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2020 was a train wreck, and not the amusing Amy Schumer variety. Amidst a global pandemic and fluctuating lockdown, riots and contested elections, wretched negotiations and a profound desire to move to New Zealand, one of the great sources of comfort and inspiration was, of course, the movies! But cinemas were closed for months on end, forcing me, for the first time, to include online releases in my review of the year. Is this a Bombshell the scale of which were dropped in 1917? Are the Dark Waters of 2020 inducing Sea Fever beyond The Lighthouse? Or can we find a guiding Tenet or helpful Relic in His House, but watch out for The Invisible Man, he can be quite a Parasite.
The year began with awards season, which included some pleasing variety. The biggest movie news of the season was, of course, Parasite becoming the first international film to win Best Picture, which had me jumping for glee. Not that I necessarily rate Parasite as my film of the year, but it helped give the year a strong start alongside Jojo Rabbit, 1917, Bombshell and Queen & Slim.
The next month and a bit brought literally arty-farty fare, Dickens and Lovecraft adaptations rubbing shoulders with comic book action and horrors both fantastical and real (or not) life. Then lockdown rolled in like The Jesus and streaming became the norm.
Horror was well represented, from a tedious Psycho ripoff to a timely oceanic contagion, alongside resurrecting Richards and high school purgatory, while people trapped in single locations veered from the sublime to the ridiculous. More wild environments offered scares and snores, some exotic locations and ample gore. FrightFest offered some of the best and the worst of the year, including spaces both spooky and gory, some sinning, banishing and reckoning wobbles and some dreck.
Streaming services provided outlets for action and sci-fi, as well as opportunities for big name directors like Spike Lee and David Fincher as well as Pete Docter. Unexpected gems appeared with interesting names including Koko-di Koko-da and LX 2048, and my last two visits to the cinema gave me spectacle of the inverted and the nostalgic kind. But perhaps the biggest surprise of the year was a savage mockumentary featuring little dolls. Just goes to show, even in a year as restricted as 2020, the medium of film still manages to impress and delight.
Drawn from this cinematic smorgasbord, here are my favourite films of 2020. As always, my top twelve of the year are based on UK release dates, and completely subjective.
On the twelfth day of Christmas
The movies gave to me
Twelve Manky screenplays
Eleven family Relics
Nine Invisible Men
Eight Vasts of Night
Six in His House
Five Kelly histories
Four jazzing Souls
Queen & Slim
and one take through 1917.
An extraordinary, intense, visceral, immersive, brutal yet lyrical and at times eerily beautiful journey through hell on earth.
A meticulously plotted, impeccably directed, ingeniously inventive suspense thriller/dark comedy of social satire, familial loyalty and the interconnections between us all.
3. Queen & Slim
A beautiful, lyrical, heartbreaking, extremely timely and utterly wonderful road movie of growing love, solidarity and community within inequality, oppression and unwanted notoriety.
A gorgeous, ingenious, moving, dazzling and sublime animated meditation on body and mind, music, mortality and the meaning of life.
A jagged, fragmented and striking drama of masculine identity, homosocial bonds and psychopathology in a deceptively expansive and toxic environment.
6. His House
An atmospheric, terrifying, heartbreaking, timely and utterly brilliant portrait of haunting, loss, asylum seeking and the struggle to belong.
An equal parts hideous and grotesque, hilarious and insightful satire on gender, discourse, hegemony and capitalism.
A beautifully assured, enthrallingly paced and wonderfully engaging blend of physical and social period detail, genre homage and innovation, long takes, jump cuts and the power of sound and communication.
A nerve-shredding, gut clenching and deeply affecting horror of gaslighting, terrifying negative space and the oppressive, predatory gaze of toxic masculinity.
A massive, mind-frying, globe-skipping experiential adventure of espionage, ego and eruptions/inversions through space and time, that falters on scale but delivers with exhilarating pace.
An ominous, petrifying and mournful journey into creeping dread, generations, recriminations and acceptance.
A gorgeous, complex, scathing yet affectionate investigative portrait of creativity, conscience, historical artifice and the interweaving of entertainment and politics.
