Last March it seemed the entire world stopped dead in its tracks. The last movie I managed to see in theaters was Emma. during the waning days of February. All of my best-laid plans to catch March releases went down the tubes once the Coronavirus pandemic took a grip of the planet and kept it in the shadows of quarantine and a looming sensation that the world was over. Festivals were canceled. Hell–life, in a nutshell, was canceled.
Luckily for arthouse cinemas, movies lived on and were conveniently shipped to distributors before debuting onto virtual platforms sometime in early April. Slowly, but surely, movies became more accessible than ever for the movie-going public. It seemed all you had to do was to hit click on your arthouse theater and presto, a rental, which was set to premiere formally, would play (and you had access to it from anywhere between 24 – 72 hours). All from the comfort of your own home.
Lucky for me, a rabid cinephile. Since being holed up at home became mandatory, I decided that I’d cast the widest net possible and see not just new releases but film festivals at a level I don’t think would have been possible at a geographical level. True, Cannes was canceled and most of its features are still making their way to arthouse cinemas via virtual platforms, but New York Film Festival and every film festival following that — Philadelphia, Chicago, AFI, even Savannah — became accessible and proceeded as planned.
Because of this I was able to watch more movies than ever before — upwards of about 10 a week, to include retrospectives and restored versions. Basically, to quote Manohla Dargis from the New York Times, I watched movies ’til my eyes bled. And I’m proud of it. While I don’t think I’ll be writing about every single movie I saw come September 17 onwards I will briefly touch on some that made a lasting impression in my mind.
Bela Tarr will never go down in history as a director known for comedies. His is as cinema filled with mood, with pools of darkness, and a pervasive sense of despair. The 58th New York Film Festival outdid itself yet again by presenting a 4K version of Damnation. A precursor to what would become his magnum opus — Satantango — Damnation presents the story of a doomed love affair that drowns in a swamp of noir without the glamour and languor of the 1940s. A polar opposite, Wong Kar-wai’s restoration of In the Mood for Love also touches a doomed love affair. However, Kar-wai’s film, while restrained, is bursting at the seams with pure desire and despair, suffused with thick, atmospheric reds and greens, smoke and longing, and the unforgettable (and Oscar-overlooked) performances of Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung.
Women were as present as ever. Heidi Ewing’s touching docudrama Te llevo conmigo (I Carry You With Me) is a loving, poignant portrait of two young men who overcome the odds to not only secure a life as a couple but also leave their own imprint in the world. Joyce Chopra’s restored Smooth Talk not only revealed Laura Dern in her first adult role (and predated the types of roles she’d play with David Lynch) but also shed a light on vulnerable young women who find themselves preyed upon by dashing strangers and contain the seed of what could very well be the #metoo movement.
Taking a step further into the violence inflicted on women by a collective, Dea Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning paints a quietly devastating portrait of a corrupt society as seen through the eyes of a religious woman who sees her faith dragged across concrete by the omnipresence of masculine evil. More accessible, but no less potent, is Phyllida Lloyd’s domestic drama Herself, in which Lloyd attempts to speak for the many women trapped in violent marriages with abusive husbands and a system that continually fails them.
LatinX cinema proved to be as rich as ever, with thought-provoking documentaries like Michelle Alberdi’s The Mole Agent from Chile and Anabel Rodriguez Rios’ Once Upon a Time in Venezuela, from the aforementioned country. The Mole Agent sneaks up on you, its roots firmly planted in gentle comedy laced with moments of nostalgia until it reveals its true nature, and you realize you’ve been punched in the gut. It is as heart-wrenching as anything I’ve ever seen about the system of senior citizens who’ve been placed in homes, to be left, forgotten. On the other hand, Once Upon a Time… Venezuela denounces a system of corruption that has reduced a thriving community in Lake Maracaibo to nothing.
Chloe Zhao’s presence in cinema has continued to steadily grow since her debut movie Songs My Brother Taught Me. Nomadland, the best movie in my opinion of 2020, is a delicate character study of a woman (Frances McDormand at her most subtle) dispossessed of a home, roaming the nation, independent, seeking… nothing, really, but the experience of unattached, rootless freedom. A story based on real people who also play themselves in Zhao’s film, allows us to see how people who either did not survive the market crash of 2008 or simply decided to part ways with the material live the last remaining days of their lives.