‘So humble, it’s embarrassing,’ says John Reid (Richard Madden) to Elton John (Taron Egerton) shortly after they meet in Dexter Fletcher’s biopic of the singer. It is a trait that soon disappears as far as Elton’s possessions are concerned – with the film being in part as great a celebration of consumption, including the consumption of booze and drugs, as one could find.
Indeed, while the film gets to see Elton go through rehab and thus come to regret his excessive consumption, partially (the ending affirms that he still loves shopping), Elton nonetheless confesses to his mother (Bryce Dallas Howard) that ‘Mum, I have fucked everything that moves. And I’ve taken every drug known to man. All of them. D’you know what? I enjoyed every last minute of it.’
Oddly enough, given that Elton in his own words ‘fucked everything that moves,’ he barely gets any action in the film at all – and it is Reid who betrays Elton by getting head off an intern by the pool in front of the ‘poolboy.’ That is, the film is determined at pretty much every turn to cast Elton as the victim.
That Elton comes from a loveless (and homophobic) family means that Elton’s plight is neither without victimhood nor (dare I say it) something like familiarity. Indeed, the film captures well a bourgeois British tendency for signs of familial love to be effectively nil, and for love to have to exist in such a slender space of feeling that it may as well not exist at all.
Given the lovelessness of white heteronormativity – an assertion that I shall try to clarify below – it is indeed unsurprising, and plays out in some senses as convincing, that Reginald Dwight must indeed die, and that Elton John must indeed be born, in order for Elton to escape his destiny to be a part of, and thus to reproduce, its logic.
However, regardless of Elton John the person, the Elton John of the film does reproduce many aspects of hegemonic whiteness, even if with a homosexual ‘twist,’ such that the film performs what Jasbir K Puar might define as ‘homonormativity’ – or a kind of reactionary queerness.
(Given that Elton John the person has asserted of the film here that ‘[t]his is how my life was, and I didn’t want to cover it and gloss it over,’ then we must wonder how much it does reflect upon the ‘real’ Elton, not least because, as I have already suggested, the film definitely ‘glosses’ Elton’s sex life – not so much out of prurience, but in a bid to ensure that he remains ‘heroic’ in the eyes of the film. That he implies here that the film portrayed him as he ‘wanted’ also gives a loose air of not just a vanity project – since vanity projects tend to be considered to be money-losers – but also a strategic money-making ploy, with the film grossing US$195m worldwide on a US$40m budget. And as Elton laments how people buy his records instead of those by other artists… If the film offers to us ‘crocodile rock,’ perhaps its tears are also those of the same creature.)
Given that the film’s Elton is supposedly ‘so humble,’ as might be the real Elton John (were we to think it important to know), why would I now attempt to humiliate that Elton by exposing his white privilege, and thus the unthinking white supremacy of the film?
In part it is because the film is so unrelenting in its validation of Elton John as success story and yet as victim, and so unrelenting in its celebration of consumption (enjoying ‘every last minute of it’), that Rocketman becomes a prime portrayal of what Kehinde Andrews might term ‘white psychosis.’
As far as Blackness is concerned, the film – like so many others – shows Elton receiving a key life lesson from the lead singer of a band that is not fully identified in the film. Known in the credits as Wilson (Jason Pennycooke), he sings under a banner above a stage that bears several band names, including Johnny and the Apaches (seemingly a real band, but fronted by a singer who seems to be white or white passing in the images of the band that I found online) and Billy Jones (a real-life Black soul singer). Given that ‘Wilson’ says to Elton that his real name is Rodney Jones, we might surmise that ‘Wilson’ is an amalgam.
So be it, we might think, that a film would offer up an amalgam of people from Elton’s history; that’s what biopics do, after all. But this only goes to reinforce that it is not so much any particular Black person as Blackness in general that is the rock upon which his subsequent success is founded, as Wilson says to Elton the crucial line that he has to ‘kill the person you were born to be in order to become the person you want to be’ – a line that will mean completely different things to a person of colour, as opposed to a white person.
Even more important than Wilson effectively inducing Reginald Dwight to become Elton John, though, is the fact that it is another Black band member, listed in the credits as Richard (Carl Spencer), who grabs and kisses Elton, thereby inducting him into homosexuality.
In other words, not only is Blackness responsible for the creation of Elton John – shown in the film as possessing the energy and power that Elton must use in order to transform himself – but Rocketman also performs a rather neat and typically white supremacist trick in the process. This is not simply a case of how we will never see these characters again after an initial post-tour reunion in which Richard outs Reggie/Elton in front of his songwriter bro Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), thereby rendering them disposable, magical negroes. Rather it is that Elton appropriates Blackness in order to achieve both stardom and homosexuality, while at the same time appropriating the historical victimhood of Blackness in order to claim it as his own. That is, Elton steals from Blackness not just his identity, but also his status as perpetual victim within the film – a second/double theft that annuls any sense that the film’s narrative would otherwise give to us that Elton is ‘given’ the advice by Wilson and Richard (and thus does not ‘owe’ them anything in return).
As far as Bernie is concerned, he also learns truly to love the ‘American’ way of life – that is, success and hedonism – by fucking a Black woman, Heather (Sharminah Harrower), at a party supposedly at Mama Cass’s house. That this moment, when Bernie chooses to consume the Black woman over hanging out with a slightly lonely Elton, becomes a key moment of ‘betrayal’ for Elton in the film’s narrative, only goes to show that Blackness renders Elton victim once again.
Of course, we never see Heather again, but Bernie does roll up later at a party at Elton’s mansion with two white chicks, all dressed in white. Not only does Bernie ‘graduate’ from Heather to an all-white threesome, but as he enters the party a Black party goer shakes his hand and says hi, after which Bernie, flexing his antiblack muscles, boasts to the women ‘no idea who he is, of course.’
And why does Bernie have no idea who he is? Because ‘of course’ that party goer, like Wilson and Richard before him, does not need to be identified because Blackness is faceless and fungible, as Tiffany Lethabo King and so many others have argued so cogently.
Of course, then, now that Elton and Bernie have both effectively worked out how to be Black, or rather to exploit Blackness, success is assured (and portrayed to us as natural and deserved, while figures like ‘Wilson’ and ‘Richard’ can languish in obscurity). And so by the time Elton is ‘betrayed’ by Reid for that poolside BJ, referred to in the film as ‘a bit of rock n roll,’ it is perhaps no surprise that Elton is alerted to Reid’s presence by a character referred to in the credits as LA Transgender Maid (Micah Holmes), who also happens to be Black.
That is, Blackness is there as a constant-ish presence to remind us of Elton’s victimhood, even as its presence, especially in the form of the Trans* person, is aiming to signify that Elton is himself suffering outsider with all of his millions and his loveless family.
The film’s white supremacy also plays out liminally in its casting of Stephen Graham, who is mixed race, as (the white) Dick James. For, James in the film comes across as uncouth, working class and unpleasant, thereby pushing on to a kind of marginal Blackness the ‘unpleasant’ and commercial aspects of the music industry (also embodied by the unfaithful Reid), while Elton is ‘of course’ ‘simply’ a piano man.
When Elton and Bernie early on are living with the former’s mother, we hear her complain that she effectively washes up after the pair, and that without her giving to them the time to write songs, a pastime that for them is seemingly a god-given right (because Elton John has become famous; that is, because the future justifies the past), we get a sense that Rocketman does want at least in part to acknowledge that the success of people like Elton John is built upon the labour of many.
