2020 has been a year that’s seen global change at it’s most drastic. A global pandemic has dominated the majority of the year and just from a film point of view, has restricted the continuous flow of content and cinema we see all year round. Denis Villeneuve’s long awaited Dune, as well as Cary Fukunaga’s next 007 instalment No Time To Die, have been pushed back into the thick of 2021. But, films have adapted, in a time where VOD and streaming dominate the media content world filmmakers were much more open to the idea of the ‘stay at home’ cinematic experience. Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Disney+ and HBO Max all gave us the content we so craved during our time of isolation.
With major blockbusters either postponing or reluctantly being offered on a streaming service, we’ve seen a light shed on the movies that may have gone unnoticed. As for REEL, we had the opportunity to be a part of the BFI Film Festival which saw a number of fantastic films debut (some of which have made the list). Despite the world’s struggle 2020 has still been a year that has flourished cinematically, and while it’s certainly been a year to forget we still want to look back at the films that excited us the most, so here’s our top 10 films of 2020.
Director: Brandon Cronenberg | 1h 43mins | Sci-Fi, Thriller
An Assassin Agency takes care of its targets by taking over people’s bodies in order to complete their kills. Their top agent begins to struggle with her own mind when she’s assigned to kill a rich business man by occupying his future son-in-law.
Kicking off our list is not only one of the top 10 of the last 12 months, but potentially our favourite from the year as well. The second feature film from the son of David Cronenberg, Brandon Cronenberg carves a incredibly strong voice by dissecting the nature of identity in a visceral but enthralling psycho-thriller, taking cues from his fathers body horror but finding a unique way to present and reinvent the gore. The transition of consciousness is stunning, and the visualisation of control within Colin’s body midway is not only aesthetically interesting but a excellent example of ‘show, don’t tell’.
It isn’t just the visuals that make Brandon’s most recent film so different though, the complete loss of control of both Colin as Tasya takes the reigns, but also Tasya as the effects of the transfer are starting to impact her mental and physical state, are both done in a way unique and fresh. As it progresses her taste for the violence, and the extremes she goes to draw everything out that bit too much, juxtaposed against her trying to balance the life of a mother and wife, end with a fascinating exploration of your own individuality that’ll leave you with enough to think about for sometime.
Read our full review of Possessor here.
The Reason I Jump (2020)
Director: Jerry Rothwell | 1h 22mins | Documentary
An immersive documentary trying to bridge the gap between those struggling to understand the world around them and those unable to understand them.
Immersive is a word you’ll hear a lot when discussing Jerry Rothwell’s documentary based off of the memoir by Naoki Higashida, a non-speaking 13 year old autistic child. The Reason I Jump focuses on a number of individuals and attempts to understand the spectrum and the many levels people with autism experience and live with.
There’s an almost experimental feel to the film, as Rothwell uses many visual and audible techniques to give us a little insight into their perspective of the world around them. There’s an effective comparison of how different cultures perceive non-verbal autism and the difficulties each families face, but every time emphasising the love that they have for their children. A beautiful and moving piece, not trying to explain but attempting to understand in a stunning way with a gentle empathy.
Our full review of The Reason I Jump is available here.
Director: Steve McQueen | 2h 7mins | Drama
Centred on the true story of the Mangrove 9, it dramatises the story of the protesters fighting against police brutality during the late 1960’s in Notting Hill.
Steve McQueen never backs away from the difficult topics, following suit in 2020 with a series of films for the BBC titled Small Axe covering a range of different times in UK Black History. Mangrove is one of the earliest settings, covering the story of the protesters pushing back against unfair treatment by the Met Police in the late 1960’s. Gary Beadle plays Dol Isaacs, the owner of the Mangrove Restaurant, not only the centre of the movement but a pillar for the community as well. Beadle carries the film on his shoulders with ease, trying to play nice whilst being discriminated against, leading to a moment of emotional release and being blamed for inciting a riot.
The long takes we’ve come to know McQueen for are superb as ever, using these moments to emphasise the life and character of the community in Notting Hill, or to accentuate the brutal and disgusting behaviour of the police allegedly there to protect them. The film has two fairly distinct parts; the build up to the protest, and the trial that ensues, but both are balanced perfectly with one another without a feeling of a major shift in tone or pacing. Though the series on the whole is incredible important, a number of the episodes (another we will come back to later) are standouts on their own.
You can read our full review of Mangrove here.
