Top Ten Films of 2020 – John’s Picks

I could bore you with a rant about how shitty 2020 was in terms of cinema, but that would be a lie. Sure, there were a number of high profile casualties in terms of cinema releases, but the depth of product delivered to movie theatres (where open) and home platforms was as high as ever. Yes, I missed seeing the blockbuster releases but to be honest, a lot of them wouldn’t have troubled my list under normal circumstances anyway. There were a  number of smaller films that got a lot more attention this year due to column inches having to be filled by reviewers. It was just as hard a task as always to cut down my list to only ten.

10 David Byrne’s American Utopia
On the face of it another concert movie from David Byrne. This in itself would be welcome but with added attractions of a fully choreographed performance featuring twelve excellent performers and direction from Spike Lee made this a spectacle that made you yearn for live performances. A loose narrative allowed for songs from Byrne’s latest album to be mixed with inventive interpretations from his extensive catalogue.

9 Sputnik
This was a film that came out in August to very little fanfare. It is a tidy little horror film that plays on the fears of the modern age. A Soviet space mission may have brought something back to Earth along with the only surviving cosmonaut, and it is the job of a very reluctant psychologist to get to the truth of the matter. It is a very effective story that uses one to one interactions to create ever-increasing tension. The setting of cold war era Russia and the underlying fear of either making a mistake or being the one to blame for covering things up only adds to the foreboding.

8 The Lighthouse
The Lighthouse Robert EggersRobert Eggers follow up to The Witch was highly anticipated and more than delivered on terms of spectacle and madness. Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattison are two lighthouse keepers that struggle to maintain their sanity as they are forced to endure the isolation of the Lighthouse. Shot in Academy ratio in glorious black and white, it is a descent into the madness of the situation, the madness within the men and leaves you with more questions than answers. It is all the better for it.

7 1917
The first major release of the year set the bar high for everything that was to follow. The film tells the story of two British soldiers as they traverse no man’s land in order to deliver a message that will avert an ambush at the hands of the seemingly retreating German forces. Shot in a way to look like a single take, this is an audacious and often spectacular spectacle that at first takes your breath away and slowing sucks you into really caring about the central characters.

6 Possessor
One of the hits from the 2020 London Film Festival. Andrea Riseborough stars as an assassin with a difference. Using brain implants supplied by a secret organisation she can take over the mind of whoever she focuses on and uses them to carry out the murder of her target. This is an ultra-violent horror film that focuses on technology and the ways it drains the humanity from all involved. It is a powerful film that stays with you for a long time.

5 The Translators
For me, the best film from the 2020 Glasgow Film Festival. The third book in a massively successful trilogy is being simultaneously released in all European languages at the same time and the publisher has brought together nine translators together in a secret location to translate the book. As pages start to appear online, the tensions mount and recriminations and threats lead to a dark outcome. Yes, it has been done before, but the quality of the story and the performances make this a very enjoyable movie.

4 Saint Maud
Saint MaudOne of the more surprising films to have made the list. A low budget horror film that focusses on the relationship between a newly devout carer and her charge, a terminally ill dance choreographer. The central performance from Morfydd Clark as the buttoned-down and sanctimonious nurse is a star-making performance. She is in literally every scene and her portrayal of a woman who may or may not be descending into madness is something to behold. The last few seconds of the film are one of the cinema highlights of the year.

3 Relic
Another low budget horror film that performed above all expectations. After the disappearance of her mother a woman and her daughter return the family home. When the elder woman returns she is not herself and increasingly strange and disturbing events occur. Or do there. A low key film that deals with dementia and how it mirrors so much within horror cinema. Three very subtle performances make this a compelling viewing experience before the body horror elements kick in during the third act.

2 Tenet
The most anticipated film of the year for me. It did not disappoint and showed once again that it is entirely possible to make a blockbuster without the need for a franchise or a superpower. Yes, the sound was low in the mix but that didn’t detract from the time-bending spectacle on screen. A film that keeps you guessing until well past the end titles is always welcome. One that bears repeat viewing in an effort to unlock all of the elements is essential viewing.

1 Parasite
ParasiteThe first film, for a number of years, that was a worthy recipient of the best picture Oscar. The tale of two families, who are feeding off each other in very different ways is almost a perfect film. It captivates the audience from the opening scenes and as the story unfolds it becomes the viewing experience of the year. Just as you become comfortable and start to think you know where it is going, the film takes a left turn, thus keeping you totally absorbed in the action. As with Tenet, Parasite stands up to repeat viewing for the depth of visuals and the strength of the story.

John McArthur
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