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.”
IndieWire has polled over two hundred critics, and Nomadland, director Chloé Zhao, and cinematographer Joshua James Richards have risen to the top of their respective lists. Nomadland also reigns among the contributors to the Playlist, where Jason Bailey calls it “a moving, affecting portrait of a fascinating yet rarely dramatized subculture.” At Slant, writers have placed the latest from Bill and Turner Ross at the top of their list of fifty. “Imagine Robert Altman and John Huston adapting a Charles Bukowski novel together in the 1970s,” writes Chuck Bowen, “and you’ve got an idea of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets’s wild mixture of comedy, streetwise grit, and pathos—though not even Bukowski ever fashioned a portrait of barfly life this exact and clear-eyed.”
Dana Stevens’s list at Slate may be alphabetical, but somehow, it coheres thematically. “No movie on this list could have been conceived after the pandemic shut down film production,” she writes, “yet many if not most of them seem somehow to respond to our current historical moment of cabin fever and barely contained mass rage.” In the Atlantic, just above Lovers Rock,David Sims places First Cow, Kelly Reichardt’s “moving and deeply sad period piece, the best entry in her storied career as a filmmaker.”
As tradition would have it, the Los Angeles Times’ Justin Chang has programmed his list as a series of double features. Taking the top two spots are Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela—a favorite of Glenn Kenny’s as well—and Time, Garrett Bradley’s “emotionally overwhelming” documentary about a woman in Louisiana working for decades to free her husband from an unjust prison sentence. “Few movie heroes in 2020 projected greater authority, or proved more galvanic in their command of the screen, than Vitalina Varela and Fox Rich,” writes Chang, “two Black women dwelling worlds apart but possessed of the same unflagging courage, fearlessly confronting personal loss without granting it the final word.”
Saturday night turned out to be a good one for Thomas Vinterberg, whose Another Round won European Film Awards for best film, director, screenplay (cowritten with Tobias Lindholm), and for Mads Mikkelsen, best actor. Mikkelsen plays a high school history teacher who, like his three colleagues and close friends, is going through a classic midlife crisis. When one of them floats the theory—supposedly propounded by Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skårderud—that the alcohol level in human blood is half a percentage point too low, all four agree to put the idea to a test.
Keeping a steady light buzz going all day works wonders for a while, so they decide to up the dosage. Just a little at first, but then a lot. “The suspense of Another Round has little to do with whether or not these men will ‘prove’ if day-drinking boosts livelihood,” writes Chuck Bowen at Slant. “Rather, it’s derived from two nervous mysteries: the question of how long it will take them to recognize this idea for the rationalizing cry for help that it is, and how much damage will be done in the meantime.”
Writing for Sight & Sound,Jessica Kiang argues that Another Round is “not really about drinking at all. Instead, as loosely signaled by the opening Kierkegaard quote about youth, love, and dreams, it’s about male friendship, midlife crisis, and the cruelty of a modern condition by which we spend our first couple of sentient decades figuring out who we want to be, and the rest of our lives not living up to that vision.”
On Sunday, the Boston Society of Film Critics became the first major organization of its kind to announce the winners of its awards. Nomadland takes best picture, director, and cinematography.
Two horror movies, both of them debut features for their respective directors, lead the nominations for the British Independent Film Awards. In Rose Glass’s Saint Maud (seventeen nominations), Morfydd Clark plays Maud, a nurse in a small coastal town whose patient, Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), was once a renowned dancer and choreographer before a neurological disease confined her to a wheelchair. Maud is a devout Christian who aims not only to care for Amanda’s body but to save her soul as well. “Shot with the visual intensity of 1970s psychological thrillers cut through with traces of melodrama and Thatcherite depression,” writes Mike Williams in Sight & Sound, “the film wears its obvious influences proudly: Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Bergman’s Persona (1966) and Through a Glass Darkly (1976), all washed out with the unmistakable bleakness of the British seaside.”
His House (sixteen nominations), written and directed by Remi Weekes and currently streaming on Netflix, centers on a South Sudanese refugee couple (Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù and Wunmi Mosaku) relocating to a rundown British low-income housing estate. For Justin Chang, the screenplay’s “cleverest gambit is to blur our sense of what kind of movie we might be watching—a thriller about a haunted house or a portrait of the dehumanization of the refugee experience?—and to suggest that there might be no meaningful difference.”
With six nominations, Garrett Bradley’s Time leads the fourteenth annual run for the Cinema Eye Honors, awards presented for the year’s best nonfiction films. Following with four each are Alexander Nanau’s Collective, which David Fear has put at the top of his list for Rolling Stone, and Victor Kossakovsky’s Gunda. In Variety,Guy Lodge describes Gunda as a “wholly dialogue-free animal character study, in which an enormous sow on a Norwegian farmyard embarks on an emotive arc of motherhood without any need for human voiceover or twee anthropomorphism: just the still, searching power of an attentive camera.”
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