Looking back on cinema in 2020 is a strange experience. The year started strong, with a roster of awards contenders that mixed technical marvels (1917, The Lighthouse) with fascinatingly divisive works (Jojo Rabbit, Queen & Slim) and a much-deserved history maker (Parasite). Beyond the Oscars there were charming rom coms (Plus One), ambitious comic book adaptations (Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) and charming literary works (Emma).
And then the world changed in March and the cinemas closed, leaving film fans bereft and scrabbling for our next hit of cellular gold. Our beloved multiplexes have never quite got back off their feet in 2020, through a series of openings, closings and re-openings. But amongst the turmoil and the continually moving release schedule, gems sparkled through. Smaller, more intimate works came to the fore thanks to the richness that independent and non-studio cinema has to offer, and the year ends with a rich bounty of cinematic delights - just ones you will likely have only seen at home.
Daily Info’s movie buff Russell Bailey has put together his pick of the year’s best.
The best film that wasn’t a film – The Last of Us Part II
The first entry on this blog is a cheat. But it contains a narrative that, bar my favourite of the year, no television show, game or film matched The Last of Us Part II’s emotional breadth and heartbreaking impact. Following on from 2013’s colossal original, it is a game that builds off its predecessor’s climax, deepening it and taking the series down, for some, controversial paths. But in the end, the thirty or so hours you spend playing this game are some of the most rewarding, if devastating, hours you’ll spend in the company of any work of art in 2020.
The also-rans – eleven other films worth checking out
Visually astounding journey, shot as if it is one take, through the trenches with a host of cameos from British acting royalty.
Hugh Jackman gives a phenomenal turn as the corrupt beating heart of this High School-set drama. Think Alexander Payne’s Election but for the Trump era.
Death of a Vlogger
Exceptional indie horror brimming with hard truths about our online lives. A deft little chiller in a year where the genre continued to produce engaging works.
The Forty-Year-Old Version
Radha Blank’s bittersweet, often hilarious comedy exploring an artist searching for her true voice. If you ever felt like you’ve peaked creatively, watch this and see that your life always has another act to play out.
Phyllida Lloyd and Clare Dunne’s powerful drama about a woman seeking to break free of the broken system she is part of finds a hopeful note that resonates in 2020.
Innovative horror, shot and released during lockdown, as friends come unstuck during a Zoom séance.
The Invisible Man
Propulsive take on the classic Universal monster that reshapes the narrative into one that explores gaslighting and domestic abuse. It also contains the best scare of 2020.
New David Fincher work is always worth your attention and even if Mank isn’t his best it is still a treat for movie fans.
The Personal History of David Copperfield
Armando Iannucci’s exemplary cast and wonderfully light-footed reinterpretation of the Dickens’ classic.
The Vast of Night
Fascinating indie sci-fi that exhibits skill far beyond its modest budget. There is a tracking shot that is one of the single best moments in any film this year.
Wonder Woman 1984
As rich as movies have been in 2020, what has felt missing is cinema on a blockbuster scope. Of the two or three that have managed a release, Wonder Woman 1984 is the best – resoundingly optimistic fare with spectacular set pieces and a quartet of interesting characters at its core that just about makes up for a somewhat bloated running time.
The best of 2020 cinema
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Director Marielle Heller is now three for three in terms of masterful indie dramas, following up The Diary of a Teenage Girl and Can You Ever Forgive Me? with this warm, likeable sort-of biopic. Tom Hanks is the American icon Mr Rogers, and the narrative is shaped around a series of interviews he had with a journalist profiling him. Heller is an impeccable director and will one day get her moment in the awards season sun.
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets/David Byrne’s American Utopia
The documentary genre continues to be in rude health and a pair stood out in particular in 2020. Bill & Turner Ross’ Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is modest in scope, following a Las Vegas’ bar’s last day open, but soulfully chronicles the dying embers of a way of life that has now passed. And while you don’t need to be a fan of the former Talking Heads frontman’s music to appreciate Spike Lee’s superb concert film of the performer’s 2019 Broadway show. Both capture something that has felt so absent from 2020 because of all that has happened over the past twelve months.
The very best of the horror genre finds a way to tell the stories that need to be told. And one of the finest examples dropped on Netflix in October. Remi Weekes’ debut is a powerful exploration of the UK’s immigration system with supernatural and mundane horrors merging as a Sudanese couple attempt to adjust to a new life in an English town whilst still haunted by what they’ve been through to get to their new home.
A pair of courtroom dramas stood out this year, and while Dark Waters is one worth seeking out, it is Destin Daniel Cretton’s Just Mercy that has lingered and grown in relevance. Following a defence attorney as he works to free a wrongly convicted prisoner on death row, its exploration of race within the US judiciary system has gained potency due to the events of the past year. It’s equal parts a hopeful and heart-breaking watch, with outstanding turns from Michael B Jordan and Jamie Foxx.
No film quite foreshadowed lockdown like The Lighthouse, Robert Eggers’ sophomore effort. Following a pair of lighthouse keepers stranded in a storm, it is a descent into madness via drink and the inescapable mundanity of being trapped in one place. Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe are both at the top of their game, in a film that is as interesting as it is uncategorisable.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
One of several films that ended up short-changed during this year’s awards season, Céline Sciamma’s romance is a work of profound beauty that lingers long after the credits. Following an artist as she is tasked with covertly painting a bride-to-be, it marries powerful turns from Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel, Claire Mathon’s beautiful cinematography and Jean-Baptiste de Laubier & Arthur Simonini’s moving score.
In a strong year for horror, Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor may well be the stand-out. A mind-scraping work, this is a warped corporate thriller that sees an assassin hijacking other people’s bodies to take out their targets. Certainly not for the faint-hearted, this is an incredibly violent watch, at times icily detached and yet hauntingly penetrative. A masterpiece for those willing to go along with it.
A big ball of anxiety-inducing tension, Uncut Gems is probably not the work to watch if you need an escape from the 2020-ness of our current predicament. But the Safdie brothers' latest, following a gambling addict as he bounces from one ridiculous bet to another, is the duo’s masterpiece, proving, remarkably, that Adam Sandler is a brilliant actor. And when the ending arrives it hits the audience like a freight train.
In a year notably absent of the bigger players in the animation genre, Cartoon Saloon’s Wolfwalkers swooped in to give audiences a powerful watch suitable for the whole family. A further exploration of Irish folklore (after the likes of The Secret of Kells, Song of the Seas) the film takes a sweet friendship blossoming between two girls and explores the difficult colonial history Ireland has endured. Wolfwalkers is complicated, funny, moving and, in its climax, optimistic of what can be achieved.
The film of the year – Parasite
It feels a lifetime ago that Parasite made history in February by becoming the first non-English language film to win the Oscar for Best Picture. But what a film to finally break the barrier. A con-is-on thriller that warps in front of the audience into something altogether darker, in a remarkable career it is director Bong Joon Ho’s finest piece. A technical marvel with a pitch-perfect script and the best ensemble of the year, Parasite is a remarkable work that mixes comedy, horror and tragedy, sometimes in the same scene.