2020: a weird year for culture and creativity. More and more great small films were being dropped to minimal fanfare, while the pure chaos energy of the year wrought havoc with release schedules – not to mention our attention spans.
Always up for a challenge, we’ve combed through the debris of 2020 and put together a messy list of gems you might have missed.
‘First Love’, Dir. Takeshi Miike
When an underground boxer gets caught up with a troubled call-girl in the middle of a drug war, a carnival of violence ensues in downtown Shinjuku. It's a neon-lit rollercoaster full of the kind of limb-smashing hijinks that Takashi Miike built his name on, and this audacious love letter to his wild, early works is as entertaining as anything he's done in years.
First Love is packed full of throwbacks to the director's dizzying back catalogue, from the casting of actors Nao Ômori (Ichi The Killer) and Masataka Kubota (Thirteen Assassins) to a script written by Masa Nakamura (The Bird People In China, Sukiyaki Western Django). And yet the film transcends the Miike fanbase, packing in the kind of genre-mashing expertise and fun filmmaking flair one would only expect from a director with a centurion of features to his name.
Released on Valentine's Day just weeks before COVID closed the UK, First Love remains the year's most sociopathic date movie – a massacre of black comedy, broken bones, and, of course, budding romance.
‘Muscle’, Dir. Gerard Johnson
Shot in stark black and white, director Gerard Johnson transforms the motorways and ring-roads of England’s North-East into an existential labyrinth in which call-centre employee Simon (Cavan Clerkin) finds himself confronting the dark heart of British machismo. Trapped in a dead end job and a sexless relationship, Simon is lacking purpose or validation. In a trance-like state, he wanders into a barebones bodybuilding gym and is immediately seduced by the apparently straightforward vision of masculinity represented by man-mountain Terry (Craig Fairbrass).
In Terry, Simon finds a trainer, mentor, and friend who pulls him into a steroidal underworld of fraternity and hedonism. The alpha-beta dichotomy as a means to explore the modern man in crisis is well-worn territory (anyone who’s seen Fight Club will have some sense of where this is all leading) but Johnson’s film is startlingly original. Anchored by phenomenal lead performances from Fairbrass and Clerkin, Muscle is a funny and disturbing eulogy for the lad-mag generation.
‘Feels Good Man’, Dir. Arthur Jones
In 2005, comic-book artist Matt Furie drew a cartoon of an anthropomorphic frog peeing with his shorts around his ankles. The frog (named Pepe) justified relieving himself like a child with three simple words: “Feels good man”. The image quickly circulated on internet message boards, its succinct message applied to everything from weight-loss to minor adolescent victories. Initially pleased with his drawing’s new life online, Furie ignored the festering undercurrents that would transform his mascot of post-university idleness into a registered hate symbol.
By the time filmmaker Arthur Jones caught up with Furie, Pepe had become an icon for the alt-right, the initial drawing recreated and distorted into countless iterations which embody the smug, embittered attitude of internet edge-lords who believe they “memed” Donald Trump into office. Furie marks a refreshing contrast to the cesspit Pepe has been embraced by. Despite his evident naïveté, his wide-eyed innocence coupled with his love for nature and his family make him a charming subject. Beyond Furie, Feels Good Man finds real horror in the recesses of cyberspace and Jones’ depiction of image board culture’s occult relationship to contemporary politics is as bleak as it is laughable.
‘Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets’, Dir. Bill Ross IV, Turner Ross
On the eve of the 2016 US election, a Las Vegas dive bar called “The Roaring 20s” opened its doors for one last session before bidding its patrons a fond farewell. Except it didn’t – at least, not really. Operating in murky terrain between fact and fiction, Bill & Turner Ross’ latest feature is a mischievous celebration of drinking culture. Although the premise might be constructed, the booze (which is all too real) helps tap into a deep emotional well within its colourful subjects.
Despite its layer of artifice, anyone who has ever spent time on either side of the bar will immediately recognise the film’s fundamental truth. Every watering-hole in the world is filled with the same pervading loneliness, fermenting under an alcoholic haze. Within this fog, the Ross brothers locate moments of both humour and genuine beauty. Watching a load of legless drunks talk themselves into nonsensical arguments is hysterical, especially as they become increasingly less conscious of the camera. Yet the film’s real highs come in fragments of unlikely harmony, including a shit-faced slow-dance to Percy Sledge’s version of “Come Softly To Me”. In these sequences, you stop caring about what’s “fake” and give in to the Ross bros’ love-letter to humanity at its most wasted.
‘Smiley Face Killers’, Dir. Tim Hunter
Written by Bret Easton Ellis and based on creepy true events and police theories that allege a number of young men found dead in bodies of water across several Midwestern American states from the late 1990s to the 2010s did not accidentally drown, as concluded by law enforcement agencies, but were victims of a serial killer or killers. The term "smiley face" became connected to the alleged murders when the police had discovered smiley face graffiti near locations where they think the killer dumped the bodies in at least a dozen of the cases.
The film follows Jake Graham (Ronen Rubinstein) as he struggles to keep his life together. When he can’t shake the feeling that he’s being stalked by a hooded figure (Crispin Glover) driving an unmarked van, Jake fears he may become the next victim in the cult's horrific spree.
It’s a thrilling ride, mainly due to Ellis’s script which is so unpredictable and shocking – full of his trademark eerie imagery, vague disillusioned protagonists and nihilistic imagining of the murders – making this still one of the wildest and most disturbing film experiences of the year.
