Top ten films of 2020

To paraphrase Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, it would require a great philosopher and historian to explain 2020 – let it suffice to say that it’s been a largely unpleasant ordeal for all involved. When it comes to movies, much of the year was defined by what we didn’t see; from the 25th James Bond adventure, No Time To Die, to Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch and Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, blockbusters have found their release dates postponed, sometimes repeatedly, into 2021 and beyond. We can only hope that there are still cinemas left by the time these films deem it safe to emerge. 

But despite the enormity of the last year, there remained plenty of great pictures to carry us through, on both the big and small screens. Indeed, 2020 was the year that television streaming came to dominate our consumption of new cinema, with the likes of Netflix, Amazon, and even the BBC gobbling up the rights to films which found themselves suddenly bereft of a conventional theatrical audience. The jury is still out on how positive, and permanent, this shift will prove to be.

But while all of us miss the spectacle and grandeur of a proper cinema auditorium, a great movie will captivate an audience just as effectively in a cramped living room as a packed IMAX. This is certainly true of each of my picks for the top ten films of 2020.

10. The Personal History of David Copperfield


Dir. Armando Iannucci

The third film from director Armando Iannucci, David Copperfield marks a departure from the caustic political satires for which the Scottish funnyman is known. Condensing the 600+ pages of Dickens’ novel into a running time just shy of two hours, the film is a breathlessly funny romp through Victorian Britain, but with an eye focused squarely on the country as it appears today. The supporting cast is a perfectly pitched ensemble featuring talent young and old, but it’s Dev Patel’s magnetic lead performance around which the film rotates. A celebration of Britishness at its most warm and inclusive, David Copperfield proves that even the most storied works of classic literature can be given new life when adapted for the screen.

9. Soul


Dir. Pete Docter, Kemp Powers

Pixar are no longer the safe bet they once were, as a recent spate of lacklustre sequels has dulled their once illustrious name and threatened their position at the forefront of American animation. It’s a relief, then, to report that Soul is a jubilant return to form. Director Pete Docter, a veteran of the studio and architect of their last great film, 2015’s Inside Out, has again delivered all the wonder and emotional depth of vintage Pixar. It helps that the film takes heavy visual and thematic cues from one of my favourite films, Powell and Pressburger’s 1946 masterpiece A Matter of Life and Death. Indeed, Soul is an unashamedly philosophical work, and its ambition in tackling big existential questions is matched only by its visual inventiveness. For anyone suffering a crisis of confidence in themselves or their accomplishments, this is a much-needed paean to the simple joys of being alive. For the children in the room, there’s a talking cat.

8. Red, White and Blue


Dir. Steve McQueen

The first of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology series to make my list, Red, White and Blue tells the story of pioneering police officer Leroy Logan and his mission to force change from within the institutionally racist Metropolitan Police Force. The film asks searching questions about the relationship between the police and the communities they serve, and doesn’t presume to have any answers beyond the conviction that change must come. Finally freed from the shackles of disappointing Star Wars sequels, John Boyega provides a powerful leading turn which reasserts his claim as one of Britain’s most exciting young performers. His Logan is an utterly believable figure who straddles doubt and conviction, the essential goodness and compassion of his character struggling to contain the righteous rage bubbling beneath. Amid the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement and recent demonstrations of anger against police brutality, it feels trite to call Red, White and Blue “timely”, but it provides a vivid and essential perspective on the unending struggle against racism in one of our most powerful public bodies.

7. Mank


Dir. David Fincher

A film about the making of the greatest film ever made was always going to be a tall order, but David Fincher isn’t one to shy away from a challenge. Six long years since his last feature, 2014’s Gone Girl, Fincher has brought to screen a script penned by his late father, Jack Fincher, charting the career of Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz. It’s simultaneously a celebration of the creative process and a condemnation of the corruption which lay beneath Hollywood’s golden age. Shot in sumptuous monochrome by cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt (what a name) and utilising an archaic mono soundtrack, the film is filtered through a reverent nostalgia for the era it depicts, without whitewashing its vices. Critics may quibble about the factual accuracy of its narrative, but Mank joins a pantheon of great movies about the movie business.

6. On The Rocks


Dir. Sofia Coppola

Reuniting director Sofia Coppola with star Bill Murray for the first time since their masterful 2003 collaboration, Lost In Translation, On The Rocks is another delicately incisive and brilliantly funny study of cross-generational understanding. Rashida Jones plays a procrastinating writer who suspects her husband of infidelity and, against her better judgement, enlists her womanising father (Murray) to investigate. Their ensuing misadventures swiftly begin to reveal more about their own relationship than anything the husband may be up to, while Jones and Murray are perfect foils for one another in these central roles. So much of their relationship is revealed through what goes unsaid, as their apparent closeness belies a deeper, obscured estrangement which is slowly interrogated throughout the film. Casting an eye upon the buried insecurities and parental hang-ups to which all of us would rather not admit, On The Rocks is a light yet quietly profound caper on the complexities of family.

