Skip to content

The Ultimate Choice #19: Top Films of 2020

2020 was a year in which many of us were stuck at home, unable to experience the cinematic experience and see the big blockbusters that we were excited for. However, it was a year that gave many of us the chance to attend festivals online, or simply click play on a film that we otherwise may not have watched. This year, many of us discovered smaller independent films, streaming favourites and opened ourselves up to the world of cinema by just reading that one inch of text at the bottom of the screen. That is why I am excited to share what mine, along with my fellow film fans, picked as their favourite films of the year.

Note: I gave people complete freedom to define 2020, so some might be within the UK release calendar and some might be within the US/Awards Season release calendar.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Chosen by Amy Smith

Considering how much I have gone on about this film, the fact it was listed top of my Best Films of 2020 article, and the number of nominations it got for the Film For Thought awards, this should not be a surprise to hear that I will once again be sharing my love for Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.

This was one of my most anticipated films for a long while, and I was worried that I was setting myself too high of expectations for what the final product would be. However, Tom Hanks truly sold the performance of Mister Rogers and did not miss a beat. Not only that, but Matthew Rhys goes toe-to-toe with Hanks and gives a performance that has been vastly underrated and he is an actor who should be talked about more within the industry.

With A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, it is the small details that Heller places within the film that helps bring this story to life. The editing style replicating an episode of Mister Rogers Neighborhood, using the actual items from the production of the show such as the camera and the clothing, how perfectly the set was replicated. Even if you did not grow up watching the show, there is a warmth to this film that just feels like a hug that we all certainly need during this time.

Blackbird

Chosen by Jake Godfrey: Twitter

The ‘family gathering’ plot is now so common there are enough films to make a whole subgenre. As such, any new entry lives or dies on two things – the quality of the writing and the cast. Blackbird, an adaptation of the Swedish film Silent Heart (both films are written by Christian Torpe), excels in both. Torpe’s screenplay attracted a top-tier cast of A-listers, from Kate Winslet and Rainn Wilson to Sam Neill, Mia Wasikowska, and Lindsay Duncan. The powerhouse performance of Susan Sarandon dominates the screen as the matriarch who sets the plot in motion. Not that this is a film focussed on plot, indeed in many ways it follows a familiar formula. The joy is in the chemistry of the cast and the depth of characterisation as they bounce off one another. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can give the film is that it doesn’t cheat when it comes to family dynamics. You absolutely believe that these people have known each other all their lives. Torpe fills his script with dense, discursive scenes as sensational secrets are spilled and emotions run high.

Director Roger Michell is well versed in this kind of material, there are echoes of the social embarrassment of Notting Hill and the tension bubbling under the surface in Enduring Love. It is also refreshing to see Winslet as part of an ensemble, stripped of any Hollywood glamour. It is true with any film with such a familiar formula that certain cliches will be present, but it was one of the few times I have thought I’d actually like the film to be longer because I was enjoying being in the company of the characters.

The film doesn’t break any new ground but memorable characters plug the paucity of the plot. It’s the kind of film I can imagine being done equally well on the stage, although the sweeping shots of scenic Sussex in Autumn adds to the tone of the film. Whilst that might make it sound bleak, and there are scenes that steer you towards tears, ultimately by the climax you can’t help but feel uplifted by what you have just seen.

Parasite

Chosen by James Rodrigues: Twitter | The Reviewing Rodders

Considering all that’s happened throughout 2020, it’s hard to believe Parasite’s grand victory at the Academy Awards was among last year’s events. Having won four Oscars, including Best Picture, it was the first time a non-English language film won the coveted prize. Even though such a thing shamefully took over 90 years, it was important that it finally happened, while also going to the best film nominated that year. Over on Film Twitter, it’s become commonplace to say this was the last good thing to happen in 2020, and it’s a statement that’s difficult to argue with.

Bong Joon-ho’s latest is a piece of biting satire, which takes aim at social disparity in the most fascinating of ways. From nonchalant utterings of words to a literal descent into poverty, the divide is ever-present for our characters. When the opportunity for a better life presents itself, the Kim family puts their all in trying to grasp it and achieve an idealized version of their lives. There’s so much heart for these characters, as we watch them perform their own heist, with sprinklings of comedy to lighten the mood.

