2020: A Year in Review
Updated: Jan 6
2020 has been a difficult year on every front, and even deeply affecting cinema releases and how we consume films. Streaming services and television have found an unexpected boon in the crisis, while cinemas have had their doors shut, their futures in doubt, and their slates almost wiped clean from releases. In light of this, we asked our writers to celebrate the best in film that has made its way to us: (from big studio releases that weathered the storm to independent features unexpectedly thrown into the spotlight).
I’m Thinking of Ending Things
(Dir: Charlie Kaufman)
‘We don’t exist, we get existed’ opines Jake (via Thomas Bernhard) in Iain Reed’s gutsy, terrifying novel—adapted to film here by Charlie Kaufman into something gutsier, more surreal, more uplifting. A young woman—Lucy? or Louisa; she doesn’t seem sure—wants to break up with Jake. But she’s about to meet his parents, and is overthinking everything. The conversations that night seem to begin and end on Jakes whims. His parents age and de-age suddenly. A dog appears only when someone recalls it existed. She starts to wonder if anything on this night really exists. It’s a perfect capture of the feeling of daydreaming: idle, stop-start fantasies that collapse and reform as you grow bored with them. It’s all very strange; very Kaufman. It’s also very good.
The Half of It
(Dir: Alice Wu)
Modern, yearning take on Cyrano de Bergerac whereby a teenage girl is enlisted to write love letters to her crush on behalf of a kind, but oblivious jock. It takes what could easily be a broad premise and stock characters and subverts expectations beautifully. Alice Wu’s script is a quietly excellent feat: it pulls you from one emotional beat to another, always contrasting, always rapid, and never drawing attention to itself; very Bong Joon-ho-esque. It’s a light, wonderful tonic to a difficult year.
Sound of Metal
(Dir: Darius Marder)
Heavy metal drummer Ruben, suddenly and without warning, loses his hearing. From that one life changing moment, he’s faced with two paths: sacrifice his future to regain glimpses of his past, or sacrifice all he had and loved to find a new form of peace. This quiet, powerful film is incredible for how much empathy it elicits—deeply relatable to anyone who’s had sudden loss, of any kind, yet so specific and authentic in its depiction of integrating into the Deaf community. A lot of it is down to the experimental sound design and Riz Ahmed’s beautiful performance: both respectful in its representation yet universal in its emotion.
(Dir: Josephine Decker)
I spent a time this year exploring Josephine Decker’s works: it’s been a pleasure to see the consistent evolution, in a short time, from frustrating and raw; to raw and interesting; to raw, interesting, and complete. A riff on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf that incorporates both a (fictionalised) biography of Shirley Jackson and the latent dread that exemplified her writing. Wonderfully understated, with restrained moments of Decker’s experimental touch; and certainly the best big-screen performance by Elisabeth Moss.
(Dir: Rob Savage)
There might be better—or at least artsier—films I could put on this list (Parasite, Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Moffie, had I considered them 2020 releases, would have made this list very different). However, it’s impossible not to give the Covid lockdown horror some deserved love. It’s the perfect balance of fleet, fun and scary, and mercifully sacrifices any elaborate backstory in favour of authentic, realistic characters. The actors set up their own lighting and performed their own stunts to keep within lockdown regulations! Two characters even elbow bump! It’s socially responsible horror!
2020 was a complete mess. We can all agree on that. However one saving grace for me personally (throughout the worst year in human history) was the wide plethora of unreal cinema I managed to watch. Since 2015 I've been logging new films watched as a sort of Annual Movie Challenge, and while I normally hit around 100, this year I finished up at 172 films viewed.
Some new favourites including Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 (1963), Yoshifumo Kondo's Ghibli romance Whisper of the Heart (1995) & Joe Talbot's eclectic The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019).
While I could easily write for days on these films and more, I thought I'd highlight three new releases from 2020 that really peaked my interest.
