ITOL Top 15 Films of 2020 (So Far), Numbers 10-6

Good news everyone, there’s only 177 days left of 2020! Did you check out our picks for numbers 15-11? Well, if not then you can find them here. We’re not going to lie, picking our top 15 films of the year (so far) has been tough especially seeing how release dates of certain films have been delayed and how we’ve been trapped inside for months. However, we’re pleased that the ITOL team have come together to create our top 15 films from the last 6 months. Please let us know which films make your top 15 list and what films are you looking forward to catching later this year!

Number 10: Birds of Prey

By Kate Boyle

One of the few films to get a theatrical release during the first half of 2020 was “Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn”. The film was directed by a woman, Cathy Yan, written by a woman, Christina Hodson, and had a cast of amazing female talent- including Margot Robbie, Jurnee Smollett, Rosie Perez, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Ella Jay Basco. “Birds of Prey” is an action-packed, girl power flick that brings together a diverse group of women to defeat a psychopathic crime lord and his cronies. It has some of the most entertaining and well choreographed fight scenes since “John Wick” (2014). Additionally, the movie manages to be flooded with neon colors and sparkles to fit Harley’s esthetic, while maintaining the dark and serious tone that recent DC movies tend to have. 

“Birds of Prey” features a theme of empowerment, specifically over toxic people or situations. That’s a theme I think a lot of people can get behind or relate to. Harley is figuring out who she is after splitting from the Joker, Montoya isn’t taken seriously by her male colleagues, Canary and Cass are surrounded by abusive people, and Huntress is looking for revenge. The ridiculousness and non-linear method of Harley’s storytelling is true to her character and the overall feel of the film. It’s one of the few live action comic book films recently, except maybe “Shazam” (2019), that embraced the campiness and humor often found in the comics they’re inspired by. 

Copyright: Warner Bros. Pictures

“Birds of Prey” is an action-packed, girl power flick that brings together a diverse group of women to defeat a psychopathic crime lord and his cronies.”

“Birds of Prey” doesn’t just focus on how ‘sexy’ any of the women are, there is absolutely no male gaze to be found anywhere in the film.. Most of the movie’s leads are well known movie stars so of course they’re gorgeous, but that’s not the point of their characters or the film. It’s refreshing to see a movie, especially one in the action genre, where the female lead is allowed to contribute something more than her cleavage to the film. 

Though made by women and starring mostly women, “Birds of Prey” isn’t your standard “chick flick”. It’s an authentic, comic-inspired movie that delivers the action and comedy we’ve come to expect from these films while tackling the sensitive topic of toxic masculinity and abusive relationships. “Birds of Prey” is a spectacular and empowering action flick that will be hard to beat as my favorite film of 2020. It wouldn’t surprise me if it showed up on many Top 10 lists at the end of the year.

Number 9: First Cow

By Michael Frank

Kelly Reichardt’s minimalist tale of friendship and oily cakes in “First Cow” continues to be the gift that keeps on giving. A film that chronicles two outsiders and their hopes for a brighter future, “First Cow” follows Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) and King Lu (Orion Lee) and the first cow that comes into their small encampment. Existing in the early settling times of the Pacific Northwest, Reichart’s movie further pushes her into the conversation as one of the great American independent filmmakers of the last 20 years. Reichardt’s films have an air of specificity, once she turns her eye to a friendship, a relationship, or a familial bond. 

“First Cow” likely will not bowl you over. It sneaks up on you, much like Cookie and his newfound bond with the prettiest cow on the screen thus far in 2020. First seeing it back at the New York Film Fest in 2019, it became my favorite film of the festival and an early contender for the 2020 film that I won’t stop talking about. Seeing it again recently reaffirmed this fact, due to Reichardt’s splendid screenplay, one that creates a world surrounded by these two heroes, or criminals depending on your point of view. 

“First Cow” likely will not bowl you over. It sneaks up on you, much like Cookie and his newfound bond with the prettiest cow on the screen thus far in 2020.”

Copyright: A24

The story features moments of bliss, of confusion, of hilarity, and of understated importance. The dialogue snaps back and forth between Cookie and King Lu, and their cabin becomes your home as well. They have a friendship that we aspire for, and they have dreams of moving on to bigger and better things. They’re simple life isn’t enough, regardless of the deliciousness of Cookie’s cooking. As the film goes on, you want to spend more and more time with these characters. Richardt can do that to you. 

In other years, “First Cow” would predictably be looked over and forgotten, just another splendid addition to Reichardt’s already-fantastic filmography. But in 2020, it has the chance for me, due to the limited selection of films and award-worthy releases. Reichardt’s direction should be recognized and in a perfect world, the film might receive Best Picture nomination consideration. Yes, it’s simple on the surface, but the themes of friendship, survival, and ambition permeate far deeper after watching “First Cow.” It’s firmly, and deservedly, one of the year’s best and most delightful films. 

Number 8: Swallow

By Morgan Roberts

“Swallow” is a thrilling psychological horror film.  Hunter (Haley Bennett), a newly pregnant newlywed, becomes obsessed with consuming dangerous objects.  It starts small with a marble, and quickly escalates to more and more dangerous objects, like thumb tacks and batteries.  (So, fair warning if you are a bit squeamish, you may want to watch with a partner to let you know when the more uncomfortable scenes are over.)

As someone with a background in mental healthcare, I found this concept very intriguing.  It is not an uncommon phenomenon.  There was an entire show “My Strange Addiction” devoted to people compulsively eating dirt, soap, cotton balls, or, in one case, a woman eating her deceased spouse’s ashes.  It is a real mental health condition called pica.  And the film does a tremendous job of handling the disorder.  Rather than turning it into a spectacle like “My Strange Addiction” did, it portrays the condition in full and in the context of Hunter’s life.  