A striking, gripping and urgent tale of toxic masculinity, institutional oppression, the danger and the necessity of speaking out.
A vibrant, beautiful, whimsical and metatastic romp of family, identity and owning one’s story.
A grim, oppressive nightmare of isolation, stark visuals, crashing sound and escalating madness.
A knowingly witty, deliriously scrappy, gloriously silly comic book crime action smack ‘em whack ‘em of breaking free and flipping the bird at convention.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind spliced with Annihilation blended with Evolution and filtered through The Thing equals a haunting, eerie and often terrifying sci-fi horror of family, body, spatial and mind fuckery.
A grim, dour, moodily lit and ominously atmospheric tale of corporate power, public victims and indomitable courage.
A genre-savvy and effectively atmospheric creature feature/infection thriller that uses the familiarity of its tropes to its advantage.
A visceral, intense, bone-crunching, bombastic and blistering bonanza of action, injury and loyalties.
A somewhat disparate and overdone but still powerful, stylish, timely and urgent drama of legacies racial, historical, familial, national, fiscal and traumatic.
An escalatingly sinister, consistently nasty and genuinely terrifying blend of home invasion, folk and body horror, with strong undertones of class and gender warfare.
A beautiful, intelligent and quite marvellous modern fairytale of identifying true love, living happily and the telling of stories.
An intermittently funny and nasty if blunt satire and thematically confused chase horror of mixed politics, creative kills and the dangers of social media.
A handsomely mounted and efficient if rather jarring and unconvincing transnational neo-noir/psychological horror.
The Dead Ones
A discordant, jarring and rather tasteless teen horror of adolescent angst, cyclical violence and convolution for the sake of convolution.
A limp and uninspired home invasion/surveillance horror of generic cliches, tiresome backstories and obvious recriminations, sorely lacking tension or relevance that literally falls off a cliff.
A garish, confused and awful muddle of genre tropes, wretched people and nonsensical ideas around fame, recriminations and stupidity.
A potentially grim and gory survival slasher mushed clumsily inside an overly convoluted plot and stilted execution.
Turkey of the Year
An incompetent, joyless, clumsy, obvious and thunderingly stupid slasher that ruins possible homage with laboured and nonsensical plotting, inert direction, slopping editing, stilted dialogue, clunky transitions and an utter lack of tension, menace, scares and even a sense of fun.
Certainly a surprising year, and strangely more films than in previous years that I thought were pretty bad. But the good outweighs the bad, and bring on 2021 and all its movies, whenever they may arrive.
Bombshell is a story of our time, and one that we may wish was not. Based on real events, the film tells the story of sexual harassment cases brought by Fox News staff against CEO Roger Ailes (played under several layers of makeup by John Lithgow). Around this true story, which ultimately led to the dismissal of Ailes and major damages for the victims (although check the supertext at the end for a serious gut punch), director Jay Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph deliver on several fronts. Bombshell is a stirring character study, especially of Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) and Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie). All three leads are great in their representation of women at different stages of their careers. Carlson is the most established and aggrieved, leading the campaign against Ailes. Kelly is more cautious, herself a victim but, in her own words, loyal to Ailes and to Fox News as a whole. Pospisil is a new recruit, naïve in her worship of Fox News, whose encounter with the seedier side of the network provides much of the film’s heartbreak. Bombshell is also a gripping legal drama that, similar to Just Mercy, eschews courtroom histrionics in favour of smart legal wrangling. The film is also a damning indictment of institutionalised toxic masculinity. Aside from one scene, the sexual harassment only appears in the accounts and testimony of the plaintiffs. This is hugely important, because it focuses attention on the victims of Ayers’ predation. Despite Roach’s flashy stylistics that echo the style of Fox News itself, including his glamorous leading ladies and some direct-to-camera addresses, the film is neither titillating nor explicit. Rather, it gives voice to the silent masses who do not speak out for fear of reprisals. The telling of such stories in popular mass entertainment brings these otherwise silenced voices into the mainstream, allowing for a wider conversation. In facilitating this conversation, Bombshell demonstrates the social potential of cinema, while also being a compelling drama in its own right.