CJ’s Top 15 of 2020

December 28, 2020
It may have been an extremely disruptive year in cinema, but there were plenty of gems, as the ABC film reviewer counts them down from 15.

15. BOMBSHELL

Jay Roach’s portrait of the year Fox News’ Roger Ailes’ history of sexual harassment came back to bite him on his huge arse is exhilarating, furious, compelling and thoroughly entertaining. It is also essentially and thrillingly visceral: I spent the second half of the movie having to stop myself from standing up in the crowded (pre-restrictions) cinema and screaming “Take that you evil prick!” at John Lithgow’s portrayal of this awful, awful, awful human being.

The only reason not to see Bombshell – and it’s a fair one – is to avoid swimming in these disgusting, rank, poisonous, filthy waters. This is not only Fox, it’s the US under Trump, and it’s grim. But as a film, this is energising, invigorating and essential. Special points must be awarded for the ingenious casting of the Lawson brothers as the Murdoch brothers.

14. TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG

I don’t think I finished reading Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, and remember feeling a little ashamed about it: I may have found it too cerebral, post-modern, and reliant on previous histories of Australia’s most (in)famous outlaw. But in cinema, post-modern deconstructionist expressionistic anachronistic elliptical storytelling is my jam, and Justin Kurzel’s fourth feature is full of it. This is a feast for the senses, a gloriously indulgent examination of myth-making, storytelling and the essence of Kelly’s Australia, which was a battleground between civilisation and savagery.

George MacKay plays Edward ‘Ned’ Kelly, and man, he is good. Donning a very acceptable Australian accent, his Kelly is forged in the bosom of his mother (Essie Davis), and it is for her that he fights and dies. He pitches Ned’s intelligence, and particularly emotional intelligence (would that be wisdom?) at a very specific level; although he gets to punkishly howl at the moon and rev up his gang like a football hooligan, it’s actually a very deliberate and well-thought-through performance. Davis is superb, as is Nicholas Hoult as the creepy Constable Fitzpatrick. But this is a director’s film, an auteur’s film, and Kurzel, along with Jennifer Kent, is one of Australia’s great auteurs. They are both fearless.

13. THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD

Armando Iannucci’s take on Charles Dickens’ novel immediately announces its intentions with its casting of Dev Patel as David: this will not be your BBC adaptation from 1990, because, for a start, we’re casting race blind. This is a simple notion that has been commonplace in the theatre for decades – how many black kings of England have you seen in Shakespeare productions, despite the fact that, you know, England’s kings haven’t been black – but is rare in movies. Iannucci embraces the concept, runs with it, doesn’t comment on it, and asks you to simply go along with it, and you do, simply, easily. See, Iannucci seems to be saying, how easy it is to be open, progressive, positive and free?

That’s the spirit he brings to the whole of this joyous, glorious production, a beautiful hybrid of Dickens’ and Iannucci’s own sensibilities. This is a warm, very funny, very brisk and extremely energetic adaptation, faithful (as far as I can tell) in spirit and tone to its source, but clearly unshackled by obsequiousness. Often, it soars. The spectacular cast bring huge life to the beloved ensemble of characters; Peter Capaldi, Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton and Benedict Wong all clearly stamp theirs with definition, but special mention must be made of Ben Whishaw, whose take on Uriah Heep is quite creepily brilliant. As Copperfield, Patel brings his typical puppyish charm, and it works.

12. HONEYLAND

Nominated, fascinatingly, for both Best International Film and Best Feature Documentary at this year’s Oscars, Honeyland defies easy categorisation: if you were to simply walk in off the street knowing nothing, you would be forgiven for thinking you’d watched a narrative fiction feature film. Eschewing any of documentary’s traditional signifiers – voice over, interviews, title cards – the film plunges us into the life of Hatidze Muratova, an indigenous Macedonian woman living a pre-industrial life in the Balkan mountains. She cares for her old and invalid mother and her bees; when the latter produce enough honey for a sackful of jars, she walks four hours to the nearest town to sell them at a market. It’s a monotonous life but a sustainable one, until an outside force – a large itinerant family – sets up camp nearby. Then things change.

The film’s thematic resonance is huge: in Hatidze’s seemingly simple story, we can find a vast metaphor for the world’s struggle with environmental sustainability. As an anthropological artefact, it’s eye-opening: Hatidze’s existence seems not just of an alien place but a different century. And as filmmaking, it’s jaw-dropping. Spending three years with their subject, directors Ljubo Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska gathered enough material to give us all the trappings of narrative feature film: coverage, reaction shots, inserts, cutaways, reverse angles. We don’t just see an event, we see an event told using all the language of cinema. Whether the participants were ever asked to repeat things, to re-stage moments, is a valid question, but unnecessary to our enjoyment of this spectacularly humane story.

11. THE TRIP TO GREECE

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon trade quips, barbs and, of course, impressions once again, always in glorious (and exceedingly expensive) locations over glorious (and exceedingly expensive) lunches, but that banter is now the side dish rather than the main meal. Indeed, the repartee is deliberately perfunctory, a sort of greatest hits, with quick reminders that the lads can do Roger Moore and Mick Jagger, Al Pacino and Rod Stewart (they refrain from re-mining Michael Caine). A brief foray into Ray Winstone is gut-bustingly funny.

