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It was, to put it mildly, a very strange year for film, and a weird time to compile a top ten films of 2020 list for. Cinemas were closed for many months, some of the most high-profile releases were shoved back months or years at a time, and streaming services dominated in a way that proved all of Hollywood’s worst fears right. Still, while we may have missed out on some hotly hyped blockbusters, 2020 still had a veritable feast of releases for those who knew where to look. For lovers of independent film, it was a rare moment to see those titles shine where they otherwise would have been drowned out by nine-figure superhero tentpole flicks.
My top ten is based on U.S. release dates, despite my Britishness, and does not include anything that I saw at film festivals this year which did not get a wider domestic release during the past twelve months. I must admit, it was a lot harder to put together this list than it has been in previous years, but I’m still very satisfied with my choices. Well, I am for now. I’ll probably end up slapping myself for some super-obvious omissions in the new year.
10. Promising Young Woman
There was no film in 2020 that I spent more time trying to figure out my feelings on than Emerald Fennell’s fascinating take on the rape-revenge fantasy, Promising Young Woman. It is a movie that will surely anger and divide thanks to its contentious themes and tonal jolts. Then again, that is the point. Carey Mulligan breaks out of her English Rose mold as Cassie, the sardonic and deeply fractured woman who has set herself the near-impossible mission of tackling the epidemic of rape culture that has permanently tainted her life. Rape-revenge movies are all about catharsis, but Promising Young Woman offers none of that. This is a story of violence against women in an age where such things have become so horrifyingly banal, as has society’s utter lack of concern for the victims. Fennell doesn’t pull off every aesthetic quirk or thematic twist she piles this movie with but its pure ambition and acid-tongued fury for its targets make it an undoubtedly compelling experience.
9. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Depicting the act of abortion in American cinema remains a rare occurrence, much less so a non-judgmental take that strikes back against the dangerous restrictions put upon it by conservative government. Director Eliza Hittman's Never Rarely Sometimes Always is raw in its emotions yet exceptionally sensitive in its execution. After 17-year-old Autumn discovers she's pregnant, she is forced to travel to New York City to get an abortion because she's unable to procure the procedure in her home state of Pennsylvania without parental consent. Hittman has crafted one of the year's most devastating portraits of everyday misogyny as well as a tale of modern adolescence that respects its teenage characters wholly.
Brazilian directors Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles certainly didn't make things easy for themselves with Bacurau, a movie that is simultaneously a Western. a black comedy, a sci-fi movie (complete with UFOs!), and a startling tract against the parasitic evils of colonialism. In the eponymous settlement of Bacurau, the residents are forces to deal with flying saucers, sudden deaths, political corruption, and, of course, Udo Kier. Vibrant and furious, this is a film to relish, particularly in the fearless ways it dissects the long-term damage of American imperialism in Brazil. There are too many bizarre and incredible moments to count, but it's worth the price of admission alone to see Udo Kier face up against Sônia Braga, the grand dame of Brazilian cinema.
7. Judy and Punch
Many movies in 2020 were, fairly or otherwise, labeled as '#MeToo films' because of their handling of gender issues and depictions of sexual harassment. Few did so as bizarrely and impishly as Judy and Punch, the directorial debut of Mirrah Foulkes. Judy and Punch are puppeteers in the town of Seaside, England (a weird Dickensian place that's nowhere near the sea) hoping to return to the public eye after Punch's drunken fall from grace. The pantomime violence of their marionettes soon repeats itself in real life when Punch kills their child then tries to do the same to his wife. What else is a woman in her position left to do but exact her much-needed vengeance? There's a fascinating griminess to Judy and Punch, a bizarre mixture of slapstick, satire, violence, and anger. Damon Herriman has carved out a strong niche for himself as film's new go-to creepy weirdo (sorry, Sam Rockwell) but the movie belongs to Mia Wasikowasa. The film proves itself all too relevant in how it depicts male violence and the ways that society sanitizes such brutality but there’s so much malevolent energy and true fury behind Judy and Punch that you never feel like you’re being lectured to.
Hong Khaou's story of a man's return to Vietnam could not be more different from Lee's Da 5 Bloods in its execution but the two share remarkable similarities as narratives focused on isolation and a discovery of self. Monsoon, however, is a far quieter, more ambiguous offering. Henry Golding shines as a Vietnamese-English man who returns to his birth country for the first time since his family fled the nation, with plans to scatter the ashes of his parents. He doesn’t speak the language and remembers next to nothing about his brief childhood there, which stirs up much confusion about who he is and where he belongs.
