The Best of 2020

The top ten

Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Ema
Beanpole
A Hidden Life

Lovers Rock
Overseas
Dick Johnson is Dead
Relic
An Easy Girl


 

 

Film Of The Year
Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Céline Sciamma’s fourth directorial effort is some kind of masterpiece. The initially diffident, then slow-thawing relationship between painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), and subject, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), is a romance for the ages. Sciamma’s form has never been finer. This period love story is meticulously performed and constructed. That may sound stilted or stuffy, but the throttle of prestige cinema is nowhere in evidence here. Just grace and genuine, fiery emotion. Perhaps the finest film in a decade.



 Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Eliza Hittmann delivered on the promise of 2017’s Beach Rats, delivering one of the year’s very finest pictures just as the world started shutting down. NRSA is a deft, low-key, emotionally honest portrayal of a young woman (a staggeringly good Sidney Flanigan) journeying to New York with her cousin (Talia Ryder) in search of an abortion. By turns tough and tender, this is American independent filmmaking at its finest and most delicately attuned.



Ema

Pablo Larraín’s state-of-the-nation address to his native Chilé isn’t really anchored by traditional narrative rules. It’s too nimble for that. Rather – like’s its bewitching titular protagonist – it dances, creating rhythms and symbols through collage. At the centre is the committed performance from Mariana Di Girólamo; a firebrand embodiment of a brash, young, feminine sexual confidence that dares to challenge conservative values. A delirious mix of sex, reggaeton and pyromania.




Beanpole

Few films in recent years have been as bitter, twisted and brittle as Kantemir Balagov’s depiction of post-war Leningrad. After unwittingly causing the tragic, accidental death of her best friend’s infant, Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) submits to the emotional blackmail of her dear Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), who wishes her to act as surrogate for a new baby now that she herself is barren. Out of the ruins of a country devastated and starving, Beanpole takes increasingly perverse turns, only to land on a gilded moment of beauty and hope for the future.



A Hidden Life

Considering the body of work already banked, calling Terrence Malick’s latest his best is quite a gambit, but one I’m prepared to stand behind. Returning themes of war and religion preoccupy this Austrian-set tale that tests the bonds of marriage, faith and patriotism between Franz (August Diehl) and Fani (Valerie Pachner). Malick’s ability to touch transcendence and grace is matched by the yawning valleys of the film’s setting, where the mountains – like the director himself – reach upward, beseechingly toward God.



Lovers Rock

A lot of mileage has been made of how Lovers Rock – the second of the five films offered to us by Steve McQueen in his Small Axe series – centres Black joy. That is true. But it’s not the only reason that this film positively shimmers. McQueen’s tale of a Saturday night blues party in London’s West Indian community also plays as the most positive kind of activism. A standing act of defiance and togetherness. The addition of great turns, great tunes and some stunning camerawork all help lift this nimble offering to greatness.



Overseas

Sung-a Yoon’s masterful documentary on the training of Filipino women for overseas servitude is a flooring exploration of a crushing class division and culture of dehumanisation. That may sound too heavy to counter in 2020, but Sung-a makes it a fascinating, delicately balanced experience.




Dick Johnson is Dead

With her father diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, renowned cameraperson Kirsten Johnson turned her camera toward her own family, making a star of her father in this wonderful, darkly humorous celebration of life. Johnson and her dad Dick mock up varying slapstick versions of his demise, imagine his own version of heaven and even assemble all and sundry for a funeral rehearsal. Instead of morbid, its an infectious and life-affirming ode to the bond between fathers and daughters.



Relic

Natalie Erika James’ empathetic horror movies takes the terrors of Alzheimer’s disease – a condition defined by its interior degradation – and tumbles them into the environment. Three generations of Australian women navigate an untrustworthy rural arena. The ending, meanwhile, is one of the most compassionate and moving to appear in a major horror release.



An Easy Girl

Sun, sea, sex and a trip to the cinema to see Martyrs, Rebecca Zlotowski’s An Easy Girl brought a halcyon summer of love to our small screens while the world ground to a halt during the deep freeze of an epidemic. The vicarious pleasures of An Easy Girl became a lot more precious than they perhaps might have been. Like it’s lead character Naïma (Mina Farid), we could only watch the extroverted exploits of her cousin – trophy girlfriend Sofia (Zahia Dehar) – with a kind of hypnotic longing and admiration. The thirstiest movie of the year.


 

The best of the rest….

Swallow
Saint Maud
Mangrove
I’m thinking of ending things
The Hunt
System Crasher
On the Rocks
Babyteeth
The Woman Who Ran
Uncut Gems
The Day After I’m Gone
Nocturne
So Pretty
The Grudge
Cemetery

 

 

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