2020 Retrospective – top movies

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It’s almost the end of the year (and what a year!) and so traditionally this is where I provide you with some reheated retrospective rambles picking out gems from the slurry of films (around 150) and TV I’ve watched, games I’ve played, and the 40 or so books I have read. In this post (which, be warned, will contain some spoilers) I write about some of the best movies I’ve seen in 2020. Each comes highly recommended.

My top 5 films that I’ve seen this year are:

  1. The Handmaiden
  2. Hamilton
  3. 1917
  4. Jay and Silent Bob Reboot
  5. The Gentlemen

The Handmaiden (2016) looked like a period drama and so languished in my watchlist for a few years before I realised it was a Chan-wook Park film. Park directed the excellent Lady Vengeance, and the original and hugely enjoyable Old Boy, so I quickly revised my expectations and watched it.

Lowly thief Sook-Hee (Tae-ri Kim) is hired as the titular handmaiden to Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim), but is secretly plotting with conman posing as a count (Jung-woo Ha) to defraud her. Lady Hideko lives with her perverted Uncle Kouzuki (Jin-woong Cho) who from a young age has made her read erotic fiction to gentleman callers at their house.

Lady Hideko wants to get away from her uncle but we are left wondering if she is plotting with the fake count against Sook-Hee, with whom she has a secret lesbian affair, or whether she is in fact plotting against the men with Sook-Hee. Who is playing who? That’s the big question. It’s a brilliantly presented film which captivates you as the plot twists and turns through this bizarre story.

Hamilton (2020) is a hip-hop inspired musical for adults about the founding of a nation and the life of an otherwise overlooked figure in American history. I was totally blown away by it. It’s an outstanding slice of entertainment with a seamless mixture of closely filmed scenes on stage without an audience and a live performance with an enthusiastic and appreciative audience. The writing is impeccable – delivering a dose of history with humour and heart-swelling emotion, and the rapping is top notch. Writer and lead performer Lin-Manuel Miranda absolutely nails the complex, and at times ridiculously rhythmic and sublimely speedy, spitting of bars with word-play and vocal gymnastics aplenty.

I wanted more rapping and less out-and-out typically ‘musical’ numbers, and there seems to be more of the more traditional sounding stuff in the second half of the show, however it’s all great stuff and the way all the themes and lines from previous songs are woven into later songs is wonderful. I certainly found myself humming and singing stuff to myself a few days after watching the show and in comparison I certainly couldn’t remember even one song out of Frozen 2.

1917 (2019) is directed by Sam Mendes (Skyfall) and emulates the ‘one continuous shot’ conceit of Birdman. I spotted about fifteen disguised cuts and I’m sure there were probably more considering the amount of practical effects involved in recreating this small vignette of the Great War, but it is a great way of building tension and putting you right in the firing line. Dean-Charles Chapman (Game of Thrones) and George MacKay (a new face for me) play two WWI infantrymen given the task of crossing no man’s land into territory only just recently vacated by the enemy and finding a section of the British army before they enter into a trap and suffer untold casualties.

The special effects in1917 are realistic to the point of being overlooked, shadowed as they were by a damn good yarn. This is not an all guns blazing action film like Midway but rather a portrayal of a harrowing journey made by young men against terrible odds to try and stop their fellow soldiers from being killed and it plays out more or less in real time. It’s a great film on a number of counts but it is certainly helped by outstanding performances from Chapman and MacKay. 

Jay and Silent Bob Reboot  (2019) is nostalgic fan-service brought you on an epic level by cult director Kevin Smith which also manages to take the piss out of the same fanbase for wanting to watch another one of his movie collages of dick and drug jokes. It’s an impressive a balancing act, but the average Kevin Smith fan (and I am one, snoogans!) will revel in it.

The movie felt a little cobbled together but with strong themes of parenthood and coming of age which twanged my heartstrings on several occasions. And it’s no surprise it feels a bit mashed together – Smith took only three weeks to shoot principal photography calling in favours from pretty much all the people who have appeared in his previous films. I could go on and on about the film in a lot more detail, so instead here’s a link to my previous post where I did that already.