Some viewers may find the long stretches of languid silence in this very short film maddening, but for those with patience, Monsoon will reveal its treasures. His journey to fill in the blanks of his personal and cultural memory opens up raw wounds but there are no dramatic screams or monologues here. This is too achingly personal for such things. Add to that a tender romance between Golding and Parker Sawyers and Monsoon is a deeply moving hidden gem of 2020.
Make no mistake: Shirley is not a biopic of Shirley Jackson. Based on a novel that has basically no foundations in reality, Josephine Decker’s genre-bending drama uses the iconic horror director as a means to explore prickly issues of marriage, domesticity, emotional labor, and mental health. There's a curious delirium to this film, which often feels like it's being shot through the haze of whiskey-fuelled spite and confusion. The lines between fact and fantasy blur, and the games that Jackson (played by Elisabeth Moss to razor-sharp perfection) plays with her husband (an always reliable Michael Stuhlbarg) cross multiple lines. Decker works best in this liminal space, refusing to settle on realism or fantasy, for the betterment of her character work. If only all movies based on real people could understand their protagonists as well as Shirley does, regardless of historic fidelity.
4. Da 5 Bloods
Spike Lee has never stopped being wholeheartedly fascinating as a filmmaker. He approaches every new movie like it’s his first, throwing countless ideas at the screen as if he’ll never be given the opportunity to do so again. Da 5 Bloods sees him in fiery form as he returns to the war movie genre for the first time since Miracle at St. Anna’s, and it’s a true tour-de-force for Lee both as a storyteller and visual marvel. Four Black Vietnam veterans return to the country to find the remains of their deified fallen comrade as well as locate some stolen gold they buried in secret.
At two hours and forty minutes, Da 5 Bloods is never boring, which in and of itself is a minor miracle, even if it's never exactly cohesive. Then again, that's the point. How do you make clear and irrefutable sense of something so absurd and cruel as war? It feels like Lee's old man movie in the same way that The Irishman did for Martin Scorsese, the kind of film he could only make after decades in the business while still at the top of his game. Delroy Lindo and the late great Chadwick Boseman give two of the year's best performances as well as undisputed highlights of their own storied careers.
3. One Night in Miami...
On top of being one of the best actresses of her generation, Regina King looks set to dominate the world of film behind the camera, if her stunning directorial debut is anything to go by. Adapted from the play of the same name, One Night in Miami offers a glimpse into what may have happened on the evening when four titans of Black history got together for a party: Jim Brown, Cassius Clay, Sam Cooke, and Malcolm X. Some of the best directors on the planet have been tripped up by trying to adapt theatre for the big screen but King makes it seem so easy with her sharp understanding of space and movement. All four actors shine in their lofty roles and the movie mercifully avoids the staid exposition and symbolism that often befalls stories that approach such legendary figures. Instead, One Night in Miami is vibrant and earthy without feeling trite or forced. It’s a rare highwire piece of storytelling that looks far easier than it is. We can’t wait to see what King does next.
2. Another Round
Would being drunk all the time make you happier? That’s the experiment that four middle-aged sad-sack teachers commit to in Thomas Vinterberg’s deftly balanced comedy-drama Another Round. The quartet of friends lament their mid-life slumps before deciding, for purely scientific purposes of course, to have a constant blood-alcohol level of .05, which they theorize will improve their daily lives. It’s easy to read that synopsis and predict where the film will go, but Another Round isn’t interest in bland moralizing or cheap gross-out gags. Instead, it tells a more tangled tale of the pros and cons of booze, both as a personal choice and as part of Denmark’s wider drinking culture. Mads Mikkelsen gives one of the best performances of the year and reminds English-speaking viewers that he’s more than just an excellent go-to European villain. Another Round refuses easy answers or morally clear decisions, all while remaining an oddly heartening watch. Check it out if only to see Mikkelsen dance.
Irish studio Cartoon Saloon has quietly proven itself to be one of the most dynamic voices in animation of the 21st century. Pixar, Disney, and DreamWorks may hog the spotlight, but this is the company pushing boundaries and showing exactly what the medium is capable of. They set the bar high for themselves with previous Oscar-nominated efforts like The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea but Wolfwalkers is their most triumphant production.
Stylistically born from a combination of classical woodcut prints, the work of animator legend Richard Williams, and Celtic lore, Wolfwalkers is a visual feast and a much-needed boost of freshness amid a sea of CGI lookalikes. Regardless of your age, you’ll be won over by this tale of young female friendship and the beauty of nature in the face of ruthless oppression. No film in 2020 made me cry as hard as Wolfwalkers. If there’s any justice in the world, the 2021 Oscars will put aside their Disney bias for one year in favor of Cartoon Saloon.
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