The Top 10 Movies of 2020

While there is no guarantee 2021 will be any better, we are so happy 2020 is almost over. This was not a banner year.

Yet while the future of cinemas looking shaky as more studios announce wider plans for premiering movies at home, 2020 gave film lovers delivered plenty of reasons for optimism.

Ten such reasons appear below, all released in 2020. And here are some gems that didn’t make the list, Soul, Emma, The Personal History of David Copperfield, Mangrove and Relic.

And quality movies are coming along in 2021. Nomadland. New Order. Wildfire. Instant cult classic Shadow in the Cloud.

So, while Tenet may have sucked itself up its own time hole (what were you thinking, Chris?), it is still a good time to be a movie lover.

10. Jojo Rabbit

While easy to understand that some approached Taika Waititi’s World War 2 comedy with trepidation, we were surprised at the vitriol poured on Jojo Rabbit. A triumph of balance between light and darkness, this earns its laughs skewering Nazi fervour (and nationalism generally) but sustains an all-too serious sense of dread.

Roman Griffin Davis is perfect as Jojo, the wide-eyed lad so indoctrinated into Nazi ideology Hitler is his imaginary friend. However, he begins to suspect something is rotten in Denmark, and the rest of occupied Europe, when talking to Elsa, the Jewish girl hiding in his house. Scarlett Johansson delivers another standout performance as Jojo’s mum, as does Thomasin McKenzie as Elsa. Plus Waititi, boldly casting himself as Hitler.

So, haters gonna hate. We thought the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar win was deserved.

9. The Hunt

This Blumhouse shocker was one of the last films to be released in cinemas before the March lockdown, and its blend of satire and splatter worked well on the big screen. GLOW’s Betty Gilpin plays a resourceful woman who finds herself hunted in a strange land by a liberal elite, led by Hilary Swank’s self-righteous CEO.

The film has a checklist of hot button issues and conspiracies to work through: gun control, climate change, social media shaming, crisis actors, etc, etc.

But Watchmen creative team Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse shoot the whole thing through with an irresistible dark humour. And in a just world, Gilpin would be Oscar nominated for her work here.

8. Greyhound

Greyhound was an early example of that 2020 trend whereby we compared everything to the global pandemic. But, with Tom Hanks the first high profile celebrity to be struck by COVID-19, this story of a World War 2 naval commander leading a convoy against a deadly, unseen enemy at a time when we felt all at sea was unexpectedly resonant.

Greyhound was an early victim of a blockbuster missing out on a theatrical release, going directly to streaming. Shame, as this thrilling war movie would have played well on the big screen, surround sound cranked way up. The shadow of Steven Spielberg looms over the film (the U-boats are reminiscent of the shark from Jaws, Hanks’s character has shades of Saving Private Ryan’s Capt. Miller), which is never a bad thing.

7. The Lighthouse

Robert Eggers’ follow-up to The Witch is in stark black and white. And a square aspect ratio. And is set almost exclusively in and around the titular illuminated tower. Thankfully, Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe brought a luminescent star wattage of their own, and got this tough sell funded.

A hallucinatory black comedy horror, watching Pattinson and Dafoe go mad while trying to destroy each other, as storms raged outside their beloved lighthouse, also rather recalled life under coronavirus. And we didn’t even get a sexy mermaid to take the edge off.

6. Shirley

A horror-comedy of manners, a dreamlike exploration of the creative process, and a celebration of female sexuality at its most earthy, Shirley is a spicy delight.

Elisabeth Moss excels as troubled novelist Shirley Jackson, best known for writing The Haunting of Hill House. In a performance that will be drawing awards nominations, Moss brings a magnetism, cruelty and pathos to her portrayal of the famed writer of the macabre.

The story plays fast and loose with the facts of Jackson’s life (i.e., most of it didn’t happen), but this succeeds in telling a Shirley Jackson-like tale with the author herself the lead.

No obvious coronavirus link here. But a nice reminder that one day we’ll be freely able to welcome guests into our homes again. And be beastly toward them.

5. Host

Some of you may be thinking all this coronavirus comparison is stretching thin.

For those people, here is a film that exists purely because of COVID-19. Host is in no way original, riffing on that 1992 BBC shocker Ghostwatch, The Blair Witch Project and Hammer House of Horror amongst others.

But, creative team Rob Savage, Jed Shepherd and Gemma Hurley had the genius notion of setting this séance-gone-screwy shocker entirely on Zoom during lockdown. The lo-fi visuals and naturalistic performances from a pitch perfect cast lull us into a cosy sense of familiarity, before director Savage unleashes jump-out-your-seat supernatural fury.

Worth subscribing to Shudder just for this. But they have other good movies too…

4. Uncut Gems

Come the closing credits, this Safdie Brothers belter had reduced many audiences to anxiety-ridden wrecks. Personally, we had a ball watching Adam Sandler’s gambling junkie scheming his way from score to score, burning bridges while standing on them and annoying all the wrong kinds of people.

The story revolves around Sandler’s jeweller looking for a big payday after landing a shipment of illegal diamonds. But, this is really a character study of one man self-destructing in spectacular “sorry-not-sorry” fashion, while friends and family look on in disbelief.

No obvious coronavirus connection here, although you will be left breathless.

3. Possessor

Possessor’s COVID-comparison is in how dangerous it can be coming into contact with other people.

Particularly strangers. Particularly if one of those strangers is a hitwoman who can infect your psyche Inception-style, then use you as a murderous flesh puppet before “suiciding” back to her own body.

Brandon (son of David) Cronenberg’s movie resonates deeply in this time of infection paranoia. Polymorphous sexuality and spectacular violence echo the work of Cronenberg Sr., but the film’s world of corporate monsters and melting privacy are very 2020. Andrea Riseborough is pleasingly twitchy as the assassin invading James White star Christopher Abbott’s beleaguered office drone.

Watch it and wince.

2. Saint Maud

Rose Glass’ directorial debut is a British chiller to champion. Morfydd Clark is sensational as Maud, a carer striving for religious salvation from emotional demons plaguing her. She thinks redemption may lie in Jennifer Ehle’s terminally ill dancer, Amanda. But what if Amanda doesn’t want saving?

Glass directs with a Gothic flair, and captures Maud in uncomfortable close-up, or relegates her to the corners of unbalanced framing, or swallows her in oppressive coastal scenery (Scarborough has rarely looked so bleak).

But Clark is the revelation, lightyears away from her turn as Dora the ditz in The Personal History of David Copperfield.

Whether attempting to be normal on a nightmare night out, self-flagellating or contorting her body and face in religious ecstasy, it is impossible to look away from the tortured soul Clark creates.

No obvious coronavirus parallels, other than we’re all a bit madder than we were this time last year. 

1. Parasite

Fitting in the year of a virus that Parasite should come out on top. Bong Joon-ho’s hemlock-laced satire is rather like 2020. It opens optimistically (remember the Oscars awarded Parasite Best International Film and Best Picture). Shadows begin to loom. People become trapped indoors. Household mixing turns out to be a really bad idea.

Yet there is so much more to this murderous take on Upstairs, Downstairs. Song Kang-ho is typically brilliant as the patriarch of a grifter clan, who manoeuvre themselves into the home of a wealthy family. Although no cast member puts a foot wrong.

Bong’s biting social commentary draws real blood, outrageous plot events are delivered with supreme confidence, and as the film reaches its memorable conclusion that title takes on multiple meanings.

Some of us have championed Bong for years. For those just catching the bug, such pleasures await…

Rob Daniel
Twitter: rob_a_Daniel
Letterboxd: RobDan
Podcast: The Movie Robcast

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