People speak of love, don’t know what they’re thinking of“In the Shape of a Heart,” Jackson Browne
Reach out to each other through the push and shove
Speak in terms of a life and the learning
Try to think of a word for the burning…
The year that has just completed has been unlike any other, both in the imaginary worlds of film and the real world from which theaters so often provide relief. Yes, every year, every moment of time, is unique. But by the time one is half way through one’s sixth decade living, one has grown accustomed to those moments bearing at least a striking resemblance to memorable ones that have preceded it. The global pandemic and the turmoil surrounding the American political landscape were not unprecedented events in the history of the world, but their antecedents lay before my life or outside my experience. Perhaps that is why I’ve grown to value movies that help me to better understand the human spirit over those that help explicate the current moment.
“It was a time I won’t forget / for the sorrow and regret…” Here’s another stretched cliché applied to the current cinematic moment: absence makes the heart grow founder. We lost the movies just when we needed them most. At least I did. Or, rather, I should say we lost the movie experience. Movies continued to be released, albeit in a rationed way that was alien to anyone accustomed to the embarrassment of riches that had become cinematic content. But that content, absent the darkened room, the ritualistic drive to the theater, the array of trailers promising that the shows would never end, turned out to be something that couldn’t divert my mind, even if it momentarily diverted my gaze.
It’s no accident then that the films I loved aided that look inward rather than forestalling it. For the last few years, I’ve been aware that I’m increasingly grateful for films that make me feel…anything. I need more films that massage a bruised heart rather than ones that try to thrill it with spectacle. That’s a tall order in any year — nearly impossible in one where the assault on goodness, decency, love, and empathy seemed both incessant and deliberate. I don’t think any film could make me look back on 2020 with fondness, but these are the few that leavened the sorrow with moments of beauty, uplift, and empathy.
10) The Prom — Ryan Murphy
Music has the capacity to ignite joy even in the midst of heartbreak. We give ourselves over to it and let its rhythm and flow carry us when harnessed reason grows weary. In election years our stereotypes become even more pronounced, and we wield them like batons to beat opponents in the culture war into submission. I suppose some people will look at this musical fairy-tale as a liberal dream fantasy. A group of Broadway singers and dancers go to Indiana and not only save the prom for a lesbian ingenue but also teach her intolerant neighbors a thing or two about the bonding power of art.
Listen closely though and you will hear the vices of the heroes lampooned in equal measure — that is the key to the very best satire. Maybe it is a trifle naïve to think that hatred is so shallow and superficial that it can be overcome by a song. But the Bible talks of hardening our own hearts, and as another famous musical once reminded us, kids have to be taught to hate and fear. My only quibble is that said Bible tells us that “Love They Neighbor” is actually the second greatest commandment, so it doesn’t trump them all. That said, the tagline of this blog is “Inconspicuously Christian,” and Andrew Rannells’s song makes The Prom, for my money, the most Christian film I saw all year.
9) All In: The Fight for Democracy — Liz Garbus
At a virtual press conference for All In, I asked Stacey Abrams how she manages to stay positively focused (and focused on the positive) amidst so much propaganda and misinformation. As in the film, her answer revolved around lessons her parents taught her. “Your job is not to complain,” she says her parents taught her: “Your job is to fix it.”
All In is about the history of voter suppression in the United States, and what elevates Liz Garbus’s documentary over most other documentaries exclusively focused on the current moment is its longitudinal perspective. That and Abrams’s indefatigable spirit. There were three rules, we are told, in the Abrams household: go to school, go to church, and do something to help others. When the kids protested that they themselves were poor and in need of help, her parents said, “Having nothing is no excuse for doing nothing.”
The film made me angry, but it is not an angry film. Abrams seems to have made her peace with hypocrisies that are still freshly felt by many Americans getting their first tastes of being threatened with disenfranchisement. I don’t like being angry, but films such as this one are important reminders to large groups of America that the “normal” we would like to return to has never been as fair and impartial as perhaps we would wish to believe.
8) Greyhound — Aaron Schneider
War, even when necessary, sucks. The loss of a single human life is a tragedy. Multiplied by the kind of exponents that happen in wartime, the tragedy numbs us, scars us, and blinds us. I was surprised more people didn’t embrace Greyhound. Perhaps Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods cornered the market on films about war. Perhaps we’re still more willing to be ambivalent about Vietnam than about World War II. Greyhound is about one transatlantic journey during wartime. Hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. Even more so than last year’s justly praised 1917, Greyhound is a war film about ordinary soldiers just doing their jobs. Freed of the need to make its heroes cinematically heroic, the film allows us to see the awful human cost of the ordinary soldier’s commitment. Tom Hanks, who also wrote the screenplay, makes Captain Krause a sad but resolute man, the softness of his voice the antithesis of George C. Scott’s booming bluster in Patton. The religion in Greyhound is as understated as the rest of the movie, but it is unquestionably there. The film is a reminder of a time in American history where Christianity emboldened people to make hard but necessary choices, to sacrifice for the greater good, and to remember that the things we love most can only ever be gifts received gratefully, never plunder taken as our entitled right.
