I have heard some concerning comments from those who are into films a normal amount (I wonder what that’s like?) along the lines of “were any films even released in 2020?” or that it has been a bad year for film. Of course, it was an unprecedented year for films (as it was for every other aspect of life), with many big releases being postponed and cinemas closed for much of the year in many places (I personally haven’t been to a cinema since the first week of March 2020). However, I’m here to tell you that 2020 was a FANTASTIC year for film. Hundreds of films were released on VOD or streaming services and many were brilliant. I feel more passionate than ever about getting across the message that there is SO much good film to discover at home. And, for the first time in decades, we could potentially have a really exciting awards season, with more women directors and people of colour (in all categories) nominated than ever before. I wouldn’t usually do a big post with all of my favourite films of the year, but I really want to get across the message that despite everything, 2020 was a great year for film (and this is what we dedicated Issue #3 of our magazine to) and to encourage you to seek out something that you might not discover on your own.
A Few Notes: Not all of these films have been released yet, but I have tried to indicate where to find the films on this list, if they are available. I live in the US, so I might not have up-to-date information for the UK. There is a site called ‘Just Watch‘ you can use where you enter the name of the film and it tells you where to find it on VOD or streaming. I’ve included links to reviews, interviews and/or relevant articles if available and if not, I’ve written a teeny-tiny bit about them (I swear I’ve tried to keep this as brief as possible).
Black is King and Hamilton (both on Disney+) are both highly recommended but I’ve been conflicted on whether they count as films, so haven’t included them.
55. Miss Juneteenth (dir. Channing Godfrey Peoples, USA) – VOD FULL REVIEW
54. Summertime (dir. Carlos Lopez Estrada, USA) – not yet released FULL REVIEW
53. Our Time Machine – documentary (dir. S. Leo Chiang, Yang Sun, Shuang Liang, China) – VOD
One of many 2020-2021 films to tackle Alzheimer’s and dementia (Dick Johnson is Dead, Relic, Supernova, The Father), this documentary sees artist Maleonn attempting to collaborate with his father (whose health is deteriorating), a renowned Shanghai Opera director, on a theatrical work called Papa’s Time Machine, using life-size mechanical puppets.
52. Sea Fever (dir. Neasa Hardiman, Ireland) – Hulu in the US, VOD elsewhere I believe FULL REVIEW
51. Education/Small Axe (dir. Steve McQueen, UK) – BBC iPlayer, Amazon Prime in US
Lovers Rock and Mangrove from Steve McQueen’s ambitious Small Axe series have had most of the attention, but Education is also excellent. It focuses on the ways the UK education system failed students (particularly if they weren’t white) who had special educational needs in the 1960s-80s (although many of these issues did not magically go away after that era).
50. Valley of the Gods (dir. Lech Majewski, Poland/USA) – VOD
Look, I’ll hold my hands up and admit that I watched this for Josh Hartnett. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a more bonkers film this year and that’s a huge plus in my eyes. It also sees John Malkovich returning to the world of the bizarre. I didn’t understand a single thing that happened. Loved it.
49. She Dies Tomorrow (dir. Amy Seimetz, USA) – Hulu in the US, VOD elsewhere FULL REVIEW
48. Ham on Rye (dir. Tyler Taormina, USA) – VOD
With woozy, hazy visuals that seem very much influenced by The Virgin Suicides, this film focuses on teen rituals, rites-of-passage and the concept of escaping or being stuck in your hometown. Makes a great companion piece to two other 2020 teen films – The Vast of Night and Spontaneous, as well as Knives and Skin (Jennifer Reeder, 2019).
47. Sputnik (dir. Egor Abramenko, Russia) – Hulu in the US, VOD elsewhere FULL REVIEW
46. The Father (dir. Florian Zeller, UK/France) – not released yet FULL REVIEW
44. Collective – documentary (dir. Alexander Nanau, Romania) – VOD
Collective is an incredible documentary that looks at the investigative journalism conducted in the aftermath of a devastating fire at the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest in 2015, when it was found that many victims were dying of infections in hospital for months afterwards. The second half focuses on a young and idealistic new health minister, determined to enact change in a massively corrupt system.
42. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets – docudrama (dir. Turner Ross, Bill Ross IV, USA) – VOD FULL REVIEW
41. Gretel & Hansel (dir. Oz Perkins, Canada) – VOD
I saw this way back in the misty past of early 2020, in an actual cinema. Gothic-inspired folk horror is very much my jam, so this was always going to be up my street. Great performances from Sophia Lillis (It) and Alice Krige.
40. Residue (dir. Merawi Gerima, USA) – Netflix FULL REVIEW
39. Let Them All Talk (dir. Steven Soderbergh, USA) – HBO Max in US
I’m kind of over rich-people-problem movies, so On the Rocks and French Exit are not for me. Add to this the fact that I haven’t liked a Meryl Streep performance since The Devil Wears Prada (2006) and I’m not a fan of Lucas Hedges – I’m surprised I even bothered to watch this at all TBH. However, Soderbergh has hit us with one of the biggest pleasant surprises of the year. Taking place on a real QEII crossing, with Dianne Wiest and Candice Bergen giving brilliant performances, I thoroughly enjoyed this when I really wasn’t expecting to.
38. Survival Skills (dir. Quinn Armstrong, USA) – VOD
Watching something centred around an American police force is not the most comfortable concept in 2020. However, this innovative and unusual film mimics a 1980s police training video, in which a cop becomes too personally involved in a domestic violence case. The involvement of the narrator (played Stacy Keach) is probably the best aspect, along with Vayu O’Donnell’s central performance.
