As it was for many, 2020 was a disaster for cinemas. Doors were closed for much of the year and even when they opened, the major studios’ reluctance to release their big properties into a compromised theatrical market left them light on product. Depsite this, it has actually been a pretty good year for movies. The space created by the near total absence of mega-blockbusters allowed those small and mid-level films which had found a home on streaming services to enjoy more of the spotlight than they might have initially expected.
While the demands of reworking curriculum on the fly for online delivery meant that I didn’t get to write as many reviews this year as I might have liked, I still got to see plenty of films. Here are my top ten for 2020…
10. Wolfwalkers (Tomm Moore & Ross Stewart)
Wolfwalkers is the latest triumph from Cartoon Saloon, the best little animation house that most people have never heard of. The third in Moore’s Irish folklore trilogy, Wolfwalkers is set against the backdrop of the 17th century colonisation of Ireland but brings an environmentalist angle that makes it feel contemporary. Young Robyn longs to follow in her father’s footsteps and hunt the wolves that live in the woods around Kilkenny until she discovers that they are actually wolfwalkers, people whose spirits become wolves when they sleep. Its celtic-style animation and gorgeous autumnal colour palette make Wolfwalkers simply beautiful to look at, and it shows an evolution of the distinctive hand-drawn style we first saw in The Secret of Kells.
9. The Invisible Man (Leigh Wannell)
With the expectation being that Universal’s rebooting of its classic monster movie properties was little more than a cynical moneymaking exercise, Leigh Wannell’s The Invisible Man proved a pleasant surprise not just by being good but by having something to say. Wannell took H.G. Wells’ concept and reframed it as a resonant, contemporary story of a woman tormented by an abusive partner with no one believing her story. It took what is a pretty fantastical concept and gave it a genuine and understandable sense of menace. Elizabeth Moss has been a star of prestige television for a while (The Handmaid’s Tale, Mad Men, Top of the Lake, The West Wing) and this should hopefully provide a stepping stone to her getting the kind of big screen roles her talent warrants.
8. Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee)
Spike Lee’s follow up to the Oscar winning BlacKkKlansman confirms that the director has well and truly rediscovered his mojo. Not just another Vietnam War movie, Da 5 Bloods is a specifically black Vietnam movie, foregrounding the incongruity and injustice of going to the other side of the world to fight for freedoms not afforded to you in your own country. Thematically and stylistically potent, it constantly requires you to reframe your expectations of what the film is. Delroy Lindo is sure to be the Best Actor frontrunner come Oscar time, while the iconising presentation of Chadwick Boseman’s character through the film’s flashbacks is only made more potent by the actor’s tragic passing.
7. A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (Marielle Heller)
Marielle Heller’s film about a cynical investigative journalist sent to interview children’s television host Mr. Rogers snuck under a lot of people’s radar early in the year, particularly because in Australia we don’t have any real investment in Mr. Rogers as a personality. All previous experience with biopics has us primed to be taken behind the curtain and shown the real Mr. Rogers, but in this case there is no distinction between the television persona and the human being. Nothing confronts, challenges and confuses cynicism more than sincerity. Brilliant performances from Tom Hanks and Matthew Rhys are complemented with a clear directorial vision from Heller. A wonderfully uplifting film that arrived before we had any real sense of how important uplifting films would be in 2020. Full review.
6. Dick Johnson is Dead (Kirsten Johnson)
Kirsten Johnson’s eulogy to her father, Dick, in which she tells him all the things she wishes she could have before his death from Alzheimer’s, is the year’s most playfully creative documentary for one simple reason… Dick Johnson isn’t actually dead. Family experience with Alzheimer’s means both Kirsten and Dick know exactly what his diagnosis means, so they collaborated on this film seeking to capture the essence of this beloved man and what he meant to people while he could still appreciate it. While a premature obituary sounds morbid, the way in which Johnson realises it, from various staged accidents to depictions of heaven, and the role her delightful father plays in it makes it quite life affirming and wonderful.
