The 23 Best Films Of 2020
Yes, films did come out in 2020. No, 'Tenet' isn't included.
If, a year ago, we tried to predict 2020, ‘no Marvel films will be released’ would probably, honestly, sit below ‘global pandemic’ but above ‘Christopher Nolan demands Americans die to see Tenet‘ or ‘Trolls: World Tour becomes one of 2020’s most talked-about films’.
All these things happened, however, as the film industry collectively freaked the fuck out about COVID-19. Where studios pushed blockbuster titles back (James Bond, Wonder Woman, Marvel’s slate), others moved to video-on-demand (Trolls) or landed on a streaming service, as Disney did with Pixar’s Onwards and Mulan (while demanding a rental fee on top for the latter).
And Nolan demanded Tenet be seen in theatres, and it subsequently flopped — though given its quality, context alone can’t be blamed.
Overall, it was a quiet year, and a lot of excellent things were swallowed whole as they arrived on streaming services or in socially distanced cinemas. Here are 23 of them in alphabetical order, most of which you can rent or stream online. (we’ll mention where, if it’s available as of writing).
A special shout out to documentary In My Blood It Runs, which featured on our 2019 list but was released widely across cinemas this year. It’s one of Australia’s best in years.
And Then We Danced
At the National Georgian Ensemble, dancers honour their culture, keeping alive rigid traditional dances. In And Then We Danced, we follow Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani, your new crush), who is talented but struggles to embody the machismo of the male parts — new dancer Irakli (Bachi Valishvili) quickly steals his spot in the ensemble.
And Merab’s heart, too, though he doesn’t realise it at first: the film sees the two circle each other in bravado, but eventually, they connect. Levan Akin’s film is vibrant with colour and pain, as Merab and Irakli must perform a stern masculinity to pursue their passions and get ahead in a place with few opportunities.
Tension carries the film — one of excitement and fear. There is great economic freedom promised through the rigid dances, but the personal freedom is felt at a party, in a dance scene set to Robyn’s ‘Honey’ — and the temptation comes at risk of ostracisation and violence.
Levan Akin’s film aches with love and despair for Georgian culture: it’s a queer coming-of-age that acknowledges that the self can be severed in half by circumstance.
And Then We Danced has played at multiple film festivals, but has not yet been widely released in Australia.
Australian director Shannon Murphy hit it out of the park with her debut feature, Babyteeth. Casting four of our finest actors certainly didn’t hurt.
Set in Sydney — and clearly shot for a lot of love for it, too — it follows Milla (Eliza Scanlan), a teenage girl with cancer who is enamoured with Moses (Toby Wallace), a troubled 20something with a drug habit. A confusing, difficult friendship develops, with Milla’s parents (Essie Davis, Ben Mendelsohn) wearily allowing him into their life against their better judgement, seeing how happy she’s making their sick daughter.
Beautifully shot, impeccably acted and painfully real, Babyteeth tackles the ultimate fact that we are not all dealt equal hands. It is completely devastating, but not just for devastation’s sake. It’s the kind of film that will make you call up a loved one you’ve neglected.
Readily available to buy or rent.
Bill & Ted Face The Music
Long-teased and eagerly awaited, the third (and reported ‘final’) Bill & Ted film sees the music nerds and time-travelling heroes in the current day, as washed-up rock stars.
Bill (Alex Winter) & Ted (Keanu Reeves) again have to save the world — this time by writing a song to bring the world together but lack the skills or confidence to do so. Their plan? Simply steal it from themselves in the future.
Meanwhile, their goofy, rock-obsessed daughters (Samara Weaving, Brigette Lundy-Paine) try to help, taking matters into their own hands. It’s about as dumb as you’d imagine and you’ve literally already figured out the plot twist, but it’s just a joy to watch Bill & Ted back together again. Oddly touching, even, to see someone save 2020 from destruction.
Readily available to buy or rent.
Da 5 Bloods
Da 5 Bloods is falling apart at its seams: even at 2 hours 40, moments aren’t given much breathing space. This Spike Lee joint is about four Black former soldiers in the Vietnam war, who return to find their friend’s body (played by the late Chadwick Boseman in flashbacks, in one of his final roles).
Like Apocalypse Now, it’s propelled forward by a pure rage over the pointless bloodshed, and, as the friends go further up their own river, Da 5 Bloods loses its mind.
