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The end of the f***ing world: 2020 films, discs and life in review
In our first posting of the first lockdown of 2021, Slarek picks some of his favourite films and Blu-ray releases from 2020, reflects on how the pandemic has impacted him and goes off on one about governmental corruption and incompetence.
 

It's that time of year again, when I pick a few films and discs that I've really enjoyed over the course of the past year, as well as taking a look back at how the year impacted on me personally and going off on one about the destructive stateof the national and even international politics. I usually go on my rant first before getting to the movies and discs, but as not everyone wants to wade through my grievances with the government to get to the only bit they came for, this year I've elected to open with a bit of personal reflection, then get onto the titles I've selected, and finish with the rant. That way, anyone looking to bypass that can easily give it a miss.

A Personal Reflection on 2020

I’ve been around a long time now, a lot longer than many of you who are reading this, and yet I’ve never experienced a year that’s anything close to how catastrophic this one has been. And despite the date change, it’s not over yet, not by a long chalk. I didn’t start the year optimistically but certainly wasn’t ready for the arrival of an internationally devastating pandemic, one that so far has infected over 85 million people and at the time of writing has killed 1,845,376, and many more by the time you get to read this. Of those who have recovered, many are experiencing long-term debilitating effects, and yet still there is a substantial minority of ignorant fuckwits who claim that the whole thing is a hoax. In one of the most saddening news stories I saw all year, an American nurse was interviewed about her experiences treating patients who remained in denial about the existence of Covid even as they lay in bed dying of the virus. Last year the term ‘post-truth’ was a scary one. This year it’s genuinely leading people to their deaths.

The virus couldn’t have hit Britain or America at a worse time for either country, governed as both were at the outbreak by avaricious and incompetent grifters who were more concerned about their positions of power than the people they were theoretically charged with representing. As a result, Covid 19 has been allowed to run riot in both countries and is now killing more people a day in the US than the 9/11 terrorist attacks did in total, while in Britain one catastrophic bungle after another has allowed it to spread widely enough to create the perfect conditions for a new variant of the virus to evolve. Let’s see how those UK-based xenophobes who referred to Covid 19 as “the Chinese virus” like hearing this mutation referred to as “the British variant,” a term I’ve already seen used a number of times worldwide.

Living alone, being able to do my day job from home and for safety’s sake being separated from a partner who is in one of the high risk groups, I’ve now been effectively isolated from the outside world for just over nine months, and I’ll freely admit that its starting to really wear me down. In November I posted a blog about how this almost complete disconnection from other people was sapping my concentration and making it hard to write reviews or even focus on watching films, and while I did manage to snap myself out of that funk, it keeps tugging at me like a persistent dog with attention deficit disorder. The longer it goes on, the more it feels as if I’m slowly dying inside, and knowing that it’s likely to continue for a good few months longer, possibly even to the end of 2021 and beyond, emphasises the feeling of serving a sentence of an as-yet undetermined length in solitary confinement. What keeps me ticking over is the knowledge that so many others are having it worse than I am. Subjective may trump objective when you’re feeling down, but I’ve still so much to be grateful for. Three times I’ve had scheduled surgery on a foot that I still can’t walk far on without crutches cancelled, for example, the most recent being due to the local hospitals being overrun with Covid patients, but how could I kick up a fuss about that? I’m in pain, sure, but these people are fighting for their lives and even dying.

So has it been all bad? While at times it certainly feels that way, I do still have things to be thankful for. I still have a job – a poorly paid one that has been wage-frozen for over a decade, but a job nonetheless – and am able to work from home with only minor alterations to my usual workload. My enforced isolation means that I have so far been able to avoid catching the virus, and I’ve not fallen victim to anything that would require treatment in our impossibly overstretched hospitals. Perhaps the year’s high point came early December when I had a real “oh, fuck it” moment and decided to take the money I’d been saving for some time for a holiday I probably won’t be able to take for at least a couple of years and finally upgrade my TV from a still-reliable but aging plasma to a larger 4K OLED screen, and it’s been a bit of a revelation. My plasma has been really good, especially for watching films, but on this new screen movies look even more vibrant and games look amazing. It’s taken me some time to fine tune all of the settings, and for the first time I got to act on that message at the back of every Eureka booklet and turn off all those motion smoothing and image-enhancing technologies that seem to be enabled by default but which are distracting when watching decently coded Blu-ray titles. It’s left me with little money for anything else for a while, but I really love this TV.

Having cleaned myself out to get the screen, however, I’ve yet to get my hands on a UHD player of any description, and am unlikely to do so in the immediate future. Working from home may be safer but it’s also more expensive. I’ve made myself a small office in a room I was previously using to store junk and now only heat that one room in small spurts during work days, keeping warm by encasing myself in a cardigan so thick you could lag a boiler with it and fingerless gloves whose bulk is playing merry hell with my two-finger typing. Tapping away at the keyboard, I must look like a cartoon image of some miserly Dickensian office manager. But having the computer and a couple of hard drives going all day, coupled with trips to the kitchen to make coffee and heat the odd snack has literally doubled my electricity bill, and that’s really starting to bite. It’s because of this that some of the discs that should by rights be on my pick of the year do not get a mention – if they weren’t sent to us for review then I’ve had to buy them, and this year I’ve really had to ration my spending on that front.

