My Top 10 Movies of the Year – 2020

To say it’s been a uniquely shitty year for the film industry would be an understatement. The global pandemic brought production on a lot of movies to a halt and many big-name pictures were postponed. So there’s been less to see and little opportunity to see what still came out. I didn’t go to the cinema at all in 2020, and there were some films I couldn’t watch because I didn’t have the right platform, or because they hadn’t yet released in my country. All this is to say that I really didn’t get to watch that many movies this year, and so compiling this list ended up being the opposite experience to what I had last year. In 2019 there were so many films I loved and wanted to write about that I extended my usual Top 10 list to a Top 15. In 2020, it was a struggle to find 5 films I loved, let alone 10. However, I was able to find at least 10 that I enjoyed, even if I wasn’t quite as crazy about them as the ones in my previous end-of-year lists.

You won’t see The Lighthouse or I’m Thinking of Ending Things get so much as an honorable mention here, because while I found plenty to admire about them from a filmmaking perspective, they absolutely bored me to tears. There were some interesting ideas to dissect from an artistic perspective, but keeping me engaged is part of the art in my opinion. I found both of these pictures to be exceedingly self-indulgent, and no amount of fourth wall breaks, surreal dialogue, or references to Greek mythology could make up for my lack of enjoyment watching them. Despite their critical acclaim, it would be dishonest (not to mention hella pretentious) of me to put them in my personal Top 10 just because they “feel” like they belong on a 2020 Best Films list. 

10. Vivarium

Director: Lorcan Finnegan 

Genre: Science Fiction/Horror 

Country: Ireland/Denmark/Belgium 

Review: This was one of those spectacles you find disturbing to watch but can’t take your eyes away from, kinda like when animals do things in nature documentaries that would be seriously fucked-up in human terms. Appropriately enough, that’s how the film starts, giving us a claustrophobic close-up of a cuckoo parasitizing the nest of a smaller bird. Once the cuckoo imposter hatches, it pushes the chicks of its host out of the nest so it can monopolize the food of the mother when she returns. The mother doesn’t seem to realize what’s happened, and goes about feeding the cuckoo which shortly dwarfs it in size. This is an allegory for the rest of the film, only instead of a cuckoo we’ve got a sinister estate agent. I was engaged the whole way through, in no small part because I’ve always been spooked by the idea of imposters, especially when you see humans behaving in subtly-off ways that don’t correspond with believable human behavior. What’s more freaky than seeing someone painfully trying to mimic a smile as though it’s a foreign, unnatural concept to them? 

9. The Vast of Night

Director: Andrew Patterson 

Genre: Science Fiction/Mystery 

Country: United States 

Review: What I liked best about this film was its sense of atmosphere. It follows two teenagers in the 1950s, a local disk-jockey and a switchboard operator, during a single night as they investigate a mysterious audio frequency in their small New Mexico town. The use of medium-to-close shots really lent this film a sense of intimacy, and the tracking shots in particular gave a vivid impression of the smallness of this town where everyone knows each other and everything is within a short walking distance. This film just has such a strong sense of place, and the idea of something extraordinary happening in a sleepy, mundane setting has always appealed to me. I loved the way the mystery builds slowly before descending into all-out panic. It reminded me a lot of classic Twilight Zone episodes- in particular “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”.  

8. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

Director: Jason Woliner 

Genre: Mockumentary/Comedy 

Country: United States 

Review: I love Sacha Baron Cohen and the way his unique brand of comedy exposes the hate, bigotry, and depravity at the heart of the American right wing. He preys upon the stupidity of conservatives who don’t possess the self-awareness or sense of irony necessary to know they’re incriminating themselves. The highlights of the film for me were the Macon debutante ball, the “abortion” interview, and of course the spectacular, now infamous, conclusion with Rudy Giuliani. While I enjoyed this film, I felt that it wasn’t quite as edgy as its predecessor. I think when the first Borat movie came out, it was a shock for most audiences to observe the casual bigotry of incidents such as the rodeo crowd cheering at the idea of George W. Bush bathing in the blood of Iraqi children. The 2000s were a more naïve time. Since the election of Donald Trump in 2016, the general public have become numb to shameless and awful behavior. No prank in Cohen’s arsenal can be as absurd as what we’ve seen the past four years. However, while the sequel lacked the bite of the original, I did think it was a more focused film, with its pointed warning about the country’s political future timed nicely for the 2020 presidential election. It even had quite a funny story arc regarding a COVID-19 conspiracy as well as some character development for Borat himself, as crazy as it sounds. Maria Bakalova really stole the show in my opinion. I hope she wins an award for her performance.  

7. The Trial of the Chicago 7

Director: Aaron Sorkin 

Genre: Courtroom Drama 

Country: United States 

Review: This film is about the trial of eight men charged with conspiracy to incite a riot at the 1968 Democratic Convention. Don’t worry, that wasn’t a typo there; the eighth person isn’t defended by the same lawyer as the other seven, nor is he really connected with them in any other way, hence the name. What follows is one of the craziest trials in American history, and from what I’ve heard the actual trial was even more unbelievable than its depiction here on screen. The dialogue is as snappy as you would expect from Aaron Sorkin, and I liked the nonlinear way the narrative was constructed, the flashbacks emerging as they become relevant in the court case. It made you feel like an audience member in the courtroom that was mostly unfamiliar with what happened prior to the case. While the film was certainly well put together, I think the main reason it earned its spot on this list was that I’m simply interested in the history behind it. 

6. Let Him Go

Director: Thomas Bezucha 

Genre: Thriller/Neo-Western 

Country: United States 

Review: I felt that Let Him Go was an entertaining, albeit sometimes-clunky modern take on the Western genre. You can go as far back as The Searchers for inspiration: we’re out west, we’ve got a breakup of the family unit, and our grizzled, self-reliant protagonists have to go on a long journey to restore said unit. It’s all about taking matters into your own hands, far from the rule of law. Only this time the protagonists are an old retired couple, the kidnapped niece is their 3-year-old grandson, and the Comanche raiders are a strange, off-the-grid family with a reputation for trouble. I feel like that last aspect could have been explored further. The idea of this mysterious, sinister family living out in the wilderness was intriguing to me, but it was never really explained why the locals lived in fear of them, or what exactly this family did day-to-day. Were they an organized crime outfit? If so, what was their business? That said, while I had a few such niggles with the story, I enjoyed the film as a whole and thought it was an interesting reimagining of classic Western tropes. 

5. Mank

Director: David Fincher 

Genre: Biographical Drama 

Country: United States 

Review: I’ve always felt that it’s the mark of a great film if it transcends its milieu. For example, you don’t have to be interested in Ancient Roman history to enjoy Gladiator, prison life to enjoy The Shawshank Redemption, or horror to enjoy Get Out. They have a universal appeal. And Mank, as much as I liked it, ain’t one of those films. Don’t get me wrong, the writing is brilliant, there are some stellar performances, and the film is effortlessly stylish, but I can’t see audiences really connecting with this story unless they already have an interest in Citizen Kane, 1930s Hollywood, or the various real-life figures involved, such as William Randolph Hearst or Upton Sinclair. Luckily for me, I’m quite interested in all of these things so I enjoyed the film. But I tried to imagine watching it if I weren’t already invested in those subjects, and I think I would have been pretty bored. In 2014 I visited Hearst Castle while in California, and aside from being beautiful to look at, it was interesting to imagine the life of the powerful mogul that once lived there and unwittingly inspired one of the most celebrated films of all time. Having seen Citizen Kane before visiting the place, I couldn’t help but look at its opulence and see reflections of loneliness, power, and a kind of bleak dissatisfaction with life. My visit to Hearst Castle was probably my driving motivation for watching this film and the reason I enjoyed it so much. 

