After much deliberation here are my top 10 films of 2020, please feel free to share your comments or own lists below:
10. The Invisible Man
Universal’s attempt to reboot their classic Monster movie archive had not got off to the most auspicious start with Tom Cruise’s The Mummy. A shallow cluttered piece of blockbuster moviemaking that went the DC films route of trying to establish a cinematic universe ahead of actual characters we can be drawn to. Praise be then for producer Jason Blum and the team at Blumhouse. Gifted the chance to take this fledgling universe in a much lower key direction, and their first go around paid massive dividends. Smartly writer/director Leigh Whannell tackles the tale of the Invisible Man through the mirror of domestic abuse and gaslighting. Elizabeth Moss, who is always a detailed nuanced performer, takes the lead as Cecilia, married to the hyper rich but also hyper controlling Adrian (given true spite by Oliver Jackson-Cohen). In a bravura opening scene she escapes with barely her life and attempts to hide out with friend Aldis Hodge and his spiky daughter played by Storm Reid. It appears then that Adrian, in a fit of grief, takes his own life, blessing Cecilia with true peace. Alas Adrian was also responsible for a tech firm specialising in optical technology (wisely the film pays lip service to the explanations behind the tech), and Cecilia soon realises that he may well have created something to make him invisible in order to truly torment her. Saying more would ruin the repeated surprises this film has in store. Whannell uses his craft making numerous horrors to really up the fear factor. Utilising empty space and Moss’s wide eye performance to build real terror at what could be hidden right in front of us. Making an empty doorway ominous and terrifying is a hard thing to do but here it comes across with ease. Whannell really tightens the screws on Cecilia, which in turn leaves a feeling of tension throughout its entire running time. A number of set pieces are stunning in their simple execution, such as a kitchen attack that is shocking in its brutality and clever in its use of subtle effect work. As you can imagine Moss slowly turns into the familiar heroine who starts to fightback but you’d be surprised at the depths Whannell takes her to before that can happen. If the future Universal Monster movies that Blumhouse now have planned turn out as well as this, then it’ll be a true reboot success. Glossy, confident and massively entertaining work.
Standout Scene: Possibly the biggest screen shock of the year, one that thankfully we got to experience in a bustling cinema, the audience reaction off the charts. Cecilia meets her sister in a classy restaurant, Whannell keeping things extremely normal and removing all sense of tension. Before an unexpected turn twists this into the night from hell, setting up the bonkers finale in the process. Masterful stuff.
9. The Trial of the Chicago 7
Aaron Sorkin is nothing if not an Old School Hollywood traditionalist. His writing favouring a strong moral centre, fast talking fully dimensionalised characters often up against an unjust system. Of course there have been exceptions, usually ones directed by challenging hyper modern filmmakers such as Danny Boyle or David Fincher, but directing Chicago 7 himself it is very much apparent that this is the sort of filmmaking he aspires to. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is classic solid moviemaking. The sort of film where the credits are backdropped by an exiting courtroom as the heartfelt score swells. Telling the true story of the 1969 trial of 7 defendants, each charged with conspiring to cause chaos at the Democratic National Convention, all instigated by an administration desperate to adhere to conservative corrupt government. A script long in the making, Spielberg was once attached, Sorkin decided to direct it himself and he knows just how important his words are. Letting his extremely charismatic cast do the heavy lifting. Not to say he isn’t capable of some cinematic flair, a couple of riot sequences are fraught with believable chaos, but largely his camera is hard focused and to the point. A story full of rage and anger as this one doesn’t need fancy theatrics, pertinent in its themes of political fearmongering and manipulation. The modern day parallels especially felt with the inclusion of an 8th defendant, Bobby Seale played with barely contained indignation by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. A man with clearly no actual ties to the case, but for being a black man and a vocal member of the Black Panthers to boot, he is turned into a lynchpin. A tool for the government to keep these voices down. The moment in which he is bound and gagged in an actual courtroom would stretch credulity if it wasn’t all true. Desperately painful and a reminder that things sadly have not much changed. The conservative side is represented here by Frank Langella’s utterly hateful judge. By far not an easy role to play, how to play villainous without becoming caricature, but Langella brings gravitas and true terror into the performance. Let’s face it the whole cast here are terrific, each committing to their roles with gusto. Particular standouts, and in a film like this everyone will have their own faves, are the quietly rage filled yet dignified Mark Rylance (a king at this sort of role) and Sacha Baron Cohen’s delightfully playful Abbie Hoffman. A bearded beatnik who makes a mockery of most around him, yet driven by a palpable thirst for justice. Chicago 7 is a film to get lost in, knowing you’re in Sorkin’s very capable hands. It may not offer you any sort of surprises or filmmaking uniqueness, but not many films this year carried with them such a mixture of anger, humour, excitement and triumphant hope.
