The highest grossing film in the world in 2020 was, for the first time since people have been tracking such trivia, not an American movie. It was a continuation of an anime television show about a teen-aged demon slayer set a hundred years ago, in Taisho-era Japan. The Demon Slayer movie has made well over $400 million thus far, easily surpassing Spirited Away to become both the highest-grossing anime and the highest-grossing Japanese film ever made, and the popularity of the series has rocketed the manga on which it’s based (which began in 2016) to become one of the most popular of all-time as well. It’s not hard to see why: the series is slick and bright, with exciting action sequences and compelling world-building, alongside an unabashedly earnest emotional core. That heartfelt sense of compassion is about the only thing that Demon Slayer has in common with the best anime films of recent years (Yamada Naoko’s Liz and the Blue Bird and A Silent Voice, Shinkai Makoto’s Your Name and Weathering with You, Yuasa Masaaki’s Ride Your Wave), and it distinguishes it from the kind of cynical pandering that characterizes so much of the American superhero work with which it shares certain generic similarities. The result, popular as it obviously has been in Japan, seems ill-suited to the US market: too formulaic for the slice-of-life anime fans, too openly decent for those with an unhealthy fixation on Disney’s intellectual property.
The movie doesn’t do much to contextualize the story, instead assuming that we’re all familiar with the characters and mythology that has been built up thus far across the 26 episodes of the show. In a nutshell: teen hero Kamado Tanjiro comes home one day to find that his entire family has been murdered by demons, all but his younger sister Naoko, who has been turned into a demon herself. The demons function or or less like vampires: they need to feed on human flesh, you become one by drinking their blood (well, one specific demon’s blood), and you can only kill them with sunlight or by chopping off their head with a special demon-slaying sword. The demons become stronger the more humans they consume, eventually developing strange magical powers that make every one of them unique. This accounts for some of the most clever aspects of the series: one demon rearranges the rooms in the house he lives in by beating a drum; another uses spider webs to manipulate humans like marionettes; a third dissolves into a swampy black pool that sucks unsuspecting victims underground. Tanjiro trains to become a demon slayer in order to find a way to turn Naoko back into a human, while she refrains from eating any humans and is eventually accepted as a kind of adjunct to the demon slaying corps.
The first season (the second is set to air sometime this year) follows Tanjiro as he learns various breathing and sword techniques and fights ever more dangerous demons. It’s comprised of several multi-episode arcs, which have subsequently been combined into feature-length movies. These arcs are filled with flashbacks and internal monologues, for both the slayers and demons: ultimately the conflicts are as much internal and psychological as they are about finding a weakness in an enemy’s defense and chopping off its head. In the show, Tanjiro meets a number of fascinating characters, deepening the show’s mythology and helping distinguish it from its generic forebears (it reminded me most of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but without the metaphor and Whedonism). Unlike Liz and the Blue Bird, which was a spin-off of the series Sound! Euphonium and very different in both animation style and character focus, the Mugen Train movie is a seamless extension of its series, essentially one of these story extended story arcs. Tanjiro and Naoko, along with their similarly young compatriots Inosuke (who wears a boar’s head mask) and Zenitsu (who is outwardly girl-crazy, manic and cowardly but subconsciously highly competent), are assigned to assist one of the top demon slayers, Rengoku, master of the Flame Technique, in stopping a demon who has taken over a train. This demon is one of the most powerful we’ve seen, part of an elite group serving the head demon, Kibutsuji Muzan, and their ability involves controlling dreams. The slayers board the train, the demon puts them to sleep and tries to destroy their souls from inside their subconscious. Will they awaken in time?
The action and animation in Demon Slayer is bright, cartoonish, and fun (some sight gags reminded me of no less than Nichijou), although as clever as most of the demon powers are, the structure of the fights can feel repetitive (Tanjiro gets beaten badly, learns to breathe better, then gets more powerful), lacking the propulsive energy of the fighting in 2019’s Promare, to compare with one recent anime . But that’s more than made up for by Tanjiro’s great strength as a hero-figure, which is his compassion. Seemingly alone among the show’s universe, Tanjiro is able to pity and forgive the demons. He has a purity of soul that contrasts sharply with the brutal violence of the world he finds himself in. This, more than the flashy animation and reliable serialized storytelling is what ultimately makes Demon Slayer so effective, this balance between blood and grace.
Hard to find a more appropriate image for our 2020 year in review than the burnt-out husk of the Seven Gables, once the thriving heart of the Seattle screen scene. It’s been a terrible, wasted year, but there were some things that helped us endure it.
Ten Films That Kept Me Sane in Isolation
Quarantine was an especially strange experience for me because I can divide it into two distinctly different phases: when I was living by myself with no in-person human contact in a small apartment for the first four months, and the slowly unspooling existence I’ve since led with my parents on the other side of the country. Though the former at this point seems like a distant memory, I did manage to see many films at that time that stuck with me — certainly more than I have in the intervening time period. I’ve listed ten films from those months that helped ground my mental state in how transportive and beautiful they were, along what emotions they made me feel, ordered by when I saw them.
Simones Barbès or Virtue (1980, Marie-Claude Treilhou)
Because hanging out with sad, lonely, impossibly cool queer people sounds like heaven.
The Love Eterne (1963, Li Han-hsiang)
Because a hidden, impossible love can be expressed with maximal means.
