What the hell was that? 2020. Weird in so many ways. This year ushered in a new cinematic landscape that may prove to be permanent. A seismic shift. Movie theatres stood empty, even after lockdown in Australia was eased, and major studios pulled their tent-poles from the calendar. So did the tent collapse?
We had two big-budget movies released post outbreak, Tenet and Wonder Woman 1984, and both were deeply flawed – the latter by a good stretch more. Independent cinema punched above its weight, as it often does. Of this we can be thankful. Compelling stories – or distractions – were never more required than during the Season of the Virus.
If you were to add up the collective budgets of these 20 movies, you’d find this is the “cheapest” end-of-year list I’ve compiled. What will be the price tag at the end of 2021? What is the future of the cinema-going experience? Of movie engagement? Is the multiplex business model dead? We are sailing into unknown waters. Thankfully, so far, movies have, in their immersive, inviting way, proved to be ports in the storm.
Here’s the 20 best films of 2020. Enjoy.
Director: Christopher Landon
Release date: November 12, 2020
On paper, this bloody twist on the body-swap sub-genre should not work as well as it does. But with some surprisingly gory deaths and killer dialogue, director Christopher Landon and the Blumhouse factory may have come up with the millennial answer to Scream. Kathryn Newton plays Millie, an unpopular outsider who swaps bodies with serial killer (and blatant Voorhees facsimile) The Butcher, played by Vince Vaughn. Freaky‘s opening set-up populates the movie with innumerable shitty (ie killable) characters, both students and teachers alike, setting the scene for some satisfying mayhem. The casting is key here, with Vaughn’s intensity and comedic chops making him the perfect candidate to play both psychopath and teenage girl. Newton’s no slouch as the film’s antagonist, which is for most of the running time. Freaky‘s a nice surprise.
19. Dark Waters
Director: Todd Haynes
Released: March 5, 2020
Dark Waters is a disturbing story of corruption from the recent past, where an unfathomable evil was perpetuated by a chemicals company that knowingly poisoned the world’s population. You. Me. Everyone. Todd Haynes’ latest effort digs deeper than the incredible facts of the matter. This is not just a portrait of a heroic lawyer, it’s the story of a man that championed a morally bankrupt system, is moved to change and then learns a very harsh lesson. It’s the deconstruction of a man’s hubris. Mark Ruffalo gives another fine performance, one of burgeoning empathy and building dismay, as the lawyer that puts his entire life on the line in the pursuit of true moral justice. In the vein of Erin Brockovich, Dark Waters is an indictment of our times, a portrait of greed, and one of the better legal thrillers of recent years.
18. The Lodge
Directors: Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala
Release date: February 20, 2020
The year’s bleakest horror movie is atmospheric chiller The Lodge, an icy cold study of religious fanaticism, grief and trauma. Central to the film’s premise is an idea that is both brilliant and fantastical, but if one is willing to suspend the necessary disbelief, it is hard not to be impressed by this disturbing horror movie from writer-director duo Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala. Necessary to the film’s measured success is another mesmerising performance from the luminous and utterly watchable Riley Keough, who brings so much hollow-eyed broken gravitas to her tragic character – the childhood survivor of a cult’s mass suicide – that you’re willing to overlook the film’s potential leaps of believability. It’s a ghostly outing that might make you quickly venture to Disney+ to lift your spirits.
17. I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Director: Charlie Kaufman
Release date: September 4, 2020
Charlie Kaufman’s latest surreal effort as writer-director delivers all the headfuckery we’ve come to expect from this perpetually innovative and imaginative storyteller. The set-up of I’m Thinking of Ending Things is simple – the delivery is anything but. A “Young Woman” (Jessie Buckley) is travelling with her boyfriend to meet his parents at their secluded farm. Her inner monologue wrestles with their relationship. She likes Jake (Jesse Plemons) but she’s thinking of ending things. Are we hearing her inner thoughts? Or are we really hearing Jake’s? There is a lot to unpack in Kaufman’s latest outing, a film about passing time, how we’re shaped by the art we absorb, and our perceptions of the world and relationships around us. Kaufman employs cognitive dissonance to keep us in a state of undefinable dread, leaving us unable to guess where this rabbit hole leads. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is challenging, but as an impressionistic experience it finds its way under your skin.
