How extraordinarily terrible of me: what with the impending pandemic and all last spring, I quite entirely forgot about this feature. But with the fifth edition of the Alternate Ending Awards for Filmmaking Excellence hard upon us, commemorating the films of 2020 (such as they were), I wanted to also make sure I shared the long-delayed fourth edition of the most god-damn pretentious awards you could ever hope for, off the back of a uniquely terrific year for cinema.
An extravagant ego trip presented with mortified humility, and an unfathomable 14-hour slog that’s one of the breezy and fun movies of the last decade. It’s basically a giant goodie basket for cinephiles, containing a little something of basically every single thing movies can do and assembling it all into a wonderfully self-conscious epic. Every part of its monstrous whole is made with love.
1st Runner-Up: High Life
A cruel-hearted provocation that’s also rich, overstuffed look at the place of humans in the universe and the tight bonds of family love. Working without a net and a surfeit of extreme ambition.
A Hidden Life
-For the boundlessness of its humanity and spirituality
-For embodying dreams and nightmares in handsome black and white
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
-For its unrelenting classicism, especially around its deeply sincere love story
Mariano Llinás, La Flor
Just wrangling the thing would have been a massive job in and of itself; that Llinás has also poured so much personality and allowed us to see his process so clearly, without sacrificing the pleasure of the construction, makes it that much more impressive. Everything is in here, arranged cleanly and with an unholy good sense of pace that makes its many hours race by.
1st Runner-Up: Céline Sciamma, Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Every shot is precise, every camera movement chosen with an eye towards its elegance and psychological impact, and through it all, the story’s romantic heart keeps beating. Immaculate without being chilly in any way.
Claire Denis, High Life
-For shifting between scales and moods with perfect fluidity and force
Robert Eggers, The Lighthouse
-For creating a self-contained world that’s both realistic and mythic.
Terrence Malick, A Hidden Life
-For continuing to find new ways to look with awe at every single element of the world around us
Alfre Woodard, Clemency
Anyone can make a feast out of a great role, but finding the depths within a straightforward piece of run-of-the-mill message movie Oscarbait takes genius. Whatever depths of emotion this project kicks off are due entirely to Woodard’s ability to let us see beneath the obvious surfaces of her character and feel her doubt and guilt and suffering in the slightest gestures and expressions.
1st Runner-Up: Lupita Nyong’o, Us
If only for the degree of difficulty, surely 2019’s highest: playing two characters who are both hiding layers of meaning in every line and action, and she’s not even make it look like it takes effort. Plus, the thing she does with her voice is perfectly uncanny.
Penélope Cruz, Everybody Knows
-For the delicacy and silence of a role built on dubious glances and underplaying
Noemie Merlant, Portrait of a Lady on Fire
-For thrillingly embodying the tentative shyness of uncertain love and lust
Violet Nelson, The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open
-For carrying around the shock of her character’s past in an unbearably real performance
Willem Dafoe, The Lighthouse
Only a true genius could swerve this close to outright camp and still keep it tethered to intense, dangerous, even terrifying extremes of desperate, violent, sad, needful emotion. The whole film is a kind of strange charcoal cartoon, and Dafoe’s performance is the lynchpin of nearly everything else it does, holding all the weirdness to account in a his gleaming, demented eyes, stabbing like lightning.
1st Runner-Up: Antonio Banderas, Pain and Glory
He lets himself grow soft and middle-aged with sober dignity, channeling all of his famous director’s anxieties and regrets into a warmly sad, ruthlessly small performance of painful nostalgia. A career peak.
Javier Bardem, Everybody Knows
-For turning his beefy frame inward, going pensive and still in unexpected ways
Paul Walter Hauser, Richard Jewell
-For the gradual crawl of wisdom into his face as his placid character is battered like a windsock
Franz Rogowski, Transit
-For making a stock “a man without a self” role into something genuinely sad and lost
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Park So-dam, Parasite
In an enviably overstocked cast, being the stand-out would take some great effort, and your mileage may vary if Park manages that. But I found her slightly more cutting, cynical approach to playing her role the best source of sardonic humor in a movie that thrives on that emotion. And she nails the “Jessica” chant that remains my favorite single beat of a movie full of terrific bits.
