Best of 2020 | Every film I saw this year

2020 films top ten best of tenet shirley one night miami small axe palm springs midnight sky netflix alex moreland

I watched just shy of 75 films this year! Fewer than I’d have liked, as always, with more than one high-profile omission I’ll try and get to as 2021 begins, but I think it’s probably also the most films I’ve seen in a single year anyway.

Generally speaking, it was a fairly good year for films, for me anyway: I covered the London Film Festival, and Raindance Film Festival; I wrote a lot of reviews, and did some pretty high-profile interviews; and, of course, I saw a lot of films I actually quite enjoyed.

Collected below are my Letterboxd reviews, slightly revised and expanded in a few places throughout; I’ve also linked anything else I wrote about each film below. This isn’t a particularly strict ranking – there’s too many films for that to work, and the star ratings I gave each film were often fairly arbitrary – but I have included a ranked list of my favourite 2020 releases at the end.

You can also find my 2019 list here, which includes a couple of favourites from 2018 and 2017 too.


½ out of 5

How to Build a Girl (2020)

It’s aggressively annoying from the start, but by the end it’s a work of towering vanity and alarming narcissism – without even a hint of self-awareness. I am genuinely astonished at the depth of arrogance it must take to write a film this cloying about your own adolescence.

Beanie Feldstein, please, fire your agent before you find yourself in a sequel about flinging shit at Owen Jones on twitter.


1 out of 5

Artemis Fowl (2020)

I’d been awake for something like twenty-four hours when I decided to watch this, and I really should’ve just gone to sleep instead. Shame it was such a let-down, I used to love these books. Ah well.


2 out of 5

The Midnight Sky (2020)

Feels like two films that are sitting together quite awkwardly; there’s something oddly disjointed about how the two strands of the plot interact, neither really complimenting the other. The ending was a little trite, too.

The Prom (2020)

Watched this with my mum, who fast-forwarded through all the songs.

Stardust (2020)

Anyway, watch Velvet Goldmine.

Read More: You can find my review of Stardust, written as part of my coverage of Raindance Film Festival, here.

Death to 2020 (2020)

I’ve never been especially fond of Charlie Brooker’s Yearly Wipe shows, to be honest – they’re fine at best – but 2020 feels particularly ill-suited to his brand of snarky centrist liberal satire. The main takeaway though (aside from the fact that Brooker clearly doesn’t own the rights to Philomena Cunk outright) was that it confirmed, or at least added some weight to, a suspicion I’ve had for a while: we’re not going to get any good pandemic art from people who experienced 2020 from a position of relative comfort.

Borat: Cultural Leanings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006)

Funniest bit was the bear’s head in the fridge, I think.

Chemical Hearts (2020)

Lili Reinhart is good in this, I think, bringing a maturity the film would otherwise lack – but she’s not really the focus of the film, which is in every other respect an essentially very generic and throwaway bit of YA fare. It’ll find some dedicated fans I’m sure, but I’d be surprised if it made much of an impact.

Read More: I reviewed Chemical Hearts for Flickering Myth, and you can find that piece here.

Coalition (2015)

It doesn’t help that the cast is markedly weaker than that of the Peter Morgan films (no one here holds a candle to Michael Sheen or David Morrissey) but more than anything Coalition demonstrates the risk in writing these films so close to the events that inspired them. It ends seemingly convinced that Nick Clegg might genuinely become Prime Minister in his own right – in turn looking deeply, deeply naïve.

Read More: Coalition wasn’t the first of James Graham’s political screenplays I’ve struggled with, but I really loved his ITV miniseries Quiz, which I wrote about here.

The Front Runner (2019)

Remarkably lightweight. There’s probably an interesting film to be made about Gary Hart, but this isn’t that: it seems to mourn the failure of his campaign, with no investment in his actual policies – the closest was an offhand reference to “creating jobs in Mexico so that Mexicans don’t come here and steal American jobs” – and no sense of what it’s actually arguing for. These things should be in the public sphere! It is indicative of how a politician will go on to wield and abuse their power (see Clinton and Lewinsky), and all this “oh bluh bluh bluh, ideas have been lost out on” waffle is meaningless when the film doesn’t convey what those ideas are. Just empty posturing, in the end, nowhere near as weighty as they clearly thought it was.

Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019)

There’s a real sort of, like, “that’ll do” quality to a lot of this? Just a very offhanded quality, like all involved have finally realised it doesn’t matter, nothing matters, it’ll make a billion either way. (Was the production of this sped up so it could be released earlier? I feel like I read that at some point.) Anyway: too much CGI, not enough Zendaya, and Jake Gyllenhaal was definitely sleepwalking through it.

