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.)
The true story of a British whistleblower (Keira Knightley) who leaked information to the press about an illegal NSA spy operation designed to push the UN Security Council into sanctioning the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Along with a fantastic supporting cast (Matt Smith, Matthew Goode, Rhys Ifans, Ralph Fiennes and Conleth Hill) this might be one of Knightley’s finest performances, understated yet powerful. A steely and tense thriller, made all the more haunting as it really did happen.
A thousand 17-year-old boys from Texas join together to build a representative government from the ground up – and the results need to be seen to be believed. A truly outstanding documentary that ends up revealing so much about present day politics and 21st masculinity.
Cartoon Saloon is an animation studio that has a truly enviable hit-rate, with Song of the Sea , The Secret of Kells and The Breadwinner each being examples of pure perfection. And now we have this addition, a young apprentice hunter (Honor Kneafsey) and her father (Sean Bean) journey to Ireland to help wipe out the last wolf pack. But everything changes when she befriends a free-spirited girl (Eva Whittaker) from a mysterious tribe rumored to transform into wolves by night. The animation is sumptuous, the story wonderfully told and the performances just magnificent. There’s also some of the finest animated hair we’ve ever seen. If there’s any justice in the world, this film will be recognised in awards season as the best animated film of 2020.
This might just be the finest Austen adaptation we’ve ever had. At the very least there’s no point ever adapting Emma again, as it cannot beat this one. Anya Taylor-Joy plays Emma, a woman who is well-meaning but selfish, who decides to play matchmaker out of boredom but ends up playing havoc with the lives of those around her. Taylor-Joy plays Emma wonderfully, every expression being layered in meaning and revealing so much about exactly what she is thinking but is unable to say. Johnny Flynn as Mr Knightley has ruined me for men. A magnificent ensemble cast (Angus Imrie, Gemma Whelan, Bill Nighy, Rupert Graves, Miranda Hart, Josh O’Connor, Mia Goth, Oliver Chris and Callum Turner) all bring their A-game to deliver this superb screwball comedy.
This French film, following members of the advocacy group ACT UP Paris as they demand action by the government and pharmaceutical companies to combat the AIDS epidemic in the early 1990s, is sublime. At times funny, heart-shattering at others – it’s simply unmissable.
One of 2018’s best films, this story – Rose-Lynn(Jessie Buckley) is a troubled young Glaswegian who dreams of becoming a Nashville country star – is a total must-see. Buckley’s central performance is extraordinary, with an immeasurable amount of depth, balancing light and shade with ease. Julie Walters is simply fantastic in the supporting role as Rose’s mother. Click here to read my full review.
In recent years, Netflix has been at the forefront of the resurgence of the romcom whilst also dropping some of the worst of the genre. This week’s underseen romcom is a gem, that uses the tropes we know & love yet plays around with them a little. Two corporate executive assistants (Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell) hatch a plan to match-make their two bosses (Lucy Liu and Taye Diggs). Deutch and Powell have fantastic chemistry, believable and easy to root for. The end result is a charming and sweet romcom.
One of the few joys to arise in 2020 has been the amount of fantastic indie movies, which arguably have had a little bit more space this year with blockbusters having been near-universally postponed till 2021 at the earliest. Uncle Frank is very much one of the cream of the crop with a lead performance by Paul Bettany, as the eponymous Uncle Frank, that deserves awards recognition. In 1973, when Frank Bledsoe and his 18-year-old niece Beth (Sophia Lillis) take a road trip from Manhattan to Creekville, South Carolina, for the family patriarch’s funeral, they’re unexpectedly joined by Frank’s lover, Walid (Peter Macdissi). The film’s focus is Frank aligning his past trauma with his present, and his fears over his family finding out about his sexuality. The end result is a film that is softly moving, immensely charming and bittersweetly emotive. Such a delight.
Kit (Henry Golding) a British Vietnamese man, returns to Saigon for the first time in over 30 years, after fleeing during the Vietnam-American War. A beautifully empathetic look at the immigrant experiences, of being of two places but feeling like you belong to neither. Thoughtful, delicate and graceful.
This week’s underseen romcom slot also serves as a Henry Golding double bill. Here he plays the heir to an immense fortune, not that his girlfriend Rachel (Constance Wu) has any idea just how rich he is as she finds out on the way to meet his family for the first time. All the romcom tropes we know and love are here, featuring a terrific and diverse cast and some spectacular riches. A really likeable and very sweet addition to the canon. Click here to read my full review.
‘Never give up, never surrender’ – that was the catchphrase of cult tv series Galaxy Quest. It’s a phrase the show’s cast Jason (Tim Allen), Gwen (Sigourney Weaver), Alexander (Alan Rickman), Fred (Tony Shalhoub) and co. know all to well. They’ve been churning out for years at various fan conventions and promo appearances. But when they’re visited by actual aliens who think the series is an accurate documentary they quickly become drawn in a very real intergalactic conflict with thousands of lives at risk. This is one of the finest comedy films, possibly ever. It’s fantastically written, parodying fandom with much love and affection, and so well performed by a cast of total icons.
Another Christmas gem for you, this time we’re with Santa’s (Jim Broadbent) clumsy son Arthur (James McAvoy) as he sets out on a mission with Grandsanta (Bill Nighy) to give out a present they misplaced to a young girl before it’s too late and her Christmas is ruined. A sweet and heart-warming tale, with some inventive animation and charming voice cast.
A sex addict’s (Michael Fassbender) carefully cultivated private life falls apart after his sister (Carey Mulligan) arrives for an indefinite stay. The directorial debut of Steve McQueen (who currently has a phenomenal miniseries airing on BBC every Sunday, Small Axe – five films that are love letters to Black London history) this is an astonishing and haunting film about addiction & it’s concealment under artifice. Wonderfully shot and performed, this is a total must-see.