16. The Nest
Director: Sean Durkin
Release date: Yet to be confirmed
Sean Durkin’s awaited follow-up to hit indie piece Martha Marcy May Marlene plays out like an eerie echo of The Shining, but boiled down to its most austere, unsettling elements. There’s no bloody rampage in The Nest, but there is a haunted father, a big atmospheric house and a general sense of unease that permeates this beautifully realised character study. Jude Law has never been better as the father obsessed with elevating his social status, the means through which, as he sees it, is money. The screenplay shows impressive restraint, never sinking into the over-the-top melodrama that might have tempted other directors. The result is an intelligent familial and psychological horror movie.
15. The Vast of Night
Director: Andrew Patterson
Release date: May 20, 2020
The Vast of Night is a simple yet uber-effective mood piece sure to delight science-fiction fans. Made on an ultra-low budget, this debut feature from Andrew Patterson has a deliciously vintage atmosphere and just goes to confirm the theory that “less-is-more”. Sound is key to the film’s success and story, as a switchboard operator and radio DJ discover a strange audio frequency during one night in New Mexico in the late 1950s. In its middle the act The Vast of Night has a glorious, long tracking shot that floats across the city and through a basketball game. Patterson is a director to keep your eye on, as this feels like the stepping stone to something great.
14. The Trial of the Chicago 7
Director: Aaron Sorkin
Release date: October 16, 2020
Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay about the trial of the so-called Chicago 7 finally made it to the screen this year, albeit the small screen via Netflix, and not directed by Steven Spielberg, which had been on the cards, but by Sorkin himself. It’s a sturdy effort with an impressive cast, elevated in moments by Sorkin’s deft abilities as a cinematic storyteller. The film may never transcend a dramatic reenactment, but all the hallmarks of a good yarn are there – an evil Attorney General wants to bring down a group of innocent liberals in an act of revenge and political point-scoring. And they’re a colourful bunch and we root for them from the outset. Sacha Baron Cohen has never been better as Flower Power icon Abbie Hoffman, conveying the deep thinker beneath his charming anarchist exterior. An Oscar-nomination is likely.
13. The Rental
Director: Dave Franco
Released: July 24, 2020
Two couples rent an AirBnB by the ocean and drop some MDMA. Things get loose. Great horror movies often have a “this could actually happen” premise and this works greatly in The Rental‘s favour. Dave Franco’s punchy 88-minute chiller is impressive, and was deftly written with mumblecore purveyor Joe Swanberg. The result, perhaps, is “mumblegore”, with natural performances from the four central leads. As the festivities slowly rise to a boil, as does the palpable tension. A simple yet very effective horror. Stay tuned for a sequel.
Director: Sam Mendes
Release date: January 16, 2020
The “one shot” gimmick can be a double-edged sword, in that it can drop the viewer into immersive real-time action or draw attention to the presence of the team behind the camera. The latter is best avoided. In the WWI epic 1917, Sam Mendes walks a very fine line. Indeed, the movie is designed to look like it was mostly shot in one take (even though there are a few sneaky cuts). And, for the most part, the writer-director and his iconic cinematographer Roger Deakins (he nabbed another Oscar) disappear, making way for a visceral journey across the devastated French countryside. Their omnipotent camera follows their young heroes through swarms of flies and underground bunkers, over gnawing rats and rotting corpses. You will hold your breath during the white-knuckled finale.
There’s a tidy $100m budget on show, and the set and costume designers have recreated the battlefield and crowded trenches with stunning clarity and attention to detail. Technically, 1917 is a feat in choreography and Mendes again indulges his penchant for poetic visual metaphors. He also shies away from the high-impact gore of other war movies like Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan – though this film does have its moments.
Director: Dan Scanlon
Release date: April 2, 2020
This rollicking road movie about familial bonds is another gem of a picture from Pixar. The film got somewhat lost in the madness of the pandemic, with its cinema run cut short. Sentenced to VOD, it feels like Onward was not discussed nearly as much as Pixar’s other effort of 2020, the slower, less eventful, more contemplative Soul. The latter is a fine film, well designed hitting a lot of the familiar Pixar beats, but lays on the schmaltz a little thickly. Onward, by contrast, works much better and is exceedingly funny for children and adults alike. Director Dan Scanlon’s fast-paced journey through a mythical, modernised Middle Earth, arrives at an ending that feels the most impactful, raw, real and emotionally earned of any Pixar film. Onward has, without doubt, the most devastating finale of any movie in 2020.
