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I'm not paid to write about film - I do it because I love it. Favourite filmmakers include Bong Joon-ho, Danny Boyle, the Coen Brothers, Nicolas Winding Refn, Clio Barnard, Steven Spielberg, Guillermo del Toro, Paul Verhoeven, Taika Waititi and Edgar Wright. All reviews and articles are original works written and owned by me. They represent one man's opinion, and I'm more than happy to engage in civilised debate if you disagree.
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Before I press on with my usual roundup of the year’s releases, I’ll put forward a few other films that have hit me particularly hard this year. What should you watch to see out this most awful of awful twelve months? What films will lift your spirits, allow you to reflect and provide a cathartic release? The following list of films mixes recent releases and classics, the thought-provoking and fun, but all make you feel, and it’s these feelings that are going to get us through this.
THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940)
Dictators are real and as terrifyingly active today as they were in the 1930s and 40s (now with the power of social media!). But what if a lookalike for a despot managed to fool his followers, address this captive audience and speak from the soul about the monstrous treatment of his people? THE GREAT DICTATOR is clever and memorable and silly just like all of Chaplin’s greatest works, but the reason I want to highlight it here is for that end speech, a speech for the ages and one that hits harder than ever today in a world still so full of hate. “The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed – the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress...”.
BEING THERE (1979)
Anyone can get into politics, but as shown in Hal Ashby’s BEING THERE not everyone should. It’s not an unpalatable personality, extreme views or mental instability that makes Chance, or Chauncey Gardiner as he becomes known (Peter Sellers) unsuitable to rub shoulders with the most powerful people in Washington, but because he’s an innocent. A simple, kind gardener who’s never seen the real world mistaken for a shrewd political genius by a cynical world makes for the ultimate satirical tragedy.
ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (2004)
We’d all like to erase some or all of this year, but would we be any better for it? ETERNAL SUNSHINE is easily the most profound and moving thing Charlie Kaufman has ever written, and this year when we’ve all been shaped by horrible life experiences to some extent, it is all the more powerful. Just as Joel (Jim Carrey) tries to erase his memory of his painful breakup with Clementine (Kate Winslet) but cling on to the happy ones, if we could take the bad memories of 2020 away, would we be the same people? Our experiences good, bad and the worst shape us and help us grow.
This has been a year of heartbreaking losses and such a vibrant animation all about remembrance is more essential, and painful (in a good way) than ever. Aspiring musician Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) gets accidentally transported to the afterlife during the Dia de Muertos celebrations and through meeting his music-hating ancestors helps reconnect his ailing great-grandmother to her nearly-forgotten father. When our loved ones leave us they live on in our memories and it’s our responsibility to keep talking to, and crying for them together. “Remember Me”, we promise to, always.
BLACK PANTHER (2018)
The biggest and most tragic loss of 2020 in film is without question Chadwick Boseman. A talent, an icon and a thoroughly decent person, he was taken cruelly soon but leaves behind an essential body of work. Most will think of BLACK PANTHER when remembering Boseman, the casting as perfect a fit as Christopher Reeve as Superman or Chris Evans as Captain America, the film built around the young king of an uncolonised African nation is richly thematic, vibrantly designed and quietly powerful. Wakanda forever.
Without further ado, here’s my list of the Top 20 films of 2020. This selection is based on UK release dates so has the sad caveat that I haven’t yet had the opportunity to see such really well-received films as NOMADLAND, FIRST COW, ANOTHER ROUND or PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN. No Bottom 10 list this year either, because I think we’re all just so tired of negativity.
