There’s not much more I can say than that when it comes to the year that has just been. Without a doubt the craziest year of most of our lives, filled with uncertainty and frustration, it is a year that has had more than its fair share of moments where it may have been a little hard to see light at the end of the tunnel. On a personal note, I started the year with a big leap, a leap that ultimately ended up feeling A LOT bigger than I expected when I made the decision to go freelance in February. It’s been hit and miss to say the least, but in a year where so many people have struggled immeasurably in both their professional and personal lives, I should be very grateful that I got to write about film and television and be paid for it every now and again at all. It is something which brings me a great deal of joy, pandemic or no pandemic.
The movies weren’t immune to the on-going pandemic, with the shape of distribution being fundamentally changed, as more and more of us began to rely on streaming and on demand services to fight off lockdown boredom. While there were certainly still plenty of films released (a lot of very good ones for that matter), not all could make it to cinemas, and many are still waiting in the wings for a sense of normalcy to set back in before being released. Yet, despite this obviously being the first year in many of our cinema-going lives where we were unable to go to our local multiplex as often as we would like, the films of 2020 still played a key part in certainly my experience of the year. They were often being responsible for some of the brightest moments of 2020, across films both good, bad and ugly. Sure, sitting on your sofa watching movies may never quite match the giddy heights of being in a full cinema on opening weekend, but watching a film by any means is still escapism, offering catharsis in a time where we have needed it most.
Movies have always been my happy place, and 2020 was no different. Even things being as they were (well, are), I still managed to catch 117 of the year’s new releases, only slightly under what I would normally clock. I’ve also been lucky enough to see a few of 2021’s incoming gems already, but that’s a list for another year. I’m thankful for all the movies that I could watch this year, both those released this year and across cinema’s past. So, without further ado, let’s get rolling on my top 20 films of the dumpster fire of the year that was 2020*, all with a little note about where you can most easily find the movies to stream should you feel inclined to check them out!
*Based on films released in cinemas or on demand in the UK across 2020.
Lovers Rock (Dir, Steve McQueen, BBC Films) – Available on BBC iPlayer
I’m Your Woman (Dir: Julia Hart, Amazon Studios) – Available on Amazon Prime
The Invisible Man (Dir: Leigh Whanell, Universal Pictures) – Available on NOW TV
Babyteeth (Dir: Shannon Murphy, Picturehouse Entertainment) – Available on Netflix
A Hidden Life (Dir: Terrence Malick, Searchlight Pictures) – Available on NOW TV
20. Ema (Dir: Pablo Larrain, Mubi) – Available on All 4 and Mubi
While he may be a bit of an acquired taste, there’s something about the cinema of Pablo Larrain that I find utterly irresistible. Be it lifting the veil on Jackie Kennedy or invoking the spirit of poet Pablo Neruda, there’s something about the spaces that Larrain creates that I find enthralling. That remains the case in his latest, Ema, set in the fiery city of Valparaiso. Following a young reggaeton dancer, played by newcomer Mariana Di Gioralmo, Ema is a film all about relationship power plays set against a port city that is alive with a party spirit. It is an absolute firecracker; sexy, dangerous, vibrant and unpredictable. With a strong sense of musical identity combining with the location and performances (Gael Garcia Benal also features), Ema us another example of Larrain’s ability at concocting an intoxicating brew. Read my full review over at Filmhounds Magazine.
19. Fanny Lye Deliver’d (Dir: Thomas Clay, Vertigo Releasing) – Available on NOW TV
If you wanted Barry Lyndon to have more of a psyhosexual thriller element to it, then boy does Thomas Clay have the film for you. On the surface, Fanny Lye Deliver’d looks to be a Witchfinder General-esque period horror, focusing on a small Puritan family in Cromwell-ruled England, whose home is invaded by a pair of young radicals. But what it morphs into is a wild story of one woman’s journey to break free of the patriarchal chains that have held her down in her small rural farm environment. Maxine Peake as the wide-eyed and curious Fanny is captivating, and a great anchor as the drama becomes more outrageous, making for an intoxicating period drama folk horror hybrid that is packed full of shocking surprises. Uproarious stuff. Check out my full review over at VultureHounds (and yes, that is my quote in the trailer!).
