Staff Picks: Our Favourite Films of 2020
To say that the global pandemic has brought a sea-change to films would be an understatement. It’s been a year without any Marvel releases and with only a few major blockbusters confident enough for the theatres. Instead, films have embraced streaming services, where comparatively smaller-scale productions have thrived.
If the trend continues post-pandemic (which probably will with Warner’s HBO Max deal), how films are made and told might seem very different in the near future to cater to the new medium; Infinity Wars might just be Hollywood’s last large-scale blockbuster.
Loving films have been tough in 2020. Out of the five we were looking forward to at the year’s halfway mark, only one was released. That aside, the theatres just weren’t open for about a quarter of the year. Even if there were films on streaming services, they might not even be available here.
Regardless, we are immensely grateful for the cornerstones of independent cinema here in Singapore that has made loving films possible this year. The Projector and Anticipate Pictures have both been severely affected by the pandemic yet, through their bottomless passion, have endeavoured in their vital roles.
Film festivals in Singapore have adapted to the times with their hybrid formats, bringing to our shores an eclectic selection of international films. The recently-concluded Singapore International Film Festival turned out to be the must-attend film event of the year with its lineup of films that have received noticeable critics buzz since.
To cap off this strange, strange year, we share the six films that stood out for us in 2020.
Yap Shi Quan
Director: Tsai Ming-liang
I was first exposed to Tsai Ming-liang when I watched Goodbye, Dragon Inn this August. I was not impressed at all. In my defence, and also in the film’s defence, I watched it on the computer in very low quality. I only started to appreciate Tsai’s aesthetics and unique vision when I rewatched it for a school essay.
Then I found out that Tsai’s newest film, Days, was going to be screened during Singapore International Film Festival. I don’t know what possessed me to watch it – I still found Goodbye, Dragon Inn a bit bland – but I’m sure as heck glad I did. I don’t think I’m exaggerating by saying that Days is a tour de force. The plot is simple and slow, yet undeniably urgent and tragic.
It tells the story of two men, one who is played by Tsai’s long-time collaborator, Lee Kang-sheng, and another who is played by Anong Houngheuangsy. Lonely and in need of intimacy, the two meet up one day and share a passionate, erotic encounter.
One might criticise Tsai for his slow, meandering plot and his excessive use of long takes, but those techniques are what make the film so hypnotizingly beautiful. Tsai also revisits themes familiar to his oeuvre, such as urban loneliness, queerness, and intimacy, without being too indulgent.
Not many reviews talked about this particular scene in the film, but it’s what made me fall in love with Days. It happens right after Lee leaves the hotel room to chase after Houngheuangsy, and the room lights flicker off, leaving the room drenched in darkness. Sounds dull, but trust me, words cannot describe the beauty and enigma of this shot. Till today, I still think about it. Safe to say, by the end of the film, I was converted into a Tsai Ming-liang fan.
Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train (劇場版「鬼滅の刃」 無限列車編)
Director: Haruo Sotozaki
Written by: Koyoharu Gotoge
Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train is probably the most anticipated movie release of 2020. I, too, anticipated it eagerly, and wasn’t disappointed. The film follows immediately after the ending of the anime’s first season, where the main characters board a train to meet up with a well-respected, powerful senior of the Demon Slayer Corps. Together, they try to hunt down a demon that has killed over forty demon slayers in a short span of time. However, things take a darker turn, and the ending may have left many viewers traumatised and depressed.
If I really want to be harsh, Kimetsu no Yaiba is pretty unoriginal with its straightforward plot and its rehashing of Shonen anime tropes. But under Ufotable’s – the anime’s and movie’s production house – direction, the anime exploded in popularity for its gorgeous animation. And that’s what the film has delivered as well. The swordplay and action sequences are top-notch, even when compared to other anime, for its seamlessness and dazzling colours.
Even the special effects, such as the flames or water that appear with a sword slash, are elaborately hand-drawn. The voice actors deserve special mention as well for breathing life (no pun intended) into the characters, making them more memorable and distinct than they already are in the manga. Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train is not the most thought-provoking film I’ve watched, but it still left me in awe with the stunning animation and tragic ending.
The Half of It
Director: Alice Wu
In the small town of Squahamish, Ellie Chu pines for Aster Flores, who is one of the smartest and prettiest girls in the school they go to. Ellie doesn’t believe she has a chance. However, things change one day when Paul Munsky, a football player, approaches Ellie to ask her for help to woo Aster.