At This Late Date, the Charleston (1981, Kihachi Okamoto)
Because even a totally absurd community is still a community.
Femmes Femmes (1974, Paul Vecchiali)
Because it’s immensely moving to see people dealing with their own self-imposed isolation.
Sparrow (2008, Johnnie To)
Because the city is an ever-expanding, inviting, and mysterious place that I miss dearly.
Afternoon (2015, Tsai Ming-liang)
Because having a simple conversation can be the most captivating thing in the world.
Peking Opera Blues (1986, Tsui Hark)
Because finding lasting friendships in the heat of a struggle will never not be appealing.
Beijing Watermelon (1989, Nobuhiko Obayashi)
Because forming new families rooted in specific spaces is unbearably intimate.
The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom (2007, Adam Curtis)
Because offering the slightest bit of hope for the revolution after hours of dismay registers as an impossibly generous gesture.
Perceval le Gallois (1978, Eric Rohmer)
Because artifice can sometimes be the truest representation of all.
For good measure, here’s my actual 2020 top ten list (US release year):
1. Martin Eden (Pietro Marcello) 2. To the Ends of the Earth (Kiyoshi Kurosawa) 3. Fourteen (Dan Sallitt) 4. The Grand Bizarre (Jodie Mack) 5. I Was at Home, But… (Angela Schanelec) 6. The Traitor (Marco Bellocchio) 7. Heimat Is a Space in Time (Thomas Heise) 8. First Cow (Kelly Reichardt) 9. Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa) 10. The Whistlers (Corneliu Porumboiu)
I’ll preface this list by saying that I missed a lot of great media this year (e.g., Nomadland, any book that doesn’t have pictures) largely because my obsessive focus on the pandemic reduced my attention span to a point of infinite density and zero size. Below is what got me through this awful year with a portion of my sanity somewhat intact:
First Cow (dir. Kelly Reichardt). I reviewed this beautiful, meditative, perfectly crafted movie for Seattle Screen Scenehere as soon as it went into wide release in 2020. It’s the best indie film I’ve seen since Moonlight.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always (dir. Eliza Hittman). As she did in It Felt Like Love (2013), Eliza Hittman here tells a painful, powerful story of a distinctively female experience—in this case, needing an abortion—in a way that’s authentic, truthful, and startlingly precise. No other filmmaker lays open young women’s minds and hearts the way Hittman does.
Season 2 of The Mandalorian. I take my Star Wars very, very seriously, so I don’t lightly say that Din Djarin has the best-realized character arc of anyone in the Star Wars universe. By the end of Season 2, the whole sweep of his development—from armored-and-helmeted zealot to full-hearted person—has been made visible in three high-impact, symbolic shots. The first time that helmet comes off, someone takes it off of him. The second time, he takes it off by necessity, because he can’t save the life of his child any other way. The third time, he takes it off because he wants to take it off, in order to be face-to-face with his only family, because love is more important than hewing to the letter of the law. Beautiful.
The Forty-Year-Old Version (dir. Radha Blank). Loosely based on her own life, Blank’s dramedy follows a playwright approaching midlife who attempts to reinvent herself as a rapper. Clearly influenced by the ‘90s work of Spike Lee and Cheryl Dunye yet still wholly original, the film reflects on the power and danger of nostalgia, the cruelties of youth and age, and the tensions between art and commerce. Blank makes smart and startling use of still shots, black-and-white cinematography, and jabs of color to tell her story, but it’s the music and words that ground this film in a mood. The “Queen of the Ring” rap battle scene is breathtaking, indelible, and all too short.
Mujeres (Y La Bamba). This is a cheat, since this album actually came out in 2019, but its sonic inventiveness and sincere lyricism kept me going through some of the thornier patches of 2020. Portland-based singer-songwriter and guitarist Luz Elena Mendoza has done some of the most original work in the indie music world of this (old) decade. I eagerly follow her into the new one.
Solutions and Other Problems (Allie Brosh). Author and artist Brosh is more forthcoming about the darker phases of her own life in this graphic novel than she was in Hyperbole and a Half, though no less piercingly funny. The hilarious story of her bizarre childhood fixation on fitting her entire body into a bucket rivals anything the great David Sedaris has ever written for pure, weird comic brilliance.
Soul (dir. Pete Docter and Kemp Powers). Though not top-tier Pixar for comedy, Soul surpasses most Pixar product for maturity and humanity. (Nothing tops the silent sequence that opened Up for sheer force of feeling.) Child-friendly yet not really a children’s movie,Soul breaks new ground for CG animation in vividly realized scenes of a hyperreal “real” world, seen through the eyes of someone who’s new here.
Ted Lasso. Warm-hearted, funny, earnest, and joyful, this show is the perfect antidote to irony overload, truthiness, and the crushing cruelties of this year. Jason Sudeikis’ title character is a human ray of sunshine.
In the Bubble with Andy Slavitt. The opposite of escapism, this podcast confronts the scientific and human realities of the pandemic head-on. The sanity and realism of Slavitt’s guest interviews makes this essential listening.
Criterion’s 4K restoration of Beau Travail (dir. Claire Denis). I reviewed this luminous masterwork for Seattle Screen Scenehere. Criterion beautifully restored the sharp edges and brilliant light of the original. This is film art given the loving treatment it deserves.
I did not see many 2020 films (or many films period), but these made an impression.
