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  • Writer's pictureMartin Vaux

Martin's Top 20 Films of 2020

Updated: Jan 22, 2022

In line with personal tradition, I have compiled my Top 20 Films of 2020.

I hope you enjoy.

20. Color Out of Space

Never before have I seen a film in which so many alpacas have been so imaginatively mutilated.

This might sound like faint praise, but I really respected the lengths gone to by director Richard Stanley (Dust Devil, The Island of Dr. Moreau) - a man who set out to make a truly Lovecraftian movie and who absolutely succeeded.

If you are not familiar with the short story on which the film is based, I would recommend reading it. It is about a surveyor who goes to visit a farm that has been struck by an asteroid, where bizarre plants and animals start to appear, the farmer and his family all go mad, and from which a malevolent alien infection grows outwards and threatens to destroy civilization.

This central premise is followed through by Stanley, who has set the story in the modern day, hired Nicolas Cage (Mandy, Face/Off) to chew the scenery as the aforementioned farmer, Joeley Richardson (Event Horizon, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) to play his wife, and who engaged a bunch of other people, and several animals and plants, to be likewise transmogrified by the nameless sinister extraterrestrial presence.

Undoubtedly there are times when the film becomes totally unmoored, and some of the acting is of soap opera standard, but who cares? The whole thing plays out like a squelchy, grungry, phantasmagoric showreel of high concept horror’s greatest hits.

I wouldn’t say that I loved it, but I had a lot of fun with it - and there are plenty of moments throughout at which you might comfortably remark, “Well now, you don’t see that every day…”

19. Vivarium

An excellent premise for a film - a young couple go to visit a model home, planning to live a model life.

Only, when the time comes to leave, they find they can’t - and a model life in a model home is exactly what they get, with their food, clothes, and a baby, all delivered in brown Amazon-esque cardboard boxes across days and weeks and months that stretch on and on, much like the endless identical suburban homes sprawling out in every direction.

Starring Imogen Poots (Green Room, Jane Eyre) as Gemma and Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network, Zombieland) as Tom, Vivarium is genuinely excellent in parts. Its opening is extremely powerful, although the film never quite reaches these heady heights again. Thankfully, the ending is also very good indeed - and I don't want to spoil it, tempting as it might be to discuss it here.

The trouble, ultimately, is that the connecting tissue between start and finish ranges from unsettling and imaginative to disjointed and downright dull - which makes it a film you sort of have to see, but which will likely leave you feeling cheesed off and inspired in equal measure.

18. Unhinged

Not a complex one, this.

Russell Crowe (Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind) plays Tom, a right-wing, all-American nutcase who has murdered his ex-wife and her new husband with a hammer, burned their house down, and then got himself stuck in traffic.

Presumably he left his red cap at home...

Meanwhile, Caren Pistorius (Mortal Engines, Slow West) plays Rachel - a semi-employed hairdresser and flaky mum going through a messy divorce.

She makes the mistake of cutting Tom up in traffic, and Tom asks for an apology that Rachel refuses to give, so Tom, a hateful misogynist with nothing to lose, decides to terrorise Rachel and give her the worst day of her life.

It’s a simple B-movie and a fully competent action thriller, and if you’re partial to the odd trashy "thrills-spills-and-kills" sort of picture then odds are you’ll have as much fun with it as I did!

17. Birds of Prey

To say that this film relates a maniac’s quest to defy the patriarchy and eat a fried egg sandwich might seem a little off-hand.

Thing is, while - deep breath - Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn does contain a lot of other froth and frivolity, the core premise really is that simple.

Evidently, this very silly film did not find an audience - and that’s understandable. Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street, The Big Short) as Harley Quinn was the only redeeming feature of 2016’s Suicide Squad, and that the only fun character in that dour, stodgy, mess of a movie was given her own spin-off was pretty remarkable, all things are considered. Was anyone asking for more?

Thing is, Birds of Prey is barn-stormingly good fun. Unlike so many comic book movies, it’s anarchic, colourful, camp, and really, really, really funny. It’s also very violent, with imaginative, winsome, wince-inducing fight choreography - none of which is captured in the trailers.

