List: Rory Doherty’s Top 10 of 2020
On New Year’s Eve, while we were counting down the few remaining minutes of the turgid year, a friend mentioned that no good movies came out in 2020. More than anything, this made me a little sad, especially since it had been a particularly strong year for individual, personal stories. This might be to do with all the studio films being delayed, so the conversation wasn’t focused on tentpole blockbusters and instead on smaller dramas. But on a more personal note, this was the first year I was welcomed into the film critic community, the first time I covered festivals, and has been the most encouraging and supportive year for writing I’ve had. I’m very glad you’ve enjoyed my writing, so let’s get down to this top 10.
10. Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution
I love documentaries with incredible recovered footage, and the handheld filmmaking that makes up Crip Camp is next-level. The documentary follows a summer camp for disabled kids, explores how safe and welcome they were made to feel, before charging ahead straight into the disabled rights movement of the 60s. It’s a film about empathy and solidarity and feels suitably empowering and moving.
9. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
When I reviewed it for InSession, I was slightly aware that this ‘documentary’ about the last day of a Las Vegas dive bar was completely staged with unprofessional actors, but I didn’t know enough to work that angle properly into my review. I’d be interested in a rewatch with that in mind because the film so convincingly argues for its own veracity that its artificiality may pass a lot of viewers by. It’s exhausting, heartwarming, and bitter – everything a good night out should be.
8. Small Axe: Lover’s Rock
The arguments about what a film is have already begun. Why include Small Axe, which aired on television, but not Hamilton, or American Utopia? I honestly don’t have a dog in this fight, I think challenging and questioning the definitions of how we classify art is super important, and I’m more than happy to include Steve McQueen’s wondrous anthology series on race in Britain. Lover’s Rock was the more experimental of the 5 films, a sprawling, atmospheric portrayal of a reggae house party in 80s West London. It was moving, hypnotic, and made me miss parties more than anything.
I haven’t been following Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon as closely as some of my peers, so their new fantasy adventure Wolfwalkers almost completely passed me by. I’m so glad I caught it though. A young English hunter gets whisked away into a fantastical world of transfiguration and magic in Cromwell-era Ireland. It’s charming, gorgeously realized, and packed with heart.
6. Small Axe: Mangrove
We honestly don’t deserve Steve McQueen. Getting either Mangrove or Lover’s Rock in one year would be a fantastic gift, but we not only got both but three other stirring films. It’s impossible to deny Mangrove’s strengths – a courtroom drama that never for a moment drops its focus on the suffering the West Indian community faced by London police. Based on the trial that had the first judicial acknowledgment of racial prejudice in the Metropolitan Police, McQueen’s keen ability for capturing blistering emotions is on fine display here.
5. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
There’s something incredible about how Eliza Hittman frames characters. The camera is so un-invasive and lacking in judgment as it gently follows them around, and this realist drama about a teenager traveling with her cousin to New York to get an abortion is no exception. The film is soft but quietly devastating, and the hand-holding shot is probably the most beautiful of the year.
4. She Dies Tomorrow
This film has stuck with me like an infection. When Amy is struck with the unshakable fear that she will die tomorrow, it soon starts spreading through the night until everyone is taken by it. The dread of awaiting some unknown apocalypse is palpable. It’s slow, undramatic, but you’ll be thinking it over for a long time after the credits roll.
3. Boys State
There are officially too many streaming platforms, but it does mean I can go back to my age-old practice of getting a free trial, watching the 3 things I want to watch, and then canceling it again. Between Wolfwalkers and Boys State, I heartily recommend doing this with Apple TV+. This Sundance doc follows a handful of teenagers who participate in Texas’ ‘Boys State’, a mock-government program helping youngsters get inducted into the political system. It’s one of the most brilliantly entertaining films of the year, and you’ll find yourself ridiculously invested in its central gubernatorial campaign.
There were about 5 moments I started crying while watching Nomadland. It was at the end of an exhausting festival where I had definitely burned out, but the delicacy of Chloe Zhao’s drama soothed me to the point of tears. We see lone figures potter about the stunning landscapes of the American West in search of connection and purpose following the 2008 financial crash. Frances McDormand gives a knockout performance that’s predicated with the odd idiosyncrasies of human behavior, resulting in a moving, funny, and tender film.
I was going into Shirley kind of knowing how high it would rank on my list. Shirley Jackson is my favorite writer, and Elizabeth Moss plays the celebrated Gothic writer in such a transfixing, eclectic way that confirmed my incredibly high hopes of the film. It’s an anxiety-inducing relationship drama that dives headfirst into the responsibilities and ethics of creative writing, and I can’t wait to revisit it again and again.
I hope you’re all well, and you have a safe, happy 2021.