Best of the box office: Damon Smith picks his top 10 films from the past 12 months
After an extraordinary year which temporarily closed cinemas, Damon Smith chooses his top 10 films of 2020
1. PARASITE (15, 132 mins) Thriller/Comedy/Horror/Romance. Song Kang-ho, Chang Hye-jin, Choi Woo-shik, Park So-dam, Lee Sun-kyun, Cho Yeo-jeong, Jeong Ji-so, Jung Hyeon-jun, Lee Jung-eun. Director: Bong Joon-ho.
WRITER-director Bong Joon-ho mines a mother lode of deliciously cruel intentions in his wickedly entertaining, genre-bending satire, which won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Careening wildly from slapstick and scabrous social commentary to full-blooded horror, Parasite gleefully inhabits the cavernous divide between South Korea's haves and have-nots.
The script, co-written by Han Jin-won, lulls us into a false sense of security with a gently paced yet engrossing opening hour before Joon-ho tightens the screws on his desperate characters, setting in motion a jaw-dropping second act that leaves our nerves in tatters.
2. SOUL (PG, 97 mins) Animation/Fantasy/Adventure/Comedy. Featuring the voices of Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Phylicia Rashad, Questlove, Angela Bassett, Graham Norton. Directors: Pete Docter, Kemp Powers.
THERE are several exquisitely beautiful moments in Soul, the latest high-concept adventure from the computer animation wizards at Pixar, which provoke tears of joy, tears of lamentation, tears of wistful nostalgia, tears of regret: all masterfully coaxed by Pete Docter and co-director Kemp Powers within the framework of a rip-roaring body swap comedy involving a full-bellied therapy cat named Mr Mittens.
Soul is a wildly imaginative and deeply moving meditation on humanity, which riffs confidently to its own beat, employing bold visual flourishes that can be appreciated on multiple levels.
3. PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE (15, 121 mins) Drama/Romance. Noemie Merlant, Adele Haenel, Valeria Golino. Director: Celine Sciamma.
CELEBRATED French filmmaker Celine Sciamma sets our hearts ablaze with a sumptuous period drama set in mid-18th century Brittany, as sparks of attraction and desire unexpectedly crackle between a painter (Noemie Merlant) and her subject (Adele Haenel), threatening to burn their carefully ordered worlds to the ground.
Cinematographer Claire Mathon contrasts violent, crashing waves of the film's remote island setting with the emotions churning beneath the actors' expressive faces, rendering us breathless as characters grapple with the words to adequately express the longing in their scorched hearts.
4. 1917 (15, 114 mins) War/Thriller/Action. George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong, Richard Madden. Director: Sam Mendes.
PRACTICE makes nail-bitingly tense perfection in Sam Mendes's real-time thriller, shot in real-time in several exquisitely staged single takes. Mendes works closely with Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins to meticulously map out the intricate camerawork of each sequence, which places us in the trenches or pirouettes around impossibly tight spaces as bullets scythe through the air and blood seeps into shifting seas of thick mud.
It's a tour-de-force of technical daring, which repeatedly dazzles and dumbfounds, juxtaposing heart-breaking brutality and self-sacrifice with moments of dreamy introspection.
5. SAINT MAUD (15, 84 mins) Horror/Thriller/Romance. Morfydd Clark, Jennifer Ehle, Lily Frazer. Director: Rose Glass.
THE brightly lit arcades of a nameless British seaside resort bear witness to a brutal tug of war between faith and fanaticism in writer-director Rose Glass' striking debut feature. Infused with the creeping dread of a modern-day horror story, Saint Maud is a mesmerising portrait of religious fervour and sexual awakening anchored by a bravura central performance from Welsh actress Morfydd Clark.
The lean script tightens a knot of nail-biting tension by documenting the heroine's spiritual breakdown from multiple perspectives. Abandon hope all ye who peer through Glass' distorted lens.
