For last year’s favourites I chose 25 films as I’m terrible at choosing favourites and thanks to a variety of festivals had seen so many that a top 10 felt too narrow to celebrate all the films I wanted to. Despite the circumstances of 2020, particularly on cinema releases and physical festivals, there have still been a huge number of films worth celebrating. Plus, with all of the things we’ve all been denied this year for our safety and the safety of others, why not celebrate a few more. So instead of a top 10, here’s another top 25 of my favourites for 2020. Due to the way festival releases work, there’ll be some films on my 2019 list that were on wider release this year so any glaring omissions could be down to that. Other glaring omissions will be either a matter of personal taste or a genuine memory failure – I’ve yet to stop tutting at myself for forgetting Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale last year. Where I’ve previously reviewed a film, the title will link to my review.
On the subject of honourable mentions, I’ll throw in Eurovision, The Stylist, Relic, The Dark and The Wicked, The Lodge, Come True and the incredibly difficult to watch but important Welcome to Chechnya.
25. Nail in the Coffin: The Fall and Rise of Vampiro
The first of the documentaries on my list, Nail in the Coffin followed the evolving life of wrestler Vampiro as he negotiated injury, parenting and his work in front of and behind the camera. An incredibly human documentary, both thoughtful and thoroughly engaging.
24. Small Axe: Mangrove
There may be debate around if the five films that make up Small Axe should be considered in the running for television or film lists. To be honest, I’m less concerned with any of that and more concerned with the overall quality of film-making from Steve McQueen. Mangrove hit hardest for me with its sense of urgent, breathlessness in the fight against unfair persecution.
23. The Invisible Man
Genuinely one of the most stressful experiences I’ve had while watching a film and I watched at home (having missed the cinema screenings prior to the first lockdown), so I can’t imagine the panic I’d have felt in a cinema. Elizabeth Moss excels and Leigh Whannell’s use of negative space is unmatched.
22. Disappearance at Clifton Hill
A film that embraces the dark side of magicians, ramps up the unreliable narrator tension and invites a host of strange characters and settings to create an absorbing thriller that unfoots the viewer as often as it puts them back on track.
Horror films have always picked up on the status quo, societal concerns and have also embraced technology as a medium for providing further scares. Lockdown Brit-horror Host ticks all the boxes, situating its naturalistic characters on a Zoom séance that allows them to play with filters to excellent effect. All this contributes to a film that I jumped at regularly and had a very fun time with.
20. Feels Good, Man
At first glance a documentary about Pepe the Frog hardly sounds like the most engaging topic, but the journey that Matt Furie’s creation has taken is truly a modern cautionary tale about artists losing control of their creation. An alarming snapshot of the worst side of the internet and how that bleeds into very real movements, you’ll be struck by Furie’s gentle nature and how unthinkable that so much meaning can be drawn from one frog.
19. Benny Loves You
A definite hit at FrightFest’s October online edition, Benny Loves You is a completely joyful, lovingly crafted story about giving up childish things and the chaos that follows when they refuse to go quietly. I only hope that we get a full screening of this one day as it would be even more joyful to watch along with an appreciative crowd.
18. The Swerve
Placing The Swerve next to Benny Loves You seems absurd, given how totally tonally opposed they are, but this speaks to the variety of films that can be included under the horror banner. The Swerve includes a heart-breaking, shattering performance from Azura Skye as a put-upon mother who begins to crack under the sheer weight of being so underappreciated. An absolute gut-punch.
A rattling critique of traditional gender roles set against a subversion of death rituals, Kriya stands apart with an incredible soundscape and feels genuinely subversive in the best kind of way.
16. His House
Launching on Netflix on Halloween, it feels like His House has been somewhat forgotten, which is a shame because as a study of trauma and guilt it is exceptional. Director Remi Weekes punctuates the challenges of two refugees arriving in the UK with flair, including dreamlike and startling sequences that pack a punch.
15. La Llorona
La Llorona, like His House perfectly utilises horror as a metaphor for social injustice, focusing on the trial and aftermath of a dictator accused of genocide. The film expertly crafts traditional scares but the scariest thing of all is the rest of the family coming to terms with the sins of their patriarch.
