The last movie I saw in a movie theater before the world drastically changed course, I didn’t really see in a movie theater, at least not exactly.
For starters, when I go to the movies, I don’t usually have an attendant park my Nissan Leaf, as I did that last day of February, ten months and many lifetimes ago. And I seldom sit next to someone famous.
When I sat down that night, the guy to my left was Tom Felton—Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter movies. The row in front of me included Gus Van Sant, whose oeuvre of films has been as perplexing and engaging as any American director’s work in my lifetime; down the row from Van Sant was Kim Gordon, the erstwhile bass player for Sonic Youth, a band whose music has held me in its thrall since I first heard them some thirty years ago.
The great director Todd Haynes was there, as was Kelly Reichardt, the filmmaker behind First Cow, the movie we were all assembled to watch. The venue was the blue-seated screening room at the London Hotel in West Hollywood. When the movie was over, my fellow moviegoers and I stealthily searched out the tiny hamburgers at the reception across the hall.
The whole scene feels like a dream to me now, much like the movie itself—an examination of male tenderness, frontier economics, and an early kind of hole-less donut called “oily cakes”—felt like a dream to me then.
The film tells the story of baker and forager Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro, who plays Silvio Dante in the forthcoming Sopranos prequel The Many Saints of Newark) who cooks up an unlikely scheme with Chinese immigrant King-Lu (Orion Lee) to abscond with the milk from a wealthy landowner’s prize cow in mid-19th-century Oregon Territory.
In her seventh full-length feature, Reichardt precisely crafts what is at once a surprisingly gentle story of an unlikely friendship forged in the forest primeval and one that— much in the manner of more classically styled westerns, including the remarkable recent release from director Paul Greengrass, News of the World—is informed by the constant threat of violence.
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Here the reckoning never quite arrives—at least not on screen. Instead, Reichardt focuses on the lonely way men share their dreams and fears, as well as on the essentiality of the tiny pleasure one derives from, say, a well-made pastry or flowers on a shelf in a dusty shed, especially when the entirety of your world is marked by chaos and uncertainty. It also happens to be one of the most uniquely incisive criticisms of America’s capitalist ideals in recent memory, which causes Reichardt’s tender fable to ache with relevancy.
While it perplexed me a bit, I nonetheless adored First Cow when I first saw it, and so did the other critics in attendance—among them Robert Abele, Carlos Aguilar and Justin Chang. We wondered aloud if we low-key had just seen the best film of the year—well before COVID started picking off the big studio releases like tin ducks at a shooting gallery. (The fall and winter preview I wrote for the Observer now reads like an exercise in futility, with a dash of wishful thinking.)
But Reichardt’s movie also exemplifies just what made this a frustrating year in movies for so many: nothing much seemed to happen, at least on the surface.
As we desperately sought a release from our static lives, so many of the movies that we were relegated to watch at home seemed to just sort of sit there beside us on the couch. In a year that already forced us into stillness and introspection, it was as if the movies we watched were asking for even more.
That was certainly true of one film that has run through my mind the most this year, The Assistant, which featured by far the grossest couch of any major release this year.
The first fiction movie from filmmaker Kitty Green, who made 2017’s documentary hybrid Casting JonBenét, The Assistant both directly and indirectly addresses the Harvey Weinstein scandal. That reckoning has reshaped the industry in ways that filmgoers are only beginning to realize. (It is not a coincidence that three years after the New York Times investigative exposé that finally broke the Miramax co-founder’s grip on prestige filmmaking, it has been a landmark year for women directors.)
I am not quite ready to abandon theaters and that singular thrill of shared dreaming with strangers.
I found Green’s minutely detailed study of a day in the office of a fresh out of college executive assistant (an incredibly contained performance by Ozark‘s Julia Garner) at a Tribeca-based film studio to be a terrifyingly truthful account of the subtle and grotesque ways misogyny reshapes our daily lives. Many others felt it was an exercise in monotony where the most exciting thing that happened was a copier jam.
“1 hour [and] 27 minutes of waiting for something to happen,” was a user named Jenny V.’s assessment on Rotten Tomatoes. “One of the worst movies [I’ve] ever suffered through.”
As if to underline Jenny’s point, The Assistant has a gap between its Tomatometer (92%) and audience rating (25%) that is nearly as large as Weinstein’s fabled expense account back in the day. For me, Green’s choice to have the threat remain unseen—like the violence in First Cow, like the virus that kept us all locked in fetal-positioned terror for much of the year—made it all the more existential and inescapable, and the movie that much more indispensable.
