10 Months in 10 Movies: My 2020 in Film
2020 was going to be my year of festival-enabled travel. Instead, I went home, the last place I’ve ever wanted to be. This is my year in selected viewing, which begins when my 2020 really did; nothing before March is as vivid or urgent.
A friend generously offers a ride from True/False to Chicago, site of my inadvertently final vacation week; we set out at 7:30 am, breaking for lunch just across the Missouri-Illinois state line at a Steak ’n Shake (good patty melt!). The drive takes slightly over six hours and the conversation will be one of my last intensive IRL one-on-ones for months. Upon arrival, I go to the Music Box Theatre to watch Last Action Hero in 70mm; both the theater and film are firsts for me. A very natty projectionist comes out to introduce the screening and ends by noting that, contra the general depiction of projectionists in movies (Robert Prosky in this case) they’re not all schlubby, balding older men. Hero’s slightly worse than expected but basically hits the spot—I’m well aware this may be my last time in a theater for a while, and when I come out I feel fine with this stopping point.
That’s Monday; by Friday, I don’t really feel like taking my COVID chances to see Khartoum in 70mm. Because nobody knows exactly how this works yet, I spend a considerable portion of what was supposed to be decompression week alternately catching up with friends and fretting in a variety of enclosed settings. At one point I have an hour to kill in one of Chicago’s many establishments combining a liquor store with a long, narrow counter stretching back further than the length of most New York bars’ entirety. I’m zoning out near the back-end, ignoring the middle-aged day-drunks up front until I notice the COVID conversation has given way, presumably by customer demand, to a YouTube video being blasted over the speakers about Donald Trump vs. the Deep State, and immediately make my exit. (This is why bartenders don’t, or at least shouldn’t, let patrons request songs.)
I fly back late on Saturday, March 14; my shared Lyft from LaGuardia stops in Williamsburg to pick up a clearly unconcerned drunk guy toting McDonald’s take-out. The next morning I make three grocery trips in increasingly outward concentric circles, returning to my apartment after each to deposit supplies for the time ahead. My final run is ostensibly to stock up on coffee but mostly an excuse to see a friend who works at a Manhattan bar. I first ask if it’s OK if I visit, given how many airports and cities I’ve passed through these last 18 days but get the all-clear. It’s around 5:30 when I get there, so the emptiness isn’t just a function of pandemic jitters; my buddy jokes that since it’s just the two of us, that’s fewer people inside a space than are currently in my apartment, which is true. Our shared assumption is a formal bar shutdown will be announced that evening, which happens in short order; we’re not surprised and say our goodbyes. Monday, I’m strapped in: supermarket runs are scheduled for once every three weeks, with attendant meal prep and strategic freezing plotted out (managing editor procedural stickler tendencies come in handy during a pandemic.) I commit to a daily cardio routine, upgrading from 5 to 10 to 20 minutes over three weeks while finding my preferred YouTube instructor, which is very funny if you’ve ever met me. I now know what HIIT means.
For years, I’ve been saying I don’t have the attention span to watch anything at home unless absolutely necessary: the screen needs to be larger than me, all peripheral distractions eliminated as much as possible. Now I’m home absolutely alone, all of my roommates are gone and there isn’t much choice; it’s either adjust or a cinematic fast. The temporarily all-mine TV turns out to be more than serviceable resolution-wise, though the wifi’s inconsistent; I get to learn all about Vimeo streaming, sales companies’ streaming platforms and peak-evening deinterlacing. The chance to virtually “attend” more festivals than ever, while no compensation for someone as itinerant as I both want to and have been allowed to be, is its own separate time-killing education.
