cinewise

Best films I saw in 2020

No need to belabour the point of what a year it has been, so I’ll happily gloss over that if that’s OK.

What follows is another end-of-year list from me and the fist one to be published in the re-vamped cinewise (a WIP, as they call it). Similar to previous few years, this is not necessarily a list of films released in the past calendar year, but films I’ve seen for the first time over the last 12 months.

Interesting trivia (trivium?): this is the first year since 1988 or 1989 (not sure which) that I haven’t been to a cinema.

And, on that note, here are the best 35 films I’ve seen this year.

35. Fire Will Come

2019 | Directed by Oliver Laxe | Written by Santiago Fillol, Oliver Laxe | Spain, France, Luxembourg

Scene from Fire Will Come

An arsonist returns to his Galician village after serving his sentence to face older and newer demons in this slow and gorgeously-shot drama featuring a non-professional cast. It will test your patience with its pace, but the underlying dread is ever so palpable.

34. The Touch

1971 | Directed by Ingmar Bergman | Written by Ingmar Bergman | USA, Sweden

Scene from The Touch

This lesser known Ingmar Bergman film about an adulterous woman torn between her husband and her boyfriend might be his most flawed film I have seen to date, but it has superb performances; especially from the great Bibi Andersson, who we lost this year.

33. Sputnik

2020 | Directed by Egor Abramenko | Written by Oleg Malovichko, Andrey Zolotarev | Russia

Scene from Sputnik

During a routine landing, a Russian space crew inadvertantly bring back a deadly organism with them, which is now held in a remote miltary base. It cannot help but succumb to all of the creature-feature clichés and the finale is awkward at best, but it has plenty of thrills and complete character arcs to make it stand out.

32. Color out of Space

2019 | Directed by Richard Stanley | Written by Richard Stanley, Scarlett Amaris | USA, Malaysia, Portugal

Scene from Color out of Space

A mad adaptation of the H. P. Lovecraft story of the same name, this sees Nicolas Cage and his family trying to hold it together after a meteorite that falls in their backyard releases a deadly virus. By the end you will want to re-watch it just to confirm some of your crazy theories.

31. Permission

2018 | Directed by Soheil Beiraghi | Written by Soheil Beiraghi | Iran

Scene from Permission

A tense drama about a football player seeking permission from her ex-husband to participate in the world cup in another country. It is an infuriating watch as the protagonist's helplessness in the face if absurd legislation will make your head spin.

30. She Dies Tomorrow

2020 | Directed by Amy Seimetz | Written by Amy Seimetz | USA

Scene from She Dies Tomorrow

A psychedelic study of paranoia and fear as contagious disease where a group of loosely connected people suspect they are going to die soon and can't shake off that feeling. It's slow and often meandering, but it has an undeniably strong impact on the viewer about mortality.

29. Galveston

2018 | Directed by Mélanie Laurent | Written by Nic Pizzolatto | USA

Scene from Galveston

A slow-burner revenge flick where a henchman saves a young prostitute during a botched job that turns out to be a trap to kill him. If you forego the idea of a flowing plot, there is a lot to love about this film, in particular Ben Foster's performance.

28. Swallow

2019 | Directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis | Written by Carlo Mirabella-Davis | USA, France

Scene from Swallow

A pica-suffering young woman is trapped in a loveless marriage with a wealthy and indifferent man and her addiction gets her deeper in trouble. It plays out as a proto-sci-fi thriller, with its tongue firmly in cheek.

27. The Gentlemen

2019 | Directed by Guy Ritchie | Written by Guy Ritchie | UK, USA

Scene from The Gentlemen

A London mobster is blackmailed by a private detective, who will expose the former's deeds to the media if he doesn't get paid handsomely. This was probably the most enjoyable Guy Ritchie film since "Snatch".

26. Ad Astra

2019 | Directed by James Gray | Written by James Gray, Ethan Gross | China, USA

Scene from Ad Astra

A man is sent across the Solar System in the hope of finding his long-presumed-dead astronaut father in this pensive and visually stunning sci-fi. It's hard to impress in this era of hyper-realistic space exploration scenery, but this stands out among its peers due to its emotional resonance as well.

25. I'm Thinking of Ending Things

2020 | Directed by Charlie Kaufman | Written by Charlie Kaufman | USA

Scene from I'm Thinking of Ending Things

A nightmarish, temporally challenging journey into the psyche of a post-graduate student as she visits her boyfriend's eccentric parents for the first time. It is extremely challenging in its attempt to be overly esoteric, but once you get over it, it is absolutely fascinating.

