As someone who habitually went to the movies at least once a month, it was brutal to watch the cinema-going experience evaporate in 2020 and seeing some highly anticipated releases – Candyman, A Quiet Place 2, Death on the Nile, Dune etc – completely drop off the release schedule until “TBC 2021”.
These film are in the can and ready to go but studios are struggling to find a pathway to deliver these films to audiences in a fashion where they can still recover their production costs. Warner and Disney rolled the dice on Tenet and Mulan by testing the theatrical market and PPV model on Disney+ and neither film performed well enough for others to follow suit.
2021 remains up in the air. There is a COVID-19 vaccine that has begun distribution. Some countries like New Zealand and parts of Asia (Taiwan, Vietnam etc) are close to resuming normal life pre-COVID. But whether we can expect to walk into a cinema next year to see Spider-man 3 or Bond remains unclear. We shall see.
In the pandemic climate, the best avenue for seeing new films was of course digital distribution and in that regard, the likes of Netflix and Amazon became the primary avenue to watch some of the best new films of 2020. A small silver lining from this situation is that lesser known, indie film fare such as Relic and Crip Camp ended up reaching a much wider audience than they otherwise might’ve. As it stands, every single film in my top ten list can easily be found on digital platforms and that is a big win for accessibility.
With the dearth of new releases, 2020 was also a good year to go back and watch some classic movies from my Hall of Shame. The most egregious omission I fixed up was The Godfather Part I & II (don’t ask why I hadn’t got around to seeing these before) but I also enjoyed watch some deep cuts from Akira Kurosawa’s oeuvre including High and Low and Kagemusha.
Lastly, despite all the challenges in 2020 for movie lovers, I maintain it was still a really good year quality-wise. I saw over thirty new releases from this year and it was a genuine struggle to whittle down a list of the ten best. Although they didn’t make my top ten, you should absolutely watch Color Out of Space, Palm Springs, The Social Dilemma, Hamilton and Dick Johnson Is Dead.
These are my ten favourite films of 2020.
Director: Rob Savage
Writers: Gemma Hurley, Rob Savage
Cast: Haley Bishop, Jemma Moore, Emma Louise Webb
“Don’t freak out. Don’t freak out!”
I think its only fitting that the scariest, most chilling film of 2020 is about a cursed Zoom call.
Rob Savage’s wonderfully effective Host runs 50 minutes long. It’s best experienced on a laptop or desktop computer so it replicates the exact experience of a Zoom call. Watch it at night with the lights out and enjoy one of the most surprisingly effective horror films in years. It’s currently available on the horror movie service Shudder which has a free one week trial.
There’s a real cleverness to Savage’s approach. There were so many moments where I thought ‘aha!’ or ‘of course!’ when I saw the film incorporate common Zoom habits, such as people clipping into the background image or using a looping video of themselves as a background, and putting a horror movie spin on it. On what I assume is a shoe-string budget, Savage is able to crank out some absolutely effective scares by using the technology smartly and allowing most of the scariest moments to exist in our minds.
All the actors are absolute naturals and it only takes a matter of minutes once the cursed séance begins for the hairs to stand up on the back of your neck. I loved this.
Director: Steve McQueen
Writer: Steve McQueen, Courttia Newland
Cast: Amarah-Jade St. Aubyn, Michael Ward, Shaniqua Okwok
“Come stand by me, sis.”
Clocking in at 68 min, the short and sharpish Lovers Rock is one of the most enjoyable cinematic experiences of 2020.
Director Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave, Hunger) produced an anthology of films titled Small Axe of which Lovers Rock belongs to. It tells the story of a single night at a house party organized by black youth in 1980s Britain.
Lovers Rock only loosely has a storyline (think Human Traffic). It’s more about soaking in the vibe of the night. Young couples get acquainted on ratty old leathery couches. Some dudes are smoking weed on the back porch. You can practically smell the curry being prepared in the kitchen. A deejay plays a selection of reggae on vinyl to a packed dance floor.
There is a memorable sequence in which McQueen lets the entirety of the song Silly Games play out as we watch the revellers dance and sing acapella. It’ll likely be the enduring memory people have of this film.
There are barbs of unpleasantness that lurk around the edges – racism, toxic masculinity etc – but the heart of the film is the blossoming relationship between two young lovers.