But, as the Elton empire grows, the film rather tries to have us believe not that Elton would be nothing without that labour, but rather that such labour would not exist were it not for Elton (‘maybe all I do is play the piano, but you know what else I do? Hmm? I pay, John. For everything.’).
Getting further into the relationship with Elton’s mother, however, we see her lament towards the end of the film that she should ‘never have had children.’ This is cast as an abhorrent position for her to take. Because, you know, while we can definitely live without so many nameless and faceless people of colour in the world, we can’t live without Elton John – not least because he helped to set up an AIDS charity ‘from his kitchen table,’ as we are told in the film’s final credits. Because Elton of course knows everything about working at a kitchen table.
This is not to deny the goodness of the ‘real’ Elton John’s charitable work. But importantly it means that Elton’s mum gets to be portrayed as monstrous, with Elton thus as victim once again, while also claiming a desire for non-normativity in her role as vessel for sexual reproduction.
If, as Lee Edelman has famously argued, the pressure for normative reproduction might be resisted, not just in the name of lowering the number of humans on the planet for the purposes of minimising the detrimental impact of those same humans, and if Edelman has put this position forward as a queer position, then Rocketman takes here a somewhat strange turn in portraying Elton’s mother’s resistance towards reproductive normativity as monstrous. For, it means that Rocketman not only portrays to us another mother-hating film (with Elton’s mother having also ‘betrayed’ him early on in life for herself ‘fucking anything that moves’ – or at least for fucking Fred, played by Tom Bennett, who becomes her partner as the film progresses; he is another figure who effectively introduces Elton to rock n roll before being somewhat discarded narratively for the purposes of the construction of the Great Elton), but it places on to her a queer position that the film might otherwise adopt.
To detect in Rocketman an anti-queer set of sentiments might seem paradoxical, since the film is so obviously ‘queer’ in all but its form (this is about as ‘straight’ filmmaking, stylistically, as you can get). And yet, it also plays out in the Elton-Bernie relationship, which is the central and driving bromance of the film, and yet which of course remains chaste, while Elton’s ‘genuine’ gay relationship with Reid turns to shit. Meaning that Rocketman punishes practicing homosexuality while also pleading for Elton as victim because homosexual.
If it is clear that Rocketman insistently eats its cake and has it, then we might add that the final credits, during which the ‘real’ Elton is introduced to the film, also tell us the widely known story of his relationship with David Furnish, who is one of the film’s producers. This is a truly loving relationship, as the film makes sure to signify because the pair has two children, Zachary and Elijah. That is, Elton is finally validated for rejecting an Edelmanian ‘no future’ position on queerness, which is of course fair enough, but in the process it validates Elton as ‘real’ by virtue of his afore-mentioned ‘homonormativity.’ Unlike his mother, Elton wants and will have kids – and the world is a better place for it!
All hail non-normative families – and so bring on queer dads and, indeed, non-white reproduction (for while Edelman suggests that there are already enough people in the world, especially given the damage that they are doing to the planet, he overlooks how the people who do most of that damage, and thus who might more meaningfully be reduced in number, is white people). But since Elton has demonstrated his Black credentials, the film asks us here to overlook his whiteness – in one final gesture of white supremacy.
That final gesture of the film, though, is not the final gesture of this blog. For, during one of Elton’s therapy sessions, in which he prattles on endlessly and self-indulgently about his victimhood while a group of people (including various people of colour) simply listen to him, Elton looks pointedly at another patient, played by Black actor Dempsey Bovell, when he describes Bernie as his ‘brother.’ It is as if Elton adopts the fraternal language of African American male bonding (as per phrases like ‘my brother from another mother’, ‘brother from another planet,’ and ‘whassup my brother?’) and asks the Black patient to validate him in this appropriation.
This validation even happens subsequently when, in explaining how he has had so much difficulty in finding real love, the same patient nods sympathetically at him. ‘That’s right, Elton, your suffering is equivalent to Blackness, but don’t worry we are here to listen to your woes and to feel sorry for you like we ought to.’
Finally, if a bit more obliquely, Elton is of course staged in the film as precisely a ‘brother from another planet,’ not least through its title: Rocketman. But this ‘other planet,’ revealed as it has been as a white homonormative repetition of consumption on (and of) this planet, is thus not really ‘other’ at all. That during the rendition of the titular song Elton dives into a swimming pool and sings – i.e. breathes underwater – in the midst of a suicide attempt (or call for attention) would further help to elide Elton with Blackness, in that Blackness of course is linked to drowning and breathing underwater following the Middle Passage as per the mythology of musical artists like Drexciya. Admittedly a bit of a stretch, the sequence nonetheless loosely appropriates African American suffering once again in order to put the case forward for Elton as white victim.
Turning our attention from Blackness now and to ‘redness,’ we can detect a very loose presence of Indigeneity in Rocketman. This happens in two ways. The first is via the band name, Johnny and the Apaches, which bespeaks the appropriation of Indigeneity for the purposes of constructing a white, capitalist media entertainment complex. And the second comes via Bernie going off to fuck Heather in Mama Cass’s tepee – another appropriation of Indigeneity that here also helps to signal the white conquest of Blackness – as a rite of passage for entering into American society by a British man (a rite of passage that Elton has already been through, even as he resents Bernie for going through it as well).
In other words, Indigeneity looms as a structuring absence here, because of course there would be no USA without the genocide of Native Americans, who thus function as what Jodi A Byrd terms a ‘transit of Empire.’ That is, Empire, here the Empire of Elton John as an US$87m dollar music industry and Rocketman as a US$195m movie empire, is built upon the systematic disappearance of Indigeneity, as well as the exploitation of Blackness.
That Elton and Bernie know ‘true love,’ then, is not because they fuck; it is because they both fuck Blackness and Indigeneity alike. White normativity, which likes to think of itself as ‘love,’ is thus in fact built upon hatred – a hatred of Blackness and Indigeneity alike (as well as other people of colour; we might note that one of the people who rescues Elton from the swimming pool after his ‘suicide’ attempt is Asian). No surprise that the ‘love’ of the white heteronormative family is thus also in fact a hatred, because that white heteronormative (and homonormative) family is also built upon the same hatred that is Empire (white middle class men from Pinner as the ‘real victims’ of the world – a gold rush for victimhood that follows and is part of the exploitations of capital).
But how simultaneously excruciating and moving it is, then, for Rocketman to have the Black patient affirm Elton’s desire for love in the Parkland rehab clinic. For, in having him sympathise with Elton, not only is he of course validated as a/the victim, but it also has that character, about whom we know nothing, be given a lesson about love from a white person, when if anyone has ever felt love, real love, it is a people (or peoples) who have needed to work together, to come together and precisely to love in the face of genocide – as a very matter of survival. Not as a spectacle of gross consumption, as per this film. Self-reinvention was necessary for Rodney Jones; it was a mere luxury for Elton Hercules John. Love is a necessity for Blackness; for whiteness, ‘love’ is the never-ending consumption of the other (just as the white slaveowner ‘loves’ the Black slave that he rapes night after night).
I am glad that Elton in the film, and hopefully in life, surmounted lovelessness and through accumulating millions learned finally to love and to be loved. It is a journey out of lovelessness that many fail to achieve, because whiteness drowns in its own emotional and psychological misery.
