Perhaps the theatrical cinema experience did die in 2020 (and we hold our breath for its grand resurrection), but film certainly didn’t.
I saw less than ten new releases in a theatrical setting this year, but the best of the releases offered at home were as high a calibre as in almost any year.
What has emerged is a further blurring of the line between what is film and what is television, as when everything is watched on a TV either way it’s hard to differentiate.
Thus, for the first time in my now nine years compiling my Best Films of the Year lists, I have combined feature-length and episodic releases into a single list, though it’s heavily skewed towards the former. The TV that impressed this year was certainly as filmic as you can imagine: miniseries with a single creative vision and aspiration far beyond standard serialised offerings.
Some film/TV I have not yet seen that may or may not have made this list if I had: Nomadland, Minari, The Father, Another Round, Promising Young Woman, Soul, The Queen’s Gambit, Small Axe, Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Disappointments that I saw, but didn’t make the list: I’m Thinking Of Ending Things, Rialto, Palm Springs, The Nest, The Spongebob Movie: Sponge On The Run, On The Rocks
Alright, it’s time to jump into my list, in descending order, here are the 15 best film and miniseries of 2020….
Shithouse is what happens when you let a 22-year old make a movie about being a 22-year old. It’s a fiercely truthful and sincere story of going to college in the year 2020, from every late night Instagram nudge to every post-coital breakfast rejection, told through the lens of someone who’s (just) been there. Cooper Raiff, star/writer/director, shines on all fronts opposite the always-great Dylan Gelula as two students with vastly different approaches to what constitutes ‘a meaningful moment’.
Sex can be terrifying, girls can be mean and boys can be truly, truly insufferable. Shithouse knows that college is complicated, and difficult, and not necessarily for the reasons Hollywood would usually have you believe. The generational specificity of Shithouse’s youthful vision is irresistible, albeit cruelly recognisable.
Kitty Green dives into the psychology of abusive structures through the eyes of a young film producer’s assistant (hint: the producer is meant to be Harvey Weinstein) putting up with condescending male co-workers and, ultimately, a literal scenario of abuse she witnesses behind one just-about-closed door.
Julia Garner is phenomenal in a deliberately quiet performance, clashing with Matthew MacFadyen’s smarmy HR director in one horrifying, standout conversation scene. The least showy film you could make about the film industry’s darkest side, and maybe the most effective.
Miranda July returns to directing with a third feature just as melancholy, madcap and empowered with creative flexibility as her debut Me & You & Everyone We Know.
Evan Rachel Wood’s Old Dolio has been raised dysfunctionally by con-artist bohemian parents — into her mid 20s with chest-length hair and a constant dead gaze — but is challenged to reengage with lawful modernity by a charismatic young traveller they pick up along their way (Gina Rodriguez).
The Pygmalion narrative that ensues never puts either woman in a box or suggests one particular brand of acceptable femininity. It’s a brilliant, bastardised mix of aesthetics that says, at the end of the day, that weirdness takes many forms.
Paolo Sorrentino’s Pope franchise has quickly become one of the most quality-consistent IPs of the last few years, coming four years after The New Pope is this return to a Vatican of socialist uprisings, loose animals and Machiavellian mischief. Plus, now there’s the emergence of “Catholic Extremists” to worry about.
Jude Law’s Lenny is sidelined (comatose) for several episodes, allowing Cardinal Voiello (the great Silvio Orlando) and Sir John Brannox (John Malkovich) to wrench proceedings in a somehow even more bizarre direction. A fabulously unpredictable satire-cum-melodrama on modern religion and celebrity that could only have been with Italian hands and American money.
Nobody can do big-screen personality deconstruction in the 3-hour range quite like Judd Apatow, back on form with this delightful Pete Davidson star vehicle that arrived at a perfect moment in early summer when it was starting to feel like we may never laugh again.
Davidson constructs a figure that 90% resembles himself, 10% the Adam Sandler manchildren of the 1990s, and offers us a dark comedy that fuses pity for a lost generation of young talent with hope for their cultural resurgence.
There are few things as devastating as a child and parent swapping roles, and Sarah Gavron brings us into the contemporary London flats for an adventure of the classic “Kids On The Run” variety with a distinctly Ken Loach-ian cloud of class hanging over it.
Terrific young actress Bukky Bakray is surrounded by an array of charming young British actors, largely from ethnic minority backgrounds, with a sensitivity and an optimism rarely seen in this sort of British drama. As close to ‘universally moving’ as cinema can get.
