By James Cain
The “Black Axe” series. “A Sun”. “Babyteeth”. Despite 2020 having a decent amount of time where you had nothing to do but stay inside and watch films, as with every year, there are still heaps of movies from the last 12 months that I’m yet to see. Thankfully, despite all of this, 2020 still featured a veritable smorgasbord of absolute bangers. So, here are my Top 20 films of 2020, with the caveat that I still didn’t see loads of the films that came out this year (“Parasite”, “Come To Daddy” and “Portrait Of A Lady On Fire” were featured on last year’s list).
20. “Soul” – dir. Pete Docter, Kemp Powers – wri. Pete Docter, Mike Jones, Kemp Powers – USA
While Pixar’s light doesn’t shine quite as bright as it once did (mostly thanks to the “Cars” series), it’s good to know that the studio is still capable of creating captivating stories that speak to our hearts. Jamie Foxx plays Joe, a likeable-yet-adrift music teacher, who dies soon into the film and is dead-set on getting back to his body. While arguably one of Pixar’s least tear-jerking films, it’s a superbly deep, existential story with an unsurprisingly-loving heart. Top score, too.
19. “Emma.” – dir. Autumn de Wilde – wri. Eleanor Catton – UK
Director Autumn de Wilde makes her feature debut with an adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel of the same name (albeit with an extra, definitive full-stop here). While the story is most certainly safe ground for such a debut, de Wilde and screenwriter Eleanor Catton bring plenty of flavour with a finely comedic, playfully sexy screenplay and a sweet-shop-realness aesthetic (kudos to cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt). “Emma.” also features Anya Taylor-Joy in her apparent quest to become the greatest actor of her generation.
18. “His House” – dir. Remi Weekes – wri. Remi Weekes, Felicity Evans, Toby Venables – UK
Another feature debut, with director Remi Weekes bringing us a tragically topical, deeply sad horror about two South Sudanese refugees (a brilliant Wunmi Mosaku and Sope Dirisu) finding shelter in the UK before becoming haunted by a malevolent entity. A film that Britons really do need to see, “His House” shows that anti-refugee sentiment is terrifying enough before you bring scary monsters and super creeps into the mix.
17. “Scare Me” – dir. / wri. Josh Ruben – USA
Writer / director Josh Ruben makes his feature debut, meanwhile, with this cute black comedy set almost entirely in one room. Fred (Ruben) and Fanny (Aya Cash) are two writers stuck in a snowbound, sans-electricity cabin. To pass the time, they swap spooky stories, with each tale shining a little more light on each stranger and their secrets. This could easily have been an episode of “Inside No. 9”, with Ruben and Cash playfully deconstructing horror fiction through campy, sardonic vignettes. Extra points for the delivery of “…….Devin”.
16. “Da 5 Bloods” – dir. Spike Lee – wri. Spike Lee, Kevin Willmott, Paul De Meo, Danny Bilson – USA
Being a Black man forced to fight for a country built on white supremacy is a horrifying concept that would be tough for any artist to get their head around. Thankfully, Spike Lee is a master at exploring such upsetting themes with his trademark Brooklyn humour (in a way that this Caucasian, British writer could never hope to properly understand, to be clear). Featuring an arguably career-best Delroy Lindo and Chadwick Boseman in one of his final roles, “Da 5 Bloods” is an angry, heartbroken journey through mass trauma.
15. “Birds Of Prey” – dir. Cathy Yan – wri. Christina Hodson – USA
Who’d have thought that the follow-up to the execrable “Suicide Squad” would be so much fun (especially what with this year’s “Wonder Woman 1984” being so bad)? Admittedly it is a bit awkward that Ewan McGregor does steal the show in a female-dominated cast as the outrageously-camp, vile villain, but the film formerly known as “Birds of Prey And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn” is a joyous hot-mess that cements Margot Robbie‘s (who’s also a producer here) Harley Quinn as one of the last decade’s great pop culture anti-heroes.
