square-eyed-geek’s Top Ten Films of 2020

For the longest time, I wasn’t going to write a top ten list this year. With the pandemic, lockdown, and closure of cinemas, it seemed almost fruitless to talk about the best new releases. Ironically though, when I looked back at what I’ve watched, I was surprised to find that I’ve actually seen a greater number of films than previous years. Indeed, in more ways than one, the world of film has been kept alive for all of us in 2020. Streaming platforms stepped up VOD so audiences could check out the latest releases in the safety of their own homes. And several festivals moved online (LFF, FrightFest, Soho Horror) – events that were determined to go ahead in an alternative way that suited everyone. Sure, it doesn’t beat a trip to the cinema (and as soon as it’s safe to do so, I’ll be the first one sat in front of that big silver screen), but it’s comforting to see people still come together (albeit online) and show their love for all things filmic, even in these uncertain times.

Despite this, I’m sure there will be a few titles missing from my top ten that others will have included on theirs. Releases like Saint Maud, His House, Rocks and Mank are still on my to-watch list, and would probably have made the grade if I’d had the time to see them before the end of the year! And as usual, I’ve also stuck to UK release dates to make things easier for myself, so a couple of LFF films that I loved but which haven’t officially come out over here yet (Another Round to name just one) will almost certainly be on my list in 2021.

With all that in mind, here’s my top ten films of 2020. And thank you in advance for reading!:

10. I’m Thinking of Ending Things

I'm Thinking of Ending Things (2020)

At first glance, this story about a woman (Jessie Buckley) going on a road trip with her boyfriend (Jesse Plemons) to meet his family (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) sounds like the set-up of a million other Hollywood dramas. But in writer-director Charlie Kaufman’s hands, this tale turns into something altogether weirder. Then again, what else do you expect from the man who gave us Synecdoche, New York (2008) and Anomalisa (2015)? Based on a book by Iain Reid, and with musings on time, loss, and sense of self, Kaufman lets his eccentric imagination run wild with the plot, creating a truly bizarre and oddly humorous film that gradually becomes more unsettling as the young woman (Buckley in a perfect lead role) starts to question things around her. And that’s BEFORE the dance sequence. The result is very much like a waking nightmare – hard to turn away from, even though you want to.

9. Possessor

Possessor (2020)

After his brilliant feature debut (Antiviral (2012)), writer-director Brandon Cronenberg returns to the screen with this trippy, futuristic tale about a female assassin (Andrea Riseborough) who uses other people’s bodies to carry out hits. But with a crumbling family life and her mind already feeling adrift, her latest mission becomes fraught with problems, the host (Christopher Abbott) she’s taken over proving harder to control than she initially thought. A sci-fi rooted in realism, Cronenberg explores rich themes around identity and power while injecting his film with stunning, hypnotic visuals that put us in the assassin’s decaying point-of-view (the scene with the host procedure is particularly incredible). It’s a startling, ultra gory (with good reason) body horror featuring two striking performances from Riseborough and Abbott (who essentially plays dual roles). Here’s hoping Cronenberg doesn’t embark on another 8 year hiatus after this, as it’ll be very interesting to see what he does next.

8. Mangrove

Mangrove (2020)

To get not just one, but FIVE new Steve McQueen films this year was an absolute joy. Although each one is sublime in its own right, it’s Mangrove that stands out the most – a powerful, intricate look at the true story of The Mangrove Nine, who stood trial in 1970 after a protest against racial prejudice ended in a clash with police. With a script written by Alastair Siddons and McQueen himself, this tackles the issues of racism and police brutality in a stark, unforgiving light, yet never loses sight of the sense of community and hope that binds the group on trial together – something that helps them keep going when everything seems lost. Made all the more realistic by McQueen’s vivid direction and the wonderful portrayals from the cast (especially Shaun Parkes, Letitia Wright and Malachi Kirby), this is a truly beautiful film, and a vital one as well.