But! Tom Holland lives sorta near me, and was, I’m told, very polite to my friend Osbert when they ran into each other. So that’s nice.


2½ out of 5

Rose: A Love Story (2020)

It’s… okay. When it works, it’s because of Sophie Rundle’s performance, and there’s a neat little undercurrent of a relationship close to buckling under strain, but as a whole… I didn’t love it. I think mainly the problem is that it’s a little too long – it could’ve stood to lose about twenty minutes or so. Also wasn’t so sure about the closing scene – the film already had a great ending, they didn’t need to end it again. Would’ve lost that, I think.

Read More: I interviewed Sophie Rundle a few years back ahead of the second series of Jamestown.

Another Round (2020)

I’d like to rewatch Another Round, I think; in the weeks and months since I saw it, I’ve become increasingly aware of how out of step I was with general consensus. Not just in terms of the quality of the film – I was surprised to see so many people describe it as a comedy! So this is likely one that’d be worth returning to, I suspect.

Read More: Here’s my full review of the film.

The Boy with the Topknot (2017)

I have a lot of time for Sacha Dhawan – he’s a great actor, and a nice guy too – but I wasn’t so sure about this entirely. The girlfriend role was a little underwritten, mainly, but also… I’m not sure how involved the real Sathnam Sanghara was in this (he’s credited as a writer but that might just be because it’s based on his memoir), but the film did sometimes have the sense that he was too involved, that it didn’t have enough of a personal remove. Sometimes felt like it lacked perspective – becoming self-flagellating almost to avoid self-criticism, I suppose?

Dhawan really is great, though. More leading roles for Sacha Dhawan imo.

Yesterday (2019)

Mostly this reminded me of when Osbert used to insist (circa 2011) that he wrote “Yellow Submarine” and The Beatles stole it from him (when they released the song, circa 1969).

(And he was right, they did!)


3 out of 5

JoJo Rabbit (2019)

one time my sister asked me if actors needed stunt doubles to do the Nazi salute for them. thought about that a lot watching this

Rocketman (2019)

Entertaining enough, I thought. Mostly though I just truly do not understand how Bohemian Rhapsody managed to go the distance? Like, I reckon Rocketman probably benefitted from comparison to Bo Rhap, but even if they’d been released the other way around this is clearly better.

Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm (2020)

Funnier than the first, in places, but seemed a little less coherent? The best bits are the guerrilla filmmaking stuff where it feels like it could be genuinely sort of dangerous for him, and I don’t know if they pushed that enough (certainly the more scripted, plot-heavy segments felt markedly weaker). It was also about twenty minutes too long, I think.

Maria Bakalova is pretty great though. I’d like to see her nominated for the Oscar.

This Is Where I Leave You (2014)

This was nice, I thought. A little cheap occasionally, but it had a great cast and got a lot out of them. Enjoyable enough.

The Post (2017)

I think Meryl’s plotline sits awkwardly throughout – the film might’ve benefitted from giving her character more focus, or removing her entirely, rather than this sort of awkward half-measure. (Was that about her availability? Spielberg et al made this quite quickly, I seem to recall?) There’s a potentially quite nice parallel between Katharine Graham being unwilling to publish the story for fear of ‘losing’ the paper, and various Presidents unwilling to leave Vietnam for fear of ‘losing’ the war, but The Post doesn’t really push that enough for it to have any impact.

Lola Versus (2012)

Fun little glimpse at what Greta Gerwig would’ve done for twenty minutes a week if How I Met Your Father had gone to series, I guess. It’s basically fairly light and throwaway, but, well, why must a movie be good? Isn’t it enough to sit in a dark room and watch Greta Gerwig dance on a big screen?

Wild Rose (2018)

Appreciably better than, say, Yesterday or Bohemian Rhapsody – mainly on the strength of Jessie Buckley’s performance, which really is as good as everyone says – though not quite as good as A Star is Born, which it’s probably most similar to of the recent musicals.

It falters a little as it ends – the last half hour or so not quite as sharp as what came before it. I’d have preferred it to be a bit more cynical, I think (although I think I’d like to see more cynical takes on this sort of premise anyway). Still, pretty solid overall.

Game Change (2012)

Great performance from Julianne Moore, but mostly struck by how 2012 this felt – both in how kind it was to McCain (uncritically recreating the “he’s an Arab” “no, he’s a nice guy” exchange was deeply telling about the film’s blindspots) and in how worried it still seemed about Palin specifically at the end. In 2020, it feels more than a little small.

