Now that the sun has finally set on 2020, the year that wouldn’t end, Taste of Cinema offers up our favorites from the exciting and upsetting year that was. To anyone of the opinion that 2020 was a mediocre year for movies, you just weren’t looking hard enough. But you’d also be forgiven as, owing to the global pandemic, this was a challenging year for moviegoers and moviemakers alike.
That said however, we do admit that the films that of the films that did see release, even just narrowing those titles down to a workable 20 titles for this list was no small feat – I cringe at the many worthy films that didn’t make the cut or that we weren’t able to screen in our region (and be sure to look at the Honourable Mentions section for more list-worthy titles).
The films in this list show a wide-ranging assortment including auteur-driven films, populist fare, plentiful arthouse gems, genre films, and many magnificent female-led projects, too (five of the top ten films are from women directors; a refreshing and restorative sign of the more inclusive times we’re living in).
One more quick note, the films that follow do NOT include any documentaries (that’s a separate list), though if it did you can bet that Caught in the Net, Dick Johnson is Dead, Into the Storm, My Mexican Bretzel, and Time would be amongst those roundly represented.
And now, without further ado, let the roundup commence!
20. I’m Thinking of Ending Things
He may not be as prolific as his fans would like, but writer-director Charlie Kaufman came back in 2020 in a big way, offering us another intensely surreal and densely layered film that promises, at least initially, to plumb the depths of the subconscious à la vintage David Lynch and then some. And despite some very Lynchian manoeuvres throughout, a single viewing doesn’t, for me at any rate, quite coalesce (I’m Thinking of Ending Things can be something of a hard sell as multiple viewings appear to be mandatory).
Admittedly I didn’t connect emotionally the way that I had hoped with this alternately dazzling and confounding film. Still, while this film lacks the mastery of Synecdoche, New York, it’s still a memorable, moving and worthwhile film with much to admire and marvel at (Jessie Buckley, Toni Colette, Jesse Plemons and David Thewlis are fantastic).
Apart from some seemingly deliberate obfuscation, this film is still highly recommended and, off-kilter as it is, is frequently a beauty to behold.
Director Tracey Deer, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Meredith Vuchnich, presents a poignant, powerful, and very Canadian tale of recent history in Bean. What could have been, in lesser hands, a preachy history lesson is instead a deeply felt and firsthand tale set during the 78-day Oka crisis in Quebec during the summer of 1990.
Deer delivers more than a moving, maddening and personal story, but one rife with evocation and feeling while also showcasing the incredible talents of its young star, Kiawentiio as Tekehentahkhwa, a young Mohawk girl coming-of-age amidst agonizing social oppression and upheaval.
Perhaps the most important Canadian film of the last 10 years or so, Beans is a beautiful and distressing portrait of racism, injustice and family. Don’t miss it.
Filmed in 2020 while under quarantine restrictions due to the pandemic, director Rob Savage, co-writing with Gemma Hurley and Jed Shepherd, take a bare-bones premise of a group of friends staying connected via a regular Zoom call and find new and all too relatable ways to bring the chills and upsets home while raising all of the alarms.
This low-budget/high-concept post-quarantine genre film is economic across the board, and simultaneously it’s incredibly effective in more ways than one. How far is this movie going to go? How safe is anyone? As Host barrels along, the scares and stakes escalate and evolve and never feel less than genuine as well as inescapable.
The cast of largely unknowns are 100% believable and the truncated running time (barely an hour) makes the mad rush of panic all the more palpable.
Host is definitely the one horror film of 2020 not to miss, and if there’s any justice in the world it will be remembered come awards season.
Easily the most audacious genre film I saw at VIFF 2020, writer-director duo Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli make a debut feature that’s hard to look at but even harder to look away from. Violation is that too rare a feminist rape-revenge film that actually IS feminist. It’s not just posturing and exploitation (the only nudity here is that of the rapist, and the crime itself is shot with surreal ferocity in a powerful but not at all gratuitous manner).
Over the course of a brief and already uncomfortable reunion with her sister, Greta (Anna Maguire), Miriam (Sims-Fewer) is drugged and assaulted by Dylan, her brother-in-law (Jesse LaVercombe).
As Miriam makes her play to out her assailant and the hypocrisy and ignorance in her midst the fittingly shaky and drunken lensing of cinematographer Adam Crosby, brilliantly paired with Andrea Boccadoro’s moodily effective score, and the bold and brash narrative leaps of the stirring screenplay all mount up to mental anguish and horrific mastery. Make no mistake, Violation is a disturbing, gutsy, tough, and rewarding experience that you’ll crawl away from and, as you recover from it, you’ll be both overwhelmed and ultimately, very moved. Hopefully it will see some kind of wide release in 2021.
