From Spike Lee to The Safdie Brothers: The 10 best films of 2020 (so far)
Knocking sporting events off the calendar and kicking film release dates down the road, 2020 all-in-all has been a roadblock to general progression. A puncture in the vehicle of life, or an olive stone in the otherwise really pleasant salad.
As with all creative industries, the cinematic landscape has been forced to adjust to the worldwide pandemic of coronavirus. Once cinemas shut up shop across Europe, release dates began to scurry in panic, with James Bond abandoning his post in favour of a November release date and Christopher Nolan playing musical chairs with his latest sci-fi darling, Tenet.
Trolls World Tour opted for a ‘home premiere’, whilst Artemis Fowl decided to ditch the silver screen for Disney+, as companies were forced to adapt in order to keep their heads above water. Consequently, the films of notable reference this year have been few and far between, and can all be condensed into a shortlist for your convenience and based on UK release dates.
The best films released in 2020 so far…
Bacurau – Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho
Brazilian filmmakers Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho bring this strange tale of unhinged violence erupting from a small fictional village to the forefront of the contemporary Western genre.
As sinister acts of violence and intimidation from foreign tourists begin to terrorise an isolated Brazilian community, the residents begin to mobilise and defend their town and culture. Drawing from historical and sociopolitical concerns from the current Brazilian landscape, Bacurau creates a strong, unhinged retaliation whilst also challenging national cinematic representation.
Talking to Film Comment, director Juliano Dornelles said: “I have in mind the ethnographic representations that frame persons living in far-away places as somehow ‘exotic’ or ‘simple’…we wanted to show a community that completely breaks with the idea of what is ‘simple’.”
Da 5 Bloods – Spike Lee
One of Spike Lee’s greatest contemporary achievements, Da 5 Bloods tracks four American war veterans during their return to Vietnam in search of the gold they buried long ago. Unrivalled energy fuels Spike Lee’s blunt criticism of the Vietnam war, providing a thought-provoking outlook into those forced to fight a war they had no interest in fighting.
Releasing bottled ghosts from a shocking past as the group travel back to rural Vietnam, it is in Lee’s deft ability to combine touching drama and action elements, that he is able to orchestrate such a wild, impactful tale.
Paul, one of ‘the 5 bloods’, played by Delroy Lindo’s character, summarises the sentiment with this simple, eloquent line of dialogue – ‘We fought in an immoral war that wasn’t ours, for rights we didn’t have.’
Family Romance LLC – Werner Herzog
Riding the line between fact and fiction, Werner Herzog’s latest curious gem is a bizarre docu-drama concerning the artifice of everyday life. The film follows Japan’s real-life businesses which rent out actors to those who may be missing a loved one or would like to fill an empty hole in their life. Herzog flickers between fact and fiction with blurred distinction, though in the process finds something inherently honest about modern relationships.
Treading a truly unconventional path, Herzog explores the subject matter with ethereal existentialism that few filmmakers can access. In an interview with Deadline about the film, he stated: “The content of these documentaries dictates the style.”
Adding: “When you speak about many different characters and subjects, my curiosity is always based in the same impulse – trying to find out about our human condition.”
A Hidden Life – Terrence Malick
Much of Terrence Malick’s modern works can be typified by a lonely soul wandering through a wheat field at dusk, whilst an ASMR voiceover expresses life’s aimlessness. It’s been an unfortunate reality of his for some time, ever since the underwhelming follow up to Tree of Life, To the Wonder.
It may have taken some time but A Hidden Life is his best film since 1998 effort The Thin Red Line. Focusing on the real-life of Austrian farmer, Franz Jägerstätter, who refused to fight for the Nazi’s in World War II. The film takes the enormity of the second world war and reduces it to its most basic moral concern, wisely choosing to ignore the context of the wider war itself.
A near three-hour study into the mind of a morally tormented man facing unspeakable evil, Malick manages to perfectly insert the viewer into the time and space of war-torn Europe. The horror carefully mounts and culminates in a visually absorbing, immaculately shot tale of God’s lonely man.
The Lighthouse – Robert Eggers
Forged from on the salty seas, The Lighthouse is a visceral journey into the mythology of natures most ruthless element. Explored with a careful, excited curiosity, director Robert Eggers sets the film within the confines of a small rocky outpost, with just Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe for company.
The result is a strange allegorical nightmare, the sort of mythological fever-dream you could imagine being told under candlelight on a sea-sick ship. A folk-tale conjuring fear through solitude, desolation and other-worldly mystery, Eggers focuses on the atmosphere in place of narrative drive, deconstructing the wasteland of the two lost individuals, as the world around them rots and decays.
