Introduction

As with any retrospective article, newsletter or GDPR-compliant email this year, we must begin with the unavoidable acknowledgement of: wow… what a year.

But while many essayists may have understandably been less prolific than in previous years, this year’s turmoil may have incited an even stronger drive towards the ways we can connect with each other virtually. Last year, the word ‘community’ was suggested as an overarching theme for the poll, and if a theme has emerged through this year’s results it would be an evolution of that same communal spirit into one of collaboration. It has repeatedly been collaborative projects that have helped inspire new ideas in a time when motivation wasn’t easy to find and allowed us to feel closer when we physically cannot be.

The Video Essay Podcast, created by Will DiGravio, has expanded its scope this year, co-curating The Black Lives Matter Video Essay Playlist (along with Cydnii Wilde Harris and Kevin B. Lee), launching the Notes on Videographic Criticism newsletter to further share news and promote interesting new work, and introducing experimental homework assignments to encourage creativity and new methods of working. Response from the video essay community has been overwhelming: the BLM Playlist (selections of which have already been screened in several online events, discussed and written about) has grown to include over 130 video essays and related audiovisual materials, and nearly 70 videographic exercises have been submitted thus far in response to the various homework assignment prompts.

Another collaborative video essay project, Once Upon a Screen, organised by Ariel Avissar and Evelyn Kreutzer, was published in the latest issue of The Cine-Files, and consists of a series of fantastic essays responding to a singular theme: how formative, traumatic experiences of cinema go on to impact our lives. Meanwhile, Nando v Movies gathered over 180 essayists on YouTube to come together and create the One X-Cellent Scene playlist (a sequel to 2019’s One Marvellous Scene), collectively exploring the X-Men franchise.

These efforts were matched by increased institutional engagement, with further venues for the production and circulation of video essays joining the fold, such as the Netflix UK commissions (with an emphasis on Black creators); the new online journal Zoom Out; Monographs, a new series of commissioned essays on Asian cinema by the Asian Film Archive (AFA), which premiered at the Dharamshala International Film Festival; and Thinking Images, a new videographic program at the Tel Aviv International Student Film Festival.

Trends and numbers

An overview of the poll, and some numbers and statistics: of the 42 contributors to the poll this year, 27 are male, 13 are female and two are non-binary. They submitted a total of 241 votes, for 170 unique entries which span online video essays, essay films, documentaries, installations and an HBO series; also a Kanye West music video! These works were made – or published – this past year, by both established essayists and newcomers to the field; they range from 24 seconds to 14 hours in length; some were viewed only once or twice prior to appearing on this poll, others had up to 10.4 million views, and everywhere in between.

Unsurprisingly, some prominent trends that emerged in the poll results this year included video essays related either directly or indirectly to the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences (with 21 mentions); the presence of the BLM movement was also felt (with 22 mentions), as well as a more political slant to this year’s picks in general. The Once Upon a Screen collection was also featured prominently (with 25 mentions), and included the two top-mentioned videos in the poll.

The top-mentioned videos were: Once Upon a Screen: Explosive Paradox by Kevin B. Lee (12 mentions); My Mulholland by Jessica McGoff (ten mentions); Forensickness by Chloé Galibert-Laîné (nine mentions); and Feeling and Thought as They Take Form: Early Steadicam, Labor, and Technology (1974-1985) by Katie Bird (eight mentions). Catherine Grant and Luís Azevedo each had five different videos mentioned on the poll.

The videos are overwhelmingly presented in English (91 per cent) and are predominantly from the US (41 per cent) and the UK (28 per cent), while France makes up 6 per cent of the remaining votes, followed by 18 other countries (mostly in Europe). The dominant focus in terms of medium remains film (71 per cent of videos), with television (five per cent) and gaming (circa two per cent) coming in at distant second and third.

Of the essayists whose work is featured on the poll, 33 per cent are female (up from 24 per cent last year!) and 57 per cent are male (down from 68 per cent last year), with the remaining ten per cent made by mixed-gender teams or non-binary essayists. We did not parse – neither contributors nor picks – by race (among other reasons, as this would have been somewhat challenging), but hope that everyone is thinking more critically about whose voices they’re choosing to listen to and endorse.

We hope this poll continues to contribute to the ongoing conversation among creators and lovers of video essays worldwide, and that next year will see even more opportunities and venues for collaborating on, making and sharing this form that we are all so enthusiastic about; and also, you know, fewer fires and plagues?

Here are the results…

Table of contributors

(click on a name to jump to their picks.)

Jiří Anger

Film theorist and curator, Charles University in Prague & Národní filmový archiv

Forensickness

Chloé Galibert-Laîné

The author’s ongoing investigation of online communities and desktop interfaces continues to yield fascinating results. This time, it takes the form of a detective story which makes sure that no revelation waits for us at the end, but also, more importantly, that our cultural and technological mechanisms of knowledge-seeking are fundamentally flawed. Instead, it guides us through an endless road of detours whose diversity can surprise even a know-it-all desktop cinema aficionado. Not only a poignant contribution to videographic film studies but also a work that gives the adjective ‘essayistic’ a truly contemporary meaning.

Feeling and Thought as They Take Form: Early Steadicam, Labor, and Technology (1974-1985)

Katie Bird

While examining film technology and its impact on the image content, I often wonder how to make these material interventions visible and open to reflection at the same time. Katie Bird’s exploration of the Steadicam and Panaglide camera devices indicates that videographic scholarship can be employed to overcome this dilemma. By understanding the camera operating as, first and foremost, an affective, embodied experience, many supposed ‘imperfections’ and ‘instabilities’ can be revealed as things that make the films tick. Moreover, the essay shows that the application of digital tools in archival research may have a more playful, creative side.

Crossings. On Freak Orlando

Johannes Binotto

This essay resurrects a relatively overlooked cinematic trend – the German queer cinema of the 1970s–80s and the wider tendency of stylistic and bodily excess in avant-garde cinema. What is crucial is that the author uses the short scene from Ulrike Ottinger’s Freak Orlando in a way that renovates the contemporary videographic practice as well. By putting his own body on display and overlaying the action on screen with his performance, he enables us to take the haptic visuality of the shot literally, and not just through the usual analog/digital manipulations. More of this, please.

The Wind in the Trees from Early Cinema to Pixar

Jordan Schonig

I have stumbled upon Schonig’s work thanks to Shane Denson’s new book Discorrelated Images (highly recommended, by the way), and I was happy to find out that he also makes accomplished scholarly video essays. This piece focuses on the contingencies (“rippling waves, rising dust, and fluttering leaves”) in early films and CGI animation, highlighting how digital algorithms make the distinctions between accidental qualities and careful calculation blurrier than ever. Schonig effectively demonstrates the divergences and affinities between the pre-cinematic and post-cinematic modes of staging accidents while also opening ways for addressing this complicated dialectic in the videographic form itself.

There Must Be Some Kind of Way Out of Here

Rainer Kohlberger

This year has seen the completion of a brilliant experimental film essay The Philosophy of Horror: A Symphony of Film Theory (Péter Lichter and Bori Máté). Nevertheless, as I have already mentioned this project in the last year’s poll, I would like to give a shout to another experimental work. Kohlberger’s film brings the spectacular world of disaster movies into contact with the dance of coloured dots on the surface of the image. This unpredictable humming occludes the well-worn explosions and catastrophes in Hollywood cinema and exposes them as mere paltry things compared to the horrors of filmic matter.

Live at Appleville

100 Gecs

It may not be a videographic essay per se, but… In this video, as far from a traditional music concert as possible, the American hyperpop duo is goofing around in a dark room with a laptop showing scenes from Ratatouille. This disturbing yet strangely funny exercise creatively exploits the limitations of Covid and opens yet another place where cinema can be relocated. Somehow it could even fit as an unlikely addition to the Once Upon a Screen videographic project – a childhood cinematic trauma turned into a liberating performance. And I am not even a fan of the band…

Thinking Audiovisually

Department of Film Studies, Charles University

This is clearly a biased choice, but I still feel obliged to mention three student video essays. A workshop with Kevin B. Lee saw the birth of many short videographic exercises, some of which were developed into full-length pieces. As the videographic practice in the Czech Republic is being invented practically from scratch, I was surprised how accomplished, original, and funny the videos turned out. Thus, Lucie Formánková’s essay on her fascination with Tom Cruise’s acting, Valerie Špuláková’s work on a failed Czech dubbing of Twin Peaks, and Otto Urban’s look on the synecdochic character of trailers deserve a shout.

Ariel Avissar

Media scholar, video essayist and lecturer at the Steve Tisch School of Film and TV, Tel Aviv University

Forensickness

Chloé Galibert-Laîné

What begins as a personal account of the experience of watching Chris Kennedy’s Watching the Detectives evolves into so much more; part essay film, part desktop documentary, part conspiracy thriller with a twist ending, this epistemological audio-visual meditation expertly weaves together some of my favourite preoccupations – cultural depictions of counter-terrorism intelligence efforts, John Carpenter’s They Live!, conspiracy boards, Game of Thrones fandom and Chloé Galibert-Laîné – into one jumbled, coherent, meandering, beautiful whole. My favourite media object of the year.

A Very Long Exposure Time

Chloé Galibert-Laîné

This silent visual poem was produced for the Time Complex exhibition at the Yerevan Biennial 2020. While aesthetically the polar opposite of Forensickness, it similarly develops Chloé’s ongoing fascination with images – how we see them, what they reveal, what they leave out, what can we use them for. Simple, stimulating, sublime.

To The Lighthouse

Kevin B. Lee

How do you make a video essay about a film you have no access to? Lee has previously wrestled with the challenges of inaccessibility. Commissioned for the 2020 International Film Festival Rotterdam Critics Choice, this enthralling mashup of 36 different films starring Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, described by Lee as his ‘fanfic version ’of The Lighthouse by Robert Eggers, will make anyone who hasn’t seen the film feel as though they have. Arguably more enjoyable than the original, and with considerably less flatulence.

Extreme Is My Name

Johanna Vaude

Made for ARTE’s online magazine “Blow Up”, this impressive montage is both a tribute to and a study of the works of one of my favourite directors, Kathryn Bigelow. Vaude takes Bigelow’s raw, adrenaline-fused energy then dials it up to eleven. Her video grabs hold of you from the get-go, and doesn’t let up until it’s – regrettably – over.