No matter how many solitary hours I have to fill, Ilya Khrzanovsky’s DAU. project is not on my to-do list. Since I first read about it, what once seemed too insane to miss (the real-life Soviet Synecdoche!) has picked up an uncomfortable amount of bad mojo—the production seems rife with at least the strong possibility of sexual and psychological exploitation unavoidably baked into its conception, like a years-long Stanford prison experiment in the ostensible name of art. It doesn’t help that for a long time, I’ve been having mutually despairing conversations with colleagues about financial sustainability, and the lack thereof, attached to independent film; with even the illusion of a safety net now yanked, Dau’s sketchily-provenanced, undoubtedly generous financing, complete with post-production offices in London’s most expensive neighborhoods in service of potential abuse, is almost a mockery of everyone else’s lack of resources. But then a trusted friend gets really into what seems to be the 15-film cycle’s thesis, the six-hour DAU. Degeneration. I put it off one night until 9:30 pm, get unexpectedly sucked in and am mad at myself for waiting so long; I’ll have to finish the following night. The film, fortunately, segments itself into 12 evenly spaced, Roman numeral-labeled chapters—unlike The Irishman, it really does implicitly let you know where it’s OK to pause.
The second night follow-through contains two scenes I wish I’d never seen, including at least one incident of unstaged assault. I’m using the part of my brain that says “the work’s already completed and I didn’t help make it” to engage, because it’s also totally fascinating, Dogville-adjacent in its unabashedly schematic, high-concept, improv-heavy parable of questionable freedom vs. charismatic authoritarianism. The protagonists are high-level mathematicians, the heavies led by the late, terrifyingly hypnotic real-life KGB agent Vladimir Azhippo and a set of equally real neo-Nazis led by Maxim Martsinkevich (who dies in prison in September, three months after I watch this). The centerpiece scene has mathematician Dmitry Kaledin explaining to Azhippo how suppression of the free circulation of information leads to a decrease in the economy of knowledge, which will be eventually more valuable than labor. The literal economic value of knowledge, and whether that’s overvalued (and where the fine line between useful information and intellectual white noise lies), is a decades-old discussion; the longer the scene goes on, though, it’s clear this is specifically poking the bear of Putin’s Russia. The larger question of “was it all worth it” remains way beyond me, and Khrzhanovsky’s interview attempts to spin the film’s online release as ideal for a moment of global self-isolation (“The first cinematic project about isolation, filmed in isolation, for people in isolation”) strike me as even more implausible than the press releases I’m starting to get.
Everyone’s inbox is filled with unsolicited messages of tentatively worded, corporately-approved social change. Shoestore retailers DSW want me to know that Black Lives Matter to them and their “associates” (read: employees); friends are e-greeted as members of the “Best Buy family,” a business that hopes they’re staying healthy in these difficult times. Corporations want to reassure us they’re not racist but seem to be the ones that need reassurance. One day I’m trying to take a mid-afternoon nap but am woken up by the largest protest march I’ve ever been in earshot of passing by, a pre-made metaphor about awakening that seems too obvious to actually fit what’s going on.
It should not feel so pertinent with everything going on (*gestures broadly*), but Michael Almereyda and Amy Hobby’s At Sundance feels exactly on-schedule. Apparently literally nothing meaningful about the Sundance experience has changed since the 1995 edition, documented in a series of conversations with filmmakers who are all seemingly very tired, drunk or possibly both. Gregg Araki bitches, understandably, about development lasting a seemingly mandatory three years, Kaya Hatto discusses what it’s like being treated as the obviously token minority and woman in the room, Abel Ferrara acts like a maniac, James Mangold claims he wants to make a silent black-and-white movie. The condos look the same then as now, and nobody has enough money. It’s a familiar, negative form of solidarity.
