Look, I don’t have to get into it, but I didn’t exactly “keep up” with movies in 2020. You know why.
But! I got there eventually, catching up with the weird and aborted list of festival and streaming titles that filled up “best of 2020” lists. Over a year after the fact, and with none of us particularly wanting to revisit that year for any reason, I am not going to advertise this post. But in bringing the EMOs back from the dead for 2021, I weirdly felt the need to document what I would have said or done in 2020 – if anyone asked. This is also now my chance to give a dry-run to a new, slimmer EMOs, and figure out how to do it in WordPress’ godforsaken new editor. Here you go, whoever you are.
Top 10 of 2020
Da 5 Bloods
One Night in Miami…
The Personal History of David Copperfield
Sound of Metal
The Old Guard
David Byrne’s American Utopia
Armando Iannucci, The Personal History of David Copperfield
Gina Prince-Bythewood, The Old Guard
Regina King, One Night in Miami…
Spike Lee, Da 5 Bloods / David Byrne’s American Utopia
Darius Marder, Sound of Metal
Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart, Wolfwalkers
Kelly Reichardt, First Cow
Chloe Zhao, Nomadland
Best Acting Ensemble
Da 5 Bloods
One Night in Miami…
The Personal History of David Copperfield
Best Lead Performance
Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal
Kingsley Ben-Adir & Leslie Odom Jr., One Night in Miami…
Radha Blank, The Forty-Year-Old Version
Han Ye-ri & Steven Yeun, Minari
Delroy Lindo, Da 5 Bloods
John Magaro & Orion Lee, First Cow
Frances McDormand, Nomadland
Cristin Milioti, Palm Springs
Elisabeth Moss, Shirley
Gary Oldman, Mank
Dev Patel, The Personal History of David Copperfield
Best Supporting Performance
Chadwick Boseman, Da 5 Bloods
Kenneth Branagh, Tenet
Colman Domingo, Michael Potts & Glynn Turman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Hugh Laurie, The Personal History of David Copperfield
Paul Raci, Sound of Metal
Mark Rylance, The Trial of the Chicago 7
Amanda Seyfried, Mank
Youn Yu-jung, MinariThe Forty-Year-Old Version
Best Original Screenplay
Jeff Barnaby, Blood Quantum
Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee, Da 5 Bloods
Radha Blank, The Forty-Year-Old Version
Lee Isaac Chung, Minari
Will Collins, Wolfwalkers
Darius Marder, Abraham Marder, Sound of Metal
Best Adapted Screenplay
Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci, The Personal History of David Copperfield
Eleanor Catton, Emma
Kemp Powers, One Night in Miami…
Jonathan Raymond, Kelly Reichardt, First Cow
Greg Rucka, The Old Guard
Christopher Blauvert, First Cow
Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, Shirley
Hoyte van Hoytema, Tenet
Erik Messerschmidt, Mank
Tami Reiker, Barry Ackroyd, The Old Guard
Joshua James Richards, Nomadland
Newton Thomas Sigel, Da 5 Bloods
William Tyler, First Cow
Ludwig Göransson, Tenet
Christopher Willis, The Personal History of David Copperfield
It *would* be HBO’s miniseries Chernobyl that drags me back to film blogging. I’m struggling to organize my thoughts in the way I used to when writing reviews regularly back in college, so I don’t know that this will be my best work, but perhaps a small host of digital archivists will finally understand my Twitter handle and the “occasional Soviet cinema enthusiast” section of my bio.
But, yes, the conclusion of Chernobyl this past Monday awoke something in me, as it hit squarely at an intersection of cultural craft that I’ve continued mulling over quite a lot the past few years even as I’ve drifted further and further away from traditional “film studies”: the collision of political, media, and social narrative that makes the entire idea of movies “based on a true story” an utter paradox. That it happens to use a story from the history of the Soviet Union, the 20th century’s wildest and arguably furthest-reaching experiment in nation-as-narrative, as the grounds to explore the boundaries of “historical fiction” and “docudrama” – the more the better (for me and my ever-shrinking attention span, at least).
I’ll say right off the bat that one of the things I most admire about Chernobyl is that its creator/writer, Craig Mazin, has been not just upfront but quite adamant that his series is not the truth. For the sake of marketing and media coverage it is understandable that the log line for the miniseries is boiled down to “the story of what happened at Chernobyl”, but in all of the interviews and pieces I’ve seen where Mazin is directly involved, he’s rather insistent that it is just a story, that there are many others (including the extensive materials he used for research), and, most importantly, that it is critical and appropriate to discuss what he changed in the name of artistic license. You can see this in glimpses in the supplemental “Inside the Episode” segments at the end of each episode of Chernobyl (they’re actually informative! come back, Game of Thrones viewers!). There is even the 5-episode companion podcast, featuring Mazin and, of all people, Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me host Peter Sagal, released and well-promoted by HBO, entirely dedicated to Mazin explaining what he manipulated, left out, exaggerated or outright falsified, and why.