But that this transition is expected to be understood as a grand achievement, especially considering the people of colour that the film goes through in order to get there… just renders the film an exercise in nothing more or less than a reaffirmation of Empire. The spectacle of Rocketman and the spectacle that is Elton John in some relatively outlandish and fun costumes are forced upon us to make us believe that this makes all of the hatred of Empire worthwhile – including Elton at one point dressing like Queen Elizabeth I, who herself was instrumental in setting the exploitation of the Americas in motion, just in case the Spanish got too rich from doing it themselves. But hey, those genocides were worth it, the film wishes to tell us, because Elton John was the result, and he now gets to wear a fez and become a white saviour to AIDS victims (a kitchen table activist, no less).
For me to seek to humiliate Rocketman, and perhaps by extension its lead character, and for me outrageously to suggest that the film might even be queer phobic or Trans*phobic to boot… means that I become the one who victimises Elton again, since Rocketman positions the viewer either to love the film or to be, like Elton’s mother, a monster. This is Empire. Don’t think it is anything else.
And that Elton engages in an abortive heterosexual marriage with a woman, Renate Blauel (Celinde Schoenmaker), who is made in the film to look quite closely like his mother, would suggest a touch even of the Norman Bates at work in Rocketman‘s Elton John, whereby his homosexuality is born out a desire for the mother who otherwise monstrously rejects him, furthering homosexuality, therefore, as a ‘deviant’ position, that is, as Jonathan Beller understands of Alfred Hitchcock’s Pyscho (USA, 1960), a great example of precisely white psychosis.
One last throw of the dice. As Reid leaves Elton, he tells the latter that his newest record is ‘coked out, M.O.R. shit.’ Cut to Elton in a studio as ‘Victim of Love’ plays on the soundtrack – suggesting that this track from 1979 is indeed the ‘coked out, M.O.R. shit’ that Elton was plying at that point in time. It is here that he meets Renate, also implying that his attempt to be heteronormative, even if in a weird Oedipal fashion (Renate is made to look like his mother), again makes Elton the victim (he wants love, but he is also its victim; oh, the suffering…)…
As Rocketman tries to have it every which way (what Elton loves is, in his own words, ‘fucking [over] everything that moves’), including in its would-be woke but actually (racially) algorithmic casting of people of colour (including Trans* people of colour) in minor, faceless ‘background’ roles, means that these humans are reduced to yet more props, as James A. Snead understands Blackness historically to have been treated in western cinema. That is, they continue to be the prop-erty of a hegemonic whiteness – a perpetuation of slavery and theft that we all know is writ large in the music industry, and which Rocketman is completely shameless in presenting to us as simultaneously a tragedy and an undeniable success story. Coked out, M.O.R. shit, indeed.
I did not do a Films of the Year of 2019. At the time, I thought that it would involve some distasteful self-promotion, by which I mean that at times I think that to blog at all is mere self-promotion, as well as possibly a masturbatory practice in that no one cares to know my thoughts on films (and so why do it in public?).
All the same, with that fear put aside for the time being, I am doing a kind of ’round-up’ of films that I saw for the first time in 2020, which will include those that I thought were most strong, and some other thoughts/observations, which will range from being about my viewing habits to things that I noticed/thought/liked/disliked. This might make this post a bit random, and at times a work of ‘mere opinion’. I hope that this is okay.
On a further note, I also include a lot of the short films that I saw this past year, but not all of them. And the list includes for the first time a number of the television/streaming shows that I saw.
And so it is that I saw 468 films for the first time in 2020. I thought that this was a lot, but looking back on 2019, I notice that in that year I saw 454 films for the first time, and in 2018, I saw 407. So while there has been a slight increase, the number of films remains roughly consistent. And if we wanted to put the increase down to anything, it would be a result of the increased amount of time spent at home/not interacting with others as a result of COVID-19.
The massive sea change that has taken place, though, is the reduction in the number of films that I have seen at the cinema, and the large increase in the number of films that I have seen online. For, in 2020, I saw a ‘mere’ 47 films at the cinema (compared to 237 in 2019), while also seeing 11 on DVD/file (21 in 2019), 13 on television and/or PayTV (0 in 2019), and 11 on aeroplanes (17 in 2019). All of these are dwarfed by the 386 films that I saw online (compared to 179 in 2019).
I do not include in my list of films the movies that I watched as part of the fabulous Small File Media Festival, run by, among others, Laura U Marks of Simon Fraser University. Many of these were micro-films of barely a minute in duration.
But while there is surely much more to say about those films than the mere mention that I give to them here, evoking the Small File Media Festival also allows me to mention how Marks has been charting/estimating the carbon footprint of watching films in high definition and/or 4K at home – and the numbers are not pretty.
I am not sure how home consumption of films compares to theatrical consumption, but overall the former will be more detrimental to the planet per person, since far fewer people attend home screenings than do (at least in principle) theatrical screenings. That is, home viewing is far more energy intense, and thus likely involves a bigger carbon footprint.
As we continue to watch movies at home as a result of the pandemic, and as viewing habits perhaps shift permanently away from theatres (a trend that was already taking place, but which now has intensified as a result of COVID-19), then bearing this issue in mind must be of great importance… and you can read some of Professor Marks’ work on calculating and mitigating your streaming carbon footprint here.
Where normally I just keep a list of films and their directors, this year I have also kept a note of their year and primary country of production (many are co-productions, but I basically have gone by the first named country if indeed a given film is a co-production).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the majority of films that I saw were from the 2010s (259 films), with films from the 2020s coming also perhaps an obvious second (113 films). [It stands to reason that I saw more films from 2019 in 2020 than I saw films from 2020, because there is/will always be a lag between production and distribution/exhibition.)
I otherwise saw 19 films from the 2000s, 16 films from the 1990s, 15 films from the 1980s, 20 films from the 1970s, 8 films from the 1960s, 8 films from the 1950s, 0 films from the 1940s, 3 films from the 1930s, 2 films from the 1920s, and 2 films from the 1910s.
This clear bias for contemporary films seems a shame to me, not least because, ultimately, I feel I watched a lot of crap this year, especially some thoroughly mediocre films that seemed to merit my attention because streaming, when I likely would not have watched such films had I the usual choice of work in theatres.
To assert the latter – that I typically have a strong selection of films in theatres – bespeaks how lucky I am that London is/has become a major film hub – and the pandemic has only made me miss institutions like the ICA, the BFI, and others, as playing a key role in my life. Furthermore, places like the Birkbeck Institute of the Moving Image (BIMI) are clearly of great value culturally both to me and to the city in general, and I should highlight Timité Bassori’s La femme au couteau (Côte d’Ivoire, 1969) as one of the true pleasures that I had at the theatre in 2020 – and which I saw at BIMI.
If London is a major film hub, it also in 2020 became no longer my home, as I moved from the UK to Vancouver in British Columbia, Canada, in order to live with my partner, who at the start of the pandemic discovered that she was pregnant, about which more later.
Being in Vancouver during the Canadian equivalent of lockdown (not as prolonged or intense as in London) has meant that I have not discovered the city or its cinemas as much as I would like, and perhaps it is unfair to say straight off that Vancouver does not seem to have the diversity of offerings that London does (with Paris having an even greater diversity than London), because I may yet discover (and/or be part of!) a range of offerings hitherto unknown to me.
