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We are closing in on the top spot for the HeadStuff Film writers’ Best Movies of 2020. If you haven’t caught our picks from #20 to #11 check them out here. Let’s jump back in with our top ten.
Writer-director Joe Begos’ debut Almost Human was a slasher movie with an alien invasion and his follow up The Mind’s Eye was an affectionate Cronenberg tribute. However, for his third film, Begos delivers something less of a genre exercise and more personal. Bliss follows Dezzy (Dora Madison), an artist who descends into a hallucinogenic and (perhaps?) vampiric nightmare to escape artist’s block. With shades of Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction and a heavy dose of Gaspar Noé, Bliss is a trippy, sexy, gory, downtown LA, generation fuck masterpiece. Paddie Thompson
Of all their directors in the studio’s lineup, Trey Edward Schultz might reasonably be called A24’s most ardent student and practitioner. All three of his rather different features were distributed by the indie darlings and a case could be made for Waves, his best, being the ‘most’ A24 film film yet. The gut-wrenching drama has the distinct visual flair, demoralizing family strife, hip needle drops and coming-of-age shenanigans to make it an effective Bingo card for the production company.
This is not to say that Waves is simply some smattering of clichés and well-worn staples. In the first half especially, Schultz’ frenzied verisimilitude turns what could be work-a-day drama into a propulsive nerve-shredder. Kevin Harrison Jr is a revelation as Tyler, a teenager whose life unravels under the crushing weight of his father’s expectations. Waves details the pressures, trauma and resulting fallout of the rigorous pursuit of the hyper-masucline ideal. The dynamic, heart-pounding filmmaking puts us right there, inside Tyler’s increasingly claustrophobic headspace. Mark Conroy
8. The Personal History of David Copperfield
When attempting refreshing adaptations of classic literature, the typical predictable method by filmmakers is to set the old tale in modern times. This often doesn’t work as it disregards the societal particularities of the original era in favour of clunky commentary on the contemporary world. Think 1998’s Great Expectations starring Ethan Hawke or 2000’s Hamlet starring uhh…Ethan Hawke.
Director and satirist Armando Iannucci favors a more novel approach. His adaptation of Dickens instead takes modernity to the Victorian age. The supremely talented, diverse players may be a tad anachronistic (no more so than mostly white versions), but the colour-blind casting actually adds emphasis to the novel’s ruminations on class inequality and social mobility.
Dev Patel is endearingly bumbling and sweetly sincere as the titular hero. Tilda Swinton brings new meaning to irrepressibility as Betsy Trotswood and Hugh Laurie delivers his best work in years in his warm touching depiction of a confused Mr. Dick whose thoughts are muddled but company is always worth keeping. Benedict Wong, Aneurin Barnard, Ben Whishaw and Rosalind Eleazar are anything but “making up the numbers” here as well.
Iannucci’s ingenuity goes beyond just his choice of actors. He brings playful, postmodern flourishes to one of the archetypal Bildungsromans and allows a broader comic feel than we might traditionally see in these adaptations. All this adds to the one of the most inventive takes on Charles Dickens seen this side of David Lean. Mark Conroy
7. I’m Thinking of Ending Things
With I’m Thinking of Ending Things, acclaimed screenwriter turned director Charlie Kaufman broke his own rules of storytelling which he established in his script for 2002’s Adaptation. While in his previous work Kaufman had characters bemoan voiceover and cliched horror tropes, maybe part of being a master is knowing when to follow the rules and when to break them. In the case of I’m Thinking of Ending Things, his adaptation of Iain Reid’s brilliant novel, an unreliable narrator and some well-worn genre trappings were the perfect gateway to the themes at the heart of the story, specifically mental and physical disintegration and feelings of regret and failure.
Jessie Buckley stars as a woman considering breaking up with her boyfriend, played by Jesse Plemons. Despite this, she decides to accompany him on a visit to his parents (David Thewlis and Toni Collette), over the course of which reality begins to shift. Revealing more about this dense head-trip of a horror-thriller would be wrong. All I’ll say is I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a fascinating Rorschach test of a movie, where each viewer will come away with different interpretations and theories. At the same time, its snowy wintry scenery lensed by Cold War’s Lukasz Zal is stunning to behold and it boasts one of the best performances of the year by Buckley. The Kerry native never puts a step wrong even with the immense challenge of playing a character whose personality and very existence is constantly in flux, due to the tricky, elusive nature of the plot. Stephen Porzio
Few recent films have invited their viewers to enter their world in the way Host does. With hugely likable performances and some very convincing shocks, it’s little surprise this innovative Zoom-based horror really touched a nerve this year. When a group of friends, bored in lockdown, decide to hold a mock seance online they discover they have bought more than they bargained for. While Host has plenty of broad appeal it’s also cemented its place in film history as a direct result of the 2020 pandemic. If nothing else, there’s something oddly endearing about the fact that we now have a horror movie where a character carefully puts on a face mask before fleeing from her house in terror. Sarah Cullen
Brandon Cronenberg, son of David, follows up on the promise of his 2012 debut Antiviral with Possessor, a 20 minutes into the future, grisly, trippy cyberpunk. The great Andrea Riseborough stars an assassin who takes over other people’s bodies to commit hits. However, her latest job goes south when she struggles to gain control over her new shell, played by Christopher Abbott. Probing timely issues of privacy in a shocking, darkly comic way – a high point of the film is make-up and special effects artist Dan Martin (Lords of Chaos)’s gruesome designs. Paddie Thompson
4. The Lighthouse
When asked in an interview to outline the narrative set-up for his sophomore feature, director Robert Eggers stated that “Nothing good happens when two men are left alone in a giant phallus.”