1st Runner-Up: Zhou Shuzhen, The Farewell
Anyone can play a nice, loving grandma, but filling that role with so much grandeur of familiar emotion that we get swept away even as we spend the whole movie lording our knowledge over her? That takes an extreme level of gentle charisma that can barely be described.
Cho Yeo-jeong, Parasite
-For hitting the tension between comedy and menace in perhaps the film’s trickiest role
Jennifer Lopez, Hustlers
-For radiating movie star excess and focusing that into a strategy rather than using it as a crutch
Margo Robbie, Once Upon a Time …in Hollywood
-For playing a naïve innocent with enough generous humanity to make her both tragic and uplifting
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Song Kang-ho, Parasite
As the intellectual center of the film (and, I admit, arguably a lead), everything we experience ultimately has to go through how he arranges himself relative to the rest of the cast. Song, a veteran of Bong Joon-Ho’s warped realities, aces this, providing a steady presence in the heart of the film that still leaves room for the conniving, dark comedy, and madness that makes the character fun. And he does this without a single instance of asking for us to notice his work and cheer.
1st Runner-Up: Baykali Ganambarr, The Nightingale
The film is asking him to play a tough game, casting him as “the Aboriginal” and trusting that he can bring in the depth, moral complexity, and tension with his co-stars to make a character out of that who will act as the foundation for a sort of narrative countermelody. Astonishingly and brilliantly, this works.
Ricardo Darín, Everybody Knows
-For being able to match two powerhouse leads beat for beat, arguably finding even richer subtlties
Al Pacino, The Irishman
-For calming way the hell down and reminding us, hilariously and viciously, why he was the actor of his generation
Ryan Zheng Kai, Shadow
-For making a melodramatic villain role tightly coiled with very a very real human-scale danger
The four women that the massive edifice of the film is built around are so evenly matched and so carefully distributed that it would be impossible to single any one out. And given that the entire 14-hour movie is mostly a vehicle for serving them with one bizarre challenge after another, it takes immaculate work from them all to keep the sprawl on track and yoked to steady psychological presences, or just fun caricatures.
1st Runner-Up: The Farewell
Rare indeed is the cinematic family that feels this faultlessly familial, with every interaction between two characters revealing rich, unstressed backstory – or, in some important ways, its absence.
Dolemite Is My Name
-For finding the ludicrous humor of this crew without sacrificing their dignity
-For making terrible inhumanity understandable and even easy to feel sorry for
-For perfectly inhabiting the bent tone of the film’s world
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum
At this point, it’s just not fair: I wouldn’t merely say that 87eleven Action Design is doing “the best” stunt work right now, as that I define “the best” stunt work in terms of how closely it resembles 87eleven’s house style. They’re just that fucking good, and in the deranged, baroque work that covers every scene of this magnificently garish action opera, they’ve hit heights of imagination even they couldn’t have imagined before this.
1st Runner-Up: Gemini Man
The motorcyle stunts along would make a strong argument for this placement, but it’s the nice array of different flavors of action, portrayed in a way that demands they hold up to the most extreme scrutiny, that really wowed me.
Fighting with My Family
-For showcasing the narration of professional wrestling and provding good ol’ showmanship
-For living up to some extraordinarily high competition in creating a kind of minimalist flashiness
-For being asked to be the sole justification for a movie and knocking it out of the park
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Once Upon a Time …in Hollywood, by Quentin Tarantino
After eight films and more than a quarter century, it was an odd time to get Tarantino’s first “mature” work. But get it we did, in this novelistic study of three days in the life of a city and the people who move through its rhythms like blood being pumped through a heart. And all of it thankfully without sacrificing the auteur’s slangy voice or delight in squirreling away random references and call-backs by the fistful. Thrilling wistful, if there is such a thing.
1st Runner-Up: Parasite, by Bong Joon-ho and Won Han-jin
An elegant machine (give or take that clinker of a denouement), in which every event follows so inevitably from the last that you hardly notice what a wild ride it’s taking us on. Smart and sassy in a too-rare combination.
