It’s the last day of the year, and I’ve put off doing this list for long enough. Instead of doing a top ten films of the year, I’ve decided to do a bumper addition. 2020 brought few joys with it but quality books (as demonstrated here) and films were not in short supply. So, in no particular order, here’s my 20 films of the year. (Two disclaimers: These are of the films I’ve seen, there’s a few I just haven’t been able to fit in yet so there are a few blindspots. I’ve gone for UK release date – either in cinema or VOD where applicable.)
This will be the last edition of STWS of 2020, and we’re going out with a banger of a list. Thank you so much for reading these, I do hope they’ve been useful! Here’s the back catalogue: – #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7, #8, #9 , #10, #11, #12 and #13.
I’m cheating a little here when it comes to this week’s Underseen Romcom – as this is technically more of a rom-com-drama. However, it features my favourite all-time favourite trope of hate-to-love with two of the UKs finest (in both senses of the word!) actors – Gemma Arterton and Sam Claflin. She plays a former secretary, newly appointed as a scriptwriter for propaganda films, who joins the cast and crew of a major production while the Blitz rages around them. He’s the established talented writer who feels put-out being forced to work with her. The fact this story is propelled by an superb chemistry, an epic supporting cast (Richard E. Grant, Bill Nighy, Eddie Marsan, Helen McCrory, Jeremy Irons, Jake Lacy and Rachael Stirling) and is a film about making a fim – well it’s close to cinema perfection in my eyes.
Forget Darcy. Forget Rochester. You’re sleeping on Gabriel Oak. Played by Matthias Schoenaerts in this version, he’s just wonderful. He’s one of three suitors pursing Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), a woman whose headstrong and independent nature is atypical for Victorian England. Alongside Gabriel there’s the older, prosperous and dependable bachelor William (Michael Sheen) and the young, reckless & hedonistic Sergeant Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge). An excellent adaptation with one of Mulligan’s finest & most underrated performances.
When is a Transformer movie not really a Transformer movie? When it’s this movie. This is a wonderful action/sci-fi/adventure movie rooted in the traditions of Spielberg & other 80s classics. Nostalgia is dialled up to 11 courtesy of an epic soundtrack (The Smiths, Duran Duran, Tears For Fears and Steve Winwood to name but a few). It’s 1987, Bumblebee finds refuge in a junkyard in a small California beach town. On the cusp of turning 18 and trying to find her place in the world, Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld) discovers Bumblebee, battle-scarred and broken. Such a charming delight.
By no means a flawless movie (Adrian Grenier being one of it’s multiple issues) this is a really sweet, low budget indie about a conservative church choir director (Jacki Weaver) who inherits her late son’s San Francisco drag club. The by-numbers fish-out-of-water culture-clash narrative isn’t the reason to watch, the reason to give this a go is the moving performances by the club performers (Mya Taylor, Allister MacDonald and Anthony Skordi) who each portray all-too real storylines. Taylor in particular is a stand-out who hasn’t been given nearly enough opportunities since 2015’s Tangerine.
We don’t talk nearly enough about friendship break-ups. Speaking from personal experience, they hurt just as much – if not more – as romantic break-ups. This fim, about a New York woman played by Greta Gerwig (who doesn’t really have an apartment) who apprentices for a dance company (though she’s not really a dancer) and throws herself headlong into her dreams, even as the possibility of realizing them dwindles, is one of the few that depicts the painful disintegration of friendship. Funny, sad and bittersweet – one of Noah Baumbach‘s finest. Also, there’s some Adam Driver for all you stans out there (I see you Bleakley!)
Based on “The Little Broomstick” by Mary Stewart, a strange flower grants a girl magic powers. The less said about this one, the better. A really charming coming-of-age fantasy story that will linger with you long after watching.
There’s something wonderfully old fashioned yet brilliantly refreshing about this one. In this 1970s set crime drama, a woman (Rachel Brosnahan, unrecognisable from The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) is forced to go on the run after her husband betrays his partners, sending her and her baby on a dangerous journey. Arinzé Kene (a man who isn’t yet as big a star as he deserves to be) is the man tasked with helping them on their journey. A slowburn packed with unexpected moments that makes for utterly enthralling watching.
‘This is the business where the buyer gets nothing for his money but a memory’
A proposal – how much you enjoy a film and how much you appreciate it can provide distinctly different answers. David Fincher return to the big screen, 6 years after Gone Girl, is the epitome of this. It’s already something of a hard sell, a film following screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz‘s tumultuous development of Orson Welles‘ iconic 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane. Although having watched Citizen Kane isn’t a requirement or prerequisite, prior knowledge does help certain narrative beats and jokes land. (If 119 minutes of classic cinema doesn’t appeal, The Simpsons parody ‘Rosebud’ from the show’s fifth season is one of the finest episodes it’s ever made.)
We open on Mank’s present day in 1940, with an injured and rather-down-on-his-luck Mank (Gary Oldman) pitching up to a cabin in the middle of nowhere. He’s there to write a script for new Hollywood Wonder Kid Orson Welles (Tom Burke) and he’s only got 60 days to do it, with two assistants (Lily Collins and Monika Gossmann) to aid him and decades worth of issues to get in his way. The main narrative tension is the rather age-old trope of struggling writer battling his demons – the fact we know he manages it as Citizen Kane is an actual film that exists (and is regularly voted the Greatest Film Of All Time in industry polls) does slightly undercut proceedings. Instead the drama comes from his past, the things and battles he has faced in his past that have lead him to his now – bedridden and determined to write a scathing take down of media baron William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). Even if it means hurting close friend, and Heart’s lover, Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) in the process – not to mention destroying his own reputation and any hope of a career.
