Until the coming of the pandemic the great tree of world cinema was flourishing, with fruit on every branch. It may not always have been high quality produce or in good taste, but it was plentiful. After a year of lockdowns in which theatres were closed for long periods and the Hollywood studios put almost all of their blockbusters in the deep freeze, we can look back on a strange, barren time when we had to change our habits in regards to the movies we watched and how we watched them.
Although the cinemas have suffered financially, from the consumer’s point-of-view it hasn’t been all bad. It may not have been possible to enjoy a night out at the pictures but there was a constant stream of new stuff on-line and on cable TV. Ask people what they’ve been watching and they would rave about series such as Mrs. America, Unorthodox, The Plot Against America, The Great, Babylon Berlin, Ozark, The Bureau, and latterly The Crown and The Queen’s Gambit.
When we finally got back to the movies again it was often to watch foreign films and classics that are normally crowded out by conventional, commericial fare.
The annual, ever-popular French Film Festival kicked off in March but was obliged to close down early. In a textbook case of turning a negative into a positive, as soon as the cinemas re-opened, distributors began releasing films from the festival. The result was a festival that spread out across the entire year, with seasons for films such as La Belle Époque, Deerskin, The Translators, Les Misérables, The Extraordinary, The Mystery of Henry Pick and now, How to be a Good Wife.
Other national film festivals, such as the Italian and the British, also carried on at the movies, albeit with smaller programs than usual. Some, such as the Korean, retreated to an on-line presence but made the sessions available for free.
It was also a good year for the classics. Cinema Reborn hosted festivals of great directors such as Federico Fellini, Jean-Pierre Melville and Claude Sautet, but it has been possible to see a wide range of movies on the big screen, from Citizen Kane to Die Hard to Tokyo Story. For those of us who got their cinematic education watching double bills of classic films at now defunct venues such as the Valhalla in Glebe Point Road, or Dave’s Encore in Elizabeth Street, it’s been a pleasure to see good movies reassert themselves over new ones.
The other class of film that has flourished in the plague year is the feature-length documentary. The Booksellers, David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet and Oliver Sacks: His Own Life (all cinema releases) have represented a huge advance on most of the drama and comedy that disgraced the screens. Musical documentaries such as Echo in the Canyon, David Byrne’s American Utopia, The Bee-Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, and Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan, have been a special highlight.
When it comes to the melancholy task of assessing the few high-profile releases we saw this year, the Number One Fizzer, in terms of great expectations and not-so-great delivery, was Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. Boldly billed as the movie that was going to save Hollywood, Nolan’s sci-fi espionage blockbuster had a such a confusing plotline I doubt whether anyone could figure it out without an after-film trawl on the Internet. There were some extraordinary set pieces but this wasn’t enough to attract the box office receipts the studio required.
After sitting through six months of dud films, many of them too dull or incompetent to be worthy of a review, I was surprised when I looked back at the beginning of the year. The very first movie of note was Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women, with Saoirse Ronan in the central role of Jo. Like Brad Cooper’s remake of A Star is Born, Gerwig took a Hollywood story that has been told, over and agan, and made it into something entirely fresh. I was surprised at how good this film was, especially when it was put alongside the ‘classic’ versions of 1933 and 1949, which don’t hold up so well.
The next feature of note was even more surprising. Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, starred Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers, a legendary children’s TV host, who wouldn’t be out-of-place in an episode of American Horror Story. Although the entire movie was a celebration of Mr Rogers’s unquenchable niceness, I’ve rarely encountered a character who felt so creepy.
Next up was Autumn de Wilde’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, with rising star, Anya Taylor-Joy, in the title role. Brilliantly cast and acted, shot with enormous verve, it was another memorable, contemporary reworking of a very familiar tale.
It’s worth noting that all three of these films were made by female directors, who are starting to secure more opportunities in a male-dominated industry. I don’t think these women owe their chances to affirmative action campaigns but simply to the steady evolution of a more level playing field. The misogynist attitudes that saw the big studios ignore the claims of most female directors have been shamed into submission. It would be good if we could now stop fretting so much about issues such as gender and ethnicity, and concentrate on the quality of the product.
Two other films that made the grade early in the year were Todd Haynes’s Dark Waters, with Mark Ruffalo as a crusading lawyer battling against a marauding pharmaceutical company; and Cathy Yan’s riotous, over-the-top Birds of Prey, featuring a barnstorming performance by Australia’s new ‘It Girl’, Margot Robbie. Although I generally loathe the cartoon superhero genre the camp energy of this movie made it not only bearable but enjoyable.
I wish I could say the same for Terrence Mallick’s A Hidden Life, a movie that was roundly praised by the would-be intellectuals of the film world. This story of a conscientious objector to the Nazis may have been awash with ethical profundities, but it was also a very long and depressing experience for the unwary viewer.
As for Australian cinema, even the pandemic couldn’t create a box office for another uninspiring group of movies. The underrated exception was Shannon Murphy’s Babyteeth, in which Eliza Scanlen plays a teenage girl dying from cancer who hooks up with the most unlikely of boyfriends. This could so easily have been a mere tear-jerker, but Murphy skated around the clichés and produced a film of rare intelligence and quirkiness.
If I had to nominate my film of the year, in this most wearsome of years, I can’t go past Corpus Christi by Polish director, Jan Komasa. In an electrifying performance, Bartosz Bielenia plays Daniel, a young delinquent who leaves juvenile detention, travels to a country town, and begins impersonating a priest. The big issues of faith and ethical responsibility are dealt with just as effectively as in Mallick’s A Hidden Life, and in a far more dynamic manner. The suspense – and the moral dilemmas – continue to build, as Daniel becomes convinced of a genuine calling. Corpus Christi is one of those rare films that feels like an instant masterpiece.
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 26 December, 2020