Director: Joe Begos
Release date: February 14, 2020
This year director Joe Begos gave fans of ’70s exploitation flicks 90-minutes of blood-soaked mayhem. From the gang at Fangoria studios, whose production credits include S. Craig Zahler’s three gems Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99 and Dragged Across Concrete, came VFW, a loving tribute to the grindhouse fodder of the ’70s and ’80s. The set-up is all too familiar – think Assault on Precinct 13 or From Dusk Till Dawn. In VFW we have a group of foreign war veterans in their booze-soaked hangout under siege from a marauding horde of zombie-like leather-clad junkie punks. The film doesn’t reach any great heights, but it’s fun, ultra-violent and the cast of horror veterans invest in the screenplay with an arresting level of realism. It’s well written and well-made for this sort of thing, and mostly steers clear of political sentiment. Stephen Lang (Avatar, Don’t Breathe) is the perfect battle-hardened lead amongst an equally steely and sturdy cast of action and horror stalwarts. Fred Williamson’s in there. William Sadler’s there. The group’s camaraderie is key to the film’s success. VFW is worth a look for grimy exploitation devotees, especially fans of John Carpenter.
Director: Brandon Cronenberg
Release date: October 29, 2020
You’ve got to feel for Brandon Cronenberg. That distinctive surname sets the bar unfairly high for a burgeoning director, and there’s no doubt his father’s legion of fans flocked to this movie expecting a work worthy of the name. You can understand why. Iconic genre-filmmaker David Cronenberg, the Canadian granddaddy of hallucinatory body horror, is influential. A favourite of many (this reviewer included). And he has often been accused (often inaccurately) of cold detachment from his subject matter, whether it be The Fly or Videodrome or more recent masterpieces like Eastern Promises.
With Possessor, the ultra-stylish second outing from his son Brandon, you can feel the Cronenberg DNA at work – the visceral headfuckery, the distinctively nightmarish aesthetics. If anything, the bleakness and emotionally austere delivery of Possessor make it an even colder experience than his father’s movies, never moving but always engrossing. The plot is relatively simple – a world in which a clandestine technology company carries out assassinations. They do this by entering the mind of an innocent party, “possessing” them and using them to do their dirty work. The perfect crime. One of the seasoned killers, Taysa (Mandy‘s Andrea Riseborough) is losing her humanity every time she enters and controls someone’s mind. Every murder is eroding her soul.
With some shocking violence, memorable dream sequences and upsetting turns, Possessor sees the younger Cronenberg stake his claim as someone to be assessed on his own merits.
08. The Invisible Man
Director: Leigh Whannell
Release date: February 27, 2020
While its wokeness hangs heavily on its sleeve, Leigh Wannell’s update on the H.G. Wells classic The Invisible Man contains some of this year’s most hair-raising moments. Turning negative space and slow pans of empty rooms into their own formidable brand of white-knuckled terror, the film’s middle act features the most shocking cinematic surprise of 2020. Elisabeth Moss might be cinema’s most deeply committed working actress and she brings every fibre of the tortured, dogged and dignified resilience of previous roles to this battle of wits with her disturbed, deranged and transparent foe.
07. Color Out of Space
Director: Richard Stanley
Release date: February 6, 2020
Director Richard Stanley makes an esteemed comeback to the big screen following his now folklorish exit from the 1996 disaster remake The Island of Doctor Moreau. With better weather, a smaller budget and no Val Kilmer or Marlon Brando with which to contend, Stanley oversees a tonally spot-on adaptation of the H.P. Lovecraft short story of the same name. A strange rock falls to Earth on a family’s property and begins to change the landscape. Lovecraft’s atmospheric and vivid tale leaves plenty of room for inventiveness and Stanely doesn’t disappoint, unleashing another scenery chewing performance from Nicolas Cage, along with some stellar set design, saturated amethystine cinematography and superb body horror. The result is really great – and one of the best Lovecraft adaptations of recent memory.