MY BOYFRIEND’S MEDS
A crass sex comedy in mode of the late 80’s Blake Edwards such as SKIN DEEP and BLIND DATE, full of destruction and disintegration. Jaime Camil gives a great unashamed performance.
DA 5 BLOODS
More unruly than BLACKKKLANSMAN, wilder in its ambitions, its failures – but everything feels necessary. Spike Lee’s interventions into his material breathe life into everything, making the film resolutely of the Now. For better or for worse.
AN AFTERNOON AT THE CINEMATEQUE
Resides somewhere in the same universe as Moullet’s LES SIÈGES DE L’ALCAZAR – a cinephile work taking place in and around a cinemateque. The energy, however, is rather different – it is a more romantic proposition with a climactic scene taking place during a screening of Ford’s THE QUIET MAN. Any film that gives that much screen time to Ford’s masterpiece and tries to communicate with it is dear to me.
Perhaps it’s the aesthetics of the year itself but 2020 has me thinking in pairs.
Labyrinthine Literary Conspiracies
I read several great novels this year (shout out to Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half which is the best novel from 2020 that I read) but two really stuck with me. Both were about protagonists uncovering hidden worlds; were they peeling back the layers on a vast conspiracy or were they just being fucked with by sadists? Both The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón and John Fowles’ The Magus sent me down rabbit holes of paranoia that were far more entertaining than the stupid conspiracies that gained traction in the real world this year.
Getting only a third of a season this year, with no chance of seeing a game in person, meant that I shotgunned baseball like I was No-Face at the lunch buffet. And my beloved Oakland Athletics did not disappoint. First, on a belated Opening Day of July freakin’ 24th, A’s slugger Matt Olson hit a walkoff grand slam in the 10th inning to start the season off right.
The A’s handily won the American League West but because of stupid 2020 had to play in a Wild Card series anyway. The Wild Card has not been kind to the A’s who lost an absolutely maddening affair to the Royals in 2014 (I still experience anxiety when I remember that game) and losses in the previous two Wild Cards. But they won this year, beating the ascendant White Sox in a three-game series, finally brushing off the narrative that the A’s aren’t equipped for the postseason.
(We will not speak of the ALDS.)
Favorite Albums Released in 2020
The two new albums I played the most were, in their respective ways, the most reflective of the year in question. The latest Run the Jewels record was another homebrewed bottle of lightning from Killer Mike and El-P, released into the maelstrom of righteous and indignant anger to hold police accountable in the wake of the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and others. There is no better example of 2020’s overall vibe than hearing the guy who just five years ago wrote and performed the Grammy-winning song, literally called “Happy” appearing on RTJ4 to remind us to, “look at all these slavemasters posing on your dollar”.
Speaking of timely, who other than Sparks could churn out a catchy chorus of “put your fucking iPhone down and listen to me” without it being utterly cringe-inducing? With The Magnetic Fields releasing their worst album ever this year it was left to the Mael Brothers to gift us with another record of indelible and erudite songs with A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip. (I’m also a nerd for album sequencing that comments on itself and placing “One for the Ages” after “Self-Effacing” is just perfect.) 2021 is going to be the real Year of Sparks as Edgar Wright’s documentary about the band premieres at Sundance next month and Leos Carax’s Sparks-penned musical starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard will be hot on its heels (and I have a ticket to see Sparks in Amsterdam in May–yeah, I know that’s not likely to happen) but Sparks have been, ahem, a steady presence for five decades now if you’re paying attention.
Two Old Albums I Discovered This Year
I have always appreciated Talking Heads from a distance. More often than not, Weird Al’s ¨Dog Eat Dog¨ scratches that itch for me before I need to pull out Remain in Light. But when my dad died at the beginning of the year I drove out to Astoria for a few days to process his passing. In my hotel room one night I finally watched David Byrne’s only feature film, True Stories. I had heard the singles from the Talking Heads record before but never these alternate versions, sung by actors in the film. Somehow that re-contextualization hooked me and I have listened to that record, both the soundtrack version and the proper album, many times in the months since. “Dream Operator” will forever be linked to my dad now.
Quite possibly my favorite discovery of the year in any medium was oddball folk artist Michael Hurley’s 1971 album Armchair Boogie. The album is full of catchy songs about werewolves, insane men who think they’re English nobility, and whatever the hell the playful “Open Up” is about, with its eternal lips, winking stars, and plea to, “let me slide to sweet bye-and-bye”. The album is a ramshackle affair, with Hurley’s voice cracking and friends laughing. In a year when we lost contact with one another, it was nice to find a new old friend.
Here is a playlist of new songs by old favorites and old songs newly discovered (including those mentioned above) that took over my year.
