Adrian Martin’s 2020 in Review: A year out of joint

Without entering a cinema since February, the film critic's viewing ranged globally, with favourites including sublime Australian shorts, old television comedy and new films from Steve McQueen, Pablo Larraín and Kosovo's Antoneta Kastrati.

Shakespeare was right: time is out of joint. I am surely not the only film critic to be experiencing strange effects of warping and distortion when I try to shake out the usual end-of-year list from my folder of accumulated notes. Feature films I saw ten months ago seem to have receded to the back of a dim tunnel, while some modest, digitally-shot shorts that emerged during the darkest period of lockdown are burned into my brain as if I had just seen them this morning. It’s like being caught in the middle of a zolly shot: you know, the type of tricky simultaneous zoom-in and track-out (or vice versa) where the world is both coming in too close and receding far away in the same movement.

The last time I stepped into a cinema, in Barcelona where I live, was in February for my Screenhub review of Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life. I’ve seen plenty of films, long and short, since then, but every one of them has been online. When the typical, annual request arrived from Sight and Sound, IndieWire and others for a ‘best of’ list that rigorously stuck to only those films released in 2020, I laughed and thought: which films were they, exactly? I fully expect to see, in those eventual polls, an absurd over-valuation of mediocre-to-half-interesting, mainly American, Netflix/Apple/Premium VOD product like I’m Thinking of Ending Things, She Dies Tomorrow, Tesla, On the Rocks and Mank. It’s the weirdest outcome possible: the triumph of the telemovie!

When the typical, annual request arrived from Sight and SoundIndieWire and others for a ‘best of’ list that rigorously stuck to only those films released in 2020, I laughed and thought: which films were they, exactly?

So, no conventional one-to-ten list is possible from me this year. But I will try to make some sense of my stored impressions.

The warp-effect continues: releases that I eagerly anticipated 12 months ago at the end of 2019 – films by Leos Carax, Wes Anderson, Andrew Dominik, Nanni Moretti, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Janicza Bravo – are still being held back, waiting for an improved window of release. In terms of auteur cinema, Pedro Almodóvar had an uncannily prescient instinct: his 30-minute The Human Voice featuring Tilda Swinton, itself almost a scholarly footnote to the many times he has alluded to or partially restaged the 1930 play of this name by Jean Cocteau in his previous features, was perfect 2020 fare. Compact and mobile in its form, resonant in its content: lovers (only one of them seen and heard) separated by technology, facing the bleak end of things. Social media fell crazy in love with the on-set photos of the director and his star, dutifully masked for pandemic conditions.

February marked, at least for the time being, the end of the line for most of the world’s film festivals – at least in their usual, people-gathering form. Some fine movies that received a premiere somewhere early this year or in late 2019 cruised effortlessly through the subsequent online-festival calendar as a result of this irregularity: Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, Abel Ferrara’s paired features Tommaso and Siberia both starring Willem Dafoe, Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always and Tsai Ming-liang’s exquisitely minimalist Days were among the highlights.

2020’s slate, through dint of circumstance, offered a salutary shake-up of the usual reigning hierarchies, whether pertaining to auteur, nation or gender.

In some respects, 2020’s slate, through dint of circumstance, offered a salutary shake-up of the usual reigning hierarchies, whether pertaining to auteur, nation or gender. For instance, through the Sydney International Film Festival’s ‘Europe!’ program (which also travelled to New Zealand), I discovered one of the year’s best movies, one I probably wouldn’t have encountered anywhere else: Antoneta Kastrati’s Zana from Kosovo. An international spotlight shone on women directors from Australia: Shannon Murphy’s Babyteeth, Natalie Erika James’ Relic and Kitty Green’s American production The Assistant all gained the attention and acclaim they deserved. Green’s film, in particular, as well as plugging into the ‘Me Too’ moment (albeit with a chilling conclusion), proved to be eerily in tune with a social climate where citizens are all too willing to obey rules both written and unwritten.

