Staff Picks: The Best of 2020

After much consideration, we at A Fistful of Film our proud to present our favorite films from 2020. Writers David Alkhed, Amos Lamb, and Saoirse Selway have put their heads together to come up with what they believe to be the ten best pictures from the past year. The list as followed is unranked, as we believe that these films are excellent in their own unique ways, and should be viewed as such. For films listed here that have been reviewed previously on the site, a link will be provided in the film’s title. Do note that not all of the previous reviews were penned by the authors listed here.

Another Round: By David Alkhed

In my review of Thomas Vinterberg latest effort with Danish superstar Mads Mikkelsen, Another Round, I compared it (positively) to Kurosawa’s Ikiru. You can read more in-depth about the comparison in my review, but more or less it’s about how they both manage to be movies that celebrate the joy of being alive without falling into sentimentality or clichés of such films. Ikiru even means “to live,” and that’s what both movies more or less come down to. To just live. Enjoy life whilst you still can because you don’t know how much more time you have on this earth.

The project went through a horrific tragedy when Vinterberg’s daughter was killed in a car accident and forced him to leave production for a week, leaving directing duties to his co-writer/frequent collaborator Tobias Lindholm. This tragedy forced Vinterberg to change directions from his original intention of making it a pure comedy to making it a celebration of life, and how really celebrating life is perhaps the finest and most beautiful way we can pay tribute to those we’ve loved and lost. That is what Vinterberg, and indeed our main characters, have to face. The world is a dark, complicated and miserable place, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy our short little time on this small planet we all share.

The Invisible Man: By Amos Lamb

After the abandoning of the Dark Universe, the news of The Invisible Man remake came out of the blue for me. But between Elizabeth Moss, who I’ve been a big fan of since watching her in Mad Men, and Leigh Whannell, who, despite some shaky sequels, has been a pretty consistent horror writer throughout the 2010s, I ended up feeling quite hyped for the remake and eager to see how the modern take on H.G. Wells’s classic story would be handled. 

Presenting the story from Cecilia’s (Elizabeth Moss) point of view, the film affords its female protagonist agency as she attempts to escape from an abusive relationship. The concepts of trauma and victimhood are examined wonderfully alongside the genuinely intense moments of horror and terror. The idea of Cecilia’s lingering trauma being conceptualized into the invisible suit of her former lover is an interesting thematic foundation, and while some have argued that the stakes are lost in the second half, I would disagree and argue that the themes are only enhanced in how Cecilia is left to tackle her trauma head-on after being failed by those around her. In a world where female-centric remakes are largely lambasted and criticized, The Invisible Man set the groundwork for how filmmakers need to go about remaking classics. By shifting the stakes and gearing the themes towards women and abuse, Whannell has breathed new life into a classic and re-invented it for modern audiences.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always: By Saoirse Selway

Every so often, there is a really stripped back and naturalistic drama that comes out of the woodwork, burns your door down, and demands you pay attention without ever shouting. A big problem this genre has been facing recently, for me, is endemic with films that want to be like Ken Loach, but lack all of the subtlety. They are films that end up shouting to you about plot pawns stuttering about on a stage without any reason to care or any humanity. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is the antithesis of this trend in cinema. When it is a film ostensibly about a very current social issue, the central focus of the film is the beauty of a central friendship, and the whole drama of their friendship is captured in one closeup shot of a non-verbal, purely physical interaction between them, you know you’ve pulled off the impossible as a filmmaker. 

This is a film for lovers of Kelly Reichardt or even Andrei Tarkovsky at a push. It has the same meditative, textural look at character that builds narrative more though seeing characters behave in a natural setting than from handholding an audience through a story. The story is told as much in emotional breakdowns in interviews, framed in unbroken close ups as characters unspool their backstories without explicitly addressing them, as the story is told in wide shots of characters dancing and moving, blocking and unblocking, in a train station seating area. If any other filmmaker had told this story, it’d be much more climactic and action-packed, and much worse. 

