This blog has mostly served to do three different things – amplify my thoughts on social issues, present my opinions on art, and recount my rollicking adventure into adulthood. One topic that has made the occasional appearance while serving all three objectives is Christian Rap (CHH), a subgenre and subculture that has been – though not evident from this blog – one of the most formative thingies in my life. It seemed good, then, with some space from the years when my identity was inextricable from CHH, that I write an orderly account, dearest Blogophilus, of my life as a Christian Rap Guy.
But, really, I was THE Christian Rap Guy. Among most of my friend groups, I was the only one who knew the music existed. Among most of my Christian friends, I was the one who listened the most. And among my Christian friends who were also fans, I was the one who also went to the concerts and bought the merch and got the tattoo. CHH dominated my musical sensibilities, but also affected the way I talked, the way I dressed, and the way I carried myself. There are thousands of others who were bigger fans of Christian rap than I was, but my story is somewhat unique because only a fraction of those people found themselves in the position I had of being THE Christian Rap Guy in their social circles. My fandom also spans some of the most (if not the most) important years in CHH’s relatively brief history. These years were also formative for me, and my development in some ways mirrors that of CHH.
All this is preface and defense; I think I have some interesting things to say.
The self-absorption of this series will be stupendous, and the niche will be so niche-y you might wonder if there’s any point at all (that’s as esoteric as dad jokes get). But, even if you’re not interested in rap, concerts, Christian life, or, you know, me, you might still enjoy this Bildungsroman of sorts. I first got the idea to write this on a suggestion from Athena Lathos at Bertha Mason’s Attic. Athena writes the kinds of things I wish I wrote, so I’m going to try to write something she might like to read. Blame her if you don’t like this. But don’t @ her, you jackass.
“I would start at the beginning, but I think I need to go farther back.” Toby Flenderson
I did not grow up in a household that listened to rap. The music and its culture were Other for me from the moment I was conscious of their existence. My parents taught me it was not only bad music (“Rap music? More like crap music”) – it was bad music. Rowdy people who wore their pants below their tush did that. I don’t blame my parents – the average media outlet in the 90s and early Aughts depicted rap as a criminal world of aggressive, unsophisticated music, and a lot of rap does in fact earn its reputation (though without the thinly veiled racist critiques). So from the beginning, rap was a strange, forbidden thing for me.
As a teen and preteen, my older sister would drive me to school, and we listened to Top 40 radio, which at the time would include some rap verses on pop songs and some rap-adjacent tracks. And, without really even knowing it, I liked the music. I certainly didn’t approve of Mr. Rida talking about slapping that big booty, but the song was very catchy. And I couldn’t have cared much less about beautiful girls, but I certainly did like to hear about back in ninety-nine, watching movies all the time. And then “Boom Boom Pow” happened, which was a very important text for white teenagers.
But the artist who really got my attention was a fellow named Kanye West and his song “Heartless.” So, one day, wanting to listen to some music in the background while playing Runescape, I decided to fire up my trial account of Pandora and set up a radio station based around the song. The first thing that played was Kanye’s “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” and it was game over. I had never, ever heard a song like that. By the time the alluring vocal sample played out for the last time, I was hooked on hip-hop. It was time for me to really and truly cross the Rubicon. I went on iTunes and bought some more of the songs off Graduation. The clean versions, of course, and only after asking my parents’ permission.
I was in love with a genre of music I knew nothing about, pre-Spotify, sans-Shazam, with no one to show me the way. I couldn’t ask my dad, “Hey, who’s nice?” because he would’ve said Fred Rodgers. If I asked him, “Hey, who were the O-Gs back in your day?” he would’ve said “Do you mean the Bee Gees?” So, somewhat blindly, I stumbled around in the world of rap music.
But Kanye remained my north star because he was objectively great and because there were glimpses here and there of his Christian faith. There’s nothing that will make a Christian’s hair stand up like a faith reference in popular music, which is part of the reason my family loves U2, so the fact that Kanye had a song called “Jesus Walks” was a big deal to me. The best to do it (fight me) in my favorite genre was talking about God, meaning I could listen without feeling like I was doing something wrong.
But then My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy came out, and I wasn’t quite ready for that. Between the explicit cover and the, well, darker lyrics, I wasn’t so sure if Kanye was safe anymore. At the same time, I was getting frustrated with how much trouble I was having finding rap music that I liked that wasn’t about sex or drugs (again, I had no idea what I was doing). I wanted to be able to continue listening to rap, but I didn’t want to feel bad about it.
So I thought to myself, Well, there’s Christian music. Maybe there’s Christian rap?
I thought I knew nothing when I started exploring rap music, but I knew even less when looking for Christian rappers. To the point where I think I started my search by entering “Christian rapper” into a YouTube or iTunes search. This brought me to Da T.R.U.T.H., which is an objectively terrible stage name, and his song “Our World.” Listening to that song, I had an experience not unlike my proper introduction to Kanye. The music wasn’t nearly as good, but what entered my ears opened my eyes. Oh, this is a thing. He’s rapping, and he’s rapping about Jesus. I wasted no time and bought the entire The Faith album on iTunes. In doing so, I think I was in some way doing an act of penance, hoping that this indulgence would absolve me of my sinful love of Kanye.
