It will come as no surprise when I say that 2020 was a filmgoing year like no other. A large portion of the year’s blockbuster releases including No Time to Die, Dune, Black Widow, Fast & Furious 9, Candyman, Eternals, Free Guy, The King’s Man and A Quiet Place Part II were all delayed until 2021, with many original 2021 releases being delayed until 2022. With such a colossal shift in the release schedule, it would make sense if you thought 2020 was without many good films at all. Thankfully, 2020 still had a lot of great films to deliver. As most blockbusters bar Tenet and Wonder Woman 1984 were delayed, smaller films had the chance to shine in ways they might not have without the pandemic. Many great films missed the cut, but I have a good share of 2020 releases that I can lovingly recommend.
HONOURABLE MENTIONS: FIRST COW, PALM SPRINGS, BAD EDUCATION, ON THE ROCKS, BORAT SUBSEQUENT MOVIEFILM
Chloe Zhao is one of the best working directors and Nomadland might be her best film yet. It is one of the most purely authentic films I have seen in years. It feels more like a lived-in real-life snapshot than a constructed narrative drama. Zhao’s other films including Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider also employ this technique of hyperrealism, but Nomadland is her first film to have a big star at the centre. Frances McDormand gives one of her finest ever performances as a woman who decides to live in a van and become a nomad. Zhao’s next film is Marvel’s Eternals, so I am curious to see how she fares with a big tentpole project.
SOUND OF METAL
Darius Marder’s first film is a superb directorial debut about a drummer in a punk rock duo who has to come to terms with the fact that he is losing his hearing. This film could have been very exploitative and emotionally manipulative, but instead it is a heart-warming and heartbreaking tale about having to adjust to sudden life-changing circumstances. Riz Ahmed gives a beautifully layered and empathetic performance that is full of passion and nuance, rightfully earning him many awards already. Olivia Cooke is also superb and never gets enough credit. Watch it with subtitles and play it loud!
Rocks, just like Nomadland, succeeds due to how real everything feels on screen. It is a wholly authentic and vivid portrayal of teenage life where the banter and interactions between characters never feel like over-the-top teen movie interactions—it does not feel acted, in the best way possible. Bukky Bakray is astounding as a teen who needs to assume responsibility for herself and her younger brother after her mentally unstable mother leaves them to fend for themselves. Amidst a lot of struggle, there is real heart and humour at its core, with the film ultimately being an ode to sisterhood.
The latest film by animation studio Cartoon Saloon is one of the warmest and most tender you will have the pleasure of seeing. Its hand-drawn animation is gorgeous and it is accompanied by a lovely story about female friendship, while the whole film also has some true political overtones. It is loaded with incredible world-building and heartfelt characters that continually ground this fantastical story. There is a montage in the middle of the film that should have you tearing up. If not, you might want to get your heart checked. It hits familiar beats for fantasy-adventure stories (which we need to see more of), but it is livelier and more passion-filled than most animated films you will see.
MANGROVE + LOVERS ROCK
Sir Steve McQueen is one of my favourite directors working today and he followed up his underappreciated heist drama Widows with Small Axe—a series of five anthological TV movies following the lives of West Indian immigrants in London during the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. My two favourite instalments—Mangrove and Lovers Rock—were the first two films to air on BBC. Mangrove follows the 1971 story of the Mangrove Nine, who were tried for inciting a riot at a protest against police who targeted the Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill. Lovers Rock follows two young lovers who meet at a reggae house party. Mangrove is filled with McQueen’s classic anger and passion. It is a ferocious story that feels so incredibly timely. Everything about the Mangrove community is palpable, authentic and inviting. The film itself is basically a better version of The Trial of the Chicago 7. Lovers Rock has that same passion translated into a pure celebratory 70-minute odyssey. It is such a sensory experience and McQueen delivers a visual spectacle for the ages. You feel like you are truly at this party, inhaling every smell and screaming every song at the top of your lungs. It is blissful.
Brandon Cronenberg invokes all of the psychological and visceral craziness of his father David in this gnarly genre bender. Cronenberg combines sci-fi, body horror and espionage to create an experience that should have most people grimacing. If you are not a fan of gruesome and bloody films, stay far away from Possessor. It follows an assassin who takes control of other people’s bodies to carry out corporate espionage, and knowing more would simply spoil the visual and narrative treats that are on show. There are specific images in this that gave me chills all over my body. It is basically a combination of a horror-tinged Christopher Nolan concept with Alex Garland’s eeriness and the blood and viscera of the elder Cronenberg. It is a gem.
Babyteeth is one of the most quintessentially Australian films of the last few years. You have Ben Mendelsohn being a bit of a slob, frosty fruits and derelict train stations—there is not much more Aussie than that. Shannon Murphy brings pitch perfect dark Australian comedy into a gut-wrenching drama about a cancer-stricken teen, somehow blending both genres perfectly. Eliza Scanlen delivers another knockout performance while Australian screen veterans Essie Davis and Mendelsohn are at their searing best. Toby Wallace is also primed for stardom, delivering a sly yet loveable performance as the raggedy love interest of Scanlen’s character Milla. Make sure you are prepared for the emotional roundhouse kick of the final two scenes, which had me feeling hollow both times I had the pleasure of viewing them.