What’s most impressive is how the film balances so much and succeeds with each element. There may be a duplicitous edge to the story, but there are no villains lurking within. Everybody is a fully-rounded character, all of whom are trying to survive, and just enjoy their lives. It’s a story that makes you question who the title refers to, as it seamlessly transitions from making you laugh to leaving you in stunned silence. This could’ve been an unwieldy mess in lesser hands, so thank goodness Bong Joon-ho is anything but that. He’s crafted a timely story that resonated all over the world, and unless class issues drastically change, will continue to resonate for future generations. Let’s give thanks to the bounteous wi-fi, and the power of director Bong, for gifting us with a future classic.

Hamilton: The Musical

Chosen by Samuel Preston: Twitter | Cultured Vultures

As we exit the nefarious near-apocalyptic horror that was 2020, there are probably a few highlights of the year to enjoy, especially in film. The amount of movies postponed to the following year rivals any collection of blockbusters from the last twenty years, and yet despite that, there were still some positives. Whether the UK release of Sam Mendes’ 1917, a masterclass in direction and spacing that evokes a surprising amount of connection to its main characters, or the instant horror classic Host by Rob Savage that captured the reality of 2020 in a brisk, excellently paced unnerving viewing, there have been some tremendous films during this horrendous low point.

This is without mentioning the black and white edition of Parasite, which gives new resonance to the lighting and mise en scene of the original, or the feelgood trifecta of the Bill & Ted franchise. Millie Bobby Brown continued her upward trajectory with an enjoyable franchise starter in Enola Holmes, Pixar demonstrated they can still break hearts in the underrated Onward, and Margot Robbie unleashed an unfiltered rendition of Harley Quinn’s world in the LGBTQ-inspired Birds of Prey. And yet, the film I couldn’t get enough of, was the cinematic rendition of the original Broadway phenomena, Hamilton.

There are many who may dispute this choice, but it actually perfectly transcends the stage setting to create a much more cinematic experience. Even beyond the basic element of the movie having been stitched together from three separate performances in June 2016, thereby requiring a level of editing just like any other normal movie, the play is directed with the use of Steadicam, crane, and dolly, helping to develop the more immersive experience of the film.

The difference between the theatre experience and cinema experience is demonstrated by the camera work performed by the impressive Thomas Kail. Theatre is a stationary point of view that is about projected voices and movement, to convey the story being told, but this film allows the actors to play into the subtlety of the roles, the moments possibly missed when viewing a stage from a distance. This includes allowing more focus on Ariana DeBose, whose portrayal of the ‘Bullet’ is easier to notice and track compared to seeing a singular dancer on stage.

Other examples of the benefit of cinema in this story, include Hamilton’s introduction, the long shot cutting to a close-up as the light opens on Lin-Manuel Miranda facing the camera, allowing the audience to witness the determination that would fuel our main character. There’s the depiction of King George III, Jonathan Groff’s infamous spitting more obvious during his solos that also emphasize the maniacal nature of the character, or even a singular shot where during “Non-Stop”, the camera goes low to look up towards Hamilton, signifying him on top of the world. That little extra element gains more resonance in retrospect when you realise that it was the beginning of Hamilton’s fall, a moment that encapsulates the benefits of combining the direction to the already engrossing storytelling of the music and choreography.

Making Hamilton a film not only allowed the entire world an opportunity to experience Miranda’s masterpiece, but somehow become the best film of 2020 in the process. At a time when cinemas were closed and audiences were stuck at home, Hamilton became a shining light of the performance arts that gave fans what they needed most, joyous songs and characters to invest in, cathartic moments to release the stress and pain they felt, and a sense of escapism. Raise a glass, to Hamilton.

