2020 gave us a year of kind cinema when we needed it most – here are our independent and arthouse highlights
One impact of Covid-19 has been that many major tentpole films were delayed until next year. Film festivals were cancelled, meaning many independent films lost out on an important showcase. However, some film festivals, such as the London Film Festival, progressed, holding a combination of virtual screenings and socially distanced events. Many films went straight to streaming, too, bypassing theatrical release in favour of finding an audience who were isolated at home. On top of this, the lack of blockbusters meant that these films garnered more attention that they might otherwise have done. During a divisive year, one of the unifying characteristics of these films has been that they all exemplify empathy towards their characters.
The Assistant (lead image)
The Assistant follows a day in the life of Jane, a junior assistant (Julia Garner), working for a Harvey Weinstein-esque figure in a film production office. Her days are long and gruelling – she is beset by a barely manageable workload, and rarely receives a word of praise. Over the course of this day, Jane slowly realises that things are not as they seem, and that she is an unwitting participant in a system of abuse. The Assistant grapples with the mundanity of evil and its pervasiveness, and makes strong use of Julia Garner’s perpetually downturned, gentle, grave mouth. Matthew Macfadyen gives a particularly standout performance – despite only being present for one scene, his is one of the most insidious and shocking moments in the film.
Based on 24-year-old director Cooper Raiff’s college experiences, Shithouse is a coming-of-age story told against the backdrop of social anxiety and Instagram-based interactions. It’s like Eighth Grade, but for college students. Alex (Cooper Raiff) and Maggie (Dylan Gelula) meet at a house party and slowly, awkwardly, find out that they’re both exhausted by inauthenticity, and neither of them have found real human connection at college. Upon seeing this, you will find it hard not to miss viscerally awkward conversations.
One of the films comprising Small Axe, an anthology film series from Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen, Lovers Rock takes place in West London in the 80s during a house party, at which the titular genre serves up a memorable soundtrack. The dance scenes unfold in real time, songs often playing in their entirety. If you think you miss house parties now, wait until you see Franklyn (Micheal Ward) and Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) fall in love over the course of one night, moving rhythmically to the backdrop of reggae.
David Byrne’s American Utopia
In 1984, Talking Heads released a concert documentary directed by Jonathan Demme called Stop Making Sense. Considered to be one of the greatest concert films ever made, it was filled with verve and enthusiasm, especially conveyed by lead singer David Byrne. 36 years later, David Byrne, with Spike Lee directing, returns to take his audience on a journey through song and humorous observations about humanity. His trademark enthusiasm permeates the project, and it will make you fall in love with music all over again.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Autumn (Sidney Flannigan) tries her best to get her life back to normal after she faces an unwanted pregnancy, but faces obstacles at every single turn, both internal and external. While attempting to exert control over her own body, she finds an ally in her friend Skylar (Talia Ryder) who goes to great lengths to help her get an abortion. Never Rarely Sometimes Always emanates an aura of kindness towards Autumn throughout – and her expression often conveys a quiet mixture of innocence and despair.
A coming-of-age film set in the council estates of Hackney, centring on the bond of friendship between a group of teenage girls who attend school together. It captures how underfunded social services can profoundly affect the lives of children, and how easy it is to slip through the cracks. Painful but deeply joyful, Rocks could easily be a documentary. The film incorporates smartphone footage, and we see many of the purest moments of friendship unfold as the girls would see them.
Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) has been raised by her parents to con her way through life, and they have treated her like an adult since she was a toddler. Suddenly the constancy of her world is invaded by an enthusiastic stranger (Gina Rodriguez) who wants in on the latest heist. Kajillionaire explores themes of intimacy, and the emotional and relational violence that your family can unwittingly wage upon you. With a sparse and clever use of score, highlighted by Evan Rachel Wood’s gloriously husky voice, it’s an offbeat look at the myriad of absurd ways that people express love to one another.
The premise of First Cow is captivating in its simplicity: Cookie (John Magaro), travelling in the Pacific Northwest, meets King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant on the run for killing a man. They bond, and concoct a plan to secretly milk the first cow ever to be brought to the Oregon Territory, and use it to make biscuits that they can sell to the other settlers. Kelly Reichardt’s central concern is not the capitalist infrastructure pervading even a remote settlement that leads people to steal milk from a cow. Instead, it is the quiet friendship between a chef and a murderer. Casual tenderness seeps through this film, demonstrated in the gentle way Cookie talks to everyone he meets, be they man or cow.
Philip Larkin wrote, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad / They may not mean to, but they do”. Babyteeth is the story of two parents who are trying their utmost to avoid fucking up their daughter. Terminally ill teenager Milla (Eliza Scanlen) is about to embark on a course of chemotherapy when she meets 23-year-old drug dealer Moses on a train station platform. She’s taken by how nonchalantly he treats her – she’s so used to being under her parents’ watchful gaze that she’s forgotten what it’s like to be treated like a person, instead of a walking tragedy.
Bridget (Kelly O’Sullivan) is drifting aimlessly through life when two events happen simultaneously: she has an abortion, and she starts nannying a precocious six-year-old called Frances (Ramona Edith Williams). Bridget attempts to process complicated emotions regarding her procedure; despite having no moral objection to it, she still wrestles with sadness. Frances, despite being wise beyond her years, is still very much a six-year-old girl, and similarly attempting to make sense of her surroundings. She and Bridget bond over their shared candour.
On the Rocks
Sofia Coppola’s latest feature is a funny and poignant portrait of an unconventional father-daughter relationship. Laura (Rashida Jones), who has a specific talent for looking like she wants to leave a conversation, confides in her father Felix (Bill Murray) that she suspects her husband may be having an affair. Felix quickly realises he can connect with his estranged daughter by showing a superior and intimate knowledge of the philandering methods of unfaithful men. Jones and Murray have a very natural chemistry, and their ironic repartee is extremely charming to watch.