(Well, it’s not entirely dedicated to that, because there is also plenty of Sagal genuflecting over how good this-or-that scene is, or recalling unhelpful anecdotes from his own memories of the era, but, the parts where they dig in on some of the thornier questions of remaining “true” versus telling a story are quite compelling)
The point is, I can not recall another recent instance of historical fiction, at least in film or TV, where the “fiction” part was seen as permissible. Think of all the click-bait pieces and headlines you’ve seen in recent years: “10 Things Selma Got Wrong About Lyndon Johnson”; “The Truth About Gwen Verdon and Fosse/Verdon“; “5 Things You Didn’t Know About First Man‘s Janet Shearon”. There is always an implication of betrayal behind these pieces: an unspoken rage that this movie made up or ignored facts in order to manipulate you, as if that wasn’t entirely the point of creative expression. Chernobyl has hardly been immune to this phenomenon: among those that are at least better-written, see this Forbes piece (which starts making a fair critique of the series’ fear-mongering around nuclear power, but then goes so far in the other direction that it makes the argument that thyroid cancer….isn’t that bad?), or the New York Times piece that concludes with the thought of “too bad this wasn’t a documentary!” as if, again, the entire enterprise of historical fiction is illegitimate. (I would dearly love and actually respect it more to see someone stop dancing around it and just write this take explicitly)
The show, I thought, tried to get ahead of all that. Instead of sitting back and letting his docudrama be shred down to bullet points in a “Controversy” section on Wikipedia, Mazin and the production team at HBO, to the best of their ability, invited viewers to make picking apart the story a part of the story. That is, it appears, to be the very point of Chernobyl: if “the cost of lies” is, potentially, impending destruction for the human race (Mazin has also not been shy about Chernobyl‘s obvious parallels to the current global political discourse around climate change), then it’s in everyone’s interest to be able to discern when we’re being sold one.
BUT this is kind of where it all breaks down, and where I really felt compelled to write out some thoughts in the face of what appears to be a truly overwhelming positive response – Chernobyl now has a 95% Rotten Tomatoes score and the highest rating for any TV show ever on IMDb (both numbers that of course that don’t *really* mean anything at all, but in my impression do accurately reflect the bland same-ness of the praise around the series) – is the conclusion that because it is extremely well made, well thought out and well-intentioned, Chernobylergo is ultimately successful at what it’s trying to do creatively. Unfortunately, it’s not, and it has nothing to do with how factual or not it is.
For its first four episodes, Chernobyl deftly mixes exacting recreations and superb cinematic craft to create an indelible impression of crisis – smacking viewers with the awful results of the explosion at reactor 4, the scrambled, messy, inarticulate response of the Soviet political leadership, and the dire fears of doomsday conjured in the aftermath. This, you can’t help but think, is indeed what it would look and feel like to live through something like this.
I think here of scenes like the hospital workers casually piling the fatally irradiated suits of dying firefighters in a corner of the basement, where they still sit today; or the entirety of the masterful Episode Four, “The Happiness of All Mankind”, with its real-time re-enactment of the “biorobots” (what a staggeringly horrific and truly Soviet word) given 90 second each to clean the plant roof, and the transcendent miniseries-within-the-miniseries of Barry Keoghan and Fares Fares as liquidators sent to clear the Exclusion Zone of all visible animal life.
I cannot emphasize enough that these are some staggering and unforgettable images, and well worth the time of watching Chernobyl no matter what. It is certainly enough to forgive obvious pitfalls like Emily Watson’s “character”, Ulana Khomyuk – a composite standing for, in Mazin’s own words, “dozens” of Soviet scientists, a narrative shortcut SO obvious and outrageous that it breaks the show’s spell pretty much every time she’s on screen.
(At the risk of sounding like the nit-picking pieces I said I was trying to avoid, I just have to mention how *insane* the sequence is where Khomyuk, supposedly a physicist from a completely unrelated plant in Minsk, travels to Chernobyl, directly confronts Legasov and Scherbina, who are currently in charge of putting out a still-burning reactor fire – and they patiently listen to her, have her join(?) the team, and in her next scene is seated at a committee meeting with Gorbachev. It would make more narrative sense to me if Khomyuk was an honest-to-god Jiminy Cricket-esque hallucination of Legasov’s conscience.)
