Top Ten Indie Films of 2020

It's never a good idea to start a blog post with an apology, but bear with me.

I almost didn't write my end of year top ten (this is the 6th year of London Film Girl, how did that happen?!) Needless to say, 2020 has completely changed not just film production (putting releases and shoots on temporary hold, changing the kind of films that can be made during Covid restrictions) but also how we consume film... perhaps forever.

Streaming services have become our mecca for entertainment during the days of worldwide lockdown - we were all stuck in our homes (for me; a one-bed in inner city, definitely not 'leafy green', East London). We turned to Netflix, Amazon, Disney +, Apple TV+ to take our minds off of the mundanity of our days spent trying to muster the energy to take our 30 minutes walk outside and baking banana bread.

Pre-Covid, I worked in the visual effects industry and freelanced - writing about film. I spent my holidays at film festivals and my weekends at the cinema. I talked to people about film and TV pretty much 90% of my time (close estimate). Post-Covid I, like everyone else in the world, suddenly had a LOT of free time.

So my apology is this: This year I just didn't watch many films.

Why? I was (like so many others) furloughed from my full-time job, so I spent my half my day volunteering at a food bank and the rest of the time cowering in my living room. Gripped with anxiety in the face of a global pandemic, my overwhelmed brain just couldn't deal with sitting in front of my TV for longer than 20 / 30 minutes at a time. Frothy, trashy TV series (mixed with a little bit of quality every now and then, I didn't have a complete personality transplant) became my go-to self care content. I consumed endless series of Married at First Sight Australia, Selling Sunset, Cobra Kai, Schitt's Creek, Emily in Paris, The Umbrella Academy... and I'm not even ashamed.

The cinemas reopened and then closed again. I went as much as I could, although it wasn't very much. In the end it was the BFI London Film Festival which was my saving grace. Uploaded to the BFI Player, many of the films could be watched from home and by October, I was hungry for some fresh voices, new talent and cinema from across the globe.

So, forgive me for missing out on many great films released this year (I still haven't managed to catch Shirley, or Nomadland.) But the films below are truly brilliant. So, even though the list isn't as representative of indie cinema as it usually is (or attempts to be), it is a list of films that you should check out - if only to help get us through this next wave of restrictions. Stay safe, I love you all, L.F.G. (Lauren Tina) xoxo

10. Kajillionaire 

Aside from the mystifying fact that Evan Rachel Wood doesn't seem to age, this quirky comedy about a poverty-stricken family of scam artists is well worth a watch. Rachel Wood's character is named Old Dolio, which still makes me laugh, but it isn't just a wacky comedy about scamming people - it's script (& spirit) takes on a darker tone of neglect, and dysfunctional parenting that makes it an intriguing slice of cinema. Rachel Wood's very physical & spontaneous performance was also a stand-out for me.

9. Farewell Amor

This indie delight is a delicate examination of what it means to be a ‘family’, as told by the individuals within it. The feature debut of auteur Ekwa Msangi, the film is partly inspired by a true story: Msangi’s aunt and uncle have been living in different countries for twenty-four years after her uncle came to America in the 1990s on a student visa. Sadly they are still apart, applying for visas that are denied and dreaming of a reunion. Farewell Amor examines a scenario in which that happens.

8. Saint Maud

Happy memories of actually seeing this in a cinema in summer 2020! Probably the reason I put it on the list, as the story (of a religious nurse becoming obsessed with 'saving' her patient) gave me enough to keep with it, but lacked the pace I personally need from a psychological thriller. However, I can't deny that I loved the visuals, the performances, and the feel of the film. It boasted some of the best eerie sequences in cinema this year; making us jump and giggle in all the right places. Morfydd Clark was one of my favourite things about the first series of His Dark Materials, where she played... a creepy nurse... so I knew that I would like her performance here. Perhaps the best of 2020, despite the film really grabbing a hold on me.

7. His House

My Halloween choice for this year was Netflix's His House. Despite ruining the scares after watching the VFX breakdown of it beforehand, the story itself was completely up my street. Directed by Remi Weekes, a refugee couple escape their war-torn home to arrive in an English town to start a new life, only to find that the horror they left behind has followed them. Aside from being a effectively claustrophobic horror movie, it's a really clever commentary on the struggles refugees have in integrating into British society. I watched it on Halloween with my support bubble friend and we soon realised, to our utter joy, that the house is in Tilbury, Essex - adding an extra element of fun in pointing out the estates and streets we grew up in (my friend is from the town, I'm from one over). We always knew a horror movie would eventually be based there.

