I don't believe we're out of any mess yet, and the calendar rolling over doesn't change anything on its own, but, as a unit of measure, I'm sure we can all agree that 2020 was a fucker. I'm glad it's behind us. In 2020 I watched 1111 movies. I had a hard time picking 10 favorites from the year (a couple of these go back to 2018/19) and I think that my favorites for the next few years will have met me still reeling and dealing with personal, emotional and spiritual fall out (hopefully not physical) from this time. The picks I've settled on are collectively more downbeat than previous years.
Several qualify as horror. There are a few playful bursts, a couple of large-hearted moments and optimistic swells to be found in this group, but overall it's a bleak lot. Nihilism, capitalism, corruption and moral bankruptcy rule the day. The strength of and longing for human bonds repeatedly give way to inescapable human bondage. The nobility of sacrifice goes unnoticed, unappreciated and scorned while quick capitulation to avarice, betrayal and debasement are rewarded and revered.
And America,baby, we were predictably spotlight hogs in that three-ring shitshow of a year. While it's not making my list of favorites, I do think that Capone, Josh Trank's haunted septic spill of a gangster picture about perhaps our most celebrated and mythologized national criminal figure slowly dying in his palatial tropical home, trapped inside his rotting body and disintegrating mind, cut off from and tormenting the family, friends and sychophants who once depended on and worshiped him and now are there to suffer his abuse and clean him up when he soils the bed, deserves a note for being the most spot-on depiction of the end of our recently evacuated administration's stupid reign of terror. When he can no longer terrify his enemies, when the FBI is putting him in his place and the only option he's got left in the toolbox is to shit his pants and make everybody sit with the stench and be as miserable as he is... that's a special and uncomfortably prescient moment.
Anyway, here it is - my psychic self-portrait, a snapshot of 2020 in crime films.
Ash is Purest White - Jia Zhangke - A love story between underworld figures in Datong (Shanxi Province, China) that starts off feeling familiar; a young, rising gangster and his moll enjoy their life and position in the developing industrial city until a flash of violence and a sacrificial act of love change things forever, but the set up soon gives way to a meditation on love, loyalty and honor that weighs more than your average rise and fall in crime saga. The slow crush of time and the intensity of the trial Liao Fan and Zhao Tao face reveal the truth about their love, their character and their place in the world. The central metaphor works beautifully, heartbreakingly and finally (with resignation) peacefully, and with certainty leaving impersonal and irresistible forces - time, tide and gravity - to express simple things like the quality of love relies more on the lover than the beloved. It's a slow, crucible of a film, emblematic of the type of meditative, atmospheric noir-inflected pictures that liberally mix crime, social parable and melodrama coming out of China lately - probably the next wave of distinctive flavor in global crime film (see also recent examples from Diao Yi’nan, Bi Gan or Chung Mong-Hong).
Beasts Clawing at Straws - Kim Yong-hoon - A degenerate gambler, an abused sex worker and a low income wage slave caring for an elderly parent are the disparate desperate characters circling the same economic drain whose heads are turned by the siren song of crime sung alluringly by a bag of money. Yes, the classic tropes of noir are as strong as ever and the mystery mammon maguffin is a particularly potent standby ever ready to rend morals, shred assumptions of character, debase the pious and rain damnation on the least suspecting citizens. Attached to this bag of money by nearly invisible bloody tendril are vicious gangsters, alpha predators, ready to grind them all in the same mill and mix them into a morass of mortar with which to pave the potholes pocking the path to perdition. It's a deep and dark motherfuck and no one escapes unscathed, but, as grim as the goings on grow, the film, based on the novel by Keisuke Sone, is not without mirth evinced by a spectral cackle and a set of phosphorescent choppers set in a cold cheshire grin you'll swear isn't there before it opens wide and swallows you whole.
