Check out previous installments here, here and here.
It goes without saying that 2020 was a bizarre year for films, because it was a bizarre year for everything. But all the same, a lot of insane things happened in the movies this year. Cinemas all over the world closed down and it’s not clear they’ll survive long-term. Several blockbusters that were supposed to draw a billion-dollar box office ended up with a streaming debut, to unclear results. The industry got thrown into such disarray that the Oscar eligibility window was extended and the ceremony rescheduled for April.
By some twist of fate, that’s also when we’ll be looking at the best films of 2020 in the fifth annual Sundae Film Awards. For now, we’d like to look back at some of the gems from throughout film history that caught our attention this year. One of the few upsides to a year in lockdown was a lot of time to watch movies: in our case, literally hundreds. We’ve whittled them down to eight each, from the early thirties through to 2016, covering films as diverse as a war drama about the French resistance, a psychedelic Japanese anime about witchcraft and a documentary about race and class in America through the lens of high school basketball. Check them out and stay tuned for more cold takes from the Sundae in 2021!
Dean: “M is a strange little curio in film history, a transitional film caught between two hugely influential and popular film movements that has nonetheless persisted as a classic because it’s just that good. Directed by Fritz Lang, who co-wrote the script with his partner Thea von Harbou, M is a sort of social thriller about crime, justice and the relationship between the state and the people. Peter Lorre plays a serial child murderer called Hans Beckert, in certainly the best performance of his career and possibly one of the best in cinema history. He’s been active for some time at the start of the film and his latest kidnapping, of a girl called Elsie, tips the public outcry over his crimes into public outrage at the police failure to stop him. The city’s political leadership have the police put all their resources toward the manhunt and the increased police activity disrupts the city’s underworld, who resolve to catch Beckert themselves.
M is of a piece with Lang’s previous work in terms of its camerawork, style of acting and the wandering point of view it inherits from the gothic literature that inspired so many German Expressionist films. But in its lighting, its procedural elements and its characters, we also see the seeds of noir. It’s a brother to both Le Corbeau through its study of how panic (even justified panic) spreads through a community, and The Ox-Bow Incident through its profound concern for justice, even for those who may not ‘deserve’ it. But this is all just gravy. Peter Lorre is reason enough to call it a masterpiece.”
Stray Dog (1949)
Dean: “I watched a couple of Kurosawa noirs this year and while The Bad Sleep Well is probably the better film, very little this year has stuck with me like the beautiful simplicity of Stray Dog. Toshiro Mifune, in his third of sixteen films with Kurosawa, plays Murakami, a rookie detective whose gun is stolen by a pickpocket. When forensics discovers the gun was used in a crime, he teams up with a veteran detective, Sato (Takashi Shimura, in his seventh of twenty-one films with Kurosawa), to track down the perpetrator before he can hurt anyone else.
Like many of the first American noirs, Stray Dog is, at heart, a procedural, tracking the process and the psychology of the detectives over the course of an investigation. My favourite sequence in the film comes early in the investigation, before the gun has been used. Murakami goes undercover as an indigent labourer in the slums of Tokyo to find a lead on the gun in the city’s black market. In the middle of a heatwave, he walks around Tokyo, day and night, sleeping rough and living off whatever he can scrounge up. It’s a long montage with a lot of walking, and I was gripped throughout. Mifune sells Murakami’s exhaustion as much as his determination, each struggling to overpower the other. I don’t know if any image in cinema has stayed in my mind like Murakami trudging through the slums of Tokyo and it’s because of that moral earnestness, that heartfelt urgency. Even before it’s used, he feels a profound personal responsibility for any crime committed with his gun. Noirs are often (and not unfairly) associated with cynicism and moral ambiguity, but the drama of Stray Dog is the drama of giving a shit. It’s a beautiful thing.”
The Servant (1963)
Dean: “For all its other faults, 2020 was the year I discovered the films of Joseph Losey, a director of noirs who was blacklisted in America for both his communism and his refusal to cooperate with HUAC. He re-established himself in Europe, initially continuing in film noir before shifting gears in the sixties and moving into more eclectic work, like his action masterpiece Figures in a Landscape. He earned his greatest acclaim for three films written by Harold Pinter, of which The Servant, a tense drama about class relations in post-war Britain, is the first.