Lovers Rock is one of the most tactile films of 2020. You can really get a sense of place. The sights, the sounds, the smells. It is a night to remember.
“You can’t crush a soul here. That’s what life on Earth is for!”
Director: Pete Docter, Kemp Powers
Writer: Pete Docter
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton
After music teacher Joe lands the jazz gig of a lifetime, he falls down a man-hole and dies, trapping his soul in purgatory. He is assigned as a mentor to Soul #22 who is reluctant to begin life on Earth. Together, Joe and 22 explore the purpose of life itself and how to achieve a meaningful existence.
This is the kind of crazy, high-concept ambition we’ve come to expect from Pete Docter, who also gave us the wonderful Up and Inside Out (two of Pixar’s finest IMO). I’m happy to report that his latest film Soul is just as thought-provoking and beautifully constructed as his past highlights.
This is such an admirably weird and imaginative production, with interesting visual treatments of the afterlife: the squiggly line soul counsellors; the illuminated pathway to the heavens; the infant souls who jump off a celestial plane and literally plummet into existence on Earth. This fascinating imagery is then heightened further by a delightful soundtrack produced by Trent Reznor and Jon Baptiste.
In a year like 2020, Soul was the kind of movie people should watch. It’s positive, life-affirming and emotionally enriching.
The Invisible Man
FILM OF THE YEAR
Director: Leigh Whannell
Writer: Leigh Whannell
Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Harriet Dyer
“If you fight me, I won’t ever hurt you. I’ll find someone you love and hurt them instead.”
The Invisible Man was one of the best surprises of 2020. After the absolute shitshow that was the Dark Universe concept which started and ended with Tom Cruise in The Mummy, director Leigh Whannell made the absolute most out of the situation by creating this killer modern adaptation of James Whale’s classic horror film.
Elizabeth Moss plays Cecilia, a woman trapped in an abusive relationship with a wealthy, jealous and controlling businessman Adrian Griffin. Cecilia flees from Griffin and tries to restart her life with her daughter. Two weeks later Cecilia receives the unexpected news that Adrian has killed himself and has bequeathed to her his entire estate and fortune. This should be the closing chapter to a traumatic period of Cecilia’s life but instead, a series of inexplicable accidents and near misses have Cecilia questioning whether she is going insane or if Griffin is somehow still alive.
This movie rules. Flipping the vantage point away from Griffin and onto the Cecilia is an inspired move by Whannell and the perfect way to create a fresh, modern take on the Invisible Man tale whilst sticking with the fundamentals of what make the character so good. Whannell has worked as a solid hand in the horror genre for many years and his excellent sci-fi action film Upgrade showed everyone he had the chops to handle this production.
The Invisible Man is a fabulous re-invention of a classic horror tale. It should comfortably cement Moss as a leading actor in future productions (I’d love for her to dabble more in horror, she’s perfect) and this film absolutely marks the arrival of Leigh Whannell as a director destined for big things. Whether he gets scooped up by a Marvel Studios or whether he decides to keep working with Blumhouse is anyone’s guess but whatever he makes next, I’m there.
I can’t emphasize enough how happy I am with how this film turned out. The Whale version would be in my top ten films of all time and I revisit it every year. To see a modern adaptation as good as this is absolutely thrilled me to bits.
David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet
Director: Alastair Fothergill, Jonathan Hughes
Writer: David Attenborough, Max Hughes
“This is not about saving our planet, it’s about saving ourselves.”
A Life On Our Planet may sound like the title to a celebratory piece about the career of the world’s most famous naturalist, but it quickly becomes clear in Attenborough’s latest documentary that his intention is to sound an alarm about the precarious state of the natural world.
This film – and his book of the same name – is framed as a “witness statement”. And who is a more authoritative source on the subject of the natural world than a respected and beloved documentary maker who has been connecting audiences around the world with the animal kingdom for over seventy years. At ninety four years old, Attenborough may not be long for this world but instead of retiring or seeing out his days quietly, he has been acting with increasing urgency to speak with leaders of the world about tackling the effects of climate change.
I found A Life On Our Planet to be a most affecting documentary. I felt knots in my stomach at times and was moved to tears by some of the footage in this film. I’m glad he finishes with a sliver of optimism as otherwise I would have been completely floored.
This movie is essential viewing. As Attenborough remarks in his closing thoughts, if the worst happens, the planet will still be here and eventually nature will start anew. It is humankind that stands to lose everything and whose future isn’t assured.
