Death! Dancing! Drinking! The best movie moments of 2020

The review – Shirley

Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy Stock Photo

During quarantine and its long, unending tail, my mind has often returned to Shirley, the psychodrama from director Josephine Decker and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins that imagines a chapter in the life of the mid-century horror master Shirley Jackson with her signature slippage of sanity. For one thing, the author, played exquisitely by Elisabeth Moss, was agoraphobic, often trapped for months indoors, the weight of anxiety consuming her house like gnarled, enchanted roots. It’s somewhat relatable. But the film’s standout is its slow-burn coda, as Shirley awaits her narcissistic husband, the literary critic Stanley Hyman’s (Michael Stuhlbarg), verdict on her latest novel. For nearly three minutes, the camera holds on Moss’s face, as Stanley paces out of the frame and finally, torturously delivers his review: “Your book is brilliant, darling.”

You could be a sommelier of human emotion and still not catch every strand of feeling Moss seamlessly imbues each head jerk, eye twitch, labored breath. Among them: dread, resentment, triumph, rage, relief, the elation of outpacing demons, the frustration of knowing you’ll never fully be free. It’s a masterclass scene on top of an already incredible performance, a second hit for Moss this year (after the Invisible Man). Bouts of agoraphobia and writer’s block come and go, but for Shirley and many before and after, the tripwire that is (male) validation remains. Adrian Horton

The dance – Another Round

Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy Stock Photo

Mads Mikkelsen: fine actor, handsome bastard, meme king, drily witty interviewee, star of a Rihanna music video. Does he have to be a good dancer too? That Mikkelsen has moves is no secret: the 55-year-old Dane trained at a Swedish ballet academy in his youth, dancing professionally for a decade before turning to acting aged 30. But no film had fully capitalised on those skills until the startling climax of Another Round, Thomas Vinterberg’s mordantly funny, moving drama about voluntary alcoholism, in which Mikkelsen’s jaded schoolteacher – back on the booze that nearly ruined him, laden with conflicting emotions over the death of a friend and the uncertain status of his marriage – dances it all out in the street, amid hordes of revelling, newly graduated students.

On paper, it sounds impossibly hokey. On screen, it’s beautiful and bittersweet and laced with danger: not a purely joyful moment of catharsis, but a visceral release that could turn to self-destruction at any moment. Beginning hesitantly before recklessly giving in to his own body, Mikkelsen plays (and dances) the scene exquisitely – many a Hollywood musical director will wonder how they could have missed him before now, but this vodka shot of choreographed splendour is all the more thrilling for coming out of the blue. Guy Lodge

The karaoke – Tesla

Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy Stock Photo

In his new film Tesla, writer-director Michael Almereyda has the good sense to realize that fidelity to the facts only holds the biopic form back, stifling more expressive ideas about our notion of a famed figure in favor of awkward, literal restaging. Almereyda takes a relaxed attitude to the details of electrical pioneer Nikola Tesla’s life, fine with the odd iPhone or Macbook here and there as a nod to the far-reaching technological influence that the inventor and his peers would have for generations to come.

The film fully leaves its own reality behind in a seeming non sequitur coda that sees Tesla busting out an admirable karaoke rendition of Tears for Fears’ Everybody Wants to Rule the World against greenscreen backdrops. The song’s lyrical content presents a clear pun, landing like a punch line at the conclusion to a movie about brilliant men angling for their piece of history. But Ethan Hawke’s performance sells the emotionality of the moment, each word weighted with the painful knowledge that he and his cohort cannot stop the runaway train they’ve sent careening into the future. Charles Bramesco

The restaurant – The Invisible Man

Photograph: Allstar/Universal Pictures

A modern and merciless spin on the classic novel, Leigh Whannell’s #MeToo horror movie takes HG Wells’s invisible bogeyman, and transforms him into the sociopathic ex-boyfriend of every woman’s nightmares. Donning a hi-tech invisibility suit, Adrian terrorizes his former beau Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) by committing violent pranks and systematically cutting her off from her inner circle. It’s typical abuser behavior that alienates the victim by making her seem insane and unstable.