A Hidden Life, by Terrence Malick
-For capturing the steady essence of a man’s words of faith as a cinematic prayer
High Life, Clare Denis & Jean-Pol Fargeau with Geoff Cox
-For juggling I don’t know how many ideas in a perfect blend of philosophy and instinct
Portrait of a Lady on Fire, by Céline Sciamma
-For moving us at just the right pace though a slow-burning relationship between two well-defined people
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Transit, by Christian Petzold
A story whose entire purpose is that we’re not entirely sure what to make of it, but the richness of the writing goes beyond setting up a nice, tight puzzle box for us to tear into. It’s also a look into a vision of Europe on the brink something not likely to be good, with the mystery of navigating the sneaky developments of the plot fairly echoing the characters navigating the world around them.
1st Runner-Up: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster
This could have been schmaltzy; this should have been schmaltzy. But in crafting this moral fable, the authors have eschewed all of the easy emotional grabs in favor of thoughtfully developing tough ideas.
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, by Dean DeBlois
-For drawing this epic to a satisfying, inevitable, well-earned close
Hustlers, by Lorene Scafaria
-For making striking characters and sharp satire out of unusual souce material
Richard Jewell, by Billy Ray
-For capturing everything that makes a man tic as an function of the thriller around him
BEST FOREIGN-LANGUAGE FEATURE not cited under Best Feature
I’d at least have to consider it just for the gobsmacking perfection of the form. But it’s also a morally complex, philosophically troubling film that confronts us with some of the worst that humanity has to ffer, the training of child soldiers, and arguing against this not with blunt indignation but with a crafty way of insinuating us into the story and characters. Hard to watch, but as potent as any movie I’ve seen in a long time.
1st Runner-Up: Parasite
What can there still be to say? The blend of genres, the precision of the acting, the fantastic sets, the satire, the genuine fun of it; this is a movie-movie of the first order, one of the best of an increasingly rare breed.
-For the sense of otherworldliness and sensible domesticity comfortable sitting next to each other
-For the skill with which it pulls us into a shifting, uncertain world
Weathering with You
-For finding no end to the different authentic emotional angles into a florid premise
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World
Builds on the scope, the design, and the technical richness of its predecessors in every way: it is, at a minimum, easily the prettiest film DreamWorks Animation has ever released. There’s no doubt that it’s predictable, but it doesn’t hit any less hard for that, and the feeling of fantatic places it evokes is impressive even for a medium where you can create literally anything.
-For being such a cunning advance of the form of traditional and digital hybrids that I don’t even mind the awful script
Weathering with You
-For indulging one of modern cinema’s great pictorialists with all the moody atmosphere he loves best
Using archival footage to craft a rip-roaring science-fact narrative is no mean task, and this does it so perfectly that you’d never even guess it wasn’t written just like this. The fact that a movie can bet its entire emotional appeal, 50 years later on making sure we remain in doubt if the moon landing was going to end well is testatment to how perfectly this snaps us into place with all this footage.
1st Runner-Up: Honeyland
Another example of tugging a sell-built character story out of documentary footage, though in this case it’s much less brazen and showy about it. Instead, this presents itself as an ebb and flow between two characters with immensely clear views on he world. Unforgettably human.
-For the elaborations on the standard essay film model that make it a tough, even upsetting slice of the world
-For the unadorned pleasure of seeing bodies in motion, 3-D motion especially, and how that expresses profound emotion
Varda by Agnès
-For knowing that we need to say good-bye, and letting us do so
The Lighthouse (Jarin Blaschke)
I am a simple man: give me a stark monochrome that somehow is both high contrast and dominated by a full greyscale, and put it in the the prison-like 1.37:1 aspect ratio (prison-like in this application, anyway, and I am going to be satiated. The look of the film is of course directly related to its stormy emotional appeal, but this could tell pretty much any story and I’d still fall down over the mythic Expressionist excess of the visuals.
