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…
Director: Dan Scanlon
Starring: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Mel Rodriguez
After a recent emphasis on sequels, with Toy Story 4, Incredibles 2, Cars 3 and Finding Dory all coming out in the last four years, Pixar is returning to original storytelling with Onward. Co-written and directed by Dan Scanlon, who previously helmed Monsters University (another Pixar sequel), Onward fittingly offers escapism and adventure at a time when everyone is housebound and in dire need of distraction.
Transferring high fantasy to the present day, Onward transports us to a magical world which has lost its magic. A brief prologue describes how long ago this world had been full of wonder, adventure and, most important of all, magic. But magic was hard to master so as time passed the world turned its back on it in exchange for the convenience of science. Thus, we find the town of New Mushroomton, a sprawling suburbia much like our own, except that it is inhabited by elves, centaurs, cyclopses and pixies, and has somewhat of a feral unicorn problem. Continue reading
Director: Josh Cooley
Starring: Tom Hanks, Tony Hale, Annie Potts, Christina Hendricks, Tim Allen, Madeleine McGraw, Keanu Reeves, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Joan Cusack
Over the last 25 years Pixar have produced numerous original and imaginative films which have helped establish them as the world’s premier animation studio. But there is no doubt that Toy Story is their flagship franchise. The Toy Story trilogy are beloved in a way that only a handful of film franchises can genuinely claim to be. This is why the surprise announcement that we were going to receive a fourth film was greeted with equal parts excitement and hesitancy. With the series having been so perfectly closed out with 2010’s Toy Story 3, what was there left to say? Why were we reopening this story? Were the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Star Wars franchise and the live action remakes of their animated classics not enough to satiate Disney’s thirst for profit? It seemed unnecessary and rife with potential to tarnish something which was, in many people’s eyes, perfect. How many really good have there been with a ‘4’ at the end of the title? But by now we should know that Pixar can be trusted. Continue reading
Director: Brad Bird
Starring: Holly Hunter, Craig T. Nelson, Sarah Sowell, Huck Milner, Catherine Keener, Eli Fucile, Bob Odenkirk, Samuel L. Jackson, Isabella Rossellini, Sophia Bush, Jonathan Banks, Brad Bird
In contemporary Hollywood, fourteen years is an eternity to wait for a sequel. We are used to the sequel being in the works often before the first film is even released. While there had always been audience desire for a sequel to The Incredibles – a high point even by Pixar’s lofty standards – the animation studio and writer-director Brad Bird made us wait for another adventure from the Parr family. But fans can rest assured that it has been worth the wait.
Rather than reflecting the fourteen years that have passed between films in the story world, Incredibles 2 picks up immediately where the first one left off, with the Parr family suiting up to tackle the Underminer (Pixar talisman John Ratzenberger). But when things don’t quite go to plan ‘supers’ once again find themselves out of favour with a government that sees them as more trouble than they are worth. Continue reading
Directors: Andrew Stanton, Angus MacLane
Starring: Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Hayden Rolence, Ed O’Neill, Kaitlin Olson, Ty Burrell, Diane Keaton, Eugene Levy
Animation studio Pixar has produced more than its fair share of beloved movies but 2003’s Finding Nemo undoubtedly sits close to the top of their very impressive pile. So it was inevitable that we would return to the Pacific Ocean for another installment, and with Dory, the lovable blue tang with the five-second memory, being arguably their most popular character it made sense that she would play a starring role. The only surprise then is that it took 13 years for us to get there. But Pixar’s track record is not nearly as impressive when it comes to sequels. With the exception of Toy Story 2 and 3, none of the others have really hit the mark. Pixar is undoubtedly at their best when they are being original and thinking outside the box, but with a title that suggests much the same premise as the first film, can Finding Dory be more than just a simple retread?