The apocalypse is still happening within the minds of these veterans, who fought on behalf of a fundamentally racist country. As Da 5 Bloods shifts between vacation comedy, war drama, psychotic thriller and pure action shoot-out, it captures the immensity of not just the Vietnam war, but American imperialism in all its forms, abroad and at home. It’s awe-inspiring, with Lee firing with everything he has in him.
And Delroy Lindo deserves an Oscar for his performance as the Trump-loving, PTSD veteran protagonist/antagonist Paul, whose internalised anger is truly terrifying to watch. The horror! The horror!
Da 5 Bloods is available to stream on Netflix.
David Byrne’s American Utopia
While Da 5 Bloods is filled with despair for America, Spike Lee’s other 2020 film is guided by optimism.
Back in 1985, Talking Heads released the best concert film of all-time, Stop Making Sense, as David Byrne and the band radiate a pure enthusiasm and love for not just their music, but the art of live performance. Every move has a purpose, and Byrne takes great joy in simply moving his arm or stomping his feet — it is a marvel, which, like Talking Heads’ music, makes magic from the absurdity of everyday actions and life.
Following up such a beloved film is risky, but thankfully, it’s the same as it ever was. Centering around Byrne’s 2018 solo album American Utopia, this concert film captures the weird, wonderful, and optimistic world Byrne creates on-stage.
Now in his ’60s, Byrne can’t move as freely as he could, but his energy levels remain the same. His silly monologues between songs promote a more perfect union, but it’s the presentation that enacts it out. Each of the twelve band members on-stage are untethered by wires, moving in both perfect choreography while inflecting their own personalities onto the stage.
It is unashamedly earnest, and yes, when it comes to gestures towards Black Lives Matter, somewhat awkward. But it is a work that near-force its audience to match its earnestness, a perfect example of how live performance can cut through even the most jaded souls.
David Byrne’s American Utopia is currently in cinemas.
Deerskin doesn’t overstay its welcome. At 77 minutes, this surreal French comedy, directed by Quentin Dupieux, never lets you completely settle into its weird world, and it’s all the better for it.
The log-line is deceptively simple — a 40something man (Jean Dujardin) moves to a mountainside hotel during a mid-life crisis, buying a deerskin jacket on the way.
As a gift, the seller throws in a camera too, and at the local bar, he introduces himself as a filmmaker to a bartender (Portrait Of A Lady On Fire’s Adèle Haenel) with, by chance, an interest in producing. Naturally, he becomes consumed with the idea of being the only person in the world to own a jacket, and begins filming his interactions when he asks people to take theirs off.
Confusing, funny, bloody and a little sad, Deerskin is a wild journey guided by a lost man’s mind, consumed by the allure that a single clothing item can change your image and life. And who’s to say it won’t?
Readily available to buy or rent.
Disclosure: Trans Lives On Screen
Disclosure isn’t interested in creating a linear narrative of trans representation: then bad, now better. Instead, Sam Feder’s film features conflicting voices — such as Laverne Cox, Mj Rodriguez, Jen Richards, Lilly Wachowski, Angelica Ross, and many more — to display a variety of responses to trans roles across the years.
A powerful overview of how representation has shaped the public discourse around trans people, and the harmful effects it has — in one scene, screenwriter Jen Richards recalls coming out to a well-meaning friend whose only reference for a trans role was Silence Of The Lamb‘s Buffalo Bill.
It is an astute historical understanding of how damaging tropes were formed while positioning them against the hurt they’ve caused — and the confusing relationship for many trans people who made do with the only representation they had.
The result is an accessible documentary perfect for a wider audience (perhaps why Netflix picked it up), which builds up into a nuanced, complex discussion of representation and agency, acting as both a ‘trans 101’ doco and a more comprehensive, complex text.
Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen is available on Netflix.
Jackie director Pablo Larrain returns to Chile for his follow-up, a singular film about a couple who return their troubled just-adopted seven-year-old son to authorities, and face the social consequences.
Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) and Gastón (Gael Garcia Bernal) are dancer and choreographer, respectively, at a contemporary Chilean troupe.
Their relationship falls apart as Gastón blames Ema, decades younger, for being a bad mother, and the two struggle to move forward with the horror of what they’ve done. Ema escapes by moving into a hedonistic world with her fellow dancers, finding freedom in queer sex and the reggaeton dances that Gastón views as unsophisticated.