As further performance of my new allegiance, I added Da T.R.U.T.H. to my Facebook favorites in the about me section, which doesn’t exist anymore, kiddos. Soon after, my friend Drake (literally, my friend named Drake – I’m not referring to Aubrey as my friend here) wrote on my wall saying that he listened to a Da T.R.U.T.H. song and also found it compelling because he’d never heard anything like it before. He asked me if I listened to any other Christian rappers. And then he said something that, little could he know, would change my life.
“Have you heard of Lecrae?”
Next, in Part II: Discovering the 1-1-Six Clique, meeting my heroes, and an unbelievable first concert.
2 Whyyyyyy was everything I wore so big? I also acquired some snapbacks during this year that are really cool, but they never quite looked right on me and, needless to say, that isn’t my style anymore. Also, one time, when I was telling my girlfriend that I thought I was one of the least white guys on the dorm floor, and she said, “Peter, you’re wearing a polo,” which is as hard as I’ve ever been dunked on.
3 One of the most uninteresting takes is that U2 is bad. One of the most unfunny jokes is anything about the iTunes album. U2 is great, and I won’t stand for any slander of the lads. Okay, the last album was bad, but whatever.
4 MBDTF really did a number on me. It’s now my second favorite of his albums, but I was totally unprepared for songs like “Monster.” At the time, Nikki’s verse, like, frightened me, but when I was teaching first-year comp I made a point to quote it to my students. Can we also just take a moment to appreciate that he started an album with “Dark Fantasy,” “Gorgeous,” “Power,” “All of the Lights,” and “Monster”? That’s willlld.
5 At this time I was also freaked out about Illuminati conspiracy theories. I had a legitimate fear that Kanye, Jay-Z, and others were trying to send devil-worshipping messages in their music. What an idiot.
A few months ago I wrote about the 2020 films, knowing that I was doing so without having been able to see some of the most notable films of the year. I didn’t realize a) how many of those films there were b) how quickly after the New Year they’d be available c) how many excellent films would be “released” in early 2021 d) how much I would love so many of these films.I just finished a major writing project and it isn’t time to mark IB exams yet so yep I’m blogging about movies again.
I’ll begin with some superlatives: the films that I enjoyed/moved me/I’ve thought about/surprised me/ the most.Then, my favorite performances. Both of these sections will be spoiler-free. The last section will be about some of my favorite moments from these films, and this will absolutely contain spoilers.
If I’m not vaccinated by the time Judas and the Black Messiah comes to my little theater I’m going to cry.
The film that I enjoyed most:
Minari– I wrote a little bit about Minari already when I suggested it as a double-billing with Nomadland (which isn’t represented here in any way which feels wrong because it’s, like, maybe the best film of the year?). The experience I had watching Minari is basically my ideal film-viewing experience. It was beautiful to watch and listen to. It made me laugh and cry and think and feel. It punched me in the stomach but also warmed my heart. Time will tell whether or not I think this is the “best” film from this year or my “favorite,” but for now I know that I enjoyed watching it about as much as I can enjoy watching a film, and I can’t recommend it enough.
The film that moved me the most:
Sound of Metal – I came to this film knowing that it was about a heavy metal drummer who goes deaf and it was intense. Maybe I should have expected it, but the film’s real power is in the quiet moments, not the loud moments of frustration and rage. As Joe tells Ruben, for the people in the recovery home, it’s not about fixing the ears; it’s about fixing what’s between them. Ruben’s journey of healing and discovery is visceral and devastating in ways that go well beyond the terror going deaf would be for anyone – let alone a professional musician. It is the type of film that Spartan kicks you in the chest, but then reaches out to catch you. It splashes you in the face with moments of pathos and sentimentality, but that water comes from deep wells. I don’t see my own struggles through a new lens after every movie – I did after this one. I also tweeted OH FUCK which is not something I normally tweet.
The film that I’ve thought about the most:
Promising Young Woman – The thorny subject material makes it a movie to think and talk about. But since my cat doesn’t speak English, I have to just think about it. And I’ve thought a lot about it.
First, I had to think about the morality of the film – was the way it handled sexual assault appropriate? After thinking about it a lot, I think the answer is yes, but I would really appreciate women’s perspective on this if you want to hmu. After concluding it was appropriate to think more about, enjoy, and recommend, I thought about the film’s message and how it was delivered. On one level, it is similar to other films that bash the viewer over the head with “the point.” Sometimes this works for me (The Art of Self-Defense, Atlanta (the good episodes)) and sometimes it doesn’t (Sorry to Bother You, Atlanta (the bad episodes)). But as the film progresses, the overt depictions of misogyny form a much more subtle and complex essay on gender and sexuality, much in the same way that Get Out approaches race and racism and both levels.
The over-the-top nature of the film is actually what allows for its subtlety, and one of the reasons I’ve thought about it so much is that it actually intersects nicely with my thesis work on abstract aesthetics. I believe this is one of the most effective ways to subvert audience expectations and clear the space for real moments of clarity and realization that realism can’t capture.
