The Last Breath of 2020 – A Round-Up Review



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We’re back here again. Another catch-up post by this writer who watches so many films in a given period that even the good ones can get caught up in the race to watch everything possible before the Oscars.

It probably didn’t help that the weekend of the 93rd Oscars was the snap 3-day lockdown here in Perth which can be accurately referred to as a train derailment. I was on a good track to write up reviews for several films I’d seen in the mad rush to see everything possible before the Oscars, and it all stopped sharply. I’ve spent the last two weeks working on an independent project I had been planning in some stage or another since last year. With that done (go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=exZROEOf4y8 to see the result), let’s catch-up, shall we?

Another Round

Written and directed by Thomas Vinterberg, Another Round stars Mads Mikkelsen as high school history teacher Martin who is stuck firmly in the midst of a midlife crisis. His marriage is stagnant, his job is going nowhere, and his life feels like it is marching slowly towards the inevitable. At a dinner with three friends, all being other teachers at the high school, one of them poses an experiment brought on by psychiatrist Finn Skårderud who theorised that humans have a natural BAC of 0.05. They commit themselves to maintaining that limit throughout the day but not drinking after 8pm. The experiment leads the four to experience happiness and a love of life while under the influence that they had forgotten in their monotony. However, when they start increasing the experiment and going too far, the spiral continues ever downward and far more out of control than before. Through the vein of binge drinking, Vinterberg examines life and relationships that can be so centred around either a simple glass of wine at dinner or drinking as much as possible in a massive group of young people until you vomit and collapse in a daze. What happens in between that? Why do Danish people have such a strong love of drink? How does it define them as individuals? What kind of people become alcoholics?

Just like The Hunt, Vinterberg and Mikkelsen’s last collaboration, the director asks difficult questions and has the filmmaking courage to answer them with touching, ambitious, and illuminating effect. Mads Mikkelsen gives a tremendous performance, as does his supporting actors Thomas Bo Larsen, Lars Ranthe, Magnus Millang, and Maria Bonnevie. Mikkelsen commits perfectly to this complicated and empty man who fills the hole in his life with alcohol until he knows nothing but. While Another Round leans perfectly into the darkness associated with alcohol, it is also quite a funny and enjoyable film to watch. Vinterberg balances tone perfectly, leading to an ending that should go down as one of the most overwhelmingly spectacular endings to a story in modern film history. How everything just builds to this big finale is a work of art, and despite films like Collective and Quo Vadis, Aida? dealing with darker and more political relevant subject matter, Another Round deserved its win for the Best International Feature Oscar. It is a wonderful film that grows so well in your mind, helped no less by Thomas Vinterberg’s emotional acceptance speech acknowledging how his daughter Ida, who died in a car accident four days into filming, influenced this film and its development. Another Round is an emotionally rich catharsis for a grieving father and one of the finest films from 2020.

Director: Thomas Vinterberg

Writers: Thomas Vinterberg, Tobias Lindholm

Starring: Mads Mikkselsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Lars Ranthe, Magnus Millang, Maria Bonnevie

Supernova

Supernova is probably the #1 contender for most over-looked 2020 film. It stars Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci as a middle-aged couple who travel to England’s Lake District to reunite with family and friends. The problem is that Tucci’s character has dementia that is getting worse by the day. He’s fully aware of who he is and his affliction, almost disarmingly so, while Firth’s character is stuck in a deep denial, confident that things will get better. Supernova was written and directed by Harry Macqueen, whose 2014 debut Hinterland has also flown under the radar, making only £10,000, picked up by MUBI, and I can’t find it anywhere. It had some praise by British critics, but I had never heard of it until researching Supernova. After seeing his latest work, I need to track down Hinterland because Macqueen shows off an incredible skill for emotional complexities and creating natural tension from the smallest of human interactions. Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci give career-best performances as two men with deep emotional troubles that cannot be solved overnight nor over the course of 93 minutes. We enter their life in the middle of difficulty, each one keeping high-spirits for the sake of each other and the friends and family that they reunite with later. Pain still lives on in the gaps. How can you live with a clear road to death? What happens to one person when the other they have loved more than anything is slowly fading away? Is it humane to try and survive and deny the inevitable? Fascinating and devastating questions that Harry Macqueen isn’t afraid to ask or even answer, albeit in ways to still have the film end.

