The Plain, Simple Review of the Year: Part Two – Top 20 Films of 2020

So here we are again, dear readers, at one of my favourite times of the year: the end of December where I get to look back at the films of the past year, sit in judgement over them, and to finally present my picks for Top Twenty films of the year.

The first half of 2020 started off surprisingly promisingly as within a short amount of time, I managed to see a couple of films which I judged to be five star efforts – very rare for so early in the year – so I predicted that by the end of the year, I would have seen a great many stellar films that would make my top 10 or 20 particularly exciting to talk about.

But then, of course, the horrid pandemic struck and so the cinemas were closed to many of us and high profile films like No Time to Die, Dune, and WW84 were made unavailable to us (even though people in certain parts of the country have been lucky enough to see the latter). This of course meant that a lot of us had to dive in to all of the on-demand films that were available to us and although the streaming services have given us plenty of good 2020 films, there really is no substitute for the big screen and it’s a shame that we didn’t have more time at the ol’ picture house, getting to see the big films on the big screen.

In the end, I managed to watch 118 new films (I’m guessing around 80% of which were watched on streaming services) and now, at the end of this most miserable year, I now give you my top 20.


Let’s take a quick look at THE WORST films of 2020!

10. The Babysitter: Killer Queen

An instance where I enjoyed the first one but not the sequel, this one had some particularly messy writing and poor antagonists – most were embarrassing to watch and it made zero sense for the main villain to be who he/she was.

9. Project Power

This one had potential but it ended up as an unexciting and boring mess with ropey special effects – the potential beginning of a new franchise that I doubt will come to life.

8. Chemical Hearts

An adaptation of a YA romance book, this film was particularly boring, too serious and full of itself, and the protagonists were insufferable and pretentious – the kind of people who get their rocks off by quoting Pablo Neruda and the like.

7. The Lie

Shown as part of the “Welcome to the Blumhouse” series on Prime, this so called “thriller” was painfully dull and uninspired and it ended with one of the STUPIDEST twists I’ve seen in a film for quite some time.

6. Hubie Halloween

A bottom-of-the-barrel Adam Sandler film, this “comedy” wasn’t funny at all, it was embarrassing in places, and Sandler was the least funny part of his own film, putting on a goofy voice that I’m sure Jim Carrey must have attempted at some point.

5. Artemis Fowl

Ouch. Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of the popular children’s book made the bad decision to combine the plots of the first two books in the series and as such, the whole thing was a huge mess; the plot made little sense, the acting was bad, the attempts at humour were agonisingly embarrassing, the constant “daddy issues” were annoying, and Fowl himself was not the super intelligent sociopath he should have been.

4. Stargirl

This Disney Plus original was far too twee, sugarsweet and just plain insufferable for its own good and it didn’t help that the titular character was a really annoying hippie/manic pixie dreamgirl who caused havoc with her blasted ukulele, singing, and sickening smile.

All that said, the musical numbers which were played during several football games were just so ridiculous that they ended up being HILARIOUS.

3. 365 Days

I started watching this because the plot bore some resemblance to a certain book series that I used to be obsessed with (no, not Fifty Shades!) so I was interested in seeing how it would be played out on the big screen but although the opening is decent enough, the whole thing eventually spirals downwards as the premise becomes increasingly ridiculous and the real problems begin to emerge: the acting is really bad, the story sucks, the writing is poor, the soundtrack is obnoxious, and there are many horrendous directorial and editorial blunders – including a boat-set sex montage which is just a colossal technical failure.

2. Spenser Confidential

An absolute mess from an otherwise fine director, Spenser was nonsensical and boring with no supportable characters or any interesting plot developments of any kind. An excruciatingly dull film to sit through.

1. Ava

Though it sports a promising cast that includes Jessica Chastain and Colin Farrell, this frankly s**t film has an absolutely terrible script that results in equally poor and uninterested performances; the family drama and addiction subplot were trite, the direction was weak, and the whole thing was just so boring, generic, and excruciatingly dull.

* * *

Phew, well at least we’ve gotten THOSE out of the way.

And now, here’s THE BEST films of 2020! (UK release dates)

20. Becoming (2020)

Maybe it’s a little hagiographic, but this documentary about Michelle Obama really lets us appreciate (even more so than many of us already did!) just how inspirational and just plain wonderful she is; it’s lovely to see her as she truly is in her day-to-day life, we hear of how the presidential race and becoming famous affected her (in negative ways, as well as positive), and her story of how she met Barack was particularly funny and entertaining!