“Hi, I’m Dory. I suffer from short term memory loss.” These are the first words we hear in Finding Dory and in an instant they simultaneously re-establish who this character is and entirely reinvent her for this new story. Continue reading
Director: Peter Sohn
Starring: Raymond Ochoa, Jack Bright, Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Sam Elliot, Anna Paquin, Steve Zahn
2015 was a unique year for a number of reasons, one of them being that we got two Pixar films. Breaking their one film per year pattern, with the release of The Good Dinosaur, the studio’s 16th feature animation, 2015 became the first two-Pixar-film year. But rather than this being a bonus gift just in time for the holidays, it is the result of a troubled production that saw the film’s release pushed back from 2013, the original director replaced and a screenplay seemingly written by committee. As such, after the wonderfully imaginative Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur is in every way Pixar’s second film of 2015.
The Good Dinosaur starts with a simple premise: what if, 65 million years ago, the meteorite that was supposed to crash into the Earth and wipe out the dinosaurs had missed? Naturally, the dinosaurs would have remained Earth’s dominant creatures and, over the course of a few million years, evolved into a sophisticated agrarian society. Continue reading
1. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)
Thirty years on and Max is still king of the road. It is not often that you see an action movie at the pointy end of lists like this, but in 2015, at the ripe old age of seventy, George Miller took the world’s directors to school. Mad Max: Fury Road showed that a singular creative vision can elevate the action film to the level of art. Miller effectively tapped back into that part of his imagination where Max resides and delivered a visually stunning, kinetic action masterpiece. Tom Hardy steps into Mel Gibson’s shoes but Charlize Theron is the real star. Full review
2. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Alejandro G. Iñárritu)
It is exciting to see something you have never seen before, an entirely original cinematic vision. There is no other way to describe Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman. While much was made of its visual style, with the whole film appearing to be one continuous shot, Birdman is so much more than a single shot gimmick. Birdman has complete unity of form and vision. Every cinematic element, without fail, is consistent with Iñárritu’s vision and the thematic concerns of the film. The casting of Michael Keaton and subsequent critical acclaim for his performance also made for one of the stories of late 2014/early 2015. Full review
3. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Alfonso Gomez-Rejon)
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a special little movie, an indie which won over audiences on the festival circuit before getting a theatrical release. It is a coming-of-age story about an insecure high school senior, and aspiring filmmaker, whose mother insists that he befriend a girl from school who has been diagnosed with leukaemia. Genuinely funny without ever undermining the seriousness of its subject matter, touching and poignant without being schmaltzy or overly sentimental, the film is a beautifully affecting piece of cinema brimming with youthful creativity. Full review
4. Ex-Machina (Alex Garland)
The directorial debut from screenwriter Alex Garland, Ex Machina is great small science fiction. A young programmer is invited by his enigmatic boss to put a humanoid robot he has created through a Turing test, a series of interviews intended to determine whether she has achieved artificial intelligence. With only three real characters, Ex Machina is an impressively performed chamber piece which draws its drama out of conversations and dialogue. Shot on a modest budget, that money has clearly been spent in the right places because the visuals are outstanding, with the robot, Ava, being one of the year’s best CG achievements. Full review
5. The Martian (Ridley Scott)
After a pretty underwhelming last decade, Ridley Scott returned to form with The Martian. Following the fight to survive of a botanist left stranded on Mars, it is a different type of science fiction film, one that turns on the solving of problems and seeks to excite us more with its intellect and ideas than with explosions. Carried by the charismatic performance of Matt Damon, The Martian is enjoyable, irreverent and absorbing, a much lighter film than you might expect after reading the one line synopsis. It also features a great disco soundtrack. Full review
6. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams)