Director: Pete Docter | 1h 40mins | Animation, Adventure
Joe (Jamie Foxx) is a middle-school teacher with a passion for Jazz, his world revolves around wanting to play piano with the greats. After he is offered the opportunity to play for famous artist Dorothy Williams, he meets his untimely end, and lands on the path to the great beyond.
The latest released film for our list comes from Peter Docter, the mind behind Pixar’s Oscar winning Inside Out (2015), and uses the family film genre to again explore deep and important issues that everyone can relate too. This time, we follow Jamie Foxx as he aimless wanders as a music teacher for the less than great, and occasionally getting a jazz performance. He falls and dies after being offered a big break and finds himself on the path to the Great Beyond – but isn’t ready to pass on, and slips into the Great Before (the place in which souls find their personality before going to Earth).
It spends plenty of time in it’s setup, but for a good reason, as there’s a lot of ground to cover. Though the Great Before is interesting conceptually, it’s actually the time on Earth that is the most engaging and visually stunning. Every time Pixar release a new feature, they always outdo themselves with how far they push the technology – and Soul is no different. It isn’t just the aesthetic that stands out though, as the characters surrounding Joe are just so full of life, giving the city so much depth and excitement. The ending is potentially more ambiguous than you’d expect from a family animation, but the message of enjoying the moment and not needing a plan or a solid reason to be, but to just be excited by life itself, is a lovely and important message elegantly told.
Our full review of Soul is available here.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020)
Director: Eliza Hittman | 1h 41mins | Drama
Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), a 17-year-old girl from Pennsylvania, founds out she’s pregnant. In order to get the help she needs she heads to New York with her cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder).
2020 has been a wonderful exploration of the current social climate. Films that not only speak volumes about the story they are telling, but could arguably be considered as the defining film of it’s type. Eliza Hittman’s often excruciating Drama does exactly this, becoming a voice for a generation of people that very often feel scared and alone because of the situation they’re in. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is locked into the current world we live in, but its subtle storytelling and complexity make it far more than a movie aimed at the contemporary. Often we see films shrivel into obscurity as time goes on, but Hittman’s talent – as well as a wonderful cast – will help this movie live long in cinema history as a striking reminder of the system we live in.
When we wrote the review of Hittman’s film we couldn’t help but go into intricate detail as to just how good the film is. It’s commentary speaks on a multi-layered basis, the subtle power from scene to scene is mesmerising, but one of the most important takeaways is the two leading performances by Flanigan and Ryder. Two performers who proudly hold the weight of real-world representation on their youthful shoulders and navigate Hittman’s touching film with maturity and a sisterly connection. Blending the story of a broken a system with the real-life struggle that young women go through, Never Rarely Sometimes Always journeys through it’s tale with impeccable honesty.
You can read our review of Never Rarely Sometimes Always here.
Lovers Rock (2020)
Director: Steve McQueen | 1h 10mins | Drama
Set in 1980’s West London, the film follows numerous guests of a party as they engage in romance, drama and dancing.
The second film from Steve McQueen on this list, Lovers Rock is proof that the director’s unflinching style can match such a hypnotic and liberated narrative. The film drifts from room to room chasing characters and capturing every inch of the house’s mood. It’s a reminder that narrative structure is never as cut and dry as you might think, creating a story and conflict in the confines of one stylishly built setting. But the film isn’t just about the joyous experience of one steamy night in 1980’s London, it challenges all aspects of hardship that black culture suffer through, making this time and place all the more important.
There isn’t exactly a main character but rather a lot of different themes channeling through all the guests. The most prominent character is Martha, who seems to get the bulk of the drama throughout the movie, as well as the romance. But, it’s the films ability to be provocative while creating both character and tone that impresses the most – dealing with sexual assault, blatant racism and the underlying fear of being black in a white-dominated world. McQueen has created a film with perfect balance, one that honours the “Lovers and Rockers” of a different time.
You can read our review of Lovers Rock here.
Director: Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart | Animation, Adventure
Rooted in Irish folklore, Wolfwalkers follows Robyn Goodfellowe (Honor Kneafsey) as she and her father move from England to Kilkenny to wipe out a wolf pack in the way of a towns expansion. She meets Mebh (Eva Whittaker), a fabled wolfwalker, and they attempt to find Mebh’s absent mother.
Cartoon Saloon’s filmography thus far has been a unique trajectory that’s on par with the some of the best animation studios going. Consistent and joyous through every film, Wolfwalkers marks yet another stand out example of the studios distinct personality. Much like Tomm Moore’s first feature The Secret of the Kells, Wolfwalkers is locked into a deep Irish mythology that’s gorgeously portrayed with child-like magic. But it’s the film’s warmth and heart that make it potentially the best work the studio has ever done.