7. Dick Johnson Is Dead

Dick Johnson Is Dead (2020)

While documenting her father’s recent illness and looking back on his life, filmmaker Kirsten Johnson also delves into that tricky subject at the back of everyone’s mind: death. But how do you tackle that when it’s your own family member you’re talking about? Well, Johnson’s solution is to invent and film different scenarios in which her Dad (Dick Johnson of the title) might die, and get him to act in them. With the help of a few stunt doubles of course. That ingenious idea, coupled with the touching relationship between Kirsten and her father, results in this surprisingly funny, vibrant documentary – a film full of heart that doesn’t shy away from other difficult matters, mainly how challenging and painful a disease dementia can be. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry and you’ll have the biggest smile on your face as you listen to the (many) anecdotes about Dick’s brilliant life.

6. Waves

Waves (2019)

Although I saw this back in 2019 at LFF, it didn’t get a release in the UK until early this year, albeit a very limited one (a shame as this is a film worth the hype). Trey Edward Shults’ story about a young man (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) struggling with everyday pressures and his father’s (Sterling K. Brown) expectations is an effective, realistic film that packs several emotional gut-punches that you don’t see coming. Brought to life by Shults’ perfect script and the effortless performances from the whole cast (particularly Harrison Jr. and Taylor Russell) this is a captivating tale to watch unfold, made all the more mesmerising by Shults’ exhilarating direction and the pulsing soundtrack (as well as an incredible original score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross). As such, Waves is the sort of film that immediately grabs you and doesn’t let go until its final frames, pulling you along on a breathtaking ride throughout. Seek it out if you can – you won’t regret it.

(Read my Digital Fix review of Waves here).

5. The Personal History of David Copperfield

The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

This take on the Charles Dickens’ classic succeeds in being both faithful to the source material and wildly inventive – something that lifts Armando Iannucci’s film above other adaptations of Dickens’ work. Following the titular hero (Dev Patel) as he navigates the pitfalls of Victorian England and tries to forge a name for himself, this is a funny yet also surprisingly poignant portrayal, especially when the threat of poverty begins to loom ever closer to Copperfield and those around him. The script by Simon Blackwell and Iannucci is superb, that delicate balance between comedy and tragedy held perfectly throughout, while Iannucci’s imaginative direction plays with visual storytelling techniques, giving this a wonderfully surreal edge. The cast are all clearly having the time of their lives in this too, the hilarious highlights being Tilda Swinton as a donkey-hating great-aunt and Hugh Laurie as a man obsessed with the beheading of Charles the Second. But it is Dev Patel who is the standout, his brilliant turn as Copperfield adding pathos and charm to the story.

4. The Invisible Man

The Invisible Man (2020)

This will always have a significant place for me on this list, as it was the last film I saw in a cinema before lockdown. But beyond that, The Invisible Man is simply an exceptional, terrifying horror that keeps you guessing right until the end credits. Taking the original tale and giving it a contemporary twist, Leigh Whannell creates a film full of tension and dread, as one woman (Elisabeth Moss) tries to escape the clutches of an ex (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) who may (or may not) be able to turn invisible. It is entirely to Whannell’s credit that this slightly ridiculous plot is completely believable, his excellent script building on that awful sense of paranoia, while his expert direction uses empty spaces to queasy, unsettling effect, hinting at something unseen watching her (and us). With a powerhouse performance from Moss and several WTF moments that will make you leap out of your seat, this is one of the best thrillers of recent years and an absolute must-watch.

3. Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

Set in the late 18th century on the remote French coast, writer-director Céline Sciamma explores the relationship between a painter (Noémie Merlant) and her female subject (Adèle Haenel) in this beautiful, moving drama. As the portrait slowly comes together, the women find themselves unexpectedly drawn to each other, Sciamma heightening the tension between the pair to great effect, all pointed glances and lingering touches made even more evocative by Merlant and Haenel’s electrifying portrayals. It’s hypnotising to watch unfold, Sciamma’s dreamy direction turning both the landscapes and interiors into deliciously inviting spaces, these gorgeous visuals perfectly matched by the haunting soundtrack (the highlight of which is the song on the beach). As such, this is a superbly crafted, poetic film that stays in your mind for a long time after seeing it.