In a last-ditch effort before things go dramatically south, Cecilia convinces her sister to meet at a crowded downtown restaurant where she hopes to prove, with recently discovered evidence, that she’s not as crazy as she seems. Adrian wouldn’t pull any funny business in a public place, would he? Turns out he would. And in a genuinely shocking scene that upends what appears to be a rare stretch of catharsis and calm, a shiny knife levitates next to Cecilia’s head as she pours her heart out at the dinner table. The two women exchange disturbed glances before the weapon slices open her sister’s neck, and is placed immediately in Cecilia’s hand. It’s an expertly choreographed moment that unwinds drastic, life-changing consequences with a few strokes and in a matter of seconds. No one is safe and no place is off limits. And with the right tools, it only takes an instant to turn an innocent person into a raving lunatic. Beatrice Loayza

The clinic – Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

Photograph: Courtesy of Amazon Studios

It’s unlikely 2020 will be remembered for the laughs but this hilarious-yet-horrifying scene strikes just the right tone. The set-up: Sacha Baron Cohen, in double disguise as Borat as an “American”, buys his daughter Tutar (Maria Bakalova) a cupcake with a little plastic baby figurine on top. In her excitement, Tutar accidentally swallows the figurine. So they head to the nearest “doctor”: actually a pregnancy centre in North Carolina run by anti-abortion Christians. Their every line is wide open to misinterpretation. “I have a baby inside me and I want to take it out of me,” Tutar tells the pro-life pastor. “I feel bad because I was the one who put the baby in her,” says Borat, slapping himself on the wrist. “I was just trying to give my daughter pleasure.” And so on.

Appallingly, despite believing he is dealing with a genuine case of pregnancy by incest, the pastor insists Tutar keep the baby: “God is the one who creates life, and God doesn’t make accidents.” It’s multi-level brilliance: classic comedy of misunderstanding made all the funnier by the pranked pastor’s unwitting contribution, but also biting satire, revealing the true awfulness of Trump-era conservatism. History and comedy students alike should be studying it in years to come. Steve Rose

The pamphlet – Hamilton

Photograph: Disney

Composer Lin-Manuel Miranda admitted that he will never top Hamilton’s emotional rollercoaster musical number Satisfied. Agreed! The song has Renee Elise Goldsberry showing off an exhilarating singing-and-rapping range reminiscent of Lauryn Hill, as her character Angelica pines for brother-in-law Alexander Hamilton (Miranda). But Satisfied’s emotional arc isn’t complete until a much later trap number: The Reynolds Pamphlet.

In the show’s most breathtakingly intimate confrontation, Goldsberry’s Angelica returns to the stage to support her sister after Alexander makes his extra-marital affair public. The sequence brilliantly pivots between the private blow to the public humiliation. We lean in so close you can see Goldsberry’s jugular veins throbbing as she drops that crushing refrain: “God I hope you’re satisfied!” And then it takes a step back to catch pamphlets and dancers flying across the stage, while Daveed Diggs’s Thomas Jefferson chants, “Never gonna be president now.”

The salt-on-the-wound is Jonathan Groff’s King George III’s hilariously petty prance across the stage, which left me gasping for air. Radheyan Simonpillai

The boat – Tenet

Kenneth Branagh in Tenet
Photograph: Warner Bros

The release of Tenet was meant to make 2020 less complicated. Films would be back on the big screens and punters would be back on the reclining chairs lapping them up. But even by Christopher Nolan’s standards, Tenet was an exhausting tangle of quantum mechanics. The camp villainy of Kenneth Branagh’s Russian oligarch Andrei Sator was a welcome relief then, a reassuringly one-note performance that cut through the riddles, including the four-directional palindrome referenced by his last name. But pride comes before a pratfall, and while little in this film was ever truly final, the satisfactory smoothness of his exit brought the silver lining of slapstick to a cloud of complexity.

All it took was a bullet to the chest, a slick of sun-screen, a shove and a polished deck, and we cheered the slip, boink, splash as he belly-flopped postmortem into the water. Among the film’s reversals, replays and ‘temporal pincer movements’, the unstoppably lo-tech forward motion of his long-awaited demise saved Tenet, and my night out – if not, as hoped, cinema itself. Pamela Hutchinson

The last call – Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
Photograph: Utopia

The day-into-night-into-day last call of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets claims to be unscripted, which makes its heartbreaking climax all the more memorable. As the characters swoop around one another like increasingly inebriated electrons, we giggle at their slurred japes, but stop dead at moments of unmasked honesty.

