Another year, another new crop of cinematic discoveries! Now five years into sharing MMC!’s annual list of favourite first-time watches, it’s interesting how each year manages to bring forward its own character. Our inaugural list in 2017 boasted far-flung films with audacious choices while the 2018 selection seemed to specialize in pervading fashions of low-key dread. MMC! pivoted toward dense and daring cinema in 2019 and 2020 seemed to retreat into Japanese cinema and experimentalism. This year offers something of a return to more classical narrative forms in its globe-hopping. Egyptian master Youssef Chahine joins Yasuzo Masumura, Ulrike Ottinger, and Toshio Matsumoto as an MMC! discoveries list double-entrant, and this list sees returns by Frank Perry, Frederick Wiseman, and Yuzo Kawashima. In keeping with our capricious standards, this list treats Masaki Kobayashi’s The Human Condition and Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Dekalog as single entries, yet chooses to include only one part of The Marseilles Trilogy and Chahine’s “Alexandria Trilogy.” What can we say? It’s our list and we choose the rules.
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (F.W. Murnau, 1927)
“Such an exceptional film. Murnau is in full command of the silent form here, pushing it in cleverly imaginative ways – novel framings, sloped sets, superimpositions, collages, miniatures, unusual title cards, and always those silent film close-ups. And the film hops tones and genres with alacrity, swaying from tragedy to comedy and back again, dabbling in dance and slapstick and adventure along the way. An improbable culmination of the silent era that arguably shouldn’t work, yet is a masterpiece.”
Usually MMC!’s list of its favourite films of the last year is posted notably later than January, normally coinciding with Film Comment’s deadline for submissions to its reader’s poll. Alas, we are now closing in on a year without this favourite publication and without anything having been done with its reader submissions for 2019. Nevertheless, cinema marches on even in this year unlike most others and 2020 still managed to offer many great films. Those looking for a more expansive collection of MMC! favourites can check out our Top 50 list on Letterboxd which is full of Fantasia International Film Festival screenings as well as titles from HBO, Netflix, Amazon Prime, the Criterion Channel, MUBI, Shudder, AppleTV, and Disney+.
Here are MMC!’s favourite films for 2020! (And for the record, I can’t say why Letterboxd has a listing for Genndy Tartakovsky’s Primal but it does and so it’s on this list.)
“Thirty-six years later, we are all in David Byrne’s big, boxy suit and loving it. Crisply and cleverly directed by Spike Lee, American Utopia is triumphant, loaded with call backs and reflections to Jonathan Demme’s brilliant Stop Making Sense. Byrne’s decidedly American qualities continue to resonate profoundly – the diverse musical influences expressing an inherent tolerance and love for diversity, the weirdly optimistic perspective than never quite tips over into irony, the fascination with modern living and consumer culture, the periodic stridency of his artistic vision and liberal view expressed in marching beats and goal-oriented lyrics. Overall, an amazingly deserving bookend to the greatest concert film of all time (apologies to The Last Waltz).”
Reviewing my Top 50 Discoveries of 2020, it’s hard not to miss that this year has been most notably defined by a falling back into Japanese cinema. There’s no complaint in saying so as I adore Japanese cinema and as there is plenty of variety otherwise appearing on this list – experimental cinema, documentaries, dream cinema, Afrofuturism, animation, Canadiana, and plenty of general weirdness. Certainly this list owes a great debt to the bounty of streaming options out there. This list includes films screened on The Criterion Channel, MUBI, Shudder, Midnight Pulp, Kanopy, Netflix, and this year’s online version of the Fantasia International Film Festival. And if hard media is still your bag, many of these titles are available from The Criterion Collection, Arrow Films, Film Movement, Vinegar Syndrome, Synapse Films, Cult Epics, Third Window Films, and even the Winnipeg Film Group.
And so, without further ado, here are MMC!’s Top 20 Film Discoveries of 2020!
The Blue Sky Maiden (Yasuzo Masumura, 1957)
“An absolutely charming little melodrama featuring a plucky and adorable Ayako Wakao as a true-hearted young woman discovering her estranged family, whether they like it or not. Nice gals finish first!”
The 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival and its inaugural online edition officially reached its conclusion earlier this month and MMC! is so grateful to have been given the opportunity to participate. Scores of films were screened and new favourites were discovered. MMC! must thank Fantasia’s outstanding staff for their unbelievable work and their smoothly run festival. Shout-outs to Steven, Alyssia, Lorenzo, and Marie-Jade! Jusqu’à l’année prochaine!
