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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

The Ten Best Films of 2020

With exceptional dramas, joyous concert documentaries and horror mind-benders, 2020 wasn't lacking in excellent movies.
By Sarah Ward
December 21, 2020
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By Sarah Ward
December 21, 2020
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By almost every conceivable metric, 2020 wasn't great. It was downright terrible, in fact. We know that you already know this, but let us share a sliver of good news: it was still a fantastic year for cinema. That's true even with picture palaces across Australia, New Zealand and the rest of the world closing for considerable periods. Indeed, when silver screens reopened again Down Under, and everyone was able to once again sit in darkened rooms and stare at celluloid dreams blown up big just as they're meant to be, we all remembered why the term 'movie magic' exists. And, in those theatres with their popcorn smells and booming sounds, we were able to see truly exceptional films.

Every year delivers a treasure trove of movies — so much so that, here at Concrete Playground, we always put together multiple lists of film gems. As part of our end-of-year wrap-ups for 2020, we've already highlighted ten excellent movies that hit cinemas but sadly didn't set the box office alight, as well as 20 other standout titles from this year that really you owe it to yourself to have seen. From everything that flickered through a projector in general release in 2020, we're now down to the pointy end. Each year delivers awful, average and astonishing movies, and we've picked the cream of the crop when it comes to the latter. Some released pre-pandemic, in what seems like another life. Some are yet to hit cinemas, but will before the year is out. From movies that'll have you dancing in the aisles to unsettling head trips, these are the ten absolute best films of 2020 that made their way to the big screen.

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NOMADLAND

Frances McDormand is a gift of an actor. Point a camera her way, and a performance so rich that it feels not just believable but tangible floats across the screen. That's the case in Nomadland, which will earn her another Oscar nomination and could even see her win a third shiny statuette just three years after she nabbed her last for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Here, leading a cast that also includes real people experiencing the existence that's fictionalised within the narrative, she plays the widowed, van-dwelling Fern — a woman who takes to the road, and to the nomad life, after the small middle-America spot she spent her married life in turns into a ghost town when the local mine is shuttered due to the global financial crisis. Following her travels over the course of more than a year, this humanist drama serves up an observational portrait of those that society happily overlooks. It's both deeply intimate and almost disarmingly empathetic in the process, as every movie made by Chloe Zhao is. This is only the writer/director's third, slotting in after 2015's Songs My Brothers Taught Me and 2017's The Rider but before 2021's Marvel flick Eternals, but it's a feature of contemplative and authentic insights into the concepts of home, identity and community. Meticulously crafted, shot and performed, it's also Zhao's best work yet, and 2020's best film as well.

Read our full review.

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NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS

When some movies mention their titles, they do so via a line of clunky dialogue that feels forced, overstressed and makes viewers want to cringe. Never Rarely Sometimes Always isn't one of those films. It does indeed task a character with uttering those exact words, but the scene in which they're voiced is the most devastating and heartbreaking movie scene of the year. Given the premise of writer/director Eliza Hittman's latest feature, that perhaps comes with the territory. It shouldn't, which is one of the points this layered film potently makes, but it does. Upon discovering that she's expecting — and being told by her local women's centre that she should go through with the pregnancy — 17-year-old Autumn (first-timer Sidney Flanigan) has no other choice but to take matters into her own hands. With her cousin Skylar (fellow feature debutant Talia Ryder), she hops on a bus from her Pennsylvania home town to New York to seek assistance from Planned Parenthood. Given that Skylar has stolen the funds for Autumn's abortion out of the cash register at work, and that they don't have enough to cover a place to stay, this isn't a straightforward quest. Hittman's naturalistic style, as previously seen in 2014's It Felt Like Love and 2017's Beach Rats, makes every second of Autumn's ordeal feel intimate, real and unshakeably affecting, as does Flanigan's internalised but still expressive performance as well.

Read our full review.

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AMERICAN UTOPIA

On paper, American Utopia's concept doesn't just sound excellent — it sounds flat-out superb, stunning and spectacular. A new David Byrne concert film, capturing his acclaimed American Utopia Broadway production, as directed by Spike Lee? Sign the world up, and now. In the most welcome news of the year, the execution matches the idea in this instant masterpiece (and wonderful companion piece to 1984's Stop Making Sense). It'd be hard to go wrong with all of the above ingredients, but Lee's second film of 2020 (after Da 5 Bloods) makes viewers feel like they're in the room with Byrne and his band and dancers like all concert movies strive to but few achieve in such engaging a fashion. Every shot here is designed with this one aim in mind and it shows, because giving audiences the full American Utopia experience is something worth striving for. Byrne sings, working through both solo and Talking Heads hits. He waxes lyrical in his charming and accessible way, pondering the eponymous concept with an open and wise perspective. And he has staged, planned and choreographed the entire performance to a painstaking degree — from the inviting grey colour scheme and the open stage surrounded by glimmering chainmail curtains to the entire lack of cords and wires tethering himself and his colleagues down.

