Finally, we are ready to begin the process of closing the book on what has been an indisputably…uncooperative, year for pretty much everything, cinema included. However, for the time being cinema is still kicking, in online or socially distanced forms, or even business as usual for some parts of the world whose leaders are, you know…good. Time has not been entirely arrested and the awards and lists seasons are bearing down upon us, and none are more coveted than the illustrious 25YL Film Awards. An elite and eclectic squad of our film writers select their personal favourite films of 2020 and the performances that wowed them. We invite you to inevitably disagree with us heartily in the comments or on the social media platform of your choice—it’s not as if we don’t disagree with each other.
Favourite Film: Never Rarely Sometimes Always
In many respects, Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a reworking of the same narrative framework as Christian Mungiu’s well respected 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, transposing the setting to contemporary North Eastern United States. However, the aesthetic styles of the two films are worlds apart, with writer-director Eliza Hittman shooting in concerned close-up, examining her protagonists’ actions for the slightest detail which might speak volumes. Her camera never feels intrusive or to be exploiting an unearned intimacy with its young cast though, always feeling respectful, sympathetic and heartbreakingly tender. Despite the paucity of dialogue throughout the film, there isn’t a moment where the audience is unsure of what function a scene is serving or what is being conveyed. This is due in large part to the astonishing central performances from Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder as the two teens travelling together to New York to obtain an abortion.
The depth of the friendship between these two characters unfolds in its very unspoken-ness. No words are necessary, no questions are asked, their very presence speaks for itself and means the world. The film doesn’t remotely shy away from the maddening difficulties places on its young protagonists, starkly showing up the practical flaws in the misogynistic state abortion practices at a glance. However, Hittman’s film is never for a single second, either melodramatic or polemical, telling its story of the mundane effects of societal sex discrimination simply and potently. Despite the small scale, the film’s scope is massive, unveiling sexism in every corner of American society, in their laws, in homes, in bars and in workplaces, detailing not only how sexism unerringly finds those most vulnerable, but how through mutual acknowledgement and support, those that find themselves in such a position might be able to help and support one another through it.
The creative and aesthetic choices through which Never Rarely Sometimes Always was realised are not so much genius or inspired, as they are correct. It’s an acutely articulate piece of feminist filmmaking and a beautiful portrait of adolescent friendship, which in this context, are one and the same. I desperately wanted to include both this and Kitty Green’s magnificent The Assistant as a singular entry, however, I’ve already spotlighted The Assistant before in a previous article concerning the MeToo movement on film. That article also discussed Athlete A, which would have been my pick for a Favourite Documentary category as well.
Honourable mention: The Assistant
Favourite Performance: Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma Woodhouse in Emma
It’s hard picking a favourite performance at this time of year as it’s typical for many of the starriest and most intense roles to be rear loaded to coincide with awards season. Some personal favourites come from Kingsley Ben-Adir’s vulnerable and human portrayal of Malcolm X in One Night in Miami. The forthcoming Irish drama Wildfire was also built around a pair of phenomenal performances from Nora-Jane Noone and the late Nika McGuigan and Supernova also featured career best work from Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci. My favourite performance still to come this year though was from Clare Dunne who put her absolute all into her performance in the self-penned portrayal of a domestic abuse survivor in Herself.
Of those films we’ve already had on wide release, standout performances came from Delroy Lindo’s show stealing performance in Da 5 Bloods a film he carried more or less unaided, the phenomenal ensemble performances of Australian teen drama Babyteeth, and Andrea Riseborough and Christopher Abbott’s deliciously inscrutable performances in Possessor. However, to choose a single standout performance of the year, I’ve elected to spotlight possibly the year’s biggest breakout star, Anya Taylor-Joy. Though not unknown before 2020, establishing herself via indie fare like The VVitch: A New England Folk Tale and Thoroughbreds, she really became a household name this year through her leading roles in Emma., The New Mutants and Netflix’s runaway success drama The Queen’s Gambit.
Among the pantheon of superb leading ladies from Austen adaptations, Emma Woodhouse requires an especially deft hand. She must be spoiled, vain, ignorant and snobbish, whilst remaining at all times sympathetic, funny and endearing. There have been many portrayals of the character, or one very much like her, by Kate Beckinsale, Gwyneth Paltrow or Alicia Silverstone, and each works within the tone of the adaptation. However, like every other aspect of Autumn de Wilde’s pitch-perfect adaptation, it’s Taylor-Joy whose performance feels genuinely definitive.
With big cartoonish eyes, subtly balletic movements and a precision of voice and expression, every element to Taylor-Joy’s performance feels fresh and lively, while theatrically as faultless as Emma deems herself. She delicately embosses the character’s expressions with an ironic and seemingly heedless wit and buoyancy, but still manages to find the raw emotions to the character so that nerves are ready to be touched. Her incarnation of Emma is as one who has cultivated a perfect porcelain comportment, and maintained it so precisely that she has become blind to where the cracks show. She manages to perfectly understand the character, while investing the role with enough spontaneity and vim to match the airy tone of the family friendly adaptation.
