Luiz’s Top Ten of 2020

It’s been a tough year. Hope you and yours have been safe, and able to enjoy plenty of art, folks. A ton of movies have come out, and I’ve seen plenty, though a lot of awards fare hasn’t really struck a chord with me. In making my list, the only talked-about releases I haven’t seen yet were Minari and Soul. Though things look better in 2021 (and in Brazil, we could afford a break from awful), it’s still dangerous out there. Let’s keep on keeping on.

10. The Assistant

I’m not sure whether Kitty Green is a fan of Ernest Hemingway, as I am, but The Assistant reminded me a lot of his short stories. Actually, I very much doubt Green likes the writer, especially with his brand of machismo (which, I maintain, is a diversion—that’s for another time), but his particular style of prose is very hard to duplicate, and attempts to translate it to the big screen were so far unremarkable. The distraction, as big as an elephant, is that this is “the Harvey Weinstein movie”, but the skill with which she tells the story, without overtly saying what it is about, is a triumph. So many films require a viewer’s attention because of a twist that’s coming, or a puzzle to be solved, that a reprieve, a sense of narrative texture is a relief. A hum-drum office that contains all that is sinister in the world within its walls, anchored by one, specific scene of sharp dialogue where plenty is said, without actually being said. Perfect.

9. One Night in Miami

What a sure hand Regina King showed in her directorial debut! It’s a solid and proven screenplay, yes, but to block and shoot a chamber piece like this requires a lot else. It’s a film where four brilliant characters, “young, black, righteous, unapologetic, famous”, talk, argue, embrace, and experience catharsis. Nothing flashy, except for who they are, and that’s enough.

8. Memory House

Look, I’m not above some patriotic self-promotion meant to enhance the profile of Brazilian cinema, but they have to be great films. I included Bacurau on my best of 2019 list, as it had been released here that year, but most critics had a chance to watch it in 2020, and hopefully, they’ll get to see Memory House this year. Though completely different in budget, syntax, and scope, both movies share a common theme: personal, perhaps violent, resistance to encroaching foreign forces.

Cristovam is a black, elderly worker in a sophisticated milk factory located in southern Brazil, a region first colonized by white Europeans. He finds an abandoned house in the woods, full of antique objects, and starts having visions about his cultural origins. With those remembrances, he begins to realize the insidiousness of the society around him. Scenes play out in long, still takes, and this language of creeping menace is a perfect parallel to the anxiety we’ve all been feeling in the past few years. Where Bacurau goes for pulpy fun, Memory House is slow, deliberate, and menacing.

7. Never Rarely Sometimes Always

A tough sit, and while the grain and the naturalism invite mere comparisons with other favorites of mine, like Wendy and Lucy, there is that one scene, the one that gives the film its title. Never has the situation around the abortion debate been laid so simply and with such heartbreak. It reveals a bigger scope, beyond just the procedure young Autumn (Sidney Flanagan) is waiting to get, all the way to an understanding of the forces that cause and shape an unwanted pregnancy. Yes, the film deftly explores the toxicity around young girls’ lives, but it is that candidate for scene of the year that sets it apart.

6. Mosquito

There’s nothing new about war movies, but none have been as evocative of Apocalypse Now as this Portuguese gem. Zacarias (João Nunes Monteiro) is barely out of his teens, and aching to perform his patriotic duty in World War I. Unfortunately (for him), he is sent to the African front—the Portuguese colony of Mozambique—and is immediately stricken by malaria. Left behind by his company, he begins a trek to find them across the open savannah. Mosquito is still in the festival circuit, and unfortunately, I had to airplay it on my TV, because this is the year’s most sensorial cinematic experience.

Zacarias is never wholly there as he recovers from malaria, and a lot of what he sees and feels might be hallucinatory. He is aided by two local guides on his trek, and the fact that they are involved in a war between two European powers in their own – colonized – homeland is not lost on anyone. Plus, to see a war epic set in Africa is different, and incredible. Man’s existence is tiny compared to war, nature, and the march of history.

5. Da 5 Bloods

What a glorious and bloody mess this is! Spike Lee is so good at mixing his potion of ideas, themes, and influences, that it is only when he ties his characters up into a conventionally Hollywood last stand that Da 5 Bloods drops the ball. Plenty of people, including Lee, lamented that his budget wasn’t enough to digitally de-age his actors for the flashback sequences, but to see Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Isiah Whitlock Jr., and Norm Lewis playing them alongside Chadwick Boseman was an elegant solution that added heft to viewers’ perception of time. It becomes an aesthetic choice so simple, elegant, and profound, that everyone who does it next will have to deal with a comparison. Just having those four actors together from the start is a joy to watch and the double dolly of them in the club brings a smile to my face every time I think of it.

