And now the first of two posts bidding farewell to the beastliest year of cinema I’ve ever experienced in my days as a reviewer. There was damn little that was great in 2020, and not all that much that was even very good, but scrounge hard enough and there are some real diamonds in amongst all the broken glass.
(NB: I am following calendar year eligibility, not the Academy’s extended “end of February” eligibility. All films had to open in a U.S. theater, virtual cinema, or major VOD service by 31 December 2020 to be considered).
(And yes, a lot of these don’t have links to reviews. My last-minute cramming revealed a great many treasures, and I’ll be getting reviews of those soon enough).
Using history to create an extraordinary fantasy world, using folk creatures to explore the psychology of a young woman chafing against the world of loutish men, and making radical environmentalism a component of Irish nationalism, the film isn’t shy on difficult concepts presented with great joy and elegance thanks to the richly colored animation. Not bad for a kids’ film.
1st Runner-Up: First Cow
A study of untold history that feels like the culmination of Kelly Reichardt’s career, in its stillness, its sad longing for a receding nature, and its foundation in strong interpersonal character relationships. A “gives you faith in movies” movie.
-For smashing together politics and personal development in a formally elegant package
The Twentieth Century
-For creating a stormy expressionist epic out of one bland politician’s undistinguished rise to power
The Wolf House
-For making pure form into pure psychological horror, all grounded in history
Matthew Rankin, The Twentieth Century
I cant think of another film this year I’d be as happy to call truly “visionary”. Parts of it are borrowed from Guy Maddin, parts from David Lynch, parts from German Expressionism, but the mixture, and the overpowering morbid sexuality fueling it, are entirely Rankin’s own. Every moment of the film contributes to its complete, wildly eccentric whole, and for something this demented, it’s astonishing how snugly it all fits together.
1st Runner-Up: Tomm Moore & Ross Stewart, Wolfwalkers
In a sense, tone is the only thing there even is here: a series of tones and moods, all playing off each other in various degrees of darkness and light. Managing this well was the essence of making this film work, and its co-directors navigating some excessively tight turns.
Kitty Green, The Assistant
-For the immaculate machinery of the prison that she traps her protagonist in, and us with her
Kelly Reichardt, First Cow
-For deepening her already prodigious toolkit of devices for exploring humans, landscapes, and how they interact
Bill Ross IV & Turner Ross, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
-For running an extraordinary experiment in human richness that works because they never even tell us they’re doing it
Debbie Honeywood, Sorry We Missed You
Ken Loach’s agonising trudges through poverty are always first dependent on people, and in Honeywood he’s found one of his best victims. Every single element of this character’s life has been worked out, but only called into play when the film needs it, which is why the film, especially later on, is so full of moments that completely shocking but also feel inevitable and necessary. Heartbreakingly real, in the best, most devastating way.
1st Runner-Up: Kate Winslet, Ammonite
There’s an obvious way to play this tetchy 19th Century lesbian; Winslet doesn’t take it. Instead, she charts a bold course, unusual for her and the genre, in actively avoiding appeals to our sympathy and understanding. And she examines rocks like nobody’s business.
Viola Davis, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
-For making enormous choices feel like the character’s, not actorly tricks
Julia Garner, The Assistant
-For the extraordinary challenge of playing a totally inactive figure, and letting us see inside her soul anyway
Anya Taylor-Joy, Emma.
-For bravely taking Jane Austen at her word that this monstrously unsympathetic protagonist is unsympathetic
Anthony Hopkins, The Father
A victory lap for one of our most longstanding workhorses, but it’s also among the very best performances in a great actor’s enviable career. It’s an impossible part to play, existing entirely without reference points for Hopkins to define himself against, and yet he plays it to perfection anyway; he even manages to storm about in his hammy, drama queen way and have it feel organically like a character choice. A thunderous masterwork that we are incredibly lucky to have gotten.
1st Runner-Up: Luca Marinelli, Martin Eden
The role offers an indulgent feast of a character arc, and Marinelli doesn’t exactly go for surprising emphases. But he does faultlessly navigate every microscopic turn of a tough, multi-layered character, making him as sympathetic as he is disgusting.
Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal
-For never once sentimentalising his character or giving us an easy path into knowing him
Dan Beirne, The Twentieth Century
-For demonstrating just how much embarrassed rage can be threaded into a jokey little doofus role
Bartosz Bielenia, Corpus Christi
-For challenging all of our assumptions about the way a tough guy neurotic role can be played
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Miranda Hart, Emma.
The ensemble, especially the women, offers an plethora of delectable choices, but the one I invariably come back to in my mind is Hart’s performance of one particular scene where she bears all the brunt of the main character’s indifference to humanity. It’s the capstone of a performance full of moments of quiet, tamped-down mortification and panic that work like gangbusters to give this adaptation some of its edge.
1st Runner-Up: Amanda Seyfried, Mank
It’s easy to praise realist acting, and easy (if unfashionable) to praise highly mannered, artificial acting. But Seyfried is doing neither of those: she’s realistically playing someone whose very existence is so attenuated by the insane world she lives in that being highly mannered is her reality. A high-wire act, and thrilling to watch.
Candice Bergen, Let Them All Talk
-For emerging as the smartest, quickest, and most human member of an impressive ensemble
Olivia Colman, The Father
-For finding a way to share her side of a story in a film where that’s specifically ruled out by the script
Mia Goth, Emma.
-For the heavy supporting load of being the primary vessel through which the protagonist works her arc
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Delroy Lindo, Da 5 Bloods
Blessed by having the role that the movie openly finds most interesting (and if you want, for that reason, to call him a lead, I won’t fight you). But I do wonder if that’s in part because of how much Lindo brings to an already meaty role, taking the constant tension between sympathy and vilification that’s present in the script and then adding his own angles to make different moments tough or open than Lee might have always intended. The result is a constantly surprising bundle of wiry, dangerous energy, and one of Lindo’s finest hours.
1st Runner-Up: Orion Lee, First Cow
The friendship at the center of this gentle masterpiece is built on two largely inarticulate, shy men, and Lee’s ability to act without speaking – often, without doing – is a major pillar on which our belief in that friendship rests.
Johnny Depp, Waiting for the Barbarians
-For a cartoonish moral reptile who still somehow feels real and threatening in the context of a heightened drama
Bill Nighy, Emma.
-For being an emotional anchor that this tart movie needs to keep itself steady
Rhys Stone, Sorry We Missed You
-For making a standard-issue troubled teen a deeply felt and real vessel for the film’s thoughts on poverty
It’s cheating: put Juliette Binoche and Catherine Deneuve in the mother and daughter roles in a French-language film, and you get a killer ensemble even if there’s literally nobody else in the cast. Fortunately, The Truth has many other people in the cast, and their presence helps to shape the two stars’ own work, giving them interesting different ways into scenes or even whole chunks of their characters, while remaining above the glowering misery endemic to French character dramas.
1st Runner-Up: Emma.
Two challenges: first, to keep up with Jane Austen’s prim surfaces and calculating interiors, all in period dialogue. Second, to keep up with director Autumn de Wilde’s decision to amplifying the biting humor of the piece. Hard targets to hit, and the whole cast is making it look easy.
Da 5 Bloods
-For effortlessly playing a group of friends riven by tensions internal and external, in multiple timeframes
Joan of Arc
-For playing straight material in a flighty enough way to give the film the heightened boost it needs
-For not only coping with the bizarre demands of the script, but even making something playful and warm out of it
The film’s post-production tinkering undoubtedly means that a lot of the most complicated-looking choreography is at least partially faked, but no matter where we are, the film has the goods – the best action scenes of any Christopher Nolan film, I’d say without hesitation, based in large part on the complicated movements that need to be easy to read if we’re going to make any sense of them when they come up again. Boasts a particularly good car chase.
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)
-For being the one place that an overdetermined film is every bit as energetic as it thinks it is.
-For the heavy brutality of fights that almost manage to survive choppy cutting and bad framing
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Wolfwalkers, by Will Collins
It’s hard to overstate just how many balls the film is trying to keep in the air, with its wide range of ideas and themes, and its need to be a fun, bright kids’ movie underneath the weight of that. Sharply-drawn personalities for the characters and a fully-realised culture for them to inhabit are the basis most of that, and the richness of the storytelling we get here is beyond reproach
1st Runner-Up: Zombi Child, by Bertrand Bonello
A difficult, provocative story about the persistence of trauma and relations between white Europe and its former colonies, built on an excellent collection of metaphors and genre riffs. One of the year’s stickiest stories, to me.