The point of repertory cinema is to not think too hard about what I want to watch but just choose from a set array of options. (NYC privilege, of course.) Now I have to curate for myself all the time, which should feel liberating but is actually tiresome—I have to make dozens of professional decisions a day while trying to figure out the rest of my life and articulate some kind of workable set of values in my off-hours, and now I have to also decide what to watch and why? Still: In under six hours, I go from hearing about a movie for the first time to watching it, something that never happens in peacetime, and Top of the Heap is great, so fair enough. Full credit to patient zero Matt Lynch for tweeting about it—word spreads fast after an improbably gorgeous restoration of this 1972 heap of rage manifests on Amazon Prime with no official fanfare (in a normal year, this wouldn’t lead to a full New Yorker write-up). The tone’s immediately set with its black cop anti-hero’s first line of dialogue: “Bullshit!” He promptly proceeds to beat some hippie heads, immediately cutting to the ideological chase. Invigoratingly weird, Top feints at fulfilling bare minimum blaxploitation expectations for 15 minutes, then spirals into increasingly abstract directions—it feels nearly inevitable that a Nixon impersonator makes a dream cameo. The subject matter (law & disorder, racism) is stupidly timely, its setting key: some clearly stolen shots of the White House remind me how much I hate the experience of being in Washington, DC. Meanwhile, ambulance sirens are succeeded by the sound of helicopters hovering uninterrupted morning-to-night, a pointed reminder the NYPD has no intention of ever standing down.
I don’t watch any movies this month I particularly want to address, so I’ll cheat and use this slot to consider three COVID-era music videos. I’m sure there are hundreds, but because I’m not in the habit of regularly watching music videos, the three I watch in repeated fascination are basically the only ones I see. Matt Berninger’s “One More Second” is mostly The National’s frontman solo dancing in a warehouse against projected backdrops in a style that can only be dubbed “NPR dad getting drunk” (he’s still more coordinated than I’ll ever be, no disrespect intended). The video raises an implicit question from the beginning: was this the original concept or a COVID necessity? The last-second emergence of a masked crew member stepping into frame provides the answer—Berninger’s dancing by himself because there’s no better choice.
The second example’s more unnerving, a video for a live version of Belle & Sebastian’s “My Wandering Days are Over,” directed by bandleader Stuart Murdoch himself. I’ve heard, and inevitably internalized this song, dozens of times, but it’s Murdoch’s work and he, of course, can do as he likes with it. The video’s reasonably clever in framing its rudimentary concept meet-cute-turns-into-first-date concept, but this is still an unpleasant moment to layer on the song and I’m particularly freaked out by a bit where the tentative couple, walking down a back-street, pull out a tape measure and extend it six feet between the two of them as a joke. The whole song’s connotations have been forever changed and I’m not happy about that.
My favorite, though, is easily Jessy Lanza’s clip for “Over and Over,” a static locked shot of her riding the up/down escalators at some terrifically depressing Canadian mall for five minutes. It’s Akerman as visual ASMR, depressive but calming. At various moments it seems like something might happen: a security guard briefly pops his head into the bottom floor but immediately taps out, solitary shoppers emerge and glumly head home. Lanza keeps riding the escalators, blankfaced and resigned to the moment.
Protests bring people back out into the world, but I spend July and early August moving on short notice while completing the first issue since the pandemic started. By the time I’m freed-up and semi-comfortable with the idea of re-emerging in some capacity, we’re in the new drive-in era. I’ve never been to one, my friend’s got a car and the closest one showing anything halfway decent/new is in Warwick, NY—a double-feature of Bill & Ted Face the Music and The Tax Collector.
I’ve never actually seen the first two Bill & Teds, so I spend the day before the drive catching up. Taken at face value, the shoddily crafted Excellent Adventure proposes that history’s Great Minds would greatly enjoy the apex of civilization as represented in the arch-Reaganite form of the shopping mall, like Dawn of the Dead but enthusiastic; Bogus Adventure is a much better made movie all round and far less ideologically objectionable. (My bartender buddy’s theory is that if the first had been any better made, people would have liked it much less, which sounds right.) The drive to Warwick reminds me that god forbid you miss your exit in upstate New York or you’ll have to wait four miles to course-correct at the next one—we miss two. Accordingly, we’re 20 minutes late to the drive-through, where we get a projector that’s visibly dimmer than the other two, and watch a wanly amiable threequel that, predictably, generates its greatest impact from watching Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter channel 30-year-old personas—the gap between age and sustained characterization is inherently poignant. The between-features “KraftHeinz Intermission Show” is fun if you’re in a Verhoeven kind of mood (“Cheesy Trivia: What year were Kraft Singles introduced?”). We do not stick around for Shia.