Tony (James Fox), a wealthy architect, returns to London from a trip to Brazil, where he’s involved in a dodgy-sounding scheme to build cities in the Amazon rainforest. He hires Hugo (Dirk Bogarde) as his manservant to oversee decoration of his apartment, unaware that Hugo is a working-class con man who uses his position to manipulate and embezzle from his employers. Hugo’s lover, Vera (Sarah Miles), poses as his sister to take a job as Tony’s maid, and the three quickly descend into a triangle of sexual intrigue and power struggles, often at the expense of Tony’s posh girlfriend, Susan (Wendy Craig). It’s equal parts psychological drama, erotic thriller, social satire and pitch-black comedy that brilliantly captures the anxieties of the era around issues of class, gender and sexual liberation. The emotionally destructive – even mutually abusive – relationships between the characters get so dark at points that they made me more nauseous than even the vilest cinematic gore. It was also my first exposure to Dirk Bogarde, who immediately became one of my favourite actors of all time, and Hugo is still my favourite performance of his.”
Army of Shadows (1969)
Ciara: “I fell in love with Jean-Pierre Melville’s films this year, totally captivated by his world of hats, coats, cigarettes, cops and criminals. Army of Shadows was the first film I watched which he directed, and it’s atypical of his work in a dozen ways: nestled among his stylised crime films drawing on American film noir, Army of Shadows is a film set during the Nazi occupation of France, inspired by Melville’s own experience fighting in the French Resistance. Melville’s crime films have no interest in realism, but from the opening moments of Army of Shadows, it’s upsettingly realistic. A young man – a boy, really – is suspected of being a Nazi informant, and so our protagonists strangle him. It’s a horrible scene, but what makes it all the more horrible is that there’s no clear way out of it. The whole film is like that: it takes a bleakly unromantic view of the Resistance without ever undermining the moral urgency of the fight.
When I got to the end of Army of Shadows, I was – no exaggeration – blown away. I was frozen to the spot, not wanting to speak or move and break the spell the film had cast on me. It was immediately, overwhelmingly obvious to me that this is one of the greatest films ever made. I was shocked to discover that it was poorly received in France on release for ‘glorifying’ Charles de Gaulle post-May ’68, and as a result was not distributed internationally for many years. It made me angry not just at the injustice against this masterpiece in particular, but filled with grief for all the other misunderstood masterpieces that haven’t been rediscovered yet.”
Ciara: “Husbands! What a picture! Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk and John Cassavetes play a group of friends whose fourth member, seen only in a brief photo montage, has just died. The lads go get drunk after the funeral, and they just… don’t stop drinking. They’re not just out for the night; they’re out for the week. And we’re with them every step of the way.
The pacing of Husbands is all granular detail. It is a hangout movie in the purest sense: there is no action, only hanging out. It makes the wedding scenes from The Deer Hunter seem speedy and plot-orientated. This is part of why many critics hated it: if you’re not enjoying it, if you don’t like these guys and want to hang out with them, I’m sure it’s painful. But I love these guys, instantly and completely. Despite their cruelty, despite their misogyny. They love each other so much that I can’t help but love them too. Everything but each other is just a distraction. Comparing the lads to his wife, Gazzara’s Harry says, apart from sex, ‘I like you guys better. I really do.’
It is a riotous good time: easily one the funniest films ever made, from instantly iconic quotable lines (“It’s a terribly sad thing when a man reaches around 27… and then he realizes that he’s never gonna be a professional athlete”) to long, ever escalating bits, like their endless critique of a drunken sing-song. But there’s an ever-present sadness just underneath. The funeral isn’t just an inciting incident, it’s the heart of the whole thing: it’s all the more powerful a film about grief because it’s almost unspoken.
Release the 225 minute cut!”
Paper Moon (1973)
Ciara: “The run of films Peter Bogdanovich made between 1968 and 1973 is extraordinary – Targets! The Last Picture Show! What’s Up, Doc! – but Paper Moon is my favourite. Like Bogdanovich’s previous films, it’s enthralled with the past, recreating and remoulding Old Hollywood: Paper Moon feels at times like it might secretly be a film from the 1930s, were it not for the light sheen of nostalgia over it. But it’s not a shallow, romantic nostalgia; it’s the nostalgia of a film in love with films, that finds that act of recreation so magical you can feel it through the screen.
Ryan O’Neal plays Moses Pray, a con man who swindles widows into buying Bibles that their husbands supposedly ordered before their death. He’s charged with transporting Addie Loggins – played by O’Neal’s real life daughter Tatum – to her aunt and uncle in Missouri after he shows up at her mother’s funeral. Addie may or may not be Moses’s kid, but she very quickly becomes his partner in crime: she’s a natural, and the pair of them drive through the Depression-era Midwest, conning whoever they can get their paws on. Tatum O’Neal is brilliant as tomboy Addie, delivering so much more than a cutesy kid performance. She’s so brilliant that it’s easy to forget how brilliant her dad is alongside her.