I could hardly believe that Parasite was released this year when I looked back, but this dark comic class drama was definitely deserving of all the hype it received. Even more wonderful was watching Bong Joon-Ho thoroughly enjoy his time at award ceremonies as the film was continuously celebrated.
13. Rose: A Love Story
So many of 2020’s films seemed to focus on isolation and frosty relationship drama Rose was a particularly well realised take. Rose’s curious medical condition, her husband’s need to protect her and the toll it takes on their relationship makes for a slow-burn, melancholic horror that draws you in at every moment.
12. The Other Lamb
Frequently uncomfortable but totally mesmerising, The Other Lamb‘s study of a woman on a path of self discovery in spite of her position in a cult with an intense male leader. Raffey Cassidy and Michael Huisman both turn in superb performances that constantly feel on the cusp of something explosive. Stunning.
11. The Long Walk
Meditative, beautiful with an eye for small details this time-travel, serial killer film is immensely moving and packs a punch without needing to telegraph or over-explain anything. An excellent performance by a very young Por Silatsa is a particular highlight.
Stylish, retro domesticity gives way to something far more empowering in Swallow, featuring a powerhouse performance from Haley Bennett as a woman who starts to swallow dangerous objects as a means of taking back control of her life. An incredibly brave film that follows through on the convictions it lays out.
9. Death Drop Gorgeous
This slasher gem set in the world of drag has plenty of sharp objects, but none as sharp as the barbs the performers throw at one another. Throwing in hagsploitation and a truly killer segment full of style this is definitely one to watch.
8. Make Up
Caravan park chills abound in this film of queer awakenings as Ruth (Molly Windsor) goes in search of the owner of a mysterious red hair in her boyfriend’s bedroom. I have never experienced a film that so expertly recreates the experience of realising you may not be straight and director Claire Oakley deftly weaves an intimate search for identity.
7. She Dies Tomorrow
While a film about a pandemic spread by anxiety may not sound like ideal viewing in an actual pandemic, Amy Seimetz’s exploration of coming to terms with death has a darkly comic streak and an incredible, standout performance from Jane Adams that makes it feel poignant for those who have suffered with anxiety and the various other emotions it sparks.
6. Synchronic (Director’s Cut)
Look, I’d have Synchronic on my list every year if I could, especially as it was number one on last year’s list, but it definitely isn’t cheating as Glasgow’s FrightFest event brought a new, director’s cut of the film to my very weepy eyes. The new cut improves upon the original version without losing any of the heart or impact of the initial one. The film is finally released in the UK by Signature Entertainment early in 2021.
5. You Cannot Kill David Arquette
A heart-warming, exhilarating documentary about David Arquette that speaks to his amazing resilience, incredible spirit while being almost woundingly open about his failings. An ultimately joyful film that celebrates those who work hard, have a good heart and wear their feelings on their sleeves that will ultimately result in an equal amount of laughs, awe and tears.
One of few films I was grateful to see at home, rather than in a public cinema because this one really made me sob. Natasha Kermani’s piercing satire of how women negotiate day-to-day life felt like a rallying cry to anyone who has ever sat and wondered why they have to justify any of their choices. Packed with power, style and horror woman of the year Brea Grant, this was an excellent way to cap off the October edition of FrightFest.
Brandon Cronenberg’s hypnotic exploration of autonomy, free will and surveillance contains a sex scene that I’ve been totally unable to remove from my mind since. The mental and physical metamorphosis undertaken in this film is totally incredible. Yes, the violence is blistering, but I keep returning to think about Christopher Abbott and Andrea Riseborough’s performances more than that aspect. Sophisticated, stylised and confident.
2. 12 Hour Shift
Funny and sardonic, born of 1990’s urban legends, shot with some of the best fluid camera work and even managing to pack in a breath-taking musical number. Chloe Farnworth, Angela Bettis and Nikea Gamby-Turner all turn in accomplished performances that push forward this dark farce into increasingly fun, but no less heartfelt territory. Brea Grant’s writing and directorial talents really shine.
- Saint Maud
Yes, perhaps no surprise that a film I managed to see in the cinema takes the top spot. An incredible study of decline into mental illness with a religious edge. Morfydd Clark is totally stunning, delicate but unhinged. As a debut feature, Rose Glass has come out swinging and I cannot wait to see what is in store for her next.