Okay here we go with the rundown of my top ten films of the 2020. Just outside the list were Jojo Rabbit, Parasite, Queen & Slim, Mangrove, Host and Mank. (Yes, that’s right. Parasite did not make the ten.) We start the final countdown then with Uncut Gems, a film of such gripping intensity and with an astounding central performance from Adam Sandler. The same guy also appeared in Hubie Halloween this year, which features in my bottom ten. I’d like to think that it pains Adam Sandler to still appear in trash like that when he is able to garner such praise for a blisteringly brilliant acting turn elsewhere, but I fear it doesn’t.
My ninth favourite film of the year is Bombshell. There were better movies telling feminist stories, there were even better movies telling feminist stories in the workplace (read on for those) but this film really impressed me. It’s sad to think that the events depicted here were so recent, we thought things had improved, but it is also surprising that the film never mentions the role disgraced sexual predator Roger Ailes went onto after the story told here; that of speech writer for Donald Trump. That tells you everything you need to know right there. Bombshell has tremendous performances, especially from Margot Robbie, and some astonishing make up work. I still think it would have been better if it had been directed by a woman though.
Number eight in the 2020 list is 1917. It wasn’t just two continuous shots as it purported to be, you can see the joins, but it doesn’t matter because actually having sequences that last seven or eight minutes without the camera dropping is impressive enough. That opening that follows Lance Corporals Blake and Schofield as they walk through the trenches is quietly spectacular. In fact it doesn’t follow them at all, unlike that famous shot in Goodfellas it goes ahead of them almost the whole way which is a simple difference but so much harder to achieve. Make no mistake that this is film making at its most technically skilled. Only Tenet this year went further but we’ll get to that in a moment.
Number seven in my run down of the year’s best movies is Just Mercy which tells the true story of Bryan Stevenson, a young black defence attorney who has dedicated his life to freeing people from minority backgrounds wrongly placed on death row. Focusing mostly on the 1992/1993 case of Walter McMillian, Just Mercy features brilliant performances from Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx, one of whom has been beaten down by the system as far as to believe that Black Lives Matter needn’t extend to him and the other for whom that mantra is his one professional ethos. The film builds on To Kill a Mockingbird and its cinematic legacy but is one of those rare films that has black people on both sides of the dock.
Number six then is Tenet. Lots of people dismissed Christopher Nolan’s story as unnecessarily confusing but it is does have a clear story running through it, then looping on itself, reversing, twisting and weaving round to where it started. How much you enjoy Tenet has nothing to do with intelligence but it does depend on how much you are readily prepared to engage with a film and if you work for it then the rewards here are many. Small moments from early in the film pay off superbly and it all comes together at the end/beginning with an astonishing crescendo. The most impressive thing though is not how Nolan came up with the complex narrative but how he managed to commit it all to the screen. No one else could have written this and no one else could have filmed it. There are other great cinematic storytellers and incredible visual artists but I’m not sure that anyone else has control of the medium quite like this guy.
My top five movies this year starts with Never Rarely Sometimes Always which like most of those still to come on my list, may be one that many people won’t be familiar with. This tiny budget film was one of those to get bigger press coverage and a wider audience when the cinemas closed in March and it is worth all the increased intention and more. It tells the story of a young woman who has to sneak out of her provincial town to New York so that she can get an abortion, accompanied by her cousin, and while this brings heartache, ultimately this is a beautifully uplifting film about female choice and female friendship.
Number four in my 2020 top ten is The Assistant. Bombshell highlighted the issues for women who are the victims of sexual harassment in the workplace but The Assistant explores the experience of the women around this, who may be safe from their bosses advances but are still prey to sexism. It examines the balance between not being an enabler while still advancing your own career for both yourself and other women after you. This is probably a far more universal situation but it makes a no less powerful movie. The film is subtle but so is the insidious manner in which female employees are discriminated against and the quiet power it has reflects the strength of all of the women in these environments.
Approaching the end of the list, we have Babyteeth at number three. This Australian movie features a brilliant performance from Eliza Scanlen who played Beth in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. It was heartbreaking watching her pass away in that movie and I’m afraid she has a life threatening disease in this one too. Rather than being about dying though, Babyteeth is about living and it is magnificent, sad but magnificent.
This next film has been at the top of my list for most of the year, even though I saw the movie that has trailed just behind only a month later in March. After careful reconsideration though the two have swapped places in the final ranking. Nonetheless Weathering With You, the latest film from animator Makoto Shinkai, is just breathtaking. You remember when Studio Ghibli were putting out Japan’s most exciting cartoon films, presenting enchanting children’s stories with adult appeal? Well as Ghibli currently sits dormant someone else is filling the gap with teen centred films that can be enjoyed by a similarly wide audience. Following the brilliant Your Name, Shinkai’s latest is about a boy who runs away from home and falls in love with a girl with magical weather manipulation powers and everything about it, from the artistry to the story, is just beautiful.
Parasite may not have cracked my top ten but it feels right that in the year that a film not in the English language won the Oscar for the first time, my top two movies are both subtitled. South Korea has a superb film industry and I’m thrilled this has started to get recognised in the mainstream. France also has one of the highest cinematic outputs in the world though and Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire which shows this at its best is my movie of the year. This story of two pre-revolution women falling in love as one paints the portrait of the other so that she can be found a husband is just so wonderful. The time being what it was they could never really end up together but the ending that they and the film does find is perfect. Also, while there is some mild nudity, this lesbian story does not feel the need to go the way of most movies of its type by including any lengthy love making scenes and it is all the better for it. Unlike Carol, Ammonite, The Handmaiden and Blue is the Warmest Colour, this is all about women without offering any treats for the boys, other than the achingly beautiful romance of course.
2020 was undeniably a bad year for cinema but it was still great year for film.