The Gentlemen (2019)  is a Guy Ritchie film like the Guy Ritchie films of old. I’m talking Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch back when he was the closest thing the UK had to Quentin Tarantino. Matthew McConaughey stars as an American expat Michael Pearson trying to sell off his massive marijuana business that he’s built underneath various British stately homes.  His story is told by the devious Fletcher (Hugh Grant) who has written a screenplay called ‘Bush’ about Pearson and is asking for £20 million from Pearson’s right-hand man Ray (Charlie Hunnam) not to go to the papers.

The script is typically flamboyant and unrealistic but thoroughly entertaining nonetheless. Grant is brilliant as kind of weasely Michael Caine character and Colin Farrell turns up a bit later as an Irish fight coach in charge of a gang of lads who unbeknownst to him rip off one of Pearson’s drug farms. There’s a plethora of interesting larger-than-life characters set against the grimy underbelly of London. Some of the lesser known actors are a bit wooden at times but I feel that’s part of the charm of Ritchie’s films. McConaughey is typically great and shouldn’t go unmentioned just because Grant had a field day with his character.

Honourable mentions
Some movies that were great but didn’t quite make it into my top five for 2020 are:

I am not a big fan of zombie stuff. I have never seen an episode of The Walking Dead and don’t intend to. Nevertheless, I was really impressed with Train to Busan (2016). With fleshed out characters, the film makes you care about the potential victims who find themselves trapped on a train with a bunch of zombies. These zombies are far from the walking dead – they tend to run and attack viciously.

There are some novel action sequences and interesting predicaments laid out for our unlucky heroes to solve. As usual the zombies do have one weakness and that is that if they can’t see you then they tend toward passivity. So there’s a lot made of papering over windows, creeping around in the dark when the train goes through some very long tunnels and making noises to distract them.

Berlin Syndrome (2017) is about an Australian photographer Clare (Teresa Palmer from zom-rom-com Warm Bodies) who travels to Berlin and gets into a holiday romance with Andi (Max Riemelt from Sense8) a local man. She stays over at his flat and finds that after he has gone to work she can’t get out. He comes home, apologizes and leaves her a spare key. The next day, he leaves and when she tries the key she finds that it doesn’t fit the lock. It soon becomes apparent that she is being held as some kind of sex slave by Andi.

Directed by Black Widow director Cate Shortland, the film uses a small selection of locations within Berlin as a good moody backdrop for what could have essentially been a ‘one room’ drama. What is interesting about this film, apart from Palmer’s excellent performance, is her character’s resolve, patience and determination to navigate through the predicament she has found herself in.

My Cousin Rachel (2017) is an adaptation of the novel by Daphne Du Maurier starring Rachel Weisz (The LobsterThe Favourite)  as the titular Rachel. Recently widowed, she comes to stay with Philip, the cousin of her late husband, played by Sam Claflin. Claflin for the most part seems to be doing a passable impersonation of an emotional confused and hugely apologetic Hugh Grant. Philip plots revenge against Rachel, who he believes was responsible for his cousin’s death. We are left guessing for most of the film whether or not Rachel is a devious gold-digger.

Writer/director Roger Michell (Notting Hill) expertly drops red herrings and clues along the way and leaves us guessing right up until the tragic end. Rachel Weisz is outstanding and indeed is the only reason I watched this film as, like zombie films, I tend to avoid period dramas like the plague.

Finally, Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) is a Wes Anderson stop-motion animation based on the book by Roald Dahl. I love stop-motion animation and this film is a visual treat. It’s also very funny and has some great voice-acting from the likes of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, and Anderson regulars Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, and Jason Schwartzman.

In a film which feels rather like the opposite of Nick Park’s check Chicken Run, Mr. Fox cannot resist a triple-bill final farm raid, but he’s not ready for the awful repercussions of his misdeeds which put the wildlife community around him in danger of being wiped out by the angry farmers. 

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