I began my 2019 list by referencing all the non-cinema things we could talk about for the year, but I don’t think any of us much remembers what happened in 2019. Did anything happen? Who knows. I was so pleased last year at seeing more films in the cinema than at home (for the first time in quite a few years) and that seems rather nostalgic now, because if anything really defined 2020 — there was a small matter of a global pandemic — then it also somewhat limited how often I was able to gather in a darkened room to watch films with other strangers. I was able to start going to cinemas again as the year progressed (more on that anon) but ultimately only 13% of my total films were seen by me in a cinema. I did see fewer overall as well, back to my 2016 level, but many more than in 2017.
This is about my favourite films, so I apologise for the somewhat solipsistic nature of this round-up. Obviously a lot of people suffered a lot this year, and movies are fairly minor in the scale of things. However, my year was mostly defined by moving back to New Zealand — for at least a few years, but we’ll see how things go. This wasn’t entirely a response to the pandemic, but it certainly hastened it along, and the last few months that I’ve spent here have been marked by something approaching ‘normality’. There were big street parties for the new year, and I barely see anybody wearing masks anymore. NZ has done a great job of limiting the transmission of the virus, but I suspect much of the year will still see us fairly stuck here with little contact with overseas friends, except online, and I expect that will be the case for most of us. Still, I can’t complain, given I’m still one of the few in the world who can go to the cinema and feel safe.
Going back to my statistics, I’ve slightly increased the percentage of films I’ve seen directed by women (44% to 46% this past year) and by people of colour (from 41% to 46%), although the overall numbers have declined. I’ve kept up my weekly reviewing of Criterion Collection films on Sundays, though my themed weeks of reviews on here have somewhat dried up since moving to New Zealand — largely to do with my lack of internet access and time to do this, rather than any lack of reviews to post. I’ll try and get back into it a bit for 2021.
As ever, I have a ‘best of’ list over on Letterboxd which ranks my top 30 films I saw that were actually released in the UK in 2020, a static list unlike that of all the 2020 films I’ve seen (which are the ones with a 2020 production date).
Therefore, the list below is my favourite new films that I saw in 2020, including ones that don’t have a UK release yet. Some had a NZ release, and I daresay some may have fallen between the gaps of my transit between the two countries (one I’ve included, 2019’s Vai was released here theatrically last year, I believe, but hasn’t been heard of in the UK at all, and I caught up with it via home media). If you’re wondering about the lack of Kelly Reichardt’s most recent film First Cow, well that’s because I haven’t had a chance to watch it yet. I don’t think it’s been out in NZ, nor has it been released in the UK, so another year passes in which I look forward to it (as it was premiered at the 2019 New York Film Festival). The same goes for Angela Schanelec’s 2019 film I Was at Home, But…, which I think I’ll really like, and then there was Steve McQueen’s series of five feature films made under the title Small Axe, which are topping other critics’ polls, and some of which will no doubt show up in mine next year.
I also just want to point out here that my rating and ranking of Tsai Ming-liang’s latest film Days is almost certainly too low; he’s one of my favourite filmmakers and I didn’t see it under the best circumstances (or indeed, strictly speaking, finish it). In a sense, though, this is just a microcosm of the whole list. Perhaps, given the right screening situation or headspace, any of these 30 films could be in any order. I think they are all pretty great, and if you want to take the list below as unranked, or at the very least only provisionally ranked, that would be particularly justifiable this year.
Who knows how the pandemic will continue to affect film distribution in 2021, but I suspect I will have to just look online to watch some of them, an undertaking which is strangely difficult given the piecemeal nature of distribution and exhibition worldwide.
30 Promising Young Woman
I’ve seen a lot of criticism pulling both ways on this one, and I can’t deny I wasn’t sure at times how to take it, but decided in the end that that’s the point. It is tonally baffling, and exhausting, but it’s funny and stylish, and nasty. [Preview screening in NZ; not yet released in UK]
29 Farewell Amor
28 Ar Condicionado (Air Conditioner)
27 She Dies Tomorrow
26 I’m Your Woman
The last film I saw in 2020, and I can’t say it’s the best but it’s certainly a very accomplished 70s-set crime drama that finds a different point of a view to a very familiar generic storyline. [Released direct to VoD]
25 The Broken Hearts Gallery
24 The Forty-Year-Old Version
Partially this was great because I wasn’t expecting it, but also it tells a story of modern New York, of gentrification, of cities, and does so with a refreshing and new voice (well, new to me). [Released direct to VoD]
23 The Lighthouse (2019)
Took a while to come out in the UK but it’s certainly stylish. Wasn’t always sure if I liked it exactly, but its distinctive tone and atmosphere has certainly stuck with me.
21= Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)
I saw this twice, including in the cinema before the pandemic hit. I think I have to admit — and I certainly wasn’t expecting it — but it may be my favourite of the DC superhero movies (not a hard thing) and one of my overall favourites of that far too overcrowded genre.
21= The Old Guard
I can’t really separate this in some ways from Birds of Prey as a superhero movie directed by a woman of colour, but this is tonally very different, finding something elegiac and a bit sad about being an immortal. [Released direct to VoD]
20 Rizi (Days)
I mistimed this and didn’t finish it before my slot ran out, such is the way of modern festivals. One day I will see this on the big screen and I will fully embrace it, but it is a beautiful and very measured film. [Festival screening online only]
19 Sayounara (2018)
I saw this online, and it’s hardly new, but I really liked it. Just a small drama between a couple of girls, that still sort of landed for me emotionally. [Festival screening online only]
18 Lucky Grandma (2019)
A striking drama about New York but from the perspective of a Chinese grandma. It has humour and then it has a bit of a crime film denouement, but it all works together nicely. [NZ screening; not yet released in UK except for festival screenings]
17 Vai (2019)
This is from the people behind Waru, but I had never heard of it before seeing the DVD in a rental store (it came out in NZ last year), so I borrowed it and, in short, it’s lovely. A real, surprising, highlight about Pacific Island families and the ties that bind them. [NZ home media release; not yet released in UK]
16 Talking About Trees (2019)
I fell like this year has been about documentaries that come from nowhere and surprise me with their passion and their warmth, and this is one, about cineastes in Sudan.
15 Babyteeth (2019)
If I think about it, I find myself falling on the side of the parents in believing the relationship at the centre isn’t healthy for our protagonist, but she’s dying and this is effective without being too manipulative. Plus it looks great.
14 A Hidden Life (2019)
Another big name from the 2019 festival circuit that took a little while to get to UK cinemas. I am not a Malick stan by any means (didn’t really like the decade of films before this one), but it reminds me of the great qualities of his finest works.
13 It Must Be Heaven (2019)
12 O processo (The Trial, 2018)
A few years old and dropped to Mubi, but this documentary about the trial of the former President of Brazil is gripping behind the scenes stuff that eschews context and title cards and just throws you into the drama. [Released direct to VoD]
11 The Assistant (2019)
10 David Byrne’s American Utopia
Elisabeth Moss is intense as ever in playing a gothic horror writer, in this creepy little period pscyhological drama, a spin on the kind of things Alex Ross Perry also did with Moss.
8 Gisaengchung (Parasite, 2019)
Everyone knows about this film, and it won an Academy Award. Took a while to get to the UK, so I’d basically heard raves about it from everyone before seeing it, but even that didn’t turn me against it. A solid satirical thriller.
7 Rocks (2019)
A big hit at the 2019 London Film Festival, and originally due to be released when the first lockdown hit, it did eventually get a proper release and I got to see it on the big screen. Worth the risks. Warm-hearted but still bleak at times.
6 Bacurau (2019)
I spent a long time kicking myself for not seeing this at the Film Festival last year, and continue to do so that I didn’t grab the (very brief) opportunity to see it at the cinema before lockdown, but it holds up on home streaming. Just delightfully twisted, especially when Udo Kier shows up.
Feels at times almost too studiedly like a modern classic, but it’s great. Zhao has empathy for everyone in the film, which edges along between fiction and documentary about people trying to make ends meet in modern America. [Preview screening in NZ; not yet released in UK aside from festival screenings]
4 Vitalina Varela (2019)
3 Never Rarely Sometimes Always
2 Miss Juneteenth
I found myself really surprised by this, and specifically at how much I liked it, given it’s a documentary constructed largely of archival material. Somehow it works really well as the portrait of one woman and her family saga. I guess the key is empathy; in all its twists and difficulties, it feels somehow like a film to encapsulate this year. [Released direct to VoD]