24. Good Boys

2019 | Directed by Gene Stupnitsky | Written by Lee Eisenberg, Gene Stupnitsky | USA

Scene from Good Boys

Three teenage boys' plan of going to a "kissing party" quickly goes out of hand with the involvement of highjacked drones, drugs, and two teenage girls who are hunting them. This is "Stranger Things" with actual swearwords. It's funny as hell and feels more authentic than the Netflix series.

23. The Assistant

2019 | Directed by Kitty Green | Written by Kitty Green | USA

Scene from The Assistant

A young woman gets spooked by the behaviour of her boss and the sudden appearance and disappearance of beautiful models in the office. A clear attempt at addressing the "Me Too" movement, the subtelty with which it conveys its message is incredibly powerful. A very tense drama.

22. The Wind

2018 | Directed by Emma Tammi | Written by Teresa Sutherland | USA

Scene from The Wind

A woman, living with her husband and another set of neighbours in the frontier, thinks there is an evil entity on their land. Although the scares are generic, it soon becomes apparent that the insurmoutable solitude of its surroundings on people is the real monster.

21. Alps

2011 | Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos | Written by Efthymis Filippou, Yorgos Lanthimos | Greece, France, Canada, USA

Scene from Alps

A group of people re-enact the lives of dead people to console their bereaving families. As expected from Yorgos Lanthimos, this is a deranged study of human empathy (and lack there of) in situations more bizarre, yet mundane. Not his best, but even that is better than most.

20. Vivarium

2019 | Directed by Lorcan Finnegan | Written by Garret Shanley | Ireland, Belgium, Denmark, Canada

Scene from Vivarium

A young couple find themselves trapped and unable to leave the neighbourhood where they were viewing a house. It's a purely Kaufman-esque setting (or Kafka-esque, if you please) that gets weirder and more horrific by the minute. Especially prescient considering the current circumstances.

19. I See You

2019 | Directed by Adam Randall | Written by Devon Graye | USA

Scene from I See You

A detective investigating the disappearance of yet another teenager in his small town experiences some weird happenings in his home. This is a clever, inventive horror that will upend your expectations at every turn. The best part is that it still feels very old-school.

18. XXY

2007 | Directed by Lucía Puenzo | Written by Lucía Puenzo | Argentina, Spain, France

Scene from XXY

An intersex teenager is about to make a very big decision about her life and each of her parents have a different opinion. This is a very touching drama with a brilliant central performance.

17. Relic

2020 | Directed by Natalie Erika James | Written by Natalie Erika James, Christian White | Australia, USA

Scene from Relic

A woman and her daughter visit her mother's house outside Melbourne only to find her missing with no clue. This is arguably too slow and when the switch happens towards the end of the second act, it's a bit awkward. However, it's a devastatingly powerful film with an emotional core that will haunt you for a long time.

16. The Conversation

1974 | Directed by Francis Ford Coppola | Written by Francis Ford Coppola | USA

Scene from The Conversation

A private surveillance expert suspects the couple he's been hired to surveil will be murdered. Coming in between the teo Godfathers, I finally managed to watch this. It's clear that Coppola wanted to make a European film while he was re-inventing Hollywood blockbuster. Gene Hackman is fantastic and there are some serious thrills throughout.

15. Knives out

2019 | Directed by Rian Johnson | Written by Rian Johnson | USA

Scene from Knives out

An old-school whodunnit where an eccentric detective investigates the death of a wealthy patriarch and, of course, everyone's a suspect. Helped by a wonderful cast, this proceeds at breakneck speed and with a twist at every turn.

14. Once upon a Time ... in Hollywood

2019 | Directed by Quentin Tarantino | Written by Quentin Tarantino | USA, UK, China

Scene from Once upon a Time ... in Hollywood

A washed-up actor and his assistant find themselves entangled in Charles Manson's family. Yes, this has the longest preamble in the history of cinema, but with sharp dialogue and some great central performances, it's worth the agonising wait until the bloody finale.

13. The Sacrifice

1986 | Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky | Written by Andrei Tarkovsky | Sweden, France, UK

Scene from The Sacrifice

On the birthday of a journalist the world plunges into a nuclear war. I'm slowly making my way through Andrei Tarkovsky after all these years and this, his final film, is an absolute joy to watch. The (in)famous finale feels quite forced, I must admit, but the Bergman-esque indulgence in human psyche up to that moment is pure genius.

12. The Silence

1963 | Directed by Ingmar Bergman | Written by Ingmar Bergman | Sweden

Scene from The Silence

A woman, her young son, and her younger sister stop at a city when she gets ill, only for that city to plunge into civil war. Bergman mixes the mundane with the weird so perfectly that the film feels realistic yet fantastical all at the same time. Although known for its nude scenes (and infamous for that), this is far more accomplished that it's been given credit for.

