By Nicolás Medina (*) – Talking about the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic would be a bit too repetitive at this point, apart from being quite depressing if we want to talk about entertainment. And if we talk about entertainment, we can assure that the film industry was one of the most affected by the consequences of the virus worldwide.
In February 2020, everything seemed to be going quite well in the world of the seventh art. South Korean director Bong Joon-ho took a lot of statuettes back to his home country thanks to the majestic Parasite (2019). The world of superheroes rejoiced with a year full of box office successes and the closing of an era after the premiere of Avengers: Endgame (Anthony & Joe Russo, 2019). Joaquin Phoenix took advantage of his moment of glory after his role in The Joker (Todd Phillips, 2019) to talk about insemination of cows at the stage of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Quentin Tarantino had released his tenth film (Once upon a time … in Hollywood, 2019) and Martin Scorsese with his new friend Mr. Netflix gave us The Irishman (2019), which came with an included guide on how to see it in “chapters” due to its long duration. Oh, and the Star Wars universe was dying after the premiere of The Rise of Skywalker (2019), which perhaps in a galaxy far, far away would have been a good movie.
But gradually unexpected turning points began to appear in the plot of 2020 cinema. The major studios began to postpone their premieres one after another and further and further on the calendar. Productions worldwide began to suffer delays, verse stopped and progressively were suspended. By Friday March 13 (in Uruguay), movie theaters would be forced to close as a result of the health emergency imposed by the Government.
Far from reducing the global impact of the pandemic, 2020 was a difficult year for those who found a second home in the cinema, a place to get excited, laugh, cry, get scared or start a romantic night. But for more than a hundred years, cinema has always found a way to get ahead, overcome its obstacles and survive. The new exhibition possibilities, the return of drive-ins and the high demand for streaming services gave a space to all those filmmakers who longed to release their films, and also gave an opportunity to others to find a source of inspiration in confinement. Today, many of these productions that struggled with the pandemic make their way into the (late) awards season. Here are the top 10 films of 2020:
10 – Palm Springs, directed by Max Barbakow, USA
If people needed something to get through the year other than hope, it was joy, and although a comedy where its characters are forced to repeat the same day over and over again seems not to be the most attractive option when it comes to distracting themselves from reality In 2020, giving Palm Springs a shot is guaranteed fun.
Starring Andy Samberg (Saturday Night Live, Brooklyn Nine-Nine) and Cristin Milioti (The Wolf of Wallstreet, Black Mirror), the film places two wedding guests in Palm Springs, California, where they find themselves trapped in a time loop from which they find no escape.
And even though the formula may seem similar to movies such as Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis, 1993) or Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman, 2014), an updated narrative, combined with science fiction, humor, romance and a certain hint of warmth have given the film dozens of nominations including the award for best comedy at this year’s Critics’ Choice Awards. The film is streaming on Hulu.
9 – Mank, directed by David Fincher, USA
It is common for great filmmakers to pay homage to the greats who came before them, creating an intertextual and metalinguistic relationship that makes cinema seem like one big family.
But all families have their problems, and Herman Mankiewicz’s surely went through many. In Mank, director David Fincher (Gone Girl, The Social Network, Zodiac) explores the life of the controversial and peculiar screenwriter of Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941), during the process of writing the script that Mankiewicz based on the figure of the press mogul William Randolph Hearst.
Starring Gary Oldman (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, The Darkest Hours, Harry Potter) and accompanied by a cast including Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, Arliss Howard and Charles Dance, Fincher’s work is complex as well as visually hypnotic. A film recommended especially for those who are interested (and familiar) with the world of classic Hollywood cinema and the history of Citizen Kane. With an extensive list of nominations for different awards including the Golden Globes, the Critics’ Choice Awards and the Oscars, Mank has stood out thanks to his incredible production design, photography, editing and technical aspects. The film is streaming on Netflix.
8 – Bacurau, directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho, Brazil
“West of Pernambuco, in a few years…” this is how this Brazilian movie begins. Combining drama, mystery, horror, a dystopian like scenery and science fiction. Or is this not science fiction…?
