2020 is over, and now it is time for my annual Top Ten Films list! As with the past three years of these articles, I am splitting the list into two, starting with my picks for #10-#6 in this post! Gotta keep it consistent, y’know. When making this list, I bear in mind the film itself and my personal enjoyment, so it is a mix of objectivity and subjectivity.
Films that released and I saw this year qualify, and I go by the UK release date; so, for example, The Personal History of David Copperfield would qualify as a 2020 film. To see my picks for the last three years, I have included links at the bottom of the article! Right, let’s go!
#10 – Queen & Slim
A resonant and cinematic take on the road-trip-on-the-run, Queen & Slim is positively bathed in rich themes and characters. Set in America, Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) are on an unremarkable first date that suddenly escalates when they are pulled over by a policeman; the ensuing confrontation quickly deteriorates in sadly predictable fashion, and leads to the pair becoming fugitives on the run. Clearly, there are racial themes at play here, and they inject an important tone that sets this apart from other on-the-road films. These are two people that had only just met – and barely liked each other – and have been thrown into a stressful situation, and seeing how their relationship develops as they desperately try to keep their freedom is attentive viewing; this chemistry between Turner-Smith and Kaluuya is palpable. They go through romance, drama, and action, with several stops along the way throwing up side stories that add extra layers of complexity to proceedings. As their journey continues, they effect the lives of more and more people, and even inspire a change of thinking. This is vividly portrayed, though at times it is interwoven in quite a blunt way that stops me placing Queen & Slim higher on my list. Yet, a more delicate style is not entirely lost on the film, and is the source of wondrous moments that portray life on the run with beautiful sereneness. Credit to director Melina Matsoukas for the self-awareness needed to pull that off; it is not easy to do and is crucial to the bittersweet tone achieved. Queen & Slim can be quite slow-paced at times, but sink into the experience being offered and it rewards you.
#9 – Adult Life Skills
This Rachel Tunnard-directed film was a wonderful Netflix surprise for me in 2020! Jodie Whittaker plays Anna, a woman aged 29 who currently lives in a shed in the family garden in an effort to have her own space. She is clearly unhappy in her current quaintly unsatisfying routine, and there are hints at traumatic events in the past that have affected her. We follow Anna in the days before her 30th birthday as her mum sets an ultimatum of vacating the shed and changing how she lives. The conflict of trying to escape the trappings of where you grew up is painfully well-told and certainly hits home with the compressed households brought on by recent times! It is all told with a darkly comedic charm that reminds me of a Ben Wheatley film (Alice Lowe from Sightseers is even in this as a work colleague!); dryly ordinary conflicts are all around Anna, whether that be the return of a friend and the comparisons that brings, the tactless attempts at romance from the local estate agent, or being stuck having conversations with a child who is a particular fan of Westerns! Setting this film apart and a step ahead of other similar stories is the heart that Jodie Whittaker brings, brilliantly showing the youthful enthusiasm that has Anna creating thumb movies in her shed and also the quiet sadness she has for how certain aspects of her life have played out. It is a film that shows how getting your life back on track is never the same for anyone, happening at different speeds and in different ways and rarely in a linear fashion. Those invaluable themes combined with great wit and superb performances from the cast put Adult Life Skills into my top ten!
#8 – Dark Waters
Yeah, I know – for those who know me, putting a journalistic and/or investigative film into my list is not especially shocking. When they are done this well though, I am gonna be there every time! Dark Waters is a true story about Cincinnati-based lawyer Rob Bilott, who makes his living defending chemical companies; however, when desperate farmers contact him with suspicions of a local plant being the cause of widespread animal deaths, Rob finds himself compelled to help when no one else will. This starts a lengthy and tough process of trying to take down the companies he would usually have been defending, testing his work and home relationships to the limit. Dark Waters strikes a tone very similar to that of Spotlight, The Post, and Hidden Secrets, three other incredible investigative movies of recent years, with a cold, clinical cinematography given humanity by fantastic performances of the cast. Similarities to Spotlight in particular are emphasised by Mark Ruffalo being the empathetic lead in Dark Waters too! He is joined by others such as Anne Hathaway as his wife Sarah Bilott and Tim Robbins as supportive work ally Tom Terp; the ensemble is crucial for bringing energy to the film as it wades through this complicated case. You really feel the tiring effect and personal sacrifices these people are making over a timespan of more than a decade. The unearthing of an injustice that is literally poisoning people is gripping and often emotional, due to the access director Todd Haynes gives us to the humans involved. My main criticism is how closely the formula that was established by Spotlight and has continued on in recent years is stuck to. Until there is fresh innovation in the genre, solidly emphatic films such as Dark Waters are going to be contenders for my Top Tens, but not so much for the sharp end of said lists.
#7 – Bombshell
Stylish and powerful, Bombshell tells the story of the corruption within Fox News under Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) and the horrific discrimination faced by the women who worked there. The film revolves around three different women at varying stages of their careers; established correspondent Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) is one of the women who supports the allegations of internal sexual abuse that sidelined anchor Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) makes against Ailes, and this begins a chain reaction of more and more disturbing cases being uncovered, including that of new employee Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie). The latter is a case we uncomfortably witness on screen, an unsettling scene that shows the audience the unpleasant dark underbelly beneath the pristine presentation of the company. All three of these lead roles are performed with supreme skill and are a significant part of why Bombshell is so successful as we switch from one to the other before they converge to a crescendo. It is all edited together smartly in a slick and well-produced way accentuating the setting and scenario – it is almost a news broadcast of itself, including the bright colour palette and cohesively clear shot style. Cleverly, that juxtaposes unsavoury aspects of the subject matter. Bombshell tells a true story well and combines it with a knowing sense of style and presentation that, combined with a fantastic cast performance, puts it – for me – ahead of the less bold Dark Waters.
#6 – Just Mercy
Now this is a film that got way less attention than it deserved; in my opinion, this should have seen Oscar nominations, in particular for Michael B. Jordan in the lead and Jamie Foxx as supporting. As with Dark Waters and Bombshell, this is the telling of a true story; that of Bryan Stevenson (Jordan), who after graduation from Harvard decides to go to Alabama and be a lawyer for the wrongfully convicted and the unrepresented. To some people this seems a confusing career change, but for Stevenson it is a cause for which he is extremely invested on a personal level. He does get the support of some though, such as endearing local Eva Ansley (Brie Larson). Stevenson meets multiple prisoners who he attempts to help, with the focus of the film being on that of Walter MacMillan (Foxx), who was convicted in 1987 based on very unreliable information; however, with the racial discrimination of the times, it all played into him finding himself on death row. Stevenson discovers that proving the innocence of MacMillan is sadly not only about just that, proving his innocence; they must fight through a flawed system that is stacked against them. The power of the phenomenal performances from those two drives the film on, with the youthful motivation and determination of Jordan contrasting with a weary and weathered Foxx; MacMillan is trying to fight but also has seen so much despair from fellow inmates and friends – and Just Mercy does not shy away from showing that, never in excess but also enough to show us the inhumanity of how people are being treated. Similarly to Queen & Slim, their actions start a movement round them, but the pace and energy of Just Mercy, in how it subtly yet powerfully shows developments, puts it at the other end of this #10-#6 for me. If you have not seen Just Mercy, put it on your list to watch, because it is important and enthralling viewing.
Part 2, with my choices for #5-#1, is on the way and shall be published by 4th January! In the meantime, you can see my picks for the last three years at the following links:
Thanks for reading!