In 2020, I challenged myself to watch one film a day, as a way of catching up on classics and more deeply engaging with my craft. You would think this an unbelievable act of foresight – that the year of quarantines and job insecurities would have been a perfect fit for such a formidable task. But for one reason or another, I didn’t quite achieve the lofty and entirely meaningless goal I had set for myself.
Nevertheless, I blasted through 143 films – sadly, very few of which were released in 2020. While there were some exceptions (which we’ll get to), not many distributors could handle the challenges of COVID-19 in a way that made new cinema easily accessible.
The whole list of films is available here, each paired with a favourite quote. I figured by highlighting dialogue, even the forgettable flicks get a little love. There’s little in the way of curation here, so the list acts more as a snapshot of my curiosity with the medium. At its best, I hope it reflects my earnest desire to engage with more diverse and divergent modes of storytelling in this rarely changing form.
I’ve divided my thoughts into special mentions, the best of the classics, the best new films (of the last 3 years), and the absolute dregs.
“If I had all this, I would be kinder.”
I mean, duh. It’s clearly established as one of the best films of the last decade, and it deserved every award it collected. It only makes it into special mentions as there’s very little I could say about Bong Joon-Ho‘s hilarious, shocking and endlessly surprising class-war caper that hasn’t already been said.
Ok, one little tidbit… frequently throughout the film, the script references “crossing the line”, specifically in moral and social terms. But in a dinner table exchange between Ki-Jung and Yeon-Kyo, BJH brazenly breaks the cardinal rule of filming dialogue – crossing the invisible line between two subjects engaged in conversation – and draws attention to having done so. It’s the most memorable camera blocking I’ve seen in recent years.
On top of that, Bong made his Oscars kiss. I have to praise you like I should.
“If I’m winning, that’s all that matters.”
Same again. Every critic and their mother has already lost their mind over the pounding waves of anxiety that constitute Uncut Gems. Adam Sandler puts in a career best as Howard Ratner, a character seemingly incapable of making one good choice in his life; Lakeith Stanfield continues on a streak of great roles; Josh & Benny Safdie manage to avoid being weirdly ableist; and The Weeknd gets punched in the face. It’s got everything!
A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood
“Just take a minute and think about all the people who loved us into being.”
Of every film in this list, none was so quietly revolutionary as Marielle Heller’s portrait of the late, great Fred Rogers. Her approach as director is every bit as gentle and deft as Tom Hanks’ recreation of the beloved children’s entertainer. It’s easy to enter the film with as much cynicism as Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), but Hanks puts so much earnestness into the role that instead you find yourself desperately wanting him to give you a hug. Wholly unexpected and wonderful.
i’m thinking of ending things
“Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation. That’s an Oscar Wilde quote.”
Charlie Kaufman returns to his favourite topic – overwhelming existential depression! If Synecdoche, New York were a mirror to Kaufman and his process, this film is him throwing that mirror to the floor and slowly, purposefully pressing his soles into the broken glass. Jesse Buckley chews up her extensive narration, Jesse Plemons and David Thewlis amply support, and who could have expected Toni Collete to turn out a comic version of her role in Hereditary? Philosophical gnawing meets hyper specific musical theatre references.
“What was in there?”
“Nothing really. Just, sorta, my hopes and dreams.”
“Right… And you’re burning them?”
Both a precise insight into American zoomer lives and a universal take on adolescence. What separates Eighth Grade from its peers is its unflinching (yet never assaulting) exploration of teenage anxiety, coloured by the media-savvy experiences of former YouTube star (and exceptional stand-up) Bo Burnham. And while Josh Hamilton makes an endearing young father, everything rests on (then) 15 year old Elsie Fisher’s shoulders. She’s heartbreaking, inspiring and just so damn believable that you can’t help but love her.
Color Out Of Space
“If there’s one thing that families do, it’s stick together! Now feed your mother.”
Producing maverick Elijah Wood teaming up with Richard Stanley to deliver my favourite H.P. Lovecraft short, with Joely Richardson thrown in for good measure? Now we’re talking! Where Mandy was all burgundy and blood, Color Out Of Space is eye-blistering psychedelia, saturated in purple… or actually, I don’t even know what colour it was…
It’s also the closest Nic Cage has come since Vampire’s Kiss to doing an outright Trump impression. Ludicrous pulp fun.
Embrace Of The Serpent (El Abrazo de la Serpiente)
“Knowledge belongs to all. You do not understand that. You are just a white man.”
