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.
Dear Dana, Odie, and Alison,
Warm greetings and happy holidays to all of you, and thanks, Dana, for inviting me to crash Movie Club 2020. In a year largely devoid of screenings and post-screening hangouts—but not, happily, devoid of movies—there is no e-banquette I’m more excited to sink into than this one. Maybe when we’ve finished our own woozy Zoom rendition of “Silly Games”—to reference the most heart-stoppingly beautiful scene from Lovers Rock and maybe this whole damn year—we can split a virtual round of First Cow oily cakes, garnished with some Minari minari, plus one of those sad little muffins Julia Garner orders at the end of The Assistant. Alison and Dana, I’m glad to see Kitty Green’s perfectly chiseled heartbreaker on your 10-best lists: It was one of just a few movies I saw on a big screen this year, which may partly account for why its chill still lingers so forcefully 11 months later.
I know we’ll encounter less agreement on the subject of Charlie Kaufman, but here goes: In this topsy-turvy 2020, it seems logical to start with something called I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Honestly, I kept putting it on and taking it off my own list, thrilled and maddened in nearly equal measure by its paranoid tics, its verbal excesses, and its refusal to commit to anything beyond its own snow-blowing, claustrophobia-inducing weirdness. In the end I kept it on the list, mainly because I simply couldn’t Get it Out of my head—in the same way I couldn’t stop thinking about Jordan Peele’s horror movie, but also in a way I always find true of Kaufman joints, good or bad. Plus, the critic in me is hard-pressed to resist a movie in which a character declaims whole paragraphs of Pauline Kael without explanation.
But mainly I loved it because of the two Jess(i)es, Buckley and Plemons, who gave such inspired, cumulatively moving, and ingeniously intertwined performances. It’s true that the Nameless Female Protagonist Accompanying Her Significant Other to His Creepy House—something Kaufman’s movie has in common with that altogether duller Netflix adaptation Rebecca—is ultimately subsumed, sucked into her boyfriend’s black hole of a psyche. For all that, Buckley never really receded for me: Her ability to not just navigate but also master her role’s ever-shifting parameters, lending emotional coherence to Kaufman’s willful incoherence, is what sustains this impossible movie from start to (almost) finish.
About that finish: I doubt I can convince you or anyone, Dana, that I’m Thinking of Ending Things doesn’t finally fall apart, in much the same way that Kaufman’s other adaptation, Adaptation, goes wackily (and determinedly) off the rails in the third act. It may be a cop-out, but I am more taken with the journey than the destination, the way Kaufman keeps picking at his narrative scabs and undermining his own premises from scene to scene. If Tenet—the only mainstream movie this year to rival I’m Thinking of Ending Things for sheer moment-to-moment WTF-ery—was a grandly bonkers experiment in how to reverse the direction of an object’s entropy, then Kaufman revels in the entropy of every moment: Everything we see (and just as importantly, hear) is always morphing, breaking down, being yanked out from under us. It’s an awfully perverse way to construct a movie, but something about it seems curiously suited to these madly destabilizing times.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things was hardly alone this year in its vision of a well-worn domestic space that suddenly becomes possessed by an incessant, near-demonic mutability. Among the most crafty were Natalie Erika James’ Relic and Florian Zeller’s forthcoming The Father, two beautifully sustained family tragedies from first-time filmmakers that would make one hell of a dementia-themed double bill. In both films, the interior details of a home keep shifting—the rooms and walls in Relic, the inhabitants and time frames in The Father—in ways that mirror the intricate slippage of a fast-declining mind. Remi Weekes’ creepy and moving refugee thriller His House somewhat fits this pattern, too, though here the culprit isn’t Alzheimer’s but repressed guilt and horror: I’d love to hear more from Odie on this one, though he did already sum it up beautifully in his review: “Trauma will always occupy a room in the houses our psyches build.”
The makers of these and other movies could hardly have anticipated the nature of 2020, when most of us would become better acquainted with our own homes than we could have imagined or wanted. (I know many of us are already dreading the inevitable pileup of pandemic-themed movies that set out to explore that very subject.) Still, there’s something eerie about the fact that so many noteworthy 2020 releases turned on the concept of an alienated living space, a house that inexplicably doesn’t feel like home anymore. (Or maybe it doesn’t feel much like home to begin with—a premise elastic enough to accommodate immigrant stories as varied and far-flung as His House, Minari, and Farewell Amor, and also that shivery almost-but-not-quite-haunted-house movie The Nest.) I’m thinking especially of Frances McDormand, driven by economic necessity, marital grief, and old-fashioned wanderlust to hit the road in Nomadland, a new American classic whose unassuming greatness I know all four of us can agree upon.
I’m also thinking of another fiction/nonfiction-straddling masterwork that far fewer critics and moviegoers have seen, and which I may as well spend a few minutes extolling now. Pedro Costa’s somber, beautiful and mesmerizing Vitalina Varela is another kind of immigrant story: It follows a Cape Verdean widow, whose name gives the movie its title, as she moves into the Lisbon shantytown once occupied by the late husband who abandoned her years earlier. She lights candles in his memory, receives his friends as guests, and quietly, stubbornly asserts her presence in his old home—an implicit way of rebuking him for abandoning theirs. I realize I’m part of a very small, self-selecting audience for a formally austere, funereally gloomy Portuguese art film that, like all Costa’s work, has drawn little attention beyond festivals. But having seen Vitalina Varela at Sundance this year and pondered it for months afterward, I find it haunting, overpoweringly sad, and ultimately unshakable. I hope more viewers will check it out, as they can quite easily: Like Tenet and Wonder Woman 1984 (and a good half-hour shorter than both), it’s just a few clicks away.
Here is my Top 10 list:
1. Vitalina Varela
4. First Cow
5. Martin Eden
6. I’m Thinking of Ending Things
7. City Hall
9. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Plus 10 unranked runners-up: The Assistant, I Was at Home, But … , The Invisible Man, Lovers Rock, Mangrove, Mank, The Nest, Relic, Tenet, Tesla.
And with that, I’m thinking of ending things, so I will.