It might be hyperbole, but 2020 may be looked at as the year that tried to kill cinema. The pandemic forced venues around the globe to close, reopening with strict guidelines led many chains in the UK to mothball or run reduced screenings. Studios wanting to protect their sizeable investments continually push the release dates of the year’s biggest blockbusters back in the hope the audience will be there next year. Warner Bros attempted to lead the charge by releasing Tenet in August, with strong but ultimately disappointing returns. Disney went ahead and plonked Mulan on Disney+ for an inflated fee.
2020 inadvertently became the year of the streams. Smaller, independent releases gained wider prominence to fill the void of the tentpole releases audiences were clambering for. Families found themselves sharing film experiences old and new, generations sharing recommendations that in other times may go un-checked. Hopefully 2020 will also be remembered as the year that mainstream audiences and award bodies braved that “one-inch barrier” to make Parasite a global sensation. Bong Joon-Ho’s multi-genre drama arrived under a blanket of praise and a shroud of mystery. Perhaps not since Psycho had a film gotten so big with so few details of it’s plot being spoiled by movie goers. It’s a testament to the film’s power that it affected western audiences in the way it has, and fingers crossed it will guide people not usually given to watching subtitled films to (literally) a whole world of cinema.
When the FilmHounds writers were asked for their Top 10 choices of the year no one’s list was the same. It’s indicative of the year we’ve had that there was such a vast array of films mentioned, over 50 in total. Works like Saint Maud, Rocks, The Trial of the Chicago 7, Birds of Prey, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Greyhound, Koko-Di Koko-Da, Color Out of Space, Get Duked! all got mentioned.
The only rule given to our writers when choosing their films was it had to be released in the UK in 2020. What is interesting from the final Top 10 is the final list draws mostly from films released pre-lockdown. Works our writers got to see on the big screen, to experience the way they were intended. Others are films that went direct to streaming services but were always designed to be.
It should be mentioned that many of our writers included the caveat to their lists with “this is my list right now, but I haven’t seen Mank yet”. The final major release for the year, and David Fincher’s glorious return certainly has the pedigree to be an awards contender come next season. For now though let’s all be thankful for cinema helping getting us through 2020, for bringing us closer together and for all those who put their blood, sweat, tears and time into making these great works.
Introduction: Michael Dickinson
10. The Personal History of David Copperfield
The Personal History of David Copperfield is a fresh, spiky take on Dickens, with infectious comedic energy.
After a slightly clunky framing device in which the title character (Dev Patel) is shown narrating his life story in an auditorium, the story snaps back to his youth, in which he’s played by the spirited, inquisitive Jairaj Varsani. The film follows his various rises and falls through the Victorian class system, including as a manual worker in a bottling factory and a student at a slightly prim university, where he crosses paths with uber-posh buddy Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard), who doesn’t “care for whimsy”, and the sinister Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw).
This is a film that makes a point about class shame and inequality that feels very timely, but it’s also not afraid to commit to numerous scenes of slapstick running and other, similarly broad, comic strokes. This is Iannucci relaxing his satirical reins in order to have a good time and, though he sacrifices some of his snark and bite, the propulsive wit of his filmmaking is present and correct as always.
In short, The Personal History of David Copperfield is an Armando Iannucci project through and through, albeit one that suggests he’s slightly tired of the increasing black hole of lost hope that politics has become. This is him at the helm of something light, frothy and clearly close to his heart. The result, of course, is a movie that overflows with warmth and silliness, creating perhaps the first Iannucci film that the whole family can enjoy. Capaldi resists the F-Bombs this time around.
Steve McQueen has done it again. Perhaps the most significant and consistent modern British director, McQueen once again brings us a riveting, vital piece of filmmaking, this time telling the true story of the Mangrove Nine. As it so often is with McQueen’s work, Mangrove is timely and powerful, without ever regressing to speaking down to its audience.
Mangrove depicts the trial of the Mangrove Nine as well as the protest that led to the criminal charges for the participants. But where there is injustice and racism, there is also a lot of warmth and spirit. Mangrove isn’t a depressing film, but a smart and lively one. There is sly humour sprinkled in and scenes inside the Mangrove evoke a sense of a community unlike any other. This is a film that wants to uplift you, make you see the power in protesting and community, rather than bring you down. It shows the power in people, power in unity and mangrove might just be one of the finest films we will see in the rest of 2020.
While Mangrove doesn’t have that boldness that Widows or Shame had, the film becomes more powerful due to McQueen’s occasional and wisely chosen restraint. The film doesn’t have to use cheap filmmaking choices to manipulate you when the story and cast are this strong but make no mistake; this is a McQueen film through and through. His direction brings everything together and carries the film, which leaves a profound mark on the viewer.