Standout Scene: It is hard to pick one in a film designed to maximise every single scene for audience pleasure, but the moment an unexpected Michael Keaton takes the stand, potentially turning the case in our heroes favour, that we finally start to feel some sense of a win, even though we know the powers that be will inevitably do all they can to take away that success.
Now here is a film that could have become nothing more than a smart gimmick. Shot as if all in one take, when in reality it was about 12/13 very very long takes cleverly snipped together, as we follow two men in the latter days of WW1 attempt to traverse the French countryside delivering a message to troops nearby that they’re charging into a trap. However when your gimmick is directed by Sam Mendes and shot by cinematographer extraordinaire Roger Deakins, of course the results would be powerful, thrilling and beautiful. The biggest hit at the UK box office last year, we Brits are always a sucker for War flicks, this is the sort of visceral experience the big screen was made for. Mendes opens things largely quiet, building the tension and steadily increasing the momentum as the mission becomes clear. The two men, given sweaty terrified conviction by George McKay and Dean Charles Chapman, find themselves in an almost episodic structure. Stumbling from one near miss or fraught confrontation to the next. The reason it doesn’t become repetitive is that feeling of escalating forward momentum, with each passing moment the clock is ticking to disaster. It was a similar tactic used to great effect in Christopher Nolan’s superb Dunkirk, and it works just as well here. McKay is given the stronger material (with Chapman sometimes coming across a little too one note) and carries a great deal with his expressive haunted eyes. A late film breather with a local girl and her child is incredibly touching, a taste of humanity against all the bloodshed, giving greater meaning by an end film revelation that brings the tears. Largely though this is an exercise in cinematic pyrotechnics and set pieces, in this instance it delivers tenfold. Multiple moments could easily top best of the year action scene lists, but they’re never there for action sake. Each working hard to show you something new and repeat the oft quoted mantra that “war is hell”. All backed up by that truly breathtaking Roger Deakins (apologies Sir Roger Deakins as he is now known) photography. Images are remarkably layered, detailed and absorbing. Light used in particularly unique ways to bring a perspective of war we’ve not seen before. War may be hell, but at times it can be tragically beautiful.
Standout Scene: A night time sequence in the bombed out town of Ecoust Saint-Mein is staggeringly gorgeous to watch. McKay running with all his might as frequent flares light up the night sky, Thomas Newman’s evocative score adding to the tension. It is breathless heart in mouth cinema, your eyes transfixed as your brain wonders, how did they do this?
