Every year I assemble a list of the 10 best feature films (and sometimes documentaries) I saw in the past 12 months, and with it an accompanying collection of 10 “Under-The-Radar” pictures — the more peculiar, less mainstream, hidden gems worth seeking out. I figure that list could be more useful to a cinephile looking for something different.
In 2020, everything was under the radar. Accordingly, this will be my one and only list this year — though I’m extending it by five to include a few more pictures I thought were deserving of recognition.
Let’s face it, with movie exhibition largely somnolent — we were lucky here in Halifax to have cinemas open for as long as we did — and so many of us spending more time at home, streaming services reached a new level of ubiquity and utility. It’s not like watching movies on the big screen, and it never has been, but it’s probably where we will be seeing movies more often going forward.
A new problem is there’s just so much content — how do we find the good stuff? As Indiewire critic David Ehrlich put it, “Movies have never been more accessible, and they’ve never been harder to find,” with a blurring of “the line between criticism and curation.” I’m happy to offer a little curation with my criticism, and I hope it’s welcome.
You may note a few prominent 2020 films from some of the best filmmakers working didn’t make my list. It’s not that they aren’t all impressive efforts, but somehow this year neither the Christopher Nolan blockbuster, the Aaron Sorkin courtroom drama, nor the David Fincher Hollywood throwback lingered long in the mind and heart.
So, without further delay, here are the Flaw In The Iris Top 15 films of 2020, followed by a few honourable mentions that could’ve made the list on another day. Click on the titles to read the original reviews if they exist elsewhere on the blog.
15. The Burnt Orange Heresy | On Demand
The Burnt Orange Heresy is an art-world noir. Giuseppe Capotondi’s film explores deceit, greasy thrills, and stylish venality. If you wanna see something sleazy that makes you want to shower after, also starring Mick Jagger, this is for you.
14. Enola Holmes | Netflix
Millie Bobby Brown is the Indiana Jones we need now, especially at a time where we’re missing the high-calorie spectacle of blockbuster cinema. Even if a buff Sherlock (Henry Cavill) doesn’t really work, I’d show up for a franchise of Enola solving mysteries. Directed by Harry Bradbeer.
13. Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made | Disney +
A wonderfully funny and quirky family movie from Tom McCarthy, the director of The Station Agent, The Visitor, and Spotlight, that channels the spirit of Bill Watterson’s Calvin & Hobbes — a child’s idea of what a private detective should be, with added imaginary animal sidekicks, in Portland, OR.
12. Luxor | On Demand
Andrea Riseborough is proving herself one of the best actors working with an unerring gift for choosing interesting projects. This film from Zeina Durra is about recovery from trauma and a second chance at love, all set in a desert town steeped in ancient history. Not since Columbus has there been a picture so determined to meditate on location.
11. Rocks | On Demand
A teenager in London has to protect her little brother when their mother abandons them. Sarah Gavron’s film is equal parts a joyful and heartbreaking portrait, a film that works best as a look at a supportive and loving community of friends; the family you choose.
10. Swallow | On Demand
Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ chilling psychological thriller about a woman managing an eating disorder and the snapping trap of her marriage. It steers toward horror but holds off, more interested in scoring socio-political points than grossing us out — though it may do a bit of that. too.
9. The Vast Of Night | Amazon Prime
The first feature from Andrew Patterson is set in a small town in the 1950s one night during an alien visitation. It channels a little bit of Spielberg and a bit of Siegel for a thoughtful, wordy sci-fi.
8. Blood Quantum | Crave Plus/On Demand
An apocalyptic zombie movie from Mi’kmaq filmmaker Jeff Barnaby, Blood Quantum explores issues of colonialism and cultural integrity in a dynamic, bloody genre picture. Also, a chilling film about life-threatening contagion in the year of pandemic? Bring on the cold sweats.
7. The Disciple | Coming Soon
The new film from Chaitanya Tamhane, the Indian filmmaker who directed Court. It’s a nuanced and moving story of a student who believes classical music is his calling, and how he comes to grips with the associated challenges of expectation, discipline, and talent. It’s for anyone who’s struggled with their path in life. So, you know, everyone.
6. Palm Springs | Amazon Prime
In a year when many of us dreamed of escape, Max Barbakow’s Groundhog Day-esque fantasy romcom unexpectedly empathized with our plight and even offered a kind of solution: make the best of it, and find a reliable partner in crime.
5. Never Rarely Sometimes Always | Crave Plus
Two teens travel from rural Pennsylvania to New York City so one can get an abortion. Eliza Hittman’s film is both mundane and deeply affecting, with something to say about the inequities in the American healthcare system.
4. Ema | Mubi/On Demand
Pablo Larraín’s colourful and sexy dance- and music-filled drama lingered long in the memory. Structurally it’s a bit bonkers, but this is cinema of movement and colour — you don’t just see it, you experience it.
3. Nomadland | Coming Soon
Frances McDormand shines in Chloé Zhao’s modern south-western, about Americans disenfranchised and left homeless by the recession of 2008 living rough in trailer parks, working seasonally for multinationals like Amazon, revealing a community rarely seen in American film. Watch come Oscar time for multiple gongs.
2. Small Axe: Mangrove | Amazon Prime
Fuelled by righteous anger and a clear-eyed look at British history, Steve McQueen’s five part series about the Afro-Caribbean immigrant community in London is absolutely essential viewing. Mangrove is the best of the bunch, a look at the real life events that led to nine Notting Hill residents in the late 1960s charged with rioting in a protest against police racism and brutality, and the court case that followed.
1. Possessor | On Demand
Possessor (or Possessor: Uncut, the official title of its cinematic release) is a visceral, surprising film. I struggled to come to terms with the themes of Brandon Cronenberg’s second feature upon first seeing it, but in time I understood: identity is at the forefront, but also the cost of professional deceit on your soul, along with broader jabs at the dehumanizing impact of our mediated reality.
A hardcore science-fiction horror espionage thriller, it pays off in every genre it dips into while offering visuals above and beyond anything else out there this year. A gruesome nightmare, yet also strangely comforting.
Another Round aka Druk, The Assistant, Bad Education, Bait, Broken Hearts Gallery, Emma., Happiest Season, The Invisible Man, I Propose We Never See Each Other Again After Tonight, It Must Be Heaven, Misbehaviour, The Personal History of David Copperfield, The Photograph, Small Axe: Lover’s Rock, Soul, Sword Of Trust
And, finally, I want to give special recognition to Atlantic Canadian filmmakers who launched their careers in feature filmmaking, or found ways to keep telling stories in this region at a time when not only is it extraordinarily hard to get a movie made, it’s very difficult to find an audience through all the noise. Included in the 2020 batch: Bone Cage, Little Orphans, Queen of the Andes, Spinster, Splinters, Stage Mother, and brand new on demand, Hopeless Romantic.