This is the place where I normally wax lyrical about the difficulties I’ve had ranking the following 10 films while pontificating on the shifting balance between shorts, features and TV shows dominating my viewing time. But shit, 2020 unleashed a global pandemic which forced us all to contend with actual life, death and livelihood problems so I think I’ll skip all that this time round. Yet because of Covid and the inordinate amount of time we’ve had to spend indoors, coupled with the shuttering of cinemas and the shift to online for several film festivals, 2020 is a year which has highlighted the deep importance of the moving image and provided hitherto unavailable opportunities to experience it. A respite from the world outside my door I’ve been thankful for on numerous occasions this year.
Honourable mentions: Host, His House, Possessor, The Reason I Jump, Cuties, Bacurau and First Cow.
10. CLASS ACTION PARK | Seth Porges & Chris Charles Scott
It’s all fun and games…until someone dies. Which you’d rightfully think would be the end of any waterpark. However, for New Jersey’s infamous Action Park, the risk of serious injury was both a draw for thrill seeking crowds and a regular occurrence. Packed with bewildering archive footage and headshaking recollections of those who survived their time at the deathtrap, Porges and Scott’s doc is a compelling example of truth being stranger than fiction.
9. WOLFWALKERS | Tomm Moore & Ross Stewart
The enchanting finale of animation powerhouse Cartoon Saloon’s Irish Folklore Trilogy (following hits The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea) more than earns its place alongside its Oscar nominated predecessors. Beautifully exquisite in every frame, this is inarguable proof of the magic of handcrafted animation and the need for more stories forefronting strong female characters.
8. EMA | Pablo Larraín
A blistering performance from Mariana di Girolamo as the titular Ema – a reggaeton dancer whose decision to give up the difficult child she adopted with choreographer husband Gastón (Gael García Bernal) sparks an all consuming guilt which has to be assuaged by any means possible. A dance suffused, heart racing depiction of the ferocity of female desire, uncompromising personality and unconventional family dynamics.
7. LES MISÉRABLES | Ladj Ly
An assured jump from short to feature, Ly’s broiling award winning debut throws us headlong into the clashing forces of poverty, crime and police malfeasance with explosive results. With captivating performances across the board from his professional and non-professional cast, Ly has firmly established himself as one to watch.
6. SOUND OF METAL | Darius Marder
Could Riz Ahmed of had a better career year than he did in 2020? Having co-written and starred in Bassam Tariq’s debut Mogul Mowgli, released his second album The Long Goodbye to critical acclaim, his stand out performance as an ex-addict punk-metal drummer forced to re-evaluate his very existence when he suddenly loses his hearing in Sound of Metal is just downright greedy. This is also a film which brilliantly showcases the hidden art of sound design, bringing it to the fore as a means of anchoring us in the fear and frustration of its protagonist.
5. SHE DIES TOMORROW | Amy Seimetz
Have you ever concentrated on the rhythm of your breathing only to become panicked that the moment you stop paying attention you’ll breathe your last…or is that just me? That’s the experience I had watching Amy Seimetz’s mesmeric She Dies Tomorrow. It’s a film which totally envelopes you in the infectious virality of an idea which despite its seeming absurdity can’t be resisted, only succumbed to and passed on. Sound familiar?
4. NEW ORDER (NUEVO ORDEN) | Michel Franco
Beginning with a satisfying eat the rich disruption of a high society wedding spilling over from a working class uprising, Michel Franco’s authored (he wrote, directed, produced and edited) feature New Order rapidly descends into the dystopic depths of a near-future Mexico riddled with corruption, greed and unbearable violence. Providing no respite from its barrage of injustices this is a film endured rather than enjoyed.
3. ANOTHER ROUND | Thomas Vinterberg
Obviously, I knew I loved Mads Mikkelsen before his turn in Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round but, to belabour the point, I bloody loved watching him portray various stages of inebriation as a family man and burnt out teacher who longs to reignite his spark. What begins as the tipsy confidence boost of an early evening beer buzz lingers long past kick out time into the messy consequences of a debilitating hangover. Plus, is there anything more joyous than watching Mikkelsen leap and spin through the air with wild abandon? I didn’t think so.
2. LOVERS ROCK | Steve McQueen
Across the entire Small Axe series of films Steve McQueen demonstrates that hallmarks of exceptional filmmaking are perspective and passion, both of which were fully marshalled to produce five distinctive stories about the Black British experience. Perhaps a reflection of the pining brought on by 2020’s lockdown existence, for me Lovers Rock is the clear standout of this impressive collection – I’d happily give the shirt off my back to be part of the stomping, writhing, bass blasted Kunta Kint dancefloor. This a Mercury Sound!
1. THE PAINTER AND THE THIEF | Benjamin Ree
The concept alone, two paintings lovingly stolen (the thieves spent a long time removing the canvas staples individually rather cutting the artwork from their frames) from the window of an Oslo gallery in broad daylight, and the subsequent co-dependent relationship formed between the artist and the thief is enough to make you want to press your nose against the glass for a closer look. However, what Benjamin Ree achieves with his beguiling documentary is an infinity richer experience than its clickbaity headline suggests.
You can check out the rest of team DN’s Top Ten picks here.