Friday, January 1, 2021

My Top Films Seen in 2020

Here are the films, new and old, that I saw and most admired in 2020.

Joseph Losey's Mr. Klein
Only the second or third film I have seen from Losey but what a film it is.  Delon's performance ranks with his very best and Losey sustains interest and an uncomfortable mood and atmosphere throughout every single shot.  The camera is elegant, as are the locations, the set design and the wardrobe and Losey ends up making a film about the Resistance that might be every bit as powerful as Meville's Army of Shadows.
Abdellatif Kechiche's Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno
If I were still making films, Kechiche would be one of the filmmakers I would study the closest.  His films feel as pure and perhaps more modern than anyone else's.  It is clear he is a cinephile and it feels as though he is taking art cinema to its most exciting and logical next phase.  What does that mean?  Kechiche's cinema is as much documentary as it is fiction.  Like the New Wave, he is embracing lighter technology to get inside his characters, get inside his scenes more to ward off elements that can quickly make the medium of cinema feel artificial.  But all the while, he is bringing in aspects of narrative cinema that make it arguably more palatable and more entertaining than cinema verite.  Kechiche has a painter's eye and dresses his realistic or naturalistic settings with strong locations, set design, emotive ambient sound and interesting-looking people acting in very believable ways.
Kelly Reichardt's First Cow
I was nervous to see it.  I was a huge fan of Reichardt's previous film, Certain Women, but I had not cared for any of her other work.  Her latest however does not disappoint.  It finds Reichardt back in the western genre and it is haunted in the best of ways by undercurrents of McCabe & Mrs. Miller as well as a number of films I would characterize more as noir (Mikey and Nicky and Mean Streets) or gangster (Bonnie and Clyde).  Reichardt has found a rich story and slowly lets it unfold in her very rigorous, restrained style.  To me she has become one of our great filmmakers.  She has a understanding of where cinema has been and updates it with a very modern and humanistic approach.
Stanley Kwan's Actress
It is a film I have been wanting to see for more than twenty years.  Usually with that type of expectation comes disappointment.  But not this time.  Aside from being absolutely gorgeous - in its cinematography, set design and wardrobe - it is utterly unique as a biopic.  By consistently merging interviews with people that knew Ruan, and actual footage of her, with fictional shots and scenes, Kwan is able to create a character we know in deeper and different ways than cinema generally allows.  A film that is a key precursor to In the Mood for Love and one that warmly invites us to dig deeper into China's cinema past.
Chloe Zhao's The Rider
I was completely surprised by this one, particularly impressed by its sensitivity, confidence in silence, and the acting by its main character.  Zhao finds a way to inject newness into the western genre, showing us towns, lives and feelings we have never quite experienced in the western tradition and structure.
Fritz Lang's The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb
I have long wanted to track down these two films that were made right at the end of Lang's career.  I knew they had a large reputation among some people I admire and were a little different than anything else he had done.  They actually share a lot in common with some of his pre-American work such as Spies or The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.  But what is new is the Indian setting and Lang's attitude and perspective.  As to be expected, Lang shoots precisely and constructs a number of excellent set pieces throughout the two films.  And the film's influence can be felt in films as different as Pierrot Le Fou (Godard's shot directly looking at the hot sun) or all throughout the Indiana Jones trilogy.
Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky
May only made four features and I had seen the other three before seeing this for the first time.  In seeing her other work, it was already very clear that May was unusually good with actors and had this very unique, punchy editing style.  Nothing else May has done creates the sense of dread so palpable here or has this level of realism.  It would easily make my list of key American New Wave films.  It is unrelenting, powerful and a bit different than anything else I have ever seen.
Olivier Assayas' Cold Water
It's hard to place the film stylistically within the history of French cinema.  To come closest, I would say in its thematic interests and mood it reminded me of Pialat.  In its style, I can't think of anyone up to that point in French cinema who used long takes and the handheld camera as much as Assayas does (now of course there are Kechiche and Bonello to name but a couple).  I found both the style and the downbeat tone a bit overly heavy.  But there are a number of things on the other hand that are excellent - Assayas' sense of place, use of music, Ledoyen's beauty, and the film's final three to five minutes.
Yasujiro Ozu's Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family
I would call this the first Ozu sound masterpiece, and arguably his greatest film up to this point in his career. 

Emotionally and thematically, it is deeply complex and satisfying as it takes on the larger family structure that would become one of his favorite themes to explore.  The speech toward the end by Shojiro ranks as one of the most powerful and moving scenes in Ozu's work. 

From a formal standpoint, the poetry and lyricism of Ozu are fully beginning to flourish.  The film is full of his trademark ellipses to show the passage of time and the number of shots of people-less frames are prevalent throughout.  I could be wrong but I credit the latter as coming from the influence of Lang's M

The other formal aspect that jumped out at me was Ozu's periodic use of non-diegetic music.  It is the first time I can remember him punctuating certain moments with non-diegetic classical music.  And the way that he uses it feels very similar to the way that Bresson would later treat music in films such as Pickpocket.
Eric Rohmer's Perceval le Gallois
Stylistically the film is an oddity in Rohmer's body of work.  An artifical period piece with a Greek chorus does not readily recall any of his other films.  But when considered as a morality tale with an ambition toward the transcendence of a Bresson or Ozu work, it becomes clear it is an Eric Rohmer film.  The final five minutes rank with the most raw and disturbing of anything he has ever made.  The desired effect of transcendence, of producing a final feeling or shot that rises above all that has come before, is masterfully achieved.
Allan Dwan's Driftwood
What a great surprise this was.  From seeing Natalie Wood as a child actor to the overall feeling Dwan gives the whole film.  Reminds me of Walsh's Strawberry Blonde in its depiction of the wonderful community aspect that can come out in small towns.  I know Dwan has a big reputation.  If this any indication, I certainly need to seek out more of his work.
Charles Burnett's Horse
This early short that immediately precedes Killer of Sheep is striking.  It is the first time I can remember seeing so many white people onscreen in a Burnett work.  Whereas the other work of his I have seen captures African-American daily life in ways I have never seen rivaled, this work which shows African-Americans alongside white Americans is the first of his films I have seen overtly dealing with race.  While the most striking image might be a pocketknife lodged in a ceiling which somehow recalls the hanging of African-Americans, the entire mood of the short film is powerful.