2020 has been a weird year for cinema, thanks to the global coronavirus pandemic that shut down most cinemas through the year, saw film festivals either shut down entirely or shift online, and more than a few films intended for theatrical release shifted to online rental and streaming. Most of Hollywood’s big-budget tentpoles were shifting ahead to 2021, while those that did manage to make it into cinemas were more often than not a little underwhelming.
Each year the FictionMachine best films list basically combines 2020 releases with 2019 releases that were not available to see on general release until this year. Given the arrested release schedule, that actually means more 2019 films on the list than 2020. What few theatrical releases made it to Australia this year I generally missed due to Melbourne undertaking the world’s longest COVID-19 shutdown. Of what films I saw in 2020, these are in my opinion the 10 best. If your favourite film is not listed, there is a good chance I have not seen it yet. As always, there were a number of great movies that did not quite make it into my top 10, including Woman of the Photographs, Tora-San Wish You Were Here, Enola Holmes, The Invisible Man, For Sama, Proxima, Charter, Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway, Tenet, Heavy Craving, and La Belle Epoque. They are all highly recommended.
10. Little Joe
A 2019 European feature that, to the best of my knowledge, has yet to emerge here in Australia for a general audience. Jessica Hausner’s slow-burn thriller follows a team of botanists attempting to engineer a plant with artificially calming effects on humans. The biological threat they have unwittingly engendered takes it time to insidiously appear. This is a superb film rendition of the so-called ‘cosy catastrophe’ genre typified in literature by the late John Wyndham. It was the best science fiction film that I saw in 2020. In my review in April I wrote: ‘It is a very grounded style of story, in which the uncanny punctures the seemingly calm surrounds of an ordinary world.’
9. The Lodge
Another 2019 thriller, although at least this one made it to Australia via home and online video. After their mother commits suicide, a pair of grieving children are left temporarily in the care of their father’s new girlfriend – the survivor of an apocalyptic death cult. This hugely effective film, directed by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, is an impressive achievement because of its uncertainty. The viewer knows going in that they’re watching a thriller, but it is not initially clear what kind of thriller it is. In my recent review I wrote: ‘Every year tends to bring with it a small number of ‘must-see’ thriller and horror films, and The Lodge comprehensively makes the list for 2020.”
8. The Killing of Two Lovers
Robert Machoian’s The Killing of Two Lovers is a small, sparse, and bleakly effective drama in which a distraught separated father of two struggles to control his rage over his wife’s new relationship and boyfriend. The title alone promises bleak, disturbing drama, but the film itself brings an unexpected amount of depth, sensitivity, and warmth. Strong performances across the board help seal the deal. In August, I wrote: ‘The film plays in a frighteningly dark area, but carefully centres everything on character, emotion, and a blunt depiction of human nature. The Killing of Two Lovers paints a strong, devastating portrait.’
7. Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
Will Ferrell has long been the creative force behind a string of off-kilter comedies that, while initially seeming childish, coarse, and oddly stupid, open themselves up on repeat viewing to be some of the funniest, quotable, and unexpectedly enjoyable movies Hollywood has had to offer. I think Eurovision Song Contest may be his best film ever, thanks to talented co-stars, a smarter than usual screenplay, and a completely unexpected earnest adoration for its subject matter. In June I wrote: ‘The makers of Fire Saga know that Eurovision is weirdly ridiculous, and camp, and impossible to take seriously – but they also know it is filled with joy, and optimism, and exists to make people happy. Fit with the tone and the rather atypical purpose, and Fire Saga is simply going to make you happy.’
6. On the Edge of Their Seats
Hideo Jojo’s On the Edge of Their Seats follows a group of Japanese high schoolers over the course of one baseball game, tracking the various teen dramas and crises that are typical of the genre while they watch and cheer their team. The viewer never sees the game in action – the camera never points in that direction – and instead the focus is on a well-played and devised set of teenage characters. Some films deserve credit for doing what they intend to, and doing it well. On the Edge of Their Seats does it very well indeed. From my March review: ‘It throws in little mysteries: off-hand comments, or character behaviours. It then explains them when they have the maximum effect, creating a beautifully tight three-act narrative.’
5. Better Days
A bullied high schooler kicks off a romance with a local gang member, and then both fall under suspicion when the bully is found dead. Derek Tsang’s 2019 teen drama is the emotional antithesis of On the Edge of Their Seats. While the former film is buoyed by a well-placed and light-hearted comedic spirit, Better Days is remarkably serious and bleak. It is also riveting, heartfelt, and superbly acted. In my review for VCinema, I wrote: ‘From what seem to be social realist beginnings, Derek Tsang’s fourth film shifts effortlessly into a genuinely touching melodrama and then again into a violent thriller. It is an impressive feat to do each style of narrative so well; even more so to blend them in such a seamless manner. The end result, while flawed in places, stands up as one of 2019’s best Asian features.’
4. Bill & Ted Face the Music
If 2020 was a struggle for you, this unexpected mini-masterpiece was the antidote. There had been talk about a third Bill & Ted film for more than a decade, but it seemed a deeply unlikely proposition – even if Keanu Reeves found time in his schedule, how good could a sequel to the 1988 and 1990s teen comedies actually be? In the hands of Galaxy Quest director Dean Parisot, the answer turned out to be very good indeed. This was a superb – and superbly silly – double-shot of pure, distilled nostalgia. I smiled at the beginning, and didn’t stop smiling until the very end – when I damn well nearly cried. From my review: ‘I went into Face the Music hoping for a film that would live up to its cult-favourite predecessors. I did not expect a film that would, in every respect, exceed them.’ Not quite the best film of my year, but absolutely the most fun.
Shannon Murphy’s drama Babyteeth was my favourite Australian film of the year. It told a familiar story, but told it with a strong Rita Kalnejais screenplay (based on her own play) and an absolute top-notch cast including Eliza Scanlen, Ben Mendelsohn, Essie Davis, and Toby Wallace. The film is that magical case where every element of the production lines up in exactly the same direction, and the whole transcends each element. My November review wrote: ‘this is an absolutely world-class drama: immensely effective, surprisingly funny and warm, and at the same time as capable of devastating its audience as charming the pants off it.’
2. Your Name Engraved Herein
Airline shutdowns in March meant I had to leave the Osaka Asian Film Festival early, missing this widely acclaimed drama from Taiwan. Thankfully Netflix picked up Your Name Engraved Herein for international release, and I managed to catch it right before the year ended. Liu Kuang-hui’s autobiographically-inspired gay romance is set in the immediate aftermath of Taiwan’s military rule, and depicts the changing but still homophobic world of 1987. From my recent review: ‘Your Name Engraved Herein is gentle, sensitively played, and emotionally powerful. It captures life and love at its most intimate. It is simply a tremendous drama, whether you are Taiwanese or not, gay or straight.’
Residue is the debut feature by American filmmaker Merawi Gerima, following an aspiring director on his return home to the Washington suburb where he grew up. It is a sensational exploration of race, gentrification, memory, and loss. As with Your Name Engraved Within, this film is available on Netflix. To my mind, it is an absolute five-star masterpiece and an amazing start for Gerima’s hopefully long career. From the September review: ‘This is an effective, distinctive, and highly mature work of cinema. For a film in its own right it is hugely impressive. As a directorial debut, it really is a marvel.’