Oh, this is a film website? Whoops. Uh, here are…
The Ten Best Films I Discovered This Year
Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge
The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T
Om Shanti Om
To Be or Not to Be
That Man from Rio
Holy Flame of the Martial World
The Best Years of Our Lives
My favorite films that opened in Seattle this year (or close enough at least):
1. The History of the Seattle Mariners (Jon Bois) 2. Labyrinth of Cinema (Obayashi Nobuhiko) 3. Yourself and Yours (Hong Sangoo) 4. Lovers Rock (Steve McQueen) 5. Undine (Christian Petzold) 6. To the Ends of the Earth (Kurosawa Kiyoshi) 7. Fourteen (Dan Sallitt) 8. Bacurau (Kleber Mendonça Filho & Juliano Dornelles) 9. The Grand Bizarre (Jodie Mack) 10. Days (Tsai Ming-liang) 11. Mangrove (Steve McQueen) 12. First Cow (Kelly Reichardt) 13. Jallikattu (Lijo Jose Pellissery) 14. Hill of Freedom (Hong Sangsoo) 15. We Have Boots (Evans Chan) 16. Ham on Rye (Tyler Taormina) 17. Ride Your Wave (Yuasa Masaaki) 18. Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee) 19. The Vast of Night (Andrew Patterson) 20. The Woman Who Ran (Hong Sangsoo) 21. Tesla (Michael Almereyda) 22. Monster Hunter (Paul WS Anderson) 23. Martin Eden (Pietro Marcello) 24. Point and Line to Plane (Sofia Bohdanowicz) 25. Greyhound (Aaron Schneider)
Some of the other good things about 2020: Shah Rukh Khan, Deepika Padukone, Farah Khan, Meiko Kaji, Bob Clark, Alan Rudolph, Ursula K. Le Guin, Jeopardy! and Alex Trebek, George Eliot, Waxahatchee, Toots and the Maytals, Jimmy Cliff, WKCR’s Duke Ellington birthday marathon, WKCR’s weekly Across 110th Street program, reading books about jazz and Bach that I don’t understand at all, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ross MacDonald, Library of America’s American Noir of the 1930s collection, the Library of America in general, Jack Kerouac, Denis Johnson, John LeCarre, David Graeber, Herman Melville, Wuthering Heights, Anya Taylor-Joy, Gossip Girl, Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!, Nichijou, George A. Romero, DK Metcalf, Damian Lillard, Jamal Adams, Yuen Biao, Moon Lee, Ching Siu-tung, Edward Yang, Sean Connery, Adam Sandler, Peter Falk, Samantha Mathis, Lata Mangeshkar, Imtiaz Ali, Albert Brooks, dumb superhero movies, Disneyland, Milla Jovovich, Stephy Tang, Faye Wong, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, “Murder Most Foul”, “Dhoom Taana”, Veronica Ngo, Johnny Tri Nguyen, playing Hades, Johnnie To, Meiko Kaji’s floppy hat, Gore Verbinski, Masaaki Yuasa, SS Rajamouli, and the Seattle Mariners.
For a number of reasons that require no explanation, and for a few others that I could not explain if I tried, I find myself with very little to say at the end of this year. The art that kept me company these long lonely months will have to speak on my behalf.
Il cavaliere misterioso (Riccardo Freda) / A Ride on a Tiger (David Stacton)
“He had never coveted power. He was a libertarian. But for a young man of his spirit and address it was no mean pleasure to invade states, conquer cities and travel in pomp like a prince. He had always behaved like a Byronic hero, but to be treated like one had been another matter. To give all that up was too much like giving up youth and promise themselves. His vanity, above all else, was piqued.”
Équation à un inconnu (Dietrich de Velsa) / The Mausoleum of Lovers (Hervé Guibert)
“Saturday, March 16. C. has gone up to bed. I remain alone with T. He sucks me off, behind the shutters of a snow storm.
(The Man Without Qualities: the dream of a great work)”
Sonia (Takis Kanellopoulos) / The Hour of the Star (Clarice Lispector)
“She thought she’d incur serious punishment and even risk dying if she took too much pleasure in life. So she protected herself from death by living less, consuming so little of her life that she’d never run out. This savings gave her a little security since you can’t fall farther than the ground. Did she feel she was living for nothing? I’m not sure, but I don’t think so. Only once did she ask a tragic question: who am I? It frightened her so much that she completely stopped thinking. But I, who can’t quite be her, feel that I live for nothing. I am gratuitous and pay my light, gas and phone bills. As for her, she sometimes on payday bought herself a rose.”
Let Joy Reign Supreme (Bertrand Tavernier) / Casanova’s Homecoming (Arthur Schnitzler)
“Did he regret what he had lost through his perpetual seeking and never or ever finding, through this earthly and super-earthly flitting from craving to pleasure and from pleasure back to craving once more? No, he had no regrets. He had lived such a life as none other before him; and could he not still live it after his own fashion?”
Barabbas (Richard Fleischer) / The Snow of the Admiral (Álvaro Mutis)
“These disasters, these decisions that are wrong from the start, these dead ends that constitute the story of my life, are repeated over and over again. A passionate vocation for happiness, always betrayed and misdirected, ends in a need for total defeat; it is completely foreign to what, in my heart of hearts, I’ve always known could be mine if it weren’t for this constant desire to fail.”
Am Meer (Ute Aurand) / “Reading” (Paul Willems)
“As I read this text, I was often borne aloft on a wave, the one that carries us away when we read a text that reveals one of the secrets of the world. I close my book, leap toward the door, tear down the stairs, tear into the yard. As if there, in the night, news were about to reach me from on high. It is January. The winter is damp, darkness all around in its gentle permanence. The old trees, old guardians of the old house, await, massive and unmoving. I realize that they have always been there, and it is me they are waiting for.”
