Matt's Top 10 Movies of 2020
- Written by Matthew Toomey
2020 has been a year we’ll never forget… but that’s more related to COVID-19 as opposed to what we’ve seen on the big screen. I’ve been reviewing movies for over 25 years and never could I have imagined a scenario where Brisbane cinemas would be closed for over three months and major blockbusters would be debuting on HBO Max and Disney Plus in the United States.
Still, it is what it is and thankfully, we’ve been able to limit the impact of COVID-19 here in Australia. I’ve had the chance to review 151 cinema releases during 2020 (down slightly from my yearly average of approximately 200) and as always, there’s no difficulty in identifying great movies for people to watch.
You can check out all my past top 10 lists here and they go back as far as 1996.
Those worthy of honourable mentions which I couldn’t quite squeeze into my top 10 list this year were Waves, 1917, Nomadland, American Utopia, The Lodge, The Booksellers, La Belle Epoque, Mank, Pinocchio, Babyteeth, Slim & I, Honeyland and Monos.
Those are all worth seeing but if you’re looking for the “cream of the crop”, here are my top 10 movies for 2020…
10. A Hidden Life (out Jan 30) tells the true story of an Austrian farmer who was persecuted for refusing to pledge his allegiance to Adolf Hitler during World War II. As he’s done in the past, director Terrence Malick wants to show us how beautiful and simple the world is… but then contrast that with the complexity of humanity and the issues that we create for ourselves.
9. The Trial of the Chicago 7 (out Oct 1) battles to condense everything inside of two hours but it's still a riveting courtroom drama (with a splash of comedy) that's filled with top-notch performances. Based on actual events, it's the true story of an eclectic group who were charged with inciting riots during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. A must see.
8. Soul (out Dec 25 on Disney+) is an animated feature about a middle-aged music teacher who falls down a pothole, travels to the afterlife and then must find a way home. This is deep, creative and beautiful. The kind of movie you could love as a 10-year-old and then love as a 40-year-old for completely different reasons.
7. The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart (out Dec 3) is a fascinating documentary from start to finish. We begin with their upbringing here in Brisbane, we culminate with their final works, and in between we explore the brilliant music that saw them inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. There of lots of interesting subplots (e.g. the death of disco) and there really is something for everyone.
6. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (on Netflix from Dec 18) is a brilliant drama that takes place inside a Chicago recording studio on a hot summer afternoon in 1927. Based on the play of August Wilson (Fences), the film explores many topics (race, religion, money, music) but above all else, it’s a riveting tale of power. It’s easy to forget you’re looking at the likes of Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman (in his final role) given the way they embody their respective characters.
5. Les Misérables (out Aug 27) is not a remake of Victor Hugo's famed work. Rather, it's a contemporary story set in 2018 that delves into current day issues including crime, corruption and multiculturalism in Paris. French President Emmanuel Macron saw the film himself in late 2019 and was rocked by its power and authenticity. That endorsement says more than any review ever could.
4. Little Women (out Jan 1) is an exquisite drama about art, wealth, family, sisterhood and unrequited love. The performances are flawless and I love the openness and affection shown by these characters towards each other. Saoirse Ronan brings a beautiful spirit to the role of Jo, Florence Pugh is outstanding as the envious Amy and Timothée Chalamet (complete with pitch-perfect hair) is adorable as the love struck Laurie.
3. The Invisible Man (out Feb 27) is an effective, memorable thriller. It's the story of a woman who is terrorised by her invisible husband (who she believed was dead). There's tension from start to finish, Elisabeth Moss is outstandingly credible in the lead role, and the crew make great use of sound and visuals.
2. Corpus Christi (out Oct 22) is an outstanding, thought-provoking drama about a young man, fresh from a stint in a juvenile detention centre, who fraudulently becomes the new priest in a small Polish town. There's plenty to sit back and ponder here. It's easy to see why it was nominated at the Oscars for Best International Feature Film.
1. Never Rarely Sometimes Always (out Oct 29) is the story of a 17-year-old girl who, accompanied by her cousin, travels from Pennsylvania to New York to have an abortion. This is a powerful, complex, emotional drama that takes us inside the world of a scared, anxious individual. One of the year's best. Sensational performances.
Interview - Director Philippa Lowthorpe on 'Misbehaviour'
- Written by Matthew Toomey
Misbehaviour finally makes its way into Australian cinemas this week and I recently spoke to director Philippa Lowthorpe (Three Girls, The Crown) about the production…
Matt: How’s it going?
Philippa: It’s going very well except for the fact we’re in lockdown here in the UK.
