It would be a gigantic understatement to say that it has been a strange year for all of us and a worrying time for cinemas, but even amongst a globe-spreading pandemic and lockdowns film has proved to be just as brilliant as ever, with the chance for smaller indie movies and otherwise overlooked straight-to-streaming features standing strong, as the usual Marvel outings faded into future release dates.
It’s also the truth for me to say that the sad fact of cinemas shutting meant the thrill and immersion of films haven’t been quite the same and I’ve watched less new movies than usual but it was still a tough job whittling a list together of my top choices from 2020. So, without further ado…..
20. THE PLATFORM
Released onto Netflix slap bang on the date of isolation within the UK, this Spanish horror-thriller is a truly great commentary on class and separation that may have benefited from its timing to real world events. The concept is simple but expertly carried out and from start to whooshing end, there is a unshakable sense of tension.
Granted this film may leave some with a bad taste in the mouth and it has crass, over-violent moments but the mixing of social media terror and an unstoppable force of charm and nastiness from ‘Stranger Things’ actor Joe Keery makes this a bloody, bloody good ride.
18. THE CALL
Another Netflix entry now and this one originates from South Korea. The plot is a timey-wimey rollercoaster of suspense and past against future. It’s a thriller with incredibly smart bones and two strong women leading the story, only connected by a phone.
17. BORAT SUBSEQUENT MOVIEFILM
Over to Amazon now, where Sacha Baron Cohen once again dons his drab suit as Kazakhstani reporter Borat. This time around he has a 15 year old daughter in tow, played by Maria Bakalova; a newcomer who is sweet, funny and extremely brave and weirdly deserves awards attention for her role. The film is aided by its ties to COVID times and the always amusing yet concerning antics of ignorant Americans.
Christopher Nolan fought tooth, nail and pandemic protocols to have his newest feature get the big screen treatment, and whilst it is his most disappointing film there is bundles of fun to be had if you don’t try and understand the complexity of the plot; one that could and should have been simpler. However Kenneth Branagh is a delightfully smarmy baddie, John David Washington is a perfect Protagonist and the inversion of time gives you plenty to marvel at.
Some might think I’ve lost the plot placing this balls-to-the-wall movie ahead of ‘Tenet’, but for its sheer conviction of car terror and achieving its goals of gleeful smash and crash it has to outdo Nolan. Russell Crowe is on sweaty form as a big, bulky menace tearing down the highways. Perhaps it helped that this was a film seen very close after exiting a 3-month lockdown but it suits the big screen and loud speakers perfectly.
14. SAINT MAUD
Not the horror you’d expect but a horror of bleak loneliness and seaside testing of faith. This debut from director Rose Glass is a haunting turn and if you’re not squirming at the actions of a sensational Morfydd Clark, then you’re swept away by the storytelling and soul-saving beauty/nightmare of an atmosphere that will stay with you.
13. DA 5 BLOODS
Spike Lee blasts onto Netflix with a tale of Vietnam veterans and that bond between 4 Black ex-soldiers who hope to find a fallen friend’s body. The unearthing of gold shows fractures and ever-changing dynamics in the group and Lee directs between the present and past with confidence, flair and a touch of heart to ensure you truly engage with the characters. Special mention has to go to Delroy Lindo as Paul, a role of blistering talent.
12. BLACK BEAR
A film about writing, so this was always going to grab my attention but the story of two parts speaks for itself and you’ll find yourself totally taken in by the cabin location of fact and fiction boiling together. Available digitally on demand, this is a brain-bending wonder showcasing Aubrey Plaza as a top-level actor with a hopeful shot at nominations.
Pixar have a mostly solid track record and this March released fantasy outing proved to be another fresh tick in the box. The brotherly adventure is fun and emotional, pulled by their drive to bring their father back one last time. The soaring elements of unicorns and magic are colourful and help build a fully realised world but once again it’s the beating pulse of a Pixar heart that has you invested…and maybe welling up.
