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The 30 best films of 2020

Our favourite new releases from this year, featuring Spike Lee, Chloé Zhao, Josephine Decker and more.

No two ways about it, 2020 has been an absolute stinker. But seeing as this time of year is traditionally one of giving thanks and being grateful, let’s set aside all the bad stuff and take a moment to consider the many amazing movies which, in spite of everything, have made the past 12 months a little more bearable.

For this edition of our annual round-up of our favourite new releases, we’ve broadened our scope slightly, taking into account the numerous disruptions brought about by the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns. That being said, the below list once again comprises 30 feature films that have received some form of theatrical or digital distribution this year, or else are scheduled to be made widely available very soon.

Check out the full list below, and once you’re done be sure to share your favourite films of 2020 with us @LWLies.

30. She Dies Tomorrow

What we said: “It’s a danse macabre, the medieval allegory of humanity’s union in death, and a memento mori straight from the plague era – delayed in its release due to COVID-19. Perhaps it’s a blessing then that She Dies Tomorrow has emerged now. Rather than dragging us down with it, the film is a reminder that it’s alright to be frightened, to have days when everything feels like too much.”

Read our full review

29. And Then We Danced

What we said: “And Then We Danced is revolutionary, not only for its willingness to feature a gay sex scene in an environment where the very notion of LGBT+ existence is condemned, but also for the essential message weaved into every frame. Central is Gelbakhiani’s Merab learning to love himself against the divisive backdrop of Georgian culture. Levan Akin exposes just how beautiful a reclamation of tradition can be.”

Read our full review

28. Da 5 Bloods

What we said: “Lee packs a lot into this film, addressing black trauma, addiction, fatherhood, white saviourism, the ingloriousness of war, violence and heroism. To be a war hero in Da 5 Bloods isn’t to storm into villages Rambo-style – kicking ass and saving the day – it is to be like Milton L Olive III, throwing your body onto land mines to protect your fellow soldiers and disintegrating into a pile of blood, sinew and bone.”

Read our full review

27. Mogul Mowgli

What we said: “Questions of heritage and history, of bloodlines and independence, make Mogul Mowgli a sincere and balanced work, at its best in quickfire dream sequences, such as Zed’s visions of the mysterious ‘Toba Tek Singh’. Director Bassam Tariq beautifully captures the textures of Zed’s world and his father’s memories that infiltrate his new understanding of his life: the dust, ashes, talc, spices, crushed flowers.”

Read our full review

26. Wolfwalkers

What we said: “A playful and joyous cinematic experience; the threads that Moore and Stewart and screenwriter Will Collins weave together feel nothing short of magical. As a whole the revisionist history of Wolfwalkers is rousing, empowering in its belief in the need to fight for the environment, and belief in the capability of the current generation to do so.”

Read our full review

25. Isadora’s Children

What we said: “Wolliaston, who plays the concluding part’s unnamed protagonist, is in real life a choreographer living in France, attributed with helping develop contemporary African dance in mainland Europe in the 1970s. In the context of the film, she’s not presented as having any apparent ties to dance in a professional capacity, but as someone so deeply touched by the evocation of maternal grief that she’s inspired to perform ‘Mother’ from memory in her home, her sole audience being any spirit linked to the young boy in a framed photograph next to which she lights a candle.”

Read our full review

24. His House

What we said: “An exceedingly well-told ghost story that comes with a particularly intense brand of haunting, as aggressive shape-shifting spirits do far more than merely go bump in the night, and as the dirty interiors of the house readily transform into liquid expanses of guilt or primal African scenes. Yet at the same time this is an urgent allegory, as the domestic disturbances crystallise the dislocations that form part of the furniture for those who have been forced to go far from home and to be ‘reborn’ in a new land.”

Read our full review

23. David Byrne’s American Utopia

What we said: “This film knows its purpose as a fleeting salve for the soul, and serves it generously. The momentous challenges facing our species won’t be swept away – if anything, they’re foregrounded – but they’re made tolerable if only for the hour and a half of rapture afforded by Byrne’s joyful noises. That’s a precious thing, achieved only through his peerless talent and control as a showman. Which is just to say, same as it ever was.”

Read our full review

22. Bacurau

What we said: “Much of Bacurau’s narrative might appear to follow that of a standard revenge fantasy flick. But, to reduce the film a simple expression of horrific violence to this would be to underestimate its complexity. The film is, with all its tropes and triumphs, an intricate portrait of Brazilian society and all the contradictions that exist within it. Explicit and bloody retributive justice from a community that has been wronged by just about every authority there is appears to drive the plot, but thrumming just below the surface is a central theme: arrogance.”

Read our full review

21. Bad Education

What we said: “Cory Finley delights in showing sociopathy at its most banal; in Bad Education, it’s greedy public school administrators who insist their hard work for a thankless job should come with greater restitution. The scenes between Jackman and Allison Janney, who plays assistant superintendent Pam Glucklin, are comedy dynamite, while Ray Romano – fast becoming the king of supporting roles – is equally delightful as real estate broker “Big Bob Spicer”, together making for one of the best ensemble casts of the year.”