In milking so much tension out of the seemingly mundane and emotion out of an apparently flat presentation of everyday behavior, The Assistant was one of several movies this year that brought to mind the work of master French filmmaker Robert Bresson. Another was Gunda, Russian documentarian Viktor Kossakovsky’s stunningly realized presentation of Norwegian farm life from its animal inhabitants’ viewpoint.
Burdened by the tag of “the vegan movie” due in no small part to outspoken animal rights activist Joaquin Phoenix’s involvement as executive producer, Gunda has taken on the air of guilt trip. In truth, the film is an expression of joy and the essentialness of family connection. It is difficult not to see one of a dozen or so piglets frantically position itself for its mother’s teat like a college student shouldering into the line for the cereal bar and not gape in wonder. By the time a one-legged chicken negotiates various obstacles like Barry Sanders dodging tacklers, you realize you have been blessed with an entrance into a previously hidden world.
If ever there was a film that embodied Bresson’s famous adage—”Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen”—it is Gunda and its sow’s eye view of life on earth.
It is ironic considering we could not see movies in actual cinemas, but this was a landmark year for films presented in that most self-consciously cinematic of formats: black-and-white. Imagine a more accomplished and deliriously varied slate of offerings as Gunda, Václav Marhoul’s The Painted Bird, Radha Blank’s The 40-Year-Old Version, David Fincher’s Mank, and Garrett Bradley’s Time, all released in the same year, all in a format once thought obsolete? Talk about gifts for film lovers!
Mank has faced a fair amount of social media backlash from a rowdy gang of comment kids who see Fincher’s recounting of Citizen Kane’s creation as charmless second-rate Coen Brothers. I found it was a celebratory, immersively detailed “revenge of the drunkard” tale presented with verve only hinted at in Fincher’s more celebrated movies.
In telling the story of a writer still searching for their true purpose and best platform, Radha Blank’s remarkable debut film, The 40-Year-Old Version, shares a bit of DNA with Mank, as it does with the spirited indie film movement of the early ’90s. In telling the story of a struggling playwright who contemplates a career in hip hop after turning 40, Blank’s film also did that thing that movies once excelled at but these days seems to be singularly the purview of a Jerry Seinfeld op-ed. It is a wry and passionate defense of the absolute essentiality of New York City.
Movies are a collection of moments, and a different New York is on display in one of the most powerful ones I witnessed this year.
It was in Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always when a sullen Central Pennsylvanian 17-year-old named Autumn, in a remarkably controlled and heartbreakingly honest performance by Sidney Flanigan, quietly breaks down in a Midtown abortion clinic while answering intake questions about her sexual activity. The sequence tells us a considerable part of Autumn’s story while simultaneously giving us an intimate glimpse into the inner life of someone pushed to the margins by inhumane health policies. In this moment of nearly impossible honesty, Hittman’s film transcends political polemics and becomes truly transcendent storytelling.
The other moment I kept returning to involved one of the most emotional uses of digital imaging I have ever witnessed in a movie. It came in Welcome to Chechnya, a non-fiction film that brutally illuminates and contextualizes a horrifying reality taking place far enough afield from the darkness we regularly encounter on our own shores that it would be out of mind if it were not for this remarkable film, which currently streams on HBO Max.
Filmmaker and journalist David France, director of 2012’s How to Survive a Plague and 2017’s The Death and Life of Martha P. Johnson, used delicately crafted digital effects to mask whistleblowers and shield them from retaliation as they speak out against the state-sanctioned torture and murder of gay people under the direction of the Putin-protected Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.
One of the torture survivors, a young man named Maxim Lapunov, chooses to become the first witness to go public against this “gay purge.” The way that the film illustrates the emergence of his painful truth is a stunning example of how the same technology that has caused so many movies to seemingly lose their souls can—in the right hands—be used to reveal one in the full flower of its humanity.
There are moments aplenty in Frederick Wiseman’s City Hall—indeed, there are a whopping 272 minutes worth of them. At that imposing length, watching this deep dive into the quotidian responsibilities and Herculean efforts of the civil servants tasked with the governance of the city of Boston (an easy thing to do now that it is streaming on PBS) might seem about as entertaining a way to spend an evening as sitting through the dramatic recitation of a stranger’s Poli Sci Ph.D. thesis.
But once you allow yourself to submit to it, you find yourself under the spell of not only the most dynamic figure in any movie this year—Dorchester’s own Mayor Marty Walsh—but also of good, responsive governance.