The Age of Emptiness

Oswald Iten

Iten’s lovingly-edited video recuts the lush imagery of Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, focusing on shots devoid of human presence, and excluding human faces entirely. Fittingly accompanied by Bernard Herrmann’s score from Scorsese’s own Taxi Driver, this tale of Edwardian-era New York aristocracy is recontextualised for our current day and age. The result plays like an annotated relic of the Age of the Coronavirus, such as might be uncovered by future historians seeking to make sense of this bizarre period in human history.

Afterlife

Catherine Grant

This moving epigraphic tribute to the late Irrfan Khan merges Khan’s performance in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool with excerpts from Laura Mulvey’s Death 24x a Second to powerful, touching effect. Another example by Grant of what the videographic epigraph can achieve at its purest and most potent form.

House – Everything but the Kitchen Sink

Jesse Tribble

This ambitious six-part series on House MD, clocking in at four hours(!), is one of the most comprehensive analyses of a television series I’ve seen, certainly one devoted to a network medical procedural (in its early seasons, anyway). House remains one of my favourite (semi-guilty) pleasures, and while this episodic, narration-led effort by Tribble, highly impressive in its intimate familiarity with the show’s eight seasons, might not be ground-breaking in form or content, I found it extremely enjoyable and ridiculously watchable. Try the first part then see if you can resist the urge to keep on going; I certainly couldn’t.

Luís Azevedo

Filmmaker for hire. Maker of direct-to-video essays for Little White Lies, Mubi, Fandor, Amazon Prime & Barbican

6ix9ine GOOBA except theres no music

Rob Lopez (RØB)

Christopher Nolan | Doing It For Real

Julian Palmer (The Discarded Image)

Women Make Film

Mark Cousins (watch trailer)

Cliff Booth Drives Home

Philip Brubaker

The Visual Architecture of Parasite

Thomas Flight

The Movies Behind Your Favourite GIFs

Leigh Singer (Little White Lies)

What Gordon Parks Saw

Evan Puschak (The Nerdwriter)

Philip Brubaker

Filmmaker/writer

Trace

Johannes Binotto

Expands the notion of what a video essay is and can be. Fascinating, even suspenseful. Blends performance in with videographic criticism in a way I had not seen before. Because of Binotto’s video, the way a critic can interact with a film is not what it was even a year ago.

From screening to (live) streaming

Davide Rapp & Andrea Dal Martello

An incredible marriage of past and present culture. Rapp & Martello have made a drop-dead hilarious critique of pandemic-era social media that is precisely funny because of how it recontextualises the movies that we grew up watching. It is an in-joke that richly rewards those who get it; how would these movies we loved in the past translate in today’s world?

Herbarium

Francisca Lila

A breathtaking, thorough taxonomy of flowers, plants and trees from the film canon. Lila’s brilliant, seamless editing makes the transition from Antichrist to Pather Panchali flow naturally, and part of the joy of this video essay is spotting and identifying the films she draws from.

In the Kitchen with Pedro Almodóvar

Luís Azevedo (Little White Lies)

Azevedo makes videos that are so sensuous and nimbly edited that he breathes new life into the clips on his timeline. Here his sensibility finds the perfect match: the kitchen. He finds captivating gestures from Almodóvar’s films and his speaking voice strikes just the right chord between his ideas and the visuals. Bravo.

Bad Vacations

The Criterion Channel

Criterion makes many great, concise supercuts to advertise the films on their streaming service. I wish they would credit the editors more generously, or at all, even. This is one that I have rewatched many times, because I love the arc; how a promising vacation can turn into a nightmare. This was a year full of miserable events that caused me great dismay, but somehow I delight in the pessimism of this teaser.

Change Needs to Come

Nelson Carvajal

Using simple, unadorned straight cuts set to an iconic song of the civil rights movement, Carvajal says what needed to be said. And oh, is it painful. A collection of cell phone imagery of black people murdered in contemporary life is juxtaposed with archival images dating back to slave times to show that in many ways, nothing has changed. We saw coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement throughout 2020, so I would be remiss not to include what I believe to be a very strong entry in this significant genre. I hate watching this video essay.

Nelson Carvajal

Video Artist and Founder of Free Cinema Now

Transcending Heidegger – The Cinema of Terrence Malick

Tom van der Linden (Like Stories of Old)

I was surprised by how moved I was by this video essay. Even with the voiceover element, van der Linden never hits the snooze button; his voice inquires, wonders and keeps insisting. By the end, I was floored by this work’s sincerity, the messaging, and its revelations about the human condition. Malick himself would be proud. It’s the best video essay of the year.

The Unloved – The Siege

Scout Tafoya (RogerEbert.com)

Part of the charm of Tafoya’s The Unloved series is that it gives us all a chance to beat our chests about our sentimental favorite films or guilty pleasure movies. When this entry on The Siege came out, it was a couple of months into the pandemic here in the States. I, like many people, was working from home, and felt really disconnected from the outside world. The way Tafloya injected socio-political urgency into his thesis for Zwick’s film, was like a bolt of electricity; it woke my senses, and reminded me of the very real world outside.

Wash Us In The Blood

Arthur Jafa

It was released as a music video but as soon as the appropriated images hit the screen and it was revealed to be created by video artist Arthur Jafa, it became, for me, a video essay. The striking juxtapositions Jafa creates between images and Kanye West’s music is thrilling. This is a vital work disguised as a music video. As I write this, it has 10,370,226 views on YouTube. That’s a really good turnout for a video essay if you ask me.

Andris Damburs

Cinefile, creator and moderator of 35 MM – A GROUP FOR CINEPHILES

Nothing at Stake

Kogonada

Everything is a Remix: Reality

Kirby Ferguson

Aspect Ratio – The Changing Shape of Cinema

Leon Barnard

Physical Storytelling in Céline Sciamma’s Coming-Of-Age Trilogy

Oswald Iten

Why do you love Cinema?

Ignacio Montalvo

Czechoslovak New Wave

Jonathan Keogh

Cliff Booth Drives Home

Philip Brubaker

Ian Danskin

Writer/editor/creator of YouTube channel Innuendo Studios.

Children of DOOM

Errant Signal

Errant Signal’s Children of DOOM is a dissection of the first-person shooter, wherein Chris Franklin takes what he considers to be the most important/interesting FPS from a given year and analyses it, planning to do one for every year of the genre’s existence. Chris has long been one of the most thoughtful voices in games criticism, and he’s always at his best discussing FPS. (His video on BioShock Infinite is what set me on the path to becoming a YouTuber.) In a year when watching political deep dives of the kind I typically make felt exhausting, this was my comfort food.

Coronavirus and America’s Death Cult

Carlos Maza

This is the year Carlos Maza – having previously been the main reason to subscribe to Vox’s YouTube – went solo and launched his own channel (he picked a heck of a year). He’s done excellent videos on the primaries and police brutality, but my fave is his video explaining the government’s response to the pandemic through the lens of neoliberalism and slowly devolving into a horror film. It does what all great political essays do: helps you understand a current event while also teaching you something fundamental that will help you understand much else about our world.

In Search of a Flat Earth

Dan Olson (Folding Ideas)

What at first appears to be a feature-length dissection of flat earth conspiracy theories telescopes out into the first comprehensive explanation of QAnon I’ve seen, a distillation of the nature of conspiracy theories, a list of what other thinkers tend to overlook about conspiracists, and a sprinkling of love for the pursuit of knowledge. “Ultimately, it’s not about facts, it’s about power” is one of the most important takeaways of 2020.

Is Vine Cinema?

Kyle Kallgren (Brows Held High)

As he did two years ago with his video on bisexual lighting, Kyle Kallgren takes a seemingly innocuous subject – the life and death of Vine – and makes a video about EVERYTHING. About the essential units of filmmaking, about media that crosses social boundaries, about the speed of modern life and the formats best able to capture it, about race uprisings and cultural appropriation, about what happens when every so often The Youth are allowed to dictate culture. And all while montaging together his favorite Vines.

The $150,000 Banana

Sarah Urist Green (The Art Assignment)

Sarah Urist Green’s The Art Assignment didn’t end this year so much as go into low-power mode. The channel is still updated sporadically, but Sarah has refocused her attentions on other work. But, back in January – remember January? – she discussed Maurizio Cattelan’s then-trending art piece in which he duct taped a banana to a wall. Sarah employs her talent for taking strange, pretentious works on their own terms, digging into the banana’s surrounding contexts, the artist’s history, and the movement it’s part of, without ever claiming the work is ‘good’. This is her in her element.

we’re already ded || Zack Snyder, Part 2

Maggie Mae Fish

This year, the criminally under-appreciated Maggie Mae Fish started a series on the works of Zack Snyder, starting with a 15-minute look at how Snyder’s Superman contrasts with Supermen past, and then this 42-minute dive into how Snyder’s calcified, objectivist worldview manifests first in Dawn of the Dead and then across all his films.

Hamilton and the right mess it’s gotten me into

Grace Lee (What’s So Great About That?)

Grace’s dense and kaleidoscopic style proves a perfect match for the captivating yet self-contradictory musical that is Hamilton. The video goes back and forth over what makes Hamilton compulsively likable and also frustrating as heck, with every progressive idea undercut by something that seems to say the opposite, and every troublesome moment looking like it might be commentary on itself. Grace proves up to the task, providing not so much answers as a whole lot to think about.

Steven E. de Souza

It’s a Christmas movie. Bylines: @nytimes @LosAnglesTimes @FadeInMagazine @EmpireMagazine @SightSoundMagazine

How the Safdie Brothers Lie in Uncut Gems

Nehemiah Jordan (Behind the Curtain)

Never has a film essay had so disingenuous a title – but then N.T. Jordan’s essay is all about the art of misdirection. In truth, the brothers dissect as much as they dissemble, revealing more truths about the filmmaking process in 11 minutes than a semester of screenings. From the unanticipated dominoes that fall with casting changes (for instance, from a contemporary setting to a period one and back again), to unexpected sources of inspiration (spoiler alert: a colonoscopy) to the brutal marathon of 160 drafts over 10 years, the Safdies provide an unflinching portrait of the grind that is art.

The Most Important Filmmaker You Haven’t Heard Of

Jack Nugent (Now You See It)

Since silent days, women have been present in the editing suite, far too often unheralded (though not, of course, here). Starting with Margaret Booth in the 1930’s, then turning to Dede Allen and the late Sally Menke, Jack Nugent makes a strong case for these three artists as the midwives of modern film cutting. Both insightful and long overdue, Sight & Sound readers are urged to overlook the essay’s click-bait title… as they undoubtedly have.