The Films and Discs

As ever, my picks of favourite films and discs from the past twelve months are not in any way definitive, as I’ve seen only a fraction of the titles that were released in 2020. My ongoing health issues have made cinemagoing difficult for some time, while the film society I co-run that has been my lifeline to big screen film viewing was put on indefinite hold once the pandemic hit. Many new films became available on streaming services instead, but often at rental prices that I can only afford as an occasional treat. Things were changed for a couple of weeks by the London Film Festival digital press screenings, which allowed me to catch several titles I would otherwise not have seen until sometime in 2021. I was actually due to take a couple of weeks off work for the festival (a peculiar situation when you’re working from home anyway), but I had to cancel this when a slew of urgently required jobs was thrown my way and I had to squeeze what films I could into the free time that I was left with. As a result, I didn’t see or review anything like as many films as I’d planned to, and have missed a fair few that you’ll find on more authoritative annual round-ups. As ever, the titles included here are just personal selections from what I have managed to see, films that particularly excited, impressed or entertained me, and usually a combination of all three. Thus if a film you might expect to see on the list is not included, then there’s a fair chance I simply haven’t got round to seeing it yet.

Possessor

The story has been similar for disc releases. There have been some blinding Blu-ray and even UHD titles released in the UK over the past year, and if I was rolling around in money I’d have bought just about everything put out by Indicator, Eureka, Arrow, Second Run, Second Sight, Third Window, Criterion UK and a few of Network’s choicer titles as well. And that’s just a sampling. Personal issues have got in the way of reviews that I should have done and theoretically had every opportunity to complete. I feel particularly guilty about not covering more titles from Eureka and Second Run, as they tend to send review discs without requests from me to do so that arrive just when I’m snowed under with work, lost in a self-indulgent isolation funk, or halfway through epic coverage of a gargantuan box set. I’ve had stout help from Jerry Whyte, Clydefro and most especially Camus, but these fine fellows have had their own issues to deal with and lives that have been every bit as disrupted by the spread of this damned virus as mine.

Despite self-imposed spending restrictions, I have bought a fair few discs myself but have usually done so some months after their initial release, when I could get them in a sale or at a bargain price. It’s for this reason that one particular disc that has found its way onto many yearly round-ups and has even topped a few – Second Sight’s amazing-looking UHD release of George Romero’s genre-defining Dawn of the Dead – is not on my list, as I simply can’t afford to buy it at the moment. I’ll thus watch from the sidelines in envy as others wax lyrical about its image quality and treasure trove of special features. That said, my picks do include a few disc titles that we’ve not reviewed, some of which I never got around to covering and others I bought and then wished I’d had the time to do so. Not all are feature-packed special editions either, with a couple making the list purely because I really liked the films and this is the format on which they are currently available at the best viewable quality.

So here they are, and as ever I’m not interested in round numbers, so have selected 17 films (one of which is effectively a performance piece that doesn’t run to feature length) and 14 discs, all of them Blu-rays.

The Films

ANOTHER ROUND [DRUK]
Probably my favourite of the films I saw at the London Film Festival also landed the Audience Award for Best Narrative feature. Directed by Dogme 95 co-founder Thomas Vinterberg, it’s a very smartly written, vigorously directed and marvellously performed exploration of the Danish drinking culture, and by association the risks and pleasures of the consumption of alcohol in general. Mads Mikkelson, Thomas Bo Larsen, Lars Ranthe (all of whom also featured in Vinterberg’s The Hunt) and Magnus Millang play schoolteachers who make a pact to maintain a constant 0.05% blood alcohol level during the daylight hours and monitor its effects, which are initially positive for all four men but which create problems for them when they take the experiment to the next level. Working both as a cautionary tale and a celebration of the liberating effect of the demon drink, it’s a fabulously executed work that may well have the most euphorically upbeat final scene I’ve cheered through in a good few years. A cinematic expansion on a famed Homer Simpson toast, “To alcohol – the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems,” the film’s English language title has been toned down from the original Danish Druk, which my Danish-speaking sister assures me has its English equivalent in “binge drinking” or ”on the piss.”

London Film Festival review>>


COLLECTIVE
Following a fire at a concert at the Colectiv club in Bucharest that left 27 dead and 180 injured, a team of journalists (from a sports newspaper, no less) begin investigating a widespread healthcare fraud that may have contributed to some of the post-fire mortality. What they uncover is genuinely startling and I mean that in every sense –  I yelped in horror at phone footage surreptitiously shot by a whistleblowing doctor, having already gasped at earlier video of the fire itself, which spreads through the roof of the club at a genuinely terrifying speed. Directed by Alexander Nanau, this is gripping and crucial documentary filmmaking and the sort of work that can only come about when the filmmakers stick with their subjects and follow their every move, no matter where it may take them.


Color Out of Space

COLOR OUT OF SPACE
After a several years of rolling my eyes every time Nicholas Cage loses his shit on screen, there’s something about it now that I’ve become rather fond of. I’m fairly sure it was his performance in Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy that turned me around on this, where the subtlety of his portrayal in the film’s first third eventually gives way to a level of madness that at one point seems to affect the stability of the film frame. Here Cage is a regular guy whose family is affected in unexpected and increasingly troubling ways when a meteorite blasts a small crater in their front garden. Faithfully adapted from the H.P Lovecraft story of almost the same name, the first dramatic feature from Hardware director Richard Stanley in 24 years is a visually and aurally hallucinatory mindfuck of a film that I first watched on a double-bill with another extra-terrestrial themed title on this list. Now that was a good evening.


DAVE CHAPELLE: 8:46
The anger at the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement is searingly captured here by comedian Dave Chapelle in a stand-up performance in which he explores the impact on himself and society at large of the on-camera murder of George Floyd, which proved to be the tipping point in a seemingly endless series of killings of black citizens by police in America. This is no comedy routine but a furious response, the horror of what Floyd must have gone through searingly brought home through a direct comparison Chapelle makes to his own terror during an earthquake, while its very personal impact on him relates directly to the number in the title. I’ll leave you to discover that one for yourselves. Performed to a socially distanced audience in the open air, it’s cinematically by the stage performance book – it’s the content and the anger of the delivery that gives this one its impact.