5. Portrait of a Lady on Fire


Dir. Céline Sciamma

It’s difficult to separate Portrait of a Lady on Fire from the circumstances in which I first saw it. Little did I know at the time, it was to be my last experience in a cinema before the oncoming Coronavirus pandemic forced the closure of every screen in the country. The memory of this screening has sustained me throughout the past few months of drought, as Céline Sciamma’s stunning film represents everything I love about the cinematic experience. It’s a tender depiction of a passionate but lamentably fleeting romance between an artist and her subject. Sciamma herself has referred to the film as a “manifesto about the female gaze”, and as such she crafts a refreshingly frank and sympathetic vision of lesbian sexuality. The emotional and physical longing of new love is captured in excruciating intensity, along with the deep and emotionally disfiguring scars which are left by its passing. Bearing the same power of the inclement waves which smash against the rocky, windswept outcrop of the film’s setting, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an awe-inspiring ode to the overwhelming joys and pains of love, which will you shivering and shell-shocked by the final reel.

4. Mangrove


Dir. Steve McQueen

As the opening gala of the London Film Festival, Mangrove was the showpiece of Steve’s McQueen’s Small Axe anthology. Tracing the Metropolitan Police’s vindictive campaign against Notting Hill’s Mangrove restaurant and it’s owner, Frank Critchlow, the film is an explosively impassioned tour-de-force of a legal drama. Simultaneously the story of a community under siege and of one man’s reluctant charge at the spearhead of a struggle he never wanted to fight, the film vividly captures the cheerful vibrancy and oppressive cruelty that went hand-in-hand for people of colour late 60s/early 70s West London. Amid the typical trappings of the courtroom drama, there are beautifully idiosyncratic touches which bring to mind McQueen’s background as a visual artist, such as the strangely intoxicating visual of a fallen colander ceaselessly rocking back and forth on the floor of a kitchen following a violent police raid. In the same year that Aaron Sorkin’s enjoyable but by-the-numbers Trial of the Chicago 7 resorted to melodramatic monologues and orchestral swells to illustrate it’s righteous outrage, McQueen’s brilliance as a visual storyteller stands alone.

3. Da 5 Bloods


Dir. Spike Lee

One of the most important and brilliantly incendiary American film-makers of the last thirty years, Spike Lee has nevertheless had a somewhat uneven filmography. Fortunately, Da 5 Bloods sits closer to the Do the Right Thing end of the spectrum than that of Oldboy. This is Lee at his most exciting and confrontational, posing complicated questions about America’s past and present. Following four black Vietnam veterans as they return to the country in which they fought as youths, the film dissects the legacy of the Vietnam War and adopts it as a lens through which to view the complicated racial and cultural divisions of Trumpian America. Meanwhile, Delroy Lindo provides my favourite male lead performance of the year, his physically imposing presence and outward machismo gradually crumbling to reveal a shattered and exhausted soul. It’s a cine-literate work which wears its inspirations on its sleeve, dropping knowing references to the likes of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Apocalypse Now. Indeed, alongside it’s political proselytising, Da 5 Bloods indulges itself in action and adventure genre thrills, particularly as it unfolds a marvellously outlandish final act.

2. Saint Frances


Dir. Alex Thompson

Written by and starring Kelly O’Sullivan, Saint Frances is a tender coming of age comedy for millennials in their mid-thirties. Focusing on the messier and more complicated aspects of modern womanhood, the film paints a warm and embracing picture of femininity which feels boldly honest. Despite dealing with a number of taboos and hefty issues, O’Sullivan’s consistently funny script retains a deft lightness of touch and evinces guffaws at even its bleakest moments. Alongside the screenwriter’s charismatic lead performance, 6-year-old Ramona Edith Williams commands the screen as the eponymous Frances, while Jim True-Frost delivers a hilarious cameo which will delight fans of The Wire. Tackling everything from the existential abyss of working a dead end job, to abortion, depression, and the relentless anxiety of parenthood, Saint Frances throws its arms round the audience in an uncompromising embrace. At a time when the basic rights of women across the world are under attack and archaic stigmas are being reinforced, the affirmative spirit of Saint Frances is all the more welcome.