19. Just Mercy (2019)

As When They See Us and its kind showed us, films and TV shows that bring to light the flawed and often rigged system of justice facing people of colour in America are often eye opening and powerful and in the right hands, they can prove to be enlightening and shocking experiences.

Just Mercy is another similarly affecting and worthwhile drama all about a wrongfully accused African American man and the idealistic young lawyer who sets out to prove his innocence and to challenge the unjust system; the film packs a powerful punch and it has excellent performances from Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx.

18. Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema (2018)

The longest film I’ve ever seen by quite a wide margin, Mark Cousins’ 14 hour odyssey is a “free film school”, as he calls it, teaching us how a film is constructed and examining everything from openings, to themes, character introductions and shot compositions, always using female directed films in his examples.

It sure is a comprehensive examination of virtually every aspect of filmmaking and although certain chapters are fundamentally more interesting than others (well, for a 14 hour documentary, that’s to be expected!) and Cousins often points out things that have no real significance, this feature goes to show just how many excellent films have been helmed by female directors, their techniques often very clever and innovative, and it celebrates the more well known directors while simultaneously bringing our attention to ones we may not have heard of.

17. The Boys in the Band (2020)

Ryan Murphy seems to be getting plenty of work these days, with Ratched and The Prom, and he here produces this adaptation of a stage show that centres around a group of gay men having a party, one at which secrets are revealed and relationships/friendships are tested.

The first half is particularly fun as watching this group of friends come together and bounce zippy lines of dialogue off each other makes for a fun time and they appear to be a colourful bunch who you’d love to spend time with, but things eventually turn tense and the director and the actors involved do a great job in creating an atmosphere that is palpably uncomfortable, tense and unpredictable.

The film has a very strong script that is filled with clever and colourful dialogue, and the ensemble cast members, including Jim Parsons, Andrew Rannels and Zachary Quinto, are all so talented and intriguing to watch .

16. Saint Maud (2019)

With Saint Maud, director Rose Glass has created a film that, despite its limited runtime and minimal cast, is laced with an impressively uneasy, mysterious and uncomfortable atmosphere, focusing on an introverted, Carrie White-type character who makes it her mission to save the soul of Jennifer Ehle’s fading diva. Admittedly, it isn’t quite as gripping or as memorable as it could have been, but it has a worthwhile story and Morfydd Clark gives one of the best performances of the year as the troubled young woman who grapples with her faith.

Plus, it has God speaking Welsh so that’s just amazing.

15. The Devil all the Time (2020)

Antonio Campos’ film manages to juggle several interconnecting stories remarkably well in this, a dark saga all about religion and how it affects the characters’ lives; it’s directed very well as Campos gets the tonal balance spot on, the era-specific soundtrack is a treat, it has a strong script, and the ensemble cast performs particularly strongly, with Tom Holland, Robert Pattinson and Bill Skarsgård being the standouts.

14. American Murder: The Family Next Door (2020)

Many people would have gone into this documentary having already heard about the infamous crime that’s brought up in the feature, but for me, watching it unfold for the very first time, I was gripped by the story, I clung to every development, and a particular revelation totally floored me and managed to shock me greatly.

This documentary is also notable for having a most unique format, constructing a narrative and telling its story through camera footage, phone calls and emails, Searching style, and it does very well in slowly pulling back the curtain on an apparently ideal American family, going to show how we can’t always trust what we see on social media.

13. Dark Waters (2019)

From Carol director Todd Haynes and channeling the likes of Spotlight and Erin Brockovich, Dark Waters sees Mark Ruffalo’s character uncovering a conspiracy, slowly coming to realise that the DuPont company’s chemical dumping is having a horrific effect on the health of the townspeople, and it does well in stirring up emotions – getting us angry that seemingly untouchable behemoths like DuPont can essentially get away with murder – and it also has a smart story, assured direction, and a committed leading performance from Ruffalo.

12. Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020)

This “slice of life” drama tells of a young woman who travels to New York alongside her cousin so that she can get an abortion and it succeeds thanks to Eliza Hittman’s assured direction as well as Sidney Flanagan’s leading performance; she is able to express so much with very little dialogue and in the pivotal scene which features the titular “Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always” questionnaire, her performance is so powerful and all eyes are glued on her for the duration of that standout scene.

The film manages to remain engaging and moving throughout and it also contains some very relevant and intriguing subject matter; although we see healthcare professionals who genuinely care and are seemingly good at what they do, we are also made aware of small town clinics that are shockingly inept (and morally reprehensible for blatantly showing an “abortion is murder” video) and elsewhere, we also witness the creepy and repulsive advances that many women surely have to endure a lot of the time.