I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS
The latest from Charlie Kaufman, the writer of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation and the writer-director of Synecdoche, New York and Anomalisa, is another nominee for headfuck of the year. Adapted from the novel by Iain Reid, the film is initially focused on a young woman (Jessie Buckley) as she travels through a snowy landscape with her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) to meet his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) at their distantly located farm. As Jake drives and the young woman looks out of the window, she contemplates the state of their relationship and converses with her boyfriend about a variety of topics. For a while I was convinced that the whole film was going to be set in the car and oddly had no problem with this, thanks to two spot-on performances from Buckley and Plemons and the sort of almost randomised dialogue and inner monologues that that occur when you’re on a long journey with no distractions and are plagued with doubts about the person sitting next to you. Yep, I’ve been there. It’s when they reach the farmhouse that the film takes a more surrealistic turn, as the young woman’s name undergoes some inexplicable changes, the age of both parents makes a few dramatic shifts, and the farmhouse and its occupants take on a distinctly discomforting and even sinister air. One of a surprising three films on this list shot in the Academy ratio (or in one case, even narrower), I’m Thinking of Ending Things is absolutely going to piss off a sizeable portion of any potential audience, with conversations veering off in so many directions and encompassing so many ideas about life, relationships, art, philosophy and a whole lot more that it can sometimes feel scattershot and unfocussed, but I just couldn’t tear myself away from it for a second. I’ve heard that it all becomes clearer if you’ve read the book, but for the rest of us a second or third viewing seems a logical way forward, and I’m well up for that.


Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattison in The Lighthouse

THE LIGHTHOUSE
I adored The Witch and was subsequently itching to see what director Robert Eggers would do next. Would he accept an offer to direct the next entry into the never-ending series of hugely-budgeted, comic-book superhero movies, or would he continue to make strikingly offbeat low-budget films of distinctive artistic vision? In January of 2020 we UK viewers got to see for ourselves, and I for one couldn’t have been more excited. Little did we know then that The Lighthouse would be one of the defining films of 2020, being a study of how enforced isolation can lead slowly to madness and a subjective fracturing of perceived reality, something that I know I’m not the only one to have had a taste of during the past nine months. Robert Pattison – who’s really made some fascinating career choices of late – plays a novice lighthouse keeper who is stationed on a remote island with an old hand played by Willem Dafoe (an established master of chance-taking roles), and the film chronicles their increasing struggles to hang on to their fraying sanity. Beautifully shot in almost expressionistic monochrome by The Witch cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, who puts the film’s unusually narrow 1.19:1 aspect ratio to appropriately claustrophobic use, it’s a hypnotic, disturbing but artistically thrilling work from a director who now has the unenviable task of completing a career-launching opening hat trick.


MANGROVE
The film selected to open the 2020 London Film Festival, Steve McQueen’s vigorous, spirited recreation of the protests against police harassment of the Notting Hill black community and the subsequent trial of The Mangrove Nine had me and fellow reviewer Jerry Whyte metaphorically punching the air with delight. Evocatively and economically recreating the place and period and boasting a string of terrific performances and a superbly structured script, it’s television elevated to the scope, ambition and dramatic power of a theatrical feature (unusually for a modern TV work, it was shot on film). It also makes for a belting opening cannonade to McQueen’s Small Axe series – whose second entry, Lovers Rock, is also a cracker, though the whole series is worth seeing – and is, in its way, a cross-Atlantic blood brother to Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7.

London Film Festival review>>


MANK
Gary Oldman delivers another powerhouse performance as bedridden alcoholic screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz as he is offered the chance by a young upstart named Orson Welles to write what may be his greatest work, the screenplay for a little film titled Citizen Kane. Gorgeously shot in luminous monochrome scope by Erik Messerschmidt, it boasts a powerhouse cast that includes Amanda Seyfried, Tuppence Middleton, Arliss Howard, Charles Dance, Tom Pelphrey, Lily Collins and Tom Burke, while cineastes should have fun spotting the famous names from American film history – some of whom get only a passing mention – that liberally pepper the proceedings. David Fincher directs with style, subtly referencing elements of the film at the story’s core without blatantly aping shots and scenes, and the screenplay, by Fincher’s late father Jack, bristles with the sort of smart and sassy dialogue that wouldn’t have been out of place in an A-list Hollywood studio flick of the day. Another Netflix production that I’ll just bet looks terrific on the big screen.


The Nightingale

THE NIGHTINGALE
Although this one landed a UK release in November of 2019, it was a limited one and a fair few of us thus didn’t catch up with it until early in 2020, and there was no way it wasn’t going to be on this list. Jennifer Kent’s follow-up to her extraordinary 2015 debut feature, The Babadook, is a wincingly brutal but utterly gripping story of a young Irish convict woman in 1820s Australia who survives an appalling act of violence against her and her family, then sets out to track down and punish the British officer responsible, aided by an Aboriginal tracker who is nursing his own past traumas. It’s definitely a tough watch at times – it’s worth noting that the early act of violence is not the only shock to the system the film delivers, and it’s unflinching about the racism of the day – but is compellingly told and performed (Aisling Franciosi is just superb in the lead role) and those moments of violence never feel misplaced or remotely gratuitous. Shot by The Babadook cinematographer Radek Ladczuk in the Academy ratio, the film has a beautifully downbeat visual style that helps ground the proceedings in a stark and uncompromising reality.


