Best Movies of 2020

What a strange year 2020 has been. For me, one of the most impactful things was the loss of cinemas.

This sounds like a small and petty gripe and in the scheme of things it definitely is, but going to the cinema has always been my salvation, my place of centring, my church; and not being able to go was difficult to say the least.

What I have enjoyed about this year, film-wise at least, is the fact that because there were less big screen offerings, the indie films have had a chance to shine that little bit brighter, and perhaps find an audience that would not normally have been there.

According to Letterboxd I have watched 287 films this year, and they only count the first viewing so that doesn’t include the ones that were repeats, of which there were a few. Not all of those films were released this year , and there are some that I saw for the first time this year that I wish I had watched in the year of their release so that they could have been included in that year’s list , but such is life. There is only so much time, and there are so many films to watch… 

In all honesty probably the two best films that I watched this year were Thunder Road and Sicilian ghost story, and neither of them came out this year, I just happened to watch them for the first time this year.

However, because I didn’t get to honour them in the year they were released please watch the trailers at the end of this article and then get out there and watch them! They deserve a bigger audience.

This is also the first year that I don’t have a number one best film of the year, instead finding many films that I enjoyed a lot with no clear frontrunner.

This is a first as I’ve always been able to pick at least two that belong at the number one spot.

Because of this, I have decided to just do a free form list the films that I thought were great this year, with no numbering system, and no ranking.

So, the following list is in no particular order

1917

George MacKay as Lance Corporal Schofield in the film 1917.

Although this was the first film I watched in 2020, I still remember the huge impact it had on me. The tricksy one-shot directing device that was utilised only added to the immediacy of a picture that threw you into the action and made something that could have seemed ‘quaint’ and distant, anything but. The actors were all great with several unexpected and perfectly utilised cameos that had the potential to draw you from the story but somehow didn’t. This was a masterclass in film-making from Sam Mendes; I cried and I marvelled – the cinematography is truly breathtaking and the score by Thomas Newman deserved the Oscar it didn’t win.

Dark waters

Bill Camp (left) as “Wilbur Tennant” and Mark Ruffalo (right) as “Robert Bilott” in director Todd Haynes’ DARK WATERS, a Focus Features release. Credit : Mary Cybulski / Focus Features

Mark Ruffalo leads a story about an attorney doing battle with a big Chemical company and its history of pollution. What sounds dry on paper had me on the edge of my seat, equally outraged and astounded that this wasn’t better known. Still so relevant today and likely the most important film I’ve watched in a long time. Literally everyone should watch this film, not only does it actually matter but it’s so well made and acted; with a supporting cast of Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins and Bill Pullman this is vital viewing.

Waves

This film began as a family drama, focusing on the life of a rather entitled young man ad was a cacophony of loud noise and obnoxiousness. Then, just as I was deciding it wasn’t for me, something happened and it became about someone and something else entirely. It found its heart and was then riveting and stirring. The ripple effect of an action within a family and how that action effects everyone in that family was fascinating to watch. Stick with it, it has rich rewards within.

The lodge

Literally one of the most depressing horror films I’ve ever seen, this one had atmospheric dread down pat. All cold and forbidding wintry landscapes, the beauty and harshness of the background a perfect accompaniment to a chilly tale of inexorable sorrow bleeding out from a family broken by tragedy. It touches on religion, cults, grief and some shocking violence that will literally make you gasp. Expertly acted by all concerned, this was a slow burn horror experience for Ari Aster (Hereditary)  fans. I couldn’t shake this film for days.

Corpus Christi

Based on a true story of a young man with a chequered past attempting to live a better life disguised as a priest in a small village, This Polish effort kept me rivetted from the first frame. Had this been a Hollywood film, it would have ended with a fluffy feel-good ‘lesson for us all’, instead we are gifted with a darker and more thoughtful result. Disquieting and moving, this features a star-making turn from lead Bartosz Bielenia.

Onward

I’m not really an animated movie person, I say this all the time, but the last few years there have been at least one animated feature in my ‘best of’ list and this year is no different. This Pixar movie is about two elven brothers on a quest to find a gem that could return their late father to them for one day. I really didn’t expect to love this as much as I did, but I laughed and I actually cried both times I saw it. Chris Pratt does great work voicing older brother Barley who is really the star of this movie – a perfectly realised character who is familiar even though he’s an elf.

The Beach Bum

Matthew McConaughey plays a stoner called Moondog who is on his own path in life. This is a film almost impossible to describe but these things happen – Snoop Dogg’s character is called Lingerie, Isla Fisher plays Moondog’s free spirit wife, he writes poetry, McConaughey wears a dress and a captains hat, the soundtrack is epic, he carries a beloved kitten around with him on his adventures and much more irreverence and joy ensues. More a vibe than a film, I totally loved this crazy unique movie; as soon as it was over, I started it again.

Where we go from here

This was an independent movie I’d heard nothing about but was intrigued by the summary – three acts of terror disrupt the lives of ordinary people. It started slowly and built to horrific real-life acts by terrorists that have occurred in recent years. Starring a cast of up-and-comers, this was intimate, upsetting and sobering. An important and unexpected film that has quite the impact. That final coda is chilling.