Lee’s choice of main character, a Trump voter, runs counter to expectations and shows that he is willing to provoke not only his audience but himself. Contrasted with the anger he put into the final minutes of Blackkklansman and his refusal to ever say the now-former president’s name (sticking only to the moniker “Agent Orange”), it shows his humanity, separating evil from those who have come under its spell. And the reconciliation of Paul (Lindo) and Stormin’ Norman (Boseman) is truthful and hardly leaves Paul unscathed.

4. Another Round

“A toast to alcohol—the solution, and cause, of our problems”.  The Homer Simpson quote has been making the rounds with the release of this film, where four high school teachers, suffering different levels of a mid-life crisis, decide to carry themselves based on a philosophical theory that people should live their lives with a permanently tweaked alcohol level.

What keeps Another Round from being a masterpiece is that one can pretty successfully predict that things will quickly go off the rails and the sort of hijinks that ensue. Far from moralizing things, Vinterberg and his screenwriter seem more intent on two other things: validating the quiet desperation of these men’s lives with the seriousness it deserves and building a coherent cinematography of inebriation. A subdued, tearful confession in a dinner scene is heartbreaking, and the ending, which has caught everyone’s attention, is a true portrait of ambivalence when dealing with humanity’s oldest vice.

3. Antena da Raça

I don’t blame you if you haven’t heard of Glauber Rocha, Brazilian cinema’s defining figure and cultural enfant terrible. Known for a handful of transformative films, he really was much more of a renaissance man: critic, poet, writer, journalist, political commentator, and visual artist. During the second decade of Brazil’s dictatorship, he created, wrote, and hosted a television program that interviewed artists and random people in the streets of Rio. It was innovative, thought-provoking, funny, and quickly canceled.

Antena da Raça is a documentary made by Paloma Rocha, his daughter, and Luís Abramo. It combines footage from the show, interviews, unaired recordings, and his entire filmography with contemporary interviews with random people in the streets and some of those artists who were originally featured. It’s a great reflection of the man, his time, and his art. So much has changed, nothing has changed.

Spoiler Alert: my next cinematic project has to do with him, and I’m hoping for another spot on the podcast this year.

2. The Nest

It seems that the only thing left to do after achieving the American dream is to burn it to the ground. At least in drama. Such is the fate of the O’Haras—husband, wife, son, and daughter—who move to England after getting all they could possibly want in the US. The husband, Rory (Jude Law), is a Brit, you see, and what we find out is that the chip on his shoulder wants to be shown off on the other side of the pond.

It’s hard to point a finger at what makes The Nest so impressive. The writing is mostly minimal, showing rather than telling. Superb acting, not only from the two leads but also the teenagers and a couple of character actors. The camerawork is as much a part of telling the story as the script (one of my favorite attributes of any film). There’s an ominous tone to everything that happens, a horror-movie aesthetic completely fitting for a family tearing itself apart.

1. Small Axe (Mangrove / Lovers Rock / Red, White and Blue / Alex Wheatle / Education)

Odd year, odd choice. Except not. What’s left me completely flabbergasted when considering Small Axe, Steve McQueen’s magnum opus about the West Indies expatriate community in Britain is that normally it would take years for art to reflect world events in any magnanimous way. I am dismissive about works that attempt to “capture the zeitgeist” in real-time, and 2020 has no shortage of titles that tried. I much prefer titles that come a decade later, with only a slight clue or indication about what they’re actually exploring (one of my favorite examples is Taxi Driver‘s reflections on the Vietnam war). The films were obviously written and shot before last year, and McQueen couldn’t have predicted the pandemic, the year’s BLM protests, or even the release of The Trial of the Chicago Seven. I do hope that despite that, history links Small Axe to 2020.

I was angriest at Education, and its young protagonist, stripped of the possibility of dreaming of being an astronaut, a couple of months after I watched Dragon X’s historic launch. To watch John Boyega play out the plot of Red, White, and Blue (a true story, no less), after his stunning participation in London protests was surreal and heart-breaking for his character’s struggle. Film critics collectively lost their minds over Lovers Rock, which serves as a masochistic counterpoint to our current, socially distanced, reality. Its ending has become one of my favorite cinematic endings of all time in that last shot, expanding everything that came before into themes of family, tradition, and youth.

As much as I enjoyed that cinematic orgy, it was Mangrove that will remain unforgettable. That’s to actor Shaun Parkes’ credit. The role, the plot, everything that happens… That he could hold everything that happens on his face, without saying a word, at the end of this film, was incredible.

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