Orson Wells a la Cinematheque Francaise

Pierre-André Boutang, Guy Seligmann

This month’s release of a major motion picture from an important filmmaker like David Fincher directly to a streaming platform sent a shock wave through Hollywood…. no, not the potential end of theatrical distribution as we know it, along with the shattering of the livelihood of exhibitioners and the shuttering of countless venues…I mean the impossible-to-shutter endless debate over Orson Welles: Boy wonder, or one-and-done-er? Found by Francois Thomas in the archives of the Cinematheque Francais only months ago, Welles gets another one hour 33 minutes with us… and we, with him.

Every Stormtrooper In Star Wars, Explained by Lucasfilm

Madlyn Burkert <@alohamaddy> and Doug Chiang

Call it classic or kitsch, revolutionary or rehash, but after 14 theatrical pictures and seven television series over 43 years for a total running time of let’s see, the original trilogy, six hours 20 minutes, then in chronological order Star Wars: Droids that’s 13 episodes x 23 minutes, plus 121 episodes of Star Wars: The Clone Wars… oh wait damn it, between the time I’m typing this and when it gets eyeballs, two more episodes of The Mandalorian will have been out, God knows what their running time will be, @jonfavs and @TaikaWaititi can’t even agree. Anyway, a long overdue taxonomy.

Steven Spielberg’s Use of Reflections

Shera Junushev

Like Bogart, this screenwriter is in a lonely place here with this one: I come to praise it, not critique it – but as observant as this essay is in recognising a signature Spielberg technique, in defining its effect as “allowing the audience to examine the details of a scene without losing connection to the character” it reduces psychology to geography. Rather, the subjective reflection shot’s true dynamic lies in flinging the filmgoer literally headlong into the protagonist’s shoes, bonding the viewer’s sense of self to the character with subliminal power.

The Irishman and the Death of the Gangster Film

Luís Azevedo (Little White Lies)

In 1992 Francis Fukuyama declared The End of History. In 2020, Luis Azevedo is here to tell us that when we weren’t looking, Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992) declared the End of the Western, and in 2019, Martin Scorsese… hmm, how to best put this? Let’s just say that Luis thinks we got a real good genre here, it’d be a shame, a real shame if something happened to it…

Doctor Who and The Fourth Wall

Samuel Davis

From Justus D. Barnes’s gunshot in The Great Train Robbery in 1903 to Michael Caine’s seductive asides in Alfie (1966) to Joe Pesci bringing us full circle in Goodfellas (1990), breaking the fourth wall has been a key part of the motion pictures tool box. But those heralded films aren’t where we oh-so sophisticated Cineastes first encountered that jarring technique now, was it? And it wasn’t O Lucky Man, Amélie, or Fight Club, either. Come on, kiddies, fess up, you know the answer: here’s Samuel Davis to refresh your memory.

Monica Delgado

Peruvian film critic, director of Desistfilm.com

Presence: Call Me By Your Name

Fabian Broeker

I really liked this video: the search for a new topic in the treatment of a very hackneyed film.

On Contamination

Jessica McGoff

I felt interested about the political view of McGoff, because in this video she establishes correspondences between the filmmaker universe (animals and humans coexisting together) and social-environmental context.

Notorious Wavelengths

Ian Magor

A Wave of the Hand. A way to the photo. An analysis of the use of the zoom in two opposite films, as a provocation. I never imagined watching this strange duel between Snow and Hitchcock.

Overdrawn

Catherine Grant

Can any Johnny Guitar fan be indifferent to this?

Akerman

Mariana Dianela Torres

There is a musical intention in this montage that attracts me a lot, that recovers a sensation of movement in the films of Chantal Akerman.

The Other Side of the Street

Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin

I’m interested in the way in which Adrian and Cristina edit the images, research and voices, in an exact timing and leading us to subtle endings.

To The Lighthouse

Kevin B. Lee

For some video essayists it’s a problem to work without complete films (for different restrictions). Kevin finished this challenge in a very playful and fresh way.

Will DiGravio

Follow the Cat

Johannes Binotto

If there is one video essayist whose style and sensibility I most try to emulate in my own work, it is Johannes Binotto. His videos are rigorous and scholarly, yet deeply personal and emotional. In this video, like much of his work, Johannes turns his cinephilia into a shove which, like Lisa Fremont, he uses to dig deeper and deeper into the fabric of Rear Window. Follow the Cat gives us a new way of understanding familiar images, and thus gets at the heart of what videographic criticism is and what it can do and be.

Unlocked

Jazmin Jones

I think about Unlocked by video artist Jazmin Jones often. In an interview, Jones described the way she shifted the focus of the appropriated videos away from the white people at the centre: “It was a matter of zooming in… trying to reframe so that we’re really focusing on the pleasure and the experience of the black fems.” Jazmin may not have set out to make a ‘video essay’ when she created Unlocked, but the way she manipulates the footage is among the most powerful examples of the form I have seen.

cops ordering food

Manny Fidel

I can’t do justice to Manny’s video in 100 words. It’s hilarious and deeply insightful. I also love his follow-up tweet: “I made this in like four mins do NOT comment on its quality.” Manny’s video was made three weeks after the murder of George Floyd, at a time when a narrative emerged in the United States that police officers were somehow the real victims in society. The video makes a mockery of that absurd notion and, in the process, shows that a definition of ‘quality’ as it relates to videographic criticism is far more nuanced than one might think.

My First Film

Zia Anger (watch trailer)

My First Film debuted in 2019 as a live film performance; an innovative desktop documentary that earned high praise in last year’s poll. Unable to perform in person this year, Anger began streaming live performances throughout the spring. The work continued to break ground and morphed into something new, a film that reflected Anger’s own pandemic experience. During the performance I saw, Anger texted her dad to say she loved him. Watching “My First Film” during such frightening times was a cathartic experience, one that made me briefly feel like I was back at the movies among friends and strangers.

Indy Vinyl: Records in American Independent Cinema: 1987 to 2018

Ian Garwood

Another ground-breaking work this year came in the form of Ian Garwood’s Indy Vinyl: Records in American Independent Cinema: 1987 to 2018, a project that features a range of video essays and written works. One aspect of video essay-making that often gets overlooked is the amount of time dedicated to making each and every video. Ian’s project, both in size and scope, but also given the fact that he released parts of this project as they were finished, beautifully captures the labor of love that is video-essay making, all while pushing the boundaries of what the form can be.

Tear away Turn back Breathe

Martina Probst and Chantal Hann

Over the past nine months, I have tried to relive my favourite pre-pandemic moviegoing experiences through video essays. This video by Martina Probst and Chantal Hann, two students at the Lucerne School of Art and Design, is among the finest analyses of Portrait of a Lady on Fire I have seen. But what I find so compelling about their essay is their willingness to at times forgo images entirely and embrace a blank canvas: the black screen. Video essayists often feel the need to fill every second with images. Perhaps we should allow our work to, like Marianne, breathe.

It’s Bad Luck to Compare Hands

Alex Slentz

Meshes of the Afternoon is one of those films that I rewatch all the time, just to try and understand how it works; how it was assembled. I feel the same way about Alex Slentz’s video, which blends together footage from Maya Deren’s film, Persona, and Un Chien Andalou. Similar to the video by Probst and Hann, I am inspired by the way Sletz allows us to see the canvas on which the video essay was created. The fluid movements of the images and their interactions with one another blend together in a beautiful collage and insightful analysis.

Thomas Flight

Video Essayist and Filmmaker

How Edgar Wright Uses Sound

Julian Palmer (The Discarded Image)

Sound tends to be an underrepresented subject in the world of video essays. Julian’s essay mimics Edgar Wright’s editing and sound design to move effortlessly between his films, showcasing Wright’s unique approach to sound.

The Strange Reality of Roller Coaster Tycoon

Jacob Geller

Jacob Geller expertly ties together internet culture, video game design, and physics in this profound examination of the existential unease that can be found in a theme park simulation game from 1999.

Lies of Heroism – Redefining the Anti-War Film by Tom van der Linden (Like Stories of Old)

Weaving together examples from 49 films during the course of this nearly feature-length video essay, Tom thoughtfully and thoroughly examines depictions of war in cinema and whether it’s truly possible to make an anti-war film.

Dinner with Brad Pitt

Luís Azevedo (Little White Lies)

Video essays can also just be a lot of fun. I’m not sure who had more fun, Luís Azevedo sitting down to edit this video, or Brad Pitt sitting down to dinner in all these scenes.

Chloé Galibert-Laîné

Researcher and filmmaker

The Viewing Booth

Ra’anan Alexandrowicz (watch trailer)

An incredibly careful and thorough examination of the spectatorial mechanisms of two protagonists (a filmed spectator, and the filmmaker who is filming her) that exposes how much our beliefs and ideological convictions determine how we make sense of online images. Though rather pessimistic in its conclusion (no image can change a person’s political opinions – so long for a century-long history of activist media and political filmmaking), the film advocates convincingly for the political power of building respectful interpersonal relationships with our political opponents, and for the potential of images to serve as the basis for such conversations.

Il n’y aura plus de nuit

Eléonore Weber (watch trailer)

This essay film looks at thermal imagery produced by helicopter pilots in a war context. We hear only one voice, but the words it speaks contain the gazes of many: from the pilots themselves, to the judges in military courts in charge of examining these images to determine retrospectively the legitimacy of the pilots’ decisions to kill, to the filmmaker who questions her mixed fascination for these images, to our own uncertainty about what these images expect from us – their probably unwanted, surplus witnesses.

On Contamination and My Mulholland

Jessica McGoff

I equally love these two videos by Jessica McGoff. Re-watching On Contamination at the end of this year of sanitary crisis gives the video an uncanny, definitely prescient quality, but it is a great work independently from its unfortunate topicality. Like My Mulholland (which McGoff produced in the context of the video essay series Once Upon a Screen), On Contamination explores an intimate form of narration in which the discussed film becomes not so much the limiting frame of the essay, but the substrate from which it grows in unexpected directions.

Gyres 1-3

Elie Ga (watch excerpt)

This essay – very much like my other picks – proposes a very personal, partly autobiographical, partly fictional narration, loosely based on a collection of images figuring objects found by ‘beachcombers’. Images come in waves onto the filmmaker’s table, who tentatively combines them into spatial arrangements and explorative superpositions, until the surf of the narration prompts their replacement with other images – some we discover, some we see again and again, constantly re-invested with new meanings.