Speaking to Douglas Greenwood at I-D, Eggers spoke about his inspiration behind the original idea: “The atmosphere comes first for me. The look and feel and smell and texture. Black and white, 35mm negative was always tagged, ever since my brother said, ‘a ghost story set in a lighthouse”.
Little Joe – Jessica Hausner
Best known for her fantastic 2009 film Lourdes, Little Joe is director Jessica Hausner’s first film in the English language and an unusual enigma radiating a dreadful tone. Working as a senior plant breeder at a corporation developing new species, Alice and her team create a flower which is capable of making their owners happy. What begins as a potential cure to everyday loneliness, descends into an object of fear and dread.
It’s a bizarre little film, compact in its world-building and coinciding storytelling. A colourful study into motherhood engineered happiness and the boundaries of scientific endeavour. Hausner’s film is remarkably unique—a journey down an unusual rabbit hole where a distinct fear resides and is stagnant in everyday life.
In an interview with Vulture magazine, this distinct mood of Hausner’s filmography is explored: “Of course we would like to have romantic love, and have everything makes sense, and we would wish to have a happy life. But what is a happy life? Happiness is on my iPhone, a picture of the beach. I don’t know what happiness is. If you take a closer look, it vanishes.”
Portrait of a Lady on Fire – Céline Sciamma
Céline Sciamma’s powerfully subdued Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a rich period-piece set in the late eighteenth century, following a female painter on a desolate island in Brittany tasked with painting a portrait of a young woman.
This is quiet, subtle filmmaking, crafted with the elegant flair of a paintbrush. With a distinct lack of male presence in-front or behind the camera, the film takes on a unique female-gaze, the two protagonists becoming subjects of admiration for both the audience and each other.
A passionate romance stirs as delicately as the ocean surrounding them, intensely bubbling through the lead of two excellent lead performances from Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel. This is Sciammas fourth film in an ever-impressive filmography, increasingly concerned with gender identity, from 2007’s Water Lilies, through to her fantastic 2020 masterpiece.
Queen and Slim – Melina Matsoukas
From the classic tale of Bonnie and Clyde to Tony Scott’s stylish True Romance, the concept of the star-crossed lovers, thwarted by violent circumstance or self-obsession has forever been a main stake in the fugitive crime genre. Often guilty criminals, Melina Matsoukas’ Queen and Slim approach this concept from the perspective of racial injustice, questioning the morality of the two title characters within a society that is penned against them.
After they go on the run following the unintentional murder of a police officer, the journey of Queen and Slim is both effortlessly stylish and furiously gripping. A seething, provocative analysis on the landscape of contemporary America, this is charged-up filmmaking, led by the charismatic lead duo of Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith.
Centrally, however, this is an excellently constructed love story, something which director Melina Matsoukas was focused on portraying. Speaking to Refinery29, she commented: “I realised that I hadn’t seen see a black love story in so long and not really had I ever seen it between two dark-skinned actors…It was important for me to promote black unity and promoting black queens and kings being together and lifting each other up. I don’t see that represented on screen and I don’t see that represented in life.”
The Truth – Hirokazu Koreeda
Following his Palme d’Or success with 2018’s Shoplifters, Hirokazu Koreeda continues his focus on small, domestic altercations, finding beauty in the everyday. The Truth tracks the tale of a famous mother and daughter reunited. The daughter, a famous screenwriter, and the mother a famous actress in the process of shooting her latest film, starring as a mother who never grows old.
His first foreign language film brings together French acting juggernauts Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche, with much of the film’s joy radiating from their own chemistry and dynamic, set alight by Koreeda’s familiar tender touch.
As the film unfolds, egos dissipate and facades are dropped, building a piece of cinema that may not sit among Koreeda’s strongest films, but still sings of his signature ability to frame characters with a compassion and vulnerability that eerily reflects the tenderness of everyday life.
Uncut Gems – The Safdie Brothers
The image that directors Josh and Benny Safdie create of a manic jeweller, swerving round the streets, back alleys and dark apartment buildings of New York, is one bafflingly vivid.
Hanging on to the coat-tail of Adam Sandler’s Howard Ratner, as he escapes the many debt collectors baying for his blood, is the most electrifyingly intense journey through New York City you could ever take. This is truly frenetic filmmaking, leading you almost unwillingly by the hand to experience the day-to-day life of an exhausting eccentric.
Where Uncut Gems particularly succeeds is in its central character. Sandler embodies the values and energy of the city itself—equally charming and annoying, eccentric but original. It’s a strangely addictive personality that is both relieving and bittersweet to depart from. This is an American allegory thick with matted hair, dripping in sweat and dunked in Old Spice.