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The top 25 movies of 2020 - Part II, with trailers

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After part I of his look at the best films of 2020, Cambridge Independent film critic Mark Liversidge unveils his top 10 of the year.


10 Rocks

More teenage drama, but for those looking for something with a life-affirming angle to supplement the challenges of growing up, then Rocks is the film to choose. A teenage girl is forced to fend for herself and her brother, and director Sarah Gavron used workshops and improvisation to get the best out of her young cast.

9 Lovers Rock

One of two films to play at film festivals from Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series that’s now on the BBC iPlayer, it’s set over a single night at a party that uses the reggae sub-genre of the title to elevate this drama through the stratosphere. A rollercoaster of emotion that deftly explores the experience of being black in Britain four decades ago.

8 Babyteeth

Ben Mendelsohn has made a name for himself in Hollywood, so it’s great to see him back in an Australian drama. His daughter (Eliza Scanlan) is terminally ill and strikes up a chance relationship with a drug dealer she meets on a train platform. Essie Davis is also great as the mother in this touching comedy drama that avoids a saccharine aftertaste so often a risk of its genre.

7 1917

Director Sam Mendes used his own family experience from the First World War to help construct this ambitious drama. It could have become dominated by the conceit of making the film appear to be one continuous shot, but Roger Deakins’ epic cinematography and George Mackay’s star-making performance add ambitious scale and artful resonance to the drama respectively.

6 Wolfwalkers

Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon have been quietly becoming one of the most impressive in the world. If you’ve not seen their earlier works, such as The Secret of Kells and The Breadwinner, do seek them out, but this folk tale with Sean Bean and his daughter exploring the secrets of wolves in rural Irish woods might be their best yet: strong storytelling coupled with gorgeous Celtic-influenced animation.

5 Mangrove

The second of the Small Axe dramas which made it to cinemas, this chapter of Steve McQueen’s exploration of lives in the West Indian community follows the trial of the owner and customers of a Notting Hill restaurant. This searing courtroom drama looks at the fractious relationship with the police and gradual revelations of institutionalised racism.

4 David Byrne’s American Utopia

Is it a film? Just about – I would say that, while brilliant, Hamilton doesn’t quite qualify and this does, but it’s a fine line – but the former Talking Heads frontman’s superbly conceived stage show is captured in this concert film by Spike Lee and it’s vibrant, life-enhancing and challenging in all the right ways. Ironically, after Stop Making Sense, David Byrne may have been involved in outstanding concert movies twice in a lifetime…

3 The Lighthouse

This probably shouldn’t work as well as it does: just Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe as odd-couple lighthouse keepers with only the seagulls for company, slowly going insane and with the film shot in an old-fashioned non-widescreen ratio in black and white. But Robert Eggers – who also made the superb period horror The Witch – makes almost every shot a work of art and draws magnetic performances from his cast (even the seagull).

2 Parasite

Finally breaking the glass ceiling and becoming the first non-English language film to win the Best Picture Oscar, Bong Joon-ho’s examination of social inequality in South Korean society pulls no punches and spares no twists. A working-class family become servants and cuckoos in the nest of a wealthier family, but overconfidence in their new standing is just their first downfall.

1 Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Celine Sciamma has superbly captured the trials and tribulations of female adolescence in films including Water Lilies, Tomboy and Girlhood; her move into period drama is nothing short of stunning.

A woman is hired to paint a clandestine portrait of another woman about to be married off to a nobleman, and their relationship and the film brims with passion and intensity. Its marriage of art and music with drama builds to a devastating climax.

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