Cartoon Saloon is back with its best feature animation yet. This visually stunning tale sees an apprentice hunter, Robyn (Honor Kneafsey), form an unlikely friendship with a wild native girl who belongs to a tribe Robyn’s father is tasked with destroying. Whilst the story is engaging and well told, it is the gorgeous art that makes Wolfwalkers a triumph.
The term ‘every frame a painting’ has never been so apt- each frame here is rich with colour and detail that bring the Irish woodlands and the 17th century town of Kilkenny alive. Cartoon Saloon have mastered their distinct hand drawn style inspired by Celtic art, and in Wolfwalkers, they really hammer down on classic design principles: the wild Mebh (Eva Whittaker) is quite literally a talking bouncy-ball and the antagonistic Lord Protector (Simon McBurney) sharp and angular. The studio also make use of every tool at their disposal to elevate the story: split screen framing, dramatic lighting, even different animation styles.
Fans of Princess Mononoke and other Ghibli features will recognise the familiar narrative that explores coexistence and man versus nature but the film still keeps you invested thanks to clever writing, great characters and some genuinely thrilling story twists. It’s a timeless story that feels more relevant than ever and the strong voice performances are guaranteed to make you fall in love with the characters.
Animation features always seem second-fiddle compared to live-action films, especially when it comes to best of the year lists. Wolfwalkers is a strong example how the medium of animation is just as powerful, or even more so, than live-action. This isn’t just the best animated feature of the year, but one of the best films full stop.
The cinematic representation of the First World War is vastly under-seen compared with the later WW2. Director Sam Mendes; freed from the shackles of the James Bond series, turned his attention to the conflict at the beginning of the year, with shattering, exhausting and unforgettable results. 1917 was the first big blockbuster of 2020, and proved to be one of the only ones able to be seen on the big screen in this pandemic-affected year. The story is adapted from tales told to Mendes by his grandfather (to whom the film is dedicated) and follows soldiers Blake and Schofield through a vision of hell on earth. The camera, aided in part by some stunning cinematography by Roger Deakins (who won his second Oscar for his work on the film), depicts the claustrophobia of trench warfare, the vast emptiness of a once-thriving French countryside, a war-torn village at dawn, and most graphically of all, the mud, grime, and carcasses of No Man’s Land. It’s an immersive, claustrophobic experience. It could be argued that the film’s one-take approach denies the opportunity for character interaction, with Blake and Schofield fairly simplistic and the other characters merely cameos, but it’s a film that refuses to glamorise, compromise or ‘water down’ a war that has sadly passed into history. Like Peter Jackson’s documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, it brings to life, with startling immediacy, an event that took place over a century ago, and places it at the forefront of the minds of those who owe a great deal to a generation almost lost in time. In this most unusual of years, Mendes’ microscopic tribute to a conflict of long ago has a relevance and depth few could have predicted.
6. Da 5 Bloods
Netflix has been able to flex its dominance over the movie industry this year, delving repeatedly into its selection of completed movies to make the most of the relative quiet from the major studios. One of the biggest beneficiaries of this was the latest Spike Lee joint, released at the height of a summer simmering amid the febrile atmosphere of Black Lives Matter protests following the killing of George Floyd.
Da 5 Bloods follows a group of Black veterans heading back to Vietnam, decades after they fought for their country in a nonsensical and futile war. They’re honouring their fallen comrade — played by Chadwick Boseman in scenes that are even more poignant in the wake of his passing — but also hunting for a trove of gold left behind during the conflict. It’s a movie reckoning with American imperialism and the tendrils of racism which still surround the country.
Delroy Lindo is incendiary as the unpredictable Paul, who voted for Donald Trump and exists entirely on a knife-edge. Whether he’s delivering Shakespearean soliloquies to camera or breaking into a flood of tears, there’s almost something terrifying about him. It’s one of the performances of the year, with great support provided by Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Broadway veteran Norm Lewis.
This is Lee on top form, combining his trademark anger with Hollywood homage and sophisticated, big screen spectacle. It’s a powerful call to action, hoping to inspire long-lasting change through sheer force of cinema.
5. The Lighthouse
Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe feature as lighthouse keepers on an isolated piece of New England rock in the late 19th century. The powerhouse duo play off each like waves on a cliff-face, with a relationship that is turbulent, gripping and slowly erodes to the core. The strain generated by their seclusion and a travel-prohibiting storm pushes each man to his limit, resulting in a hostile showdown. Greek mythology, spirituality and Lovecraft all combine to reinforce the twisted, swashbuckling narrative.
Shot in black-and-white with a 1.19:1 aspect ratio, the director Robert Eggers deliberately creates an antiquated, gritty realism with Pattinson’s cheekbones and Dafoe’s undomesticated beard both contoured to perfection. Dafoe’s Ahab impression is flawlessly unrefined, and just like the monomaniacal captain, his obsession may just lead to his downfall. The unique genre is both disorientating and engaging, leaving the audience baffled in all the best ways. Similar to The Witch, the punches are followed by a disquieting silence where the viewer is left to pick up the pieces.