This is director Michael Winterbottom’s most cinematic, crafted, layered and storied of the four films, and by far the most moving. The tone is often melancholic, aided by a selection of sweeping, mournful music that represents a bold choice for an ostensibly silly comedy series (of course, it’s no longer that). At one point I cried. It’s a send-off to the boys for the fans; whatever you do, if you haven’t visited this series yet, don’t begin here. This is not the starter’s pistol, it’s the end of the race, and the runners are gasping for breath, fully aware of their own mortality and how heroic they really may or may not be.

10. THE CLIMB

The Climb, written by and starring Michael Angelo Covino and Kyle Marvin and directed by Covino, is very, very, very, very clever. Told over seven chapters, each containing only one or two extremely long and well-choreographed takes, it’s ambitious, witty and personal. The unbroken takes delightfully draw attention to themselves and become a big part of the fun: the camera weaves in and out of groups of people, houses, vehicles and even seasons.

Elsewhere, other stylistic extravagances gleefully wave their hands for our attention: a sudden (albeit low-key) musical number, a lo-fi (albeit terrifying) action sequence. In every chapter, there is something stylistically exciting going on; likewise, the storytelling is giddily exuberant, revelling in dramatic ellipses, strange twists and well-shaped supporting characters. This is a film that both harks back to an earlier age of American indies about male friendship (I was reminded of In The Company of Men, Neil LaBute’s 1997 debut) while also feeling fresh and unique.

9. THE TROUBLE WITH BEING BORN

Austrian filmmaker Sandra Wollner’s challenging second feature is intelligent and thoughtful, legitimately subversive and transgressive, conceptually ambitious, but most of all, devastatingly sad. Straddling sci-fi, family drama and provocation, it operates as a darker B-Side to Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001). In a world otherwise not markedly different from our own, realistic robots with advanced A.I. exist. In summer, in a suburban house in Austria, a man and his robot live together. He is middle-aged. The robot represents as female, around nine or so years old. Every facet of their relationship, and every facet of our response, is complicated.

This is one brave movie. It takes on massive thematic concerns unflinchingly. It will not be for everybody. It will not be for most. But it is guaranteed to make you think, about technology, grief, memory, and the conceptual link between them. It is a provocation only in that it dares to deal with possibilities we’d rather not think about, but it is not at all exploitative, grotesque or squalid. It is beautifully crafted along cool, formal lines, featuring exquisite naturalistic performances and sublime cinematography. It is rigorous, thoughtful, deeply heartfelt, and truly audacious.

8. DARK WATERS

Todd Haynes brings his virtuosic levels of craftsmanship to a lawyer-versus-corporation true story, with magnificent results. Dark Waters, a passion project for star and producer Mark Ruffalo, has everything the genre, and indeed many a good film, demands: high stakes, honest suspense, compassion, passion, righteous anger and more than a few goosebump moments. It’s a depressing film about a very depressing sustained act of corporate malfeasance, but it’s ruthlessly compelling and compulsively watchable.

I welled up three times over the course of the film, not because my emotions were being manipulated but because they were being addressed. Haynes may infuse his film with horror, but that is because it is a horror story, as all stories of inhuman abuse by corrupt monied corporations are. Every beat of this movie is told with integrity, and your tears are deserved.

7. MANK

David Fincher has shot the film so that it looks, sounds, feels and smells like it was made at the time Citizen Kane was: the early 1940s. It’s a startling experience. From the contrast of the black and white images, to the (simulated, I suppose) grain of the film, to the period-appropriate fade-outs, to the fun inclusion of cue blips – those strange circles in the upper right corner of the screen that appear in pre-digital movies to alert the projectionist to a reel change – Fincher and his cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt nail the aesthetic of the period, and the sound design follows suit. But there’s more to the film’s 1941 faux-verisimilitude: the screenplay itself is constructed as it might have been then, and thus it is acted. Every actor in the film is, essentially, giving the performance they would have given in 1941, before the naturalistic ‘method’ stormed in. The whole enterprise is highly stylised, and it totally works. Once you’re in – a process that took mere minutes for me – you’re in. The style remains but it’s never an obstacle, obstruction nor irritant: form follows function, beautifully.

All that clever acting is excellent acting, too. Gary Oldman makes Mank a gloriously happy alcoholic, steering clear of many of the type’s trappings. It’s not a flashy performance but a stable one – Mank as hero of his own story, which he was. He’s talented, occasionally generous, idealistic and, most importantly, true to himself, something recognised in him by others.

6. BAIT

Mark Jenkins has created the most visually memorable film of the year with Bait, which he shot on 16mm B&W stock using a vintage wind-up Bolex, which meant he couldn’t record live sound, so the whole soundscape, including all dialogue was added in post. Furthermore, Jenkins processed the film himself by hand, and used things like coffee grounds and vitamin powder in the process, giving the resulting image a hand-made look.

The story itself is also bold and original, the tale of Cornish gentrification seen through the eyes of a local fisherman struggling with economic survival in a new tourist economy. The aesthetics of the film inevitably consign it to the arthouse, but for the right viewer, this film will be fresh, vibrant, exciting and extremely memorable.

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