The inhabitants of the disturbing town of Bacurau discover that their town has disappeared from the map, communications with the outside world are interrupted and a group of strangers begin to stalk this peculiar community. Everything that follows seems like a proposal by Black Mirror (Charlie Brooker) but even more disturbing, uncomfortable that will give chills of any viewer.
Bacurau seems to have its own cinematographic language that strangely combines western with suspense and that allows a great subtextual reading of different real social and cultural conflicts. Originally released in 2019, the film won the Jury Prize at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, but it wasn’t until 2020 that it was released internationally. It is currently available on Amazon Prime Video for rent.
7 – The Vast of Night, directed by Andrew Patterson, USA
Andrew Patterson makes his directorial debut in this sci-fi proposition set in the 1950s in a New Mexico town. With an incredibly low budget, the film and its director seem to understand all the rules and possibilities of cinematic language.
Everett, a DJ and host of a late-night radio show, and Fay, a teenage girl who helps her mother as a switchboard operator, intercept a strange radio frequency that interrupts the different communication lines of the town. The duo will begin to track the strange signal throughout the night while the rest of the town attends an important basketball game, and as the investigation progresses, different testimonies and strange things will make them understand that something is coming.
The immersive power of this story can only be compared to its choice of audiovisual resources that are surprisingly functional. The film consists of long dialogue exchanges told in sequence shots and steady shots of the characters interacting with each other and in search of answers, optimizing their resources and enhancing the story in a way that pays tribute to radio plays, to The War of the Worlds (both the novel by HG Wells and radio drama by Orson Welles), and science fiction shows like The Twilight Zone (Rod Serling). The film is streaming in Amazon Prime Video.
6 – Host, directed by Rob Savage, UK
Not everything in 2020 was finding a way to exhibit, other filmmakers decided not to waste time on regrets and complaints and took the initiative to use the tools and inspiration they had at their disposal to create content.
The horror movie starts from a “what if…” in times of pandemic. A group of five friends forced to remain in confinement due to the COVID-19 pandemic decide to contact medium to hold a seance through Zoom. And as is to be expected, what begins as a joke ends up getting out of control, leaving the protagonists exposed in the solitude of confinement.
The film could be said to belong to the new narrative technique that I will call “screens”, a variant of the already popular found footage genre, films such as The Blair Witch Project (Eduardo Sánchez, Daniel Myrick, 1999), REC (Paco Plaza, Jaume Balagueró, 2007), Paranormal Activity (Oren Peli, 2007), or Cloverfield (Matt Reeves, 2008) fall into this category. There is no revolution in the horror genre here or anything like it, but you will find an hour of intense, constant and jump-worthy scares and an increase in heart rate, posed in a modern, creative and brave way. The film is an original from the Shudder platform and is also available on Netflix.
5 – Promising Young Woman, directed by Emerald Fennell, USA
Revenge movies are almost forming a clearly identifiable genre. From the Death Wish saga (with Charles Bronson) in the 70s to the John Wick saga (with Keanu Reeves) nowadays, this genre always manages to find an audience that rejoices in karma and the penalty towards villains.
In this thriller, Emerald Fennell (who switches a different side of the camera in her directorial debut) puts an interesting spin on revenge, posing a current, real and painful conflict. Cassie (Carey Mulligan), a promising medical student suffers a great loss that leads her to focus her intelligence, audacity and determination on trying to mend a tragedy that has no turning back.
With a captivating script, moments that oscillate between the comic and satirical, and seem to have been taken straight out of a horror movie, Fennell delivers a speech that takes advantage of the possibilities of language to deal with a current social conflict without falling into the trivialization of violence. The film, its writer-director, and its protagonist have already taken home several awards, and they aim to capitalize on their Academy Award nominations. The film premieres in Uruguay on April 8.
4 – Minari, directed by Lee Isaac Chung, USA
The American Dream from the eyes of a Korean-American Family.
Based on the childhood of its screenwriter and director Lee Isaac Chung, the story revolves around the Yi family, and it all begins when Jacob (Steven Yeun, The Walking Dead), the father of the family, decides to move to Arkansas to start a small farm to give hope and a better future to his family. Added to the challenge of this decision is the arrival of the family’s grandmother from Korea, Monica’s insecurity (Han Ye-ri), Jacob’s wife, and the health issues of their young son David (Alan Kim).