The Deal (2003)

Impressive performances, but I think it needed a stronger sense of the actual political and ideological differences between Blair and Brown; as it is the film only really gestures at them, which leaves it feeling a little slight and insubstantial.

Booksmart (2019)

I don’t know, it was fine. Lots of individually quite charming moments, for sure – mostly down to the cast, who are pretty uniformly great. (Billie Lourd really is that good, I figured it might’ve been a bit overstated, but no, she’s brilliant.)

Otherwise, I’m a little surprised it was as loved as it was. It’s a strong directorial debut, yes, but definitely a debut, with some choppy editing and tonally odd music choices throughout. I also would’ve thought that its very, uh, Warren Democrat, privileged white liberal vibe might’ve come under more criticism than it did? It wasn’t exactly a dealbreaker for me – though it did grate at times – but I’m surprised that the film was as popular as it was, given that, if that makes sense at all.

No Fathers in Kashmir (2020)

One of the first films I watched in 2020. I quite enjoyed it, which is another reminder that across 2021 I should really try and watch a lot more international, non-English language movies.

Read More: I interviewed director Ashvin Kumar about the film, though I never managed to find a home for the piece; at some point I’ll try and arrange to have it published here, I think.

What We Do In The Shadows (2014)

Entertaining enough, and it (mostly) has a good sense of when to introduce a new idea and move onto the next joke, but I did get the sense watching it that it’d probably be better suited to a television series.


3½ out of 5

Happiest Season (2020)

I thought this was nice and basically charming, though I’m not surprised it caused as much of a stir as it did; definitely felt like the script was at odds with the direction a little, the former going for something much more heightened while the latter opted for something a bit more grounded. The mishmash strains occasionally, but for the most part I enjoyed it. Good cast! Always helps.

Official Secrets (2019)

I was just thinking the other day I’d not seen Keira Knightley in anything for a while, so I figured I should get around to this. Enjoyed it a lot actually. Good cast, pretty well made, entertaining couple of hours. Would recommend!

Lovers Rock (2020)

Lovers Rock is probably the most well-crafted of the films I saw this year, a really impressive achievement on the part of all involved; I think it’s always destined to be a film I respect more than one I straightforwardly enjoy, though, if only because I tend not to be particularly invested in films in this style, with so much more emphasis on mood and tone rather than character or plot.

The Flood (2019)

Could’ve done with emphasising Ivanno Jeremiah’s character slightly more than Lena Headey’s (or, I guess, giving her a slightly more well-defined arc – the balance felt a little bit off either way), but on the whole I thought it was quite a well-made, very slick film.

Five Dates (2020)

Surprisingly really engaging; I was watching this ahead of my interview with Mandip Gill, but I ended up getting invested in the plotline with Georgia Small instead, playing that through to the end. I’d recommend it!

Read More: You can find the aforementioned interview with Mandip Gill here; I was also quoted on the Five Dates poster, which was nice!

Supernova (2020)

Quite fond of this. Strong performances, great score; found it quite moving, even despite the… I suppose predictability of it all. It is basically exactly the film you’d expect it to be, but it is very good at being that film.

Read More: You can find my full review of Supernova here.

Marvellous (2014)

Stylishly made and consistently charming, Toby Jones gives a great performance, and the way Marvellous threads appearances from the real Neil Baldwin throughout makes for a nice departure from the more standard biopic fare.

Read More: I watched this because I’d interviewed Peter Bowker, the writer, a few weeks prior; you can find that interview, which I think is one of my best, here.

The Special Relationship (2010)

Politically much sharper than The Deal – hardly excoriating, but there’s definitely a sense that Peter Morgan soured on Blair in the years since the first film in the trilogy. Michael Sheen is more assured in the role too by this point, and together it makes for a much stronger film in general.

Vice (2018)

Self-indulgent, sure, but I didn’t particularly have a problem with that (think I might’ve preferred The Big Short though? Not sure). Do wish it had had a bit more focus on Bush/Cheney’s second term, though, and I do wonder if it being so singular in its focus on Cheney might’ve perhaps exculpated others involved, at least a little.

Read More: Not one of mine, but I enjoyed this piece (on Vice, The Report, and Oliver Stone’s W) a lot.

Just Mercy (2020)

It’s quite biopic-y in places, but that’s not a problem particularly, and even then it’s a far more emotionally involved & poignant film than “quite biopic-y” makes it sound, just bursting with empathy. Great performances all round, but especially worth highlighting Rob Morgan, who is both a) astonishing and b) probably a little less likely to be discussed in all this, relative to his more famous co-stars. He’s really, really good – very memorable supporting performance.

