Well, 2020 was quite a year for films. With cinemas closed for a good portion of the year and film studios too frightened to release tentpole pictures into a slim theatrical marketplace, there weren’t a lot of new films to see. However, with so many people stuck at home without work or at least without much to do in the evenings, home viewing has risen dramatically.
Streaming has grown bigger than ever and you’ll likely notice that films debuting on Netflix, Amazon and other streaming platforms dominate the lists below.
The boutique Blu-ray/UHD labels are thriving too, showing no sign of slowing down so, as usual, I’ve added my list of favourite first-time watches and physical releases for you to read.
If you’re interested in what I saw in 2020 and beyond, I try to keep tabs of everything I watch, new or otherwise, at Letterboxd. It’s a cool site if you’re not aware of it, offering a social network for film geeks and a place to track the films you’ve seen or want to see.
Below are the top 10’s and other lists of the year from a handful of our contributors. As always, let us know your thoughts in the comments section and feel free to include your own lists.
I’ve included links to reviews when available.
I watched a record low number of new releases this year (only 16) but watched more films in general than I’ve ever recorded. As such, my lists of first-time watches and Blu-ray releases will likely hold more water than my top 10 new releases of the year, but I saw some great films anyway, so thought I’d still share that list regardless.
Top 10 New Releases (going by widespread UK release dates)
10. Da 5 Bloods – Spike Lee’s latest is an epic blend of Vietnam movie and The Treasure of Sierra Madre. I found it a bit heavy-handed in its themes and messages, but it’s still tremendously entertaining and powerful at times.
9. Melancholic – Seiji Tanaka’s blackly comic spin on the crime genre. Read my full review here.
8. Onward – Pixar’s latest is maybe not among their finest, but still a lot of fun and manages to subtly switch themes to that of literal brotherhood for a touching final act.
7. 1917 – I saw this twice and the first time I watched it I thought it was impressive but a little disappointing. However, a second viewing, away from the hype, delivered the goods for me. It’s a technical marvel but also gripping entertainment.
6. Killing – Shinya Tsukamoto’s latest is a thought-provoking rumination on the act of killing which erupts into short, sharp bursts of violence throughout. Read my full review here.
5. Vitalina Varela – Though a difficult watch at times, this is stunning filmmaking that’s worth putting in the effort. Read my full review here.
4. CzechMate: In Search of Jiří Menzel – Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s epic documentary may seem daunting, but it’s surprisingly easy to watch and offers an in depth examination of the late Menzel’s work as well as Czech cinema in general. Read my full review here.
3. Ghost Town Anthology – After enjoying Second Run’s release of Denis Côté’s Curling back in April, I checked out the director’s latest release, Ghost Town Anthology and loved it. It’s an unusual, surreal examination of small rural town life that really creeps under your skin.
2. Soul – Focussing around a jazz musician with a passion for music and throwing him into a high concept film about life and people’s sense of purpose, Soul seemed pretty much designed for me and it didn’t disappoint. Some feel it piles too much on, but personally I thought all the unusual directions the film took still all served quite a focussed theme and message. I didn’t find it as deeply moving as something like Inside Out, which this looked to be emulating in the trailers, but I found it more philosophically fascinating, making me question my own thoughts and feelings on life. It felt like Pixar here made their most adult film, with less concessions for the kids than most of their work. Though my two girls still enjoyed aspects of it.
1. Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema – I’m a sucker for Mark Cousins’ epic history of cinema documentaries, so I was always going to love this, but it delivered in spades. On top of highlighting the extraordinary work of female filmmakers over the past 100 years or so, the film also works as a 14-hour film school, examining what aspects make a film great in general. Read my full review here.
Honourable mentions – Tenet, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Notable films missed or not released in the UK yet – Too many to mention, but Small Axe, Mank, The Trial of the Chicago 7, Wolfwalkers, About Endlessness, American Utopia and Hamilton stand out.
