Top 10 reviews of 2020 so far

It’s been a difficult year for cinema. Still, I’m pleased I’ve managed to add 89 films to my Instagram film review blog @aloneinthefrontrow. New releases have been thin on the ground recently, but the blog is nearly three years old and I’ll soon be writing my 350th review for it, so I thought it would be nice to look back at the reviews I’ve written so far this year (it was) and pull out a few favourites.

24 made the longlist, from which I picked this top 10 (in no particular order). Some of these films I loved, some I detested, but I think altogether the reviews give a pretty good account of my ongoing interest in film writing. I’m happy to confess I don’t particularly spend much time constructing my film reviews – most of them are written on the toilet – but I think that’s because to me there’s nothing more gratifying than bashing out some words pretty quickly and immediately being quite pleased with yourself.

Special mentions go to the reviews of Jojo Rabbit, Funny Cow, Toy Story 3, Coco, Good Night and Good Luck, and The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, but of course the highlight of the year so far was seeing an excerpt from my 2018 review of Moonlight chosen to be featured on Empire’s readers’ list of the 100 greatest films of this century.

The Thin Red Line (1998, Terrence Malick)

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I’ll put some cards on the table: I think war films get a written off too easily and I think more people ought to watch them. The jingoistic among them are few, and for the most part they provide thoughtful explorations of people engaged in the worst thing humans can do to each other, often despite their own instincts.

The Thin Red Line sets off on a tone that feels antithetical to Saving Private Ryan, another great film released earlier the same year. It’s not that the introduction to SPR is pro-war in any way, but here we start with two AWOL soldiers whose only antagonist is their own army coming to find them. It’s safe to say the initial pace gets ramped up, but it sets the mood of the film.

As much time as I have for the genre, it does feel daring for a war film to feature men’s internal monologues so prominently. There doesn’t seem to be a man in ‘C’ company who doesn’t feel desperately lonely. At one point early on in the mission, an officer calls in an artillery strike that is guaranteed to be ineffective purely because it “bucks the men up”. This is a film that takes aim at masculine imagination of war. We see these men vomiting, sobbing, petrified with fear. Yet when one man accidentally sets a grenade off by his own backside, his first concern is that his wife gets told he “died like a man”, before reasoning that dying is for the best because he “can’t fuck no more”.

Scenes like this would be on-the-nose were they not woven into the drug-rush of battle so effortlessly. It really is an epic of a film (and fair play to Hans Zimmer for creating such an attentive score), showing war in all its carnage and mundanity, its mental torture and nothingness. I couldn’t help but think it was like watching a bag of broken biscuits, each slightly disfigured but still resembling an ideal, slowly then frantically being shaken into crumbs.

(27 Apr 2020)

Let the Sunshine In (2017, Claire Denis)

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Let the Sunshine In (Un beau soleil intérieur) is Claire Denis’s take on a romantic comedy. Most of the humour comes from hilariously written characters and the wry use of repetition across different pieces of dialogue, but the film is in essence a tragedy and altogether more emotionally knotted than the rom-com label would suggest. Based on a “fragmentary” novel, it’s a fragmentary film but not bitty. Rather, the fragments build empathy in a way I found really compelling, thanks in very large part to Juliette Binoche in the lead role.

I’ve seen it said she plays a woman looking for love but doomed to making bad decisions. It strikes me that only a man, and a certain type of man, could come to such a facile conclusion.

Isabella (Binoche) is a successful artist navigating romantic and sexual desire as a middle-aged woman, which unfortunately forces her to engage with a range of middle-aged men. She desires sexual gratification and emotional fulfilment, and somewhat more complicatedly, a type of male attention that makes her feel alive, validated, seen. This isn’t the male attention she’s inundated with, and she worries her love life is behind her, with only a sort of hollow sex life ahead. She feels proletarianised by the relationships around her, as if love and validation are capital hoarded by a bourgeoisie that looks down on her emotional pains, which makes her cynical about even the possibility of genuine fulfilment.

