What a strange year 2020 has been. Compiling a ‘best-of’ list feels oddly perfunctory and even somewhat pointless this year. But ironically, the movies have never felt this vital.
For starters, the manner in which we consume films changed drastically in 2020, and in many ways, this was the year of least objectivity – movies that normally wouldn’t have made an impact became unforgettable because, perhaps, the end of the world seemed like such a real possibility. Who knows? It still could be.
Also read: From Paatal Lok to The Queen’s Gambit, the top 10 TV shows of 2020
You must keep in mind that I watched every film mentioned on this list alone, at home – not a single one of these was experienced in a movie theatre. This is a first, and as expected, it completely overhauled how I perceive movies. Another disclaimer before we begin: this shouldn’t be considered a list of the year’s ‘best films’, but rather, a very personal list of movies that spoke to one person. Me.
Here’s the list, in no particular order.
Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions
In a year when people have moaned about missing the movie theatre experience, here’s a film that positively demands to be seen alone. Folkore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions (stylized in lower-case) isn’t the most refined film in the world – the crew is visible in reflections sometimes, and the camerawork has very little personality – but it’s among the most moving portrayals of the artistic process you’ll ever see. Part therapy session, part cottagecore catalogue, Folklore, directed by Taylor Swift, is a peek inside the heartbreak and honesty that influences her music. It’s a soothing balm for the trauma of 2020.
The year’s best Hindi film, Serious Men, directed by Sudhir Mishra and starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui as an enraged Dalit con artist, is one of those rare experiences where it seems as if every department — costumes, sound, lighting — is in a jazz-like groove. And as perversely funny as it is, it would not have worked if there had not been a collective rage directed at the establishment. It’s a movie that taps into what it is like to live in India, circa 2020. It’s a time capsule that, like so many satirical movies that were released in the post-Emergency era, captures the mood of the nation.
Read the Serious Men review here.
Epic yet intimate, gritty yet mythic, Moothon is the best Indian film of the year – an experience on par with the Oscar-winning Moonlight, with which it shares many thematic similarities. Directed by Geetu Mohandas and starring Nivin Pauly and Roshan Mathew in roles of a lifetime, Moothon is a glowing example of the second Golden Age of Malayalam movies, beyond doubt the most important movement Indian cinema has witnessed since Ram Gopal Varma changed the game around two decades ago in Bollywood.
Read the Moothon review here.
In an industry that routinely finds it difficult to make tonally consistent movies, director Anubhav Sinha’s sombre drama, Thappad, is a culmination of his creative reawakening which began with Mulk, and continued with Article 15. Thappad, about a woman’s (internal and external) fight against an act of domestic violence, is a patient film that values silences over soliloquys. It is understated and unconventional, and features a towering central performance that cements star Taapsee Pannu as a once-in-a-generation kind of talent.
Rare is the teen movie that can delight and devastate equally. Spontaneous, the directorial debut of screenwriter Brian Duffield, is one of them. When their classmates begin spontaneously exploding in the most gory manner, two high-schoolers, realizing that they could very well be the next to die, decide to live every day like it’s their last. Spontaneous is a vibrant mash-up of tones and textures – in one moment it can make you swoon at the sight of young love, and in the next, it can make you retch with its pointed commentary on school shootings. Seek it out, spread the word.
The Trial of the Chicago 7
Frighteningly relevant, featuring terrific performances and dialogue that you can dance to, Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 is relevant not only to Americans fighting systemic injustice, but Indians as well. It’s a crowd-pleaser of the highest quality — propulsive, impassioned and well-intentioned – and together with another Sacha Baron Cohen vehicle, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, served as the final artistic blow to the outgoing Donald Trump.
Read the Trial of the Chicago 7 review here.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Based on the August Wilson play of the same name and directed by George C Wolfe, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is many things. It’s about Black people, still emerging from the shadow of their recent past, learning to live respectable lives. It’s about the power of art, and the importance of upholding one’s creative integrity. And it is also about the oppression of an entire community, and the system that sets them up for nothing but self-destruction. Framed within the tragedy of Chadwick Boseman’s death, it takes on a wholly unexpected profundity. It’s the film that’ll win him an Oscar.
Read the Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom review here.
This stunning Apple TV+ documentary is both an indictment and celebration of human nature. Co-directed by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBain, the film may sound goofy on paper. It’s about a bunch of Texas high-schoolers who congregate at a summer camp, where they’re divided into two groups and as a social experiment, tasked with devising political campaigns – complete with elected representatives for all the senior positions. What follows is a deeply engrossing tale of mass corruption and cynicism, but also hope and idealism. It’s a microcosm of the world right now, and absolutely essential viewing.
Like Spontaneous, Palm Springs, directed by Max Barbakow and written by Andy Siara, takes a familiar premise and puts a never-before-seen spin on it. On paper, it’s another time loop movie, featuring an unremarkable schmuck played by Andy Samberg, who’s been living the same day over and over again. And being stuck in this existential prison has made him unfeeling and nihilistic. But it all changes when a woman enters the picture, and together, they realise that life is only worth living when you have someone by your side. It’s corny, yes, like any random top-shelf rom-com, but it’s also profound, which is saying something in a year that gave us a new Charlie Kaufman movie.
Da 5 Bloods
Da 5 Bloods is director Spike Lee’s retort to decades of Hollywood storytelling from a white perspective. Lee is snatching the narrative away from the powerful white men in charge of shaping it, and rewriting it — methodically, patiently, and furiously. Da 5 Bloods couldn’t have been more timely, with its quick postscript that honours the Black Lives Matter movement, and the overwhelming sense of pride that it exudes. Together with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, it is an essential part of this year’s cultural conversation surrounding Black storytelling, and a moving tribute to the late Chadwick Boseman.
Read the Da 5 Bloods review here.
A few honourable mentions now. These films could’ve very easily found a spot on the top 10 list on another day, which should be an indication of just how arbitrary and ever-evolving lists such as this usually are. Mank, by David Fincher, offers a glimpse of the filmmaker’s love-hate relationship with his line of work; I’m Thinking of Ending Things finds filmmaker Charlie Kaufman at his most inscrutable yet engaging; Kappela, the second film on this list featuring Roshan Mathew, is another example of the sheer inventiveness of Malayalam cinema; Extraction is the best action movie of the year; and finally, Gulabo Sitabo, a film that dares to strip two of the nation’s biggest male actors of their carefully cultivated image.
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The author tweets @RohanNaahar