So we’ve come to the end of 2020 and thank heavens it has finally happened. With everything that has been going on in the world, this has been one of the worst years in recent memory and it doesn’t look like things will lighten up any time soon. In the film world, numerous films have been delayed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, both ones being produced and ones awaiting release. However, there have still been a number of great films released this year, more of them being released directly to streaming than normal. Whilst the cinematic experience has been changed, and the pandemic has hastened the progress towards same day streaming releases, I don’t think the overall experience of cinema will die. It may become more niche but there will always be a market for the big screen experience.
As usual, this is going by UK release dates so films that would have been on other peoples lists in 2019 are eligible here, but conversely there are some films that will only be released in 2021 in the UK. Also, one major exclusion that I’ve made for my list is that I have not included any of Small Axe on here. I’ve seen other lists and critics awards that have included Small Axe, but given that I watched it on BBC1, I consider Small Axe to be TV rather than film, so I have declared it ineligible. If it was eligible, rest assured that each individual episode would rank high on my list. Without further ado, here are my top 10 films of 2020.
Whilst there are arguments to be made over whether or not this should have been released in cinemas this year, what I can’t deny is that Christopher Nolan has delivered another visual marvel. Whilst it is a bit confusing, it’s one where I was able to pretty much get the gist of it the second time I saw it, this being helped by incredibly charismatic performances from John David Washington and Robert Pattinson and incredible visuals that use practical effects to create an immersive experience that shows the nature of the time inversion technology in the film and lets the audience understand exactly how it works. I’ll probably have to watch it a few more times to truly understand it but as an experience, Tenet is a marvel.
9. Uncut Gems
Going from one of the most exhilarating experiences of the year with Tenet to one of the most stressful with Uncut Gems, every frame of this film is an exercise in stress. There are no points in the film where there is breathing room and you get swept up in the delirium the main character is experiencing throughout the film. The direction by the Safdie’s, along with the score, cinematography and supporting performances from Julia Fox and Lakeith Stanfield, creates this stressful atmosphere well but what really makes this film work is a career best performance from Adam Sandler. I have bashed Sandler’s work in the past but when he’s good, he’s really good and here Sandler just goes all in playing such a vile piece of work, having the force of personality to make him such a compelling character and getting you invested in him, even when you hate what he is doing.
I’ve always maintained that Celine Sciamma is the best director today at taking the smallest moments and showing the emotional depth that they have and with Portrait of a Lady on Fire she fully demonstrates this. Showing how the tiniest inflections in body language can tell so much about what someone is thinking, Sciamma is able to let Noemie Merlant and Adele Haenel say so much with the smallest movements, crafting a beautiful love story and devastating tragedy, aided by the incredible production design, costume design and minimal use of music to create this powerful, isolated world.
As someone who wasn’t really familiar with Fred Rogers before I saw the film, I was unsure how it would play to me. I needn’t have worried however as what Marielle Heller has made here is a stunning exploration of forgiveness and being a good person and making Fred Rogers a supporting character was absolutely the right call, allowing the audience members not familiar with him to form their own cynical impressions, before showing just how good a person he is and how he makes other people better by example.
6. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
This is not an easy watch, mainly because of how real it feels and how it demonstrates the experiences of people needing access to abortions in areas where there are no readily available services. The contrast between the crisis pregnancy centre and Planned Parenthood shows the importance of empathy and understanding in these situations, whilst the central performance from Sidney Flanigan is outstanding, with the key scene focusing entirely on her facial expressions being a masterclass in acting. The film also does a good job at exploring the damaging effects of masculinity on women and how some men being unwilling to learn when they are making women uncomfortable can cause as much damage as outright misogyny.
Whilst I’m still not sure whether I prefer this or Stop Making Sense (I’ll probably have to watch both a few more times before I can say definitively), what Spike Lee has done with his direction of the film puts you both in the audience and showing you things that cannot be seen in person, doing what concert films need to do and recreate the experience of seeing the show in person. The song choices made by Byrne, his overall stage presence and the nature of the staging, combined with Spike Lee’s direction, creates this powerful, immersive experience that represents the best of what a concert film should do.
I have been a champion of the films of Cartoon Saloon for a while and it’s great to see the love that Wolfwalkers is getting from the wider film community. A beautiful piece of animation, this is a great take on werewolf mythology, having a distinctly Irish feel to it, from the writing and the film being set during the rule of Oliver Cromwell, incorporating the history of Ireland into the film, to the stunning animation reflecting different types of Irish art. The story and characters meanwhile are incredibly heart-warming, being an absolute joy to see. It’s a shame that most people won’t be able to see this gorgeous animation on the big screen, but the charm and power of the film holds strong no matter where you watch it.