Ok, let’s talk about real cinema, now – the black and white stuff, the subtitled stuff. The good shit. Under the guidance of shaman Karamakate (Nilbio Torres and Antonio Bolívar), two white men separated by 30 years journey into the heart of the Amazon rainforest in search of a sacred plant. Director Ciro Guerra at once exposes the majesty of the jungle, the lives and cultures of its indigenous people, and the desecration of both by colonial invaders. Aching, wondrous filmmaking that touches on cosmic awe.
“The only way you can lose a fight is if you don’t get in the ring. Remember that.”
As a cisgender man, watching this is the closest you can come to understanding the tangible reality of growing into a female body. The way writer-director Anna Rose Holmer captures her subject – the compelling Royalty Hightower – is intensely physical and never exploitative. To watch these women dance feels like dancing. And that’s without even touching on the light thriller element that the titular ‘condition’ brings to the table.
“This is so typically you that you’re gonna put everybody under the magnifying glass and put everyone in a little glass tank terrarium except yourself.”
Sandi Tan’s Shirkers is so many things. It’s a compelling thriller about stolen dreams, secret lives and long lost summers; a beautiful portrait of three women growing up and growing apart; a stunning time capsule of 90s Singaporean teenage counter-culture. And every second of it is dazzling thanks to the post-production treatment of Tan’s recovered film. Reflective, self-excoriating, nostalgic and undeniably cool.
“Despair is a development of pride so great that it chooses one’s certitude rather than admit God is more creative than we are.”
Every nitwit claiming that the deeply contrived Joker was the new Taxi Driver clearly missed this stunner, from the actual writer of Taxi Driver. Absolute fury bubbles beneath every frame of Paul Schrader‘s exploration of the divide between faith and action. Existential crises and environmental anxiety combine with explosive results, all in a claustrophobic 4:3 aspect ratio. How Ethan Hawke was denied an Oscar nom for this is beyond comprehension. Good luck shaking off that ending.
THE TOP TEN
The Invisible Man
“He said that wherever I went, he would find me. Walk right up to me, and I wouldn’t be able to see him.”
Fresh off cyberpunk action thrillride Upgrade, local legend Leigh Whannell teamed up with the brilliant Elisabeth Moss to deliver the Dark Universe glow-up we never knew we needed. Whannell reframes the classic H.G. Wells morality play as one woman’s desperate (and seemingly futile) effort to escape an abusive relationship with a powerful man. Never have empty rooms seemed so full of potential violence.
“Pull me out.”
Sophomore filmmaker Brandon Cronenberg has struggled to step from the shadows of his father, at least in the eyes of entertainment media, and Possessor feels primed to blow those critics apart. It sees him come into his own as a truly distinctive, even fearsome, filmmaker. Andrea Riseborough and Christopher Abbott slaughter the way through the year’s most unrelentingly brutal vision, culminating in both a (near literal) mindfuck sequence and a shocking, nihilistic denouement. Kudos to editor Matthew Hannam for his exceptional work.
“What chance have we got? What chance has this country got?”
One of our greatest living filmmakers, Warwick Thornton, delivers a stinging rebuke to anyone still deluding themselves that Australia is, or has ever been, ‘the lucky country’. Thornton captures landscape with a painter’s eye; he conducts an emotionally bruising narrative with tenderness and clarity. Give Sam Neill a medal, Bryan Brown a firm handshake and Hamilton Morris the world. A painful, unforgettable and essential experience.
“I didn’t know her. I didn’t know my daughter.”
A frantic father’s hunt for his missing daughter takes place across the landscape of devices through which we are connected, in director Aneesh Chaganty’s pulse-pounding thriller. What seems at first like pure technical gimmick is backed by riveting storytelling and classic structure. Casting John Cho was not only a historic move (this is the first mainstream Hollywood thriller to feature an Asian-American lead), but an inspired one: Cho is a revelation.
Portrait Of A Lady On Fire
“Do all lovers feel they’re inventing something? I know the gestures. I imagined it all, waiting for you.”
If you aren’t completely alight by the end of this film, I’d recommend checking your pulse. To quote a more astute critic, the key to a good queer film is physicality – the draw of a romance is its capacity to spark arousal in the viewer, who understands the motions and the yearning. Watching this in a year where many of us were robbed of physical contact only served to amplify that yearning intensely. Thank you, Céline Sciamma.
“If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am for myself alone, who am I? If not now, when? And if not you, who? We need an undying love for black people, wherever we may be. All power to all the people.”