It’s not simply that all men fail her, though many (perhaps most) do. It’s that desire is complex; a relationship that is ideal on paper can lack raw heat, while something passionate and authentic can let us down on paper – an objection that is altogether harder to face in oneself.

Isabelle longs for the spark of untrammeled intersubjectivity; instead she is objectified by almost every man she meets. Yet the one man who can look into her eyes without dropping his gaze is unacceptable, however much she may hate to admit it, because she cannot help but invert her own insecurities onto him. In an excruciating final scene, Denis confronts us with the all the complexity and mundanity of love sought, all the vapid and asinine sentiments we comfort each other with, and the oppressive circularity of relationships past and future, all while Binoche’s face conveys every furtive feeling, the fine border between guardedness and unguardedness, and above all the longing for je ne sais quoi.

(7 June 2020)

3 Ninjas (1992, Jon Turteltaub)

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So while looking up Cool Runnings for the review I had a wtf moment when I saw that Jon Turteltaub’s previous film was 3 Ninjas, and I basically couldn’t not watch it immediately.

I loved this film as a kid, and I’ll not hear a word against it. It’s only now that I’ve learned that critics panned it at the time as a cross between Karate Kid and Home Alone with a dash of Bill & Ted. Sorry, but how does that not sound awesome?! For a start it’s far more entertaining than Karate Kid, and while Home Alone is technically a superior film, the three brothers in 3 Ninjas are way more fleshed out and mature than Kevin McCallister.

There is one bit of forced/clunky exposition early on, an awkward but minor set-up moment and one blink-and-you’ll-miss-it continuity error, but aside from that it’s a well constructed story with a lot of great character-driven action and plenty of laughs. People who criticise it for being derivative or unbelievable are fundamentally misunderstanding the driving force of the film, which is to see three kids, each with their own personality, grapple with adult authority whilst doing cool shit that’ll make you wish you could be a fucking ninja, during the course of which they each grow as a person. What’s not to like?!

(5 April 2020)

Bombshell (2019, Jay Roache)

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I definitely enjoyed Bombshell and I think it is a fairly solid effort at portraying a very important story. As others have said, narratively it owes a debt to The Big Short, a choice that mostly works but not always. As with so many stories that try to grapple with behaviour that spans years, the film does struggle a bit structurally because it’s trying to fit long-term patterns into a three-act tale. One way the film attempts this is through Margot Robbie’s composite character, who is well played but whose story arc trails off somewhat.

Necessarily, a film like this needs its goodies and baddies, which is both a strength and a weakness in this case. On one hand, the film usefully situates itself amongst the complexities and contradictions that exist within a wholly malignant organisation like Fox News, but on the other it does at times minimise the harm Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson have themselves caused as people in positions of power and influence, and almost goes as far as to suggest the likes of James Murdoch are heroic reformers-in-waiting.

I certainly wouldn’t write the film off for these reasons – or minimise the violence suffered by Kelly, Carlson and dozens of others – and it occurred to me how rarely I’ve seen characters onscreen thrashing out some of these issues, which is something that certainly deserves credit, but for me I would have liked the film to lean into the complexities of the central women a little more because there’s room to say something really specific and important about the nature of gendered violence. I do think the film wants to go there, but with a baddie as obviously hideous as Roger Ailes I think the film ends up erring more on the side of liberal reformism to the detriment of the type of interrogation it sets out on.

(21 January 2020)

Las Hijas Del Fuego (2018, Albertina Carri)

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“The problem is never the representation of bodies, the problem is how those bodies become territory and landscape in front of the camera.” Our narrator appears to set out the thesis of Las Hijas Del Fuego in the opening scenes, which start promisingly with some literal stamping on misogyny. The protagonist, a filmmaker, begins to pose herself the question of whether subjectivity is possible in porn, her new project, half-leading a trio of lovers on a mind-expanding road trip across south Argentina.