11. Transit

2018 | Directed by Christian Petzold | Written by Christian Petzold | Germany, France

Scene from Transit

A resistance fighter flees Paris to catch a boat to Mexico in Marseille. This is an absolutely genius of a film that takes a World War II story and sets it in modern France. The disorientation works wonderfully with the characters trying to find their way in a bizarre world.

10. The Invisible Man

2020 | Directed by Leigh Whannell | Written by Leigh Whannell | Canada, Australia, USA

Scene from The Invisible Man

A woman escapes her abusive husband, but is now haunted by somebody in her new life. Quite possibly one of the greatest ever remakes, this was definitely more horror than science fiction. Full of real scares and with a brilliant central performance by Elizbaeth Moss.

9. 1917

2019 | Directed by Sam Mendes | Written by Sam Mendes, Krysty Wilson-Cairns | USA, UK, India, Spain, Canada, China

Scene from 1917

A soldier is to deliver a message to warn a commander of a possible trap through no man's land in World War I France. Technically brilliant, of course, but the real triumph of the film isn't that it managed to fool us all that it was a single take. But that it made us care about the story more than its format pretty much from the get-go.

8. Late Spring

1949 | Directed by Yasujirô Ozu | Written by Kôgo Noda, Yasujirô Ozu | Japan

Scene from Late Spring

A woman is pressured to get married, but she'd rather stay and at home and look after her widowed father. Just like any Ozu film I've seen, it is emotionally devastating in the most subtle way. Without resorting to any histrionics, this will tug your heartstrings and will give you an everlasting smile by the end.

7. Portrait of a Lady on Fire

2019 | Directed by Céline Sciamma | Written by Céline Sciamma | France

Scene from Portrait of a Lady on Fire

A painter is hired to clandestinely paint a to-be-married woman who won't allow anyone to paint her portrait. A wonderful film that I couldn't avert my eyes even for a second. It's an hypnotic and heartbreaking love story that, although predictable in its trajectory, is fresh and original.

6. Little Women

2019 | Directed by Greta Gerwig | Written by Greta Gerwig | USA

Scene from Little Women

The story of four sisters forging their own path in life. It's obvious thatr Gerwig has an undying love for the source and it shows. This is love poured on to the screen with an unadulterated joy. I think I was smiling all the way through and carried on long after the credits rolled. We need more films like this.

5. The Wild Pear Tree

2018 | Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan | Written by Akın Aksu, Ebru Ceylan, Nuri Bilge Ceylan | Turkey, North Macedonia, France, Germany, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Sweden, Qatar

Scene from The Wild Pear Tree

A man returns to his home town after university to find that not much has changed, yet everything is different. Another near-perfect film from Ceylan. This feels warmer than most of his other films (the warm colours palette certainly helps) and is fiercer in its crical analysis of society. The work of a master at their zenith.

4. Monos

2019 | Directed by Alejandro Landes | Written by Alejandro Landes, Alexis Dos Santos | Colombia, Argentina, Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, Uruguay, USA, Switzerland, Denmark, France

Scene from Monos

In an unnamed Latin American country, child soldiers are trained to fight an invisible enemy. Pschedelic, horrific, and weirdly funny in equal measures, this was a trip all right. Largely played by non-professional actors, it feels incredibly real yet also so far removed from reality that it allows you to lose yourself in its mythology.

3. Parasite

2019 | Directed by Bong Joon-ho | Written by Bong Joon-ho, Jin-won Han | South Korea

Scene from Parasite

Two families from different walks of life get entwined. So much has been said and praised about "Parasite" — and rightly so. This is a near-perfect film that plays with your expectations and emotions constantly. Fully deserving all of its accolades.

2. Phantom Thread

2017 | Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson | Written by Paul Thomas Anderson | USA, UK

Scene from Phantom Thread

The story of a reclusive and eccentric fashion designer and his tormented relationship with his younger wife. Although the story is clearly told from Day-Lewis's perspective, this is a film where he is the object. And if this is his final film as an actor, then he goes out on top form. The final dinner scene is an acting masterclass.

1. The Mirror

1975 | Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky | Written by Aleksandr Misharin, Andrei Tarkovsky | Soviet Union

Scene from The Mirror

A film director recalls his early childhood and, particularly, his relationship with his mother. What can I say? I blame myself for not getting into Tarkovsky earlier. This is, by far, one of the prettiest films I have ever seen. It left me an emotional wreck by the end of it.