This week, I’m delighted to share with you JOE WILLIAMS’s selection of the best films of the last year. This has become a bit of an annual tradition and I’m so grateful to Joe for taking the time to write this. So many brilliant recommendations!
I’d also like to take a moment to steer you in the direction of Joe’s own work. Joe is script executive on two Netflix shows written by GEORGE KAY – the 2nd series of CRIMINAL; and the huge smash hit series, LUPIN. Both are really excellent and very deserving of your time.
Joe Williams is a Development Producer at ITV Studios. Before joining ITV, Joe worked as Script Executive on the new Netflix series, LUPIN. Created by George Kay and starring Omar Sy, the hit series attracted 70-million viewers in its opening month – a record for an international drama. Previously, Joe script edited the second series of CRIMINAL (also for Netflix) and all three series’ of the BBC drama, KEEPING FAITH, starring Eve Myles. Joe has also held development roles at Channel 4, Vox Pictures, Sprout Pictures, and Scott Free, and has worked as a script editor for the BBC Writers’ Room and on the 2019 Channel 4 Screenwriting Course.
Towards the end of Albert Camus’ 1947 novel, The Plague, Tarrou, one of the book’s protagonists, muses on a return to normal life now that the disease that has gripped the city is in its dying days. His friend, Cottard, asks him, “But what do you mean by ‘a return to normal life’?”. Tarrou responds, “New films at the picture-houses”.
While the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t quite pulled the plug on all new films, Camus’ words chimed all too well with me when I (somewhat masochistically) read the book during the first lockdown. Appropriately, it was the cancellation of my ticket to see the new James Bond film, NO TIME TO DIE, that was the very first piece of ‘disruption’ to my 2020 plans. Still, while Hollywood has mostly played it safe by going straight to streaming (WW84, SOUL) or withholding big releases until the pandemic has eased, 2020 still delivered a number of strong films – many of which were smaller titles that gained prominence by being the only things showing in the cinemas that briefly remained open. It showed that even in the ‘golden era of TV’, film remains a vital medium.
The start of 2020 – coming on the back of a strong previous year – saw a slew of brilliant titles lined up for award season (note – all titles are 2020 UK cinema releases). Sam Mendes’ WWI epic 1917 for me was his strongest film to date, utterly gripping from start to finish and held together by a compelling and underrated performance from George McKay. Armando Iannucci’s THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD was a hilarious and lively new take on the endlessly adapted Dickens novel. THE LIGHTHOUSE (which I actually saw at the London Film Festival the previous year) from director David Eggers was horrifyingly intense and driven by a powerhouse performance from a never-better Willem Dafoe that begged to be seen on a big screen. A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBOURHOOD, the latest film from the excellent Marielle Heller, was a low-key but emotionally blindsiding work featuring a signature performance from Tom Hanks as the beloved entertainer, Fred Rogers. ONWARD offered reliable Pixar charms with a strong emotional core and dizzying visuals. Then, of course, there was PARASITE: Bong Joon-Ho’s truly original and unpredictable tragicomic masterwork that was surely one of the most deserving Oscar-winners of recent years.
For me, however, the best film I saw in 2020 has to be the Safdie Brothers’ darkly comic thriller UNCUT GEMS, starring a blistering Adam Sandler in one of the finest acting performances of recent years. Centred on a desperate hustler who embarks on a series of increasingly calamitous schemes, it takes place in a retro version of New York in which it seems to be permanent night-time. The film pulsates with a wild, dizzying, and even stress-inducing energy (driven by Oneohtrix Point Never’s frantic score) that builds and builds to an electrifying climax. I saw it at a sold-out showing on 35mm at the Prince Charles Cinema in January – and it was a perfect example of how a shoulder-to-shoulder, packed and appreciative crowd can add to the enjoyment of a film.
On 12th March, I went to see PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE at my local cinema in North London. I initially thought the feted film was a bit of a slow-burner but as it went on and I settled into its mood I found myself entranced by its central romance between the two lead characters, which earns a sucker-punch of an emotional payoff at the end. I’m not sure I would have responded the same way if I watched the film at home with ease of distractions. As I left the cinema, I turned on my phone and looked at the news: the coronavirus outbreak that had been building slowly since January had just been declared a pandemic. The cinemas closed five days later and I did not see another film on the big screen for five months: the longest gap in my cinema-going life.
In spite of this, however, film refused to die and I saw a good number of strong releases at home during the original lockdown. LYNN + LUCY was a devastating depiction of friendship and the passage of time, marking its writer/director, Fyzal Boulifa, as a major new talent to watch. Appearing on Netflix, THE PLATFORM, which underneath its horrifying exterior was a smart and genuinely thought-provoking thriller. THE ASSISTANT was a very different but equally unsettling low-key and nuanced ‘MeToo drama’ that somehow succeeded in making the noise of photocopiers sound tense. Disney’s film of HAMILTON, despite being a ‘filmed play’ was a joyous depiction of the famed show – arriving with worryingly perfect timing with the theatres closed. Spike Lee’s DA 5 BLOODS, while at times scattershot, was for me his strongest film in years made all the more poignant by the late Chadwick Boseman’s performance.