This year’s Fantasia was full of very entertaining films and whittling them down to a selection of favourites wasn’t easy. Depite this challenge (and because I’m a consummate professional), here are MMC!’s
ten twelve favourite films from the 2020 FIFF!
Dinner in America (Adam Carter Rehmeier, 2020)
There was no film I more purely enjoyed than Adam Carter Rehmeier’s Dinner in America. A tribute to the director’s ’90s-era Nebraska punk scene, Rehmeier creates a wonderfully antagonistic, feel good rom-com that matches Simon, a drug-dealing, bio-pimping, stridently punk arsonist, with Patty, an overly sheltered, overly medicated, dim bulb fashion disaster. Their suburban Michigan environs are enjoyably flat, most frequently centred around cringe-inducing meals, but the pair bring out the nuances in each other that create fuller, even likeable, people. In true punk spirit, there are no engineered misunderstandings, no changes of heart, and no makeovers. Simon and Patty are just two unusual people who already adore each other (even if they didn’t already know it) and are happy to flip off the rest of the world in exchange for a few memorable days of hell-raising. And if that weren’t enough, Dinner in America brought Fantasia’s most magical single moment, a goosebump-raising original song that confirms the film’s brilliance on four-tracks. This is an aggressively adorkable romance and a surprising demand for punk rock’s antiestablishment voice during these tense times. (Where are you punk rock?) In a just world, there would be a generation of high schoolers and college kids that call Dinner in America a touchstone film. Bang your head and warm your heart, dum dum.
The 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival comes to a close today with a handful of screenings (including MMC! favourite, Gabriel Carrer and Reese Eveneshen’s For the Sake of Vicious, and its closing film, Keil McNaughton’s The Legend of Baron To’a)! Be sure to check out my Letterboxd list for the 2020 FIFF which has nearly 150 reviews and ratings of Fantasia features and shorts and which will continue to grow beyond the conclusion of the Festival.
MMC!’s round-up of its favourite feature films screened at Fantasia will be coming soon, as will individual posts imagining the Festival’s best titles for spine-numbered glory. In the meantime, MMC! celebrates its ten favourite short films screened at this inaugural online edition of North America’s greatest fantastic film festival. Here we go!
Who Goes There? (Astrid Thorvaldsen, 2020)
I often get cranky with horror shorts for cheating themselves by offering contexts rather than stories and passing off tone as plot. Who Goes There? is a case study in creating a proper horror short. Made by Norwegian-born, British filmmaker Astrid Thorvaldsen and shortlisted for the 2020 Student BAFTAs, the film is set on an 1880 Minnesota homestead where two sisters, one pious and fearful and the other assertive and irreligious, struggle to care for a third sister taken by a grave illness. The arrival of traveling doctor on the verge of death himself raises concerns that a supernatural force preys upon them and leads to a series of fearsome twists and revelations. The 24-minute film is purposefully paced and totally assured in its direction, avoiding the types of ostentatious visuals that too often plague such shorts. The result is a mini-masterpiece with a convincing period-setting, foreboding and dreadful tension, and a clever conclusion that keeps up the film’s “show, don’t tell” approach to character-driven storytelling. Who Goes There? is currently being developed by Thorvaldsen into a full feature and deservedly so.
After what seems like a never-ending process of screenings for 2019 (and still with blindspots), here are my submissions for the Film Comment 2019 Readers’ Poll and Survey! These 20 films provide a mix of familiar favourites and far-flung festival weirdness. Those in the mood for MMC!’s next 30 titles can check out my Top 50 Favourite Films for 2019 on Letterboxd!
1. Little Women (Greta Gerwig)
With scant familiarity of the source material, I suspect there are changes that may or may not satisfy Little Women devotees but mean little to me. As it is, I am thoroughly charmed and dazzled with this version. Performances are genuinely moving, production design is stellar, and the film’s parallel timelines are fascinating, rhyming emotional beats and themes beautifully. Gerwig’s explicit commentaries on womanhood, class, and art are striking in both how pointedly astute they are and how natural they feel spoken in the period setting. Youthful and intelligent, insightful and spritely, this Little Women is wonderful.