Crossings. On Freak Orlando

Johannes Binotto

I know very few video essayists who are willing to implicate themselves as much in their videos as Binotto does in this performative, wistfully celebratory and intensely personal short video piece. I admire the growing abstraction of Binotto’s work (such as in his video Trace, another strong candidate for this poll) for it opens up the possibility of unexpected, sensual engagements with the films with which it dialogues. These are video essays where images burgeon with news meanings and unlikely sensations, rather than being pinned down or constricted by the analysis.

Purple Sea

Amel Alzakout and Khaled Abdulwahed

This year I’ve seen a number of video essays reflecting on images of migrants on their way to Europe, and this film is by far the one I found the most inspiring. It recalls Philip Scheffner’s Havarie in its focus on a single, arguably illegible image, and its investment of the soundtrack as the lieu of meaning production. But the perspective is reversed: Havarie watched a ship sink from afar, Purple Sea plunges us in the water. The presentness of the image serves as the loam from which the story unfolds, made of the narrator’s uncertain memories and hopes.

Wild Heart 1981 / 2020

Zach Dorn (watch excerpt)

From randomly filming contemporary online media flows to carefully re-animating on paper a decades-old improvised piece of footage (that was later uploaded to YouTube), this short essay deploys an impressively wide, and very personal narrative arc. The diversity of visual techniques that are employed in this virtuoso single-shot speaks to Dorn’s attempts to grasp his digital object and materialise it in the space of his home – a gesture that is fascinatingly articulated as one of self-care and compensation for the anxieties triggered by contemporary online media.

Ian Garwood

Senior Lecturer in Film and Television Studies, University of Glasgow

Desegregating the Two Shot: The Use of the Frame in The Defiant Ones (1958)

Henry Rownd

This finely detailed audiovisual commentary operates in the best tradition of close mise-en-scène analysis – a surprisingly marginal genre in the academic video essay world. Rownd demonstrates astutely how the image construction of the film tells a nuanced and complex story about race and space in the Civil Rights era, even as the surface narrative hammers home a more heavy-handed message.

Lisa Hanawalt: Being Human by Being Animal

Grace Lee (What’s So Great About That?)

This year I taught a dedicated video essay course for the first time in a while and Grace Lee was the go-to for examples of incredibly smart, quick-witted, well-researched and audiovisually engaging work. Lee’s awareness of the possibilities of animation shines through in this video, an awareness developed through both her critical and filmmaking practice.

Satis House

Catherine Grant

As is often the case with Catherine Grant’s work, Satis House is an exemplary act of collaboration. Firstly, it invites collaboration from the viewer by giving them more and more visual information to compare, without authorial commentary, as the video proceeds. Secondly, Grant’s accompanying writing refines and deepens the viewing experience, collaborating with it rather than simply describing it. Finally, the collaboration through writing is extended by the inclusion of a reflective piece by the cultural historian Lynda Nead, whose thinking about Great Expectations inspired the video in the first place.

My Mulholland

Jessica McGoff

From my admittedly partial perspective, skewed towards video essays published in academic journals, a turn to the overtly personal seemed evident in a number of examples this year. Maybe it was fitting, then, that the year closed with the publication of the Once Upon a Screen collection in the Cine-Files, where video essayists reflected on formative film-viewing experiences. I’ve had a little more time to watch and think about Jessica McGoff’s contribution than the others, and it’s a wonderful reflection on the allure and perils of online media consumption, funnelled through a memorable first encounter with Mulholland Drive.

”Who Ever Heard…?”

Matt Payne

Like Catherine Grant’s Satis House, Payne’s video uses an additive multi-screen compositional process that draws attention to repetitions in the source material – in this case a scene from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Payne’s approach is more overtly manipulative than Grant’s, repeating each shot from the scene to create a visual and aural montage that builds then recedes in intensity. The looping effect of the soundtrack, in particular, is mesmerising.

The Before Sunrise Waltz

Rob Stone

This was the act of virtual film tourism I needed in the early months of lockdown. By orchestrating a Google Earth tour of the locations visited in Before Sunrise, Stone re-envisages the film from a panoramic perspective, thereby offering a completely different take on the original, which stays determinedly tied to Jesse and Celine’s ground-level progression through Vienna’s streets.

A Machine for Viewing

Richard Misek, Oscar Raby, Charlie Shackleton

Of course it’s a shame that the pandemic put a (temporary?) stop to the VR-video essay roadshow envisaged as part of Machine for Viewing, but the three videos published in NECSUS demonstrate that the project’s potential has already been realised. Whilst the demonstration of the technology is impressive, I related most to the videos’ use of VR to reflect on a traditional 2-D cinema-going experience. Who would have thought that the sight of a packed auditorium, witnessing the live VR presentation and commentary at the Sundance Festival, would now seem so poignant?

Hailey Gavin

Video essay creator

Yorgos Lanthimos’s Absurd Worlds

Thomas Flight

This is an excellent articulation of the questions Lanthimos asks and the visual and structural tools he employs. This is a must-watch for anyone who loved Nimic and conveys the power of shorts to reframe our understanding of auteurs’ work.

How Portraits Lie – What to be aware of in your portrait photography

Jamie Windsor

I love this clear exploration of a nuanced topic, supplemented by beautiful motion graphics and fluid editing.

My Mulholland

Jessica McGoff

This piece illustrates the sometimes inextricable nature of nostalgia and trauma. I also loved the way the essay draws points of connection between media of different formats from different times.

John Gibbs

Audiovisual essayist and Professor of Film at the University of Reading.

Slap That Bass Zoomed

Ian Garwood

The Elephant Man’s Sound, Tracked.

Liz Greene

The Original Ending: the Last Acts of Black Horror Heroes

Cydnii Wilde Harris

Music and Point of View in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Patrick Keating

Once Upon a Screen: Explosive Paradox

Kevin B. Lee

My Mulholland

Jessica McGoff

Catherine Grant

Video essayist; founding co-editor of [in]Transition: Journal of Videographic Film & Moving Image Studies; Honorary Research Fellow at Birkbeck, University of London, and elected member of Academia Europea. Currently completing https:screenstudies.video

Once Upon a Screen: Explosive Paradox

Kevin B. Lee

One of my all-time favourite videographic works by foundational artist and essayist Lee, or indeed by anyone. Part of a brilliant project recently published in issue 15 of the Cine-Files in the collection Once Upon a Screen, commissioned and curated by Ariel Avissar and Evelyn Kreutzer.

Forensickness

Chloé Galibert-Laîné

Another astonishing work by one of the most innovative and significant of video essayists. Published online in December 2020, this video also deservedly garnered huge festival success, screening in competition at the Marseilles Festival of Documentary Film as well as at the Festival dei Popoli, the Kasseler Dokfest and the festival Caminhos do Cinema Português.

Feeling and Thought as They Take Form: Early Steadicam, Labor, and Technology (1974-1985)

Katie Bird

One of my all-time favourite pieces that we have published at [in]Transition: Journal of Videographic Film and Moving Studies this last (or any) year. A wonderfully ambitious exploration of the first decade of stabiliser technologies and techniques. In surveying the industrial histories of two competing devices, the Steadicam and the obsolete Panaglide, Bird demonstrates, powerfully and movingly, how “now codified norms of craft labour practice around stabiliser’s aesthetic and generic forms emerged amongst a diverse range of media and eclectic techniques”.

Irani Bag

Maryam Tafakory (read synopsis)

I love Tafakory’s essay films and video essays, and this brilliant piece by her was one of the excellent new series of commissioned essays on Asian cinema, Monographs by the Asian Film Archive (AFA).

”Drawing upon histories and archives, both personal and regional, these works reveal new vistas of inquiry; ruminations that evince the essayists’ personal connections to [Asian] cinema, made more poignant by the fact that they were created during various states of isolation and solitude.”

The series had its world premiere at the Dharamshala International Film Festival held online from 29 October to 4 November 2020.

My Mulholland

Jessica McGoff

The latest work by hugely talented video essayist and film McGoff; her video was also part of the high quality collection Once Upon a Screen.

Hands, Up

A. Zinsel

One of an outstanding collection of audiovisual essays devoted to explorations of gesture published in NECSUS: European Journal of Media Studies, curated by the wonderful video essayist and scholar Tracy Cox-Stanton, in December 2019. This video was also added to the essential Video Essay Podcast Black Lives Matter video essay playlist, curated by Cydnii Wilde Harris, Kevin B Lee and The Video Essay Podcast founder and host Will DiGravio.

Indy Vinyl, Interrupted

Ian Garwood

This video, published in 2020, is the tip of the amazing videographic iceberg that is Garwood’s work on his hugely original videographic/monographic project Indy Vinyl, as set out here and here.

Liz Greene

Reader in Film and Sonic Arts, Liverpool John Moores University.

Once Upon a Screen: Explosive Paradox

Kevin B. Lee

This audiovisual essay marries form and content in such an affecting manner that I was completely drawn into the essayist’s world. The universality of the space that Lee re-enacts/re-presents urged me to think back to the complexity of early childhood memories. The camera shot and movement choices coupled with the voice (which is sometimes masked) allows for an intimate story that perfectly reflects this particular moment and the trauma of early childhood.

Follow the Cat

Johannes Binotto

If I could have made any other audiovisual essay, I wish it could have been this one! I love everything about it, from the voiceover, with its centrality of the cat, to the essayist’s own cat watching the screen. It is beautifully paced and offers an insightful point of entry to Hitchcock’s camera moves. It prompts a personal way into questioning cinematic spectatorship and image-making, and draws from an array of interesting representations of cats in cinema.

Feeling and Thought as They Take Form: Early Steadicam, Labor, and Technology (1974-1985)

Katie Bird

This audiovisual essay makes me think and feel differently about camera movement in cinema. It details a rich history drawing from technical manuals, instructional videos, film tests and experiments and other archival material to present an embodied argument that allows me to feel the moves of the Steadicam/Panaglide operator(s). The extent of the research is significant, but this is not merely a dissemination of research – the entire essay builds movement into its shape and form. It is truly inspiring work!

