It’s always difficult to reduce a years worth of films to a shortlist of 30, but this year was particularly challenging. I have always favoured big screen hijinks and quirky genre pics in my cinematic highlights. Every year I am lucky enough to experience searing insights into other lives, cultures and worlds but all too often these dramas are pushed out by their bombastic contemporaries. This year with the studios holding back their most immersive films, it’s the smaller films that have found a place in my heart and on my list.
Having said the top 30 are fairly on brand for me and for Screen Mayhem and would stand up as the best of any year. These are the 30 films that best helped me get through 2020. I hope some of them might bring a little something to your 2021!
30. Honeymood (dir. Tayla Lavie)
An endearing and slightly surreal trip into the streets of Jerusalem at night and into the hearts of a newlywed couple. It’s a romantic comedy that keeps finding ways to surprise you.
29. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (dir. Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross)
A eulogy for the dive bar that couldn’t have felt more relevant this year. It’s elegiac, funny and profoundly melancholic.
28. Farewell Amor (dir. Ekwa Msangi)
The pain of reuniting for a Nigerian couple and their daughter. Compelling and beautifully acted drama with a Rashomon twist.
27. After Love (dir. Aleem Khan)
Joana Scanlan shines in this poignant exploration of grief that asks how well we truly know those closest to us and if it’s possible to forgive the dead.
26. Da 5 Bloods (dir. Spike Lee)
Exciting and profound action thriller from Spike Lee, a director enjoying something of a second renaissance. Come for the cheesy premise and splashy action, stay for the powerhouse performances and deep insight.
25. Shadow Country (dir. Bohdan Sláma)
The grim cycle of warfare has never been more poignantly or ambitiously demonstrated than this beautifully shot, bleak historical epic.
24. On the Rocks (dir. Sofia Coppola)
Sofia Coppola’s quiet drama about a wife fearing for her marriage and led astray by her father, is beautifully acted and very funny.
23. Relic (dir. Natalie Erika James)
An imperfect but undeniably affecting portrait of losing a loved on to dementia with a fabulously sinister aesthetic and superb cast.
22. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (dir. George C Wolfe)
Though definitely carrying it’s stage heritage, this is an immaculately written and magnificently performed one-room drama.
21. His House (dir. Remi Weekes)
The horror of the immigrant experience of Britain is rendered in a gloriously original and disturbing thriller.
20. David Byrne’s American Utopia (dir. Spike Lee)
Surprisingly my favourite Spike Lee film of the year, American Utopia is a lovely, timely and wholehearted message of peace set to iconic music. It’s also a testament to the live experience we’ve all been missing this year.
19. Shirley (dir. Josephine Decker)
Superbly disturbing biopic of one of America’s great authors, blending genre chills with real insight into the creative process and the toll it takes.
18. Mangrove (dir. Steve McQueen)
The best of Steve McQueen’s fantastic Small Axe collection of films, Mangrove tells a poignant and urgent true story with dignity, ingenuity and sincerity. A beautifully realised evocation of a time of police brutality that has tragically not gone by.
17. Onward (dir. Dan Scanlon)
The first of Disney Pixar’s superb 2020 offerings is a typically thoughtful and hilarious trip through grief and brotherly love that achieves profound insights into the nature of family and of parenthood. It’s also a fanciful and gorgeous fantasy world.
16. One Night in Miami (dir. Regina King)
A compelling drama and an excellent showcase of four men at the top of their powers and a fascinating exploration of being prominent black men in a society that is afraid of them. In spite of it’s stage origins it’s a thoroughly cinematic work.
15. Kajillionaire (dir. Miranda July)
An expertly crafted black comedy that’s warm in an unaffectedly tough way and even sweet. It’s about a very unusual family and the immense struggle to find sincere methods of expression.
14. The Invisible Man (dir. Leigh Whannel)
The first big surprise of the year turned out to be the last big cinematic talking point of the year before everyone had to start investing in their home cinema systems. It’s a tense and brilliantly affecting big budget horror film.
13. Miss Juneteenth (dir. Channing Godfrey Peoples)
A painful, but never bleak, story of a mother trying to support her daughter to win the same beauty contest she won as a teen. It’s a film about defining your own success and breaking away from traditions designed to belittle and entrap young women into a system that won’t support them.
12. I’m Thinking of Ending Things (dir. Charlie Kaufman)
Charlie Kaufman’s divisive film struck home as an exploration of a life spent in contemplation and fantasy. It’s about how dreams can become toxic and empty. It’s also highly innovative and absorbingly strange.
11. The Painter and the Thief (dir. Benjamin Ree)
I usually avoid including documentaries in my top 30 as it opens the door to a whole new slew of amazing films to consider. However The Painter and the Thief hit harder than so many fiction films this year. A devastating tale of a perhaps selfish attempt to save a person.
10. Ammonite (dir. Francis Lee)
A delicate and impassioned showcase for Winslet and Ronan’s impeccable talents. A strikingly staged period piece and a tenderly evocative romance.
09. Never Rarely Always Sometimes (Dir. Eliza Hittman)
A Quietly devastating but intimately authentic tale of systemic disempowerment and youthful friendship. The artfully understated drama that is as stylistically dramatic as it is beautifully performed.
078. Possessor (dir. Brandon Cronenberg)
Brandon Cronenberg’s fantastic and subversive espionage, body-horror thriller feels completely fresh and unique. Cronenberg has matured as a provocative filmmaker and has assembled an incredible cast and talented effects crew to stage his psychological mind-bender.
07. Promising Young Woman (dir. Emerald Fennell)
A provocative and exhilarating thriller that asks hard questions and delivers no easy answers. Carey Mulligan is at her very best as the woman seeking vengeance in a society determined to silence her.
06. Supernova (dir. Harry Macqueen)
The infinite cosmos as observed from a tiny caravan. Harry Macqueen’s tender portrait of two men at the end of one journey and the beginning of another features compelling performance, extraordinary cinematography and a building drama that is compelling and heart-breaking.
05. First Cow (dir. Kelly Reichardt)
Breaking my rule regarding late released of prior films, First Cow was an early critical phenomenon during lockdown and will always feel like a quintessential 2020 film. Reichardt’s languid period drama is a richly rendered character-driven story of friendship and enterprise.
04. Nomadland (dir. Chloe Zhao)
Chloe Zhao has delivered another powerful insight into American Pastoral life with this gorgeous elegy to the American West and a love letter to the Nomads who still roam the plains. Francis McDormand is perhaps at career best as the deeply relatable outsider.
03. Soul (dir. Pete Doctor)
The second Disney Pixar film of 2020 was a film about death, life and inspiration. Another fantastically realised concept from Pete Doctor that will prove dramatic, profound and hilarious to audiences of all ages.
02. Tenet (dir. Christopher Nolan)
The only really big blockbuster of 2020 reminded us of how wonderful the big screen experience truly is. It’s an exciting, compelling and intelligent action film that rewarded viewers with the time to pour over it again and again with greater and greater understanding of it’s labyrinthine plot and complex action sequences.
01. Wolfwalkers (dir. Tom Moore)
A genuine treat of a film from one of the greatest animation houses in the world. It’s bright, beautiful and compelling. It’s a story of empowerment and friendship that will enchant all audiences.