Read our full review.cp-line

KAJILLIONAIRE

Awards bodies don't tend to recognise performances like Evan Rachel Wood's in Kajillionaire, but they should. It's a career-best effort from an actor with an array of terrific work to her name (most recently in Westworld), and it operates so firmly on the same wavelength as the film she's in that it's impossible to imagine how it would work without her. Kajillionaire is filmmaker Miranda July's latest movie, following Me and You and Everyone We Know and The Future, so it was always going to stand out. It was always going to need a knockout portrayal at its centre, too. Wood plays a 26-year-old con artist called Old Dolio Dyne, who has spent her whole life working schemes and scams with her parents Robert (Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water) and Theresa (Debra Winger, The Lovers) — to the point that it's all that she knows, and it has made her the closed off yet still vulnerable person she is. But when her mother and father take lively optometrist's assistant Melanie (Gina Rodriguez, Annihilation) under their wing, Old Dolio is forced to reassess everything. That might sound standard, but July has never made a movie that's earned that term and she definitely doesn't start now. Kajillionaire is a heist-fuelled crime caper, and an eccentric and idiosyncratic one; however, it's also a rich and unique character study, an astute exploration of family and a love story — and Wood is essential at every turn.

Read our full review.

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POSSESSOR

The possibility that someone could hijack another person's brain, then use their body as a vessel to carry out corporate-sanctioned murder, is instantly distressing and disturbing. Whatever your mind has just conjured up reading that sentence, it has nothing on Brandon Cronenberg's vision of the same idea — as Possessor, his sophomore feature, illustrates in a brilliant and brutal fashion. As chilly and also as mesmerising as his first film, Antiviral, this horror-thriller spends its time Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough, The Grudge). It's her job to leap into other people's heads and carry out assassinations, and she's very good at it. When the movie opens, however, she experiences difficulties on a gig. Then she takes on another, infiltrating Colin's (Christopher Abbott, Vox Lux) brain, and struggles to maintain control over his personality and actions as she attempts to kill his fiancé (Tuppence Middleton, Mank) and her business mogul father (Sean Bean, Snowpiercer). Possessor's writer/director is the son of David Cronenberg, of Shivers, Scanners, Videodrome and The Fly fame, so exploring unnerving body horror has been implanted into his own head in a way, too. He certainly carries on the family name in a daring, determined and expectedly gruesome manner. Also striking and unforgettable here: the concepts that Possessor probes, including present analogues to Possessor's body-jumping technology.

Read our full review.

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BABYTEETH

Filmmaker Shannon Murphy made her feature debut with Babyteeth, but she shows no signs of merely cutting her chompers on this heartwrenching film. Based on the Rita Kalnejais-penned play of the same name and scripted for the screen by the writer as well, this Australian drama tackles a well-worn premise — that'd be: terminally ill teen falls in love as she endeavours to manage her grim health situation — with such shrewdness, vivacity and understanding that it puts almost every other movie about the same concept to shame. Milla (Eliza Scanlen, Little Women) is the cancer-afflicted high schooler in question. When she meets and clicks with 23-year-old small-time drug dealer Moses (Toby Wallace, Acute Misfortune), it takes her pill-popping mother Anna (Essie Davis, True History of the Kelly Gang) and psychiatrist father Henry (Ben Mendelsohn, The Outsider) time to adjust. Their struggles have nothing on Milla's own, though, because Babyteeth sees its protagonist as a person rather than an illness, and as someone with their own hopes, dreams, troubles and disappointments instead of the reason the folks around her have their lives disrupted. That's such an important move, but's just one of the many that the movie makes. Aided not only by superb (and AACTA Award-winning) performances all round, but also by arresting visuals and clever but realistic dialogue, Babyteeth proves both raw and dynamic from start to finish.

Read our full review.