1. Education


Dir. Steve McQueen

This was the final instalment in the Small Axe anthology to reach British televisions, and Steve McQueen saved the best for last. Education is a fierce exposé of a cruel and callous schooling system which condemned the life chances of a generation of disproportionately black children. Young newcomer Kenyah Sandy is a revelation as Kingsley Smith, an absentminded 12-year-old boy who finds himself discarded into a school for the so-called “educationally subnormal”. Equally spectacular is Sharlene Whyte’s performance as Kingsley’s exhausted mother, Agnes, whose gradual discovery of her son’s neglect leads to one of the most powerful and heart-breaking moments in all of the cinema released last year. Indeed, the film is not just a denunciation of a segregationist education policy, but a celebration of the men and women of British-West Indian communities who mobilised to fight the injustice being done to their children.

Beyond the Education‘s significance as an historical testament, it is a technically exquisite work of cinema. The painterly elegance of cinematographer Shabier Kirchner’s camera work and McQueen’s penchant for unbroken single takes lends the visuals a rich and arresting texture, regardless of the domesticity of the film’s setting. A prolonged and affecting musical sequence in the second act, to name one example, betrays a greater depth of meaning than a thousand lines of dialogue.

Despite it’s individual brilliance, Education should not be considered as a purely singular work, but as one weave within the rich tapestry of McQueen’s Small Axe anthology. Having shone a series of piercing spotlights onto the black British experience, Small Axe contributes to a much-needed refocusing and reappraisal of our country’s history and who we are today. It is a triumph and a cultural landmark which will be studied and celebrated for decades to come.

How have cinemas survived?

The Coronavirus lockdown has threatened cinemas like never before, but it’s not the first time their future has been in doubt. From Nazis to Netflix, clued-down looks at how theatrical film exhibition has survived more than a century of challenges.

edwin-hooper-Q8m8cLkryeo-unsplash
The World Theatre, Kearney, Nebraska. Photo by Edwin Hooper on Unsplash.

Cinemas are currently facing an unprecedented crisis. In Britain, for the first time in over 80 years, every screen in the country has been forced to close, putting thousands of jobs and the future of an entire industry at risk. According to the Hollywood Reporter, global box office losses could reach $17 billion if the lockdown continues to the end of May. With streaming services already nipping at the heels of theatrical exhibitors, it’s impossible to say what the landscape of film distribution will look like mere months from now.

However, this is not the first time that cinema operators have had to weather a storm. Movie-going has been a ubiquitous pastime for more than a century, and in that period the silver screen has faced repeated slumps in attendance and challenges from other media. From Nazi air raids to the rise of Netflix, cinemas have always been forced to adapt to sudden calamity and rapid changes in consumer habits – and so far they have managed to survive.

krists-luhaers-AtPWnYNDJnM-unsplash
Photo by Krists Luhaers on Unsplash.

Cinemas first emerged in the last years of the 19th century and quickly became the diversion of choice for the young, urban working classes. By the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, there were 4,000 locations across the UK, and their grip upon the nation’s social life was only tightened with the advent of talkies and Technicolor in the 1930s. In the words of historian AJP Taylor, cinema was ‘the essential social habit of the age’.

The first challenge to this supremacy arrived with the Second World War. When Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939, every picture house in the country was immediately closed by order of the Government, fearing their vulnerability to aerial bombing. This quickly provoked outrage; the playwright George Bernard Shaw, for one, penned an angry letter to The Times asking, ‘‘what agent of Chancellor Hitler is it who has suggested that we should all cower in darkness and terror ‘‘for the duration’’?’ The importance of cinema for both civilian and military morale was quickly recognised, and within a month every screen across the country was once again open for business.

In the end, the war years turned out to be something of a golden age for the country’s cinema industry, as the miseries and privations of war encouraged audiences to seek refuge in the glamour of the movies. Attendance grew steadily throughout the conflict, eventually reaching an all-time high of 1,635 million in 1946 – this was despite the 160 cinemas destroyed by enemy action. Film exhibitors may not have appreciated it at the time, but these were halcyon days, as the postwar era brought renewed attacks upon the dominance of the silver screen.

watching-television-1225237

The BBC had issued the world’s first regular television transmission on 2 November 1936, and within two decades this new technology became a common feature – arguably the feature – of family living rooms. The growth of television, combined with the spread of central heating, made staying at home a more attractive prospect for Britain’s movie-going masses. Audiences declined steadily from 1948, as did did the number of cinemas. From a peak of 4,700 venues in 1946, this fell to 3,050 by 1960 and 1,971 by 1965.

To combat this precipitous decline, the film industry turned to the sort of spectacle and technical innovation that couldn’t be equalled by their small screen competition. Colour pictures became more common, while the 1950s also saw a brief craze for 3D movies along with the introduction of various widescreen processes like Cinerama, VistaVision, CinemaScope, and Ultra Panavision. While these developments helped movies to retain their edge, the first real victim of the television boom was the once-mighty newsreel industry, which could not hope to match the immediacy of TV news. British Paramount News closed in 1957, followed by Universal and Gaumont British in 1959. In 1960, the Newsreel Association of Great Britain and Ireland ended all operations, whilst the fatal blow was finally dealt in 1969 with the closure of British Pathé.

sean-benesh-6Nbo9Pn0yJA-unsplash
Photo by Sean Benesh on Unsplash.