Supernova is quiet, funny, sensitive and gives us two magnificent lead performances from excellent actors inhabiting fully-formed and rich characters you love watching. It may not ever be a particularly bold affair, often resorting to simple and serene scenes of inner beauty and humour without ever going too far. The score remains reserved to simple tonal structures and Dick Pope’s cinematography gives everything a delicate light by which love reflects. It is sad that Supernova came with a flurry of acclaim from critics but no major awards nominations, thus not making much of an impact on the grand scheme of 2020 as a film year. Hopefully it lives on as people discover its exceptional quality.

Director/Writer: Harry Macqueen

Starring: Colin Firth, Stanley Tucci

The Father

The Father is like Supernova in that they’re both depressingly poignant films about dementia, though this one has a more focused perspective. Sir Anthony Hopkins, fittingly, plays Anthony, an eldery man in the midst of worsening dementia that is turning his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) against him, while all around him changes between scenes, locking us in the confused mind of a dying man. The Father is based on the French play “Le Père” by the film’s director and co-writer Florian Zeller, and I didn’t know this before seeing the film, but it’s noticeable. A one-room setting, small cast of actors playing multiple roles, and an emphasis on the production’s evolutionary nature. What is most remarkable, however, is how Zeller uses a different medium to enhance the story. Other “stage-to-screen” films can feel so stagnant in their direction, never using the benefit of editing or camera angles to enhance a well-written story and characters. Zeller gifts us with powerful close-ups of emotional torment, shifting time perspectives in important moments towards the end of the film, and debilitating the audience’s sense of reality with clever editing. This is one of the better stage-to-screen adaptations in the last year, right up there with One Night in Miami…, but we must talk about the one thing driving the conversation. Olivia Colman is brilliant, turning out another stellar performance that shows how much of an amazing talent she is, the rest of the supporting cast (Rufus Sewell, Imogen Poots, Olivia Williams, and Mark Gatiss) do an excellent job with fluid characters, but it is Sir Anthony Hopkins’ truly magnificent performance that overwhelms you.

He gives us, at age 83, one of the best performances from the career of one of the finest living actors, and does so with disarming reality that reaches out and breaks you down. Hopkins switches with such remarkable ease between this rather eccentric man, very much like Hopkins himself if you follow his Twitter, and a disintegrating shell of a human being, moving around as if possessed by a dark spirit. It is a true credit to Zeller and his co-writer Christopher Hampton in how much they put the audience firmly into multiple perspectives with such ease that never confuses. We are inside Anthony’s mind as he sees his apartment fall away piece-by-piece, whole rooms changing design and contents, but we must see Anthony as others see him; inconsistent, angry, and horribly lost. The Father is an incredibly distressing and singular study of dementia thanks to Sir Anthony Hopkins giving a marvellous portrayal of one losing all that they truly are. He deserved his win for Best Actor and if you feel nothing in the final scene, then I question your sense of empathy. The Father is one of the finest acting showcases I’ve seen in years and should go down as one of the better films from 2020.

Director: Florian Zeller

Writer: Florian Zeller, Christopher Hampton

Starring: Sir Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman

Do Not Split

Filmed, directed and produced by Anders Hammer, Do Not Split is a short documentary that looks at most of the major events during the 2019-2020 Hong Kong protests. Hammer is on the streets in the middle of panic, noise and social upheaval that seems to be never-ending. We have direct perspectives of Hong Kong citizens fighting against a crushing regime of tyranny and oppression, even at their own risk of being identified and arrested. These are frightfully young people, most still attending university, committing themselves to a righteous cause that seems to have no clear end in sight. What struck this reviewer most was not only the incredible footage and terrifying sequence of events squeezed into 35 minutes, but it was the ending of it all. I had seen the footage two years ago of the protests rolling through the streets and the people using whatever means necessary to push against the encroaching might of Chinese police forces, but I had no idea what happened beyond August 2019. Do Not Split tells that story.

