2020 Polls, Lists, and Awards

Micheal Ward and Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn in Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock (2020)

The best-of-2020 lists and polls that have appeared since last week’s round have confirmed what many have suspected for a few months now. Steve McQueen’s Small Axe has emerged as one of the major cinematic events of the year. There’s been some back-and-forth on how to classify this anthology series of five standalone features broadcast in the UK on the BBC and streaming in the States on Amazon, but it hasn’t been nearly as contentious the debate in 2017 sparked by David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return. Cinema or television? We’ve had other things to worry about in 2020.

All five Small Axe stories are rooted in the experience of West Indian communities in England from the late 1960s to the early ’80s, and one of them has become a critical favorite. Lovers Rock takes its title from a soulful, occasionally sentimental strain of reggae that became popular in the mid-1970s, especially at the sort of house party where Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and Franklyn (Micheal Ward) meet and fall for each other. “These self-organized ‘blues parties’ were often demonized as vice warrens,” writes Sukhdev Sandhu at 4Columns. “Too much ganja and loud music. Too many Black people. For McQueen, they’re DIY diasporas, sites of experimental architecture where outlaw youths jerry-rig terraced homes into mini-Tardises, engineering sound systems that produce pulsating basslines to transport listeners—for a night (oh what a night)—out of Babylon.”

Janet Kay’s rendition of Dennis Bovell’s “Silly Games,” released as a single in 1979, is first heard in Lovers Rock when the women preparing food in the kitchen slip into an impromptu a cappella performance. Later that night, when the DJ spins it, Lovers Rock “climaxes with what may very well be the year’s greatest scene,” writes Hunter Harris at Vulture. “The party moves from rollicking to romantic, couples moving in languid, sexy sways . . . McQueen’s camera drifts from the main couple to the other faces, the other waists, the other elbows. We’re privy not to a crowd but to a congregation. They’re singing like it’s a hymn.”

At Sight & Sound, where Lovers Rock tops the magazine’s poll of over a hundred critics, McQueen tells historian David Olusoga that he’d “never experienced that before. It was a spiritual experience. It wasn’t performative. Something happened in that room, and we happened to have a camera there to record it. It was Black people seeing other Black people, feeling what they were feeling, and a Black director, a Black cinematographer [Shabier Kirchner], and the fact they could see each other and vibe off each other . . . that’s what happened.”

At RogerEbert.com, where Lovers Rock tops the list voted up by editors and contributors, Tomris Laffly writes that the film “approaches something whole and sexy, even spiritual, with every one of its sensual steps.” It’s one of the Ringer’s top five films of the year, and while Variety’s Owen Gleiberman prefers another Small Axe title, Mangrove, the Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday is going for the series as a whole. Lovers Rock is Angelica Jade Bastién’s #1 film of 2020 at Vulture, where Bilge Ebiri’s #1 is Pietro Marcello’s “sprawling masterpiece” Martin Eden, which “mixes the grandeur of an old-fashioned epic with structural daring and political resonance.” For Alison Willmore, it has to be Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’s Bacurau, “a modern classic made for a world poised for decline.”

You have no items in your shopping cart