Best of 2020: Top 10 Movies

Just one more day of 2020 left, so it’s perhaps fitting that this series of countdowns ends with the list most affected by the year’s defining pandemic. Finding good new movies in 2020 was a tall task throughout most of the year due to the ongoing game of film studio chicken going on overseas, but streaming services did just enough to hold us over with their own exclusive releases until the flurry of bigger-name films began to hit around mid-to-late October – only accelerating from there. For a long stretch of the year I was seriously considering reducing this list to a more casual top five, but in the end I was just about able to scrape together a full list.

A quick thing I realised while finalising this list: I saw way fewer movie trailers this year than any before it; and while that probably means I missed some movies I might’ve checked out otherwise, I really think it improved my actual watching experience for quite a few of them. Just a thought that came to mind as I was grabbing trailers for this page.

Anyway, it’s time to put 2020 behind us.

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VR BEST OF 2020 DISCLAIMER

This list represents my opinion only. I am not asserting any kind of superiority or self-importance by presenting it as I have. My opinion is not fact. To agree with me 100% is an utterly bizarre coincidence. Respectful disagreement is most welcome.

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10. Onward

It already feels like years since I watched Onward – 2020 will do that to ya – so all that really stands out to me about it when I look back is that amazing finale. But the rest of the movie is still worth checking out; it’s basically Pixar’s take on a road movie, and even if that well-worn comedy hi-jinks structure feels like a bit of a waste of a really cool fading-magic-world setup, Chris Pratt and Tom Holland give spirited vocal performances backed by Marvel chemistry to keep things engaging. The mythical supporting cast is also good fun to watch while the movie prepares its pile of emotional bricks. Whenever Pixar sets its sights on a family unit, you just have to watch your tear ducts.

9. Mank

This one feels weird to talk about, because I can’t really tell you much of what Mank is trying to say as a story, and I’m sure plenty of old-school Hollywood references soared right over my head; ultimately my enjoyment of David Fincher’s latest film comes down to every layer of production except the deepest ones. The shot composition and period-apt transitions are on-point; the first of two jazz-soaked December 2020 scores by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (there’s an utterly weird bit of trivia) is just fabulous; and not only is every performance excellent, there’s proper variety in the work of each major player. Lily Collins and Tuppence Middleton steal scenes on opposite ends of the patience scale, Charles Dance commands the movie on the strength of his reaction shots alone, and of course Gary Oldman and Amanda Seyfried take turns making themselves at home within every frame. A case of style over substance that works for me.

8. The Way Back

The first of three films on this page attempting to mash together a pair of distinct genres, The Way Back uses the familiar tropes of an underdog sports movie to tell a properly depressing story about personal tragedy and the trap of addiction. It gets there by subverting those tropes, ultimately going in an unexpected direction with them, but it isn’t afraid to indulge in a few reliably triumphant moments along the way. Ben Affleck gives a powerful turn as the washed-up Jack, doing the understated anger thing he’s become scarily good at over his latter career; which is great because such a performance is absolutely required for the movie to work at all. Al Madrigal and Janina Gavankar pop up giving ample support as beleaguered people in Jack’s life, helping The Way Back reach one of my favourite closing shots of the year.

7. The Invisible Man

I’ve got some issues with the way it goes full-on silly slasher in its final act, especially given its incredibly tense opening slow burn and the oomph of director Leigh Whannell’s last film Upgrade; but The Invisible Man still deserves a proper shout this year for its deviously budget-friendly shots and cavalcade of inventive set pieces – all held together by the essential commitment of Elizabeth Moss. Rarely does the success of an entire thriller rest so heavily on the shoulders of one central piece of acting, and Moss just nails the whole thing from nervy start to cathartic finish. This alternative near-future science fiction take on a 1930s Hollywood monster classic shows plenty of promising signs for the future of the Universal-Blumhouse partnership, and I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.

6. The Trial of the Chicago 7

Aaron Sorkin’s take-it-or-leave-it attitude to fast and frenetic dialogue is just all over based-on-a-true-story melodrama The Trial of the Chicago 7, and his second go at the director’s chair has only seemed to amplify the hallmarks of his divisive writing style. As usual, the guy errs on the side of characters who sound like they’ve pre-rehearsed all their endlessly-witty lines, but in this case I’d argue the cast of largely university-made 1968 activists almost fit the Sorkin style better than any other. Regardless, I’m still a sucker for it ever since The Social Network, and few other creators could have livened up a courtroom drama that’s actually more about legal mechanisms (and their sickening misuse) than the grander ideals behind them – at least not quite in this way. The final scene is the perfect example of unrealistic cartoonish wit achieving far more than a grounded approach might have done – although Chicago 7 also knows (occasionally) when to step aside and let actions do the talking.