It’s a road movie, it’s a caper, it’s a father-daughter story. It’s an unexpectedly huge influence on Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. I can’t imagine anyone not falling head over heels for it in a second.”
Belladonna of Sadness (1973)
Dean: “Ostensibly adapted from La Sorcière, an 1862 history of witchcraft, Belladonna of Sadness is the final film released by the original Mushi Pro animation studio before its bankruptcy later the same year. It tells the tale of Jeanne, a peasant woman who makes a deal with a tiny demon shaped like a penis after the local lord rapes her on her wedding night. While it’s often described as contributing to the studio’s downfall, the reverse is actually true: awareness it would likely be their last film regardless of their efforts gave its creators the leeway to produce a brilliant, daring, risky film, a completely unique and utterly avant-garde masterpiece.
Rather than traditional animation, Belladonna is composed largely of still watercolours shot with a camera, with whole scenes sometimes happening in a single pan across a single painting. The art style is like nothing else I’ve seen: produced in the heyday of Japanese psychedelia, drawing on the tarot art of Pamela Colman Smith and influenced as much by fin-de-siècle Art Nouveau artists like Gustav Klimt and Aubrey Beardsley (themselves inspired by Japanese woodblock printing) as by mid-century American fantasy illustrators like Frank Frazetta. It’s a very strange, very dark, very funny film, like an erotic fever dream about the oppression of women. Jeanne is a fantastic tragic hero, seeking power so she can protect herself from the violence of others, but the more powerful she becomes, the more violent people are towards her. Also, the score – composed by jazz pianist Masahiko Satoh and performed by his then-wife Chinatsu Nakayama – slaps.”
Picnic at Hanging Rock (1973)
Ciara: “I watched a good few Australian New Wave films this year – the inescapable rural nightmare of Wake in Fright, Peter Weir’s gender horror The Plumber, Nicolas Roeg’s stunning, incandescent Walkabout – and I liked them all very much. But Picnic at Hanging Rock is special. A group of girls from a boarding school in 1900 go for an afternoon picnic on Valentine’s Day, and several of them disappear, seemingly into thin air. One of them shows up eventually, but with no recollection of what happened. She has lost her shoes, yet her feet are uninjured from walking barefoot on the rock face.
It is, I suppose, a mystery story. But it’s one that’s never solved. The way the whole film is made, ‘solutions’ are the farthest thing from your mind. It’s a mesmerising, almost hypnotic film, creating more of a trance experience than a story. Beautiful and elusive, you can never quite dig your fingers into it. It’s in a some ways a parable about the colonisation of Australia: white girls laced up in Victorian dresses to picnic among ancient, spiritual mysteries, they are intrinsically foreign to this land, while its native peoples have been forced off. But Picnic at Hanging Rock can’t be reduced to a colonial parable, either. It’s a mystery film in a much more pervasive way than a typical detective story. It has mystery in its bones, in the ancient, mystical sense. It’s haunting.”
Melvin and Howard (1980)
Ciara: “Melvin and Howard is about Melvin Dummar, a real-life random guy from Utah listed as a beneficiary on Howard Hughes’s alleged will. The film takes Dunmar’s version of events as true: that he once picked up Hughes on the side of the road and gave him a lift to Las Vegas. Sure, he says he’s Howard Hughes. Melvin assumes he’s just some crazy old coot.
But the places where Melvin’s life intersects with Howard are just a pretty frame for the story. The film is about Melvin, about the ups and downs of his working-class life – and about Lynda (Mary Steenburgen, never better), who he marries twice. It’s about mobile homes in the desert and repossessed cars and game show dreams. It’s about a buoyant, unfounded optimism that says you’re this close to making it. There’s no real plot to speak of, yet you hardly notice because it’s so engaging. It’s a warm, funny movie, so full of heart it might burst. It has a profound empathy for its characters: it wants to show you what Howard Hughes saw in this guy – to rescue Melvin Dummar from being a Johnny Carson punchline – and so we end up loving him as part of the bargain. ‘Dummar is the kind of guy who thinks they oughta make a movie out of his life,’ Roger Ebert wrote, ‘This time, he was right.’”
Eating Raoul (1982)
Ciara: “Eating Raoul might be the most fun I had watching a film all year. It is a perfect case study in good bad taste, in shock humour delivered with wit and vibrancy. It’s the most delightful movie about cannibalism ever made.