Bennett is captivating as Hunter. Hunter is far more complex than meets the eye.  At introduction, she seems to be a bit of a “Stepford Wife.”  But as her disorder and compulsions escalate, it begins to crack the facade she had been wearing.  Bennett allows for the audience to pigeon-hole Hunter, much like her husband and his family do to her. Bennett then makes very small but incredibly substantial choices of breaks or lapses, that then grow as the film progresses.  

Copyright: IFC Films

“Bennett is captivating as Hunter. Hunter is far more complex than meets the eye...“Swallow” is a really unique film in its ability to discuss a mental health condition, in a horror film, in an educated and thoughtful manner.”

While “Swallow” lands at number 8 on our mid-year review, it surprisingly shot to number 1 on mine. I was expecting this slow-burn, a psychological thriller. And I was anticipating the inevitable: fetishizing mental health, poorly representing or misrepresenting disorders, just a complete lack of understanding.  Instead, the film discussed the condition in a really educated and human manner. Pica tends to be a symptom or maladaptive coping mechanism of something else.  Sometimes it is medically-related, other times psychologically, or a combination of both. The film does not outright give us the stem of Hunter’s development of the condition, but as an audience member, you can start to piece together the triggers and potential catalyst.  

“Swallow” is a really unique film in its ability to discuss a mental health condition, in a horror film, in an educated and thoughtful manner.  Between its narrative, the cinematography, and Bennett’s performance, “Swallow” is an impactful and haunting film.

Number 7: Shirley

By Joan Amenn

The emotional cost of being a creative woman has rarely been depicted in such an unvarnished and yet so poignant way on film. Elizabeth Moss is fearless and lets us see that Shirley Jackson was as brilliant as she was destructive and perhaps more cruel to herself than those around her. Michael Stuhlbarg, who was so impressive as Edward G. Robinson in “Trumbo” (2015), plays her husband Stanley.

The film is at its strongest when it focuses on the relationship between the two. Stanley openly acknowledges Shirley’s genius but clearly does not find her physically attractive as he blatantly flirts with other women. Shirley is well aware that she has the financial security of being the wife of a college professor which allows her to write but at the price of the expectation she will behave as a conventional woman of the 1950’s. “Conventional” would be the last word anyone would use to describe Shirley Jackson. This is the central tension of her life and Moss is riveting in how she shows in every gesture how it consumed her. 

“The irony is that Moss does not need any other actor to play off of as her face shows each slight and each frustration. The film might as well be a one woman show.”

Copyright: NEON

The plot about Stanley hiring an assistant professor who brings his new wife to stay with them at their house is not well developed. The obvious intent is for the young bride, Rose (Odessa Young) to be the means for the audience to learn more about Shirley’s internal life, how she thought and created. The irony is that Moss does not need any other actor to play off of as her face shows each slight and each frustration. The film might as well be a one woman show with just Stuhlbarg making occasional appearances for Moss to interact with. 

Moss is a tsunami of emotion that sweeps all the other actors away and leaves us gasping at her talent. In a normal year, Moss would be a sure bet for an Oscar. With so much uncertainty in the film world now, this film needs to be seen and talked about.

Number 6: Emma.

By James Cain

As pointed out earlier this year by The Pitt News’ Nadiya Greaser earlier this year, Jane Austen‘s Emma had already enjoyed a few well-seen adaptations before 2020 (“Clueless” is the best of the pre-2020 lot, to be clear), with varying degrees of quality, humour and sex appeal. Thankfully, this year’s “Emma.”, directed by Autumn de Wilde and written by Eleanor Catton is the best yet, boasting a sumptuous wealth of quality, humour, and especially sex appeal.

One key to making this latest adaptation not only work but stand out is the casting, in particular with with three leads plucked from exciting careers in the sexy / confrontational / strange arthouse movie scene. Argentine actor Anya Taylor-Joy (“The Witch”, “Thoroughbreds”) is an electric powerhouse as antihero Emma Woodhouse, the bored socialite who uses her hobby of matchmaking to meddle with the denizens of her small English town.

“Emma.” (the full stop must be included) is the movie equivalent of going round to a house you’ve visited throughout your life to find that it’s got entirely new furniture and cool posters on the wall.”

Then there’s English actor-musician Johnny Flynn (“Beast”, those infuriating Cineworld adverts that advertised the cinema to you when you were already in the cinema), a hungry, lupine performance of animalistic energy as George Knightley, a man whose charisma and intensity belie a sweet decency. Finally there’s English actor-model Mia Goth (“High Life”, “Suspiria”, the underappreciated “A Cure for Wellness”), hamming it up slightly as doe-eyed innocent Harriet Smith, a young woman whose sweet naivety is pure playtime-fuel for the conniving Emma.

Copyright: Focus Features

With these three rising indie stars heading up the cast, “Emma.” is an absolute delight. Having worked primarily in photography and music videos until this point, Autumn de Wilde brings us a gorgeous, frenetic feature debut. Take for example Flynn’s entrance as George, galloping across the English countryside. It’s a visual you’ve likely seen hundreds of times in cinema, but de Wilde makes it feel like an entrance that couldn’t be more immediately striking, fresh or attractive. This is indicative of the whole film, with de Wilde and DP Christopher Blauvelt managing to take a very well-trodden setting and breathing fresh air into it.

ITOL boss Bee Garner has asked that these pieces stay under 400 words, so to summarise: “Emma.” (the full stop must be included) is the movie equivalent of going round to a house you’ve visited throughout your life to find that it’s got entirely new furniture and cool posters on the wall.

Do you agree with our picks so far? And what do you think will make our number one pick? Let us know in the comments!

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