Not such a bad year after all – 2020 in Film
Updated: Dec 29, 2020
Despite the closure of cinemas for several months, 2020 was a surprisingly good year for films. There was very little to moan about, if we ignore Sofia Coppola for a moment.
by Phil Butland
For the last couple of years, I’ve been compiling end of year lists of the best and worst films for my Berliner film blog. In comparison with previous years, the results for 2020 were surprisingly good. Normally, I list the 20 best films and the 10 worst, but to be honest – at least if we just take the 157 films that I actually saw [yes, I know] – I didn’t see 10 bad films.
I’ve already written about why I think that one of the unexpected side-effects of lockdown was a much more diverse cinema programme. This article looks at some of the films we got to see as a result, as well as fulfilling my childish desire to make lists.
The quality is so great that there’s no room in my Top 20 for Armando Iannucci’s marvellous colour-blind adaption of David Copperfield or the tremendous Georgian gay ballet drama And Then we Danced. Both of these – and many more – are well worth a visit.
There are 8 US-American films in the list, as well as 4 from Germany, 2 from France and one each from Algeria, Austria, Spain, Sweden, Syria and the UK. 8 are directed by women and 9 by Black directors, which is a promising indication for 2021.
Without further ado, here is – from best to not quite as good – my top 20 and, er, worst 2 films of 2020. In case you’re mad that something obvious is missing, other opinions are allowed. Besides, I’m only counting new films which I first saw in 2020 in a cinema or as a pre-release stream.
1. Les Miserables (not that one)
Also known as Die Wütenden in Germany, the film unluckily came up against Parasite for the 2019 Best foreign film Oscar. Even though the Oscar jury untypically made a good call with Parasite, I still think that this one is even better. An everyday story of life in the banlieux for Black kids and their regular conflicts with the racist police. Les Miserables has been deservedly compared to Matthieu Kassovitz’s superb La Haine, which celebrated its 25th birthday this year. The fervent anger sustains it right to the great final scene.
2. White Riot
This superb documentary about Rock Against Racism was snuck out to insufficient praise as COVID-19 hit, but we were treated to a sneak preview at the Berlinale. White Riot opens by reminding us how exceptionally racist 1970s British television was, before focusing in on the musicians who tried to change this and quell the growing Nazi threat. It receives bonus points for pointing out that these musicians were not automatically progressive and that hard arguments by good activists were also necessary. All this with by far the soundtrack of the year.
3. Nardjes A
This was another film which made a hit at the Berlinale (with me at least), but then got lost in the subsequent COVID-19 programming. A day in the life of a female activist in the recent Algerian uprisings. Nardjes A shows that social upheavals do not contain the order ascribed to them in some films. Everything is chaotic, and a diversity of opinions is shown as the participants try to make sense of what's happening. This started out as a documentary about something else entirely, and allows director Karim Aïnouz to find himself swept along by historic events.
Cocoon is a touching tale of first love, where Nora’s “normal” teenage problems are intensified because the love of her life is (a) unpredictable and (b) a girl. There is a metaphor going on about Nora’s pet caterpillars emerging from their cocoon but the story of working-class, multi-cultural life transcends the usual clichés. It’s a life-affirming film, but not short of deep heartache. In other words, it treats a gay romance exactly the same way good film treats heterosexual young love. It’s a shame that this is exceptional, but this is a rare gem.
It’s a simple enough story. You’re pregnant and you live in a conservative town where it's impossible to get an abortion without your parents’ consent. The only person you can trust is your cousin, so you go together to New York to deal with your problem. The simple premise addresses an everyday crisis which still affects many girls. And the film approaches this traumatic event with inconspicuous panache. The strength in Never Rarely Sometimes Always is that it never claims to be extraordinary. This is what normal life is like for many people.
