In Slate’s annual Movie Club, film critic Dana Stevens emails with fellow critics—this year, Justin Chang, Odie Henderson, and Alison Willmore—about the year in cinema. Read the previous entry here.
It’s nice to be talking movies with you all, even if it is in print instead of in person over drinks at some cozy post-screening bar. One of the many weirdnesses of this year has been finding out what it’s like when so many of the digital communication streams I thought of as supplemental to the real thing became my primary means of human contact. So much time on Slack, and Zoom, and in group chats, and on FaceTime, and doomscrolling on Twitter and then slipping into DMs to get the scoop on subtweets—nonstop notifications create the odd feeling of always having people around while simultaneously being in prolonged isolation. It’s why, as much as I also dread that coming pandemic-themed movie pileup as much as you do, Justin, I was actually pretty fond of the one that was earliest to the finish line this year. That would be the July horror release Host, which consisted entirely of a Zoom gathering in which a bunch of friends attempt to ease quar boredom with a digital séance and end up accidentally summoning a demon. As the evil presence picks individuals off, their little squares wink out, while the others look on in helpless terror—a perfect play on the alone-together sensation that lockdown has brought.
But hey, at least there’s no one around to see me dancing. I’d add, to the aforementioned highlights of 2020’s big screen boogying-down, the end of Thomas Vinterberg’s melancholy comedy Another Round, in which Mads Mikkelsen lets loose with some impressively spry jazz ballet moves after he and his friends refresh and then wreck their lives with an experiment in day drinking. It’s a finale that offered the only kind of hopeful sentiment I could really handle this year—ecstatic joy cut with some serious melancholy. And despite the mixed emotions, it was still cheerier than the closing scenes of Bacurau, which finished out on a bloody victory, and then a deadly ritual calibrated to leave you feeling as uneasy as exhilarated. (When I talked to Kleber Mendonça Filho, who co-directed the film with Juliano Dornelles, in March, he cited The Wicker Man as one of his touch points for that sequence.) Dana, Bacurau absolutely does feel rough-and-tumble—deceptively so. It skips between genres, perspectives, and tones, and its structure disorients you, first submerging you in the details of the sertão town of the title, demanding that you try to catch up with all its day-to-day dramas, difficulties, and occasional strange goings-on. Only then does it introduce its spree-killing tourists and reveal that it’s about an organized excursion in hunting the most dangerous game, with the intended victims being the residents we’ve been spending time with.
On first watch, Bacurau can seem like it’s lurching in an ungainly fashion from place to place, leaving its viewers working to keep up. But on revisiting the film, what struck me was how precise it all actually was, and how much control went into creating this sense of chaos. It begins with a funeral, and ends with someone being buried alive (but only after an appearance by the mourned-for town matriarch’s ghost). And while it can be an exciting spectacle, it continually demands that its audience reorient itself with regard to its violence and who is subject to it. There’s nothing easy about this movie’s action; even after the town wins, that blood stays on the wall of the museum as a memory. I did mention its apocalyptic utopianism, though it’s the first part of that phrase I’d stress. Bacurau is a place born out of brutality—“remixed quilombo,” as Filho has described it, inspired by communities founded by runaway slaves. Its tightknit self-sufficiency doesn’t spring from any high-minded idealism, but from being neglected and failed by infrastructure and politicians. No other movie offered up the same complicated sense of world’s-crumbling sanctuary that Bacurau did—except maybe Nomadland, which I’m sure we’ll be talking about later.
Anyway! Odie, to answer your question about Martin Eden, I think we just had very different reads on the movie. I didn’t see it as treating the main character’s desire to write as either noble or righteous—in fact, one of the things that sends Martin spiraling into depression and rage in the second part of the story is that people have come to care about the same work that was so repeatedly rejected in the past. “They’re the same things, l can assure you,” he spits. Was he always good, and no one noticed, because he was a nobody, a self-taught sailor banging out slush pile manuscripts on that enviable typewriter? Was he always bad, and no one can tell now, because they’re just drawn in by his reputation as a nihilistic literary star? Martin stakes his soul to individualism, and sees in his successful bootstrapping proof of its ideals and of the inferiority of the class he comes from and then sneers at. But from his eventual high perch, all he can see is how hollow that supposed meritocracy is. I found Pietro Marcello’s film to work as a fable—a piquant and a gorgeous one, drifting unmoored through the 20th century, and benefiting visually from its archival snippets, its rich colors, and Luca Marinelli’s matinee idol profile. Which is why it’s there on my list:
2. Lovers Rock
4. Dick Johnson Is Dead
5. The Assistant
6. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
8. Martin Eden
9. Another Round
… which I’ll accompany with these alpha-order runners-up: The Father, First Cow, La Llorona, Minari, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, The Nest, Nomadland, The Painter and the Thief, The Vast of Night, and Wolfwalkers.
And to keep us on the idea of syncing or not syncing with the critical mass, especially in this year when any consensus has been unpredictable and elusive: Dana, I’d love to hear whether there were any movies, aside from the Kaufman (which was certainly divisive), on which you felt you really diverged from what seemed to be the majority opinion.
Sent from my secondhand Olivetti typewriter,