But then comes the grand finale, and it is already a mistake that the show is treating the last episode as such. Nothing about Chernobyl has felt like it was building toward cathartic resolution. Nothing has suggested we needed a redemption arc for Jared Harris’ lead, Valery Legasov – we are already aware of his actual arc towards futility, despair, and ultimately suicide regardless of his testimony at the trial. There *is* a mild “whodunnit” structure that still needs to be resolved (the lingering question, present since the first episode, of “how does an RBMK reactor explode?”), and the flashbacks in “Vichnaya Pamyat” to the moments just before what we’ve already seen of the night of the explosion, are structurally effective and undoubtedly the best moments of the episode, for the same reasons that the premiere was so vivid, but their context is now wrong. Chernobyl pretty much just had to stick its landing by sticking to the same tone and indictment that it seemed to be making all along: states are narratives (lies, even), and they do not give a shit for the individuals contained and affected by them, but individuals are complicit in recounting and enforcing them.
And yet, suddenly here we are, swerving from Come and See to Witness for the Prosecution faster than a first-year film student. I can’t really put it any better than Masha Gessen did in The New Yorker, the one piece I have read that bothers to engage and attribute Chernobyl‘s failure to a problem of inconsistent messaging and power dynamics rather than a fact-check of statistics elided or embellished. Legasov’s last-minute attempt to put the onus for Chernobyl on the Soviet state pales to the extended sequence blasting the personal failing of the engineer Dyatlov, resulting in a severe muddling. It is impossible to watch the flashbacks at the trial and not think, “if only those junior engineers had stood their ground against Dyatlov” – but thinking that is completely at odds with the culpability of the state. Would the reactor at Chernobyl have exploded if Dyatlov wasn’t present? If you are blaming the system, that answer should be ambiguous, but Chernobyl goes out of its way to say “no”.
We even have the evidence here to specifically blame Mazin’s creative and writing decisions in this moment: in the podcast, Mazin relates how at the real trial, Dyatlov forcefully denied the charges that he was to blame for the explosion (as he does in the show), but also completed his statement by saying, “With so many deaths, I can’t say that I’m completely innocent.” This is an exceptional bit of Soviet double-talk, perfectly in keeping with the thematic trajectory of the show towards a broad and banal sense of culpability, and it’s absolutely baffling that Mazin chose specifically not to include it. Instead, we get Dyatlov’s (also real) declaration that he was “in the bathroom” at a critical juncture – a statement the flashbacks present as a total lie, and so where there could and should have been shades of gray there is a bitter, unsympathetic, black-and-white Hollywood villain.
Legasov’s testimony and his last scene with the hovering KGB official are similarly clunky devices that confuse more than clarify. They’re incredible acting showcases for Harris, to be sure, and probably secured him an Emmy, but it is completely unclear what Legasov the character intends to achieve in these moments.
Tell the world the truth? The moment for that would have been the international panel at Vienna, at which Legasov did in fact, within his bounds, implicate blame for the Soviet state – but in the show this event occurs for some reason off-screen, and it’s implied he completely stuck to his script of blaming operator error.
Spark internal outrage and action within the Soviet Union, with a handful of his fellow scientists present? It is well established at this point that the trial is completely insular and controlled by the Party and the KGB (and all this just within the bounds of the show itself, never mind Gessen’s point that the real Legasov, as a high-up scientific administrator, would never not have known this).
Clear his own conscience in his downward spiral into suicide? This is the closest to a justifiable motivation, but within the show it’s redundant: Legasov’s recorded voice recordings, which we’ve already seen (they open the show and will bookend it), distributed via samizdat (a phenomenon Mazin seems troublingly unaware of in the companion podcast), serve the same purpose, in a far more grounded and realistic gesture.
The explanation is that this utter fantasy of a trial happens because it must happen, according to the conventions of a certain traditional, Robert-McKee-type of storytelling. We must tie a bow on the characters and events we have been shown, get away with a clean ending, even when the story and message presented have been extremely messy. (The interlude in the trial where Legasov tells Scherbina he was “the most important of all” is another baffling example of this choice – there is absolutely no reason for it to exist except to say “goodbye” to the character of Scherbina, even though the entire point of the show up to this point has been to emphasize that there were literally hundreds of thousands of nameless citizens who served critical, incomprehensibly heroic roles in the cleanup effort). The result, where there should actually be a splintering and divide of opinion and interpretation, is a monolith. This series was “great”, because it gave us exactly what we wanted: satisfying lies, lies that “make sense” given our preconceptions rather than challenging them.
