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: Sam Mendes
Starring: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong, Claire Duburcq, Benedict Cumberbatch, Richard Madden
While war has provided fertile ground for filmmakers for a long time, historically there has been a much greater focus on the Second World War than the First. World War II occurred during the height of the Hollywood studio system while World War I occurred during the early years of industrial filmmaking, before even the advent of sound. From a storytelling perspective, World War II was a neater war, possessing a clarity of good and evil which the murkiness of World War I lacked. The recent centenary of the Great War, however, has seen more attention being given to that conflict. As its title suggests, Sam Mendes’ 1917 is a First World War film. However, it is not really about the War. While set on the Western Front, it does not give any indication of why the conflict is being fought or of the immediate context of the events. 1917 isn’t about history. It is about an experience, and it is a masterclass of immersive storytelling. Continue reading
Director: Sam Mendes
Starring: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Wishaw, Naomi Harris, Andrew Scott, Dave Bautista, Jesper Christensen, Monica Bellucci, Rory Kinnear
SPECTRE, the Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion, has an iconic place in the James Bond series, with the evil organisation having been 007’s nemesis in six of the first seven films. But in the 1960s, Kevin McClory, the co-author of Thunderball, launched legal action against Ian Fleming after Fleming failed to give him appropriate credit for the novel, and was awarded sole rights to the SPECTRE name. For this reason, despite its iconic status, SPECTRE has not been mentioned in a Bond film since Diamonds are Forever in 1971. In 2013, four decades and sixteen Bond films later, a deal was struck between the McClory estate and MGM to return the rights, and the studio wasted no time in reintroducing SPECTRE into the fold, placing it front and centre in Bond 24, called, unsurprisingly, Spectre.
After receiving a secret message from an old ally, James Bond (Daniel Craig) goes rogue on what starts out as an assassination mission in Mexico City and ends up in Rome with the discovery of a secret organisation that has been behind many of the villains he has faced in the recent past. Continue reading
1. Argo (Ben Affleck)
People have to stop talking about Ben Affleck “being on a hot streak” or “enjoying a purple patch” as a director and accept that perhaps he is just a really talented director. Maybe he didn’t ride Matt Damon’s coattails to that screenwriting Oscar for Good Will Hunting all those years ago like so many joked. Argo, Affleck’s third film, is the year’s best thriller and mixes moments of extreme tension with some great laughs. Alan Arkin and John Goodman are fantastic as the CIA’s Hollywood collaborators.
2. Hugo (Martin Scorsese)
A few eyebrows were raised when it was announced that Scorsese was going to adapt a children’s book as his next project, but with David Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret it made perfect sense. Hugo was Scorsese’s love letter to the early cinema. A visually stunning film it is also one of the few films that have been made which have convinced me there may be some merit to 3D.
3. The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius)
Of course, Hugo was not the only film in cinemas this year which celebrated the early days of cinema. Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist went one step further, engaging with the long-lost art of silent storytelling. This was such an ambitious project, but it was just so endearing and charming that it won people over. It also came out at exactly the right time for me as I’d recently been watching a lot of Charlie Chaplin films and my interest in silent cinema was peaking.
4. Skyfall (Sam Mendes)
With MGM’s financial troubles we were forced to wait four years to see James Bond back on our screens after the disappointing Quantum of Solace, but boy was it worth the wait. Skyfall had everything you want in a Bond film, some great action sequences, a bit of humour, a fantastic villain. But on top of that, having a real filmmaker in Sam Mendes at the helm meant that the film also had an attention character development and an emotional depth that we’d never seen in a Bond before. Skyfall is not just a great Bond film, it is a great film.
5. Les Misérables (Tom Hooper)
This was not going to be everyone’s cup of tea just because of the sheer volume of singing, but Tom Hooper’s ambitious film is a cinematic achievement, successfully translating one of the West End’s most successful and most tragic musicals to the screen. Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway gave two of the year’s best performances in this gut-wrenching story of poverty and injustice, rebellion and redemption.
6. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Tomas Alfredson)
The thing that struck me about this adaptation of John Le Carre’s novel was its stillness and quietness. You feel like it is moving slowly, but when you stop and think about you realise that a lot has been happening. We are so used to seeing spy movies in the James Bond mould, that the stillness Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is quite intriguing. An absolute all-star British cast led by a great performance from the chameleon-like Gary Oldman.
7. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson)
Moonrise Kingdom is a Wes Anderson film through and through, which means some people will love it and others will hate it. Many of his usual collaborators are back with the key additions of Bruce Willis and Edward Norton. Anderson’s films are always deadpan and contain a touch of darkness, but this ups the ante on that. As always, the use of music, in this case Benjamin Britten and Hank Williams, is very clever. But for me, the sight of Harvey Keitel in shorts alone makes this film noteworthy.
8. The Muppets (James Bobin)
This may look like a strange pick alongside the other films on this list but The Muppets was a hard film not to love. No other film this year projected pure joy the way The Muppets did, and that should be celebrated. Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller’s screenplay showed a real love for these classic characters and, along with Bret McKenzie’s songs, found the perfect balance between nostalgia and contemporary comedy.
9. Looper (Rian Johnson)
There is nothing better than being genuinely surprised (in a positive way) by a film, and for mine Rian Johnson’s Looper was the surprise movie of the year. I saw it on a whim, expecting it to be a reasonably run of the mill sci-fi romp but what I got was the most original and interesting science fiction movie since District 9. The story of an assassin from two different periods in time going head to head with himself also engaged with that moral conundrum “If you could go back in time to when Hitler/Stalin/Pol Pot was a baby, would you kill them to save the world future suffering?”
10. Seven Psychopaths (Martin McDonagh)
Martin McDonagh’s comedy isn’t going to appear on a lot of Top 10 lists but this is my list, dammit, so I’m including it. This sharply written comedy about a screenwriter who finds himself in a tough situation after his friend kidnaps the beloved dog of a local crime boss is a strong follow-up to McDonagh’s 2008 debut In Bruges. Yes there are some holes and some problems, but there are also some big laughs, with terrific comic performances from the always brilliant Sam Rockwell and the always quirky Christopher Walken carrying the film.
Not far off: The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson), The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan), Shame (Steve McQueen), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher), The Avengers (Joss Whedon)
The Worst Movie of the Year: Act of Valor (Mike McCoy, Scott Waugh). Not even close really. This military propaganda film in disguise (and not much of a disguise at that) proudly trumpeted the fact that all the major characters were played by real life Marines as though that were a good thing. It wasn’t.
Cinematic Highlight of the Year: Getting to see Steven Spielberg’s Jaws on the big screen as part of its high definition re-release. It was the movie which started the whole blockbuster movement, and which launched Spielberg into stardom, and it still holds up. Similarly, it was good to see Titanic on the big screen again. While the 3D transfer didn’t do much for me it was interesting to see that enough time has passed that we are all over our anti-Titanic bias and can accept that, while it has its faults, it is actually a very good film.