Watching this as the BLM marches reached a crescendo was a hell of an experience. This was my first engagement with Spike Lee’s formidable body of work, and it will certainly not be the last. A quintessential depiction of American hypocrisies, both then and now; and a goddamn entertaining one, at that. John David Washington and Adam Driver are exceptional, as is Laura Harrier.
Imagine for a moment that you’re a white actor whose script includes racial slurs. Picture the ocean of difference in how it would feel to say those words in front of Spike Lee, rather than, say, Quentin Tarantino. Intention in—and power over—language is part and parcel to what makes this such a powerful flick
One Cut Of The Dead
“Don’t stop shooting!”
A one-take film, following the crew of a zombie film set upon by actual zombies, is just the first layer of Shinichiro Ueda’s spectacular comedy. You’d be forgiven for spending the first 40 minutes wondering why the film’s come so highly recommended. By the time the credits roll, there’s no question – you’ve just witnessed genius at work.
I Am Mother
“Humans can be wonderful.”
“Then why did you only make one?”
“A mother has to learn.”
It’s one thing to feel proud because someone you know got a gig on a major film. It’s another thing entirely to know they contributed to one of the finest works of genre cinema to come out of the country. I Am Mother’s twisting narrative of loyalty, ethics and human frailty is matched with exquisite effects work (in part from Weta Workshop) and standout performances from the core trio of women – Rose Byrne, Hilary Swank and Danish youngster Clara Rugaard.
“If you’re gonna have a woman lead, make sure she’s married by the end. Or dead, either way.”
Greta Gerwig just goes from strength to strength. Here, she modernises a century-and-a-half-old text without being trite or pandering, and in doing so recreates a family dynamic with unerring accuracy. It’s the babbling, overlapping, organic dialogue that sells it, delivered by an impeccable cast. In fact, Gerwig’s smartest choice is only casting once for each of the March sisters – watching Florence Pugh mature through her acting choices alone is proof of her tremendous capacity as a performer.
“Say, why is it bad luck to kill a gull?”
“In them’s the souls of sailors what met their maker.”
Director Robert Eggers has carved out the most specific niche in modern cinema – New England folktales – and made a stately home of it. He casts aside what little colour he’d kept in The VVitch, opting for the palette of sheer, storm-worn cliffsides. Similarly, the quiet dread of the latter film is subbed out for sound and fury. Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe rip the gloves off and go for each others’ throats with an energy that borders on intimacy. A modern take on mythology at its finest.
“Let them be helpless like children, because weakness is a great thing, and strength is nothing.”
Andrei Tarkovsky’s magnum opus is also perhaps the cause of many arthouse slip-ups in the decades to come. Many who followed in the director’s footsteps believed a maudlin focus and glacial pacing would make their films somehow smarter, more deeply philosophical. But Stalker is neither maudlin nor glacial; rather, it is patient, considered and frequently awe-inspiring. Its refusal to state its aims is evident of a genuine struggle in the artist with massive, esoteric matters of purpose and meaning, which he communicates through unparalleled imagery and poetic exchanges. This is film to feed the soul.
Thelma & Louise
“I believe, if done properly, armed robbery doesn’t have to be an entirely unpleasant experience.”
The crucial note to anyone who hasn’t yet experienced this Ridley Scott classic is that knowing the ending takes away none of its impact. What you may not be familiar with is the New Mexico tanker sequence, which is memorable for entirely different reasons. The rest of Thelma & Louise’s anarchic ride across the state(s) gives full credence to the film’s memorialisation as a landmark of feminist cinema. Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis are national treasures operating at the peak of their powers, and it’s nice to see Harvey Keitel play the one redeeming masculine figure in the film.
“Our sales go with a bang!”
Decry the post-Amélie whimsy all you like – you’d be hard pressed to find a filmmaker as intent to entertain and delight as Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Micmacs (the full title of which loosely translates to “non-stop shenanigans”) sees him weaponise his carnival crew against the international arms trade, returning the palate of this film to the gamier flavours of Delicatessan. This is 105 minutes of joyful chaos, and there is one sight-gag that made me laugh harder than anything else in the year. Thank you, Jeunet.
Dog Day Afternoon
“I’m a Catholic, I don’t wanna hurt anybody.”
Referring to any film as a creative’s “finest hour” is a big call, but for two as luminous as Al Pacino and Sidney Lumet, it’s damn near futile. Nevertheless, Dog Day Afternoon is a singular achievement for both men. Pacino is powerful, fragile, beautiful – honestly, it’s a struggle to put words to the complexity he achieves in the role. Never the hero and never truly the villain, he plumbs new depths that elude the posturing toters of Scarface posters.