It is genuinely disappointing to have to write this focusing so much on the failings of “Vichnaya Pamyat”. If I had been blogging the entire series, there would be far more space to discuss the extraordinary craft on display in the rest of the series, including Mazin’s writing! (The final episode seems to reveal limitations perhaps related to Mazin’s “day job” of scripting comedies like The Hangover sequels, but it’s unfair not to note that the other four episodes suggest heretofore little-known and largely untapped talent). But as with the stumblings of latter-day Game of Thrones (sorry, I know, we don’t need to go over that any more), it feels critical to examine why we are disappointed (or satisfied!) by certain types of filmmaking and storytelling, to question exactly what we are being told and examine the effect it has on us. I think (hope) that the makers of Chernobyl would agree with me on that.
A year in movies isn’t just about the new releases. In addition to the EMOs, now I present the 3rd annual Ethan’s Repertory Picks, running down some of the best, worst and most memorable games of cinematic catch-up that I played in 2017. Enjoy!
For Marilyn Monroe Really Going For It With the Crazy: “Don’t Bother to Knock” (1952), Roy Ward Baker
For Marilyn Monroe Really Bored: “Niagara” (1953), Henry Hathaway
For the Origin of Every Think-Piece and Opinion You’ve Ever Seen or Had About Marilyn Monroe: “The Seven Year Itch” (1955), Billy Wilder
For “Deliverance” But More Martial and Also Insane: “Southern Comfort” (1981), Walter Hill
For the Silliest Vin Diesel Hair: “The Last Witch Hunter” (2015), Breck Eisner
For When Your “Stranger Things” ’80s Nostalgia Isn’t Ultra-Violent Enough: “Turbo Kid” (2015), Francois Simard, Anouk Whissell, Yoann-Karl Whissell
For When You Want to Yell At Protagonists Who Are Not Nearly Freaked Out Enough About the Circumstances They Find Themselves In: “Children of the Corn” (1984), Fritz Kiersch
For Cary Grant In Some Really Primo Hats: “Only Angels Have Wings” (1939), Howard Hawks
For Faye Dunaway Really Going For It in a Movie with Unclear Reasons for Existing: “Mommie Dearest” (1981), Frank Perry
For a Great Le Carre Adaptation Done in By Bizarre Casting: “The Little Drummer Girl” (1984), George Roy Hill
For A So-So Le Carre Adaptation Elevated By Great Casting: “The Russia House” (1990), Fred Schepisi
For Sexy Mermaids That Will Eat the Patriarchy: “The Lure” (2015), Agnieszka Smoczynska
For the Particular Delight of Rock Hudson Trying to Fit Into a Car That’s Too Small For Him, Which Is Really What We Should Be Talking About When We Say That They Don’t Make Them Like They Used To: “Pillow Talk” (1959), Michael Gordon
For a Thriller About Revenge Against the 1% and Nazis That, Somehow, Feels Even Less Timely: “Inside Man” (2006), Spike Lee
For Checking Your Goddamn Narrative Logic At the Door, We’re Making a Soviet Avant-Garde War Movie and Just Go With It: “Story of the Flaming Years” (1961), Yulia Solntseva
For Super Super Fashionable Murder: “Blood and Black Lace” (1964), Mario Bava
For the Good Old Days When Charles Durning Could Be An Action/Thriller Hero: “When a Stranger Calls” (1979), Fred Walton
For When You Really Feel Like Suspending Disbelief, Sure Orson Welles Could Hide Out in Small-Town Connecticut Without Attracting Any Attention: “The Stranger” (1946), Orson Welles
For The Most Xtreme Xaction Xaround: “xXx” (2002), Rob Cohen
For Half of a Pretty Good Movie Just Repeated Twice: “Sully” (2016), Clint Eastwood
Top 10 Repertory Picks of 2017
10. “Train to Busan” (2016), Sang-ho Yeon
A clever, zippy take on the zombie outbreak genre, follows through on its killer conceit with claustrophobic action and character work. The third act really starts to lag, but terrific set-pieces and likable leads make for a real romp that manages to sneak in some feeling.
9. “Woman of the Year” (1942), George Stevens
A contradictory movie – obvious reshoots and edits reveal paradoxical attitudes towards femininity and Hepburn’s fierce investigative journalist Tess Harding in particular. Her independent spirit is both validated by a refreshingly oddball-yet-realistic romance with Tracy’s kind but emotionally stunted sports reporter; yet knocked down by that grafted-on ending that clearly needs to put the character “in her place” for a 1940s American wife. But when it’s embracing the eccentricities and fumbling of Tess and Sam’s relationship, “Woman of the Year” feels surprisingly ahead of its time and quite unlike contemporary screwball romances – and, while that re-shot ending sequence is awkward, poorly written and problematic against the rest of the film, it *does* give Hepburn one of the best purely comic set-pieces of her career.