Forensickness

Chloé Galibert-Laîné

Forensickness is a longer audiovisual essay/experimental film that considers Chris Kennedy’s film, Watching the Detectives. Much like Galibert-Laîné’s earlier work, it deconstructs Kennedy’s film, goes to the online archive of material (this time on Reddit) to consider both the news footage circulating around the Boston Marathon bomb attack in 2013 and the Hollywood depiction of these events. This work is about how we see, how we consume images, and how we think about and through images.

My Mulholland

Jessica McGoff

McGoff’s My Mullholland is a poignant consideration of traumatic film viewing. The desktop format is most appropriate for examining the online consumption of film, and here the essayist’s own adventures on the internet and into the cinema of David Lynch are richly depicted through this approach. The audiovisual essay details some darker areas of the internet whilst also re-presenting the edgier moments of Lynch’s, Mulholland Drive. It is often fun and playful and the use of text is brilliantly deployed.

Slap That Bass Zoomed

Ian Garwood

Garwood has had a prolific year creating audiovisual essays and has made a number that are inspired by the Zoom app as an aesthetic device, reflecting these recent months and how we have been collectively engaging online. He has created a showcase of this work which is available to audioview here. In a year where Black Lives Matter is at the forefront of political discussion, “Slap That Bass Zoomed” offers a timely de-centring of the white appropriator, instead offering an array of Black artists (named and unnamed) to take their rightful place onscreen.

Paris Bagdad: Fantasies of America(na) in German-American Cinema

Evelyn Kreutzer

Paris Bagdad: Fantasies of America(na) in German-American Cinema offers a personal route through Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, 1984) and Baghdad Café (Percy Adlon, 1987). This essayistic approach includes the use of superimposition, which is beautifully rendered and speaks to the sense of place and wanderlust that Kreutzer narrates her way through. This feels like a logical follow on from her earlier inspired work on German cinema, Berlin Moves (2017).

Chiara Grizzaffi

Postdoctoral Fellow at IULM University – co-editor of [in]Transition

Forensickness

Chloé Galibert-Laîné

Once Upon a Screen: Explosive Paradox

Kevin B. Lee

MADELEINE / JUDY

Catherine Grant

Hands, Up

A. Zinsel

The Philosophy of Horror: A Symphony of Film Theory

Péter Lichter, Bori Máté (watch trailer)

Once Upon a Screen: Titanic

Victoria Wegner

Safe Bodies, Safe Environment: The Atmosphere of Todd Haynes’s Safe (1995)

Kelsey Draper

Cydnii Wilde Harris

Film scholar and video essayist

My Mulholland

Jessica McGoff

That she was able to commute the cinematic trauma of Lynch’s work to the universal trauma of growing up during the Wild West years of the internet was a sublime insight. From the choice to take her audience on a journey through her desktop, to her recreations of jump scares and the IMDb message boards, this piece resonated with me on so many levels.

Once Upon a Screen: Explosive Paradox

Kevin B. Lee

It’s one thing to understand that your colleague is brilliant. It is another experience entirely to watch an artist, independent of your relationship to them, so handedly exceed their own boundaries. Kevin’s piece on his childhood experiences with the film Platoon are an example of the very power of cinema to shape our relationship with the world, and the world’s relationship with us. Include that footage, and his deeply personal voiceover all combine to create an experience of childhood trauma so visceral, that I haven’t just gained new insight on the war epic itself.

Crossings. On Freak Orlando

Johannes Binotto

This piece redefined what I believed to be the parameters of the video essay. By making manifest his own desire to enter a film, Joannes transcends the medium technically, and does so by seamlessly immeshing his own visuals, music, and handwriting into the groundbreaking work, Freak Orlando. He uses the style of his piece to supplement both that of the existing property and what the essayist has to say about it. Johannes didn’t just redefine how I’d like to create video essays. He redefined the limitations of how I can enter a film itself.

In Search of a Flat Earth

Dan Olson (Folding Ideas)

The greater focus of Dan’s essay, distilled what I’ve found so troubling about conspiracy theories, from the Illuminati to QAnon, and how more often than not, their unstated purpose is to oppose my very existence. By laying bare the historical context of these theories and their creators, Dan articulated the harm these theories stand to enact, and makes them far less easy to laugh off.

Slap That Bass Zoomed

Ian Garwood

As far as works responding to or including elements of our current reality, Ian’s use of Zoom is perhaps one of the most hopeful. This may also be a standout for how it combines both the Zoom revolution with the Racial Equity revolution, and may be one of the most effective ways I’ve seen the Zoom framework employed. Add to that, the editing is impeccably timed, and I left the video with a healthy list of performers to whom I was newly introduced.

Coco’s Feel-Good Oppression

Eliquorice

Eliquorice’s video essay on Coco was my gateway drug to the rest of his works. His analysis of the film’s depiction of immigration within the narrative is poignant, but his comparisons between the failings of the immigration system in Disney’s magical realm to the failings of the system in our reality make a compelling case for how political ideology is communicated in family films. The inclusion of his own experiences with the immigration system come at just the right moment, thereby narrativising his analysis, while giving a human face to an issue often overshadowed by the enormity of the system.

The Satirical Resurgence of Reefer Madness

Yhara Zayd

Yhara’s recent video essay on Reefer Madness delves into the historical context that lead to the film, its reception upon release, and its place in the canon of midnight features. Her candour, humour, and personality transcend what could have been a simple history lesson into an engaging conversation about the mutability of everything from social attitudes about cannabis to the constantly shifting legacy of a specific film alongside those attitudes. It’s Yhara’s deft balance of humour and context that reveals to her audience the absurdity that is racial stereotyping and discrimination.

Oswald Iten

Film scholar, video essayist, animation artist

Conforme

Johanna Vaude

When was the last time I found myself enjoying a supercut for almost seven minutes? Conforme has a relentless urgency thanks in large part to the driving score by Vaude herself. For me, it captures that contradictory state of frantic stasis that was and is 2020.

Trace

Johannes Binotto

Johannes Binotto keeps exploring the possibilities of the video essay in all kinds of directions sidestepping technological wizardry by relying on household items. In Trace he creates tactile sensations from a single film still on a tablet. Seeing it again now, I wonder if it was about that one question all along: what does physical contact feel like?

Forensickness

Chloé Galibert-Laîné

With her well paced self-reflective long form essays, Chloé Galibert-Laîné has more than once managed to entice me into agreeing then disagreeing with her narration before finally realising that I had been too immersed to “pay attention to that woman behind the curtain”, so to speak.

Once Upon a Screen: Explosive Paradox

Kevin B. Lee

With his entry in the Once Upon a Screen collection, Kevin B. Lee confirms that he is an incredible storyteller. Explosive Paradox looks deceivingly simple, but works on so many levels. Most importantly, I found it a deeply moving experience.

Black Lives Matter Video Essay Playlist

Curated by Cydnii Wilde Harris. Kevin B. Lee and Will DiGravio

As our field becomes ever wider, curated lists have become crucial to make sure that notable video essays and voices do not go unnoticed. Among them, the Black Lives Matter Video Essay Playlist is an essential contribution, has a clear-cut profile and is co-organised by three widely connected practitioners.

Nehemiah Jordan

Creator of Behind the Curtain, an online community of screenwriters

The Social Network – Ten Years Later

The Royal Ocean Film Society

The reason why I chose this was primarily its experimental form. Using the topic of Facebook and social media, Andrew Saladino (creator) builds the entire video essay off of the Facebook feed – scrolling from clip to graphic to clip. Something to watch for its inventiveness.

Brave was a Disappointment

eliquorice

This video does a great job of walking through the origins of making this film, breaking down how it’s structured, and finally, how it could’ve been rewritten to be stronger. A long video, but extremely entertaining and well-organised.

The Psycho Chord – Consonance vs Dissonance

Listening In

This channel takes a deep look into an unexplored section of filmmaking: the sound. Specifically, the music and how it’s an integral part of the storytelling. Also, the production quality of these videos are incredibly high.

How Martin Scorsese Integrates The Shadow: A Jungian Practice

Jillian Snead (Jilloms)

A deep but practical analysis of the Shadow, using examples from Martin Scorsese’s filmography to explore how it’s been utilised in different characters. What’s so great here is that she translates all of the analysis into practical application for ourselves. How does one begin integrating their own Shadow into their lives? This video gives you the steps.

Christian Keathley

Professor of Film & Media Culture, Middlebury College; Founding co-editor of [in]Transition

Santa y Teresa

Michelle Farrell

Once Upon a Screen: Explosive Paradox

Kevin B. Lee

My Mulholland

Jessica McGoff

Tarkovsky’s Napes

Pavel Tavares

Miklós Kiss

Associate Prof. in Audiovisual Arts and Cognition at University of Groningen, NL/co-author of Film Studies in Motion: From Audiovisual Essay to Academic Research Video

Feeling and Thought as They Take Form: Early Steadicam, Labor, and Technology (1974-1985)

Katie Bird

One of the best audiovisual research essays of the year, through its presented information (a rich exploration of the first decade of film stabiliser technologies and techniques) and quality of presentation (technical skill, soundtrack, use of split-screen, etc.).

All Is Not Lost

Amy Rachlin

The video that managed to squeeze all the suspense of living in isolation during a pandemic AND one of the most goose-bumpy scenes of my favourite TV series into less than four minutes. Bonus: it’s also funny.

From screening to (live) streaming

Davide Rapp and Andrea Dal Martello

Famous film scenes appear in TikToks, Skype calls, distance learning and online conferences. Another COVID-19 cinephile fun.

The Movies Behind Your Favourite GIFs

Leigh Singer (Little White Lies)

If you want to watch only one video about GIFs, it should be this one. [insert Robert Redford as Jeremiah Johnson nodding meme.]

Repeating Terror: Contemplating Death in Amat Escalante’s Heli (2013)

Niamh Thornton

A calm but powerful side-by-side reflection on the ethics of the slow depiction of hyper-realist violence in Amat Escalante’s 2013 Heli, using repetition and variation of the ‘same’ scene. A brilliant demonstration of the potentiality of videographic criticism.

On Contamination

Jessica McGoff

“Parasites move from animal to human. Are we the parasites or the hosts?” An eerily prophetic video ‘on contamination’ (a response to Janis Rafa’s KALA AZAR), made for the Critics’ Choice panel of the 2020 International Film Festival Rotterdam – thus released just weeks before the COVID-19 virus turned into a pandemic.