18. A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood (Dir: Marielle Heller, TriStar Pictures) – Available on NOW TV
Fred Rogers is not a figure that is widely known in the United Kingdom. But this idiosyncratic ‘biopic’ coupled with the 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? has allowed audiences beyond the TV sets of the US to get a sense of the man and his endearing appeal. Marielle Heller’s film, following up her equally empathetic Can you Ever Forgive Me? examines the figure of Fred Rogers with a sense of caution and pessimism in Matthew Rhys’ journalist. It is an effective means of allowing this character study to unfold in a manner that doesn’t coddle or hero worship. Instead, it allows the sometimes disarming figure of Rogers to come forward as a man whose calm and soulful view of the world seems genuine and inspiring. Tom Hanks as Rogers himself walks this line carefully, but it is Rhys’ portrayal of a sour reporter turning sweet that allows this stranger than expected drama to land in a very affecting way.
17. Just Mercy (Dir: Destin Daniel Cretton, Warner Bros. Pictures) – Available on NOW TV
This true life story of death row lawyer Bryan Stevenson (portrayed by Michael B. Jordan) contains a scene halfway through that has proved very hard to forget. The film depicts the young Stevenson helping those who cannot afford proper legal representation. Part of his work takes him to visit death row inmates, which leads to an extended sequence that sees a death sentence carried through. It is one of the rawest scenes of the year, one that’ll shake you to your core. It is contained in the centre of an inspiring story focusing on Jamie Foxx’s Johnny D and his wrongful conviction in the state of Alabama that was clearly motivated by a racist agenda. Ultimately inspiring, but filled with scenes of aching human loss and complicated emotions, it is a film that reminds you that not every person’s story has a happy ending. It is ultimately a story of perseverance and holding on to your ideals, but it makes sure it shows that that battle is by no means an easy one. You can read my full review over at Filmhouse Magazine.
16. Saint Maud (Dir: Rose Glass, StudioCanal) – To be released on DVD & Blu-Ray February 1st 2021.
Saint Maud marks the feature debut of British filmmaker Rose Glass, and it is a staggeringly assured debut. Following Morfyyd Clark as a care nurse who has recently become an extremely devout Roman Catholic, this is a faith-based psychological horror pulsing with a Gothic atmosphere, tucked away into the coastline of Scarborough. Be it the effectively jarring sound design, the dashes of psychedelic visuals, or the acidic sense of humour laced into the dialogue, Saint Maud is an often, and occasionally disarmingly funny descent into madness. Clark is a revelation as the lead, consistently engrossing as Maud’s grasp on reality slowly falls away as she cares for a bitter former dancer played by Jennifer Ehle. It is a film evocative of the likes of Carrie and First Reformed in its unflinching confidence, as it wraps you up in its terrifying embrace. Absolute fire.
15. System Crasher (Dir: Nora Fingscheidt, 606 Distribution) – Available on BFI Player
Another film on this list that is not a particularly easy watching experience, but one that leaves its mark thanks to the sheer raw power of its honesty and care for its characters. It follows nine-year-old Benni (Helena Zengel) who has been termed a ‘system crasher’ by her social workers, simply because she cannot seemingly be placed under any care due to her often aggressive behaviour, which stems form her childhood trauma. As Benni clings onto the hope of being reunited with her mother, she is bounced around by multiple care workers, as a trail of empty promises and crushing disappointments are left in her wake. It is a film that feels thoroughly researched, and takes great care to demonstrate the devastating effects on both the young Benni and the social workers who are only trying to do what they believe is best for her. Often gut-wrenching and highly emotional, but an incredibly empathetic piece of work all the same.
14. 1917 (Dir: Sam Mendes, Entertainment One) – Available on Amazon Prime
What could have been written off as Sam Mendes simply trying his hand at his own Dunkirk managed to emerge as a uniquely enthralling experience all its own. Much has been made of the (almost) uninterrupted shot nature of how the drama is mounted, and it is undoubtedly an incredible piece of filmmaking craft. From Roger Deakins’ astounding cinematography, to the enveloping production design, to Thomas Newman’s pulse-pounding and elegant score, 1917 is a mightily impressive feat on a number of technical fronts. But it is also a film with carefully placed moments that allow it to be highly emotional as well as technically striking. It crafts so many images that burn into your mind, particularly one moment in an abandoned village lit by the descending flames of lit flares. Moments like this throughout the well structured screenplay allow the film to feel textured and enthralling, and often breathtaking, allowing the film to stand as much more than a one shot gimmick. Oh look, here’s a full review I wrote for THN.