It’s been a bad year for movies of course, and an even worse one for superhero movies. The genre that has come to dominate the Hollywood blockbuster market, devouring its competitors like Orson Welles’s planet-devouring Unicron in Transformers: The Movie, or like his equally grotesque chili-devouring Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil, has spent most of the year in frozen hibernation, waiting out the plague-induced shut-down of the nation’s multiplexes. But here at the tail-end of 2020, we have a Christmas miracle of sorts: Warners, in an apparent bid to burn down its theatrical arm in order to boost the subscription rate of its nascent streaming platform, and thus inflate the corporation’s stock value in the eyes of investors blinded by shiny things, is releasing its follow-up to 2017’s warmly-received Wonder Woman straight to HBO Max. At the same time, Sony has rolled out a hybrid theatrical/VOD release for its much-delayed adaptation of the Monster Hunter video game*, directed by the equally lauded and reviled Paul WS Anderson. Taken together, the two provide a convenient contrast of the different strains in the superhero genre: the white elephants of the MCU, Star Wars, and DC versus the termitic team of Anderson and his star/wife Milla Jovovich.
Patty Jenkins’s 2017 Wonder Woman was a solid entry in the MCU/DC wars, a reasonably deft origin-story movie that was helped enormously by the charm and absurd beauty of its two stars, Gal Gadot and Chris Pine. The sequel picks up 65 years later, with Diana Prince now working in the Smithsonian and Steve Trevor long dead. Kristin Wiig and Pedro Pascal show up, along with a magic rock that grants wishes. Everyone makes a wish: Wiig for Diana’s powers, which turn her into the amoral crazy cat lady Cheetah; Diana for Steve to come back, which he does in some guy’s body (Diana alone sees him as Pine); Pascal to become the stone himself, which gives him the power to grant everyone’s wishes, but also maybe drives him crazy and makes him bleed out of his nose, ears and eyes, for some reason. It’s a Monkey’s Paw story, as the characters explain to us, several times, stretched out for an unconscionable two and a half hours. The film has only a few action sequences, including a prologue that feels like an afterthought, like a studio note to include a scene back in the land of the Amazons, and a chase down a desert highway that neatly encapsulates the film’s wrong-headed approach to both action and color.
It’s baffling that a film set in the 1980s, fueled as they were by cocaine and Day-Glo synthetics, should take as its dominant tone the color beige. Color and shadow are drained out of nearly every scene leaving a bland, flat wasteland of boring dialogue and little emotion (though Pascal does his best to chew up all the scenery left untouched by Gadot, who never appears to be occupying the same space as the other actors). Clearly this color-scheme is intentional: a labored and unfunny montage of Pine in different 80s outfits ends in him dressed in light earth tones, while Pascal has his hair dyed dirty blonde and wears a beige suit throughout. It’s like going to the beach and staring at the sand. The highway chase, set in a Middle Eastern desert (maybe simply to remind people of Gadot’s IDF past?) is so monochrome it makes the dishwater gray finale of Endgame look vibrant. But even worse is the action itself, which feels absolutely weightless and frictionless: the stunts don’t thrill because nothing tangible actually touches anything else. Diana runs around, over, and through things with no substance, her lasso expands to whatever length the effect requires, a gold line on a computer screen, at one point contracting around a lightning bolt, the impossible physics of which would be cool if it didn’t so well epitomize the flashy nothingness of the movie’s stunts. It’s just all so boring.
And then there’s the film’s subtext, which at the end of this dreadful year of politics is hard to read as anything other than liberal left-punching. Wonder Woman 1984 is about abandoning hope, about the dangers of wishing for things to be better than the way they are. Charitably, it could be read as a paean to Obamaist pragmatism, that there are no shortcuts in life and that change takes hard work which manifests itself in facing hard truths and choosing to do very little about them. It’s hard to make a superhero fantasy movie about how better things aren’t possible, so I guess this is some kind of an accomplishment (and maybe in more subversive hands this idea would in some way connect to the year chosen for the film’s title: the story of a liberal totalitarianism in which the illusion of freedom is granted in exchange for the elimination of imagination). In a way, I kind of admire the perversity of making an 80s throwback movie without using any 80s music and the audacity of making a superhero movie that only Amy Klobuchar could love.
Monster Hunter, on the other hand, has very little in the way of political subtext outside of a vague ideal of people from different worlds uniting together to, well, hunt monsters. Milla Jovovich leads a team of Army Rangers on a search and rescue mission for some other lost soldiers in a desert specified only by longitude and latitude (PWSA does love his maps) but filmed in South Africa. They get lost in a weird sand and lightning storm and end up transported to some new world filled with giant monsters, which attack them almost immediately and eventually wipe-out everyone but Milla. She’s rescued/captured by Tony Jaa, apparently a native of this world, and the two work together to get past the giant beasts blocking their way to a mysterious tower that might send Milla home and unite Tony with his friends and family.
Like all of Anderson’s work, Monster Hunter is neatly structured and rife with cinematic homages. The opening scenes of army-bonding could come out of any war movie made over the past 70 years, gentle ribbing and gun-loading meant to establish character and camaraderie in anticipation of the loss of life to come. It’s here that the corniness of PWSA’s dialogue really shines, though for once his terrible sense of humor has had real consequences as one of his lame puns was taken as a racist insult by seemingly the entire nation of China, killing the film’s box office in that country and, as a result, probably any hope of a sequel in what could have been a promising franchise (the offending joke has been cut from the movie and was not in the screener I watched). The genericness of this opening is, for PWSA fans, part of its charm: he’s one of the few directors in Hollywood today who really believes in the power of cliche. It’s what makes his films feel so refreshing: not a hint of hypocrisy in PWSA’s pumpkin patch, nor cynicism nor smirking contempt for his subject or audience.