7. One Night in Miami
The first directorial debut on this side of the list and boy is it a doozy. Regina King has steadily built herself as one of our leading actresses, coming off a stellar one-two of If Beale Street Could Talk and Watchmen, to direct this fictionalised account of one night, yes, in Miami between four heavyweights of Black culture/society. Adapted by Kemp Powers from his own play, it centres on singer Sam Cooke, footballer Jim Brown and activist Malcolm X as they meet friend Cassius Clay in a motel room after he’s just been crowned Heavyweight Champion of the World. Although the meeting did in fact happen, Powers has turned the meeting into a deep meeting of the minds, one that discusses everything from faith, to purpose, to the use of their stature to bring about social change. A fact especially prevalent in Malcolm X’s mind, as he seeks to bring his friends into his cause and finds that for some, civil rights are found through other uses of their talents. Adapting a play is tough for any director, let alone a newbie one. Film it as just the play onscreen and it becomes stagnant, flesh things out cinematically and you risk padding things out for the sake of it. King and Powers are smart though, keeping the play predominately intact but using setting to increase theme. The motel room we spend most of the action in is cramped and suffocating, a representation of the feelings they feel even outside the room. A few times the room is abandoned in favour of another setting largely work to further the meaning, save for a rooftop sojourn which feels clunkily tacked on. King also brings some nice cinematic touches, opening her film with some context establishing scenes of her principal cast in their respective settings, each facing the day to day racism that sadly make up their lives. One moment in particular with Aldis Hodge’s Jim Brown meeting Beau Bridges kindly mentor is a painful reminder of just how quick things can turn from equal footing to the never-ending cycle of racial persecution. A fact encapsulated by a final end montage that King cleverly utilises for maximum emotional effect. But of course a film adapted from a famous play is always going to hinge on the performances at the centre, and in this regard Miami succeeds and then some. Possibly the strongest ensemble cast of the year. Hodge is the contemplative stoic middle. Eli Goree brings some very subtle details into his portrayal of Clay without the need for impression. Yet the two standouts for me are Leslie Odom Jr as Sam Cooke and Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X. The two figures at the moral heart of this feature length debate, Odom Jr blesses his Cooke with the charisma you’d expect from a natural born singer but underneath is a conflicted pained heart. His wrestling with his own abilities to better the cause within his own limited power are beautifully drawn. Whilst his moral opponent Malcolm is more fiery and confrontational, telling Sam he hasn’t done enough. Ben-Adir does wonders in a role that easily steps out from the shadows of Denzel Washington’s masterful portrayal. Finding the soul beneath the speechifying to deliver a man constantly in pain knowing that the path he has taken will most likely lead to his premature death. It is heartbeaking to watch, yet stirring when he forges a path with his words to his hoped for equality. It helps having King being an actor/director as she knows just when not to intrude on performances for the ages. A film vital for the now and vital for the soul.
Standout Scene: The final scene. Sam singing. Tears rolling down his cheeks. The future bleak. There is so much more to be done. Devastating.
I have to admit to my shame that this is only the first of Irish animated studio Cartoon Saloon’s films I’ve seen. The third part in director Tomm Moore’s “Irish Folklore trilogy” after The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea. After witnessing Wolfwalkers though I am very much going to check out their work as this is nothing short of beautiful. It tells the tale of Robyn, an English girl who has moved to Ireland with her hunter father to help Oliver Cromwell wipe out the last pack of wolves in the country. Fairy tales are spoken of Wolfwalkers, people in the forest who can control and speak to the wolves. Tales that may in fact be true when Robyn meets Mebh, a wild girl who ends up turning Robyn into the thing her father is out destroy. This is a film made top to bottom with affection and heart. It takes a good 15/20 mins to just stop staring at the gorgeous animation. Hand drawn with a painterly brush, they have a distinctive way of conjuring perspective and subtly showcasing immense detail without you even realising. The way it adapts and changes as the story goes on is wondrous to behold, with the wolf POV a particular highlight of “how did they do that?” triumph. The style would be nothing without depth behind it, and luckily Wolfwalkers is chock full of other wonders too. The story is deceptively simple, similar in nature to Pixar’s Brave. But the depiction of folklore, love of environment and subtle historical context (Cromwell is doing to the wolves what he is doing to the country, this film is fiercely Irish) is rich in nuance. I was especially a fan of the father/daughter relationship at the centre. Sean Bean is oddly fragile as Robyn’s hunter father, frequently failing in his job and as a father. The mistakes he makes all necessary to open his eyes to the world around him. Voice work across the board is stellar; Honor Kneafsey and Eva Whittaker are terrific as the two leads, yet for me Simon McBurney is the real standout. His Oliver Cromwell is a chilling monstrous villain, with his melodic calmly malevolent voice working hand in hand with the characterful animation design. Wolfwalkers is a triumph of the medium and one I hope to return to again and again.