COVID struck, and because gatherings of any kind were banned by the government, opportunities were taken to make those bans permanent, meaning protests were effectively outlawed. All the world’s attention on Hong Kong slipped away in the panic of a global health crisis. A new national security law was put in place in June 2020, the Legislative Council (LegCo) elections were postponed, 12 pro-democratic candidates for the LegCo were disqualified, and 370 protestors were arrested due to Chinese security agents allowed into Hong Kong. The message is clear at the end, however: no matter what China wants to do, the people of Hong Kong continue to fight for their freedom. They always have. Do Not Split is a powerful, harrowing and incredible documentary that should have won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject, but I’m afraid that would have angered China to the point of banning all business with Hollywood. And we can’t have that, now can we?

Director: Anders Hammer

A Love Song for Latasha

A Love Song for Latasha is another short documentary directed, shot and edited by Sophia Nahli Allison and identifies Latasha Harlins through the perspective of her living family and friends that knew the 15-year-old before she was shot and killed by a convenience store owner in Los Angeles in 1991. Her death is coupled with the acquittal of the officers involved with the beating of Rodney King as the fuel for the fire of the 1992 L.A. riots. However, the documentary does not use a single piece of footage from the riots nor from the infamous security footage that shows Latasha being murdered. Instead, we simply see Latasha’s life through photographs, reenactments and abstract animation, painting the life of a girl who lived and not merely someone who died. Through this, we are gifted humorous, lively and touching stories about a vibrant and hopeful young girl from South Central L.A..

Allison photographs Latasha’s neighbourhood in a nostalgic way, with saturated colours and a film-grain effect over the footage, inviting us to a warm place of love that Latasha did experience when she was protected by the women in her community. We learn of her grace and beautiful potential, making it all the more tragic that she is not here to tell the her own childhood stories. A Love Song for Latasha won’t send you soaring with overwhelming positivity, but through its reality and touching restraint, you understand more about Black life than you ever could being aware of death. Our news can be so dominated by people of colour being killed or brutally assaulted, and while it is important to have that shared around the world and spread the message, we must still celebrate life. That is the reason why Sophia Nahli Allison made A Love Song for Latasha and it is a wonderful piece of work that deserves attention.

Director: Sophia Nahli Allison

Two Distant Strangers

Two Distant Strangers is a short film released on Netflix which ended up winning the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film. We follow a man, Carter (Joey Bada$$), who wakes up in the bed of a woman, Perri (Zaria Simone), he’s seen the previous night. Could be a one-night stand, could not be, it depends. Carter has to get back to his apartment, though, to feed his dog, and when he exits Perri’s building and lights up a cigarette, a police officer, Merk (Andrew Howard), crosses over and accuses him smoking marijuana and questions why Carter has a roll of cash in his pocket. The officer tries to arrest Carter, Carter resists, and the officer pulls out his gun and shoots Carter in the back while kneeling on his back. Carter then wakes up in Perri’s bed, and the day starts all over. The story is a time loop of Carter trying to live out his day, running into Merk and being killed by him over and over again without end. Even when Carter thinks he can just stay in Perri’s apartment all day and never leave, the police still raid the apartment and kill Carter even though it turns out they had the wrong apartment. One loop we see is Carter directly approaching Merk, pulling out the usual “I know everything that’s about to happen” thing, and convinces Merk to drive him home while they discuss their differences. And then he still shoots him anyway.

