Thursday 31 December 2020

Top 10 Films of 2020

I may only have seen 16 films at the cinema/big screen this year (compared to 123 in 2019) but I sat through just over 420 films online and via physical media: a first for me but for some viewers I understand that 420 is junior league stuff. Anyway of that 420, here are 10 that I thought worth singling out:

1. Relic (Australia/USA 2020: Dir Natalie Erika James) A haunted house movie both internally and externally, James' debut feature for the most part holds off the supernatural and gives us a story about love, loss and duty, featuring a brave central performance by 78 year old Robyn Nevin as a woman in the grip of dementia and maybe something even darker.

2. Parasite (South Korea 2019: Dir Bong Joon Ho) Often cited as a companion piece to Jordan Peele's Us, this deservedly cleaned up at the 2020 Oscars, provoking a predictably racist response from a certain tangerine buffoon. A coming together of the haves and have nots, Parasite was by turns darkly comic, frightening and moving, with a story that gripped like a vice. A movie that got bums on seats in the cinema both by word of mouth and unanimous critical praise, while adding another superb film to the director's stellar CV.

8. The Invisible Man (Canada/Australia/USA 2020: Dir Leigh Whannell) Previous entries in the Universal monsters 'Dark Universe' re-boot franchise hadn't fared that well, so it was a surprise that Whannell's revisit of the Invisible Man character was so successful. As mentioned in my review the movie would be nothing without Elisabeth Moss (whose other genre credit this year was Shirley, a film which has featured in many critics' films of the year lists, somewhat bewilderingly as I didn't like it) but its merging of Sleeping With the Enemy and Hollow Man was unexpectedly layered and gripping.

7. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (France 2019: Dir Céline Sciamma) One of the last films I saw at the cinema before the first big lockdown, and I'm pleased I got to view it on the big screen where its sumptuous visual palette could be best admired. A romance between a female painter and her (female) subject, Sciamma's fourth feature pushes men to the background and explores the relationships between art, nature and humanity. It's a woozy, unhurried piece of filmmaking.

6. The Hunt (USA 2020: Dir Craig Zobel) Zobel's darkly funny backwoods thriller possibly wouldn't have made it to the list except for one of the standout performances of the year from Betty (GLOW) Gilpin. Gilpin plays one of a number of working class Republican countryfolk, captured for hunting by a group of elites. Her incredible physicality, as she gradually turns the tables on her attackers and attempts to find out who's behind the whole thing, is nothing short of breath-taking. 

5. Exit (UK 2020: Dir Michael Fausti) One of four UK movies to have made it into my Top 10 list this year, 2020 has been very strong for indie UK horror. Exit follows on from a number of Fausti's classy shorts. As the title suggests, although this isn't a 'state of the nation' movie as such, the Brexit inspired divisions in UK society run all the way through this story of two sets of couples forced to stay the night together after double booking the same holiday rental. Economic, strongly scored, and with more than a whiff of European arthouse cinema to it, Exit is an intelligent, visceral thriller/drama.

4. Jo Jo Rabbit (New Zealand/Czech Republic/USA 2019; Dir Taika Waititi) Although Waititi's very human satire had played a number of festivals the year before, its official UK release was on 1st January 2020. Another of the 16 films I caught at a temporarily open cinema, I'd always been slightly cautious about this director's previous movies. Jo Jo Rabbit however manages its tricky subject matter - a young boy in Hitler's army encounters a Jewish girl hidden in his home - boldly, directly, and with two excellent performances from Roman Griffin Davis as JoJo and Scarlett Johansson as the hidden girl Rosie. And if you don't find the end sequence - with its rousing use of Bowie's 'Heroes'- life affirming, you're wired up wrong.

3. Silence & Darkness (USA 2020: Dir Barak Barkan) This one came totally out of the blue, one of the best indie dramas I've seen all year. A terrifying story of two sisters, one deaf, the other blind, who live with their scientist father in a strange, controlled environment which initially seems to offer protection to the girls, but turns out to have far darker origins. Subtle, intense performances and some of the most harrowing scenes I've experienced in modern cinema, Silence & Darkness is truly extraordinary.

2. Host (UK 2020: Dir Rob Savage) This year's pandemic provided some creative challenges for filmmakers, but none responded more persuasively than Rob Savage. As Leonard Maltin used to say in his movie guide, 'Welcome back from Mars if you haven't heard about this one yet.' Six friends get together for a Zoom chat (the movie lasts the duration of a Zoom call ie 50 minutes), the aim of their gathering an online séance. But as usual in these things the séance goes wrong, and we the viewers watch as the supernatural events unfold in each of the Zoom windows. On the back of this Savage has secured a major deal with Blumhouse, which is great news, but time will tell if Host is the start of a great career or a bizarre one off fluke. Either way it's quite brilliant.

1. Saint Maud (UK 2019: Dir Rose Glass) The sixth of my Top 10 viewed in an actual cinema, and featuring an astonishing central performance from Morfydd Clark as the titular Maud, an agency care worker whose relationship with her client, a dying dancer played by Jennifer Ehle, leads to violence and either severe mental disorder or something more religiously profound (the film doesn't provide easy answers). In my review I wrote "taut, economical and beautifully controlled, Saint Maud contains an almost constant threat of violence on the part of the title character, undercut with a painful vulnerability." Astonishingly good.

Honourable mentions: The Personal History of David Copperfield, Rent a Pal, Survival Skills, Possessor, Mangrove, Luz: The Flower of Evil, A Ghost Waits

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