The most high concept would-be-biopic since Steve Jobs sees David Fincher, adapting his late father’s script, throw every possible gimmick to emulate a 1940s studio picture into the mix and something that surprisingly works in its own right emerges.
Mank is obviously eager to homage Citizen Kane — the creation of which is the central tenet of this film’s impatient narrative — but crafts its own darkly funny and political story of a classical Hollywood ‘character’ who wouldn’t follow the rules, told by a filmmaker clearly intent on leaving his own larger than life mark on American cinema.
Aaron Sorkin’s directorial ambitions remain his own worst enemy as flaccid pacing and uninspired visuals let down what’s undeniably a master screenplay.
A cast including Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Rylance and Jeremy Strong dig into the meat of 1960s anti-war radicalism as Sorkin aims to balance his own liberal moderation with the obvious appeal of just letting the film go full Bernie Sanders. As a result, it lacks a bit of bite, but all the traits that make Sorkin’s so satisfying are out in force.
A Guy Ritchie Picture rarely surprises, and The Gentlemen sadly isn’t lacking in the sort of gender and racial stereotyping the man can tend to be associated with, but there’s such deep and trashy pleasure to be found in a ‘Proper Lads Picture’ like this, injected with Anglo-American sleaze by a cast that includes Matthew McConaughey, Charlie Hunnam and a very game Hugh Grant.
Requires a stomach for the immature, but immaturity can be the right medicine on occasion.
Armando Iannucci’s least cynical endeavour… ever(?) comes in the form of this sprightly Dickens reimagining with little in the way of major narrative overhaul but, in Dev Patel, a fresh idea of what a Dickensian hero can look like, and an array of amusing creative flourishes embellishing one of the author’s most charming stories.
ITV’s launch of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and the subsequent Major Ingram cheating scandal prove an unlikely subject for one of the most captivating miniseries of the year, as Matthew Macfadyen and Sian Clifford’s middle England quiz experts/potential cheats face off against Michael Sheen’s Chris Tarrant and the ITV machine.
Danny Boyle set a high bar for Millionaire-themed drama with one 2009 Best Picture winner but this is an equally thrilling, well-cast tale of gameshow gone wrong.
Sacha Baron Cohen’s notorious Kazach dips his toes in the mess that is the 2020 news cycle, a perfect playground for his crass, abrasive and extremely funny behavioural satire. Borat comes face to face with Mike Pence, an extraordinary woman who survived the Holocaust, and most infamously, Rudy Giuliani. Likely not to survive in cultural consciousness beyond this awful year but a breath of… well.. some kind of the air, in the moment.
Far from the crown jewel of Irish fiction that it, and its perfectly fine source material, have been heralded as, the Lenny Abrahamson-directed adaptation of Sally Rooney’s bestseller is nevertheless a solidly-built romantic epic, dedicating more time to the minutiae of a relationship over the course of several years than modern TV tends to.
Familiar locations around Dublin, and an undeniably impressive Paul Mescal, compensate for what can be hokey drama, but strikingly directed moments like a Sligo nightclub encounter set to London Grammar allowed this to be one of lockdown’s satisfying small-screen deliveries.
Christopher Nolan’s weakest blockbuster in years is a pretentious and poorly executed vacuum of excitement; too caught up in its own cycles of exposition to demonstrate any interest in romance, or tension, or the things that make movies like this so great.
Yet on the other hand, there aren’t really any other ‘movies like this’… as with any Nolan, this is incredibly singular with a sense of place and an ambition to impress that far exceeds his contemporaries at even the worst of times.
The frequently disparaged Alan Ball, writer of American Beauty, remains one of few filmmakers given carte blanche to tell small-scale human stories that touch on social and cultural change and unease (see his recent, quickly-canned HBO drama Here & Now). Uncle Frank, a Sundance breakout, does display some shared DNA with a film like Green Book, yet has classical and charming literary inspiration on display — frequently referencing Carson McCullers and Harper Lee — as it digs into homophobia in the deep south with a tad too much sentimentality but very warm work by Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis and Peter Macdissi.
But enough writing about these films. Let’s have a look at them. Here’s the video version of this list. Enjoy and please share!
That’s the end of business for this year, thanks for reading and watching, and a special thanks to the filmmakers who worked so hard to make 2020 tolerable. Next year we’ll pay you back, I promise.