Corpus Christi, by Mateusz Pacewicz
-For making a personal crisis and religious commentary feel neither trite nor overdone
Ride Your Wave, by Yoshida Reiko
-For making a lighthearted tragic epic out of paranormal teen melodrama
Soul, by Pete Docter & Mike Jones & Kemp Powers
-For plumbing bizarre, deep concepts with playful simplicity and fully-earned naked emotionalism
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Emma., by Eleanor Catton
Jane Austen is a bloody-minded razor-sharp satirist whose diagnosis of her society is unparalleld. Almost every adaptation of her work ignores this. But not Catton’s broadside of a comedy, which punctuates all of the with some modernised touches, and actually makes Austen funny – not amusing, not clever, laugh-out-loud goddamn funny.
1st Runner-Up: Martin Eden, by Mauritzio Barucci & Pietro Marcello
Jack London considered his novel a failure, open to misinterpretation. No such worries with this adaptation, a loud leftist broadside and searing character study set against dreamy slurry of mid-20th Century history.
The Father, by Christopher Hampton and Florian Zeller
-For shifting us from a theatrical mode to a cinematic one so cleanly I would never have known it was a play
First Cow, by Jon Raymond & Kelly Reichardt
-For building a compelling historical scenario into a grounded tale of friendsip and greed
News of the World, by Paul Greengrass and Luke Davies
-For deftly balancing mythology, counter-mythology, and character drama
BEST FOREIGN-LANGUAGE FEATURE not cited under Best Feature
Ride Your Wave
In a sense, it’s just a very great version of a stock type: teen romance anime that takes a swerve into the fantastic and paranormal. But the emphasis there should be on “great”, not “stock type”: as beautifully animated and scored, this makes high opera out of genre elements, indulging in its emotions to an extreme, heightened degree, and tying them to a grand spectacle that remains closely tied to its characters hopes and fears
1st Runner-Up: The Wild Goose Lake
A diagnosis as urban China as a site of desperation, corruption, and barely-controlled chaos, but mostly as a hard and beautiful space for <i>noir</i> poetry, as a dooomed soul tries to put off the inevitable for just long enough.
-For fearlessly committing to a mad vision of humanity, violence, community, politics, and exploitation
Joan of Arc
-For making indecently well-worn material feel fresh, raw, and a bit edgy
-For its extremely French approach to dissecting and critiquing Frenchness
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
Cartoon Saloon does it again, and indeed does it better than ever: this combination of traditional Irish folk art and shiny digitally inked-and-painted 2-D animation is familiar ground for the studio, but never done with such care for how different textures, line qualities, and colors can guide us through the world and into the movie’s fantastic universe.
Ride Your Wave
-For extending Yuasa Masaaki’s dominance as our most reliable animation director, even when he’s not stretching himself
The Wolf House
-For an almost inconceivable degree of difficulty and imaginative power, carried out flawlessly
Frederick Wiseman is a national treasure, and his monumental direct cinema observations are so prone to being masterpieces that the only comparison is to each other. This happens to be his best in years, an epic-scale look at how an American city is run that feels like it contains all the strengths and failures of an entire civilisation packed within ita amble, majestically languid running time.
1st Runner-Up: Dick Johnson Is Dead
An attempt to control an experience that itself clearly got away from its creator to moving, troubling, and at time hilarious results. An ambivalent, surprising, and sly portrait of a father-daughter relationship in all its complexity.
-For a sprawling attempt to contain, journalism, poltics, and survival in one narrative of corruption
-For telling a broad story using specific details, and treating those details honorably
Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin
-For coming from a place of unabashed friendship, love, and curiosity
The Wild Goose Lake (Dong Jingsong)
Nothing is as coarse and ugly, nor as dreamy and fuzzy, as a neon-lit city at night, and this foggy noir captures all of it in a sodium vapor haze that perfectly captures all of the textures and sensations of its highly evocative environment. No other film of the 20th Century has ever made me feel more like I could say, “that felt like Wong Kar-Wai” and merely be describing the film, not making promises for it that it can’t keep.