At the heart of Alice Wu’s newest film, The Half of It, is a teen romance story. It sounds cliché, but really, it isn’t. Wu gives the hackneyed genre – heavily dominated by straight, white stories – a refreshing spin by making the protagonist Chinese American, and an another refreshing spin by making her queer. And by no means are Ellie’s problems unrelatable. Wu incisively and skilfully weaves a backstory that is uniquely Ellie’s, but crafts a story about infatuation, unrequited love, and the risks taken in love that any teenager can relate to.
Even if The Half of It doesn’t have inventive or eye-catching cinematography, the story surely deserves praise for its believable characters that are utterly flawed and vulnerable, ready to lie to other people for their own benefits.
Check out our review of the film here. The Half of It is available for streaming on Netflix:
You Cannot Kill David Arquette
Directors: Price James, David Darg
Having to narrow down the year’s films to only three was a difficult task. The last spot was fought over by two. On one hand, there is David Fincher’s Mank, a technical masterpiece that painstakingly and lovingly emulated the style of Golden Age Hollywood (so much so that it could easily be mistaken for a long-lost Orson Welles film). On the other, there is crass documentary You Cannot Kill David Arquette, which earnestly showcases a Hollywood has-been’s mid-life crisis. Despite being a sucker for highfalutin arthouse films, my love for over-the-top personalities proved stronger — but can you blame me with a backstory like this?
The documentary centres around actor David Arquette, mainly known for his roles in the Scream franchise and being the ex-husband of Monica (Courtney Cox) from Friends. Twenty years ago, he became notorious in the wrestling world for ‘winning’ one of its most prestigious titles despite being a non-wrestler — all as a promotional gimmick for the actor’s film. It would be like if Danny DeVito was parachuted into a World Cup-winning team to promote Junior and him gloating about it.
And Arquette did gloat about being champion — although only in the ring as a heel. He had a deep respect for the sport and, by all accounts, was adamant about not winning the title. The actor even donated all his earnings from the gig to the families of wrestlers who died from in-ring tragedies. Despite all this, Arquette soon became the most hated man in wrestling while seeing his acting career go down the drain.
The documentary details Arquette’s redemption story — at least only in wrestling. You Cannot Kill David Arquette is spectacularly entertaining. I couldn’t stop grinning from ear to ear from all the ridiculousness and the heart Arquette displays. Bonus points for the barrage of merciless pot shots fans and Arquette himself take on his ailing acting career that never stopped being funny. This is perhaps the most inspirational mid-life crisis I have ever seen.
Number 1 《男儿王》
Director: Ong Kuo Sin
Number 1 is, by far, my favourite local film from the last few years. It has a shrewd view on progress that I deeply admire, striking the perfect balance between mass appeal and moving social conversations forward. Even in Singapore alone, there are tons of exceptional films about LGBTQ+ themes. However, I felt that Number 1 is one of the first in a long time that could feel relatable for everyday Singaporeans and not just for the woke folks.
More than what it represents, the film is really well-made too. While visually it may not have presented a radically new and refreshing view of Singapore ala Tiong Bahru Social Club, Number 1 is more than capable of dazzling with its colourful, Golden Horse Award-winning costumes and sets and its vibrant musical numbers.
Speaking of the Golden Horse Awards, I can’t remember the last time everyday Singaporeans cared so deeply about a film award than with Mark Lee’s nomination — which is more of an unfortunate observation than anything else given all our prior achievements. While Lee didn’t win, Number 1 still brought out a sense of community and pride — a role usually reserved for sports — that was much needed for the year.
The Silent Forest 《無聲》
Director: Ko Chen-Nien
Despite such a troubling year for film, Taiwanese cinema thrived. Without a steady flow of blockbusters, marquees gave more attention to locally-produced films — and there truly was no better year for these films to see the spotlight. I WeirDo and A Choo were crowd-winning romantic-comedies. My Missing Valentine amazed with its imaginative sets and fantastical plot. Your Name Engraved Herein, Dear Tenant and Days continued to cement Taiwanese films as the standard-bearers of queer cinema.
It is also from Taiwanese cinema where I found the only film from 2020 that left me awestruck. On The Silent Forest’s most apparent level, there is the admirable prowess in bringing out all the convoluted emotions of its hearing-impaired characters mainly through sign language.
Then there is the masterful use of sound design in establishing its tense atmosphere, the incredible performances, and its superb handling of a sensitive topic. Then there are the nights of second-hand trauma and anger at how the film is based on real events just sitting in bed thinking, “Man, how is it that no one stepped in earlier?”
The Silent Forest is a masterfully crafted film that begs to be experienced.
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– Staff Picks: Our Favourite Films of 2019 (So Far)