It is certainly an understatement to say that 2020 has been horrendous for all of us, and of course it goes without saying that the film industry was severely affected, with cinemas being forced to close for most of the year here in the UK and across the rest of the world, leading to the release of the many of the big blockbusters being postponed potentially until we are all vaccinated.
While it is frustrating for us film fans to not be able to see films on the big screen, as with so many industries of course the affect on those that it employs has been horrific. While the big budget films may be able to afford to have ‘covid secure’ productions, this has surely left an even bigger and potentially insurmountable hurdle for lower budget films to be made. Indeed, looking back at some of my favourite films of the last year, some them could not simply have been made within the current restrictions.
After the spring lockdown cinemas were allowed to open their doors once again to much heavily reduced, socially distanced audiences, but apart from a few exceptions the studios obviously did the sums and came to the conclusion that it was still not financially viable to release the big films.
While there has been an almost total lack of big budget films released in final three quarters of 2020, there have still been many, many films released and, in some ways, they have been more available than ever before. Streaming services became even more prominent, with Netflix and Amazon giving us increasing amounts of their own films, while the likes of Disney+ and Apple TV+ also emerging and having exclusive new releases. While for those of us wanting a fix of art house and world cinema there was Curzon Home Cinema and MUBI. Meanwhile many films that would in ‘normal times’ see a very limited cinema release and then be available to stream at the same time as they are released on DVD / Blu-ray were available to stream on multiple platforms for a reasonable fee that was usually under a fiver. There were a few exceptions to this, and while exceptionally large fees for a one-off viewing of family films such as Mulan, Trolls Word Tour and Scoob! can be understood (though not in my view justified), I cannot comprehend why anyone would be willing to pay over a tenner for a one-off viewing of films like The King of Staten Island, Irresistible or the abundance of Blumhouse films!
Though how we will watch films may have changed forever, once this pandemic is over, I am confident we will once again get to watch films where they belong – on the big screen! While it certainly makes sense to give viewers the choice of how they watch films, it is such a unique experience that often brings out the best in a film and enhances it, and therefore will survive. So here is hoping that if in a year’s time that I am writing my review of 2021, I will once again be writing about all of the great (and not so great) films that I have seen in that year and have seen at the cinema – where films are meant to seen!
So, though in some ways 2020 may indeed feel like a hollow year for films, the fact is that there were still many, many great films released that once again proved that it is not just about budget. While I have been somewhat lax in writing review recently, I have still been watching plenty of films, and while my personal rundown of what I regard as the best films of the year will follow in a separate post very shortly, here is a brief lock back at the films released in the UK in the last 12 months that I have managed to see that have stood out for the right and wrong reasons.
The Best Film Scores of The Year
While it is the blockbusters that often give us some great, epic film scores, there were still plenty of superb film scores to be found in the films released in 2020. Thomas Newman’s score to 1917 was as epic and emotional to listen to on its own as when used in the film, Daniel Loptin’s Vangelis-esque electronic score to Uncut Gems probably shouldn’t have worked, but really did, while Jeail Jung’s sublimely composed score to Parasite proved a great listen on its own as well. Of the releases in the second half of 2020, the scores composed for Pinocchio, Saint Maud and Kajillionaire were three very different, but all equally excellent scores that enhanced the films they were composed for, but also a great listen in their own right. While I always look forward to the score for a new Christopher Nolan film, and Ludwig Göransson’s thumping score to Tenet did not disappoint.
However, for me the best film score of 2020 was the superbly dark and moody score for Calm with Horses by Benjamin John Power (aka Blanck Mass) that once again proves that electronic music can be effectively atmospheric and cinematic, and really enhance a film’s emotive themes.
The Worst Films of The Year
While I try to watch as many films as possible, I am of course not a professional critic and will not be willing to invest my time and money in watching films that I strongly suspect that I will not like, and so there are likely to be many films from 2020 that were terrible that I will not mention here due to the fact that I haven’t seen them, but there were still plenty that I did have the displeasure of seeing and I am hoping it is not too late to warn others from subjecting themselves to the same punishment!
Netflix certainly gave us their fair share of duds most of which I will discuss separately, but Birds of Prey was a migraine inducing mess, The Rhythm Section a painfully dull ‘action’ film, the Will Ferrell ‘comedy’ Downhill was actually the opposite of funny, The Tax Collector was an abrasive, cliché-ridden mess, Jiu Jitsu a laughably bad Nicolas Cage action film, Anne Hathaway’s Netflix drama The Last Thing He Wanted was a painfully dull mess of a film and I cannot find a single adjective to describe just how hatefully bad The Wrong Missy was. While we are always spoilt for choice of low budget British films that involve gangsters, and the snooker-based drama Break, the Billy Murray starring revenge-thriller Vengeance and the festive-based gangster drama Silent Night starring Frank Harper were all very much as bad as they sound!