Ema is one of the year’s most enigmatic characters, whose dedication to her looks and perfectly peroxide hair are at absolute odds with the carelessness she otherwise seemingly lives her life with. Her actions make little sense, at first, but it doesn’t matter. The film exists, like Ema herself, on a sensual level, propelled forward by vibrant dance and sex sequences, flamethrowers, and an intoxicating score by Nicolas Jaar. Truly jealous of anyone watching it for the first time.
Ema played at MIFF, but has not yet had an Australian release.
End Of The Century
Ocho, visiting Barcelona from New York, makes eyes at another man on a street, and they hook up: in bed, they realise they met 20 years before, in 1999.
End Of The Century skips back-and-forth between then and now, from the more-assured but pragmatic men of the present to the timid, closeted boys of the past, excited for their lives to begin but unsure where their queerness fit into it.
Director Lucio Castro’s first feature is a romance of possibilities not taken, as the men reflect on what might have been: the actors do not de-age or even change hair-styles, suggesting that there’s more than an inkling of projection or fading memory taking place.
For once, the relationships that queer people weren’t ready to take are written out, a mournful act. Utterly romantic and thankfully explicit, even if it’s all tied up in what-ifs and what could still be salvaged. Hurt and hope, wrapped up in one.
End Of The Century will be released in cinemas on Boxing Day.
Feels Good Man / tfw no gf
There were two documentaries about ‘incels’ this year — and while Feels Good Man is easily the better film, tfw no gf is far more repulsive, and therefore probably much more accurate.
Also known as ‘that Pepe The Frog doco’, Feels Good Man follows how a goofy cartoonist’s slacker frog character evolved into a symbol of white supremacy online. As an archive of how the alt-right dominates internet culture, Arthur Jones’ documentary is fascinating, capturing the concurrent rise of irony shitposting, incel culture and attempts to post the most incendiary comments across the likes of 8Chan. At the centre is Pepe, after a single panel from Matt Furie’s MySpace comic becomes a meme — and spirals into its own thing.
Furie’s attempts to reclaim Pepe are well-documented, and the film follows his own story, which also stands-in for countless stories of how internet success severs all agency from your identity. It’s a moving story, but it’s also beautifully portrayed, with rich, colorful animations that do far more to reclaim Pepe than any of Furie’s legal battles or social media campaigns.
tfw no gf is a much lower-budget affair, focusing on director Alex Lee Moyer’s interviews with several incel figures/Twitter shitposters, following along with their generally pretty sad lives. It is a hard watch, as it’s an empathetic portrayal of how young, predominantly white and straight men can be red-pilled into violent, anti-social cultures online.
Feels Good is, understandably, less interested in empathy for incels, largely focusing on Furie’s own hurt. But tfw… spells out as the bigger issue at play, here: the socio-economic promises sold to men as a sign of their masculinity and worth that are completely impossible for lower-class men to reach. The frustration is ugly, misdirected, and genuinely dangerous.
tfw… is a far bleaker film, as it’s clear that sincerity will do little to cut through these mens’ irony- and resent-rotted brains. It’s also morally ambiguous, and the film’s been accused of being ‘irresponsible’ PR for Twitter trolls and anti-Semites.
A lot of the film’s subjects believe and say reprehensible things, and tfw… largely doesn’t question their statements. There are no external voices, not even concerned family members or friends. It’s lazy filmmaking, with no empathy or consideration of the targets of alt-right trolling and violence, or attempt to challenge its subjects, which also makes it, arguably, more valuable.
On the other hand, Feels Good Man, like Furie, is a little lofty when it gets too earnest. It dives into dark corners of the web and somehow manages to avoid feeling like one giant doom-scroll. If anything, it’s too wonderful for its subject matter.
In First Cow, the first cow arrives to a frontier settlement in 19th century Oregon, and a vagrant chef ‘Cookie’ and his new friend, King-Lu, a Chinese immigrant on the run, secretly milk the cow at night in order to sell baked goods.
Director Kelly Reichardt is known for her slow, gentle films about Oregon and rural identity, and First Cow is both her best and most accessible yet. First Cow feels like an odd-couple heist film, slowed down into a cuddly, domestic film — though on the frontier, violence always lingers.
Funny, charming and with a lot to say about colonial identity, immigrants and homosocial bonds, First Cow is a brief, warm story hidden within America’s frontier.
First Cow screened at MIFF, but has not yet had an Australian release.
Freeman, directed by Laurence Billiet, arrived on the ABC at the 20th anniversary of the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
The 60-minute documentary is an insight into Cathy Freeman, both person and symbol. Freeman’s interviews are like poetry as she evocatively describes her life-long love of running and the immense pressures she faced across her career, matched with performances by the Bangarra Dance Theatre.