THE PAINTED BIRD
Václav Marhoul’s adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s novel of the same name was without question one of the year’s most divisive films, but for myself and Jerry, on whose enthusiastic recommendation I sought it out, it was unquestionably one of the best. Following a wartime journey of a young Jewish boy across Eastern Europe during World War 2, the film explores the darker side of humanity and the depths to which humankind can sink, something Jerry summed up perfectly in a single sentence in his review: “Three-hours-long, perfectly paced, exquisitely shot and impeccably acted, The Painted Bird is a haunting, harrowing, urgent reminder of humankind’s ongoing flirtation with barbarism.” I genuinely could not have put it better. Stunningly beautiful monochrome scope cinematography contrasts starkly and deliberately with acts of cruelty that will definitely prove too much for some, yet at a time when prejudice and brutality appear to be making a real-world comeback, the warnings embedded within the narrative – over the course of which events  prematurely force a grim version of manhood onto a young boy – are as pertinent as they were back in the period in which the film is set.

London Film Festival review (includes spoilers) >>


THE PAINTER AND THE THIEF
My favourite documentary from the 2020 London Film Festival was once again also the Audience Award winner, and it’s easy to see why. Benjamin Ree’s intimately observed chronicling of the friendship and working relationship that developed between Czech painter Barbora Kysilkova and one of the men who stole two of her most treasured works gets so close to both individuals that I began to suspect that Ree and his team had discovered the secret of invisibility. Peppered with surprises, both in the ways in which the story twists and the emotional hits the film delivers, it’s a wonderful and moving example of the sort of documentary filmmaking that can only come about when a filmmaker makes a long-term commitment fuelled solely on faith that his or her story will develop in interesting ways and find its own logical conclusion.

London Film Festival review >>


Parasite

PARASITE
I’ll freely admit that I was startled when Bong Joon-ho’s latest won Best Film at this year’s Academy Awards, being the first film non-English language work to do so, which of course irked xenophobes across America, including a certain outgoing president. A double win, then. What didn’t surprise me was that Bong had delivered such a thematically complex, terrifically performed and dramatically riveting drama, as he’s been doing this since his brilliant 2003 breakthrough film, Memories of Murder. That said, Parasite is probably his most tightly constructed and intricate work yet, playing games with our expectations and how we initially view characters in terms of their intentions and their relationships with each other. Initially playing out story about a poor but smartly predatory family who manipulate their way into the employ of an upper-class household in order to exploit them, it evolves into a riveting and multi-layered study of class divisions and family ties. One of those rare times when I was with the Academy all the way.


A PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD
I only caught up with writer-director Armando Iannucci’s glorious Dickens adaptation in December when I was back in the grip of isolation fever, and frankly I couldn’t have done so at a better time. Wittily written and boasting a splendid multicultural cast led by a terrific Dev Patel, it has the feel of a big-budget Hollywood production whilst retaining the tone and wit of a smart indie work. Driven along by a consistently witty script and a supporting cast to die for, the story advances with such sweep and pace that it feels simultaneously old-school and smartly up-to-date. This was the first film I watched on my new TV once I’d calibrated it, so I’m a little biased, but it looks absolutely ravishing (props here to production designer Cristina Casali, costume designers Suzie Harman and Robert Worley and cinematographer Zac Nicholson), and on entertainment value alone had a hugely positive impact on my end-of-year mood.


POSSESSOR
I’ve been waiting eight years for Brandon Cronenberg to make good on his riveting debut feature, Antiviral, and when it arrived it not only met my expectations but exceeded them. The film builds grippingly on an intriguing central concept – top female assassin Holly is able to get close to her victims by inhabiting the bodies of an employee, friend or partner – to explore the psychological impact of this extreme form of undercover combat (Holly is a wife and mother and has to rehearse her greetings in advance of seeing her young son again to fully recall who she really is), as well as issues of identity and gender in a manner that is particularly pertinent to the online age. Disturbing, gorily violent (this is not one for the even remotely squeamish) and hallucinatory by turns, it’s also cerebral and inventive, and it knows just how to deliver a surprising twist. It may even more closely echo the body horror themes so beloved of Cronenberg Snr (the links to eXistenZ in particular are hard to ignore), but Brandon goes his own way with them and pulls them together with a skill and confidence that has me itching to see how he follows this one up. This is one I plan to go into far more detail on when it gets comes out on UK Blu-ray.


Rose: A Love Story

ROSE, A LOVE STORY
Although still awaiting a full UK release, the debut feature from director Jennifer Sheridan was one of a small handful of inventive and thematically strong takes on traditional horror tales that played in the 2020 London Film Festival. The focus here is not the affliction of the title character but the specifics of the isolated lifestyle that she and her husband have had to adopt in order to carry on living as a couple, a delicate balance that is threatened by the unexpected arrival of an injured outsider. Shot and performed with a convincing eye for realism that is aided by the casting of real-life couple Sophie Rundle and Matt Stokoe in the lead roles (Stokoe also penned the thoughtful screenplay), Rose is one of those films that comes along every now and again to remind me that there really is new life in subgenres that I’ve too often been prepared to write of as exhausted. The film is still waiting for a UK release, which I do hope it gets, as it’s a work that needs to be more widely seen and appreciated.

London Film Festival review >>


RELIC
And while we’re on the subject of smart and thematically strong takes on traditional horror tropes, one of my absolute favourites from last year’s LFF was Relic, another striking horror-themed debut feature, this time from Japanese-Australian director Natalie Erika James. When their elderly mother goes missing from her isolated rural home, her daughter and adult granddaughter travel from the city to her house to investigate. This simple setup is used to build a strong sense of mystery and unease about the grandmother’s disappearance, but it’s after she unexpectedly reappears that the film’s underlying themes – the onset of dementia and how we care for ageing relatives – really kick in. It builds unsettlingly to an extraordinary climax that is clearly designed to be read primarily in metaphorical terms, and as someone who cared for his own mother as she mentally and physically deteriorated, I was reduced to a blubbering wreck by its implications (I was intrigued to hear critic Mark Kermode say the very same thing about the film for similarly personal reasons).