Matt: So has the film already been released in the UK or has it been delayed because of COVID?
Philippa: We had a really sad happening. The film was released in March on a Friday into 550 cinemas in the UK. It had the most amazing publicity campaign by Pathé only for cinemas to be shut down the following Monday. It really did crash into the pandemic and we were absolutely gutted. It had fantastic reviews and had been so well received at previews and at the premiere. It was heartbreaking to have put in all that work and then for cinemas to close.
Matt: How did this script from Gaby Chiappe and Rebecca Flynn first come across your desk?
Philippa: I was working on The Crown with our producer Suzanne Mackie and she told me she had this fantastic script about the Miss World competition in 1970. I almost stopped her right there and said “I love it”. She sent me the script and I thought it was a brilliant idea for a film. I love stories about women and those based in truth. I used to be a documentary filmmaker and a lot of work I’ve done is about true life stories.
Matt: You tell the story from multiple perspectives – the activists, the organisers, the families and even Bob Hope. What was behind that creative decision as opposed to focusing on one particular viewpoint?
Philippa: I think it was important to have different viewpoints because once we started delving into the research, we realised there was more than just one thing happening. Not only were the white feminists getting together and trying to put women’s liberation on the map, it was also the year the first black woman won the competition. Those two things showed we had to tell this from multiple points of views.
In 1970, there were so few opportunities for women to do anything and so the competition was one of their only ways to try to get more opportunities out of life. But then on the other side, you’ve got the feminists who were desperate to fight for equality, education, child care and equal pay.
Matt: I do like the greyness with a lot of the subplots. We think Keira Knightley’s character is doing the right thing and standing up for women’s rights but then we see a conversation between her and Gugu Mbatha-Raw who offers a different opinion as a black woman. Is this something you were conscious of a director and illustrating the opposing points of view?
Philippa: You’re right. That scene is very important. It’s the emotional climax of the film. Many of the scenes were based in real life but that scene came from a conversation I had with the real Jennifer Hosten. When she met Sally Alexander for the first time many years later as part of a radio program in the UK called The Reunion, they had that same conversation. They explained to each other why they did what they did and it felt so moving. We knew we had to put that in the film.
Matt: In doing some further research about the 1970 Miss World competition, I read there was a lot of controversy around the selection of the winner and the judging. Was there thought of including that as a subplot within the film?
Philippa: We would have loved to. We could have made a whole series of films about this event but unfortunately, we had to leave it somewhere. The aftermath of the competition was very interesting because in some circles, there was a huge backlash against Jennifer winning because she was black with people thinking that Miss Sweden should have won because she was white and blonde. We incorporated some of that into the body of the film by showing the subtle racism that Jennifer encountered.
Matt: From a casting perspective, I can imagine Bob Hope being a tricky one because he’s someone so many people will be familiar with in terms of his look and his voice and his mannerisms. What were you looking for and how did you settle on Greg Kinnear?
Philippa: You’re absolutely right. Playing Bob Hope is a real challenge for an actor partly because he’s still such a beloved comedy icon in America. Many actors wouldn’t be brave enough to take on that role and show Bob Hope how he was. We wanted an actor who could inhabit Bob Hope as opposed to impersonating him. We wanted someone to get the essence of him. Greg is a fine actor who has wonderful comedic timing and we wanted him to bring a kind of pathos to Bob’s character and luckily, he said yes.
Matt: I don’t want to give too much away about the finale but some of the women involved with the actual Miss World competition in 1970 are still alive today. Did you get a chance to show them the film and hear what they had to say?
Philippa: Absolutely. The real women involved gave us so much of their time during the research period of the film. We met them many times. When the film was complete, we had private screenings so they could see it and discuss it. For the feminists, they’re quite shy people and so to see themselves played on screen by Keira Knightley and Jessie Buckley was an overawing experience. They’ve remained friends all these years and they’ve been totally supportive of the film. It’s been one of the loveliest things for me – getting to know these women.
Matt: What are you working on at the moment? Is there much you can do from within a COVID lockdown?
Philippa: It’s very difficult. I just finished directing episodes of The Third Day which is a miniseries which will soon be on HBO in Australia. It’s very different from Misbehaviour in that it’s a creepy thriller and it was very fun to do.
Interview - Writer-Director Miranda July on 'Kajillionaire'
- Written by Matthew Toomey
Kajillionaire marks the third full length feature film for writer-director Miranda July. It’s about to be released in Australian cinemas and I was lucky to chat with Miranda about the production…
Matt: The first time I think I heard the name Miranda July was back in 2005 when you made and starred in You and Me and Everyone We Know. It’s hard to believe 15 years have passed. Do you look back on that film fondly?