Soul

Chosen by Chay Strudwick: Twitter | Letterboxd

2020 was an unusual year for film with the industry experiencing change and hardship like it has never seen before. Despite these challenges and the delay of numerous films, we still had a great year for film! We saw the long-awaited return of David Fincher, the most ambitious Nolan movie yet and a number of great independent films, none, however, could match Pixar’s Soul

The latest entry by Pete Docter is his best yet and is one of the most ambitious stories ever told using animation. Now, this statement could be used to describe a number of Pixar films with their studio frequently delivering films with a strong emotional core, great message for adults, and fun for children. However, Soul feels like the first movie where this all reins true. It is without a doubt their first film aimed strictly at adults. Whilst this doesn’t mean children can’t enjoy the film, it is clear that the message is intended for adults of all ages. The animation is spectacular, as is the score. I can definitely see myself listening to some of the songs on repeat!

Soul is a movie about the meaning of life, which is why it hit me so hard. Going back to when I was 7/8 years old, I can remember frequently thinking late at night ‘What is the meaning of life?’, ‘Why are we all here?’ and ‘Why are we all different?’. These questions are explored wonderfully by Soul. It tells us that life is not about having a set purpose, it is about appreciating everything in front of you and making the most of it because we never know when it is going to end.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Chosen by Clare Brunton: Twitter | Eat Entertain Explore

There are few films that have touched me as Portrait did. Perhaps it was down to the UK release, muddled by cinemas closing in wake of COVID-19 it was quickly rushed on to the silent but sturdy MUBI streaming site. This meant that for me, and many other viewers, our first introduction to the quiet and isolated world of Marianne and Héloïse was spent alone.

The film focuses on painter Marianne as she travels to the shoreside home of Héloïse, her latest subject. She has been summoned to paint a portrait of Héloïse for her future husband but must do so in secret as Héloïse refuses the marriage. Pretending to be a walking companion in order to study her, a connection develops between the two women as they spend their days together on the isolated island.

It’s a film about love, about honesty, about painting and about womanhood. Director Céline Sciamma has spoken passionately about reframing the camera through a female gaze and in her fourth feature-length film she succeeds immaculately. Each shot of Marianne and Héloïse is sensual but private, as we study Héloïse’s different features – the cartilage of her ear, the position of her fingertips – through Marianne’s eyes we’re treated to an (excuse the pun) intimate portrait of these two young women who turn lovers.

So much has been spoken about the slow-burning passion between the pair, and rightly so, but there is a third character on the island with them, housemaid Sophie. In the backdrop of Marianne and Héloïse’s love story, Sophie must deal with an unwanted pregnancy and her attempts to abort the child. The storyline is handled delicately, but with a firm idea that this is Sophie’s choice, and she receives no judgement for it. Just as Sciamma is reclaiming the frame with her direction, she also reclaims women’s bodies with her writing. Héloïse may not be able to refuse her marriage, but Sophie can make her own choices.

Portrait is a stunning film, immaculate through and through, starting from the gothic lighting all the way to perfect song choices and the exquisite ending.

I’ve watched Portrait of a Lady on Fire four times since April 2020 and I would happily sit down for a fifth viewing now. It is art in motion, love on film, and womanhood on proud display. 2020 was a year for solitude and quiet reflection, no film exemplifies that more than Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

Black Lake

Chosen by Brian Skutle: Twitter | Sonic Cinema

My favorite movie of 2020 was the first great one I felt I saw in 2020. Most people will never have heard of it, as its public screenings were at film festivals, but I look forward to more people discovering it in 2021 and beyond as it completes its festival run, as well as makes its way to the marketplace.

Black Lake is a psychological horror film from filmmaker K/XI, and it was one of four feature films to play at the Women in Horror Film Festival in Marietta, Georgia in February 2020, which is where I saw it. The film deals with trauma, and how it can be imprinted on things, which then transfers it to people who receive those things. The cinematography (by the director, which was honored at the festival) and music, by BurningTapes, sets a foreboding tone immediately as Aarya, an artist (played by K/XI herself), goes to an isolated house in the Scottish Highlands to decompress and work on her art. Her aunt sends Aarya a scarf that she found for inspiration, but a dark past follows the scarf and begins to imprint itself on Aarya herself.