As if to prove my point, I took a long pause before writing this sentence just thinking more about it. Hm. This is one of those times where I kinda would like to write a long, researched, in-depth essay, but given my readership I’m not sure the juice is worth the squeeze. And you know I mean that because I hate that expression.
The film that surprised me the most:
Another Round – I was confident this would be a good film because people I trust recommended it, but I was surprised and delighted by the ways in which it is good, in addition to just, well, how very good it is. There’s a very basic version of this movie that could have been made – man has mid-life crisis and decides to drink all day to be in a better mood. Things get better for a little while with his job and his wife and kids. Then they get worse. Then they get better. That could have easily been a fun, funny, somewhat thought-provoking romantic comedy. Instead, it asks honest questions about ageing, about what it means to live and to live well, about who matters to us and how we matter to others. It’s about love and friendship and inhibition. And it is still fun and funny. It’s immensely watchable, moving, and provocative. I knew it would be good and I’d enjoy it – just not like this.
In no particular order:
Carey Mulligan (Promising Young Woman) – Flame emojis. The number of different things she has to do in this film, the range that she has to exhibit…it’s stunning. It’s a cunning choice Emerald Fennel makes to make Mulligan – through hair/makeup, wardrobe, and lighting – just really, really hot in this film, and Mulligan plays off that. She carries herself in a way that is so aware of the lascivious male gaze, but stares back with an uncanny ferocity. Oh now I’m remembering another really good piece of theory I could apply to this essay and oh no why did I leave school gahhhhhhhh….. Anyway. Just an absolute movie star performance that should announce Mulligan as one of the best in the game. I mean, I even fell for her chemistry with Bo Burnham, and I can’t stand Bo Burnham.
Mads Mikkelson (Another Round) – I had honestly forgotten that he’s Danish. It’s fun watching an actor get to use their native accent and/or language. But that’s mostly besides the point here; this is a convincing and authentic – to use tired acting clichés – performance. Each phase of Martin’s transformation is believable and Mikkelson’s drunk acting – like all four of the leads – has me wondering if they were actually slightly inebriated while filming. Mikkelson embodies this character in a way that shows a love and care for Martin’s pain and joy.
Steven Yeun (Minari) – Or, really, everyone in this film. Really great ensemble, including the kids. It adds so much when the kids are legitimately good, and not just passable. Yeun’s performance does a lot of storytelling. There is plenty of necessary exposition, but Minari also does a lot of “show don’t tell,” including in the ways the characters present themselves on screen. We know very quickly what kind of man, husband, and father Jacob is. He’s written and performed in a way that suggests Lee Isaac Chung and Yeun know this person in real life.
Riz Ahmed and Paul Raci (Sound of Metal) – The desperation in Ahmed’s performance is riveting. The way he pleads with Lou to stay with him and the doctor’s to fix him. The anger as he smashes a morning donut or his sound mixing equipment. The anguish as he describes his view of the world to Joe. It’s a physical performance as big as his chiseled, tattooed body, and as intimate and subtle as his eyes and mouth. Raci is my personal Oscars victory. This is everything I want from a supporting performance, with the added difficulty of signing so much of his dialogue. His delivery of my favorite line in the film (which I’ll talk about later) destroyed me. De. Stroyt. Me. Those Oscars noms are delightfully sensible. Nice job, Academy.
Vanessa Kirby (Pieces of a Woman) – I can’t say I liked watching this performance, but I thought she actually gave birth to that baby so, yeah. The film doesn’t totally work, but the first thirty minutes or so (a depiction of a home birth) is harrowing stuff, held down by Kirby’s work. Her final scene goes in the pantheon of courtroom performances.
Zendaya (Malcom & Marie) – Speaking of films that don’t totally work. If not for the excellence of Zendaya and John David Washington, this might have been one of the worst high-profile films in recent years. Zendaya especially is just fantastic. There’s plenty of room for capital a Acting, with crying and shouting and all that, but she already has such presence, command, and subtlety. She carries herself so well as the sexy woman who is full of self-doubt, as the girlfriend who is so over her boyfriend’s buffoonery, expressing herself through her physicality as well as some brilliant line-readings. It’s so exciting how many great young actors are working right now, and I hope I’m watching Zendaya in movies for a lifetime.
Again, in no particular order:
Malcolm X and Cassius Clay pray (One Night in Miami) – Early in the film, Cassius meets with Malcolm X to pray. As they stand next to each other with their hands folded, Malcolm reaches over and gently rearranges Cassius’ hands to be in the proper position for prayer. Those legendary hands, accustomed to beating opponents into submission, are finding their way into the submissive posture of worship, worship that will play a part in making one of these men a figurative martyr and the other a literal one. The film’s premise – an extended fictional conversation between X, Clay, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke – intrigues because it allows us to see the big ideas these men were contending with ping around the room in plain conversation, but it is a small moment like this that makes this kind of fictional depiction a treasure. It’s a reminder that these supremely famous and influential humans were exactly that – humans. The fierce radical sometimes lent a gentle hand of correction. The Greatest humbled himself to learn a new way to live. It’s a small, small moment, but one of my favorites of the last year.
Honorable acknowledgement to the “Chain Gang” scene, which is a big showy moment, but absolutely hits the right notes (literally).