There is a supporting cast, including a wonderfully affected Ewan MacGregor (Moulin Rouge, Trainspotting) as the baddie, but none of them really matter: it’s the Harley Quinn show, basically - part cartoon, part acid trip, part baseball-bat wielding sherbet nightmare.

There's even an excellent car chase with Robbie on roller-skates. What more do you need?

It ain’t exactly art, but it sure is entertaining - and if you’re as bored of comic book films as I am then I’d recommend it as a really pleasing freak of the genre.

16. Calm with Horses

Based on a short story from the outstanding collection Young Skins by Colin Barrett, Calm With Horses follows Arm, played by relative unknown Cosmo Jarvis (Annihilation, Lady Macbeth), who is a good natured, slightly dim ex-boxer working as an enforcer for an Irish crime family.

Through lyrical, beautiful, melancholic film-making, we quickly learn how Arm is exploited by the Devers Clan - a motley collection of drug dealers and ne’er do wells. He feels that they are his family, that they look after him and that he owes them loyalty because of this, but all the while his ex-girlfriend Ursula, played by Niamh Algar (TVs The Virtues, Raised by Wolves) is urging him away and struggling to care for their autistic son.

It might not be the most cheerful film you’ll see, but every performance is excellent, it is wonderfully shot, impeccably designed, and does things with the crime genre that sets it apart.

Considering it is the debut feature from Nick Rowland, I am incredibly excited to see what he does next - and although there’s a necessary budgetary modesty to the film it really is very good in spite of its limitations.

15. Relic

A mid-budget feminist horror film, Relic follows Kay, played by Emily Mortimer (Shutter Island, Harry Brown) as she accompanies her daughter Sam, played by Bella Heathcote (The Neon Demon, In Time) to her mother’s remote home in rural Australia.

As the pair attempt to look for grandma, who appears to be suffering from dementia and who has lately vanished, they begin to wonder whether there might be something more going on in the crumbling family pile than black mould and Alzheimer’s disease.

While ultimately really rather good, the film is, unfortunately, a little pedestrian for the first 45 minutes or so, relying on a few rattles, bumps and elusive flashbacks.

Thankfully, the last half sees things kick up a good dozen gears, evoking The Shining, 1408, and all sorts of classic haunted house stuff.

The maiden/mother/crone dynamic is really interesting, if slightly underdeveloped, and the house itself makes for a fantastically evocative, surreal setting once things really get going.

Sure enough, it takes a little too long to warm up, and, dare I say it, the overall message of the film feels rather confused come its conclusion, but it’s pretty darn affecting taken as a whole.

Well worth a watch if you like films about things that go bump in the night.

14. Possessor

This brain-scrambling sci-fi horror comes from the mind of writer/director Brandon Cronenberg, son of David, and is a must watch for sci-fi/horror fans.

The first third of the film stars Andrea Riseborough (Mandy, Nocturnal Animals) as Tasya, an assassin in the near future who takes over the bodies of unsuspecting people and uses their ‘sleeves’ to kill people remotely.

Things take a bit of a turn when she is commissioned to take on the body of Colin, played by Christopher Abbott (It Comes at Night, TV’s The Sinner) - the shady boyfriend of a wealthy heiress.

Without spoiling the plot, the film is immaculately designed, is shot incredibly well for the most part, and the sci-fi elements are handled excellently.

Riseborough is brilliant, as is Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight, Single White Female) as Girder, Tasya’s handler. Best of all is the horror, which gets pretty squishy and brilliantly intense.

The only real issue with the film is Abbott, who feels a bit like a deer in headlights for most of the movie. His character is a nothing-burger, and as we spend so much of the movie watching him it’s a bit of a shame that either he wasn’t encouraged to really push for something more with his performance or that a more capable actor wasn’t given the opportunity to push the role to be something greater.

This problem aside, the film is an absolutely blistering Marxist critique of the modern economy, asking lots of searing questions in imaginative ways.

If you can overlook a pretty boy being a bit out of his depth, I would heartily recommend it.

13. Jojo Rabbit

The first major motion picture release of the year, Jojo Rabbit found itself caught up in a strange sort of controversy, way back in January.

The film, which whimsically tells the story of a member of the Hitler Youth as he transitions from boyhood to young manhood, was alleged to be trivialising Nazim.

