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2020: Review of the Year

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

Tenet inversions

Nine Invisible Men

Eight Vasts of Night

Seven Dollhouses

Six in His House

Five Kelly histories

Four jazzing Souls

Queen & Slim

Two Parasites

and one take through 1917.

1. 1917

An extraordinary, intense, visceral, immersive, brutal yet lyrical and at times eerily beautiful journey through hell on earth.

2. Parasite

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.

4. Soul

A gorgeous, ingenious, moving, dazzling and sublime animated meditation on body and mind, music, mortality and the meaning of life.

5. True History of the Kelly Gang

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.

7. Dollhouse: The Eradication of Female Subjectivity from American Popular Culture

An equal parts hideous and grotesque, hilarious and insightful satire on gender, discourse, hegemony and capitalism.

8. The Vast of Night

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.

9. The Invisible Man

A nerve-shredding, gut clenching and deeply affecting horror of gaslighting, terrifying negative space and the oppressive, predatory gaze of toxic masculinity.

10. Tenet

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.

11. Relic

An ominous, petrifying and mournful journey into creeping dread, generations, recriminations and acceptance.

12. Mank

A gorgeous, complex, scathing yet affectionate investigative portrait of creativity, conscience, historical artifice and the interweaving of entertainment and politics.

Honourable mentions

Bombshell

A striking, gripping and urgent tale of toxic masculinity, institutional oppression, the danger and the necessity of speaking out.

The Personal History of David Copperfield

A vibrant, beautiful, whimsical and metatastic romp of family, identity and owning one’s story.

The Lighthouse

A grim, oppressive nightmare of isolation, stark visuals, crashing sound and escalating madness.

Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn

A knowingly witty, deliriously scrappy, gloriously silly comic book crime action smack ‘em whack ‘em of breaking free and flipping the bird at convention.

Color Out of Space

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.

Dark Waters

A grim, dour, moodily lit and ominously atmospheric tale of corporate power, public victims and indomitable courage.

Sea Fever

A genre-savvy and effectively atmospheric creature feature/infection thriller that uses the familiarity of its tropes to its advantage.

Extraction

A visceral, intense, bone-crunching, bombastic and blistering bonanza of action, injury and loyalties.

Da 5 Bloods

A somewhat disparate and overdone but still powerful, stylish, timely and urgent drama of legacies racial, historical, familial, national, fiscal and traumatic.

The Owners

An escalatingly sinister, consistently nasty and genuinely terrifying blend of home invasion, folk and body horror, with strong undertones of class and gender warfare.

Godmothered

A beautiful, intelligent and quite marvellous modern fairytale of identifying true love, living happily and the telling of stories.

Disappointments

The Hunt

An intermittently funny and nasty if blunt satire and thematically confused chase horror of mixed politics, creative kills and the dangers of social media.

The Host

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.

The Rental

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.

Heckle

A garish, confused and awful muddle of genre tropes, wretched people and nonsensical ideas around fame, recriminations and stupidity.

Redwood Massacre: Annihilation

A potentially grim and gory survival slasher mushed clumsily inside an overly convoluted plot and stilted execution.

Turkey of the Year

Camp Twilight

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.

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Da 5 Bloods

Da 5 Bloods is everything you would expect from a Spike Lee Joint. Smart, fast-talking characters; sudden eruptions of violence; a strong sense of political indignation; an eclectic visual style. At times, Lee’s tale of Vietnam veterans returning to the scene of their earlier combat feels overdone, but what Da 5 Bloods lacks in subtlety it makes up for in power. The theme of legacies runs throughout the film, including the racial history of African American soldiers, the colonial legacy of the Vietnam conflict, familial ties including bloodlines and military camaraderie, national and personal trauma, while finance and immigration make appearances as well. The heady mixture can be disparate and the film lacks the focused punch of Lee’s previous film, BlacKkKlansman, but Da 5 Bloods is still a stylish, timely and urgent drama.