Best of 2020:
20. SCARE ME Review in brief here.
19. HIS HOUSE Review in brief here.
18. SHIRLEY Full review here.
17. MONSOON Review in brief here.
16. AINU MOSIR Review in brief here.
15. SOUL Full review here.
14. MANGROVE Review in brief here.
13. NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS Review in brief here.
12. A WHITE, WHITE DAY Review in brief here.
11. TIME Review in brief here.
10. HOST Full review here.
9. MANK Full review here.
8. POSSESSOR Review in brief here.
7. THE VAST OF NIGHT Full review here.
6. BABYTEETH Review in brief here.
5. CRIP CAMP Review in brief here.
4. THE ASSSISTANT Full review here.
3. PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE Full review here.
2. ROCKS Review in brief here.
1. PARASITE Full review here.
Try and have a happy new year everybody. 2021 has got to be better, right? Riiight?! SSP
TIME is a must-see documentary about injustice and inequality in the US penal system, one that makes you wonder how much longer urgently-needed reforms can be avoided if films like this keep getting made and scores of victimised citizens’ stories keep getting told. An African American man, Rob Richardson made a huge mistake in robbing a bank and paid for it with life imprisonment. Over the next twenty years we witness his loving family grow up without him as his charismatic wife Fox Rich tirelessly appeals for his early release. The film is brimming with righteous anger, uses the Richardsons’ black-and-white home movies extremely affectingly and features the one of the most moving montages in film as its closer. This isn’t flashy filmmaking, but it’s low-key stylish, couldn’t be any more personal a story and has Earth-shaking changes on its mind. SSP
With a premise that could have either been maudlin or saccharine (teenager with cancer falls for a bad boy) BABYTEETH instead ends up being bittersweet, often joyous and lyrical. This is musical filmmaking without actually being a musical with its great soundtrack and floaty joy conveyed whenever Milla (a dazzling Eliza Scanlen) dances. All the characters are flawed but loveable (Essie Davis and Ben Mendelssohn as Milla’s parents devoted to her but falling out of love with each other stand out) – all dealing with their own crap and dreaming of things getting just a little bit better. You gear yourself up for tears throughout but the cathartic ugly crying only comes in the film’s post-script that puts everything else into a new and heartbreaking perspective. As feature debuts go, this is an absolute cracker from Shannon Murphy. SSP
MANGROVE, Steve McQueen’s furious opening salvo in his SMALL AXE film anthology is powerful, poignant and essential Black British storytelling. The film remembers the Mangrove Nine and their very public 55 day trial for supposedly inciting a riot by protesting the Notting Hill Mangrove Caribbean restaurant’s repeated targeting for police raids. The film manages the not inconsiderable task of being celebratory of Black British communities and culture and being unflinching in depicting their bridal treatment at the hands of the Metropolitan Police. Malachi Kirby is a force of nature as Darcus Howe defending himself in court and Shaun Parkes makes a dignified Frank Crichlow but the entire cast and the vast socio-political canvas McQueen has put together here and in the other Small Axe films is simply awe-inspiring. This is deeply personal and important filmmaking, disturbing as it is how relevant this story still feels today. SSP
Aaron Sorkin’s greatest strengths as a writer and a filmmaker are also his greatest weaknesses, but he’s probably the kind of idealistic voice the world needs right now. This is never truer than in watching THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7, which is verbose and passionate and well-performed while also being idealistic and romanticised almost to the point of parody. It’s a fascinating and important period of American history to cover, but for some reason Sorkin felt it necessary to leave some of the more unbelievable (but true) events of the trial of Vietnam War protestors accused of inciting a riot in Chicago and invent his own less interesting (untrue) embellishments. It’s all very nice looking and sounding and the performances, particularly from Mark Rylance and Yahya Abdul-Mateen impress, but this does nothing particularly revolutionary or challenging and you’re left thinking, “good, but not great”. SSP
We’re all just meat puppets really, that’s the message here. POSSESSOR is as stylish and extreme and disturbing as expected from Brandon Cronenberg, son of David, but it’s very much its own thing as well. Andrea Riseborough and Christopher Abbott are firmly cemented as two of the most talented young character actors working today, playing as they do a body-hijacking assassin and her latest tool for the job who proves more independent and wilful than expected. This is layered, emotional and an unexpectedly tragic character piece that will doubtless reward repeat viewings. The most complex of philosophical ideas are communicated in striking visual form in a fascinatingly contradictory film that manages to be both beautiful and deformed, unpleasant and entertaining, cynical and spiritual. SSP