1st Runner-Up: First Cow (Christopher Blauvelt)
Shooting in 1.37:1 will get me most of the time, but there’s more to it than that; this film captures, unfussily and without visible labor, all of the wonderful density of light in the trees and the textures of unspoiled nature.
Martin Eden (Allesandro Abate, Francesco Di Giacomo)
-For the wide array of textures and tones, and a perfect version of the soft, strong colors of midcentury film stock
News of the World (Dariusz Wolski)
-For the incredible feat of making the American West look grander, richer, sadder, lonlier, and more mythic
The Twentieth Century (Vincent Biron)
-For a sea of grain so thick and warm it transforms every shot into a hazy nostalgic nightmare
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (Bill Ross IV)
You would never, ever think, to look at how fluidly it moves around in a tight space and blurs the passage of a single day into a series of impressions, that this was shot the way it was. And that’s a great thing; it means that the filmmakers, in carving their slab of footage, treated it as a series of notes and colors rather than trying to force a story into it. The result is a dreamy flow of time that races imperceptibly to its doom, a perfect description of the film just as much as its editing.
1st Runner-Up: The Assistant (Kitty Green, Blair McClendon)
When a film is this deeply invested in making us feel a noose tightening, every single cut becomes a critical piece contributing to that choking, intensifying feeling. And this minimalist editing scheme doesn’t waste a shot.
The Father (Yorgos Lamprinos)
-For slicing the films in different places than the script does, amplifying its freefall into dementia
Tenet (Jennifer Lame)
-For fragmenting the film into rhythmic units that then define the shape of the plot
The Twentieth Century (Matthew Rankin)
-For an all-out, guns-blazing Soviet Montage-style assault on space that helps this nightmare world thrive
BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
The Twentieth Century (Dany Boiyin)
Copying German Expressionism has been a reliable game for movies to play for almost a century now, but I can’t recall the last film to do so with this much ferocity and otherworldliness: massive Fascist slabs and violent angles here, abstract geometric shapes standing in for the feeling generated by the Candian landscape, and the few stable, recognisable domestic environments are perverse and horrifying. An impeccable creation of a wholly stylised, excitingly unreal world.
1st Runner-Up: The Croods: A New Age (Nate Wragg)
Much of the plot hinges on explorifffng a wonderful environment of creative primitive technology, painted in eye-searing colors. In otherwords, the film is about exploring its design and gawking along with the cast, and such joyful design it is to explore!
Emma. (Kave Quinn)
-For making period-correct spaces feel alive and vibrant, never artfully stuffy
Gretel & Hansel (Jeremy Reed
-For a fairy tale picture-book nightmare world full of jarring modernist lines
Pinocchio (Dimitri Capuani)
-For sumptuously bringing life to a wholly imagined version of 19th Century Italy
Emma. (Alexandra Byrne)
We go to costuma dramas for lovely costumes, hence the name: maybe period-accurate, maybe more fanciful, but lush either way. Lushness is the death of comedy, so in making this hyperactive adaptation of the Jane Austen novel, Byrne has fudged a bit, capturing the essence of Regency design while preferencing colors and lines that will serve the energy and overall design of this as a movie. It’s not the most lavish Austen adaptation, as a result, but maybe the most livable.
1st Runner-Up: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Ann Roth)
The theatricality that generally threatens to scuttle the entire project at least pays dividends here, in the way that all the characters, but especially Ma herself, are outfitted like ritualistic warriors in a pageant about power dynamics in the 1920s.
Mank (Trish Summerville)
-For evoking Hollywood’s ideas of its own elegance as much as the lived reality of the place
Rebecca (Julian Day)
-For providing the movie with all of its awareness of class, money, and the seduction of elegance
Wonder Woman 1984 (Lindy Hemming)
-For playing the “remember the ’80s?” game exceptionally well, and embracing comic book cheesiness
BEST HAIR & MAKEUP
One can forget the indelible pleasure of practical effects in this digital age, but the film’s almost entirely physical Pinocchio brings it all rushing back. Everything from the sustained fantasy tone to the feeling of Pinocchio’s emotional yearning to become real are augmented and deepened by the tangibility of the effects make-up, which are inhuman without ever falling into the unappealing or grotesque.
