The top 25 movies of 2020 - Part I, with trailers
2020 was a year that none of us can have predicted. Frankly, if you predicted that Sonic The Hedgehog would have been the third biggest film of the year at the UK box office, I hope you had a bet on, because you’ll have done very well out of it. But somehow, I have to pick the bones out of what we’ve been left with in what in many ways has been a traumatic year for the cinema industry.
It’s not been a total washout, partly because the nature of awards seasons often means that many of the year’s best films arrive in January and February: my top three all did this year. But in a normal year, I’d be making somewhere in the region of 150-200 trips to the cinema; this year my figure stands at 11. During a film festival I’ll typically see that many in two days.
It shouldn’t matter. This list doesn’t rate films on how good the chocolate-covered popcorn or the seating was, or how many teenagers were texting in the row behind you. Films remain of the same quality whether you see them at home on a smartphone or blown up to the size of a detached house on an IMAX screen. But with the likes of Warner Brothers and Disney releasing more films online, and with cinema chains including Cineworld and Odeon unsure if they’ll be around in another 12 months if things don’t change soon, more than ever we need to celebrate what’s good in film, and then hopefully we can continue to support the people that bring it to us as we move into the new year.
So for now, rather than my usual top 50, I’ve put together my 25 favourite films that have at some point graced a cinema this year.
Here’s the first 15, with the top 10 available here.
25 Jojo Rabbit
Director Taika Waititi proved he could handle comedy with Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Thor: Ragnarok, but he also has a talent for drama; while he turns in a thankfully nonsensical performance as the imaginary Führer, it’s the dark moments of this Second World War drama that are the most affecting.
24. The Personal History of David Copperfield
Not all of Armando Iannucci’s directorial flourishes come off, but his grip on the material is unwavering. A perfectly pitched cast, including Dev Patel, Tilda Swinton, Peter Capaldi and Hugh Laurie, make this an enjoyable rattle through one of Dickens’ classics that proves discussions about class and society never go out of fashion.
23 Hope Gap
The success of William Nicholson’s film rests on its central performances – Bill Nighy is the husband who’s reached insurmountable apathy after decades of marriage, Annette Bening the wife who’s oblivious to their marital difficulties until it’s too late. Josh O’Connor (The Crown) is the son attempting to offer sympathy to both sides.
22 About Endlessness
Roy Andersson is a Swedish director who’s made an extensive career out of a very particular style: his films are a series of tableau shot with motionless cameras and often drab backgrounds, that pierce the heart and soul with comedy and tragedy. If this is his swan song, he’s absolutely going out on a high.
It might have been a rough year for a lot of us, but it’s been a good one for Elizabeth Moss. In Jospehine Decker’s film, she plays horror author Shirley Jackson in a fictional tale filling in a key chapter in her life. Her relationship with screen husband Michael Stuhlbarg is a particularly spiky joy.
Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster was hoped to be the saviour of cinema after the first lockdown, but it’s too densely packed for that. Nolan’s intricately plotted films can be emotionally distant but Elizabeth Debicki offers an anchor as the wife of Kenneth Branagh’s unflinchingly ruthless oligarch.
19 The Invisible Man
Elizabeth Moss’ more mainstream film was just visible in cinemas before they first closed, but Saw and Insidious writer
Leigh Whannell follows up his very watchable action movie throwback Upgrade with a modern update of HG Wells’ classic that pulls no punches and ratchets up the tension.
18 The Assistant
Set over the course of a single day, Kitty Green writes and directs this pointed examination of #MeToo issues and workplace discrimination. Julia Garner excels as the production assistant getting ground down by the corporate wheels, and Matthew Macfayden cameos as a shady HR manager.
17 Talking About Trees
If any film from this year shows the power of the cinema experience, as opposed to simply film, then it’s surely this documentary about four Sudanese directors battling to reopen an outdoor cinema. A wonderful lesson in the culture of another nation, as well as a universal treatise on the power of the collective experience of cinema.
16 Saint Maud
I’m not sure that many years would have seen a small British horror film almost make number one at the box office, but it’s testament (if you’ll pardon the pun) to the quality of the writing and directing of Rose Glass and the performance of Morfydd Clark as the devoutly religious nurse caring for terminally ill Jennifer Ehle.
You wait ages for a female directed, thoughtful horror movie with a strong female cast, and then two come along at once. Daughter Bella Heathcote and mother Emily Mortimer have to deal with the onset of grandmother Robyn Nevin’s dementia, as well as disturbing physical manifestations in their house.
14 The Painter and the Thief
A remarkably opportunist documentary from Norway by director Benjamin Ree, it follows artist Barbora Kysilkova and her unfolding dynamic with a man who helped to steal two of her
artworks. When she approaches him at the court case to ask if she can paint him, it’s the start of an unlikely friendship.
13 System Crasher
An incredible performance from Helena Zengel as the nine-year-old girl proving untameable to the social care system in this visceral drama from German director Nora Fingscheidt. Zengel’s descent through the trauma of a system ill-equipped to deal with her is heart-breaking and deeply affecting; one babysitting scene might be the most nail-biting of
12 And Then We Danced
In a country where Strictly is peak Saturday evening entertainment, surely a film set in the world of dance won’t be a hard sell? Levan Akin’s tale of a young Georgian dancer’s relationship with a rival dancer in their company reportedly caused protests on the street of his homeland, but won a 15-minute standing ovation at Cannes.
11 County Lines
The first feature film from New Zealand director Henry Blake, it’s an expansion of his own short film and shines a light on the murky world of child exploitation and drug trafficking. The tragedy of children being coerced into this underworld of urban Britain as they transport drugs across the titular borders is frankly and believably portrayed.