Many months ago I thought of what I honestly believed at the time to be the coolest title for an end-of-year article: ‘2020 – the year cinema stood still’. This was roughly when the entirety of the Western civilization was living through a wave of national lockdowns that had us sit on our asses, pretend to work from home while we are schooling are children and attempt to rationalize what was happening to the world. And let’s just say that a lot has changed since then.
Now that I look back at this time, the memories I have are at the very least bizarrely incongruent. The virus was sweeping through the world while we were doing our best to figure out whether to treat it seriously or not. Contagion became an overnight sleeper hit on streaming services, people were stocking up on bog roll and pasta, social media were bursting with images of people learning to make bread, or knit; and every Thursday we’d emerge on our balconies to clap for the health workers. None of it felt real and truth be told, I sincerely hoped we’d be back to normal before Christmas thanks to our collective effort in suppressing the pandemic.
Well, Christmas came and went and things are looking grim despite multiple vaccines being rolled out across the world. We are still locked down and it sure looks like it is going to get much darker before we can hope to see the light at the end of the tunnel. The world has changed, probably for good. However, contrary to my initial estimations, cinema did not stand still. Cinema adjusted to the shifting landscape and its only facet that seems to have hibernated almost completely is the Hollywood blockbuster machine. Tenet and Wonder Woman 1984 notwithstanding, we did not see a typical summer blockbuster season and yet, I have seen a pile of great movies that spoke to me on some level. Therefore, this year will not be an exception to my longstanding belief that there isn’t such a thing as a bad year for film. Even though I have not had the chance to see many features I have been truly looking forward to (First Cow, Nomadland, Minari, Sound Of Metal and many others), I still feel comfortable in saying that 2020 – a year of a global pandemic, violent protests, and wildfires – was great for cinema and if you think otherwise, I am afraid your taste might be to blame.
Now, over the years I have avoided making end-of-year lists because I always thought I should be able to make the most informed decision. I thought I needed to have seen the majority of releases from any given year to do this comfortably. Well, let’s just say I still have films from 2010 on my watchlist that I think I should see in order to make a list for that year and it simply looks like I will never do that if I remain married to this logic. Therefore, I decided to change things going forward and picked ten 2020 releases that: (1) I would happily put on the shelf (and some of them are already there), (2) touched me in a way that I kept thinking about them long after watching them, (3) tied into the cultural fabric of this year in one way or another, and (4) were perhaps a little bit underappreciated in some cases.
10. Small Axe (dir. Steve McQueen)
I barely even started and I am cheating already by ‘shmooshing’ five films into one entry, but I feel it is inappropriate to single out Mangrove or Lovers Rock – the two strongest entries in this anthology – as all five stories fit together under its collective thematic umbrella. By the same token, if I was making a list of best films of 1988, I would have no qualms doing the same to Kieslowski’s Dekalog. In any case, Small Axe is absolutely fantastic as a whole and clearly should be referred to as Steve McQueen’s magnum opus that brings together everything this filmmaker has been passionate about exploring – race, injustice and more – and reharmonizes it to become both an anthem for the West Indian communities across the UK and for all people who know what it’s like to be oppressed, vilified and degraded.
Read my full review of Mangrove on Flasz On Film.
Read my full review of Lovers Rock on Flasz On Film.
Read my full review of Red, White and Blue on Flasz On Film.
Read my full review of Alex Wheatle on Flasz On Film.
Read my full review of Education on Flasz On Film.
9. The Earth Is Blue as an Orange (dir. Irena Tsilyk)
I admit this is a film that nobody has seen. It quietly moved through the year’s early film festivals and seemingly disappeared off the face of the planet, which is a real shame because this documentary set in Eastern Ukraine is an absolute must-see. It is both a reminder that Ukraine is still ravaged by a civil war that barely gets a mention in the news these days, and a splendid celebration of cinema as a way to cope with grim reality. It is a truly unforgettable piece of cinéma vérité that is just as uplifting in its spirit as it is harrowing in what it harbours deeper within its narrative.
8. Wildfire (dir. Cathy Brady)
This feature debut from Cathy Brady is an audacious and highly allegorical addition to the collective voice of dissent heard from multiple corners of the world this year. This tale of two sisters coping with long-suppressed grief after losing their mother is a stark encapsulation of the emotional turmoil characterizing everyday existence of many young inhabitants of Northern Ireland and a touching celebration of sisterhood.
