Thursday, 31 December 2020

My Top 10 Films of 2020



With 2020 finally in the rearview, it's time to look back and reflect on some of my favourite films from the past 12 months.

Look, safe to say, 2020 wasn't a banner year for cinema – not because the quality of films took a knock, but because the industry as a whole has undergone some seismic changes in the wake of COVID-19. More and more, studios have relied on streaming services to connect with audiences stuck at home – which in turn has seen some fearing for the future of the theatrical experience. 

But that's a topic for another time. For now, let's take a look at some of my favourite films from 2020. As always, my list is collated from films that were released in Australia in 2020. This means that certain acclaimed films that have yet to debut in Australia – like Regina King's One Night In Miami or Florian Zeller's The Father – aren't featured, and might have to wait until this time next year.

This also means some films that were 2019 releases in the United States, can be found on this list, since they didn't arrive in Australia until well into 2020.

Honourable mentions: Tenet, The High Note, Lovers Rock, Totally Under Control, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Dark Waters, Palm Springs, Little Women, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, The Way Back. 

10th – Soul (dir. Pete Docter)


Further proof, if it was needed, that Pixar should dispense with the superfluous sequels (Toy Story 4, Incredibles 2) and focus all its efforts on imaginative, original storytelling. Soul, Pete Docter's fourth film for the animation maestros, arrived on Disney+ on Christmas Day, to offer some soulful salve to what has been a pretty shitty year. 

Something of a spiritual successor (pun intended) to 2015's Inside Out, Soul sees Pixar at its most abstract and introspective. Centred around a middling jazz musician (Jaime Foxx) who is struggling to hit it big, the film wrangles with some heavy concepts – life and death, purpose and pizza – while conjuring up a colourful and creative concept for the metaphysical spaces that our souls reside in.

It might not have the same appeal to little kids that Monsters Inc or Cars, but Soul is an important step for the studio whose once blemish-free track record has taken one or two knocks in recent years; not only is it another huge leap forward for animation (just look at those crowded New York streets! The colours in The Great Before!), it also reaffirms that with the right people sitting in the right chairs, even the most intangible ideas can be made real and illicit tangible, meaningful reactions from audiences. 

Vast and cosmic one moment; intimate and sweet the next – Soul is Pixar's best film since Inside Out and a terrific return to form.

9th – The Invisible Man (dir. Leigh Whannell)


After Universal's big-budget 'Dark Universe' concept was killed off following the disastrous 2017 Mummy reboot, Australian filmmaker Leigh Whannell was drafted to steer production on another classic monster reboot – only this time, with a shoestring budget and a much tighter, singular focus.

So, in a weird way, we can actually thank Tom Cruise for this one. Onya Tom.

Thus, The Invisible Man was born, and given a modern spin in the process. In place of a hokey B-movie about magic potions and a madman wrapped in bandages, Whannell delivered a slick thriller that grappled with gaslighting, domestic violence and emotional abuse. In foregrounding Elisabeth Moss as the titular character's long-suffering wife, the film offered a polished reimagining of a classic character, and reshaped the myth into something that couldn't be more potent or pertinent in 2020.

With a clinical sci-fi bent, The Invisible Man cooly delivers shivers from the get-go; from a self-contained prologue that could serve as its own short to an arresting epilogue that serves up one of the best twists of the year.

8th – The Trial of the Chicago Seven (dir. Aaron Sorkin)


The Trial of the Chicago Seven is Aaron Sorkin doing what Aaron Sorkin does best; using creative license to deliver a crowd-pleasing courtroom drama rammed with blunt critique and razor-sharp rhetoric and wit.

What it lacks in subtlety, it more than makes up for in bang for your buck, as an all-star cast (Eddie Redmayne, Sasha Baron Cohen, Mark Rylance, Jeremy Strong, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Michael Keaton) recount a landmark anti-war case in American legal history.

With The Trial of the Chicago Seven, Sorkin set out and succeeded in making a broad Hollywood barnstormer, the likes of which aren't common in 2020; packed full of grand speeches and biting political insight delivered by cartoon-like, larger than life characters. This also means the film also lacks fidelity, trading accuracy in some aspects for maximum emotional oomph.

But this I can forgive, because for two-and-a-half hours, I was swept up in this glittery film about a sore spot in American political history. It feels preachy without being put on; it feels saccharine without being stupid; and it feels insightful without being inflammatory. As a piece of writing and a piece of filmmaking, it pushed all the right buttons, and paired clever storytelling with a superb cast. Another home run for Sorkin if you ask me.