(Dir: Eleanor Wilson & Alex Huston Fischer)
Best not go off the grid in case something important happens, like say, an alien invasion... That’s the main premise of Save Yourselves!, a Sci-fi Survival Comedy that has millennial's Jack & Su decide to turn off their phones while on a weekend vacation, only to discover they’ve missed the end of the world. The film paints a perfect picture of my own generation; often too caught up in our devices for true human interaction, consulting the internet for anything and everything, more interested in what’s happening on screen than the real world. For Jack & Su, they finally see sense at possibly the worst possible time.
As the pair enjoy their country cottage retreat, we can see signs on the periphery that the world has gone to the dogs. From shooting stars not falling straight, to strange noises in the woods, the pair are oblivious until they’re brought back down to earth after Su sneakily checks her phone... John Reynolds & Sunita Mani, who play Jack & Sue, are absolutely brilliant as the unskilled metropolitan couple who are less than equipped for the apocalypse. Their chemistry is infectious and both equally hilarious as they deal with the furry critters decimating the human race.
However for all their practical ineptitude, they admirably encapsulate a generation that are more candid with emotions, open to change, and a willingness to talk through problems, whether that be relationship issues or how to deal with alien pouffes stealing ones sourdough starter.
Also a final note, as if a sign from the technology sceptics, at the start of the film when Jack says: “Alexa, play...”, our own Alexa, connected to the television, paused the bloody film and switched over to Spotify...The machines are taking over!
(Dir: Il Cho)
"You must survive." This well & truly hit the zombie flick sweet spot. My man Ah-In Yoo from Burning plays lazy gamer bro Oh Joon-woo stuck in his parent’s apartment during an undead pandemic. Life slowly crumbles, but as things begin to seem truly hopeless he meets Kim Yoo-bin (Shin-Hye Park), from the adjacent complex. Spurred by another life; the pair use everything in their arsenal from drones to Nutella & Go! to survive the monstrous horde.
Much like Host (2020), the current circumstances add a certain weight to the viewing. In a world where there’s newfound heightened anxiety being physically close to people, a film where an isolated young person uses gaming & alcohol to numb reality isn’t too far from truth. The zombie performances/ makeup is gold standard, jerky and fast moving 28 Days Later (2002) style in close quarters. The action is really solid, like a highly active and intense Rear Window (1954). Furthermore there’s a real heart running through the story stemming from Oh Joon-woo’s parents final message to their son: “You must survive.” The Half of It
(Dir: Alice Wu)
"It sucks. And I’ve been thinking about how much it would suck to have to pretend to be, not you, your whole life. I always thought there was one way to love, one right way, but there are more. So many more than I knew."
Viewed at face value, someone might see The Half of It as simply a gay twist on the nerd-helping-jock-get-girl teen movie scenario. I mean it hits the beats, the structure, the arc, it’s all there. In my opinion that would be a huge disservice for how powerful this film actually is. Unlike the usual teen movie, that may have a plethora of ancillary characters providing comedic quips or hurtful jibes to fill out the scenes, The Half of It largely keeps focus on Ellie, Paul, Aster and their immediate family. We get to know all three of them; their likes, their dislikes, their jobs, their family background, their strengths, their faults. The town of Squahamish, idyllic in its banality, is a perfect backdrop to keep focus on interaction between the members of this unique love triangle.
I can’t believe I’m now at an age where I can say this, but, we didn’t have films like this when we were kids. The type of teen movies around when I was young featured white males interested in a white females and a handful of scenarios that always ended with the guy getting the girl.
The Half of It subverts this on nearly every level, yet still oozes authenticity to what real life, and real love, is all about.
To have a film like this widely available on a platform like Netflix is a testament to the streaming platforms strength, bringing unrepresented but necessary voices to the fore. If you’re reading this watch this film. Bloody watch this film. Your heart will be a few sizes larger by the end. 2020 has been a hard year, probably one of the hardest. But sometimes a film like The Half of It comes along and reminds you there’s still light and love in this life.
