2020 hasn’t exactly gone according to plan. Coronavirus more or less ended summer blockbuster season before it began, meaning the highly anticipated likes of Wonder Woman 1984, No Time To Die, Fast and Furious 9, A Quiet Place: Part II, and more still haven’t seen the light of day.
But the lack of huge films does not mean there’s been a lack of quality filmmaking, and there have still been a significant number of gems we’ve been able to enjoy from our own homes over the past several months. Here is the cream of that crop.
Note that some of these films might've been released in late 2019 where you are – we've based this on the UK release schedule, so you might've seen a couple of these earlier in the US and elsewhere.
Making any movie is hard. Conceptualizing it, shooting it, directing it, editing it, and releasing it while there’s a pandemic going on is downright heroic, even more so when it’s as good as Host. Rob Savage’s ingenious 57-minute horror movie in which a séance via Zoom goes wrong is as resourceful as it is scary, gradually ratcheting up the tension to near unbearable levels. There are few better examples of how limitations can inspire creativity.
High on the list of embarrassing snubs for the most recent awards season was Clemency. Chinoye Chukwu’s harrowing drama sees Alfre Woodard give a career best performance as prison warden Bernadine, whose job of presiding over death row executions has taken its toll. It’s not a perspective that’s typically shown in movies with this subject matter but Woodard helps ensure that it’s a worthwhile one, gradually revealing the devastating impact her thankless job has on her life over two gripping hours. It all culminates in one of the best final shots from any film this year.
8. The Assistant
On paper, a single day in the life of a lowly subordinate going about her mundane office tasks does not sound like content that would make for compelling viewing. But thanks to writer-director Kitty Green and Julia Garner’s impressively meticulous performance, that’s exactly what The Assistant is. The film earns more points for its astute show-don’t-tell approach in tackling the topical theme of workplace harassment – no explicit scene may be shown, but the anger is still keenly felt.
Shannon Murphy’s debut feature is at once familiar and unique. The basic plot – which has terminally-ill 15-year-old Milla (Eliza Scanlen) fall for a local boy (Toby Wallace) to the great chagrin of her parents (Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis) – has a seen-this-before element to it. But everything else about the film feels fresh, from the focus on living rather than just surviving (we never see Milla receiving chemotherapy, for instance) to the unpredictable but authentic screenplay. It’s all anchored by four superb performances, with Mendelsohn in particular earning viewers’ laughs and tears as the movie progresses.
Stories about Black characters with privilege still feel all too rare, but Waves is an example of the impressive results such storytelling can yield. The performances writer-director Trey Edward Shults draws out from his cast as budding teen-wrestler Tyler (rising star Kelvin Harrison Jr.) experiences a downward spiral for the ages are spectacular – Sterling K. Brown, Taylor Russell, and Renee Elise Goldsberry are all awards-worthy here – and an audacious mid-movie change in perspective eventually pays off dividends.
5. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
When the book on perfect casting is written, several words should be reserved for Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Hollywood’s nicest man brings the perfect balance of kindness, decency, and empathy to a role that only he could have played, making you want to be a better person in the process. On paper the simple themes of goodness and optimism might seem overly twee but in practice it’s anything but, and Marielle Heller’s film will melt the heart of many a cynic.
4. Da 5 Bloods
Few filmmakers today can connect the past with the present as powerfully as Spike Lee. The celebrated filmmaker is at it again with Da 5 Bloods, a Vietnam War epic centring on four African-American veterans and their search for the remains of their fallen squad leader, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman) and buried gold. In addition to well-chosen needle drops from Marvin Gaye we also get an all-time great performance by Delroy Lindo, a name we should be hearing a lot in the coming awards season.
3. The Invisible Man
Making something old feel fresh again is not something Hollywood gets right too often, but Leigh Whannell’s update of H.G. Wells’ 123 year-old ‘The Invisible Man’ novel pulls it off with aplomb. The visual inventiveness leads to many cleverly won scares (it still has the most shocking movie moment of 2020), and in Elisabeth Moss the film has a performer who is more than able to compensate for the lack of a fellow actor to bounce off of.
2. Uncut Gems
Adam Sandler’s career has had its ups and downs, but when the actor puts all of his energy into the right role the results are undeniable. His magnetic turn as Howard Ratner – a New York jewellery salesman obsessed with landing the ultimate score – is the latest testament to that fact. The performance is further enhanced by the direction from sibling directors Josh and Benny Safdie, who meticulously up the tension levels to unbearable degrees.
One of the last good things to happen in 2020 before COVID turned the world upside down was Parasite’s amazing night at the Oscars, where it took home the golden statues for Best Director, Best Picture, Best International Feature, and Best Original Screenplay.
Bong Joon-Ho’s intricately layered thriller was deserving of each and every one of them and then some (despite its lack of nominations, Jung Jae-Il’s score is spectacular and you’d be hard pressed to find a better ensemble cast in any other film this year), and it somehow gets better on every rewatch. ‘Masterpiece’ is used in the discourse far too often these days, but it applies here.