7th – Uncut Gems (dir. Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie)


Uncut Gems, or as it is better known in my house – Anxiety Attack: The Movie, starring Adam Sandler and The Weeknd. Winding the clock back to January with this one, when Sandler was attracting serious award season talk for this nail-biting thriller from American duo Josh and Benny Safdie. I know, seems like another lifetime – such is the weird year that was 2020.

Uncut Gems is an unrelenting piece of cinema; it grabs you by the scruff of the neck with a vice-like grip, and pulls you from scene to scene with some force. At its core, Uncut Gems is a film about obsession; an obsession that is so deep-seated inside Sandler's diamond dealer slash gambling addict Howard that the film literally opens with a scene that starts in a diamond mine and ends inside the protagonist's colon. Now that's what I call getting your audience's attention.

For 135 minutes, the audience is pulled along as Howard bounces from one terrible decision to the next. He's always on the go; from his mistresses (Julia Fox) apartment to pawn shops and casinos, as he races to undo his last mistake and in turn makes even more mistakes. Sandler is seriously great in this role, proving that every actor has it in them when given the right material. But the supporting cast is up to snuff as well; the aforementioned Fox is a revelation, while Lakeith Stanfield, Idina Menzel and Kevin Garnett of all people impress too.

Uncut Gems is stressful, seductive, exhilarating and excruciating all at once; and one of the best films of the year, if biting your fingernails down to the bone is something that appeals to you.

6th – 1917 (dir. Sam Mendes)


It would be all too easy to dismiss 1917 as an exercise in style over substance; to discard the emotional and affecting story as 'just another war film' dressed up with long takes and smooth edits to make it interesting or noteworthy.

Instead, let's choose to focus on how Sam Mendes' approach to filming 1917 – that is, through complicated camerawork that is later stitched together to look like one continuous shot through clever staging, editing and framing – complements the relentlessness and restlessness of its characters, its setting and its themes.

By mixing this technical wizardry and nifty 'movie magic' with an effective script, Mendes and cowriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns crafted a war film with a hefty emotional wallop, sustained tension and punchy action across the board – not to mention some of cinematographer Roger Deakins' most arresting imagery to date.

Overshadowed somewhat by an all-conquering Parasite at the Academy Awards in February, 1917 shouldn't be forgotten as one of the best films of the past 12 months; spearheaded by two (also overlooked) performances from Dean-Charles Chapman and George Mackay, this simple story of two infantrymen ordered across No Man's Land during the height of the First World War is more or less faultless in the execution of its core concept(s), whether that's a technical one or a storytelling one.

5th – The Lighthouse (dir. Robert Eggers)


A dizzying, nauseating descent into depravity and madness set on an isolated New England island amidst churning seas; Robert Eggers' The Lighthouse was a compelling period horror that took its cues from Greek myth, nautical folktales and the pulpy tales of HP Lovecraft.

Spearheaded by two terrific performances from Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, The Lighthouse parallels how many of us are feeling after months in lockdown; climbing the walls with cabin fever starting to set in. Nothing says 2020 like not being able to leave the house right?

With its 1.19:1 aspect ratio, deep black and white cinematography and scuzzy sound design that evokes an earlier era of moviemaking, The Lighthouse is dripping with details that set the mood. Its characters speak in poetic riddle and tear into longwinded soliloquies at the drop of a hat, while little details and cues are geared to unsettle. The crunch of the gears deep in the bowels of the lighthouse; the screech of the seagulls that loom ominously overhead; the deep, throaty boom of the horn that periodically punches through the air.

Safe to say, this film isn't for everyone, but I found Eggers' authentic and atmospheric approach to be one of the most engrossing theatre experiences of the year. If salty sea shanties, mad monologues and drunken antics are your thing, seek it out.

4th – Mangrove (dir. Steve McQueen)


The first of an ambitious five-part anthology series, Steve McQueen's Mangrove pairs well with an earlier film on this list; Aaron Sorkin's The Trial of the Chicago Seven. Both films grapple with racial injustice and discrimination, the right to protest and centre around a landmark court case in civil rights.

Mangrove, however, has more meat on its bones and is less showy than Sorkin's sparkly Hollywood spectacle. Centred around a West Indian eatery in Notting Hill that finds itself on the receiving end of targeted racial harassment from London police, the film explores the struggle of restauranteur Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), his alliance with Black Panther leader Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright, pictured) and the bond shared by the wider immigrant community in this corner of London. 

The overriding sentiment in Mangrove is one of conviction; to get justice, to fight back, to change things for the better. McQueen bestows the film with such a powerful air of authenticity that it almost feels like a documentary that has sat on the shelf since the 1970s. 