Standout Scene: Robyn becomes a wolf for the first time, venturing out into a town that wants to kill her. A wonderful blend of animation styles as we pivot between wolf POV and the regular world, in a heartstopping chase sequence. A perfect blend of medium and storytelling.
Similar to The Lighthouse, this is a film very much not for everyone. Despite coming from David Fincher, it is challenging, hyper specific filmmaking. Not to mention in black & white, something that might put off your everyday viewer. Stick with it though and you’ll be rewarded with a rich, complex look at the creative process, authorship and even a none more pertinent glimpse at how the media can manipulate political structures. Mank refers to Herman J Mankiewicz, a prominent screenwriter who is developing the script for his magnum opus, Citizen Kane. Told in two distinct timelines, one in the present as Mank isolates himself in order to write and maybe drink himself to death, and the other years back when he was a vital cog in the Hollywood machine, in the process meeting magnate William Randolph Hearst, the inspiration for Kane. A personal project for Fincher, the script was written by his late father Jack. You can see the detail and attention David has put into every frame. It positively sings with knowing nods to old Hollywood (the numerous barely glimpsed cameos) and a rat-tat-tat cadence that would put Sorkin to shame. Mank may be old school in setting but its temperament is very much of the now. Fincher using all the techniques at his disposal to conjure a real sense of time and place. He even brings that to the feel of the film itself; the sound mix recreating the echo-y nature of the old movieplexes, as well as the burn marks on the images-an old effect films used to have to signify a reel change. Mank is adoring of a time long ago. The recreations of Hollywood, right down to the backlots where the magic was made is like being there yourself, Fincher clearly having fun letting his camera loose. Anyone who loves film will get a kick out of scenes such as Mank and other screenwriters bouncing ideas off the studio head for the next big film. Beating throughout it all is Mank himself, a gift of a role for Gary Oldman who brings depth behind the booze addled mania. A man at war with himself, his demons and his ultimate moral compass. He is guilty of boorish selfishness, arrogance and much more, yet we are never distant from liking him. A creative wrestling with delivering that one piece he’ll be known for. Equally as good is Amanda Seyfried, playing Marion Davies, lover of Hearst and apparent inspiration for one of Kane’s doltish needy lovers. Seyfried is a wonder as a woman seemingly naïve but actually incredibly insightful, those big expressive eyes masking often painful depths in a superficial world where those in power see her as little more than eye candy. A sequence featuring her and Mank just wandering the Hearst grounds is a joy to watch, not to mention full of little Kane nods. Ah Citizen Kane, the spectre hanging over Mank. Thankfully Fincher keeps allusions to that film brief and simple enough that non-viewers of that film can easily still enjoy this. Of course that hasn’t stopped Fincher tucking in some overt and not so overt callbacks to that 1941 classic. Tom Burke adding the icing on the movie buff cake with a booming towering depiction of Orson Welles. Primarily though this is just a rip-roaring thoroughly engrossing piece of cinema, with a cast on their A-game and a filmmaker utilising all his copious tools to do justice to a very personal script.
Standout Scene: Sometimes all you need is a damn good script and players to deliver it to make a scene sing, Mank has numerous examples of this but king of them is an early film party held in Hearst’s grand estate. Filled to the brim with luminaries such as Louis B Mayer, Davies and of course Mank. Post dinner speech turns to all things Hollywood, gossip and all, before falling into the minefield of politics. A scene that has the tangible feel of reality, figures going at one another with unspoken histories and personal perspectives. It is vibrant, exciting, and intelligent cinema.