The Lighthouse is a deeply unsettling, cultish sucker-punch. It ironically sheds light on human nature and blends deep-seated internal horrors with monstrous external evils. The permeating image of the lighthouse, typically a symbol of safe passage, is used to induce claustrophobia and build pressure to a climax. As the pair’s antagonism builds and crushes like the storm surrounding them, we are left with a final shot which is both harrowing and congruous with the vivid sequences that preceded it.
4. The Invisible Man
The most shocking movie moment of 2020 happens in Leigh Whannell’s smart new take on The Invisible Man. Suddenly, the familiar ambience of a fancy restaurant is stained, literally and figuratively, with bloodshed. In a year that has, for obvious reasons, yielded few true moments of cinematic unison, the noise of several hundred people gasping as one is worth remembering.
Few expected much from Whannell’s movie when it was announced, revamping another of the Universal Monsters just three years after Tom Cruise and The Mummy torpedoed the burgeoning Dark Universe. But with Elisabeth Moss as a domestic abuse survivor dealing with an apparently invisible spectre after her ex-husband’s (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) suicide, it found a very modern and exceedingly fresh take on the material. Moss’s ferocious performance is one of the best of the year and, given the lack of major releases, it seems like a clear contender for a rare horror movie run at the Oscars.
Having cut his teeth alongside James Wan on the Saw and Insidious franchises, Whannell here comes of age as a filmmaker of extraordinary flair. He finds scares quietly as well as loudly, by deliberately and craftily pointing his camera at empty spaces, which seem pregnant with danger and suspense. The second half of the movie is more action-focused than the exquisite horror of the first, but there are still surprises, shocks and a finale which emerges with images as potent as they are terrifying.
3. Uncut Gems
It is a surprise that people are still surprised to learn that Adam Sandler is a great actor. Sure, he’s made his name on comedies that often are met with (often harsh) dismissal by critics, but The Sandman has always been an exceptional character actor, be it putting on a silly voice to inhabit a young man having to return to high school, or stepping up to the plate for the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson and Noah Baumbach. He is no stranger to delivering a performance that makes even his biggest naysayers stop and pay attention. Earlier in the year, Sandler made waves with another performance that demanded you to take him seriously in the Safdie Brothers’ Uncut Gems. And it is perhaps his best performance yet.
The role of New York diamond dealer and gambling addict Howard Ratner gives Sandler the canvas to deliver a high energy performance that thrives on the chaotic atmosphere that dominates many of the situations he finds (and often puts) himself in. The Safdies have an approach that matches character driven movies of the 1970’s, with many players in the scene talking over the top of one another, maintaining a sense of pace and desperation in a manner that is deceptively simple but highly effective. Sandler absorbs all of the simmering tension in the Safdie’s pot boiler, and keeps the heat going throughout, making this often stressful experience impossible to tear your eyes away from.
Uncut Gems is an intense film about bad people putting themselves in increasingly stressful situations, largely motivated by greed and fragile ego. That it is so watchable is a testament to the Safdie’s level of craft and Sandler’s magnetic screen charisma, on full force in a manner not seen before from the seasoned character actor.
2. Portrait Of A Lady On Fire
On the stormy shores of an isolated island in 18th Century Brittany, love develops between two women. Away from society’s expectations and male influence, Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a beautiful expression of love and heartache, that quite aptly burns with sensitivity and passion.
The film follows an artist (Noémie Merlant’s Marianne) who heads to the island to paint a portrait of Heloise (Adèle Haenel), with the purpose of sending the portrait to Heloise’s potential new husband. As they spend more and more time together and begin to open up to one another, a deep affection and desire for each other naturally forms. But both know the reality of the situation; this moment is only brief, making the need to act on their feelings all the more urgent.
The film does not revel in the fact that this moment in time is destined to end, and end soon. Instead, it keeps it as a subtle warning in the background, instead focusing on the relationship that begins to develop. Sciamma focuses on the moments that they do have together, opening up to one another and finding a very natural and graceful rhythm of life together.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the type of film that feels as though all the adjectives in the world just can’t quite encapsulate the swooning sense of adoration that one feels towards it. It’s a gorgeous film, picturesque in its landscapes and exquisitely intimate in its moments of human connection. It manages to express an aching sense of love sickness that many films of its kind struggle to achieve, and that is down to Sciamma’s empathetic direction and Merlant’s and Haenel’s performances.