13. The Vast of Night (Dir: Andrew Patterson, Amazon Studios) – Available on Amazon Prime
There are many things that are catnip to me. Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. Tales of space exploration both past and far future. And, in the case of The Vast of Night, retro styled period pieces with an eye for genre. Andrew Patterson’s The Vast of Night plays out like a Twilight Zone-esque teleplay (or, more fittingly, radio play), and is set in a small town in New Mexico in the 1950s. One night, when 16 year-old High Schooler and switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick) picks up a strange signal, she and local radio DJ, Everett (Jake Horowitz), begin to suspect that this weird frequency may very well have an extraterrestrial origin. Played out through elegant long takes and tracking shots, The Vast of Night invites you in and grabs your attention through finely tuned dialogue and spirited performances, before ladling on a palpable sense of mystery and compelling conspiracy. Some final act wobbles aside, this is one fascinating ride that is engrossing and incredibly well-crafted. Very much my shit.
12. The Personal History of David Copperfield (Dir: Armando Iannucci, Lionsgate) – Available on Amazon Prime
Armando Iannucci has made his name largely through comedy and satire, so when it was announced that he would be doing a Dickens adaptation, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who had a slightly cocked eyebrow in response. That the final results ended up being so effortlessly earnest and charming does just simply go to demonstrate Ianucci’s talents as a writer, and as a filmmaker. With a wonderfully diverse cast led by a never better Dev Patel, this is a vibrant and spirited adaptation that brings an old text to exceedingly exuberant life. It has a lightness of touch, a delicate sense of whimsy and a playful energy to it that is quite simply delicious to feast upon. Any concerns that yet another Copperfield adaptation would prove to be stuffy or lacking quickly melt away, demonstrating both the timelessness of Dickens’ writing, and the strengths of Iannucci and his troupe.
11. Dark Waters (Dir: Todd Haynes, Entertainment One) – Available on Amazon Prime
Easily the scariest film of the year. The latest addition in what now appears to be a series of movies in which Mark Ruffalo says ‘They Knew!’ (see also: Spotlight), Todd Haynes’ latest is no less an agonising cry to hold powerful corporations to account with a true life story that has devastating implications for all of us. The film follows Ruffalo as environmental attorney Robert Billot, who launches a case against the chemical manufacturing corporation DuPont after finding out that they have contaminated a small town’s water supply. What he eventually uncovers however reveals a far darker truth behind DuPont’s greed and ambition. This is a procedural drama that lets the facts speak for themselves, as Haynes knows perfectly well that he doesn’t need to dress up the drama when the reality is staggering enough as it is when all laid out. It is a film that quite rightly boils the blood, with another exceptional performance from Ruffalo guiding you through the often terrifying facts.
10. The Painter and the Thief (Dir: Benjamin Ree, Dogwoof) – Available to rent or buy from BFI Player, Curzon Home Cinema and most other platforms
A fascinating documentary that takes the form into some uncomfortable and morally testing territories, ultimately all in service of a startling story focused around co-dependence and compassion. When Norwegian artist Barbora Kysilkova has one of her paintings stolen, she begins to form a friendship with Karl Bertil-Nordland, the very man who stole it. That alone makes for a compelling dynamic, as the clearly troubled Karl struggles to offer meaning for his actions. As more and more layers are peeled back, and we begin to see how broken both Karl and Barbora are, the film becomes a unique examination on the kinds of relationship we have in our lives in regards to both people, possessions and substances. There’s many a raw and vulnerable moment as both swirl around the abyss of self-destruction, making for an incredibly intimate documentary that provokes deep and meaningful conversation.