It uses the autumnal colour palette to allow the gorgeous animation to pop out of the screen, but the most touching moments of the film come because of Moore’s ability to create nuance in the characters and story. It has the underlying themes of oppressive leadership and mass misunderstanding, but channels such a human story through the child characters that your connection to the film becomes deeply emotional. Chances are that this years Oscar race will see Pixar take home yet another award, but Wolfwalkers stands as one of the finest, and most original, animated films of the past few years.
You can read our review of Wolfwalkers here.
The Assistant (2020)
Director: Kitty Green | 1h 27mins | Drama
Over the course of one working day Jane (Julia Garner), a young Assistant to a notorious Film Executive, suffers at the hands of Office abuse. Once she gets the opportunity to speak about the abuse happening in her office, she’s given a difficult choice.
Although The Assistant first debuted in the 2019 at the Telluride Film Festival, it wasn’t until early 2020 that we had the pleasure of viewing this film in a more mainstream light. And what a film it is. We’ve spoken already about the monumental pressure that film’s this year have had, using their voice not just to create a good film, but to be a representative of a mass struggle in the real world. Kitty Green’s slow and teeth grinding drama does just that, continuing the ongoing conversation of the #MeToo movement and connecting the experiences of so many people through one single narrative, one that is brutally honest.
As the film follows Jane working her thankless job – doing the nitty gritty office work as everybody walks all over her – Green opts for an honest portrayal rather than giving into formulaic pressure. It’s a film that prioritises the none-cinematic issues and scenes in order to build to it’s overall impact, one that culminates to a scene involving Jane in a HR meeting, a scene that’s devastatingly genuine and one of the very best this year. It’s a film that often walks a fine line, but it’s observant nature and brutal connection to the real world make it so important in todays cinematic landscape. If people thought that #MeToo was slowly fading away, The Assistant is a crucial reminder just how important the conversation is.
Read our review of The Assistant here.
Director: Chloe Zhao | 1h 48mins | Drama
After losing her husband and the town she once lived, Fern (Frances McDormand) packs up her belongings and starts living out of a van. On long the road, she meets numerous people who also live the “Nomad” lifestyle.
As Chloe Zhao heads nearer and nearer to her Marvel debut The Eternals, we are overjoyed that she managed to give us a film utilising her distinct style before her transition to the blockbuster. Much like her previous work Nomadland is working on two levels, using a fictional narrative to give us an incredibly touching character study while also threading real-life people into the themes of the film. It’s a beautifully unique film that’s able to unlock such an intriguing part of the American lifestyle, while also never taking away from the fictional story of it’s warm and understanding main character.
Fresh off of her second Oscar win Frances McDormand wastes no time giving us yet another gorgeous performance as Fern, she’s fighting her own battles but it’s McDormand’s ability to be so humble in the face of the people she portraying that makes her performance so unlike anything we’ve ever seen from her before. If you add to that the beautiful cinematography and scene changing soundtrack, what you have is a film that grasps you at every part of it’s journey. The idea of going anywhere at any time is a nice thought, but Nomadland is more about what it is we are running away from, and that’s what makes it such human story.
Read our review of Nomadland here.
Saint Frances (2020)
Director: Alex Thompson | 1h 41mins | Comedy, Drama
Bridget (Kelly O’Sullivan), a 34 year old server, gets a job as a nanny to a sweet young girl named Frances (Ramona Edith Williams). Over the summer Bridget must deal with her own personal life while becoming closer to Frances and her family.
Another film that got it’s festival debut in 2019, we are so happy that Netflix picked up Saint Frances just for the fact it’s such an important film for people to see. We’ve spoken about films that do wonders for the portrayal of female struggle, but what O’Sullivan and Thompson have done is create a film that portrays the modern woman all while normalising the experience through the confines of a tender Drama Comedy. O’Sullivan’s script never shies away from showing us a natural female presence, but also challenges the fierce thought-process and emotion of dealing with abortion – something that is done with charm and honesty.
O’Sullivan also stars in this as well as writing the screenplay, maybe it’s because she’s voicing her own words but she’s just as fabulous as the script she’s written. A great performance that’s surrounded by equally great performances by different actors used to give a voice to different types of representations. But the main takeaway from it that it shows us a reality we so rarely see on screen. It knows exactly what it wants to show you but does so with humour and tenderness, while creating depth through a plethora of interesting characters. Saint Frances stands as, not just one of the best feminist movies, but as one of the best Drama Comedy’s of the year.
Read our review of Saint Frances here.