CALM WITH HORSES was a vivid and powerful Irish crime thriller with a star-making performance from Cosmo Jarvis, paired with an intense turn from Barry Keoghan, who I continuously believe is one of the most best actors of his generation. Released during lockdown (though I watched it later), NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS was a compellingly directed abortion drama from Eliza Hittman featuring two powerful performances from its two leads, Sidney Flanigan (in a remarkable debut) and Talia Ryder. Drawing on similar subject matter – though very different in its approach – was the beguiling SAINT FRANCES, which dramatizes occasionally tough material with playfulness, warmth and insight. THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND, while at times overlong, was a hilarious and often moving comedy anchored by a charismatic performance from its writer/star Pete Davidson. And the time-loop comedy PALM SPRINGS, while not boasting the most original premise, was a joyous and hilarious piece of escapist fun with a great soundtrack that resulted in me doing a deep dive into the discography of electo-pioneer Patrick Cowley over the summer.
I also took the opportunity to catch up with a number of ‘guilty pleasure’ 80s/90s hits that I had somehow never seen before. These included: FATAL ATTRACTION (which has not dated well), PRETTY WOMAN (which has really not dated well), MOONSTRUCK (which I didn’t quite ‘get’), SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE (poor Bill Pullman!), GOOD MORNING VIETNAM (how I miss Robin Williams), FLASHDANCE (possibly the most plotless non-art film I’ve seen), and AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN (which I really loved and totally earns its famously sentimental ending).
Lockdown finally ended in July but it wasn’t until August that the cinemas slowly started to reopen. Into this uncertain climate came Christopher Nolan’s TENET, arriving like a celluloid vaccine to give a shot in the arm to the troubled industry. Slightly wary of packed screens, I waited a couple of weeks to watch it in a quiet daytime showing. It was a strange experience: before the film, the cinema played trailers for films that even now have yet to see a release. Cards saying these titles would come ‘in April’ elicited quiet laughter from the audience, unsure if it referred April this year or next. As for TENET itself, while my feelings on it are mixed it is still undeniably a work of ‘cinema’ and I actually went to see it twice in the hope a second viewing might be able to unwrap its mysteries and its sound mixing (it didn’t).
I managed a further fifteen visits to the cinema before Lockdown 2.0 (the least welcome sequel since SPEED 2: CRUISE CONTROL) reared its ugly head. Most of these visits were to catch older films, such as: CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (the closest I got to a holiday this year); AKIRA (stunning on the big screen); and PSYCHO (seen around Halloween, just before the cinemas closed again). Yet there remained a host of varied and original films that stood out in a more open marketplace. These included: ROCKS, a joyous coming-of-age British film from director Sarah Gavron and writers Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson; SAINT MAUD and MAKE UP, two darkly unsettling offbeat British horror films with great central performances from Morfydd Clark and Molly Windsor respectively; THE KID DETECTIVE, a bizarrely dark crime/comedy film with Adam Brody as an unlikely sleuth; and LES MISERABLES, an arresting French film that harks back favourably to the classic LA HAINE.
There was also a string of excellent non-fiction films released in 2020. COUP ’53 (now, sadly, the subject of its own legal battle) weaved the fascinating story of the British/American-engineered 1953 Iranian coup. Alex Gibney’s TOTALLY UNDER CONTROL was an urgent and damning expose of Donald Trump’s response to the pandemic. Spike Jonze’s THE BEASTIE BOYS STORY was a riotous journey through the group’s career that had me reaching for my Paul’s Boutique vinyl as soon as it ended. Lastly, there was Spike Lee’s euphoric film of David Byrne’s AMERICAN UTOPIA, in which the erstwhile Talking Head plays to a captivated Broadway audience. It’s a film that begs to be seen on the big screen and in these times, it serves as an equally bittersweet ode to the joy of a live concert experience.
At the time of writing, we’re now well into Lockdown 3.0 and there’s no sign as to when the cinemas might reopen. The last time I saw a film in the cinema was during the two-week period in early December when I caught a socially-distant sold out Christmas showing of DIE HARD. Although everyone in the audience must have seen the film many times before, like the UNCUT GEMS screening it was a great reminder that there’s no substitute for an appreciative audience riffing of a good film in a communal setting. This was further brought home by watching the delightful SOUL on Christmas Day and how suited its vivid imagery and universal story would be to the big screen. It therefore keeps me hopeful that the cinema experience will endure and that in 2021 we will see both ‘a return to normal life’ and ‘new films at the picture houses’.
Thanks again to Philip for letting me write this up!
And THANK YOU very much Joe for writing it. The next newsletter will be in two weeks time on Friday February 19th.
February 5th 2021