toatali’s best films of 2020

2020 hasn’t been a bad year for films, but it has been a slightly strange one. I was only able to see one of these films in the cinema; the rest had to be seen on my laptop, my TV or my shitty home projector. This isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it’s notable how the refuge of the cinema has been taken away from so many this year. I don’t go to the cinema just to see new films, but because the experience itself lends new dimensions to experiencing film. Watching this year’s films on my laptop didn’t dent their quality in any way, but I can’t say I’ll be able to think of this year’s crop in the same way as I usually can.

Anyway, this list is arranged similarly to my normal lists. There is no formal ranking and so the films are listed in alphabetical order, except for a final ‘best of the year’. If you are desperate for an informal ranking, you can find my letterboxd list here, and follow me on that website if you want shorter opinions on film.

Thanks for reading this year’s unconventional lists – hopefully some of them have proven useful in finding distractions in this unconventional year.

Another Round

According to film director Thomas Vinterberg, as well a character in his script for Another Round, Denmark is a country that drinks a lot. I also come from a country with a drinking culture problem, and I also drink a lot. Perhaps too much, although that remains to be seen from close inspection of my liver. Films about alcoholism tend to dwell on the negative, as well they should, but I think an honest conversation about alcohol cannot be had without touching on both sides of the debate. Alcoholism may ruin lives but alcohol itself can often enhance them. As comedian James Acaster once said; there are four states to being alive, sober, tipsy, drunk and hungover – and tipsy is the only one where you don’t feel miserable. 

Another Round focuses on a group of men who turn to that feeling to help deal with the mediocrity of their lives. They start drinking throughout the day to maintain a level of tipsiness that gives them more confidence and helps them to relax. It’s a dangerous experiment, something the film realises, but the gentle tonal changes of the film’s interweaving narratives show why we drink but also why we sometimes shouldn’t. Anchored by one of the best Mads Mikkelsen performances I’ve seen, Another Round is a film that tackles an issue without being obvious – it’s a film that feels like a thoughtful conversation rather than a forced morality tale and comes with what is certainly one of the best film endings of the year. 

Drink responsibly. 

Black Bear

Black Bear feels like a project that could have easily gone wrong, or at least could have easily not gone so right. It’s another indie dark comedy with some surreal twists and occasionally unclear metaphors that focuses on a bunch of 30-something well off white artists. There were certainly ways in which this film could have become something insufferable or at least unmemorable. But smart choices were made in order for Black Bear to stand out among the crowd, choices which are difficult to talk about without spoiling the film. 

One choice I can talk about is the casting of Aubrey Plaza in the film’s lead role. Plaza shot to prominence in Parks and Recreation (a series which also helped increase the fame of the star of another film on my list), a series which effectively utilised her comedic chops but never really gave her much else to do. Other films like Ingrid Goes West or An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn clearly spotted the potential in Plaza’s acting skills but it’s only in Black Bear that a director has had the confidence to divorce Plaza from any real comedic exaggeration and let her flex her dramatic acting. After watching this film, it feels like a long time coming. This is the kind of performance that defines a film, and while the rest of it is far from slouching, without that central casting choice it may not have had such an impressive impact. 

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

I’m not sure if anyone was asking for a new Borat film in 2020. The previous cultural impact of Sacha Baron Cohen’s 2006 comedy classic was a lot of guys going around saying ‘wawaweewa my wife.’ But this isn’t the reputation that film, which did a lot in exposing the racist through-lines in American society, really deserves. Baron Cohen’s character comedy was maybe too loud in that film, which might have served to overshadowed any point he may have been trying to get across. It’s easy to forget about the scene where the college frat kids talk about bringing slavery back when Borat is having a naked wrestling match with his ‘producer’.

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, however, might have learned from this mistake. Or maybe it’s just harder to overshadow racism now that it has become such an increasingly outward-facing part of modern American society. Still, in refocusing the non-interview sections around Borat’s relationship with his daughter, brilliantly played by Maria Bakalova, Baron Cohen shows that he’s not trying to repeat the mistakes of the past. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm may not say anything new (did anyone need proof that Rudy Giuliani was a pervert as well as a racist?) but what it does say it says with far more clarity than its predecessor, making the whole thing feel like a more cohesive experience, while being just as funny.

First Cow

I came to Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow after a long day. I had tried to watch it once previously, but the pacing of the first ten minutes had turned me off. I probably watched a Will Ferrell film instead. But allowing myself the space and time to properly sink into it proved a far more rewarding experience.

With it’s slow, meditative pacing and gorgeous cinematography, First Cow is a film that constantly reaches out for some form of transcendence in its filmmaking, mainly in its slow pacing and focus on a brief but meaningful friendship – the tragic fate of which the audience is told from the first moment. It doesn’t reach that consistently, but the few moments in which it does stand out from the rest of the films on this list because it tries for something completely different. You’ll never think about cow milking in the same way again.

i’m thinking of ending things

It’s safe to say that I’m not smart enough to properly understand everything that Charlie Kaufman is trying to say in i’m thinking of ending things, and it might be because of that insecurity that I’m not as fond of it as some of Kaufman’s work as a writer, such as Being John Malkovich or uhhh Kung Fu Panda 2. But this is an undoubtedly impressive film, a flex of both writing and directing that creates a uniquely individual vision of anxiety and beauty.