Director: Natalie Erika James
Writer: Natalie Erika James, Christian White
Cast: Robyn Nevin, Emily Mortimer, Bella Heathcote
“Do you ever get lonely here out by yourself?”
A first time Australian director creates a brilliant debut horror film that initially has a limited theatrical release before eventually finding a wider audience thanks to streaming services.
It happened six years ago with Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook and here we are again with Natalie Erika James’ fantastic horror drama Relic.
Relic is an affecting and well-crafted allegory for dealing with losing a parent to dementia. Kay and her daughter Sam return to Kay’s family home to help look after Kay’s elderly mother Edna who is exhibiting increasingly erratic and concerning behavior. The house is infested with an unexplained black mould and there are moments of eerie supernatural occurrences.
Relic has a lot of the trappings of a conventional horror film but as it unfolds, its clear its made with an underlying fondness for Edna as her illness consumes her. The final moments of the film are chilling, but handled with a humanistic touch. At heart, Relic is actually a family drama as much as it is a work of horror.
This small scale intimate production works in large part thanks to Natalie Erika James’ clever writing and direction. I also think the trio of actors – Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin and Bella Heathcote – all do exceptionally well in sparse, minimalist conditions. They don’t really have much to work with other than the house itself and one another.
Relic is a sombre, thoughtfully made horror film. An underrated gem in 2020.
Director: Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie
Writer: Ronald Bronstein, Josh Safdie
Cast: Adam Sandler, Indina Menzel, Kevin Garnett
“I made a crazy risk. You gamble and it’s about to pay off.”
Adam Sandler, man.
I think we knew it way back when he did Punch Drunk Love, but Uncut Gems confirms it. The man could be of the finest actors of his generation. Capable of completely transforming himself in a role that makes you somehow forget you’re watching Billy Madison or Happy Gilmore. It’s just that he’s largely content with making z-tier comedy trash with his friends and then once every couple of decades dropping an acting masterclass on an unsuspecting audience.
In the Safdie Brother’s brilliantly tense thriller Uncut Gems, Sandler plays Howard, a jewellery store owner and gambling addict who happens across a rare black opal that could clear his debts and make him a fortune. Howard is that guy who is always on the verge of landing the big score but his own compulsive personality is his biggest liability. His fortunes, his marriage, his store….everything hangs by a thread. Any small win that goes his way is immediately poured into his next big gamble.
Uncut Gems is one of the most chaotically constructed, stressful works of cinema I’ve seen. People talk lightning fast over the top of one another in a way that heightens your anxiety. The damned security door in Howard’s store keeps jamming up and sets off a buzzer that frays at your nerves. All of this discomfort is done by design and at the centre of it all is Howard riding his luck to the very end. We think we know how it’ll end but lady luck both shines and shuns Howard in equal measure in this crazy caper.
Sandler said he would purposefully return to making shitty films if he didn’t clean up during awards season for his performance in Uncut Gems. After he was completely shut out by the Academy Awards, he was true to his word. Hubie Halloween arrived on Netflix later that same year and we’re left to ponder the career that could’ve been.
Director: Autumn de Wilde
Writer: Eleanor Cotton
Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Mia Goth
“Mother, you MUST sample the tart!”
2020 has been a breakout year for Anya Taylor-Joy thanks to her lead performance in Netflix’s hugely popular chess drama The Queen’s Gambit. I felt like I got on the bandwagon a little earlier thanks to her entertaining and spirited performance as the wily protagonist in Emma.
Taylor-Joy has a x-factor about her screen presence that anyone would kill for. She has striking facial features and distinctive manner that exudes charm. It is put to fine use in Emma as she schmoozes, teases, attracts and leads on hapless gentlemen and socialites around her.
Even if you’ve seen the BBC series, the Paltrow version or Clueless a million times, I can still recommend Autumn de Wilde’s adaptation. It has by far some of the most eye-catching costumes and set designs I’ve seen of an Austen production and the film manages to feel fresh and entertaining without needing to wildly upend its source material.
I think this film was somewhat overlooked at the start of the year but I suspect with Taylor-Joy’s skyrocketing popularity, it will rightly find the audience it deserves.
Da 5 Bloods
Director: Spike Lee
Writer: Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo
Cast: Delroy Lindo, Chadwick Boseman, Clarke Peters, Jonathan Majors, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr
Da 5 Bloods is Spike Lee’s latest production. A sprawling 155 minute war drama about African-American Vietnam war vets – the “Bloods” – returning to Ho Chi Minh in modern day to pay tribute to their fallen leader Norman and to recover a bounty of gold bars.
Da 5 Bloods is a wildly inventive, highly entertaining movie that chops and changes between genres, confidently shifting gears betwen comedy, action and politically charged polemic. It’s clear Spike Lee still has a lot to say through his films.
Da 5 Bloods took on extra significance and meaning as it released mere weeks after the death of George Floyd which lead to America undertaking a once in a generation reckoning with institutional racism. Sadly, Chadwick Boseman also passed away from illness soon after the film’s release which gave the scenes of Norm’s heavenly visage an unexpectedly tragic and heartbreaking new significance also.
Amongst a stacked cast of talented actors, it is Delroy Lindo that leaves a lasting impression with his larger than life performance as Paul, a PTSD-suffering veteran who has become a Trump supporter and is increasingly paranoid of his friends stealing the gold. I expect to see his name in lights come award season next year.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Director: Charlie Kaufman
Writer: Charlie Kaufman
Cast: Jesse Plemons, Toni Collette, Jessie Buckley
A young woman sits in the passenger seat of a car as her boyfriend Jake drives them to meet his parents. They’ve been together for seven weeks and she ponders whether its worth continuing the relationship.
From this simple premise I’m Thinking of Ending Things develops into a tense, uncomfortable psychological thriller before descending into a full blown surrealistic horror where time becomes non linear and the characters travel through multiple dimensions. Well, I say that but I’m not totally sure. Months later, I’m still processing what I witnessed.
Each act in I’m Thinking of Ending Things feels like it exists as its own entity, as the film jarringly (by design) shifts between genres and keeps the viewer disoriented. The young woman (played by Jessie Buckley) isn’t even named. Nor is anyone else for that matter, except the boyfriend Jake.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is Charlie Kaufman’s first live action film he’s written in twelve years. In Australia it was released at a time when most of the country was in some state of lockdown. Watching this experience, where time is non-linear and character names don’t matter, was arguably perfectly timed. During the time-stands-still mental haze of lockdown, I’m Thinking of Ending Things was probably evoking moods and feelings that Kaufman didn’t intend, but it is to the film’s benefit.
I can appreciate that when viewed in the wrong mood or mindset, I’m Thinking of Ending Things could feel like a shapeless mess. But I can’t deny the film worked for me as a dark, trippy headfuck like the best works of David Lynch. It’s evocative and expressive, a timely work during these strange days.
Hamilton – Lin Manuel Miranda’s hugely popular broadway production became available to the masses with this fantastic recording made available on Disney+ with all of the original cast.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm – an unexpected sequel to 2004’s surprise hit works surprisingly well as both a comedy on its own merits as well as a satirical lens on a country that has been wrecked by coronavirus conspiracy theories and politically charged paranoia. Incredibly, a scene in which the President’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani appears to solicit sex from someone he believed to be a teenage journalist wasn’t even in the top three weirdest/grossest things he did in November.
Palm Springs – one of the most enjoyable films I watched during lockdown this year was Andy Samberg’s time-travelling, multi-dimensional comedy about two wedding guests who fall in love.
Eurovision: The Story of Fire Saga – an enjoyable rom-com produced by life long Eurovision fan Will Ferrell about the world’s most popular and enduring music talent contest. Eurovision: The Story of Fire Saga is an excellent platform for the comedic talents of Rachel McAdams, who has been killing it in recent years between this and the underrated Game Night.
Crip Camp – a fascinating and uplifting Netflix documentary about a group of attendees at a summer camp for disabled teens in the Seventies who go on to become activists responsible for leading the modern day disability civil rights movement.
The Princess Switch 2 – an enjoyable and light-hearted Christmas movie in which Vanessa Hudgens plays three identical women (a princess, a baker from Chicago and a con-artist) who trade places with one another. The ending of the film drops the bombshell that all of the Netflix Christmas movies actually exist in the same cinematic universe. It suggests the tantalising possibility of a Christmas Princess Switch 3: End Game where all the Christmas movie protagonists could unite to fight a common evil. Make it happen, Netflix.