4. First Cow

Director: Kelly Reichardt 

Genre: Historical Drama 

Country: United States 

Review: I fucking love A24. They’ve made so many great films the past few years: Ex MachinaSlow WestRoomMoonlightMidsommarFirst ReformedMid90s, you name it. And yeah, The Lighthouse too. I know I slagged it off earlier, but I do respect The Lighthouse because it’s exactly the film it wants to be. That’s what’s so great about A24 and the indie scene; you won’t necessarily like everything, but everything you find will be unique in its own way. First Cow is very much in the tradition of the films I listed above. It’s a gently-paced, understated story about two pioneers- a quiet, timid cook and a Chinese immigrant on the run for murder- in the 1820s Pacific Northwest. Together they hatch a scheme to steal milk from a nearby cow- the first cow in the whole territory- and use it to make buttermilk biscuits that they sell at the nearby fort. In many ways it’s a very simple story, with little to interpret other than the idea that those less fortunate have to do whatever they can to survive, and I kinda liked that simplicity. 

3. Bad Education

Director: Cory Finley 

Genre: Biographical Drama 

Country: United States 

Review: I didn’t think I’d like this film as much as I did; the idea of a high school film that’s about the district superintendents instead of the kids felt like a prison film about the warden’s office instead of the prisoners. What could be more boring than admin and accounting, right? Well, I was wrong. Once I was about 15 minutes into the film, I was on the edge of my seat. Hugh Jackman is absolutely brilliant as the colorful, larger-than-life superintendent at the heart of the biggest scandal in the history of American public schools. It was this layered performance- at various points sympathetic, sinister, charming, and funny, but above all, human– that really makes the film for me. And I loved how Jackman’s portrayal encapsulates the theme of image versus reality, which is what the film is all about. It’s powerful to show criminal behavior underpinned by very relatable, very ordinary motivations that we are each guilty of in our everyday lives. 

2. Black Bear

Director: Lawrence Michael Levine 

Genre: Drama/Thriller 

Country: United States 

Review: Black Bear is easily the most unusual film on my list from a narrative standpoint. On a moment-to-moment level it is very engaging and easy to follow, but as a whole it is difficult to understand. That might be the point. I’m not sure if there’s a definitive answer to explain the film’s meaning, but I think it has something to do with the creative process. It’s a treatise on the way we transmute life into art and the potential cost of doing so. That probably sounds pretentious as hell, but unlike I’m Thinking of Ending Things, this film is very entertaining and- on the surface at least- simple. It’s only in retrospect that it’s head-scratching. It starts with Aubrey Plaza sort of playing herself as she arrives at a cabin in the Adirondack Mountains and thrives on making the couple renting it to her feel awkward. The film is split into two stories, and I feel like the second is stronger, which- whether intentional or not- kinda goes with the theme of recycling old ideas in the editing process to tell a better narrative. 

1. Parasite

Director: Bong Joon-Ho 

Genre: Black Comedy/Thriller 

Country: South Korea 

Review: I know this film came out last year in most countries, but it came out in 2020 here in the United Kingdom. Had I seen it last year, I would have put it at the top of my list. As much as I loved The IrishmanParasite feels like one of those utterly unique films that everyone should see before they die. The only thing I can’t decide is whether it beats Roma in my favorite movies of the past ten years, but I guess if we are sticking with U.K. release dates, I can cheekily avoid having to answer that question as they would then belong to different decades. But yeah, Parasite is what I would consider a perfect film in that it’s entertaining from beginning to end while also being rich with deep sociopolitical theming and shrewd insights on the human condition. It’s as much fun to read about, discuss, analyze, and interpret as it is to watch, and watching it I was gripped to the point I didn’t want it to end. You get the sense that everything in the film has a purpose behind it; the suseok (scholar’s stone), the heavy rain, the motif of smell, the many staircases, the Native American imagery. This is a true masterpiece and I can’t wait to see what Bong Joon-Ho does next. Parasite is a worthy winner of the TumbleweedWrites Film of the Year Award if ever there was one; don’t hesitate to watch it if you get the chance! 

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