Though of course there were many films originally planned for a 2020 release that have been delayed until 2021 when we are all vaccinated and can crowd into cinemas again, there have still been many, many great films still released. Of course, we were all required to have an ever-expanding number of different subscription fees to pay out if we wanted to see most of them and then for others had no choice but to pay out a one-off fee (that was sometimes very reasonable and sometimes a complete rip-off). So, in some ways we may well have been granted access to an ability to see a much more diverse range of films than ever before, and most pf which we could see from the comfort of home.
While I have been a tad sloppy on writing film reviews over the last couple of months, I have made sure to watch plenty, but of course there are many that I have not seen (I do not have a subscription to Disney+ or Apple TV+ so have not seen any of their own exclusive releases) and so there will inevitably be some films missing that others will think are obvious choices for a top 20 of the year. Also, if all those big budget films did get released, as much as I would have enjoyed plenty of them and ranted about some of the others, would this rundown have actually included any of them? I suspect not.
Naturally this rundown (based on initial UK release dates) will contain a certain logic that some may question, as the ranking of certain films compared to one-another may not exactly follow the rating I gave them in the individual reviews. However, this list is based on not just what the film was like at the time of viewing, but over the course of the year whether it has stayed with me and had an effect on me in some way and is evaluated within the context of the overall year. Also, sometimes when a film is viewed for a second time it doesn’t necessarily always improve it – for example, after watching Tenet for the second time its flaws became more apparent and I would have changed its mark to an 8 out of 10, while after seeing Saint Maud or 1917 for the second time they felt like even better and complete films than they did the first time.
20. The Personal History of David Copperfield
Armando Iannucci seems to go from strength to strength, and it is great to see that he is now being given the budgets to utilise his great talent for comic writing. His version of the Dickens classic was rightfully given credit for its modern, colour-blind casting of fantastically talented actors who are all on top form to make each of their characters individually memorable, especially the delightfully charismatic leading performance from Dev Patel. However, there is far more to it than that; the whole entire film is made with a wonderful and vibrant energy and is an absolute joy to watch from start to finish, and the perfect antidote to a year that has provided us with very little to smile about.
19. Koko-di Koko-da
This dark Swedish psychological horror (with a gentle smattering of dark humour) follows a couple who go on a camping trip in the woods to try to forget the tragic events of a few years ago but find themselves terrorized by an entourage of shady characters. Though that plot may sound quite generic, what is so unique about this film is that the couple are forced to repeatedly experience the nightmare again and again, each time thinking that they can anticipate it and escape, but each time this results in increasing humiliating, violent and farcical failure. Part a commentary on the horror genre and part a commentary on the human process of dealing with grief – Koko-di Koko-da is an unforgettable and absurdist nightmare.
After a few English language films, Chilean auteur Pablo Larraín returns home to give us this stunning and deep psychological examination of a couple trying to deal with the guilt of an adoption of a child going wrong and how their lives gradually fall apart. Ema is a visually intoxicating film for all the senses that has at its heart some genuinely relatable themes as the two main character’s (brought to life by two superb performances) lives spiral downwards into a very dark journey, but with a suitably moving finale.
17. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Less can often be more in films, and this is certainly proved to be the case, and Eliza Hittman skilfully proves this in her deeply moving drama about a 17-year-old girl who is joined by her young cousin on a trip across America to try and arrange for an abortion due to an unintended pregnancy. Shot in an almost documentary-like way with often intense close-ups on our main character’s face, and featuring a superb leading performance, Never Rarely Sometimes Always works on many levels as both a moving drama about friendship and also about some extremely and important and prevalent issues in modern day society.
Who could have ever predicted that Christoper Nolan’s latest big budget brain-melter would have basically been the only big budget film released this summer? When analysed as a film in its own right, this palindromic action epic is not Nolan’s best and with repeat viewings the chunkiness of the dialogue and predominantly two-dimensional characters become more prevalent. However, Nolan still deserves full credit for his ambition and creative originality, and Tenet is certainly best enjoyed when just going with it and not questioning too much, as it is yet another thrilling and action-packed ride that proves that some films simply have to be seen on the big screen.
January certain does seem so very far away! Even in a blockbuster year with a bumper list of releases, it is safe to say that 1917 would still be one of the best. While Tenet depreciates with every viewing, 1917 just gets better, and this is down to the fact it also has plenty of substance to go with its thrilling style. There are certainly shades of Nolan’s approach to Dunkirk, as the race-against-time story of two young soldiers embarking on a perilous journey to deliver a message that will prevent 1,600 men from walking into a deadly trap may seem quite simple, but it is the setting that does all of the rest. The single-take technique certainly adds the thrills, but Sam Mendes makes sure to also give plenty of genuinely emotional moments of reflection in what is undoubtedly a masterful demonstration of big budget filmmaking.