2. Parasite

Parasite (2019)

Funny, playful yet wildly intelligent, Bong Joon-ho’s film really did deserve all of those Oscars it received at the start of 2020. Exploring themes of capitalism, social constructs and class inequality, Bong’s story about a working class family charming their way into a wealthy household is the kind of film that requires repeat viewings to catch all the subtleties you missed. However, there’s nothing quite like seeing it for the first time and being blindsided by those amazing twists and turns. Featuring excellent performances from the cast (especially Song Kang-Ho as the put-upon father and Cho Yeo-jeong as the naïve mother who invites the family into her life) Bong’s multi-layered tale is hilarious, but also startlingly sad at times, often when you least expect it. An outstanding, gripping film that is full of unforgettable moments.

1. Relic

Relic (2020)

Although horror might not be everyone’s favourite genre, you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you miss this one from writer-director Natalie Erika James. With an exquisite script by James and co-writer Christian White, their story follows an elderly woman (Robyn Nevin) and her family (Emily Mortimer and Bella Heathcote) as they struggle to cope with the debilitating effects of dementia – the isolation, the claustrophobia. And, of course, the fear. James uses lingering shots to eke out the tension and build on the eeriness in the creepy family home, shadowy rooms seeming to hide a wealth of forgotten memories, and a few other terrifying things. However, while the scares are plentiful, it’s the emotional scenes that give the film its real impact, the wonderfully poignant performances from Nevin, Mortimer and Heathcote heightening these moments and turning it into something truly compelling. With the narrative unravelling at a delicate pace, this is a chilling, atmospheric, and utterly devastating film that gets under your skin. Indeed, as someone who has a dementia sufferer in the family, Relic hit me hard. But it’s this honest, touching portrayal of such an insidious disease that makes this so effective, James taking care to show the price many families pay because of it, as well as how impossible it is to escape from (in more ways than one).

(Read my review of Relic here).

(Films that just missed out on the top ten: Uncut Gems, Queen & Slim, The Vast of Night, The Truth, Red, White and Blue, Bacurau, Swallow, Shirley, Hamilton).

And that’s it for another top ten films list. Thank you for taking the time to read it! And stay safe everyone. Here’s hoping that 2021 will be a much brighter year for all of us.

(As always, post a comment below if there’s anything you think I left out of my top ten, or if there’s any films I’ve included that also make your 2020 list!).

LFF 2020: Relic – Keeping it in the family…

Haunted houses and their tormented occupants are subjects that dominate the world of horror, these creepy locations making us wary of ever setting foot in dilapidated buildings with creaky floorboards. But in Relic (2020) the shadow that has fallen over the home in question is much more insidious than the usual ghosts and demons. It’s a debilitating disorder that is the true bogeyman here, writer-director Natalie Erika James using the tropes of this sub-genre to explore the effects of dementia on both the sufferer, and those closest to them. After all, what can be more terrifying than watching a loved one lose not only their memories, but also their sense of self?

Relic (2020)

Even from the opening moments, James makes a point of allowing us to see things from the point-of-view of a dementia sufferer, the setting capturing the claustrophobia and isolation of the condition. Shadows lurk, mould runs up the walls, and rooms seem to harbour a wealth of forgotten memories. It’s a perfect metaphor for Edna’s (Robyn Nevin) own troubled mind, which has become less than reliable. So when Edna goes missing, her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) feels like she’s waiting for the inevitable, stuck in her old family home and trying to keep her relationship with her own daughter (Bella Heathcote) from crumbling. Yet with Edna’s sudden and unexpected return bringing up difficult questions about where she was hiding, Kay and her daughter start to wonder if there’s more to her illness than they originally thought.

James unravels the narrative at a delicate pace, her direction building up a horrid sense of creeping dread, lingering shots eking out the tension and making us question exactly what is loitering in the darkness. Charlie Sarroff’s superb cinematography adds to that unease, the grey tones and muted colours giving Relic a gorgeous, dreamlike quality that is hard to look away from, even when we want to. Yet it is the sound that truly ramps up the terror, Brian Reitzell’s eerie score perfectly complemented by Robert Mackenzie’s excellent sound design, which amplifies every creak and crack of the old house. It’s as if the building is its own living, breathing thing, ready to strike out at any second. This attention to detail, alongside the story’s measured pace, makes Relic’s scares all the more shocking when they do eventually come, the final act in particular an intense, nightmarish sequence, and also a grand pay-off to a fantastic film.