The brilliance of Emma is in its sleight of hand, and while most Austen adaptations sacrifice either the humour or the romance, Autumn de Wilde’s impeccably cast and executed adaptation finds the ideal middle ground, preserving the story’s subtlety and meaning whilst still being the most accessible and pleasurable dramatization around. Despite her terrific co-stars Bill Nighy, Mia Goth, Josh O’Connor and Miranda Hart always threatening to steal the show from her, Taylor-Joy handles the role with such a flawless balance of humour and vulnerability, that their performances remain satellites to her own, which showcases an attention to her craft, versatility, maturity and pure, charming star power that many established top flight stars have never displayed.
Honourable mention: the entire cast of Babyteeth
Favourite International Film: Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Writer-director Celine Sciamma has long detailed aspects of life encompassing hidden love and coming of age in an unsentimental yet poetic way, with tentative first love queer romances such as Tomboy and Water Lilies or the coming of age through poverty stories of My Life as a Courgette and Girlhood. However, this time she brings her sensibilities into more of a genre circle and they flourish better there than ever before.
The film follows a portraitist engaged to covertly depict a temperamental young heiress so that her image might be delivered to her foreign suitor. She is presented to the heiress under the guise of an engaged companion, but as the two grow to know one another, their mutual understanding turns to empathy and finally to a profound romantic love. The scenario is in many ways analogous to The Handmaiden (possibly my favourite film of the last half-a-decade), with a clear class divide between the lovers, the story told from a position of alignment with the poorer woman brought into the household of the debutante, their intimacy forced by their situation, with a degree of deception in their presence. Both films also have an eve-of-wedding setting, as the wealthier, unhappy woman is expected to soon depart and marry another. However, the two films styles could hardly be more different.
It’s a rich pool of emotion and Portrait doesn’t neglect the gothic potential of the scenario, with wind-scarred cliffs, mythological, poetic allusions to Orpheus and ghostly apparitions aplenty. Yet the film is rooted in a modern, recognisable reality. The sensibilities and interactions of the characters feel lush and contemporary without striking as anachronistic. This is merely a part of history hidden from sight, where ran the same emotions as today.
The power of images, knowing and possession is a potent theme, explored as much through the dialogue as the visuals themselves, there is a fantastic scene presenting three different interpretations of the Orpheus myth, each one revealing as much about the character positing it as about the myth itself. The film has been described as a manifesto on the female gaze, and it really must be applauded that with this film, Sciamma and her mostly female collaborators, manage to create what feels like a cinema divorced from the familiar schemas and anxieties of both political and generic filmmaking. Instead, the film beautifully dovetails this theme with a more central and timeless one, playing off the creation of an image of a person in art, against the creation of an image of that person in one’s own mind.
The performances by Noemie Merlant and Adele Haenel are of course spellbinding, we come to know the faces and emotions of their characters as intimately as they do. Their faces are both extraordinary, Haenel in particular is as readable as a page of text. It’s a tender and achingly romantic piece with stunning imagery and a supreme literary eloquence. The film has Sciamma’s typical style of poetic restraint, quietly teasing out the subtle intimate beauty of each and every moment, occasionally exploding into images of almost unbearable emotional intensity. Music is used sparingly throughout the film—it is acknowledged to be a household without music—but when music is introduced at the film’s most key moments, it’s a spine-tingling blooming of angst, beauty and energy that cuts like a knife.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is far from the first attempt to explore feminist ideas of image and alignment. However, the deftness and assurance through which it does it, how fresh and vital it feels, as well as how elegant and touching, that really does feel like something special—a line in the sand—and I think it’s going to take cinema a long time to really thank Sciamma and company for what they achieved with this film. There’s no other film of the last year that I’m more confident will go down in history as a truly classic milestone than this.
Honourable mention: Weathering with You
Favourite Film: Mangrove
The first installment in Steve McQueen’s series of five films called Small Axe was the best film I saw this year by far. If you care to hear more of my thoughts, you can check out the article I wrote about working on it when it aired on primetime TV in the UK. What I’ll say here though is that I was lucky to see it on the big screen amidst social-distancing as it opened the BFI London Film Festival and was shown simultaneously for free in cinemas across the country. There aren’t many films that deserve this treatment but Mangrove exceeds in this respect. It’s as important as it is entertaining and makes quite an impact.
The way McQueen captures the mood and atmosphere of London in the early ‘70s is something unique. His artistic style conveys a certain type of realism that not many directors can obtain and with the subject of racism being tackled, it makes for a powerful experience. The performances are enthralling and you feel as if you’re with the characters as they persevere through their horrendous ordeals. However, there are moments of beauty before and during the build-up to the violent protest in the middle of the film; the second half allows you to bear witness to one of the most intense trials in recorded history. I know that in the future, it will be looked back on as a classic as well as one of the best films of the period.
