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.
Dear Justin, Odie, and Alison:
For several years now I’ve kicked off the Movie Club, Slate’s annual critics roundtable about the year in film, with an image from a post-apocalyptic thriller—the idea being that this weeklong conversation felt like a place to huddle together and warm our hands over an oil-drum fire as the world around us descended into chaos. But at the end of the year 2020—which was more like being inside the oil drum while it was on fire, and then the oil drum explodes—convening this annual gathering feels quite the opposite. The image that comes to mind isn’t of shared sustenance in a harsh dystopic landscape, but of Ghost-of-Christmas-Present-level holiday abundance. We get to talk! About nothing but movies! Whichever movies we want! For a whole week!
Once upon a time, critics talked about movies all year. Sometimes that involved no more than a few words exchanged as pens were recapped and coats gathered after a screening. Most of the critics I know don’t like to share instant reactions to the movie they just saw—we’re still sorting through our response, not to mention saving the good lines for the review. Instead, we would discuss other movies: the one we had yet to see that week, or the one that just made a splash at Cannes, or the confounding one we walked out of scratching our head the day before. Every once in a while there would be a gathering, at a bar or at a guild meeting, for the express purpose of talking about movies. By the time the season of accolades rolled around, it was easy to think of films you had debated, defended, gushed over, or trash-talked in multiple locations around the city. (Think of Joker or Parasite last year. And yeah, those both came out last year. Brief break to stare into space.)
The future of theatrical projection is the riddle of the Sphinx in film criticism right now, and I’m sure we’ll get into all that this week. But what I’m talking about here is different from the “whither movie theaters?” question that has been amply and beautifully written about this year. What I miss, on top of the irreplaceable experience of seeing images on a big screen in the dark alongside others, is the way the fact of movie theaters gave structure and meaning to the cinematic year. Even if you don’t go to festivals—I get to maybe one every two years—hearing about which films people are packing in to see and which they’re storming out of in disgust sharpens your interest and shapes your understanding of the season to come. And speculating about the online audience for a given movie, on a streaming platform that doesn’t release its user numbers, just doesn’t have the “I’ve gotta see that” oomph of walking past a line of cosplaying superfans that wraps around the block.
The lack of a common space in which to not just watch but discuss movies meant we were reduced to talking about them on social media, which can be a good place for sharing bursts of enthusiasm (read this review! See this cool movie!) but is notoriously ill-suited to nuanced conversation (for the love of God don’t @ me). So let’s treat this year’s club as the club, a low-lit hot spot with plush banquettes where we can order drinks, kibitz to our hearts’ content, and—once in a while, like the West London partygoers in Lovers Rock or the disco-dancing Vietnam vets in Da 5 Bloods—hit the floor and dance.
Odie: Your Top 10 list contains more films I haven’t seen than anyone else’s in the group, so I’ll start with you. How could I have missed your No. 1 film, American Utopia, a Spike Lee–directed concert movie with David Byrne? Especially given that its most obvious inspiration, Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense, is my favorite concert film of all time? No doubt for the same reason we all kept missing movies we cared about this year: I was always out of sync, unclear on what was opening where or why to hit “play” on this instead of that. At any rate, between American Utopia, Da 5 Bloods (which did make my list), and that devastatingly simple and beautiful 5-minute short chronicling the empty landmarks of New York City at the height of the spring pandemic wave, Spike Lee has had a year. At RogerEbert.com, where your list appears, you didn’t create individual blurbs for each movie, only a list of titles. So I would love for you to go a bit longer on American Utopia and what seeing it did for you in this far-from-utopic time. The same goes for any other movie from your list I haven’t yet seen, which include the indie horror thriller His House, the Gina Prince-Bythewood–directed superhero film The Old Guard, and The Truth, the first non-Japan-set movie from the master Hirokazu Kore-eda.
And Alison: The top title on your Top 10 list is Bacurau, a bloody and expectation-defying thriller about an impoverished backwater town in Brazil that, for reasons we never fully come to understand, becomes the target of a team of white supremacist assassins on some kind of sadistic pleasure hunt. I also have Bacurau on my list, even if, or more likely because, it’s a little rough around the edges. This is a movie that leaps, and sometimes lurches, from one genre to the next—political allegory, revenge thriller, bawdy comedy, spooky folk tale. It’s also refreshingly protagonist-free, with at least half a dozen fascinating main characters, all of whom might die at any moment, set against a backdrop of colorful neighborhood figures who each deserve a movie of their own. (Some of the interactions on the village’s tiny main street reminded me of the street scenes in Do the Right Thing, another story about a tightknit community living under constant threat of violence.) You call Bacurau a “wild-eyed neo-Western” and praise the “apocalyptic utopianism” we glimpse in the queer, multiracial, endlessly feuding but fiercely proud population of the town. I have been thinking a lot this year about the future of utopia: When the world starts up again (and it will, however different it may look by then), why should we still have to keep revisiting the same dull sci-fi dystopias over and over? Haven’t the likes of John Connor and the Avengers been given enough chances to save the world? Bacurau is indebted, in themes if not in style, to Glauber Rocha, the Marxist filmmaker who was a pioneer of the Cinema Novo movement at the height of Brazil’s military dictatorship (and who spent most of the rest of his life in exile for that reason). At this moment, when governments in that country and around the world are tilting toward autocracy, a film like Bacurau feels like a hoarse cry for revolution. Maybe that roughness I mentioned is its greatest strength; it’s a blunt, bold machete of a movie. Can you tell us more about why it was your favorite of the year?
Justin, you’re up first, so I’m offering you a challenge: Can you convince me that Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, No. 6 on your Top 10 list, doesn’t fall apart in the last quarter? I haven’t read the novel it’s based on, and while I was unsettled and seduced by the movie for an hour and a half or more—right up to and including that bonkers ballet sequence—I couldn’t help feeling Kaufman’s funny, tragic, and often brilliant script didn’t quite stick the landing. The film at first seemed to be about a woman afraid her identity was being eclipsed in a relationship, and then, as things got more and more epistemologically convoluted (who was speaking on the voice-over? How could we know for sure?), the movie began to eclipse her as well. I’m not sure, given the central conceit, that this was avoidable, but Jessie Buckley was such a revelation as the identity- and name-shifting protagonist that at the moment she began to recede from view I lost my emotional investment in the movie and started to view it merely as a conceptual exercise. You’re as silver-tongued as any critic I know—can you talk me into rewatching this one with a more open mind?
In the interest of kicking off our conversation, I’ll also link to my Top 10 of 2020 and list the titles here, and ask all of you to do the same in your first posts.
Da 5 Bloods
Let Them All Talk
I doubt any of us is doing much of the usual stuff for the holidays this year: no travel, no parties, no festive office gatherings. So I hope you’ll experience this week as a chance to go someplace new, put on a (metaphorical) sparkly outfit, and hold forth on the movie of your choice beside a crackling fire. Even if the fire is nonmetaphorical and spreading fast.
Pass the nog,