Cassie’s revenge (Promising Young Woman) – This scene is incredibly difficult to watch, but it is Fennel’s masterstroke. The text itself is devastating; Cassie, on the verge of revenge, is murdered. But the subtext is genius. Cassie has done all the work necessary to enact her revenge, using her smarts and bravery to expose Al on a bed, the site of so much violence against women. It would seem to be game, set, match – she’s going to win. And then Al breaks free of a literal handcuff and overpowers her, smothering her beneath a pillow until she suffocates. In the end, it didn’t matter what Cassie did; the man could still use his natural strength advantage to break free of the handcuffs and smother any threat that Cassie still carried. He is too strong in the arm for the literal constraint, too secure in his maleness for the synecdoche. For good measure, Cassie lies dead on the bed in a fairly obvious Christ pose. Women can do all the right things, but in the end that may not be enough for safety, or even for justice. While the ending of this film is the fantasy, the “hell yeah” conclusion to a revenge movie, this first ending is the bucket of cold water. Men have terrorized women because they can – not because of any failing on the part of women. It’s brilliant, brilliant filmmaking. I don’t ever want to watch it again though.
Harvesting minari (Minari) – It’s the perfect ending to the film. The film’s true, if not literal, beginning is a scene of Jacob, with his son, David, surveying the field he’s bought. It’s an intersection of his economic ambitions, his immigrant journey, and his fatherhood. The film ends with Jacob and David crouching down over the little minari herbs, harvesting the legacy David’s grandmother brought from Korea, the plant that persists in growing even in a strange new land, each sprig a sign of hope in the wake of the destruction of the year’s harvest, another symbol of Jacob’s labors and his relationship with his son. Minari is not an optimistic movie, and the ending leaves much unexplained – especially relating to the family’s economic future and Jacob and Monica’s marriage – but this quiet little moment is hopeful in a moment as tender as the plants the father and son collect from the earth.
Stillness / I thank you / You saved my life / ending (Sound of Metal) –
RUBEN: It’s time. I gotta do something. Right? Trying to save my fucking life. So that’s what I’m doing. Okay? No one else is gonna save my life. Right? If I just sit here and diddle around, what am I gonna have? Nothing. Okay? And all this shit? Like, what does it matter? What does it matter? It just passes. Yo, If I disappear, like, who cares? Nobody cares, man. Seriously. Yo, and that’s okay. That’s life. That’s life. No, for real, okay? It just passes, it just fucking…fucking passes.
JOE: I wonder, uh…all these moments you’ve been in my study – sitting – have you had any moments of stillness? Because you’re right, Ruben, the world does keep moving, and it can be a damn cruel place. But for me, the moments of stillness, that place, that’s the Kingdom of God. And that place will never abandon you.
This moment left a crater in me. It’s a point of culmination, but it also begins a sequence of scenes that carry through to the film’s conclusion. After the surgery does not deliver the results Ruben had hoped for, he goes to France to reunite with Lou. Lou’s father welcome him into the home and confesses to Ruben that it took him a long time to stop feeling like Ruben had stolen his daughter from him. But now he knows that’s not the case:
“And you…you…Well, you gave her a place to go. Then, and……this is a good thing. Don’t you see, I didn’t like you much at the time, but now I thank you. I want to say to you that.”
Later, as Ruben continues to struggle with the distorted audio of the hearing device, he finally has an intimate reunion with Lou (by the way Olivia Cooke is great and I hope she keeps doing movies like this). They lay in bed and kiss, and then talk about the uncertain future. Lou looks distressed as she itches at the self-harm cuts on her arm. There’s a long moment of silence – of stillness – as Ruben looks down at her hand. Then he raises his eyes to her.
RUBEN: Hey. It’s okay, Lou.
RUBEN: It’s okay.
LOU: What’s okay?
RUBEN: You saved my life. You made it…you made it beautiful. So it’s okay.
LOU: What? Why are you saying this? [they embrace] You saved my life, too, Rubi.
Ruben was wrong. Someone would care if he disappeared. And in acknowledging what Lou has done for him, he tacitly accepts that his life is worth saving.
These scenes open the door for the final moments. Out for a walk, Ruben’s hearing still distorted by the device, he sits on a park bench and finally, in frustration, takes the device off his head. The sound cuts out, and finally a peaceful, contented expression forms on Ruben’s face as the film ends.
That’s just great cinematic storytelling.
So, in short, while the pandemic flipped the world of movies on its head, it was still an excellent year of film, and it’s terrific how accessible these titles are on streaming services. I hope you’ll seek them out and let me know what you think.
Here are some of the things you can say about movies to sound like you know what you’re talking about:
Refer to films in the context of their director’s oeuvre. It’s not my favorite Baumbach, but I like it well enough.
Say you love any foreign director with a name that is – to most American ears – very foreign-sounding. I love the works of Hirokazu Kore-eda.
Observe that a film reminds you of another, older film. You can see here where they’re taking this straight from Battle of Algiers.
Lament a particularly performance did not merit an Oscar nomination or win, even if you don’t know who was nominated or who won. It’s absolutely criminal that Emily Blunt didn’t get nominated for Sicario.