That said, I have attended in 2020 (and on earlier visits) screenings at both the University of British Columbia and Marks’ Simon Fraser University, and which have featured films that I might not otherwise see in regular theatres, this year including Jeff Barnaby’s Blood Quantum (Canada, 2020), a noteworthy post-apocalyptic zombie film in which First Nations inhabitants are immune to, and enjoy killing off those zombified by, the plague of the living dead.
I shall come back to First Nations films in a bit, but I might also mention how I have ventured to the VIFF Centre and the Cinemathèque also in Vancouver, seeing in particular the Dardenne Brothers’ Le jeune Ahmed (Belgium/France, 2019) at the latter, and I hope that in the fullness of time these can become firm favourites, with other independent theatres like the Rio similarly having given me the opportunity to see things like Les Misérables (Ladj Ly, France, 2019) and Fantastic Fungi (Louie Schwartzberg, USA, 2019).
What is more, since Vancouver enjoys a large Asian population, it seems clear that one can also see a range of Asian films at the cinema, as was the case for me this year with Feng Xiaogang’s Only Cloud Knows (China, 2019) and Yellow Rose (Diane Paragas, Philippines/USA, 2019).
In addition to the VIFF’s physical VanCity theatre, the VIFF (Vancouver International Film Festival) was also online this year, and, buying a festival pass, I surely got to see a good number of newer films that otherwise I might not have seen.
Perhaps needless to say, the shift to online film festivals this year means that in addition to VIFF and the Small File Media Festival, I have also enjoyed offerings from various other places, perhaps most notably the We Are One Festival on YouTube, a joint venture between 21 different fleshworld festivals, and which, in 2020 at least, offered up a range of non-premiere (or rarely premiere) work, but which nonetheless made for some good experiences, for example Fradique’s Ar condicionado (Angola, 2020).
I lamented above that I feel like I have watched more ‘crap’ in 2020 because alternative work is not showcased. And yet, since the internet is supposed to have everything that you could look for, it seems odd that I might say this. For surely there is nowhere that is as diverse as the internet for finding films.
And yet, what seems/seemed clear to me with a renewed intensity in 2020 is the importance of gatekeepers and curators. I have followed up on and chased down all manner of films in 2020, viewing stuff via the usual suspects (Netflix, Amazon Prime, MUBI), as well as taking out at least temporary subscription to places like OVID (and then leaving after seeing most of the content that appealed to me, and which I had not seen before; in particular this included being able to see Wang Bing’s monumental documentary, Dead Souls, China, 2018; Hôtel Terminus: Klaus Barbie, sa vie et son temps, Marcel Ophuls, USA, 1988; some shorter work by John Akomfrah; and finally the third part of Patricio Guzmán’s Battle of Chile, Chile/Cuba/Venezuela, 1979). I have also benefited from an institutional subscription to Kanopy, while of course also watching films on Vimeo, including Vimeo on Demand, and YouTube, including films released via YouTube/Google. This is not to mention various other online archives, nor iTunes, to which I equally turn on occasion if the title is right.
But across all of these, I have been browsing and/or tracking down titles. That is, I read about a film via a news story or what have you, and then I need to go and find out where to see it. Or, conversely, I hear that a.n. cinema, gallery, university or other is hosting an online screening of x or y film, and so I go to that venue for a single visit.
What to me seems clearly missing, however, is a single venue where one can go for the latest arthouse releases. MUBI comes closest to this, but a lot of the material that it shows is ‘archival’ (i.e. not new). Don’t get me wrong; I love MUBI, but it is not the same as the ICA, where three or four times a week I could physically watch a new film, generally ‘arthouse,’ and basically I’d trust that it would be halfway decent or worth watching because the ICA had decided to program it.
The VIFF may come to be closest to that in Vancouver, especially as it tries to rollout its festival year round. But even then, I think that its programming is less adventurous than that of the ICA going by what was selected for this year’s festival (much as I appreciated what I did see at the VIFF this year).
Now, I am not trying to sound ‘arsey’ or pompous by saying that the ICA hosts ‘arthouse’ films. But I mention its programming/curation specifically because I am not lacking for mainstream films online. Netflix and Prime both have their own productions, as well as hosting films from other studios, while HBO Max, iTunes, Optic, Disney+ and other venues allow me to see the full range of mainstream movies, even as studios have been withholding a lot of titles as they work out whether or not theatres are a safe option.
I will always be able to see those bigger movies. But being able to see a full world of cinema… that is what seems lacking, and a site that brings together and hosts the latest in world cinema – a bit like what MUBI is doing now, but with an emphasis on the contemporary – is what I think I miss most sorely about the ‘new normal’ of majority-online film viewing. Hunting for films can be fun; but time also becomes an issue – and especially if one has to take out a new subscription to a site, meaning that in addition to the one film that one wants to watch, one feels obliged to watch other material on that site… perhaps simply because it is there.
The issue of access to world cinema becomes clear to me when I consider where the films come from that I saw in 2020. The ‘medal table’ is as follows (with, for the sake of simplicity, co-productions being defined by the first named country only):-
Broken down into regions, I have seen films as follows (with there being some overlap and repetition below across Africa, MENA and Asia):-
North America – 193
Europe – 111
Asia – 76
Latin America & Caribbean – 31
Kurdistan – 21
Africa – 14
MENA – 11
Oceania – 10
(I wish to note that Kurdistan has a separate entry here because I was a juror for the London Kurdish Film Festival 2020, and so saw various films from the Kurdish region(s).)
While I think that the numbers of films that I have seen from Asia and perhaps also Latin America are respectable, it seems clear that online film viewing, especially with what the major streaming services offer (and even more especially with how difficult it is to search through them for non-western fare), is an overwhelmingly Eurocentric affair.
I am ashamed that I have only seen two Iranian films this year (including one short), and I am also appalled that I have only managed 1 Russian film. I feel like I normally see much more from, say, Portugal, Romania, Spain, South Korea, Turkey, Argentina and Mexico in a given year, even as this year has been (relatively) good for my viewing of Taiwanese, Brazilian, Japanese and Canadian films.
And so while I love it that Netflix randomly had the back catalog of Youssef Chahine turn up among its titles this year (accounting for 2 of the 3 Egyptian movies I saw in 2020), and while I know that I can find archives of Korean (and probably Russian, Argentine, and Mexican films) online, it is the fact that these are not brought together that leads to the imbalances. If you will, I guess I want/need someone to take care of my movie diet for me – hence my emphasis on the importance of curation/programming – rather than me having to source everything myself.
Indeed, a case in point would be the Iranian movies. This year I bought a subscription to IMVBox, and so in principle I can see as many Iranian films as I want – from classics to more recent ones. However, I have not seen a single film yet via this service. In part, this is because I continue to get sidetracked into watching ‘crap’ on Netflix, and so mea culpa.
But it also is due to the fact that having to get to yet another website, and then having to browse it to find something that I want to watch (from among IMVBox’s own swathes of ‘crap’ – with all due respect to Iranian filmmakers) just becomes too much work to do.
I understand that this is a First World problem (how can one get more ‘First World’ than complaining about one’s lack of access to work from the ‘developing world’?). But in order to address the hegemony of the West, and in order to resist the general ‘crap’ that Netflix and Amazon Prime put out there, there needs to be a site that brings together the best in world cinema.