9. Mangrove (Dir: Steve McQueen, BBC Films) – Available on BBC iPlayer
Any filmmaker would be happy to make one film as good as Mangrove in a single year. Steve McQueen isn’t most filmmakers though, as Mangrove was the first in the Small Axe anthology series that also included Lovers Rock, Red, White & Blue, Alex Wheatle, and Education. With each film telling distinct stories of the West Indian immigrants in London, Mangrove focuses on the trial of the Mangrove Nine in the early 70’s, a group of black activists who were arrested after protesting the police deliberately targeting the Mangrove Caribbean restaurant in Notting Hill. Both an excellent time capsule that brings 70’s London to vibrant life and an electrifying courtroom drama focused around systematic racism, Mangrove is unquestionable in its timeliness, packing an incredible cast of British character actors. That McQueen managed to make not one but five films of equal detail and pertinence in one single year is simply staggering.
8. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (Dir: Bill & Turner Ross, Curzon Artificial Eye) – Available on Curzon Home Cinema
A doc that blurs the line between fiction and reality as more and more booze is consumed, this look at the last night of a dive bar in Vegas is intoxicating viewing no matter how much of it is fact or fiction. Taking a barfly on the wall approach, this lets the final evening of The Roaring 20s cocktail bar unroll in a convincingly natural manner, as patrons of the bar come to drink away the last hours of daylight and twilight that their favourite bar has left. It all brings out a heady combination of joy, existential woe and generational bickering, making for a night where you can recognise many of the figures that come to lean on the bar in more ways than one. It’s a melancholic tonic, but a tonic nonetheless, capturing that feeling of a night with no end in sight with clear sober precision, so much so that you truly feel the weight of loss that comes when the sun does rise and The Roaring 20s doors must close. Let me pour you a full review, which you can find over at Filmhounds Magazine.
7. Time (Dir: Garrett Bradley, Amazon Studios) – Available on Amazon Prime
In a year where little to no superheroes made it to our screens, it has been more important than ever to recognise the heroes in everyday life. Sibil Fox Richardson is one of those remarkable people, as shown in this incredibly emotional scrapbook-esque documentary. Author, abolitionist, entrepreneur, and mother of six, Time documents Sibil’s ordeal to have her husband released from jail after he is given an extreme 60 year sentence for his involvement in a robbery. A lot of the films on this list deal with themes of perseverance and maintaining a sense of principles in the face of a system that wants to beat you down. Time is perhaps the most affecting demonstration of these themes amongst them all, proving to be a very intimate portrait of one family and their struggle to be together, once again fighting a fight that not many get to win.
6. Da 5 Bloods (Dir: Spike Lee, Netflix) – Available on Netflix
Spike Lee has come away from 2020 with two films that stand as two of my favourites from the influential filmmaker’s whole career (more on the other one later). Da 5 Bloods is a multi-media whirlwind that puts a Nation’s guilt and trauma under the microscope by following a group of ageing Vietnam Vets who return to the country for the first time since serving to find the remains of a friend who was killed in action, along with the treasure they buried along with him. It is a film that takes huge swings, often resulting in fiery confrontations and explosive violence. It is one of the late great Chadwick Boseman’s last performances, a performance which takes on a much more spiritual meaning in the wake of his passing. It is a fine ensemble throughout, but the real star of the show is Delroy Lindo. An absolutely powder keg of a performance, the Lee-veteran actor shoulders the heavy weight put on his character’s shoulders to deliver a performance that you simply can’t keep your eyes off. The film as a whole thrives on such an energy, crafting a film rich in themes of pain and regret. Incendiary stuff.
5. Bad Education (Dir: Corey Finley, Sky Cinema) – Available on NOW TV
Bad Education features what may well be my favourite performance of the year in Hugh Jackman’s portrayal Superintendent Frank Tassone, in this true story of how he stole millions from the very public school district he was seeking to improve. The artist formerly known as Wolverine clearly relishes the chance to put his movie star charm in service of portraying a man who used a similar charm for his own greedy desires. It is incredibly entertaining watching the layers fall away from both the story and Jackman’s performance, as the procedural drama unfolds with a sharp sense of pace and humour. That dark wit runs through the exceptional supporting cast, all of whom are on their A-game as well, with Allison Janney and rising star Geraldine Viswanathan absolutely in key with the gallows humour of Finley and screenwriter Mike Makowsky’s approach. A captivating look at the underbelly of figures and institutions that we are supposed to trust and rely upon.