When Michael, the older ex-actor with a face that looks carved from rock, is saucily reclined on “his” couch, tousling the hair of young musician Peter in an ironic T-shirt, the shot is tight on their faces in near-erotic repose. The film’s lack of judgment is temporarily dropped. Michael sees a younger version of himself in Peter, and warns him to get help – to “get out” – while he can.

“There is nothing more ‘oh my fuck is he ever gonna go away,’ than a guy who used to do stuff, who doesn’t do stuff no more, because he’s in a bar,” he says. The younger man is, sadly, too far gone to hear him. Jordan Hoffman

The kiss – Freaky

Photograph: Photo Credit: Brian Douglas/Universal Pictures

There were few films this year that made me miss the cinema experience quite as much as body swap comedy horror Freaky, a shoulda-been-a crowd-pleaser stuffed with show-stopping *insert audience reaction* moments. Taking a goofy premise – what if Freaky Friday but a slasher movie killer and his victim – and squeezing a surprising amount of fun, humour, queerness and, shockingly, heart out of it, Happy Death Day writer-director Christopher Landon made me desperately wish I was seeing his follow-up on a big screen surrounded by equally thrilled cinemagoers.

The scene that made me most curious to know how a packed Friday night crowd might receive it is both modest and audacious, a quieter moment in an often loud movie that takes place in the dark backseat of a car between two flirtatious high schoolers. The obvious twist being that one of them is a shy girl stuck in the body of a grown man (“a mass murderer with yellow teeth”) played with thought and specificity by a never-better Vince Vaughn, finally able to confess her feelings to a longtime crush. What’s most engaging about the scene is that none of it is played for laughs and instead it’s rather sweet, a bullied girl finding a way to feel empowered and, oddly, desired, while in a man’s body. The kiss that comes is a surprise to the pair and within such slick straight studio framework, a surprise to us as well. Benjamin Lee

The snowfall – About Endlessness

Photograph: PR

Roy Andersson’s films are all about moments – laid end to end there must be about two dozen in this meditative film about disillusion and failure. (Not everyone gets Andersson; you really have to suspend all normal expectations and just let it unfold.) Each shot is a single scene of intensely felt emotion, mostly (but not always) revolving around late-life frustration and despair. The priest who has lost his faith, and is physically pushed out of a doctor’s office at closing time; the “honour killer” sobbing with regret; the woman on a station platform with no one to greet her. But it’s the strangely optimistic scene near the end that endures: snow falls with hypnotic beauty, and a gloomy looking man announcing to a barful of strangers that “everything is fantastic”. At first, he is totally ignored; but one by one the others turn round and – sort of – agree. “I think so, at least,” repeats the gloomy man; that is a mantra anyone could be proud of. Andrew Pulver

The dog – I’m Thinking of Ending Things

Photograph: Mary Cybulski/AP

I loved Charlie Kaufman’s latest, right til the last half hour or so when it lost me the moment they started ballet-dancing and I felt not just confused but disappointed in myself for being so dim – an unhappy sensation. But the first two-thirds, in which new, ill-matched yet weirdly in-sync couple Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons head to his parents for supper, and then the parents turn out to be David Thewlis and Toni Collette on maximum wackiness, was terrific.

The first completely genius bit, in my book, comes just as Plemons is giving Buckley an uncomfortable house tour and she, mindful of being in a remote creepy farmhouse and of every horror cliche – and the grisly pig story she’s just heard in the barn – queries why the cellar door is so riddled with scratches. Plemons bats it off – a dog, he says, clearly stalling. She asks more: what type, what name, where? “So many questions,” Plemons stutters, in a corner, reaching for boilerplate answers – Jimmy, a border collie, out playing.

Yikes. The doom in your stomach grows. And then, of course, in comes Jimmy! And he’s a collie who’s been outdoors! The relief! Jimmy shakes his fur dry. But he doesn’t stop. He just keeps on shaking, very fast, back and forth, like an absolute demon. A tiny thing and absolutely terrifying. Within 30 seconds Kaufman has done it all: pulled the rug, put it back, ripped out the floorboards. You’re left giddy and flailing, and totally suckered by the sensation. Catherine Shoard


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