1st Runner-Up: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Claire Mathon)
“Painterly” is an easy word to use, but what was the last film to earn it as well as this? And it’s good that movie with “portrait” in the title would feel so much like a montage of rich oil paintings, but it took real skill to make sure it worked.
1917 (Roger Deakins)
-For making a gimmick work so well and feel so necessary in the compositions that I forgot it was a gimick
Atlantics (Claire Mathon)
-For the drowsy, musty interiors, and the explosion of lights near the end
A Hidden Life (Jörg Widmer)
-For using all those wide angle lenses and somehow making it crucial to the movie’s moral universe
Apollo 11 (Todd Douglas Miller)
The hardest thing is organising your media. And this is, simply put, an entire film that needed to be organised down to the finest-grained level before they could even start cutting it. And then, once the cutting started, it was in service to forcing this news-style B-roll into a coherent narrative that never once reveals the presence of the filmmakers or even the fact that this wasn’t scripted. To hell with “best of 2019”, this is probably my favorite editing in the entire history of documentary cinema.
1st Runner-Up: Honeyland (Atanas Georgiev)
Kind of the same thing, though it starts from a less daunting initial task. Still, making random shots of a woman walking around a farm feel this much like a gradually-unfolding story is a feat of editing anyone should be proud of.
A Hidden Life (Rehman Nizar Ali, Joe Gleason, Sebastian Jones)
-For the slow unfolding of isolated moments that are suddenly swept together conceptually, rather than narratively
Hustlers (Kayla Emter)
-For mimicking the snappy pop-art imagery of peak Thelma Schoonmaker better than anyone else ever has
The Lighthouse (Louise Ford)
-The the jarring enjambments of shocking images buttressed by uncomfortably slow development of single scenes
BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (Kevin Kavanaugh)
Baroque settings for baroque fights in a baroque world; honestly, if this had nothing other than the improbably room of infinite breakable glass boxes, it would still be right in this spot. This franchise already had quite a legacy of modernist colorscapes smashed into the form of rooms; for this movie to improve on its predecessor in basically every single location is genuinely miraculous.
1st Runner-Up: Shadow (Ma Kwong Wing)
The concept – the film is in color, it’s the world that’s in black-and-white – is ballsy, but it didn’t have to work nearly this well. Converting the handsome elegance of royal palaces into mysterious ebony boxes could not have been easy, and yet not a single prop looks out of place.
Alita: Battle Angel (Caylah Eddiblute, Steve Joyner)
-For creating a world that tells us its story through the tiniest little bits and pieces of sets
High Life (Ólafur Eliasson, François-Renaud Labarthe)
-For turning sci-fi commonplaces into the stuff of a bracing arthouse psychodrama
Parasite (Lee Ha-jun)
-For a film that exists entirely around two well-defined spaces and works for every second of its running time
Jojo Rabbit (Mayes C. Rubio)
The darling cuckoo-clock Germany approach to the costumes here could easily have made the whole thing feel twee – and in a film that could afford not an ounce more tweeness – but somehow, it almost works in the opposite direction. The sheer weight of “traditional Germanness” in the clothing ends up feeling like a bit of a trap constraining the characters in their brutal, tradition-obsessed world, and even the cuteness feels a little sickening by the end.
1st Runner-Up: Judy (Jany Temime)
Making every outfit a symbolic match for the protagonist’s mood is nothing new; but my God, does it ever work perfectly here, with every new costume Renée Zellweger is pressed into revealing a new layer to her tormented superstar.
Once Upon a Time …in Hollywood (Arianne Phillips)
-For making street clothes feel both naturalistic and pulled right of a book of fairy tales about the ’60s
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Dorothée Guiraud)
-For living up to the script’s rapturous descriptions of how cloth looks like it feels
Shadow (Chen Minzheng)
-For elaborating on the monochrome aesthetic with striking textures and shapes
BEST HAIR & MAKEUP
The character within the film live in abject suffering; midway through the film, that suffering shifts from cold and clammy to hot and steamy. And we see all of it register on the skin and in the raggedy hair of the young cast. Not the most technically complex bit of hair and makeup ever, but its perfect execution is fundamental to pretty much everything else the film is doing.