37. Spontaneous (dir. Brian Duffield, USA) – VOD FULL REVIEW
36. Deerskin (dir. Quentin Dupieux, France) – HBO Max in US
Jean Dujardin’s Oscar win (for The Artist in 2011) – along with Roberto Benigni’s for Life is Beautiful in 1997 – are widely considered two of the worst Best Actor wins in recent Oscar history. However, Dujardin’s performance in this surreal French film, combined with a brilliant supporting turn from Adele Haenel (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) make it a joy to watch. Comedy-horror is one of my favourite sub-genres, especially if it is particularly weird. Deerskin delivers on all of these levels.
35. The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw (dir. Thomas Robert Lee, USA) – VOD FULL REVIEW
34. Enola Holmes (dir. Harry Bradbeer, UK) – Netflix FULL REVIEW
32. Matthias et Maxime (dir. Xavier Dolan, Canada) – MUBI/VOD FULL REVIEW
31. Helmut Newton – The Bad and the Beautiful – documentary (dir. Gero von Boehm, Germany) – VOD ARTICLE
30. Undine (dir. Christian Petzold, Germany) – not released yet
I’m in a tiny minority of people who did not like Petzold’s last film (Transit, 2018) but loved Phoenix (2014). With fantastic performances from Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski, this tender romance was a winner for me. One of two films from 2020 that I enjoyed which were influenced by Greek myth (the other being Entwined).
29. Beyond the Visible – Hilma af Klint – documentary (dir. Halina Dyrschka, Norway) – VOD
A documentary that explores an abstract artist who should be considered amongst the pioneering greats, but is nowhere near as well-known as her male contemporaries. This puts her work in context, comparing it to better-known works that came afterwards. Really worth watching.
28. House of Hummingbird (dir. Kim Bora, South Korea) – VOD FULL REVIEW
25. The Assistant (dir. Kitty Green, USA) – Hulu in US, VOD elsewhere FULL REVIEW
24. Nine Days (dir. Edson Oda, USA) – not released yet FULL REVIEW
23. First Cow (dir. Kelly Reichardt, USA) – VOD FULL REVIEW
21. The Mortuary Collection (dir. Ryan Spindell, USA) – Shudder FULL REVIEW (interview with director in Issue #3 of the mag)
20. The Twentieth Century (dir. Matthew Rankin, Canada) – VOD FULL REVIEW
19. Cordelia (dir. Adrian Shergold, UK) – VOD FULL REVIEW
18. Sibyl (dir. Justine Triet, France) – VOD
‘Unhinged women’ are one of my favourite film subjects (see also: Ema, Cordelia, Shirley and Black Bear) and Virginie Efira plays a brilliant one here. Sibyl is a therapist who becomes far too involved with one of her patients, Margot (Adele Exarchopoulos from Blue is the Warmest Color) and Sandra Huller once again reveals her comedic genius in a brilliant supporting turn.
17. The Personal History of David Copperfield (dir. Armando Iannucci, UK) – VOD/Amazon Prime FULL REVIEW
16. Emma (dir. Autumn de Wilde, UK) – VOD FULL REVIEW
15. Black Bear (dir. Lawrence Michael Levine, USA) – VOD FULL REVIEW
13. Still Processing – short (dir. Sophy Romvari, Canada)
Some of the best documentaries blur the line between director and subject, making for highly personal and involving works (eg. Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell and Kristen Johnson’s Cameraperson and Dick Johnson is Dead). Romvari’s short lets the viewer in on the process of her unboxing childhood memories and how they are intertwined with the immediacy of her grief. An extraordinary achievement within the brief running time.
12. Da 5 Bloods (dir. Spike Lee, USA) – Netflix FULL REVIEW
11. System Crasher (dir. Nora Fingscheidt, Germany) – Netflix FULL REVIEW
10. Saint Frances (dir. Alex Thompson, USA) – Kanopy in the US, Netflix in the UK FULL REVIEW
9. Summer of 85 (dir. Francois Ozon, France) – not released yet FULL REVIEW
8. The Forty Year Old Version (dir. Radha Blank, USA) – Netflix FULL REVIEW
7. Ema (dir. Pablo Larrain, Chile) – not available on VOD/streaming in US yet, All4 in the UK
Ema is a sexy melodrama that is full of colour, music, dance and craziness. Mariana Di Girolamo gives a hypnotic central performance as a self-destructive woman, with wonderful support from Gael Garcia Bernal. Once again, we have to look to films that come from outside the US to find properly hot cinema.
6. Lovers Rock/Small Axe (dir. Steve McQueen, UK) – BBC iPlayer in UK, Amazon Prime in US FULL REVIEW
5. The Human Voice – short (dir. Pedro Almodovar, Spain) – not released yet FULL REVIEW
3. Woman of the Photographs (dir. Takeshi Kushida, Japan) – not released yet ARTICLE
= 1. True History of the Kelly Gang (dir. Justin Kurzel, Australia) – VOD VIDEO REVIEW
Shirley and True History of the Kelly Gang are far-and-away my favourites of the year. Two stories featuring real-life people, but based on novels, not biographies. They play around with truth and fiction, feature brilliant performances, cinematography, costumes and score. I’ve already rewatched both many times and will continue to return to them.
And if you’re interested in my Top 30 TV Shows of 2020 – click here.