Miranda: This year, the film became part of the Criterion Collection so I was forced to watch it. It’s sort of torturous because I don’t generally watch my movies after I’m done with them. I think enough time has passed now that I forgive myself for whatever I didn’t know at the time.
Matt: Kajillionaire is such an offbeat story. Where did the idea come from? Was it inspired by something?
Miranda: I watched Mission: Impossible, the TV show, a lot when I was a kid. It was like every single night with my big brother. I feel like I’ve always had that language of reversals and high anxiety and where nobody knows who’s good and who’s bad.
I had all that in my back pocket and so when these characters came to me one morning, this family of con-artists, the great challenge was how to develop them using “my emotional language” like me as a mother and a daughter.
Matt: The characters here are very distinctive. I’m not talking about just the 4 leads but also the supporting players – like the crying office landlord. How do you approach that? Do you have that vision from the very start when writing the screenplay or does it more evolve through the casting process?
Miranda: I’m a fiction writer and so I err on the side of thinking I can put it all on the page. My scripts are always long because I try to explain every part of these people. It’s then kind of a miracle when you meet the right actor and suddenly, there’s the soul of a person who has lived this whole life. I love that. That collaboration is like magic.
Matt: An interesting attribute to these characters is their paranoia around things like earthquakes and flying on planes. How did that weave its way into the screenplay?
Miranda: I’m calling from Los Angeles right now where there could be an earthquake at any moment and I have grown up with that fear living here in California. It’s always an interesting barometer of a person’s broader anxiety levels here. How much are they actively thinking about earthquakes or are they more like Gina Rodriguez’s character and going “YOLO, what are you gonna do?” That was a really helpful metaphor.
Matt: It’s an interesting performance from Evan Rachel Wood who takes on such a deep, monotone voice – different from what we’d normally see from her on screen. Did that take a huge amount of effort on her part? Where did that come from?
Miranda: She revealed that to me during our rehearsal process. She started talking with a deep voice and she said that was her original voice and that she’s trained it higher with a vocal coach because she’s a singer. When she did that, I could see right away that she’d drop into the character of Old Dolio. I felt lucky that she’d never used that voice for anything else.
Matt: Two accomplished Oscar nominated actors – Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger. How did they come on board?
Miranda: I wrote a very heartfelt letter to Richard. I thought he was the best possible person for such a shifty character that we have to believe. There are points where we need to trust him and then points where we’re shocked by him. I have a long history of trusting Richard Jenkins characters. He came in with something that works to his advantage and he’s also quite funny in the movie too.
With Debra Winger, it’s almost cheating to cast her because she adds depth to any role she’s ever done – a deeper layer that probably wasn’t there in the script.
Matt: Without giving too much away, I’ve got to ask about the bubbles in the office. Was that an easy visual to pull off?
Miranda: It was very easy to write which was my job. The greatest thing about filmmaking is that I got to work with these incredibly skilled effects people who figured out how to do that. We did a million tests and I still look at them on my computer. There’s a lot to getting bubbles right. Sometimes they were too heavy and they slid down the walls too fast.
Matt: This film premiered back in January at the Sundance Film Festival and since that time, the entire cinematic world has changed due to the impact of COVID-19. How has it affected the release of this film?
Miranda: Yeah. It was supposed to come out back in June. When COVID-19 took hold, I guess all I had to work with was massive disappointment but then people started seeing the movie and I realised that the most essential thing was still there – the movie was connecting with people. Things that seemed very personal to me, like the anxiety of the “big one”, I’m pretty sure we’re in the “big one” right now. These weird things in the movie weren’t so weird anymore because the world has become so strange that they’re now accessible.
Matt: What are you working on at the moment?
Miranda: I’m writing a novel. I’m glad I’m not trying to shoot anything right now because that would be much harder. I’ve also found myself taking on the role of teacher for my 3rd grade child that takes up a big part of each day.
Interview - Director Shannon Murphy on 'Babyteeth'
- Written by Matthew Toomey
It’s been a longer wait that anticipated given COVID-19 but Babyteeth is about to arrive in Australian cinemas. I had a chance to see the film back in March and it’s stuck with me since. I recently spoke to director Shannon Murphy about the production…
Matt: One intriguing development is that COVID-19 led to the postponement of many big Hollywood blockbusters and that’s allowed a lot of smaller films into cinemas, particularly here in Australia. Do you see that as a positive and hope people might be buying tickets to Babyteeth instead of heavily marketed blockbusters like Mulan and Tenet?