The Lighthouse is a hard film to describe. Sure I can talk about how good the writing and characters are and how Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe go all in with their performances, with the cinematography and framing of the film creating this type, claustrophobic atmosphere, but this is really more of a film to experience. When I first watched it at the 2019 London Film Festival, I was absorbed into the experience of the film and the hypnotic atmosphere that Robert Eggers creates. You’re just taken on a wild, insane ride throughout the film and I can safely say that I have never seen a film like it.
Whilst I have enjoyed the recent output of Pixar, I’ve not felt that films like Toy Story 4, Onward or Incredibles 2 have represented the true talents of Pixar, the last time I felt this talent was seen was Coco. With Soul, Pixar reminds us how good they are when they are at their peak. The animation here is stellar, with the scenes in New York representing the heights of photorealism in animation, whilst the scenes in the Great Before and the afterlife show how more abstract animation and different dimensions of animation can be combined to create a unique environment. The performances from Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Phylicia Rashad, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade and Rachel House add to the power of the film in their own unique ways, showcasing the character of the film well and their performances combining perfectly with the animation to create compelling characters. The film represents nothing less than the meaning of life and what it means to be alive, showing the joy in the smallest things that you may take for granted and demonstrating the power that Pixar has when they are at their best.
As soon as I saw this, I knew that, no matter what, Parasite would be my favourite film of 2020. This is as close to a perfect film as you can get. Every frame of the film, every editing choice made and every performance is exactly right. There are no points in the film that I would change. Even the tonal shift that takes place halfway through the film feels right and only adds to the power of the film. This film says so much about class disparity, the nature of wealth and the idea of family support that the themes are universal. What Bong Joon-ho has created here is a masterpiece.
As usual, the ranking of the rest of the films I saw this year is below, with links to reviews where I reviewed the film and my brief thoughts where I did not do a full review, along with my top 20 lists of favourite performances per year (with the usual limitations of one performance per actor and one performance per film).
12. Rocks – This is an interesting and powerful look at the lives of teenagers living in London today and the difficulties they face when they lack the necessary support systems to give them the help they need, alongside being a heartwarming story, aided by an excellent performance from Bukky Bakkray and great chemistry between all the cast.
13. Clemency – I found this to be a pretty disturbing and gut-wrenching film taking a strong look at the death penalty and the psychological issues that it creates for everyone involved, with Alfre Woodard giving a tour de force performance in the lead, aided by strong supporting work from Aldis Hodge, Richard Schiff and Wendell Pierce.
14. Da 5 Bloods – As a look at the legacy of the Vietnam War, for both veterans and those they left behind, and as a look at the nature of guilt, Spike Lee has created a powerful work, with his direction evoking the feel of both the modern and the Rambo-esque action films inspired by the Vietnam War, creating a unique feel that does a good job of creating the mood of the characters. The performances from all involved are excellent but special mention has to go to Delroy Lindo who gives an incredible performance here, showing all of the guilt, pain and anger his character feels effectively.
15. The Trial of the Chicago Seven – This is probably the most Aaron Sorkiny an Aaron Sorkin film can be, with all of his writing quirks on full display, with the ensemble cast he’s assembled and the way they all interact with each other creating some great cinematic moments, with the parallels Sorkin draws between the protests against the Vietnam War and the protests of today being really interesting and well executed.
16. Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution – This film didn’t quite go the direction I thought it would, but instead in one that ended up being so much more powerful and rewarding. What could have been a more mawkish film in the hands of lesser filmmakers becomes a powerful documentary showing the legacy of the disabled rights movement and the power of the community that formed in the camp and the ongoing legacy it has to this day.
17. Black is King – Working as a better live action version of The Lion King than last years remake, this film is a visual powerhouse with every camera movement and piece of costume and production design telling a story all by itself, with the music of Beyonce and the cultural influence she has taken from different African cultures creating one of the most unique visual experiences of the year and a powerful piece and a great example of what can be done through music alone.
18. Mank – A fascinating look at early Hollywood, drawing interesting parallels to modern times and the current news landscape, aided by excellent performances from Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried and Lily Collins, along with the technical excellence you come to expect from a David Fincher film. The use of black and white cinematography, mono sound and the editing and score do an brilliant job of creating the feel of the 1930s as well.
