By John H. Foote
Films are often thought to be a purely escapist art form when in fact some of the greatest films ever made both comment and educate on historical and modern happenings, often bringing fresh light to a difficult subject.
The Battleship Potemkin (1921), a masterpiece of the Russian cinema, is generally regarded as the first great film to explore an important historical event, making clear film could be so much more than mere entertainment. However, before that work, Chaplin merged his comedy with important messages about everyday life and humanity, believing laughter would permit his strong messages to be heard.
Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) was a huge success with its fine performances and powerful message about political corruption. It was The Italian Neo-Realistic movement that catapulted intensely realistic films into American cinema, the mantle picked up by the great filmmaker Elia Kazan, along with greats John Huston and Billy Wilder.
In 1976, the nominees for Best Picture fiercely commented on American society, holding a mirror to America reflecting life. With President Nixon having opened relations with both Communist countries China and Russia, extraordinary accomplishments, in 1974, after being re-elected by a landslide vote just two years before, he resigned amidst the Watergate scandal. Vietnam had ended but the fall out of veterans coming home emotionally shattered devastated the nation trying to heal from the mistrust Nixon had created. Never before had cinema so reflected the times with such clear-eyed urgency and savage honesty.
All the President’s Men brilliantly explored the stench of corruption in the White House and the duty of the press to report it, even if it ended a Presidency. Network was a vicious black comedy and a biting satire that also – with incredible accuracy – predicted the future of television. The power of television was never more evident, or as troubling, as it was in this searing film. Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver explored the complete mental meltdown of a Vietnam veteran sickened by the drugs, the sex trade, the late-night horrors he finds in Times Square. An early shot in the film shows steam rising from a sewer grate as though hell were being held back from exploding into the streets. As scalding a film ever made about New York, this was easily the darkest film of the year. Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory told the story of Woody Guthrie (David Carradine) as he crossed America writing and singing songs celebrating the impoverished, the proverbial little people. And finally Rocky, a fairy tale told with grit, sweat and muscle about a boxer who gets a chance at fame, glory but most of all, love. Audiences went mad for this little film written and acted by Sylvester Stallone, inhabiting the role in every way. At its core is the line “Hearing that bell ring, and I’m still standing … I’m gonna know for the first time in my life, I wasn’t just another bum from the neighbourhood.” Rocky wants what everyone wants, to love and be loved, and this little movie celebrating that exceptional, real love story would best four greater films for Best Picture, spreading its message of love and being a better person.
Will the Academy Awards comment on the state of the country in awarding excellence in cinema this year? Though it was a year for film unlike anything previously seen, make no mistake, there were some truly great films released (or streamed) this year. Several are what I call films for the ages, meaning they will still be discussed, still relevant in 25 to 60 years.
How have the films of 2020 commented in their own way on society this past year? I think you might be surprised, very surprised indeed.
The important act of honest and truthful news delivery is essential in any world, including ours, but is it not fascinating the parallels drawn between News of the World, the best film of the year, and the last four years in North America? In the film Americans are reeling from the fall out of the Civil War, with racism everywhere, as vile as ever. The news is reported from town to town by a war veteran, a decent man himself deeply scarred by the war, Captain Jefferson Kidd, portrayed superbly by Tom Hanks. At its core, has the world changed so very much? There is an urgency in Kidd’s presentations of the news, a hunger for information that today CNN provides.
Nomadland, a huge critical favourite, explores with an unflinching eye the disenfranchised of the United States, those who are threatened with being left behind. Frances McDormand is wonderfully authentic as Fern, a woman who loses everything she knows in a few short months. Her husband dies, the factory providing her town’s lifeblood closes, the bank takes her home, so she strikes out in her van, a modern-day nomad, wandering the concrete deserts of America. Fern is like so many Americans today – confused, frightened of the future but courageous enough to live her life with the truth, as best she can.
Promising Young Woman might receive cheers for the actions of the young woman in the film, scorching the earth, seeking revenge against men. All predators in her world. Cary Mulligan is astounding as Cassie, who one day is tired of what predators have done to her friends, to her, and fights back. Darkly astonishing, the film speaks to the horrific manner in which women have been treated in society and not by just the Epstein’s, Weinstein and Trump.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is set in 1927 but the racism inherent within the film could be 2021. Once again whites operate the recording studio where Ma (Viola Davis) will record her fast-selling blues songs, and though she behaves like a diva, demanding this, demanding that, in her heart she knows the owners are running the show. So she runs her band with an iron fist but in doing so actually holds back the artistry of Levee, a gifted trumpet player in her band portrayed by the late Chadwick Boseman.
In his other great performance of 2020, in Spike Lee’s haunting Da Five Bloods, Boseman gives a soul to the thousands of young black men inspired by Martin Luther King, those same young men who died in a sweltering jungle 10,000 miles from home, fighting a war they did not understand. Do the black (and white) soldiers in Afghanistan understand entirely their purpose in the desert? Is the war in the Middle East so very different from Vietnam?
One of the finest films of the year, Rod Lurie’s The Outpost, suggests much about the madness of the conflict in the Middle East. Capturing the furious intensity of combat, the film plunges its audience into hell, which in this case is Afghanistan. Death could come at any second, as Taliban snipers sit higher up and pick the soldiers off at will. Often unbearably intense, The Outpost beautifully captures the fury and waste of war. If the cost of war is young lives, is any conflict truly worth that? And the enemy is one we never really see, or worse, one we see all the time.
Knowing how the Academy loves overacting, performances that are often downright embarrassing (Roberto Benigni in 1988’s Life is Beautiful), both Amy Adams and Glenn Close could be nominated in Hillbilly Elegy, which spoke about the people who adore Trump.
Initially it might not seem Mank qualifies as a film speaking to 2020 but watch and listen carefully. William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) was a very powerful publishing magnate who controlled much of what was printed in his litany of newspapers. When writer Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) is writing Citizen Kane, he clearly was drawing from Hearst to create Charles Foster Kane, which did not impress Mr. Hearst. Mr. Trump enjoys controlling the facts does he not? Or instead lies about, oh, everything, thus making Mank in its own way a great film with an urgent message about abuses of power.
In the end up to 10 films will be Best Picture nominees and I believe those nominated will have commented on society in 2020, directly or indirectly, straight on or metaphorically. Kind of cool isn’t it?
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.