11. Rocks (2019)

Sarah Gavron’s film tells a perfectly interesting and worthwhile story about a young teenager who has to look after her younger brother after her mother ups and leaves, hiding the truth from the authorities and making some increasingly bad decisions as she strives to protect her young sibling; it’s a well written and directed film that’s acted so well by its young cast, many of whom are first time performers, and above all else, the film proves to be a wonderful celebration of a multicultural Britain, providing a positive message of diversity and cross cultural friendship that we really need right now.

10. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)

The 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? introduced many (Non-American) people to Fred Rogers and his popular TV show that brought so much joy and happiness to families and young children and now, director Marielle Heller has brought us a whole new story that revolves around “the nicest man who ever lived”, focusing on a jaded writer, his fractured relationship with his father, and the lessons that Fred Rogers is able to teach him.

It really is a lovely film, full of genuine warm feeling and heart, and it made me wish that I could have grown up watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as a child; Heller uses several effective directional techniques, which include recreating the pivotal television show, the film has a touching story, and Tom Hanks was just born to play Fred Rogers.

9. Uncut Gems (2019)

So many people were apparently made incredibly anxious while watching this, what with all the loud voices and the scores of people constantly talking over each other but while that didn’t really happen to me, I still appreciated this film and thought that it was an especially intriguing and unique picture: telling its story in the Safdie Brothers’ signature style and focusing on an inherently flawed central character who just keeps on making bad decisions and deals all over town, facing pressure from all sides as dangerous people keep demanding money from him and as he attempts to sell a certain valuable opal.

In an age of remakes, reboots, sequels and prequels, having a truly original film like this sure is a treat and Uncut Gems proved to be a particularly engrossing odyssey; the story is solid, the direction is passionate, and it’s surely one of Adam Sandler’s very best performances.

8. The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

Armando Iannucci’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ popular novel is one of the most imaginative, passionate, and just plain fascinating literary adaptations that I’ve seen in a while, using several innovative techniques and directorial flourishes to “shake things up” and to make sure that the tale is brought to life in the most colourful and fun manner possible.

It’s clear that Iannucci is truly passionate about the source material, as the film aims to highlight certain passages and to make us see just how masterful Dickens was with words, and the whole thing is just a delectable treat to experience – making great use of some lovely production design as well as a really superb (colourblind) cast, which includes Dev Patel who plays David so wonderfully.

7. The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)

Writer/director Aaron Sorkin’s “based on a true story” feature is all about an absurd kangaroo court that a group of young protesters faced, as well as the inhumane treatment that a member of the Black Panther party was subjected to, and although the subject matter could have easily been presented to us in a dry and dusty manner, Sorkin does a really professional job in making all the legal goings-on perfectly accessible and interesting to its audience and additionally, he manages to inject plenty of welcome humour and good feeling towards the beginning of the film, as well as plenty of shocking revelations and memorable plot turns further down the line.

It’s directed very well by Sorkin and he also contributes one of his typically impressive scripts, the film is enlightening and constantly engaging, and it has a great ensemble cast, particularly Sacha Baron Cohen, who brings the film’s biggest laughs as well as some unexpected heart and soul, and Frank Langella who stands out triumphantly as the incredibly inept and prejudiced judge.

6. The Invisible Man (2020)

With so many painfully boring and lifeless horror films floating around nowadays, it’s always a delight when somebody brings us something truly original and exciting and this year, Leigh Whannell did just that with The Invisible Man: an enticing and masterfully crafted thriller that centres around an abusive relationship and the young woman who is persecuted by a particularly obsessive and dangerous ex.

Putting the theme of abusive relationships front and centre certainly gives this film an additional raison d’être and perhaps above all else, The Invisible Man is clearly the work of a director who truly understands the genre as he builds up the tension magnificently, using negative space so very well, and keeps our nerves frayed for so very long; the film has such great music and Elisabeth Moss is sublime in the leading role.

5. The Lighthouse (2019)

An ideal lockdown film if ever there was one, focusing on two men who slowly unravel as they’re forced to spend so much time in one location, Robert Eggers’ film is a slow burning psychological thriller that looks truly immaculate, having been seemingly influenced by German expressionist film, and he successfully creates a truly hypnotic, mysterious and tense atmosphere throughout the feature, making use of minimal lighting and laudable sound design to an excellent effect – the sound of the constantly blaring foghorn is a particularly effective touch that will jangle the ol’ nerves.

Much like The Witch, it’s quite something to see these two characters slowly turn on each other and in the leading roles, Robert Pattinson proves to be a particularly intriguing lead but Willem Dafoe is especially magnificent as the archetypal “craggy old salt”. I tell ye.

And A.L. Lloyd’s “Doodle Let Me Go”, heard during the closing credits, sure is one heck of a tune.

4. Hamilton (2020)

There would of course have been a great many people who were all too aware of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hugely popular stage show, probably knowing all of the tunes and what the story’s all about, but watching this for the first time marked my very first foray into the popular phenomenon and by the end, I could indeed see what all the fuss was about.

Above all else, the songs truly were outstanding – each one an absolute banger – and Miranda deserves all possible praise for his mastery of the MANY lyrics (which are unbelievably delivered at around 100mph by the cast) and in addition to the many hits, the show is staged quite brilliantly, the story proves to be enlightening, and the ensemble cast is just so immensely talented.

3. 1917 (2019)

A film that we were so lucky to catch in cinemas as it is there, on the biggest screen possible, that the film is surely the most effective, Sam Mendes’ seemingly one-shot film is a technical marvel and it boasts some of the best cinematography (I’m sure we can all agree that Roger Deakins can do no wrong), music, production design, and editing that we’ve seen this year and the war-set odyssey is incredibly engrossing and often remarkably tense and unpredictable.

In the film, we see a few famous faces pop up here and there but front and centre, Game of Thrones‘ Dean Charles Chapman proves to be a particularly strong co-lead, however it’s George MacKay who shines particularly brightly as he’s given more to do and he commits himself to all the gruelling physical activity like a pro while also expressing so much emotion through facial expressions alone.

A truly memorable experience.

2. Wolfwalkers (2020)

From the same people who brought us the absolutely divine and beautiful Song of the Sea, this Apple original (PLEASE tell me that the film will get some sort of a physical release because it’s unfair that a film this magnificent is only available on Apple) is just as good as the aforementioned film and, much like said film, it features painstakingly crafted and absolutely stunning hand drawn animation, music and songs that are so so beautiful and emotional, a passionate and spirited voice cast who lend their vocal talents to characters who are feisty, colourful and just plain brilliant, and an original and very imaginative story that contains so much heart, humour, sadness, magic and wonder.

The unstoppable Pixar will almost certainly take home the Academy Award for Soul but, as great as that film is, Wolfwalkers is in a whole different league, as far as I’m concerned, and this film is truly masterful in every aspect. Plus, it made me want to cry, which few films are able to do.

Also: thanks to Martin at Through the Silver Screen for recommending the week free trial of Apple TV, which enabled me to see this incredible movie.

And to it’s credit, Wolfwalkers was soooo close to nabbing my top spot but a certain mighty 2020 release just COULDN’T be beaten . . .

1. Parasite (2019)

A film that got everybody talking, long before it made history by becoming the first foreign language film to take home the prize for Best Picture (we in the UK having to wait until the early months of this year to finally view it), the brainchild of the immensely talented Bong Joon-ho is a marvel to sit through from beginning to end and there’s never a dull moment as we witness the financially struggling Kim family cleverly maneuver their way into the affluent home of the wealthy, but unassuming, Park family.

In my view, certain foreign language films are easy to admire but not always to enjoy, some of them being a little too slow and with plots that may not be that interesting, but with Bong’s films that’s rarely the case – his films are often technically proficient but there’s also a “juicy” and entertaining/accessible story to accompany the accomplished filmmaking and with Parasite, that’s the case yet again; the film looks absolutely gorgeous, we really get to know the main house, the direction is masterful and the music is a treat and accompanying all of that, the story is imaginative and it’s easy to become engrossed in all of the developments, there’s a winning blend of humour, drama and tragedy, and the script is just excellent through and through.

The core cast is also very strong – with Song Kang-ho and Park So-dam proving to be particular standouts – and at the end of the day, Parasite really does live up to the hype as it looks immaculate, Bong Joon-ho demonstrates his masterful direction and storytelling abilities, and the film has an engrossing and entertaining story, filled with several unexpected twists and brave story directions, and it’s a real pleasure to sit through.

* * *

Phew, well we made it through another year of films, dear readers, and I thank all of those who made it through this review of mine and those who continually read and liked what I have to say (even though my blog posts have been noticeably limited since the first lockdown began) and I again apologise that I haven’t been reading enough of what everybody else has written.

I will try and make some time to read other posts in the new year but for now, I will say thank you for reading, for sticking with me through these awful times, and I wish you all a happy and a healthy 2021.

Thank you all,
Plain, Simple Tom

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