The army scenes are followed by a terrifying underground sequence (another PWSA hallmark: he’s suggested that his fear of/attraction to confined spaces has something to do with his youth in coal-mining country) that recalls Aliens at its best. Then the movie settles down for a long middle section that reminded me of nothing less than a remake of John Boorman’s great 1968 film Hell in the Pacific, but with Jovovich and Jaa in the Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune roles. The two start out as enemies, capturing and recapturing each other between fist fights, before finally deciding to work together toward their common goal, which, true to the source material, involves killing one monster to get parts to make a weapon to kill another, bigger monster.
It’s all a great deal of fun, and despite the artificiality of it all (the monsters are of course computer-generated) the action always looks coherent and real. Jovovich and Jaa are both marvelous physical actors and they have an uncanny ability to make the audience feel every kick, punch, stab, and tail-swipe, whether it comes from stunt performers or pixels. Anderson has long been noted for the coherence of his action scenes, a skill he has not lost as he and his editor Doobie White have adopted a faster-cutting aesthetic, which began with their last film, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter. It’s important to note that Anderson’s use of quick cuts is wholly different from what I’ll call the R. Scott/Greengrass/Nolan school of editing, which uses speed and shakiness to cover up deficiencies in performers, choreographers, and computers, using chaos to convey a dizziness that’s somewhat akin to the experience of watching action on film. Anderson though is working from what I’ll call the Ching Siu-tung tradition, which uses quick editing for that vertiginous effect while also staying spatially coherent and thus additionally providing the vicarious thrill of a performed stunt (physical or virtual or some combination thereof). When done well, as in Ching’s Swordsman movies, Tsui Hark’s The Blade, Neveldine/Taylor’s 2000s romps (where Doobie White got his start as an editor), and PWSA’s recent films, quick-cut action can be just as thrilling as the master-shot aesthetic of more athletically gifted directors and performers.
As the superhero film has taken over American blockbuster cinema, there’s been a lot of speculation over where this cycle fits with generic cycles of the past, for example the Westerns, musicals and noirs of the late studio era. The question is: are there superhero films that can be made in contrast to the dominant mode of the genre, thus revealing the personality of the person making them? In other words, where are the auteurist superhero films? Is it even possible, given the extent to which the monopolist conglomerates that produce them product-test and focus-group and micromanage their material, for a filmmaker to make the equivalent of Budd Boetticher’s Ranown cycle, or John Ford’s Wagon Master or Two Rode Together, or Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, or, to bring us full circle, Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil? I think Anderson’s work is the clearest example that such a thing is possible. Monster Hunter should be, I think, like the Resident Evil series before it, considered a part of the same sci-fi/fantasy genre as Wonder Woman, the MCU films and Disney’s Star Wars films. And in addition to its palpable strengths in production and execution, it certainly reveals the personality of its director in a way none of the elephantine superhero pictures do, embracing the structures and conceits of the genre while tuning them to his own idiosyncratic interests (maps, caves, helping Milla Jovovich look really cool, etc). Years ago, I wrote about Anderson and concluded that he was Lightly Likable, the George Sidney or Busby Berkeley of his time. Since then he’s made two of his finest films, Pompeii and Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, and made this promising beginning to a new cycle, one which I very much hope he’ll get the chance to continue. He’s moved himself into the expressively esoteric. “Less than meets the eye” doesn’t quite seem right for the WW84s of this cycle though, if only because in them what meets the eye is already so meagre.
*I guess the VOD part of the release hasn’t actually happened. There were rumors that it would be out at the time I wrote this, but I don’t know what the deal was.
The idea is that we keep doing this until the next poll comes out in 2022, by which time we’ll each have a Top 100 list. Well, I will. Mike will have only 98 because he repeated two from his 2012 list on the 2013 one.
Here are Mike’s Top Ten Films of All-Time for 2020:
1. To Be or Not to Be (Ernst Lubitsch, 1942)
2. Tokyo Story (Yasujirō Ozu, 1953)
3. The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (Roy Rowland, 1953)
4. Shree 420 (Raj Kapoor, 1955)
5. Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Werner Herzog, 1972)
6. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam, 1975)
7. Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, 1980)
8. Om Shanti Om (Farah Khan, 2007)
9. The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch, 2009)
10. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)
And here are Sean’s Top Ten Films of All-Time for 2020:
1. The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940)
2. Mughal-e-azam (K. Asif, 1960)
3. Yearning (Naruse Mikio, 1964)
4. It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (Bill Melendez, 1966)
Criterion’s new 4K restoration of Claire Denis’ remarkable 1999 film looks absolutely gorgeous—stark, luminous, vividly colorful, and precise in every fine line and minute detail. That precision suits the film’s subject: a tightly disciplined French Foreign Legion troop under the demanding leadership of an obsessive sergeant. A loose adaptation of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd and a quasi-sequel to Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit Soldat (1960), the film tracks the gradual psychological unraveling of Chief Master Sergeant Galoup as he develops a jealous fixation on a new recruit, Gilles Sentain, whose beautiful face and ineffable cool make him a favorite both with the other legionnaires and with Galoup’s superior, Commander Forestier. Envy, repressed desire, and festering rage commingle in Galoup’s deteriorating mind, and the innocent Sentain suffers for it. As the film proceeds, we are inexorably drawn into the inevitable tragedy of their story, even as we revel in the startling beauty of Denis’ extraordinary vision.