19. True History of the Kelly Gang – Whilst it’s not for everyone, I found this to be a powerful look at the nature of masculinity and identity, with an interesting use of aspect ratio to create the feel of the characters, with George MacKay and Essie Davis giving powerful performances.
22. Jojo Rabbit
25. Howard – I wasn’t really familiar with the story of Howard Ashman prior to this film, only that he was involved in several musicals and helped define the Disney Renaissance. This film is an interesting look at alternative musical theatre, the gay experience in the 70s and 80s, the impact of the AIDS epidemic and provided some great insight into a number of great musicals, creating a portrait of a talent gone too soon.
28. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm – Whilst not all of the jokes land, when the film is funny it’s a laugh riot and the focus on women in the film, especially with a star-making performance from Maria Bakalova, make this a more rewarding experience than the first film.
29. The Assistant – Julia Garner gives a powerful performance in this film which takes an interesting look at the banality of the misogyny in the entertainment industry and, whilst there are some slow moments, they work in creating an oppressive atmosphere that makes you uncomfortable throughout.
30. Emma. – This is an adaptation of Austen that remembers the sharp wit and comedy of her writing, with the script and the central performance from Anya Taylor-Joy creating this really sharp and witty film. The rest of the ensemble cast, especially Bill Nighy, Mia Goth, Josh O’Connor and Johnny Flynn, create a vibrant world for the film, aided by the excellent costume design and score.
31. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – Whilst it doesn’t fully overcome its stage roots, this is still a powerful film looking at artistic freedom and racism, buoyed by excellent performances from Viola Davis and especially Chadwick Boseman.
32. Farewell Amor
34. Greyhound – This is a lean, tight thriller with very little fat to it. Every action in this film has a purpose and it does a good job of making you understand the experience on the ships, with Tom Hanks holding the film together well.
35. The Platform – This is probably the least subtle film you’ll see this year, but it works in creating an interesting sci-fi concept with well executed social commentary throughout.
36. Get Duked – Whilst it’s not the deepest film this is a solid comedy on class disparity that’s a good bit of fun, aided by the excellent chemistry the four leads have with each other.
37. Monsoon – This is an interesting insight into the nature of cultural identity and disconnect with Henry Golding giving an excellent performance to this effect, making this a pretty profound film on the whole.
38. Jesus Shows You The Way To The Highway – This is one of the most insane films I’ve seen and is a complete trip, but it is a fun experience when you let yourself get absorbed into the madness if the film.
39. Weathering With You – Whilst not as powerful as Your Name, this is still another strong film from Makoto Shinkai, with some of the most stunning animation you’ll see in a film this year .
40. Queen and Slim – There are some tonal issues that prevent this from being a truly great film, but the strong writing and direction and tour-de-force performances from Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya make this a powerful watch.
41. The Half of It – Whilst I don’t think the ending quite works, I found this to be a charming little rom com that tackles the central love triangle in an interesting way, with Leah Lewis giving a strong performance, adding to the charming nature of the film.
42. Yes God Yes – Whilst more could have been done with the hypocrisy of some of the characters this is a strong comedy that highlights the absurdity of the way young people are introduced to sex and the harm this can do to them.
43. Escape from Pretoria – There’s a good deal of tension in the film and Daniel Radcliffe gives a solid performance, but I don’t think the film handles the political elements as well as it could have, and most of the characters in the film feel pretty bland.
45. Dark Waters – Whilst this doesn’t have the style that you’d expect from a Todd Haynes film and Anne Hathaway is completely wasted, this is still an engaging film, buoyed by excellent performances from Mark Ruffalo and especially Bill Camp.
46. The King of Staten Island – Pete Davidson gives a great performance and there’s some solid pathos in here, but as a comedy it doesn’t 100% work and it is way too long for what it wants to do.
47. The Old Guard – The action scenes in here are well directed, the LGBT themes of the film are well executed and Charlize Theron has the strong charisma to make the film work, but the overall story doesn’t quite work and ends up being a bit too depressing, and it clearly feels like a film aimed to be a franchise more than a standalone work.
48. Selah and the Spades – This is an interesting take on boarding school life and the different cultures that form within it with Lovie Simone giving an excellent performance in the lead, but the ending of the film doesn’t quite work which robs the film of a lot of its power.
49. One Man and His Shoes – This does a good job at covering the economics and wider social impact of the Air Jordan shoes, but it feels like the film needed to be longer to cover the full impact of the shoes, especially when it gets to the violence over them.
