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 dispatch here.
Dear auld acquaintance,
As we close out this sprawling conversation, and as this Godforsaken year finally comes to a close, I wanted to take a second to acknowledge 2020’s global box-office champion. That’s not Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, despite that much-touted, much-delayed, and ultimately messy theatrical release we discussed. And it’s not Bad Boys for Life, the reigning blockbuster from the few months before everything shut down, either. The No. 1 movie in theaters worldwide this year was actually, drumroll … Guan Hu’s war epic The Eight Hundred, which depicts, in extravagant detail, the 1937 defense of Sihang Warehouse in the aftermath of the Japanese invasion of Shanghai. You’d all be forgiven for not having caught it, when it only opened quietly on 142 screens in the U.S. at the end of August, and was released by a distributor, CMC Pictures, that tends to target diasporic audiences. The vast majority of its $460 million in ticket sales was homegrown, courtesy of the fact that most theaters throughout China reopened on July 20, even as the U.S. lurched into second and third waves with the virus. Its triumph is, in some ways, another asterisk in a year filled with them—the first year since 2007 when topping the chart wasn’t a billion-dollar enterprise.
In other ways, though, it’s a reminder that Hollywood doesn’t have a monopoly on big entertainments, and that even as the studios pin their theatrical hopes on movies that have to be huge worldwide hits to be successes, other markets have been proving themselves capable of making work that feels equally vast in scale. And, more than anything, The Eight Hundred feels big. It cost a reported $80 million and was shot entirely on IMAX cameras. It is, like many a war movie, deeply nationalistic (and still got pulled from the 2019 Shanghai Film Festival and reworked for allegedly being too sympathetic to the Kuomintang). Like Dunkirk, it’s about a triumph for morale rather than a triumph in battle. The incident it depicts, in which a small battalion of Chinese men held off thousands of Japanese troops over the course of four days, was a feat that was also a performance. The warehouse was directly across the river from the foreign enclaves left untouched by the bombing that had otherwise decimated the city. The astonishingly realized sets of the neighborhood, teeming with people and lit up like a hallucination, are presented as hosting an audience for the pummeling of these soldiers who hope to draw the world’s attention to what’s happening. It’s not lost on me that, when it comes to the film’s own success, international viewers were ultimately unnecessary.
I realize I’ve written a lot about the business of movies in these dispatches. I feel like sometimes I’ve ended up focusing on it more than I have the movies themselves, only because I’ve felt hyperaware—this year more than any other—of how money affects what gets made, what we are encouraged to watch, and how we’re able to access it. As we accelerate toward some future of endless streaming content and bigger and bigger tentpole events, helped along by the seismic shake-ups that have come with COVID, I feel increasingly grateful for all the small, intimate, strange, and brilliant work out there, even as I worry (as Sam does) about it getting lost in the shuffle. So I wanted to spend my last few paragraphs here writing about one of those features—one that happens to be, fittingly, about the film biz.
I saw Kitty Green’s The Assistant almost a year ago, in mid-January, shortly before leaving for Sundance. That feels like it might as well have been a decade ago now. But the film has lingered with me ever since, and so much of its power comes from its austerity, that way that it presents a universe in miniature with its unforgivingly tight focus on this lowly young employee, Jane (Julia Garner), who’s at what is, on paper, her dream job. In practice, it’s a mundane hell of cubicles and calls and systemic abuse.
I haven’t seen the film since that first viewing, but so many moments of this workplace drama as water torture still feel so clear in my memory. There’s the scene in which the other two assistants in the office reflexively come to stand over Jane’s shoulder and help her with what’s clearly a regular ritual of crafting an apology to her enraged boss, a Harvey Weinstein stand-in who’s only ever heard, never seen. There’s the way the HR director played by Matthew Macfadyen tells Jane that “I don’t think you have anything to worry about. You’re not his type”—a doubled-edged delivery of a line calibrated to fall right between “You, at least, are going to be fine” and “Who do you think you are?” And then there’s that shot you mentioned, Justin, in which Jane orders and picks at a late-in-the-day muffin while sitting at a counter in a deli. Green suffuses The Assistant with this unbearable sense of claustrophobia, and only some of it comes from the way that Jane barely ever seems to get to leave the office. The rest is due to the overwhelming pressure on her to participate and fall in line or, well, leave—and that’s a weight that she can’t leave behind, even as she finds this sad little sanctuary a few blocks away after a long day of work.
Is it perverse to say that thinking about that scene, lonely and tragic as it is, makes me feel a pang of nostalgia for the regular world? I’ve been finding myself missing everything lately, even the prospect of stale pastries gulped down in lieu of dinner while taking shelter from the cold in some overpriced corner store in Tribeca. Unlike Jane, at least, when I’ve found myself doing that, it’s usually been because I’m killing time before heading off to do something better. And on that note, I’ll end this. Unlike Odie, I have no talent for song parodies, so instead I’ll just say that it’s been lovely talking movies with you all, and it will be lovely still when we get the chance to do so in person again someday.