I’ve had the chance to watch Black Lake two more times since the festival, and interview the director, and each time I’ve found myself more and more immersed by the vision of how trauma can become a consuming force on a person, especially a victim of sexual assault. One of the most intriguing ideas in Black Lake is how Aarya feels the psychological pain the previous owner of the scarf felt, giving us an intriguing examination of how trauma can be shared by a community, rather than just an individual. The film is experiential in how it explores this idea (it only has about 10 minutes of dialogue in a 93 minute running time), with a beauty in its images that rivals Terrence Malick, but a surreal structure that is more David Lynch. It’s a terrifying and unnerving vision that is as personal a film about trauma and anxiety as I’ve ever seen.

Wolfwalkers

Chosen by Russell Bailey: Twitter | Not Just For Kids Podcast

Much will be written about 2020 and its impact on cinema. With the dust not yet settled on these unprecedented events, it feels strange to dig down and select the best works. But it was a year that offered gems a-plenty for audiences. From the history-making, pre-pandemic Parasite (a funnier, scarier, more heart-wrenching film) to Brandon Cronenberg’s mind-scraping horror Possessor and courtroom drama Just Mercy, a work whose relevance has only grown in the months since its release, 2020 saw an exceptional roster of films released. Parasite is very likely my favourite work of 2020. But it is one that has been (rightly) written about extensively. And so, my pick is a smaller film, one that I hope to inspire people to seek out.

Wolfwalkers, a Cartoon Saloon release that can now be found on Apple TV, is my pick for film of the year. And what a film it is, following the story of an English girl who comes to Ireland in the 17th century and finds herself in the middle of a conflict that will foster friendships but also potentially tear apart her familial bonds. The narrative is a mix of epic sweep, dealing with both Ireland’s colonial past and intergenerational conflict that feels particularly relevant, and endearing intimacy, with a focus on a blossoming camaraderie between two girls, who both find themselves in the role of outsider. Where other animations have felt a bit lost by the scope they are trying to achieve, Wolfwalkers plays remarkably well for both adults and young audiences and is the best family film of the year.

Part of this is the culmination of decades of work by Cartoon Saloon, with Wolfwalkers following the likes of Song of the Sea and The Secret of Kells in exploring Irish folklore, with the animation company’s prowess on full display here. This is a gorgeous work, a swirl of colour and life that shows what can be achieved by 2D animation. You could pause any frame and place it on your wall as a work of art. And, as with previous films, this is a work that brims with warmth and heart. It is often delightfully funny but is also tender and capable of being emotionally devastating. The voice cast is exemplary, in particular the central duo of Honor Kneafsey and Eva Whittaker, who have much of the emotive heavy lifting to carry. For all that 2020 was, Wolfwalkers is a masterful film that would be the highlight of whichever year it would find a release.

Wolfwalkers

Also chosen by Jordan King: Twitter | Letterboxd

Whilst many will still have Pixar’s latest and greatest Soul at the forefront of their mind when considering 2020’s greatest films, I would humbly contest that not only is Soul not the best film of last year, but that it isn’t even the best specifically animated film of last year. No, the honour of that distinction belongs quite clearly to Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart, and Cartoon Saloon’s quite simply sublime Wolfwalkers.

Set in Ireland in the middle of the 17th Century, Wolfwalkers follows the story of Robyn (Honor Kneafsey), the young daughter of hunter Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean). Sent from England to Kilkenny on orders of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, Bill has been tasked with helping wipe out the remains of the town’s wolf population so that the woods may be overtaken for farming. Whilst Robyn initially is eager to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a hunter too, a chance encounter with a feisty young girl named Mebh (Eva Whittaker), who just so happens to be one of a line of Wolfwalkers – folk who can take on both human and Wolf form – sets in motion a change of heart (and form for that matter) in Robyn that will see her challenge tradition, family, and the accepted way of things in the name of friendship.

What is it that makes Wolfwalkers so special though? Is it the film’s beautiful, tapestry-like animation style? Is it Moore and Stewart’s distinct, Irish voices and vision as filmmakers? Is it the narrative’s ambitious eco-awareness and magical framework? Is it Robyn’s formidable presence as a strong-willed young heroine and Mebh’s as her boisterous, rambunctious equal? Honestly, it’s a little bit of all of that, and much more besides. 

