Best of 2020: World Cinema

15 Dec 2020 BY Joe Ursell in Film Features

7 mins

As we have explored in our previous blogs, 2020 contained a wealth of wonderful new films, despite the unprecedented circumstances that resulted in cinemas around the world being closed for the majority of the year. Following our discussions on British cinema and documentary film, our third end-of-year blog looks back at the year in world cinema.

Any review of world cinema in 2020 must begin with Parasite. Riding the wave of stellar critical reviews and astonishing word of mouth (to say nothing of making history by becoming the first foreign language title to ever win Best Picture at the Academy Awards), on the 9th March - just two weeks before lockdown brought everything to a halt - Bong Joon-Ho's masterpiece became the most successful foreign language film of all time at the UK box office. This, combined with titles such as Celine Schiamma's beautiful Portrait of a Lady on Fire, saw many independent cinemas doing record business amidst a remarkable new audience enthusiasm for non-English language film.

During lockdown, some films such as The Perfect Candidate, Haifaa al-Mansour's timely story of a young woman running for elected office in Saudi Arabia looked set to miss out on a release altogether. However, they were able to reach audiences through a commendable scheme that saw distributors and local independent cinemas sharing the revenues raised from placing films online.

After some cinemas began to reopen, French language titles were prominent the first new film released was Proxima, a fascinating low-key piece of sci-fi, where a never better Eva Green plays an astronaut offered the chance to go on an historic space mission, balancing this commitment with raising her child as a single mother. Les Misérables recalled the urgency of the seminal La Haine (itself re-released this Autumn), and the prolific Francois Ozon offered up a tender LGBT coming of age story in the shape of Summer of 85. Finally, Papicha was an energetic and compelling story of a group of young women in 1990s Algeria rebelling against political oppression.

With luck, cinemas will be able to reopen fully early in 2021 and audiences will be able to continue to immerse themselves in the unique ability of foreign language film to connect us with individuals and stories from around the world. In the meantime, here are our curator's personal highlights from 2020.

Socrates - Chosen by Joe Ursell

Following the sudden death of his mother, 15 year-old Socrates is forced to fend for himself in São Paulo. With no income to pay for his apartment, Socrates soon finds himself moving toward increasingly desperate measures to try and get together enough money just to function. Landing a low key construction job, Socrates meets a troubled young man and following an initially violent relationship, the two form an unlikely bond, further complicating his harsh situation. 

Echoing a similar approach taken by the team behind the 2020 British film Rocks, this debut film was co-written, produced and directed by young people from low-income communities in Brazil, supported by the charity UNICEF. Often brutal and tough to watch, Socrates is invested in real humanity, anchored by an extraordinary central performance from newcomer Christian Malheiros. Like much of the best world cinema, it immerses its audience in an intimate, very personal story, but has the sophistication to develop this into a powerful portrait of the society in which the story takes place. Its political points are made quietly, but with tremendous force. 

Parasite - Chosen by Maria Cabrera

Although it's difficult after its many Oscar wins, and with Bong Joon-Ho's place as one of the leading filmmakers in the world, but Parasite is a film that benefits from going into knowing very little about. Positioned with the Kim family, we are introduced to their tiny, rundown home, where the parents and young son and daughter cram in together every night after their gruelling dead-end jobs. We watch as they devise a plan to manoeuvre everyone in their family to be working for the same excessively rich household, observing as they lie and scam their way into the family's trust. 

With humour and unnerving revelations happening side-by-side, Parasite's narrative takes the audience on a journey that pokes holes in any quick assumptions. Although the story is firmly set within the context of Korean society, the film touches on recognisable issues of class and gender that are exhilarating to watch erupt on screen through the performances of its ensemble cast.

Les Misérables - Chosen by Michael Prescott

No, not an adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel, although it does take its name from the same material, as the events of this film also take place in Montfermeil, which is notably where Hugo's work is largely set. This French language film deals with contemporary issues around police brutality and civil unrest, as a new officer in the Anti-Crime Squad struggles to diffuse tensions between his colleagues and youth gangs in the suburbs of Paris. 

This electrifying and urgent crime drama is intense, and thrilling, and is based on the director's short film of the same name. Originally inspired by the 2005 Paris riots, its release was particularly timely given the protests across the world related to Black Lives Matter and other movements in the summer of this year. Increasing its relevance further was the re-release of modern classic La Haine, back in cinemas for its 25th anniversary just a week after Les Misérables, and to which Les Misérables is the clear spiritual successor. 

Interrogating social issues such as race, class and age and our relationship to authority figures, told through handheld camerawork, a pulsating score and fiery characters - not to mention an escaped lion cub roaming about - Les Misérables is not just a social realist classic for the year, but for the ages, and features a genuinely explosive finale. 

Weathering with You - Chosen by Steven Ryder

After the surprising commercial and critical success of the time-bending romantic anime Your Name in 2016, western audiences have been hungry for more non-Studio-Ghibli anime from Japan and Makoto Shinkai, director of the aforementioned smash-hit, this year delivered. 

Weathering With You is a gorgeous and soulful film that is unmistakably Japanese in its style and substance but contains universal themes that resonated with me in new and exciting ways. We follow high school student Hodaka, who leaves his isolated island home to move to Tokyo where, despite his loneliness and near-poverty, he eventually finds work as a writer for a low-rent occult magazine. Soon after, he is sent to cover a story on a girl who can supposedly control the weather and this is where the forecast becomes even more interesting.

Portrait picture of Joe Ursell

Joe Ursell, Curation Manager

Joe has a BA in Film & American Studies from the University of East Anglia and an MA in Contemporary Cinema Cultures from King's College London. He has been with Into Film (and beforehand FILMCLUB) since 2012. 

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