London Film Festival review>>


THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7
Celebrated screenwriter Aaron Sorkin makes a move into the director’s chair for this hugely engaging and very smartly written (well, naturally) recreation of the infamous trial of eight protestors (Black Panther leader Bobby Seale was eventually tried separately, hence the Chicago Seven) who were arrested during protests outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Despite a couple of minor blips in Sacha Baron Cohen’s American accent, the performances (especially Cohen, as it happens) are terrific across the board, with a great role for Frank Langella as Judge Julius Hoffman, the real-life hissable bad guy of the piece (the actual Hoffman was even worse, if you can believe that), and Sorkin’s direction always serves the performances rather than detracting from them. Some have complained about changes made to historical fact for dramatic purposes (the treatment of Seale was far more insidious than is shown in the film), and they do have a point, but the film still succeeds both as a politically charged entertainment and a timely reminder of past injustice at a time when history seems almost to be repeating itself.

Film review >>


The Vast of Night

THE VAST OF NIGHT
One of the year’s real surprises was one that almost sneaked under my radar is Andrew Patterson’s riveting calling-card debut feature, The Vast of Night. Set in a small town in the late 1950s during the evening of the season’s opening basketball game, it focuses on two characters, teenage part-time telephone operator Fay (Sierra McCormick) and hotshot young local disc jockey Everett (Jake Horowitz) as they investigate the source of a strange sound picked up during one of Everett’s radio broadcasts that may or may not be of this Earth. It’s an object lesson in how to make a smart and compelling science fiction-themed feature on a micro-budget, with a tightly-written and sassy script (by Patterson and Craig W. Sanger), two terrific central performances and Patterson’s controlled and intermittently adventurous direction (a gripping ten minute shot of Fay fielding calls at the switchboard is followed immediately by an astonishingly executed track that traverses what feels like the entire town, including the basketball game) making this one of the year’s nicest and most satisfying surprises.

The Discs

COLUMBIA NOIR #1 (Indicator)
With so many great releases under its belt this year, it seems only right that I should kick off my list of favourite discs with a box set from Indicator. Yes, their five-film The Fu Manchu Cycle 1965-1969had more special features (there’s a couple of weeks of busy viewing in that set alone), but for quality of film content, this first collection of lesser-seen noir tales from Columbia really does take some beating. Six damned fine movies, all remastered and looking great and each with a commentary track and other supplementary features, make it an absolute must-have for noir fans everywhere. I had a great time with this set and genuinely can’t wait for the second one, which is due in February.

Blu-ray review >>


CZECHMATE: IN SEARCH IF JIŘÍ MENZEL (Second Run)
A delightfully offbeat but revealing and consistently entertaining documentary portrait of celebrated Czech filmmaker Jiří Menzel, who sadly died just two months after the release of this Blu-ray. The film was the work of Indian director Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, whose 2012 documentary Celluloid Man is a personal favourite of mine, and if you like your biographical films to take their time and really get to know their subjects, then buckle up, because Czechmate runs for 7 hours over the course of two Blu-ray discs. And it’s never boring, often enthralling and sometimes engagingly quirky (Menzel is at one point interviewed sitting fully clothed in an empty bathtub), and the running time allows detailed examination of some of Menzel’s key films. A must for anyone with an interest in Czech cinema, which is all of us, right?


EVE
(Indicator)
The Blu-ray release of Joseph Losey’s 1962 drama Eve landed on my doormat when I was convinced I wouldn’t have time to cover it, but then I watched it and knew absolutely that I’d have to shelve my other plans and focus on this disc instead. A Venice-set story in which a newly successful author (Stanley Baker) falls for a beautiful but manipulative woman (Jeanne Moreau), an attraction that develops into obsession that engineers the man’s downfall. The film is really something and the disc is loaded with quality special features plus four cuts of the movie, which makes it one of the most densely packed of Indicator’s single-disc 2020 Blu-ray releases. Only when my review was almost complete did I discover that this is fellow reviewer Jerry Whyte’s favourite Losey film and that he would have, in his own words, bitten my hand off to cover it.

Blu-ray review >>


Gemini

GEMINI [SOSEIJI] (Third Window)
This is on the list for a couple of reasons. The first is that it’s a mesmerising and stylish doppelgänger drama from Japanese indie maestro, Tsukamoto Shinya, one whose sometimes striking visuals and use of colour seemed to mark a significant shift away from the punk aesthetic of his previous films (stick with it, though, as when the action explodes it’s a Tsukamoto film through an through). The second is that I’ve been waiting for literally years for this key work in the director’s filmography to become available on any format in the UK. The film was first released in Japan back in 1999 and I reviewed it five years later when it was released on Japanese DVD by none other than Warner Brothers, who you’d think would have the clout for an international release. Now Third Window has come to the rescue with a remastered HD transfer that obviously outshines my old DVD, but the disc also includes all of the video extras from the Japanese disc (and a bit more making-of footage) in SD but with the advantage of English subtitles for all of them. If you’re a Tsukamoto fan, you have to have this disc.

Japanese DVD review >>

GHOST HUNTING (Second Run)
One of a number of Second Run titles I didn’t get around to reviewing is one that I at least caught up with and am still considering putting together a review for despite a release date that’s now fading in the rear view mirror. Don’t be misled by the title, as this is not a supernatural horror story but a film whose most unsettling moments are the product of the real-world experience of its on-screen contributors. Director Raed Andoni kicked off the project with a newspaper advertisement looking for former inmates of the Moskobiya interrogation centre in Jerusalem, whom he asks to help reconstruct a replica of the centre’s interior and take on the roles of prisoners and guards, as well as advising on the past behaviour of each. The trick is, this is not background information for the project but how the film itself plays out, as the former inmates are interviewed and hired, help to reconstruct cells and rooms in which they received punishing treatment, and even relive experiences that many of them had doubtless hoped to put behind them. It’s genuinely like no other documentary I’ve seen, and while it may seem to be building to the shooting of a film that never actually gets made, we learn so much about the former prisoners and what they went through in the process of preparing for it that I in no way felt remotely short-changed by this.


