Alexander’s Top Ten of 2020
“I don’t need to tell you things are bad; everybody knows things are bad…” There, if I can give a shout-out to Network and summarize the bulk of 2020, and in doing so surpass the obligatory itemized suckfest that was last year, I’d call that coming out net positive. After all, it was hard to stay positive when the very evocation of the word was synonymous with something we, frankly, didn’t want to test positive for.
So, aside from the world being turned upside-down, I ran into the same difficulties that crop up every time these lists are cobbled together: where to place which movie? Who qualifies for a top spot and who will be relegated to the honorable mentions? And of course, who will get pissed at me for not including their favorite movie? Well, it’s my list. Of course, here are some titles that almost cut the mustard:
Nomadland, Dear Comrades, Martin Eden, The True History of the Kelly Gang, Siberia, Birds of Prey, First Cow, Tesla, The Vast of Night, Wild Goose Lake, Invisible Life, The Woman Who Ran, The Swordsman, Possessor, Day of Destruction.
10. The El Duce Tapes
Rodney Ascher and David Lawrence’s The El Duce Tapes is cobbled together from a vault of VHS tapes recorded by then actor Ryan Sexton, who documented the slovenly rocker’s myriad exploits until one day (as the opening credits inform us) “he was forced to stop.” Only Rodney Ascher could craft a documentary around someone as reprehensible and Eldon “El Duce” Hoke and reveal a modicum of prescient insight. Most importantly, the film shows how El Duce and his group The Mentors thrived in the regressive Reaganoid era of the 1980s and how many of those upsetting, misogynistic layers of intolerance are still in the conversation thanks to conservative pundits and our (thankfully) former president. Many have compared this to Todd Phillips’ Hated and drawn connections to the work of Nick Broomfield, but if those guys watch this, they should be taking notes.
9. The Invisible Man
So this is the kind of treatment that we needed in horror; a familiar title/theme with an entirely fresh interpretation that operates as a thoroughly unsettling genre film with a sobering backbone of social relevance. Leigh Whannel takes the conceit of Wells’ invisible man narrative and inoculates it with intelligent urgency without betraying the framework of the horror genre while bringing enough scientific credibility to the table. The prominent headline of The Invisible Man is the jarring treatise of abuse; the fear of the unknown is one thing, but the mental and physical trauma inflicted on Cecilia Kass is so disturbing because it happens. The best horror films are the most frustrating ones. And how many times did Leigh Whannel make us grind our teeth and throw up our arms in bewilderment every time Cecilia’s abuse fell on deaf ears in this story, one that might be the ultimate representation of post-millennial gaslighting? It would be criminal to discuss the film without mooning over Elisabeth Moss and her exceptionally moving performance; without her energy and contextual import, I don’t think this movie would be what it is.
8. Da 5 Bloods
Spike Lee takes on the wartime adventure narrative in the mold of Kelly’s Heroes, The Dirty Dozen, and Where Eagles Dare. But, does Lee ever “do a thing” with his movies? Obviously, Da 5 Bloods is anything but derivative, and Lee paints an epic chronicle of racial discord, decade-ranging cultural conflicts, generational divides, the erratic and still baffling enigma called American politics, and, of course, our involvement in Vietnam. There’s a way that the film deals with the ghosts of the past and how they can rupture and grind our demons of the present; there’s an anger to Da 5 Bloods and, when Lee squeezes the trigger, we know his aim is true. One of the most impressive feats is the breezily anarchic vision that survives his labyrinthine career. There’s this larger-than-life presence, the time-traveling narrative, the colossal explosions, and thrills that feel akin to the likes of The Deer Hunter or Apocalypse Now. And yet Da 5 Bloods doesn’t have the do-or-die, over budget, high-stakes legendary production. It’s sharp, breezy, and yet it’s the size of something you can get your arms around. Then there’s Chadwick Boseman, the leader of the Bloods, even from beyond the grave. His character is a ghost, and the fact that’s it’s not just a posthumous role makes it a little too hard to take. Rest in power.
A lot of people have dismissed Mank, written it off as frivolous bullshit, questioning its relevance and historical accuracy. And in response to that, I have to say this: “Since when the hell did the truth and Orson Welles have anything to do with one another?” It’s common knowledge that one of Welles’ greatest magic tricks was the misinformation and tall tales he so gleefully crafted in telling his story. Naturally, one of cinema’s greatest icons is bound to have a mythic persona. After all the stories, interviews, books, documentaries, articles, journals, and rumors, David Fincher’s Mank feels like just another extension in the endless tapestry that is the Wellesian miasma. There’s the production of Citizen Kane, then between Pauline Kael writing Raising Kane, also there’s Peter Bogdanovich’s debunking of Kael’s essay, and then there’s his film The Cat’s Meow. Moving forward with Simon Callow’s comprehensive biographies, the recent marvel of The Other Side of the Wind, and documentaries ranging from bad (Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles) to good (the two-part BBC Arena entries). Somewhere in that abbreviated mountain, you can stick Mank. Fact or fiction be damned, it’s an extension of Welles’ legacy, and it looks marvelous and boasts an incredible cast, not to mention Amanda Seyfried being wonderful as Marion Davies.