50. Summerland – Gemma Arterton gives a great performance and there’s a lot of charm in the film, but the third act doesn’t quite work and more time should have been given to the flashback and flashforward scenes, to make the film feel more complete.
51. Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey – This is a charming little Christmas film buoyed by strong production design and costume design, energetic musical numbers and good performances, although there are issues I had with the overall pacing of the film.
52. The Willoughbys – The stop-motion inspired style of the film creates a great looking film, and the plot is pretty fun, but this is also a film that feels like it was originally meant to be a musical, and was then changed at the last minute, and I don’t think all of the celebrity voice actors fit the roles.
54. Enola Holmes – Millie Bobbie Brown is excellent here, bringing life and vibrancy to the film, but this does feel like there were two scripts that were awkwardly merged into one and I think that Henry Cavill and Sam Claflin would have been better suited if they swapped roles. Plus, the film wastes the talents of Adeel Akhtar.
55. The One and Only Ivan – This is a film that doesn’t go far enough with the tone, being confused between a light hearted family film and a more intense look at the lives of animals in captivity and the heartwarming moments and excellent CG can’t quite overcome this issue.
56. 7500 – Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives a great performance and there’s some good suspense, but in the third act of the film all of the suspense just dies and it ends up being pretty boring at the end.
58. Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles – The animation is great and I think the overall idea of the film works, but we don’t get the full insight into Buñuel that is needed and it doesn’t fully grapple with the actions of Buñuel during the making of the film.
59. Romantic Comedy – The general video essay nature of the film is interesting and there is some good commentary on romantic comedies, but it ends up being a bit too broad and loses steam towards the end.
60. On The Rocks – The script is decent and there are strong performances from Rashida Jones, Bill Murray and Marlon Wayans, but the overall structure of the film feels very repetitive to me and took away from the thematic weight of the film.
61. Bombshell – There are excellent performances from Charlize Theron and Margot Robbie, but the film feels a bit tonally confused over whether it wants to be a more straightforward film or an Adam McKay film and this creates a weird tone throughout that doesn’t gel together.
63. Little Joe – I can see what was being aimed for in this film, but this is a case of a film I respect more than I like. I appreciate how the music, performances and cinematography create this off kilter feel throughout, but it didn’t quite work for me.
64. Perfect 10 – The performances and direction are strong and there are some interesting themes explored about self confidence and bullying, but I didn’t think the crime elements worked and there were some relationships which needed more depth.
65. Rebecca – The production design and cinematography is strong and Kristen Scott Thomas is a lot of fun, but Lily James and Armie Hammer feel miscast and, aside from a handful of scenes, this didn’t feel like a Ben Wheatley film. Those moments when it felt like a Wheatley film are when the film is at its best, but there aren’t enough of those scenes.
66. Resistance – Jesse Eisenberg is good as Marcel Marceau but the film doesn’t fully go in depth with Marceau as a character and ultimately doesn’t really say anything new about this time period.
67. The Call of the Wild – Whilst there are some heartwarming moments in the film and Harrison Ford gives a good performance, the way CG is used to create Buck ends up feeling a bit unnatural and there were no points in the film where I felt I was looking at a dog, which just distracted me throughout.
68. Greed – Whilst there are some interesting political points to be made, some good comedy moments and Steve Coogan is relishing playing a character as nasty as the one here, ultimately the film isn’t quite sure whether it wants to be a documentary about Phillip Green or a general satire and the film never quite balances these elements together.
69. Radioactive – Rosamund Pike gives an excellent performance as Marie Curie but aside from a handful of moments this is a very paint by numbers biopic.
70. We Can Be Heroes – The heart of the film is in the right place and there is no trace of cynicism in here, but I found the writing for most of the characters to be pretty annoying, the CG to be inconsistent and the ending to be a bit of a cop out, with there being no real foreshadowing towards this ending.
71. The Spongebob Movie: Sponge on the Run – Whilst there is some good animation in here the film ends up feeling really padded and more akin to one of the TV specials rather than a feature film.
72. Magic Camp – Some fun can be had in the film but the whole film is structured like School of Rock for magic, not helped by an incredibly annoying performance from Adam DeVine.
73. Project Power – Jamie Foxx and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are solid and there’s some decent action, but this is let down by a pretty stupid script and an overall bland nature.