If this sounds interesting, don’t get excited. This isn’t a subtle or good film. At best it forgets to ever interrogate its opening ideas; at worst it flat-out betrays them while thinking it’s doing the opposite. Call me old fashioned, but subjective filmmaking does not often benefit from completely empty characters, and having the camera linger not just on bodies but specifically genitals and nameless bodies during sex does little to prevent them becoming mere territory and landscape.

To give you a flavour, early in the journey we’re treated to a porntastic threesome on a church altar and the persistent narration of a dreadful essay grasping for any semblance of poignancy. By the end, any sense of story or narrative or emotion has given way to a thoroughly gratuitous “I bet you’ve never seen this in a film” fest, structure totally out of the window, and – worst of all by the film’s own purported standards – relegating a hell of a lot of bodies to pure landscape and texture. Immersive, I’m sure.

Somewhere in the middle there is one lonely moment of empathy, incredibly farfetched as it is, which would be a high point were it not completely unconnected to rest of film, followed as it is by pointless psychedelic images of sex acts in close up narrated by a terrible poem. Whatever the film wants to say, the fact it is incapable of finding a way to say it visually speaks to a severe problem. The film is marketed like an edgier Portrait of a Lady on Fire; it’s absolutely nothing of the sort, I promise you. The film literally closes with a 6-minute open-leg masturbation scene that makes you feel like you’ve been watching a 2-hour one.

(24 April 2020)

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019, Céline Sciamma)

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Wow. Along with Parasite it’s hard to see how Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) won’t be near the top of my films of the year list.

It felt like a slow burn at first but before long I was absolutely invested and everything about the central three characters had me in the palm of the story’s hand. I ended the film breathless. It’s on Mubi now and I’d say the less you know the better – not a trailer, not any stills, I even found it hard to find a poster I felt didn’t give things away. So settle down, put your phone away and watch it completely cold.

It looks incredible, which is apposite as it’s totally a film about looking and seeing in a number of senses. Somehow it manages to say something profoundly philosophical and yet simple. At times it feels ethereal and yet it’s incredibly human. And perhaps most cleverly it’s totally intimate yet explosively political, at least next to most other new releases I’ve seen lately. Highly recommend.

(17 April 2020)

National Treasure (2004, Jon Turteltaub)

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National Treasure has one of those dreadful scripts that can’t let a single thing go unsaid. There is literally no thought that’s allowed to go unverbalised, to the extent that once you notice it becomes like a game you can play along with.

It probably goes without saying that the story is farfetched beyond belief, not just the historical tale but the actual machinations of the quest. Yet to be fair it does at least feel like a quest, and although the film is overlong, if you can get on board it’s entertaining enough as a family film. And to its credit, it’s not like the film isn’t self-aware. At one point Nic Cage successfully places someone else’s fingerprint over his own with the help of a bit of rubber glove, a sandwich bag and some purple smoke. “Unbelievable,” replies his accomplice. Lol, you don’t say.

I have to admit I never got the whole Cage thing, but if I had to pick one this would be in my top three, and the film is well served for having Sean Bean as its baddie. To be honest, the main thing that lets it down is the weirdly puerile and patronising treatment the script dishes out to its one female character, which was generally either about getting her to shut up or commenting on her appearance. At best, it reads like pure social ineptitude on the part of writers who literally can’t imagine how else men might speak to women, at worst we’re left to assume the writers just couldn’t stand to include a PhD-educated woman in a lead role without denigrating her every ten minutes. Either way, it’s frankly embarrassing and definitely sours an otherwise passable film.

(19 April 2020)

You’ve Got Mail (1998, Nora Ephron)

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Sometimes you just really need some Nora Ephron in your life and today was one of those days, so I went for You’ve Got Mail, a film I actually don’t think I’ve seen since 1998 when it came out.

There is something immediately comforting about how clearly dated it is, and yet unlike many more recent films it manages to use information technology (specifically email) as an actual dramatic device for exploring the complexities of romantic emotion and empathy by weaving together conventional cinematic storytelling with an epistolary thread.