Shannon: Yeah, I do. I actually just went to the cinemas here on the Gold Coast to see the Icelandic film A White, White Day and it was in this massive, amazing cinema at the Home of the Arts and the surround sound was incredible. There were probably about 20 of us there and they spaced us all out well and it was a really beautiful cinema experience. Cinema is coming back alive and it was a good feeling.
Matt: Let’s go back to the origins of this project. Babyteeth is based on a play from Rita Kalnejais that was first performed in Sydney in 2012. Did you get to see it back then?
Shannon: No, I didn’t actually. I’d directed at the Belvoir St Theatre before and it’s where I began my career and it was unusual for me to miss a play there.
Matt: So how did this cinematic adaptation come across your radar?
Shannon: It was brought to me by producer Alex White and executive producer Jan Chapman. They’d seen the play at Belvoir and loved it and knew immediately they wanted Rita to turn it into a screenplay. They’d been working on it for about 6-7 years and when it was finally sent to me, it was ready to go and incredibly well crafted.
Matt: Wow, that’s worked out well. You’ve come in just at the right time and avoided the long lead up?
Shannon: Yeah, I can’t complain. I now feel a bit spoilt and I want that to be the same case for my second film.
Matt: There are so many people out there that would love to be making movies but it’s a tough industry to crack. As someone who has now made short films, TV shows and now their first feature, what lessons can you share with budding filmmakers in terms of how you broke through?
Shannon: Staying true to your cinematic personality and tone is really important. Even back with my early theatre work, my sense of humour was always quite left of field and my work was always very physical and I kept experimenting with how far I could push all of that. I made very different choices and continued to challenge myself with what projects interested me and why I wanted to make them. I didn’t want to get stuck in any areas where I wasn’t still expanding myself. That’s helped me to keep growing.
Matt: Eliza Scanlen really looks to be another Australian name to watch with her performances in Sharp Objects, Little Women and now here in Babyteeth. I’m sure a lot of people would have been interested in the role so what stood out most with you in casting Eliza?
Shannon: She was so original that it actually terrified me. She auditioned for me a few times and I remember going “I just don’t know who she is?” She came in and every time she was a different person. There was one audition where she was doing some crazy stuff and I took her outside and I said “this doesn’t feel like the girl I met in the café for coffee six months ago”. I told her to come back in and relax and be herself. She walked in and did it again and I was like “there she is”.
She’s got so much range. We ended up sitting down together and crafting the character from scratch because she can do so much and she’s very smart and dedicated. For example, she learned the violin in three weeks. Yes, there’s Veronique Serret who is amazing playing over the top of her in the actual sound mix but she really worked so hard to make all her bowing look excellent. Not a lot of people would do that.
Matt: There are some really good conversations in the film – particularly those shared between Eliza Scanlen and Toby Wallace. How did you and Rita approach that and create authentic teenage dialogue for the movie?
Shannon: Rita was really conscious of that and had paid a lot of attention to teenagers that she’d met. You have to do that research to actually understand the psychosis of what people are saying and talking about. Also, once you give the script to actors in a room, they’ll tell you if something doesn’t feel right. I have to say in this case that on the whole, they really believed it and we only had to tweak a few small things.
Matt: It’s very jolting the way the film cuts between certain scenes – in terms of both the music and the visuals. What was behind that creative choice?
Shannon: When I completed my studies at the Australian Film Television and Radio School, I did my honours on the work of German director Bertolt Brecht and his techniques. I was drawn to those techniques in my theatre work and that has translated into cinema in that I love the ability to sever moments before they go where you expect them to.
Also, the cumulative effect of that over time and breaking the fourth wall in different ways helps give you a greater emotional release at the end because you’ve earned it and you’ve been able to intellectualise and emotionally connect throughout. When you get that balance right, it can have a greater impact on the viewer and hopefully the film will sit with them longer as a more memorable experience.
Matt: I noticed a lot of facial close-ups in the film. Am I overthinking that or was that a conscious decision on your part?
Shannon: It definitely was. I was talking a lot with our amazing cinematographer, Andy Commis, about how unlike other Australian films which was about the landscape, for us, the landscapes were these characters’ faces. It was about these four people and how they were dealing with an incredible crisis. It was very much a deliberate decision.
Matt: To finish up, is there anything you’re working on at the moment? What might we see from you next?
I’d love to make another feature film sooner rather than later but the next project for me is a TV show called The Power which is based on the novel by Naomi Alderman and is produced by Sister Pictures who made Chernobyl. It’s about what would happen in the world if women could electric shock men, similar to what electric eels do to each other, and if women become the more dominant, violent genre, how does that shift the world?