NB: The hot springs scene (Pictured above), and the scene where Ellie’s Dad opens his heart to Paul in Mandarin, are pure and unfiltered cinema of the highest order.
Gretel and Hansel
(Dir: Oz Perkins)
As a fan of the director's previous work, and despite lukewarm reviews, I was much looking forward to The Witch, I mean, Gretel and Hansel. And although not as underwhelming as some would have you believe, the film does flaunder, mainly due to its minimalist script; a style which has served writer director Oz Perkins in the past. Here though, themes of female empowerment aside, as implied by the title's inversion, the film ultimately doesn't have a lot to say; its Irish famine setting of little thematic consequence.
To its credit, however, Perkins manages to avoid trite wokeisms, and the visuals are often stunning, unsettling and generative of creepy tension. Not as masterful as February or I am the Pretty Little Thing, but certainly worth a vide; no arsenical hallucinatories required.
(Dir: Christopher Nolan)
The only 2020 film I've seen cinema-side. Aesthetically and tonally in keeping with every Nolan flick post The Prestige and, yes, the sound mix defies comprehension.
All the mains bar Pats and Brannagh operate on negative-level-charisma, as if, at times, simply donning a sharp suit and trim beard was enough to quantify a performance. In fact our protagonist's emotional flatness typifies the rest of the film, a Kubrick-esque coldness of which Nolan will occasionally fall afoul.
In the end its cinematic spectacle justifies the release platform, and content thought provoking enough to warrant further viewings.
My biggest take away, regrettably, was an overwhelming desire to see Nolan outside of his comfort zone, experimenting with reckless abandon, before being likened to some evolutionarily-stunted lizard that foregoes growing pains in favour of bland perfectionism.
Calm with horses
(Dir: Joe Murtagh)
Loveable lumux, Douglas `Arm' Armstrong (Cosmo Jarvis) is tasked with killing a former colleague for transgressions against their mutual benefactors, gangster clan the O'Scumaghans, but loses his proverbial 'bottle' last minute, letting the target go.
The rest is pretty predictable but highlights include cinematography and cast performances which make for an intimate low-key thriller with plenty of heart.
The Invisible Man
(Dir: Leigh Whannell)
Domestic violence allegory operating under the guise of Verhoven-esque sci-fi horror.
The sfx are snappy enough to satisfy lust for spectacle, and the denouement gratifyingly empowering as to elevate proceedings beyond your standard techno-splatter.
(Dir: Sam Hargrave)
A by the numbers script that follows mercenary and spawn of home-improvement enthusiasts, Tyler Rake, played by the alpha Hemsworth, finding excuses to engage in faux one-take puncheramas that sizzle faintly like a discounted John Wick rasher on a low-heat.
Stunt coordinator turned auteur-director, Sam Hargrave, flaunts his credentials with a series of set-pieces befitting a polypath of his talents, the success of which bodes well for his future as well as that of this potential franchise.
Ultimately, disposable fun likely improved by a precurser of rowdy alcohol consumption and, if possible, a semi-permanent labotomy.
(Dir: Alan Ball)
Paul Bettany shines as Frank Bledsoe in one of the year’s most heart-breaking films about identity and family values. Set in 1973, Frank, along with his niece Beth, take a road trip from New York to South Carolina to attend his father’s funeral and the pair are unexpectedly joined by Frank’s long-time partner Walid “Wally.”
The King of Staten Island
(Dir: Judd Apatow)
“You’re going to make me babysit your kids? I’m on drugs!”
One of the year’s standout films, The King of Staten Island is a semi-autobiographical film based on Pete Davidson growing up in Staten Island and coping with the loss of his father. The film is boosted by its impressive range of supporting characters, including outstanding performances by Marisa Tomei, Steve Buscemi, Bel Powley, and Bill Burr.
(Dir: Garrett Bradley)
A though provoking documentary about Fox Rich as she fights for her husband’s release from prison.