Whilst 2020 was, without a doubt, a truly miserable year, there was still a glut of great cinema if you knew where to look. In place of studio blockbusters, streaming services and breakout directors provided fantastic films that made months of lockdowns, virus terror, and ever-changing restrictions just that much more bearable, even if most of them couldn’t be seen in a cinema
The best and most beautiful animated film of the year, Wolfwalkers saw Irish studio Cartoon Saloon truly cement their place amongst the world’s animation greats. Gorgeous, hand-crafted environments tell their own story in every frame, adding depth and weight to a plot that boldly tackles colonialism and environmentalism without alienating any younger audience members. As good as CG animation can look, there’s a magic to Wolfwalkers that can only be achieved through the kind of painstaking 2D work that Cartoon Saloon so excel at.
Charlie Kaufman’s mind-boggling mystery may well have been the least-understood movie of the year, but that’s all part of its charm. It’s nigh-on impossible to ‘work out’ I’m Thinking of Ending Things, and once you accept that, you can let it wash over you in all its creepy, surreal glory. Interpretive dance, Pauline Kael essays, and a bizarre roadside ice cream shop collide in the longest night of a young woman’s life, her confusion and disorientation passed on to the audience. Jessie Buckley gives a phenomenal performance, grounding the weirdness all the way to the ambiguous, haunting ending.
If you needed any more proof that Andrea Riseborough is one of Britain’s most capable and versatile actors, Possessor delivers that proof in spades while also offering room for a magnificent, career-best performance from Christopher Abbott. Brandon Cronenberg’s violent, disturbing horror relies just as much on its brilliant cast as it does on blood and gore and its stomach-turning body-swap premise. Possessor has a lot to say about voyeurism and self-ownership in the modern world, and it says it very smartly, expertly mixing its messages into a blood-soaked thrill ride that never lets up the intensity, making for 2020’s most compelling horror movie.
The best entry in Steve McQueen’s groundbreaking five-part ‘Small Axe’ series, Lovers Rock provided a 68-minute hit of pure pleasure, an escape to a house party in a year when socialising was desperately missed. From a joyous singalong to ‘Silly Games’ to the riotous power of the ‘Kunta Kinte Dub’, McQueen revelled in Black joy in a way rarely seen in British cinema, folding politics into partying in a truly intoxicating mix. The energy in Lovers Rock is constantly shifting and changing, but it never falters, with its morning-after finale providing some of the happiest scenes of the year. Some of the dumbest filmic discourse of the year was the argument over whether or not the ‘Small Axe’ instalments were ‘actually films’. Of course they are, and Lovers Rock is the highlight of a very strong selection.
2020’s funniest movie was Ben Sharrock’s beautifully humane immigration comedy Limbo. Sitcom-like in its writing and commitment to constant, brilliant jokes, it realises that the horrific and the hilarious are often very closely related, finding the laughs in the bleakest of situations. Yet, with its gorgeous yet inhospitable setting, ambitious camerawork, and righteous rage at the UK’s treatment of refugees, Limbo is also totally cinematic, never settling for the grey, kitchen-sink visuals that define so many British directorial debuts. In a very strong year for British first-time filmmakers (Saint Maud and Make Up just missed out on places on this list), Limbo emerged as the brightest star of the new generation.
David Fincher’s study of Golden Age Hollywood has been decades in the making, but it was well worth the wait. Scripted by his late father Jack, Mank is as witty and gorgeous as its subject matter demands, yet manages to also feel decidedly modern. Less about Herman Mankiewicz vs Orson Welles than it is simply about a man out of time, Mank follows in Citizen Kane‘s footsteps in taking a greater interest in the psychological than the political. A wonderful, finely detailed script matches sublimely with Fincher’s perfectionist direction and helps power an enormous ensemble’s worth of fantastic performances. Gary Oldman is great, of course, but pick of the bunch is Amanda Seyfried, whose luminous presence brings Hollywood history to vivid life.
Joyous yet tragic, hilarious yet poignant, Babyteeth took the rather overstuffed ‘teen with cancer’ genre and made it its own with luminous writing and performances. Eliza Scanlen, by now no stranger to playing dying girls, bursts off the screen here, her chemistry with Toby Wallace practically threatening to singe your eyebrows off. You’ll find yourself grinning and weeping along, swept away by the sincerity of feeling conjured by first-time filmmaker Shannon Murphy and if there were any justice in the world, Ben Mendelsohn would be front of the queue for every Supporting Actor award going. In just three words – “we’ll be okay” – he can break your heart, as he stares down the scariest thing any parent could ever imagine with a slowly crumbling facade of a brave face.
2020 was packed to the brim with exceptional debut films, but the best of the bunch was, just about, Merawi Gerima’s Residue. One of the great recent examples of how the hyper-specific becomes universal, its study of gentrification in Washington DC was based on a profound love for the setting, but its take on childhood, memory, and the benefits (both tangible and intangible) of community would fit anywhere, and will have any audience member reconsidering whether or not their neighbourhood truly feels like ‘home’. Gerima dives deep into the fury of DC residents forced out by wealthy young white people, keeping these invaders anonymous through a series of stylistic coups, but also into the joy the place used to provide. Residue is, fittingly, the kind of film that lingers with you, its images and passion impossible to shake from your mind.
All historical films are, to differing degrees, lies, shifting events around to better suit a narrative, updating language for modern audiences, or imparting present moral leanings on a past that would neither understand nor care for them. Justin Kurzel’s punk-rock take on the Ned Kelly story isn’t remarkable for not lying (if anything, it’s less truthful than much of its genre), but for owning up to the lie so spectacularly. Here is a film that understands why we tell historical stories in the way that we do, and that the power of a legend is always more important than pure facts. It makes for riveting, dizzying viewing, with images and performances that sear themselves into your brain – 10 months on from its release and I still haven’t seen an individual piece of acting more compelling this year than Nicholas Hoult as True History‘s snivelingly sadistic lead baddie.
One of the most empathetic directors working today, Chloe Zhao stunned with The Rider, but Nomadland is even better. Every shot and every speech affords its characters, whether played by movie stars or real-life American nomads, a profound and deeply moving dignity. Nomadland sees the contradiction between the beauty and brutality of America, but instead of trying to pull the two apart, Zhao finds drama in their coexistence, the majesty of the open road both intimidating and exhilarating. Frances McDormand gives a wondrous, immensely generous performance, and Zhao’s ability to conjure magnetic performances from a mostly non-professional cast feels almost miraculous. The lines between movies and reality blur and blend, immersing you ever deeper into the story until you feel like you’re hanging out with old friends, sharing memories and laughs by the fireside. My 2019 film of the year was the mania-inducing Uncut Gems, and Nomadland manages to affect you just as viscerally as that nail-biting thriller, but with kindness and generosity and an inspiring faith in the human spirit.