Two Distant Strangers has the right intentions but the wrong execution. The script never gives us a chance to really understand who Carter is as a person, and Merk comes off as a cartoon villain, laughing maniacally when deceiving Carter. Beyond their first encounter, the “wrong apartment” twist which happens too often in real life, the idea of Black people’s lives being the same tragedy every day, and the final moments being a list of innocent Black people killed by police in recent memory, Two Distant Strangers falls remarkably flat. It trades in all right messages but struggles to be something more than the obvious. What is worse is that the film is now mired in a controversy of plagiarism from Cynthia Kao’s 2016 short film Groundhog Day for a Black Man. That film was circulated by NowThis on Facebook and Instagram during 2020, and NowThis are credited as one of Two Distant Strangers’ production companies. NowThis have responded to Kao’s claims, saying Two Distant Strangers was “independently conceived and in final production before they became involved” with circulating Groundhog Day for a Black Man on their social media pages. That’s all well and good, but considering that no one saw both projects, recognised the similarities and brought up the matter to either filmmaking parties is rather frustrating. If it is a matter of coincidence, someone should’ve pointed that out to Kao or the filmmakers behind Two Distant Strangers. But no one did. They thought it would all fade away just in time to win an Oscar. It worked, but now everyone knows. Two Distant Strangers gets its message across, but is muddled in cliché storytelling and mediocre writing.

Director: Travon Free, Martin Desmond Roe

Writer: Travon Free

Starring: Joey Bada$$, Andrew Howard

Collective

Collective puts a neat little bow on this list of the last 2020 films I saw which all deal with depressing subject matters. Some may have a few glimmers of hope and optimism, but will still leave you thinking less of humanity’s systems and the nature of life. Collective is no different and is probably the hardest to watch. The film is a Romanian documentary, directed by Alexander Nanau, that examines the aftermath of a public health disaster where a fire at the Collectiv club killed 27 people and injured 180 in October of 2015. Of the 180 injured, 37 died later from infections in Romanian hospitals, despite public demands for the victims to be moved to other better-equipped European hospitals. The government at the time, the Social Democractic Party, resigned in disgrace. The documentary follows journalists from Romania’s Sports Gazette (Gazeta Sporturilor) who investigate the mismanagement of public hospitals who had been using diluted disinfectants provided by private companies. The investigation goes further along, exposing more and more corruption, to the point where the current health minister resigns, a new one is appointed, and we then follow HIS journey to repeal and reform the Romanian healthcare system despite political pressure.

Collective is difficult to get through because it examines investigations and reforms from a strictly fly-on-the-wall perspective. There are no voiceovers or “talking heads” to help us along with the flow of events. We just have to sit tight, pay attention to the subtitles and follow on the slow and exhausting examination of deception, trauma and political crises. In this regard, we feel the absolute reality of every situation. At no point does it ever feel like the camera is there in a room. We feel that the documentary’s perspective is our own, on board for the fight for justice for families who had loved ones taken away in preventable situations. There is no great climax and no massive victory. This is an unyielding struggle for truth and justice that may have some issues with switching points-of-view halfway through from the journalists to the new health minister, but delivers a painful message at the end. No matter how hard you may fight, the system will always exist to undermine day to day struggles. One step forward, two steps back. Collective is presented in a standard and naturalistic style, never drawing attention to itself and only once using past footage to show the horror of the Collectiv fire. It will not be even close to the most exciting documentaries you will ever see but the importance and harsh realism of the message cannot be ignored. Collective is one of the finest documentaries from 2020, deserved its Oscar nomination as did Crip Camp and Time, but no, apparently My Octopus Teacher was better.

Directed: Alexander Nanau

I did not see EVERYTHING in 2020, and that’s an impossible task to acheive. What film lover out there actually watched EVERY movie released in any given year. We still try because of such a wealth of stories out there in the world. Since this catch-up has mostly been about films either this year’s Oscar winners or nominees, here are the only four out of all the nominees in every category that I didn’t see before the show:

  • Hunger Ward (nominee for Best Documentary Short Subject)
  • Opera (nominee for Best Animated Short Film)
  • The Man Who Sold His Skin (nominee for Best International Feature Film)
  • The Mole Agent (nominee for Best Documentary Feature)

2020 was a year. That’s all I need to say. But regardless of a horribly low Oscars viewership, the quality of the films was top notch. Never blame the films if no one watches the Oscars. They existed before we ever started giving out gold prizes and they will exist long after the awards disappear. On to another year of celebrating stories however they are told!

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