Photographed in a beautiful, natural and minimalist way at the same time, and with a story composed of elements that will touch the sensitivity on more than one occasion, this portrait full of warmth, nostalgia, empathy and hard work has also won countless awards competing under the category of best foreign language film in different instances. The movie is available on Amazon Prime for rent.
3 – Nomadland, directed by Chloé Zhao, USA
With a melancholic, but not at all condescending look, Chloé Zhao adapts Jessica Bruder’s book into probably the best-photographed proposal and the most accurate and wordy narrative decisions of the year.
The film tells the story of Fern, played by Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), a woman who leaves her life behind to embark on a journey and a nomad life through the western United States. The film at times may feel like a road movie, but no, it goes beyond that, there are no adventures or a destination to reach here. The treatment, the portrait and the micro-stories of Fern’s encounters with her different friends and fellow nomads is powerful and although the movie does not push you to express literally cry, once you get the social issues that motivate Fern’s trips and the rest of her community, it will be hard not to empathize with the story.
Another favorite for those who give the prizes. Available on Hulu and premiering in Uruguay on May 13.
2- Sound of Metal, directed by Darius Marder, USA
The most desperate and destabilizing movie of the year. And in a good way.
Sound of Metal tells the story of Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a punk-metal drummer who lives off music with his girlfriend Lou traveling the country doing gigs and living in his mobile home. Until one day Ruben loses his hearing.
The film explores personal fulfillment, loss, helplessness, and self-reinvention. With AWESOME sound design and an underrated performance by Ahmed in a season honoring Chadwick Boseman passing away, this film is important, transcendent and necessary. The story is moving, and is able to place the viewer in Ruben’s skin in a painful and real way that changes as its title and the conflict are re-signified throughout its duration. The movie is available on Amazon Prime Video.
1 – Another Round, directed by Thomas Vinterberg, Denmark
An ode to youth in the midlife crisis. Another Round gets us drunk with an addictive tale, like a crescendo and leaves us hungover for a long time.
Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Lars Ranthe and Magnus Millang play a group of four friends who, apart from sharing a strong friendship, share their workplace as teachers of different disciplines in a high school. One day, the group concludes that their lives have become boring and monotonous, and that is when psychiatrist Finn Skårderud’s theory enters the conversation.
The theory states that the human being is born and lives with a minimum blood alcohol level to the ideal, so the group of friends decides to do a kind of practical research, or a social experiment… with themselves. Every day they will consume a certain dose of alcohol which will increase progressively. In order to check Skårderud’s theory, of course.
The story is organized and divided into different segments that emulate the different stages of the investigation, starting from the hypothesis and closing with a conclusion. Extremely fun, yes. But also, dramatic and tense. The group headed by Mikkelsen will make anyone feel young again, will bring out the best and the worst in their characters, keeping, with an extremely simple premise, the viewer on the edge of the seat waiting for the arrival of the great hangover.
The film and its director are nominated at the Oscars and have been nominated and awarded at different international festivals. In Uruguay, it was premiered at the Jose Ignacio International Film Festival in January and is currently available on Hulu.
What 2021 holds for the film industry remains uncertain. Around the world, most theaters remain closed, which leads studios, producers and distributors to continue to postpone their big premieres. The productions, however, have adapted to the so-called “new normal” by adopting sanitary protocols to combat the virus, and while they continue to search for alternatives for the exhibition of new films, the seats in the movie theaters eagerly await the reception of old and new viewers. Long live the cinema.
(*) Nicolás Medina is a Film Critic, member of the Uruguayan Film Critics Association (ACCU.UY). Audiovisual Technician graduated from the Audiovisual Technique School, UTU (Uruguay). Advanced Student of the Degree in Audiovisual Communication from the ORT University (Uruguay). Accredited by the Uruguayan Film School in Journalistic Documentary, Assistance Direction Assistance; and Cinema and Literature workshops. Montevideo, Uruguay.