Emily Mortimer as Kay

While dementia is a topic that has been explored in horror to great effect before (The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014), The Visit (2015)), James and co-writer Christian White are bolder with what they have to say in their own story. They are careful to emphasise the everyday nightmares of Edna’s condition just as much as the supernatural elements, focusing on the emotional cost that Kay and her daughter have to pay as they watch Edna’s memories slip away. The central turns from Nevin, Mortimer and Heathcote bring these moments to painful life, their poignant performances highlighting the traumatic effects that the illness has on the family bond. Mortimer is especially wonderful when things start to reach a point of no return, her weary, mournful portrayal showing how torn Kay is between facing the inevitable, or continuing to let her mother live alone. Hard though it is to watch at times, it’s this heartfelt realism in both the performances and the script which makes Relic truly captivating, giving it a lasting impact felt well beyond the final frames. Yet more than that, this realism is vital for the depiction of such a devastating subject, the true horror of which many families have to face on a daily basis.

Although atmospheric, slow-burn ghost stories may not be everyone’s cup of tea, Relic is still very much worth your time. Chilling, powerful and utterly gripping, it will get under your skin in a way few films can, and blindside you with tears as well as scares. Indeed, as someone who has a dementia sufferer in the family, this hit me harder than any other film I’ve seen recently. It might be a horror, but Relic is also a touching, honest portrayal of a dreadful condition that is impossible to escape, in more ways than one.

Bella Heathcote in Relic

Dark Shadows

Dark Shadows is the eighth film between the usually reliable pairing of gothmeister Tim Burton, and everyone’s favourite actor, Johnny Depp. Based on a sixties TV show of the same name it follows the story of Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp), a man who loses the woman he loves and is transformed into a vampire after a jealous witch (Eva Green) curses him. Exiled by the town of Collinsport they bury him in a coffin; until two centuries years later in the year 1972 when he is accidentally dug up. Heading back to his mansion he finds it is now the home of his ancestors, a strange group consisting of the matriarch of the house, Elizabeth, (Michelle Pfeiffer), her moody teenage daughter (Chloë Grace Moretz), Elizabeth’s brother (Jonny Lee Miller) who is reluctantly bringing up his son David (Gulliver McGrath); as well as their live-in alcoholic psychiatrist (Helena Bonham Carter), their caretaker/cleaner (Jackie Earle Haley), and David’s newly appointed governess (Bella Heathcote). Barnabas decides to set things right for his family and repair his crumbling legacy and the family seafood business. But Angelique, the witch who cursed him, is still alive and has other plans…

Cue hi-jinks a plenty, mostly involving many, MANY gags about Barnabas trying to adjust to modern society (which get old incredibly quickly – if you’ll pardon the pun), as well as camp OTT acting and even a bit of bizarre vampire sex (not something you really want to see in a film like this). Dark Shadows, while it occasionally gets a few chuckles from you, is nowhere near as funny or entertaining as it should be.

The first glaring error with the film is that it’s too long. I mean REALLY long. Afterwards you feel like you’ve been watching it for centuries – it fact, you feel like Barnabas trapped in that coffin. Maybe this is because it is adapted from a TV show and it can’t explain in two hours plus what a TV show can drag out and ruminate over in many episodes. This might also explain why the ending is so…bizarre. Loads of subplots are suddenly hurled in at the end that make no sense. It’s like Burton forgot about them and had to fling everything in at the last minute.

Dark Shadows isn’t all doom and gloom though. Johnny Depp is as usual great in another unusual role and the character allows him to chew lots of scenery (as well as a few people). Eva Green also plays the evil OTT card creating a memorable, vampish character. The look and production design of the film is also brilliantly gorgeous – dark and dingy but with vivid colours throughout. It looks almost cartoonish.

But these can’t make up for something that feels clunky and far too rushed in production. It’s definitely not the Burton/Depp gold we’ve had before (although you could argue it’s been a while since we had that…). Cutting about 45 minutes and concentrating on a better plot would have helped. And a few more gags wouldn’t have hurt either.