FestivalScope is perhaps the site that is the beacon of hope for this, and I have watched a decent number of films on that site. But a) it is not a site that is readily accessible, in that one has to demonstrate a connection to the professional film world, and b) its selection is wonderful, but it also regularly very ‘dour’, it contains a large number of films, and there is no internal curation to help you pick them apart with any particular ease. Perhaps the perfect site would be a hybrid of the curational stye of MUBI – mixing ‘high’ and ‘low’ – and the emphasis on the contemporary of FestivalScope (and in some respects similar sites like DAFilms).
At this point, I might also mention how Dr Leshu Torchin at the University of St Andrews in some way stepped up to this would-be plate by (meta-)curating a series of playlists, in many instances of movies to be found online, and which did indeed spark a great deal of enjoyment for me.
While my viewing has been dominated by western films in 2020, I might say that from within these spaces, I have nonetheless watched a lot of what we might call ‘decolonising’ cinema. In part this was spurred by the efforts of places like the Criterion Channel in making available classic African-American films in the wake of the revitalised Black Lives Matter movement after the murder of George Floyd, and also as a result of the concerted effort by VIFF to programme First Nations movies. I should perhaps also here mention how I saw a few First Nations films at the Cinema at the End of the World symposium organised by Dr Mila Zuo at UBC in February, where I saw the afore-mentioned Blood Quantum.
Some of the First Nations films are, dare I say it, hit and miss; I did not personally care for VIFF’s opener, Monkey Beach (Loretta Todd, Canada, 2020), nor The Incredible 25th Year of Mitzi Bearclaw (Shelley Niro, Canada, 2019), which screened at the Cinema at the End of the World.
The latter in particular is about a woman who has just turned 25, and so its title is mathematically ‘off’, in that the film is about Mitzi’s 26th year, and not her 25th. However, such pedantry on my part does lead me to wonder that my insistence on mathematics misses the ‘untimeliness’ of the First Nations movie, in the sense of considering the western world from an outsider’s perspective, as well as my imposition on to the film of my own ‘mathematical’ and western sense of measurement and calculation.
It has been contested that the world ended for Native Americans many centuries ago, in that the arrival of white settlers marked an apocalypse of genocide, illness and displacement. Now that the white west is worried about the ‘end of the world’ as our ecology collapses, what really is revealed is its ongoing delusion that its own experience is universal. As we reach a world of ‘aftermath,’ then, perhaps it is the ‘aftermathematics’ of Mitzi Bearclaw that is what we need, but I am too stymied by my ‘mathematical’ thinking to let this be so.
And so it is with the ‘cheesey’ aesthetics of Monkey Beach and Mitzi Bearclaw. I find the films mawkish, and much prefer the more austere offerings of, say, The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn, Canada/Norway, 2019), or the historical dramatisation of real-world events depicted in Beans (Tracey Deer, Canada, 2020). But again, this is perhaps my own prejudice at work, and maybe we need the ‘sweet’ style of these films in order to accomplish a better world.
As it was a great pleasure to watch a number of films by indigenous filmmakers, including from Canada, the USA and Brazil (for example, Apiyemiyeki?, Ana Vaz, Brazil/France/Portugal/Netherlands, 2020 – a film mentioned by various others in their Films of the Year lists), so was it also a great pleasure to watch various landmarks and forgotten pieces of Black American cinema – with numerous being excellent, including (in chronological order): The Girl from Chicago (Oscar Micheaux, USA, 1932), Lying Lips (Oscar Micheaux, USA, 1939), The Story of the Three Day Pass (Melvin Van Peebles, France, 1968), Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (William Greaves, USA, 1968), Watermelon Man (Melvin Van Peebles, USA, 1970), The Spook Who Sat by the Door (Ivan Dixon, USA, 1973), Abar: Black Superman (Frank Packard, USA, 1977), Bush Mama (Haile Gerima, USA, 1979), Cane River (Horace B. Jenkins, USA, 1982), Losing Ground (Kathleen Collins, USA, 1982), Bless Their Little Hearts (Billy Woodberry, USA, 1983), The Killing Floor (Bill Duke, USA, 1984), She’s Gotta Have It (Spike Lee, USA, 1986), Sidewalk Stories (Charles Lane, USA, 1989), New Jack City (Mario Van Peebles, USA, 1991), Menace II Society (The Hughes Brothers, USA, 1993), Surviving The Game (Ernest R Dickerson, USA, 1994) and Down in the Delta (Maya Angelou, USA, 1998).
These joined a few recent landmark achievements in Black American cinema that I got to see, including Strong Island (Yance Ford, USA/Denmark, 2017), Queen & Slim (Melina Matsoukas, USA/Canada, 2019), The Forty-Year-Old Version (Radha Blank, USA, 2020), Time (Garrett Bradley, USA, 2020) and The Sleeping Negro (Skinner Myers, USA, 2021).
Indeed, I would place The Sleeping Negro and Time as two of my top top films of the year, with Skinner Myers’ film in particular being a revelation. Having seen the film somewhat by chance, I can only recommend that viewers seek it out; and I might add that one place to see it that I know of is at the forthcoming Slamdance Film Festival.
On this topic, I might note that the UK also had a strong year for Black film and television production, with I May Destroy You (Micaela Coel, UK/USA, 2020) being perhaps the stand-out television show, and Steve McQueen’s Mangrove (UK, 2020) and Lovers Rock (UK, 2020) also being superb. Alongside these I might recommend Remi Weekes’ His House (UK, 2020), as well as Onyeka Igwe’s short experimental piece, The Names Have Changed Including My Own and Truths Have Been Altered (UK, 2020).
Furthermore, I would like also to make a special mention for Juliet Ellis’ Ruby (UK, 2020), which is an extraordinary film made for £20,000 about a young girl and her seemingly sleeping mother, and which was made in Sheffield and Cleethorpes, having been rejected by funding bodies for having ‘no commercial value.’ For me, it is the best British film of the year, and also in my top top movies. The sort of cinema that really needs to be preserved and encouraged.
In addition to Black British and Black American films, I also managed to catch a few Asian American movies and shows, with Wayne Wang’s Chan Is Missing (USA, 1982) being for me a wonderful masterpiece.
And another underdog production worth lauding is Congolese rapper Baloji’s Zombies (DRC/Belgium, 2019), which in its short running time shows as much innovation and ideas as, say, Black is King (Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Emmanuel Adjei, Ibra Ake, Blitz Bazawule, Kwasi Fordjour, USA, 2020).
Perhaps predictably, the UK also produced one of the worst films that I have seen about race in 2020, namely Darragh Carey and Bertrand Desrochers’ A Brixton Tale (UK, 2020), which reproduces some of the worst myths about Blackness, and which sees a completely unrealistic Brixton fetishised through a white girl’s lens as exotic and gritty.
And while I don’t typically like to bad-mouth any film production, since I know from experience how hard it is to make a film and also how hard it is to control a film’s production, I mention this because I have noted that A Brixton Tale has also been selected this year for Slamdance.