Eggers builds on the promise of his debut The Witch with this brilliant psychological masterpiece. Presented entirely in black and white with a condensed 1.19:1 aspect ratio, it traps the viewer with Ephraim Winslow (a career-best Robert Pattinson) and Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe at the top of his game) inside their isolated experience on a lighthouse stationed off the coast of 19th century New England. From the get-go nothing good proceeds to happen for the two. They engage in pointless bickering about lobsters and increasingly want to strangle the life out of each other.
The Lighthouse sounds like it could be all over the shop. Yet, Eggers’ expert balancing of tones, along with a sharp script that incorporates literary influences like Edgar Allan Poe and HP Lovecraft, makes his latest an often unconventional, very tense and at times hilarious experience. It constantly keeps the viewer on edge because it is incredibly difficult to pinpoint what exactly is going to happen next. Give it a watch and you may find yourself becoming transfixed with what you see. There certainly is in enchantment to be found within this light……..house. Sean Moriarty
3. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
How do you film a feeling? If you’re Céline Sciamma you film it in long looks, stolen glances and secret moments of shared passion. You write long moments of silence broken by sparse, artful dialogue and you leave the rest to cinematographer Claire Mathon and leads Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel as Marianne and Héloïse respectively. Marianne is a painter in 18th century France travelling to an island off the coast of Brittany. She is to act as noblewoman Héloïse’s walking companion while painting her marriage portrait in secret. In the empty halls of the mansion and windswept moors of the island Marianne finds herself falling into a doomed romance with her subject.
There are more explicit films than Portrait of a Lady on Fire but there are few as swooningly romantic and devastatingly tragic. Natural light, be it from sunlight, fires or candles, plays a great role in the film and these warm scenes of domestic bliss, sisterhood or stolen nights entwined in bed are a balm especially when the more gothic elements of Sciamma’s polished yet still raw script come into play. Marianne often has visions and dreams of Héloïse in her ghostly white wedding dress, just out of reach. But although these moments serve as haunting foreshadowing, it is to light and warmth and passion that we return to by the film’s ending. It’s in its final two-minute shot that Portrait of a Lady on Fire asserts itself as a film about looking, about longing and about how love never really lets us go. Andrew Carroll
2. Uncut Gems
Uncut Gems is a really good thriller, elevated to modern classic status by an absolutely barnstorming lead performance from Adam Sandler. There’s something I find curiously likable about the fact that 9/10ths of Sandler’s film career consists of dreadful, lowest common denominator comedies made with his stupid friends. It gives this kind of sincerity to those rare movies where he knuckles down and reminds us all what a fabulous actor he is.
He could be filthy rich and successful just off his crassest films. So god bless him for even bothering with something as ambitious as Uncut Gems, god bless the Safdies for getting the best out of him, and god bless God for blessing us with Uncut Gems, the most manic, relentless, charismatic movie of the year. And as much as Sandler lifts it, it’s far from a one man show. Kevin Garnett manages to have tremendous fun playing himself, Julia Fox is note perfect as Sandler’s girlfriend, and the script fizzes and crackles throughout. An utterly spectacular effort. Jack Stevenson
It’s rare that the greater society aligns with my own personal tastes. Before this year, I could never imagine that a South Korean thriller from genre master Bong Joon-ho would sweep the Oscars. For that alone, Parasite would nab my personal number one top spot.
However, just saying that would be a disservice to this incredibly contemporary, funny, tense and unexpected treat. Parasite probes in greater depth the themes of class division that have run throughout Bong’s sci-fi work like The Host, Okja and Snowpiercer, placing them in a recognisable, rooted in reality environment. Yet, despite the lack of super trains and giant creatures, the result is urgent and somehow even more thrilling. At the same time, Song Kang-ho cements his position as one of the world’s best actors, delivering a devastating character arc almost entirely through silence and subtle facial expressions. Stephen Porzio