Cinema, at its most pure and purposeful, is a window into experiences beyond our own understanding that simultaneously offers us a mirror through which we can re-evaluate our own lives and beliefs and societal norms. Wolfwalkers achieves this beautifully. 

Cartoon Saloon has carved out such a uniquely personal portrait of an Ireland lost to the annals of history that the experience it provides is transportive and transcendent in equal measure. Beyond that, however, it asks us to question the way we engage with nature, with our parents, and with our children. Wolfwalkers challenges parents amongst its viewership to consider their children’s understanding of the world as important as their own. The film then asks children whether they want to accept the ways of their forebears or whether they want to help create a brighter, better world, one built on unity over division and one that places people above property in the pecking order. And for the icing on the cake, it even more simply implores us to consider the need for nature to be left be to thrive, unbesmirched by man’s capitalist, industrialist designs.

Tackling lofty themes through gorgeous animation and intricate, lively storytelling, Wolfwalkers is a flawless film. Not only is it the best animated film of 2020, but it is indeed the best film of 2020, and it deserves to be recognised as such. Anyone for a Town Tasty?

Shirley

Chosen by Rory Doherty: Twitter | Portfolio

In Josephine Decker’s Shirley, a young wife Rose (Odessa Young) starts helping celebrated Gothic writer Shirley Jackson (with whom she and her husband are staying) around the house, and soon forges a friendship with Shirley as they start investigating the local disappearance of a college girl Paula which serves as inspiration for Shirley’s next novel, Hangsaman. Shirley is convinced she knows Paula well, the reasons behind her disappearance and her dissatisfaction with life as a young woman, and Rose finds herself intoxicated by the maddening way Shirley looks at the world. 

The lines between Shirley, Rose, and the absent Paula start to become blurred as Shirley starts to see Paula as Rose, and Rose starts to become entranced by the folk magic and witchcraft Shirley believes in. Added to this toxic trifecta is Rose’s naive husband Fred (Logan Lerman), who is confused and concerned at his wife starting to reject traditional housewife roles, as well as the closest thing the film has to an antagonist, Shirley’s husband Stanley (the always delightful Michael Stuhlbarg), a kniving, lecherous literary critic and professor who’s just as scathing and unpredictable as his wife.

These elements, these characters, how they constantly switch allegiances and spar with one another, how their perceptions of the world around them are constantly mutable – this is what makes Shirley so terrifically entertaining. As we dive further into the way Shirley writes, how internal and external factors threaten to stifle her creativity, we find a disappearance mystery that will never be solved, as our characters trick themselves into thinking they can help. It’s a love letter to a writer who can never receive too much praise, and one of the most entertaining relationship dramas in years.

Come True

Chosen by Swamp Thing: Twitter | Szeptyzbagna

Happy New Year! May the 12 months ahead of us be calmer than 2020. I must admit that if I had written this text just a few days ago, my favorite film of this strange year would have been completely different: our Polish production Eastern directed by Piotr Adamski.

A movie I was able to see in the cinema at the Underground / Independent festival in March, just two days before the first blockade. Why do I love this movie so much? Well, maybe because it looks like The Hunger Games if it had been directed by one of the most original modern filmmakers, Yorgios Lanthimos. Set in a dystopian world, Eastern tells the story of two young girls from feuding families who decided to rebel against a patriarchal society based on a code of honor. You could say that this movie predicted the future because since mid-October there has been a revolt against the patriarchal system in our country and we are witnessing huge protests in defense of women’s rights.

However, everything changed at the beginning of December, when I had the opportunity to participate in this year’s edition of the Splat Film Festival and watch the Canadian horror film Come True. The story of Sarah, an eighteen-year-old girl, tormented in her dreams by a mysterious, shadow-like figure with sparkling eyes. I love this production. It matched my strange taste perfectly. I have to admit that I have a soft spot in my heart for intriguing movies that make me feel like the reality is completely different than it seems. That’s why I adore David Lynch and my beloved movie is Mulholland Drive.