There is something incredibly inspiring about the pure competency and personal sacrifice on display, whether it is Walsh opening up to his constituents about his struggles with addiction or just watching sanitation workers silently collect the city’s trash. There is also a lot to learn from the unfussy film making perfection of Wiseman, who serves as his own editor and his cameraman of the last 40 plus years, John Davey. Getting a real-world sequel of sorts now that Walsh, a former labor organizer, has been nominated to serve as Biden’s Labor Secretary, seems almost too much to ask for.
As both a display of craft and an homage to civil service, City Hall is a masterpiece; it is also one that happens to be made by one of the greatest filmmakers this country has ever produced. It seems bizarre—and speaks to the second-class status of documentaries in our national movie conversation—that we would be gifted with a film of its caliber when the conventional wisdom says that 2020 was a down year for movies. That could not be further from the truth.
What it has been (to use a word that we will happily burn in a 2020 bonfire with our masks as soon as it is safe to do so) is a “pivot” year for movies—not just for how we watch them but for what they are and what they could become. Being unable to take a seat in a movie theater has been a loss that I mourn anew every time I head to the couch to watch a film. At the same time, it feels like this year’s movies have finally begun to shake free from the yoke of spectacle that has burdened them since Spielberg let loose his shark and Lucas his Stormtroopers back in the 1970s.
Indeed, it is exceedingly 2020 that perhaps the best movie that came out this year isn’t a film at all but a series of them: Steve McQueen’s Small Axe, available on Amazon Prime.
The critics’ organization to which I belong, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, made the heads of award-season wonks explode when it chose McQueen’s quintet of very different films about West Indian immigrants living in London in the ’60s through the ’80s as its best film of the year.
A plural becomes a singular? What in the name of Krzysztof Kieślowski is going on here? It should be up for an Emmy, not an Oscar! How can five different movies made for Amazon’s streaming service possibly be voted best movie?
Because they are presided over by a unifying vision with a singular vocabulary is one answer. Because we watched them in the exact manner that we did every other movie is another. Because the filmmaker used the same team to make them and considers them films—both singularly and as a group—is perhaps the best response.
For me, the answer is more nebulous: the Small Axe movies transported me the way only movies can, and the way they played off each other—taking the tension and ideas from the previous film and building, altering, and releasing it with the next—felt decidedly cinematic. It/they is/are a movie.
If I were to highlight one of the Small Axe films, it would be the second in the series, the delirious Lovers Rock, which also seemed to be the favorite of many of the other LAFCA members.
Taking place in a single sweaty night at a 1980s West London house party, the film surges with an erotic intensity that I haven’t been able to shake. That sweat-soaked, ganja-filled room and the swooning bike ride featuring the just-met Franklyn (Michael Ward) and Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) that followed the next morning are both cinematic spaces I have been unable or unwilling to exit.
That Small Axe so brilliantly reflects the cultural moment we are living through both in substance and form is also an aspect of its singular appeal. The multitude of ways the film expresses sundry elements of the West Indian experience in an England leaning towards and then embracing Thatcherism echoes our country’s ongoing reckoning with centuries of racist policy. Meanwhile, its format of stacked films managed to transform our dreary hovels, burdened by ten months of fearful cowering, into the palace theater of a well-funded film festival.
But I am not quite ready to abandon theaters and that singular thrill of shared dreaming with strangers that I have been jonesing for like a Burroughs’ junkie. The most singular experience I had at a movie theater this year was also in February but a much less highfalutin affair than the one in West Hollywood; it happened at the all-media screening at the Hollywood ArcLight of Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man.
Powered by the expressive defiance of the incomparable Elizabeth Moss—who between this and the unhinged joy she brought to Josephine Decker’s Shirley is undoubtedly the most committed performer of the year—the film, and particularly the way Whannell met and twisted audience expectation, has grown on me since I first watched it. Perhaps the way it made numbing domesticity so fraught with dread mirrors how our own homes have shifted and changed meaning over many months of confinement.
Or perhaps I should admit it is in part the nostalgia I feel for the experience of having watched it with an audience—the fearful gasping followed by shared giggles of self-awareness, the grasping of a stranger’s arm. And oh, that glorious moment when the lights come up, you exhale, and then look to the faces of your fellow audience members in an attempt to assess what just happened.
For me, The Invisible Man will forever symbolize the shared adventurous delirium that one has an opportunity to encounter every time they enter a movie theater. I miss it to my bones.
Little did I realize then how genuinely precious and scarce those stolen moments in the dark would become. As King-Lu tells his new friend and partner in crime as they double down on their plans to make a small fortune baking illicit treats in First Cow: “We got a window here, Cookie.”
Yes, we did. And it was glorious.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.