TIFF and NYFF have always bled into each other date- and slate-wise, but 2020’s editions are one big streaming pile of content, deployed on sites using the same streaming Shift72 tech and identical layouts. High-demand titles are available for 48 hours at a time on one, then a week later on the other; there are specific financial reasons for these limited windows of availability, but it’s still mildly farcical and a little too easy to gauge each film’s perceived market value from its window of availability. Still, it’s good to have something new to concentrate on and do some fest catch-up (pity the Sundance and Berlin titles that now have to complete their fest runs this way). Cristi Puiu’s Malmkrog is, as promised, 200 minutes of well-heeled 1907 aristocrats running through a variety of philosophical arguments. Not unlike David Fincher, Puiu is someone I could cheerfully watch do indoor staging all day, so I don’t have a bad time but understand why many could find this tough going.
The one thing I violently reject is the criticism, common to the initial round of mainstream/trade reviews from its Berlinale premiere, that Malmkrog’s topics are painfully and inexplicably arcane. To wit: Not 15 minutes in, a middle-aged woman speaks, with increasing outrage, about attacks on the idea of the Christian righteousness of military service. If, she says, it turns out that combat on behalf of civilized Western European powers in fact isn’t powered by Christ’s righteousness and is in fact a bad thing, does that make her an oppressor? Does that make all the people who thought they were bad good? Where will it end? Will an apology suffice, because she knows these radicals never forgive? And so on and so forth while I nod along. Malmkrog is, in its own stubbornly committed way, the most “relevant” movie I watch during this parodic festival season, a reminder that nationalism masking as pieties about the value of Western art and eternal verities is always transparently disingenuous—rhetoric deployed at best by gullible reactionaries, at worst by cynical racists who know exactly what they’re doing.
The same person who facilitated the Warwick expedition also drives to New Jersey and sees Tenet in a theater; because I will only have the patience to watch it once, I am holding out for the full 70mm IMAX package, which New Jersey doesn’t have, so I stay home. But I’m not against the idea of going to a theater, especially since it seems like almost no one is—still, for work reasons I end up watching Mank for a first time on my laptop, headphones on. I have a great time, even though I’m furious it’s come to this when watching Fincher’s latest. A second viewing, therefore, is very welcome, and in early December we make the drive to Stamford, CT. “These people do not like outdoor dining,” my friend observes (the state’s positivity rate is around 7% that day), and we briskly stroll past packed restaurants. Inside the theater, however, there’s zero problems: there’s one other person in the auditorium, fully masked and not eating, so I relax and (after a disorientingly short trailer package—too many releases have been pulled to justify the usual 25-minute sprawl) turn my full attention back to the movie.
Mank isn’t about the incredibly tedious question of who wrote Citizen Kane (already resolved by Robert Carringer in 1985 and it’s really not up for debate)—that’s the hook, but the film’s true interest, to my immense relief, is the incredibly specific story of Upton Sinclair’s failed 1934 California gubernatorial bid, sabotaged by, among other things, fake news(reels). My high opinion is shared by maybe five people I know—I’ll admit the last act’s parallel edits are clunky, but staging remains god-level throughout. As a rule of thumb, the more oddly specific the scene in question, the more likely it is to be rooted in closely-researched truth; if something feels like bullshit, it probably is—it’s the rare movie whose scenes’ quality actively improves in relation to their truthfulness. When we get out of the theater, the lobby count has gone from one employee to two, both watching Monday Night Football. They seem to be having the most restful shift of their lives.