6. HAMILTON (12, 162 mins) Musical/Drama/Romance. Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr, Phillipa Soo, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Christopher Jackson, Daveed Diggs, Anthony Ramos, Jonathan Groff. Director: Thomas Kail.
EARLY in the first act of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Tony and Olivier Award-winning musical, Schuyler sisters Peggy and Eliza – who will go on to marry American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton – trill, "Look around, look around at how/Lucky we are to be alive right now."
Over the course of this year, the siblings' exultation resonated with gratitude-soaked new meaning far beyond the aisles of the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York where director Thomas Kail captured the original Broadway cast before their final bows in 2016. Shot in front of a cheering crowd, Miranda's musical history lesson blends rap, hip hop, R&B, jazz, blues and classic Broadway traditions with aplomb.
7. ROCKS (12A, 89 mins) Drama. Bukky Bakray, Kosar Ali, D'angelou Osei Kissiedu, Ruby Stokes, Tawheda Begum, Anastasia Dymitrow, Afi Okaidja, Shaneigha-Monik Greyson, Layo-Christina Akinlude. Director: Sarah Gavron.
YOUNG lives matter in Rocks, a vibrant coming of age story which affirms the dauntless spirit of girlhood through the eyes of a 15-year-old heroine and her resilient friends. Created in collaboration between writers Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson, a young cast of mostly first-time actors and a predominantly female creative team, director Sarah Gavron's film unearths glimmers of hope and joy in those moments which threaten to crush the human spirit.
Playful scenes of girls chattering in the playground or shooting handheld footage for social media channels are stripped of artifice, as if we are watching a documentary about teenage life at close quarters. Nothing feels contrived or forced – when the film winds up for an emotional punch, it connects honestly and we feel the impact down to the marrow of our bones.
8. SAINT FRANCES (15, 101 mins) Comedy/Drama/Romance. Kelly O'Sullivan, Ramona Edith-Williams, Lily Mojekwu, Charin Alvarez, Max Lipchitz. Director: Alex Thompson.
LIFE begins at 34 in director Alex Thompson's award-winning comedy drama about a rudderless singleton, who confronts deep-rooted fears and insecurities after she fumbles her way into a position of responsibility caring for a six-year-old girl.
Saint Frances coolly navigates hot button topics with understated elegance and candour. The script, co-written by Thompson and lead actress Kelly O'Sullivan, revels in the minutiae of everyday life and, refreshingly, does not blow out of proportion the central character's stumbles on her way to hard fought self-enlightenment.
9. BABYTEETH (15, 118 mins) Drama/Romance. Eliza Scanlen, Toby Wallace, Ben Mendelsohn, Essie Davis. Director: Shannon Murphy.
LOVE means letting go in Shannon Murphy's emotionally shattering debut, a stylistically bold and offbeat rites-of-passage drama comedy. Screenwriter Rita Kalnejais deftly navigates first love in the shadow of terminal illness a la The Fault In Our Stars without resorting to emotionally manipulative tropes that often bedevil characters confronted by their mortality.
Eliza Scanlen, who faced a similarly grim prognosis as Beth in Greta Gerwig's reworking of Little Women, delivers a fearless lead performance as a teenager at peace with her premature demise. She is luminous as the glue holding together her parents' fractured relationship, brought vividly to life in blasts of rage and despair by Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis.
10. JOJO RABBIT (12A, 108 mins) Comedy/Drama/War. Roman Griffin Davis, Taika Waititi, Scarlett Johansson, Thomasin McKenzie, Sam Rockwell, Alfie Allen, Rebel Wilson. Director: Taika Waititi.
ADAPTED from Christine Leunen's novel Caging Skies, Jojo Rabbit is a daring comedy drama, which boldly recount one episode of suffering and redemption during the Second World War through the eyes of a 10-year-old boy, who claims the Fuhrer as an imaginary friend.
New Zealand writer, director and star Taika Waititi deservedly collected an Academy Award in February for his screenplay.
He confidently walks a tightrope between heartbreak and hilarity, employing his quirky brand of humour to witness the rise of fascism and its devastating consequences.