The point I wish to make, then, is that for all of the good work that the Slamdance programmers have done in selecting The Sleeping Negro, which is perhaps the best film that I saw in 2020, that they select alongside it a film as inept in its treatment of racial politics as A Brixton Tale only goes to show that festival programmers sometimes do not have the wherewithal to know what they are looking at, with their ability to pick films about pressing issues such as race being as good as chance, rather than based on any astute analytical skills. And I would consider Slamdance to be a major festival. Given how many entries festivals get these days, and given how few films ultimately Slamdance is screening, it seems particularly a poor choice to screen such a film, thereby undoing the good work of selecting The Sleeping Negro, and indeed undermining their own claims to be making meaningful or progressive contributions to cinematic discussions of race.
I have situated the prominence of Black film in the UK and the USA alongside the resurgence of Black Lives Matter in the wake of the death of George Floyd. This is not to overlook films from other parts of the world that deal with race (for me, two of note that I saw in 2020 are Khalik Allah’s Black Mother, Jamaica/USA, 2018, and Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela, Portugal, 2019). But I might also mention that following the angry-making execution of death row inmate Brandon Bernard, Destin Daniel Cretton’s Just Mercy (USA, 2019) also seems a film to have taken on a renewed timeliness.
And 2020 cannot but be remembered for the passing of, among others, Chadwick Boseman. Seeing him play a ghost in in Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee, USA, 2020) was indeed chilling, even as that was one of several films and shows to give the Vietnamese pretty short shrift in 2020 (Watchmen, Damon Lindelof, USA, 2020, being another case in point, much as I otherwise enjoyed it). While his soliloquy against god in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (George C. Wolfe, USA, 2020) is of such power seeing it after his passing, that really it does become a performance with what Roland Barthes might call punctum. I’d not be surprised if that turn in particular lands Boseman a posthumous Academy Award.
It also felt sad to say good bye to Irrfan Khan, an actor whom I have loved since I first saw him in A Mighty Heart (Michael Winterbottom, USA/UK, 2007), where he acted everyone off the screen. I managed to see two films with him in 2020, the thoroughly mediocre Puzzle (Marc Turteltaub, USA, 2018) and the better Qarib Qarib Singlle (Tanuja Chandra, India, 2017). He plays eccentric lovers in both, and is completely amiable in both, but it seems a shame that in the former his much more interesting story is overshadowed by the hackneyed struggles of domestic life embodied by Kelly McDonald.
With Winterbottom in mind, it was pleasing as always to see Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon together again in his Trip to Greece (UK, 2020), which constitutes the original comedians- and/or karaoke singers-in-cars show, and which remains superior to all that have followed (and I suspect that Coogan would make for a significantly more entertaining companion than most of the people that Jerry Seinfeld decides to reveal as pretty boring in his coffee-driven Netflix show).
Sacha Baron Cohen had a busy 2020, appearing in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Jason Woliner, UK/USA, 2020) as well as The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Aaron Sorkin, USA/UK/India, 2020), in which he was in particular very good. These screenings accompanied my first-time viewing of earlier turns from him in The Dictator (Larry Charles, USA, 2012) and The Brothers Grimsby (Louis Leterrier, UK/USA, 2016). As a note, though, while The Chicago 7 had various pleasures, the superior courtroom drama of 2020 was for me Steve McQueen’s Mangrove.
Among the various actors who seem to have had a good year, I might mention Gina Rodríguez, who stood out in the otherwise mediocre Someone Great (Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, USA, 2019), and who in Kajillionaire (Miranda July, USA, 2020) was forced to play second fiddle to Evan Rachel Wood’s well-acted but otherwise wilfully quirky and white Old Dolio Dyne. Indeed, women of colour playing second fiddle to, or absent from the world of, white women seemed to be a common theme in films from 2020 – with movies like Babyteeth (Shannon Murphy, Australia, 2019) and System Crasher (Nora Fingscheidt, Germany, 2019) validating the (blonde) white girl as perhaps the stake of the future, posited by the latter film as a ‘system crasher,’ when in fact they are the beating heart of the (contemporary world, i.e. modern capitalist) system.
Some of the films about white women were better than others, with The Assistant (Kitty Green, USA, 2019) perhaps standing out, with this viewer not being as taken as others by Bombshell (Jay Roach, Canada/USA, 2019), Swallow (Carlo Mirabella-Davis, USA/France, 2019), Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman, USA/UK/Germany, 2019) or The Invisible Man (Leigh Whannell, Canada/Australia/USA, 2020) – even as these films did have their merits.
Kristen Stewart perhaps gets a special mention as a performer whom I like a lot, but who appeared in a string of pretty forgettable films this past year, and in which her whiteness is at times core, including Underwater (William Eubank, USA, 2020), Seberg (Benedict Andrews, UK/USA, 2019) and Happiest Season (Clea DuVall, USA/Canada, 2020). While the latter is relatively pleasant in its depiction of coming out, its chief point of interest is the under-used Daniel Levy (from Schitt’s Creek), and whom I hope to see in many more films.
Indeed, in the year of ‘Karen,’ it seems as though the white-women-focused narrative seemed slightly off-kilter, and I might mention that White Chicks (Keenen Ivory Wayans, USA, 2004) seemed an appropriate film to watch for the first time.
It was also pleasing to see women taking the helm for otherwise average blockbusters like Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (Cathy Yan, USA, 2020), The Old Guard (Gina Prince-Blythewood, USA, 2020) and the disappointing Mulan (Niki Caro, USA/Canada/Hong Kong, 2020), with my estimation in 2019 already being that it is a sign of strength – at least in some respects – when women are as able to make, and do make, as basic films as men do.
That is, women directors – like directors of colour and indigenous filmmakers (as also suggested in the discussion of Mitzi Bearclaw above) – should always have jobs making not just the best films, but films from across the spectrum of quality or, put differently, making films for different audiences, with different budgets and so on.
I mean, I wish that every film could be a masterpiece and that there were no disappointments, or that there were not even merely forgettable films; but if there are going to be all of these types of film, then who gets to make them should be distributed equitably.
That said, of the 468 films that I saw for the first time in 2020, only 116 were directed by women, with a further 22 being made by male-female directing teams/collaborators. With a handful of films made by trans/non-binary directors, this nonetheless left the vast of majority of films being directed by men, or groups of men.
Of course, this could reflect my choices of films to watch rather than the state of the various industries from which I saw enough films to get a sense of the gender (im)balance in terms of directors. But really, I think that this reflects the ongoing gender bias in terms of few women getting to direct movies.
All the same, a number of films by women did stand out, as per various listed above (Yellow Rose, The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, Beans, Queen & Slim, The Forty-Year-Old Version, Time, I May Destroy You, Ruby and The Assistant).
And to this list I might in no particular order add the notable A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Marielle Heller, China/USA, 2019), A Febre (Maya Da-Rin, Brazil/France/Germany, 2019), Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (Céline Sciamma, France, 2019), Mignonnes (Maïmaouna Ducouré, France, 2019), Dick Johnson is Dead (Kirsten Johnson, USA, 2020), First Cow (Kelly Reichardt, USA, 2019), Present.Perfect (Shengze Zhu, China/Hong Kong/USA, 2019), Little Joe (Jessica Hausner, Austria/UK/Germany/France, 2019), and Honey Boy (Alma Ha’rel, USA, 2019).