Mary Woronov and director Paul Bartel play Paul and Mary Bland, a married couple who dream of owning their own restaurant. They’re a 1950s sitcom couple trapped in the 1980s: while they’re sleeping in twin beds, Dick Van Dyke Show-style, their apartment building is full of swingers and perverts. When Paul loses his job for ordering too many cases of Château Lafite Rothschild instead of whatever slop the customers actually want to drink, the pair stumble into a much more lucrative money making venture: luring swingers and perverts with pockets full of cash to their apartment and killing them off. A guy called Raoul (Robert Beltran) figures out their scheme – and he wants in.
Even though the endpoint is locked in by the title, it’s never once feels like a rote exercise in getting to when they eat Raoul. It’s wildly funny, both in black-comedy shock humour ways – see: the plot – and in carefully crafted gag writing, like Paul hugging a giant stuffed toy wine bottle in bed. The two lead performances are note perfect, conveying Paul and Mary’s unstuckness in time without reducing their essential oddness to being in the wrong time period. It’s a great film, the kind I can imagine rewatching over and over again.”
Light Sleeper (1992)
Dean: “A lesser-spotted Paul Schrader film, and tragically so. Willem Dafoe is John LeTour, a restless middle-aged insomniac drug dealer, delivering product to high-end hotels and swanky apartments for Ann (Susan Sarandon). It’s one of several Schrader screenplays about alienated men working at night, and the mirror of Taxi Driver in particular. Where that film’s mood is apocalyptic – ‘someday, a real rain’ll come and wash this scum off the streets’ – Light Sleeper is defined by the absence of an apocalypse. LeTour is an addict and former abuser of his own product. He was never supposed to make it to forty, yet here he is, having done nothing, achieved nothing and created nothing in four decades. Just as Taxi Driver captured the mood of the US in the seventies with a sense of impending doom and centres not holding, Light Sleeper captured the mood of the US in the nineties, the ennui of an empire with no enemies left to vanquish. The film is haunted by the dawning realisation that there is no neat little ending, that the world might just go on like this forever.
It goes without saying that Dafoe and Sarandon are both excellent, but the performance of the film is probably Dana Delany as LeTour’s ex-lover, Marianne, also a recovering addict. Her return to the neighbourhood and drift back towards the dual dangers of LeTour and drugs give the film its heart as well as its stakes: will she be his salvation or will he be her destruction? In addition to the leads, we get lots of lovely supporting performances from great actors in some of their earliest roles, including Sam Rockwell, Jane Adams and Victor Garber. The original soundtrack from Michael Been of The Call is a really good time and I insist it be added to Spotify immediately.”
Hoop Dreams (1994)
Ciara: “I put off watching Hoop Dreams and assumed I’d put off watching it for years to come, because watching a three hour long documentary sounds like a chore. But Hoop Dreams isn’t a chore. It’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen, documentary or otherwise.
It follows six years in the lives of William Gates and Arthur Agee, two black teenagers in inner city Chicago recruited to a predominantly white high school to play basketball. It’s a story about these two boys with all the twists and thrills of a great sports documentary, but it’s much, much more than that. It’s about race, class, ambition, competition, education, and the desperately slim avenues for social mobility. It’s about a future so precarious that a torn ligament can tear it down.
Hoop Dreams encompasses all of America without ever losing sight of the boys at its centre. It has a sharp eye for the specificities of daily life for those boys and their families, all too often in other films made invisible or rendered in primary colour stereotypes. We watch the boys on their ninety minute commutes to school, we watch money troubles and family problems, resilience and defeat, hope and despair. It is, above all, a great story, as we bear witness to dramatic turning points in the lives on screen. It’s a masterpiece, there’s no other word for it.”
Ciara: “Adrian Lyne’s Lolita was the victim of those twin dark forces of film criticism, pointlessly comparing a film to the book it’s based on and pointlessly comparing it to a previous film version. These problems were exacerbated tenfold by Lolita being one of the great English language novels and the 1962 film being directed by Stanley Kubrick. That’s a shame, because Lyne’s adaptation is amazing, and entirely its own.
It is, first and foremost, a very dark film. It does an excellent job of threading the needle between telling the story from Humbert’s perspective and not letting his perspective become the film’s: the story as Humbert tells it is a tragic romance, but the film shows his relationship with Lo as overtly abusive and controlling. And she’s not some temptress; she’s an exceedingly normal child. What Humbert frames as her sexual come-ons are just survival mode.
