It has been a year of contrasting fortunes for cinema. The big screen has suffered hugely with the global pandemic shutting down theatres for the majority of 2020, and that struggle has been compounded by the shelving of due-to-be-released blockbusters that might have produced a much needed box-office spike.
But that has inevitably led to even greater gains for streaming platforms, many of which have picked up releases originally set to be shown in cinemas as well as delivering their own creations. If the landscape of film was already changing, this year has only accelerated that transformation.
For many of us, this has actually been a year in which we’ve seen more movies than any other. Perhaps you’ve invested in a new TV or soundbar to immerse yourself further in your viewing, or maybe it’s been the nudge you’ve needed to go full home cinema and splash out on that projector and surround speaker package.
Whatever your current setup, we’ve gathered together here ten of our favourite feature-lengths we’ve seen over the past 12 months. If you’ve not yet seen them, each one is worthy of the time; if you have, we’re sure you’ll celebrate them with us.
Director: Shannon Murphy | Screenplay: Rita Kalnejais
Adapted from a stage play by Rita Kaljenais, who also wrote this sparkling film script, Shannon Murphy’s directorial debut is bursting with life. An odd choice of words, perhaps, to describe a story principally about a 16-year-old girl with terminal cancer; but this is a love story before all else, and Murphy manages to capture all its bounding energy in what appears an effortless transition to the big screen.
Color Out Of Space
Director: Richard Stanley | Screenplay: Richard Stanley & Scarlett Amaris
Nicolas Cage, HP Lovecraft and Richard Stanley – directing a feature film for the first time since he was booted from The Island of Dr Moreau almost 25 years ago – make for a divine trinity when it comes to B-movie sci-fi horror. This adaptation of Lovecraft’s short story about a family who, after a meteor lands in their garden, witness a colour never before seen by the human eye is undoubtedly a future cult classic.
Director: Andrew Ahn | Screenplay: Hannah Bos & Paul Thurteen
Thrills might not be on the menu in Andrew Ahn’s understated indie Driveways, but its delicate portrayals of grief, longing and friendship can be just as much an emotional workout. Brian Dennehy’s final performance, as a war veteran and widower next door to whom a mother and son move in temporarily while clearing out the house of her deceased sister, is arguably his best.
Director: Kelly Reichardt | Screenplay: Kelly Reichardt & Jonathan Raymond
Another slow burn, First Cow is the story of a pair of unlikely friends and business associates who, using milk stolen from a dairy cow, attempt to climb the economic ladder by selling delicious oily cakes. Adapted from Jonathan Raymond’s novel The Half Life, set nearly 200 years ago, its rural setting and gentle approach to a heartening bond is cleverly set against the jeopardy of the main characters’ enterprise.
Director: Remi Weekes | Screenplay: Remi Weekes
Remi Weekes’s His House is terrifying on two levels: that of the haunted house, which is its crux, set against the refugee experience in an often-unwelcoming UK. The former is undoubtedly the one to make you jump – and how refreshing for this genre to exist outside a rickety old mansion – but the latter is a reality impossible to shake after the closing credits.
Director: Natalie Erika James | Screenplay: Natalie Erika James & Christian White
Natalie Erika James’s feature debut is one of those rare films that doesn’t let you in fully on exactly what it is. Another haunted house flick on the surface, its themes of dementia and mother-daughter relationships – of which there are two running through the film – lead to the question how much of it is metaphor. Most impressively, though, it feels as though this is an experience we’ve lived within each of its characters' perspectives.
Director: Sarah Gavron | Screenplay: Theresa Ikoko & Claire Wilson
Despite it being the prominent motif across centuries of art, love is a theme so rarely delivered as soulfully as this. Though Rocks follows Olushola as she attempts to fend for herself and younger brother Emmanuel, having been abandoned by their mother, the warmth of her love not only injects joy into the bleakest of subjects but also often makes it feel as if we’re watching from her sibling’s perspective.
The Painter and the Thief
Director: Benjamin Ree
Despite its intriguing leads, the star of this documentary is often Benjamin Ree’s understanding that it’s the lightest of directorial touches that best tell extraordinary stories such as these. The Painter and the Thief is functional in its title, at least, exploring the friendship between Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova and Karl-Bertil Nordland, the gangster who stole two of her paintings.
The Wild Goose Lake
Director: Diao Yinan | Screenplay: Diao Yinan
Though we’re only at its beginning, we’ll be lucky if this decade delivers even a handful more films as stylish and visually lavish as Diao Yinan’s The Wild Goose Lake. Not that it’s without substance, heavily salted with bitter twists and betrayals, but this is a film we could quite happily see a second and third time even with the sound off.
Welcome to Chechnya
Director: David France
It’s a sad reflection that by far this year’s most harrowing film is David France’s Welcome to Chechnya, a documentary. It focuses on the atrocities inflicted upon the Chechen LGBT+ community in a now four-year purge directed by the Russian republic’s head Ramzan Kadyrov – endorsed and embraced by President Vladimir Putin – and the heroic group of activists working to help its victims flee. Using deep-fake technology rather than blurring to conceal identities retains the victims’ humanity, but leaves an even nastier taste of this current event that echoes our species’ darkest hour.