Nomadland is a part of cinema wherein very little happens and yet everything happens. The sort of film you get lost inside of, ebbing and flowing to its rhythms before being spat out into a light that has altered your state of mind. Chloe Zhao has directed a film of purest empathy, one that treats humanity as the complicated, difficult and sacred thing it is. Ostensibly it is about Fern, a widower living in a tiny town in the American Midwest. A town built upon the bedrock of the giant sheetrock factory at its core, shut down by the recession leaving the town empty and purposeless. Fern sees this as an opportunity to venture out in nothing more than her beat up camper van to live a life as a Nomad. Such persons who have no fixed abode but ride the roads meeting fellow like minded travellers in the simplest pursuits of connection. Frances McDormand is a revelation as one of the only trained actors (David Strathairn is another as a gentle friend to Fern) in a cast largely made up of real Nomads. She uses silence, observation and deliberate interactions to showcase a woman cast adrift from the world. Restless and ever searching for connections, hints that this has always been her way come during a fraught visit to her sister. McDormand feels more than just a character, she feels living and breathing. Zhao delicately watching her movements with stark honesty (if you ever wanted to see McDormand shit into a toilet, this is the film for you), and a great deal of warmth. Along the way, aided by truly beautiful cinematography (the film seems set in perpetual twilight), we start to build a picture of the gentle way we humans work with one another. How the cynical cold nature of our corporate led lives, represented here by the detached Amazon warehouses Fern occasionally works in, have prevented us from truly seeing one another. Truly knowing one another. Each of these individuals have suffered pain and grief, yet they keep going, keep pushing through. In a year where it has felt like it is too much to carry on, that the world is just too hard, Nomadland feels vital in reminding us that the journey is worth fighting for. That people are worth fighting for. A masterpiece of personal, empathetic filmmaking.
Standout Scene: The above shot, framed beautifully by Zhao’s sweeping camera, as Fern gently walks amongst the parked up Nomads. Nothing happens, she just walks. But its floating energy, authentic perspective and gentle rhythms provide a snapshot of this films subtle power.
Somehow an animation studio have slowly and masterfully built quite possibly the most detailed look at the spectrum of humanity seen in the movies. And none more so than those directed by Pete Docter (although here he co directs with Kemp Powers). Monster’s Inc, Up, Inside Out and now Soul have all represented a filmmaker inquisitive about just what makes us human. Soul may not elicit quite the same barrage of tears that some of his previous films have done, but it is by far the deepest, by far the most mature. In fact despite Pixar’s usual knack for smuggling adult themes into family flicks, Soul in some respects leans heavier towards the adults in its audience. We open on Joe Gardner (voiced with warm affection by Jamie Foxx), a High School music teacher, a man driven by one thing, and one thing only, jazz. Teaching is just a job to him, his passion, his so called purpose is to play music. More accurately play music with the Dorothea Williams group. In a fast paced, almost oddly paced opening, we not only meet Joe, see his relationship with his overbearing mum, watch him get his chance with the group, then witness him fall down a manhole passing into the Great Beyond. A setting sketched with clever effective simplicity. Joe rails against this being his time to die, and somehow winds up in The Great Before. A place where souls find their personalities alongside that one spark that’ll make up their passion on Earth. It is an almost overwhelming amount of information to kick a film off with. Introducing your characters, metaphysical concepts and your plot with such velocity you almost don’t take it all in. Pixar are smart though and then proceed to slow things down for the meat of their film. You see Joe finds a way to get back to Earth, through the help of 22 (Tina Fey-a wired bouncy energy) a Soul perpetually trapped in the Great Before because Earth, as she says, is where dreams are stamped out. How they end up on Earth and the manner in which they appear is one of the films nice surprises. A turn that in some corners has proven controversial. Soul is Pixar’s first film with a black lead, and subsequently showcases a lot from that perspective. The way in which the two return to Earth, removes Joe from his POV as a black man. There is merit in this argument, yet I also believe Docter and Powers focus here is that Joe can only grow and move beyond his narrow minded fixation on purpose by seeing his world from the outside. Something Soul does very effectively in this mid section. Soul tackles many themes throughout its running time; the creative mind and how we can oftentimes seek that over all other things, to the fear of settling rather than achieving our dreams, to the grandest notions of enjoying life for the little things. Soul has a lot on its mind and the fact it brings it altogether as well as it does, whilst also finding time to be entertaining is masterful. There are scenes in here that quite frankly, and with no sense of irony, touch the soul. A confrontation with Joe’s mother (very cleverly framed), a barbershop visit (so full of specific details) and a journey to where lost souls go (utilising Graham Norton’s voice no less) all carry with them the weight of loaded meaning. Soul is an often strangely paced film; the aforementioned opening, a slower mid section, a finale that feels remarkably low stakes, but is all the more unique for it. The craftmanship continues to equal the storytelling nous. It is quite possibly their best looking film, depictions of New York so alive with detail that it takes your breath away. Yet counterbalanced with the sparse abstract nature of the Great Before/Beyond. Not to mention the best use of lighting I’ve ever seen in an animated flick. All ably backed by an unusual, almost eerie score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. The cast also rise to the occasion with personality after personality leaping off the screen (special faves are Norton and Rachel House who are simply delightful). Above all this though Soul is a film that elevates your thinking, enriches your heart and inspires you to just live every day. What better meaning could you ask for from a film?