Kelly Reichardt’s latest film is, in most ways, of a piece with her previous films. Quiet in tone and measured in pacing, First Cow continues Reichardt’s sympathetic and observant explorations of the lives of outsiders and people on the margins. Like the settler women of Meek’s Cutoff and the homeless drifter of Wendy and Lucy, First Cow’s protagonists don’t have meaningful control of their destinies, despite their efforts to lift themselves out of their assigned places in the social and economic order. And like the radical environmentalists of Night Moves, First Cow’s protagonists aren’t above breaking laws in pursuit of their aims. First Cow, however, is perhaps the first Reichardt film that combines her keen-eyed artistry with genuine entertainment. Less grim than Wendy and Lucy, less cynical than Night Moves, more accessible than Meek’s Cutoff, and more tightly plotted than Certain Women, First Cow is an engrossing, engaging study of life in early nineteenth-century Oregon and two of its unlucky but ambitious inhabitants. Adapted from a novel by longtime Reichardt collaborator Jonathan Raymond, it has the rhythms of a folktale—and the lessons of one—detailing what might happen when clever, resourceful striving tips over into dangerous hubris.
Liz and the Blue Bird was one of the great films of 2018. A spin-off of the slice of life anime series Sound! Euphonium, it focused exclusively on two of the show’s supporting characters, digging into their psychology and relationship as the band prepared the eponymous performance piece for a competition. It’s the strongest work yet by Yamada Naoko, one of the guiding directorial voices of the Kyoto Animation studio that was devastated last year by a deadly arson attack. This new movie, originally released here for one single show last summer but now playing at the Grand Illusion as one of their virtual cinema offerings, is not like Liz and the Blue Bird at all. Instead it is a direct extension of the series, picking up right where it left off, following the same primary characters over the next school year, but squeezed into a hundred minutes rather than patiently unfolding over the course of two dozen episodes.
It’s a curious decision, one that skims over the things that made the show so great, the small moments of human connection realized through the playing of music, in favor of a whole lot of teen melodrama plotting, mostly among new characters that we don’t much care about. The Sound! Euphonium series, like any slice of life story, anime or otherwise, is about detail, the accumulation of small, everyday moments that in the aggregate coalesce into a kind of epiphany or catharsis that can be overwhelmingly emotional. This effect isn’t unique to anime or dependent on the extended length of a TV series, by the way, two of my favorite films from last year’s VIFF, Mikhaël Hers’s Amanda and Dan Sallitt’s Fourteen (which will be getting a virtual release in the next few weeks) achieve the same kind of epiphanies in much the same way, in running times of less than two hours. A Brand New Day picks up where Sound! Euphonium left off, with the show’s main character Kumiko, a euphonium player in her high school’s concert band, moving to her onto second year. The movie follows the whole year, from the initial meeting with the incoming freshman, several of whom will have interpersonal problems which Kumiko will end up helping to solve (in keeping with the structure of the series), and culminating in the band’s performance at the regional finals, where they hope to earn a spot at the national competition.
Everything about the movie is consistent with the original series. The show’s director, Ishihara Tatsuya, is in charge, and he keeps the visual style exactly the same, where in Liz and the Blue Bird, Yamada had slightly altered it, elongating the characters and muting the color palette to give the film a somewhat less cartoonishly anime appearance. The show is structured around a series of little interpersonal mysteries where Kumiko finds herself in the position of needing to figure out why Girl A is upset at Girl B so that they can both play better and the band can improve. This works in the series not because of the stories (which are mostly generic and not all that interesting) but because they merely form the structure around which hang smaller moments of beauty and because each little story ends up illuminating some aspect of Kumiko, a character who is revealed (to herself as much as to us) only through her interactions with other people and, perhaps more so, through the music she plays. A Brand New Day still does that, but because the stories are all so compressed, they have no weight. Moments that would have been incredibly powerful in the series (Kumiko’s tentative relationship with the trombone-playing boy next door Shuichi, and her much more romantic one with star trumpeter Reina are the highlights) move by too quickly, and would be all but incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t seen the series. By the end of the movie, Kumiko doesn’t seem to be all that different from when it began.
The film’s highlight, in fact, is the final concert, which is also its only extended musical sequence. And its power comes not through any of the characters we’ve focused on for the previous hour and a half, but rather in the oboe solo that was the primary focus of Liz and the Blue Bird. Liz takes place somewhere in the middle of the school year depicted in A Brand New Day, and while we see the shy but brilliant oboist Mizore in the background a few times, she doesn’t, as far as I could tell, have a single line (just as Kumiko and the series’ other primary characters were sidelined in Liz). The concert in fact doesn’t feel like the accumulation of Kumiko’s story at all, or any of the other primary characters from the movie. It’s the epilogue to Mizore’s story, the only one from this school year that really seems to matter.
As all the theatres in town continue to be closed for the foreseeable future, a couple have taken to the internet. Both the Northwest Film Forum and the Grand Illusion are hosting online screenings of films they had been planning to play before the quarantine hit. The NWFF has Bacurau and Vitalina Varela along with some Local Sightings selections and more, while the Grand Illusion has Wild Goose Lake and Saint Frances. Check ’em out and help support the theatres we love.
In other news, I don’t know if Seattle Screen Scene will be returning in its old form once the quarantine ends. When we started five years ago, it was significantly harder to find information or listings about specialty releases (art house, repertory, and Chinese/Korean/Indian movies) in the city than it is now. In that sense, the weekly listings on the site have become obsolete. We’ll still keep the site going, if nothing else for its list of links to all the theatres in town. And we’ll still have the occasional review and festival coverage (SIFF has been cancelled this year but we still have hopes for VIFF). But as a regular source of coverage of what’s playing in the area every week, the site has been slowing down for a long time and it’s time to pull the plug.
On a more positive note, here’s this scene from Om Shanti Om (which played at the Beacon a couple weeks ago).
Things are changing fast around Seattle as theatres decide whether or not to remain open, or remain partially open, or just close altogether. The Grand Illusion is closed until April beginning on Friday, as are the Seattle Art Museum’s film programs, but more are sure to follow if (when) things get worse. We encourage you to support your local theatres by buying gift cards if you’re able to. Independent movie theatres operate on a slim margin to begin with, so this pandemic could mean serious trouble. We have a lot of great independent theatres here (the Grand Illusion, The Northwest Film Forum, The Beacon, The Ark Lodge, etc) and it would be a disaster for the community were we to lose any of them.
Edit: And now (Friday afternoon) SIFF has announced that all three of its theatres (the Egyptian, the Uptown and the SIFF Film Center) are closed as well and will remain so for the foreseeable future. And the Grand Cinema will be closed but for a handful of special shows for at least the next two weeks. On Saturday the Northwest Film Forum announced that they too were closing. The various chains and other theatres are all upping their theatre cleaning procedures and most are reducing to 50% capacity to help with social distancing. And now (Monday) the Beacon, the Ark Lodge, the Central Cinema, all Faraway Entertainment Theatres (The Admiral, the Varsity, etc) and all Regal Cinemas are closed as well. As of Tuesday morning, AMC, Landmark, and Cinemark have closed as well. So that’s it. There will be no Seattle Screen Scene for the foreseeable future.
The German director Angela Schanelec has had, with the exception of Ryusuke Hamaguchi, the most circuitous path to arthouse prominence of any director in the past decade. As part of the loose collective known as the Berlin School, which has produced some of the most interesting and skilled directors working today (Maren Ade, Christian Petzold, Ulrich Köhler), Schanelec has struck her own path, pursuing a more elliptical and rigorous approach to narrative and filmmaking than her peers. Correspondingly, she has had a low profile for a director of her stature, making six features before her breakout in 2016 with The Dreamed Path, perhaps her most narratively complex and productively opaque work yet.
Her follow-up, I Was at Home, But… takes a more “conventional” and discernible approach, but in doing so accesses both the emotional and the inexplicable, taking detours and narrative strands while burrowing deep into its central character. That person is Astrid, a single mother, played by regular Schanelec actor Maren Eggert, living in Berlin; the film begins just after her teenage son has returned from running away for undisclosed reasons. In essence, the film deals more or less solely with her, her son’s, and her young daughter’s daily lives after this brief rupture, and yet all attempts at simplification are nigh pointless. For one, there are significant corollary threads: a teacher (the ascendant Franz Rogowski) at the son’s school embarking on a tentative romance with one of his colleagues; Astrid’s relationship with her lover; the ongoing, particularly uninflected rehearsal of a translation of Hamlet. Overshadowing all of this is the death of Astrid’s partner some years before, a crucial piece of narrative information that, like most else in the film, is only parceled out slowly, communicated strongest in the loveliest detour: a brief montage of dance and nature scored to an acoustic cover of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance.”
One of the most peculiar and gratifying qualities of Schanelec’s film is her ability to draw these disparate moments into an ever-shifting whole, capturing the unsettled but quietly fortified existence of these characters. It’s difficult, for instance, to exactly settle on the tone of many scenes: the petulance of Astrid as she tries to hash out the status of the bike she bought from a man who speaks via a tinny electro-larynx is both maddening and truthful, just as the acting of the schoolchildren is both stilted and affecting. This applies in the interweaving of scenes as well: there are as many “random” moments introduced and dropped as there are narrative throughlines, and the viewer is left to determine the relative import of each for themselves in the course of the film, extending to the bookends, which feature a donkey, a dog, and a rabbit in the forest.
Of course, none of these are ultimately random or tossed-off; I Was at Home, But… is too intelligent for deliberate sabotage, something evident in the visual scheme, which typically foregoes the Bressonian close-ups of The Dreamed Path for long shots and long takes, the better to capture the full range of motion that the actors possess. This is captured in the film’s signal scene, a ten-minute tracking shot that follows Astrid and a filmmaker friend of hers (played by filmmaker Dane Komljen) as she lambasts his film for featuring an actor and a real sick person alongside each other. Where Schanelec ultimately falls on this spectrum is unresolved, but one of the lines that the filmmaker feels pertinent: “When you’re working on a film with other people, then it does become important how the work affects those people. What it means to them.” Affect and meaning go hand in hand, mysterious processes that nevertheless carry a personal truth that, in the right hands, can be overwhelming.