My 10 favourite films of 2020

Aidil Rusli
·10-min read
Aidil Rusli
Aidil Rusli

DECEMBER 19 ― With 2020 being the year where a lot of things have been put on hold courtesy of the Covid-19 pandemic, something as communal as movie-going, especially the whole cinema experience, was undoubtedly one of the hardest hit businesses out there.

Even movie-making, another more or less communal activity since it normally involves a large number of people from various departments, has been hit hard by the pandemic.

In terms of film releases, with the bold exception of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, all other big Hollywood movie releases from March 2020 onwards were either postponed (like Black Widow, A Quiet Place Part II, Godzilla vs. Kong, The King’s Man) or released on VOD or streaming platforms (like Mulan, Wonder Woman 1984, Soul, Greenland etc).

The same applies to indie and art house films, but the upside to all this is that because there’s less focus on huge Hollywood titles this year, there’s inevitably been more room to focus on the smaller films, if anyone even wants to focus on films in this year of crisis that is.

As for me, being a hardcore cinephile means that my never-ending search for films to love continues unabated, crisis or no crisis.

So even in 2020, I found it pretty hard to whittle down my list to just 10 films that I truly loved this year, but whittle it down I must, so in order of preference, here are the 10 films I loved most this year.

Saint Frances

Probably one of the last films in theatres (albeit in very limited release, since it’s just a small indie film) before Covid-19 really struck the globe in March 2020, I didn’t expect much going into this film since its synopsis reads like a thousand other US indie movies out there ― an adult thirtysomething trying to figure out his/her place in the world.

That adult in this case is 34-year-old Bridget (played by the film’s writer Kelly O’Sullivan), a waitress who gets a summer job as a nanny to six-year-old Frances (a captivating Ramona Edith Wiliams), and of course by the end of summer Bridget would’ve learned a thing or two from her experience with Frances.

So far, so conventional, right? But by the end of the film, O’Sullivan and debuting director Alex Thompson had totally ambushed me with a whole range of fully-earned emotions as they’ve cleverly slipped in tons of issues concerning the female experience into the film, from menstruation to birth control to abortion to post-natal depression, these were woven in seamlessly into the film’s seemingly conventional narrative, resulting in an achingly tender film that’s so full of compassion, it hurts.

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets

Another startling exercise in empathy and compassion, directors Bill and Turner Ross’ boundary blurring film, in which they cast real barflies alongside one trained actor to enact a story about the closing night of a bar named The Roaring Twenties, which according to the film is located in Las Vegas (it’s not), is full of unforgettable and touching moments and the sort of truth that you can only get out of someone when they’re drunk.

Like the early films of great Iranian film-makers like Abbas Kiarostami and the Makhmalbaf clan, this playful mixture of the real and the imagined resulted in some really scintillating stuff, and even if the best of them belongs to the aforementioned trained actor (which is a testament to the absolutely great performance that he gave here), there’s plenty of heartbreaking stuff from the non-professionals too, like from an African-American military veteran, who was brought to tears by his government’s neglect of former soldiers.

Is this a documentary? Is this fiction? Well, does it matter when the results are this brilliant?

Happy Old Year

Thai director Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit proves again that he may be making movies for a big Thai studio now, but a sellout he definitely isn’t and probably never will be.

Visually one of the most precisely and beautifully framed films of the year, this film about a girl named Jean (Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying from Bad Genius) who returns to Thailand after studying overseas, and is looking to “purge” her family’s home, Marie Kondo-style, will make you realise how letting go of certain items that form a crucial part of your memories can also mean that you’re letting go of part of your soul.

Simple and quiet but rich with hidden meanings, this is a minimalist treasure that everyone should seek out.

First Cow

Kelly Reichardt is definitely in my top three of currently active female directors, alongside Alice Rohrwacher and Anocha Suwichakornpong, so any new film from her will be one that I very eagerly wait for.

There’s just something magnetic about the matter-of-fact way that she approaches her storytelling, keeping things calm and quiet even when deep down she’s tackling some pretty tough and emotional issues.

First Cow is another frontier story, a bit like her previous Western Meek’s Cutoff, but this time it’s about a pair of outsiders, one a cook and the other a Chinese guy initially on the run from a bunch of Russians, who form a friendship as they try to survive and build a life for themselves, pretty much literally the beginning of the American Dream.

The arrival of the first-ever cow in the area, belonging to Chief Factor awakens in the cook dreams of biscuits and cakes, which he makes by stealing milk from the cow.

Where this goes is why this film is one of the most magical achievements of 2020, because I don’t think you’ll be able to find another heist movie as lovely, soft spoken, and gentle as this not only this year, but in the history of cinema.

After Midnight

The film-making team behind The Battery returns with another minimalist genre wonder with their latest film After Midnight.