5. Freaky

From here on out, this list is unashamedly all about the movies that managed to give me a dose of the spectacle and silly escapism that 2020 cinema so emphatically lacked otherwise; look no further than Freaky for an immediately obvious Exhibit A. Here lies a genre mash-up of teen comedies and B-movie slasher films that is utterly convinced it doesn’t need to do away with any of the conventions of either: so you get cartoonish gory death scenes, stupidly illogical victim decisions and villainous revivals that make no sense on one side of the equation; dumb jocks, stuck-up bullies, world-consuming secret crushes and a slow-motion makeover sequence on the other. Freaky simply trusts that there’s an audience out there for both at once, then it gets Vince Vaughn to play a teenager while Kathryn Newton plays a power-crazed killer. And it all just works. It’s almost as much fun to describe as it is to watch, and it’s absolutely worth your time if you’re on the fence.

4. Tenet

Despite all the discussion surrounding the film, it feels like I won’t really know how much I really like Tenet until we’re all a couple years removed from it. This was a terrible year for a movie so reliant on big-screen spectacle to open theatrically, but by the same token a year as blockbuster-barren as 2020 was always going to make a movie like this look better by default. I was lucky enough to see Tenet on the big screen and for now, all I know is I definitely enjoy this movie. It may be low on action for a Christopher Nolan movie; it may use its characters more as plot pawns than people, but the painstakingly practical way this film was put together makes for some incredible moments and puts the project in rarified air when it comes to Hollywood features. Following the inevitable differing waves of consensus on this one in the coming years will be a lot of fun.

3. Palm Springs

Remember when I said I was just going to do a Top 5 Movies list this year? Well this film right here is the one that tipped the balance away from that idea. At the time of writing we still don’t have a totally-legitimate way of accessing the Hulu streaming platform in Australia, so we didn’t get July’s Palm Springs until Amazon picked up the rights and dropped it in October down here. So if it seems like a resort-set time-loop comedy starring The Lonely Island’s frontman and the mother from HIMYM is ranked a little too high on a year-end countdown, the pure thrill of the sentiment that I was fully enjoying a new release that late in the year might be why. Except the movie is also genuinely so much fun, and anyone nostalgic for a slice of that elusive Forgetting Sarah Marshall energy (or, you know, Groundhog Day) should absolutely watch this movie at their next convenience. There are surprises and delights aplenty, and the two leads kill it.

2. Soul

It doesn’t quite have a singular gut punch moment like Onward does, but that doesn’t mean Soul doesn’t make great use of Pete Docter’s uncanny knack for telling heartwarming stories about ordinary things using wildly out-there building blocks. In fact this might just be the strangest framework yet from the guy behind Up and Inside Out; Soul asks the audience to go with a spiritual scaffolding that pushes a Myers-Briggs-esque view of the world through a Good Place filter and then layers at least three different types of plane-shifting animation styles on top. The whole thing is visually mesmerising, backed by another jazzy Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross score with license to go in weirder directions; the voice cast does amazing work led by Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade and the ever-reliable Rachel House. Soul‘s message hits a bit differently in 2020, and it hits gradually throughout the film’s runtime, but it hits in ways not spoiled by the trailer (yay) and it definitely hits home.

1. The Gentlemen

Nothing seems more poetically 2020 to my tired brain right now than the idea of a movie released in Australia on the ever-hopeful January 1st staying unbeaten in my opinion throughout the remaining 365 days (yes, this was a leap year – remember when that mattered?). There isn’t much to say about the movie other than the thing that will matter most to any Guy Ritchie fans out there – The Gentlemen successfully captures the manic spirit of Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels after two decades of sometimes-trying, sometimes-not from Mr Ritchie. It’s obviously not as fresh, but the film’s considerable international star power isn’t wasted on one single piece of casting: some lean into their expected onscreen images (McConaughey, Farrell, Strong) with the best results in years, while others go emphatically against type (Grant, Dockery, Golding) and steal the show. Everything is held together by a shockingly good turn by Charlie Hunnam, who I just did not think could do all this.

If you didn’t like Guy Ritchie’s early films and/or have no interest in seeing another one like them after 20 years, The Gentlemen is not going to change your mind. If you did and you do, this may be exactly what you’ve been waiting for. And with 2020’s bag of movie releases, it turns out that’s enough to top my list.

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Honorable Mentions

–On the Rocks

Sofia Coppola’s dimly-lit New York backdrop and Rashida Jones’ gear-turning stares ground a chaotic Bill Murray performance as a familial drama crashes into a mystery caper. The movie that finally convinced me to get on Apple TV+.

–The Hunt

This one probably wouldn’t have made my honorable mentions in any other year, but like a decent mosh pit it’s worth the watch just to see so many ambitious swings. Oh, and for Betty Gilpin’s ludicrously good performance.

–Fatman

My low expectations definitely helped on this one – Fatman is not the movie the trailer might make you think it is – but this is the best version of the Walton Goggins 2010s stock villain you’re ever likely to see, and it’s fun to watch low-budget solutions to live-action Santa mythology play out.

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