Standout Scene: Joe sits by the piano and comes to a realisation. One that mirrors a moment we saw earlier in the film, but rather than see his life as a series of failures, he starts to see it as the blessing it is. Tear-inducing and deeply poetic, it is the amalgamation of everything this film is trying to say, and it does it with nothing more than visuals and music. Bravo!
Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite is one of the great success stories of 2020. Slowly building mass appraisal from critics circles, it carved a path to the Best Picture Oscar with as much glee as the manipulative family that it centres on. The fact it also went down well with an audience who largely shun subtitled films, and you know you’re onto a winner. Away from all the praise and chatter though Parasite is a highly subversive and deeply clever film. One that you often forget when the surface level is also so damn entertaining. The film centres on the destitute Kim family, living in rough conditions and surviving through stolen wi-fi and pizza box building. Through sheer chance son Ki-Woo gets the opportunity to tutor a member of the wealthy Park family. Before the rest of the Kim family ingratiate themselves into the Park’s lives with complete dominance. It is a sequence of events so audaciously funny and witty that you’re almost breathless that someone could write this (Bong wrote alongside Han Jin-Won). Involving things as crazy as peach fuzz down to some cleverly placed ladies underwear. Before you know it the Kim’s are living the high life, even going so far as to take over the Park’s home when they go camping. This is the sharp turning point in which the film evolves into something you genuinely could not predict. Bong shooting it as an almost horror centric moment, the audience powerless to know what is coming next. After that point things gradually fall apart, and we start to see the fierce social commentary Parasite is making. A few have incorrectly seen this as a celebration of consumerism and the American Dream, but in actuality it is a razor sharp takedown of the rich/poor divide. The Park’s are not framed as evil or malicious, rather naïve and self-centred. Bong quite careful to give them layers and details alongside the Kim’s. It is a film so delicately shaped and balanced, every scene deliberately placed to feed into the next to maximise not only meaning but entertainment too. For nothing else Parasite is a crowdpleaser. Wickedly funny, darkly twisted and full of great performances. Top of which is Song Kang-Ho as father Ki-Taek Kim, his face constantly under pressure of letting his guard down. A man who witnesses the mindless cruelty the Park’s can inadvertently display, before it drives him to extreme limits. Korean cinema has always been content with living in the extreme zones that humanity can exist in, yet Parasite is a film accessible to all. It is a finely tuned and acutely balanced picture. A masterpiece.
Standout Scene: The mid film extended sequence as the Kim family enjoy the lavish opulence of the Park’s home, whilst slowly the tension builds for reasons we don’t quite know yet. It all starts with a buzz on the intercom. A bold thrilling piece of drama that encapsulates the tonal tightrope this film consistently walks on.
