Finally, we can reveal our top five picks of 2020…
5 – DA 5 BLOODS
Spike Lee has now reached a point in his long and illustrious career where his films carry an even more exceptional weight than when he first began, especially with everything that’s happened over the last four years under Trump’s presidency. In this divisive landscape, Lee managed to provoke and anger with his Oscar-winning drama BlacKkKlansman, which drew a characteristically unsubtle parallel to the racist ideologies of then and now, and his triumphant quest to express historical injustices with stylistic flare continued this year with Da 5 Bloods, one of the year’s most compelling and necessary pictures.
A true war epic to rival Lee’s clear influences such as Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter, Lee combined some harsh truths about African-American soldiers fighting in Vietnam – who were expected to serve a country that largely refused to serve them back due to the colour of their skin, and a country that had just assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for those very reasons – with a compelling and complex adventure movie where nothing was off the cards, whether it’s death by landmine or ruthless mercenaries. Newton Thomas Sigel’s gorgeous cinematography, which seamlessly flips from digital presentation to grainier 1970s stock footage for flashback sequences, and a sweeping musical score by Terence Blanchard contribute to Lee’s masterful handling of tone, suspense and grand scope that’s all set to the filmmaker’s typically wily style.
As for Da 5 Bloods themselves, they’re a hoot; a collection of strong actors delivering some of their best work in a long time, from Clarke Peters as the more rational member of the group, to the late Chadwick Boseman as their fallen squad leader from their earlier Vietnam days. The film, though, belongs to Delroy Lindo as the unhinged, deeply flawed and dangerously maniacal Paul, a guy so clearly going through heavy trauma that it’s caused him to shut himself off from any semblance of reality, whether it’s giving his son (Jonathan Majors) the love he deserves, or proudly boasting his support for Trump, even wearing the red MAGA hat for most of the movie. His magnificent turn especially comes through in a couple of powerful monologues delivered straight to camera, at least one of which is bound to be part of his award-show reel as they announce his nomination for some kind of gong (it has to happen for him, surely).
Some of Lee’s regular detractors probably won’t warm to this film, because it does display a lot of his unsubtle jabs at modern politics which a handful of people have found a little tiresome, but that’s the charm of Spike Lee: he will whack you over the head with radical, angry views while also building a strong enough movie around it to justify its existence, and with Da 5 Bloods he’s made perhaps his strongest film to date…
4 – THE ASSISTANT
This year saw a lot of drama happen right in front of us, but Kitty Green’s sublime debut narrative feature was effective in what we didn’t actually get to see. The very idea of it happening in the background, though, is enough to leave you feeling sick, and part of Green’s clever framing is the fact that you never leave the side of the person entrusted with the most mundane of jobs, but who also gathers enough information to draw a pretty disturbing picture of the people she’s working for.
On the surface, it seems like a very low-energy movie – we simply follow Julia Garner’s Jane quietly going about her work day, preparing files, arranging meetings and cleaning up after messy coffee breaks – but beneath the surface is a far uglier truth. Jane’s boss is a powerful movie producer (clearly based on Harvey Weinstein), and behind closed doors we hear heated arguments, inappropriate banter and verbal abuse that’s also rubbed off on her male co-workers, all of which contribute to a stressful, but also extremely telling, work day for poor Jane who has no choice but to take all of it on the chin. Even when she attempts to raise concerns, particularly over her boss’s hiring of a pretty young woman as his new assistant who clearly has zero experience, she’s stonewalled by Matthew Macfayden’s slimy HR manager who attempts to flip the blame on her instead. It’s a movie that can be extremely uncomfortable to sit through, because it reflects a lot of truths not just in this industry but many others as well, where casual chauvinism goes unpunished and female would-be whistle-blowers are gaslit into believing it’s somehow their fault, and Green lets her points get across in an extremely subtle fashion that leaves the horror firmly in the background, but gives us enough of an understanding about it to still feel creeped out.
Green cleverly hides what is in plain sight by incorporating careful sound design and claustrophobic cinematography to create the illusion of a normal work environment, from the tapping of keyboards to the numerous phones ringing in the distance, and through Garner’s quietly powerful turn we have a lead character with a considerable lack of power trying in vain to change what she perceives as far from right. The unfortunate element of Jane’s role is that, realistically, she most likely will not inspire any action against her employer; who could expect to go up against someone like her boss, with their strong reputation and credibility, and actually win? She knows this, as do a lot of other women across several industries who have unfortunately been mistreated and misled by those with all the power, and what this film is so powerful at doing is that, even though we never actually see any of the misconduct on-screen, it makes it so apparent that it’s happening, yet nobody feels the need to speak up and address it.