Recommend a double-billing. A very interesting double-billing would be Nomadland and Minari.
Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland and Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari have long been on the radar, but have just in the last two weeks become widely available (Nomadland is available on Hulu and Minari is available VOD). They are two of the best films to be released in this fluid 2020-21 season, and they very well could combine to take four of the big six Oscars, so there is already reason enough to juxtapose them. But it turns out that thematically, narratively, and stylistically the two films are natural conversation partners.
They are stories of America that are inextricable from their physical settings. For Nomadland, that setting spans the southwest to the Dakotas as Fern follows the opportunities for work in her van/house. She exists on the borders of the wild and the sparsely populated municipalities, flitting back and forth between natural beauty and synthetic grime, at all times, no matter where she goes, a free spirit having to find a way to make herself valuable in a system even bigger than the land she traverses. Minari is situated in the middle of fly-over country, too, but is confined to the small home and the fifty acres the Yi family calls their own. They are isolated in a strange land that, for Jacob, represents the boundless opportunities associated with putting down roots. His American Dream is to find a patch of dirt where he can succeed; Fern’s is to keep moving without being tied down.
They are their own American portraits – one of an aging white woman in the 2010s, the other of a Korean-American family in the 80s – but both are about the opportunities and the perils of lower-class American life. An economic recession upended Fern’s life, and now she has to go from Amazon warehouses to construction sites to tourist traps just to be able to keep moving. She and her fellow nomads do not fit neatly in the constructs of American capitalism. If they are smart, committed, and a little lucky, they can make their own way. But if anything goes wrong, they find themselves up against it in a hurry. The Yi’s immigrate from Korea to California in the hopes of finding a better life, and then again from California to Arkansas to do more than just barely making it sexing chickens. If everything goes as planned, Jacob and Monica’s hard work could build something great. But there are no safety nets. If anything goes wrong, they are instantly in peril of losing what they hope to secure for their family.
Between the two films, their shared themes are examined through the story of a single woman, grieving the loss of her husband and estranged from the rest of her family, and of a family, trying to manage a fraying marriage, a sickly son, a growing daughter, and a newly-arrived grandmother. Fern finds family in the the people she meets along the way, while the Yi’s must learn to live with the few people they are around all the time.
They make a nice pair visually and sonically, and both move at a nice pace while not being driven by conventional plots. They are both sincere and heartfelt, hopeful if not entirely optimistic, realistic and grounded as they are aspirational and spiritual.
So watch these films, and – if you can – without too much time between. There are worse ways to spend an evening or a weekend.
The stock preamble here would be 2020 bad, movies in trouble, streaming changing game, the movies still good. It seems equally silly to write it as it is to ignore it. Really getting Hamlet’d here. What I will say is that 2020 in film was kind to people like me who can’t afford to see everything in the theater and have grown up accustomed to watching “everything” at home. I miss seeing things a couple months late at the charming budget theater, and when this is over I’m going to do that a lot more, but experiencing the year in film at home was something I was perfectly comfortable with. And there was plenty to enjoy. Selecting a top ten was not easy, and not for lack of options.
I’m calling this “top” because it’s not quite “best” and not quite “favorite.” I sometimes have a difficult time parsing those, especially without rewatching films. I’m also cheating a little, and counting films that may be 2019 films, depending on who you ask, but debuted in the U.S. in 2020. I think that’s fair, especially considering that films like Nomadland, Minari, and Soul will probably be considered among the top films from this year, but I (like most people) won’t be able to get to them until 2021.
If there’s a through theme – there isn’t really, and I didn’t select according to one – it’s something like human connection in a difficult world. Most of these films center around the human struggle to find shelter from the (sometimes literal) storms with the people they care about, and reckoning with life when that connection is broken. And if that’s not 2020, I mean…
Below are my top ten films of the year, followed by a list of my favorite performances of the year, and then a consideration of what is “the film of 2020.”
Top 10 Films of the Year
10. The Assistant – I promise I won’t do too much narrating of how I decided on this list, but I will on this selection because while the top 9 was easy there were a handful of films that were all close to being number 10. I’m going with The Assistant because it does the most with the least, and that’s something I greatly admire in films. The Assistant is the definitive #MeToo film, following one day in the life of Jane, an office assistant for a production company. After the style of Jaws, the shark – the Weinsteinesque executive – remains off screen, the threat building as Jane comes to suspect what insidious things might be happening in his office and in fancy hotels. But, unlike Jaws, we never see the shark, perhaps because, again like Jaws, it might look fake and unthreatening. After all, if he really was so scary, the HR office would take Jane seriously. The other producers wouldn’t make jokes about what happens on the couch. The complicity couldn’t continue. After all, this shark makes careers in a competitive industry. The Assistant is a devastating look into how wicked men can have their way, a compassionate glimpse into the exhausting life of an office cog, and a star-making turn for Julia Garner.