However, for the worst film of 2020 the bar was actually set in February (which seems so long ago right now) before words like ‘covid’ and ‘lockdown’ were even in the general lexicon of the British public, and the bar was set so low by this film that it was actually impossible for any subsequent film (that I saw) to hit such a low. That film was the hideous mess that was Dolittle; it is a horrifically bad film with no redeeming features whatsoever and seeing truly is believing with this film, as when watching it it is genuinely impossible to believe that anyone involved thought it was acceptable for it to ever be released and they obviously have an extremely low opinion of the (now former) cinema-going public.
‘The Blumhouse’ – Quantity over Quality
One producer that has had an especially prolific 2020 is Jason Blum, and his horror films feature the usual tropes of the commercial side of this overstuffed genre – cliché after cliché after formulaic cliché and very little substance, intelligence or surprises. He even gave us 4 films on Amazon Prime for Halloween. While these films of course have their place and audience, and are admittedly watchable enough (if completely forgettable), they are all essentially the same film, as once you have seen one you have seen them all! The Hunt did admittedly try to be different to the usual Blumhouse films but was nowhere near as intelligent or satirical as it obviously thought it was and just found new clichés. While there was much to be praised about The Invisible Man, but I was not as much of a fan as others. However, by far the best film to come out of the Blumhouse’s in 2020 was The Vigil – a deeply atmospheric psychological horror that did contain a few genuine surprises.
British Coastal Towns – A Depiction of Misery
With their decaying buildings and widespread deprivation that provide only memories of their glory years, British coastal towns do have a bit of reputation as miserable places, especially in the winter months when the grey clouds, howling wind and driving rain can only serve to enhance the morose atmosphere of the place and it is not surprising that they are often chosen as locations for films that predominantly feature less than optimistic stories and themes. Nocturnal, Saint Maud and Make Up (the latter two being particularly excellent films) were all British films that utilised such a location very effectively. While the excellent drama Looted and the disappointing Hope Gap were set at a warmer time of year, but even they seemed to focus on the melancholic aspects of their locations. The cheesy crowd-pleaser Summerland did admittedly portray the rural British coast in a more positive light, but there were some serious issues with its geography!
The Most Mindless of Mindless Action Films
While this was inevitably a genre with the biggest shortage this year, for those wanting to switch their brain off and watch a bit of mindless action and violence there were still films out there that could satisfy that particular craving. Netflix certainly released its fair share, with some being perfectly watchable (Extraction), some just about watchable (The Old Guard, Project Power) and some completely unwatchable (Spenser Confidential, Coffee & Kareem). At the start of the year, we were given Bad Boys for Life, which was surprisingly okay, in February Sonic the Hedgehog was silly fun, then of course the actor we can all rely on to give us dumb action films, Vin Diesel, turned up in the ridiculously silly Bloodshot. There was also the Kristen Stewart starring underwater thriller Underwater, which was as unoriginal and cliché-ridden as its title suggests. Even Nicolas Cage got in on the action (no pun intended) with the surprisingly watchable Primal, with an on-form Cage providing us with a film that brought back memories of his 90s action film heyday.
When cinemas re-opened in the UK one of the first films to be released was Unhinged, which was pure b-movie silliness starring a rather large Russell Crowe, and then just before they closed again, we were treated to the Liam Neeson starring Honest Thief, which was very Liam Neesoney. Of course, we should also not forget the abundance of terrible Bruce Willis films would have never got near a cinema anyway!
The Worst Acting Performances
I am sure there were plenty of bad acting performances in films released in 2020, but when trying to go through what I have seen, what really sticks out in my mind is one film and its entire cast – Dolittle.
The two main kids that are in it can be let off and perhaps so can the list of big names that did the voices of the animals – but only for the performance and not the fact they were involved in this detritus of a film! However, Michael Sheen and Antonio Banderas both turn up solely to collect their cheques, as what they do while on screen cannot be described as ‘acting’ or any kind of ‘performance’. As for the film’s leading man (who after being Iron Man surely does not need the money); The bizarre welsh accent is bad enough, but his bizarre physical performance is all over the place and has to go down as one of the worst seen in a film for a long time!
