality, while Queen and Slim learn more about themselves and each other. Solidarity, community, oppression and unwanted celebrity are interwoven brilliantly with a tender tale of hope, humanity and tragedy. Debut director Matsoukas shows a confidence and command of the cinematic medium that, after seeing Queen & Slim, you may want to watch it again immediately. Once you’ve finished crying, that is.
Imagine if Groundhog Day involved murder and torture. Considering the inherent horror of having to repeat the same experiences, Koko-di Koko-da isn’t making a huge leap from the beloved 90s comedy. Director-writer Johannes Nyholm crafts an eerie and unsettling folk horror, where a couple already struggling with grief take a camping holiday. The distance between Tobias (Leif Edlund) and Elin (Ylva Gallon) is palatably genuine, even when their trip is interrupted, repeatedly and seemingly inevitably, by a mysterious and malevolent troop of carnivalesque characters. Immersive long takes draw the viewer into the desperate situation with an unflinching cruelty, until the haunting countryside takes on a life of its own and a deeper story is told through the use of shadow puppetry. To describe Koko-di Koko-da is to undersell it, but it delivers a powerful emotional blow and is well worth seeking out.