Those humourless souls who failed to recognise the lashings of irony deployed by writer/director Taika Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople, What We Do In The Shadows, Thor: Ragnarok) denied themselves an awful lot of joy in denigrating the film.

I only hope they enjoyed complaining about the movie as much as I enjoyed watching it!

Anyway, if you haven’t seen Jojo Rabbit then it is well worth giving a go. There are some pretty breakneck turns into harrowing territory, and newcomer Roman Griffin Davies does a super job of playing a really horrid little boy with utter earnestness.

Mostly though, the film is just really funny and very stylish.

A supporting cast including Rebel Wilson (Pitch Perfect, Bridesmaids), Steven Merchant (Fighting With My Family, Logan) and Sam Rockwell (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Moon) brings fantastic energy to proceedings - and while Scarlett Johansson can’t do a German accent to save her life she is more than made up for by Waititi’s portrayal of ‘Imaginary Hitler’ - a character whose fate was amongst the most pleasing things I saw on screen this year.

12. Finding The Way Back

Considering my utter disinterest in sport, it is rather mystifying that I love sports movies.

I have seen so many of them, most of them being pretty poor, but a few, including the likes of Slapshot, Bull Durham and Moneyball, are amongst my favourite feel-good films.

The key, really, is that a good sports movie requires a good underdog, and who better to play a loser with a heart of gold than Ben Affleck (Justice League, Pearl Harbour) - a man literally trying to find his way back into an acting career?

Here, Affleck channels his own complex relationship with alcohol (and Boston… and Catholicism…) into Jack Cunningham, an overweight, self-loathing construction worker who was once a high school basketball star. The film follows Jack as he is invited by his old school, who are in a pinch, to coach their absolutely useless basketball team.

Sure it’s formulaic, but Affleck is great in the part, showing some of that Good Will Hunting-era charm, and the film has several cunning tricks up its sleeve that it deploys with skill and style, preventing the movie becoming entirely boilerplate.

It comes from the same team that made The Accountant with Affleck a few years ago, and if you like that film - generic, but well-made and with a few neat twists - then you’re very likely to like this one too. Press, press, press!

11. Dark Waters

The legal thriller genre has been on the wane in recent years, and while Dark Waters may not reinvent the wheel - or perhaps reach the heady heights of true classics like A Time To Kill or A Few Good Men - it is a bloody good example of its kind, and one made all the more impactful by virtue of being based on a true story.

The film stars Mark Ruffalo (Zodiac, Shutter Island) very much in Spotlight mode; he plays real-life lawyer Rob Bilott, a man who spent most of his career defending the chemical company DuPont.

Unfortunately for DuPont, and for Rob himself really, Bilott proves to be a man of principle and, after his mother’s neighbour’s cattle all die under mysterious circumstances, he starts investigating, is stonewalled by his one-time-allies, and ultimately goes ‘gamekeeper turned poacher.’

It’s a tried and tested formula for a film, with one good person standing up to absolutely insurmountable odds, but the movie does plenty to defy expectations and ensure that it remains a genuinely thrilling thriller.

Ruffalo is also admirably supported by a fantastic wider cast including Anne Hathaway (Interstellar, The Devil Wears Prada), Tim Robbins (The Shawshank Redemption, High Fidelity), Bill Camp (Vice, Midnight Special) and Bill Pullman (Casper, Independence Day), but the story is the best bit.

It’s genuinely disturbing and of relevance to every creature on the planet - give it a watch and see what I mean!

10. The Lighthouse

This delightfully mad film comes from the twisted mind of Robert Eggers (The Witch) and features Robert Pattinson (Good Time, High Life) and Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project, Antichrist) as Ephraim and Thomas, two lighthouse keepers forced to live together in very close quarters while they endure a veritable onslaught of hostile conditions - natural, supernatural, psychological and interpersonal.

There are many, many ways of reading the film, and it is ultimately a little too insane and scrappy to hold itself together. That’s not to say it isn’t a wild ride worth going on of course, what with all the farting, violence, mermaid fantasies, gasoline drinking, and reality-bending radiance.