Transcendent and essential for any Australian, as the doco captures the magic surrounding the athlete and her ability to unite a nation, if not for a moment.. We just wish it was a full-length film instead of a 60-minute special — like Freeman herself, it flies by.
Freeman is available to stream on ABC iView.
It’s called Kajillionaire, but the heists and scams of the family of three the film centres on are really just petty grifts, ways to exploit return policies or coupons as best they can. Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) is a 26-year-old who still lives with her parents (Debra Winger, Richard Jenkins), and everyday, the three of them scam: scamming is all that matters, and it becomes clear that Old Dolio has never felt anything resembling love in the family.
Then, they meet Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), who gets involved and has them reconsider the scope of their scams. Tiny acts of kindness shock and confuse Old Dolio, and awaken in her a long-ignored need to be loved. Evan Rachel Wood’s performance is exquisite, a portrait of a truly broken person who isn’t even aware of it.
Writer and director Miranda July’s brand of quirk isn’t for everyone, but underneath the colour and the characters is a deeply affecting story of alienation and connection at a time where scams can seem like the only way ahead.
Kajillionaire is currently in cinemas.
Hard to believe, but Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women came out in 2020 — in Australia, at least. Where to start?
There’s a gentleness to the film that makes it an utter joy even in it’s saddest moments: it’s as if we’ve been adopted by the March family. The key is that Gerwig and her cast throw away the stuffiness of the 19th century classic, instead giving the characters a more modern physicality — and updating the end, too.
This cast is so perfect. Saoirse Ronan delivers an all-time monologue as Jo; Timothée Chalamet’s tender, effette Laurie is a softboi bored with society, making his match with the petulant Amy (Florence Pugh, here the brightest of bright stars) work so much better than in the books, and Laura Dern is the perfect Marmee. A remake that feels essential.
Little Women is streaming on Amazon Prime Video and readily available to rent.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
A 17-year-old from Pennsylvania, Autumn (Sidney Flanigan, her first role) seeks an abortion, but can’t access one in her state. Her older cousin, the only person Autumn confides in, takes her on a bus to New York, where she can legally get the procedure: the two barely have any money, and can’t afford a hotel for the night.
Autumn is ever placid faced with relentless roadblocks, resigned to her lot. Never Rarely Sometimes Always — named after the four responses on a form she fills about her sexual activity — is a bleak, anxious film. Director Eliza Hittman (Beach Rats) isn’t interested in Autumn’s backstory, focusing on the procedure and bureaucracy that seems built to scar those who pass through it. Superbly acted and infuriating.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is still screening in select cinemas.
You’d think that Brandon Cronenburg would steer away from his auteur father’s love of body horror. But Possessor plays off the Cronenburg legacy and creating true horror in the difference — a clinical, cold air.
Possessor centres on Tasya (Andrea Riseborough), a contracted assassin whose consciousness takes over the body of an implanted person — once done with the hit, she kills her host and returns to her own body.
Tasya is revered at the shadowy corporation she works for (Jennifer Jason Leigh plays her boss), but is struggling to sever herself from those she takes over, impacting her relationship to her son and husband — but she refuses to take leave or admit her job is taking a toll. When she takes over tech worker Colin (Christopher Abbott) for a company bloodbath, Tasya wrestles for control.
While incredibly bloody, Possessor‘s real terror is its abject world, where work is designed to take you away from yourself.
Possessor is in cinemas.
She Dies Tomorrow
Director and writer Amy Seimetz didn’t know how topical She Dies Tomorrow would be, a psychological comedy-horror where a belief that you’ll die tomorrow spreads via personal contact.
It begins with Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil), a 30something in LA who has just moved into her own home — but the self-satisfaction of home ownership can’t fight this sudden knowledge she’ll die tomorrow. A friend tells her she’s just having a moment, but as soon as she leaves, has the same epiphany — and so it spreads.
An existential suicide-ideation pandemic is equally ridiculous and terrifying, as characters break down and, in what they know to be their last moments, abandon their pretences.
Eerily relevant in a year where waves of manic laughter, pessimism and bizarre calmness roll in on repeat.
Available via Golden Age’s Movie Night streaming service.
It’s hard to satire ‘influencers’ well, and Eugene Kotlyarenko’s blood-soaked Spree takes the challenge head-on. Kurt (Stranger Thing‘s Joe Kerry) has wanted to be a YouTuber for years, but can’t break double-digit views — the plan? To live-stream a killing spree, targeting anyone he picks up working as a ride-share driver.
