The 10 best films of 2020

After a record-setting year at the box office in 2019, 2020 was set up to be another huge year for cinema, with multi-billion pound franchises like the MCU, James Bond and Fast and Furious all scheduled to release their latest tent-pole film. However, after the Coronavirus hit and countries were forced to shut down, these films, and many others, were wiped off the 2020 slate. 

Other studios instead opted to release their films on streaming platforms, and this, in combination with the industry as a whole being one of the hardest hit economically by the global pandemic, signalled for some the beginning of the end for the traditional cinema-going experience. 

All was not lost, however, and 2020 was still a solid year for cinema, with a number of enjoyable releases coming throughout the year.

Here are the Kingston Courier’s top ten films of 2020. 

10) The Lighthouse

Directed by Robert Eggers

Available on Sky Cinema/NowTV

It seemed to take The Lighthouse forever to reach the UK. The film premiered at Cannes in May 2019 and got an October release in the US, however, it did not cross the pond until January 2020.

Robert Eggers’ psychological thriller is unlike any other film released this year. Shot in black-and-white with an almost square aspect ratio, you would be forgiven for thinking it released in 1920 instead of 2020. The lighting and the long monologues will have you think you are watching a play rather than a film.

If you’re looking for an enjoyable film to watch over the holidays, look further than The Lighthouse. It is hardly a fun experience. The slow-burn nature of the first act reals you in – you know things will take a turn for the worse, but know not when nor how. Witnessing Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, the film’s only two characters, slowly descend into madness is equally intoxicating and harrowing. By the film’s end, you will be questioning everything you have seen on screen. You’ll find yourself in a similar position to the duo – unsure of what is real, and what is not.

9) Da 5 Bloods

Directed by Spike Lee

Available on Netflix

Upon first watching Da 5 Bloods, you might think Spike Lee can see the future. Though filming finished more than a year prior to its release on Netflix in June, the film pays terrific homage to the Black Lives Matter movement and seems to directly tap into the political discourse of 2020. Of course, this is nothing new to Spike. His films have always found a way to speak to the social climate of the times, be it Do the Right ThingMalcolm X, or Da 5 Bloods.

Admittedly, Da 5 Bloods does not belong in the same conversation as Do the Right Thing or Malcolm X. But it is still expertly made and thoroughly enjoyable. The on-screen brotherhood between Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis and Isiah Whitlock Jr. is beautiful, with several poignant moments shared between them all (rest easy, The Wire fans, you will be pleased to know that Whitlock Jr. does manage to squeeze in his infamous catchphrase). 

Da 5 Bloods is of course overshadowed by the tragic passing of Chadwick Boseman in August, but him playing the deified leader of the protagonists’ Army group seems incredibly fitting. Boseman’s preachings to his crew about empowerment are incredibly prescient and moving, and you can tell Lee’s casting of Boseman was a deliberate choice, given Boseman’s standing within the public consciousness

Da 5 Bloods will certainly make you think, and whilst a lot of the film’s topics are depressing, it manages to end on a profoundly cathartic sense of optimism for the future.

8) Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Directed by Eliza Hittman

Available on Sky Cinema/NowTV

For most men, Never Rarely Sometimes Always is impossible to relate to, but it doesn’t make it any less moving, nor any less brilliant. Watching this film you can’t help but think about the state of healthcare in the United States, particularly when it comes to access and women’s rights.

Eliza Hittman’s third feature film, which was released just as the pandemic ground the world to a halt, is not a stereotypical Hollywood ‘abortion’ movie. It is not about a decision, or how the character got to her position. The decision has been made and is about what they do now in order to terminate the pregnancy. The film manages to evocatively convey the existential pressure and burden that is placed on young women.

Hittman has spoken about wanting to make this film about the process and bureaucracy involved in having an abortion in the US. In that sense, the film can almost serve as a documentary which highlights the obstacles an American woman has to overcome in order to receive a treatment that should have zero obstacles, and instead be considered a right.

7) The Vast of Night

Directed by Andrew Patterson

Available on Prime Video

The Vast of Night might come across as just another forgettable, low budget film released by a streaming service in order to meet their ITS annual quota of releases, but there is far more to it than that. In his directorial debut, Andrew Patterson manages to channel his inner-Spielberg and make a character-driven sci-fi mystery that was mesmerising from start to finish.

The Vast of Night will make you feel like a kid again. Its simple concept and stunning visuals are entrancing. Despite its low budget, the film has some of the most beautiful shots of any film released this year, including a number of long takes that are simply jaw-dropping. 

The rapid nature of the dialogue, all of which is spoken with a southern drawl and 1950s vernacular, seems daunting at first but soon becomes the main selling point of the film. Despite the literally other-worldly plot, Patterson expertly keeps the film grounded and focused on the two main characters and their quest to uncover the mystery they encountered. The plot may be about extraterrestrials, but it is a human story.

6) Tenet

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Available for Rent/Buy

5) Uncut Gems

Directed by Josh and Benny Safdie

Available on Netflix

This may be confirmation bias, but A24 films almost always punch way above their weight, and Uncut Gems is no different. The film, which stars Adam Sandler as jeweller and gambling addict Howard Ratner, and NBA Hall-of-Famer Kevin Garnett as Kevin Garnett (albeit a Kevin Garnett who is not yet in the Hall of Fame but actually still playing in the league). 

The film should not have worked, and yet it does, thanks to the Safdies’ brilliant direction and Sandler’s unmatchable energy. Uncut Gems is an electrifying journey that will have you rooting for Adam Sandler’s character from the very start even though you fully understand that he is a downright deplorable person. 