Top 20 Older First Time Watches
* Click on the links to read full reviews when available
20. Criss Cross
19. Anatomy of a Murder
18. The Lives of Others
16. Nights of Cabiria
15. The Navigator
14. Three Outlaw Samurai
13. A Foreign Affair
12. The Burmese Harp
11. Five Graves to Cairo
10. Made in Hong Kong
9. Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion
8. Beau Travail
7. The Cranes Are Flying
6. The Whole Town’s Talking
5. The Man Who Laughs
3. It Happened One Night
1. Fail Safe
Honourable mentions – Topsy-Turvy, The Darjeeling Limited, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, Lola, The Holy Mountain, Girlfriends, Ghost Hunting, Apur Sansar (a.k.a. World of Apu), Aparajito, Ikiru, Distant Journey, Drive a Crooked Road
Favourite Blu-Rays of the Year
TOP 20 SINGLE TITLE RELEASES:
20. Flash Gordon – Studiocanal
19. Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain – Eureka
18. The Legend of the Stardust Brothers – Third Window
17. The Cranes Are Flying – Criterion
16. Bait – BFI
15. Valerie and Her Week of Wonders – Second Run
14. Dementia – BFI
13. Versus – Arrow Video
12. The Bride With White Hair – Eureka
11. Eraserhead – Criterion
10. King of New York – Arrow Video
9. Roma – Criterion
8. Safety Last! – Criterion
7. Spring Night Summer Night – Indicator
6. Night Tide – Indicator
5. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure – Studiocanal
4. The Ladykillers – Studiocanal
3. Tremors – Arrow Video
2. Roadgames – Indicator
1. Dawn of the Dead – Second Sight
Although there have been many great single title releases this year, Second Sight’s Dawn of the Dead had to take the title. It’s been hotly anticipated for a long while, due to several delays, but when it came it more than lived up to expectations. With a stunning new print, several versions of the film and countless hours worth of extras, it’s one of the most impressive single title releases I’ve ever seen.
Honourable mentions – The Cameraman – Criterion, Cyrano de Bergerac – BFI, Winter Kills – Indicator, Fail Safe – Criterion, Long Day’s Journey Into Night – Eureka, Raining in the Mountain – Eureka, Lola Montes – Criterion, The Mad Magician – Indicator, Topsy-Turvy – Criterion, Mothra – Eureka, Walkabout – Second Sight
10. Tsukamoto: Killing/Haze/The Adventure of Denchu-Kozo – Third Window
9. Graveyards of Honor – Arrow Video
8. Takeshi Kitano Collection – BFI
7. Buster Keaton: 3 Films (Volume 3) – Eureka
6. The Apu Trilogy – Criterion
5. Survivor Ballads: Three Films by Shohei Imamura – Arrow Academy
4. Columbia Noir #1 – Indicator
3. The Essential Jacques Demy – Criterion
2. Cinema of Conflict: Four Films by Krzystof Kieslowski – Arrow Academy
1. The Alejandro Jodorowsky Collection – Arrow Video
This was a difficult category to decide on as there have been several fantastic box sets this year. To be honest, the entire top 10 would be in with a shot. Arrow’s The Alejandro Jodorowsky Collection took the top spot due to the volume and quality of special features, as well as the inclusion of the soundtrack CDs, which I thought was a nice touch (I’m a big CD collector as well as a movie one).
9. The Personal History of David Copperfield
7. Jojo Rabbit
6. Da 5 Bloods
5. The Invisible Man
4. Uncut Gems
Top 10 New Releases
A quick note before I begin my list: as usual with end of year lists, some of the dates are a bit hazy depending on whether we’re going by official date of release or date of release in the UK. Generally I’ve opted for the latter but I’ve chosen to exclude two films which had 2020 UK release dates, Parasite and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, as these were quite widely seen and covered by Blueprint writers in our 2019 end of year list. If not for this, both films would be in the upper reaches of my top 10.
10. A Whisker Away – It’s almost a guarantee that my end of year list will include at least one animated film and in a year where I was comparatively disappointed by the big releases from Pixar, a lesser-seen animation takes the place on my list that most will probably give to Soul. Junichi Sato and Tomotaka Shibayama’s A Whisker Away is a magical girl anime that wears a healthy Ghibli influence on its sleeve. Spirited Away in particular is evoked in a third act that ventures into a mysterious realm but A Whisker Away also mixes in classic elements of anime teen romance in its tale of a girl who gets closer to her crush by donning a mysterious Noh mask that turns her into a cat.