Read our full review

20. Birds of Prey

What we said: “Rather than the paint-by-numbers girl power of Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman, Birds of Prey presents flawed, multi-faceted women as more than an afterthought in male-driven narratives. Quinn’s incessant narration distracts a little from the story, but otherwise this is a welcome tonic to the grimdark macho worlds of Batman v Superman and Justice League.”

Read our full review

19. Liberté

What we said: “Liberté is not a comedy that evokes belly laughter, but one that elicits coiled amusement at the idea of the microdramas that arise from such a situation. Albert Serra managed a similar tonal balancing act in his previous film, The Death of Louis XIV; here though, roles are enforced, couplings are suggested and then suddenly reneged upon, complete sexual equality appears to be the rules of the game, though clear class structures remain.”

Read our full review

18. Dick Johnson Is Dead

What we said: “Perhaps death scares us so much because we are so resolved in our pursuit to ignore it; we waste so much time fearing it instead of celebrating life. In a scene near the beginning of the film, Dick lays down in his own coffin and takes a nap. It’s a morbid moment, but Kirsten laughs, and Dick does too. It doesn’t make the pain go away entirely, but maybe it’ll make things a little easier. Isn’t that what we all really need?”

Read our full review

17. Martin Eden

What we said: “Life’s bitter contradictions inevitably take a toll on every human being, but none more so than the writer with plenty of time on their hands. The mental cost of endlessly thinking and philosophising are readily apparent throughout Pietro Marcello’s mesmerising drama Martin Eden, which transposes Jack London’s Oakland-set novel about a self-made novelist/poet who experiences success and creative disappointment during an unspecific moment in 20th-century Naples.”

Read our full review in our Mank issue

16. Babyteeth

What we said: “What a breath of fresh air Shannon Murphy’s debut feature is. It stars Eliza Scanlen as Milla Finlay, a 16-year-old cancer patient who (yep, you guessed it) develops an infatuation with a local ne’er-do-well after they meet on a train platform on her way home from school. Based on Rita Kalnejais’ play of the same name, it’s an effervescent coming-of-age story that manages to be honest, impish and completely devastating in a single breath.”

Read our full review

15. The Assistant

What we said: “By now we know that the #MeToo movement hasn’t solved the deep-rooted problems of sexual abuse and coercion within the entertainment industry, but it has shone a light on them. The Assistant is a fittingly austere, uncomfortable film, making use of a dreary, muted colour palette and office-based white noise rather than music in order to underscore Jane’s isolation, but also the way women are forced to throw themselves into their work to prevent thinking about the darker issues which plague the industry.”

Read our full review

14. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets

What we said: “Siblings Bill and Turner Ross have made a film which, on its surface, offers a valedictory salute to a musty institution that is in tragic decline: the American dive bar. They check any sense of judgment or conservative moralising at the door and trace a bacchanalian binge across a single night at a crummy-looking Las Vegas snug called The Roaring 20s as its staff and regulars gather to toast this tumbledown tavern’s final day in operation.”

Read our full review

13. Parasite

What we said: “The tone is reminiscent of the unflinchingly sinister, quasi-surreal Dogtooth by Yorgos Lanthimos, and even boasts a certain class-clash literary pedigree, recalling the likes of Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Vile Bodies’ and William Thackery’s ‘Vanity Fair’. Yet there’s a wonderful specificity to Parasite which makes it such a captivating film: pivoting from hysteria to grotesque on dime, it’s a bloodthirsty farce, yet even when the story can be applied to just about any capitalist society in the world, it serves as a reminder of how fearless and innovative South Korean filmmaking continues to be.”

Read our full review

12. Mank

What we said: “Biopics of modern Hollywood tend to skew toward tired Oscar-bait hagiography – but David Fincher is David Fincher, and his take on the genre proves it is possible to present a historical narrative without starry-eyed reverence. His reputation as a perfectionist precedes him but it pays dividends in a film like this; meticulously designed to look and sound like a contemporary of Citizen Kane rather than a film merely about Kane, it’s Netflix’s richest production to date, complete with a bewitching Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross score that wouldn’t feel out of place in a 1940s screwball comedy.”

Read our full review

11. Portrait of a Lady on Fire

What we said: “Every frame of Céline Sciamma’s film could hang in a national gallery. Costume designer Dorothée Guiraud designates the women with complementary colours: red for Marianne and green for Héloïse. DoP Claire Mathon, meanwhile, outlines the figures against the brilliant blues of the sea and sky. All of this could be stuffy in the wrong hands, but Sciamma’s filmmaking is startlingly modern and full of energy.”

Read our full review

10. Rocks

What we said: “With a cast of first timers grounding the drama, Rocks is both a love letter to community and a nod to Black women who seldom get to be girls. The central group of Rocks , Sumaya (Kosar Ali), Khadija (Tawheda Begum), Yawa (Afi Okaidja), Sabina (Anastasia Dymitrow) and Agnes (Ruby Stokes) speak to one another with the freeness and shorthand that comes naturally from attending an all girl’s school, unrestricted by self-doubt or male attention.”