Should it seem that I am picking unduly on the narrative focused on the (bland) white female character, I should add that there are plenty of films that do the same with white male characters, although again there were some good exceptions to this, including Uncut Gems (Benny and Josh Safdie, USA, 2019), True History of the Kelly Gang (Justin Kurzel, Austala/UK/France, 2019), Another Round (Thomas Vinterberg, Denmark/Sweden/Netherlands, 2020), Martin Eden (Pietro Marcello, Italy/France/Germany, 2019) and Siberia (Abel Ferrara, Italy/Germany/Greece/Mexico, 2019).
That said, watching older American ‘mumblecore’ films by the likes of Joe Swanberg and Nathan Silver this year, I did come to think that they seem dated now, not least in their whiteness, which in the language of Kehinde Andrews constitutes a psychosis (a term that Andrews uses in relation to Amma Asante’s Belle, UK, 2013, a film I also saw for the first time in 2013). And yet, mumblecore has produced a couple of playful takes on precisely psychotic whiteness, as evidenced in the two Creep films that I saw this year by Patrick Brice (USA, 2014 and 2017), and which star mumblecore mainstay Mark Duplass as precisely that white psychopath.
What is more, Mark’s brother, Jay Duplass, also was one of the stars, with Tatiana Maslany, of Pink Wall (Tom Cullen, UK, 2019), which was one of the standouts of the year and certainly the best relationship/end-of-relationship film that I have seen for a while. Wim Mertens’ ‘Iris,’ which plays over the closing credits, was also a revelation for me. Fabulous acting, smart script writing, getting to grips with the depth and difficulties of human relationships and emotions.
Returning to (or staying with?) psychotic whiteness, this also seems in its most horrendous form to be at work in a range of films that I saw about manhunts, including the afore-mentioned Surviving the Game, as well as Craig Zobel’s utterly unlikely – and not particularly likeable – The Hunt (USA/Japan, 2020), wherein, as a direct contradiction of the logic of the Proud Boys, it is Democrats that hunt down Republicans for sport. Superior to both, however, is Bacurau (Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, Brazil/France, 2019), which is definitely one of the best of 2020, and which tells the tale of poor Brazilians in the sertão hunting back the white hunters who come to kill them for their amusement.
I might mention that psychotic whiteness is also at the core of (the same) Mila Zuo’s short film, KIN (USA, 2020), which was one of the most affectively rich films about a group of disaffected whites in rural Oregon that I have seen. I must confess to total bias, since I co-wrote the film, but I also think it worth puffing how this short is a dense, complex and powerful look at white America today – with a searing edit by Dougal Henken that takes the film a long way from the script that I co-wrote with Zuo (and for the better!), as well as powerful performances from Frank Mosley, Sophie Traub and Cameron Shuman.
And this mention allows me to segue into how Mosley is himself on the up and up. Having worked last year in Thunder Road (Jim Cummings, USA, 2018) and Chained for Life (Aaron Schimberg, USA, 2018), in 2020 we got to see him in The Ghost Who Walks (Cody Stokes, USA, 2019) and Freeland (Mario Furloni and Kate McLean, USA, 2020), while also catching his directorial effort, Her Wilderness (USA, 2014) reworked as an online interactive movie. Here’s hope for more in 2021!
From Creep, we might also segue into Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s excellent Creepy (Japan, 2016), one of several films from the director that I saw this year. This is a film that at one point features a jellyfish prominently displayed on a television screen, one of numerous examples this year of tentacles and cephalopodic creatures, which were the focus of David H Fleming and my recent book, The Squid Cinema from Hell: Kinoteuthis Infernalis and the Emergence of Chthulumedia (Edinburgh University Press, 2020). Such creatures also turned up in the afore-mentioned Watchmen, His House and Underwater, as well as in Ad Vitam (Thomas Cailley, France, 2018), Chanson douce (Lucie Borleteau, France, 2019), My Octopus Teacher (Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed, South Africa, 2020) and Lovecraft Country (Misha Green, USA, 2020). And with HP Lovecraft in mind, we might also mention Richard Stanley’s The Colour Out Of Space (USA/Malaysia/Portugal, 2019)… Indeed, it would seem that tentacular and cthulhoid creatures continue to abound in contemporary film and television, such that David and I should prepare a second book on the topic (which in fact we are doing).
From Kurosawa, I also saw Before We Vanish (Japan, 2017), one of numerous films that seemed to announce and/or to rehearse life under COVID-19, some of which were more powerful (Vivarium, Lorcan Finnegan, Ireland/Belgium/Denmark/Canada, 2019) than others (I was not particularly taken by She Dies Tomorrow, Amy Seimetz, USA, 2020).
In terms of horror, I might also say that I enjoyed retrospectively seeing Insidious (James Wan, USA/Canada, 2010), which was esteemed to be cognitively the scariest movie of all time, as well as The Wailing (Na Hong-jin, South Korea/USA, 2016) and It Comes At Night (Trey Edward Shults, USA, 2017), which I found much better than the same director’s subsequent Waves (Trey Edward Shults, USA/Canada, 2019).
With regard to COVID-19, there were a few productions made to reflect life during the pandemic, with the one that I shall mention being Cinema-19 (Courtney Stephens, Kalpana Subramanian, Usama Alshaibi, Scott Cummings, Lori Felker, Matt McCormick, Eman Akram Nader and Alex Megaro, Christin Turner, Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa, Kelly Gallagher, Sarah Ema Friedland, William Brown and Mila Zuo, Amir George, and Adam Sekuler, USA/Canada, 2020).
As the list of directors surely makes clear, I am blowing my own trumpet again, but I toot it to say how I proud I was and continue to be to participate in a project with such exceptional filmmakers, with Mila Zuo and I collaborating on Coyote, a short film about which I also shall be writing an essay for The Projector in 2021.
If Cinema-19 is a compendium of films of life under lockdown, then Ai Weiwei’s CoroNation (China, 2020) functioned for me as the best documentary yet about the pandemic, as it depicts the emptied streets of Wuhan and the almost science-fictional procedures put in place to control the spread of the disease.
Perhaps predictably, COVID-19 produced a rash of films about confinement, with window films becoming increasingly common, be those the windows of the digital machines that we consult at home, or the windows that we look out of into relatively empty streets.
While this aesthetic has been announced by Alfred Hitchcock in Rear Window (USA, 1954), thereby making an implicit connection between the window film and disability/disease, it is an aesthetic that also bespeaks surveillance. And it is surveillance that we see taken up explicitly as a theme in Ulu Braun’s remarkable Saturne (Germany, 2020), shot in Berlin as if uniquely from the viewpoint of CCTV cameras as a man seeks to spread the ashes of his dead mother, among other things.
Not only might we note the ongoing legacy of Rear Window in films like Number 37 (Nophiso Dumisa, South Africa, 2018), but we might also begin to weave together how the window aesthetic, tied as it is to surveillance and illness/disability, is also tied to the pandemic, as per some of the Cinema-19 films and as per Mati Diop’s In My Room (France/Italy, 2020).
The quasi-academic/theoretical point I wish to make, then, is that COVID-19 is perhaps linked, at least aesthetically if not politically, to the rise of a surveillance society, and that this surveillance society constitutes a sort of illness (with those who are disabled perhaps being best placed to perceive as much).
As made clear by Mati Diop’s other work, including her renowned short Atlantiques (France, 2009), which I also saw for the first time in 2020, surveillance is also linked to migration. Indeed, the confinement/carceral aesthetic of COVID-19, as well as the window aesthetic to which it is related, is demonstrated in His House, with Christian Petzold’s Transit (Germany/France, 2018), a hangover film that I also only saw late in 2020, equally relating the contemporary moment to a moment defined by the plight of those undergoing forced migration. (A propos of Petzold, I found Transit far superior to his more recent and aquatic Undine, Germany/France, 2020.)
