The year of neo-neo-realism: Possessor, Vivarium, The Platform, The Chambermaid, Eastern, The Audition, Perfect Nanny perfectly mirror the state of the world in 2020: pervasive corporate crimes, Darwinian struggles, conspicuous consumption, widespread cannibalism, widening inequality, family feuds, children murdering each other, adults murdering children, children murdering adults, irreversible climate damage, genocide, people losing their religion, people finding faith. Komasa's The Hater is the best documentary about gamer culture I've seen in a long time. The recursive narrative gimmick has become pervasive: Black Bear and Palm Springs are just two examples. The message is clear: we are stuck in a loop, trapped in a vicious circle, doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over, like wishing to go back to "normality" after the pandemic as if "normality" wasn't horrifying in the first place. The alternative to this kind of storytelling is the sprawling fictional world-narratives of La flor (2019) and Dau. Live in your world, dream in ours (while you still can). I loved The Plagiarists and Apples' celebration of nonsense and amnesia. As the cinema of 2020 suggests, this decade will be a bumpy ride. Fastening the seat belt is not going to be particularly helpful.
A FEW COMMENTS
Possessor: "This one really gets Under Your Skin."
Bacurau: "Imperialism and neocolonialism in the age of UFO-shaped drones and Steve K. Bannon. The North Americans do what do they do best: interfering with democratically elected governments, exploiting indigenous land, and slaughtering innocent people with the complicity of rich, amoral locals. It's the American Dream. Seeing morons wearing oakleys & baseball hats being eviscerated is poetic justice."
Vivarium: "Phenomenal. I always wondered what would happen if a "real" couple was somehow transported into The Sims and now I know. Vivarium is about living in a world where any sense of progression has been eradicated - the end of history. No future, just suspended limbo. Being jailed FOR EVER in a simulacral suburbia (just like Foxes, Finnegan's acclaimed 2011 short). "It's good life" in the Twilight Zone."
Ema: "The divisiveness of Ema - ratings on Mubi are either highly celebrative or extremely denigratory - is perhaps even more fascinating than Ema itself. It's rare to see such a love/hate, visceral reaction: it says a lot about the viewer's subject position. Although at times Larrain seems to be paying homage to both Almodovar and Noé, Ema is not as derivative as some reviewers suggest."
Eastern: "Greek Weird Wave meets American Open Carry policy in Polish Gated Community. Family feuds are institutionalized and notarized. There will be blood."
"About Endlessness: One vignette stands out. Three teenage girls dance outside a cafe girls lip singing to a pop song, before bowing to their audience - sparse, almost motionless bar goers in the countryside. This scene provides a moment of frivolousness and levity to an otherwise tragic catalog of sorrows, pettiness, tragedy. I don't know if the lyrics, in Swedish, form a lamentation of sorts, but the scene itself is joyful and funny. Contra Bordwell, I would argue that About Endlessness in not "bleaker than any of the other Andersson films". How can you beat the darkness of World of Glory (1991), which opened with the murder of dozens of poor bastards in a mobile gas chamber? As people are being murdered, their clothes are collected by the perpetrators. I can see something like this being introduced in the near future, as socio-economic and environmental collapse is approaching. A very exterministic scenario (see Peter Frase's Four Futures). On the contrary, in About Endlessness there's a glimmer of hope: popular culture (including Andersson's film) reinterpreted by the consumers can provide a moment of escapism from the dread of everyday life, the daily grind marked by frustration, pettiness, and a pervasive sense of defeat. Andersson is not a complete miserablist. Sure, joy is fleeting, transient, shallow. But it is, nonetheless, a ray of light in the ubiquitous greyness. Incidentally, this is the underlying assumption of cultural studies: the "resistance" is perhaps limited, but it's all we got under capital realism and or autocratic/monarchic configurations of the state. You won't find any solace in religion. But a pop song can momentarily lift your spirits."
The Platform: "A vertical Snowpiercer that mixes the premise of Vincenzo Natali's Cube with the implacable logic of Denis Villeneuve's Next Floor (homage or plagiarism? Your call) plus Ballardian's tales of high rises and moral degeneration. Survival of the foodiest? Well, class warfare is a dish best served cold. I'll take the panna cotta, thank you very much."