The two play out almost like alternate realities, though the dramatic irony is that they’re two sides of the same coin. While this device does find its limits in the third act – and a little uncomfortably for me – it’s a firm dramatic foundation which underpins a beautiful script. Where many romantic comedies struggle, this film’s brand of will-they/won’t-they feels genuine right to the last scene, and the dynamic between the leads is helped by excellent casting.

Aside from the late-90s references to cybersex, chat rooms and rent controls in Manhattan (all of which drew a chuckle – $450 for 6 rooms!!), I think one detail I particularly appreciated given the genre – and one that I think is an Ephron strong suit – is the film’s frankly realistic and non-moralistic portrayal of monogamy’s fundamental unreliability. For something that is simply a factor of human experience, it’s never really featured in the genre except for moments of duplicity or crisis, but I think the film is all the better for it.

(13 May 2020)

From Russia With Love (1963, Terence Young)

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I don’t know why but I just really fancied a Sunday afternoon Bond. From Russia With Love has probably always been one of my favourites, though in many ways it’s hard to say exactly why. The plot of complex at times, it’s not particularly full of gadgets (which suits me) but neither are the emotional stakes as high as in something like On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

One reviewer at the time described it as “totally immoral…but fun” and that’s probably the long and short of it. More so than in Dr No, From Russia With Love is full of James Bond firsts and although it’s the second Bond film it’s the first to really look the full part. In that sense it’s genuinely responsible for the viability of the rest of the franchise and absolutely pivotal in setting the grammar of the series.

Yet it also continues the outright weirdness of Dr No, which is a less talked about element of Bond films but one that to this day means the franchise simply cannot follow a hard-boiled Bourne path. Take SPECTRE, whose portrayal here is one of my favourites, not least because it actually looks like an organisation rather than an extension of one madman’s ego: we’ve got a fish-fighting cat lover, chess genius, lesbian colonel in full domme mode, leather-donning quartermaster and a psychopathic Adonis fresh out of prison. Who even comes up with that combination?? Yet it’s played straight enough that the violence feels genuinely suspenseful and it doesn’t undermine the very gentle relationship between Bond and his Istanbul ally Kerim Bey.

There remains the not insignificant matter of the film’s undoubtedly retrograde gender politics, but I do genuinely think people misread Tatiana Romanova by forgetting that she too is a person on a mission, whose actions need to be read in the context of trying to lay a honeytrap, which although eyerollingly predictable was a real tactic of spies in the 1960s which warrants some exploration in film – though by no means is this the best attempt.

(6 Apr 2020)

The Gentlemen (2020, Guy Ritchie)

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The Gentlemen is probably among Guy Ritchie’s better films but it’s not the “return to form” (ie 2000) some people are making it out to be.

Colin Farrell is very good, Eddie Marsan is laughably and satisfyingly shit, and Charlie Hunnam is the surprise MVP. The story is so-so but it’s told in a way that is just about interesting enough, but I’m sad to say it falls down with Hugh Grant and Matthew McConaughey’s characters.

Grant is clearly having a great time, and I actually didn’t mind his character, but it hasn’t been very well thought out, and it’s never really clear why Hunnam’s character takes him quite so seriously. At the other end of the film, I’m not actually sure McConaughey knows who he’s meant to be playing.

The idea is he’s a lower class American who’s learnt how to ingratiate himself with the British upper classes. The problem is I think doing that convincingly would have required McConaughey to have a better understanding of the British class system, at least so he can carry himself in such a way that rings true to a British audience’s understanding of upper class mores. It wouldn’t matter too much except the film clearly does want to say something about class (the tagline is literally “Criminal. Class.”), though it’s unclear what.

On the flip side, Ritchie’s own increasingly perverse take on working class life is best represented through the slightly bizarre rap videos made by a gang of youngsters which just feel a bit naff. I guess one problem is that basically since Lock Stock, Ritchie’s primary reference for road culture has been…his own films. Don’t get me wrong, there were things to enjoy – I really liked how camp it was and I was never bored – but the whole thing just felt like it could have done with a bit more time and consideration, from the writing to the execution.

(18 Jan 2020)

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