Horror Noire is an absolutely fascinating documentary about the history of Black horror films. From the Klan-loving Birth of a Nation over a century ago, to Jordan Peele’s Get Out, we are shown exactly how the depiction of Black characters in film reflected their status in society. Night of the Living Dead is lauded as being maybe the first film with a Black character with whom an audience could unequivocally identify, but in many later horror films, the Black character was still always the first victim. This offers a subtle and sympathetic analysis which contains a lot more worth watching.
7. Knives Out
A murder mystery is played for laughs à la the great Murder by Death. But there’s also plenty of social commentary, and a message of contempt for the idle rich in between the jokes. Daniel Craig has a great deal of fun hamming it up as strangely accented detective Benoit Blanc, but this is very much an ensemble film, which delights us in showing us that no character’s point of view is entirely accurate. I went again when it was shown in Summer open air cinema and it was even better second time round.
8. For Sama
This essential documentary focuses on bombed out Aleppo, and its inhabitants who are still fighting to survive. Sama is the baby daughter of co-director and narrator Waas al-Kateab. This is the grim story of the first precarious year of her life. Al-Kateab’s husband is a doctor, so we see plenty of scenes of valiant hospital workers struggling to keep their patients alive in between life-threatening power cuts. There are occasional moments of joy, but this is a sickeningly accurate document of desperate times which still affect people trapped inside Syria’s ruins.
With a poster like an Yves Tanguy painting, this absolutely batshit crazy film may worry you that its going to be one of those self-referential “post-modern” films that smugly celebrate their own weirdness. It may well be to some people, but I loved its crazed logic. It’s about story-telling by narrators who are not to be trusted even though their tales have their own perverse logic and are often hilarious. This is one of those films where trying to explain what happens diminishes its lustre. It's best just to go and watch it for yourself.
This remarkable Austrian film follows the everyday life of a pair of Chechen refugees. After their mother is taken into a psychiatric hospital, they go on the run, but are eventually caught and fostered out (separately of course) to well-meaning liberal care givers. Their new guardians have good intentions, even if they are insufferably smug, and the film treats them with critical understanding. But it never loses sight of the poor kids who are the real victims of the piece. A bleak film of misplaced hope which still has space to appreciate its few moments of joy.
I’m sure I’ve read at least one lefty review condemning Harriet for some minor historic inaccuracy, but that would be to seriously miss the point. This is an inspirational story of Harriet Tubman, the one time slave who was at the forefront of the liberation movement. The film hit Berlin screens just as international demonstrators were taking matters into their own hands and tearing down colonial statues. Harriet shows people who were not just victims of the colonialists, but were also active in driving them out. Religious undercurrents permeate the film, which may scare off some people, but you shouldn’t change history.
12. Queen and Slim
Queen and Slim is a film that never sinks into cliché, although we’ve experienced much of the plot in many other films, not least Bonnie and Clyde. To a degree the freshness comes because both characters are Black, and in a(nother) year of Black Lives Matter, God knows we need more films which speak of the Black experience. What also makes Queen and Slim spectacular is the great directing and beautiful filming by creator of music videos turned first time film director, Melina Matsoukas. She should go far if she avoids being sucked into making soul-destroying franchise films.
13. Varda by Agnès
Agnès Varda died in 2019, but her final film didn’t reach Berlin till 2020. It’s a “Best Of” which shows scenes from her previous films, accompanied by on-screen commentary by the great director. Varda’s presence is a significant plus, as the screen is infected by the mischievous woman in a pudding bowl haircut. Is this her best film? Probably not, but we are inspired to look through her back catalogue for ourselves, and it is a fitting tribute to a groundbreaking artist who will be sorely missed.
Burhan Qurbani reimagines Alfred Döblin’s classic novel in modern Berlin, and hero Franz becomes the refugee Francis (later Frank as he “integrates” into German society). Although the film looks sumptuous, Berlin is shown in all its sordid detail, oozing with corruption and racism beneath the glossy surface. It all looks like a sleek music video, but a strong plot and a cast of great actors provide the film with some serious and astutely observed content. The lavish film almost justifies its running time of over 3 hours.