I start the year in one apartment using my then-roommates’ TV, then move to another with a poorly calibrated projector; when its owner moves out, I finally co-invest in a pretty good one with one of my new roommates. With that finally sorted, the only new movies I’m hellbent on preserving for the theater are Tenet and Tsai Ming-liang’s Days—so sure, I’ll do some year-end catch-up. Martin Eden is the very first thing I watch on the new projector, which turns out to be a great choice: its saturated super-16 narrative, augmented by beautifully colored archival footage, is the first time I’ve seen anything like proper color values in months. I enjoy Martin Eden (and its soundtrack!) very much on a style level; if I didn’t I’d be tempted to ask what, exactly, is the value of a walk through a very specific ‘60s/‘70s Euro arthouse homage plus a eulogy for the Western European project’s dissolution at this late date.
The projector’s in the living room, and I’m not thrilled that for daylight management/insomniac reasons my default viewing time has become 11 pm. Still, if I have to focus, this is the way to do it. I get way too used to watching movies on my headphones—it helps me eliminate all peripheral audio distractions (doors opening/closing, the neighbors who enjoy alarmingly loud late night fights on a clockwork ten day schedule). The absolute dialogue clarity and how space is rendered is addictive. There are a lot of things I’m not worried about when it’s time to enter a post-vaccine world: I know e.g. that it’s inevitable this experience will render a lot of people agoraphobic, but I’m personally ready and eager to leave my house and not come back for two months. I just worry that when I get back into the theater, I’m going to have learn how to listen again.
In Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries—a 1700-page behemoth that takes up the last five months of 2020, and the art-object I’ll most associate with this year—protagonist Gesine wonders whether to commit to adoring boyfriend D.E., a mildly mysterious military consultant who’s constantly traveling. Late in the novel, she writes a friend that “If this is a life together, then it’s one involving a certain distance […] a life together at intervals, each visiting the other for a day and a half at a time.” When D.E. returns from each long trip, he has a long store of new anecdotes to share, and so does she—“as though each of us, in our various locations, had lived a bit for the other, stored it up, and brought it back, in the interest of reciprocal delight.” In 2020, I hear from, or at least about, lots of people who can give interesting answers to the broad prompt “So, what’s new?” I’m not one of them: it’s hard to build memories to share.
When I was a teen, the rare moments of calm I remember are exclusively of lying flat on the living room floor, firing up my parent’s ‘80s stereo and listening to an album for the first time. These were some of the most resignedly peaceful and focused moments of my entire life, if only because I had nothing else to do, as I manifested an intensity of voluntary attention I can only channel now when watching a movie. Near year’s end, while writing this, I come across this apposite Pixies oral history quote from Kim Deal :
In high school, I hung out with Pat Rohr, this is what we did: We had record albums, he was like three years older than me, and we would sit around. Now I know what we were doing—it’s like, what people who love music do—but I didn’t know that at the time. I’m like 15, 16, 17, talking about why “Dominance and Submission” is a better Blue Oyster Cult song than “Godzilla” ever was. Just doing shit like that, just poring over the record collection.
This is also what people who love movies do. But watching them requires silence first, discussion after—it’s basically an anti-social activity, one I’ve often felt keeps me away from people while I do the solitary work and become way too jaded about after years of over-exposure. (Make your passion your job and see what happens—it definitely doesn’t mean “never working a day in your life.”) I’ve been walking around for years saying I actually hate movies, too many are being made and the whole medium should be shut down before the damage goes too far—it’s kind of a bit, but definitely with some core conviction behind it. After months of weirdly familiar solitude that takes me straight back to childhood, an experience I never wanted to have again, I have to admit: art still sustains me, it’s one of the only things that really focuses me and my pretense of burn-out disaffection is a disguise for how much I care. Which was probably obvious to everyone I know already, but wasn’t to me until now.