The film’s dual perspective – allowing us to see from Humbert’s point of view and beyond it – is the key to Lyne’s approach. He uses the conventions of romantic filmmaking around overtly unromantic scenes, each masterfully undercutting the other. This is also the source of the film’s streaks of black comedy. When Humbert collects Lo from summer camp, there’s a moment where he sees her, Ennio Morricone’s beautiful score swelling, and the framing tells us what Humbert sees even as we see the reality: she’s a dirty, scrappy kid in pigtails lugging a comically large suitcase behind her.
Jeremy Irons gives an incredible performance in the lead, charming and creepy in just the right measures. He does so much with his eyes: so much of the film is Humbert looking at Lo, and he captures so much in those looks, running the gamut from helpless compulsive to calculating predator.
Oh, and Frank Langella’s Quilty is literally the most viscerally disgusting thing I’ve ever seen. Five stars.”
Summer of Sam (1999)
Dean: “Summer of Sam is my second-favourite Spike Lee joint about a New York neighbourhood in which social ties fray and ultimately break during a heatwave. It follows the lives of a circle of young Italian-Americans in the Bronx through the summer of 1977, the height of David Berkowitz’s reign of terror as the Son of Sam. The primary characters are childhood friends Vinny (John Leguizamo) and Ritchie (Adrien Brody), who reconnect when Ritchie returns to the neighbourhood after some time away. Vinny is a disco guy, taking the floor every weekend with his wife, Dionna (Mira Sorvino), on whom he constantly cheats, while Ritchie is a punk who’s just moved back in with his mother and stepfather, and who secretly makes money as an erotic dancer, prostitute and porn actor at a gay theatre.
If that already sounds like a lot, don’t worry, there’s more. Summer of Sam is the kind of movie I’m sure others have called bloated or overstuffed, but I think it’s just crazy enough to work. The police investigation into Berkowitz, all the weird subplots involving other residents like the local mob boss or the characters’ parents, Spike Lee’s hilarious performance as a milquetoast local news reporter who gets into fights with local residents, the use of ABBA and The Who as duelling artists on the soundtrack. There are so many different threads it should be impossible to weave them together, but they’re woven nonetheless. It’s one of Lee’s best and, among many, many other things, a real showcase for Mira Sorvino, who walks away with the whole film in her back pocket.”
Dean: “Senna is the first in Asif Kapadia’s trilogy of documentaries about troubled prodigies, a study of the legendary Formula One driver who died, aged just 34, in a tragic car crash during the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. Like its successors, Amy and Diego Maradona, it eschews talking heads, interviews, narration and recreations to tell its story entirely through recordings of races, news clips, home movies and other archival footage. It’s easily one of the best films I’ve seen in this or any other year, but it is also, very specifically, one of the best documentaries and by far the best sports film.
The exclusive use of historical footage sounds like it should be a huge constraint on Senna’s ability to tell a compelling story: you have no control over what shots of what events even exist to put in your film, let alone control over whether they’re good. But Senna looks consistently amazing. It’s a joy to watch. They not only found the shots they needed in the historical record, but the editing gives it a shape more like a fictional character study or narrative biopic than a documentary, which makes it really gripping to watch on an emotional level. Even when you know where it’s going, every race is an edge-of-your-seat affair. Character conflicts like Senna’s rivalry with Alain Prost or his disputes with the head of racing’s governing body still feel fresh and urgent. In any other film, the fact that literally every important figure in Senna’s life was there on the day he died would feel contrived, but here it’s completely organic (and also true).”
Ma Vie de Courgette (2016)
Dean: “I missed Ma Vie de Courgette when it was in cinemas, but thanks to our pals over at Channel 4, proprietors of the best streaming service in the UK and Ireland, I caught it earlier this year and fell in love immediately. If the first ten minutes of Up is the greatest love story of all time, then the first ten minutes of Ma Vie de Courgette is the saddest tale ever told. Icare, a young Swiss boy, is taken into state care after he accidentally kills his alcoholic mother while resisting a drunken attack. At the home, he asks to be called Courgette, his mother’s pet name for him. He is initially bullied and later befriended by an older kid, Simon, and gradually adapts to his new life. Then Camille comes to the home and it’s love at first sight.
I love the jerkiness typical of stop-motion animation – the ‘limitations’ or ‘flaws’ of a medium are often its most beautiful aspects – but I was really impressed and delighted by the fluidity of Ma Vie de Courgette’s animation. It’s not just the smoothness of the motion, but how much the animators clearly took advantage of the extra frames. All the characters are really expressive and the world feels both lived-in and alive. The colours are rich and warm, the aesthetic is sweetly storybook and there’s a running gag about the kids thinking that babies come from ‘exploding willies’ that just gets funnier as it goes along. It’s such a lovely, delightful, charming film, it warms my heart just to think about it.”
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