(Plus, there’s something quite endearing about Michael B Jordan playing a soft-spoken, nerdy lawyer, despite still being very obviously ripped. That’s fun.)

Read More: Many years ago, in January 2020, I interviewed Michael B Jordan, Jamie Foxx, and Bryan Stevenson (producer of and inspiration for the film) about Just Mercy.

Scott Pilgrim vs The World (2010)

Not seen this before, and found it basically quite charming and likeable. Miracle I didn’t watch it a decade ago, mind, that could’ve done some real damage.

The American President (1995)

Just a very long episode of The West Wing – and I liked it for that reason!


4 out of 5

Ammonite (2020)

Curious to see how opinion on this one shifts and changes over the next few years; I do get the sense it’s been poorly marketed, and it’s probably suffering from the weight of those expectations. Although, I say that, has it even received a wide release yet? I’m not sure.

Read More: I wrote about Ammonite here.

One Night in Miami (2020)

I thought Kingsley Ben-Adir was really excellent in this, I’m hoping to see him at least nominated for the Oscar.

Read More: You can find my London Film Festival review of One Night in Miami here.

Shirley (2020)

Fun fact: This was the first film I saw at the first film festival I covered. Granted I’m not convinced it was a brilliantly written review, but it was a pretty brilliant film, and I suspect in the long run that’s probably what matters more.

Read More: Here’s the aforementioned review.

Tenet (2020)

I wouldn’t necessarily want to risk my life to see a Nolan film, but obviously I am much more willing to risk my life to see Alice, and she wanted to see this, so, you know.

It was good, anyway, I enjoyed it. Charming cast, impressive set pieces, I had fun with it. All in all I quite enjoyed TENET deyojne etiuq I lla ni llA .ti htiw nuf dah I ,seceip tes evisserpmi ,tsac gnimrahC .ti deyojne I ,yawyna ,doog saw tI

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Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)

Very charming; I’m always fond of Aubrey Plaza and Jake Johnson. It’s the only Trevorrow film I’ve seen, though it made me wonder – between how much I enjoyed this, and the reception to his subsequent movies – if perhaps he was poorly served by moving to blockbusters too early.

The Iron Lady (2011)

It’s to be expected, I think, that a biopic will respect or admire its subject, but it feels altogether rarer to see the depth of affection, warmth, and kindness that is extended to Thatcher here. The Iron Lady’s occasional inclination towards ‘girlboss’ feminism is easily dismissed, but the genuine love it has for Thatcher is nothing short of revolting.

The Big Sick (2017)

Found this a lot more affecting than I expected to. Loved it.

The Squid and the Whale (2005)

Hmm.

Interstellar (2014)

I’m surprised, a little, that Interstellar is spoken of as though it’s this very cerebral piece of Hard Science Fiction, when in the end it’s so warm, so much about The Power of Love. I’ve never quite bought into criticism of Nolan as being a cold or unemotive filmmaker, exactly, but this felt like the most heartfelt of his films that I’ve seen. My favourite of his, I think.

Jackie (2016)

Really beautifully made, with lots of nice, subtle details; I liked that it never shot JFK head on, always filming him from a slight angle, imposing that extra layer of remove. Quite neatly addresses an issue with all these relatively apolitical political films I’ve been watching recently, in that it’s not really political at all – it’s all imagery, all aesthetics, all iconography.

And Natalie Portman was stunning, of course.

Fruitvale Station (2013)

Structurally very deft – a really controlled effort from Ryan Coogler, with quite an acute sense of tone. Great performance from Michael B Jordan, too, understated in a way that fits Coogler’s script really well – you can see why they went on to be such close collaborators after this.

Some of the criticisms about its accuracy and foreshadowing, for lack of a better way of putting it, strike me as unconvincing – I think any stray detail of anyone’s last day would take on a certain weight by virtue of being their last day, if nothing else. More to the point, though, I don’t think Coogler did labour the point particular: it’s a portrait of a life in motion rather than one on the precipice, I think. Which I suppose is why Jordan’s performance had to be pitched so precisely, because there likely was a version of this that could’ve been oversignified – as it is it’s a remarkably careful and conscientious bit of filmmaking.

Bad Education (2020)

Surprisingly engaging, I thought. Enjoyed it a lot – Allison Janney drops out of the narrative in the second half a little, which is a shame, but otherwise I quite liked this.

Clueless (1995)

So good, so immediately. Had lots of fun with it. (By somewhat interesting coincidence, I watched it on the film’s 25th anniversary!)