Any great screen romance thrives or dies on the chemistry between its two leads. Merlant and Haenel’s connection is one screen romance that leaves its mark thanks to the sparks that fly seemingly effortlessly between them. This film is more about communication and expression of desire than it is about forbidden and doomed love. It creates the freedom for Merlant and Haenel to disappear into their roles, creating the sensation that the attraction that forms is palpably real.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire has oddly become quite fitting for our current times, what with it being a story about love blossoming in relative isolation. It never goes for melodrama, and it gently lets the destructive weight of the real world sit over the whole proceedings until it comes to its inevitable breaking point. As a result, it is ultimately heartbreaking, but it is also a film that revels in the moment, not dwelling in sorrow but basking in the warm glow of the time that its characters do have together. This coupled with its meticulous approach to period detail both in its production design and storytelling makes Portrait a Lady on Fire the blazing piece of cinematic magic that it is.
Vibrant and elemental, colourful and earthy, this is a romance full of beauty and feeling, sensitivity and passion. Sciamma uses every brush stroke she can think of to forge a work of art that stands as a masterwork; a slow burning yet searing hot tale of romance that you simply don’t want to end.
Ever since Bong Joon-Ho’s latest film Parasite premiered in Cannes, where it went on to win the coveted Palme D’Or, the world has been going crazy over Bong and it has now topped the FilmHounds Films Of The Year list, and for a very good reason. Parasite remains one of the most darkly delicious pieces of cinema in recent memory. It’s a clever dissection of class and still, over a year after seeing it for the first time, it manages to take this writer’s breath away and surprise me time after time.
Parasite is the story of two families. Ki-Taek lives in a small basement apartment with his family, folding pizza boxes to earn a small living. When his son Ki-Woo gets an opportunity to become a tutor for the daughter of a very wealthy family, their life gets significantly better with the boost of a decent income. Ki-Woo hustles his whole family into employment for the wealthy family, arranging his father to become the driver, his mother Chung-sook to become the maid and for his sister Ki-jeong to become an art therapist for the family’s erratic and energetic young son.
Parasite is indeed one of the best films to come out in the last 5 years or so and it’s one of Bong Joon-Ho’s best films. He’s a director who has proven his skills within different genres and if you’re not familiar with his work before Parasite, it’s certainly worth a look. Parasite might be his most universally accessible film; it’s a classic tale of class, riddled with social commentary but with deliciously wicked twists and turns. It’s a film that never feels up its own butt about being important and meaningful and it prioritises being entertaining. Yet, it never sacrifices its metaphors or commentary for the sake of entertainment. Bong strikes just the right balance and Parasite is a cunning treat.
Bong’s long-time collaborator Song Kang-Ho, one of Korea’s most successful actors is once again rock solid here, turning in a performance that is in turn devastating and a riot. Kang-Ho’s, like everyone else’s, performance isn’t a flashy one, but it’s an effective one. He absolutely nails the despair and portrays a nuanced look at modern masculinity. He begins desperate to make a living and provide for his family, then becomes desperate to make something of himself which ultimately transforms into something much uglier; desperate to become someone else entirely, the very thing he hated.
There isn’t a weak link in Parasite’s cast, but Cho Yeon-gyo is another highlight. Her performance as the wife of a wealthy business man is deliciously ditzy, but it never slips into being a caricature. All the characters are ultimately believable, relatable, but also infuriating. Whether it be their privilege or their foolish actions, no one comes out of Parasite clean.
Parasite feels simultaneously timely and historical; its ability to sew modern anxieties into an old tale of class is one of its strong points. There are many notes about westernisation and technology, which are never underlined but hinted at. Parasite may not be the subtlest film, but it handles its subject with grace and aptitude; it’s not keen on shoving a message down your throat, but there is a strong, unmissable message present here. Parasite is a deeply furious and tragic film. Even at its funniest – and it is funny – it feels fundamentally sad and fateful.
Bong masterfully frames his subject and the production design of Parasite is a particular highlight. The tiny and cramped apartment Kim Ki-Taek and his family live pales in comparison of the spacious and polished home of the Parks. There are literal steps that the family members ascend on their way up the ranks and towards a better life. The Parks have the nicest things in their home, everything comes easy for them, perhaps this is really what it’s like to be rich.
It’s all about money with Parasite; how money brings you power, it gives you status and hierarchy, maybe even personality. The Parks need people to know they are wealthy and they want their employees to know they are well-compensated for their services. They are reminded if they will be paid extra, as if to earn more gratitude and better service for this. It’s hard not to be disgusted by this, but these are not bad people. Morals are a tricky thing in Bong Joon-Ho films and Parasite is no exception.
As mentioned before, it’s a twisty, twisty tale. Whenever you think you have a good sense of what is going on, Bong will again pull the rug from underneath you. It’s a fun experience and Bong handles it all masterfully, leaving you gasping for air more than once. It’s an excellent film, made by an excellent director and surprisingly it has a lot to say and it says it with flair and style.