Always Amber: By David Alkhed

In general, I tend to have a harder time connecting emotionally with documentaries than I do with regular narrative films. And I didn’t think this one would be any different. But after a while, a lot of the ideas and themes of Always Amber proved quite moving and effective for me, and I must say I enjoyed it a great deal. I might even go so far as to call it one of my favorite documentaries, but I haven’t really seen that many so it’s not saying too much.

This documentary follows young Amber, a non-binary seventeen-year old who navigates its semi-chaotic life after Amber’s best friend and girlfriend get together and cheat on Amber. What follows then is a documentation of Amber’s lifestyle with the LGBTQ community of Stockholm, including getting a new partner and a multitude of hair color changes. Mixing traditional documentary footage with footage shot by Amber on a camcorder and various iPhones, it gives the film a very modern and youthful feel, and in years from now, could be looked upon as a sort of time capsule of these times. But it also manages to create a fully fledged portrait of Amber as a person and really I couldn’t help but love Amber. In addition to a soundtrack by a punk band called ShitKid (great name isn’t it?) and a brisk running time of barely 75 minutes, I highly recommend Always Amber as a strong documentary, and for many, perhaps a window into the LBGTQ lifestyle and trends and ideas.

If I use the wrong pronouns in this then I sincerely apologize.

Mank: By Amos Lamb

David Fincher has long since cemented his legacy among film fans, from his early films like Se7en and Fight Club developing a large cult following, while his recent films like The Social Network and Gone Girl often rank high amongst best-of-the-decade lists. So the news of Fincher returning to direct a film after his foray into television lit the fire of excitement for most film fans. The flame was only further fanned when it was revealed that Fincher was creating a biopic following the creation of arguably one of the most famous film of all time: Citizen Kane

Following the controversial screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz during the writing of Orson Welles’s directorial debut, Fincher’s biopic proved to be more divisive than Mankiewicz himself. Fortunately, I landed on the positive side of the critical fence, finding Fincher’s biopic to be very methodical and wide-reaching, focusing on the creative drive that spurred Mankiewicz that feels personal in a narrative sense, but much wider-reaching in its application, especially in a world where so much of media and entertainment is profit-orientated and money-focused, the scathing critique of the old-Hollywood system feels just as relevant to our own times.

Possessor: By Saoirse Selway

With Possessor, Brandon Cronenberg steps beautifully outside of the shadow of his father, horror icon David Cronenberg. A heady cocktail of Persona, Beyond the Black Rainbow, Altered States, and The Day of the Jackal, this surreal hit man thriller asks questions of gender and autonomy that existentially expose conventional society and empower the marginalized without ever saying that it’s doing any of those things. 

It does all this while still staying a visceral, exciting thriller, maintaining your focus through dazzling visuals, arresting special effects from Dan Martin, astonishing visuals, and liberal amounts of gore. Wherever you think this film is going at the start, that’s not where it’s going, and that’s its greatest strength.

And Then We Danced: By David Alkhed

Now for a film that I saw almost a year ago. And Then We Danced is technically a 2019 release, and became Sweden’s official submission to the Best International Feature Film Oscar in 2020, but it wasn’t included. And whilst it wouldn’t have been able to stand a chance against Parasite (I mean what would), I still think it’s a bit of a shame that this gem didn’t get any nominations because it’s really terrific and easily one of the best Swedish films ever made.

Levan Akin, who was born in Georgia but raised in Sweden, takes his more open and progressive views on love and homosexuality and puts them in the deeply conservative and homophobic Georgia, which emphasizes tradition and masculinity. The Georgian dance becomes a metaphor for the constrictions within society, as the protagonist is criticized for his dancing being too feminine by his teacher. But it’s also, crucially, a film about the feeling of genuinely falling madly in love with someone for the first time, and the film conveys that feeling beautifully. And of course, the actors do a great job of hitting those feelings home.