7) News of the World — Paul Greengrass
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: the book was better. Paul Greengrass’s adaptation of Paulette Jiles’s novel (surprisingly) fumbles the ending and (not surprisingly) leans too heavily on gunfights and sandstorms. I get it. Novels are more often about interior transformations; movies are about action. News of the World does better than most films at letting its characters transform gradually, but it doesn’t quite trust us enough to be great and so must add layers of plot suspense where none is needed. The heart of this story is not a mystery about whether Captain Kidd (Tom Hanks) will come to love the orphan, Johanna (Helena Zengel). It’s about how a lack of purpose blisters our souls, and about how life so often gives us what we need in the form of the last thing we think we want. Like so many films on this year’s list, News of the World is a post-trauma film. Wars, recession, deaths of love and of loved ones. These things cut us to the quick. The one change from the novel that is brilliant is the final news reading story about a man rising from the grave after he was buried too quickly. This isn’t a story about resurrection. It is a story about how life continues after we are ready to die. It is a story about how, if we are lucky, we can find what we thought had been lost forever.
6) Hamilton — Thomas Kail
It is hard for me to know what to say about Hamilton. The musical itself has been praised by those better trained in song and dance than I. The film adaptation of the stage production seemed to please critics and audiences well enough — it was 98% “fresh” at Rotten Tomatoes last I looked. I know I’m the latecomer to this party, but even so, I can’t help wonder if the timing was off. The reasons I liked Hamilton had nothing to do with the reasons I typically like a theatrical musical. If I’m honest, three months later I can’t remember a single song. The production elements were solid, but not game-changing. What is still fresh in my consciousness was the raw emotion of it all. The race-mixing, more than just a gimmick, provides a visceral subtext; we are all the same. Although we organize ourselves by class and race and gender and nationality, the things we feel when those divisions play out in history are remarkably static. There is joy in achievement, sorrow in betrayal. We mourn our losses and are exhilarated by the chances we take and the rewards we receive when we are our best selves. There is nothing new under the sun.
5) Another Round — Thomas Vinterberg
Another sensitive take about a somber subject, Another Round is the best film in recent memory about alcoholism. I’m not an alcoholic, but I’ve been around a few in my life. I’ve seen plenty of sloppy drunks in films played for laughs or pity, and I’ve seen plenty of self-destructive drunks played for pathos. One thing we see less frequently is the functioning alcoholic. Outside of maybe Mad Men, we don’t often see alcoholics who are smart and who have good days along with their bad days.
Alcoholism is generally portrayed as an individual vice rather than a culturally approved and enabled one. Vinterberg’s film takes a wide-angle lens. By starting and ending with a graduation tradition, it portrays formative years as the crucible of lifelong struggles. As the characters age, they don’t leave alcohol behind, but they become better at rationalizing or hiding their dependence on it. “Dependence” is a carefully chosen word here. It denotes the use of alcohol as an emotional and spiritual crutch more than as a biological necessity, even as the characters spout psuedo-science as their justification for quenching their soul’s thirst with drink that only leaves them longing for more.
The film in no way glorifies the self- and community destroying behavior, but it is brutally honest in the way it demonstrates that the results of lowered inhibitions aren’t always bad. For Martin (Mads Mikkelsen), it can help him face his fears and break down the wall of passive silence between him and his wife. One of his colleagues suggests a boy paralyzed by fear use a drink to prepare for an important exam — and it works. But in life, there are no short cuts nor panaceas. Characters wake up covered in their own urine and see the singular steps forward in their relationships followed by crashing tumbles back to earth. Another Round ends with a dance as alluring and symbolic as that of Denis Lavant at the end of Beau travail. We hardly know if Martin’s ecstatic frenzy is unharnessed enthusiasm or the thrashing convulsions of creeping despair. I suspect the latter. But for the man in a downward spiral, those few moments of relief look an awful lot like the best life has to offer.
4) Soul — Pete Docter and Kemp Powers
For many years, I’ve had a mild allergy to Pixar. I liked the Toy Story franchise well enough, but found the most lauded films in its canon — Up, Wall-e, Inside Out — to be well executed but emotionally barren. I appreciate them artistically, but they rarely reach me personally. I still don’t know if Soul won me over or whether the cumulative weight of the Disney behemoth just finally crushed my resistance.