The Best of The Netflix Originals
Pandemic or not, Netflix were always set to have their most bumper year of releases, and the events of 2020 of course added prominence to their releases as these were the only new films that those of who were already members could watch without paying out extra one-off payments for individual films. Netflix pride themselves for giving directors full creative freedom (though I still haven’t forgiving them for giving it to Michael Bay!) and also do deserve credit for giving their subscribers a wide variety of films, so while in 2020 there was a big flagship release on almost a weekly basis that were a variety of genres, they also gave us a varied collection of world cinema.
For me their best films were Aaron Sorkin’s highly watchable and entertaining courtroom drama The Trial of the Chicago 7, the dark and engaging star-studded drama The Devil All the Time, Charlie Kaufman’s brain-melting but ultimately very moving drama I’m Thinking of Ending Things, the dark and atmospheric Spanish thriller The Platform, the gripping drama Mosul and George Clooney’s engaging melancholic sci-fi drama The Midnight Sky. Though for me, the best Netflix film of 2020 was released at the very beginning of the year and it may be slightly tinged with irony as Adam Sandler is often responsible for some of their worst films, but the incredibly intense and unforgettable Uncut Gems is nothing short of a modern masterpiece and serves as a reminder that on those very rare occasions that Sandler delivers, he really delivers! It still remains an absolute scandal that he didn’t nab the Oscar or even get nominated!
The Worst of the Netflix Originals
I have a theory that we apply lower expectations when watching films on the likes of Netflix and may be more forgiving of a film’s flaws as essentially all we have to do is give up less than 2 hours of our time and not even leave our home, while going to the cinema is a much bigger investment of time and money. I am sure that most of us with a Netflix subscription have said at some point “it wasn’t a very good film, but it was fine as it was only on Netflix and so filled two hours”, whereas if we had made the effort seeing that film at the cinema, we may have a slightly less diplomatic response.
While I am as guilty of that as anyone, there have been plenty of Netflix films that were just about okay, but left me feeling disappointed as they were simply not as good as they should have been (I will come to those later), but there were plenty that I genuinely despised as I found it impossible to find any redeeming features, and so would therefore implore those with a Netflix membership that are yet to watch these films, stay well clear:
The Last Thing he Wanted was an exceptionally dull drama, Spenser Confidential was yet another abysmal Mark Wahlberg action film that desperately wanted to be a franchise, The Wrong Missy was a vile ‘comedy’ that insulted the intelligence of airborne bacteria, The Last Days of American Crime a perfect example of how to completely destroy a great concept, Hubie Halloween the usual unfunny rubbish to be expected from Adam Sandler and Coffee & Kareem was an ‘action comedy’ with no comedy and very little action.
The Netflix Christmas Revolution
While Netflix do seem desperate to have a successful action franchise on their hands (and seem to keep on failing), they just could not stop giving us Christmas films, especially the sickeningly saccharine films that would usually be found on during the daytime on the Hallmark Channel. While many inevitably turn their noses up at them, these films have proved to be very popular (and considering how crap 2020 has been, probably provided the perfect antidote of escapism), and various websites put together charts proving how so many of them are connected – surely therefore making them all a successful franchise! Netflix did also provide a couple of other bigger budgeted Christmas films in The Christmas Chronicles Part 2 (Kurt Russell as Father Christmas still does work) and the original musical Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey, while neither are likely to be remembered as all-time yuletide classics, they were tremendously entertaining.
While for those who were looking for a different kind of Christmas film, Netflix also gave us Christmas Crossfire – a violent German black comedy with a festive setting that despite losing its way in the final third, was still a thoroughly enjoyable film.
The Worst Dialogue of The Year
“Are we killing anybody today? I’ve got some nice f**king shoes on!” – Shia Labeouf’s heavy in The Tax Collector. It was a film that was as terrible as its title and casting suggests, and the flat and soulless dialogue riddled with lazy cliches, but this particularly bad line of dialogue just seems to perfectly sum it up.
The Return of Cage Rage
Considering all of his films tend to avoid cinema release and go straight to DVD, cinemas being closed for 2020 probably did not have much of an effect on films starring Nicolas Cage. Those of us who always used to look forward to seeing his latest unique display of overacting have been disappointed in the last few years, as (with the noted exception of Mandy) he has not only given us rubbish films, but also disappointingly low-key performances. However, with Color Out of Space he was back on outrageous, over the top form. The film itself is a perfect foundation for Cage to unleash his trademark unique ‘style’ of acting as he slowly goes mad when his remote family home is taken over by a mysterious and very colourful extra-terrestrial force.