Levan Akin shoots the whole film flawlessly and there are many shots that have stayed with me ever since I first saw it. I highly recommend And Then We Danced.

Savage: By Amos Lamb

While Savage isn’t my favorite film of the year, it is definitely the most underrated. The debut feature film by New Zealand director Sam Kelly follows gang member Danny over three pivotal moments in his life. I saw this film on a whim at the cinema, having heard nothing about it (which is almost certainly as a result of the almost non-existent marketing the film had internationally), and I was absolutely blown away.

Savage is meditative, melancholy, and beautiful as it follows Danny’s descent into the criminal underworld. When we meet Danny he’s a heavily tattooed enforcer of a biker gang, feared by his subordinates he holds onto his friendship with Moses, his best friend since their time together in care, but he slowly realizes that he’s just as alienated within the gang as he felt in society. The opening of the film does a brilliant job of setting the scene for the rest, almost instantly we’re introduced to two key aspects of Danny’s life; violence and vulnerability. After the explosive introduction to these, the film takes a methodical approach to picking apart Danny and highlighting what was in his past that led to him becoming the husk we first see him as. While films of this ilk are nothing new (in fact Savage shares a lot of similarities structurally to Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight), what Sam Kelly brings to the table is a thorough dissection of toxic masculinity, and the procedural hurdles that fail vulnerable children. The performances are fantastic, the cinematography is beautiful, and Kelly positions himself as a very promising director. If there’s one film from this list that I implore you to seek out, it’s Savage.

Jesus Shows You The Way To The Highway: By Saoirse Selway

When this film was reviewed for A Fistful of Film, I said that it was maybe the craziest film of the year, and might be the best. While maybe there are slightly better films this year, there are none more insane than Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway. This film feels like a bleak missive from inside of an unhinged mind. All you need to know about this picture is that it contains super soldiers who may or may not just be men in bug costumes, representations of VR realities that consist of 2D paper face masks being worn with string, and heartbreaking Cold War drama, as seen by someone who has a totally unique vision for cinema. I just want to know this guy’s approach and how he works. I just want to learn from this guy…

Soul: By Amos Lamb

After a tumultuous run of new Pixar films, Soul signifies a return to greatness for the company. Amidst the growing monopoly of Disney and the largely vapid sequels being churned out of the company, Pete Docter returns to the directing chair to bring to life a meditative reflection of life and purpose that retains the charm and comedy of Pixar’s best offerings. 

The film stars Jaime Foxx as Joe Gardener, a part-time music teacher who dreams of playing jazz professionally, but accidentally ends up in ‘The Great Before’, a spiritual playground for unborn souls, and is tasked with mentoring Tina Fey’s “22,” a stubborn soul that has yet to find their spark. The usual Pixar antics ensue as Joe tries to get back to the human world, but as Joe and 22’s bond strengthens, the film relishes in the beauty of life. What is so unexpected about Soul is how mature and adult its examination of its themes are while still retaining the family-friendly appeal and comedy. It would perhaps be a stretch too far to call Soul “high-concept,” but in terms of Pixar’s filmography, I’d argue it’s easily the most high-concept approach we’ve seen so far. The exploration of life and its meanings are by no means revolutionary or mind-blowing, but the simplicity of its message through its assessment of life’s beauty is enough to melt even the coldest cynic’s heart. When you pair this with the absolutely gorgeous and stylish animation on display in Soul, it’s not surprising to see it ranking as one of my favorites of the year. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross provide a stellar score that couples perfectly with the narrative as well as meshing well with the animation. Meanwhile, Docter’s direction is on top-form; merging the hyper-realistic New York with the more ethereal and abstract character designs of the soul world. While I don’t think Soul is amongst the best films that Pixar have produced, it’s certainly a return to form, and a strong addition to Docter’s directing record that hopefully marks the beginning of a strong creative output for this next decade.

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