6. To the Ends of the Earth
Kiyoshi Kurosawa has endeared the horror community with his trademark, understated brand of ethereal horror. He’s not a stranger to other genres (even his most macabre visions are suffused with the occasional comic flourishes), with Tokyo Sonata and the brilliantly cynical (and humanistic) Bright Future. Still, he hasn’t quite done anything like To the Ends of the Earth. It’s a cliche at this point to yammer on about the quiet meditative, mono no aware aesthetic directors like Kurosawa and To the Ends of the Earth is an answer to that quandary as he transplants his film, and namely its protagonist Yoko (Atsuko Maeda) to Uzbekistan to film episodes for travel-based web series she hosts. She’s a stranger in a strange land. It’s as simple as that. Yoko is adrift and alienated, but there’s a sense of character and presence. She’s not a woeful embodiment of ennui; she’s searching, curious, and more adventurous than she might lead on. It’s hard not to see the Antonioni influence. Kurosawa and Maeda inspire their character with cultural curiosity and behavioral tenacity that evolves on the model set by Antonioni and Monica Vitti. It’s the quality of otherness that certain directors of renown carry. The ability to give a movie a soul, to infuse a moment with inarticulable feeling, imperceptible depth, and Kiyoshi Kurosawa has reached a new level in an already distinctive career.
5. Wasp Network
Wasp Network is a complex and dynamic film-shaped from a series of shifting alliances deep, deep cover infiltration, it’s a bit tangled, and Olivier Assayas doesn’t make it easy, or does he? Wasp Network is a deceptively complex and articulately fashioned espionage thriller, and for a breathtaking change of pace, it’s a politically minded, historical narrative that is entirely the vision of its creator. Some points are literally spelled out for us (in an unexpected voiceover) while the director lets us figure out the rest. Don’t you love it when an artist respects you enough to interact with their work on your own terms? Assayas is taking the geopolitical intrigue that he so deftly maneuvered in the explosively enthralling, punk-laden cultural mosaic that is Carlos. Here he’s taking the same concerns and measuring them to fit into a clear and distinctive outlier to his diverse filmography. Yet, it’s still beaming with that radiant unpredictability that’s defined an indefinable filmography.
4. Never Rarely, Sometimes Always
Maybe I’m just a little dumb, but I didn’t know the relation of the film’s title until it came up in the movie, and before I knew it, I was sitting there like a dumbstruck child with an uncontrollable stream of tears running down my face. Eliza Hittman’s direction is profoundly touching and leaves its mark with such assured emotional aplomb you don’t realize the work it’s doing to you until you’re tethered to the film and its characters, unable to divert an ounce of attention. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a film that straddles that perfect line where less is more and you can make huge statements with few words, communicate emotions with measured glances and tiny gestures and relate a headline message that, sadly too few people seem to hear. Don’t be fooled; this isn’t minimalism, but dedicated lyricism, proving that you don’t need any speeches to tell the world what it should already know.
Abel Ferrara and Willem Dafoe are what I consider to be one of the best actor/director surrogate teams of modern cinema, and Tomasso is the free-flowing, mood-oriented fruit of their collaboration. Catharsis and subtly emphatic expression is the name of the game, Ferrera’s vision is just as vital, and his confrontational, punk aesthetic continues to inform his intuitive direction. A singular voice that keeps letting us into his world and thankfully, he shows no sign of slowing down.
2. Forgiven Children
Director Eisuke Naito found a fascinating distinction, through the relatively well-trodden territory of coming of age stories and true-crime storytelling devices have ferreted out a delicately potent and powerfully affecting air of direction with her latest feature, Forgiven Children. The story about a group of kids, who, after playing with a homemade crossbow, accidentally kill one of their friends, and the ensuing media blitz, and controversy falls into the obligatory “you can’t make this up” category. And Naito takes us down this complex and dynamic chronicle with stylish and immersive direction that’s investigative, delicate, and endlessly humanistic. Forgiven Children is one of cinema’s most recent sensations that will likely be discovered by a wider audience and earn the praise it deserves.
We often associate the mythic qualities of America with genre films like westerns or historical dramas, then there are directors like Terrence Malick, David Gordon Green, Kelly Reichardt and with Shirley, Josephine Decker can wear the figurative laurels assigned to these aforementioned auteurs. The elemental atmosphere is dripping off of every frame. The sulfurous humidity and dewey New Orleans air looks like it was shot through a sepia-glinted frame of stained glass, beams of sunlight dance on the walls, and foreheads are sweaty. It feels like Shirley Jackson’s communicating her swirly prose to Josephine Decker, and she’s directing it with a juicy and unpredictable vision. The film has a horny nature, and this ribald honesty is earthy and poetic. Anyone else think of Pasolini’s bawdy late-era work in certain scenes? The movie has a seductive glint that is impossible to shirk, and Elisabeth Moss proves for the third time in the past two years (Her Smell, The Invisible Man, and this) that she’s one of our most gifted screen artists.