The innovations of the fifties may have slowed the rot in theatrical exhibition, but the worst was still yet the come. Audiences continued to tumble precipitously, and fell to a record low of just 54 million admissions in 1984 – a collapse of 95% from their 1940s heyday. Indeed, the 1980s are widely recognised as the nadir of the British cinema industry, as the advent of home media with VHS and Betamax brought Hollywood blockbusters into living rooms just months after their big-screen premiere. Meanwhile, TV soaps and sitcoms arguably replaced cinema as the nation’s favoured mass entertainment; on Christmas Day 1986 over 30 million viewers watched Eastenders‘ Dirty Den serve divorce papers to his wife Angie.

As audiences fell, so too did the number of screens to serve them. By 1984 there were just 660 sites left in the UK, often in an unloved and dilapidated condition. The following year, film academic Geoffrey Nowell-Smith warned, ‘there is now an imminent danger that British Cinema as we know it, will have effectively ceased to exist within the decade.’ Amid this downturn, hundreds of grand movie houses were demolished or converted into bingo halls, pool clubs, or places of worship (the preservation of these often ornate, art-deco constructions continues to fuel controversy).

Things seemed dire, but salvation was close at hand. Imitating developments in American suburbs, AMC opened the UK’s first multiplex in Milton Keynes in 1985. Called The Point, it was a futuristic, pyramid-shaped structure of glass and steel. Inside were ten cinema screens and a snack bar selling an indulgent range of food and drink, while the courtyard outside had ample space for parking the family saloon.

the point
The Point, Milton Keynes. Photo by stone40 licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

The Point brought about a revolution in British cinema’s fortunes, and how it did business, as a wave of new establishments based on the same model were rapidly constructed. These buildings were cleaner and better maintained than many of the decaying old city-centre cinemas with which audiences were familiar, and their greater number of screens meant that they could, in theory, show a broader range of films. By 1990 there were 41 such cinemas with 411 screens between them, while nationwide cinema admissions had nearly doubled to 97.37 million.

Thanks to continued investment, audience attendance rose consistently over the following decade, and since 2001 the annual total has never dipped below 150 million. Of course, there were some losers in this brave new world. The explosion of out-of-town multiplexes did cause closures among independent cinemas which were unable to adapt their existing buildings. Meanwhile, many cinéastes have argued that rather than expanding consumer choice, these multi-screen behemoths have actually restricted the selection of films on offer, dedicating their plethora of screens to the latest American blockbusters and little else.

jake-hills-23LET4Hxj_U-unsplash
Duke of York’s Picturehouse, Brighton. Photo by Jake Hills on Unsplash.

But the fact remains that the multiplex saved the humble cinema from terminal decline, and the industry has enjoyed reasonably good health ever since. Indeed, despite the rise of fresh competition in the form of HD television and streaming services like Amazon Prime and Netflix, cinema admissions have remained relatively steady over the past 20 years, while in 2018 British cinemas had their best year since 1970, selling 177 million tickets. Cinema sites have also continued to multiply; more than 30 opened in 2019 alone, bringing the total across the UK to 840.

While theatrical film distributors, particularly those in France, wring their hands about the threat from Netflix, there is little evidence that cinema’s days are numbered. In fact, a recent study in the US by consultancy EY found that those who stream movies more regularly are also the most enthusiastic cinema-goers. Perhaps in recognition of this, Netflix has recently been increasing its presence in cinemas, partnering with Curzon in the UK to handle limited big-screen releases of Netflix-produced movies like Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman and Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story. All this suggests a future in which cinemas and streaming giants can coexist in relative harmony.

room-2559790_1920

Admittedly, the 90-day window that has traditionally existed between a film’s premiere in cinemas and its arrival on home media is increasingly looking like an archaism within our on-demand culture. But just as cinemas have continually evolved over the last hundred years, they will persist in doing so against the new challenges of the digital age. Phil Clapp, the CEO of the UK Cinema Association, argued as much in a recent letter to the Financial Times, observing that, ‘the supposedly imminent demise of the cinema sector due to streaming has its echoes in the predicted impact on the business of TV, VHS and DVD.’

Throughout the catastrophes and innovations of recent history, cinema-going has proved to be a difficult habit to shake for the British public. The ongoing outbreak of COVID-19 has challenged the industry like never before, but there is something special about the cinematic experience which keeps audiences coming back. When the lockdown is finally lifted and we all emerge bleary-eyed from our homes, it won’t be long before we head back into the welcoming darkness of a movie theatre.