There’s a sequence in the middle of this film, where the main character visits her boyfriend’s family for dinner, which is unlike perhaps any other horror film. It uses its surreality for a specific kind of horror that gets under your skin and permeates your mind. I was clutching a pillow during i’m thinking of ending things in a way that I haven’t during the most jump-scare laden horror films. 

There’s a sense in i’m thinking of ending things that Kaufman is crafting a film that showcases the most impressive of his thoughts – a film that flexes in front of the audience rather than trying to bring them in. It is, at varying points, too obtuse or too hamfisted. But if you’re going to flex, you better make sure you have something impressive to show, and i’m thinking of ending things is one of the most impressive and confident films I’ve seen all year. 

On the Rocks

I actually wrote a whole piece on On the Rocks earlier in the year, which you can read here. If you have yet to see the film, however, I’ll keep it brief. This reunion between director Sofia Coppola and star Bill Murray was something I was waiting for eagerly as a result of my undying love for their earlier film Lost in Translation. What I found in On the Rocks, however, was something different; it’s a more mature film than Lost in Translation, one with a reverence and nostalgia for the romance of Coppola’s ode to fleeting love but an overall more cynical outlook. On the Rocks is a film made by a director at a different point in her life, but I’m hard pressed to say that it’s worse off for that. This is a film that instead quietly defies expectations to make something subtly but beautifully unexpected. 

Promising Young Woman

I’ve heard that Promising Young Woman is a controversial piece of filmmaking, probably for reasons that I am under-qualified to explain. But I like controversy in films, because a film like Promising Young Woman is at least gunning for something. Films such as this are often fuelled by some kind of underlying anger which lends itself to powerful bursts of righteous fury, a term I’d use to describe Emerald Fennell’s debut feature.

Carey Mulligan stars as a woman who spends her free time taking her revenge on men, usually ‘nice guys’ who try and help her out at a club for the purpose of taking advantage of her when drunk. It’s a surprisingly bloodless take on the revenge fantasy genre, perhaps because it’s written and directed by a woman and has more on its mind than simply the unhinged bloody payback that many of these films tend to focus on.

Maybe most importantly, this is an extremely assured piece of filmmaking, especially considering it’s a directorial debut. This isn’t the only debut on this list, but it’s perhaps the one with the strongest vision and sense of style and the one that makes me the most excited to see further films by its director.

The Kid Detective

This is going to sound like damning with faint praise, but The Kid Detective is one of those films that makes you surprised you liked it so much. One of my favourite cinematic memories is going to see the film Colossal without any knowledge of where it was going and finding a deeper and darker film nestled within its comedic premise. The Kid Detective, a film about a washed up former child detective who is now the laughing stock of his small town, is the only other film to recreate that admittedly specific feeling.

The key to The Kid Detective is how delicately it balances its tones in order to make everything work. It sets itself a hard task with its premise alone but pulls it all off surprisingly well in order to make a film that ponders brilliantly on the nature of truth, fame, crime and trauma. Which is a lot for a film about a guy who solves cases about who stole some kid’s lunch money.

The Trip to Greece

Friendship is a surprisingly difficult thing to portray realistically, so perhaps one of the best ways to do it is just to get two people who are friends and get them to improvise in exotic locations. This is what Michael Winterbottom was doing with The Trip franchise, in which Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon travel around eating fancy food in various European locales and having unrelated banter about their lives. The first film is cinematic comfort food, the opposite of the high class meals the two eat on screen. As the series progressed into its fourth and final instalment, however, like many ageing things it became obsessed with ruminations on the nature of age and death.

The Trip to Greece is a film about death. It’s still also a film about friendship and impressions of Micheal Caine, but here the focus is on the darkest subject matter that the two have had to joke about. The Trip is a series built around fleetingness. You get the sense you’re glimpsing at a friendship which only exists on these holidays, and like all holidays it has to come to an end at some point. Each ending could be the last, and here it feels like that is emphasised. The Trip will always end – and while in the past films that was more of a reflection on the holiday itself, here Winterbottom extends the meaning to a reflection on life itself.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

I liked a lot of films this year, but there was only really one that stunned me. From the moment I saw Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire I knew it was the film that would sit at the top of this list.

In talking about First Cow, I spoke about how it was a film that reached for transcendence but only briefly found it. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is pure transcendent cinema, and when it reaches for moments of blistering power, it hits them perfectly. I have never seen anything quite like the scene at the bonfire, nor have I been hit as emotionally by an ending quite like the one to this film.

Some of my favourite films have music that overwhelms the screen with a thunderous power, like Phantom Thread or Mishima. These are films that use their scores to heighten each moment, and it works brilliantly for them. But Portrait of a Lady on Fire uses music only twice in the whole film and when it does the effect of its score is stronger than any other musical moment I think I have ever seen on screen.

When I think about the films from a year I love, there are many that I can pinpoint as having enjoyed, or appreciated, or thought were powerful, well made films. But in any given year there are only a few that stick with me in a way that moves past that into something more profound – films where the images and visuals become a reference point for my love of the medium. For 2020, the only film that did that was Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

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