6. On the Rocks

Thank you Sofia Coppola, for saving my 2020 with this little film. I don't have Apple TV+, so this was actually a cinema trip for me and I think it was elevated from a nice little flick to something much more in the cute, slightly shabby, environment of the sofa seating in the Genesis Cinema. Coppola does one thing very well; dialogue, and this film is no exception (on a podcast Coppola admitted that she just wanted to make a film about a father / daughter drinking cocktails and talking.) Starring Bill Murray and Rashida Jones as father and daughter who are trying to discover if the daughter's husband is having an affair, the film takes us back to a stylish pre-pandemic New York City. Shot on location, the pair drink endless martinis, sit in restaurants and stroll down streets. I didn't really care what they were up to, as long as I could take a little trip with them through the past - one where you didn't care if someone breathed on you.

5. Little Joe

Little Joe, the English-language debut of Austrian Director Jessica Hausner introduces us to single mother Alice (Emily Beecham), a senior plant breeder who has developed a new species, Little Joe, with the assistance of her colleague Chris (Ben Whishaw). She takes one home as a gift for her teenage son, but soon the people around her start acting strangely... A bold, cautionary tale about genetic engineering and perhaps, the expectation of guilt surrounding working mothers. It's exactly the kind of film that I’m into; it plays out slowly but the suspense keeps you on the edge of your seat regardless. The performance of the cast is unnerving as they speak in cold, halting, sometimes awkward tones as though they're speaking to a theatre full of people, and the sound design features random sounds of barking dogs... yet it works. 

4. Time

Time, directed by Garrett Bradley (who won the award for Best Director at Sundance), follows the story of Fox Rich, the mother of six boys who has spent the last twenty years campaigning for the release of her husband, Rob G. Rich, who is serving a 60-year sentence for a robbery they both committed in the early 90s in a moment of desperation.

The documentary flits between home videos Fox has shot herself during his incarceration and the material Garrett has captured. For me, it's definitely a defining piece of black feminist cinema; the documentary looks beyond just Fox’s family and at the role of black women in America as a whole. They are the ones holding it together for their families, who have to step up to fight for justice. They are also the ones placated with excuses, who spend their money on expensive lawyers who say that ‘nothing can be done’ and face an unbalanced, prejudiced system. Fox shows the power of women in these positions, the unrelenting and inspiring faith that they carry with them.

3. Rocks

Written by Claire Wilson and Theresa Ikoko, Rocks follows a group of school-age teenage girls around East London, as they attend school, prepare for family events and hang out on the rooftops of their block of flats. Shola 'Rocks' (Bukky Bakray), gets home from school and realises that her mother has left her and her younger brother to fend for themselves. Suddenly she has to budget to buy food, the electricity is cut off in their council flat and her day revolves around shielding the truth from her brother. 

The film features non-professional actors as the main cast of teenage girls, who were invited into the writers room to add their own flavour and tone to the script. This worked wonders in the way that the film tells their story; the language of the girls is on point, relevant and true. You really feel as though you're a fly on the wall - I loved it.

2. Queen & Slim

This was perhaps one of my last pre-covid cinema trips and because of that it seems to belong to a different time - but conversely, it was actually a very relevant release for 2020; foreshadowing the issues that were about to dominate the public discourse across the globe. I will see any movie starring Daniel Kaluuya, but this may be his best. After going on a date, a Black couple (Jodie Turner-Smith and Kaluuya) go on the run after they shoot a police officer in an act of self-defense. Not only is it an important piece of storytelling, it's a beautiful and heart-breaking film that everyone should watch. It's a brilliant feat of film making.

1. Limbo

Limbo follows a group of refugees awaiting British asylum on a ragged, weather-beaten Scottish Island in the Hebrides. Scottish filmmaker Ben Sharrock wrote and directed the film; which is a sensitive and carefully-told story about four men trying to keep their dreams afloat in a place where time seems to standstill.

Rising star Amir El-Masry is Omar, a musician from Syria separated from his family who finds himself living with three other men; Freddy Mercury obsessed Farhad (Vikash Bhai) from Afghanistan, and Abedi (Kwabena Ansah) and Wasef (Ola Orebiyi), brothers from Nigeria. Prohibited from working, the men must simply stay on the Island and find things to do until they receive news about their application. 

I always choose a lesser-known indie flick for my 'number 1' spot to encourage people to watch the film, but also because they really do deserve it. I had a lot of fun watching this flick as part of the LFF programme; the script was hilarious and heart-breaking, the performances were electric, the pacing was perfect. Definitely one to stream when it comes to general release (hopefully soon!)