Ultimately, Eggers could maybe have done with winding his pretensions in a bit, what with the aspect ratio, the black and white, and the relentless cavalcade of deranged antics the characters get themselves into - although there is something to be said for a bit of indulgence.

Such things just evidently come with consequences...

9. Portrait of a Lady on Fire

A gradual, meditative drama about Marianne, played by Noémie Merlant (Curiosa, Heaven Will Wait) - an 18th century painter commissioned to spy on a young heiress and commit her likeness to canvas.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire fits alongside a number of recent films including Call Me By Your Name, Blue is the Warmest Colour, and Duck Butter as a stylish, modern, artful exploration of queer love.

If one were to critique the film, which looks absolutely amazing from start to finish, then there is no doubting that the first hour or so of the movie drags its heels a little bit. The supernatural flourishes that pop up here and there are also frustratingly underdeveloped, and I could have happily indulged in a bit more Gothic melodrama.

Ultimately though, the film is worth watching for its final 10 minutes alone. They left me utterly devastated, profoundly moved, and all the stuff that came before them more than justified that very fleeting, very beautiful conclusion - one whose brevity felt utterly apropos.

8. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Adapted from August Wilson’s play of the same name, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom takes place across the course of an afternoon during which a jazz band rehearse for a recording session with real life ‘Mother of the Blues’ Ma Rainey - played here by the inestimable Viola Davis (Prisoners, Solaris, Antwone Fisher).

The film’s principal issue is that it is very stagey, and the attempts made to open Wilson’s story out into the street or nearby shops are ultimately unsuccessful.

There are lots of very “talky” scenes in fixed locations, and were it not for the musical elements it might be argued that the film lacks any cinematic qualities whatsoever.

Thankfully, the movie is elevated - significantly - by a brilliant ensemble cast, not least in the form of Chadwick Boseman (21 Bridges, Black Panther, Message from the King).

As has been well-publicised, Boseman’s appearance as Levy in this film marked his final performance, and it is safe to say that he ended his life with a career best. It is far from Boseman’s film, of course, and everyone in it gives it all they’ve got - which they needed to as this is heavy stuff, dealing with issues of race, exploitation and deep, deep pain.

Funny, lyrical, stylish and tragic, it’s a powerful movie adapted from a monumentally powerful play - definitely worth a watch, even if the core matter feels better-suited to live performance.

7. The Invisible Man

One of the few films of this year that disturbed me so much that I had to pause it to calm myself down!

Based incredibly loosely on the 1897 H.G. Wells novel, The Invisible Man follows Cecilia, played by Elisabeth Moss (TV’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Mad Men and Top of the Lake).

When we meet her, she is trying to escape from her controlling, abusive husband - a man we later learn is a scientist.

This husband apparently commits suicide in the wake of her departure, and the rest of the film follows Cecilia’s struggle to free herself from her trauma.

For anyone who has experienced controlling abuse/gaslighting, The Invisible Man may be a little too stressful to enjoy. It does also feature a few narrative wobbles and inconsistencies that threaten the suspension of disbelief.

Let’s not quibble, however; the film has its pulse on our cultural moment. It is also terrifying, very imaginative, Moss is sensational as Cecilia, and if you like a sci-fi/horror movie then you would be a fool to not see it.

Pun intended.

6. Bacurau

A true one-of-a-kind movie, Bacurau follows the residents of a remote and rural South American town as their utilities are shut off one-by-one.

Strange, seemingly supernatural occurrences build towards a shocking, thrilling, brilliant finale that owes as much to Sam Peckinpah as it does to George Romero.

5. The Vast of Night

An instant cult-classic, this 1950s-set indie movie unravels more or less in real time, following a pair of teenagers whose town is visited by extraterrestrials.

Incredibly tense, wonderfully crafted and absurdly assured, it has marked writer/director Andrew Patterson out as one of the hottest up-and-coming directors working today.

A must-watch movie, albeit perhaps a bit of an acquired taste.

4. Mank

Much like its central character, David Fincher’s new film is perhaps a little bloated, and it maybe wants to say a little more than it should, but by Christ is it brilliant nonetheless.

Spinning a beautifully embellished yarn, Mank tells an elliptical story about Herman J. Mankiewicz, a Hollywood screenwriter during the 1930s and 40s.