7. Atlantis (dir. Valentyn Vasyanovich)
Stoic, formal and exquisitely photographed, this is an underseen masterpiece, if I ever saw one. Hovering between Kubrick and Tarkovsky in its visual inspirations, Atlantis is a science-fiction opus that applies the cerebral language of genre filmmaking to tell a story about currently relevant issues (civil war in Ukraine) and sears itself into the viewer’s subconsciousness with its visceral imagery. Even though it might be difficult to find (though it is not completely impossible), it is well-worth seeing and discussing.
6. On The Rocks (dir. Sofia Coppola)
I’ll be honest here: Sofia Coppola is probably one of my favourite filmmakers working today and it should come as no surprise that her film found its way onto my best-of list. It is a wonderful and touching story about what it means to be a middle-aged woman trying to juggle her responsibilities, aspirations, and emotional baggage. Told with Coppola’s characteristic combination of wit, subtlety and artistic vigour, as well as elevated by great central performances, this is a film I will keep coming back to over the years.
5. Ema (dir. Pablo Larraín)
Pablo Larraín remains one of the most underrated auteurs of our time and the fact Ema came and went testifies to that. It is somewhat symmetrical thematically to Wildfire and most importantly a continuation of Larraín’s odyssey through the intergenerational trauma and fury inherited by modern-day Chile after decades of living under the boot of fascist oppression. Yet, this lush and unrestrained kaleidoscope of colours and emotions shows that Larraín’s filmmaking keeps evolving and adjusting to the changing times while keeping its edge just as sharp (if not more) as in the days of Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No.
4. Da 5 Bloods (dir. Spike Lee)
It seems that every time Spike Lee makes a film these days, he organically slides into a groove within the current cultural stream of consciousness and adds to what is now a deafening roar of dissent against the ongoing injustice inflicted upon African Americans. He is angrier than he has ever been and this film clearly conveys the complex set of emotions driving his art. However, Da 5 Bloods is just as smart as it is furious and the more I think about it, the more convinced I become of just how much of a cinephile’s masterpiece it is.
3. Soul (dir. Pete Docter)
I was absolutely taken aback by how much this film spoke to me. In fact, I am still processing this, which is doubly complicated by my own long-standing relationship with Pixar movies as films that are technically not meant for me but for my daughter to enjoy and learn from. However, Soul reversed this logic and felt as though it was written for me specifically. Any film capable of forcing me to review my life choices and hopefully make some adjustments for the future surely deserves to be right up there among the most important films of the year. And I feel that everyone needs Soul right now, if only as a reminder that life is worth living despite the pandemic and the tragic craziness this year brought to our lives.
2. The Assistant (dir. Kitty Green)
I started my review of The Assistant by calling it a film that Bombshell should have been, half as a bit of a tongue-in-cheek jab at that movie and half-seriously. But it honestly is a magnificent and absolutely mesmerizing indictment of misogyny, abusive asymmetry of power and everything else the movie industry is built upon. Elevated by its clinical cinematography and an unforgettable performance from Julia Garner, this film bolted me to my seat, petrified me with the horror of its multiple layers of subtext smuggled in between the lines of sparse dialogue, and crucially, woke me up to the talent of Kitty Green who is surely one to watch.
1. Never Rarely Sometimes Always (dir. Eliza Hittman)
I knew this film would be at the top of this list the minute the credits rolled. No! I tell a lie. I knew it would be the case already after its opening scene. This is by far the most important and fantastically impressive film to have come out in 2020, hands down. It’s smart, cutting, oppressive, brutal, disgusting, beautiful, challenging and touching all at the same time; an absolute pinnacle of the current wave of feminist cinema that I will simply never forget. Not very often do I encounter a film that would change my life in such a profound way, but Never Rarely Sometimes Always surely belongs to that club and I will happily champion its corner in the years to come.
So there you have it, my choices for the most important films of the year. And let it be known that some hard decisions had to be made because films like Kajillionaire, The Climb or Mogul Mowgli could just as well have found their way in this list. Hell, I was honestly debating the idea of including Unhinged too, as it turned out to be the most purely entertaining piece of cinematic escapism I experienced on the big screen this year (in that short window the cinemas were open, that is). In any case, I am hereby drawing a line under 2020 and hoping 2021 will be just as a strong (if not more) in terms of cinema and a much needed herald of change in terms of everything else.