I was expecting Dune to steal the spotlight this year, but Covid took care of that. The next disappointment was that Mank didn’t come close to making up for Dune‘s delay. Still, there were good films in this catastrophic year of 2020, if you knew where to look. The Painted Bird blew me away; see that one if none of the others.
1. The Painted Bird. 5 stars. If there was ever a film that depicted hell on earth through the eyes of a single individual, it’s surely The Painted Bird. Set during the Holocaust in an unspecified Eastern European country (the language spoken by the characters is Interslavic), it shows the odyssey of a Jewish boy, as he wanders from village to village and is subjected to every kind of depravity. He’s beaten; he’s buried to his neck (and the crows come to feast). Eventually he is seized and given to the Nazis, and while he escapes execution, he winds up in the hands of a pedophile. Then it’s out of that frying pan into the fire of a female pedophile, who molests him around acts of bestiality; at one point she has intercourse with a goat. And so forth and so on. There are moments of fleeting compassion in this godawful road journey, and you will certainly need them. The Painted Bird shames the human species as it examines the worst of our impulses in the darkest scenarios, and yet strangely it offers the most authentic rays of hope in its rare moments of grace.
2. Calm with Horses. 4 stars. This Irish gangster piece immerses you in the headspace of its protagonist — a failed father, man of few words, broken and abused from his boxing years, and now an attack dog for a vicious clan. The clan treats him nominally as family but really like their pit bull. When a friend of the clan molests one of their teenage daughters, it’s decided that “justice” must be done. Calm With Horses suggests a lot about cycles of violence that are handed down by generation, but which may also, just perhaps, be escaped. The visuals of this film are as staggering as the acting performances: it’s shot in red and black nocturnal hues contrasting with bleak daytime shots. The violence is nasty; the character moments are utterly compelling; there’s a great car chase that gives the one in The French Connection a run for its money. I was inside this drama at every moment.
3. Possessor. 4 stars. The son of David Cronenberg does his father proud it in this demented sci-fi thriller, about an assassin who kills her targets by possessing bodies with brain implants. For prep work she has to study how the host talks and communicates with his friends and associates, and there’s also a lot she has to wing on the fly once she’s inside the host; sometimes it seems the host is taking back control of himself. And when she leaves the host body, she has to deal with identity problems returning to her own. Possessor is psychologically searing, but also physically: the violence is unsparing, and doesn’t hold back the gruesomeness of the kills. It’s Inception meets Ghost in the Shell meets Demonlover — with buckets of body-horror thrown in. This film seemed to come out of nowhere and was for me a pleasant surprise.
4. Cuties. 4 stars. I wish I had a nickel for every film that’s been condemned for celebrating what it’s really critiquing. But then people are triggered by everything these days, so the outrage over Cuties was a given. Let’s be clear: this film doesn’t glorify child twerking. It examines the hardships faced by deprived girls in a sexualized media culture. The story is Amy’s (the girl in the above center), an 11-year old Muslim in France who has no use for the Qur’an-reading/prayer gatherings of her wooden-minded family, and understandably wants to get out and have fun. She ends up bonding with a group of girls who are into twerking, which Amy finds alluring, and becomes determined for them all to compete in a contest. We see what it’s like for young girls to emulate what they see adults do in music videos, and the consequences for wanting to grow up too fast. Ignore the naysayers. Cuties is a sharp societal critique and we need more like it.
5. Outpost. 4 stars. As war films go this one is impressive, and rather distressing as this nightmarish debacle really happened. It’s a dramatization of the Battle of Kamdesh (2009), when a group of U.S. soldiers defended themselves against raiding Taliban in northern Afghanistan. They tried as best they could in a hopeless environment. The Kamdesh outpost is an appalling example of how the U.S. often fails to properly support its military personnel, leaving them stranded at sites that should never have been chosen to begin with. The first hour allows us to get to know the characters around sporadic Taliban attacks and horrible wilderness accidents. The second hour puts the pedal to the floor, and never lets up, in depicting the 12-hour battle of October 3, 2009. The long and uninterrupted takes in hand-held camera shots put you right on the soil with these soldiers who were boxed in and fighting hopelessly for their lives. You’ll need to unwind after this one.
