tv & movies

The best English movies of 2020: From ‘Mank’ and ‘Da 5 Bloods’ to ‘Soul’

Films from Oscar favourites Aaron Sorkin and Spike Lee hold pride of place, while Ben Affleck and Riz Ahmed’s lived-in performances also lit up a gloomy pandemic year

I always believed that what you do on the first day of the year is what you would do through the year. When I watched the sweet and funny Will Smith starrer, Spies In Disguise, on January 1, I thought I was set for a year of jolly movie time at the theatres rounded off with a greasy Andhra-Chinese meal complete with curry leaves and dried red chillies. And so it was, at the beginning of 2020, watching 1917, Little Women and Parasite among others and waiting with bated breath for the new James Bond film, No Time to Die and Christopher Nolan’s latest mind-bender, Tenet.

Then came COVID-19, which put paid to all those tinsel dreams. The year has not been all bad though. If not in a theatre, one could always get one’s movie fix from a smaller screen. Streaming platforms stepped in and big, fat Michael Bay-type movies were available online, including Bay’s hectic 6 Underground, Sam Hargrave’s Extraction, superhero movie Project Power directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman and Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard, where Charlize Theron’s wicked bob had a starring role.

Kenneth Branagh’s version of Artemis Fowl was terrible while the live-action Mulan was vaguely fun. There were romcoms, sequels and happy, silly movies, including Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (“Semen and Garfunkel” still makes me laugh) Ja Ja Ding Dong! Here is a list of 10 notable movies of 2020 based on what I have watched. Incidentally, the extraordinary 1917 has not made it to the list as it was technically released in 2019 though it came to India in 2020. Ditto for Parasite and Ad Astra.

The Vast of Night

This is the kind of hidden gem that one is rewarded with for aimless surfing. Andrew Patterson makes an assured debut with this science-fiction thriller. Set in New Mexico in the late 1950s, when the Cold War was rather warm, The Vast of Night follows a switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick) and radio host, Everett (Jake Horowitz) as they track down a mysterious signal that might be extra-terrestrial.

Da 5 Bloods

Four Viet vets Paul (Delroy Lindo), David (Jonathan Majors), Otis (Clarke Peters) and Eddie (Norm Lewis) return to present-day Vietnam to find the remains of their squad leader, Norman (Chadwick Boseman) and a pot of gold. Fierce and funny, Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods features a splendid performance by Lindo.

Read The Hindu’s review of Da 5 Bloods

Homemade

17 directors, including Maggie Gyllenhaal, Nadine Labaki, Khaled Mouzanar, Johnny Ma, Kristen Stewart and Gurinder Chadha, offer portraits of lockdown life which is everything from whimsical to heart-breaking. Paolo Sorrentino’s Voyage Au Bout De La Nuit with Queen Elizabeth II quarantining with Pope Francis is quirky while Rungano Nyoni’s Couple Splits Up While In Lockdown LOL is eerily accurate.

Read The Hindu’s review of Homemade

The Way Back

In his second collaboration with director Gavin O’ Connor after The Accountant, Ben Affleck shines in this movie about an alcoholic’s shot at redemption. Affleck is Jack Cunningham, a high school basketball star returning to coach his school team. While the story of the underdog and the alcoholic clawing his way back from rock bottom is nothing new, Affleck creates a lived-in character we care deeply about.

Read The Hindu’s review of The Way Back

I’m Thinking of Ending Things

Based on a novel by Iain Reid, Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a surreal road-trip into the fertile landscape of a young woman’s mind. Populated as it is with Shakespeare, quantum physics and Newton’s laws of emotion, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is beautiful and terrifying in equal measure. The performances, from Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons to Toni Collette and David Thewlis, are top notch in this strangely addictive movie.

Read The Hindu’s review of I’m Thinking of Ending Things

The Trial of the Chicago 7

Directed by Aaron Sorkin, The Trial of The Chicago 7 tells the story of anti-Vietnam protestors, including Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, who were charged with conspiracy to incite riot when a protest in August 1968 turned violent. The ensemble cast, including Sacha Baron Cohen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton, Frank Langella and Eddie Redmayne, breathed life into their characters.

Read The Hindu’s review of The Trial of The Chicago 7

Mank

David Fincher’s 1930s Hollywood is very different from Ryan Murphy’s gilded one—for one it is in black and white. Looking at the story behind Orson Welles’ (Tom Burke) Citizen Kane through the satirical eyes of the screenplay writer, Herman J. Mankiewicz, Mank makes you lightheaded with the incisive word play. The 62-year-old Gary Oldman turns in a virtuoso performance as the 43-year-old Mankiewicz.

Read The Hindu’s review of Mank

Tenet

There are so many reasons why Christopher Nolan’s Tenet makes this list. The chief among them being, this is the first movie to be screened in theatres after COVID-19 shut them down in March. Featuring Nolan’s blithe disregard for the unities of time and space, Tenet tells of a man named Protagonist employing a temporal pincer movement to stop something worse than WWIII. Dimple Kapadia rocks her role as the enigmatic Priya while Kenneth Branagh bites off syllables as a Russian oligarch, Sator.

Read The Hindu’s review of Tenet

Sound of Metal

Darius Marder creates a layered movie exploring identity in this story about a heavy metal drummer, Ruben, who has to come to terms with losing his hearing. Riz Ahmed is a revelation as Ruben bringing alive the conflict, the frustration, the anger and the grief as he feels his way of life is slipping away from him. The early Oscar buzz for Riz is completely justified.

Read The Hindu’s review of Sound of Metal

Soul

The latest from Pete Docter (Up, Inside Out) Soul is another wildly inventive ride through high concepts tempered with humour, music and imagination. Jamie Foxx gives voice to Joe Gardner, a talented jazz pianist who teaches band in middle school. When Joe’s soul and body are separated, he tries every trick in the book to unite them. Tina Fey stars as a soul that doesn’t want to get a body while Angela Bassett is a renowned saxophonist. With music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Soul is a jolly trip on a magic swirling ship.

Read The Hindu’s review of Soul

Special mentions

The Devil All the Time: Though Robert Pattinson as the physicist Neil in Tenet was exquisite, he killed it as the slimy preacher in this film directed by Antonio Campos.

Bloodshot: The only reason this movie featuring Vin Diesel as a superhero marine merits a mention is because it was the last movie to be screened in theatres before they were shut down in Bengaluru.

Birds of Prey and Wonder Woman 1984: The eighth and ninth installment in the DC Extended Universe offers a double dose of girl power. Margot Robbie is colourfully demented as Harley Quinn in the follow up to Suicide Squad directed by Cathy Yan while Gal Gadot continues to be statuesque as she defeats baddies in the Wonder Woman sequel directed by Patty Jenkins.

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