Contagion – Willy and Rutty

Luca Gentile, Sasha Quinlan Narciso, Romy Weggeman, Sam Klement

A naughty little video made by my Videographic Criticism students at the University of Groningen, mixing Soderbergh’s Contagion with the TV speeches of the Dutch king and prime minister during the first wave of COVID-19. It’s in Dutch, but you’ll get the point without understanding the language.

Jaap Kooijman

Associate Professor Media Studies, University of Amsterdam

Once Upon a Screen: Explosive Paradox

Kevin B. Lee

Explosive Paradox undoubtedly is one of the most personal and moving audiovisual essays that I have after watched, and at the same time presents a convincing criticism of the way Hollywood glorifies violence, not only in films themselves, but also in the way these films are celebrated by film critics and Academy Awards. The essay contrasts the mundaneness of the cinema-turned-liquor-store where Lee first saw the film, back in the 1980s, and the seriousness of the trauma he experienced when confronted with this racially motivated violence. A wonderful piece of videographic criticism and art.

Mastering Dialogue: American Crime

Andreas Halskov and Previously on Perry Mason

Henrik Højer

I select these two audiovisual essays together, because they are the first two of a new series by the Danish 16:9 film journal which is based on a very specific parameter, a constraint in length. The audiovisual essays are 169 seconds (thus 2:49 minutes) long and described by the journal as ‘condensed audiovisual breakdowns’. Both take a US American television series as case study. The constraint in length forces the authors to focus on one specific element and to come straight to the point. Viewers are reminded of the short length as the seconds literally tick away.

Although I find the arguments of both audiovisual essays on, respectively, American Crime and Perry Mason, compelling and convincing, I am most fascinated by their shared form and how a relatively arbitrary constraint in length succeeds in condensing academic arguments about US American television into very seductive bites of television studies knowledge.

Days of Linda

Catherine Grant

One does not have to be familiar with Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick, 1978) to make sense of Days of Linda, a tribute to the actress Linda Manz, whose first film role was playing Linda. The audiovisual essay highlights Manz’s ‘central authorial contributions’ by combining Manz’s voiceover with footage from the film presented in split screen, with shots of a non-speaking Linda on the left and other scenes (some including Linda) on the right. In this way, character Linda does not only get a voice through actress Linda, but her original marginalised and silenced role is emphasised as well.

Evelyn Kreutzer

Adjunct lecturer and video essayist, Northwestern University

This year I was so short on time that I missed out on seeing a lot of videographic work, so even more than in other years, my suggestions are highly subjective. I picked three videos whose originality and/or currentness caught my attention this year.

Feeling and Thought as They Take Form: Early Steadicam, Labor, and Technology (1974-1985)

Katie Bird

Katie Bird’s video essay on early stabilisation technologies is a marvellously executed demonstration of videographic scholarship’s ability to simultaneously communicate historical film scholarship and evoke aesthetic, phenomenological experiences. Reflecting upon an under-researched, complex topic in a very accessible (and fun!) way, it’s also a perfect video essay to show in film classes.

Who Ever Heard…?

Matthew Thomas Payne

Payne’s short and playful videographic engagement with a single scene from John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance spoke to me because of its marvellous use of rhythm, repetition, and sonic layering. As a sound scholar, I often ponder on the possibilities and limitations of videographic methods to investigate and/or express one’s ideas via sound. Payne’s video certainly does both.

Before the End

Rob Stone

Before the End is an interesting case in terms of its circulation and 2020-ness (rather than conceptual or formal novelty). It’s a very simple, short video that uses the basic principles of editing and the Kuleshov effect to join excerpts from separate zoom interviews with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy (without the audio) to suggest a narrative sequel to the Before film series. Stone’s video went viral, eventually reaching way more viewers than the original interviews had. It speaks to various intersecting technological, narrative, and communicative desires of this particular moment.

Grace Lee

Video essayist

What Do I Want?

drive45

This video makes great use of the looping format of social media video and, originating from TikTok, an exciting addition to the ever-monstrously-expanding field of video essay.

For All Mankind: Is The Moon Landing Cinema?

Kyle Kallgren

I mean, if your video essay doesn’t have lego recreations of your subject matter… what are you even doing here? Get out of my house!

Sorry to Bother You – You can’t just tame people

Curio (Eric Sophia and Natalie)

Curio has made so many amazingly ambitious essays this year, but I especially liked this more low key video on white supremacy and capitalism in Sorry To Bother You which people may have missed amidst the excellent creative flair of their higher profile videos.

Once Upon a Screen: Explosive Paradox

Kevin B. Lee

I’m sure this will be on many lists this year, but Kevin continues to be the most inventive, versatile video essayist out there and… come on… I couldn’t NOT mention this video (as well as the Once Upon a Screen project in general).

We Are Here Because of Those That Are Not

Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley

I’m maybe stretching the definition of video essay more than I ever have but if there isn’t at least one pick on a list that makes you think “come on now, this is just taking the piss” then is it even a Sight & Sound video essay poll list? This interactive archive of black trans experiences may be neither strictly video nor essay, but it’s one of the most important, creative and emotional things I saw this year. It’s got audio, it’s got visuals and it’s going on the list!

Kevin B. Lee

Filmmaker, Director of the first Masters program for Video Essays and Desktop Documentaries (at Merz Akademie)

Purple Sea and Shipwreck at the Threshold of Europe, Lesvos, Aegean Sea: 28 October 2015

Amel Alzakout and Khaled Abdulwahed, Forensic Architecture

These are separate works, but together they encompass the vast range of possibilities that video essays can have in using the same source material. Explanatory in the best sense, Forensic Architecture uses Alzakout’s footage as part of a potent account of a disastrous shipwreck. Alzakout takes her footage in the opposite direction, with a deep exploration into the thoughts and experiences the footage does not reveal. In doing so the film offers a strong rebuke to the instrumentalisation that dominates image discourse.

More about Purple Sea can be found here.

A Machine for Viewing

Richard Misek, Oscar Raby, Charlie Shackleton

Originally a VR video essay performed live at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, this virtual exploration of the cinematic experience is all the more poignant in a year in which cinemas face an existential crisis and so much of daily life has migrated to a digital simulacrum of itself. Along with Zia Anger’s live online performances of My First Film, it points to exciting new directions for the video essay – interactive and in real time.

Monographs

Various Creators with the Asian Film Archive (detailed info here)

I should acknowledge that I served as editorial consultant on this, but there is simply no precedent for this massive series of video essays on Asian cinema commissioned by the Asian Film Archive in Singapore, involving an impressive roster of filmmakers, moving image artists and scholars. They premiered last month at the Dharamshala International Film Festival and will circulate over the coming months. I am especially enamoured of Ghosts Like Us by Riar Rizaldi, Spirit Film by Raya Martin, and Irani Bag by Maryam Tafakory.

Feeling and Thought as They Take Form: Early Steadicam, Labor, and Technology (1974-1985)

Katie Bird

The most thoroughly and impressively researched academic video essay I’ve seen this year, bringing a heightened and expanded awareness of the physical labor that goes into a shot and how different approaches to technology and craft yield different effects of cinematic embodiment. A video essay that deepens one’s appreciation for the bodily experience of film viewing and filmmaking alike.

Also: Sonic Chronicle Post Sound by Cormac Donnelly.

The Viewing Booth

Ra’anan Alexandrowicz (watch trailer)

An experiment in watching propaganda leads to a wholesale reassessment of the assumptions behind progressive documentary filmmaking. A brave self-critique of one’s longstanding practices and ideals in the face of an emerging set of sobering realities.

See also: Indy Vinyl, Interrupted by Ian Garwood.

My Mulholland

Jessica McGoff

Part of the Once Upon a Screen series of video essays on childhood film viewing-as-trauma, published on the Cine-Files Journal – this particular entry brings the topic out of the past tense with an exceptional liveness and presence. As my other selections would attest, questions of spectatorship and an expanded cultural and technological framework for understanding cinema are the foci for the video essays that I find most exciting right now. This desktop documentary engages all those themes brilliantly.

Real Talk: Is Breadtube Discussing Race ‘Right’?

Professor Flowers

Working on the Black Lives Matter Video Essay Playlist was among the most significant experiences of the year for me, and through it I learned about several fantastic video essayists working in academia, YouTube and social media. I found especially noteworthy this careful consideration of the performativity of progressive racial politics on YouTube.

Eric Sophia McAllister

Video essayist working on YouTube covering media and cultural analysis, with a particular political focus on queer and leftist topics

In Search of a Flat Earth

Dan Olson (Folding Ideas)

I have to get this pick up front because it is the single greatest piece of video essay/documentary content on YouTube, not just this year. Olson has raised the bar absurdly high with this moving, insightful, well-researched, funny, well-shot and ideologically devastating look into the worlds of internet conspiracy theory. This isn’t just a YouTube video about conspiracy theorists, it is a phenomenology. What is always impressive about Dan Olson is how well he structures information for maximum impact, and the “mid point twist” of this video hits like an atom bomb.

A Prison of Our Own Loneliness

Sarah Zedig (let’s talk about stuff.)

This piece subverts the oft-derided talking head form of the YouTube video essay by having Sarah sit staring into the camera NOT talking while her pre-recorded voice-over delivers this essay about the pandemic, loneliness, nations, world politics and media, culminating in a silent scream and then breakdown into tears that is simply one of the most moving things I have ever seen on the platform. By the end of watching this you definitely will feel the catharsis of letting everything out with a ‘good old cry’, but most likely because you will actually cry.

Now

Tyr & Grem (Pamphleteer)

It’s best to acknowledge up front that this video is aping off the style of a video that I made, simply because I want to say that I see how self-serving it might appear to select it but I had to anyway, because this video is simply so so SO good. Tyr & Grem had a double realisation earlier this year when Tyr came out as a trans woman and Grem realised they were, and always had been, a lesbian. This video takes the form of a “Martian Poem” inspired by Alan Moore’s Watchmen and will knock your socks off.

The Ideology of Apocalypse

Jack Saint

Jack has been at the top of his game as a media analysis and political commentary essayist for a while – from his ‘Copaganda’ trilogy about police movies to his evolving series on cartoon animals as race metaphor and all the inherent problems therein – but this masterwork taking a broad survey across apocalyptic fiction to study its cultural and ideological trends is the tippy top of the tippy top. Not to mention that in the year of our Lord 2020 the cultural question of how we perceive and process the apocalypse seems uncomfortably relevant.