An international spotlight shone on women directors from Australia: Shannon Murphy’s Babyteeth, Natalie Erika James’ Relic and Kitty Green’s American production The Assistant all gained the attention and acclaim they deserved. Green’s film, in particular, as well as plugging into the ‘Me Too’ moment (albeit with a chilling conclusion), proved to be eerily in tune with a social climate where citizens are all too willing to obey rules both written and unwritten.

Read: Women on Top: Adrian Martin’s Sydney Film Festival Highlights

Within Australia itself, it was a year when women claimed the creative foreground. This was particularly so in the feature documentary form: Kathy Drayton’s The Weather Diaries and Morgana by Isabel Peppard and Josie Hess were the two standouts for me. But short films, also, gained more attention than usual: Karen Pearlman’s electric I Want to Make a Film About Women (an ATOM award winner), Anthea Williams’ sensitive dramatic vignette Safety Net and Cassandra Tytler’s ultra-montaged gallery video Oops! are gems of condensed, suggestive form. One guy forced himself, through sheer talent, into this all-female Aussie grouping: Parish Malfitano and his lively neo-giallo Bloodshot Heart

Some other favourites from around the world? I loved Philippe Garrel’s Berlin-premiered The Salt of Tears – which copped some unfair abuse for endorsing an old-fashioned, male-centred view of relationships, but that’s baloney – and Pablo Larraín’s melodramatic dance-spectacular Ema viewed through the Melbourne International Film Festival portal, which was also the case for Ulrike Ottinger’s wonderful autobiography Paris Calligrammes. Extremes are always good to experience, so I place on the same level of excellence the 14 hour, multi-part La flor from Argentina and the 77 minute American girl-teen romp Good Girls Get High directed by Laura Terruso.

Read: The Distorting Mirror: Adrian Martin’s Melbourne Film Festival Highlights

The biggest surprise for me popped up just a few weeks ago. I’ve never been a great admirer of Steve McQueen, either in his feature filmmaking or his artworld mode. But Lovers Rock, the second instalment of his Small Axe series, is a stunner. If it resembles anything, it’s the mid ‘90s French TV series (shown at MIFF in ’95) All the Boys and Girls of Their Age, with its unforgettable episodes by Claire Denis, Olivier Assayas, Patrica Mazuy, André Téchiné and Chantal Akerman: McQueen has captured the same lightning combination of everyday detail, melancholic life transitions and fleeting, ecstatic release inside the ritual of a house party. But the social milieu is very different – black culture in London, 1980 – and McQueen manages to bottle something both tough and magical.

When it comes to TV series, I noted a weird inversion taking place for many people during lockdown: now that they were forced to only watch on small screens, they craved a reminder of cinema, not the usual domestic-binge fare. This had good and bad effects: the 4th season of Pamela Adlon’s sublime Better Things already feels like a lifetime ago, and Athina Rachel Tsangari’s splendidly daring Trigonometry seemed to unfairly disappear into the black hole of March, but at least the collective antennae were up again, seven months later, for Scott Frank’s The Queen’s Gambit, a worthy cult hit. In-between, my partner and I religiously watched, for the first time, all 10 seasons (spanning 20 years) of Curb Your Enthusiasm; Larry David’s ever-grumbling mood seemed to suit best this year out of joint.

And don’t assume I was being merely rhetorical when I gestured, at the top of this piece, to modest, digital shorts that seared my brain during lockdown. Australian artist Allison Chhorn’s work, especially The Plastic House, suddenly became much better known globally, as it travelled from one online event to the next during 2020, picking up a prize in Perú along the way. This is something to be celebrated. A video piece Chorn made especially for the Visions du Réel festival in France was posted online, and later streamed for a while as a ‘care package’ by Lauren Carroll Harris’ Prototype project. It is one, ghostly shot of street activity, blurred and smeared, accompanied by a rising level of ambient sound. A few lines of stark text printed on-screen come from Albert Camus, and his 1948 novel gives this work its title: The Plague. It’s 95 seconds of pure cinema, and it can be watched here.

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Adrian Martin
About the Author
Adrian Martin is a freelance film critic. Born in Australia, he created a unique role as an academic and public intellectual and is a key international figure in his field. His latest book is Mysteries of Cinema (Amsterdam University Press, 2018) and his website is www.filmcritic.com.au.
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