Honourable mention: 1917
Favourite Performance: Chadwick Boseman as Stormin’ Norman in Da 5 Bloods
Although Boseman doesn’t play a huge part in this great and lengthy film (as he only appears in flashbacks), I’m using this opportunity to recognise the actor’s oeuvre after his shocking and sad passing earlier this year. He was as brilliant as ever in this small role and I’ve already heard great things about his performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, so I’m sure that will be the film he’s recognised for this year but it hasn’t been released yet at this time of writing. Whether it’s his disarmingly good portrayal of James Brown in Get on Up, as an honest cop standing up to corruption in 21 Bridges or as Black Panther, the most important superhero of recent times; Boseman never fails to deliver an effortless performance.
His range was incredible and he plays each part whilst oozing charisma. You could forgive such a talented actor for being cocky but, by all accounts and evidence of him in press and interviews, he always seemed like nothing less than a very humble, pleasant chap. This only makes it all the more tragic that he died of cancer in the prime of his career at the ripe age of 49. It was the most shocking death to me since Bowie and he followed in his footsteps by choosing to keep his illness private and showing class until the very end. I’ve been a fan of Black Panther since finding a few old comics of his in a local shop as a kid, Boseman will always have a place in my heart for embodying the hero so well and introducing him to the wider world.
Honourable mention: Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman in The Trial of the Chicago 7
Most Entertaining Film: Tenet
Tenet had more than its share of major flaws and unfortunately, it didn’t single-handedly save cinemas as so many predicted it would. It wasn’t the type of film that could draw in those who were apprehensive about visiting their local cinema during social-distancing, it should have been Bond or Wonder Woman’s next installments. The performances aren’t anything special, the narrative is unnecessarily complex, almost every line of dialogue is exposition and this is especially bad as most of it is completely inaudible as the sound mixing is appalling.
However, despite its many problems, I still found Christopher Nolan’s latest offering very entertaining. Its puzzle box-like plot is ludicrous but was something I enjoyed working out as the film progressed and nobody can deny that the effects are amazing. Its use of intersecting timelines crossing with one another takes David Lynch’s fondness of backwards movement and applies it to action in a devastating way. It’s certainly a self-indulgent project for Nolan, enjoying his geekiness in front of and behind the camera and maybe he has a tad too much freedom these days, but the result is a modern Bond movie with a twist. I need to see it again to work out just how good it really is but after the first viewing, I came away from it satisfied that my first cinema visit after the lockdown was epic and thrilling.
Honourable mention: Lovers Rock
Favourite Film: Promising Young Woman
Nothing has floored me this year with quality and impact more than Emerald Fennell’s debut feature Promising Young Woman. The movie is every range of “shocking” from the audacious and heinous to the scandalous and formidable with all of the swerves of monstrous and ghastly in between. This topical pushback to raunch culture contorts its revenge narrative with both glee and reckless abandon with whirling style and a banging all-female soundtrack. If you’re not some level of stunned after watching it, then something’s wrong with you. It’s the holy-f**king-shit movie of 2020 for me.
Honourable mention: The Photograph
Favourite Performances: Carey Mulligan as Cassie Thomas in Promising Young Woman and Riz Ahmed as Ruben Stone in Sound of Metal
As a lucky credentialed critic who gets to vote in two guilds worth of year-end awards (shout out to the Online Film Critics Society and Chicago Indie Critics), I’m swimming in the fortune “for your consideration” screeners right now that are trying to sway me towards plenty of big names. Give me two performers that aren’t the frontrunners instead. Echoing my pick for the best film, Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman is volcanic with her avenging angel Cassie Thomas. When she flips the switch from a look of grief to a glare of insolence, she freezes you in your seat and orchestrates the movie’s mayhem.
A male parallel is Riz Ahmed’s performance as hard rocker drummer Ruben Stone in Sound of Metal, written and directed by Darius Marder. Where Promising Young Woman is all about the noise, Ahmed’s character is engulfed by increasing deafness and therapy. Silence and stillness are squelching his inner turmoil and Ahmed wears that with focused intensity. The disquiet is really something to see and ultimately hear. It’s an encouraging and heartbreaking performance.
Honourable mention: The entire cast of Da 5 Bloods
Most Entertaining Film: The Vast of Night
The best nifty fun I had this year came from the micro-budgeted Amazon streamer The Vast of Night. The movie crafts a yarn of Twilight Zone-esque mystery where a fast-talking radio DJ and a science-loving switchboard operator detect and investigate evidence and reports of something ominous appearing in the dark New Mexico sky above their sleepy little town. Filled with DIY dazzle that grows in wonder as the truth gets closer, The Vast of Night rises in patience and suspense to accomplish perfectly pitched tingles, no more no less. Not everything has to be a booming blockbuster to be engrossing and this little movie is proof of that.