8. “The Women” (1939), George Cukor
Likewise – it’s rough that even when investing in a rare all-female production, it’s tough to say whether Golden Age Hollywood could quite pass the Bechdel Test. But even if the story can’t stray past typical character confinements – “The Women” is all socialite machinations, gossip, and affairs – it’s impossible to put such an incredible cast together and not get something special. Shearer, Crawford, Russell, Fontaine, Paulette Goddard, Marjorie Main, Ruth Hussey – letting these superb actresses bounce off each other, without a rote Melvyn Douglas performance or somesuch to get in the way, remains (sadly) a unique experience.
7. “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (1941), William Dieterle
Dieterle, a Hollywood transplant from Weimar Germany, leans into the gothic horror of Stephen Vincent Benet’s colonial New England fable, with playful special effects and haunting imagery. Walter Huston has a near criminal amount of fun as the demonic Mr. Scratch.
6. “Repo Man” (1984), Alex Cox
Cox’s encyclopedic knowledge of and affinity with the L.A. punk scene of the early ’80s may provide the easy hook, but it’s one thing to be referential and another to actually translate punk’s off-kilter humor and disregard for social norms into a movie so viscerally. A send-up of wacky conspiratorial sci-fi B-movies, a satirical critique of consumer dystopia, a punk rock coming-of-age story – none of it should add up to anything coherent, and maybe it doesn’t, but you can’t help but think about the makers laughing at you for being square enough to try to square it, and go along for the ride.
5. “Mildred Pierce” (1945), Michael Curtiz
Anyone who’s only seen Joan Crawford second-hand: filtered through “Mommie Dearest” or “Feud”, really owes it to themselves to see her at the height of her own power. “Mildred Pierce” ain’t a bad place to start. Narrative casts her as both heel and patsy, but the expressionistic noir wasteland of Curtiz’s California coastline, along with Crawford’s nuanced, powerhouse performance, suggest the deeper tragedy of circumstance going on here in Mildred Pierce’s story.
4. “Paprika” (2006), Satoshi Kon
A trippy, balls-to-the-wall thriller that appropriately abandons all logic in favor of stunning, dreamy imagery. Rather than some of its Hollywood equivalents – think “Inception” – Satoshi Kon’s anime classic leans into the absurdity and spontaneity of subconscious thought, trading precision plotting for a zippy, delightful journey that *feels* sensical, even when the details can, and should, fall by the wayside.
3. “Pather Panchali” (1955), Satyajit Ray
Ray’s loose, eminently empathetic masterpiece practically defines humanist cinema. Effortlessly gorgeous (the Criterion Collection and Academy’s painstaking 2015 restoration is truly something to behold), gently heart-breaking, “Pather Panchali” tells the story of a childhood with minimal bluster and excess. It’s a triumph of understatement and sensitivity.
2. “Poem of an Inland Sea” (1958), Yulia Solntseva
A deep cut – and even among the small crowd of New York cinephiles who happened to catch all three of Yulia Solntseva’s gorgeous Ukraine trilogy at Museum of the Moving Image this past summer, perhaps the oddball choice. The consensus pick for best of the bunch seemed to be the Tarkovsky-esque “Enchanted Desna”, and Solntseva won Best Director at Cannes for “Story of the Flaming Years”. But “Poem of an Inland Sea” really captured my fascination – precisely because it is in many ways the most stilted of the three. The most overtly “propagandistic”, it is also by far the queasiest about those propagandistic elements – building up the Soviet achievement of a new dam with visual grandeur while at the same time mourning the loss of the Ukrainian communities about to be flooded with a thoroughly anti-Party sense of melancholy and romanticism for the past. Though Solntseva’s visual style had clearly not yet fully matured, the characters in “Poem of an Inland Sea” are fleshed out and empathized with in a way the later films abandon for pure sensual stimulation – and it’s still hardly skimpy on stunning shots. A fascinating relic of the cultural/generational/ethnic tensions contained within the USSR.
1. “Dekalog: One” (1989), Krzysztof Kieslowski
No other filmmaker gives me chills in quite the same way as Kieslowski. I’m still only partially through the Dekalog, his cinematic series of loosely Biblical morality tales, but the distressing, bitter opening chapter sets a pall that is not easily shaken. As queasy and probing about the relationship between humanity and technology as the best episodes of “Black Mirror”, Kieslowski manages to ask some of the most unsettling, existential questions with the simplest of images.