“What do the good know, except what the bad teach them by their excesses?”
With the Jordan Peele-produced remake pushed back by nearly a year, it’s high time you revisited this ‘90s slasher classic. Director Bernard Rose resituates a Clive Barker paperback nasty in the Chicago projects, creating a modern American myth in the process. Virginia Madsen shines, and as the eponymous villain, Tony Todd is mesmeric – you can feel his amplified voice in your bones. An underrated icon of horror cinema.
“Goodness is only some kind of reflection upon evil. That’s all it is.”
Here’s a cinema truism for you: divorced directors make cooked break-up movies. Possession is trope codifier, with Andrzej Żuławski managing to outdo Aaronofsky, Baumbach, Bergman, Cronenberg and even Lars von friggin Trier for sheer manic energy. The production nearly killed Isabelle Adjani, who leaves it all on the court during the subway seizure sequence, and Sam Neill channels more demonic energy here than in Event Horizon. Looming over their shared hysteria is the actual Berlin Wall, casting a shadow of division and oppression. Emotional Grand Guignol.
“The howl of our faith and doubt against the darkness and silence, is one of the most awful proofs of our abandonment and our terrified, unuttered knowledge.”
Where Tarkovsky desperately seeks a glimmer of hope in the darkness of stalker, Ingmar Bergman is content with mutually assured destruction. Persona pits two women—one ostensibly silent—against each other, the unfeeling world around them and the unknowable oblivion beyond. I could sit here and toss out interpretations like every other critic, but it’s near impossible to consider this film in a vacuum. To do so would be to disregard the vast influence it has had over scores of my favourite filmmakers.
“If you’re the devil, why not make the straps disappear?”
“That’s much too vulgar a display of power, Karras.”
I was far too young when I first saw The Exorcist. Revisiting it over a decade later to see what colleagues saw in it—as well as Kubrick, Scorsese, Eggers, Fincher—unveiled its mastery. The inimitable Max von Sydow is matched by Ellen Burstyn and Jason Miller, each grappling with soul-shaking spiritual conundrums that all pale in comparison to the suffering of the bedridden little girl before them (Linda Blair).
The Big Sleep
“Is he as cute as you are?”
The perfect noir – hard-boiled but never overcooked. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall crash against each other like fistfuls of flint, reveling in wordplay and the effortless chemistry they share. There’s probably not a funnier gag from this era of cinema than Marlowe’s unintended but steadily increasing collection of firearms.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
“Don’t you think it’s time to recognize there is as little worth on your side as there is on mine?”
Tomas Alfredson—yup, the guy behind Let The Right One In—directs a superb adaptation of John le Carré’s espionage classic. The serpentine twists and turns of Cold War intrigue would be enough for genre fans, but the icy colour spectrum and terse dialogue belie an unexpected intimacy to the film, courtesy of Gary Oldman and Colin Firth firing on all cylinders.
“Disease is the love of two alien kinds of creatures for each other.”
Without question, David Cronenberg is one of my very favourite filmmakers, but it’s remarkable he got where he is given how he started. Just four years after Shivers, he dropped Rabid and The Brood, both venerable (and venereal) horror classics. But first, he apparently had to get this exploitation rape-fest out of his system. Alongside blatant woman-hating, there’s also *gasp* INTELLECTUAL POSTURING to be done! The gore effects are the least gross thing about it.
Wolf Creek 2
“You see, in this world, there’s people like me and there’s people like you. And people like me eat people like you for breakfast and shit them out.”
The first Wolf Creek is a vicious and deeply unsettling video nasty that holds a well-warranted place in infamy. The sequel is an embarrassment. While trying to paint Mick Taylor (John Jarratt) as a kind of racist, rapist Leatherface, Greg McLean instead makes his antagonist into a meme. His kryptonite, sprawled across three excruciating minutes, is Rolf Harris karaoke. Mick could be the perfect take down of the ocker larrikin, vicious bigotry and all, if McLean and Jarratt weren’t so clearly infatuated with him. It’s not even that WC2 is shocking – it’s that it wants to shock you so damn much.
Let Us Prey
“People like to blame me, but I’m just a witness.”
I watched this purely for the inclusion of Liam Cunningham, a great actor who somehow stumbled into this dumb, dumb film for dummies. Every other character, spare maybe protagonist Pollyanna McIntosh, is entirely insufferable – they’re not even fun to hate. You can picture the shit-eating grins on the writers’ faces with every hideous smear of dialogue. Waste of talent.
