It’s been a weird year for movies. Thanks, COVID-19. Not only did we lose most of 2020’s major movies — the likes of Black Widow, No Time to Die, and Last Night in Soho — to 2021, we also lost the chance to catch movies on the big screen. Save for one film, I had to watch every other title on my list below on my TV. In normal times, that’s bound to happen for Netflix originals, but because of the pandemic, many theatrical releases were also converted into streaming releases. And because theatres were closed, it also meant that most major film festivals were cancelled, denying us access to such varied movies that we look forward to each year. Still, there was a lot of good cinema this year. These are my top 10 movies of 2020 (going by theatrical release dates in India, or on streaming globally).
In his feature-length directorial debut, Hardik Mehta — the National Award-winning director of the documentary short Amdavad Ma Famous — delivers an ode to India’s character actors (by casting one of its finest character actors, Sanjay Mishra, in the lead). Mishra plays Sudheer Mishra, a washed-up supporting actor who discovers that he retired from the film industry one film short of a record 500. He then sets out to bag a final memorable role, one that he feels would impart some meaning to a career that has largely existed on the sidelines.
As we follow Sudheer on his quest, Kaamyaab also turns into a reminder of how cruel Bollywood can be, where the big names gobble up all the oxygen — with little regard for merit. For everyone else (no matter how talented they are, as Kaamyaab reminds us), being in the movies and in front of the spotlight is a daily, lifelong pain that involves humiliation, rejection, and selling your soul. And nowhere is that clearer or more obvious in the film’s masterfully staged final scene, one that brings down the curtain on Sudheer’s career while throwing a spotlight on what really matters.
Watch Kaamyaab on Netflix
8. Lovers Rock, and
2020 took a lot away from us, and chief among the snatched joys was dancing with others in an enclosed space. Lovers Rock — part of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology film series, as is the one below — is less narrative and more an experience. In it, a group of West Indian immigrants in ‘70s London gather for an all-night dance party. In between the dancing, McQueen trades on the prevalent gender violence, stemming from racism (it’s why the party is at a house, not a nightclub) or objectification. But the bulk of Lovers Rock’s runtime is made up of people just dancing and grooving, with the highlight being a five-minute acapella performance that makes you sit up and pay attention.
If McQueen’s film comes close to being a work of performance art, American Utopia — the Spike Lee-directed adaptation of David Byrne’s eponymous stage musical — is exactly that. The former lead singer and guitarist of Talking Heads assembles a band of 11 musicians (whose instruments are tethered to their bodies and wirelessly plugged in, allowing them to roam around freely) to dance on a barebones square stage. It seems a curious choice, but as Byrne and Co. belt out songs about loneliness, TV viewing, consumerism, and — in a sequence etched into my brain — police killings, American Utopia becomes something else entirely; a wholly original work of art.
Watch Lovers Rock on BBC iPlayer (not in India)
Watch American Utopia on Crave (not in India)
Having turned emotions into a movie, Pete Docter — who was also behind Inside Out and is now Pixar’s chief creative officer — examines another abstract element of human life. Though the film is called Soul, it deals with our purpose in life (a huge idea for what is essentially a family movie at heart). And it has some pretty interesting things to say on that topic.
Soul follows a middle-aged music teacher and jazz pianist (voiced by Jamie Foxx) who’s struggled to get his career break. And right when he discovers he’s the cusp on something big, he ends up in the literal purgatory. His journey back to Earth involves realising the fine line between being passionate and being consumed by your passion. And that we aren’t alone in this journey we call life.
That it’s willing to ask such big questions of its characters (and in turn, the audience), and upend the tried-and-tested narrative structure counts for a lot. But in the hands of Docter (also co-writer), Kemp Powers (co-director and co-writer), and Mike Jones (co-writer), Soul is also a brilliantly funny film with existential zingers (props to Tina Fey), and a thoroughly enjoyable romp from start to finish.
Watch Soul on Disney+ Hotstar (from December 25)
5. Mangrove, and
The Trial of the Chicago 7
If you’ve ever wanted to know how influential a director can be — Steve McQueen made Mangrove, and Aaron Sorkin is behind The Trial of the Chicago 7 — look no further than these two films. At their core, they are about the same thing. A morally-bankrupt police force willing to instigate violence to instil terror in the populace. A corrupt system that traps the outspoken in a sham trial, in an attempt to make an example out of them. And in court, a cantankerous racist judge making matters worse. But the differences in the approach to the material is clear from the title itself. If Sorkin were making McQueen’s movie, it would have been called “The Trial of the Mangrove Nine”.
Of course, there is a lot more variety on hand. Not only are the two movies structured differently — Mangrove proceeds in a linear manner, while The Trial of the Chicago 7 employs flashbacks — but they are poles apart in their tone, the moments they focus on, and how those moments are depicted. Take for instance the beatings handed out to Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), or the direction of the verdict scene. While McQueen’s film is more internal and terrifying, Sorkin’s is self-righteous and grandstanding. But at the end of the day, both films are timely given what’s going on in the world today, including for those of us in India.
Watch Mangrove on BBC iPlayer (not in India)
Watch The Trial of the Chicago 7 on Netflix
Yes, it’s been around for years. But for hundreds of millions of us who haven’t had the privilege to be in the US or the money to afford tickets to one of the most expensive stage plays, this was going to be the only way for us to enjoy Lin-Manuel Miranda’s calling card creation. Originally slated for a theatrical release in 2021, Hamilton was the rare gift that COVID-19 gave us (aside from teaching everyone how to properly wash their hands). And what a gift it was. Miranda’s hip-hop tracks took on a new life on film, bolstered by camera movement, cutaways, and close-ups that aren’t possible for a stage production. This helps Jonathan Groff’s spit-spewing King George III the most.
