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!).

The Invisible Woman – An untold story about a forgotten woman and the prominent writer who led to her downfall

Think you know all there is to know about the writer Charles Dickens? Well, chances are you haven’t heard this story. The writer was already at the height of his fame, married with 10 children, and still happily writing. Yet his interests began to wander elsewhere, landing on a young aspiring actress called Ellen Ternan, or Nelly for short (expertly played here by Felicity Jones), herself an avid fan of Mr. Dickens and his work. Ralph Fiennes’ latest directorial outing looks at the life of this literal ‘Invisible Woman’ who was kept a secret by Charles Dickens (Ralph Fiennes – reliably amazing as always) while he was free to live a life of fame.

Fiennes seems to favour these more unknown stories for his work. His previous film, Coriolanus (2011), was an adaptation and a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s least known, yet no less remarkable, play (recently also a highly successful production at the Donmar Warehouse with Tom Hiddleston in the leading role). Now Fiennes has chosen to make a film about a writer who many will simply know for his literary works. Even those that know more about his life though might not know this particular story about this very secretive man. Abi Morgan’s excellent script for The Invisible Woman (2013), which was adapted from a book of the same name by Claire Tomalin, delves into these guarded corners of Dickens’ life involving him and his secret lover. However while it is on the surface a tale about Mr. Dickens and what he kept hidden from the general public, it is at the core a story about the young Nelly, just 18-years-old when she first met Charles when he cast her in one of his plays. Morgan and Fiennes make a point of the focus of this film being on this poor woman, whose life was torn apart by his love for her and her love for him. Morgan uses a non-linear storyline to show Nelly as she is in her present time, still haunted by events of her past as she looks back on them. This shift to the woman in the tale makes a change from the usual storyline that we would see, which could have very easily been all about Dickens, as he is a figure people know and recognise, while she is not. Therefore for this reason The Invisible Woman is a great story and pretty spectacular in its set-up. That it is a relatively unknown story is what makes it so horrifying to see unfold, as well as so compelling to watch.

This ‘Invisible Woman’ of the title is played to heartbreaking effect by Felicity Jones. Her transition throughout the film is expertly done, gradually shifting from innocent and timid young girl full of joy through to hardened, resentful woman in the present, who perpetually wears black and whose only solace seems to be long walks along the windy beach. Ralph Fiennes also makes a suitably lively and fun Dickens, bringing the great man to life and showing equally his passion for her and his work, yet also his many, many flaws. Their pairing together as Nelly and Dickens is perfect too, creating a realistic relationship that is brimming with tension and unsaid thoughts and feelings, even after the couple do begin their affair.

 

Fiennes again also proves his skill behind the camera, as well as in front of it. Although this is a less bloody and death-ridden tale than Coriolanus was, it is still a story that is no less steeped in drama and emotion. He bravely lets the performances shine through in every scene, subtly letting the mood of each moment creep up on you, rather than melodramatically announce itself. Some sequences truly are superb too, one such moment being part of a train journey that translates brilliantly to the screen and is shocking to see unfold.

Although The Invisible Woman is a brilliantly shot, well-written and directed film, there are a few problems with the story at some points. Ralph Fiennes and Abi Morgan don’t always afford enough time to Charles and Nelly at certain moments in their union. While their initial meetings and growing affections steadily build up at a satisfying pace, it then suddenly jumps ahead in time to show them further on in their affair. This makes you feel like you’ve missed out on vital parts of their relationship and in turn prevents you from truly identifying with Nelly and from connecting with the story, leaving you struggling to catch up with what has happened. Therefore at times the narrative doesn’t flow as well as it should, the film sagging in parts when it should continuously soar.

Fiennes second directorial film is another beauty and once again proves his skill at directing, as well as his boldness at choosing to make a film about a widely unknown subject matter. With a grand script by Abi Morgan its story and performances are what keep you watching, in particular Felicity Jones as Nelly and Fiennes as Dickens. The rest of the cast are also excellent, Joanna Scanlan as Dickens’ wronged wife (another heartbreaking turn to watch), Tom Hollander as the writer Wilkie Collins and Kristin Scott Thomas as Nelly’s mother all giving excellent supporting turns. However a lagging narrative at parts and a sometimes mismatched plot prevent this from being fully immersive throughout and completely emotionally engaging. Yet it is more than worth a watch to see this shocking untold story that has all but been erased from history books and to understand all about this ‘Invisible Woman’ that many wanted us to forget. The Invisible Woman lets us finally see her tragic story and truly allows us to appreciate this great woman – a woman who was forever hidden in the famed writer’s shadow…until now.