1. Small Axe
I know what you’re going to say! This isn’t a film, this is 5 films. 5 films that aired on TV no less. Well unfortunately my list, my rules. But anybody who thinks Steve McQueen’s anthology is not cinematic is kidding themselves, they are intensely so. Also if numerous films can appear on here and only ever were shown on Netflix, then I’m pretty sure a BBC shown film odyssey can make the list. Grouping them into one however is bold, and my reasoning for that is although they are not directly related in terms of character, setting or plot, they are all fiercely connected by race. Or more accurately race as depicted within British society. Something sadly all too rare on our screens, and particularly when it comes to black society in our shared histories. These 5 films feed into one another so that you can watch singularly, but when watched as a collective one after the other they all build an overarching picture of what it is like to be black in Britain. So let’s first break them down;
Mangrove. The first in the series is by far the biggest in length (over 2 hrs) and the largest in terms of ensemble. Telling the true story of the Mangrove, a restaurant in West London, owned and operated by Frank Crichlow (a performance of pure fire from Shaun Parkes), as they face an almost daily barrage of racially motivated police raids. The racist Boys in Blue determined to stamp out any semblance of joy Frank and his punters can find, with nary an ounce of worry for consequences. McQueen paints these raids with fast frantic chaos, building them into a mid film montage that exhausts you just as it must’ve done for them. Soon Frank, inspired by Letitia Wright’s fiercely driven activist Altheia, is involved in marches on local police forces. One in which things get out of hand and rioting breaks out. Similar to events depicted in The Trial of the Chicago 7, nine individuals from the Mangrove wind up defending themselves in court. Their very lives on the line. It is a film designed to make the blood boil at the sheer strain of the injustice here, carried along by top notch performances (Wright has a doozy of a speech), cinematic brio and the pin sharp focus on capturing things with detailed authenticity. Similar to the next film in the anthology, McQueen finds time to show scenes of black joy. Moments where the music and the dancing are unimpeded by the monstrous villains waiting at their doors. A reminder that not all stories told from this perspective have to be riddled with pain and anger.
Lovers Rock. Possibly the brightest light amongst these films is this 60 min rhythmic wonder. No plot of any semblance (albeit there is a small arc focusing on two young lovers at the party), no familiar filmic structure, simply just a visit into one night and one very big party. Friends, acquaintances, strangers, all come together to drink, eat and exist with no threat in sight. Although McQueen cleverly shows us that just beyond these doors, the safety guards are no longer there. This house is both party location and uninhibited safe zone. A place where black men and women can simply be themselves without any judgements. It is a film of pure sensory dynamism. The smell of food, the taste of sweat, the boom of bass. You feel alive within these walls. How McQueen manages to shoot all this, his camera somehow floating amidst the sea of bodies, is beyond me. Michael Ward and Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn are a captivating pair as the two lovers who fall in with one another over this one night. Subtleties in performance give context to the larger resonance of these films, listen as St. Aubyn drops into a more traditional English accent around some as opposed to the accent of her forebears when she is with her brethren. Most, however, will remember this film for the masterful ‘Silly Games’ sequence at its centre. We witness an unbroken take as Janet Kay’s Silly Games comes on, the music taken hold of everyone with almost spiritual power. Bodies writhe together, voices harmonise as one, this is pure joy and connectivity on screen. It is sexy, sensual cinema. A moment of happiness before the ensuing heaviness of the films to follow.
Red, White and Blue. John Boyega gives his best performance yet as Leroy Logan. An officer in the London Met police force, who believes he can bring about change within the heart of the institution that saw officers beat his dad to a pulp. At the heart of the race debate lie the police force. Largely a stage for bigots and racists to feel emboldened to commit heinous acts. Acts we see play out in the earlier Mangrove. Leroy is an optimist though. A man driven to enact change, no matter how tough it may be. And tough it bloody well is. Numerous scenes of Logan facing loneliness, bullying and out and out abuse are uncomfortable to watch. Yet he pushes through. McQueen using this as an opportunity to show sides to this story we might not have expected. An Indian officer shows that racism does not merely fall on one community, it is intrinsic across the board, albeit this guy lacks the resolve to push through it. There are also the attempts by Leroy to work within his own community hindered by the inherent suspicion that he is now working for the enemy. A fact aped by his father who still demands justice for his attack. When he learns that the police are awarding him damages, thanks more to son Leroy’s stature in the police, and that he won’t get his day in court, actor Steve Toussaint wears such a shaken pained expression on his face that it devastates you. One thing all these films do well is capture these little moments of heartache. McQueen perhaps ends this film a little too abruptly, leaving us facing an uncertain future but perhaps that is the point. This is a battle that may seem like it’s won in places but problems are still there, in fact they’re just buried more below the surface. Remarkably shot, with McQueen even finding the time to squeeze in a mini action scene. One that features a couple of one take sequences without drawing attention to themselves. Instead you’re enraptured by this efficient, palpably felt look at race within those sworn to protect all of us.
