Films and TV of 2020

Remembering back to when all was normal, at the start of 2020, I think there were some films there that have now disappeared into the mists of a time BC, before Covid.

There were some good ones in last year’s awards race. Ones that stick are quite surprising. I find myself remembering Terence Malick’s A Hidden Life, about an Austrian conscientious objector refusing to bow to the Nazis – the Catholic religiosity and sworls of music I didn’t warm to, but I can still feel and hear and see the verdant valleys.

The Personal History of David Copperfield

A personal favourite is The Personal History of David Copperfield, Armando Ianucci’s adaptation starring Dev Patel, which I found utterly charming, funny and inventive, a film I felt should have had a lot more love from awards bodies and which changed the face of period film casting. It was so much better than the forced confection of Austen’s Emma.

I hated The Lighthouse. Loved Queen & Slim, with Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith on the run in the coolest outfits, and couldn’t care much for the naff cardigans of A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood. Everyone sneered at Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell, about the security guard suspected of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombings, but that’s not fair – the lead actor, Paul Walter Hauser was amazing. And then there was Parasite, upturning all the history books, which was a good thing, a wonderful thing. It’s very fine movie, but is it ok to say I didn’t love love love it?

A Portrait of a Lady on Fire

There was the wonderful A Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which I loved loved loved, with the incendiary pairing of Noemie Merlant and Adele Hanel;  a pretentious, punky and chaotic True History of the Kelly Gang and a clammy procedural Dark Waters, with Mark Ruffalo, that sat like a depressed cloud on the screen.

Just before the world stopped and cinema went dark, there was just time to squeeze out female-skewed Brit coms Military Wives and Misbehaviour and blame COVID for their lukewarm performances at the box office rather than wondering why they just didn’t make them funnier? The nutty Brazilian thriller Bacurau and the supremely elegant doc Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am impressed me and I enjoyed Irish gangster thriller Calm With Horses but without getting proper goosebumps.

Then came the drip drop of what was left, the cancellation of Cannes, the great reckoning of cinema vs TV and streaming. Newsflash – the movies lost. I get why The Assistant was praised but I couldn’t froth about it, despite there being little else to garner cinephile attention. Never Rarely Sometimes Always, the same.  Everyone was watching telly: Normal People, Tiger King, The Eddy, I May Destroy You…

I was writing about docs on Mexican food writers and New York’s antiquarian book trade (both charming in their own ways: Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy and The Booksellers). I wrote about Martin Margiela the Belgian fashion recluse, and at least had time to watch a lot of Mark Cousins’ epic Women Make Film.

White Riot

White Riot, about the Rock Against Racism gig in Victoria Park in 1978, was a welcome topic, an excellent debut doc by Rubika Shah which was interesting and fun to watch and then Woody Allen managed to sneak out A Rainy Day in New York, which looked lovely in parts and wasn’t his worst but certainly wasn’t near any of his best. Things were pretty desperate. Simon Bird’s debut Day of the Bangold Summer garnered lots of attention, which was nice. So did American indie comedy Saint Frances, but I wouldn’t say either were classics. 

Oh god, Russell Crowe ploughed through traffic in his truck in the professionally, purposefull unpleasant Unhinged. Gemma Arterton and Gugu Mbatha Raw were far more pleasant in Summerland while I just about kept tabs on How To Build A Girl as it spiralled. I was watching Mira Nair’s A Suitable Boy on the telly. 

At least there was an explosive double bill from France: the re-issue of key 90s movie La Haine and hard upon it, the arrival of Les Miserables, Ladj Ly’s terrific, Cesar-winning policier from the tinderbox multi-cultures of the banlieu.

I couldn’t suffer Eva Green in Proxima,  but did get caught up in British caravan park coming-of-age tale Make Up, and was enveloped by the music and mood of Stanley Nelson’s righteous Miles Davis doc Birth of the Cool. 

Da 5 Bloods

Then there was Rocks, a British indie gem I could really get behind. What a lovely film, so sensitive and sensible, so empathic and right. Lovely, too, was Vietnam-set homecoming movie Monsoon, by Hong Khaou, which made an interesting if unintentional companion piece to Spike Lee’s blistering Da 5 Bloods, which I greatly enjoyed and won’t listen to anyone who gets snippy about it because it’s a bit messy. So was Nam, mate, so is Spike’s way and that’s why I love it. Damn.

Everyone loves St Maud, and I can see that. I thought Morfydd Clarke was great in it, much to admire, but again, it comes up a bit short for me.

I can’t get past Steve McQueen’s Mangrove and Lovers Rock. I loved them, as you know. Red White and Blue, too. Are they films or telly? I don’t know the difference anymore – I just know things that are fresh and powerful and fit the story to the message to the medium. Small Axe did that.

Riz Ahmed’s Mogul Mowgli I loved. I wanted to like Francois Ozon’s Summer ’85 a lot more, but it got a bit silly after a lovely start. American indie comedy The Climb came as a powerful surprise, a toxic bromance that could be shown alongside the memorable British curio Muscle, with Cavan Clerkin and Craig Fairbrass mainlining the man juice in a gym.

County Lines

Single moniker jazz docs Ronnie’s and Billie came along and were properly and respectfully enjoyed here without being revolutionary and, boy, did County Lines sock it to me and make me scared for my own kids. Some scenes in that film by Henry Blake are unshakeable.

There was Mank, which I found a slog, and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom which I liked plenty as a play but not madly as a movie, and Viggo Mortensen’s Falling with a very fine performance from Lance Eriksen as a spiky old Grandpa alienating his family. Wonder Woman 1984 just about got in there, although the cinemas shut her down just as she lassoed into enjoyable blockbusting action. Gal Gadot is fabulous to behold.

So, these are the films that make my:

 Top Ten Films of 2020:

10 Mogul Mowgli

9 White Riot 

8 Da 5 Bloods

7 Women Make Film  

6 Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am

5 The Personal History of David Copperfield

4 Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool  

3 Portrait of A Lady on Fire

2 Les Miserables

1 Rocks 

As for Top Ten TV of 2020:

Love Life

Quiz

Us

Unorthodox

Normal People 

Dave

A Suitable Boy

Feel Good

The Salisbury Poisonings  

I May Destroy You

Red White and Blue

But there’s one major event missing – and that’s Small Axe, the Steve McQueen series, which is both my top TV of the year and some my Top Film… Mangrove and Lovers Rock were wonderful, stand- alone movies, both selected for Cannes, if there had been a Cannes 2020. And yet they debuted mainly on BBC One, on mainstream TV and I loved them for getting their stories into that format, too..

So that’s it – my favourite things of the year, Mangrove and Lovers Rock and John Boyega in Red White and Blue… I loved them, and of course, they’re so 2020, the year when TV and Film converged until we could hardly tell them apart any more.