Little women 

A reimagining of the classic tale by Louisa May Alcott that uses a less linear story outline that expected. Unconventional and engaging, I enjoyed this far more than I has expected to, especially seeing as I was a fan of the 1994 version. Lovely soundtrack (though the 90s one is better), this is only slightly let down by the miscasting of Beth, though this misstep is mostly corrected by the perfect casting of all other characters.

The King of Staten Island 

2020 was the year I discovered Pete Davidson, and that is something to be glad about. Essentially a coming-of-age movie for a man in his twenties whose emotional growth stopped at the death of his father in 9/11, this is funny, insightful, honest and touching. I thoroughly enjoyed it, good to see writer/director Judd Apatow still giving us such sincere entertainment.

Hail Satan?

Satanists fight to keep church and state separate in this literally irreverent documentary that gives a legitimate voice to these ‘religious’ underdogs. Led by a personable Lucien Greaves, we learn the history and beliefs of The Satanic Temple, and Satanism looks pretty good to me! Though important, this is also funny, thought-provoking and entertaining as hell.

For Sama 

From deep in war-ravaged Aleppo, a woman films her life for her newborn child, and we get to experience the horror of war first-hand as she and her young husband and friends try to save as many lives as they can in their hastily-built ‘hospital’. Its both uplifting and devastating as the escalating conflict brings out the best and worst of humanity.

Palm Springs 

Goddamn I love me some Adam Samberg! Its a shame that thus far his filmic offerings have not been up to his talent. Until now. Palm Springs is a joyous, acerbic, hilarious and ultimately uplifting wry and romantic riff on the ‘Groundhog Day’ trope. Is it a nihilistic end of your world moment or a redemptive chance at a do-over or perhaps an exploration on how fear of failure can paralyse us into immobility? For me, it manages to be all these things and also charming and funny as heck without being saccharine. Truly loved this, would unironically watch it over and over.

Dating Amber 

A coming-of-age teenage LGBT rom-com that had me laughing and cheering from the very first scene. As gay Eddie fake-dates lesbian Amber until they can both escape their stifling small town life, this Irish delight featuring a cast of little-knowns will warm your heart without making you gag on cheesiness. Totally endearing.

She dies tomorrow 

A weird film about a woman who believes she is destined to die the next day. This fear is contagious and the film follows several people who ‘catch’ this fear from each other. Existential, odd, melancholic, anxious and fascinating; this one is certainly unconventional and meandering and so of course, not for everyone, but its also not easy to forget or dismiss, and ultimately rewarding. 

Kajillionaire 

Another bizarre outing from writer/director Miranda July, this one details the lives of two grifters and their arrested-development 26-year-old daughter ‘Old Dolio’ as they recruit an idealistic young woman into their fold. Her presence brings to the fore the things lost to their daughter in her unconventional upbringing as a con artist.  Evan Rachel Wood is almost unrecognizable as Old Dolio and she manages to convey so much with very little – it’s a committed performance. Not like anything you’ve seen before, a great cast and an earnest heart make this one something special.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 

In 1968 Chicago an anti-Vietnam war protest turned violent, this film chronicles the notorious witch-hunt trial that followed. An excellent all-star cast plays prominent dissenters from the time such as Abbie Hoffman and Bobby Seale to great effect in a film I found both enraging and galvanising. A movie court case has rarely been as riveting as this one. I haven’t hated a character as much as I hated Judge Hoffman (Frank Langella) in some time. Rousing!

Tenet 

Twisty and deliberately obscure, this film which is all-but-impossible to describe, intrigues with international espionage, shadowy people who maybe know too much, and a chance to save the world from powers that want it destroyed. I can see why some may not respond to this movie, or may find its refusal to be clear, antagonising; but, featuring strong performances and clever direction from Christopher Nolan, I liked it a whole lot. Repeat viewings are a must!

Promising Young Woman 

Yet another film I simply could not shake afterwards, and another movie that’s difficult to summarise. Essentially the story of a woman doing her best to even the playing field and give predatory men something to think about next time they try to take advantage of a vulnerable person. The finale is a horrifying smack in the face, the script a brave and raw primal scream of anger and frustration. A searing indictment of today’s rape culture and a pertinent exploration of the devastating after effects of sexual assault, not just on the victim but also on those who share their life.

Honourable mentions –  

Climax (dance and horror combine well, as last year’s Suspiria taught us)

In Fabric (quirky killer dress fable I kinda loved)

Alone (all too realistic woman-survival story)

Hunting lands (quietly intriguing – reclusive man finds battered woman in the woods)

Missbehaviour (the birth of feminism at the Miss Universe pageant)

I see you (a thriller that constantly pulls the rug out from under you)

The Report (a damning reflection on USA military torture techniques)

Troop Zero (in 70s deep south a delightfully awkward preteen dreams of outer space)

Relic (an Aussie horror about love and growing old – disturbing and beautiful)

The garden left behind (transgender drama that had me sobbing)

This is our home (neat little artistic horror indie, rich and strange)

The devil to pay (another indie film, this one about Appalachian revenge

Worst – 

Da Five Bloods 

Badly directed and scripted, this one can’t get over its own self-importance. Like watching Tropic Thunder beg for an Oscar.

The Devil all the Time

Ugly, bloated, misogynistic misery porn.

Queen and Slim 

Started strong but got worse as time went on and the ending was truly ludicrous. The cold unlikability of Queen didn’t help, neither did the films lack of own logic.

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