He was also very much enjoying himself in the bizarre action film Jiu Jitsu, but despite the potentially great concept, the audience could not share that enjoyment!
The Biggest Disappointments
As briefly mentioned earlier, Netflix gave us some films that I regarded as just about watchable, and so they are certainly not contenders for being some of the worst films of the year, but ultimately were not as good as they should have been, and so have to be regarded as disappointments. The Charlize Theron actioner The Old Guard was ultimately a dull and derivative film that failed to do anything with its great concept, Likewise the sort-of-superhero film Project Power should have done so much more with its initial premise, Ben Wheatley is a director of great talent, but somehow managed to give us a remake of Rebecca that lacked any genuine intrigue, atmosphere or thrills and Spike Lee’s Vietnam thriller Da 5 Bloods tried to be too many things and failed at all of them. While David Fincher’s Mank certainly had some good parts, because of those involved and the subject matter, this overall self-indulgent and ill-disciplined mess of a film has to be regarded as a disappointment.
Away from Netflix, the concept of Nicolas Cage fighting off some alien creature in a film that blatantly rips off Predator with only his long hair, overreacting and a sword to protect him sounds like the ultimate guilty pleasure – but Jiu Jitsu was so badly made and written, that it was almost unwatchable at times. However, in my view the biggest disappointment of the year has to be On the Rocks; Sophia Coppola’s reunion with Bill Murray had a great concept, but its messy narrative and general sense of self-indulgence ended up producing an alienating and infuriating viewing experience.
The Most Overrated Films
Film is of course subjective, and I would not have that any other way, and I cannot help but note that a couple of the Netflix films that I regarded as disappointments got predominantly positive reviews. However, for reasons previously mentioned I cannot understand why Da 5 Bloods and The Old Guard got such positive reviews when they were released. Likewise, Enola Holmes received many positive reviews, but I thought it was no more than a light and highly forgettable bit of throwaway fluff.
Likewise, while I thought The Invisible Man had a few good individual moments and was rightfully commended for the point of view that the film was made from, but its increasing level of self-awareness and reliance on narrative cliché (like so many of its fellow blumhouse films) just made it overall a disappointing experience. While Birds of Prey got overall quite positive reviews (perhaps that may be partly down to the fact that it was released the same day as Dolittle and people were just relieved not to have to watch that again!) but for me it was seriously let down by abysmal script, incoherent plot and migraine inducing visuals. However, returning to Netflix films, for me the most overrated film of 2020 has to be the psychological horror His House – which at the time of writing has 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. For me, while it dealt with some pertinent and relevant real-life themes within its plot (and I cannot help but be slightly cynical and think this a reason for some people almost feeling obliged to give it really good reviews) and did create an effective atmosphere, it was seriously let down by a lazy plot that basically relied on one single and painfully predictable ‘twist’.
The Biggest Cinematic Event of The Year
Christopher Nolan films are always an event in their own right in ‘normal’ times, but in 2020 his latest was the first ‘big’ film to be released when cinemas re-opened in the UK, he was basically given the no-pressure job of saving cinema and the eyes of all would be carefully watching just how well it did! Whoever made the final decision to release Tenet this summer certainly deserves full credit for taking what was inevitably quite a risk, but while the film is certainly not perfect (its flaws became more prevalent to me on second viewing), in typical Nolan fashion it was a timely reminder of the unique experience of watching a film on the big screen.
The Best Blockbuster
There are inevitably slim pickings for this category, and on reflection after seeing both of the films in question again, it has to be Sam Mendes’ World War I drama 1917. Though the whole ‘one single take’ format could have easily felt like a cheap gimmick, it actually adds to the genuine intensity of the experience as we truly feel like we are there with the two main characters (a scene involving an aeroplane capturing this particularly well). While there are inevitably the occasional contrivances and convenient coincidences, Mendes also makes sure to give the film genuine heart and to make the whole experience also a deeply moving one that genuinely belongs on the big screen.
Much Needed Feel-good Entertainers
I think it goes without saying that we all needed a bit of cheering up in 2020, and though it was released in cinemas in the UK before Covid-19 really disrupted our lives, Armando Iannucci’s absolutely delightful The Personal History of David Copperfield injected his usual trademark humour and a modern feel to the Dickens classic, all brought to life by superb performances from the all-star cast, especially a charismatic leading performance from Dev Patel.