5. Soul (Pete Docter)
While Soul is arguably the least kid friendly of Pixar’s films, if you are a grown up it is among the studio’s best. From director Pete Docter (Inside Out and Up) this story of a high school band teacher whose jazz dreams are cut short when he falls through an open manhole asks big questions about purpose and passion in life. Like the best Pixar, it beautifully balances these metaphysical musings with an enjoyable adventure romp that includes some fun body swapping. Disney’s willingness to send Soul straight to Disney+ without attempting a theatrical or premium VOD release suggests that they never saw it as a potential box office smash, but it is definitely their best film of the year.
4. Babyteeth (Shannon Murphy)
Shannon Murphy’s debut feature, a coming-of-age story about a teenage girl with terminal cancer, virtually swept the pool at the AACTAs this year, taking home eleven awards. Based on the play of the same name, it manages to avoid both the cliches of the ‘teens with cancer tragi-romance’ and that confined sense of staginess that often plagues films adapted from the stage. Effectively a four-hander with complex, layered relationships between its lead quartet, it is built on great performances from Eliza Scanlen, Toby Wallace, Essie Davis and Ben Mendelsohn. There is a scene on a beach at the end of the film that absolutely destroyed me in a way a movie hasn’t for some time.
3. 1917 (Sam Mendes)
While we had seen single shot (or faux-single shot) films before, we had not really seen one on the scale of 1917. Sam Mendes’ war film is a masterclass in immersive storytelling, using its unbroken sequence not as a mere gimmick but as a means of immersing the audience in an experience. It is the experience, rather than the plot, that matters. 1917 doesn’t concern itself with historical context or the stories behind the immediate conflict. The sense that you are moving through the world with the characters in realtime – despite roughly one day being compressed into two hours – gives you both an urgent sense of immediacy and a strange spatial awareness. Full review.
2. Palm Springs (Max Barbakow)
There have been numerous movies that have walked in the footsteps of Groundhog Day but none have done it with the playfulness and intelligence of sci-fi, rom-com Palm Springs. Not burdened by the requirement to explain the central conceit, it can just jump right in and play, with Andy Samberg’s Nyles having already been in this loop for an undetermined period of time before he is joined by Cristin Milioti’s Sarah. We are used to the responsibility-free existence of the time loop being grounds for nihilistic comedy, and Palm Springs has irreverent fun with that, but the addition of other characters to the loop allows it to ask more interesting and sincere questions about the psychological impact of that trapped existence.
1. Little Women (Greta Gerwig)
Little Women captured me in a way that I was completely not expecting. Many were surprised when Greta Gerwig, hot on the heels of her directorial breakout with Lady Bird, chose for her next project a period adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. The novel had already been adapted for the big screen six times. But period films are about the time that they were made, rather than the time that they are set, and Gerwig’s Little Women is a strikingly current feeling film. Where we are used to the modernising of classic stories being achieved through transplanting them into contemporary settings and updating the dialogue, Gerwig trusts the timelessness of the text, finding and emphasising the modern sensibility that already exists within it. The result is a resonant, feminist film about young women’s desire to define themselves and their place in the world. Full review.
The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone (Francis Ford Coppola)
While I didn’t feel like I could include it in the ten as it isn’t really a new movie, Francis Ford Coppola’s thirtieth anniversary re-edit of The Godfather Part III warrants a mention. Taking Coppola and Puzo’s originally intended title, this Coda captures Michael Corleone’s inability to escape the fate that he has made for himself. Unless you know the film really well you probably aren’t going to notice most of the tweaks that have been made to the original cut, but regardless it is a reminder of how unfairly maligned that film is. Just because it is the least of the three Godfather films doesn’t mean it is a bad movie.
The Next Best (alphabetical):
- The Assistant (Kitty Green)
- Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm (Jason Woliner)
- Freeman (Laurence Billiet)
- I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman)
- Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (George C. Wolfe)
- On the Rocks (Sofia Coppola)
- The Personal History of David Copperfield (Armando Iannucci)
- Rams (Jeremy Sims)
- The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Aaron Sorkin)
- Uncut Gems (Josh Safdie & Benny Safdie)
By Duncan McLean