Bright lights in a bleak year
Surreal, absurd or profound, the cinema that helped us make it through
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 02/01/2021 (765 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
In March of 2020, the pandemic lowered the boom on the movie industry, scuttling the release schedule for the remainder of the year with only a few studio movies released. With a few exceptions, the major releases got postponed to 2021 in anticipation of fully vaccinated moviegoers reviving the industry.
But to paraphrase Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, movies … um, find a way. In 2020, this was mostly due to streaming services, although Christopher Nolan did manage to get a theatrical release for his temporal extravaganza Tenet (earning US$362 million worldwide).
It turned out some of the movies released on studio streaming services weren’t worthy of the theatre anyway (Artemis Fowl, Wonder Woman 1984). Still, where there’s a will — or a Netflix account — there’s a way. With that, Free Press movie writers Alison Gillmor, Randall King and Jill Wilson offer up a few of the best of a bad year.
In this quiet, unhurried drama, set in a 19th-century fur trading post in the Pacific Northwest, indie director Kelly Reichardt patiently dismantles the ideology of the Hollywood western. A gentle Jewish cook (John Magaro), an enterprising Chinese traveller (Orion Lee) and that titular bovine come together for a minimalist, humanist story that touches on labour and capital, history and national myth, all the while remaining a lovely, low-key buddy picture.
From Danish Dogme director Thomas Vinterberg, this deliriously drunken but ultimately sobering comedy-drama tracks a group of middle-aged friends, teachers at a Copenhagen high school, who decide to maintain a consistent blood alcohol level of .05 per cent — in the interests of science, of course. Anchored by the monumentally craggy face of Mads Mikkelsen, this day-drinking comic premise becomes a serious Nordic examination — look out for those Kierkegaard references! — of midlife melancholy, fallibility, friendship and the need for joy.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Both passionate and delicate, Celine Sciamma’s breath-stoppingly beautiful period film, set in 18th-century Brittany, centres on a painter (Noemie Merlant) who’s come to make a marriage portrait and her reluctant subject (Adele Haenel). As the two women fall in love, the film becomes a rapturous exploration of the female gaze — behind the camera, on the screen and in the audience.
The Twentieth Century
Former Winnipegger Matthew Rankin’s surreal, stylized anti-biopic — named Best Canadian Feature Film at last year’s TIFF — is a fabulist take on our country’s 10th prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King (Dan Bierne). With hallucinatory visuals and deadpan comic timing, Rankin turns history into a fevered Freudian national dream.
This made-in-Brazil gem jumps through a few genre possibilities — science fiction, social drama, star-crossed romance — before landing on a large-scale action movie about what happens when foreign hunters come to a Brazilian backwater with evil intent. Written and directed by Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho, it’s simply a ridiculously entertaining film and its appeal lies in the richness of the village setting.
Imagine the movie The Magnificent Seven told from the perspective of the Mexican villagers deciding not to rely on gringo gunslingers.
The Trial of the Chicago 7
Aaron Sorkin’s dramatization of the titular trial/circus draws a straight line between current events — police brutality, racism, judicial/political corruption — with the 1969 story of how Richard Nixon’s attorney general decided to railroad seven political radicals with charges of conspiracy in vengeful response to the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. The defendants are hardly a united front, with two in particular — Yippies Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) and Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) — treating the trial as political theatre. They set the stage for Sorkin’s urgent message about seeking unity in these divisive times.
I Propose We Never See Each Other Again After Tonight
A few locally shot films were released in 2020, many in the horror genre, including the backwoods horror movie Hunter Hunter, the urban horror anthology Tales from the Hood 3, and the studio-produced reboot The Grudge, not to mention the Percy Schmeiser biopic Percy (starring Christopher Walken). The best of the local films however was Sean Garrity’s I Propose, mainly because of Garrity’s insistence on giving a fresh take to that most exhausted of genres: the romantic comedy. Putting together a very contemporary relationship movie, Garrity ups the ante by putting the cinematically-neglected Filipino-Canadian community into the mix via heroine Iris DelaCruz (Hera Nalam), who finds herself smitten with troubled Mennonite lad Simon (Kristian Jordan). Nalam is the main reason to see the film. No manic pixie dream girl, she keeps Iris’s emotions grounded, making her entirely relatable, especially in her battles with her disapproving mom. But Nalam has big-time, big-screen charm.
(Tonight only, the film will screen free of charge for Manitoba audiences commencing at 6:30 p.m. by logging onto januarysecond.com. Sponsored by SafeAtHomeMB.ca, the screening is part of an effort to keep Manitobans at home during the COVID-19 crisis.)
Much as we may love Martin Scorsese, you have to appreciate Italian-made films about the Mafia such as the 2008 film Gomorrah, or Marco Bellocchio’s The Traitor. These films brings an immediacy to the Mob movie, a sense that the Mob is a clear and present danger to those it touches, the innocent and the corrupt.
The Traitor is the true story of mobster-turned-informer Tommaso Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favino), once a soldier for the Sicilian Mob. Brutally convinced to testify against his former confederates, he engages with anti-Mafia judge Giovanni Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi) and ultimately spills on just about everyone, as we come to understand what drove the fatal wedge between him and his fellow mobsters in the first place. Bellocchio uses the facts of the case to gleefully puncture the myth of Mafiosi dignity. As Buscetta, Favino is a terrific presence, charismatic as past Italian tough guys such as Lino Ventura.
If we can thank pearl-clutching reactionaries for anything, it’s for bringing this beautifully wrought coming-of-age film to wider attention. The provocative Netflix PR for Mignonnes (the French title) ignited a firestorm of controversy — including claims of child pornography — over a thoughtful foreign-language art film that would otherwise have been on few viewers’ radar. Starring the wonderfully expressive Fathia Youssouf Abdillahi as a Somali-French preteen who struggles to reconcile her Muslim upbringing with the broad sexuality she sees among her peers and via social media, Cuties is a powerful statement about letting kids be kids.
It might be cheating to lump all five of Steve McQueen’s full-length films into one year-end choice, but the thematically linked works, which are oddly designated as a miniseries on Prime Video, really are of a piece, as the British director (Hunger, 12 Years a Slave) explores the world of West Indian immigrants in London from the late ‘60s to the ‘80s. One of the standouts of the quintet is Lovers Rock, an outlier in that it isn’t based on a true story. Instead, it lovingly documents a house party, luxuriating in the details of food, music and romance of a specifically Black experience with a tremendous sense of joy.
In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.