9. The Trial of the Chicago 7 – This was one of the year’s big releases and instantly tipped for Oscar glory. It was also quickly hit with criticisms about authenticity and mawkishness. As a big fan of courtroom dramas and of Aaron Sorkin’s writing, I immediately took to The Trial of the Chicago 7 as a well-paced, gripping drama laced with plenty of humour, good performances and the trademark Sorkin big speeches. It probably helps that I was familiar with neither the true story the film is based on or the people portrayed therein. Sorkin and Sacha Baron Cohen’s portrayal of activist Abbie Hoffman in particular has come in for criticism for being nothing like the man himself. These criticisms are probably valid but without that prior knowledge I was able to enjoy The Trial of the Chicago 7 as the fictionalised, thoroughly entertaining slab of pseudo-history that it is.
8. How to Build a Girl – Coky Giedroyc’s film of Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl came in for a lot of stick from people who could not get past star Beanie Feldstein’s ropey attempt at a Wolverhampton accent. While Feldstein may seem like an odd choice for a character from this region, in every other sense she seems perfect to portray a confident, ambitious daydreamer willing to sell her soul for a shot at fame in a 1990’s climate that makes it difficult for women to get a foothold in male-dominated music journalism. There were numerous other criticisms levelled at this undervalued film but I found it to be one of the most enjoyable releases of the year and have the sneaking suspicion this one might find its audience through TV airings in years to come. Fans of Moran’s brilliant sitcom Raised by Wolves and those who grew up and discovered music in the 90s will probably love this one as much as I did. One of the year’s hidden gems.
7. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – George C. Wolf’s screen version of August Wilson’s play about legendary blues singer Ma Rainey may be a tad too stagey for some tastes but as a lover of plays and a fan of a well-done adaptation, I really fell for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in a way I never did for the other recent Wilson adaptation Fences. But it is undoubtedly the performances that make this film something special, with standouts being Viola Wilson whose forceful turn makes Ma undoubtedly the main character despite the surprisingly sparing way in which the character is used, and Chadwick Boseman, in his final performance, as the talented but impulsive and opportunistic trumpeter Levee. Boseman is mesmerising in this role and it makes the tragic news of his death feel even crueller when you consider the glittering career he would undoubtedly have had across subsequent decades.
6. Dick Johnson is Dead – In the year when I lost my own father, Kirsten Johnson’s deeply moving, warm and comical documentary Dick Johnson is Dead was bound to strike a chord. Even though I saw it before my Dad passed away, its resonance following that devastating news has only increased my love of the film. Examining Kirsten’s relationship with a father slowly being overtaken by dementia, Dick Johnson is Dead follows the pair as they stage exaggerated scenarios and violent accidents for the camera as a way to face the inevitable. The impact Dick’s impending fate and his daughter’s unusual coping mechanism have on friends and family is extraordinary to watch and the ending of the film is just beautiful.
5. The Personal History of David Copperfield – Armando Iannucci has long talked about Dickens as the great comedian of his time and he deftly illustrates the link between the classic Dickensian novel and his own work that has dominated late 20th and early 21st-century comedy. Iannucci’s style fits David Copperfield perfectly, with Iannucci observing that audiences have been unable to distinguish lines taken directly from the novel from lines written by himself and collaborator Simon Blackwell. With great directorial flair, Iannucci has made a 21st century Copperfield that pleases on every level, providing a modern twist while also fulfilling expectations of that hoped-for Victorian warmth that will surely see it become a favourite of festive schedules for years to come.