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SOUND OF METAL

It's one thing to tell viewers that the character they're watching is losing their hearing. It's another entirely to ensure that they understand exactly how that feels. Sound of Metal adopts two methods to achieve the latter feat — one expected but still extraordinary, the other truly earning the usually overused term that is 'immersive'. Firstly, Riz Ahmed (Venom) gives his all to the role of heavy metal drummer and ex-heroin addict Ruben Stone. Realising that one of his senses isn't just fading but disappearing obviously upends every facet of Ruben's life, which Ahmed conveys in a powerfully physicalised performance (and his second portrayal of a musician coping with health struggles after this year's festival hit Mogul Mowgli, too). Just as crucial, however, is the soundscape created by debut feature director Darius Marder and his team. It mimics what Ruben can and can't hear with precision, and it couldn't be more effective at plunging the audience inside his head. Both choices — lead casting and the film's audio — invest weight and depth into a story that isn't lacking in either anyway. Putting his tour with his bandmate and girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke, Ready Player One) on hold, Ruben reluctantly moves to a rural community for addicts who are deaf to learn to live with his new situation, does whatever is necessary to rustle up the cash for a surgically inserted cochlear implant and faces more than few hard truths along the way.

Read our full review.

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THE LIGHTHOUSE

It initially hit cinemas pre-pandemic, but The Lighthouse might just be the most relatable movie of 2020. There are no prizes for guessing where it is set, but The Witch filmmaker Robert Eggers has zero time for scenic seaside escapades, turning his attention to two men holed up in the coastal structure, unable to leave and going stir-crazy (to put it mildly) instead. Those lighthouse keepers are played by Willem Dafoe (At Eternity's Gate) and Robert Pattinson (Tenet), who both commit to the narrative with gusto. The former steps into the shoes of cantankerous sea dog Thomas Wake, while the latter endures quite the uncomfortable welcome as eager newcomer Ephraim Winslow — and, as anyone could predict given their talents and respective filmographies, they're gripping to watch. That sensation only increases when a storm sweeps in, with the fact that Winslow frequently fondles himself while holding a mermaid figurine marking just the beginning of The Lighthouse's claustrophobic chaos. Shooting in black and white, and boxing the film in via the 1.19:1 Movietone aspect ratio that's a throwback to a century ago, Eggers dives right into a vivid and entrancing nightmare that simultaneously unpacks masculinity, unfurls a manic head-trip and explores how people react when they're thrust together in a heightened scenario.

Read our full review.

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CORPUS CHRISTI

An Oscar nominee this year — losing the Best International Feature Film category to ParasiteCorpus Christi examines faith with blistering and unflinching intensity. This quietly powerful Polish drama doesn't just contemplate what it means to believe, but how the supposedly pious actually enact their convictions (or don't, as the case often proves). Freshly released from reform school, Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia) is drawn to the seminary after connecting with the facility's head priest, Father Tomasz (Lukasz Simlat), during his sentence. Alas, his record instantly excludes him from following that calling, even though he's only 20 years old. Then, through a twist of fate that always feels organic, he's given the opportunity to act as the new spiritual advisor in a rural town after its residents mistake him for a man of the cloth. Given that this is an imposter tale, Corpus Christi proves inherently tense and bristling from the outset; however, just as much of that mood and tone stems from the way that Daniel's new community say one thing but act in a completely different manner involving a recent tragedy. Warsaw 44 and The Hater filmmaker Jan Komasa willingly steps into thorny territory as he tells the young man's tale (with top-notch help from Bielenia), and wonders why it's so easy for so many to cling to centuries-old concepts and stories, but so hard for most to put them in a modern, realistic and everyday context.

Read our full review.

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THE ASSISTANT

Charting an ordinary day in the life of a junior staff member at a film production office, The Assistant is as unsettling as anything else that reached screens in 2020. Jane (Julia Garner, Ozark) has the titular position, working an entry-level job for a demanding head honcho who everyone in the office indulges — although viewers never get to meet him. She arrives at work before daylight, trudges through menial tasks and is treated poorly by her male colleagues. She's expect to anticipate everything that her boss could ever need or want, or face his wrath if she doesn't. And, as the day progresses, she realises just how toxic her workplace's culture is and how deep its inappropriate conduct burrows. Seeing how predatory the man she works for acts on a daily basis, and how his behaviour has a significant impact, she also learns how those who even try to speak out can still be powerless to effect change to stop it. If you've kept abreast of the #MeToo movement over the past few years, you'll know exactly what has inspired The Assistant, of course. However, Australian filmmaker Kitty Green wants her audience to experience this devastating scenario via Jane, rather than merely read about it. She doesn't just succeed; although she's working in fiction here, she directs a film as searing and perceptive as her last project, the excellent documentary Casting JonBenet.

Published on December 21, 2020 by Sarah Ward

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