Black '47 - Lance Daly - This fucking grim famine drama debuted on the international film circuit in 2018, but watching it ten months into a deadly global pandemic being treated by a wealthy super power primarily as a nuisance to the bottom line perhaps heightened the experience. James Frecheville plays an Irish ranger returned home from fighting the empire's wars to find his kith and kin facing eviction on top of starvation - their homes systematically destroyed rather than shelter them as soon as they can no longer afford to pay live in them and the meager crops being shipped away to their land lords and sovereigns. An entirely legal all-out war on the poor is being waged and with approximately zero hesitation the former soldier turns his formidable murderous skills to the private sector turning his weaponry against the same oppressors that taught them to him and taught him it was his duty to use them for their purpose. Sent after the rogue ranger is Hugo Weaving's conflicted, disgraced and condemned detective who once fought alongside his quarry. Strains of First Blood, The Proposition and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid run through, the violence is up close and personal and the supporting cast is top notch to boot (Jim Broadbent, Stephen Rea, Freddie Fox, Barry Keoghan, Moe Dunford, Sarah Greene).
Blow the Man Down - Danielle Krudy, Bridget Savage Cole - When young Mary Beth Connolly (Morgan Saylor) kills a man who attacked her after picking her up in a bar, the reluctant college student implores her older sister Priscilla (Sophie Lowe) to help her hide the body, fearing that her reputation in their small coastal Maine fishing village and the circumstances of the assault may not make it a clear cut case of self-defense in the eyes of the law. Circumstances like oh... more than one method used to stop him (did you lose control with the brick or the harpoon?). Priscilla, the responsible one, agrees to help her sister, but in fishing villages nothing stays buried forever. Pretty soon all kinds of things are popping up, extra bodies, as well as deep dark secrets about the town and their recently dearly departed mother (the film opens at mom's memorial, but in her wake come the real threats). Turns out mom was part of a matriarchal group who long ago struck a precarious balance that the girls' actions are threatening to upend. A sharp, funny, murder thriller about small town secrets and familial obligations that features Margo Martindale and June Squibb as not to be fucked with forces, what's not to love?
Come to Daddy - Ant Timpton - The film opens with Elijah Wood's Norval, in response to a letter from the father who abandoned him as a child, trekking up the Pacific coast by bus and then by foot to a lonely house on the cliffs to meet him. Stephen McHattie embraces him at the door and the two start the awkward process of getting to know each other. Things haven't been easy for Norval in the time since he last saw his father. He admits he's an alcoholic and attempted suicide once. He also puffs up his own accomplishments in the most achingly transparent ways - everything we learn about him arouses pity except from the man he wants so dearly to impress. McHattie toys with him, calling his bluff about being close friends with celebrities, sneers at his suicide attempt and scoffs at his refusal to drink with him. He also spies on Wood while he's sleeping and the house emits strange noises in the middle of the night. Things finally come to a head between the two and Norval loses his father for the second time during a violent confrontation. The effect of having finally met, confronted and survived an attack from the man whose absence left a hole in him sends Norval on a wild run of emotions, but he soon finds out that he's inherited his father's unfinished business in the form of violent criminals with a score to settle. The anything can happen experience of the film is fantastic. I've already given more away than I'd like to have, but even revisits are rewarded by the emotional undercurrent - the wide-open quality of Wood's face and the truth he learns about the father he's never known got me right in the feels. Plus... it's funny as hell. Many standout scenes of horrific violence and unexpected laughs along the way - always something lurking around the corner. I loved it.
First Love - Takashi Miike - A call girl trying to escape captivity and a boxer without long to live come between dirty cops and dangerous gangsters with a pile of money and drugs in the middle and spend a crazy, bloody night staying alive and falling in love on, under and behind the mean streets of Tokyo. It's a clusterfuck of bad intentions with a gooey, chewy love story at the center and I'm pretty sure that only a filmmaker with a proven track record of willingness to go full dark like Miike could make a movie so effectively and un-selfconciously sweet and win this thoroughly with the material. This one's one of the bright spots on the grim year's favorites, a fantasy of oppressed, dead-end lives making good however briefly and dealing a blow against the dark forces of economic oppression and institutional corruption. Good on them.