The Report (1995)

I liked it; I liked its cynicism, its willingness to criticise Obama (and, briefly, Feinstein herself), and how it positions itself against 24 and Zero Dark Thirty too. The ending I think was a little too triumphant though, a little too neat – the caption at the end not given enough emphasis, I suspect.

Little Women (2019)

It took me a little while to get used to the two timelines – and to get past the sheer, seething rage I feel whenever I see Timothée Chalamet; he knows why – but there’s clearly a lot of warmth, a lot of wit, and a lot of artistry to the film. Period dramas so often have a reputation for feeling staid and distant; Little Women is immediate and bursting with heart.

Read More: Only tangentially relevant, but some years ago I interviewed Robin Swicord – director of the 90s Little Women and producer on this version – about her film Wakefield.

Palm Springs (2020)

I really really liked this! Lots of fun, Andy Samberg and Cristin Millioti are very charming, good time all round.

Red, White, and Blue (2020)

Always thought John Boyega was one of the best actors in the new Star Wars trilogy; nice to see him get a chance to really show that. Interested to see what he does over the next decade or so after this.


4½ out of 5

Velvet Goldmine (1998)

Quite possibly an all-time favourite now. Justified that Britbox subscription all on its own, frankly.

Frost/Nixon (2008)

My favourite Peter Morgan script, by some margin; probably my favourite Ron Howard film too, though I’ve seen less of his work than Morgan’s (and less recently, too).

Mistress America (2015)

Borderline insufferable, but also really fucking funny; I loved it.

I, Tonya (2017)

Hell of a performance from Margot Robbie here, just a really remarkable achievement on her part.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

If I’d watched this in 2019, I think it would’ve been my favourite film of the year; certainly it was one of my favourite first time watches of 2020, as strong (if not stronger) than most of my Top Ten list this year.

Denial (2016)

I’m surprised I don’t hear this discussed more often; it’s got a great cast, a clever (and well-executed) new angle on courtroom drama, and it’s based on a true story too. Really enjoyed it, I’d recommend it.

Starter for 10 (2006)

God, I hate students. (And University Challenge.) But I did, admittedly, really love this.

The Edge of Seventeen (2016)

Especially liked, thinking about it, that it didn’t end with everything entirely resolved – tidy but not too much so. It would’ve felt trite otherwise, and maybe a bit dishonest too.

Adult Life Skills (2016)

This was very good, in all the ways I needed it to be on that particular day. Jodie Whittaker is very much at her best here.

Mangrove (2020)

All of this is firing on all cylinders, always; not just in the obvious ways, but smaller details in the sound design, the lighting, the pacing. It’s almost a shame that the marketing focused so much on Letitia Wright (brilliant though she is), because it feels like it overshadowed how well much Mangrove owes to Shaun Parkes’ performance – the strongest of the Small Axe films, I think.


5 out of 5

Eighth Grade (2018)

Probably my favourite of the nominally similar ‘coming of age’ films I’ve watched this year, even though they’re not exactly especially similar; this struck me as a lot more thoughtful, and a lot more perceptive too. Elsie Fisher is brilliant, working with much more complex material than I realised – I’d expected the film to be, not lighthearted I suppose, but certainly some of what it touched on was a surprise. Really deftly and sensitively handled, anyway.


2020 Releases Top Ten

shirley jackson elisabeth moss odessa young rose mushrooms josephine decker hangsaman lottery neon hulu london film festival
  1. Shirley
  2. One Night in Miami
  3. Bad Education
  4. Palm Springs
  5. Tenet
  6. Mangrove
  7. Supernova
  8. Ammonite
  9. Just Mercy
  10. Another Round

I submitted my list for Flickering Myth’s end-of-year roundup before I’d seen Mangrove, which ended up knocking Lovers Rock (previously in the tenth place slot) off the list. I’ve also switched Shirley and One Night in Miami since the last time I did a ranking this year; I liked them each broadly the same amount, I suppose.

Otherwise, some particular favourites that weren’t first released in 2020 were Mistress America, Velvet Goldmine, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Eighth Grade, and The Squid and the Whale, I think.


2021

Looking ahead to next year, my plan is to try and catch up on a few of the recent releases I skipped – the obvious Oscar contenders, like Mank, The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Ma Rainey, I figured I’d watch closer to awards season since I knew I’d want to write about them anyway.

Also – though I know I say this every year and never do – I’d like to try and watch a more varied selection of films in 2021. More foreign language movies, more indie films, and in particular more older films. We’ll see how well that goes, I guess.

You can find more of my writing about film here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed this piece – or if you didn’t – perhaps consider leaving a tip on ko-fi?

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