1st Runner-Up: Judy
Does Renée Zellweger look like Judy Garland? Not really. Does she look like a woman who has been shattered by life, put back together poorly, and still proud enough to make sure that she has her own style to present to the world? Good lord, yes.
-For splitting the difference between period fantasy and dirt poor neorealism
-For evoking the classical idea we want out of a costume drama but scuffing it and living in it
-For making It-Twink Taron Egerton look pretty much exactly like gangly, puffy, nerdy Elton John
Monos (Mica Levi)
I don’t know if I can say no to new Levi score, at this point, but it helps that Monos finds the composer in peak form. When the right thing is for toneless modern thrumming, we’ll get that; when the right thing is for windy music that creates a more dreamy, calm state, we get that. And indeed, part of what makes it “the right thing” is that the music so perfectly asserts itself on the images. A gorgeous shock to the ears.
1st Runner-Up: Ad Astra (Max Richter)
It starts out in the realm of sci-fi cliché, giving us the minor keys and electronic burps we expect, but then it keeps playing tricks on us, expanding its orchestration, looking back as far as 18th Century classical music for inspiration, and providing a grand-scale musical experience that really does feel legitimately cosmic.
Atlantics (Fatima Al Qadiri)
-For drawing a line right between tense drones and pacific hums, and riding it through the whole movie
High Life (Tindersticks)
-For being hypnotic in its curt, harsh angles, and for continuing an impressive collaboration
Pain and Glory (Alberto Iglesias)
-For the nervous romantic tension it gives the film, melodramatic but insular, racing but elegant
BEST SOUND MIXING
There are very few genres that can get more out of the shocking contrasts between noise and silence than science fiction. And their are very few working filmmakers whose film boast more methodical soundscapes than Claire Denis. Put them together and you have a recipe for some of the most alarmingly present sounds in recent memory, from an oppressively loud baby’s cry to the softest thuds in an abandoned spaceship. Honestly, the way the film sounds matters more to me than the way it looks or the story it tells, and I already love those things.
1st Runner-Up: Monos
An opening that’s soft and wet and mountainous, before giving way to the busy chatter of a jungle; the relative loudness of Monos drives much of its tension and psychological presence, particularly with that score layered onto it.
-For using music as a weapon, beating us and the characters down even as it energises us
-For a muted collage of sounds that imply a physical world that always remains just out of sight
-For somehow always managing to make sure we hear the needling dialogue above the maddening wind
BEST SOUND EDITING
Those aforementioned gulfs of loud and soft wouldn’t matter so much without a well-built array of spacey sounds to play with, and this has quite a rich bit of sonic world-building to boast. The hard edges of sounds inside the ship are so crisp and flat that you can almost smell the stale air through which they’re struggling to travel.
1st Runner-Up: Midsommar
Much of the film’s amazing subjectivity is entirely a function of hearing what the protagonist hears, and much of that comes from the tweaks and distortions that keep getting forced into our ears, sometimes overtly and sometimes very, malciously, softly.
Alita: Battle Angel
-For all the clangs and whirs of an immaculately full science fiction world
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum
-For the exhilarating propulsion of bullets, breaking bones, and raw physical damage
-For the harsh, slashing wind, and the cornucopia of unpleasant night sounds it carries in
BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
The entire universe of the film basically doesn’t exist, and there’s hardly a single frame where you’d notice (the insane space baboon is, I regret to say, indescribably fucking bad). From the surface of the moon to the loneliness of a vessel twisting in space, the film’s emotional journey hinges on every visual effect looking perfectly persuasive, and at no point is it the CGI letting that journey down.
1st Runner-Up: Pokémon Detective Pikachu
That Pikachu is painfully, psychotically fluffy and adorable, I take as given. The real achievement here is how faultlessly he’s been placed into the real world, a triumph of compositing that blows pretty much every other CGI character of the 2010s out of the water
Alita: Battle Angel
-For actually making me buy into that off-putting “big eye” effect after about five minutes
-For amply borrowing from well-known films and always making it look new
The Lion King
-For making its heinous zombie lions look like extremely convincing zombie lions