THE MAN WHO LAUGHS
(Eureka – Masters of Cinema)
A fabulous example of silent cinema storytelling from Waxworks and The Cat and the Canary director Paul Leni, one that I was well into reviewing when I fell victim to isolation fever and the site underwent one of its unintended lulls. Conrad Veidt plays Gwynplaine, a man who as a child had his mouth mutilated into a rictus grin by his father’s enemies. He now works as a celebrated fairground sideshow performer and is loved by a beautiful girl named Dea (Mary Philbin), whom he rescued as a baby and whose blindness allows her to judge him on his qualities as a person instead of his ghoulish appearance. But when his true identity and regal lineage is discovered, the machinations of those in power to project or advance their own positions lead him down a potentially self-destructive path. An expressionist-influenced visual feast that boasts striking make-up by the legendary Jack Pierce (he of Frankenstein and The Wolf Man) that influenced the original design of comic book villain The Joker, The Man Who Laughs is an absolute treat for fans of Gothic melodrama, and the transfer and the special features on this Masters of Cinema Blu-ray are first-rate. Despite the release date have long-since sailed, this is one review I really should complete and post.


Ray Milland is The Man With X-ray Eyes

THE MAN WITH X-RAY EYES (Second Sight)
Second Sight have had a number of notable releases in 2020, including Magic, Revenge and, of course, those glorious Blu-ray and UHD editions of Dawn of the Dead, and nowadays the quality of the label’s special editions is up there with those of Arrow, Eureka and Indicator. Budget restrictions have forced me to be picky about the titles I buy, but when my birthday rolled around I did go on a small disc spending spree and just couldn’t resist this Blu-ray Special Edition of Roger Corman’s 1963 melding of horror and science fiction, The Man With X-Ray Eyes. In it, Ray Milland plays a scientist who develops a serum that give him x-ray vision, but in the manner of so many science-based cautionary tales, its continued usage has unexpected and life-changing effects, which builds to some psychedelic sequences and one of the most startling endings in all of Corman’s oeuvre. A very nice restoration and transfer is backed by two commentaries – one of them from Corman himself – and contributions from Kat Ellinger, Joe Dante and Mick Garris. It’s also handsomely presented in a robust slipcase with a slick booklet and a two-sided fold-out poster.


MELANCHOLIC
(Third Window)
This is one I’m including almost solely for the film itself, which I may never have seen were it not for this Third Window Blu-ray release. I was initially drawn on the basis of the premise alone. A socially awkward and unambitious young man named Nabeoka lands a job at a local bath house that he is unaware is also being used by a yakuza as a location in which to execute his enemies, with the tiled floors, ample drainage and water-heating furnace in the basement making it easy to clean up and dispose of the bodies. When a curious Nabeoka discovers what is going on after hours and clumsily reveals his presence, his life is spared by the bath house owner on condition he agrees to help them clean up after the killings. Contrary to his initial fears, he soon finds himself becoming drawn into this world and becomes fiercely protective of his new position. I’m reluctant to reveal more, as the film has its share of narrative surprises and enjoyably quirky characters, including Nabeoka’s seemingly immature co-worker and a girl he went to school with who now seems to have developed quite a thing for him. What gives the film a real edge are its blackly comic overtones, the result of applying the specifically Japanese way with politeness and efficiency to a situation where it seemingly has no place. It also scores points for not concluding how I was convinced I was being steered to expect it would. I really enjoyed this, and the HD scope transfer on the Blu-ray is immaculate.


NIGHT TIDE
(Indicator)
One of the key reasons we tend to love labels like Indicator, Arrow and Eureka is that they regularly announce the upcoming release of titles you’ve either never got around to seeing or have even heard of. As a result, each year I get to experience a fair few pleasant surprises, many of which are the result of discs sent out for review that I might not have otherwise laid out money for. One of my favourites on this score was Curtis Harrington’s 1961 Night Tide, the story of a sailor on leave who meets and falls for a woman who performs as a mermaid on a pier attraction and begins to suspect something is not quite right about her. It has the premise of an AIP exploitation flick, but Harrington’s direction, coupled with some captivating performances from the likes of Dennis Hopper, Linda Lawson, Luana Anders, Gavin Muir, Marjorie Eaton and famed occultist Marjorie Cameron, transform it into a hauntingly unusual and oddly captivating experience. Indicator’s 2-disc Special Edition is absolutely loaded with high-quality special features, including two commentary tracks – one featuring Harrington and Hopper – and a selection of Harrington’s earlier short films. An absolutely belting release.

Blu-ray review >>

Joshua Burge in Relaxer

RELAXER (Anti-Worlds)
One of the first Blu-ray releases from new distributor Anti-Worlds is another one that caught me completely by surprise, as I’d not previously seen any of director Joel Potrykus’s micro-budget features and thus was not prepared for how taken I would be with them. It’s easy to see why some would be exasperated by his 2018 Relaxer, which is exclusively focussed on 20-something slacker Abbie as he accepts a challenge from his bullying brother to not move from the apartment couch until he has beaten the legendary level 256 on Pac-Man, but for me it proved an object lesson in what you can do with a single location and very little money. Joshua Burge makes Abbie an oddly fascinating geek, yet what really surprises is how strong some of the supporting cast are, notably David Dastmalchian as Abbie’s brother Cam and Andre Hyland as his not-too-sympathetic friend Dallas. What particularly makes this Blu-ray stand out is the quality and quantity of the content, with the film joined by Potrykus’s earlier feature, Buzzard (which I enjoyed even more), a commentary track for each movie and a slew of other special features, including short films and music videos.