16. Bad Tales
An artful yet absolutely gritty suburban noir from the D’Innocenzo Brothers (Boys Cry), the consistently allusive Bad Tales is eccentric, admirably madcap, and utterly heartbreaking.
These hyperlinked yarns, set in the suburbs of Rome over the course of one memorably miserable summer, feature incorrigible adults and the maltreated children in their charge and while the cruelties and distrust on display make aspects of the film somewhat challenging (how much abuse can these poor kids endure?), they are never less than fascinating and feature a wealth of convincing child actors and a shrewdly observed screenplay (which deservedly won the Silver Bear in Berlin earlier this year).
Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) kicked off his five-part thematically tied Amazon/BBC anthology series about the Black British experiences spanning the 1960s to the 1980s with this intimate yet absolutely monumental tale of activism and resistance set in 1968 Notting Hill.
Shaun Parkes is electric as Frank Crichlow, a Trinidadian entrepreneur named Frank Crichlow, whose new restaurant, the titular Mangrove, is about to become both a nexus for the local West Indian community but also the consistent target for raid after raid of a racist police force set on bullying and intimidating Black-owned businesses and their diverse clientele.
McQueen and his brilliant cinematographer Shabier Kirchner present fluid, fresh, and tactile imagery that celebrates the joy of these characters one minute with the painful and disruptive ache and urgency of unlawful raids and heart-swelling protests the next.
Mangrove is an enlightening, empowering, intelligent and awesome experience.
14. The Vast of Night
The Vast of Night marks the astonishing directorial debut of Andrew Patterson, who illustrates again and again what a confident, resourceful, and exciting storyteller he is. Presented as an uncanny and unsettling episode of “Paradox Theater”– a fictional anthology show in the vein of the Outer Limits and the Twilight Zone — The Vast of Night is set in 1950s New Mexico, in the town of Cayuga. Teenybopper Fay (Sierra McCormick) is a switchboard operator who’s overjoyed with her new tape recorder and enjoys cracking wise and chattering endlessly with fellow teen and radio DJ, Everett (Jake Horowitz).
The pair share some suspicions about science and the future and at first it feels like they might embark on a Nancy Drew-like mystery before it becomes more apparent that the pair are more aligned with the likes of Special Agents Mulder and Scully when they intercept a signal that might have extraterrestrial origins.
Patterson’s knack for building intrigue and mounting suspense as we edge closer to revelation is part of what makes the Vast of Night such an audacious and ominous tale. The tease of anticipation is almost more thrilling than the great unveiling. This compelling, technically flashy, and frequently funny sci-fi excitation feels fresh and, as the title suggests, very vast indeed.
13. Twilight’s Kiss
Proving again and again throughout Twilight’s Kiss to be a melacholic poet of the highest order, writer-director Ray Yeung (Front Cover) presents a stirring queer romance between two seniors; a taxi driver named Pak (Tai Bo, excellent) and recently divorced Hoi (Ben Yuen). An aching tale of acceptance and experience, this is a fascinating film flush with delicate observational beauty and charm.
One of the most sheerly enjoyable films from 2020, writer-director Noah Hutton’s Lapsis is a dazzling and inconspicuous amalgam of science fiction, social commentary and dark comedy that contains a multitude of tiny and refined pleasures.
Ray (Dean Imperial) lives in a familiar near-future where the gig economy is the best bet for most Americans, as the gap between the rich and the poor widens.
A cautionary tale with some hilarious and even harrowing conclusions, Lapsis is the best kind of quirky New Age nightmare. It’s a consistently smart and unsettling dystopian prevarication that pretty much has it all; reasonably high stakes, a likeable lead, amusing and observant dialogue, a splash of potential romance for our hangdog hero, cute robots, and a strange but conceivable conspiracy at the center of it all.
Realizing the game is rigged, Ray plays it anyway with what he hopes to be an ace up his sleeve. “That’s what you get Beeftech, you goddamn asshole,” shouts an antagonistic competitor, before adding a last slight of “LOSER!” while he trudges away into the bush. Lapsis may be a modest film but it’s also masterly.
Acrimony, humor, and pathos populate Falling, a gracefully drawn family drama from writer-director and co-star Viggo Mortensen (in his feature length directorial debut). In fittingly fine form and displaying a remarkably perceptive job, this is a film of raw intensity that will no doubt be difficult for some viewers, like myself, as it hits again and again uncomfortably close to home.
Dealing with dementia, bigotry, altruism and unconditional love in ways that show a raw authenticity, Falling also excels with a cast that is uniformly strong, particularly Lance Henriksen (give the man an Oscar already, Academy!). Mortensen repeatedly shows mastery in a narrative that becomes deceptively quite complex and the ending, exquisitely controlled, is a subtle sting that will move all but the most jaded.