Editor note – While Little Women was released on the 26th December 2019 in the UK, due to time constraints our group of writers did not get the chance to vote for it in last year’s Top 20. For that reason, we allowed it to be voted on this year.

There is a scene towards the end of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women where Saoirse Ronan’s headstrong Jo March refuses an offer of marriage from her best friend and neighbour Laurie, played with sweet, romantic fervour by Timothée Chalamet. “Look at me!” she exclaims, gesturing wildly at herself. “I’m homely and awkward and odd and you’d be ashamed of me”. She is wearing a drab skirt and masculine coat, her only decoration a red necktie and gold brocade waistcoat that stands out among her other, plainer clothes.

It doesn’t quite fit, because – of course – it isn’t hers. It belongs to Laurie, worn by him in a much earlier scene when they were teenagers, as they play a rough and tumble game before Jo mock-dramatically offers Laurie a ring. Laurie still wears the ring years later in Paris as he nurses his broken heart, refusing to take off the childish jewel as he pines after his unrequited love.

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Releasing

Courtesy of: Sony Pictures Releasing

It is not unusual for aesthetic details to foster the mood of a period piece, but it is rare that they craft and shape the narrative itself to such an extent. Yet what Gerwig does with this year’s magnificent adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic tale is remarkable in her evocation of the tangible as well as the emotional, in her recognition that a story of four young women and their hopes and dreams and ambitions, coming of age in a poor family at the edge of the American Civil War, cannot be told without attention to how material conditions inform lived experiences, even the most heartfelt and soulful.

None of this is new to the book itself, but Gerwig’s approach is extraordinary in its willingness to reach past the period trappings that typically characterise such films, plumbing the depths of the source material not to subvert its domestic subject matter, but to reveal the complexity inherent to the March sisters’ everyday lives. In an interview with Film Comment, Gerwig looks back on her earliest experiences of Alcott’s text, explaining, “[t]o me, it was so clear that the book was about women, art, and money. The emotional core about sisterhood and family was true, but there was this other very nuts-and-bolts side of it, which was equally emotional”.

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Courtesy of: Sony Pictures Releasing

And so Gerwig makes Little Women worn in, lived in, a study of intimacy amidst scarcity, ambition amidst economic practicality. Every detail is rich with this simultaneity: Amy’s childhood sketches fill the house, charcoal smudges signalling artistic determination at every turn; a shining new piano coveted by and gifted to Beth stands out bright amidst the shabby furniture; clothes are handed down and down again, stories and hopes and sorrows pressed deep in their seams, crafting a visual landscape that is both naturalistic and symbolic. Objects accrue significance, or in Gerwig’s fragmented chronology have already accrued it, dense with friendship and loneliness and fierce, unflinching desire.

In this way, Little Women is the natural follow up to Gerwig’s directorial debut Lady Bird, both films generous, perceptive examinations of the inextricable ways in which the material and the affective are intertwined. Gerwig’s meticulous script – every interruption intricately choreographed – has an intense kinetics, the chemistry between the March sisters, their mother, and Laurie uncontainable as they swirl and fall in and out of frame, their relationships as physical as they are verbal. Warmth and affection are writ large over every gesture, every argument, every act of care, these objects, rooms, and creations gaining importance only in as far as they speak to the deep, shifting connections between the sisters and those they love.

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Courtesy of: Sony Pictures Releasing

Much as she does with the period aesthetics, Gerwig elevates the dazzling chemistry between the Marches beyond the festive cosiness typically associated with the book, unflinchingly bearing down on the change and loss palpable in the pages of Alcott’s text and offering a compassionate depiction of what happens when the material and affective meet, when the tenderest of emotions run up against the rigid, hard structures of economic concerns.

Laurie’s heart is broken by Jo and he is left only with a ring and bitter memories to comfort him, yet much of Jo’s refusal lies in her rejection of the limitations and sacrifices that marriage in a patriarchal society would bring. Finding Laurie later in Europe, Amy echoes the words her sister never fully vocalised, arguing that for women, marriage has always been “an economic proposition”. Meg marries the poor man she falls in love with, but her choice not only means navigating a lifetime of sacrificed desires – fabric measured desperately by the yard that she cannot afford – but an end to the everyday closeness she has with her sisters.

Little Women

Courtesy of: Sony Pictures Releasing

With archaeological precision, Gerwig excavates the material conditions behind every agonising, sentimental decision, the bittersweet melancholy behind every domestic artefact, uncovering a complex, interlayered portrait of womanhood, longing, and independence that eschews easy moralisation. And in a final masterstroke, Gerwig turns her empathetic gaze onto Alcott herself, recognising the ways in which the author’s creativity and agency were stifled in her own time and offering her a brief, metatextual reprieve from the material conditions she also laboured under.

It is, in every conceivable way, a singular achievement. Any book that has not fallen out of print in over 150 years has its own secondary mythology and canon, dozens of film and television and stage adaptations and fervent fan interpretations that can so easily obscure and obfuscate the source text itself. For Little Women to turn to its eponymous book, 150 years after it first appeared, and capture its heart with such incisive clarity is astonishing, a masterwork that has, itself, accrued ever more significance in the year that has passed.

So to recap, here’s our Top 20 so far…

=#20 – Shirley
=#20 – A Hidden Life
#19 – And Then We Danced
#18 – Dick Johnson is Dead
#17 – Never Rarely Sometimes Always
#16 – Wolfwalkers
#15 – I’m Thinking of Ending Things
#14 – True History of the Kelly Gang
#13 – A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
#12 – Lovers Rock
#11 – Ema
#10 – Mangrove
#9 – Rocks
#8 – 1917
#7 – Bacurau
#6 – Babyteeth
#5 – The Lighthouse
#4 – Uncut Gems
#3 – Little Women

Stay tuned each and every day for the remainder of 2020 to count down our Top 10 films of 2020.