14. “Mank” – dir. David Fincher – wri. Jack Fincher – USA
Even if the story’s accuracy is up for debate, David Fincher and Gary Oldman‘s entry into the pantheon of Tortured White Male Genius Artist movies is a damn fine one. Fincher, adapting his late dad’s screenplay, takes us on a booze-soaked (and probably fictional) journey into the creation of 1941’s “Citizen Kane”, Old Hollywood studio politics and America’s flirtation with the Third Reich. While not on “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” form, Oldman reminds us just how excellent he can be playing a loveable arsehole, and Charles Dance oozes dark charisma as historical bastard William Randolph Hearst.
13. “Happiest Season” – dir. Clea DuVall – wri. Clea DuVall, Mary Holland – USA, Canada
The romcom so involving that many were so incensed by the ending that they took their ire online en masse. Clea DuVall delivers the ultimate Christmas film of 2020, mining hilarity from the combined stresses of the festive season and not being out to your parents (a plot device not appreciated by all – check out trans critic Danielle Solzman’s terrific piece on why she’s done with this trope). Co-writer Mary Holland savvily nabs the best role in the dazzling ensemble with oddball sister Jane, while Mary Steenburgen is utterly fantastic as the family’s fearsome matriarch.
12. “Bill and Ted Face The Music” – dir. Dean Parisot – wri. Ed Solomon, Chris Matheson – USA
Well, this could have turned out a lot worse. As we’ve seen from the likes of “Zoolander 2” and “Anchorman 2”, sequels to comedy classics can often turn out as absolute horror-shows. And while being all over the place narratively, “Bill And Ted Face The Music” is an absolute sensation of happiness – a delightfully-silly family comedy that manages to both give us a satisfying sequel while pointing itself very much into the future. Brigette Lundy-Paine and Samara Weaving are just wonderful as Bill and Ted’s loving daughters, and while Keanu Reeves is great fun as the middle-aged Ted, Alex Winter is uncanny in recapturing Bill from almost 30 years ago.
11. “Baby Done” – dir. Curtis Vowell – wri. Sophie Henderson – Aotearoa New Zealand
Elizabeth Sankey’s documentary “Romantic Comedy” (which almost made this list) recently reminded us of how most Western romcoms play with the same tropes over and over, with the key being the talented filmmakers to keep things fresh. That’s certainly the case here: “Baby Done” doesn’t do much new from a story-structure, but it is really funny. Rose Matafeo and Matthew Lewis make for a deeply-winning central couple, it’s a film that openly (and satisfyingly) mocks gender reveal parties, and is sure to be hugely relatable for those who’ve had children. It’s a small Kiwi movie that’s due to see a wider release in the first months of 2021, so be sure to see this as soon as you’re able.
10. “The Invisible Man” – dir. / wri. Leigh Whannell – USA, Australia
While it’s still hilarious to remember that blatantly art-free attempted Dark Universe franchise, Leigh Whannell has shown that it’s absolutely possible to make a cracking horror movie based on the classic Universal roster. Following up his scifi masterpiece “Upgrade”, Whannell here turns his eye to gaslighting and domestic abuse, with Elisabeth Moss turning in an upsettingly frazzled performance while facing off against hostile cinematography (Stefan Duscio working with the director once again as cinematographer). In an age where many horror fans find themselves relying on indie horror to deliver the chills, “The Invisible Man” is a marvellously inventive, properly scary thrill-ride of a movie.
9. “Time To Hunt” (aka “Sanyangeui Sigan”) – dir. / wri. Yoon Sung-hyun – South Korea
Run, hide, try not to get shot by an unstoppable killer out for your blood. Fans of Walter Hill and John Carpenter got a treat this year with slick, sparse thriller “Time To Hunt”. A group of small-time criminals stick up a local underground casino, making off with both cash and the CCTV’s hard drives. Unbeknownst to the boys, this footage is far more valuable than the money they stole. Enter Keong Sim’s Han, a taciturn assassin takes with murdering our hapless amateurs and retrieving the hard drives. Once the hunt begins, writer/director Yoon Sung-hyun rarely gives the audience respite, letting the anxiety build as the bullets fly.
8. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” – dir. / wri. Eliza Hittman – USA, UK
Despite living in one of the most developed nations on the planet, 17-year-old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) finds out that she can’t get an abortion without her parents’ involvement. As as result, she and her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) travel from small-town Pennsylvania to New York City in order to get the teen the healthcare that she deserves. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is a subdued look at how pregnant people still struggle to have autonomy over their own bodies, from being exposed to anti-science propaganda, being judged for sexual activity, or coming up against monetary issues. But even with these challenges, as well as having these girls lusted after by men of all ages, Hittman ensures that the film is never overbearingly harsh. However, the matter-of-fact nature of these dire, misogynist events drives home their commonplace nature. The two leads are just superb – Flanigan especially as a revelation, and will have you in bits when the titular scene arrives.
7. “Sound Of Metal” – dir. Darius Marder – wri. Darius Marder, Abraham Marder, Derek Cianfrance – Belgium, USA
Since gaining mainstream recognition in 2010 with “Four Lions”, Riz Ahmed has been on an ascent that’s been wonderful to watch, and while it’s almost certain that he’ll deliver a performance better than Ruben in “Sound of Metal”, it’s unclear how he’ll do that. While the rest of the cast – especially Olivia Cooke and Paul Raci – are superb, this is Ahmed’s film. Writing as someone without a disability, this film feels absolutely respectful of both the deaf community and people with addictions (Ruben, soon into the film, is a member of both camps). Playing a metal drummer who loses his hearing, Ahmed is pure empathy, at once chasing potential semi-recovery while “learning how to be deaf”. It’s lovely to enjoy a good drama that’s mostly delivered in sign language, as well as knowing that deaf actors got paid with this movie (seriously Hollywood, hire more differently-abled actors).
6. “The Personal History of David Copperfield” – dir. Armando Iannucci – wri. Armando Iannucci, Simon Blackwell – UK
As with “Emma.” earlier in this list, Charles Dickens feels like a safe sandpit in which to make a film. Following his success with 2017’s “The Death of Stalin”, here Armando Iannicci revitalises a classic English text. The most obvious advancement is the colourblind casting. In fantastical films such as this, there really is no excuse (see also “The Great” on telly) not to explore diverse casting choices. Without colourblind casting, you wouldn’t have Benedict Wong stealing the show as Mr Wickfield, Anthony Welsh oozing rugged charm as Ham, or Dev Patel solidifying himself as a classic leading man with his turn as David Copperfield himself. Thankfully, 2020’s most impressive ensemble has an insanely packed script, full of wit and fizz and warmth, with which to show off (Tilda Swinton is the chief mugger here, and it’s brilliant). A big, fanciful family film, “The Personal History of David Copperfield” might not be quite as good as “The Death of Stalin”, but it’s still the best family film of the year.
5. “Relic” – dir. Natalie Erika James – wri. Natalie Erika James, Christian White – Australia
You might not know this, but losing a loved on to a degenerative brain disease is pretty awful. Someone you cherish might not know who you are, let alone where they are. Dementia, therefore, is perfect fodder for a horror movie! Similar to “The Babadook”, another recent Aussie horror that used grief and depression to fuel scares, “Relic” made me feel seen in a way that few films do. If you’ve been in this situation, then you’ll know how horrifying it is. Of course, Natalie Erika James has used the reality of dementia to create a deeply unsettling, magnificently tearjerking horror based on her own family’s experiences, with a daughter and granddaughter wrestling with their own matriarch’s ill health while something else is at home. It’s likely to be too much for some – and fair enough! – but if you want a top-tier scary movie that treats brain degeneration like the unknowable monster that it is, then “Relic” is for you.