9. Time – This documentary takes the cruelty of the U.S. carceral system and focuses in on its effect on one family, using a mixture of family archival footage and vérité filmmaking to weave together 20 years of family history. Sibil Richardson’s husband, Rob, is serving a 60-year sentence for armed robbery, leaving her to raise their family and continue to fight for his release. The disordered chronology releases the audience from time’s oppressive forward march, but only just. It always comes back to time. Time given, time spent, time lost. Boys grow into young men without their father, a woman moves into middle age apart from her husband, a man waits for another chance. As the minutes on a call from prison and the days of a sentence both tick away, we are left with the constant hope for more time, and the fear that we might waste what time we have. Time is beautiful and heartrending and delivers humanity to the viewer in searing reality.
8. The Vast of Night – I wasn’t expecting to find (let alone enjoy) a 1950s period piece about UFOs, but I’m not complaining. The Vast of Night is a slick, pacey, rat-a-tat feature that instantly drops the viewer into small town New Mexico, drawing us along via nifty oners and Gilmore Girls style repartee. Even as it transitions into long sequences of phone calls on the switchboard and the radio, the film remains propulsive as it develops its central mystery. We remain just one step ahead of the two main characters, for, as they of course remain skeptical of mysterious sights and sounds in the sky, we suspect there might just be something to it – after all, this is the movies. This is a masterclass in low budget original filmmaking.
7. Never Rarely Sometimes Always – Breaking Bad was addictive television in part because it continued to put its characters into seemingly impossible situations and left us to white-knuckle it through their escape. Never Rarely Sometimes Always does something similar, only there are no hitmen, no cops, no suspicious wives – just a culture and system that can make a medical procedure a harrowing ordeal. Autumn’s situation becomes more complex and difficult with each development; sometimes we learn things at the same time as she does, such as her being 18 weeks pregnant rather than 10; sometimes we learn things late as she reveals them, such as the nature of her abusive sexual relationship. This is an affecting film and just about essential viewing for our time. I know that pro-life viewers will be on guard from the beginning, but I still urge them to watch it and challenge themselves to see the situation so many women find themselves in. This is not the time on this blog for this discussion, but to understand where I’m coming from when encountering a film like this, on an individual level I’m pro-life (meaning I think it is the wrong thing for a woman to do in almost every case and we should put more resources into supporting pregnant women and mothers to make abortion not seem like the best option) but on a system level I’m pro-choice (meaning I think it should be legal, accessible, and safe, and women should be free to make that choice for themselves without shame). Which is to say, I don’t think Autumn does the right thing, and the termination of that pregnancy is sad to me, but I also hurt for Autumn and what she goes through and I’m angered by a system that makes it so.
6.Weathering with You – Makoto Shinkai bash me in the feels with an adamantium cricket bat you sentimental genius. This animated feature operates in much the same way as Shinkai’s previous Your Name (the highest-grossing anime film of all time) – give us two star-crossed teens, steadily falling in love under strange circumstances, sprinkle in some magical/mystical/spiritual elements, let RADWIMPS put together a banging soundtrack, and, you know, bring it all to life in some of the most gorgeous animation you’ve ever seen. It’s a winning formula. But despite it’s exuberant, teen romance bent, Weathering with You also contains complex themes and characters (it should also contain a trigger warning for people who have just lost a friendly tuxedo cat). The questions of love in Weathering with You are not all bound up in the hormonal fury of teen sex drive, but rather they evoke deeper questions of connection and companionship in this scary, unpredictable world. If it rained every day, would it matter if you were with the right person? (FWIW I lived where it rained every day and I loved it but I digress).
5. Vitalina Varela – The most recent film from Portuguese visionary Pedro Costa is the story of a woman from Cape Verde who travels to an immigrant community in Lisbon only to arrive just days after her husband has died. The film watches as she processes the loss of a man she hadn’t seen in two decades. Was I thrilled watching Vitalina Varela? No. I wasn’t on the edge of my seat, or laughing, or crying. About half the time I didn’t know what the fuck was going on. But Costa’s style – darkness, heavy shadows, sharp contrasts, whispered, often ambiguous dialogue and monologue – is so compelling. On the surface level, it means this is one of those films that you could take any given still from and frame it and put it on your wall. But thematically, the aesthetic drives at the underlying themes of the work. It’s a subtle meditation that makes us more aware of the crumbling ruins all around us. Costa has vaulted over Andre Gomes (Everton’s very frustrating but very handsome midfielder) into second on my Portuguese rankings, trailing only Doña Amelia, my high school Spanish teacher.
4. Mank – This is where film’s place in the popular imagination confuses and perplexes me. I understand why most people haven’t heard of – let alone seen – a film like Vitalina Varela. It’s a slow, arty, plotless foreign language film from Portugal that isn’t on any streaming service. Mank is not that. It’s a new film from one of the most acclaimed auteurs of his generation. It came straight to Netflix. It’s got snappy dialogue and brilliant performances. It’s a well-told tale of the creation of arguably the greatest film ever made. And yet, I’m quite certain that both my parents are totally unaware of its existence. It’s lit up the discourse in film world, but I just don’t get the sense it’s made it into the popular conversation. Why? Mank is the type of film that anyone and everyone who likes movies should see. That’s not to say everyone has to like it, but if movies really matter, a movie like this should demand a popular audience. It’s ironic that a film that is so much about controlling narratives is itself unable to control a conversation outside of film Twitter. I can guarantee it’s going to be one of those films that gets a ton of Oscar nominations, and then during the telecast there will be plenty of viewers who keep saying “WTF what was this black and white old-timey looking movie and is that Gary Oldman oh I like him but this is weird,” when in fact they might be surprised to find it to be an accessible, enjoyable film.