It’s a striking film of subtlety, quiet frustration and unfair work politics that rightfully earn it a spot on this top 5 countdown. Plus, it makes a rather compelling double-feature with this next film…
3 – NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS
Two teenage girls heading to New York to get an abortion doesn’t sound like it’s the most riveting of adventures, and Eliza Hittman’s quiet drama certainly may seem reasonably light on actual plot, but underneath the surface Never Rarely Sometimes Always makes a lot of noise about a very difficult collection of topics, in a powerful and timely study of the modern female identity that easily makes for one of the best films of the year.
Through the eyes of two breakout lead turns by young actresses Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder, we see a culture deeply rooted in casual misogyny; in the very first scene, Flanigan’s Autumn is heckled as a “slut” during a school talent show, and not even her father seems willing to pay his daughter a loving compliment (his sexual politics are further hinted at when he calls the family dog by the same slur as his own daughter). Nearly every other guy here, from creepy managers who kiss girls’ hands when they hand him money, to a prying young man they meet on their journey, to a drunk guy on the subway who touches himself while looking intensely at them, seems to be a seedy scumbag with only one thing on their mind, but Hittman doesn’t whack you over the head with the blatant sexism, instead choosing to display it in a casual, very natural manner, which somehow makes it seem even more threatening. It’s an alarming portrayal because it feels so real, almost documentary-like right down to the natural turns by its actors who react like how actual people would in those situations, and Hittman manages to hold up a mirror to our blind ignorance of basic treatment for the opposite sex in ways that are impossible to ignore.
Naturally, a film dealing with a main character terminating their pregnancy is going to come with a lot of heated debate, not least between pro-life and pro-choice activists, but Never Rarely Sometimes Always sidesteps any political discussion and instead focuses solely on what is best for the young woman in question, which in this case is to indeed abort their baby. As we learn in one of the film’s most effective scenes, wherein Autumn is asked a series of personal questions relating to her sexual activities, we learn that she’s been through the ringer with at least one of her partners, leaving us to piece together through some choice dialogue and Flanigan’s teary performance this bruised, but no less determined, young woman who’s keen to make her own decisions in spite of everything. Her decision to abort is hers and hers alone, with Ryder’s Skylar there merely for moral support (and to lug their big suitcase across town), and the beauty of Hittman’s portrayal of their friendship amidst these difficult hurdles is in how they really strive to help one another through some very trying situations, further showing the importance of female camaraderie which shouldn’t really need to be explained as such, but with sexism still rampant in today’s society it’s all the more relevant.
It’s a beautiful film in its quiet, understated drama, showing how there’s plenty to unravel even when there doesn’t seem to be much going on in the foreground. Hittman’s film is an essential watch for anyone eager to see how subtlety around sensitive topics can be truly handled well, and it’s tough to find many other films with such a strong message about female friendship than this. Well, except perhaps the next film on this list…
2 – ROCKS
No other film this year felt more like a truly collaborative effort than Sarah Gavron’s lively and uproarious testament to youth, which like Never Rarely Sometimes Always before it dives deep into the complex troubles of young womanhood but from a much broader, diverse and energetic perspective that lends a seriously infectious sense of joy that’s hard to resist.
Gavron and writers Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson, along with cinematographer Hélène Louvart who captures both the grit and the sunny disposition of the East London suburbs in her visuals, have wonderfully assembled a compelling plot about a teen girl and her younger brother trying to evade authorities from separating them when their unstable mother suddenly disappears, but while the film certainly explores the dramatic ramifications of the situation, it also has a unique and natural inspirational quality as the titular teen girl finds comfort and safety in her numerous friends. The whole time, you’re laughing, crying, getting angry and feeling a vast range of emotions because Gavron and her creative collaborators are making these characters and the situations they find themselves in so relatable and easy to sympathise with, no matter how rough or unjust a lot of them turn out to be. Nonetheless, it retains a positive, upbeat attitude for as long as it can, which helps you through the solemn realities they slowly find themselves in.