In any normal filmgoing year Tenet would have been the most divisive blockbuster, but even without competition, Christopher Nolan’s latest polarised audiences. Yes, I get the criticism of it being a cold story lacking real character, and I would argue that this is exactly what Nolan is going for. It is Nolan being given free rein to translate a fresh visual concept into a crazy time-bending adventure. Combining the scale of James Bond and the intricacy of espionage writer John le Carre. Nolan doesn’t care about the audience immediately understanding all of the visual and plot minutia. As said early in the film by one of its characters, ‘don’t try to understand it, feel it’. Even on fourth viewing, I am still picking up new little details—and I love that. It is a film only Christopher Nolan could make, for better or worse. Yes, his occasionally hokey dialogue is present, but no one else is making blockbuster entertainment like him.
NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS
Eliza Hittman has created a film filled with beautiful micro-moments. It is not a film with sweeping emotional statements and big grand gestures. It takes the topic of abortion and makes it so incredibly naturalistic. It is an astoundingly human film with a beautiful relationship between our lead character Autumn and her cousin Skylar, who travel to New York City together when Autumn is unable to get an abortion in Pennsylvania without parental consent. Sidney Flanigan gives one of the best breakout performances of 2020 and the title scene is one of the most powerful I have seen in last couple of years.
Forgive the naughty title—this is the definitive coming-of-age movie of 2020. It follows Alex, a college freshman who forms a relationship with a girl at a frat party—bonding and existential crises ensue. It is very much a cross between the casual hangout stylings of Richard Linklater (it definitely feels Before Sunrise inspired) and the heartfelt humour of Judd Apatow—just without the raging crudeness. The unbelievably talented 22-year-old Cooper Raiff plays Alex with a realistic sense of low-key awkwardness and charisma. Along with delivering a stellar lead performance, he also wrote and directed the film. He provides a much grounded portrayal of college with scuzzy walls, sketchy dorm rooms and generally sketchy people! It is not your big college film with elaborate hijinks, but it has a heap of charm to boot. Raiff should be on everyone’s radar.
Pixar’s latest is my favourite in their canon since Toy Story 3 all the way back in 2010. I adore how Pete Doctor’s latest is as committed to being an adult drama as it is a wacky body-swap comedy. It is one of Pixar’s most visually impressive entries and also includes an incredible low-fi electronic score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Honestly, I am certain that a lot of the thematic beats regarding our purpose and how it connects with our passions will fly over kid’s heads. I have always appreciated Doctor telling adult-friendly stories in the animated medium, and Soul is a prime example of his talent. There’s scenes in jazz bars and barber shops that would not feel out of place in your standard live-action adult drama. It would also be a brilliant double feature with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse as films that show how beautiful New York is in animation.
What stops this from being your standard Oscar bait drama that comes around every year is that it is told from the perspective of a character with dementia, rather than the people around them trying to help. Our lead character Anthony’s perspective of time is damaged, along with where he is and who is caring for him. It is heartbreaking and incredibly disturbing. Every time you think writer-director Florian Zeller is settling you into a rhythm, there will be another turn that forces you to question everything you have seen prior. Yes, it is admittedly very stage-y (as it is based on Zeller’s own original play), it is not overly expansive and it is directed for economy rather than flashy cinematic trickery, but Zeller does a great job placing you into this psychologically fractured mind. Anthony Hopkins is heartbreaking as the lead character who is perennially experiencing psychological torment.
Thomas Vinterberg and Mads Mikkelsen’s latest collaboration following their critically acclaimed drama The Hunt contains a premise that is one of the most compelling of 2020. A group of teachers decide to begin an experiment where they will constantly have their blood alcohol content at 0.05 but not drink after 8:00pm. It is a great film about bonding but it is also a layered and sobering (you know I had to) portrait of what alcohol can do to one’s life both positively and negatively. Mads Mikkelsen proves once again that he is one of the best actors on the planet, and seeing him execute some incredible dance moves was one of the most euphoric moments of 2020.
PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN
Promising Young Woman is incredibly ambitious like almost no other film in 2020. Emerald Fennell takes the tonal tightrope of Killing Eve—which she served as showrunner on for Season 2—and translates that into a comedic thriller fit for today’s #MeToo landscape. Cassie spends her nights pretending to be blackout drunk to catch ‘nice guys’ and douches who prepare to assault her once they bring her back to their place. It is one of the funniest films of the year but is not afraid to completely shift into a gut-churning suspense thriller. Carey Mulligan gives her best ever performance surrounded by a slew of comedic stars. Fennell takes huge thematic swings and it absolutely works—you feel Cassie’s unremitting anger and rightful thirst for revenge throughout. Also, you cannot hate a film that opens with Charli XCX’s ‘Boys’ and has a rousing singalong montage to Paris Hilton’s ‘Stars Are Blind’.