74. Scoob! – Some of the animation here is great and Jason Isaacs and Ken Jeong are fun here but the rest of the celebrity voice cast phone it in, especially Zac Efron and Amanda Seyfried, and at no point after the first act did it feel like I was watching a Scooby Doo film.
75. The Gentlemen
76. Sonic the Hedgehog – Ben Schwartz and Jim Carrey give this film some life but every scene with James Marsden is dull and it feels very generic with no identity of its own.
77. Hillbilly Elegy – Glenn Close and Amy Adams do as well as they can with the material, but the material itself is overwrought and at times I found it pretty patronising, not helped by bland direction from Ron Howard which doesn’t give the film any life.
78. Mulan – Whilst not the worst of the Disney live action remakes this is still a pretty bad film with weak character development, a script that makes Mulan less of an empowering figure than in the original and some of the worst editing I’ve seen in a big budget film.
79. Inheritance – Lily Collins gives a good performance and there are some decent mystery moments, but the film is hampered by a third act that goes completely off the rails and a fundamentally miscast Simon Pegg.
80. Bloodshot – This is one of the most bland and generic films I’ve seen, offering absolutely nothing new, wasting the talents of a mostly solid cast and having no identity of its own.
81. The Lie – There are some decent performances but the way the film is plotted and structured is weak with the ending of the film destroys any credibility the plot of the film has.
82. The New Mutants
83. The Night Clerk – This is just a misguided film that feels like it wants to say something about Asperger’s, but the weak mystery and pretty bad performance from Tye Sheridan destroy any power the film has.
84. My Spy – Dave Bautista’s chemistry makes the film slightly watchable but it’s way too dark for the tone that’s being aimed for and it feels like every other tough guy watching over precocious kids film that were a dime a dozen in the early 2000s.
85. The Hunt – I appreciate what was being aimed for with this film the overall feel of the film just doesn’t work and it doesn’t go as far enough as it should have with the satire.
86. The Devil All The Time – Tom Holland and Robert Pattinson are strong here but this is one of the most miserable experiences I’ve had with a film in a long time and it felt like me it was cruel for the sake of being cruel rather than having a point to everything.
88. Fantasy Island – This is one of the most misguided films I’ve seen in a while, making very little sense and the whole idea of doing Fantasy Island as a horror film has potential, but the film chickens out on this idea, which ends up destroying any power in the film and ends up raising questions about how the island works where the answers constantly contradict themselves. Not helping matters is the fact that the film is not scary in any way.
89. The Last Thing He Wanted – There’s a decent idea for a film buried in here but in between an overly convoluted script and poorly written characters this ends up being a complete mess that is pretty much incomprehensible.
90. Artemis Fowl
Top 20 Female Performances of 2020
20. Sophia Lillis – Uncle Frank
19. Lovie Simone – Selah and the Spades
18. Tina Fey – Soul
17. Essie Davis – True History of the Kelly Gang
16. Margot Robbie – Birds of Prey (Or The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)
15. Anya Taylor-Joy – Emma
14. Maria Bakalova – Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
13. Gugu Mbatha-Raw – Misbehaviour
12. Amanda Seyfried – Mank
11. Zainab Jah – Farewell Amor
10. Evan Rachel Wood – Kajillionaire
9. Julia Garner – The Assistant
8. Jodie Turner-Smith – Queen and Slim
7. Viola Davis – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
6. Adele Haenel – Portrait of a Lady on Fire
5. Elisabeth Moss – The Invisible Man
4. Bukky Bakray – Rocks
3. Sidney Flanigan – Never Rarely Sometimes Always
2. Park So-dam – Parasite
1. Alfre Woodard – Clemency
Top 20 Male Peformances of 2020
20. Paul Bettany – Uncle Frank
19. Pete Davidson – The King of Staten Island
18. Jamie Foxx – Soul
17. John David Washington – Tenet
16. Bill Camp – Dark Waters
15. Richard Jenkins – Kajillionaire
14. Dev Patel – The Personal History of David Copperfield
13. George McKay – 1917
12. Daniel Kaluuya – Queen and Slim
11. Sacha Baron Cohen – The Trial of the Chicago Seven
10. Henry Golding – Monsoon
9. Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine – Farewell Amor
8. Aldis Hodge – Clemency
7. Tom Hanks – A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood
6. Gary Oldman – Mank
5. Willem Dafoe – The Lighthouse
4. Song Kang-ho – Parasite
3. Chadwick Boseman – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
2. Delroy Lindo – Da Five Bloods
1. Adam Sandler – Uncut Gems