10. OVER THE MOON
Into the Top Ten and Netflix strike gold once more with this absolutely gorgeous musical filled animation. ‘Over the Moon’ is part produced in China and America and focuses on the growing sibling connection between Fei Fei and Chin, a bond elevated ever further by a visit to the moon. There are plenty of catchy songs, endless streams of stunning visuals and colour and a emotive core of step-sibling acceptance that shows Disney and Pixar this film shouldn’t be messed with.
9. BIRDS OF PREY
Everyone can breathe a sigh of relief as Jared Leto’s Joker, aka the worse incarnation of the character is pushed out of action to let the revelry and sass of Harley Quinn tell her own break-up story. Margot Robbie is the absolute catch for the crime-loving character; her smirks, looks to camera or general voice-over narration throw you into a carnival chute of glitter and chaos. DC has never looked so fun.
8. JOJO RABBIT
Stateside audiences may have had the typical earlier advantage of seeing this film before 2020 began, but for us in the UK we got to see Taika Waititi’s funny influence on Nazi Germany, in a time that seems long ago. The way Waititi mixes the wit and satire of a war-torn land with upset and ultimately dancing hope is a lovely feat.
7. JUST MERCY
An overlooked film that should have been in contention for awards glory aside from a nomination for the ever splendid Jamie Foxx. The resonance of what has happened many times over and what civil unrest was due to come not long after its release makes the message of inequality and persecution that much tougher to swallow. Michael B Jordan is a fantastic presence in this film; a man filled with desire to do the right thing and prove the innocence of others.
This is an absolutely gorgeous and sometimes heart-shattering A24 film. The idea of toxic, destructive behaviour leads the first two portions of the film with rich neon acting like a nightmare of bright warning to the world we’re seeing. The third act becomes the calm after the storm as we follow another character, in a chance of restoring hope. The filmmaking possesses a beautiful fluid touch and all the way through there is an engagement to the turbulence we’ve witnessed by our connection to the family.
5. HIS HOUSE
Sound the Netflix chime again, we’re back with another streamer and another horror from a debut director. Remi Weekes makes his first full length feature and it’s a staggeringly effective plot of the terrors hiding among the shadows of your past. The story follows two South Sudan refugees who move to a new house, one that is unidentifiable to any part of Britain and it’s here in this run down space that the visions of their actions plague their minds in different ways.
4. THE INVISIBLE MAN
A lot of the time it’s what you cannot see that is scarier than what you can. Leigh Whannell takes that premise and runs with it to such chilling extremities that you feel almost permanently on-edge. Then there’s the overbearing presence of violent masculinity and gaslighting that amp up the tensions, throw in a sublime performance from Elisabeth Moss and you’ve got yourself a horror with an intelligent, dark spin on relationships.
Two soldiers on a mission to deliver hugely important strategic news becomes a trek you can’t take your eyes off. You become so interpolated by the WW1 surroundings thanks to the style of the story. It’s filmed in one take (at least the majority of it is) and George McKay leads the charge in exhilarating conditions that remind you how terrifying the reality of soldiers’ circumstances were. The film is brutal and often beautiful with Roger Deakins providing the most stunning of choregraphed sequences.
My Top 2 for 2020 are interchangeable…honestly both grabbed my attention and interest in different yet outstanding ways. Bong Joon Ho triumphed at the Academy Awards and gave 2020 probably some of the only good moments by collecting his trophies, mostly because he deserved it for his ingenious writing and directing of two families and creating rich tapestry of schemes, secrets and shock. ‘Parasite’ is a near-masterpiece of gripping tension, black humour and clever storytelling.
‘Host’ is one of the finest and niftiest horrors I’ve seen in a long, long time. Unlike the usual poltergeist scares, this short 50 minute frightener delivers screams and shocks from its built in dynamic of laptop terror. Filmed during quarantine and made to appear as a Zoom call, this is a séance which plays with comic moments but turns alarmingly jumpy, made all the more unsettling because of its computer visuals. I swore and leapt out of my skin on more than one occasion and feel like anyone watching this should prepare to sprinkle holy water upon their TV or laptop to save themselves.