Apples: "A dash of Philip K. Dick & Julio Cortazar (Disturbed Memory Department of the Neurological Hospital) and lots of Greek Weird Wave clichés - deadpan humor, doom and gloom, alienation, grief, identity-crisis, ennui etc. Alas, Apples lacks the haunting sadism of Lanthimos and Makridis' films which could make it more palatable to a wider audience. Nikou's suggestion - amnesia is not a disease, but a cure - is intriguing."
Deerskin: "In this daring revenge story, French director Dupieux turns the trope of the possessed garment into a much needed - dare I say urgent - exploration of toxic masculinity. Like Haneke's Funny Games, this remake sui generis of Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer raises questions about our complicity in the shocking acts of a deranged man. Like Otis, Denise la mounteuse is an enabler. We're all voyeurs. Especially you."
Perfect Nanny: "One of the best horror movies of 2020 is about the burden of emotional labor. The pervasiveness of psychological and physical manipulation becomes more and more extreme as the story unfolds (or rather devolves) but hints of derangement are manifest from the very first interview. And yet, it is hard to feel sorry for the millennial couple, whose selfishness, cluelessness, and distraction demand a biblical punishment. PS Kudos to the distributors for picking such an idiotic title. Turning Chanson Douce into Perfect Nanny is an infantile marketing ploy that weakens Borleteau's original intent. PPS This reminded me of Takashi Miike's Audition although the two films could not be more different in style, themes, and plot."
Palm Springs: "Superior to Groundhog Day for various reasons. First, it reminds us that women are smarter than men. Women take the initiative and get things done, while men drink beer all day and screw/get screwed. Second, it turns a basic morality tale ("be best") into a quest for knowledge (quantum physics). It's also smarter than Russian Doll, which uses the loop narrative to address childhood traumas (zzz...). So, why so much hate?"
The Chambermaid: "The Chambermaid exemplifies Veronica Gago's notion of "neoliberalism from below", the idea that exploitation has been internalized even by the working classes and marginal groups which then behave accordingly, succumbing to its models of exploitative labor and production. Precarious labor and the contradictions of work (e.g. the union shutting down the education program) are the real protagonists of this film."
Music and Apocalypse: "This one is to university life what untitled was to the artworld."
The Audition: "A German Whiplash, with a dash of Austrian malice: instead of making snuff videos, now Benny plays the violin. Somebody is bound to get hurt nevertheless."
DISCLAIMERS and ANNOTATIONS
MIA: Full disclosure: I have missed so many movies this year. I cannot remember the last time I set foot in a movie theater - not that I miss the vidiots checking their instagram feed or tweeting/texting during the screening by any stretch of the imagination. But still... Some of the missing in action titles are:
Mandibles by Quentin Dupieux, Saint Maud by Rose Glass, New Order by Michael Franco, Nomadland by Cloé Zhao, Anne at 13,000 feet by Kazik Radwasnki, The Trouble with Being Born by Sandra Wollners, Mainstream by Gia Coppola, Sleep by Michael Venus,To The Ends of Earth by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Zola by Janicza Bravo, Cristi Puiu's Malmkrog, Tsai Ming-liang's Days, The Translators by Régis Roinsard, The Penultimate by Jonas Kærup Hjort and many more.
Strongly disliked: The Vast of Night by Andrew Patterson, She Dies Tomorrow by Amy Seimetz:
"She Dies Tomorrow. Art school final project ("experimental") becomes fully fledged "film". Like many students' MFA projects, SDT is involuntarily funny, replete with somber faces and neon light. Repeated close ups on Sheil's soles as she walks - in slow motion! - across the room. Pathos! The pandemic feels better when you have a pool. We're all in this together. For some reason: critics took this seriously. The joke is on them"
Hated with passion: The Smiley Face Killers: "(not even) for Bret Easton Ellis's completists"
Miranda July's Kajillionarie:
"Miranda July's worlds are completely devoid of oxygen. Dead zones. Much like Wes Anderson's. They both asphyxiate their audience slowly, like pythons. They kill them with syrupy cuteness and "profound" quirkiness. Every time I watch a movie by Miranda July, my faith in cinema melts like a popsicle left on a sidewalk under the August sun."