4. Parasite (Dir: Bong Joon-ho, Curzon Artificial Eye) – Available on Amazon Prime
Bong Joon-ho made history with his Oscar wins at the start of the year for Best Director and Best Picture. Usually when films come along and make such a splash at the Oscars, there is what feels like an inevitable backlash. That was not the case with Parasite, a film whose success everybody seemed to get behind, and for good reason; it is absolutely elite. The story of a struggling family all working together so that they all gain jobs in the household of the rich Parks’ family, this is a film rich in character, subtext, artistry and wit. A darkly funny comedy of manners that spins on its head into full suspense thriller territory, Parasite is once again another example of Bong Joon-ho’s uncanny ability of balancing a number of tones. It is all contained within a tale of class warfare that reveals darker and darker shades the deeper into the family it goes. It even looks great in black and white, as my full review for Vulturehound can attest!
3. Uncut Gems (Dir: Benny & Josh Safdie, A24/Netflix) – Available on Netflix
Adam Sandler once again proves that he is more than just the Happy Madison guy with yet another performance which demonstrates his considerable acting chops. The Sandman is at the eye of the storm that makes up the anxiety inducing experience that is Uncut Gems. The character of New York diamond dealer and gambling addict Howard Ratner is a perfect fit for his high energy style, lacing sleazy charm over the proceedings as Howard gets himself into deep trouble as he heads down a money lending and betting rabbit hole. The Safdie’s establish such an intense atmosphere, but it is something that you just can’t pull yourself away from. They wrap you up in the frantic New York streets, giving their actors the space to riff and form natural rhythms, all while Daniel Lopatin’s hypnotic score ensures you’re kept roped in. An acquired taste, but once Howard and The Sandman have got you in their grasp, it is hard to wrestle out of it. Palpable and enthralling.
2. David Byrne’s American Utopia (Dir: Spike Lee, Dogwoof/Universal Pictures) – Available to rent or buy on demand from most online stores
Here’s that other Spike Lee joint I was talking about. A wonderful collaboration between Lee and David Byrne, this brings the former Talking Heads frontman’s Broadway show to your screens in an exhilarating fashion. This is an experience which feels like it came around at exactly the right time. It is a sheer joy from start to finish, bringing some of Byrne’s finest songs to energetic life. It is all weaved around the theme of communication and a rallying cry for everyone to do better by each other, asking us all to tap into that channel of empathy that we may sometimes take for granted. Lee very much puts his own stamp on the proceedings, getting behind the message for America (and the world) to start making sense of the chaos that has hit a boiling point in recent years. That, and it also includes some incredible musicians having the absolute time of their lives. The spirit of creativity and sheer joyful expression in their performances is incredibly infectious, making this an experience I’ve had this year that I can’t wait to go on again and again. Tap your toes over to a full review here for THN.
1. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Dir: Céline Sciamma, Curzon Artificial Eye) – Available on Mubi
The film this year that I (and many friends) have not been able to stop gushing about from very early in the year. It has maintained the top spot on this list for effectively the whole year, and that is because it set the bar incredibly high. Céline Sciamma’s tale of love burgeoning between two women on an isolated island in Brittany quite aptly is a painterly masterpiece, filled with bold colours, stormy shores and intimate moments of connection. So many frames make your heart stop and your film-loving soul swoon with deep affection and appreciation. Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel as the two lovers who embrace the limited time that they have together are beautifully matched, allowing emotion to share the frame with the precise compositions. It is a film that makes you yearn for connection and appreciate those moments that you have with someone that you care for beyond all manner of expression. A truly gorgeous piece of cinema that makes you so happy to have films of its kind out in the world to call upon, something that we have surely all come to appreciate in this year of all years. Here’s one last full review for you over at Filmhounds Magazine.
There we have it. A cinematic year that wasn’t quite so literally cinematic, but one filled with some beautiful, exhilarating and inspiring pieces of work all the same. We’ll hopefully all be able to go to the cinema together again sometime soon, but for now we can simply appreciate the fact that there will always be a rich wealth of films out there to help us get away from it all, or even examine it all, when we feel the need to take a breath and step into a story. Here’s to the New Year;. Take care, look after each other, and happy watching.