“We’re gonna be the Starbucks of murder. The McDonalds of massacre, yeah? We’ll be the Burger King of… badness.”
Daniel Radcliffe has been chasing that Elijah Wood escape clause for the last decade, but he just can’t seem to catch a break (with the sole exception of Swiss Army Man). Once again, he ends up with a script that is beneath him, penned by director Jason Lei Howden. It’s all guns and no glory, another tired entry into oppressed white guy exploitation cinema; a witless Deadpool knock-off replete with misogynist pandering and characters with names like ‘Fuckface’. Blegh.
The Eyes Of My Mother
“Whether or not it is clear to you, the universe is unfolding as it should.”
Cinematic nihilism requires a reason. Possessor is made misanthropic by its anti-capitalist stance. Martyrs spits its prospective audiences’ sadism back in their faces. Without these moral guides, nihilism is little more than petulance – an edgy teen’s means to appearing intellectual. Enter Nicolas Pesce, who debuted with this black & white slice of ‘arthouse’ torture porn to the fawning of critics and the puzzled indifference of punters. An utterly empty experience.
“You know, sometimes, when bad things happen to people, it’s for a good reason.”
With the MCU and DCU dominating multiplexes, it feels like the right time to make an anti-superhero flick. But brother, this ain’t it. Producer James Gunn tosses the typewriter to his brother Brian Gunn and cousin Mark Gunn, and they fumble the catch so spectacularly that it crushes both of their dicks. Sexist, uninspired and destined for little more than the Kill Count.
“I once met man who told me… they eat their own god… eat his flesh. Drink his blood. Abominable.”
A recent rewatch of Only God Forgives proved much more forgiving than the first impression – let that stand as testament that in large part, I pick up what Nicolas Winding Refn is putting down. But with Valhalla Rising, he wastes Mads Mikkelsen, and that’s just not on. Kudos to NWR, at least, for bending the space-time continuum and making a 92 minute clip feel like eternal purgatory.
“This planet we’re on is so sick of our shit. This old, tired, angry animal turned these stupid fuckin’ white men into something she can use again. Fertilizer.”
Mi’kmaq writer/director Jeff Barnaby has on his hands the best concept for a zombie film since One Cut Of The Dead: as the “zed” virus spreads, the members of an Indigenous community are revealed to be immune. It’s a stunning commentary on colonialism: no wonder the film got made on the merit of that idea alone. In execution, however, it’s a mess of clichéd betrayals and unnecessary sacrifices that entirely loses the thread of its intentions.
“The people above won’t listen to me.”
“I can’t shit upwards.”
A lazy pseudo-socialist version of Cube that is precisely as prescient and insightful as The Purge franchise, but with added scat. Also, basic physics ruin the ending completely – when the platform stops, there’s zero chance that kid survives.
Lords Of Chaos
“So you believe in paganism and you’re a Satanist, but you’re also a Nazi… that’s a pretty broad belief system.”
[[ CW: suicide ]]
This was a tough one. Lords Of Chaos follows Mayhem as they attempt to become the most evil band in history. It’s sort of tongue-in-cheek, with little reverence to black metal as form – surprising, coming from the former drummer of Bathory, Jonas Åkerlund. But the relationship of the film to the very real deaths it portrays is deeply problematic.
Lords Of Chaos paints the victim of a homophobic hate-crime as predatory. It does nothing to present (or even condemn) the powerful influence of white supremacist thought on actual murderer Kristian “Varg” Vikernes (Emory Cohen), thinking that casting a Jewish actor to piss the real Varg off sufficed as comment. Most egregiously, it graphically depicts the suicide of Pelle “Dead” Ohlin in a drawn-out scene that former bassist Jørn “Necrobutcher” Stubberud said made him feel “sick to my stomach” and “completely empty inside”. In this odd pseudo-satire of a metal band who sidled up to terrorists, Åkerlund recreates the murder of Øystein “Euronymous” Aarseth “stab by stab”.
Åkerlund’s main gig is making music videos for Coldplay. Why would he do this? What reason does he have to subject the families of suicide and murder victims to explicit visions of their loved ones’ painful deaths? And especially in the context of a film that can’t decide whether or not to laugh at them as they are bleeding out?
The more I think about Lords Of Chaos, the angrier it makes me.
My watching habits are readily available over at Letterboxd.