Twitter and Empathy

Big Joel

In the world of liberal and progressive politics, the notion of ‘empathy’ is often invoked as a virtue, but this essay is really special for questioning what we actually mean when we talk about empathy. Big Joel knocks it out of the park by dissecting the way we evoke this concept and the revelation that it’s actually several different, intersecting and nebulous concepts being crammed under the one umbrella.

Oblivion & Women

Lilly (mothcub)

Did you know feminism makes games more fun, not less? Lilly knows this. While her channel doesn’t usually engage in media analysis or produce video essays, this was still one of my favourite media analysis essays this year. Lilly takes us on a journey through a quest in Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and how it seemingly for no reason at all pulls the rug out from under itself and makes the quest less fun, when the obvious answer to any feminist gamer chad would be to go the other way entirely.

The Beginner’s Guide: This Is Not For You

Grace Lee (What’s So Great About That?)

Grace’s essays are always stunningly good. Shockingly good. Upsettingly good. Their essays are sharp, funny, insightful, well researched and paced so well that at the end of a ten-minute What’s So Great About That video I feel like I’ve just watched an hour, but in the best possible way. To paraphrase my esteemed colleague in political commentary, Mr. Rubin, Grace’s videos put my brain in recovery mode from all the high-level important ideas. This particular essay takes a hard look at the cultural, social, and personal implications of interpretation and when and how we should and shouldn’t do it.

Jessica McGoff

Critical writer and video essayist

Days Passed: Lee Kang-Sheng Through the Eyes of Tsai Ming-Liang

Michelle Cho

Indy Vinyl, Interrupted

Ian Garwood

MADELEINE / JUDY

Catherine Grant

The Original Ending: the Last Acts of Black Horror Heroes

Cydnii Wilde Harris

Once Upon a Screen: On Psycho and The Witches

Evelyn Kreutzer

Daniel Mcilwraith

Video essayist and video editor

Days Passed: Lee Kang-Sheng Through the Eyes of Tsai Ming-Liang

Michelle Cho

My Mulholland

Jessica McGoff

Blissfully Between Binaries with Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Alyce Yang

Overdrawn

Catherine Grant

Akerman

Mariana Dianela Torres

Carlos Natálio

Film Teacher and Researcher at Católica University (O Porto); Film Programmer at IndieLisboa Film Festival; Film Critic at À pala de Walsh website

Once Upon a Screen: Explosive Paradox

Kevin B. Lee

One of the reasons why Kevin B. Lee’s work is ground-breaking in video essays because his imagination is always one step ahead. He is constantly reminding us that working with the body of cinema is working with your memories and affections, and circumventing material limitations. Here, childhood cinema is projected on a shadowy wall of a former movie theatre, Platoon is remembered between leaves and trees’ reflections. Violence of the past, violence of the present. An essay about memory and the permanence of racism. Video essays are tools to reedit the present.

Forensickness

Chloé Galibert-Laîné

Forensickness is a real detective story. Chloé understands the whodunnit potential of the desktop film form and the intellectual investigation of a visual construction. She takes us by the end through her own investigation processes, while making us realise that there are only combinations, versions of the truth. We’ve passed the moment where critical theory intellectuals would point out the ‘spectacle’ in images. At the moment, the faking and ‘unfaking’ of images is a two-way business, intellectuals go along with pastors and internet police works share regards with so-called police experts.

Some Visual Thoughts About Perceptions in Rebecca

Ricardo Vieira Lisboa

Lisboa is a very ironic and shrewd video essayist. Here he is fooling around with Hitchcock’s Rebecca, using cinema’s toolbox of directors and works – Kiarostami’s Copie Conforme, Lang’s Secret Behind the Door, Godard’s Adieu au Language, Cláudia Varejão’s No Escuro do Cinema Descalço os Sapatos. The essay dismantles Rebecca’s work from the themes of signature, drop/marriage, sea/see, idealisation, signature appropriation. In Lisboa’s works always expect the unexpectable: a laugh or an unhappy emoticon, next to a brilliant capacity for film analysis.

In Memoriam

Lucía Alonso Santos

2020 is a year of confinement, although we are able to film inside our homes, inside our heads, and travel virtually. In this honest video essay, Lucía Santos is ‘verifying’ what she knew of Thailand through Apichatpong’s films using Google Street Views. Memories of something not happening as she anticipates Memoria by the Thai director. In what way do the images we have access to replace the cinematic experiences we might have?

L’Assassinat Kennedy au cinéma

Luc Lagier

Editing together various films and also archive footage, this video essay signals the assassination of John F. Kennedy 57 years ago. More than just documenting and representing the tragic event, Luc Lagier aims at expanding our perception by combining several other films that confuse, momentarily, our perception and feelings towards the event. Suspense without graphic violence is also at play here.

Notorious Wavelengths

Ian Magor

I have always had a fascination with the idea that directors’ works and films can sensually meet and clash through video essays. Which beautiful monsters can be brought to life via these experiments? Ian Magor does this by joining an iconic shot from Notorious by Alfred Hitchcock to Michael Snow’s classic avant-garde Wavelength. The result is disquieting and this tells us how video essays, despite their analytical potentialities, might also look like Dr. Frankenstein’s experiment laboratory.

Shadows of Our Forgotten Montages

Dianela Torres

From watching films other films are born. Giving a form to our cinephile gaze, a body of montage made with what I see and what I make of that seeing. In this beautiful, oneiric video essay, on Sergei Parajanov’s film Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors, Dianela states she aimed for “interpretation and dialectical appropriation of rhythmic and metric”, “emotions and the fluid time-space, music and colours”. Montage unto montage, organic appropriations, essay convey aesthetics and we are reminded of Marcus Aurelius’ words: “all things are implicated in one another.”

Daniela Persico

Programmer, Locarno Film Festival / founder, filmidee.it

Forensickness

Chloé Galibert-Laîné

A video about the investigation as a drive of contemporary man and a gesture of cinematic love.

Shadows of Our Forgotten Montages

Dianela Torres

The expressive elegance of making the art of editing perceived in Parajanov (and in particular in the film Shadows of our forgotten ancestors) as a process of bringing shadows back to life. Fantasmatic and inspiring.

Once Upon a Screen

various

A collection of gazes on the evocative theme of traumatic childhood encounters: different styles and perspectives that articulate a critical and cinephile discourse open to different interpretations.

V Renée

Managing Editor at No Film School

Once Upon a Screen: Explosive Paradox

Kevin B. Lee

Kevin lays bare something you don’t often see in film analysis: a personal account of how a film traumatises. He takes us to the theatre, now a BevMo!, where he first saw Platoon and tells the intensely intimate story of how the film affected him as a kid. It’s a direct emotional connection between the film analyst and the film he’s analysing: the site of traumatisation may have changed but the trauma itself remains.

This video is a shock to the system of film analysis.

How Movies Prepared Us For Coronavirus

Jack Nugent (Now You See It)

Answer: Surprisingly, they pretty much didn’t.

We’re living in a disaster movie.

No, in My Room | A desktop documentary on the making of a video essay

Beyond the Frame

Video essays make me feel dumb. This one makes me feel like we’re all dumb. I love it so much.

David Lynch | Movies As Therapy

The Discarded Image

Clearly there’s a pattern to my selections this year, you guys. I’m very obviously a nervous and emotional wreck or something because I really gravitated to this video essay by The Discarded Image about how David Lynch uses filmmaking as his therapy.

Why The Red Shoes Looked So Stunning

The Royal Ocean Film Society

If you want to know how colour can be used to tell a story, watch The Red Shoes. Boom. It’s an absolute masterclass and it’s beautiful and it almost convinced me that ballet was kinda cooler than basketball. This video essay is an excellent primer into the film’s aesthetic and narrative use of red.

Jonathan Rosenbaum

Film critic

In alphabetical order:

L’Année Dernière à Dachau

Mark Rappaport (read synopsis)

A look at the emotional and historical complexity of our aesthetic preferences.

Her Socialist Smile

John Gianvito (watch trailer)

It offers some things we may not have known about Helen Keller, socialism, and ourselves.

A House is Not a Home: Wright or Wrong

Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa (watch trailer)

It offers a lyrical and personal look at the relations between architecture and familial dysfunction by examining Frank Loyd Wright’s Rosenbaum house in Alabama. It isn’t my film, but I was interview subject, consultant, and camera assistant on it.

The Social Dilemma

Jeff Orlowski (stream on Netflix or watch trailer)

It examines the corruption of communications via marketing, demonstrating how capitalism isn’t a victimless crime.

Sportin’ Life

Abel Ferrara (watch trailer)

Ferra accurately calls it a documentary on the act of making documentaries.

Women According to Men

Saeed Nouri (watch trailer)

An archival look at Iranian gender relations.

Charlie Shackleton

Filmmaker and sometime film critic

How To with John Wilson

John Wilson (stream on HBO Max or watch trailer)

I can’t think of anything that gives me greater pleasure than lo-fi on a hi-budget, and nobody’s fi is loer than John Wilson, whose sublime new HBO(!) show captured the beauty of the mundane with an ethereal grace made only more poignant by Wilson’s trademark fumbled voiceover. I didn’t expect the field of video essay to produce a more unexpected mainstream crossover this year than Theo Anthony getting an ESPN special (the excellent Subject to Review) but here it was.

Those That, at a Distance, Resemble Another

Jessica Sarah Rinland (watch trailer)

At one of the last social gatherings I attended before the pandemic, a friend told me that their favourite kind of film is one in which “nothing happens, many times”. That description stuck with me in Britain’s first national lockdown, as I rediscovered my taste for cinematic minimalism in newly streaming films like Ben Rivers’s Now, At Last! and – most memorably – this mesmerising study of archaeological restoration. As with all the best films where nothing happens, many times, Rinland’s work was a catalyst for a torrent of personal imaginative thought, and just when I was starting to feel incapable of it.

Forensickness

Chloé Galibert-Laîné

In a busy year for video essays on conspiratorial thinking (I also enjoyed Dan Olson’s In Search of a Flat Earth and Kirby Ferguson’s Constantly Wrong), Chloé Galibert-Laîné’s characteristically probing and precise film was the only offering that seemed more concerned with asking questions than giving answers—surely a prerequisite of getting to grips with a cultural sphere increasingly dominated by conspiracy theories.

Leigh Singer

Film Journalist, programmer, video essayist

One of the saving graces of this awful year has been a greater involvement and engagement with student video work. The results across various courses and different countries has been a revelation – so much insight, originality and technical accomplishment. Though I advised on a couple of the videos below, the finished pieces are entirely the students’ own and I feel very fortunate to have watched the work take shape and then become so expertly realised. In the world of video essays, at least, the future looks bright.

