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.
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.
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.
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.
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.