Sofia Coppola's On The Rocks:
"On The Rocks. In the 1970s, the North Americans decided that they wanted a soccer league that could rival the South American and the European ones. Being North Americans, they did what they always do when faced with a challenge: they threw a lot of money at the problem, got Pelé, Chinaglia, Cruyff, and other stars, convinced that they would quickly become a force to be reckoned with on a global level. Obviously, that did not happen. The US was - and remains - a complete joke when it comes to soccer. The NY Cosmos were great... For about fifteen minutes. Ok, so: Apple is the US. Apple TV+ is the Cosmos. On The Rocks is a sad sad sad Lost in Translation wannabe. It looks like a movie. It sounds like a movie. It's got good actors. It even got a director. But On the Rocks is not a movie. It's an Apple TV+ "thing". It's not even TV, it's TV+. Invasion of the movie snatchers. A simulacrum of a film that requires a dongle (not included) and runs out of juice after ten minutes and there's no battery charger (for sustainability reasons, obviously). But you can watch it on you amazing incredible astounding iPad Air Pro Max SE+ Made in Cupertino so that's just amazing incredible astounding. Like everything else on Apple TV+, On the Rocks is so safe, so boring, so comfort zone, so predictable, so paternal, so square, so corporate, so neoliberal, so casual conspicuous consumption masquerading as a "story". In short, so Apple."
Didn’t bother: Liberté, The Painted Bird went straight into the Thanks, but no thanks dump. Also: Mank, Tenet.
The most surprising semi-disaster of the year: Charlie Kaufman's I'm Thinking of Ending Things:
"The source material is not great, alas, but Charlie Kaufman made a brilliant use of wallpaper, which always helps. I was secretly hoping that he was going to subvert Ian Reid's novel with recursive digressions, endless re-enactments, and massive doses of clever absurdity, but this adaptation is mostly faithful - save the ending. Not exactly a mind fuck, more like cognitive masturbation. Kaufman's The Machinist? I think Gleiberman nailed it: "Charlie Kaufman used to create lyrically spiky head trips that teased your brain and heart at the same time. Now he makes sodden puzzles that don’t quite add up because they’re too busy telegraphing their cantankerous oddity." (Owen Gleiberman's 5 Worst Films of 2020, Variety)."
The most surprising total-disaster of the year: Charlie Kaufman's Antkind (the novel).
Gems that didn't make the top 30: Tyler Cornack's Butt Boy, Victor Kossakovsky's Gunda, Kirill Sokolov's Why Don't You Just Die!, Lili Horvát's Preparations To Be Together For An Unknown Period of Time.
MY FAVORITE SHORTS THE YEAR ON MUBI (2020)
A FEW COMMENTS
Nimic: "An Invasion of the Body Snatchers shot in wide angle which underwent the "Petzold's treatment" (Transit - the disconnect between seeing and understanding) with the right amount of foot fetish (Tarantino, take note). Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is less about the theme of replicas & doppelgangers and more about the idea of contagion triggered by speech (language is a virus), although Nimic was made before Covid."
Strasbourg 1518: "I'm shocked by the reaction of the MUBI crowd. Most "reviews" read like YouTube comments. Did anybody even bother to read the synopsis? How can you possibly not love the hysterical hand washing performance scored by Mica Levi? The contortionist-like gestures in enclosed spaces are more unsettling than Hereditary cheesy wall-crawling. Dude, it's Glazer's TikTok. Strasbourg 1518 is now: we're living in the New Dark Age"
MY FAVORITE MOVIES OF THE YEAR (2010-2020)
2020: Possessor by Brandon Cronenberg, Canada
2019: Parasite by Bong Joon-Ho, South Korea
2018: First Reformed by Paul Schrader, United States
2017: The Killing of a Sacred Deer by Yorgos Lanthimos, Greece
2016: Toni Erdmann by Maren Ade, Germany
2015: The Lobster by Yorgos Lanthimos, Greece
2014: Borgman by Alex Van Warmerdam, The Netherlands
2013: The Wall by Julian Polser, Austria
2012: Holy Motors by Leo Carax, France
2011: Melancholia by Lars Von Trier, Denmark
2010: The Temptation of St. Tony by Veiko õunpuu, Estonia