14. Calm with Horses
Featuring a Western-type narrative set in rural Ireland, Calm with Horses is a deeply engaging and moving examination of damaged masculinity. Cosmo Jarvis gives an absolutely stunning performance of great emotional depth as ‘Arm’, a former boxer who retired after killing another fighter in the ring and is now the enforcer for a ruthless drug-dealing family, but at the same time is trying to be a good father to his estranged mentally disabled son. As the narrative develops, loyalties are tested and Arm’s various attempts to do what he believes to be the right thing have unintended consequences, and what develops is a deeply emotional and engrossing story. With its pertinent examination of the human condition only enhanced by being stunningly shot and featuring a suitably brooding score by Benjamin John Power (aka Blanck Mass), Calm with Horses is a film that stays in your subconscious for a very long time.
13. Saint Frances
While the story of a mid-30 something changing her outlook on life with the help of a young child, she becomes the nanny for certainly seems in isolation like a predictable and cliché-ridden story that we have all seen many times before, I have always argued that there is nothing wrong with clichés, but it is what the film does with those clichés that matters. Well, thankfully star and screenwriter Kelly O’Sullivan certainly uses these well-used tropes with the utmost skill to produce one of the most emotionally rewarding films of 2020. Saint Frances is a film that successfully examines an abundance of relatable and timely themes and incorporates them into a script packed with genuine heart and observational humour.
12. Saint Maud
A film that gets better with repeat viewings, Rose Glass’s psychological horror about a young nurse whose newfound deep religion leads her to being dangerously obsessed with saving the soul of her dying patient is not only a deeply moving character study but is also for me the best horror film of the year. Featuring an incredible leading performance from Morfydd Clark as Maud, Saint Maud has at its centre some very emotional and relatable themes about the human condition as we embark on an increasingly dark and troubled character journey with the film’s protagonist. These themes are all brought to life with Glass skilfully using various techniques and respecting the audience’s intelligence to create an unforgettable film where the tension slowly builds up until its unforgettable ending.
11. Max Richter’s Sleep
Max Richter’s 8.5-hour long album Sleep was composed with the sole intention of it being listened to while asleep and is a masterpiece of modern classical music that has become something of a phenomenon with Richter playing the entire album live to audiences of increasing numbers who are provided with their own beds to lie in for the duration of the overnight 8.5-hour concert. However, this stunning documentary will appeal to anyone who finds solace away from the chaos, stress and misery of everyday life by listening to music. This documentary serves as an examination of our relationship with music and the vitally important role it can play in our lives, and with the album itself being used as the soundtrack to most of the film, it makes a wonderfully life-affirming and contemplative experience that cannot be forgotten.
10. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Céline Sciamma’s elegant drama about a female painter tasked with living on a remote island with a bride to be and observe her so she can paint her in secret is quite simply pure cinema. Beautifully shot with meticulous attention to detail and relying on subtle expression, body language and visual metaphors to portray its pertinent and relatable themes and ideas, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a stunning cinematic experience featuring infinite rewards.
Brandon Cronenberg skilfully carries on his father’s tradition of mixing gory body horror with dark and compelling drama in this story about an assassin who works for a secretive organization that uses brain implant technology to inhabit other people’s bodies – making that person the one responsible, and then making that person commit suicide just as the actual assassin leaves their adopted body and their mind returns to their own body. Possessor is not a film that ever even attempts to explain how its Source Codeesque technology works or really has much of a hidden message, but Cronenberg skilfully puts the film together in a way that makes it deeply compelling and horribly unnerving at the same time, all leading to an unforgettable conclusion.
This absolute gem of a film from Belgium about an individual (called Patrick) who has to deal with taking over the running of a nudist camp after the death of his father whilst trying to solve the mystery of whole stole his favourite hammer is a deadpan delight. If the fact that all of the characters in it are constantly naked is not unnerving enough, so is the subtle and deadpan humour throughout the story. However, for all of its more unique elements, what also makes Patrick such a great film is that at its heart is a surprisingly engaging story about a protagonist that we cannot help but care about and route for, and we genuinely want to know what happened to that hammer as much as he does!