Fifteen minutes into Soul, I was convinced it was going to be a stale retread of Inside Out. But like most good jazz (so I’m told), it breaks the bonds of generic structure and sprawls in interesting and unexpected directions. Joe (Jamie Foxx) is a teacher who longs for and finally gets his shot to realize his dream: he wants to jam with a touring diva and her band. When he misses his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I was convinced it was going to be a stale retread of It’s a Wonderful Life.
But what I like about Soul is that it avoids the false binary thinking around which we too often built our life’s narratives. Is it more important to follow your dreams or to serve others? Do we find that which gives our life meaning or do we assign meaning to that which gives us life? Yes.
3) One Night in Miami — Regina King
In my Filmfest 919 review of One Night in Miami, I mentioned that Regina King’s film worked for me far better than I anticipated. For one thing, the collection of famous figures always threatens to become a series of monologues. For another, these are people whom we grew up watching on television or in video archives and thus feel as though we already know. Finally, and most dangerously, Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali have each had movies made about them on their own. Historically, this is well-tread ground.
Whenever I teach American literature, though, I try to get readers to understand and appreciate the difference between the private man (or woman) and the public persona adopted in the arena. What is astonishingly fresh and vital here is that the film lets us see Black men talking to each other rather than to us. Much has been made in recent years of the Bechdel test. One of its three criteria for whether or not a film is female-friendly is whether the female characters talk to each other — and if they do, whether it’s about something other than men. The obvious corollary here is that we see these African-American men talk to white Americans (both individually and communally) before and after talking to each other and so get a better understanding of what is persona and what is the person.
I say a “better” understanding because they themselves may not know where their public personae end and their private selves begin. Or which is the most authentic version of themselves. Or which they should be. Do any of us? One Night in Miami works equally well as a “Black” movie and as a universal movie. Its themes are universal but its context is specific. The blending of theme and context is so seamless that we learn something about ourselves and not just about famous historical figures.
2) Sound of Metal — Darius Marder
In some ways, Sound of Metal struck me as the kind of movie that Hillbilly Elegy thought it could be: a film about people from a group that is often looked down upon but who prove themselves to be stronger and more resilient than those more culturally admired; a film about people who are different from the mainstream but whose values prove to be remarkably similar — just expressed differently.; a film about our tendency to look too quickly and to judge by surface appearances; a film about how vulnerability forces us to adapt or die.
By “group,” I don’t specifically mean the deaf. I also mean the poor. I also mean artists. I also mean drug addicts. Part of what is remarkable about Sound of Metal is that rather than being anthropological about the deaf, it acknowledges that the feelings generated by trauma, tragedy, unfairness, and struggle are universal. We can learn from one another and not just from those whose struggles are exactly like our struggles. It is often in silence where we finally hear the most important of life’s lessons — the ones that are typically drowned out by the noise of the world and the incessant, defensive chatter of our own voices.
1) Nomadland — Chloé Zhao
As I look back over this list, I see a recurring theme of characters who are battered but not broken, sad but not despondent. Fern (Frances McDormand), is both the emblem and the matriarch of the film year. A homeless widow who is neither defiant nor pathetic, she wanders the American West, doing odd jobs and living out of her truck. As a plot summary, that description makes Nomadland sound depressing. That it is not — that it is a film of gentle beauty and resilient hope — is a minor miracle.
After my first viewing, the key question I was wrestling with was whether Fern was living the life she chose or whether her existence was shaped by broader economic and cultural forces beyond her power. The very shape of that question belies the sort of binary thinking I railed against above. A second viewing confirmed me in my opinion that there was (and could be) no definitive answer to that question but also that the film leaned more in the direction of the first of those two answers.
That’s pretty remarkable given that Fern represents a class of citizen who could very easily blame politicians, corporations, or bad luck for the recession and illness that shattered her illusions of security if not her entire life.
The last thing I want to do is turn this blurb or list into a film history lecture, but it’s really not possible for me to turn the page on 2020 without drawing a quick comparison between Nomadland and Bicycle Thieves. Zhao’s film invites comparison to neorealistic classics not merely for using location shooting and non-professional actors in key roles. It also does so by recognizing that cultural trauma is the backdrop that gives individual struggle emotional heft. Fern, even in desperation, does not resort to stealing. That may be less a byproduct of American exceptionalism than the fact that she does have an extended family to give her some emergency assistance.
In a lesser film, her climactic choices would no doubt be framed as a choice between luxurious dependence and austere freedom — and we would be called to root for and applaud her choice for the latter. But Nomadland recognizes the deep loneliness that so often accompanies independence, and it is a wiser and more profound film for allowing that the loneliness, while painful, is still a viable choice. For some, it may be the only choice that allows them to hold onto beautiful and meaningful experiences amid the swelling seas of modern economic turmoil. When they have the courage to make such choices, the nomads show us that micro-expressions of love and joy can leave a deeper mark than a lifetime of more frequent but less substantial pleasures.