2020's best movies, coronavirus aside: A review of 2020 in film

We can be real. For the most part, 2020 sucked.

Health struggles, the struggle to avoid having health struggles, cancelled plans, employment issues and a whole lot of staying indoors.

But what did we do when we were in there? One - pined the loss of our favourite television shows and film releases that had been slated for their big reveals, only to become further victims of COVID-19. Two - relentlessly consumed anything else that was available for streaming. One. After. The. Next. Yes, Netflix, I'm still watching this.

So now that we're heading into another period of time at home these holidays - hopefully, for most, self-imposed this time - we've had our film reviewers sum up their year in film for you. So make a mental list, because if you haven't seen these yet, you'll want to.

Simon Weaving says...

George MacKay in 1917. Picture: Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures

George MacKay in 1917. Picture: Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures

Usually, it's this time of year that brings the urge to binge. Movies, of course. It's typically a perfect storm of Christmas holiday releases, the awards season and a bit of extra time to catch up on those films that you missed. But this year! Where are those movies? What's in contention? Will there be any awards? It seems like a lifetime ago that Joker and Parasite were battling it out for top honours: two strangely prophetic movies signalling personal and social breakdown. As Joaquin Phoenix's character Arthur says in Joker: "Is it just me or is it getting crazier out there?" Well, yes, it's been a crazy year for the movie industry, with cinemas closed, releases delayed and viewing options fragmented across streaming services. But despite the fact that the Grinch stole 2020, there have been some great movies to watch.

The year started brightly with Sam Mendes' technical marvel 1917 (made to look like a single take), Guy Ritchie's comedy The Gentlemen (with Hugh Grant in superb form as a Cockney gangster) and the Margot Robbie produced Birds of Prey. But then, as Tom Hanks was struck down by the virus on the Gold Coast, most of the big movie releases were quarantined indefinitely. At exactly this time last year I wrote that I was really looking forward to three films in 2020: Dune, Tenet and Snake Eyes. Only one of these has been released, and I'll never forget sitting in a huge cinema in August with a handful of other people, all physically distanced, breathing into masks as the red curtain opened in anticipation of the movie that was going to save cinema: Tenet. It was a thrill to be back in front of the big screen with a big film, even though I wasn't really sure what was going on, Christopher Nolan's time-bending sci-fi was a little mind-bending too. Since then, the action has been on the small screen, and two films have really left an impact. The first is Beanpole, a superb Russian drama starring Viktoria Miroshnichenko as an unusually tall nurse Masha, suffering from PTSD in Leningrad at the end of World War II. The film manages to be both intimate character study and visual feast - the painterly colours evoking a mood of tentative hope in a city ravaged by battle. Watch out for more work from Russian director Kantemir Balagov.

To be found on your favourite streaming service is Mank, David Fincher's latest project, from a script written by his father Jack, a screenwriter who died back in 2003. While the story lacks a deeper emotional resonance, it's a sheer delight to watch how Fincher and his cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt (who also shot Fincher's Mindhunter series) recreate the look of classical Hollywood before colour. The movie tells the story of Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), a writer working for MGM in the 1940s, who takes on a screenplay for Orson Welles. It's never named until the very end of the movie, but it's clear that this is Citizen Kane: a dangerous project that places the self-destructive Mankiewicz in the company of the rich and powerful. Oldman is sure to get some nominations for his portrayal of the mouthy alcoholic writer, and he's supported by an excellent cast including Charles Dance as media mogul William Randolph Hearst. Every shot is a gorgeous photograph and the camerawork, performances and score work to reproduce a sumptuous black and white fantasy of Hollywood in its heyday. And you can play spot the movie reference for more than two hours.

Other great movies to watch out for are Nomadland starring Frances McDormand and Ma Rainey'sBlack Bottom about the legendary blues singer, both of which are getting a little Oscars-after-Easter hype, and both of which will bring some much needed joy to your holiday season.

Simons says add these to your must-watch list:

Ron Cerabona's 2020 wrap up...