Later in the year in September, with cinemas in the UK still open but having very few films to show, one of the most surprising sequels in recent years – Bill & Ted Face the Music – was released, and while it was never going to be any kind of masterpiece, it was everything that could have been expected from a Bill & Ted sequel and for that reason it was impossible not to watch it with a massive smile from start to finish.
The Best of the Amazon Originals
While they were never going to be as prolific as Netflix, Prime Home Video did give us some good films of their own. In the first half of the year, they gave us the wonderfully eccentric and icy cold dark comedy Blow the Man Down, the extremely enjoyable and rewarding slow-burn sci-fi film The Vast of Night and then the delightful Irish Comedy-Drama Dating Amber, which managed very successfully to be both very funny and moving. Then of course later in the year we were given Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm which inevitably did not quite match the outrageous laughs of its predecessor, but still managed to give us plenty of much needed laughs.
The Best Horror Films
While I will happily admit that I am not really a fan of commercial mainstream horror films as I find them quite boring, but for those looking for the more commercial side of the genre there was of the course Blumhouse giving us loads of their own films complete with their overused clichés that we have seen many times before. However, as previously stated, they did give us The Vigil which was a genuinely intense psychological horror which kept things simple but was wonderfully effective. From Sweden we were given Koko-di Koko-da, a genuinely nightmarish experience for both its two protagonists and the viewer, and the Australian film Relic managed to successfully combine the classic features of a huanted house narrative with some deeply engaging and pertinent themes. Then in October while cinemas in the UK were just about still open Saint Maud was released, and featuring an incredible leading performance and exploring effectively various universal themes about the human condition, it was without a doubt the most memorable of the year’s horror films
The Best of British
The British film industry no doubt suffered a severe hit this year, and hopefully British filmmakers were still able to make their films in 2020 despite the various restrictions, and we will be treated to the usual wide variety of excellent homegrown films in 2021. With big budget films being delayed until 2021, this did clear the way for some lower budget films to get more attention than they have usually experienced, and for those short periods when cinemas were open, actually be enjoyed on the big screen where they belong!
Claire Oakley’s stunning film Make-Up managed to successfully merge genres to examine its core themes, Fyzal Boulifa’s deeply moving drama Lynn + Lucy was one of the most moving and unforgettable films of the year, the aforementioned Saint Maud was an unforgettable psychological horror, The Personal History of David Copperfield one of the most genuinely enjoyable and uplifting films of the year, Mr. Jones a deeply compelling drama, Looted an unashamedly hard hitting drama, Eternal Beauty a unique and deeply moving examination of mental health, Rocks a raw and authentic human drama made with genuine heart, and The Days of the Bagnold Summer a delightful and very funny gem of a film. Also, while I have already said enough about 1917, I think that can also be classed as a British film!
The Best of World Cinema
Saving the best to last, and as always, the best films could be found from overseas (in my opinion) with the usual combination of jet-black comedies, hard-hitting dramas and profound examinations of the human condition that perhaps got more recognition this year than they normally would – and that can only be a good thing!
At the beginning of the year there was the sublime Portrait of a Lady on Fire and of course the Oscar winning masterpiece Parasite. Other gems included the superb Belgian naturist dark comedy Patrick, the hard-hitting modern-day retelling of Les Misérables, François Ozon’s moving drama Summer of ’85, Matteo Garrone’s delightfully dark version of Pinocchio, Pablo Larraín’s dark psychological drama Ema, the fantastical Afghan drama The Orphanage and the harrowing but unforgettable Czech film The Painted Bird.
Netflix also gave us an increasing number of exclusive world cinema treats, and the best of these included the gripping Iraqi drama Mosul and the dark Spanish thriller The Platform. Scandinavia is always guaranteed to produce some of the best films of any year that tend to feature their trademark dark humour, and from this part of the world we were given the gripping drama A White, White Day, the moving and surrealist About Endlessness, the nightmarish Koko-di Koko-da, there was Dogs Don’t Wear Pants – a dark psycho-sexual examination of a character dealing with grief, and The County – a very human, but compelling drama sprinkled with trademark Icelandic subtle, dark and sometimes absurdist humour. While from Australia there was the excellent and surprisingly moving psychological drama Relic and from Ireland the stunning drama Calm with Horses.
I will be lsiting my very favourite films of 2020 in a seperate post.
Great write up! I just watched the new Bill and Ted and I loved its positive energy.
Me too, i was concerned before watching it, but it was everything i expected and wanted from a Bill & Ted sequel! It was tremendous fun.