The only reason the film is not insanely popular in the UK is that most of the film’s storyline hinges on the viewer having a basic understanding of things like NBA betting lines and forgettable playoff series of yore. However, those that fit that description will undoubtedly agree with the film’s position in this list, including Sixers fans, who in reality would have been rooting against Sandler’s character. Though you may agree with his view on Elton Brand.

4) Mangrove

Directed by Steve McQueen

Available on BBC iPlayer

For some, what is most striking about Mangrove is how this is the first you are ever hearing about the Mangrove Nine. Perhaps this is a testament to your own ignorance, or perhaps it is a scalding indictment of the UK’s education system.

As Darkus Howe, one of the Mangrove Nine puts it in his closing testimony: “I believe that this case has opened issues. It has seared the consciousness of the black community to an extent that the history of Britain cannot now be written without it.” 

The film, which is part of Steve McQueen’s anthology series Small-Axe, is incredibly evocative and inspiring. It does to the UK justice system what Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow does to the US legal system. It succinctly highlights how the institutions in this country are set up in a way, from top to bottom, that maintain a racial hierarchy and keep minorities as a permanent ‘undercaste’.

Mangrove should be made mandatory viewing for all those studying history, particularly in the age of increased social awareness of institutional racism. McQueen manages to tell stories within the story, stories of community, culture and resistance. He also manages to avoid the common ‘white saviour’ trope that is found in so many films about racial injustice. The case of the Mangrove Nine was fought for and by the West Indian community of Notting Hill, and McQueen conveys that excellently.

3) Mank

Directed by David Fincher

Available on Netflix

David Fincher’s biographical drama about Herman J. Mankiewicz and his arduous process of developing the screenplay for Citizen Kane served as the light at the end of the long dark tunnel that was 2020. As a Netflix release, all those who hotly anticipated Fincher’s return to filmmaking after a six-year hiatus knew that there was no chance the global pandemic could force a delay. Thankfully, the film does not disappoint. 

Mank does not jump off the screen like Seven or Fight Club, nor does its Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross-composed soundtrack permeate the room as vividly as it does in The Social Network or Gone Girl, but this is for good reason. Fincher’s personal project sets out to imitate the era of Hollywood it portrays, with long stationary shots, fade-to-blacks and mono-sound. 

The film is brilliant, as almost all of Fincher’s work tends to be, though it is nowhere near as accessible as some of his previous work. If you were to watch Mank without ever seeing Citizen Kane it would still be enjoyable, but understanding the full context unlocks so much more of the film. The construction of the film mirrors the creation of the material it depicts in many ways, both on the surface, with its non-linear storyline and witty dialogue, as well as thematically, with the rise and fall of the titular character. The shadow of Orson Welles looms large over the entire film.

2) Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Directed by Céline Sciamma 

Available on Mubi

A period piece set in 18th century France about an artist and the aristocrat she is tasked with painting. On paper, Portrait of a Lady on Fire should be nowhere near this top ten, and yet here it is.

The film is hypnotic. Despite its relative simplicity, it will elicit emotions that very few other films are capable of doing. You will just zone out, watching the film go by, entranced by the energy and emotions on screen. You will wonder how the story will end, but you will not want it to finish.

Céline Sciamma packs each frame with tangible emotion, and she does it all without a manipulative score. The viewer knows exactly what to feel at all times, purely on the merit of the leads’ magnetic performance and Claire Mathon’s luscious cinematography. All of this peaks in the films closing minutes, which will leave you unable to breathe. C’est magnifique.

1) Parasite

Directed by Bong Joon-ho

Available on Prime Video

Long story short, Parasite is the best film of the last ten years. 

It is a true marvel – a cinematic experience that will never be forgotten. Bong Joon-ho’s masterpiece manages to explore class conflict and wealth disparity all the while having engaging dialogue and smart humour.

Every note in this film is deliberate – every shot, every line of dialogue, every prop – it is all intricately strung together into a magnificent symphony that manages to be both hilarious and disconcerting, thought-provoking and mind-numbing.

Some may be put off by the film being entirely in Korean, but within thirty minutes of the film starting, you will completely forget that you are reading subtitles. In fact, the subtitles arguably add to the experience – you are less likely to miss the many nuances in the film’s screenplay. 

Bong put it best when he said: “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”

Parasite is so amazing there is no way I can do it justice here. Just watch the film. It is a life-altering experience, and a film you will yearn to revisit.

Honourable Mention

Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Season 7 Episodes 9-12

Directed by Dave Filoni

Available on Disney+

Though not a feature film, the final four episodes of The Clone Wars can be easily watched as one, hence it featuring as an honourable mention. If you are a fan of Star Wars, you should by no means only watch these final episodes. Start from the beginning and work your way through the underrated TV series that started back in 2008, knowing that the final arc of the show pushes Star Wars to heights it has not reached since 1980.

This feat of television is all the more impressive given the extremely disappointing fashion in which the Skywalker Saga ended in 2019. Despite Dave Filoni being bound by the plot details of the prequel trilogy, it is truly remarkable that he managed to execute a perfect landing for the series by delivering on a storyline that had long been teased but never shown on screen. He also managed to expertly fill in the holes in the storyline of one of the franchise’s most beloved characters.

Indeed, Filoni’s handling of the characters introduced in the first season of The Clone Wars, who fans knew were not involved in the events of Revenge of the Sith, is flawless and adds a whole new dimension to the tragic story depicted in Episode III. In addition, The Clone Wars, as well as its cartoon successor Rebels, has been made mandatory viewing for all those who wish to fully understand Season Two of The Mandalorian. This is the way.

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