Even when familiar story beats land, the film doesn't feel contrived or sensationalist; the characters and their drive is what gives this propulsive story its power. Complemented by some considered camerawork and editing from McQueen, Mangrove is a compelling story of institutionalised racism in Britain that doesn't pull its punches. 

3rd – Mank (dir. David Fincher)


Is it a loving homage to Hollywood’s Golden Age, or a satire of the studio system? As it turns out, David Fincher’s latest film – a black and white biopic of Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman Mankowicz – is both of these things and more.

With a sprinkle of political intrigue for good measure, Mank wasn’t the ‘making of Citizen Kane’ movie we thought it was, and instead proved to be a more layered film about a somewhat forgotten wordsmith who took inspiration from Hollywood’s behind-the-scenes machinations when crafting one of the greatest films of all time.

With a terrific (if a little OTT) performance from Gary Oldman at its centre, Mank is gorgeous recreation of classic Hollywood – the costumes, the sets and the wisecracking crews who ply their craft. For cinephiles, it's a sumptuous buffet of clever references, wry in-jokes and creative flourishes that celebrate Orson Welles and others; and for Fincher, it’s possibly his most accomplished technical achievement to date, as he swaps his usual ethereal, icy mood for a warmer vibe filled with affection and rose-tinted reverence.

It might not be for everyone (it’s slow and dialogue-heavy), but for me Mank is another soaring achievement from one of my favourite filmmakers – and a film that underlines Fincher’s remarkable attention-to-detail and affection for all things film. 


2nd – Sound of Metal (dir. Darius Marder)


Seeing as it was slipped onto Prime Video with very little fanfare earlier this month, you’d be forgiven for overlooking Sound of Metal – I did myself until only a couple of days ago. But this powerful and unassuming indie is a must-see movie, and sees Riz Ahmed deliver the best performance of both his career and the year.

Ahmed plays Ruben, a heavy metal drummer and recovering addict who finds his life coming apart at the seams when he starts to lose his hearing. Unable to continue with the tour him and his partner Lou (Olivia Cooke) are in the middle of, Ruben starts to spiral as the very thing tethering him to some semblance of normality is ripped away from him. It's a rounded and captivating role for Ahmed, who gets to demonstrate his range as an actor as Ruben moves through the various stages of grief and eventually arrives at some form of acceptance or catharsis. 

Three fantastic performances (Ahmed, Cooke and deaf actor Paul Raci) sit centre stage here, but there's a lot of technical prowess to complement the great acting; clever sound design depicts Ruben's new reality, as the world around him becomes quieter and more muffled. The distance to those closest to him starts to grow as a result, as the audience feels that distance via director Darius Marder's inspired use of sound (or lack thereof). 

After starting out with a bang, Sound of Metal settles in and transforms into an intimate and thoughtful film about finding equilibrium and renewed purpose. 


1st – Nomadland (dir. Chloe Zhao)


Chloe Zhao's Nomadland is a film about finding oneself adrift, without an anchor point of any kind; for a houseless blue collar worker like Fern (Frances McDormand), life on the road – without structure or a set destination – has left her lurking on the fringes of society.

Without firm foundations underfoot, her nomadic existence in the back of a scruffy van has put the proverbial guardrails up – family ties are frayed, friends (or 'acquaintances') flit in and out of her orbit like planets passing in the sky and meaningful work is hard to come by.

Nomadland isn't a celebration of America and the freedom of the 'open road' in the slightest; in fact, it's critiquing the societal circumstances that make Fern's nomadic existence not just possible, but necessary for so many in modern America. But despite this, Zhao's film – much like 2018's The Rider – feels like a quintessential American story.

From the rugged landscape that spills over the horizon and beyond, to the colourful, beaten-down characters who have slipped through the cracks and feel a million miles away from the so-called American Dream; It might be set in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, but Nomadland feels especially relevant today, as inequality and financial strain continue to grow.

Zhao's film masterfully explores the grey area between fiction and non-fiction, by weaving the names and faces of reality into the narrative for added authenticity and layers of meaning. McDormand, as always, is fantastic – and could be on track for yet another Oscar win.

But it's Zhao who is the star of the show here; there's power in her writing and directing on Nomadland, which is quiet and introspective, but feels loaded with meaning, moment to moment. There's painstaking complexity of character in this otherwise stripped-back, simple story – and Zhao's collaboration with cinematographer Joshua James Richards and composer Ludovico Einaudi gives the film a poetic, melancholy quality that lingers long after you've left the theatre.

1 comment:

  1. I've seen Nomadland pop up on a lot of people's lists. I really need to check that movie out! The Trial of the Chicago 7 is also on my best movies list!

    Check out my Top 10 Movies of 2020 !

    Ronyell @ The Surreal Movies and TV Blog

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