06. Palm Springs
Director: Max Barbakow
Release date: November 20, 2020
Another film about time loops? Queue the yawn. But what could have been an exercise in frothy deja vu turned out to be the year’s funniest comedy. Intelligent and gilded with some genuinely dark turns, Palm Springs makes the requisite observations about life and the passing of time whilst brimming with sizzling humour and genuine surprises. It’s not hard to see why it broke the price tag record at Sundance, with Hulu and Neon paying a record-breaking $17,500,000.69 (the $0.69 nabbing them the gong). Palm Springs also continues the hard theory that any film is elevated by the presence of J.K. Simmons.
05. The Gentlemen
Director: Guy Ritchie
Release date: January 01, 2020
After some big budget style-over-substance forays into the Arthurs – Arthur Conan Doyle and King Arthur – and the dreaded Man From U.N.C.L.E and Aladdin, Guy Ritchie returns to the fertile earth of ultra-cool and ultra-Cockney gangster fare. This return to familiar territory instantly pays dividends, with The Gentlemen undoubtedly his best directorial effort since Snatch 20 years ago. A gallery of sharply dressed, silver-tongued crims does battle in this superbly crafted black comedy. Hugh Grant, in his greatest role ever, steals the show as the seedy, scheming narrator. Ritchie’s winding plot will keep you guessing – and, most importantly, entertained – until the final moments.
04. The Trip to Greece
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Release date: May 20, 2020
In their fourth and supposedly final outing, the Princes of Patter return for a trip throughout Greece, tracing the journey depicted by the great Homer (no, the other one) in Odyssey. By now you likely know the drill: Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as exaggerated, distorted versions of themselves, embarking on a metafictional journey through incredible restaurants, hotels and European idylls, all the while needling and one-upping each other with sublime and endearing wit. But what elevates Michael Winterbottom’s ongoing passion project, truly the most deliciously indulgent of all franchises in modern cinema, is the subtext. Coogan and Bryon as Coogan and Brydon tease out the comic tragedy of mid-life crisis, the disappearing dreams, the realisation that glory might be in your rearview mirror. The Trip to Greece casts the net even wider, seamlessly touching on a refugee crisis and, more profoundly, the decline of ones mortality. Is there another trip left in them? One can only hope.
Director: David Fincher
Release date: November 19, 2020
The Fincher family passion project Mank finally came to our screens this year, and it did not disappoint. Written by Jack Fincher and directed by his formidable son David, this black and white labour of love pays homage to legendary cad and Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. “Mank” Mankiewicz. Employing the same non-linear structure as Kane, the legendary film that would earn both Mank and its young director, Orson Welles, an Academy Award, the film is exquisitely written and acted. The dialogue sizzles. It’s a tale about the persuasive power of filmmaking, morality and legacy, and deciding whether you want to be the monkey or the organ grinder. Mank‘s impending Oscar win for Best Original Screenplay feels pre-ordained.
02. Uncut Gems
Directors: Josh and Bennie Safdie
Release date: January 31, 2020
Few horror movies of recent years have been capable of inducing the same stomach-clenching, sweat-inducing anxiety as the Safdie Brothers’ breathless depiction of addiction. Uncut Gems is its own type of horror movie and it will set your heart racing. Adam Sandler gives a career-defining performance as Howard Ratner, modern cinema’s most tragic figures. Sandler’s performance embodies what it is to be a hopeless addict – no win is ever big enough – and this harrowing rollercoaster ride plummets us into a downward spiral that you won’t soon forget.
01. The Lighthouse
Director: Robert Eggers
Release date: February 6, 2020
How does one describe The Lighthouse? Impressionistic. Mystical. Mythological. Demented. Haunting. An enigmatic piece of filmmaking from The Witch director Robert Eggers. It’s a turbulent two-hander; a pair of men played by Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, tending to a lighthouse, stranded on an island in the midst of a volatile storm. Isolated. Prone to wanderings of the mind. Reality and fantasy throw down, bare-knuckled. Eggers, a student of myths and folklore, references Proteus and Prometheus from Greek mythology as the inspiration for Dafoe’s and Pattinson’s characters. But there are many layers of subtext to this ambitious film. Shot in gorgeous black and white and in the very old fashioned 1.19:1 ratio, the image is almost a square, captured on antique cameras from 1912 and the 1930s. Each frame is composed as its own work of art. The two lead performances are, in themselves, forces of nature. Dafoe transforms into some otherworldly creature, spewing demonic vitriol in long geyseric eruptions. Pattinson holds his own and has never been better. In its more explosive moments, this is the most ferocious performance of his career.