Speaking of the actors, the Disney+ version transports us to a Hamilton that no longer exists, what with nearly everyone from the original stage musical cast present. Hamilton reveals what made them — Daveed Diggs, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Leslie Odom Jr., and especially Miranda himself among others — the stars they are today. That proves the power and the importance of the musical’s colour-blind casting, allowing Black, Latino, and Asian actors to step into roles of white personalities. And it also speaks to the message of Hamilton itself: “Immigrants, we get the job done.” Sure, it’s mixed up in historical inaccuracies and casts a favourable light on Hamilton, but there’s denying its power.
Watch Hamilton on Disney+ Hotstar
3. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Writer-director Eliza Hittman finds the middle ground between narrative fiction and cinema vérité with Never Rarely Sometimes Always, which explores the struggles of a 17-year-old American girl Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) to get an abortion. She can’t obtain it in the state she lives (Pennsylvania) because laws demand parental consent for underage women. And she doesn’t have the money to travel to New York, which doesn’t have those regulations. But she does have a cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder), who steals cash from the grocery store they work at, after she learns of Autumn’s pregnancy. And it’s their bond that is central to the film, as they face more harrowing choices on their journey.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always plays like a thriller at times, as Autumn and Skylar grapple with New York, a city completely foreign and strange to them. Do they have enough money for food and the subway? Where will they sleep, as it turns out the procedure will take two days? Hittman presents a deeply-moving, gut-wrenching, intimate look at how society not only fails young women — but is purposefully and determinedly stacked up against them. Its pivotal scene (a multiple-choice test about sexual history that asks Autumn to choose from “never”, “rarely”, “sometimes”, or “always”) is unbearable and hard to watch.
The film demands a lot of its young leads, especially its many wordless scenes, that require everything to be communicated through facial expressions and body language. And they deliver.
Watch Never Rarely Sometimes Always on Microsoft Store (not in India)
2. Little Women
Why would an up-and-coming director take on a book that’s been previously adapted six times, and has involved memorable names in Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Winona Ryder, and Kirsten Dunst? Greta Gerwig showed us why. The writer-director brought a filmmaker’s perspective to the story of the March sisters, as she put a meta spin on the proceedings that deviated from the source material — it gave Jo March (based on the author) more agency in her story — but seemingly honoured who Louisa May Alcott, the 19th-century author of “Little Women”, was as a person. No doubt that the film’s poster carried a (rare) tagline: “Own your story.”
It helps too that Gerwig assembled the ensemble of her dreams (minus one). Saoirse Ronan delivered the performance of her career as the ambitious struggling writer Jo March, Florence Pugh was marvellous as whatever-gets-me-ahead-in-life Amy March, and Meryl Streep was exactly how you’d expect as the quipping Aunt March. That they were surrounded by the always-excellent Emma Watson, Laura Dern, Eliza Scanlen, and Timothée Chalamet was like icing on the cake. What was great about Little Women is how it wasn’t willing to depict any of the March sisters as a villain — Amy is a lot worse off in the book — and that was due to Gerwig’s writing and non-linear reorganisation.
Little Women was a wonderful nugget of warmth at the start of 2020, one we didn’t know we would need so badly for the horrible year that would follow.
Watch Little Women on Amazon Prime Video
1. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
On one level, Céline Sciamma’s intense and crackling depiction of an illicit romance in 18th-century north-western France between two women — portrait painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and her aristocratic subject Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) — is a masterclass in capturing emotion and passion at its most raw. No other director and no other camera (Claire Mathon the cinematographer) in 2020 instructed and captured the tiny movements on the human face — every muscle is felt on screen, and the actors’ eyes say more than other films in their entire runtime — quite like Portrait of a Lady on Fire did. There are shots in this film that are deserving of being a painting themself, fittingly.
But on another deeper level, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is about filmmaking itself. Marianne the artist and Héloïse the model are the director and the actor, respectively, for the painting. It’s a movie that plays inside of the movie. Sciamma, through the portrait process, is showing those of us on the other side of the screen what the art of direction and acting entail. And it is so captivating that it’s impossible to look away. (The final scene is a beauty.) We are being invited to gaze at them, as both of them stare longingly at each other. Sciamma has described her film as a “manifesto about the female gaze”, but it’s so much more than its exquisite shots. Moving, gorgeous, delicate, and utterly fascinating.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire isn’t just my favourite film of 2020, it’s also one of my favourite films.
Dick Johnson Is Dead is such a good documentary that I almost brought myself to make this a top 11 list. In it, director Kirsten Johnson stages her octogenarian dementia father’s death in all sorts of manners, as she prepares to lose him. It’s hilarious and chilling, yet it’s also somehow the best way to confront the most inevitable part of life: death.
Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti are perfect in Palm Springs, a time-loop comedy that finds them stuck at the latter’s sister’s wedding. It wasn’t made in response to COVID-induced lockdowns and quarantines, but somehow it’s the perfect representation of what living through this monotonous and hellish year has been like.
Wolfwalkers closes out director Tomm Moore’s thematic Irish folklore trilogy in a remarkable fashion, as it brings together the themes of its predecessors while being more political than ever before. But the hand-drawn animation is the real draw here, with its squiggly lines and roughness approaching a sense of freedom that’s beyond computers.
The anti-gay purges in Russia-controlled Chechnya are the focus of Welcome to Chechnya, a documentary that shows how horrifying it can be when the state apparatus is after you. It’s also a landmark for documentary filmmaking, thanks to the use of deep fake technology to give a face to those whose identities need to be concealed.