Blu-ray review>>


TAKESHI KITANO COLLECTION
(BFI)
As a long-time fan of the cinema of Kitano Takeshi (for those new to the site, I prefer the Japanese convention of family name first), I was overjoyed by the remastered Blu-rays of A Scene at the Sea, Kikujiro and Hana-Bi released by Third Window in 2016, and have been itching to see other early Kitano works receive similar treatment. This is particularly true of the 1993 Sonatine, a personal favourite that has never had a UK-specific disc release. Then in 2020 along comes the BFI and fills three of the gaps in this distinctive filmmaker’s early oeuvre with a box set containing Blu-ray remasters of his first film, Violent Cop, its wonderfully offbeat follow-up, Boiling Point, and, at last, the magnificent Sonatine. All three films look better than I’ve ever seen them and are accompanied by knowledgeable commentary tracks, some worthy featurettes, trailers and a very fine booklet. For me, this was absolutely one of the top Blu-ray releases of the year and the one I’ve most frequently revisited.

Blu-ray review>>


THREE EDGAR ALLEN POE ADAPTATIONS STARRING BELA LUGOSI
(Eureka – Masters of Cinema)
In a year of splendid releases from Eureka on its Masters of Cinema, Eureka Classics and Montage pictures labels, this three-film box set, whose overall content is clearly outlined in its space-eating title, was one of my very favourites. As a fan of Universal horror movies, Edgar Allen Poe and Bela Lugosi, my mouth was watering at the very prospect of a three film set in which all three were united, and the films themselves – The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), The Black Cat (1934) and The Raven (1935) – are each fascinating and enjoyable in their own way. All three are also intermittently more gruesome than their production date suggests, and they really do showcase Lugosi at his best, especially The Raven. The transfers are impressive and absolutely glorious in the case of Murders in the Rue Morgue, and as we’ve come to expect from Eureka, the accompanying special features – which include four fine commentary tracks (The Raven gets two) and radio adaptations of the Poe stories – are of a very high order. Poe purists may baulk a bit at the liberties taken with the tales from which the films take their inspiration, but this is still a terrific triple-bill in a belter of a package and I love it.

Blu-ray review >>


TSUKAMO: HAZE / KILLING / THE ADVENTURES OF DENCHU-KOZO (Third Window)
My second selection from Third Window featuring the work of visionary Japanese maverick Tsukamoto Shinya is comprised of not one film but three, with his compelling latest feature, Killing, joined by his brain-bending early 8mm work Adventures of Electric Rod Boy and, at long last, a correctly graded HD transfer of Haze, his riveting 2005 expansion of a 23-minute short film he created for the Jeonju Film Festival in Korea. This last title was especially welcome for those of us who groaned our way through the transfer on its previous UK DVD incarnation, which was so dark it was actually impossible to make out what was happening for much of the time, even with the brightness on your TV cranked way up. For Tsukamoto devotees, of which I am one, this has to be one of the key disc releases of 2020, and if the films weren’t enough, we also get commentaries on all three films by Midnight Eye editor and writer and author of Iron Man: The Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto, Tom Mes.

Haze DVD review >>

The Woman in Black

THE WOMAN IN BLACK (Network)
I’d never seen the original 1989 TV adaptation of Susan Hill’s novel when the news of this Blu-ray release was announced, but when I mentioned it to my partner, her excitement had me wondering why I’d failed to catch it, given that it was first broadcast long before I stopped watching live TV. It certainly had all that was needed to hook me, as despite being an ITV production, it was definitely in the mould of the BBCs Ghost Stories for Christmas, it was written by Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale and was directed by Herbert Wise of I, Claudius fame. My hope was to watch it with said partner, but long before the disc was hit the shelves we became isolated from each other by a certain deadly pandemic, and as bungle after bungle was made by the government, the situation worsened to the point where it became clear we’re unlikely to see each other again until the summer of 2021 at the earliest. I thus gave in and watched it alone, and I loved it. Strong performances – particularly from Adrian Rawlins in a tricky lead role – handsome production design and tight direction create a genuine sense of unease and mounting fear, which explodes in a jump-scare so brilliantly executed that I actually let out a startled yell. Beautifully restored and accompanied by a terrific commentary track featuring Kim Newman, Mark Gatiss and actor Andy Nyman, it’s exactly the sort of oft-forgotten TV gem that I love to see restored and released on Blu-ray. I should note I’m still saving up for the BFI’s Play for Today set, which has found its way on a fair few other Best of 2020 lists.

And finally...

The Annual Political Rant

Regular readers will know that I traditionally go on an extended moan about the government and related political issues before I get to the movies and discs, but genuinely wondered if it was worth doing so this year, as there was enough blatant dishonesty, ineptitude and malicious greed to fill a hefty book. I’ll thus try to rein it in a bit, but I just can’t let the damage that has been inflicted by the appalling charlatans in positions of power slide. I lived through the utter depression and social destruction of the Thatcher years, and I genuinely have never seen anything as wanton, corrupt and utterly incompetent as the sorry collection of utter fuckwits we have mismanaging our country now. I shouldn’t by now need to go into detail about the public money that has been tossed into the pockets of friends of government minsters and party donors under the guise of procuring equipment and services that were then frequently bungled or never delivered. Get a £20 overpayment on your Universal Credit and you’ll be forced to pay it back, but be handed £12 million to develop a test and trace app that you never deliver, well, that’s fine, just keep the money, you’re a mate of Dominic Cummings. So brazen has this behaviour become that it has been the subject of international press coverage, with the New York Times laying out the shocking level of corruption and cronyism with a clarity and detail that few British newspapers – if you can call them that – would even acknowledge, let alone report on. They, instead, continue to sing hoorahs for our buffoon of a prime minister, dressing his abject failures in the clothing of triumphs and only turning against him when decisions forced on him by circumstance looked set to impact on businesses owned by the obscenely wealthy proprietors of these worthless rags.