 Steve Carell in the film Irresistible. Picture: Focus Features

Steve Carell in the film Irresistible. Picture: Focus Features

I haven't seen as many films in 2020 as I usually do. COVID-19 has meant a big reduction in the number of films released to cinemas - some postponed, some released in other ways. However, there were still quite a few before and after pandemic restrictions. It's been hard enough to try to keep up with these, let alone pay TV and streaming services.

Despite the limitations, there have certainly been some highlights. Sam Mendes' 1917 was a bit of a stunt - a World War I film edited to look as if it was one long take - but was engrossing nevertheless.

Mank, directed by David Fincher from a script written by his father, was one of my favourites - lovingly made in black and white with a fine cast - but might appeal most to those of us who are Hollywood history buffs, dealing as it does with episodes in the life of the self-destructive Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, well played by Gary Oldman. This film will likely be a big Oscar contender.

Onward was another quality Pixar animated movie with humour and warmth, possibly the best family movie of the year, about two elf brothers who seek a brief reunion with their dead father by magical means.

Writer-director Jon Stewart's Irresistible was a biting but ultimately goodhearted political satire, just the thing for these troubles times. Was it ultimately a bit too optimistic? Probably, but sometimes we need a retreat from grim reality.

Kajillionaire was another highlight, the quirky and somewhat dark story about a family of confidence tricksters, focusing on their psychologically abused and wistful daughter. The scams they pulled were fascinating and provided some dark humour, but it was the twisted family relationship and the effect this had on Old Dolmio (even her name was the result of a scam) that provided the real meat of the film.

A scene from Kajillionaire. Picture: Supplied

A scene from Kajillionaire. Picture: Supplied

Among foreign-language films I enjoyed the The Translators - a French Agatha Christie-style mystery with a light touch - and the understated Moroccan pregnancy drama Adam that said a lot with silences and provided a glimpse into an unfamiliar world.

Another quality film about pregnancy that used silence to great effect was the low-budget feature Never Rarely Sometimes Always, about an American teenager who is considering an abortion.

Writer-director Aaron Sorkin's strengths and weaknesses were on display in the docudrama The Trial of the Chicago 7, an intelligent, well acted if occasionally glib and preachy dramatisation of a true story.

The Invisible Man was a pleasant surprise, not a remake of the HG Wells story but a horror movie with a feminist edge to it. Freaky was lighter horror but its blend of body-swap comedy and slasher flick worked surprisingly well.

Check these out, if you haven't already:

  • Mank
  • Onward
  • Irresistible
  • Kajillionaire
  • The Translators
  • Never Rarely Sometimes Always
  • The Trial of the Chicago 7
  • The Invisible Man
  • Freaky

Jane Freebury recommends...

Funny how a pandemic makes us look at everything differently.

Instead of sitting in the dark watching a film with strangers, we are getting our movies wholesale. Tapping into the immense virtual supermarket of cinema and television on the streaming platforms is fun, hey, however tedious it can be sifting through looking for good stuff.

But films are made to be immersive, to get lost in. Not watched on a smartphone or laptop where so much textual detail is lost. Watching movies in a theatre has less to do with the communal experience than we may think.

A scene from the award-winning Australian film Babyteeth. Picture: Supplied

A scene from the award-winning Australian film Babyteeth. Picture: Supplied

In the home, in the world outside, it's a big ask of any film to compete with distractions like ambient light, a coffee, a snack, or notifications pinging on the cellphone.

We saw the blockbuster falter in 2020, including Bond in No Time To Die - what a title to sell during a pandemic! - delayed again. Distributors tested the waters with the smaller film, seeing what would winkle out a wary audience.

The pall of COVID-19 may have contributed to the feeling that Tenet didn't live up to expectations, though it wasn't among Christopher Nolan's better films.

By contrast The Burnt Orange Heresy, a small heist movie released around the same time was way more engaging. And it had bonus curiosity value from Mick Jagger.

It may be that the noisy, brazen blockbuster is best seen when people are feeling safe, expansive, or even devil-may-care. On the other hand, it has been a good year for the small film, not having to compete with big heavily marketed rivals for box office.

Nick Cave. Idiot Prayer - Nick Cave alone at Alexandra Place, London. Picture: Joel Ryan

Nick Cave. Idiot Prayer - Nick Cave alone at Alexandra Place, London. Picture: Joel Ryan

And there were some great films, outside the sound and fury of blockbusters, released in 2020. My list of best movies of the year stands up as well as any best of the year list.