Possessor -Brandon Cronenberg - Andrea Riseborough plays an assassin whose specialized skill set makes her an invaluable asset to her employers (personified by Jennifer Jason Leigh) who farm out murder for hire gigs from a sterile office. Killers use the bodies of real people close to the targets as meat puppets by linking into their mind. Assassins have to be able to pass as the people whose bodies they've hijacked for increasingly long periods of time before pulling off the perfect crime. Prep work for her jobs require her to shadow and observe the person she will become (this time it's Christopher Abbott in order to kill his father in law to be Sean Bean) and it takes her away from her husband and child longer than she'd like. When she gets to see them it's clear that the job is taking an increasingly evident psychic toll. The job requires of her the empathy to convincingly become someone else and the cold bloodedness to have to kill someone and it's... not going well. There's a thesis paper to be found somewhere in here about how it's all a metaphor for film making, but I think it lands hardest on the exploitative nature of work. It did this year anyhow. Fucking gnarly violence and trippy audio/visual distortion - the low-rent use of high-tech concepts all make for a visceral experience and confirm that young Cronenberg's directorial debut (Anitviral) was not a fluke. He's got the goods. Long live the new flesh.
True History of the Kelly Gang - Justin Kurzel - The legend of notorious bushranger Ned Kelly has been puffed up, deconstructed and generally fucked around with enough over the years that I've no interest whatsoever in the veracity of the depiction here. Especially when Kurzel and crew have injected the proceedings with so much raw punk rock power and glammed-up sexiness and hypnotically inviting visuals. This movie will be living in my brain for a long long time. Cast is uniformly good, but the standout performances are Nicholas Hoult and Essie Davis. Gah, have you ever fucked in a dress?
Wild Goose Lake - Diao Yi’nan - When a cop is accidentally killed caught in the escalating crossfire between rival motorcyle thieves Zhou (Hu Ge) finds himself the target of a large scale manhunt pinned down and trying to avoid the dragnet long enough to arrange that the reward money for his capture will go to his estranged wife. He enlists the help of a prostitute named Liu (Gwei Lun-mei) to coordinate an unlikely plan and the two develop a bond one doomed soul to another. I just gave you the quick version of the plot, but it's a gorgeous, stylish, moody, broody piece of vision crafting that should make instant fans of folks who like that sort of thing. I really liked Yi'nan's previous picture Black Coal, Thin Ice, but this one is even stronger - just haunting, stylish stuff shot through with heartbreak.
ZeroZeroZero - Stefano Sollima Janus Metz Pedersen Pablo Trapero - A procedural tracking the origin, transport and brokering of a very large cocaine shipment split between three chief international players - the Italians who want to buy from the Mexicans through American brokers. Global intrigue and cutthroat capitalism delivered ice cold and pitiless. Based on the book and adapted for the screen by Roberto Saviano (Gomorrah, Piranhas) it's a grim and terrifying indictment of... everybody. Oof.
I accidentally deleted a long piece I'd been working on for weeks to accompany this link to my most recent appearance on the Watch With Jenpodcast so you'll just take my word for it that I unpacked points from my discussion with Jen Johans about crime film remakes from the 1990s in especially clever and illuminating ways.
And totally won all the arguments started on the show. Totally.
Still, you can listen to the conversation and still hear some very questionable takes from yours truly about which remakes I preferred to the originals here. Lotta big names dropped in that mix... Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Siodmak, Akira Kurosawa, Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone, Steven Soderbergh, Walter Hill... plus Johnny Hallyday and Larry Mullen Jr.
Meanwhile I'm mulling over my 2020 crime flick picks still. Watched 1111 movies last year, though not that many from 2020 itself due to all the weirdness around movie theaters, pulled releases and shit. So... I'll get back to you soon on that shit.