Often judging a book by its cover is perfectly fine – in the absence of other information, what else is there? And yet sometimes, a shiny Oscar-bait trailer hides a film with much more depth than you were expecting. The intelligent film tells the story of two young black siblings negotiating life, and shows how many young people manage to fuck up their lives because they aren’t offered any serious alternatives. The flawed individuals on screen hold our hope before showing they are, ultimately, only human and thus prone to occasionally make really stupid decisions.
This could have very easily become a vanity project for star Kristen Stewart, but ends up as a powerful documentary about the “Breathless” star who was driven to mental instability after she was bugged by the CIA. Seberg felt genuine support for black militants, but as a rich white woman she would always stand on the edge of their struggle. Director Benedict Andrews does make one false step by trying to create a sympathetic CIA agent with whom we are asked to sympathize, but this is a minor diversion in an otherwise excellent film which tells an important hidden story.
17. Ask Dr Ruth
What seemed like it would be a conventional documentary turned out to be a fascinating watch. This is mainly down to the extraordinary history of the tiny sex therapist. In between normal interview footage, we see a backstory of fighting for abortion rights and the stigmatization of AIDS patients, being part of the transportation of children fleeing the Nazis and a terrible childhood in a Swiss school which did little to hide its contempt for the Jewish refugee schoolkids. I’d thought Dr. Ruth was just an overhyped media personality, but she really does have a story to tell.
When Yulia Lokshina started secretly filming workers in German slaughterhouses she could have hardly anticipate that they would become the centre of a scandal about insanitary working conditions, which helped cause the quick spread of the Covid virus. Tales of unsafe workplaces play alongside a school group rehearsing Brecht’s St Joan of the Stockyards. Meanwhile, Eastern European workers are played off against each other to the detriment of everyone’s health. The documentary has no obvious solution, but shows us a desperate situation which must be changed.
19. I am Greta
What must it be like to be Greta Thunberg? This documentary keeps a certain distance but offers us some clues. We are presented with a portrait of a strong-willed girl who is determined and deeply convinced of the righteousness of her cause, but are also often reminded that no girl her age should come under such scrutiny. This is very much not the story of a superhero, but of a vulnerable and remarkable young woman who would rather be at home playing with her pets than in the role which has been thrust upon her. It is an appropriate testament to an inspiring person.
20. Against the Tide
Against the Tide presents the remarkable story of Thomas Walter, who was accused of blowing up a deportation jail and fled to Venezuela. After staying underground for nearly 25 years, he suddenly applied for political asylum. Soon he was writing songs with the much younger refugee activist Pablo Mal Éléve. Walter’s niece’s father Sobo Swobodnik went to visit him and to film his story. This is a tale of political hope and disappointment, of a new career making music and of never giving up. It is a fascinating documentary about a life which should be much better known.
And the films to avoid
In all honesty, there were a few films this year that didn’t really do it for me, but only two that I would actively advise people not to see. In reverse order, here they are.
This utterly predictable Rom Com gives director Jan Schomburg plenty of time to bang on about why he thinks that religion is stupid. As if anyone cares what Jan Schomburg thinks. For what it’s worth, I’m a convinced atheist, but I feel that this kind of smugfest does nothing to bring the argument forward. The sentimental heartstrings are pushed to the max with brain tumours and sexy nuns and everything, but none of it runs remotely true. The low point is the assumption that men kissing other men is hilarious. What decade are we in again?
1. On the Rocks
Some critics seem to have a sexist need to diss Sofia Coppola just because she’s a female director. Such people can’t explain why the Virgin Suicides was great and Lost in Translation was flawed but still well worth a view. Having said this, On The Rocks is privileged, self-indulgent pants. A woman and her rich art dealer father drive through New York passing through the Arty venues to which people like Uz would be immediately denied access. It’s not so much that the film celebrates its exclusivity, more it just doesn’t seem to realise that this is not how most of us lead our lives. Bill Murray’s avuncular charm has saved many terrible films, but this one’s too much for even him.