3.Mangrove – Everything about Mangrove is fresh. We’ve seen films about racism, unfair justice systems, immigrants, protests, and controversial restaurants before (heck, I could be talking about Do the Right Thing). But nothing in Mangrove feels like a retread. The impromptu steel drum dancing and the annual island life celebration are incandescent with communal joy. The police abuse is shocking in its cruelty. The protests boil with righteous rage and collective endeavor. And the trial feels like the only courtroom drama I’d ever need to see, just a few weeks after watching The Trial of the Chicago 7 and rewatching My Cousin Vinny like two and a half times on AMC. Mangrove is absorbing from start to finish, a stunning work of direction from Steve McQueen featuring astonishing performances.
2. First Cow – Though simple, First Cow is still one of those “on the other hand” films. It’s about friendship, but it’s also about unjust economics. It’s slow and unhurried, but has a few hold-your-breath tense scenes. The plot is uncomplicated, but what happens depends upon difficult choices the characters must make. There is a lot to recommend about First Cow, like the chemistry between John Magaro and Orion Lee, the soothing score, the relevant themes, and the fact that Kelly Reichardt is an absolute master of shooting outdoors. I mean, damn nature is beautiful. I’ve been trying to tell you guys about Oregon. First Cow also has a perfect ending that will either make you shout or go mute for about five minutes. I’m glad people are making movies like this.
1. Portrait of a Lady on Fire – The order of this list is somewhat fluid, but this is the clear number one. It is a supreme exhibition in so many regards; romance; critique of patriarchal constraints; a picture of lesbian desire; absorbing period drama; delicate French cuisine. Its exploration of lust, love, and companionship, of art, beauty, and vision, of class, the female gaze, and gender, is as nuanced as it is poignant. It’s beautifully shot and impeccably-acted, featuring two of the best performances of the year. The last things I wrote about First Cow apply in much the same way here; the ending is stunning, an affecting and provocative finale expressive of the deepest human emotions. And I’m glad people are making movies like this.
Top Performances of the Year
I love all aspects of film, but I think the two I find myself most drawn to, most affected by, and thinking about most are writing and acting. Great performances move me, and I appreciate them for both their individual craft and their impact on the larger work.
In no particular order, grouped by film…
Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant(Portrait of a Lady on Fire) – Two electric performances. This film is largely about the female gaze, and the way Haenel and Merlant quite literally gaze at each other is the sort of acting that stirs your heart, your head, and your loins. This is as watchable as two people can be on screen. The now-famous final shot of Haenel is the kind of thing that stays with you.
Shaun Parkes, Letitia Wright, and Malachi Kirby(Mangrove) – After Black Panther, it was obvious Wright had the makings of a star, and after Mangrove it’s clear that if she isn’t an A-List actress in the next ten years something will have gone terribly wrong. It’s potentially problematic to compare her to Lupita Nyong’o, but I don’t understand why Nyong’o – one of the best, most beautiful, most charismatic actresses – hasn’t become a bigger star. I don’t want to have to ask the same questions about Wright, who demonstrates Shuri’s same exuberance and kindness, but also levels of ferocity, tenacity, and zeal. Kirby introduced himself to a larger audience playing Kunta Kinte in the History Channel remake of Roots, and he reintroduces himself in a big way here, demanding attention in every scene with elegance and fervor. But the real star is Parkes, who expresses such a range of emotions in this film; joy in the carefree celebrations of West Indian culture; the depth of hurt and loss as his persecution continues; rage – blind rage – as that persecution becomes too much to bear.
Amanda Seyfried(Mank) – There are a number of great performances in Mank, but Seyfried’s stands out. It’s the type of expressive performance that would seem melodramatic or cartoonish in the wrong hands, but Seyfried remains believable through all of it, conveying the tension between the childlike innocence of a young woman who has it all and the shrewd guile of a woman who knows just where it is she stands.
Vitalina Varela(Vitalina Varela) – Not a typo; Varela is playing herself in what is essentially her own life story. There’s a great degree of difficulty in what she’s doing, given sparse, whispered lines, and having to carry long shots of her sitting, staring, and doing mundane tasks. In some roles, painful emotions make themselves known in roiling, volatile facial expression, but Varela conveys her loss, her hurt, and her anxieties through a stony exterior forged through long years of experience.
Sidney Flanigan (Never Rarely Sometimes Always) – A debut performance, and what a convincing, winning performance it is. Flanigan exhibits Autumn’s fear, pain, exhaustion, and loneliness through the awkwardness and vulnerability of the teenage years. The “Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always” scene with the social worker (Kelly Chapman, who is spot-on) belongs right there with the best-acted scenes of the year, but the less-showy moments of anxiety make it a nuanced, complete performance.