This story of a young London teenager being forced to look after herself and her younger brother after they are abandoned by their mother is yet another stunning example of less very much being more when a film is made the right way. Rocks is suitably raw and gritty, and its use of handheld cameras, naturalistic dialogue and non-professional actors adds a level of pure authenticity to what is an extremely moving and prevalent story about friendship and sacrifice.
6. A White, White Day
This stunning Icelandic drama about an ex-police officer’s increasing obsession to confront a man that he suspects of having an affair with his recently deceased wife is an unforgettable examination of the human condition and just what obsession can do to someone. This being an Icelandic film, everything is of course depicted with the utmost subtlety, and the visual metaphors and intentionally low-key approach to the storytelling only serve to increase the tension as the narrative develops towards its unforgettable conclusion.
5. Make Up
Claire Oakley’s feature length debut is an unforgettable coming-of-age drama that skilfully manages to merge various genres. As a young teenager stays with her boyfriend at the remote caravan park where he works, she suspects him of cheating on her, and her increasing obsession with finding the truth takes her down a dark emotional path where it becomes increasingly difficult for her to distinguish between what is reality and what is imaginary. Make Up is a deeply cinematic experience, with Oakley using all of the tools at her disposal to utilise the film’s evocative and atmospheric setting of a deserted caravan park on the British coast at winter as the protagonist goes on a life changing and unforgettable narrative journey.
4. Lynn + Lucy
Fyzal Boulifa’s drama about two lifelong friends whose lives and friendship are torn apart and changed forever by the simple act of gossip amongst their local community is an unforgettable character-driven drama. Intentionally raw and uncompromising, and featuring two stunning leading performances, Lynn + Lucy is often harrowing viewing, but the fact that it focusses on relatable and believable characters and has an equally believable storyline that serves as a cautionary tale for all of us makes it totally unforgettable.
There are of course no actual superlatives left to describe Bong Joon Ho’s deservedly Oscar winning story of a struggling working-class family that try to gradually infiltrate and take advantage of a middle-class family, other than it is a masterpiece that will surely take its place in various future lists as one of the best films ever made. While it does not linger as much in my subconscious just quite as much as the two films above it in this list, Parasite is a film that manages to be a drama that grips tightly from start to finish while also incorporating many compelling, deeply relevant and universal themes and ideas.
2. Uncut Gems
Though he is often very much a figure of total vitriol by me and many other film fans, it is performances like those in the unforgettable Uncut Gems that in some ways only exacerbate that hatred for Adam Sandler, as this film proves just how good he can be when he wants to be! The Safdie brother’s film about a man whose seeming addiction to gambling everything he has with increasing high stakes involved while seeming to be completely blind to what it is doing to him and those around him is essentially a 135-minute cinematic anxiety attack. However, as the viewer, we cannot help but be sucked into the chaotic world of our protagonist with an addiction on a par with his, and this is thanks to the style the film is made with that never seems to ever take any kind of deep breath and Adam Sandler’s note-perfect performance. Uncut Gems truly is a unique and unforgettable experience, and as the final credits roll, we cannot help but take a very deep breath!
1. The Painted Bird
Václav Marhoul’s harrowing epic is an unforgettable examination of the extremes of both human suffering and a person’s ability to inflict extreme suffering on others. This story of a young Jewish boy named Joska, whose parents are sent to a concentration camp, and after a tragic accident on his journey to get home is forced to seek refuge with various individuals who deal with their own horrific experiences of the war by taking them out on Joskar in various horrific ways is often difficult viewing, but importantly is never gratuitous or nasty for the sake of it. Shot in black and white, The Painted Bird is a visually stunning film, and contains very little dialogue throughout its 169 minutes and lets the visuals do the talking as the audience is treated with the respect of never having anything over explained or justified – such an approach would completely ruin the very essence of this film. Despite the long running time and its harrowing storyline, The Painted Bird is compelling and engaging viewing that takes the audience on a deep emotional journey that grips tightly and refuses to let go all the way from its harrowing initial scene all the way until its final, unforgettable and deeply emotional final shot.
Other noteworthy mentions that are worth a watch (but listed in no particular order): The Midnight Sky, The Vigil, About Endlessness, The Vast of Night, Clemency, Dogs Don’t Wear Pants, Relic, Les Misérables, The Trial of the Chicago 7, Pinocchio, The County, Blow the Man Down, Days of the Bagnold Summer, Dating Amber, The Lighthouse, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, The Devil All the Time, Babyteeth, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, The Orphanage, The Platform, Mr. Jones, Moffie, Amanda, Summer of ’85, Looted, Eternal Beauty, Proxima