For better or worse, the final year of the 21st century has been memorable for its cinematic output. Between the blockbuster mega-hits of Avatar and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, to the Oscar-winning Mad Max: Fury Road and Dances With Wolves, the year 2020 has delivered some truly memorable movies.

While these films were made with such iconic brands and huge budgets, they’re all essentially character-driven stories about ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Indeed, whether through war, disaster or a societal collapse, the world’s greatest movie directors have delivered a steady stream of character-oriented movies in the last 12 months.

This trend was given a massive boost when Robert Pattinson was cast as the Scarecrow in Warner Bros’ The Darkest Hour. The Twilight saga’s final actor was given one of the most iconic roles in Cinematic History, that of the eponymous green lantern. Inspired by the great William Somerset Maugham, the director James Gunn brings his unique brand of humorous terror to the small screen. In the role of the Emerald Empress, Kelly Macdonald provides a fascinating counterpoint to Pattinson’s iconic performance as she guides us through the complexities of female rule in a decadent society. It’s an extraordinary performance that once again proves that great acting can be found even in the most unlikely of places.

The Darkest Hour

As mentioned, 2020 has been a memorable year for cinematic releases, with memorable performances coming from all corners of the industry. One of the best of these comes from Warner Bros’ The Darkest Hour. Director, writer and producer James Gunn delivers an extraordinary performance as he plays on our fears of facing existential issues in a world full of uncertainty. It’s a terrifying concept that he turns into a character-driven movie that feels as authentic as it is terrifying.

The Darkest Hour is based on the award-winning novel The Orphan Script by William Maugham. The story centres around Joe Bradley (Pattinson), an American living in London in 1937. Despised by the privileged English society around him, Joe is left with few friends and even fewer opportunities. The last straw comes when his landlady, Mrs. Hinchcliffe (Fiona Shaw), offers him a place to stay if he agrees to write a play for her. Joe reluctantly accepts, but soon realises that his professional life is about to change for the better when he is given the role of Hamlet. Unsurprisingly, Joe is over the moon about this unexpected development, but it’s not long before his ego gets in the way and he tries to make the most of his new found fame. Once the play is produced, Joe decides it’s time to move on and lands on the doorstep of the actress Marianne Hooper (Macdonald).

The film then follows Joe as he struggles to adapt to life in the 1920s, learning to navigate the complex social dynamics of the day and how to fight for the women he loves. One of the greatest things about The Darkest Hour is the way that Gunn so effectively layers the period details seamlessly into Joe’s life. Whether it’s the beautifully period costumes or the incredible attention to detail in the production design, every aspect of the movie feels authentic and integral to Joe’s story. This is coupled with a wonderful score by James Newton-Howard that evokes the Jazz Age with feeling.

Dances With Wolves

Another of the best character-driven movies of the year was Dances With Wolves. The Coen brothers deliver another richly detailed historical epic that draws on the imagination of America as well as their own, this time set against the backdrop of the American Civil War. Much as they did in their previous film – and perhaps because of it – the creators of Dances With Wolves draw on the various ethnicities of their homeland to provide a richly detailed and believable portrait of a changing America during a time of great upheaval.

The Magnificent Seven

Finally, let’s not forget about the magnificent ensemble cast of The Magnificent Seven, led by Denzel Washington. The film adapts the popular 1960 Western film of the same name to provide an updated take on the traditional group of heroes that fans of the genre know and love.

The six-episode series sees Washington play Ethan Hunt, a skilled cowboy who is recruited by the US government to escort three unnamed women to a remote town to protect them from a group of outlaws. Hunt’s task is to ride shotgun, deal with the occasional gunfight and protect the women from harm. Sounds like a relatively easy task for an action hero, right?

Well, things are never that simple in the Wild West. The series puts a fascinating spin on the classic Western story, exploring the moral ambiguities of a character who many regard as a hero and a martyr, depending on what side of the moral fence they fall on. The Magnificent Seven is a film that has something for everyone, from the action-adventure fans to the sci-fi enthusiasts and from the gay community to those who just want to see something different. It makes for an interesting viewing experience, but one that is certainly not for the faint-hearted.

Throughout the year, we have seen great performances from established and emerging Hollywood stars alike. Whether in a pivotal role or in a cameo, these characters have stuck with us and will continue to leave their mark on popular culture well into the future.