Julia Garner(The Assistant) – Some of my favorite performances are the ones that tell a lot while the character is doing mostly mundane tasks. Jane’s day consists of ordinary office tasks, and most of her conversations are brief and unremarkable. But from her early morning prep of the office, still trying to wake up, to her stress-induced afternoon cigarette, to her exhausted after-work phone call, it’s clear the entire time what kind of person she is and how this situation is wearing her down. This performance also features some of the best almost-but-not-quite-crying I’ve ever seen.
Caleb Landry Jones (The Outpost) – Jones is really going for it here, and he delivers a riveting performance. It was tough to leave The Outpost off my Top 10, as I admire the film, and Jones’ character and performance are two of the highlights. Ty Carter is a slight variation on the military epic protagonist – we’re not sure if we can trust him in a foxhole, not because he’s cowardly or incompetent but because he’s a hothead. No one seems to like him, but it’s because he doesn’t seem to like anybody else. And we’re not quite sure we like him, either. But that isn’t the point – The Outpost doesn’t bother trying to make us particularly “like” the men fighting for their lives at COP Keating. Instead, it puts these regular frat bros into an impossible situation that they never should have been made to face, and it shows us what they did in response. What Carter does, and how the experience affects him, is harrowing – as is Jones’ portrayal.
Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong(The Trial of the Chicago 7) – I don’t totally understand my thoughts about this film – I certainly recommend it, but I can’t say whether it’s great or if it’s particularly useful as a reminder of the anti-progressive establishment in this country. It does certainly showcase a number of memorable performances, my favorites being Cohen and Strong as Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. Cohen’s Hoffman is charismatic and defiant, sparring with enemies and allies alike with a disarming smile and a quick wit, while Strong plays the even-more-stoned sidekick, a loyal, kind man who’s in it for more than just good vibes. Honorable mention to Michael Keaton, who comes in for two scorching scenes like a middle reliever throwing 99.
Sônia Braga(Bacurau) – Braga plays a minor role in the genre-bending thriller from Brazil, but the little woman commands a presence as the doctor in a remote Brazilian village. She is equal parts scathing and caring. Her “I’m too old for this shit” energy as she explains to the village why they shouldn’t take the hallucinatory pills given to them by their local politician is perfect. So too is her tense encounter with a cold-blooded killer before the climactic sequence; to this point, Michael has been the most intimidating, threatening presence, but as he threatens Domingas, there’s no question who the real force is.
Juliette Binoche and Manon Clavel(The Truth) – The Truth is in the lower tier of Kore-eda’s filmography, but as usual his casting and directing of actors is superb. Some of the most fascinating parts of Binoche’s performance are her back-and-forths with her mother, played by Catherine Deneuve (who, it should be noted, is also quite good (duh)). Deneuve’s character has the upper hand most of the time, but not because she’s acting Binoche off the screen – Binoche settles right into the role of a daughter who can’t quite dismiss the fact that her mother is, indeed, her mother. As for relative newcomer Clavel, one of my main takeaways from this film was “Oh, okay, so she’s going to be a star.” What an absolutely charming, charismatic performer, right at home in scenes with two icons of French cinema. I’m buying all the Manon Clavel stock I can.
Kiera Allen (Run.) – I spent the entire second half of this film with my hands folded over the back of my neck in anxious fear of what was going to happen next, thanks in no small part to Allen’s work in what is her film debut. She expresses a nuanced range of types of fear and uncertainty as she discovers what her mother has been hiding from her. The physical performance as someone paralyzed from the waist down is also impressive. It stands to reason a wheelchair-using actress would be convincing as a wheelchair-using character, but then again there are perfectly mobile actors who haven’t figured out how to walk across the screen effectively. An excellent first performance in what I hope is a meaningful career.
So, what was the Film of the Year?
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is both the best film of 2020 and my favorite film of 2020, but ever since I read this piece from Thrillist last year, I’ve enjoyed thinking about “the film of the year” as a film that is both excellent but also evinces the cultural moment.
I think the film of 2020 is Mank. Selecting a very white film about old Hollywood directed by a white male feels regressive, and spotlighting a movie about making a movie might sound insular, but Mank exemplifies American film and culture in 2020. We are in a time where control of narratives has had an outsized impact on our lives and consciousness. Political leaders have spawned and facilitated misinformation about a global pandemic and about a national election, and that has poisoned the minds of millions of people into believing things that run counter to science, democracy, and basic human kindness. Mank depicts the impact of media on politics using the 1934 California gubernatorial election and the fight for the storytelling credit of one of the most important films of all-time, all in the shadow of history’s most powerful newspaper mogul who took a turn towards demagoguery. Mank is, in part, the story of rapacious men ready to use their power to control rather than uplift others.
Mank is also, as a film about film, something that could only be made with hindsight. The still new medium of film has existed long enough to allow for a film made to look like an old film that is an homage to and examination of one of the most unassailable films of all time. It is also a straight-to-Netflix Oscar contender, something that could not have existed even five years ago, and something that is extra appropriate in a year where streaming continues to change the way we watch movies as we do the majority of our movie-watching at home.
And, while interspersed with flashbacks, the “present” timeline in Mank depicts Herman Mankiewicz writing the script for Citizen Kane while convalescing (read: quarantining) with two assistants.