It is the efforts of the young cast – many of whom had never acted before – that really transform the movie into a treasure trove of riches. Gavron cast her ensemble, made up of brilliant young debut performers like Bukky Bakray, Kosar Ali, D’angelou Osei Kissiedu and more, before the script was even written, and eventually through workshopping and brainstorming they were all able to conjure a cohesive plot and a gleeful cast of characters around their vibrant and effortless chemistry, all of which are clear as day on the screen. Some of these actors, particularly Bakray and Ali, are so good here that you almost refuse to believe that they had no prior acting experience beforehand, because they have teary monologues and highly convincing deliveries that would make a RADA student blush with envy, in truly authentic turns that – again, like Never Rarely Sometimes Always – feel like you’re watching a documentary about these young people just hanging out and swapping cheery banter with each other. It’s because of these young actors that there’s even a movie to begin with, and Gavron has chosen exceptionally well with whom she wants to tell this story alongside with, in a film that cannot just be credited to one person in particular, but rather a whole group that has come together to make a sweet, joyous and profoundly uplifting project.
I really, honestly did toy with making this movie my #1 choice for the year, because there’s enough qualities to it that earn its rightful place at the very top. However, there was only one late arrival which managed to leave a slightly bigger impression that it just barely bumped this one into a well-deserved silver-medal finish…
1 – MANK
The legacy surrounding Orson Welles’s masterpiece Citizen Kane is so great that it earns the respect and admiration of even those who might not warm to it as easily as others, which makes it a very difficult film to compare just about anything to, because in virtually all cases the other movie is going to lose. Just as time would eventually be kinder to Welles’s classic, David Fincher’s own masterpiece – part-biopic of Citizen Kane co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz, part-study of the ins and outs of 1930s Hollywood – is bound to garner even more acclaim for itself than it already has, setting a high standard for modern cinema masquerading as retro cinema, but also filmmaking in general.
Fincher, with arguably his best film in years (perhaps ever), carefully reconstructs the classic movie-making methods under a more pristine digital glaze, from a grainy 35mm overlay to some intentionally tinny audio that resembles the sound equipment used in that time period, all set to some gorgeous black-and-white cinematography by Erik Messerschmidt, and a jazzy orchestral score by Fincher regulars Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. The results are simply stunning; whether you’re watching the film at home on Netflix or on a cinema screen (where, truthfully, a movie like this really belongs), you are left in awe by the extraordinary level of craftmanship on display that has given the movie the look and feel of an authentic Orson Welles production, albeit with Fincher’s own personal touch that separates itself from any influences and helps it to stand perfectly on its own.
For Fincher, this was also by far his most personal project, given how the script was also written by his father Jack Fincher, who passed away in 2003. Via an uncredited polish by producer Eric Roth, Fincher Sr.’s script is full of wit, sophistication, intelligence and genuine insight to match that of Herman J. Mankiewicz himself, but given its setting of 1930s Hollywood it’s also not a gooey-eyed love letter to the industry either. While Jack Fincher’s script clearly has plenty of fun things to say about how certain studios were run and what kind of personalities were in charge of everything (look out for a scene-stealing turn by Arliss Howard as MGM co-founder Louis B. Mayer), there are just as many areas of criticism such as their overt political beliefs and practises, even creating series of misleading attack ads against then-gubernatorial candidate Upton Sinclair – played, perhaps in the year’s oddest cameo, by Bill Nye (yes, the science guy) – and the ego-driven personalities that run the show, united only in their collective love for the movies. It’s a fantastic script that presents a balanced view of the world it’s depicting, combined with Fincher’s passionate filmmaking that makes it even more of a reality.
Factor in some outstanding performances from the likes of Gary Oldman and Amanda Seyfried, both of whom are bound to be shortlisted for awards this coming season, and you have a film that marks a glorious end to a bitter, miserable year. As has been said by many at this point, 2020 has been difficult for many of us, with raging pandemics, social injustices, celebrity deaths and Cats & Dogs 3: Paws Unite! all plaguing our optimism and our hearts, leaving us with very few things to truly be thankful for as it finally comes to a close. Hopefully, this year’s list – and especially our top pick for the year’s best film – has given many of you a few decent enough things to reminisce about from the year 2020, and reaffirmed how film has become a more vital and necessary tool to get by than ever before, because after the year we’ve all had, we deserve a little bit of joy in our lives…