Burns, using ambient music and a well-thought-out setting, created an incredibly intense and hypnotic atmosphere of permanent danger, uncertainty, and ambiguity. I have the impression that a similar film would be created by my favorite director, Jagoda Szelc (the author of the brilliant film Monument), if she had decided to focus on strictly genre cinema. It is also worth highlighting the amazing performance of Julia Sarah Stone. This petite, pale blonde perfectly portrayed the extremely different emotions tormenting the protagonist she is playing. To sum up, Come True is a horror movie that will appeal above all to those who value mystery and tense atmosphere more than fast-paced action and terrifying jump-scares.

Tenet

Chosen by Simon Waite: Twitter | The Cinema Scene

Here we are again, the end of another movie year and while it was essentially a lost movie year due to Coronavirus delaying a lot of the big films, shutting down the big festivals, and seeing them shift to virtual ones, there were still movies that came out for us to enjoy. There was one in particular that I really enjoyed watching, one that I knew when I saw it that it would be my favorite film of 2020 and that is Christopher Nolan’s time-bending spy thriller Tenet.

But why Tenet as your favorite film you might say? Well, first of all, I really loved the storytelling in this movie. Nolan has sometimes overplayed his hand when it comes to explaining his plots (Inception I felt was fairly guilty of this at times) but here you know only what you need to know and go from there, making this a tightly paced 150 minutes.

Also, I really loved the time trick Nolan plays in the film with time running backwards and it was a concept I ate right up, even if at times I kept thinking of the Backwards episode of Red Dwarf as I was watching the film.

Secondly,
the film’s action sequences and cast are all so good. The action scenes for a start have that large scale to them that Nolan pulls off so well be it the opening at the Opera to the car chase in Europe or the final battle which feels like the end of a James Bond movie with the huge scale battle like in The Spy Who Loved Me or You Only Live Twice.

The cast as well is quite good. John David Washington and Robert Pattinson have excellent chemistry while Elizabeth Debicki makes the best of the doomed mistress role, though sadly Kenneth Branagh isn’t as effective due to his Russian accent sounding silly more often than not.

Lastly, I just loved getting to be able to watch this movie on a big cinema screen. This was one of the films I had waited and waited for during the shutdown I went through last year and when the chance came and I could sit in a cinema after 8 long months and watch this movie it was well well worth the wait. Even though I was the only person there, it was a great experience.

Summerland

Chosen by Nicole Ackman: Twitter | Flower Crowns and Revolutionaries

Anyone saying that 2020 was a weak year for films clearly hasn’t watched enough films because there have been many gems. My personal favorite was Summerland, a period drama set during World War II about a grouchy academic woman (Gemma Arterton) who has to take in a young boy (Lucas Bond) sent to the countryside from London because of the Blitz. As Alice bonds with Frank and starts to open up to him, she also reveals more of her research about the pagan concept of heaven that lends the film its name.

Summerland is a very strong directorial debut from writer and director Jessica Swale. Swale is a London playwright and theatre director who previously worked with Arterton on the 2016 play, Nell Gwynn, in the West End. Perhaps their previous experience together is part of why Arterton delivers such a fantastic and layered performance. She has a very touching character arc as she learns to open her heart to her young companion after her past heartbreak.

Arterton has great chemistry not just with Bond, but also with Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Alice’s former paramour Vera, seen in flashbacks. Summerland is just one of several period dramas featuring a lesbian romance that released in 2020, but it’s certainly more engaging than the others. Penelope Wilton, Tom Courtenay, and Dixie Egerickx also appear in very well-cast roles.

The film has beautiful aesthetics with lovely costume design, from Alice’s chunky sweaters to Vera’s beautiful dresses, and production design. Alice’s seaside home will certainly appeal to those who love cottage-core (and listen to Taylor Swift’s latest two albums a lot). Volker Bertelmann’s string-heavy score is also a highlight, as is the cinematography particularly in the shots of the English coast side.

It’s a very rewatchable film (I’ve already seen it many times). It’s moving without being depressing and the perfect film to watch with your mom. Summerland not only is an introduction to a very promising writer and director in Swale, but also a charming and lovely period piece that I’ll certainly treasure for years to come.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: