Samstag, 9. Januar 2021

The Best Films of 2020

Is it poor form to open an article that is meant to celebrate the cinematic excellence that has graced Swiss screens and streaming platforms over the last twelve months with an extremely specific gripe about film discourse in general? Maybe. But then again, this is an article about 2020, so where's the fun and sense of history in not having it be a bit of a shambles?

So here goes: "This was a bad year for cinema" is one of the most maddening phrases in film discourse – an invariably baseless bemoaning of a perceived lack of high-quality cinematic movie fare that is trotted out year after year and consistently fails to take under consideration all the truly excellent international and independent filmmaking that does not make a splash by virtue of its box office performance or attention-grabbing subject matter. (Chung Mong-hong's impressive A Sun, whose Netflix opening was largely ignored before it was named Variety's film of the year, is a case in point.)

I will concede, however, that in 2020, the sentiment was somewhat more appropriate, if we amend it to "This was a bad year for cinemas." Movie theatres missed out on a lot of essential revenue as a result of the lockdowns and social-distancing measures made necessary by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, as well as big studios' reluctance to release likely blockbusters into this fraught climate.

My original grievance, on the other hand, still stands: even under these extraordinarily difficult circumstances, 2020 provided more than its fair share of outstanding films, and I am happy to present 15 of my favourites here. As regular readers of my lists will know, my pool of candidates consists of all the titles released in the German-speaking part of Switzerland between 1 January and 31 December, 2020 – be that theatrically (not including festivals), on VOD, or on physical media. And thus, I shall cease my griping and start celebrating.

Honourable Mentions

Let's start, as is tradition, with the honourable mentions – the films that did not quite crack my top ten, but which left enough of an imprint for me to feel bad about not including them in a 2020 retrospective. This list of five includes arguably the most topical movie in this compendium – Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, Jason Woliner's uproarious (and superior) sequel to 2006's breakout mockumentary Borat, which once again features Sacha Baron Cohen subjecting unsuspecting Americans to the antics of his most famous character, Kazakh reporter Borat Sagdiyev.

© Amazon Prime Video
What sets this outing apart from its predecessor is both the increased satirical sharpness of Baron Cohen's performance art – doubtlessly brought on by the current political climate in the U.S., where, under the influence of QAnon and the mainstreaming of white nationalist rhetoric, Borat's smiling bigotry suddenly doesn't seem so outrageous anymore – and, surprisingly, the addition of a more coherent plot, driven by Borat's daughter, played by the phenomenal Maria Bakalova. The glimpses one gets of contemporary America are always cringeworthy, often hilarious, and rarely edifying – but they feel painfully essential. (Read my full review.)

Marielle Heller and Simon Bird, meanwhile, provided audiences with similarly essential, if far less confrontational works last year. Heller's A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a holdover from the 2019 awards season, adapted a 1998 magazine feature about children's TV legend Fred Rogers (played brilliantly by Tom Hanks) into a disarming plea for empathy, emotional frankness, and non-toxic masculinity. By framing the story like a children's show aimed at adults – a move that proved alienating to some viewers – Heller forces her audience to question why the open-hearted expression of feeling is generally dismissed as kitsch on screen and as an embarrassing loss of self-control off screen, encouraging serious engagement with how, culturally, we collectively deal with emotions like anger and grief. (Read my full review.)

© Sony Pictures Releasing Switzerland GmbH / Ascot Elite Entertainment Group
While formally less adventurous, Bird's Days of the Bagnold Summer, adapted from Joff Winterheart's graphic novel of the same name, also explores the pitfalls of coming to terms with one's feelings in a refreshing manner: revolving around a sullen British teenager, played by musician Nick Cave's son Earl, and his divorced mother – a stellar turn by Monica Dolan – and making ample thematic use of the music of indie darlings Belle and Sebastian, Days cannily parallels teenage and middle-age growing pains and unpacks the complexities of a mother-son relationship that has taken a turn for the worse. It's a broadly accessible British tragicomedy, yes, but one that never shirks the implicit darkness of its subject matter, and is all the better and more perceptive for it. (Read my full review.)

Speaking of darkness: Jan Komasa's Corpus Christi (Boże Ciało) also was a cinematic force to be reckoned with. The Oscar-nominated Polish drama about a juvenile delinquent reinventing himself as a priest in a tragedy-stricken rural town impressed thanks to its potent narrative treatment of grief and radical forgiveness, the ruminations on the paralysing effects of religious dogma embedded within, and, not least, Bartosz Bielenia's electric lead performance. 

© Xenix Filmdistribution GmbH / 2020 Focus Features
Finally, three cheers for Miranda July's Kajillionaire, a beautiful, heartfelt, funny, and, most of all, highly original oddity – a slow-motion heist movie about a family of small-time grifters trying not to get evicted from the foam-infested office space they call home. Starring Evan Rachel Wood, Debra Winger, and Richard Jenkins in career-highlight performances, Kajillionaire defies expectations at every corner – from (non-)refundable massage coupons to household routine-ing someone to death – without leaning so far into absurdism as to compromise its affecting emotional core. It's a unique film – and that is something to celebrate. (Read my full review.)

The Top Ten


Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds

© Apple TV+, 2020 Apple Inc.

Perhaps my primary cinematic project of 2020 was working my way through the expansive filmography of 78-year-old German cult director Werner Herzog, who has, over the last 15 years or so, become something of an internet meme – thanks in no small part to his penchant for finding existential profundity in even the most mundane of everyday details, delivered with his trademark Bavarian-accented verbosity. However, if my journey through more than 60 of his works has taught me anything, it's that this popular image of the man behind Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo as a dour nihilist is, at best, only semi-accurate. For evidence, look no further than Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds, where he, alongside co-director and volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer, embarks on a global journey to learn more about the historical and cultural significance of meteors and their collisions with Earth. Much like Herzog's 2010 stunner Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a History Channel-produced film about the Palaeolithic paintings in the Chauvet Cave, Fireball uses the pedagogical trappings of the documentary format as a front: yes, there are things to learn about meteorites here, but the film's beating heart is Herzog's genuine, undying love for the uniqueness of people and their passions – the Jesuit brother waxing poetic about the sublime beauty of scientific curiosity; the Indian geochemist pondering the line between life and matter; Herzog's own fascination for CGI visions of the end of the world. In one of the year's very best cinematic moments, Antarctic researcher Jong Ik Lee literally falls over himself out of joy over a discovery, while Herzog, without a shred of irony or bemused existentialist detachment, remarks, "This is science at its best." Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds is available on Apple TV+. (Read my full review.)


The Assistant

© Ascot Elite Entertainment Group

In 2020, I discovered my love for what I'm calling "paperwork cinema" – films that aren't afraid to foreground the often uncinematic, ostensibly boring administrative minutiae that govern so much of culture, politics, and, by extension, world history. Notable recent examples include Scott Z. Burns' boldly pared-down The Report, which dives into the CIA's use of torture in the wake of 9/11, and Todd Haynes' riveting Dark Waters, an apocalyptic legal thriller about large-scale industrial pollution. The pinnacle of this mode this year was, however, The Assistant, the gripping fiction debut of Australian documentarian Kitty Green (Ukraine Is Not a Brothel, Casting JonBenet), which sees a junior assistant in a film production company, played by the excellent Julia Garner, go through the motions of a regular workday and realising, chore by chore, how her work implicates her in the firm's culture of abuse and exploitation. Against the oppressive backdrop of sterile white-grey office spaces and the alienating hum of printers, photocopiers, keyboards, hushed phone conversations, and muffled executive meetings, Green's surgically precise procedural gradually evolves into a minimalist nightmare of vague allusions, implicit gestures, and corporate euphemisms, never buying into any romantic notions of the movie industry and laying bare instead how misogyny and male entitlement have been neatly folded into the clean, codified routine of the profit-generating machine. "Horrifying" doesn't begin to describe it. The Assistant is available on and as well as on DVD and Blu-ray.


There Is No Evil

© Trigon Film

Over the course of four short films that are thematically but not narratively linked, famed Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof (Goodbye, A Man of Integrity) offers a sobering take on the country he calls home (and whose authorities are trying to jail him for making "propaganda against the system"): Iran, according to There Is No Evil, is racked with collective generational trauma and guilt that are rotting society from the inside. It's a stark diagnosis, but one very much rooted in everyday reality, based as it is on the country's overlapping systems of conscription and capital punishment: mandatory military service is a prerequisite to being given the tools necessary to succeed professionally – work permits, a driving licence – while administering the death penalty, often in secret and under false pretences, is part and parcel of a young recruit's duties. The stories Rasoulof derives from this Kafkaesque set-up are by turns captivating, devastating, and even cathartic, part Greek tragedy, part quiet observation, part self-reflexive allegory in the vein of Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi. Seeing Rasoulof turn the screw after the opening chapter – a tale whose enigmatic mundanity perfectly illustrates the pervasive nature of state-enacted violence in Iran – is as emotionally taxing as it is engrossing; and it serves as a powerful showcase for the qualities of a master director in the making. (Read my full review.)


Never Rarely Sometimes Always

© Universal Pictures Switzerland

There Is No Evil, which won the 2020 Berlin International Film Festival's top prize, the Golden Bear, is followed on this list by the same competition's runner-up: Eliza Hittman's Never Rarely Sometimes Always is an uncompromisingly frank drama about a Pennsylvania teenager – a revelatory debut performance from Sidney Flanigan – and her struggle to jump through all the social, administrative, and logistic hoops to be given access to a safe abortion. Hittman's cold naturalism and implicit style of storytelling, whose harshness finds a welcome contrast in the empathetic turns by Flanigan and co-star Talia Ryder, underscores the subject matter's searing relevance, of course; but the film transcends even its harrowing commentary on the insidiousness of anti-abortion policies and attitudes – by broadening the point into a more general exploration of how women are denied control over their own bodies. Even before the two protagonists travel to New York City to seek help at a Planned Parenthood, they find themselves at the mercy of callous and/or conniving men and a culture that views women as consumables – but it's the trip to the supposed liberal bastion that fully washes away any notion that they can outrun the forces that make safe abortions for minors in Pennsylvania a near-impossibility. Never Rarely Sometimes Always makes tangible the self-perpetuating horror of cultural misogyny. It's not an easy watch, but one that could not feel more urgent and necessary. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is available on DVD from 11 February. (Read my full review.)


Knives Out

© Impuls Pictures AG

How fitting that it was the director responsible for arguably the best franchise movie of the last decade – 2017's Star Wars: The Last Jedi – who delivered a potent reminder of the unbridled joy a star-studded original film can bring. Indebted in equal parts to Agatha Christie and contemporary political discourse, Rian Johnson's Knives Out is a rollicking good time – an autumnal murder mystery featuring familial grudges, witty quips, narratively convenient regurgitation tics, a literal wheel of knives Anton Chekhov would call "a bit much," and Daniel Craig proving those naysayers wrong who claimed his Southern accent in Logan Lucky could not be outdone in terms of sheer cartoonishness. In true Johnson fashion, Knives Out – like The Last Jedi and Brick, the writer-director's 2005 neo-noir debut – is neither a nostalgic throwback to nor a wholly ironic deconstruction of the classical genre it invokes. Rather, Johnson faithfully holds on to the elements that make the Christie-esque detective story an enduring favourite – the mystery, the intrigue, the sense of audience participation – whilst adapting its more dated trappings, such as the simplistic depiction of class, to more modern sensibilities. Indeed, with his endlessly entertaining latest, Johnson may have made his strongest case yet that he, in a Hollywood industry obsessed with the glories of the past, is the filmmaker most adept at not throwing out the baby with the bathwater – at salvaging and retooling the traditions that work, and jettisoning those that don't. Knives Out is available on and as well as on DVD and Blu-ray.


About Endlessness

© Xenix Filmdistribution GmbH

At 77, Roy Andersson is unlikely to change – and there is little evidence that he needs to. 20 years on from his triumphant return to filmmaking – after more than two decades dedicated almost exclusively to television ads – and 45 years after his last traditionally narrative feature, the Swedish directing maverick's style remains perhaps world cinema's most distinctively off-beat – eschewing conventional storytelling in favour of sketch-like scenes unconcerned with such gauche luxuries as dramaturgy, shot as disturbingly hyperreal tableaux vivants starring people with the complexion, demeanour, and general dynamism of corpses. Andersson has made four films in this mode, with About Endlessness having the unenviable – but evidently not insurmountable – task of following his 2014 masterpiece A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. Guided by the ethereally detached voice of Jessica Louthander – a framing device new to the Andersson universe – About Endlessness heightens its predecessors' abstractions to fascinating effect: fewer scenes than ever end on something that could reasonably be described as a punchline, rendering the 78-minute series of human dioramas even more of an absurdist danse macabre than usual. In fact, it might be the clearest, most moving articulation of Andersson's cinematic vision of history yet: in keeping with its title, About Endlessness takes the long view – giving equal "narrative" weight to a World War II death march and a father tying his daughter's shoe in a rainstorm en route to a birthday party; to Hitler in the Führerbunker and birds migrating south for the winter; to murder and dancing; to world-historical tragedy and the momentary joy of looking out the window and seeing it snow. About Endlessness is available on and (Read my full review.)


I'm Thinking of Ending Things

© Cr. Mary Cybulski / Netflix © 2020

Not so much a strait-laced adaptation of Iain Reid's eponymous novel as another vehicle for writer-director Charlie Kaufman (Synecdoche, New York) to work through his long-standing fascination with the ways in which human beings try (and often fail) to connect with one another, I'm Thinking of Ending Things is the kind of puzzling movie bold enough to actively frustrate any attempt at reducing it to a single unified meaning. Indeed, over the course of two viewings and several discussions with other people – two of them in podcast form, available here and here – I have been confronted with so many different readings, all of them intriguing in their own right, that it seems like a fool's errand to try to summarise its narrative and thematic thrust here, as a third watch will likely lay waste to any sense of certainty I might have at the moment. What I do know is that I'm Thinking of Ending Things is carried by two fantastic performances from Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons – playing a name-shifting young woman and her newish boyfriend, respectively – and that it features them paying his parents a visit. Atop this premise, Kaufman builds a viscerally moody horror-adjacent relationship drama that wrestles with the loss of identity and agency inherent in romantic attachments, the fuzzy boundaries between inner life and outward performance, the inexorable flow of time, and the terrifying possibility that humankind has gone on for so long that each and every action may ultimately just be a quotation in disguise. Dismiss it as pseudo-intellectual hogwash at your own peril – this is cinema at its most beautifully evocative. I'm Thinking of Ending Things is available on Netflix. (Read my full review.)


Little Women

© Sony Pictures Releasing Switzerland GmbH

It's hard not to get lost in airy platitudes when talking about the many joys of Little Women. Here's a movie that is beautiful, vibrant, moving, heart-warming, smart, wistful, joyous, and a whole host of other adjectives that one could resort to in order to signify one's approval in the broadest of terms. But each of the adjectives, no matter how seemingly overused, is an apt way of describing Greta Gerwig's perceptive adaptation – the seventh in total – of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel. By breaking up Alcott's linear chronology – rearranging her tale of four sisters coming of age and finding their feet in the adult world in 1860s America into two interlaced storylines – and adding an ingenious framing device that blurs the lines between fiction and history, Gerwig pulls off a staggering feat: she marries the beloved novel's odes to childhood magic with its strong feminist tendencies and, in doing so, excavates the complex relationship between the two. Yes, Little Women is a touching, gorgeously crafted love letter to sisterhood, friendship, and the dreams of youth – but it never shies away from showing how the fierce and exuberant nature of its distinctive protagonists is tested by a world that is less than welcoming of women trying to live on their own terms. This, then, is more than a brilliant adaptation; it's outstanding historical cinema that, by virtue of its well-rounded characters, its razor-sharp and strikingly relevant script, and its wonderfully spirited performances, breathes new life into a genre that has historically struggled in doing justice to the lives and careers of women. Little Women is available on DVD and Blu-ray. (Read my full review.)


Lovers Rock

© Alfiewrthy on Posterspy / Des Willie / BBC / McQueen Limited

One of 2020's special cinematic pleasures was Steve McQueen, director of 12 Years a Slave (2013) and Widows (2018), returning to the spotlight with a quinfecta of offerings: a five-film anthology, Small Axe centres, unpacks, and celebrates the experiences of London's West Indian community in the wake of the Windrush generation that arrived in Britain from the Caribbean after World War II. Of those five self-contained works, all of which are worth a watch (and most of which are based at least in part on real events), part two proved the standout: in fact, Lovers Rock may be the single most tender, most affectionate piece in McQueen's entire filmography so far. Set at a house party in West London, circa 1980, it is a masterclass in immersive filmmaking: although there is a story to be found here – the Saturday night story of girl meets boy – Shabier Kirchner's camera floats through the different rooms seemingly untethered by characters or drama, because at the heart of it all, there's the music and the dancing. Time and time again, Lovers Rock finds its way back to the dancefloor, where revellers are chopping along to Carl Douglas' "Kung Fu Fighting," slow-dancing to, well, lovers rock hits of the day, or falsettoing themselves into a trance long after the last bars of Janet Kay's "Silly Games" have faded away. Here, McQueen's keen eye for period and environmental detail – one of Small Axe's great strengths – meets both the trademark patience of his direction and a newfound sense of infectious ardour. The mixture makes for a truly transcendent experience. Lovers Rock is available as part of the Small Axe DVD box set released by the BBC. (Read my full review.)


Uncut Gems

© Netflix / A24
If films of the year were chosen by how well their atmosphere fits the mood of their respective vintages, 2020's winner would have to be Uncut Gems by default: no other movie was more stressful, more unpredictable, more overcharged, and more relentlessly frantic than the 135-minute thriller tour de force by brothers Josh and Benny Safdie. But even though they're not – at least not consciously – and Uncut Gems made the cut for the top position thanks to its cinematic qualities, there's no denying that there is a certain poetry in crowning a film the best of 2020 that is primarily concerned with things going wrong and, if that wasn't enough, being made worse by a flurry of ostensibly terrible decisions. Halfway between King Midas and the not-so-secret criminal underworlds of Martin Scorsese's New York, we find Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), a fast-talking huckster from Manhattan's Diamond District, who appears to be in debt with pretty much everyone around him – and whose plan to balance his books mainly consists of amassing more debt and hoping for a lucky gambling break. And yet, thanks to Sandler's exceptional performance and the Safdies' deliberately frenzied directing, which makes their work on 2017's Good Time seem Bergmanesque by comparison, it's all too easy to fall under Howard's spell – to sympathise and empathise with, even reluctantly cheer on the overconfident fool trying in vain to get to the end of the gilded hamster wheel that is American capitalism. Thrillers of this kind may have fallen out of fashion somewhat in recent years, but if the Safdies' masterful marriage of form and function is any indication, there's plenty of life left in the genre: indeed, with its gripping, lived-in storytelling, its nerve-racking presentation, and all of its unapologetic idiosyncrasies Uncut Gems has all the makings of a future classic. Uncut Gems is available on Netflix. (Read my full review.)

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