Spree‘s ‘message’ about social media might be a little tired, but there’s actually very little in the film that suggests it wants to shove a moral down your throat. We all know social media’s bad: why not get a ridiculous murder-comedy out of it? Kerry is excellent as the psychopathic and hopeless Kurt, and stunt casting (Mischa Barton, Frankie Grande, Vine star Josh Ovalle) fleshes this influencer-obsessed world out.
One of the few films that creates social media comments and content accurately, which goes a long way: Spree, horrifically, feels almost real. Almost.
Spree is available to rent on Google Play and Apple TV.
The Forty-Year-Old Version
Radha Blank wrote, directed and stars in The Forty-Year-Old Version, her auto-fictional first film about making your debut long after it was expected.
The Forty-Year-Old Version is a black and white film about a neurotic New York creative currently in a crisis of confidence; the obvious difference here is the central neurotic isn’t a Woody Allen-type, but a middle-aged Black woman.
In the film, Radha is a New York playwright who hasn’t had her big break, though her new play is picked up — though, in the process, also edited by the white director and team into a generic work about gentrification in Brooklyn. Meanwhile, she tries to find fulfilment elsewhere, and turns to rap, beginning to release music as RadhaMUSPrime. It’s not exactly a smooth transition, and her interactions with beatmakers are some of the year’s best cringe-comedy.
The Forty-Year-Old Version brims with creativity and love for The Arts, but is built off the tension of compromise, in a moment where ‘diverse voices’ are being given a boost, but only if they say certain things.
Radha is also struggling with romance and grief over her late mother: The Forty-Year-Old Version has a thousand threads, almost as if Blank wants to shoot her shot while she has it. The result is funny, insightful, and a wonderful introduction to Blank.
The Forty-Year-Old Version is on Netflix.
The Last Black Man In San Francisco
Possibly the prettiest film on this list, The Last Black Man In San Francisco is a pained love letter to a city that’s long gone, as the tech bubble has irrevocably changed it.
Lifelong friends Joe Talbot and Jimmy Falls co-wrote the screenplay based off Falls’ own life: Talbot directs and Falls plays a version of himself. Falls’ grandfather built a beautiful Victorian house that has long fallen away from the family, and Falls wants it back.
Inspired equally by Wes Anderson and cult classic Ghost World (even featuring a cameo from Thora Birch), The Last Black Man In San Francisco is a stunning, melancholic ode to a place and history being destroyed in real time — the filming kept getting delayed as locations were being demolished. Incredibly romantic and terribly realistic.
The Last Black Man In San Francisco is available to rent on Google Play and Apple TV.
The Invisible Man
Australian horror writer Leigh Whannell (Saw, Insidious) updates a H.G. Wells classic into a gaslighting nightmare with The Invisible Man, as Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) believes she’s being stalked by her tech-genius abusive ex-boyfriend.
Playing off the trope of the ignored woman, The Invisible Man works as both as a straight horror and a metaphor for abusive relationships, bringing everyday domestic horror into the light.
Moss, as always, is excellent as a woman on the edge of sanity — and as an audience member, it’s unclear what to believe. A simple idea executed perfectly, an instant horror classic.
The Invisible Man is streaming on Amazon Prime Video and is readily available to rent.
Australia’s delayed release of Uncut Gems means we got to ‘enjoy’ this incredibly anxiety-inducing film in 2020: fitting, no?
Director duo The Safdie Brothers have carved out a specific niche of cold-sweat thrillers built off down-on-their-luck people in debt: Uncut Gems might be their most stressful watch yet.
Adam Sandler was robbed of every award as Howie, a New York pawnbroker and gambling addict who can’t help but continually risk it all for a shot at ‘winning’. His attempts to outplay everyone around him — from NBA stars to mafia men — see him continually try to remain just one step ahead of debt, and it’s near-unbearable to watch.
Matched by high-octane performances from the likes of Idina Menzel and Lakeith Stanfield (and a cameo from The Weeknd), Uncut Gems is an intense, desperate ride propelled by addiction, where the promise of wealth leads people to do disgusting and dumb things. Sound familiar?
Uncut Gems is on Netflix.
Jared Richards is a staff writer at Junkee and freelancer who writes for The Guardian, The Big Issue and more. He watched a lot of films this year: tweet him about this list @jrdjms.