4. “Promising Young Woman” – dir. / wri. Emerald Fennell – UK, USA
Amongst ITOL’s ranks are two truly magnificent women: Bianca ‘Bee’ Garner and Morgan Roberts. They gave “Promising Young Woman” 1 star and 5 stars respectively, which seems about right. Emerald Fennell’s feature debut as both a writer and director is a poppy screed against rape culture that’s bound to polarise. Carey Mulligan is Cassandra, a woman who poses drunk in clubs and bars, waiting for would-be rapists to fall into the honey trap. As the (rightfully) fury-driven avenger, Mulligan is truly unpredictable here, seemingly giving in completely to Fennell’s control. While the film never says the word “rape”, it shows how threatening the world can be (/is) for women, making it a must-see for men. The casting of TV cuties such as Max Greenfield, Chris Lowell (two of Veronica Mars’ boyfriends!) and Adam Brody as horrendous creeps is a beautiful touch. You also have Alfred Molina – a man who beautifully balked at the idea of “MEN’S RIGHTS ACTIVISTS?!” on The Bechdel Cast – playing the guiilt-ridden shell of a rape lawyer; Alison Brie (RIP “GLOW”, still heartbroken) as Cassandra’s rape-apologist former-friend; and the irresistible duo of Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown as Cassandra’s long-suffering parents. While it’s a bit all over the place, “Promising Young Woman” is a delightfully dark rallying-cry against rape culture.
3. “Ema” – dir. Pablo Larraín – wri. Pablo Larraín, Guillermo Calderón, Alejandro Moreno – Chile
Beautiful and ugly, searingly erotic and brutally gnarly, heartfelt and deceptive, Pablo Larraín’s portrait of a woman on the warpath to regain her adopted child is a complex, muddy, genuinely creepy look at maternal love, sexuality, mental illness, sociopathy and reggaeton dancing. It’s a genuinely hard film to describe (upon watching, Mark Kermode texted Simon Mayo with “What was that about?“), but if you like weird movies and want to see a destructive young woman setting Valparaíso, Chile alight (both metaphorically and literally), then this is for you. Mariana Di Girólamo is truly fantastic in the lead.
2. “Possessor” – dir. / wri. Brandon Cronenberg – Canada, UK
In this nebulously dark scifi thriller, corporations are willing to waste human life in order to make money while mining personal information to increase sales. So it’s not topical at all. Brandon Cronenberg’s vision of an alternative word wherein assassins take over other bodies in order to execute convenient hits is a cold, disturbing one. Andrea Riseborough and Christopher Abbott are utterly sensational in the least charming body-swap movie since Freaky Friday, with the former taking over the latter’s body to murder a tech mogul (Sean Bean) and his daughter (Tuppence Middleton). An aggressively psychological thriller, “Possessor” is a gory, mirthless film with little good to say about humanity. So it’s ideal for 2020.
1. “Saint Maud” – dir. / wri. Rose Glass – UK
To be clear, “Saint Maud” isn’t a horror film. I know, as soon as a spooky film gets classy it isn’t a horror movie, but this really isn’t. It’s scary, sure, but this is more of an oppressively sad psychological drama. Shot in Scarborough, Yorkshire (the birthplace of oppressively sad!), Rose Glass’s feature debut as both writer and director, “Saint Maud” sees new convert to radical Christianity Maud (Morfydd Clark) taking on a job as palliative-care nurse for terminally-ill Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a faded starlet with little but reminiscence to keep her company. It’s implied that the Maud might not have gone down such a dark were it not for proper workplace support while she was a hospital nurse, thus making this an unabashedly pro-NHS movie. Maud is a wounded woman in search of a calling, set on ensuring that Amanda makes it into heaven. She’s a lost, possibly doomed Christian caring for a dying woman in a decaying town (at least to Maud’s eyes). Special kudos must go to casting director Kharmel Cochrane: each person with whom Maud interacts on her mission from God feels perfectly placed to act as sandpaper to her skin (Cochrane also cast “The Witch”, a film that would make an ideal double-bill with “Saint Maud”). This film is unlikely to bring you any happiness, peace or solace, but it will get under your skin. Happy 2020, it’s been horrible!