Essentially a film about a guy moping around in his house after his girlfriend of 10 years suddenly left, leaving only a mysterious note, the genre part of the film comes from the fact that right after the girlfriend left, some sort of creature begins to claw at his door after midnight every night.

If there’s any doubt that this is only a “pretend” genre picture, the delightfully gory and wacky ending will no doubt disprove that notion thoroughly.

But, just like Spring (which is the breakthrough film for this film’s executive producers), there’s more on directors Jeremy Gardner and Christian Stella’s minds than just monsters, and that extra thing is love and relationships, specifically the fear of commitment, and nowhere is this more boldly pronounced here than in the quite astonishing 14-minute fixed camera long take scene of the couple talking things out on the porch, all done in just one shot.

The Invisible Man

I’m absolutely loving the fact that in the last few years Hollywood has never failed to produce at least one impeccably crafted and superbly executed thriller to rock the socks off of viewers, either in cinemas or at home.

From A Quiet Place to Crawl to The Shallows, Don’t Breathe and beyond, there will always be a place in my heart for an honest-to-goodness thrill machine, and this year that honour belongs to Leigh Whannell’s absolutely outstanding The Invisible Man.

A reboot that cleverly reverses audience sympathies by placing them in the shoes of the people observed by the invisible man (instead of the usual route of placing us in the shoes of the invisible man himself).

Irresistibly tense, but also thematically rich, as it’s more or less a #MeToo horror flick, this is one of, if not the, greatest mainstream Hollywood achievement of 2020.

VHYES

A totally goofy, gimmicky yet strangely heartfelt and touching oddity from the mind of Jack Henry Robbins (son of Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon), VHYES is presented as a video tape that a young kid Ralph, who’s just acquired a new video camera, is using to video things.

Incidentally, that tape is also his parents’ wedding video tape. So the film is the result of all this, a mixture of footage from his parents’ wedding, stuff he shot with his camera around the house, and other stuff he taped from television onto the tape.

The whole thing plays like a barrage of unrelated sketches (a lot of them are really funny), but when we start to see more footage from the wedding and what Ralph has been shooting, it gradually emerges that his parents’ marriage is falling apart, and to witness how Ralph deals with it is quite simply heartbreaking and touching.

Shot entirely on VHS, do yourself a favour and seek this one out, for this is one of the most touching found footage films you’ll probably ever see.

On The Rocks

A hangout movie by Sofia Coppola is something that I can never resist, especially on the back of her crowning glory Somewhere, still my all-time favourite Coppola movie (Francis Ford and Roman included!).

Her latest film On The Rocks is sort of like a spiritual sequel to that movie, in which the father-daughter pair (totally different characters, yes) are now much older, and are having to face more adult issues.

In this case, the daughter (Rashida Jones) is a married woman who thinks that her husband is cheating on her, and so she seeks the help of her Lothario father (a delightful Bill Murray) to help her understand a man’s psyche.

There really isn’t much happening in this movie other than Jones and Murray hanging out with each other and sometimes playing spy to catch the husband, but this is really a movie where the “vibe” and charisma of the actors, alongside Coppola’s effortless skill at concocting such a slickly smooth piece of cinematic souffle, is more than enough to make it worth your time and haunt your thoughts afterwards.

A gift, that’s what this is.

The Whistlers

When I first heard that Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu’s latest film is a globe-trotting spy thriller, I really couldn’t believe what I had just read.

Quite how someone who made his name with films like Police Adjective and 12:08 East Of Bucharest would tackle the spy genre and not lose himself in the process is something that would be truly fascinating to observe.

And so he’s proven just as adept at constructing an exciting spy movie narrative ― about a corrupt cop sent to the Canary Islands to learn the “Silbo Gomero”, a whistling language peculiar to the Canaries, to avoid and sidestep the surveillance that his boss has put on him ― without losing his obsessive interest in the technicalities and peculiarities of language that have always informed his earlier films.

The Vast Of Night

One of the most impressive debut features this year, The Vast Of Night had me purring with delight on two counts: firstly, its rapid fire dialogue exchanges that seem to evoke the classic screwball comedies of the 1940s (it is, after all, set sometime in the 1940s/1950s) and secondly with its unexpectedly breathtaking and lengthy tracking shots ― made even more impressive by the fact that it’s actually a micro-budget film that only played at Slamdance (yes, not even Sundance).

Presented as an episode in a sort of Twilight Zone-esque TV show called Paradox Theater, this movie about the possibility of aliens hovering above a small town in New Mexico is executed by debuting director Andrew Patterson with such confidence, style and grace that I won’t be shocked if he’s handed the keys to a Jurassic World or Star Wars franchise entry real soon.

Honourable mentions: Lovers Rock, Kajillionaire, Young Ahmed, Sorry We Missed You, Chhapaak, Palm Springs, Mangrove

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.