Read our full review

9. I’m Thinking of Ending Things

What we said: “In one remarkable scene, Buckley recites from Pauline Kael’s scathing review of John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence as if it’s her own stream of consciousness. The decision to reference one of the most famous films about a woman mentally unravelling within a film ostensibly about a woman mentally unravelling appears at first a wry Kaufmanism, but the more one thinks about it – in light of what precedes the moment and what comes after – the stranger it all becomes.”

Read our full review

8. Time

What we said: “Bradley emphasises connections through montage, as Fox makes the same emotive and articulate plea at speaking engagements and she’ll appear noticeably older in some more than others. The evocative use of the tinkling, fragile piano music by Ethiopian ‘singing nun’ Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou is a masterstroke of context, linking these black-and-white images to some bygone era, making the film feel like the lost reels of a silent classic.”

Read our full review

7. Never Rarely Sometimes Always

What we said: “Eliza Hittman’s work as a filmmaker is always understated, remarkable in its precision and honesty. Her previous feature, Beach Rats, depicted internalised homophobia with a similar acuteness, and Never Rarely Sometimes Always nails the disturbing reality of reproductive rights in America today, highlighting how few options are available to vulnerable women and how the pro-life lobby has become powerful to the extent many women feel no control over their own body.”

Read our full review

6. Shirley

What we said: “The residual impression is that these women are trapped and there’s nothing in their supernatural understanding that changes this. The chord Decker plucks with Shirley is from the interior world, where women’s wild energies have the room to play out in full. It’s the same place from which fiction flows, and the thwarted can have their day to do with whatever they will. Decker shows us the real cage and she shows us the imaginary freedom – a sanctuary that is weighted with more importance than any real-life devastation.”

Read our full review

5. About Endlessness

What we said: “Aside from the fact that this is Roy Andersson’s most nakedly moving film to date, there’s still much fun to be had from guessing how he’s physically able to create these magical moments. Aside from a few exterior shots here and there, everything is filmed using sets and stages, and you’re left to marvel at just how he managed to, say, have a full-sized train pass through a station, or fashion a street scene where there are tiny figures working away behind shop windows.”

Read our full review

4. Promising Young Woman

What we said: “Emerald Fennell’s debut feature comes at a time when this introspection feels more vital than ever, forcing us to confront our tendency toward complacency in the face of unpleasant home truths. It seems ridiculous that we keep having to go over this basic principle, but the system is fucked from the top down, and we’re all caught in its web, hopelessly kicking out in attempts to find a way through. For as long as we have been making art we have been using it as a means to both process trauma and hit back at the flaws of the society that has birthed and raised us. ”

Read more in our Promising Young Woman issue

3. First Cow

What we said: “Although in the social portraiture is bleak in First Cow, there is a lushness in the green landscapes, the white light and the warm and respectful way that Cookie and Lu interact with their world and each other. There are visual and thematic parallels with Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace, as well as Kelly Reichardt’s own Old Joy from 2006. The meek may not inherit the earth, but during the fleeting moments that they are allowed to commune with it, there are flickers of the peace that could be.”

Read our first-look review

2. Nomadland

What we said: “Nomadland might recall the work of Terrence Malick and Kelly Reichardt, but Zhao is not “the next” anyone – she’s the first Chloé Zhao, and to speak of a filmmaker only in terms of what came before is to do them a disservice. Zhao’s talent for capturing the fringes of modern America without any hint of melodrama or voyeurism builds a deep trust between storyteller and subject, and it’s thrilling to see her evolve with each new project. The melancholy lyricism of Nomadland is something truly special, and this quiet marvel of a film deserves your attention.”

Read our full review in our Mank issue

1. Small Axe

There has been some debate over whether Steve McQueen’s anthology about Black resilience and triumph in London’s West Indian community qualifies as a TV miniseries or a series of films. For his part, the director has stated that the five standalone stories comprising Small Axe were conceived and produced as feature-length films – and who are we to argue with him.

For the sake of this list, however, we’ve decided to group Mangrove, Lovers Rock, Red, White and Blue, Alex Wheatle and Education together, because while each has its own distinct cinematic merits, collectively these films represent something greater for the medium, and singling out just one for praise didn’t seem right. A major artistic achievement and a watershed moment for Black British culture, Small Axe is by turns defiant, joyous and sobering in its depiction of the everyday realities of racial prejudice and injustice, the insidious persistence of which makes McQueen’s statement all the more urgent and affecting.

What have been your favourite films this year? Let us know @LWLies

 

Published 21 Dec 2020

Tags: Albert Serra Amy Seimetz Bassam Tariq Bill Ross IV Bong Joon-ho Cathy Yan Céline Sciamma Charlie Kaufman Chloé Zhao Cory Finley David Fincher Eliza Hittman Emerald Fennell Garrett Bradley Josephine Decker Kelly Reichardt Kirsten Johnson Kitty Green Kleber Mendonça Filho Levan Akin Pietro Marcello Remi Weekes Roy Andersson Sarah Gavron Shannon Murphy Spike Lee Steve MCQueen Tomm Moore Turner Ross

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