Scene on the Screen 2020
For the latest installment in Scene’s end of the year wrap-up, our writers turn their attention to the best 2020 had to offer on screens both big and small. From documentary triumphs to international television hits, these are some of the highlights from a great year for film and TV.
“I May Destroy You”
By Ryan Israel, Scene Editor
Over the course of 12 episodes, Michaela Coel’s “I May Destroy You” delivers on its title. As the writer and lead character of the BCC One and HBO series, Coel creates and plays out a heart-rending and emotionally draining story of sexual assault and the difficult, complex process of recovery. It may destroy you.
But it will also build you back up. Among the serious storylines are moments of humor and, more importantly, moments of resiliency. The show’s bleak ninth and 10th episodes — a point at which some may want to retire — give way to the two phenomenal closing installments that end Coel’s story on a well-earned note of content. It’s a seamless, enthralling series, incredibly of its time and one of the best works of 2020. Michaela Coel deserves all the acclaim.
“Never Rarely Sometimes Always”
By Nick Brigati, Scene Writer
“Girl problems … don’t you ever just wish you were a dude?”
“All the time.”
These words — spoken between 17-year-old Autumn and her cousin in Eliza Hittman’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” —embody the struggles of the protagonist as a young woman in America. Autumn is 1- weeks pregnant; it does not seem to matter who the father is, all she knows is that she wishes to terminate the pregnancy. However, her home state of Pennsylvania requires parental consent, forcing Autumn to travel with her cousin Skylar to New York City in order to receive the procedure.
This unflinching drama does not patronize the viewer in conveying the challenges young girls face every day (through unnecessary dialogue or exposition); rather, Hittman shows it through precise and careful imagery. One chilling scene shows Autumn punching her stomach and swallowing pills in an attempt to miscarry. In a time when abortion rights are being restricted — with numerous states having passed bills to severely limit the procedure and others even attempting to outright ban it — “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” masterfully illustrates the implications of those rights, making it a standout picture in what could have been a rather desolate year for film.
By Aidan O’Malley, Scene Writer
Writing a blurb, however brief, about one of my favorite films of 2020 isn’t as satisfying as it should be. Not because of the film itself — Amazon Prime Video’s “Time,” a documentary by Garrett Bradley, is an intimate epic, a film about family and freedom told through home videos over the course of 20 years.
Rather, it’s the 2020 part. No one is seeing a movie in the middle of a pandemic, and it’s not like Hollywood released many. Yet 2020 was no “lost year” at the multiplex; in fact, it could prove to be a historic one. As the industry charts a course forward, fans of film are reckoning with the inevitable: the moviegoing experience, at least as we knew it, is probably dead. So what is there to celebrate? I’d really rather mourn.
In that sense, “Time” came to me at a critical juncture. The film follows Sibil Richardson, a mother of six and “modern-day abolitionist” who fights for the release of her incarcerated husband who is serving a 60-year sentence for a bank robbery they committed together.
Beautifully edited and finished in sterling black and white, “Time” is as much a film about the prison-industrial complex as it is about that title. Time is persistent; time is uncompromising. But time is also relative. And some things are stronger than it.
So please, mourn 2020. But time is marching on.
By Jake Winningham, Associate Scene Editor
Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” anthology — a series of five films set in West London’s Black neighborhoods during the second half of the 20th century — is the most audacious filmmaking stunt of the year, an August Wilson-esque look at the shifting fortunes of West Indian immigrants in the United Kingdom. “Lovers Rock,” the anthology’s second installment, finds McQueen turning away from the kinetic trauma of his last major release (2018’s “Widows”) in favor of a newfound romanticism.
Making the most of its brief runtime — at a little over an hour, “Lovers Rock” would barely qualify for the feature awards at the Oscars — the film is an insular snapshot of a single night that nevertheless illuminates universal truths. Set in a bustling house party during the 1980s and named for the reggae subgenre that dots the soundtrack, McQueen’s movie focuses on a nascent romance between young paramours Franklyn and Martha (Micheal Ward and Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn, both wonderful) while still finding space to fill in the margins of its setting. An early-film needle drop of “Kung Fu Fighting” reveals the small-scale euphoria of “Lovers Rock;” the partiers’ initial laughter eventually gives way to unrestrained dancing, unmasking the communal joy at the heart of Carl Douglas’ inescapable, infamous novelty hit.
Janet Kay’s 1979 mini-masterpiece “Silly Games” serves as an unofficial theme song for “Lovers Rock,” appearing as an epigraph of sorts at the beginning of the movie and resurfacing during the film’s best stretch. As Franklyn and Martha enter a packed dance-floor, the DJ puts on Kay’s song (much to the delight of the assembled dancers). Rather than immediately follow it up with another track, he simply lets the song fade out — at which point the crowd takes over, replacing the meandering beat of Kay’s single with their own rough, ad hoc rendition. Where other, less assured directors may have simply cut after a few bars of singing, McQueen and his roving camera move through the party as the dancers sing “Silly Games” for five whole minutes. Eventually, the audience picks up on tics from unseen singers, whether it’s one woman’s impossible blue note at the same point during each hook or an elderly man straining (and failing) to match Kay’s falsetto with his own growl.
There have been better movies released during 2020 (here’s looking at you, “Boys State”) but there wasn’t a better scene than the “Silly Games” sequence in “Lovers Rock.” Every other director this year — McQueen included — is like the old man at the party, trying to reach a sublime note just beyond their grasp.