The film follows Mankiewicz as he works on the screenplay for Orson Welles’ much-celebrated debut film Citizen Kane, but dips back into several episodes from Mank’s earlier life and develops several salient plot-threads related to writing, power, old Hollywood, and the manipulation of the populace through mass media.

The film is a success whether or not you have seen Citizen Kane, despite Fincher using that utterly iconic movie as a key reference - both in shooting style, lighting and structure.

It gets away with this because, in essence, absolutely everything else about Mank is really top drawer.

Gary Oldman (Leon, Darkest Hour) is blisteringly good as Mankiewicz, but the supporting cast are all fantastic. And the script is amazing. The production design, music, pacing - all of it is superb, and this is all the more essential considering the film is essentially just a period drama, with few other gimmicks, bells and whistles, or high-concept novelties to set it apart.

To some degree the film’s quality should come as no surprise. After all, David Fincher doesn’t make bad movies. But in a crowded genre that includes the likes of Hugo, The Artist, Hail, Caesar!, Ed Wood, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and even La La Land, Mank had serious work to do to justify itself - and to make itself surprising.

Thank goodness, it managed it - what a corker!

3. Tenet

Perhaps the most divisive major motion picture of the year, and one that seems to have far more detractors than advocates.

While it might be more of an exercise in technical prowess than it is a blockbuster, Tenet remains a must-see, singular viewing experience. It is packed with delicious layers of detail, and its politics veer rather nicely towards the right side of things.

Or, should I say, left.

Anyway, I really enjoyed it, although it does require you to pay incredibly close attention - particularly on your first foray down the rabbit hole...

2. The Personal History of David Copperfield

I have read and heard plenty of complaints about the “wokeness” of the colourblind casting of The Personal History of David Copperfield, and to anyone who has expressed or even considered such notions I have to say, get over yourself.

The film is hilarious, imaginative, incredibly stylish, and - unlike 2020s other big-budget costume drama, Emma, this one really justifies existing.

Part of what the film sets out to do is upend the apple cart of rules limiting cinematic adaptations of classic literature.

Key to this is theatricality, particularly Brechtian dramatic technique, and with the opening scene seeing Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire, The Man Who Knew Infinity) as David walking onto a stage and speaking to the rest of the cast, who are assembled in the stalls, the movie makes its coda fairly plain from the get-go.

We have been adapting Shakespeare in this way for decades - why can’t we do the same with other canonical texts?

In addition to being artistically brave, the film is also a bit of a who’s-who of British talent, with a good dozen fantastic supporting turns from all sorts of wonderful people - many household names, many not. And while Patel absolutely nails it, the real star of the show here is director Armando Iannuci.

He took a book I wasn’t fond of, by an author whose work had become cliché, and made a film that was unpredictable, loveable, which surprised me, and that had me laughing like any idiot throughout.

Funniest film of the year for sure, and very nearly the best.

1. Parasite

The obvious choice perhaps, but it would be simply impossible for another film to take the top spot on my list.

Bong Joon Ho’s Academy Award-winning movie is both a stand-out movie in 2020 and a stand-out movie full-stop - one to weigh against classics of the 20th century and, arguably, one of the truly great films released since the turn of the millennium.

A social satire, love story, family drama, horror movie, comedy, coming-of-age film, and a tightly-plotted morality tale, Parasite offers audiences so much. And while it plays gleefully with genre, it is also shot through with brilliant originality - the peaches, the knickers in the car, the half-basement apartment… I could go on.

The first time I watched it, I was not 100% sold and did wonder if it was not quite as good as Park Chan Wook’s Oldboy.

In particular, the third of the five acts of Parasite, where the film becomes a sort of farce, left me a little cold. But, having gone back and rewatched Oldboy, and having spent some of the year indulging in a Korean film deep-dive, then having rewatched Parasite several times, I have concluded that I was wrong.

It is the best of a very good bunch - and, if anything, The Handmaiden is Park Chan Wook’s best film, not Oldboy.

Anyway, Parasite not only stands up to multiple viewings but, like a great novel, it gets better and better when viewed over and over again. There is more to see, more to think about, and more to love.

Best film of the year without a doubt, and one of the best in recent memory too.

Thank you for reading!

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