1st Runner-Up: The Hunt
The obvious part is the sheer bloodiness of it all: a lot of it’s CGI but a lot of it isn’t, and what isn’t has a particularly joyful gorehound sensibility. The less obvious and more important part is how convincingly worn-down and filthy Betty Gilpin looks the deeper in the film we go.
-For the cartoon perversions of Regency hairdos as a way of exaggerating the characters
-For the shocking impact of its bloodletting and the sickly pallor it gives to Andrea Riseborough
Waiting for the Barbarians
-For the single most gut-wrenching, hideously persuasive scene of violence in any 2020 film, and the general sandiness
Tenet (Ludwig Göransson)
It’s not even quite wrong to think of it as a kind of joke, literalising the film’s obsession with time and backwards/forward chronology by reducing the music to distorted, staccato melodies that march us one way and then wobble our brains on the way back. But it is a very smart joke, perfectly executed, and in some ways I think the music is more crucial to sliding into the film’s rhythms than any other single element of its production.
1st Runner-Up: Wolfwalkers (Bruno Coulais)
Is it a little ethereal and clichéd, especially compared to his earlier work with Tomm Moore’s Irish folklore? Definitely, but taken on its own terms, this is exactly the transporting, otherworldly sonic bath the movie needs to let its fantasy thrive.
Joan of Arc (Christophe)
-For finding a secular way in to the ethereal qualities of religious music
Monster Hunter (Paul Haslinger)
-For the soaring way that synths are used to create an alien world of its own strange beauty
Soul (Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross and Jon Batiste)
-For forming the backbone of two wildly different environments in film about the psychological properties of music
BEST SOUND MIXING
The dominant sense of the film is of a constant, agonising thrum of activity: the offices where the action takes place are a living hell of constant busywork dumped on miserable assistants and peons who will grind her until it kills them. The steady low burble, carefully timed to flare up at the most damaging moments, is the film’s secret weapon against us, and it uses it impeccably.
1st Runner-Up: Monster Hunter
To an extent, the entire purpose of the film is to introduce us to an alien world, and by surrounding us on all sides and from all distances with the strange sounds of that world, the soundtrack is a crucial component of the film’s success.
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
-For the complex sonic chaos of conversations spilling over each other in a crowded human space
-For turning the woods at night into a crushing nightmare of wind, cracking branches, and sex
-For the size of the sonic world, and the distant sounds of wolves and mystery and the otherworldly
BEST SOUND EDITING
The Croods: A New Age
Creating an entire ecosystem of fantastic creatures and imaginative promordial spaces places a considerable demand on the soundscape, the part of the film we never think about but which needs to be perfect if the film’s illusion isn’t going to blow away. And that goes double for animation, creating a world that doesn’t exist on any level. The sound team here has done amazing work in using that as an opportunity for an especially creative, involving fantasy world.
1st Runner-Up: Monster Hunter
Another fantasy ecosystem here, less expansive but perhaps deeper in the degree to which all of the CGI depends on a convincing array of sounds to give it physical plausibility and presence, along with the landscape itself.
-For every harsh metallic scrape of that office soundscape, maximised to tear our ears.
-For the differences between life and death, and the dreamy sonic expanse of the latter
Sound of Metal
-For the extrardinary manipulations and distortions that create a punishing subjective soundscape
BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
The whole point of the film is basically to show off visual effects, just as much as in any CGI bonanza; the concept is literally built around seeing the astonishing things that happen when physics are manipulated. And, well, astonishing is exactly the word for it: while nothing here is precisely something you’ve never seen before, much of the way we see it is, and that makes for a pretty dazzling bit of gritty physical spectacle
1st Runner-Up: The Midnight Sky
They spent money on the CGI, for damn sure; it might have been nice if the CGI created a truly inspiring vision of space, rather than just a highly proficient one. But by God it’s convincing, and it was a thin year for effects-driven movies.
-For the massive scale and convincing physicality of its wild sci-fi world of giant beasts
Ride Your Wave
-For the spectacular way that it expands its ample water animation into a fast-moving three dimensions
-For the great pleasure of seeing scrappy amateurism being done with impeccable professional polish