Alex Wheatle. In case you hadn’t realised yet, Small Axe spends each of its films building a deeper and deeper picture of all aspects of society through the lens of the black community. Mangrove is about the justice system, Lovers Rock is a chance for joy, and the previous film tackles law enforcement. Alex Wheatle goes for a number of elements but primarily it looks at the care system as it pertains to one young boy. Alex. Brought up in foster care, and largely forgotten. Alex falls in with a crowd that offer him confidence, security and some semblance of control. This is framed within an arc of Alex being sentenced to prison, sharing his tale with his gastro-troubled cellmate (Small Axe has a nice underlay of dark humour). A true story, Alex is actually now a prominent writer, the film gets into the heart of how the odds are always stacked against those of colour. Alex is never given the opportunities, he has to fight for them. Played with quiet conviction by Sheyi Cole, his Alex is introspective and timid but capable of macho posturing when he feels out of his depth. A scene with a local drug dealer is a masterful balance of tension, humour and drama, especially when Alex has a tendency to be unpredictable. Largely unsung compared to the other films in this collection, Alex Wheatle is vital in showing how the odds are often not in your favour, especially if you’re from a BAME community, but in its final moments offers hope that there can be a way out.
Education. It makes sense that McQueen saves this for last. Real change and real social momentum can only be achieved if we start at the beginning. For most that is in education. A system that was very much not built for those in the black community. Deeply personal, this is an almost semi-autobiographical depiction of his own school learning troubles, and immensely moving. Education centres on Kingsley, a 12 year old who dreams of being an astronaut, as he faces being sent to a ‘special’ school for being disruptive in class. His parents too busy working to notice that he is being made part of an unofficial segregation policy, whereby many black kids do not get the education they require. This ‘special’ school is basically a dumping ground for those whom the education system deems impossible to teach, and usually made up of black children, alongside those with actual special needs. They are sobering troubling scenes, Kingsley desperate to learn but pushed down by a system unwilling to help him. Although his parents don’t notice, McQueen is careful not to paint them as bad people, they are just consequences of being in a class where the economic opportunities are unfairly not there. When his mother does notice, with the help of Naomi Ackie’s activist, Sharlene Whyte conveys with great power her willingness to help her son. Kenyah Sandy plays Kingsley and is quite frankly a revelation, watchful and nuanced in a performance of potent maturity. There is a moment in which he attempts to read to his mum, and the failings of his education made painfully aware, that is heartbreaking. Hope is offered in the home of a local volunteer teacher, a place where we see structure, encouragement and tolerance are the keys to bringing about change. Whether that is something our current day system is able to do McQueen leaves unanswered, but the message is powerfully and abundantly clear. We need to do more.
Standout Scene: It is hard to pick one when you have 5 films to choose from but the ‘Silly Games’ sequence in Lovers Rock is the sort of unbridled celebration of black joy that we see far too little of. Removed from the constraints of deeper social meaning, leave that to the rest of the films, this is about showing what constant persecution is powerless to stamp out. The vivid visceral connection that exists when all else fades away. It is euphoric.
These films represent a phenomenal singular experience. There is so much craft on display here that the fact Steve McQueen directed these back to back is astounding. Each feels separate but also of a piece. Scene after scene just appear effortlessly mounted. The music choices are on point. The historical detail on point, they have the social realism feel of a Ken Loach. Each one left me feeling angry, excited, moved, conflicted, challenged and invigorated. They are films of meaning, of consequence, of specificity and of universality. I have not witnessed anything else this year that was better.
Forward onto an even better 2021, for films that is, in life anything will be better than 2020….