Superb local drama Babyteeth finally got the attention it deserved as it swept the recent AACTA awards. Relic proved to be a remarkable debut from a young director, Brazen Hussies was a terrific doco, and kids' film H is for Happiness came and went but is still awaiting recognition.

From Britain, Hugh Grant astounded with his performance in the slick gangster drama, The Gentlemen. 1917 took us to war, via a long take. Watching the Nick Cave performance documentary, Idiot Prayer, was like entering another dimension.

From the US, a worthy remake of Little Women, Charlie Kaufman's intriguing, haunting I'm Thinking of Ending Things, the minimalist masterpiece The Assistant, On the Rocks and the brilliantly written The Trial of the Chicago 7.

From France came the adult animated feature set in Taliban Afghanistan, The Swallows of Kabul and the fabulous Portrait of a Lady on Fire, while La Verite and La Belle Epoque explored the past and its consequences.

For Sama, a coproduction, was a heart-rending letter from a mother to her baby daughter as Syria imploded. So small and intimate, and so powerful.

In 2020 it has been great to see the distributors giving the smaller film a go. Time is yet to tell how the cinema experience of 2020 will play out, but it certainly felt like a re-set.

Save the endless 'I don't know what to watch' scrolling:

  • No Time to Die
  • The Burnt Orange Heresy
  • Babyteeth
  • Idiot Prayer
  • Little Women
  • I'm Thinking of Ending Things
  • The Assistant
  • On the Rocks
  • The Swallows of Kabul
  • Portrait of a Lady on Fire
  • La Verite
  • La Belle Epoque
  • For Sama

Cris Kennedy's Top 5...

With so many productions ceasing or being abandoned altogether this year, any 'best' list does feel a little second-best. However, some stellar productions made their way to the cinema before and after the apocalypse, and here's my pick.

5. Mank

David Fincher adds a luminous new film into this company of Hollywood's love story with itself. Shot in black and while, edited in authentically era fashion, it peeks behind the curtain in late 1930s and early 1940s Los Angeles at the movie game, about the making of Orson Welles's epic tale Citizen Kane.

4. Sequin in a Blue Room

Conor Leach pays a high schooler who uses a social hookup platform to find men in his local area, and much of this film focuses on the power dynamics with the older men that exploit the teen. First-time feature filmmaker Samuel Van Grinsven opens with that declarative statement A Homosexual Film, possibly as a warning, though in many ways, that Sequin is gay or that the film is peppered with gay sex is irrelevant. The film's themes and its storytelling run far deeper than sex or gender.

3. In Fabric

A haunted red cocktail dress passes through the hands of a series of owners, bringing their lives painful change instead of its advertised promise of love and flirtation in this full-tilt arthouse horror made in the Italian giallo style.

Writer and director Peter Strickland's screenplay is richer and deeper than most conventional horror, than most contemporary films. The department store setting for the film may or may not be a metaphor for hell or just general weirdness. Anyone who has worked in retail will attest that a department store can be a literal hell. No metaphor.

2. White White Day

An Icelandic film of stunning beauty and dark enjoyment. A police chief deals with the death of his wife while also discovering the infidelity that led to her death. Writer-director Hlynur Palmason takes his time with this story, and I mean that literally. One of the film's two spectacular opening montages was filmed with a camera stationary over two years capturing the seasons and their effect on the derelict old satellite communications station that will later become the home the main character is renovating.

1. Corpus Christi

Pipped at the Oscars this year by no less a film than Parasite, Polish director Jan Komasa's stunning film follows a young and angry juvenile detention centre inmate mistaken for a visiting priest in a remote village, who at first enjoys fooling the easily fleeced flock, but soon sets about healing the village, despite the exposure to which it opens up his deception. Komasa's film is philosophical suspense. What will come first - Daniel's moral redemption or his unmasking? The film could be played as a comedy of mistaken identity, though while it has great moments of humour, it is instead a nail-biter.

This story What 2020 gave us: some pretty good movies first appeared on The Canberra Times.