4. Small Axe – It feels somewhat appropriate that one of the big cinematic events of 2020 was a small screen project. In most years I probably wouldn’t have considered including TV movies in my end of year list but Steve McQueen’s phenomenal anthology Small Axe, about the experiences of West Indian immigrants in 60s and 70s London, has already transcended its television roots. It is being mentioned in the same breath as Krzysztof Kieslowski’s landmark series Dekalog and episodes from the series are featuring in prestigious polls all over the place. Standout episodes include the double-length opener Mangrove and the blissful Lovers Rock, as audacious a piece of non-narrative experimentation as you’re likely to see on prime time BBC1.
3. Wolfwalkers – Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon have rapidly become one of the finest animation studios currently in existence and a new film from them is always something I look forward to with almost unrivalled anticipation. With The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea and The Breadwinner already in their arsenal, Wolfwalkers keeps up that incredibly high level of quality, completing Tom Moore’s Irish Folklore Trilogy. With its majestic hand-drawn animation that utilises a range of styles including the distinctive 2D aesthetic that has become a Cartoon Saloon calling card, Wolfwalkers also boasts an involving, emotionally charged story that refuses to insulate its heart with over-complex mythology as so much style-over-substance fantasy has a tendency to do. It’s a triumph of the animated medium.
2. About Endlessness – The work of Roy Andersson is something you either click with or don’t. His static camera, mordant humour, intricately composed shots and offbeat characters aren’t for everyone, but those who do love them REALLY love them. I’m one of the latter and so I was keen to see Andersson’s latest, About Endlessness, and yet I had misgivings. Having pulled off a fantastic trilogy using this completely unique approach, could he really do it again or would it all feel a bit old hat. I needn’t have worried. Though About Endlessness uses the Andersson trademarks, it differentiates itself with a few small but significant tweaks. The black humour, generally front and centre, is toned down here in, while the runtime is kept to a slim 77 minutes. But the film is utterly striking. Andersson’s approach manages to make small moments seem big and vice versa, so that a woman breaking her heel and a man begging for his life somehow take on similar levels of significance because we understand that they are both parts of larger stories, the details of which we are not privy to. We never know at the beginning of each shot just how inconsequential or shocking the content might be. There was one moment in About Endlessness that was so devastating, shocking and haunting that it colours the rest of the viewing experience and has not left me since. This is the genius of Roy Andersson.
1. David Byrne’s American Utopia – In a year where pure joy was a tough thing to come by, there was only going to be one winner in my top ten. Spike Lee’s film of David Byrne’s American Utopia stage show instantly shot to the top end of lists of greatest concert films (where it encountered a younger Byrne in Jonathan Demme’s seminal Stop Making Sense) and its mixture of celebratory philosophising, right-on politics and incredible music made it the perfect tonic for the age. Emerging at a time when there seemed to be glimmers of light starting to appear at the end of several political and existential tunnels, David Byrne’s American Utopia helped add a blazing torch to that guiding influence.
Obviously, this year’s film offering has been disrupted (like everything else), so while the overall quality of 2020’s cinematic output might not be up to par there were still some excellent films and documentaries to be seen.
On a personal note, I still got to see new releases from favourites Sofia Coppola, Terrence Malick and Spike Lee, and the only films I was particularly disappointed in were The Jesus Rolls, and Tenet (disappointed, confounded and maybe even a little bit annoyed at in the latter’s case).
So, anyway, here’s my personal top 10 UK releases from 2020. If you’ve not seen any they’re all well worth your time.
(Calculated by placement, so 10 points for 1st, 9 for 2nd etc.)
9 – Da 5 Bloods/Wolfwalkers/The Personal History of David Copperfield/Ghost Town Anthology – joint 9th with 8 points
6 – Portrait of a Lady on Fire/About Endlessness/Soul – joint 6th with 9 points
4 – David Byrne’s American Utopia/Women Make Film – joint 4th with 10 points
3 – 1917 – 13 points
2 – Uncut Gems – 15 points
1 – Parasite – 20 points
So, Parasite wins yet another award, though we didn’t get many lists submitted this year, so the consensus seems a bit pointless.
So that’s it for another year. Keep visiting the site for our thoughts on the latest home entertainment releases (and the rare cinematic releases that we get around to). Let us know your thoughts about the best and worst of the year below or on social media.
Happy New Year!