It’s clear from the outset that this is a passion project for Fincher, with the screenplay itself having been written by his father (who passed away in 2003). Every frame feels personal, as if there’s a direct link between what is being told and the story behind it. Visually how that story is told is spectacular, the cinematography has such wondrous depth and full of cigarette-tinted sumptuous. The soundtrack, by long-time collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, is moody and atmospheric – superbly enhancing the paranoia and uncertainty that plagued 1930 and 40s Hollywood, with concerns over Hitler’s rise in Germany and the homegrown fears surrounding socialism, which would go onto leading to an actual Hollywood blacklist in the late 40s. The cast mirror this tone perfectly – with Oldman disappearing into the role as the likeable but hugely flawed writer, Seyfried delivering a femme fatale-esque dame with a steely edge and a career-finest Dance as the elusive tycoon. Burke also deserves a mention for being able to capture a young and righteously indignant Welles so perfectly with not-that-much screen time.
While there are some really great scenes here, they feel too-much like a patchwork pastiche to the work that inspired. Just as with Citizen Kane, the flashbacks are used to flesh out our main character – in a search to both expose faults but also create empathy – some are more interesting or purposeful seeming that others. But the problem is it’s nigh-on impossible to form an attachment to any of these characters. Following them around is entertaining enough, but there’s something of a block between us and them that leaves the viewer feeling cold. There’s also an unevenness about the film’s tone, shifting between drama and comedy of sorts with little prep or transition time. It’s as if it’s not quite sure what it wants to be, beyond a love letter to Golden Hollywood. (Which in turn just made me want to dig out Hail Caesar (2016))
Mank is going to be the kind of film that has a limited audience, but that audience will be ardent and love it dearly. That audience will be enamoured with it’s swoony yet intellectual take on cinematic myth. The rest may just struggle with a film that isn’t quite sure what it is, other than a dense and slow-burn meditative biopic.
Mank is out in selected UK cinemas now and on Netflix worldwide from Friday 4th December.
You know the drill. It’s November, it’s dark at 4pm and the weather is rubbish. It’s the second weekend of Lockdown 2: The Second Cummings (or goings, amiright?!?) You want some movies to watch and escape in. I’m happy to provide with 7 here, and 7 more in each of these. That’s 63 to choose from, that’s how good I am to you. #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7 and #8.
Anna (Jodie Whittaker) is stuck: she’s approaching 30 and living like a hermit in her mum’s garden shed, avoiding fully living her life due to the fact that she is crippled by the loss of her twin brother. A week before her birthday, her mother (Lorraine Ashbourne) sets her an ultimatum – move out of the shed and move on with life. Soon she is entangled with a troubled eight year old boy obsessed with Westerns, and the local real estate agent (Brett Goldstein) whose awkward interpersonal skills continually undermine his attempts to seduce her. The feature debut of writer-director Rachel Tunnard, this is a such a charming bittersweet British indie. Just delightful.
This week’s underseen romcom is a fairly recent one. I last rewatched this in April, during Lockdown 1, and I found myself craving the considerate and empathetic political career of main character Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron) in her run for the presidency, and the really positive and well-balanced burgeoning relationship she has with journalist Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen). I genuinely could write an entire essay on their wonderful relationship and how he supports her & her career. Romantic and so so funny.
Another gem that Netflix plonked on the shelf rather than give it the fanfare it deserves. Radha (Radha Blank, who also writes and directs) is a down-on-her-luck NY playwright, who is desperate for a breakthrough before 40. Reinventing herself as rapper RadhaMUSPrime, she vacillates between the worlds of Hip Hop and theater in order to find her true voice. Intimate yet epic, scathing yet endearing – a gem that truly sparkles if you give it the chance it deserves.
Based on the book of the same name by Emma Jane Unsworth (who also wrote this screenplay), Animals is the story of best friends Laura (Holliday Grainger) and Tyler (Alia Shawkat) whose party-loving lifestyle gets tempered by Laura’s engagement to Jim (Fra Fee), disolving their friendship in the process. A beautiful, consistently funny yet devastating, mediation on modern love and friendship.
One of the consequences of having a blockbuster-free summer (Tenetaside) was that independent cinema took over our screens, even if they didn’t get the large audiences they deserve. This film is the perfect example of one of those films you probably missed and need to catch-up on. 14-year-old Leigh (Frankie Box) is an aspiring teenager gymnast’s whose world is turned upside down with the arrival of the half-brother she never knew she had. Box’s debut performance is captivating and so full of depth in a wonderfully-told bittersweet story.
A cover-up spanning four U.S. Presidents pushes the country’s first female newspaper publisher (Meryl Streep) and her editor (Tom Hanks) to join an unprecedented battle between press and government. Another film that may resonate that bit deeper due to events of recent months/weeks/days, this is the cinematic equivalent of sitting in a really comfy leather tub chair with a dram of whiskey, a cigar and some comfy slippers. Steven Spielberg at his most solid historical best.
I’ll be honest, it’s only as I’m writing these brief comments that I’ve started to see an unintended link between some of these films. Dark Waters is about a corporate defence attorney (Mark Ruffalo) takes on an environmental lawsuit against a chemical company that exposes a lengthy history of pollution. It too will have an even greater resonance around now, seeing capitalism and it’s destructive influences. A fantastic central performance by Ruffalo, this is a film that will haunt you for a long while after. So now I’m going to cheer myself up and listen to this. See you next week….