6. Host. 3 ½ stars. This surprisingly effective horror piece delivers more scares than what I’ve come to expect from the found-footage format. (Full disclosure: I hate Blair Witch.) It takes place over a Zoom chat, during pandemic lockdown, and these gals engage in a seance. One of them makes lite of the proceedings, which calls forth an angry spirit that proceeds to assault each of the women in various ways. Furniture is thrown, crashes are heard… and you better believe there’s a body count. A remarkable film for doing what it does with minimal resources.
7. The Devil All the Time. 3 ½ stars. The second film on my list about generational violence (Calm with Horses is the other) is set in a Southern Gothic context, flitting back and forth between characters in Ohio and West Virginia (throughout the 50s and 60s) who have shit going for themselves in life. One way or another, they find comfort in religious zeal. One guy, plagued by nightmares of a crucifixion he witnessed during World War II, believes he can force God’s will by screaming his prayers, forcing his son to scream too, and shooting his son’s dog as a blood sacrifice. This guy eventually kills himself, and passes his violence down to his son. A fire-and-brimstone preacher becomes convinced that he can resurrect people, and so shoots his wife to try proving it. Another preacher molests a teen girl, exhorting her to show herself to him “as God created her”, then causes her to kill herself when she gets pregnant. There’s much more, and how all these characters relate and connect across the two states is well handled.
8. The Platform. 3 stars. This Spanish horror piece takes place in an experimental prison hundreds of floors tall, with two volunteers placed on each floor. They have volunteered blind for this hideous experiment, not knowing what they were getting into. Each day, once a day, a huge platform of food descends through the central shaft — the only chance for the people on each level to eat. On level 1 (the very top), the two captives have access to a gourmet feast of all sorts of dishes, deserts, and drink including booze. If everyone ate a modest amount, the platform would make it all the way to the bottom with something for each prisoner, but it never does. The people on the lower levels survive by very unpleasant means, often by killing and then feasting on their own cell mate. The Platform is a social parable about haves and have-nots, and the end bloodbath is pretty visceral.
9. Mank. 3 stars. I admire Mank only so much. I love Citizen Kane; I don’t give a tinker’s damn who wrote it. Scholars of cinema will naturally care, but this film is aimed at a wide audience, and for those who do care, it doesn’t help that Fincher follows the debunked theory that Herman Mankiewicz almost single-handedly wrote Citizen Kane. (It was almost certainly a collaboration between him and Welles.) Mank is a gorgeously dreamy tribute to Citizen Kane, brought down by Oliver-Stone-like revisionism and a failure to carry much conviction. I enjoyed watching Charles Dance’s performance, but most of the characters, and the story, don’t matter as they should. Some critics are claiming that this will become a classic like Citizen Kane itself. Not.
10. Yes, God, Yes. 3 stars. The Catholic school in this film takes the following passage as its core doctrine: “As for the faithless and the sexually immoral, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur.” (Rev 21:8) The students are taught that any sex outside of marriage, including with oneself, is guaranteed damnation, and it’s reinforced with infuriating fascist hypocrisy — in the classrooms, halls, and retreat centers. Stranger Things star Natalia Dyer (aka Nancy Wheeler) does a great job in her role as Alice, a teenager torn between this repressive piety and her blazing carnal urges. When she discovers masturbation on a filthy IM chat with a stranger, she starts pissing off everyone — her prudish best friend, a guy who’s appalled when she makes a move on him, the school priest — on her mission to enjoy orgasms. Dyer was a good fit for this role.
(See also: The Best Films of 2006 The Best Films of 2007, The Best Films of 2008, The Best Films of 2009, The Best Films of 2010, The Best Films of 2011, The Best Films of 2012, The Best Films of 2013, The Best Films of 2014, The Best Films of 2015, The Best Films of 2016, The Best Films of 2017, The Best Films of 2018, The Best Films of 2019.)