In the hands of a director, J.J. Abrams, who grew up with Star Wars and understood what the fans loved about it, The Force Awakens managed to recapture the look, feel and fun of the original trilogy. A transitionary film, it allowed us to catch up with beloved old characters while also introducing a collection of engaging new ones who will carry the franchise forward. Faced with almost impossible levels of expectation, to have people walking out of The Force Awakens not underwhelmed would have been a victory. That audiences have come out of not just satisfied but genuinely excited is a testament to how good it is. Full review
7. Creed (Ryan Coogler)
Sometimes a film gives you something you didn’t even know that you wanted. There were very few people openly hoping for a seventh Rocky movie, but writer-director Ryan Coogler’s Creed, functioning at the same time as a sequel and a remake, was the pleasant surprise of the year. The first Rocky film not written by Stallone, Creed offers a fresh take on the material, knowing when to lean into the cliché and when to turn it on its head. While Rocky himself is only a supporting character in this story, Sylvester Stallone delivers a career best performance. Full review
8. Inside Out (Pete Docter & Ronaldo Del Carmen)
Taking us inside the mind of an eleven year old girl with a cast of characters made up of anthropomorphised emotions, Inside Out arguably represents the zenith of Pixar’s bold originality. Co-directors Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen employ sophisticated visual metaphors to simply and effectively explain how memory, personality, subconscious and dreaming all work. Deceptively simple yet deeply profound, Inside Out is a beautiful film about growing up, farewelling the simplicity of childhood and learning to appreciate the full gamut of emotions that bring depth and texture to life. Full review
9. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Finally The Big Lebowski has a friend in the ‘stoner noir’ subgenre. Inherent Vice is the most flat out enjoyable of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films (a filmmaker whose work in the past I have tended to appreciate rather than enjoy). Set in early 1970s California and featuring some magnificent costumes, Inherent Vice is an aggressively, unapologetically confusing mystery which will require a second or third viewing to comprehend the ins and outs of its multiple narratives. But if you can embrace the confusion and go with the flow, it will only take one viewing to enjoy this humorous head-scratcher. Full review
10. Listen to Me Marlon (Stevan Riley)
Not the most high profile doco of the year, but it was the pick of them for mine. During his life Marlon Brando made hundreds of hours of audio recordings of himself: memos, memories and recollections, self-hypnosis tapes. Listen to Me Marlon uses these recordings to narrate a biographical documentary on the legendary actor. The result is practically a posthumous autobiography, an intimate exploration of a brilliant but tortured soul. Amusing, intriguing, sometimes funny and often quite sad, it is a unique documentary befitting a unique talent. Full review
The Next Best (alphabetical): ’71 (Yann Demange), Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg), The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum), A Most Violent Year (J.C. Chandor), Selma (Ava DuVernay), Trainwreck (Judd Apatow)
The Worst Movie of the Year:
The Interview (Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg)
If there was one winner out of the Sony hacking scandal it was this horrible film. Cyber terrorists demanding that Sony not release this comedy about an attempt to assassinate Kim Jong-un was a sure fire way of turning a film that would otherwise have shuffled quietly into obscurity into one of the must-sees of early 2015. Attention grabbing concept aside, The Interview did not warrant this spotlight.
Directors: Pete Docter, Ronaldo Del Carmen
Starring: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan
In the last twenty years, no Hollywood studio has been as consistently original and imaginative as Pixar. In an era when kid’s movies are so often dumbed down and seem guided primarily by merchandising departments, John Lasseter and his brains trust at Pixar allow themselves to be guided first and foremost by ideas. Their latest offering, Pete Docter (Up, Monsters Inc) and Ronaldo Del Carmen’s Inside Out, arguably represents the zenith of Pixar’s bold originality, taking us inside the mind of a young girl.
Inside Out tells a very small scale story. Eleven-year-old Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) lives a happy life with her parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) in Minnesota, only to have it unsettled when her father’s work requires the family has to relocate to San Francisco. With no friends, a different house and a new school, Riley starts to feel terribly homesick but doesn’t feel that she can talk about it with her parents. That is all that happens in the movie. At least, that is all that happens on the outside. For the key action in Inside Out actually takes place inside Riley’s mind. In the control room of her mind we meet anthropomorphised emotions, Continue reading