Finally, if we see the window aesthetic already at work in films like 9 Days: From My Window in Aleppo (Floor van der Meulen, Thomas Vroege, Issa Touma, Netherlands/Syria, 2016), a film that I saw when it came out four years ago, then in some senses the ‘COVID-19’ aesthetic was also already announced by the refugee crisis prompted by the war in Syria. And this carceral aesthetic also is linked to the radicalised carceral logic at work in the contemporary USA and so brilliantly analysed by Garrett Bradley in Time.
While I am proposing somewhat provocatively, then, that there is an aesthetics, thematic and indeed a conceptual through-line from Blackness to surveillance society to refugees to aesthetics of confinement and/or fenestration, then I say this also to introduce the final ‘best film of 2020.’
While documentaries like CoroNation, The Two Lives of Li Ermao (Jia Yuchuan, China/UK, 2019) and Goodbye CP (Kazuo Hara, Japan, 1972) were among the best that I saw for the first time in 2020, it is Abbas Fahdel’s Bitter Bread (Lebanon/Iraq/France, 2019) that is my final ‘best film of 2020’ – which is perhaps unlike anything else in its weave of staged and documented scenes made with inhabitants of Syrian refugee camps in the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon. The film is urgent and powerful, and in some ways it brings together many of the key concerns for our planet right now.
In a final bit of puffery, I shall also mention that I finished a film called The New Hope 2 (UK, 2020) this year, a sequel to my earlier adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and which was shot in London’s Hyde Park back in 2014. Set in London and Los Angeles, I think that the sequel is, like the first part, a deliberately punk, DIY and no-budget film that also hopefully says something for/to our ‘DIY’ and ‘guerrilla’ filmmaking times, and which I offer up for free (as usual). May it provide some comic relief in these tough days.
However, even as I ‘big up’ KIN, my book and The New Hope 2, the best production for me was the one announced in Coyote, the contribution made by Mila Zuo and me to Cinema-19, and which comes in the form of Radian Winter Zuo Brown, a daughter born to me and my partner in 2020. No film can match even an instant in her company.
In sum, then, my best of 2020 – meaning films from 2019 and 2020 – are as follows, ranked in a Halliwell-style *** and **** system, since I don’t believe in shoe-horning together 10 films (or 100 films) for a Top 10 (or Top 100) if there aren’t enough that are of sufficient perceived quality.
Numerous of the above-named are films do not feature below. This is not because I don’t like them; indeed, to my mind – and still thinking Halliwell – many of those films would would get ** or * and lots of italics for standout contributions. And there are plenty of films I’ve not yet seen and yet which I imagine I would like (and in fact have already seen in 2021 a couple of films that might well have a got a mention here if I’d seen them only a few days earlier: Shirley, Ammonite, St Maud, Fourteen, Saint Frances, Clemency, Rocks, the rest of Small Ax, Minari, etc)…
All the same, the *** and **** films are as follows:-
The Forty-Year-Old Version, I May Destroy You, Mangrove, Lovers Rock, Black Mother, Martin Eden, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, Vitalina Varela, The Assistant, Uncut Gems, Another Round, A Febre, Present.Perfect, Bacurau, CoroNation.
Ruby, Time, The Sleeping Negro, Pink Wall, Bitter Bread.
Should it be of interest, my top films of 2019 are/were as follows, according to the same system:-
13th (Ava DuVernay), Destroyer (Karyn Kusama), Dragonfly Eyes (Xu Bing), Ray & Liz (Richard Billingham), Long Day’s Journey Into Night 3D (Bi Gan), High Life (Claire Denis), Donbass (Sergei Loznitsa), Nuestro tiempo (Carlos Reygadas), The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Joe Talbot), Museo (Alonso Ruizpalacios), The Infiltrators (Cristina Ibarra and Alex Rivera), Le Franc (Djibril Diop Mambéty), Le Daim (Quentin Dupieux), Muna Moto (Jean-Pierre Dikongué Pipa), What You Gonna Do When The World’s On Fire? (Roberto Minervini), Monos (Alejandro Landes), Afrique, je te plumerai (Jean-Marie Téno), Campo (Tiago Hespanha), High Flying Bird (Steven Soderbergh), 24 Frames (Abbas Kiarostami), Vulnicura VR (Björk/Andrew Thomas Huang), Beats (Brian Welsh), Cómprame un revólver (Julio Hernández Cordón), Leto (Kirill Serebrennikov), Talking About Trees (Suhaib Gasmelbari), The Nightingale (Jennifer Kent).
Happy Hour (Ryusuke Hamaguchi), Hale County This Morning This Evening (RaMell Ross), The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg)
And now, for what it’s worth, here are all of the films I saw in 2020, followed by a complete list of the films I saw in 2019.
USA et al
A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood
A Brixton Tale
Darragh Carey and Bertrand Desrochers
A Dance for Death
A Hidden Life
A Rainy Day in New York
A rosa azul de Novalis
Rodrigo Carneiro and Gustavo Vinagre
A Russian Youth
A Secret Love
A Shape of Things to Come
Lisa Malloy and JP Sniadecki
A Trip to the Moon
A Wrinkle in Time
Abar: Black Superman
Alfred & Jakobine
Jonathan Howells and Tom Roberts
An American Pickle
Are You Listening Mother?
As boas maneiras
Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas
Asako I & II
Así habló el cambista
Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles
Khavn de la Cruz
Beautiful New Bay Area Project
Before We Vanish
Between Heaven and Earth
Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn
Afterimages has played at the 2011 edition of CPH PIX in Copenhagen.
This page for the film at the festival can be seen here.
The Festival Guidebook reviews the film as follows:
Everyone talks about the digital revolution, but only few people do anything about it and make films for fun. English filmmaker William Brown visited CPH PIX last year with his charming Godard hommage ‘En attendant Godard’. This year, he returns with his brand-new film ‘Afterimages’, and again we can expect a simple and likeable film, shot on video with absolutely no money – but with the same energy and desire to make films that drove his French role models in the 1960s. Dennis, an émigré from Guatemala, who makes a living as a baker in the middle of nowhere in Scotland finds a mobile phone on the street. The telephone contains nothing but a video of a girl being raped by three hooligans in a forest. After seeing the clip without knowing what was happens after, he can’t forget it again. ‘Afterimages’ of the video have burnt themselves into his mind and so the good-hearted Dennis sets out to find the girl and the three hooligans. If you have a penchant for the particular British kind of solidarity for the man on the street (and for French digressions), then ‘Afterimages’ is good company.
Jonathan Rosenbaum, the critic whom Jean-Luc Godard described as the most important writer on film since André Bazin, has included En Attendant Godard among his Top Five Films of 2009 in Sight & Sound magazine.
Rosenbaum describes the film thus:
This nervy, brand new feature is an excellent work of Godard criticism (with glancing look-ins at Resnais, Haneke and Cassavetes) that goes beyond detailed pastiche to forge a creative application of 1960s and early ’70s Godard across a tour through portions of western Europe. An inquiry, in short, into how Godard’s example might inform and apply to contemporary film-making.