The year has seen a string of catastrophic governmental decisions that have resulted in thousands of tragic and often unnecessary deaths. Instead of listening to the scientists and taking clear and affirmative action, this gang of Eton-miseducated twerps have instead concentrated all of their effort into spinning their incompetence and disregard for the safety of us plebs as triumphant successes. Johnson has also worked hard to cement his reputation as Trump’s Mini-Me by taking leaves out of the Orange One’s book, coining a derogatory nickname for opposition leader Keir Starmer (one I’m sure his PR team worked day and night to come up with) and claiming that just about everything he’s involved in is “world-beating.” It never is, and too often it turns out to be absolute shite. Multi-millionaire ministers voted against feeding children who are living in the worst poverty we’ve seen since WW2 during the summer and Christmas holidays, and have flip-flopped on so many decisions now that I’ve genuinely lost track. This is just the tip of the iceberg of cruelty and ineptitude that we’ve seen from them this year, and you won’t have to look far to find it catalogued in far more detail than I have space for. If you’re interested, check out the sound work being done by the protest group Led By Donkeys and the splendid collage artwork of Cold War Steve. The problem is, this blatantly deceitful propagandist spin still works on a substantial proportion of the population. Then again, an increased level of belief in frankly bonkers conspiracy theories does suggest that those not being infected by Covid are being driven loopy by it instead. And now we have taken our first real steps into the calamity of Brexit, an insane, self-imposed loss of rights and freedoms designed to benefit only the extremely rich, but falsely marketed to the masses as a matter of sovereignty, a word that frankly has no meaning or value any more.

Meanwhile, I’ve watched on with genuine disbelief as over in America the worst president in the country’s history continued to tell so many lies that many of those who were keeping count of them seem to have given up, as he moved from how many he tells a week to how many he includes in a single speech or tweet. Of course, the biggest lie of all is that he actually won an election that he most definitely lost and that somehow it was stolen from him by some preposterous conspiracy of organisations and individuals, apparently including the ghost of the long-dead Venezuelan socialist Hugo Chavez. As has been noted by many, what we’re witnessing here is an attempted political coup in a country that likes to think of itself as the cradle of democracy, and it’s genuinely terrifying how easily so many people can be goaded into swallowing this crap without a whisper of evidence. I genuinely believe that if Trump told his cult members to sacrifice their first-born, American streets would be running with the blood of its children. As has also been noted by a handful of political commentators, the November election was in many ways a referendum on fascism, and in that respect it’s so easy it is how to hear those endless chants of “Lock here up!” as a modern variant on “Seig Heil!” Just look how close this great country came to tipping over into dictatorship and learn from it in an age where science, evidence and truth are considered secondary to propaganda and spin. And somehow it’s not yet over. With only a few weeks to go in the outdated transition period that is required when a new president is elected (this apparently dates back to when the president-elect had to travel across the country by horse to take office), Trump is pardoning a string of convicted criminals, including four Blackwater contractors who murdered a group of innocent Iraqi civilians, two of whom were young children. And let’s not forget, Johnson and his cronies have been taking their cues from Trump and the American Republican party, every member of which was ultimately complicit in their demented master’s crimes.

I do prefer to conclude any look back at what has been a shitty year with some hope for the future, but as I say goodbye to what was unquestionably the worst year for the world in my lifetime, I just don’t have the optimism required to do so. I genuinely weep for the future of a country I can’t even easily flee now that the right to live and work in any country in Europe been stolen from me, and I’ve been so isolated for so long now that it’s become a new reality that I can’t imagine breaking free from – I know it’ll probably happen one day, I just can no longer picture it. That a vaccine has been discovered and approved and is being rolled out is definitely promising, though I’m already steeling myself for news of how the government will fuck this up. I’m not expecting to be able to return to work until at least next summer and probably later, by when we’ll be looking at a whole string of new issues caused by Boris the Bumbler and his army of Brexit goons, including the inevitable dissolving of hard-won worker’s rights and cutbacks to a whole raft of public services in order to force the poor to once again pay for the follies of the rich, about which I’d doubtless be on my soapbox this time next year.

Ah fuck it. Have a better one than me, but please, wear a mask and keep your distance from others (one wily Tweet I saw reminded people that 2 metres was the length of a coffin), and always act on the basis that you may be carrying the virus without realising and that everything you do and everywhere you go could be lethal to someone you’ve never met if you don’t take the appropriate precautions. If that somehow fails to move you (then you’re a bastard – Ed), ponder on the risk of inadvertently bringing the virus into your home and killing a member of your immediate family. We’re currently looking at over 50,000 new cases of Covid a day in the UK, and that’s a frankly terrifying number. So stay safe and, in the words of a certain well-known prophet, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Previous annual reviews

2003 [Camus / Slarek]
2004: Documentaries [Slarek]
2004: Films [Slarek]
2004: DVDs [Slarek]
2005: Films [Slarek]
2005: DVDs [Slarek]
2006 [Camus]
2006 [CNash]
2006 [Slarek]
2007 [Camus]
2007 [Slarek]
2007 [Lord Summerisle]
2008 [Slarek]
2009 [L.K. Weston]
2009 [Slarek]
2010 [L.K. Weston]
2010 [Slarek]
2011 [L.K. Weston]
2011 [Slarek]
2012 [Slarek]
2012 [Timothy E. RAW]
2013 [Slarek]
2014 [Slarek]
2015: Films [Slarek]
2015: Discs [Slarek]
2016: Films [Slarek]
2016: Discs [Slarek]
2017: Films and TV [Slarek]
2017: Discs [Slarek]
2018 [Slarek]
2019 [Slarek]

article posted
5 January 2021

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