‘The 40 Year Old Version’, Dir. Radha Blank
The title alone of this movie probably made you swerve it when it showed up on Netflix. Only when a trusted movie geek pal insisted I watch it did I click it one lazy afternoon in December.
Actor, writer, director and playwright Radha Blank plays a version of herself: a down-on-her-luck playwright teaching acting workshops in high school, struggling to get things produced and tired of pitching and sucking up to the gatekeepers of the theatre world. She impulsively decides that the only way she can salvage her voice as an artist is to become a rapper at 40. Hilarious, scathing and real, Blank proving herself to be a huge talent in-front and behind the camera, the film looks beautiful; shot in monochrome black and white and featuring a melancholic jazz score by Courtney Bryan feeling like a golden era indie’s like In The Soup (1992) and She’s Gotta Have It (1986).
‘Build The Wall’, Dir. Joe Swanberg
Joe Swanberg, the zero budget indie pioneer and director of Netflix gem EASY, is back with an intimate drama (uploaded to Vimeo in full above).
Kent (Kent Osborne) is about to celebrate his 50th birthday in his remote woodland house. He’s invited his old friend (Jane Adams) to spend the week with him, hoping they’ll re-connect and possibly spark a romance. Unannounced, another old friend, Kev (Kevin Bewersdorf) – a real outdoors type – turns up with the intention of giving Kent a very unique gift for his birthday: a loose rock stone wall, to be built at the front of his house. It’s funny, slow, quiet and further proof from Swanberg that you can make an interesting movie about anything. Even a wall.
‘Other Music’, Dir. Puloma Basu, Rob Hatch-Miller
One of the saddest films of the year.
In 2016, New York City lost a beloved and influential hub of independent music culture: Other Music. Located on East 4th Street in the heart of Manhattan's East Village neighbourhood, Other Music was more than just a shop that sold CDs, records, tapes and magazines (remember physical media?).
Other Music was one of those rare and special places where bands were formed, record labels were born and careers were launched. And it was THE place where a generation of New Yorkers at the dawn of the Internet age – that beautiful Meet Me In The Bathroom moment that launched The Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The National, Interpol, TV On The Radio and LCD Soundsystem
This lo-fi and personal documentary looks back at Other Music’s influence: its customers and staff and legacy and the demise of physical media and cool, weird record shops and a time when we cared about CD’s and magazines and felt intimidated walking into record stores and asking what was playing. At least we now have Shazam.
‘Vitalina Varela’, Dir. Pedro Costa
Pedro Costa’s radical approach to storytelling makes most actual documentary filmmakers look like charlatans, and Vitalina Varela is his most extreme film to date. The screen is nearly always submerged in shadow – even in the sequences shot in the daytime – and the soundtrack is made of barely anything more than whispers.
As with his previous four (see the unforgettable Horse Money, in which our heroine Vitalina also appears), he commits absolutely to recording the truth and lived experiences of Cape Verdean migrants living in the now-demolished Lisbon neighbourhood of Fontainhas. Describing the narrative of Vitalina Varela makes it sound like The Third Man, but the film contains more images that have been forever burned into my brain than any other from 2020. The fact that it was made with a seriously minimal crew (IMDb lists 13 credits including Varela’s own screenplay) makes it all the more staggering. If you liked Mati Diop’s Atlantics (2019) you owe it to yourself to check this out.
‘About Endlessness’, Dir. Roy Andersson
If you’ve seen anything Roy Andersson has worked on since the mid-80s, whether it’s his adverts for the Swedish Labour Party or his classic Living trilogy (which concluded with 2014’s A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence), you’ll know what to expect and what not to take for granted from About Endlessness. Stripping away elements like a moving camera and a continuous narrative from his features, his films can at times resemble one-panel newspaper cartoons, Dutch Renaissance paintings or observational sketch comedy revues.
His latest is at once his most abstract, tragic and gentle. In just 33 shots over 78 minutes – all composed in his Stockholm studio with extensive use of miniatures – Anderson touches on themes and subjects from Jesus Christ to Adolf Hitler, the service industry and the priesthood, thermodynamics and rock n roll. There is literally nothing else like it.
‘Spree’, Dir. Eugene Kotlyarenko
Hands down the film I’ve thought about most in 2020 has to come from a corner of the world where wanna-be influencers livestream all day for an audience of two people, and self-absorption swirls like a portal to hell. It's a heart pounding joyride called SPREE which was perhaps the best and least-on-the-nose isolation metaphor of the year. Termite art at its very finest.
Netflix hunk Joe Keery plays Kurt Kunkle, a psychotic Spree driver (of the title's fictional Lyft/Uber service) with a yearning for internet fame and murder on his mind. With all his ambition resting on one night, Kurt is our mad-dog guide through LA’s pastiche nightscape, like a Bieber-haired Travis Bickle for the Incel Generation. The film gained traction on Instagram after user @KurtsWorld96 was created to further authenticate the world of the film. Drake had already hopped on as a producer. The rest is history.
A friend described it as “A live action Johnny Ryan cartoon” (if you don’t know who that is, google him IMMEDIATELY) and for everyone calling the film shallow or stupid, they’re right, but for all the wrong reasons. It's a funhouse mirror caked in the digital noise and faeces that we’re ALL swimming in and contributing to. It’s self indulgent, overtly political, manic, contradictory, and beautiful. Who said you had to go on gore and live-leak sites to see the dark side of the net?? Just log onto TikTok or some weird stranger’s Insta and watch the mind numbing depravity take place. Our future is fucked, so we might as well be invited to the party!!