New Normal

Elizaveta Gushchynskaya

A brilliant, probing pop culture mash-up reflecting and refracting life under lockdown that doubles up as a superlative music video. It’s also the first video essay as part of a student course at the Polish-Japanese Institute of Technology, produced within five days, which makes the results even more extraordinary.

Ways of Looking: Playtime

Sergio Martínez Esqueda (password: Tati)

A dazzlingly original, present tense negotiation of Jacques Tati’s comic masterpiece that reveals so much about its multiple, often simultaneous visual delights and examines how different viewing experiences play a part in these discoveries. Another revelatory first time student video, made on the UK’s National Film & TV School’s MA in Film Studies, Programming and Curation.

Mandy: The Film Concert

Alex Hobbs

Too few video essays go into the audio textures of a film and its score. This one does a superbly effective, visually striking job at conveying complicated technical effects with great clarity. Yet another unbelievably accomplished student project, from the ever-impressive University of Warwick Film Studies department.

Trace

Johannes Binotto

So simple, original, elegant, and strangely haunting.

Magnolia Zoomed

Ian Garwood

A terrific idea, beautifully executed, that resonates in a range of different ways in this most unsettling of years. Could be 2020’s video essay anthem.

Comedy and Tragedy in Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite

Luís Azevedo (Little White Lies)

A video essayist whose growing sophistication and playful touch when examining serious issues gets better every year. Parasite is the video essay gift that keeps on giving, but this is up there with the best feeding off of Bong’s hits.

Let’s Repo! Repo Man’s Plate O’ Shrimp Logic

Miklos Kiss & Shant Bayramian

An inventive, pretzel-logicked (is that a word?), suitably anarchic blast from start to finish, a hit-and-run job that makes you want to (re-)watch the film it hijacks immediately.

Shannon Strucci

video essayist StrucciMovies

Street Cat Rescue: Lionel

Flatbush Cats

Every video by Flatbush Cats is its own touching, elegantly written and edited and edifying little story about a cat. Together they make up a channel that is both a tremendous educational resource and a series of charming vignettes about individual animals and their personalities. You know from the outset that Lionel’s video has an unhappy ending and that it will break your heart, but it’s worth watching anyway, and it’s a fantastic example of what makes this channel so unique and so worth celebrating.

Scout Tafoya

Video essayist, critic and filmmaker

There Are Not Thirty-Six Ways of Showing a Man Getting on a Horse

Nicolás Zukerfeld (watch trailer)

The video essay casually makes it to the festival circuit. Hypnotic and funny.

last night i dreamt that somebody loved me , The Tale of Eurydice and a letter to adolescence

Haaniyah Angus

My new favourite filmmaker. She doesn’t make traditional video essays, so much as essays written in images. Heartbreakingly raw and emotionally open, even though she’s put barriers between her and her audience (footage from other movies), the connection between them is deeper for its distance. She reaches across mediums with a report on her melancholy, which becomes universal when painted with faces.

A Revolt Without Images (Una revuelta sin imágenes)

Pilar Monsell (watch trailer)

What Makes a Movie Line Memorable?

Luís Azevedo & Mark Forsythe (Little White Lies)

Crystalline editing from Luis. Just soft as snow.

What Gordon Parks Saw

Evan Puschak (The Nerdwriter)

Milad Tangshir

Iranian filmmaker based in Italy

Once Upon a Screen: Explosive Paradox

Kevin B. Lee

The Rising of the Moon

James Slaymaker

The Original Ending: the Last Acts of Black Horror Heroes

Cydnii Wilde Harris

Slap That Bass Zoomed

Ian Garwood

Surviving Memories

Alessandro Luchetti and Manuela Lazic

Irina Trocan

Lecturer in Film Studies, freelance film critic

Shipwreck at the Threshold of Europe, Lesvos, Aegean Sea: 28 October 2015

Amel Alzakout and Khaled Abdulwahed, Forensic Architecture

While there are many moving films trying to sway the audience into empathy with the perils of migration, few provide such a watertight demonstration: using footage and data from various sources, this video essay/installation follows the play-by-play of an avoidable tragedy. A visually coherent, meticulous and fact-based plea to put human lives ahead of national interests and structure competent institutions accordingly.

The crackdown before Trump’s photo op

Washington Post/Dalton Bennett, Sarah Cahlan, Aaron C. Davis & Joyce Sohyun Lee

Should We Still be Watching Gone with the Wind? Part 1 + Part 2

Cold Crash Pictures

YouTube-standard in form but amazingly communicative in content, this take on the racism of Gone with the Wind is the best chance for anyone on the internet to be heard by the other side. Serge’s imagined viewer is initially respectful of Southern legacy, the monumentality of the 1939 film, skeptical towards accusations of racism and historical inaccuracy. Approaching the film through various videographic means, he builds a case by tackling counterarguments one by one.

Clean with Me (After Dark)

Gabrielle Stemmer (watch trailer)

A nightmarish vision of what lies behind the shiny surfaces of Cleaning Motivation YouTube, this desktop documentary is borderline-voyeuristic (most likely in tune with how YouTube is meant to be used) and heart-on-its-sleeve empathetic toward the socially isolated women broadcasting themselves (along with the daughters they raise to take on their role). Social media is performative, which is a surprise to no one except the performers themselves.

Repeating Terror in Amat Escalante’s Heli (2013)

Niamh Thornton

Violence is always a tricky subject for videographic exploration – and this take on how the threat of bodily harm exudes from the screen outwards is guaranteed to make you uncomfortable, which is precisely the point.

Like Watching Paint Dry – Éric Rohmer’s My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend

Amos Levin

Putting a cinephile spin on a famed diss of Rohmerian cinematic style, this video uses digital wizardry for emphasising individual blocks of colour in an ostensibly plotless film to show where the story really is located: it is to be found in the slow completion of the colour scheme, inspired by a Nicolas de Staël painting that fleetingly appears on a wall as if to confirm an inside-joke of a climax. Like watching paint dry, indeed.

Manual for a Disassembly of Cinema (A Machine for Viewing, episode 3)

Oscar Raby

A theoretical excursion from cinematic projection to VR interactive gear via North Korean mass gymnastics with a “broken human pixel”, it makes you think of how seeing is altered when mediated by man rather than machine.

David Verdeure

Creator, collector and curator of video essays under the nom de video Filmscalpel

Swings Don’t Swing

Leonhard Müllner

The visual regimes of video games balance between realism and absurdity, between aesthetic refinement and ethic crudeness. There’s a wealth of great video essays and machinima about games. YouTuber eurothug4000 fascinatingly focused on virtual photography within games. But I chose this piece by Leonhard Müllner which virtually visits children’s playgrounds in shooter games. Those playgrounds are used as innocent-looking backdrops to the violent mayhem. Müllner’s video uses the games’ mechanics against themselves to lay bare their visual cynicism. He enacts the revenge of innocence on gamified violence, not in the least through the elegant spatial arrangement of his piece.

I Can’t Stop Watching Contagion

Dan Olson (Folding Ideas)

Lockdown life boosted the output of some video essayists and made others sour on the form, but it left nobody indifferent. Several pieces poked fun at our Zoomified existence or lamented our Skyped interactions. Rob Stone fabricated a touching video call between Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. The fact that his Before the End went viral proves our need for comforting connections – even if they’re not our own.

Dan Olson watched Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion on repeat. The radical form of his confessional video essay visualises how a film can mark us and how it can serve as ‘emotional inoculation”.

Michigan Coronavirus Protestors Roots

rebabeba

The rhetorical strategies of the video essay can be applied to other subjects than film or television. In this US election year, I saw them being used for political purposes in a variety of ways. There were downright deceitful remixes (no, I won’t link one). There were revelatory side-by-side pieces. There were online experiments that made harrowing use of the absence of image and sound. But because politics (and 2020) can benefit from some levity, I chose a frivolous example for this poll. TikToker rebabeba used the desktop documentary format to get to the root of the problem.

Feeling and Thought as They Take Form: Early Steadicam, Labor, and Technology (1974-1985)

Katie Bird

Academic practitioners of the video essay served up some fascinating fare in 2020. It is especially great to see some practitioners confidently conduct formal experiments instead of sticking to tried and tested audiovisual strategies. Jill Walker Rettberg for instance enthusiastically embraced Snapchat technology in her video essay on the app’s biometrics.

Katie Bird’s video essay starts off conventionally with a mini-documentary on the early history of Steadicam and Panaglide. But her piece then builds on this historical research with a series of imaginative (and even speculative) visual experiments that make the most of the videographic form.

John Cleese + Anthony Braxton

Olivier Godin

Video essays and performance studies are a natural match. This piece for the Canadian website Zoom Out is another fine piece of evidence. Olivier Godin matches up the work of two performers: one an actor and the other a musician. Scenes from the legendary British sitcom Fawlty Towers are rescored using Anthony Braxton’s free-jazz composition For Alto. The music emphasises Cleese’s erratic physical comedy and brings out the unpredictable dynamism of his dialogue delivery. This counterintuitive combination prompts the viewer to consider Cleese’s dialogue delivery as a musical improvisation – one with the unpredictable energy of Braxton’s jazz.

Michael Witt

Professor of Cinema at the University of Roehampton, London

L’Année Dernière à Dachau

Mark Rappaport (read synopsis)

Characteristically sharp, inventive audiovisual film criticism from the great Mark Rappaport.

Feeling and Thought as They Take Form: Early Steadicam, Labor, and Technology (1974-1985)

Katie Bird

Illuminating audiovisual study of the history, uses and effects of the Steadicam and Panaglide.

Art Class

Andrea Luka Zimmerman

Moving personal exploration of the terms of the film’s title.

Golden Gate

William Brown

Insightful audiovisual investigation of the cinematic representation of the Golden Gate Bridge from a post-humanist perspective.

A Very Long Exposure Time

Chloé Galibert-Laîné

Thought-provoking poetic study of the relationship between successive image recording technologies and what they capture and omit.

Against the Day

Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin

Succinct reflection on the role of light in Philippe Grandrieux’s Sombre (1998).

Further reading

The 50 best films of 2020

The 50 best films of 2020

The best Blu-rays and DVDs of 2020

The best Blu-rays and DVDs of 2020

The best film books of 2020

The best film books of 2020

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