I’ll admit to being, more often than not, a strange person and at the start of this year I thought to myself, “2020 will be good”. The symmetry in the numbers, the start of a new decade, the potential for El Wotsit Presidenté to be replaced; I felt extremely optimistic about what we had in store. Christ on the cross, I think it’s safe to say I was wrong. At least old permatwat’s gone…well, almost.
Clearly I’m not telling anyone anything they don’t already know, so I’ll move on. However, as always I have found solace in the wonderful world of film; perhaps more so this year than any before. Upon checking my trusty Letterboxd app, my tally for the year is currently standing at 564 films logged (including multiple watches). Of this mammoth number 87 are 2020 releases, but unfortunately I only saw 22 of these films in the cinema due to this nob of a virus. One of my best days of the year was after the first lockdown ended and I saw Tenet on a giant IMAX screen, followed by Les Miserables (not that one) at my favourite cinema HOME, for their relaunch later that evening. I can’t wait to go back.
Another brilliant part of the year, and one which has been truly joyous compared the bin fire of the outside world, was the film club myself and several friends created at the start of lockdown. Our “CoVideo Club” has seen us watch 32 films, which we then follow up with a video call to discuss our thoughts on the chosen film that week. Highlights include Blindspotting, Rear Window, They Live, A Bigger Splash and Orlando. The bleak weeks of Amour followed by Leviathan were dark, but we made it through. To cap the end of the year, we voted on all of the films we’d watched and our top 3 was Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Submarine and Beyoncé: Lemonade. Perhaps the latter doesn’t class as a traditional film, but in our club it does.
One part of this year that will actually resemble a world before I had to choose between steamed up glasses and face mask or blurred vision and a face mask, is an end of year ranking/run down of various people’s films of the year. My list can be found on the wonder that is Letterboxd, but I’d instead like to pick out a few films that I saw, which I imagine have flown slightly under the radar. I’ll do my best to not to ramble on anymore than I clearly already have, and get started.
The first of the films made it to the UK in February of this year, after debuting at Cannes in May 2019, and had a brief cinematic release before finding its way to the streaming oasis Mubi. As much as I love Mubi, I wish I’d had a chance to see this projected on a cinema screen as it’s an absolute feast for the eyes. Directed by Diao Yi’nan and starring Ge Hu as the gangster on the run, alongside the ‘bathing beauty’ of the titular Goose Lake, Gwen Lun-Mei. It opens in the noir tradition with a meeting between our gangster and the femme fatale, in a shadowy corner of train station. Ge Hu is on the run for killing a cop and we see the ensuing hunt for him, as well as the events leading up to the killing in a series of well staged flashbacks, creating an almost dual narrative for our protagonist. Despite being quite traditional in its noir influences, there are some incredible set pieces almost always at night, framed in various shades of neon. One of which is described by a character as “the Olympic Games of theft”, which sees rival gangs have two hours to steal as many motorbikes as possible. Out of context it sounds daft, but in the wider narrative of the film it’s essential. An absolute gem of a film, on top of which it should get extra marks for paying homage to Akira, and having one of the best film posters in years.
This may not be as under the radar as the previous film, as it was fairly well received when it was released last year in the US, however it got a small theatrical release when it hit UK shores in February of this year. So the 7 people who read this can bolster its viewing figures in Europe. There are a couple of elements in this film that made me want to highlight it. Firstly I’d like to highlight a camera shot. Yes, please forgive me for being an uber pleb, but there’s a shot which I don’t think I’ve seen in any other film. The director Trey Edward Schults, and his cinematographer Drew Daniels, open the film with Kelvin Harrison and Alexa Demie’s characters, Tyler and Alexis, driving while the camera sits between them continuously rotating 360 degrees. The two are dancing to the blaring music, all the while Kelvin Harrison is driving with one leg stuck out of the window! The camera is whirling and swirling this way and that, the bright sunshine bouncing off the windows and Harrison’s peroxide blonde hair. As an opening statement, it’s a dazzling one. I’d like to also highlight a completely daring narrative shift which centres around a particular event in the film. It’s difficult to describe, as it reveals a huge spoiler so I’m reluctant to go into too much detail. However, in line with the bold opening, it’s a bold tonal shift and the way it’s handled and the fact that you as the viewer, just go with it, speaks to the sheer strength of the storytelling. Like The Wild Goose Lake, it’s one of the most stylish films I saw this year, and as with that film none of the style is in sacrifice of the story.
The third and final film is another from the Cannes 2019 stable which received a UK release via Mubi. It’s safe to say it would have hit cinemas, but something happened in March, I forget now… As many of you will have have noticed, since the ascent of the wrinkled clementine there’s been a huge number of films that have taken aim, directly or indirectly, at SCROTUS. Well Brazil isn’t much different, as they have their own screaming arsehole in charge (Jair Bolsonaro), who seems intent on pushing the country towards (emphasis on DIC) a dictatorship. Just as with the man with the skin tone of a Terry’s chocolate orange wrapper, filmmakers have responded with works of art to shine a light on how things really are. One such filmmaker is Kleber Mendonca Filho, who has directed a couple of films about the growing wealth and poverty gaps in Brazil. Previous works, such as the brilliant Aquarius from 2016, tackle the subject to a much more subtle effect. However in this co-directed film with Juliano Dornelles he goes full on genre mashup. Much like with Waves, there’s a clear tonal shift in this film and when it happens, you’ll know. So again, to avoid spoilers, I won’t say too much. To add to this case, and to give a hint of things to come, the cast includes Udo Kier, a veteran of countless genre films. To look in to that man’s eyes will reveal something about yourself you might not want to admit. Anyway I digress, a brief summation of the plot centres around a character named Teresa (Barbara Colen) who is returning home for her Grandmother’s funeral. She’s from a small village in the North Eastern Sertao (the Brazilian outback) named Bacurau. There are some odd events leading up Teresa’s arrival, however the tone is somewhat restrained and in line with Filho’s previous work. Events begin to take a turn for the worse when phone signals begin to disappear, and it becomes evident that Bacurau no longer appears on any maps or GPS systems. The cause of which leads to the shift in tone which inspires themes of westerns, horrors and b-movie past. The film was a complete jolt to the system and a true surprise in a year full of fantastic international cinema.
There you have it, three films to keep you busy over the festive period. Not particularly festive but this year is like no other, so why not gorge on a Brazilian genre feast, an indie gem from the US and a noir for the ages from China?
And in the specific tone, accent and words of Alan Rickman in Die Hard, “Now I have a machine gun, ho ho ho…”