Without a doubt, one of the greatest films of the 21st century, Guillermo del Toro‘s film is set in the Falangist Spain of 1944, where the bookish young stepdaughter (Ivana Baquero)of a sadistic army officer (Sergi López) escapes into an eerie but captivating fantasy world when a magical creature (Doug Jones) gives her the chance to save her pregnant mother’s life. Insert list of superlatives here – I just love this film so so so so much. (Also, any English teachers reading this, I have a great resource using the Pale Man scene to teach GCSE English Language Paper 1, Q3 – slide into my DMs if interested…)
Bradley Cooper‘s directorial debut happens to be the 4th version of the A Star Is Born story is perfectly adapted to the 21st Century. He plays country/rock megastar Jack, who drunkenly stumbles into a drag bar and meets the love of his life, an exceptionally talented singer called Ally (Lady Gaga). As she finds fame and glory, alcoholism and Jack’s own demons send him on a downward spiral. Beautiful, loving and intimate. (Click here to read my full review)
For a generation of South Africans, Rodriguez was their unlikely musical hero. Not knowing anything about him or why he stopped releasing music, two documentary makers go in search of him and answers. A story about the power of art, how music can soundtrack societal change and the unexpected twist of life. Stranger than fiction, this is an incredible story about a true talent.
There’s a group of films released in March 2020 that had their release curtailed and didn’t get the release or audience they deserved. Military Wives is one of those. Inspired by the fourth series of the documentary series The Choir, where choirmaster Gareth Malone joins communities and inspired them to come together through singing. This is a lovely watch lead by two excellent performances by Kristin Scott Thomas and Sharon Horgan.
One of the finest and most personal documentaries of recent years, three young men bond together to escape volatile families in their Rust-Belt hometown. As they face adult responsibilities, unexpected revelations threaten their decade-long friendship. Incredibly moving and profound.
This week’s underseen RomCom is the film that results in my taking any bad Adam Sandler performances personally, as he’s just so good here. He plays Robbie, a singer, who befriends new-in-town Julia (Drew Barrymore), a waitress. Both are engaged, but to the wrong people. Fortune intervenes to help them discover each other. So funny and charming, with some excellent cameos. (Side note: The film is set in 1985, so 13 years before release. If you were to make a film with the same time gap now, it would be set in 2007…)
Three sisters (Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa and Kaho) live together in the house of their Grandparents in Kamakura, Japan. The news of their estranged father’s death also results in their discovery of the existence of their half sister (Suzu Hirose). The trio invite their newly-found sister to come and live with them, leading to much change for all four young women. Exquisite filmmaking.
There’s a good chance I’ll end up compiling a list of Christmas movies and where to find them. For now, here’s something to start you off. An uptight but secretly heartbroken primary school teacher’s (Martin Freeman) little white lie about Hollywood coming to see his class’ nativity play grows like wildfire in his rag-tag school low on self-esteem. Maybe it’s the fact I work with young people that adds another level of funny onto this film for me, but I really think this is a underseen and endearing festive treat.
Insert pithy comment here about lockdown-induced breakdowns here. Read below if you’d like some movies to watch and escape into. If you’d like to chose from 9 other combinations of seven specially chosen films, then click through here – #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7, #8 and #9.
Speaking directly to you right now. If you’re going to pick any of these films to watch, could you please take a chance on this one? I’m sure you won’t regret it (and I’m not just saying that because I was quoted on the poster/DVD case – humblebrag noise) I called it ‘A beautiful and uplifting tale’ then and I stick with it now. Ove is a curmudgeonly figure who looms heavily over his housing estate. When he’s fired from his job it’s the final straw and he decides he’ll commit suicide. But his new neighbour and her family inadvertently interrupt his plans, uncovering Ove’s past and hidden soft side. Few films have made me simultaneously laugh and cry to this extent. The queue to the ladies toilet at Canterbury Curzon afterwards was just was a just a line of us sniffling in disbelief at how joyous this film is. So, go watch it. Please?
An underseen gem of a period drama, set in the aftermath of WW2 when a writer (Lily James) forms an unexpected bond with the residents of Guernsey Island (Tom Courtenay, Michiel Huisman, Katherine Parkinson) when she decides to write a book about their experiences during the war. So bloody charming.
Directed by Lone Scherfig with a screenplay Nick Hornby and astonishing central performances by Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard, this is coming-of-age story about a teenage girl in 1960s suburban London, and how her life changes with the arrival of a playboy nearly twice her age. Exquisite costumes, pitch-perfect script and a stellar supporting cast.
This week’s underseen RomCom is set in 1962 New York City, when love blossoms between a playboy journalist (Ewan McGregor) and a feminist advice author (Renée Zellweger). A superlative pastiche and loving tribute to the era of Rock Hudson & Doris Day, that also has this sequence that is one of finest uses of comedic editing in 21st century cinema
Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) is a single mother with a parenting vlog who befriends Emily (Blake Lively), a secretive upper-class woman who has a child at the same elementary school. When Emily goes missing, Stephanie takes it upon herself to investigate. Camptastic cinema of the finest order.
Proof, were it ever really needed, that John Boyega has always had the charisma of a star. Written and directed by Joe Cornish, a teen gang in South London defend their block from an alien invasion. Funny, tense and a little bit scary – perfect Saturday night watching.
‘Of all the arts, movies are the most powerful aid to empathy, and good ones make us into better people.’ – Roger Ebert
After 20 weeks, I’m going to take a break on doing Movie Mondays. Whether I bring them back, most likely in a slightly different format is still to be decided! For now, he’s an overview of the 420 films I recommended: