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 Scene here 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 Scene here. 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
- Shree 420
- To Be or Not to Be
- That Man from Rio
- Holy Flame of the Martial World
- The Best Years of Our Lives
- Morvern Callar
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.”